Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Used Kids Records, Pt. 1

I should know better than to venture down to Used Kids Records on the Ohio State campus with a credit card and an urge to explore. So now I’m slowly making my way through a pile of new music purchased over the weekend. I blame it all on my brother-in-law Bill, who goaded me into spending more money than I should have. I am so weak-minded. I now know how Kate feels when she hauls home those 55-gallon barrels of shampoo and the like from Sam’s Club. These great deals can cost a lot of money.

Here is what I think of the first few.

Sandy Denny – The North Star Grassman and the Ravens

Sandy Denny is my favorite tragedy, if such a term isn't an oxymoron. She was the lead singer of a band called Fairport Convention in the late sixties, the first group to merge the traditional folk songs of the British Isles, many of them hundreds of years old, with electric guitars and a backbeat. And she had a voice for the ages, possessing the kind of haunted soulfulness that everybody admired. That's her singing on Led Zeppelin's "Battle of Evermore."

But she was notoriously hard to relate to, and before she died at the ripe old age of 31 from falling down the stairs in a drunken stupor, her volatile temper and drinking and drugging ways impeded her ability to keep a band together. She left The Strawbs, then Fairport Convention, then Fotheringay, and then struck out on her own, all in the space of three years. This album, her solo debut from 1971, is prototypical Sandy Denny – a Dylan cover, a traditional English folk song, and a strong batch of originals heavily influenced by her Trad background. Intrusive strings mar a couple of the originals, but the marvelous voice, possessed of a miles-deep sorrow and smoky soulfulness, is strong and sure here. The constant in the last three lineups is one Richard Thompson, whose guitar and vocals add to this solo effort considerably.

Michael Penn – Mr. Hollywood Jr., 1947

Michael is the shy, retiring member of the Penn family. Brothers Sean and Chris went into acting. Michael made music, hid behind his infrequent studio recordings, and very rarely toured. Don’t tell anybody, but he may be the most talented of the bunch, and that’s taking nothing away from Sean or Chris. He’s a superb songwriter who has an effortless melodic gift, and here he fashions a genuine concept album based on life in post-World-War-II Los Angeles. If Raymond Chandler made rock ‘n roll, it might sound like this. Michael really likes The Byrds and The Beatles, and you can hear it most plainly in the chiming, descending guitar lines. That’s okay. I do too. Otherwise, he wraps his sadsack sentiments in disarmingly lilting melodies, and you find yourself singing merrily along to sweet little ditties about busted relationships and broken dreams. He continues to go his iconoclastic way, making one excellent, under recognized album after another.

Propagandhi – How to Clean Everything

The F bomb appears approximately 247 times on this album. Since the album itself is a short 33 minutes in length, that means that we, the happy listeners, are treated to a profane tantrum about once every eight seconds. But it varies. On sweetly tender ballads such as “Stick the Fucking Flag Up Your Goddamn Ass, You Sonofabitch,” the ratio is closer to once every two seconds. I bought this album because John Samson, the lead singer/songwriter, went on to form The Weakerthans, an honest-to-God literate, intelligent, compassionate, and even poetic punk band. But this 1994 album only shows how much he’s matured. Here he is pissed off about everything – politics (“Anti-Manifesto”), the corporate business world (“Middle Finger Response”), ex-girlfriends (“Fuck Machine”), ska (“Ska Sucks”), Bob Marley and reggae (“Haillie Sallassie, Up Your Ass”), even the Canadian winters. Maybe growing up in Winnipeg will do that to you. He seems like a much more contented and intelligent man these days, although I will confess that my inner immature brat genuinely likes the pure bile and unfeigned loathing of these very loud, very crass songs.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Paste's Top 100 Living Songwriters List

Various Internet music groups are abuzz over Paste's latest issue, which presumes to rank the Top 100 living songwriters. Most common comments: Where is John Lennon/Kurt Cobain/Johnny Cash? See, Paste, I told you that people would miss that little "living" disclaimer on the cover.

My favorite comment was from the guy who complained that the magazine has a bias against guys named Barry, noting that both Barry Gibb and Barry Manilow were missing from the list. It's true. Also Barry White and Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler. Where is the Barry love?

Friday, May 26, 2006

iPod/iTunes Questions

Okay, surely someone out there in my vast readership (Hi, Karl) uses iTunes on a Windows machine (XP), and has encountered these issues and has some words of wisdom for me.

The hard drive on my PC got filled up with music. So I bought an external 250GB hard drive and moved what I thought were all my music files to the new external hard drive.

But ... a lot of the music files disappeared. Stupidly, I deleted the files on the c: (PC) drive before I checked to make sure they were all there on the new external drive. They're gone from my PC. Many of them are gone from the external hard drive. But ... they're on my iPod. So here's my first question.

1) How do I create a new iTunes library based on what is currently on my iPod? Usually the transfer goes from iTunes --> iPod, and plugging in the cables from PC to iPod automatically starts this process. But I want it go the other way: iPod --> iTunes so I can re-create the music library that was lost/corrupted. How do I make that happen?

And a related question:

2) It appears that iTunes automatically looks for music folders on the c: drive -- specifically in the directory structure c://My Documents/My Music/iTunes/Library. But I want iTunes to reside on my new external hard drive (drive f: in this case). I can find no way within the iTunes application to change the location of where the music library resides. How do I do this? Somebody please tell me that I can do this. Otherwise, moving the files to an external drive is pointless.


