Thursday, December 30, 2010

Bottomless Pit - Blood Under the Bridge

This one snuck up on me, perhaps because with that name I was expecting Norwegian death metal odes to Lucifer. But I checked out the skimpy back catalogue, and I was wrong.

Bottomless Pit emerged from the charred ruins of Silkworm, one of the better if unheralded post-grunge bands that dotted the indie landscape in the mid-to-late ‘90s. Charred ruins, in this case, is more than a dramatic metaphor. The band dissolved in 2005 when drummer Michael Dahlquist was killed when a woman intent on suicide intentionally slammed head-on into his car. The surviving band members, stunned and grief-stricken, called it quits. Founding members Andy Cohen and Tim Midgett took some time off to heal (theoretically, at least), then re-emerged as the nucleus of Bottomless Pit two years later.

And they’ve been trying to work it out ever since. The group’s debut album, 2007’s Hammer of the Gods, was a raw, open wound, a sustained howl of unresolved rage and disbelief. The new album is a little more nuanced and slightly more upbeat, but it’s hardly butterflies and rainbows. Cohen and Midgett split the songwriting and singing duties, with Cohen handling the world-weary, declamatory Lou Reed side of the equation, and Midgett rasping his way through the more blustery material. What stands out, though, is the jaw-dropping guitar work, clearly influenced by Neil Young/Crazy Horse as filtered through the slacker wankery of Malkmus, J. Mascis, and Doug Martsch. Not many bands are still working early ‘90s guitar god territory, but Cohen’s and Midgett’s intertwined leads and shards of feedback suggest that there is still plenty of life left after Pavement, Dinosaur Jr. and Built to Spill.

The songs suggest at least a tentative resolution. Winding, pensive opener “Winterwind” suggests a weary rapprochement, as Cohen resolves to consider “what it means to be careful, what it means to count.” But this is a band that has made its mark by raging against the dying of the light, and they’re not through yet. “There are so many fuckers in this world to line up and trade for you,” Midgett sings on the corrosive “Late.” There is no replacement for a unique and infinitely valuable human life. It’s that perspective that transforms Bottomless Pit into a band that truly matters, and Blood Under the Bridge into a terrific album.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Future of Liberal Arts

My wife and I have seven college degrees between us. We share more layoffs than that. All those degrees, minus the dubious M.B.A. I earned a few years back, are in Liberal Arts fields. This may also help to explain those layoffs, although I suppose that sheer workplace incompetence can never be ruled out entirely. All I know is this: I’m sure they exist, but I’ve never yet met a laid-off engineer or accountant. Laid off English majors? Umm, yeah, I’ve met my share.

There was a time, as recently as the mid-1970s, when I was earning Liberal Arts degree #1 in Creative Writing, when the conventional wisdom held that the mere possession of a college degree opened up shining vistas of middle-class respectability and privilege. You might not get rich, but you could buy a tract home in the burbs and vacation at Myrtle Beach. Now a college degree – at least a Liberal Arts college degree – will get you a barista job at Starbucks. The cost of education has risen astronomically, and the value of that education, at least in terms of potential dollars and cents, is more dubious than ever. Question: how many lattes do you have to serve to pay off a $100,000 student loan? Answer: It’s a trick question. You’ll never pay off a $100,000 student loan making $7.00 per hour. A collection agency will repossess your iPhone, laptop, and guitar. You’ll end up living in your parents’ basement. I assure you that this is a prospect that frightens children and parents alike.

Both my daughters are currently in school, piling up enormous debt. My oldest daughter is working on Liberal Arts degree #2, and my youngest daughter is about to finish up Liberal Arts degree #1. It’s unfortunate, but genetics is working against them. They are indisputably the products of Liberal Arts parents. They can’t help themselves. They could no more major in the sciences or business than Rush Limbaugh could serve as the executive director of the ACLU.

The conventional wisdom these days would tell them that it’s not worth it, and that the ROI is absurdly low, if not non-existent. Me? I’ll encourage them to be themselves, to learn as much as they can, and to let the chips (which most assuredly cannot be cashed in) fall where they may.

The conventional wisdom also holds that the liberal arts teach people how to think. Or, as they told me long ago, a liberal arts education prepares you for everything and nothing. You’ll have to forge your own path, often with machete in hand, but you’ll be a well-rounded individual who is adept at integrating disparate fields of knowledge and evaluating different and sometimes contradictory information.

It seems to me that “different and sometimes contradictory” is very much in the ascendancy in our culture. As a nation, Americans are bombarded with information, much of it baffling and utterly skewed. On Halloween weekend, one news network reported that approximately 2,000 people showed up for a political rally in Washington, D.C. Another news network reported that a quarter of a million people showed up for the same rally. I am admittedly not a math/science person, but this seems to stretch the boundaries of “different and sometimes contradictory” to new levels. And even I remember how to count.

In the face of this kind of world, it behooves us all, engineers and baristas alike, to remember some bottom-line facts that don’t show up on income statements. An ex-president once said, “You can fool some of the people some of the time, and those are the ones you want to concentrate on.” Here’s the truth: it’s best if you’re not one of those people, regardless of your job prospects. I would like to think that a good liberal arts education can offer some needed perspective in the crazy world in which we live. I’m also hoping my kids remember how to count.

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Kindle Report

Christmas brought the long-awaited Kindle, and the early returns are positive.

Aside from the hour I spent scrambling to locate the password to the wireless network I never use, setup and registration was a breeze. The Kindle’s display is crisp and easy on the eyes, navigation is intuitive, and downloading books is as easy and fast as advertised. I’m very pleased.

One of the delightful surprises for me was the abundance of free books available from the Kindle bookstore. I spend most of my reading time trying to catch up on the world’s classic literature, and I had not realized until I gave the Kindle its test run that almost all of this literature is available for free. The rest is available for pennies. As a cash-strapped parent of two college students, I’m very appreciative. So I downloaded Fielding’s Tom Jones, several Fitzgerald novels, a couple Chesterton detective stories, and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels for $0.00. I downloaded the complete works of Dickens for $1.99. The Scrooge in me was delighted.

My only quibble concerns page numbering. Or more correctly, the lack thereof. Given the 6-inch display screen, it’s obvious that conventional page numbering will not work. And given the fact that different editions of the same book will use different page numbers, it’s probably not a big deal anyway. But it’s a little disconcerting to see a progress bar (marked off by percentages) at the bottom of the screen, and to see fairly bizarre bookmarks (I’m currently at 10,897 of 13,097 in Tom Jones, for instance) instead of page numbers. Since we’re currently three-quarters of the way through Tom Jones in my book club, it’s going to be a bit of a challenge to provide the locations of specific passages I’d like to discuss. I’ll get used to it. It’s just a little odd.

But you can certainly count me as a very satisfied customer.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Worker's Song

You know, I'm thankful to have a job. But that doesn't mitigate the frequently distasteful nature of Slaving For the Man. Thank God for Dick Gaughan and his Scots brogue.

