Monday, February 28, 2011

Suze Rotolo

R.I.P. Suze Rotolo, whose lovely visage appears next to the Voice of a Generation on one of the most iconic album covers ever.

Bob Dylan wrote a lot about Suze Rotolo, although true to his inscrutable ways, he never referred to her by name. But she's the subject of "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright" and "Ballad in Plain D" and "Boots of Spanish Leather." She got him thinking about politics and social justice, and we all know where that led.

The relationship was short-lived and tumultuous. Dylan moved on, as he is wont to do, and Suze moved on too, marrying, having children, working as a teacher and artist in her lifelong home of New York City. Those are fifty years that are best known to her family, as perhaps they should be. Alas, sometimes people are best known for a brief, shining moment -- a snapshot. Sometimes literally a snapshot.

I hope and pray that the long decades that followed were full of deep, meaningful moments. But for most of us she will always be eighteen years old, young and in love.

Leaving the Plastic Suburbs

When Kate and I moved to our current Westerville, Ohio home in 1999, we had no intention of staying long-term. We had moved from Westerville to the supposed smalltown idyll of Mount Vernon, Ohio with the thought of escaping plastic suburbia. But the smalltown idyll had turned out to be a lethal mixture of insular small-mindedness and my obstinate tendency to be an opinionated, loudmouthed asshole, and it was not a good fit. We moved back to Westerville out of self-defense. It wasn’t ideal, it wasn’t what we really wanted, but it was what we could afford. Our kids were still young, and the schools were solid, and the neighborhoods were safe, and in the interim it was a pretty enough place. We lived a couple hundred yards from a reservoir, where sailboats sailed and regattas regattad, or whatever they did when those crazy long boats raced one another. We lived a half mile away from a metro park that looked like the gardens of Versailles, or at least the stolid Midwest equivalent, and the formal hedgerow mazes and prim, ordered rose bowers and Zen rock gardens were a welcome sight after a hard day in the wilds of corporate America. It was still plastic suburbia, but maybe we could make a stand for a little while.

A funny thing happened in the intervening twelve years. I came to love Westerville, Ohio. There are many reasons for this. I figured out that people are mostly the same all over, and that they are no more shallow or money-grubbing or self-serving in a suburban tract home than they are in a charming Victorian manse. I dealt, finally, with the addictions that contributed mightily to the manifold emotional and spiritual disconnects in my life. And I surrendered, really, kinda, although I have to remind myself to fly the white flag of dependence pretty much on an hourly basis. What can I say? I am a slow learner. Thirty years after praying the Sinner’s Prayer, I finally gave up, and figured out that following God meant a lot more than believing the right things, and that it had a lot more to do with being kinder, and less self-serving, and caring for and about others. I watched friends and neighbors, those faceless suburban mannequins I previously would have dismissed without a second thought in my hubris and haughtiness, struggle with pain and sorrow and unexplained and unexplainable tragedy. And, at least on my better days, I hurt for them. I would like to think that I became less of an asshole.

All that happened in Westerville, Ohio: plastic suburbia. And now we’re leaving it behind. Our kids are grown. We don’t need, and don’t want, a 4-bedroom, 2.5-bath, two-car-attached-garage kind of existence. The need to make a stand, or at least that kind of stand, is past.

We would like to live in the middle of Columbus, Ohio. Urban life. Traffic congestion. Crime. Bring it on. At a time when many of my colleagues and friends and relatives are considering retirement, planning for the good life, Kate and I are pondering a different kind of good life. Our church is in the middle of the city, and we like and love those folks, and we want to be with them. I don’t mean to make this more noble than it is. I intend no judgment toward those who have chosen a different path, and I don’t think I’m under any delusions that this will be an easy or a natural transition. I suspect it will be difficult and challenging. But I also believe that this is what we’re called to do. I’m excited by the prospects. We’ve wanted to do this for a while. Kate and I are in absolute agreement about this. And now it’s time.

But I’ll miss Westerville, Ohio. This is something I could not have even remotely fathomed ten years ago. It turned out that there were no plastic people here. There were just people, and they were as exasperatingly disconnected and as vulnerable and significant and lovable in Westerville as they are anywhere else. They mattered. They will go on mattering, and I’m thankful for them.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Builders and the Butchers - Dead Reckoning

My review of the new The Builders and the Butchers album Dead Reckoning is now up on the Paste website. For those who like Flannery O'Connor and their folk music rough and ragged, this is a good way to go.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Heading Down the Mountain

Musician friends, make sure you promote your concerts and sell plenty of T-shirts. Nobody buys music anymore.
(H/T to Michael McClune)

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Loving the Church

So, I wrote an article about Mavis Staples, one of the most amazing human beings I've ever encountered. This is a woman who oozes compassion, who has been instrumental in bringing about needed social change in the Civil Rights movement, and who treated me with nothing but kindness and respect during our recent conversation. You know what people who comment on the article want to talk about? How Mavis was flirting with an interviewer during Sunday's Grammy Awards.