Thursday, May 25, 2006


I have seen the future, and its name is Birdmonster. Granted, the future has a cheesy name and conjures up memories of bad Godzilla movies, but still ...

This (No Midnight) is the best debut album I've heard this year. Better than Gnarls Barkley, which is very good. Better than The Raconteurs (technically a debut, even though these guys play in much better known bands), which is very good. This is your basic post-punk/New New Wave album, obviously heavily influenced by The Strokes and Interpol, but with cellos and banjos and accordions, and an unhinged singer who sounds like Win Butler from Arcade Fire. And absolutely killer songs and loud, loud guitars. It's the best rock 'n roll I've heard in ages. Try it. You'll like it.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Dylan at 65

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 1962’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 nine 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.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The Sweetest Time

My friend Don has been a widower for four weeks now. A lot of the bustle that surrounds death – the funeral homes and memorial services, the out-of-town relatives who overstay their welcome, the meetings with lawyers to sort out wills and estates, the steady stream of well-intentioned people who don’t know what to say, but who want to be kind anyway – has now settled down. Now there is only the succession of interminable days, marked by the ticking of a clock in a silent room, an empty chair where someone once sat, an empty bed.

“It will get better,” I tell him. I don’t know what to say either. I don’t know if it will get better. I hope it does.

“Do you think so?” he asks. “I’m 65 years old. I’m set in my ways. I’m a farmer with a Ph.D, a vegetarian who juices five pounds of carrots every day. I go on week-long silent retreats at monasteries, but I don’t want to be a monk. And I’m crazy about Jesus. You think there’s a steady stream of soul mates just waiting to get in line?”

“You’re funny, Don” I tell him. “I think you have a wonderful, caring heart. I think everybody who knows you knows that. And right now I think you need to walk in the dark, and trust that God is good.”

It’s not much comfort, I know. There are really no good words for someone who has recently witnessed ventilators and heart defibrillators and morphine drips, the machinery of death. All the hopes and prayers, the desperate groping for a cure, the alternative medicines, the healing services, the late-night hospital trips, the flashing siren lights – all of it has passed now. There were weeks and months and years of frenetic activity. Now there is … nothing, a sort of dreadful peace and quiet. And I look to fill the void.

“I hear Rebecca Shaw’s cancer has disappeared,” I tell him. “You remember me telling you about her? It’s a miracle. The doctors are confounded. They don’t know what to think.” Don sits in silence. No kidding. What is he supposed to say to that? Stupid. What the hell is wrong with me?

"I’m sorry, Don,” I tell him. “I don’t know what to say, and I end up saying ridiculous, insensitive things. But I’m so sorry, and I’m so saddened for you.”

We cry for a while. We sit on Don’s farmhouse porch, and watch the sun go down on an impossibly bright, green May evening. For ten minutes there is no sound but the singing of birds, the chirping of crickets, and sobs. Eventually he speaks.

“I couldn’t go to church, you know,” he says. “Not on Easter Sunday, not when my wife died the day before. I couldn’t deal with all the Alleluias and the lilies. I’ve seen enough damn flowers lately to last me for a lifetime. So I stayed home, and sat on this porch. And I watched the Easter sunrise, not because I was up early for a service, but because I couldn’t go to bed. Did you ever do that?”

“No,” I tell him.

“Well, I watched the Easter sunrise. It was glorious. Joyce and I used to sit out on this porch whenever we could, morning or evening. A lot of times she woke me up in the mornings, and I didn’t mind, because it was always spectacular. You get some spectacular sunrises and sunsets out here, up on this hill, out in the middle of nowhere. There’s nothing but you and God. And Joyce, of course. There was Joyce.”

“Sure,” I say.

“So I can’t say that I was too brokenhearted about not going to church,” Don says. “But I’m glad I saw that sunrise.”

“I’m glad you did, too,” I tell him. We sit in the gathering darkness.

“Do you know what the sweetest time was?” he asks me after a while.

“No,” I say.

“Toward the end there, the last few months, Joyce couldn’t really walk very well. She was in a wheelchair, you know. But there was an evening back in early April, before she went to the hospital for the last time, when I lifted her up from her wheelchair and carried her out onto this porch. And I turned on the radio in the living room, but we could hear it out on the porch, and we just held each other and swayed and listened to the music and watched the sunset. Just slow dancing, you know. That was the sweetest time.”

“Hold on to that,” I tell him. “I’m going to help you hold on that.”

“How are you going to do that?” he asks.

“I don’t know,” I say.

We talk softly for a while. I pray for him. I hug him, and tell him I love him, because I do. Otherwise, I mostly have the good sense to shut up. Then I drive home, a long hour-and-a-half journey through gently rolling Ohio farmlands, and I arrive to find a wife and two daughters and their friends, a place full of life and light and noise. Don sits in his living room, and listens to the ticking clock, and watches an empty chair.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Carpe Turfbuilder

Carpe diem. Seize the day. It's the mantra in Dead Poets Society. Robin Williams, the incurably romantic teacher, leads his students out into the hallowed halls of the venerable prep school, where he instructs them to examine the photographs of past generations of students on display in the trophy cases. The young men in those photographs are bright, inquisitive, confident. And very dead. “Food for worms,” Williams tell them. The implication is clear: life is short, time is valuable, suck all the marrow out of life that you can. Seize the day.

I’m still waiting for the sequel, the one where those fresh-faced high school kids are now 50 years old, settled into their corporate careers. Surely not all of those kids lived extraordinary lives. Some of them must have settled down to life in cubicles, filling out expense reports in their rumpled suits and mustard-stained ties on the redeye flight back from the sales meeting. Welcome to the banal, the monotonous, the irrelevant, and the tawdry. Just what is it you’re going to seize now, boys?