Come all of you workers who toil night and day
By hand and by brain to earn your pay
Who for centuries long past for no more than your bread
Have bled for your countries and counted your dead

In the factories and mills, in the shipyards and mines
We've often been told to keep up with the times
For our skills are not needed, they've streamlined the job
And with sliderule and stopwatch our pride they have robbed

But when the sky darkens and the prospect is war
Who's given a gun and then pushed to the fore
And expected to die for the land of our birth
When we've never owned one handful of earth?

We're the first ones to starve the first ones to die
The first ones in line for that pie-in-the-sky
And always the last when the cream is shared out
For the worker is working when the fat cat's about

All of these things the worker has done
From tilling the fields to carrying the gun
We've been yoked to the plough since time first began
And always expected to carry the can

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

John Lennon, Thirty Years Later

John Lennon died thirty years ago today. Howard Cosell broke into the Monday Night Football broadcast to announce Lennon's assassination, and I broke in to my sleeping roommates' bedrooms to tell them, and we all sat up for most of the night, watching on TV as the crowd which formed spontaneously around the Dakota Hotel sang "Give Peace a Chance." We talked quietly among ourselves. Mostly I felt sick. My roommate Mike, then 20, a child of the post-Beatles generation, shook his head and said, "I just don't get it." The rest of us simply looked at him. Nobody had the energy to explain. You had to be there, and if you were there then you didn't need to have the arbiters of culture explain to you the importance of John Lennon. Mike was right. He just didn't get it.

John Lennon was an icon, and everybody knew it. He wore an invisible sign around his neck that read, "I am the '60s." He was flower power and anti-war protest, Woodstock (even if he wasn't there) and hippies and radicalism and idealism that actually believed it could change the world. Incidentally, he was also an incredible songwriter and performer.

I don't have to recapitulate the phenomenon that was The Beatles. Suffice to say that during one heady week in April of 1964 The Beatles had the five best-selling songs in America. The Top 5. At the same time. No other performer or band has even come remotely close to that kind of mass appeal and musical dominance. But it didn't satisfy. In retrospect the massive hit "Help" should have been an eye-opener, but it wasn't. And in 1970 Lennon hit the wall. Who needed the Beatles? Certainly not Beatle John. All of the fame, all of the drugs, the shrieking girls and adulation and #1 singles and money and cars - all of it was bullshit. If all you needed was love, then where was it?

Lennon got it all out of his system on his first solo album called The Plastic Ono Band, a great primal scream of pain and loss. It was psychotherapy set to a backbeat, and it was one of the most brutal and awe-inspiring albums ever recorded. The opening lines of the opening song set the tone: "Mother you had me/but I never had you/I wanted you/But you didn't want me." By turns raging, wailing, desperately sorrowful, Lennon confronted his demons and captured the ensuing melee on magnetic tape. It was his finest moment in a career full of fine moments. Near the end of the album Lennon sang:

God is a concept by which we measure our pain
I'll say it again
God is a concept by which we measure our pain
I don't believe in magic
I don't believe in I-ching
I don't believe in Bible
I don't believe in tarot
I don't believe in Hitler
I don't believe in Jesus
I don't believe in Kennedy
I don't believe in Buddha
I don't believe in Mantra
I don't believe in Gita
I don't believe in Yoga
I don't believe in kings
I don't believe in Elvis
I don't believe in Zimmerman
I don't believe in Beatles
I just believe in me
Yoko and me
And that's reality
The dream is over
What can I say?
The dream is over
Yesterday
I was the Dreamweaver
But now I'm reborn
I was the Walrus
But now I'm John
And so dear friends
You'll just have to carry on
The dream is over


Those who might be inclined to look for heresies can surely find them there. I just hear the sadness. It was an infinite sadness, bottomless, because it was a litany of despair. It was the sound of hope dying.

We've carried on for thirty years now, and some of us now hold on to a different dream. It's a dream where people can change and be changed, radically, where you need a lot more than love, where, in fact, you need God. There are days when it seems like far more than a dream, when it seems like life itself. But I understand, too, that part of John Lennon that rails against the false idols that promise so much and deliver so little. He was one himself, and I think he knew it.

John Lennon was a great man who was broken and deeply flawed, a man full of contradictions, equal parts cynicism and idealism, peace and love and strident anger. I suppose that, except for the greatness, he's always reminded me of me. Perhaps that's why, in some inexplicable way that will only make sense to those who understand icons and why people might honor them, I truly loved him. Perhaps that's why thirty years down the line I still miss him, and why today is a sad day. Sometimes you need a lot more than love. Sometimes you need a damned bullet-proof vest, and I hate that. The cynical part of me asks, well, what did you expect? The idealistic part of me mourns that that was and is so, laments that the dream is over, and remembers strawberry fields gone forever.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Favorite Albums of 2010

Years from now, when music historians gain some perspective, I suspect that 2010 will go down as one of the legendary years. Like 1956, 1965, or 1978, pop music took a decided turn for the better, and there were great albums being made on every front, in every genre. Consider the fact that two albums that got bumped from my Top 10 list – Janelle Monae’s The Archandroid and Allo Darlin’s self-titled debut album – will deservedly go down as classics.

Meanwhile, nobody bought any music. A crippling economic recession coupled with the free (albeit illegal) availability of music on the Internet meant that even the best and/or most successful musicians were scrambling to make ends meet. Christina Aguilera noted that she was available to sing at weddings and Bar Mitzvahs.

Yes, it was that kind of year. So perhaps it shoudn’t be surprising that my favorite album of 2010 was released in 1998. I can’t help it. I didn’t hear it (or even hear of the artist) until this year.

The Top 10

10. Jamey Johnson – The Guitar Song

The Guitar Song doesn’t have the startling immediacy and autobiographical grit of its predecessor, 2008’s That Lonesome Song. But it’s a country music tour de force just the same; a sprawling double album that lays serious claim to the notion that Jamey Johnson is his generation’s greatest country singer, a worthy successor to fellow outlaws Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard, and that he fronts one of the most raggedly righteous bands in the world.

9. Bruce Springsteen – The Promise

Three years in the making, 32 years in musical Limbo, and here it is: Bruce Springsteen’s lost masterpiece. And if the resulting album is just a tad shy of the “masterpiece” label, it needs to be said that this is still Broooooce in his prime, that the E Street Band has seldom rocked more majestically, and that the title track is the second-best song Bruce Springsteen ever wrote. The best? “Thunder Road,” of course, and that second-best tune adds some mournful commentary on what happens when that glorious road out of town ends at a brick wall.

8. Elizabeth Cook – Welder

With a sweet little girl voice and a worldly-wizened attitude, Elizabeth Cook isn’t a typical country singer, and here she sounds like Dolly Parton at CBGBs, a sort of punk/Appalachian mashup that is alternately withering and heartbreaking in its approach. The writing is spectacular. She skewers her drunk boyfriend’s impotence (“When you say Yes to beer you say No to booty”), laments her heroin-addicted sister , and delivers an account of a loving but dysfunctional family on “Mama’s Funeral” that is worthy of Eudora Welty. Stereotypical country fare this is not. And then she caps it off with a shitkicking honky-tonk duet with Buddy Miller. Burn on, Elizabeth.

