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
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?


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