It’s a question I wrestle with fairly routinely. My pastor Jeff talks all the time about the mundane, about what we do with the ordinary, routine moments of our lives, and about how those times define who we are. I believe it. But I also know that I haven’t been pleased with how I’ve been defined by those times of late. Look up “Andy Whitman” over the last few days and you’d find a definition something like this: “Restless, discontent, critical of others, self-absorbed. Also see: jerk, prick, ass.” I have been short-tempered. I have blamed others for things that were either no one’s fault, or my own fault. I have thrown a pity party for myself (no one else came, although they were invited). And I have whined. And it’s all because of the mundane. It’s all because of a succession of routine days in which absolutely nothing of consequence has happened. I’ve risen, gone to work, returned home, done some chores, avoided some chores, escaped my family through television and music and books, and have ticked a few more days off the calendar, moved a little closer to becoming food for worms. Morbid? Who, me? But Thoreau was right. Most men lead lives of quiet desperation. Some of them even do it while alternating between life inside a cubicle and behind a fertilizer spreader.

At lunchtime I walked in a metro park with my friend Mike, and asked him about it. “You’re stuck in a cubicle, too,” I said. “And you don’t even get vacation time. You just work fifty hours per week, and then you go home to the Honey Do list. How do you stay sane?”

“Well,” he said. “I look for the small pleasures. I may not get a vacation at the beach, but every night I make myself a snack of wheat crackers and extra sharp cheddar cheese, and sometimes the taste of that cheddar cheese just seems like the most delightful thing in the world.”

I looked at him, unsure that he was speaking English. “Excuse me if sound dubious,” I told him, “but you realize that you’ve just seriously compared cheddar cheese to a vacation at the beach.”

“I know,” he said. “Sometimes when I taste that cheese, I feel like I’ve died and gone to heaven.”

“I don’t understand you sometimes,” I replied. And I don’t. But I decided to give it the old post-college try.

A few hours later I went home, and the lawn beckoned. I decided to look for the small pleasures. Carpe Turfbuilder. Seize the fertilizer. Dump it in the spreader. Set the notch to 4.5 to ensure even spreading for the late spring application. Then go forth, you not-so-young-man, and find meaning and sustenance in the mundane. Brother Lawrence could worship God by washing the dishes. You can do it by fertilizing your lawn.

I’m not sure if I really talked myself into it. I did talk myself into apologizing to my wife and kids, which was something I needed to do. I asked God to forgive me for my ongoing jerkiness. But I find that I’ve been influenced by movies like Dead Poets Society more than I would like to admit. I operate subconsciously from some place of Romantic Entitlement. Life should be full of passion and excitement. It’s the kind of dissatisfaction that causes some men my age to buy the cherry red Porsche or abscond with the secretary. I’m not going to do those things. But I understand the cavernous hole that drives that kind of desperation. It is the mundane that defines us. And it is the mundane that is so crushingly, soul-numbingly dull. So far I haven’t been able to muster up the requisite excitement for cheddar cheese. I love my wife. I love my kids. I love my friends, and I recognize that I’ve been surrounded by rich, full, deep relationships. I would be crazy not to see these things. But the dissatisfaction remains. It is the God-shaped hole. And I wish God would fill it. Fertilizer and cheese, at least at this point, don't seem to be doing the trick.

This Courtroom Ain't Big Enough For the Both of Us

Best headline ever: Snipers to Face Each Other in Courtroom. No one comes out alive.

Friday, May 19, 2006

The Hubris of Critics

This is from an online discussion. The other person's comments are in italics. Mine are in regular type. This discussion has come up before on my blog, so it seemed relevant to share it again, even though it comes from another source. It's the ongoing Hubris of Critics thread.

And Scott S., you were obviously on my mind when I wrote some of this.

Maybe this is where I get lost with many critics and awards deals -- that they see it as understood they are limiting their critique to the value of the art to connect to others, and not speaking to the value of the art between the artist and God and the artist and those few who do connect with it.

But critics are in no position to speak about the value of the art between the artist and God. It's unknown and unknowable. For the artist (or at least the Christian artist; there are plenty of artists who don't think in these terms at all) it's supremely important. But at some point artists finish their work, they glean whatever they can from the creative process and ideally grow closer to God because of the experience, and then put it out there for their audience to appreciate (or not). And at that point the idea of connection enters the discussion.

As far as "those few who do connect with it," there's no accounting for taste. Critics often do make absolute statements. But that's only because "in my opinion" is assumed to be prepended to every sentence in a review, and all the "in my opinions," if spelled out, would severely cut in to a reviewer's precious word counts. I have a good friend who loves Christian heavy metal. This is one of the great mysteries of the universe to me, up there with the nature of the Trinity and the ongoing popularity of Britney Spears. First, it's heavy metal, a cartoonish musical genre given over to bellowing and chest thumping and other Neanderthal activities. Second, it's Christian heavy metal, which means that the Neanderthals bellow Hallmark Card cliches usually found on posters with puppies and kitties. Why would anyone even bother with this? I don't know. But my friend, an otherwise sane, intelligent, compassionate, non-Neanderal, loves the stuff.

There's no accounting for taste. So I make it a point not to review heavy metal albums when I review music. It would be a disservice to the music, because there are obviously people out there who connect with it in ways that I don't. Ideally a reviewer and his or her audience are in sync. And if a reviewer knows his or her audience, and can assume a degree of knowledge and familiarity when he or she makes comparisons to similar works of art in a review, then the task is relatively easy.

