Sunday, May 30, 2010

Back in the Day

Yes, I have been reduced to posting toddler pictures of my kids. I always told them that one day I would embarrass them unmercifully. This is that day. Then again, I can't think of a better picture that expresses their personalities.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Mason Proffit

Meet Mason Proffit, none of whom are named "Mason" or "Proffit." They were quite the local favorites when I was in high school in the suburbs of Chicago, and they went on to tour with the likes of The Grateful Dead. But their music never really took off beyond a regional level, at least partly because their first three albums (including the 1971 gem pictured on the left) were released only on Chicago labels.

Can you guess what type of music they played? Yes, Bubba and Windsong, that's right, hippie-laced country/stoner rock. It was the best of both worlds, a non-redneck confluence of twang and sweet harmonies. I liked them a lot, better than your Eagles and Pocos and various other country-ish outfits that sold a lot more records at the time. I'm thinking about writing about them in Paste, because nobody knows them these days, and that's a shame. Their music is well worth tracking down.

Actually, if you're a longtime fan of Christian music, you might know them after a fashion. That bearded, hatted fellow on the left is John(ny) Talbot, who, as a Franciscan monk, has had a worthy career as a purveyor of contemplative folk hymns. He has called himself John Michael Talbot for several decades now. His brother Terry, hatted and heavily mustachioed on the right, had a few fine solo albums as well.

But I like them best in their Mason Proffit incarnation. It's the sibling harmonies. Along with the Everlys and the Louvins, these guys were the best.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Keith Green

Nearly 30 years after Christian-rock pioneer Keith Green died in a plane crash, his widow and a Hollywood producer have teamed up to bring his story to the big screen in the hope of introducing a new generation to his music. . . .
Melody Green is working with producer Mike Leahy to make a movie version of her book "No Compromise: The Life Story of Keith Green."
Leahy has been involved with a number of Hollywood projects over the past 20 years, including "The Prophecy" starring Christopher Walken and "Infinity" directed by Matthew Broderick. But this is the first project for the production company he formed with his wife, Lori, to make films with a spiritual or social message.
They hope to start shooting later this year, and release the film in 2011. . . .
Daily News
, May 17

I was never much of a fan of Keith Green's music, but the influence of his music and his ministry was undeniable for Evangelicals in the '70s. So there is a small part of me that is fascinated by the notion of a biopic.

Frankly, a lot of what Keith Green represented just sort of creeps me out now. I certainly don't question his faith and his utter commitment to Jesus. As far as I know -- and as is widely attested -- both were beyond reproach. But I question his methods which, in some ways, were the quintessential '70s CCM strongarm tactics. I found his concerts, in particular (of which I witnessed two), to be manipulative, guilt-inducing sermons that were interrupted by occasional musical interludes. I saw a bunch of people surge toward the stage at each concert, convicted and/or driven forward like sheep by lyrics like "Jesus rose from the dead/And you can't even get out of bed."

It was an effective approach, I suppose. But I do question the long-term value. Keith, perhaps more than any other CCM "star," was caught up in the hubris of the whole "last generation" theology that he espoused so fervently. It turns out he was wrong. The Church, in fact, had been around for 2,000 years before he arrived on the scene, and it's still going, now well over a generation after his passing. He was, ironically enough, a product of his time. His music bears the unmistakeable stamp of late '70s CCM CheeseWhiz. And his theology bears the unmistakeable stamp of the Jesus Freak generation that was convinced that, after 2,000 years, somebody had finally gotten it right. He is, in many ways, a tragic figure, and not only because of the way he died. Part of me would like to see this movie. And part of me has absolutely no desire to relive those crazy days in any way.

Teenage Fanclub -- Shadows

To their everlasting credit, the Fannies are incapable of releasing anything less than a thoroughly competent, tuneful album. And they've done nothing more, and nothing less, here. I have a great love for this band, and while there is a part of me that longs for the return of the glorious power pop of Grand Prix and Bandwagonesque, those albums are now fifteen years old or more, and in the meantime the three principle songwriters have settled into the comfortable (and softer) middle age that was presaged by earlier pastoral albums such as Songs From Northern Britain. They haven't been Big Star acolytes for a long, long time now.