7. The Bad Plus – Never Stop

The gonzo jazz covers of indie rock anthems have been fun, but this is even more impressive: ten original tunes that roil and churn and shimmer with beauty. The Bad Plus are, as usual, a piano trio on steroids, and Ethan Iverson’s Rachmaninov sturm und drang is matched only by Dave King’s strident punk drumming. But don’t let the aggression fool you. This is a jazz/rock/punk band that is fully committed to improvisational interplay, and the results are frequently breathtaking, from the Bill Evans-like pensive introspection of “People Like You” to the joyous, explosive detonation of “Beryl Loves to Dance.”

6. Mavis Staples – You Are Not Alone

Mavis Staples continues her late-career comeback. The formula on You’re Not Alone isn’t radically different from what she has employed throughout her previous solo albums: mix some traditional gospel numbers with some rock and pop mainstays, douse liberally with soul, then simmer over a medium-tempo flame. The difference between good and great this time comes from Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, whose production allows Mavis’s regular backing band more room to burn behind her, and whose previously unimagined ability to write a first-rate gospel tune is the musical highlight of the set. The title track, written by Tweedy, is achingly lovely, and makes me think that future Wilco efforts may not turn out to be tiresome dad rock after all.

5. Anais Mitchell – Hadestown

On paper it sounds like a horrible idea: a Folk Opera that recasts the Orpheus and Euridice myth. It calls to mind the path that Spinal Tap might have taken in their dotage, after the failure of the big Stonehenge number. But in reality it works spectacularly well. Newcomer Mitchell, who wrote all the music, brings a charming naivete to the role of Euridice, and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon plays Orpheus as a romantic dreamboat with just a hint of menace. But it is gravel-voiced folkie Greg Brown who steals the show as Hades, the lord of the underworld. Brown half sings, half cackles like a crazed Tom Waits, and in “Why We Build the Wall” he delivers a chillingly pragmatic exposition on oppression that just might be my favorite song of the year. This is something of a miracle: a musical I genuinely love.

4. Titus Andronicus – The Monitor

A holy mess of a Rawk album that mixes ragged vocals, loud, distorted guitars, bagpipes, Texas saloon piano, Salvation Army horns, and literary pretensions in equal measure. It’s one hell of a concoction; a conceptual saga about the Civil War that also manages to work in allusions to Bruce Springsteen, Billy Bragg, New Jersey freeways, and dissolute drunkenness. Oh yeah, and the darkest, most desperate expressions of self-loathing and cutural malaise I’ve heard in years. No, it doesn’t hang together. No, it doesn’t make complete sense. But it’s enough to revel in the audacity of the cockeyed concept, the bitterness of the bile, the raging rock ‘n roll, and the poetry that pours forth in spite of the bleakness of the vision.

3. The Arcade Fire – The Suburbs

I keep waiting for the drop in quality, but it hasn’t happened yet. This is arguably better than Neon Bible, the sophomore slump album that didn’t slump. It’s unarguably a more tightly constructed album, with recurring lyrical motifs and a unifying concept that gets poked and prodded in all kinds of different ways. Musically, Arcade Fire still do Sweeping and Epic, aiming for the back row of the arena every time. And lyrically, there is as much poignancy here as finger pointing. Yes, the suburbs are soul deadening. But they were home, even for Win Butler. It’s not surprising that he’s left this world behind. What is surprising is that he convincingly expresses a sense of loss.

2. These New Puritans – Hidden

Let’s get the inevitable Kid A comparisons out of the way up front. Yes, this is an album that borrows heavily from Radiohead’s clattering electronic dystopia. Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, too, in the way it uses a children’s choir to comment ironically on the horrors of war. And Joy Division’s monotone chants. And your community’s Salvation Army Band in its ragged use of horns. In other words, this sounds like nothing ever previously recorded, and it’s a staggering achievement, one of the most startlingly original and chilling albums I’ve head in many years.

1. Bill Fox – Shelter From the Smoke

Bill Fox led a modestly successful Cleveland punk band in the mid-‘80s called The Mice. Then he dropped out of sight. He emerged in 1998 (or 2010 when you live in my world) with this album, which is as far removed from punk as can be imagined. Taking The Beatles and Dylan as his touchstones, as thousands of musicians have done before him, he simply delivers a superb folk/pop album drenched in memorable melodies, indelible singalong choruses, and surrealistic poetry. Almost everybody tries this at one time or another. Few do it well. Bill Fox did it as well as anyone I’ve ever heard. Why he wasn’t recognized as the Sixth Beatle, or The Next Next Next Dylan, is beyond me. Maybe it’s Cleveland.

Honorable Mention

The Acorn – No Ghost
Alasdair Roberts – Too Long in This Condition
Allo Darlin’ – Allo Darlin’
Anders Osborne – American Patchwork
The Autumn Defense – Once Around
Beach House – Teen Dream
Belle & Sebastian – Write About Love
The Black Keys – Brothers
Blitzen Trapper – Destroyer of the Void
Brad Mehldau – Highway Rider
Carolina Chocolate Drops – Genuine Negro Jig
Chip Robinson – Mylow
The Claudia Quintet – Royal Toast
Deer Tick – The Black Dirt Sessions
Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest
Doug Burr – O Ye Devastator
Dr. John and the Lower 911 – Tribal
Elvis Costello – National Ransom
Esperanza Spalding – Chamber Music Society
Free Energy – Stuck on Nothing
The Fresh & Onlys – Play It Strange
The Gaslight Anthem – American Slang
Gov’t Mule – By a Thread
Harlem – Hippies
Jack Rose – Luck in the Valley
Jaga Jazzist – One-Armed Bandit
James Blackshaw – All Is Falling
Janelle Monae – The Archandroid
John Mellencamp – No Better Than This
Johnny Flynn – Been Listening
Josh Ritter – So Runs the World Away
Justin Townes Earle – Harlem River Blues
Konono No. 1 – Assume Crash Position
Laura Marling – I Speak Because I Can
Laura Veirs – July Flame
LCD Soundsystem – This is Happening
Lizz Wright – Fellowship
Local Natives – Gorilla Manor
Magic Kids – Memphis
Male Bonding – Nothing Hurts
Manic Street Preachers – Postcards From a Young Man
Mary Gauthier – The Foundling
MGMT – Congratulations
Mogwai – Special Moves
Mono – Holy Ground: NYC Live With The Worldless Music Orchestra
Mountain Man – Made the Harbor
Mystery Jets – Serotonin
Nada Surf – If I Had a Hi-Fi
The National – High Violet
Nick Curran and the Lowlifes – Reform School Girl
No Age – Everything In Between
The Old 97’s – The Grand Theatre Volume 1
Owen Pallett – Heartland
Paul Thorn – Pimps & Preachers
The Pernice Brothers – Goodbye, Killer
Peter Case – Wig!
Peter Wolf – Midnight Souvenirs
Prefab Sprout – Let’s Change the World With Music
Railroad Earth – Railroad Earth
Ray Wylie Hubbard – A. Enlightenment B. Endarkenment (Hint: There Is No C.)
Real Estate – Real Estate
Richard Thompson – Dream Attic
Robert Plant – Band of Joy
The Roots – How I Got Over
Ryan Bingham – Junky Star
Sam Amidon – I See the Sign
Sarah Jaffe – Suburban Nature
Scout Niblett – The Calcination of Scout Niblett
Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings – I Learned the Hard Way
Spoon – Transference
Strand of Oaks – Pope Killdragon
Sun Kil Moon – Admiral Fell Promises
Superchunk – Majesty Shredding
Surfer Blood – Astrocoast
Swans – My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky
The Tallest Man On Earth – The Wild Hunt
Teenage Fanclub - Shadows
The Thermals – Personal Life
Two Cow Garage – Sweet Saint Me
The Unthanks – Here’s the Tender Coming
Vijay Iyer – Solo
The Walkmen – Lisbon
Wartime Blues – Doves and Drums
Watermelon Slim – Ringers
The White Stripes – Under Great White Northern Lights
Wildrums & Peacebirds – Rivers
Woven Hand – Threshing Floor
!!! – Strange Weather, Isn’t It?