Why, oh why, must Christians be such judgmental assholes? I know, I'm doing it too, right now. But you know what? Sometimes Christians are judgmental assholes. I'd like to slap some of them. If they turn the other cheek, I'll slap that one, too. Then I'll repent. But not until I get in two good slaps.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Mavis 'n Me

My interview with/feature article on Gospel great Mavis Staples is now up on the Christianity Today website.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Mickey Newbury

This news makes me very happy. Mickey Newbury's classic trio of albums from the early '70s, long out of print, are about to be reissued. Newbury was a Nashville outsider long before the days of Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, etc. He didn't cultivate an outlaw image. He just wrote devastating songs about the downtrodden and the losers, and his album Looks Like Rain (one of the three about to be reissued) hit me right in my adolescent gut. His songs were unspeakably sad; little vignettes of lives unraveling in cheap motel rooms, lonely people sitting by themselves watching a phone not ring. It's no wonder Music City didn't know what to do with him. This wasn't glitzy Nashville heartbreak. This was the real, 3:00-a.m.-staring-at-the-ceiling deal.

Check out these albums and discover a songwriter's songwriter.



Mickey Newbury. The name may not be familiar to everyone, but the songs and the performers they are associated with should be: “An American Trilogy,” (Elvis Presley) “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),” (Kenny Rogers and the First Edition) “She Even Woke Me Up To Say Goodbye,” (Jerry Lee Lewis), “Funny, Familiar, Forgotten Feelings,” (Tom Jones) are just a few of the songs in the Newbury catalog.

He was a songwriter’s songwriter at the dawning of the era of the singer-songwriter, yet he was also an unknown name on the Billboard charts. His early success writing in Nashville and his selfless and relentless championing of his friends and contemporaries paved the way for Kris Kristofferson, Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark and David Allen Coe. Newbury songs have, to date, been recorded over 1300 times by more than 1000 performers including Johnny Cash, Scott Walker, Ray Charles, Joan Baez, Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette, the Box Tops, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and Nick Cave. He is the only songwriter ever to have number one hits (with different songs) in the pop, country, R&B and easy listening charts within the space of one year (and three of those songs were in the charts simultaneously!). But Mickey Newbury himself was by far the best interpreter of his own songs.

A visionary album in the vein of Love’s Forever Changes and Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, Looks Like Rain immerses the listener into a vividly-painted emotional landscape of heartbreak, madness and despair tracked by the sound of wind chimes and rain. Mickey followed this masterpiece with another, 1970’s ‘Frisco Mabel Joy—recently voted number 6 in an Uncut reader’s poll of the 50 greatest ‘lost’ albums. Here he broadened the palette, incorporating the sound of the Nash philharmonic, an ‘orchestra’ consisting of electric and steel guitars, to produce what Mojo described as “an hallucinatory suite of sad, soulful songs”. The cycle of Cinderella Sound albums ended in 1973 with a third epic, Heaven Help The Child, by which time Mickey’s increasing confidence in the studio was clear and he had definitively laid out his stall as a recording artist.

Grammy winning engineer Steve Rosenthal and mastering engineer Jessica Thompson have restored the original analog master tapes believed for many years to have been destroyed in a fire but recently re-discovered in the Elektra records vault and created stunning new remasters of each album specifically for this release, making this the first ever CD issue of these landmark albums using the original tapes.

An American Trilogy provides a rich and compelling trip to the deep space of Mickey Newbury, one of the most extraordinary and unique artists in American popular music.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Monday, February 07, 2011

Over the Rhine -- The Long Surrender

My review of the new Over the Rhine album The Long Surrender at Paste Magazine.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

The Winter of Twee

Other than a few recent albums I’ve had to review, I’ve been blissfully unaware of newly released music for the past few months. That’s because I’ve been caught up in exploring the musical genre that goes by the unfortunate name of Twee. The dictionary defines the term as “affectedly or excessively dainty, delicate, cute, or quaint.” Yep, it is that. Supremely catchy, too.

A Pitchfork article describes the label’s application to music as follows:

For their musical cues, they looked to the quaintest, least-cool roots of youth-culture music: girl-groups, 1960s guitar jangle, bubblegum chirp, rainy-day balladry. Their lyrics toed the lines between schoolboy earnestness and arch, bratty simplicity. Their guitar playing revolved around elementary chord strumming, and their production ranged from no-frills to downright primitive. Their performances were so amateurish that the word "shambling"-- as in "shambling along"-- became one name for the scene. Their fashion sense was deliberately plain, like children dressed by their mothers: stripy shirts, librarian skirts, and enough anoraks (parkas) to make that word a genre name. Their gender politics weren't just egalitarian: If anything, they celebrated the girly and the sweet, so much so that the word "twee"-- pronounced the way a baby might say "sweet," and meaning cloying, or overly precious-- became the biggest insult leveled at them.