So what we have here are a dozen supremely melodic soft rock songs characterized by sweetly strummed guitars and spot-on Byrds harmonies. There's one song that's a bit of a change up for the band; the chamber-pop-based "Dark Clouds," which features a string quartet and a baroque piano. The power pop peeks through, in a fairly subdued fashion, on "Baby Lee" and "Shock and Awe," but even on the relatively raucous latter song Gerard Love sings, "I favor a peaceful life." Indeed. The closest contemporary touchstone is the latest Band of Horses album, which reprises the same early '70s Laurel Canyon vibe, but with considerably less lyrical finesse. Middle age becomes these Scotsmen. They've toned down everything but the melodic gifts and the gorgeous singing. And if it's hard to get excited about that, I'm still grateful for consistent, longstanding excellence.

Steve Winwood -- Revolutions: The Very Best of Steve Winwood

Steve Winwood, like his buddy and frequent collaborator Eric Clapton, is an artist who can elicit shivers of delight and groans of dismay within the space of mere minutes. Like Clapton, he has a prodigious gift -- in this case, his marvelously supple, soaring voice. But he can just as easily squander it in cheesy pop settings or meandering jazz-lite snoozefests. So this Greatest Hits package, out June 15th, might be as far as most casual fans need to go. The 4-CD box set, released at the same time, is there for the devoted fanbase. But for me -- and, I suspect, for many others -- the single disc will suffice quite nicely.

And, as these things go, it's just about a perfect collection. The man has been recording since the mid-'60s now, and if he only releases a genuine masterpiece every five or six years or so, that still means that he has released a body of work that can stand with anyone in the rock 'n roll pantheon. All phases of Winwood's career are represented here, from the the great early singles with The Spencer Davis Group ("I'm a Man," "Gimme Some Lovin'") through the first collaboration with Clapton in Blind Faith ("Can't Find My Way Home"), through the best of the '70s Traffic albums ("Dear Mr. Fantasy," "Glad," "The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys") through the slick synth pop of the '80s and beyond ("When You See a Chance," "Higher Love," "Back in the High Life," "Roll With It"). There's a generous 17 tracks and almost 80 minutes here, and not a minute is wasted. That's not exactly a claim that can be made about the career as a whole. In terms of the scope of the material and the overarching career overview, Winwood has never been better served. If you're only going to seek out one disc, this is the one to get.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Dylan at 65 (+4)

This is a repost from 4 years ago. Bob Dylan is no longer 65. Now he's 69. But I'm stickin' with the rest.


My first clue that Bob Dylan was something more than an average pop star occurred in my American History class. It was May 24th, 1971, and I was an acne-ravaged sophomore in high school. Mr. Goodman, our young, hip, twenty-something teacher strolled into the classroom and asked, “Does anybody know what day this is?” Thursday? Almost Memorial Day? Nobody did.

“Bob Dylan’s birthday,” he triumphantly announced. “Bob Dylan is thirty years old today. He’s now officially part of the world that cannot be trusted.”

I thought this was weird on many levels. Here was a grown man, college educated, presumably mature, who knew the birthday of a pop star. Thirteen-year-old girls who read Tiger Beat might know Donny Osmond’s birthday, but I didn’t expect American History teachers to spout off like giggling adolescents. Who was this Bob Dylan, and why did he inspire otherwise sober, respectable individuals to carry on about his birthday?

I decided to find out for myself. I knew Bob Dylan, of course. You couldn’t listen to the radio and not know Bob Dylan. One of my earliest musical memories, after acquiring the aqua transistor radio and wresting control of the radio dial away from my parents, was of Bob Dylan singing “Like a Rolling Stone.” In the summer of 1965 the song was ubiquitous. The condensed, edited version of the song came blasting out of that tinny transistor radio every hour or so. They played it over the loudspeakers at the local swimming pool, where I was developing my first pre-adolescent crush on Cindy Bechtel, and my memories of the song are inextricably linked with those hot summer days. How does it feeeeeeeeel? It feels all tingly. My cousin Mike had the unedited 45 RPM single, which was six minutes long, something strange and incomprehensible. And that was even before you listened to the lyrics.