Disappointments

Not that many, in all honesty, and even the disappointments were decent enough. Disappointment, in this case, simply means that I had exceedingly high expectations that weren’t fulfilled by the resulting albums. And yes, there were far worse albums released in 2010. But when you expect nothing in the first place, it’s hard to be disappointed.

Best Coast – Crazy For You
The Hold Steady – Heaven Is Whenever
Jonsi - Go
Sleigh Bells - Treats
Sufjan Stevens – The Age of Adz
Ted Leo and the Pharmacists – The Brutalist Bricks
Vampire Weekend – Contra

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving

Thankful for Loudon Wainwright.

If I argue with a loved one, Lord,
Please make me the winner.

It occurs to me that Loudon's story, which is pretty close to mine, isn't true of my Thanksgiving celebrations anymore. I'm thankful for Kate's family, the whole multi-generational, mostly functional bunch, with whom I've been privileged to share the Thanksgiving holidays for the past 28 years.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Great CD Blowout Sale, Pt. 1

Over the weekend I tried to unload several thousand CDs via a sale at my house. To answer a question that came up frequently, no, I didn't list the CDs. This is because I'm not inclined to spend several weeks of my life typing out the names of CDs, prices, etc. You had to be there.

And being there was actually pretty fun. I had originally intended to set aside four hours of my Saturday to make this happen. The reality is that people continued to stop by all weekend. I sold about 600 CDs, and made some money. But the best part was interacting with the 50 or so people who stopped by, music fanatics one and all. It was like living the part of Rob Gordon in "High Fidelity," but without the attendant snarkiness.

A woman who runs an online business stopped by and wanted to buy the rest of the CDs. Aside from offering a ridiculously low price on the CDs, I didn't want to deal with her because she knows nothing, and cares nothing, about music. As ridiculous and pathetic as it probably sounds, I want these CDs to go to good homes. So I turned down her offer. I'll probably do Round 2 of the Great CD Blowout Sale on December 11th. You all are welcome to venture to central Ohio and participate. I'd love to see you.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Wrong Religion

The crazies have had it wrong all along. Obama isn't Muslim. He's Hindu.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Drive in Fundraising Drives

Okay, you all have heard these kinds of pitches before, so I'll make it short and sweet. There's desperate in Ohio, which might mean financially straitened circumstances, and there is desperate in Cambodia. They are not equivalent. Not even close.

Twenty-five percent of the population -- over two million people -- were executed during the Pol Pot regime. The country has never recovered. There are tens of thousands of orphans in the country, and they face a certain future. Shouldn't that be uncertain?, you might ask. Nope. If the orphans are girls, they are sold into sexual slavery. It's just what happens.

Asia's Hope, run by my friend John, feeds, clothes, shelters, and loves on these kids. It's a grandiose claim -- the hope of a continent, for God's sake -- but knowing what happens with these kids, and knowing what might have happened to them instead, is enough to break my heart and fill me with great, great hope. Enough to fill a continent? I don't know. It's enough, though.

You can help them raise $100,000, which will also considerably raise the hope levels of quite a few kids. Some lucky person will win a new car. It's kind of like playing the lottery, except this time if you lose you're helping kids stay alive, and you're hoisting the grand middle finger of hope to anyone and everyone who would exploit these kids. It's a pretty great deal. You can't and you won't lose.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Robert Gordon - Fresh Fish Special

It wasn't Robert Gordon's fault that he came along twenty years too late. And five years too early. Robert wanted to be Elvis. Not Fat Elvis, either, but the Hillbilly Cat who made all the little girls scream in 1956. But Elvis had already come and gone by the time Robert recorded his 1977 debut album. Sha Na Na had led a dubious rockabilly revival in the late '60s, and The Stray Cats spearheaded their own belated and immeasurably more popular revival in the early- and mid-'80s. Stuck in the middle was Robert Gordon, who was the best of the bunch. Robert hooked up with old Link Wray, who had played guitar with the original rockabillies back in the day, and who had made his own indelible mark on rock 'n roll history in 1958 with his scintillating guitar instrumental "Rumble." Link had the guitar hooks and Robert had the six-inch-high pompadour and the snarl, and off they went.

1978 was a weird musical year. Punk had arrived, but not really. The Sex Pistols and The Clash were still rumors to most people in the U.S. The pop charts were dominated by the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, Abba, the Johns -- Elton and Olivia Newton -- and schlockmeisters like Debbie Boone and The Commodores. But Robert Gordon detonated this little number in the midst of it. He made me glad to be alive.

Thomas Wolfe, Then and Now

You really can' t go home again. No, really. At the Image Journal blog.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Annual Political Post

They tell me that Tuesday is election day. Get out and vote, because it's your patriotic duty.

I don't think I will. There's no one I want to vote for except Travis Irvine. In the interest of full disclosure, Travis Irvine's dad is my good friend Mike, and I've hung out with Mike since before Travis was born. Travis is primarily known as a stand-up comedian and independent filmmaker, but don't let that dissuade you. He's funny, and his films are good. Perhaps most tellingly, he's not a politician. Now he's running as the Libertarian candidate in Ohio's 12th Congressional District, opposing Democrat Paula Brooks and Republican Pat Tiberi.

I want Travis to win for a couple reasons. First, I actually like his ideas. Second, it's about time Ohio had a congressperson who, in his late 20s, is trying to make it on his own but still lives occasionally with mom and dad. There's no politician more emblematic of the desperate times in which we live. Paula and Pat point fingers at each other, and try to convince you, the impressionable voter, that the other is at fault. Travis merely says that we're all screwed, and that it might be time to start all over again. Guess who's right?

Monday, October 25, 2010

Nomads

Sometime during the Clinton/Bush administrations, American life changed. We're still living in the fallout of those changes, and I don't know if anyone has yet written the definitive historical analysis of what happened, but I certainly know the day-to-day ramifications. I have far less money than I used to have. It is almost impossible to find a job. And the things that used to matter in terms of stability and planning for the future don't seem to matter at all.

Here's the way it used to work: Go to school. Stay in school a long time. Pile up some degrees because historically the more degrees you pile up, the more money you will earn in your career. Then go to work. Make a couple strategic career changes along the way to bolster your earning potential. Sock some savings away every paycheck, and watch with wonder, year after year, as the cumulative effects of time and compound interest work their magic. Retire at 60, or, if, hard pressed, at 65, and enjoy your golden years in a gated community on a golf course.