I have a hard time seeing these qualifications when the language used seems to speak absolutely. I may create a work that expresses my joy of realizing some of the depth of my salvation, and have it be a very un-novel expression that doesn't connect much with anyone because it's bland and cliche and out of tune; something easily critiqued as "bad art". Something as crummy as the crayon drawings by my children over the computer monitor. But I love those, and they hold much value. I realize there's a desire (in my mind as well) to draw a big line between the crayon sketches and Michelangelo -- of course we'd never call the crayon sketches 'bad' - that's between you and your child, and besides, no one's even considering it as art ... but where on the continuum do we draw the line? Does it benefit us to try and draw the line? I've no issue with a critic who simply shares his experiences with certain works, so that if I find I'm of a similar heart than a certain critic, I can have access to additional works that speak to me that I may miss, or learn of new depths in the works I thought I knew. Going that extra step into "bad" and "good" and "best", "you win" "you lose" -- I think I always want it qualified.

A reviewer who simply used words like "bad" and "good" wouldn't be a very good reviewer, and such terms would be almost meaningless. But I don't know any reviewers who write that way.

Reviews typically involve comparisons. The reviewer identifies one or more (ideally more) works similar to the one being reviewed, and places the current work on a continuum ranging between "worst similar work" and "best similar work." Is there a subjective component to this? Sure. But it provides the readers of the review with some context. The readers, of course, are free to agree or disagree with the comparisons. If, for example, an album reviewer states "This album sounds a lot like Radiohead, and Radiohead is great," and you as the reader happen to dislike Radiohead, then you've now received enough clues to help you determine that you probably don't want to buy this album. But that doesn't make it a bad review. It just means that you disagree with the reviewer. In fact, the reviewer has provided the kind of information you need to make an informed decision about the album in question.

I just wrote a review of an album by a French band called Syd Matters. Syd Matters makes mopey folktronica -- acoustic fingerpicking and morose songwriting interspersed with ersatz strings from the synthesizer and spaceship blips and beeps. I listened to the album. I asked myself, "Do I know other musicians/bands who make music similar to this?" Sure enough, I do. Beth Orton. Beck on Mutations and Sea Change. Some early Radiohead songs. So I compared certain songs on the Syd Matters album to certain songs on those albums. Some of them compared favorably, and I said that. Some of them involved watching fairies dance in gardens, and I groaned at the unbearable tweeness of it all, so I said that. The end result, as you might expect, was a mixed review. Three stars out of five, to state it in shorthand. But that's the process I went through. It's not the absolute, categorical last word on Syd Matters. It's just my take on the album. But I'd like to think that there's value in that for those who have heard of the band, and are considering whether to buy the album.

Don't get hung up on the "absolutes" of reviews. Reviewers are paid to state opinions, and opinions often come off as dogmatic. It's up to you, as the reader, to determine whether you think the opinions are informed or not. I've been reading reviews in general, and music reviews in particular, for decades now. There are certain reviewers I've grown to trust over time. They've rarely steered me wrong, and thus I'm inclined to believe them when they state that a particular album is good or bad. Other reviewers (and, indeed, entire publications) strike me as fundamentally misguided, and I tend to ignore them. I'd just encourage you to create art, enjoy the creative process, draw closer to God through it, and seek out other works of art from people you respect and trust. It's really not any more complicated than that.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

A New Writing Gig

I'm about to sign a contract to work with All Music Guide, a wonderful Internet music resource. I check almost daily because it's an exhaustive and highly reliable database of musical information. If I'm looking for a band's biography, or trying to track down who played the theremin on some sixties psychedelic freakout, or checking a singer/songwriter's discography, or simply looking for informed opinions about a particular album, is invariably where I go. Many of my favorite music critics already reside there, and I'm honored to be in their midst. I'll be writing as many reviews of new albums as the fulltime job, Paste, and other commitments permit.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Scott H. Biram, Jethro Tull, Greg Graffin, T Bone Burnett, Arcade Fire

My music listening patterns typically involve seeking out new music, returning to old favorites, and circling back to revisit music that didn’t receive the proper time and attention on the first pass through. And I’ve been doing a little of all of the above recently.

Scott H. Biram – Graveyard Shift

Biram takes the White Stripes/Black Keys minimalist approach and does it one better. He’s a one-man band, but he raises such an unholy racket that you’d swear you’re listening to a roomful of garage band incompetents. And I mean incompetents in the best sense of that term. Biram is surely no virtuoso anything – he can’t sing, and he can barely play the guitar – but there’s a primal energy about his three chords distorted through a stack of Marshall amps, and he has the kind of untamed howl and unrefined power that reminds me of blues minimalists like Hound Dog Taylor and John Lee Hooker. But the blues influence is only part of the story. Biram also has a convincing Hank Williams high lonesome tenor that he employs to great effect on several plaintive country originals, and his songwriting aspires to (but doesn’t quite reach) the fever-dream surrealism of mid-‘60s Dylan. In short, he’s raw, raunchy, soulful and poetic. That’s usually a pretty good combination, and it is this time, too.