So in the late spring of 1971, hard upon Bob Dylan’s passage into the world of untrustworthiness, I decided to check out what all the fuss was about. I took the money I had saved from babysitting and mowing lawns (how Bob Dylan would sneer at that), and during the next year or so I bought the entire back catalogue, starting with 1961’s Bob Dylan, and continuing right on up through New Morning, the most current album at the time.

Over the course of the next five or six years, through high school and well into college, those dozen albums were my constant companions. By that time Bob Dylan had already gone through four or five transformations, from Woody Guthrie acolyte and singer of traditional folk songs to writer of transcendent protest music to creator of surrealistic, hallucinogenic rock ‘n roll to Americana roots music hero to country crooner. No wonder Mr. Goodman was so excited. Bob Dylan packed more music into ten years than most musicians or bands pack into a lifetime. And the songs, of course, were mind-bogglingly great. They were so quotable, so full of memorable aphorisms, and even when they made no sense on a cognitive level, they still spoke to something in the deep, unfathomable psyche:

Inside the museums infinity goes up on trial
Voices echo this is what salvation will be like after a while.

God only knew what that meant. Actually, God was probably confused, too. But it still rattled around in the brain and burrowed down into the nooks and crannies where the best poetry resides, finding connections to our unspoken longings and inarticulate groanings. Mr. Goodman was right to celebrate this man’s birthday.

But he was wrong about one thing. It turned out that you never could trust Bob Dylan, and turning thirty had nothing to do with it. From the very beginning Dylan created his own myth, defined himself on his own terms, invented a back story out of whole cloth that included riding the rails and working as a cowboy in Gallup, New Mexico. None of it was true, even if it revealed some truths. Hibbing, Minnesota’s Robert Zimmerman would have never become a rock star poet. Bob Dylan fit the part just fine.

He has kept at it, of course, for forty-five years now. During that time he’s released his share of insipid music. The Poet of the Sixties has managed to rhyme “moon” and “June” and “spoon” not once, but several times. He’s had albums – hell, he’s had multi-year stretches – where he’s just phoned it in, not even really tried. The voice, always an acquired taste, has now taken on the gruff timbre of a Delta bluesman, and he doesn’t so much sing now as chant querulously. And yet there is this astounding fact: he’s still capable of dropping a stone cold masterpiece at any time. Every time I’ve been ready to write him off, he’s come back with music so powerful, so majestic, that I shake my head in wonder.

They called him the Voice of a Generation, but they were wrong. He’s the voice of multiple generations, and he keeps on talking, and if we’re smart, we’ll keep on listening. His last studio album, Love and Theft, was released on September 11th, 2001, a day when terrorists were crashing airplanes into tall buildings.

Your days are numbered
And so are mine

He told us that in one of the songs released that day, and if we had any lingering doubts, they were dispelled in the plumes of smoke rising from Ground Zero. He’s always spoken the hard truths, the eternal verities that we don’t want to hear but need to hear. And the astonishing truth, almost a half century down the line, is that he may very well be the Poet of the Oughties too.

How does it feel to be on your own, with no direction home?

He asked us that forty years ago. You would know, Bob. You tell us. There is a part of me that pities him as much as loves him and is astonished by him and is confounded by him. The Never Ending Tour has now been alighting at a city near you since the late ‘80s. This is the price of being Bob Dylan. You wander the earth, and you never stop long enough to leave the fingerprints of human connection. You connect through your music. And whoever he is – this mystery man, this mythical hobo now transformed into the real deal – he will not go easily or quietly. Don’t think twice about it, Bob. It’s all right. We wouldn’t want you any other way.

So does anybody know what day this is? It’s Bob Dylan’s birthday. Bob Dylan is 65 years old today. He’s now officially a part of the world that can collect a Social Security check. But don’t look for it to happen anytime soon.

Gregorian B.C.

I know nothing about this guy, other than the fact that he has a sword, and he says, in his press release, "Having taken electric guitar as far as it could go, I became enamored of Flamenco guitar while in search of a higher, different classical art to incorporate into rock.”