I belong to the last generation that bought into this bullshit. The kids know better. It actually worked out, more or less, for the one or two generations ahead of me, and I suspect us Boomers just assumed that this was the way it would always work. But the great unspoken outcome of this recession is not just that the profligate and over-extended have lost their shirts, but that the fiscally conservative -- those who have played the game by the rules -- have as well. What has happened is that we have now lost most of that savings that had been piling up paycheck by paycheck, decade after decade. When the stock market tanks, the more you have, the more you have to lose. This is an incontrovertible law of the universe, like Banks Cannot Go Out Of Business and Anybody Can Write, So What The Hell Is A Professional Communicator?

I and my piled-up degrees and my 28 years of corporate experience interviewed for a job last week. The hiring manager told me that he had received more than 500 resumes for the position. It is almost miraculous that I was granted a face-to-face interview. But here's the kicker. If, by some equally improbable miracle I am actually offered the job, I will be able to work for 6 months. That assumes that the corporate budget doesn't get tweaked in the meantime. Then I get to start the process all over again, 1 vs. 500. And I hate the very terms of the engagement. These people are not my enemies. I know some of them. They are my friends. They are as qualified to work as I am, and just as deserving.

The American Dream? Psssst, here's a secret: it's a Nightmare. It doesn't work anymore because nobody works.

So I was thinking about all of that in relation to yesterday's sermon which, among other things, concerned an old, rich dude named Abraham. Abraham had entered into the golden years, a time when he should have been lounging, single malt Scotch in hand, on the golf course in Dubai, or wherever the hell Ur was. Instead, his life was uprooted. His retirement planning was shot to smithereens by the call of God, and he ended up a wandering nomad, believing in some vague, impossible promise that it was all going to work out in the end.

I'm not ready for retirement, and I hate golf in any case. But there might be some lessons there. So here's what I'm currently thinking the call of God might entail for me. I think I'm being uprooted, and I think that might be okay. I think I'm being called to share my life more and more with other people. As in, you know, living with other people. Our kids are gone, and we now have a housemate, a single woman who moved in with Kate and me about a month ago. It's been great. And I'm thinking that trend is likely to continue, and, if possible, expand. I think it's highly likely that we'll move out of this 4-bedroom, 2.5-bath monstrosity that we no longer need, and that we'll move to a much smaller place that will, I'm sure, still have room for others. I have no idea what that's going to look like. But if this country is changing in the ways I think it is changing, then good old American independence is no longer an option, and it's debatable whether it's even desirable in the first place. I'm fairly sure that for better, or more probably for worse, we're in this together.

And it's okay. Really. Life is going to hell, and I am crazily optimistic about the future.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Contemporvent Growtivation

Regardless of the type of church you do or do not attend, this is pretty funny.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Letting Go and Traveling Light

Here's a wonderful article from jazz critic Terry Teachout (h/t to Christian Hamaker for pointing it out.) It reads in part:

I, too, once felt the mad desire to own every jazz record ever made, and to have them all shelved in chronological order at arm's length from my desk. Today I own just two racks, and whenever I acquire a new album, I get rid of an old one in order to make room for it. Not only has this imperative made me ruthlessly selective, but it has forced me to reconsider my priorities. Time was when I bought records in order to say that I had them. Now I keep them only because I love them.

No doubt the day is almost here when it will be possible for people like me to download the Complete Performances of Everybody to our computers...except that I'm no longer that kind of person. I love Art Tatum, but I don't want to own every record he ever made. I want to own the ones that matter to me, and let the others go. I want to be able to pull a CD or book from my shelves at random and know that it will please me, just as I hang on my walls only paintings and prints that move me deeply.

Why have I come to feel this way? Because I'm fifty-four. Life, I now know, is short, too short to waste, and the actuarial tables leave no possible doubt that most of mine has passed me by. As a professional critic, it's my job--my destiny, you might say--to spend a fair amount of time experiencing art that I don't like. Insofar as possible, though, I don't propose to waste any more of the days that remain to me consuming bad art than is absolutely necessary. Unless I'm being paid to do so, I won't even finish reading a book I don't like, or listening to a record that fails to engage me. I have better things to do, and not nearly enough time in which to do them.

Yeah, buddy. This has been the Summer/Autumn of the Great Purge at the Whitman house. There are several reasons for that. Our kids are more or less on their own now, and we're planning to downsize in the next year or so, and we have to begin the process of jettisoning the accumulated dross that we will no longer be able to store. And I'm unemployed, and frankly the sale of some of that accumulated dross has helped us pay our bills. But in the Age of Everything, there is much to be said for making hard choices. Time is passing, and it cannot be replenished. So I've given away or sold a bunch of books, most of which I haven't even looked at in decades. It's possible that I'll miss that medieval philosophy text book that I haven't cracked open since 1976. But I doubt it.

And I'm in the process of unloading about 4,500 CDs, some of which I've simply given to friends or family who are interested in the music. It's not totally altruistic. In my case, I've backed up the music I'm interested in keeping on a 2 TB hard drive, and then I've backed that up on another 2 TB hard drive. I ought to be good to go forever. But forever, as always, is an illusion. You can't back up a life. It's been good to have that at the forefront of my mind.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Mavis

If all goes as planned, I'll be heading to Chicago for a couple days later this month to hang with Mavis Staples. The interview should later turn into a big feature article for Christianity Today Magazine. I'm like a little kid on Christmas morning.

Can I say, as a married man, that I am in love with Mavis Staples? Open up, this is a raid.

Friday, October 15, 2010

New Music From Aradhna

Superb new music and exquisite cinematography from Aradhna, who, yes, as the trailer states, blend east and west in lovely, heartbreaking ways.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Ever Thought of Coming Back?

One-man band Kelley Stoltz wins the coveted Brian Wilson Clone Of The Day Award. This is such a great song, and it perfectly encapsulates my current theological views. Fuck the job search. I want the Rapture.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Ramble Tamble

I'm stuck in the house for a few days after surgery, wearing a bandage/dressing on the side of my face that looks vaguely like a French chef hat. But that won't stop me. Down the road I go.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A Glorious Day

There have probably been better days in the history of recorded music. But off the top of my head, I can't think of any. Tuesday saw the release of 5, count 'em, 5, absolutely stellar albums:

Mavis Staples - You're Not Alone
Robert Plant - Band of Joy
Justin Townes Earle - Harlem River Blues
Superchunk - Majesty Shredding
Jamey Johnson - The Guitar Song

Any one of these albums is cause for great rejoicing. But they all could easily end up in my Top 10 list at the end of the year. And, except for the whippersnapper Earle, they all represent the triumph of mature-to-senior artists over the latest callow youth flavor of the month. And give him credit. Justin Townes Earle may only be 28, but he sounds like he spent time hopping freight trains with Woody Guthrie.

Mavis Staples - You're Not Alone

The big news here is Mavis's collaboration with Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy. Tweedy produces, plays guitar, and contributes the quietly pensive title track, which is frankly better than anything he's written for his own band in the past five years. So he's hardly invisible. Still, for the most part he has the good sense to stay out of the way and let Mavis sing, which she does with her usual grit and fire. There have always been more technically adept gospel singers than Mavis Staples. But no one can match her sense of hope and conviction. It's another late-life triumph for the woman who has been on a roll since she signed with Anti- Records in 2006.