So, there you go; music for nerds, dweebs, and nebishes. Sign me up.

The truth is, I had already been sorta signed up for a while. The best-known exponents of the genre – UK and Scandinavian dweebs Belle and Sebastian, Camera Obscura, Kings of Convenience, and The Clientele – were already well known to me. They were bookish, a little shy and socially awkward, and supremely melodic, traits that serve bookish music fans perfectly well. But I had never really explored the genre in depth.

That all changed with an album that showed up in my mailbox in the fall, the debut release from Allo Darlin. Allo Darlin was the brainchild of a London-by-way-of-Australia waif named Elizabeth Morris. She and her band sounded like a Cockney version of The Shangri-Las or The Ronettes, and wrote songs that managed to quote Weezer, Johnny Cash, and Doris Day and still sound utterly fresh in their quirky specificity. One song recounted how she fell in love with her boyfriend while making chili. It was the kind of homespun detail that just sounded right, like something that might actually happen in the usual extraordinary life. The songs had breezy melodies, witty lyrics, chiming guitars, and a serious backbeat, and they were all about being young, full of life, and in love with music. Plus, they rhymed "platonic" and "gin and tonic" while the guitars played the riff from Van Morrison's "Brown Eyed Girl.” I was sold.

A little Internet research revealed that Elizabeth Morris was also in a band called Tender Trap, a throwback name to the ring-a-ding ‘50s, but a full decade ahead of that reference point in their sound. Again, Phil Spector’s girl groups were the touchstone, but this time Elizabeth was content to play guitar. The vocals were handled by one Amelia Fletcher. And who was this Amelia Fletcher? It was Internet research time again. Oh, my God. Or, more correctly, Oh, my gosh.

Amelia Fletcher, it turned out, was merely the godmother of Twee. A quarter century, three band name changes, and a dozen albums later, she was now fronting Tender Trap. But what had come before was mind boggling.

Let’s start with Talulah Gosh, since that’s where it all starts. The only album you’ll find, and the only album you’ll need, is Backwash, which compiles the only 25 songs the band recorded. It’s a masterpiece, front to back, a 5-star album that effortlessly captures the appeal of the entire genre: manic, jangly guitars, sweet girl group harmonies, and songs about falling in love. There’s an appealing, to-hell-with-it amateur patina over the whole enterprise. It sounds like, and probably is, the product of smart kids who love music and who never thought that their garage band bashing and chiming would go anywhere.

Amelia’s ensuing bands – Heavenly, Marine Research, and Tender Trap – merely continue the tradition, albeit in slightly more polished, better produced ways. Nearly all of the dozen albums are great. I would guess that two-thirds of my listening time over the past three months has been taken up with this music. I don’t regret a second of it. I would vote for Amelia Fletcher as Empress of the Universe.

But I should note a few of the other notable discoveries of the Winter of ’11. There is, of course, an American counterpart to the sound, and the primary exponent is one Rose Melberg. Rose’s earlier bands – Tiger Trap (not to be confused with Tender Trap), Gaze, and The Softies – pick up where Talulah Gosh left off.

An outlier, Wales’ The School, released a superb Twee album called Loveless Unbeliever last summer. I’m late to the party, but it’s wonderful.

Australia’s The Lucksmiths make consistently great guitar-based pop music that might be Twee, and might be merely R.E.M.- and Go Betweens-influenced jangle. Whatever it is, you’ll find ten or so soft rock/jangle/precious albums that feature one exquisitely crafted pop song after another.

And Columbus, Ohio’s own Super Desserts are a worthy addition to the party, making idiosyncratic, chirping music that owes as much to Sufjan Stevens as it does to Belle and Sebastian on their album Twee as Folk.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Icepocalypse Playlist

Ice Age – Birdmonster
Back Street Slide – Richard and Linda Thompson
Always Crashing in the Same Car – David Bowie
Ice on the Wing – Nada Surf
Jesus I’m Freezing – Garageland
Icebound Stream – Laura Veirs
Slip Slidin’ Away – Paul Simon
Buried in Ice – The Felice Brothers
Assume Crash Position – Konono No. 1
In This Home On Ice – Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
Kingdom of Ice – Woven Hand
Hockey Skates – Kathleen Edwards
Skating Away on the Thin Ice of the New Day – Jethro Tull
A Cold Freezin’ Night – The Books
If the World Should End in Ice – The Handsome Family