This is, by the way, his debut album, so you'll have to take that whole "transcending the electric guitar thing" on faith since it is now in the distant, unrecorded past. But look, he has a sword, and he kinda looks like Aragorn, so he's probably good. He has a song on his album called "The Clock of Time," which is really kind of deep, if you think about it. He is a Rock/Flamenco warrior, possibly with a rapier wit, but certainly with a rapier. You don't want to mess with him. Buy the album.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Rachel From Russia, With Love

That's my kid (front row, center, in the purple) about a week ago in St. Petersburg, Russia. College life sure ain't what it used to be.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Band of Horses -- Infinite Arms

Band of Horses' first two albums found the perfect balance between Neil Young/Crazy Horse stoner rock and some of the more spastic guitar heroics of indie stalwarts Dinosaur Jr. and Built to Spill.

So now it's time for Album #3, and Ben Bridwell and company travel back in time to a slightly earlier era, the era of ... America, Bread, and Seals and Crofts. Oh my. Baby, I'm-a want you to go away. All over again.

Infinite Arms is certainly a pleasant-sounding album, all gentle coos and gently strummed guitars, but the new focus on pop hooks, slick, all-the-edges-smoothed-over production, and Laurel Canyon harmonies doesn't exactly bode well for impatient hipsters looking for ways to distance themselves from dad rock. One effect of turning the guitars way down is that one can now hear Ben Bridwell's lyrics quite clearly. Sadly, this means that some of the most dire hippie sentiments since the last Neil Young album are now trumpeted forth in disturbing clarity. "I want to take a dip in the lake," Ben sings on the country-fried "Laredo." "I'm at a crossroads with myself/I don't got no one else." It melts your heart. Lead single "Blue Beard" sounds alarmingly like The Starland Vocal Band, purveyors of harmonies so treacly sweet that they actually managed to put "the thought of rubbin' you is getting so exciting" across on AM radio in a very different, much more conservative era. And while Bridwell remains an impressive singer, stacking his multi-tracked harmonies higher and higher, these songs remain glittering, sugary monuments to Air. Or Bread. Or America. A horse with no name, anyone? Another album like this, and Bridwell and company are there.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Hipsters Through the Ages

Photo courtesy of

The hipster discussion continues over at Arts & Faith (link above and to the right, if you're interested in following along). Lately the conversation has turned to the role of advertising/marketing in creating hipster culture, both inside and outside the Church. It's a worthwhile discussion, and you might like it.

For what it's worth, although I think manufactured rebellion is part of the equation, I'm not sure it's the most important consideration in understanding hipsters or hipster churches. What about good, old-fashioned aesthetic excellence? How does that factor in?

As one who is now witnessing his second generation of Christian hipsters (we called the first wave "Jesus Freaks"), I see a lot of the same patterns at work that I saw in the '70s. On a superficial level, the Jesus Freaks were all about rebellion; rebellion against staid, traditional church models and all the trappings those models entailed. But they created their own conformity just the same, and fairly quickly at that, as evidenced by the early CCM heroes, the "hip" Christian authors they followed at the time (Francis Schaeffer, Ron Sider), and the fashions they wore (peasant dresses for the sisters, flannel shirts for the bros, with matching hair down to the middle of the back). It is always this way. The hip becomes unhip all too quickly. And the next wave reacts to the unhipness.

As a proud former hipster still desperately clinging to the vestiges of cool (I'm kidding. Right?), I hated the conformity, even in the Jesus Freak '70s. I worked at a Christian bookstore for several of those years, and I would try not to wince whenever somebody brought a Honeytree album or a Hannah Hurnard book to the cash register. What I would say was, "That'll be $5.99." But what I wanted to say was, "Good sister, why do you support that which sucks? Praise God.{1}" Looking back on it, this reaction had little to do with what was hip/cool (God forbid that Hannah Hurnard should ever be considered cool, but, in fact, she was for a short, deluded time), and a lot more to do with perceived artistic excellence. I saw a lot of kitsch in the traditional Church. I saw a lot of kitsch in Jesus Freakdom, even though it was marketed under the rubric of countercultural non-conformity. And I didn't like any of it.