Robert Plant - Band of Joy

It turns out that Raising Sand, Plant's 2007 left-field triumph with bluegrass stalwart Alison Krauss, was just the warmup act. Plant's in Nashville now, and if he shows no inclination to resurrect the titanic blues rawk bluster of his famous Led Zep past, he also sounds considerably more lively and engaged here in the company of superb guitarists Buddy Miller and Darrel Scott. And Patty Griffin, who handles the soulful harmony vocals this time, is a definite upgrade from the sweet but sometimes nondescript Krauss. Featuring great covers of Richard and Linda Thompson, Los Lobos, and Low tunes, and a couple Trad numbers done up in ways you've never heard them, this is undeniably one of the highlights of the year.

Justin Townes Earle - Harlem River Blues

I have nothing to add that I didn't say a couple days ago. For the first time the kid is better than his old man. And his old man remains one of my favorites.



Superchunk - Majesty Shredding

Superchunk defined indie rock in the early '90s, and if they never achieved the mega-success of their Seattle grunge counterparts, they earned bonus points for doing it the indie way. No big labels, no sir, even though they had plenty of chances. What it led to was a handful of great, jagged guitar albums that relatively few people heard. So Mac McCaughan and company are back for the first time in almost ten years, and it's surely great to have them back. There are no great surprises here; the title is entirely accurate. But majestic shredding is always in short supply, and the eleven tunes go for the jugular every time.

Jamey Johnson - The Guitar Song

Jamey Johnson's last offering, 2008's That Lonesome Song, was my favorite country album of the last decade, equal parts confessional singer/songwriter and good ol' boy country outlaw mayhem. He doesn't vary the formula much here, but he surely expands upon it. There are 25 tracks on this long double album. The first CD, dubbed appropriately The Black Album, chronicles a slow descent into addiction and madness. The second CD -- wait for it -- okay, yes, The White Album -- offers some glimmers of hope and redemption in the wreckage. There are more covers this time (great ones from Kris Kristofferson, Mel Tillis, and Keith Whitley), but Jamey's originals can hold their own with the classics. And it needs to be stated that the man has the single greatest voice in contemporary country music. If you like Merle Haggard and George Jones (and if you don't, what the hell is wrong with you?), you'll marvel at the whiskey-soaked soul in these songs of debauchery, heartache, and, incredibly, hope.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Southeast Engine - Canary

A visit to Canaanville, Ohio might leave you baffled. There is no town to speak of; just a few run-down shacks and trailers, a clearing in the woods five miles east of Athens that suggests that maybe, once upon a time, human beings lived and worked here.

This is coal mining country, or at least it used to be. The coal seam gave out decades ago. Timber country, too, and the white oaks and poplars used to supply a bustling sawmill. Now it’s all gone.

Canary, the new album from Athens troubadours Southeast Engine, tells the story of Canaanville. The canary of the title refers to the primitive early warning system used in the mines. If the canary stopped singing, there was a strong likelihood that carbon monoxide or methane was present in the mine. A dead canary meant there was precious little time for the miners to escape. The smallest delay could result in death. And it’s a metaphor for this batch of old-time Americana songs that resonate with prescient and prophetic intensity today.

The songs are set in 1933, the bleakest year of the Great Depression. There are references to listening to FDR on that newfangled invention the radio, to the hardscrabble lives of the miners and lumbermen, and, most miraculously, to the town itself, little Canaanville, never more than the tiniest blip on the map, but home to the characters who populate these songs. Money is hard to come by, as is food, but the townfolk go to church, and fall in love, and spend their hard-earned nickels when the fair comes to town, and ride the Ferris wheel and gaze out, wide-eyed, at the panoply of a whole new world spread before them when they reach the apex of the ride.

These are striking images, lovely and sad, and lead singer and songwriter Adam Remnant puts them across with admirable conviction, his raw, soulful tenor breaking and cracking in all the right places. There are fiddles here, and clawhammer banjo, but Southeast Engine do again what they normally do; defy convention and easy categorization, mixing the down-home elements with spiky circus calliope, and electric guitar, and what sounds like a piano from the last saloon in Texas.

It’s a tale as old as the ancient, worn-down mountains they sing about, and as fresh and contemporary as the latest jobs report. It’s also a terrific album, literate Americana music composed of equal parts sad resignation and indomitable hope. You ought to buy it when it comes out early next year.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Justin Townes Earle - Harlem River Blues

It's been evident from the start that Steve Earle's kid had talent, and his first two albums were fine, albeit sometimes derivative forays into the same Americana territory worked by his old man. That said, it’s not Justin’s fault that he has a famous father, and if he hasn’t exactly tried to hide the fact, he also hasn’t unduly traded on his name to gain fame and notoriety.

Nowhere is that more true than on Harlem River Blues, Justin Townes Earle’s pivotal third album. Gone are the letter-perfect honky-tonk homages to Hank Williams. Gone too, thankfully, are the rueful confessions of familial connection ("I am my father's son/I've never known when to shut up/I ain't foolin' no one/I am my father's son"). Justin lets it all go, and in its place is, finally, his authentic voice. This is as good as Americana gets, and it's a big step forward from the first two "promising" albums. The promise has arrived, big time. The songwriting is sharp and focused. There's a thematic unity to these eleven songs (life during hard times, and the messages are as timely as ever). Most importantly, there’s an incredible breadth of styles and genres here: Sun Studios rockabilly, a Dylan-influenced folk tune, a classic country weeper, country blues, superb Memphis soul, and, in “Christchurch Woman,” a great Springsteen ballad not written by Springsteen. There's not a weak song or a weak minute here. The inevitable family comparisons may finally be a thing of the past. Steve who?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Hipster Christians, Part MCCLXXIII


The saga continues. Brett McCracken, about whom I've written before, has now published his book about hipster Christianity called, wait for it, Hipster Christianity. I'll give Brett a plug and suggest that you buy the book.

And I'm worried. Admittedly, I haven't read it. I need to read it, and I will. But based on the excerpts I've seen, and Brett's recent article in The Wall Street Journal, it seems to me that Brett is focused on the wrong things. There's much, much more going on here than a desire to be cool, and to fit in with the culture. There is a fundamental rejection of those things with which Evangelical Christianity has been identified. The kids are not just tuning out. They're running the other way. And Brett's book appears to be analogous to a purported critique of the Amish worldview that merely focuses on the funny hats. He nails the fashion trends, but he misses the point.

I don't know how many of you are involved in so-called Emergent churches. I suspect I am, although the members of my church probably wouldn't identify themselves as such. They would simply identify themselves as part of a Christian church. But all of the other earmarks are there. It's full of people about whom the label "hipster" would easily apply if one were looking for outward signs of hipsterism. But here's the deal. They congregate together for theological and philosophical reasons, many of which have to do with an uneasiness with, if not an outright rejection of, the Evangelical cultural trappings with which many of them were raised. Vote Republican? Probably not, or at the very least they believe that whatever Republican candidate is currently running for office has not received a direct endorsement from Jesus. Vote based on a candidate's stance on abortion and/or homosexuality? Nope. Convinced of the God-given merits of free enterprise capitalism? Nope. Take their cues from the evangelical cultural ghetto? What's that? It's not that they've even rejected it. They simply don't even think about it, although they seem to actively engage the culture as Christians. Engage in the culture wars? Emphatically No. They're sick of them, and disgusted by them. Care for the planet that we live on, and take care of orphans and widows, and engage in ending sex trafficking? Yep, big time. They seem to think these things align with the will of God.