Jethro Tull – Thick as a Brick

Yes, this is one of those dreaded early ‘70s prog rock suites; one song spread out over 45 minutes. But it has several advantages over its bloated brethren: 1) no lengthy drum solos (okay, there’s a two-minute drum solo, but that hardly counts), 2) no sci-fi themes were used in the making of this album, and 3) no mention of elves or dwarves. Sure, the transitions are jarring, but this is really a series of songs disguised as one, and they’re good songs, too, full of Ian Anderson’s melodic gifts and deft acoustic fingerpicking and inscrutable lyrics that seem to make more sense with each passing day. I’ve always heard this album as a poetic anti-war statement, and I still do.

So come on ye childhood heroes
Won't you rise up from the pages of your comic books
Your super crooks
And show us all the way.
Well, make your will and testament.
Won't you join your local government?
We'll have Superman for president
Let Robin save the day.

That still sounds more relevant to me than “Let’s impeach the President.” I love this album. I have for thirty-five years, and I still do.

Greg Graffin – Cold as the Clay

Greg Graffin has a Ph.D. in Zoology from Cornell U., and he’s the lead singer/songwriter for American punk pioneers Bad Religion, so you’d think that Appalachian folk songs wouldn’t be high on the priority list. But he’s recorded a batch of Appalachian folk songs anyway, and they’re mixed in with some originals that sound like they could be ancient Appalachian folk songs. True to his punk roots, there’s nothing slick about the playing, singing, or production, and the whole affair sounds like it could have been recorded by Alan Lomax with a field microphone in some backwoods holler in the 1930s or 1940s. Who knew that this guy aspired to be the male Gillian Welch? Not me. But this is a surprisingly great album.

T Bone Burnett – Twenty Twenty: The Esssential T Bone Burnett

This is a 2-CD, 40-song career retrospective. And even though I was already familiar with 90% of this material, it’s still great to hear it in a new context. The shuffling of the songs seems to have given them new life. I love T Bone’s songwriting:

Will you tell you tell me this riddle:
Who is the father of lies?
Who is the master of half-truth?
What is Madison Avenue?

It is everything you need to get close up
It is in search of an historic Jesus
It is expensive at 50% off

It is a 50 foot long bronzed naked girl
It is a travel poster in a prison cell
It is a wooden nickel in a wishing well

It is a death cult that terrorized the town
It is a love affair that brought a nation down
It is desperate desert battle to the death

Somehow the CCM industry never picked up on the Christian worldview inherent in T Bone’s music. I don’t understand it. Maybe it was the bronzed naked girl.

The Arcade Fire – Funeral

I blame it on Pitchfork. They’re a convenient scapegoat for all the ills of the world: famine, earthquakes, the price of gasoline, Paris Hilton, American Idol. But the fact is that I really don’t like Pitchfork or their condescending, smarmy hipness, and I tend to have an automatic aversion to anything they praise. Funeral is a couple year’s old now, and Pitchfork, of course, hyped it to death. And so I listened, initially with a snarl on my face, and then not much after that. My mistake. For once they got it right, and I’m so glad I took the time to listen again. This is a brilliant album.

The songs are heartbreaking, particularly the devastating “Wake Up” and “Rebellion (Lies).” The four-song “Neighborhood” suite is dazzling in its complexity, beauty, and raw rock power. And Win Butler sings like an even more unhinged David Byrne, and sounds at times like his skull is ready to explode. All of it is endlessly creative and unpredictable, careening off into totally unexpected directions, like the graceful little Motown coda that closes “Wake Up” after four minutes of hypercharged Bowie/Byrne New Wave overemoting. I’ve been listening to this album almost exclusively over the past few days, and I keep uncovering new surprises. This is Exhibit A, at least for this week, for why I care about music.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Hey, I made it to, sandwiched in between E! Online and Rolling Stone.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

No Hep Spat

It's an anagram. Paranoid? Who, me?

I been Mick Jaggered, silver daggered.
Andy Warhol, won’t you please come home?
I been mothered, fathered, aunt and uncled,
Been Roy Haleed and Art Garfunkeled.
And I just discovered somebody’s tapped my phone.
-- Paul Simon, "A Simple Desultory Phillipic"

I love our government. It's the best government on earth. I wouldn't ever do anything to criticize it.

So I'm just noting that this happened:

"The Republican chair of a key Senate committee said Thursday he would require phone company officials to testify after a newspaper reported that the U.S. agency in charge of a domestic spying program is building a database of every call made within the country."

It's all part of national security, and I feel very secure. And it only concerns those with suspected links to terrorism. Which is apparently all of us. For the record, for anyone listening, I hate terrorists, and I love the U.S. of A. I'm proud to be an American, where at least I know I'm free. And I'll start listening to Toby Keith real soon now. I promise.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The DaVinci Code and the Emergent Church

Thanks to Erik for pointing this out.

Emergent church guru Brian McLaren had this to say about Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code:

So you think The DaVinci Code taps into dissatisfaction with Jesus as we know him?

McLaren: For all the flaws of Brown's book, I think what he's doing is suggesting that the dominant religious institutions have created their own caricature of Jesus. And I think people have a sense that that's true. It's my honest feeling that anyone trying to share their faith in America today has to realize that the Religious Right has polluted the air. The name "Jesus" and the word "Christianity" are associated with something judgmental, hostile, hypocritical, angry, negative, defensive, anti-homosexual, etc. Many of our churches, even though they feel they represent the truth, actually are upholding something that's distorted and false.

I also think that the whole issue of male domination is huge and that Brown's suggestion that the real Jesus was not as misogynist or anti-woman as the Christian religion often has been is very attractive. Brown's book is about exposing hypocrisy and cover-up in organized religion, and it is exposing organized religion's grasping for power. Again, there's something in that that people resonate with in the age of pedophilia scandals, televangelists, and religious political alliances. As a follower of Jesus I resonate with their concerns as well.