There are some crucial differences in this new generation of Christian hipsters. They have, for the most part, rejected the idea of an alternative Christian culture. I don't know anyone in my current church who gives a rip about CCM, although most of them are huge music fans. They tend be more holistic human beings than the Jesus Freaks, and place much less emphais on "soul winning" and a lot more emphasis on caring for the planet and for the people who live on it. They are far more focused on issues and local activism and far less inclined to believe that solutions can come from elected officials. They are highly attuned to emotional and spiritual manipulation, and they are deeply distrustful of major media figures everywhere unless they are named Bono. They have a healthy understanding of and appreciation for irony, a talent that for many years I believed was supernaturally removed upon Christian conversion. In general, I think these are positive changes. I sometimes fear for their ability to earn a living, but that's not really a fear limited to hipsters these days. They care passionately about art, which makes me extremely happy. Some of what defines them is the usual reaction to what has come before, and a desire to claim their own heroes. But the tendency isn't nearly as pronounced as it used to be. I'm not sure what kind of cultural "rebellion" is going on when some hip twentysomething claims to love Frank Sinatra, Jimi Hendrix, and Animal Collective, but I'll take it. And that makes me think that the non-conformity angle has been overplayed.

[1} In this same store I tried to convince the owner that George Thorogood's "Bad to the Bone" was a commentary on total depravity, and that his Calvinist customers would love it. He didn't buy it.

Janelle Monae - The ArchAndroid

Apparently the Album of the Year coronation is a foregone conclusion. Don't believe me? This is the highest-rated album on metacritic in several years.

I'll begin by stating that I'm the wrong person to be commenting about this album. I'm simply not a fan of groove-oriented R&B, at least as it's been practiced since, oh, the dawn of disco. But I'll qualify that by noting that I am nevertheless extremely impressed by the ambition of Janelle Monae and her full-length debut. The ArchAndroid is huge in every way, from its epic length, to its ridiculously absurd sci-fi concept (Ziggy Stardust as funk robot from the 28th century), to its utter mastery of genres as seemingly disparate as classical, hip-hop, prog rock, doo-wop, and heavy metal. I just wish I had more love for dance-oriented music. As it stands, my guess is that this is as jaw-droppingly creative as it ever gets.

And I'll end the comments by noting that Of Montreal has to be the most annoying band on the planet, or traveling the intergalactic spaceways, for that matter. Their "collaboration" mars might what otherwise be a perfect album.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Horse Feathers -- Thistled Spring

This is very fine chamber-folk music.
The debut Horse Feathers album Words Are Dead had it all wrong because it was all about the words, and not enough about the musical accompaniment, which was so spartan as to seem almost non-existent. The second album House With No Home began to redress the balance, and this third album seems to get it just about right, putting equal emphasis on Justin Ringle's poetic, melancholy reflections and the occasionally sprightly, and almost always lush, accompaniment. Cellos, violas, and violin star here, but Ringle's acoustic guitar is a constant, and trumpet and banjo peak through occasionally. It's still a bit monochromatic, but at least it's monochromatically lovely. It's music not so much for the front porch as the front parlor, and I'm encouraged by a good band that is getting better.

The Hipster Church

There's been another fresh outbreak of Christian Hipster labeling. Are you a Christian hipster? There's only one way (remember that catchy slogan, kids? No, probably not.) to find out. The last time this happened, I erupted in a longwinded diatribe. I'll try to be more concise this time.

The thing that I find most distasteful about the whole "Christian hipster" angle, whether it is presented seriously, or somewhat flippantly, as in the quiz that is hyperlinked above, is that it ignores the fact that there are broken human beings out there who desperately want to be made whole by God, and who have tried the traditional models of Christianity over and over again, and found them, and themselves, wanting. What do you do, and where do you go, when you can't embrace Catholicism or Orthodoxy for various theological and/or cultural reasons, when mainline Protestant denominations have imploded upon themselves in never-ending infighting that has entirely lost the storyline, and when Evangelicalism seems more and more alien, dominated by political discourse and bizarre cultural demarcations that have less and less to do with following Jesus every year?