Many of them like Sufjan Stevens, and have tattoos and piercings. And Amish people wear funny hats. So what? I know these folks. They're so hip that they gladly welcome a 55-year-old fat guy with a hearing aid into their midst. And I'm there for the same theological and philosophical reasons. Those are the reasons that seem to be missing from Brett's analysis. Seem to be. I'll read the book because now I'm genuinely curious. But those are my concerns.

Best Coast -- Crazy For You

Latest Pitchfork sensation and L.A. "It" girl Bethany Cosentino knows her way around an old Leslie Gore song. Oh, she updates the template a bit, slathering on some lo-fi guitars a la Vivian Girls, but she employs the same little-girl pout as the Queen of '60s melodrama, and she mixes the same lethal concoction of infectious hooks and maddeningly banal lyrics. But it begs the question: do we really need another pop melodrama queen who rhymes "crazy" and "lazy"?

Bethany likes boys, of course, and alternately longs for her missing guy or wonders why she's hooked up with such a scuzzball. She also likes sitting on the couch in her sweatpants, smoking weed, and watching TV. I haven't heard such unapologetically slacker sentiments in a pop album since the glory days of Dinosaur Jr. Which leads to the other big rhyme scheme here, the word "high," which is most frequently paired with "fly" (the upbeat tunes) and "die" (when life is a bummer, man). The songs breeze right on by -- thirteen of them in about half an hour -- and there's something to be said for pop economy. But Crazy For You is the aural equivalent of eating Twinkies. There's that sugary buzz going down. And half an hour later you're hungry for something more substantial.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Born to Walk With a Cane


Neither Bruce Springsteen nor I are getting any younger. A while back Image Journal asked me to write about Bruce. That essay appears in the current issue of the magazine. You can read an excerpt right here. If you want to read the rest, you have to buy the magazine.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Fire in the Suburbs

What does The Arcade Fire have to do with Westerville, Ohio? More than you might think.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

James Hand

James Hand writes and sings like Hank Williams, and makes the kind of hard honky-tonk music that hasn't really been in vogue since Buck and Merle raised a ruckus out in Bakersfield in the early '60s. And if he sounds like he's been directly beamed in to the waiting world from some west Texas honky-tonk, well, in fact he's been beamed in to the waiting world from some west Texas honky-tonk.

Now 58 years old, he's been working as a rancher and cowboy most of his life (yes, apparently these people actually exist) and singing in dusty bars on the weekends. He's got two albums out on Rounder Records, one from 2006 called The Truth Will Set You Free (that phrase rings a (cow)bell), and one from 2009 called Shadow on the Ground. And if you like Hank, Buck, Merle, and the whole anti-slick country contingent, he sounds real good. This is truckstop jukebox music at its best.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

John Mellencamp -- No Better Than This

And a quickie review of John Mellencamp's latest No Better Than This, also at Christianity Today.

Doug Burr -- O Ye Devastator

Here's my review of Doug Burr's new album O Ye Devastator at Christianity Today.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Eli "Paperboy" Reed -- Come and Get It

Eli "Paperboy" Reed sounds like a white kid from Boston, which is who he is. His songs sound like note-for-note throwbacks to mid-'60s Stax and Atlantic soul. In this case, the whitebread voice is an asset. God knows we've been inundated with retro soul over the past few years. It's a classic sound, of course, but the question remains whether anyone could possibly improve on Otis Redding or Sam Cooke. To his credit, Reed doesn't even try. He's just a white kid who loves soul music, and if the arrangements are slavish imitations of Booker T. and the MG's, the singing is more beholden to Hall and Oates. It's blue-eyed soul, all right, but it's refreshing to hear a singer in this genre who tries to be no one but himself. Yes, you've heard this all before. But perhaps not quite so unselfconsciously.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

The Brave New Economy

What Color Is Your Parachute? What parachute? Remember when words like "career planning" used to be meaningful?

But here are a couple helpful tips.

Tip 1 -- Managing a Job Search

In the Brave New Economy, no one hires anybody as a regular, full-time employee. If you have a Ph.D. and want to teach, you may end up as an adjunct professor, which means that you're hired for a quarter or a semester at a time, and you're paid a pittance to teach an auditorium full of undergrads who will eventually graduate and join you in the scramble for very temporary jobs that pay a pittance.

In the IT world, the timeframes are even more truncated. A 2-week contract? Believe it. Yes, employers will now pay you to work for two weeks; no more, but possibly less. Slightly more common are the 4-week or 6-week contracts. What this means is that the day you start a new job, you have to actively and vigorously pursue your search for your next job. Here's a typical scenario: you receive a phone inquiry about your interest in another position on Day 1 of the new job. You feel uncomfortable talking to another employer in front of your new, albeit highly temporary, boss, so you decide to retreat to the bathroom and talk there. Except you haven't been around long enough to figure out where the bathroom is. So you awkwardly try to keep things vague on your end, as your boss listens in from 5 feet away, indicating your interest without revealing too much. And because you're an idiot, and don't really know how to talk in riddles, you end up totally befuddling what may have been your next employer, who concludes that you can't communicate.

Believe me, it happens.

If you have a particularly meddlesome boss (this is all hypothetical, of course) who seems irritated by the fact that you occasionally have to use the bathroom, he or she may get on your case for fielding non-work-related (little does he know) phone calls during work hours. You know what you do? You take the calls anyway. What is he going to do? Fire you? Oh well, there goes 9 days pay.

Tip 2 -- Making Your Way Through the Bureaucratic Tangle

If a potential employer contacts you about a possible job, you will need to fill out approximately 87 pages of paperwork in order to even be considered for the position. Filling out the paperwork in no way guarantees that you will secure an interview for the position. In fact, because you're competing against 2,000 other people for the same 2-week contract, you realistically have about a .05% chance of securing an interview. Nevertheless, if you do not fill out the paperwork, you have a .00% change of ever landing those lucrative 80 hours.

So, depending on how hot the job market is in your area (I have recently had to fill out paperwork for 2 possible jobs, amounting to 174 pages), you need to be disciplined and set aside several hours per day to manage the bureaucratic load. It's also useful to keep the following information handy, because you will need to refer to it during the application process:

-- Four references (names, titles, your relationship to, addresses, phone numbers, email addresses, social security numbers, summary (no more than 5 pages per reference) of duties performed while relating to said reference, their education, their certificates attained, relevance of their current position to position for which you are applying, political affiliation (particularly relevant for government work), etc.)
-- Employers for the past ten years (name, address, phone number, name and title of manager, phone number and email address of manager, salary, start and end dates of employment, summary of duties performed). Face it, this is what kills you. If, like me, you have worked for 73 employers in the past ten years as an IT gun for hire and all-around communications guru, this could take a good, long while. Discipline yourself. You have to do it.
-- List of weaknesses -- Helpful suggestions: Sometimes I work too hard. Occasionally I have a difficult time not becoming prideful when my co-workers tell me what a wonderful co-worker I am.