You can read the entire interview here:

I think the problem (or a problem) is that many people read (and will soon see) The DaVinci Code and assume that Brown has somehow uncovered a scandalous part of church history. In fact, his scholarship ranges between shoddy and non-existent, and is full of distortions and outright lies.

And that matters. McLaren doesn't really address those issues in his interview. Brown purports to tell history in fictional form. But the "history" bears little resemblance to objective truth. And he hides behind the guise of fiction, as if that excuses him. What if somebody wrote a fictionalized account of WWII that was full of Nazi propaganda, and that proposed that the Holocaust never happened? And what if the people who read that book were too ignorant of history to realize that the premises of the book weren't true? That's the equivalent of what has happened with The DaVinci Code.

That said, McLaren is of course entirely correct in stating that many people are fed up with organized, institutional Christianity. So am I many days, particularly when I watch my faith co-opted to support a political philosophy that I believe is totally antithetical to what Christianity has taught and believed for 2,000 years. It sucks, and I don't blame people for being turned off by the unholy alliance of Big Church, Big Business, and Big Government.

But there's got to be a better way to promote the discussion that McLaren desires (me too) than to base it on The DaVinci Code. It's starting from entirely wrong premises. How can it possibly go anywhere productive?

Seeds of Peace

We've just passed the third anniversary of "Mission Accomplished." Hail to the Chief Obfuscator.

If we were to cast an eleventh commandment
In twenty years people would be amazed to learn
That there had once been only ten
And wouldn't care if there had been.
-- T Bone Burnett, "Every Time I Feel the Shift"

The American flag is tied to a fence on an overpass
With a homemade sign written in red, white and blue
And it reads "Welcome home, Jason Miller, Private First Class"
And I don't even know him but I'm grateful for any good news

What's become of my country torn by contradiction
The spirit of freedom propped up by a culture of fear
Where's it's unpatriotic to protest or even to question
Have we learned nothing from history or the last couple years

And the rain pours down
On the fallow ground
And the fruited plain as barren as the sand
Is it not within our will
How long must we wait until
The seeds of peace find purchase in this land

He stood on the deck and he said we'd accomplished our mission
And he twisted the facts 'til he knew it could pass for the truth
Vengeance can fill any fool with conviction
But he can't wash the blood of the fallen from his cowboy boots

And the rain pours down
On the fallow ground
And the fruited plain as barren as the sand
Is it not within our will
How long must we wait until
The seeds of peace find purchase in this land

I will not be shamed into silence by partisan thunder
And I won't fall in line and march to the drums on the wind
How many more daughters and sons will we see plowed under
How much longer must we wait 'til the harvest comes in

'Til the sun shines down
On this hallowed ground
And the fruited plain so bountiful and grand
Is it not within our will
How long must we wait until
The seeds of peace find purchase in this land
Will the seeds of peace find purchase in this land?
-- Mark Erelli, "Seeds of Peace"

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The Monthly Paste Plug

I know I do this all the time. But I only do it because I'm convinced that every person who cares about the arts in general, and music, films, and books specfically, should subscribe to Paste Magazine. In addition to putting out a high-quality, glossy, superbly designed, and exquisitely written 150-page magazine, these folks also include a CD with 21 or 22 songs in every issue, and they frequently toss in an extra DVD with about four hours of short films, music videos, etc. For about $6. It's ridiculously great. Yes, I believe that. Apparently several hundred thousand other folks do too. And I'm glad.

The next issue of Paste is due out in a few weeks. It's the Top 100 Living Songwriters issue. Yes, Paste actually dares to rank the best 100 living songwriters, counting them down from 100 to 1. They recruited 100 different writers to write about their favorites. I've written about a guy named Jackson Browne. In addition to engendering never-ending, heated debates (What do you mean Sally Songwriter is #43? She should at least be #38!) , these lists also raise the thorny issue of why people feel the need to quantify and rank music (or any other form of art) at all. It's possibly a reflection of spiritual depravity. But here's my take on it: it's fun. For some of us, at least. It's my #4 favorite activity.

In the next issue I also have a feature article on jazz pianist Bill Evans, and album reviews of new releases from Paul Simon, Mason Jennings, T-Bone Burnett, Nickel Creek guitarist Sean Watkins, and folkie protest singer Mark Erelli. In upcoming issues I have articles on Celtic Punk pioneers The Pogues and Columbus' own Glam Rock kings Ronald Koal and the Trillionaires.

Let me encourage you to buy the magazine. You'll be glad you did. But there are other ways to enjoy Paste. There is, for instance:

The website

The store, where you can buy many of the fine albums you read about

The radio station, which allows you to sample the kinds of music covered in the magazine, and, last but not least

The podcast, which brings a weekly dose of music and interviews and general Paste goodness to an iPod near you.

I hope you enjoy.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Hootenannys and Hippies

Guys with guitars are cool. I once knew a guy, Phil, who had a halo of hair like Bob Dylan, and who always walked around with a guitar case slung over his shoulder. Occasionally there was even a guitar in the case, but he didn’t play it. He didn’t know how to play it, in fact. It was just a prop to attract girls. And it worked. Because guys with guitars are cool.