I'm sure there is some element of homogeneity in these emergent/hip churches, or whatever other people want to call them, just as there is in any church or denomination. And maybe that looks like a bunch of pasty white beardos sitting around listening to Sufjan Stevens. But I also know that it's not about being "hip," or any other commodification and branding of the Christian faith. It's about a lifeline, and it's about life. I cordially hate the labels because they utterly miss the point.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Black Keys -- Brothers

I'm conflicted on this one. There's a great, great ten-song album here. Unfortunately, Brothers contains fifteen songs. I like the straightahead blues and garage rock tunes. It's what The Black Keys do best, and this is a nice return to form after the willful detours of the past couple years. I even like the glam moves, a la T. Rex. But the psychedelic flourishes, and the ersatz Tom Jones lounge music of "The Only One" and "Too Afraid to Love You"? What's new pussycat, whoa, whoa, whoa? No, hell no. Take away the missteps and you have a fine, tight album. But as it is, it's a mess.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Male Bonding - Nothing Hurts

I have a soft spot for adolescents who like to make loud noises with guitars, and it dates back to when the slightly older and infinitely cooler Ricky Boles and his bandmates used to practice in the garage down the street from me. Ricky, like these Male Bonding kids from London, wasn't a particularly good musician. But it didn't matter. Ricky played long before "punk" became a musical marketing label, but he was a punk just the same, and he bashed out chords as fast as he could, and his drummer slammed into the choruses, pummeling his cymbals and whomping on his foot pedal to make the bass drum go boom, boom, boom, and the quiet suburban idyll of Gahanna, Ohio was utterly shattered, transformed into the Hollywood Bowl, or wherever else Ricky and his teenaged fantasies took him.

Male Bonding sounds a lot like Ricky Boles did. Too murky and feedback-laden to be considered power pop, too hook-filled to be considered pure punk, they occupy the middle ground where garage bands have flourished for fifty years. There's a little bit of the early Who here, a little bit of the late '80s/early '90s slacker guitar heroes J. Mascis and Kevin Shields, a little bit of the lo-fi Kiwi pop of the early Flying Nun records, a whole lot of Kurt Cobain. There are thirteen songs on Nothing Hurts, the debut album, and they dispatch them all in about half an hour. They bleed into one another, as if that hyperactive drummer can't stand to be still for a second. The vocals are buried so deep in the mix that it's impossible to tell what lead singer/songwriter John Arthur Webb has on his mind, but it probably doesn't matter. He has the Hollywood Bowl on his mind, or, more likely, The Cavern Club, or any number of other legendary, dingy basements where rock 'n roll history is made. This is a fabulous debut, the kind of jolt that ought to scare all the pasty-faced kids in their bedroom studios, just as it always has.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Those Yarragh Moments

Rock critic Greil Marcus has a new book called When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison. True to its title, it's a book that is not so much about Van Morrison as it is about a fanboy geek and articulate journalist who spends a lot of time listening to Van Morrison. I find a kindred spirit there. I spend a lot of time listening to Van Morrison, too. More than any other singer, Van can jolt me to life, reinvigorate an ordinary, plodding day when nothing exceptional is happening, and remind me that all of it, every crawling second of it, matters. It's the sound of the yarragh -- a cry of the heart, a haunting and haunted sound that can be found in Celtic (and particularly Irish) song and poetry. It's sorrow and lamentation for what has been lost, and for centuries of foreign oppression. It's anger and self-righteousnessness, a loud and belligerent cry that insists on the inherent dignity and worth of a people. In short, it's soul, but soul with a particularly nationalistic fervor. And Van Morrison has it in spades.

This is the way Marcus puts it:

"Van Morrison's music, as I hear it, holds a story - a story made of fragments. There is in his music from the very first a kind of quest: for the moment when the magic word, riff, note or chord is found and everything is transformed. At any time a listener might think he or she has felt it, even glimpsed it, a realm beyond ordinary expression, reaching out as if to close your hand around such a moment, to grab for its air, then opening your fist to find a butterfly in it."