If you can scale the bureaucratic wall, the rest is easy. The odds are 2,000 to 1 that you're done. But if the unthinkable actually happens, wear a suit, brush your teeth, go to the interviews, and, if need be, go pee in a cup. If all goes well, you're set for the next 80 hours.

This is all part of negotiating the Brave New Economy. Best of luck. You'll need it.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

The Collected Works

The folks at Paste have been busy, in this case bundling up all the scattered writings of various writers and tying them together with a virtual string. Here's my bundle, about 400 articles and reviews that go back about eight years.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Free Energy -- Stuck on Nothing

Sweet and sour. It's a winning combination in the kitchen, and it works just fine in rock 'n roll, too. Philadelphia power popsters Free Energy deliver the sweet by way of memorable singalong choruses and '70s classic rock riffage that recalls Thin Lizzy and T. Rex. Lurking beneath that sugary surface, however, is something equally classic; the sour adolescent mopester who can't get a date to save his life, and who thinks too hard about metaphysical issues such as what happens when people die, and why all the pretty girls are content to stand around mindlessly and snap their gum:

Bang bang, pop pop
When does the searching stop?

This is a disposable summer album with just a hint of autumn chill in the air. Listen closely enough and you might convince yourself that the adolescent mopester nerds will eventually take over the world, and still end up disappointed by it.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Corporate Punks, and Other Non-Sequiturs

I hate the army and I hate the RAF
I don’t wanna go fighting in the tropical heat
I hate the civil service rules

And I won’t open letter bombs for you


Career opportunities are the ones that never knock

Every job they offer you is to keep you out the dock

Career opportunities, the ones that never knock

-- The Clash, "Career Opportunities"

I couldn't be a punk if you dolled me up in a ripped t-shirt and safety pins, teased my thinning hair into some pathetic semblance of a Mohawk, and gave me unlimited Cockney elocution lessons. And, despite my sporadic efforts, I apparently don't qualify as much of a corporate American, either. So I'll admit from the start that the title of this post is absurd. But grant me this: I think Joe Strummer had it exactly right. Economic recovery my ass.

Another thing I am not is an economist, so I have no idea how this is all going to shake out; whether this is some momentary, albeit several-years-and-counting, blip on the otherwise-bright horizon, or some cataclysmic hemorrhage in the vaunted American Dream. Being an extreme melancholic sort, where the glass is neither half full nor half empty, but rather contains a few botulism-filled drops that are utterly insufficient to slake a thirst, and will kill you if you dare to swallow, I tend to gravitate toward the latter view. But what do I know?

Here's what I do know: There are currently two types of jobs available in Columbus, Ohio. The first type requires you to say words like "Cash or Charge?" and "Grande or Venti?" If you have a master's degree, as I do, you won't even get a sniff, because you're overqualified. These jobs only require a bachelor's degree, as the 82% of 2009 graduates from Ohio colleges who are now working minimum-wage retail positions have found out. The second type is the contract consulting position, which pays a straight hourly rate without benefits. You'll be qualified for these positions (possibly as many as two at a time in a metro area of 2 million people), but you'll be competing with anywhere from several hundred to a thousand people for the same job. If you're fortunate enough to secure one of those jobs, you'll be given somewhat meaningful work for three months, maybe six months, or, alternately, a day or a week or whatever period of time the employer decides. Timeframes mean nothing. A thousand years is as a day in the eyes of the Lord, and six months is as a day in the eyes of an employer. This is the way it goes. If you don't like it, you can be unemployed for all 365 days per year instead of 364.

There are no other alternatives. Let me repeat that. There are no other alternatives. Welcome to the brave new world.

The irony is that poor, uneducated yobs have understood this for eons. The truth is just now filtering down (almost wrote "up," but it's most definitely down) to the middle class. Historically, the poor, uneducated yobs suffer under this yoke for a while and then all hell breaks loose, and eventually palaces are burned down and prisoners are set loose and kings and queens are beheaded, or nuked, etc. Only bread and circuses seem to delay the inevitable revolution. Go Bucks.

So, in the midst of these little economic epiphanies, I'm reading Babylon is Burning by Clinton Heylin, a great history of punk music. It's probably a dangerous book anytime, but it's particularly incendiary given my current mood. Can you tell? And the punks simply did what great music has always done -- get in peoples' faces and tell the truth. London in 1977 was full of unemployed, hopeless yobs and bread and circuses. It was the Queen's Jubilee Year, a time of great celebration, of pomp and glory, until Johnny Rotten hijacked the airwaves:

God save the queen, she ain't no human being
There is no future, and England's dreaming

Thank God for the snot-nosed truth tellers. Somebody needs to do it again, cut through the morass of political speeches and photo ops and lies that pass for Want Ads. Who will be this generation's Joe Strummer or Johnny Rotten?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Kate Rusby

I'm a sucker for Kate's. Aside from being married to one, I have yet to hear a musical Kate -- whether Bush, Nash, Taylor, or Wolf -- I haven't liked[1]. And that's certainly true for Kate Rusby.

Kate essentially only has one trick, but it's such a deep and heartfelt one that I find myself being moved again and again. She's the prototypical English folk nightingale, and her singing is so sweet and lovely that you expect rainbows and butterflies to magically appear whenever she opens her mouth. She mines the same Trad territory as Sandy Denny, mixing in her own excellent original songs that sound centuries old, but she doesn't have Sandy's soulfulness or world weariness. But I can't really get too upset about it. Her pure Yorkshire folk soprano simply soars, and the tasteful and unobtrusive Trad accompaniment (acoustic guitars, Uillean pipes, pennywhistles, flutes, etc.) stays out of the way and puts the emphasis where it belongs -- on that remarkable voice.

Kate has nine or ten albums out now, all of them very fine. But if I had to recommend one, I'd suggest Sleepless from 1998, which features the usual Trad ballads, some unusual and welcome guest appearances from American bluegrass stalwarts Tim O'Brien and Darrell Scott, and a wondrous Iris Dement cover.

[1] Note: Katie's are not the same as Kate's. Katie's can be nasty, musically and personally. Katie's are the cute, pop, satanic side of Kate's. Katie's should not be mentioned in the same post as Kate's. Neither should K.T.'s, although the only one I know, Tunstall, is decent enough. Still, she's no Kate.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Hank Cochran

Legendary Nashville songwriter Hank Cochran died earlier today. Chances are, if it was a tearjerker from the '50s or '60s, Hank wrote it, either solo or in collaboration with buddy Harlan Howard.

Hank had a couple hits on his own, but the for the most part he was content to stay behind the scenes, churning out song after song for Nashville's iconic stars. What Bacharach and David, Boyce and Hart, Leiber and Stoller, and Pomus and Shuman were to the pop word, Hank Cochran was to the world of country music. It's hard to imagine country music without him. He's probably best known for "I Fall to Pieces," a song usually associated with Patsy Cline. And that's a great one. But I'm most fond of "It's Only Love," performed here by the consummate country gentleman Ray Price. R.I.P., Hank.