On Friday night, two guys, each armed with a guitar, came over to our house. They were cool. What was even cooler was that they knew how to play their guitars very well, and did. A bunch of other people came too, possibly attracted by the offer of free food, but they stuck around to hear the guitars. Matt played one of them, and Jeremy played the other, and they sang together on our back porch until the wee hours of the morning, harmonizing beautifully on some old hymns, some original songs, some old Beatles and Neil Young tunes, and some new tunes from Radiohead and The Shins. It was great. I love live music. I particularly love live music played on my back porch by people who can play it well.

For a while there I held Matt’s guitar. Just held it, you know, and looked meaningfully at Kate. I put it in the case and slung it over my shoulder. I don’t think she noticed.

On Sunday we had several scruffy looking psychedelicized neo-hippies over for lunch after church. I like neo-hippies, too, and their desire to live off the land, man, and dig the earth, not literally, but metaphorically dig it (you dig?), and eat organically and holistically and consume soybean products. They are admirable, if not totally comprehensible. I hate soybean products. They make motor oil out of soybeans, and I can taste motor oil in every tofu-laced dish I’ve ever had. Think about it, you vegans.

But it was fun. One guy wants to hop freight trains this summer, like Woody Guthrie. He knows the Lord, and he’s bound for glory, and I’m intrigued by how radically different his vision is from what I normally encounter in Westerville, which typically involves the kids growing up and leaving home, and the empty nester parents moving into a 7-bedroom, 5,000 square foot McMansion on the lake. Three of the neo-hippies were painters. As in artists. They work at places like the Barnes and Noble coffee shop, but they honestly don’t care. They eat tofu and they paint pictures. Good for them.

I sometimes wonder what our neighbors must think of this. I don’t think all that long about it, but it does cross my mind. They are out there on their lawns, criss-crossing back and forth, mowing the same grass that they mowed the day before, but this time at a 90-degree angle to create a wondrous crosshatched effect that must look fabulous from a helicopter or hot air balloon, and we are inside entertaining people who want to play hobo on freight trains. It makes me chuckle. They are into grub control, and buy specially marked bags of Ortho Weed ‘n Feed to deal with the pesky little buggers. Our grub control consists of making sure that we have enough food for the descending hordes. And if we don’t, then the hordes share with one another, and don’t think anything of it.

I think I may be reverting to second hippiehood, this time without some of the previous accoutrements. I’m thinking about buying a guitar. I’m thinking about becoming a coffee snob, like many of my friends, and working up the courage to speak about the winy acidity of Tanzanian dark roast, or the hint of fruitiness (right now I detect more than a hint when I hear this kind of talk) in Ethiopian coffees. I’m thinking about listening to Woody Guthrie, and I’m fairly certain we won’t buy a 5,000 square foot McMansion when Rachel leaves home.

I’d like to be more generous and less concerned about stuff, as in material, tangible stuff. And I’d still like to be able to send my two kids to college at the same time, which should still require about $40K - $60K per year on top of our normal living expenses. I’m not always sure how to put all of that together, and I can’t help but note that the neo-hippies have no children. Maybe I’ll put in a crop of soybeans in the back yard, and try to raise money that way. There’s got to a bull market for any fuel that costs less than $3 per gallon. Plus you can make fake burgers out of it.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Philosophical Action Figures

Why didn't I think of this? The wisdom of this idea (in the Logos sense of the term as developed by Heraclitus rather than in the Hegelian dialectic of reason/irrationality) is so apparent.

Get 'em right here.

I'm particularly fond of Awful Augustine.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Favorite Band Names

This is one of those fun little parlor games that only insecure music nerds play. I would like to say that they play it when they get together at parties, but insecure music nerds rarely shower and never leave their homes. So they blog about it instead (note to self: check to see if “blog” can be used as a verb). The gist of the game is this: What are your favorite band names, and why? Note that this is how it does not work: “I really like U2’s music, so U2 is my favorite band name.” Wrong, Bono breath. Your comments should be based solely on the name of the band. The quality (or lack thereof) of the music is immaterial (except when I think it’s material, as noted below). I’m looking for evidence of creativity in band names. And that’s it, mostly.

So here are mine:

  • The New Pornographers – Brilliant. First, it’s bound to get all kinds of attention from various conservative factions who will wring their hands and wonder what’s happening to the youth of America. Cha-ching. Ring up those sales. But what makes it particularly wonderful is that it’s taken from the title of a Jimmy Swaggart book: Music: The New Pornography. And wow, do they make it well, too. It’s incredibly addicting power pop, and for once it’s an addiction for which you don’t need to be ashamed.
  • You’re Soaking In It – Remember the old Palmolive commercial, the one where the all-knowing Madge tells her clueless friend, whose hand is inexplicably dipped in a bowl of green liquid, that she’s soaking in dishwashing detergent? As if it’s no big deal at all for people to dip their hands in mysterious green liquid while talking to their friends? There you go. You’re Soaking In It only made one album back in the ‘80s. It was terrible. But they had a great name.
  • Birdsongs of the Mesozoic – This was a side project for members of the Boston punk band Mission of Burma. And the really funny thing about this name, a fact which only the nerdiest of nerds could appreciate, is that, get this, birds didn’t exist in the Mesozoic period. There were flying dinosaurs, yes, including Protoavis, Caudipteryx, and Mononykus, but to call these “birds,” in anything but the most euphemistically avian sense, or to characterize their cacophonous squawking as “songs,” is … I’m sorry, where was I? Oh yeah. Mission of Burma was a pretty cool name, too.
  • When People Were Shorter and Lived Near the Water – First, they really were a terrific early ‘90s band who did utterly unclassifiable covers of music as varied as Herman’s Hermits, The Singing Nun, The MC5, The Stooges, and Herb Alpert, and who eventually released a drunken, disheveled punk version of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess – yes, the entire musical. But what a great name. The very specificity of its meaninglessness intrigues me. Kind of like this entire post.
  • Fine Young Cannibals – This was actually a fairly popular band of the ‘80s. And really, if you’re going to be a cannibal and munch on manflesh, there’s no reason to be nasty and Orc-like about it, and you might as well put your best foot and fang forward and impress the style mavens of the day. These were fine, fine young cannibals – natty, stylishly hip, and not at all long in the tooth.