That's an apt description of some -- but by no means all -- of the music of Van Morrison. For all intents and purposes, he's been invisible to most music fans since 1975 or so, ever since he stopped trying to make hit records, or the whims of popular taste contributed to his popular decline, take your pick. But Van Morrison is an automatic purchase for me because, like Dylan, he can turn out all manner of perfunctory, insipid music, and then, out of nowhere, drop an absolute masterpiece. Marcus' book title is a case in point. It's taken from a Morrison song that appeared on an early '90s Van album called The Healing Game. Virtually no one bought the album. It's a mediocre album, as Van's later efforts tend to be, and yet it contains one of his greatest, most hair-raising songs. "Rough God Goes Riding" is a true yarragh moment, one of those incandescent times when Van moves from professional R&B singer to someone who channels angels and demons. There are very few singers in any genre who can do this. I'm fairly certain Van can't conjure it at will, and I'm equally certain that the vast majority of singers can't even approach the celestial heights. But when he nails it, as he does on that song, he is the greatest, most soulful singer that rock 'n roll has ever produced. Too much of it and I start levitating up near the ceiling. And then my wife calls me down and tells me it's time for dinner. You don't want to overdo it.

As a footnote, I think it's also worth noting that Van, like Dylan and Springsteen, is also capable of leaving masterpieces in the can, unreleased for decades. His 1998 compilation The Philosopher's Stone, a 2-CD set of previously unreleased outtakes and throwaways from the '70s, contains another yarragh moment, the gorgeous "Contemplation Rose." Whenever someone asks me what the big deal is about Van Morrison, I alternate between playing "Listen to the Lion" and "Contemplation Rose." Then I sit back and wait for the mouths to gape open.

Monday, May 10, 2010


Apparently I won fifth place in the Critical Review category at last week's Evangelical Press Association awards banquet, for my Christianity Today review of U2's album No Line on the Horizon. This is nice and all, but I missed out on the all-expenses-paid trip to Wheaton, or wherever the banquet was held. I'm not totally convinced that I'm an Evangelical, but it's still a nice honor. Thanks CT, and evangelicals throughout the western Chicago suburbs.

Friday, May 07, 2010


Nomenclature, at the Image Journal blog.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Mumford and Sons

Suddenly two thirds of the people I know are full of boundless praise for Mumford and Sons. It's okay with me. I like the album, and I'm always happy to find myself aligned with the tattooed kids. But I'm curious to know what happened. It seems to me that I heard this music about a year ago. And now -- as in the past month -- seemingly everyone I know has experienced a Mumford and Sons epiphany. This is a band that has indeed "gone viral" (I hate that phrase; it makes me want to throw up and/or visit a doctor), and friends are telling friends who are telling friends about this "great new band."

Does anyone know what might have happened? Are M&S played on the radio? Castaway holding CD on Lost? I really don't know because I don't follow these things. Has anyone else seen this, or is this a phenomenon limited to hip, tattoed Christians in Ohio?

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Despair Wear

The picture says it all.

For-get-ting O-hi-o

Yes, the famous Neil Young song "Forgetting Ohio," as my sister once cluelessly called it.

So, it's been forty years. May 4, 1970 is one of those dates, if you are of a certain age, that will always stay with you, much like 9/11 will always stay in the collective conscience of all Americans who were around to witness those horrid events.

I know, it's hard to compare the deaths of four young Americans with the deaths of thousands of people incinerated in a heinous terrorist attack. But if you identified yourself with those kids who were protesting the Vietnam War on the Kent State University campus, as most of us did at the time, it was nothing less than butchery. Gotta get down to it, soldiers are cutting us down.

I was a high school freshman. I wasn't protesting anything, unless it was my God-given right to wear the shirts I wanted to wear. Up against the wall, mother. But I remember being stunned by the news. Apparently free speech could get you killed. Half the U.S. college campuses closed early that spring. They just shut down and sent everybody home. That's because they would have burned down if the students had remained. I don't recall an entire generation so united, or so enraged.

There was nothing pretty about it. The response of the ROTC on the Kent State campus was ugly. The response of the students around the U.S. was ugly. I would like to think that we've learned -- all of us -- from that experience. I hope so. My daughter, who graduated from Kent this time about a year ago, tells me that none of the current students care about May 4th, 1970. It's ancient history. So maybe that's all the more reason to drag out those archival photos again, and to look at what it was like. Some of us remember. Others need to look for the first time. All of us need to look.