    So what are yours?

Monday, May 01, 2006

Bobcat Love and Celestial Light

On Saturday, Kate and I forced our daughter Rachel to get up far earlier than she would have preferred, kidnapped her and strapped her in the car, and escorted her to Athens, Ohio to visit Ohio University. We’re in the midst of the Spring College Tour Season, checking out potential alma maters for one member of the class of 2011, and O.U. was the next stop on the tour. It’s a place where I stopped for four years, back in the years that straddled either side of the mid-‘70s, so there’s a bit of a history there. And it was amazing how much of that history came flooding back while strolling those cobblestoned walkways.

I am biased, and I admit it. I can’t imagine going to college in any finer town than Athens, Ohio. You can’t stay there after you graduate. There’s no employment outside of the university and the many retail establishments on Court and Union Streets that cater to the students, but by that point you have a degree, and you don’t want to work at Taco Bell, so you move on. But you do so reluctantly. There are 10,000 people in the town and 20,000 O.U. Bobcats. And for the years between roughly 18 and 22, there is no better place in the universe to discover who you are, hang out amidst the natural beauty of the foothills of the Appalachians, and experience college life in the quintessential college town. My greatest challenge was biting my tongue and letting Rachel discover this for herself.

But there’s baggage that comes with that quintessential college life, and that resurfaced during our little campus tour as well. At some indeterminate point in the past the sixties appear to have ended in Athens, Ohio. Kids with short hair walk around the campus now, their cell phones pressed to their ears. They all look like C.P.A.s., and they look like they could be making business deals in corporate America. It wasn’t always that way. For a long time – maybe even for a couple decades after the fact – the sixties were alive and well in Athens, Ohio. Every day was Woodstock. And I can recall strolling those cobblestoned streets for the first time, being overwhelmed by the sheer amount of hair that I saw, being amazed by the number of people out on their front porches, picking guitars and banjos and sawing on fiddles, and being puzzled by the sweet smell that came wafting out of almost every doorway I passed. Just what was that? I figured it out soon enough. They were all just hanging out at home on those old streets, taking the cobble out of cobblestoned, and that was a road that seemed like it was worth exploring at the time.

So I walked around with Kate and Rachel and thought about all that. I thought about all the mistakes I made on this beautiful, picturesque campus. I thought about some of my classes. But mostly I thought about my friends, most of whom have scattered all over the world now, the ones that are still alive, and who I rarely if ever see. There was a girl. There’s always a girl. I don’t know what happened to her. And so when you visit your old stomping grounds a generation down the line there are bound to be a few ghosts trailing behind you, stirring up trouble and old memories.

We walked past Ellis Hall, the English building, the place where I first learned to love language, to listen for the music in the words, where I first caught the melody and was startled. And I remembered some words I first heard in that building, read aloud by some now deceased English professor, his voice finding all the right notes on an impossibly bright, green spring day just like this one:

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;--
Turn wheresoe'er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

That’s good old Billy Wordsworth, and damn, I listened to those astonishing words and wanted to weep, and do cartwheels, and run around like a crazy man and yell at people to stop, to look around them, to check out the celestial light and see how good it looked in Athens, Ohio. I think I felt more alive and more love than I’ve ever felt in my life. I just wanted to tell them that life was precious, and time was short, and that there was no better place on earth to be than where we were, that day, that moment. And I remember that as if it was yesterday.

Then there was this:

The Rainbow comes and goes,
And lovely is the Rose,
The Moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare,
Waters on a starry night
Are beautiful and fair;
The sunshine is a glorious birth;
But yet I know, where'er I go,
That there hath past away a glory from the earth.

It was all a long time ago. In my twenties, I would grow melancholy listening to Lawrence Welk play Auld Lang Syne on New Year’s Eve. So William Wordsworth at fifty can just about make me suicidal. I walked around that beautiful, 200-year-old campus, hearing ancient voices bouncing off the ivy-covered walls, catching glimpses out of the corner of my eye of friends who were dead, or the victims of too many years and too many miles and too many generic Christmas cards, and I knew very well that there had passed away a glory from the earth.

I didn’t talk about it. What could I say? You see, there are these people you don’t know, and will never know, and they’re walking around behind me, and I hear their voices on the wind. Sure.

So we followed our tour guide, who recited his canned spiel, and showed off some new buildings, and told us above all not to have anything to do with OU’s big rival, Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. I believe he was serious. I stood next to Kate, my Miami girl for twenty-four years now, and listened politely. You do some crazy things for love. Our love child, soon to be a high school senior, took it all in, and looked around, and smiled. I didn’t have to say anything. O.U. and Athens worked their magic. I couldn’t shake the melancholy. But I was glad, very glad, to be with my family on a gorgeous spring day in southeast Ohio. And all the way home up Route 33, out of those hills and back into the flatlands of Columbus, I thought about the glory that has passed away, and the glory that remains.