Friday, June 23, 2006

Chris Smither

I'm a longtime fan of folk/blues master Chris Smither, and his latest album Leave the Light On offers ample evidence of why he's always worth a listen. He's a phenomenal acoustic guitar picker, and this time he enlists the help of another phenomenal picker, Tim O'Brien, who plays mandolin and sings harmony vocals. He has a raspy, soulful voice. He writes first-rate melodies. And his songs are never less than soul baring, compassionate, and witty. This time there's a real spiritual dimension to these songs. I have no idea what he believes, but he sure understands the concept of digging empty wells ("My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water." -- Jeremiah 2:13):

Up and down, never mind the level
If down were up you couldn't get much higher
Diggin' deep, workin' with a shovel
Tryin' to set your soul on fire
Tryin' to set your soul on fire

There are nine superb originals, and great covers of Peter Case's "Cold Trail Blues" and Bob Dylan's "Visions of Johanna." And there is, at long last, Hallelujah, a protest song for these times that isn't ham-fisted and sputtering with inarticulate bile, that is as witty as it is acerbic:

It's gettin' edgy, time to find a war
There must be somethin' worth fightin' for
Peace is so peaceful, it ain't a way to survive
When nobody hates you, nobody knows you're alive

We got the guns, we got the oilmen too
They're like a choir, they wanna sing for you
Wham! Bam! Slip slidin' away
The less you got, the more you gonna pay

You want it, you'll get it
We got what you need
You ain't got to sweat it
We gonna make you bleed

We got some freedom, we got the iPod store
We got the savior, you couldn't ask for more
Take it or leave it, it's the deal of the day
And if you leave it, you get it anyway

You want it, you'll get it
We got what you need
You ain't got to sweat it
We gonna make you bleed

Get your coat on, you ain't supposed to laugh
This ain't a joke it's an epitaph
It's the rise and the fall, that's the name of the game
It's the land of the free, the blind leadin' the lame
It's the land of the free, the blind leadin' the lame
-- Chris Smither, "Diplomacy"

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Albums That Get No Love

Almost everybody owns albums they love and cherish, but which they are embarrassed to display in polite company. Most people don't respond all that well to snickering, so why risk it, you know? Or they own albums that vanished from the radar before they had a chance to make an impact.

So, in the interest of full disclosure, I am bravely revealing my Top 3 Albums That Get No Love. But I like 'em anyway. Be gentle, gentle readers. I have a fragile soul. It is a tender flower that is easily bruised. And if you don't like my choices, screw you.

No, no, that's all wrong. I love you all. Really. Take it as the fervent hope and prayer of one fragile soul to another.

So before I break into a chorus of the Barney song, I'll offer a) Three Albums I Love That Everybody Else Hates, and b) Three Worthy Albums I Want Other People To Hear, But Nobody Ever Takes Me Up On It.

In the former category, I offer:

John Denver -- Poems, Prayers, and Promises -- John was an earnest little muppet, and the hug-a-tree sentiments became very annoying very quickly, but this album, one of his earliest, also shows that he was a fine songwriter. This one has "Take Me Home, Country Roads," which still brings a tear to the ol' rural eye. "Almost heaven, West Virginia" actually became a state motto. Never mind that the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah River are in Virginia, not West Virginia. Nobody ever said that those gap-toothed holler dwellers were geography majors. Or that John Denver was, either. It's still a fine song, one of the best examples of the laid-back country/folk that the hippies latched on to after Woodstock. It's totally uncool to like this album, or John Denver. Nevertheless, I like it.

Rick Wakeman -- Journey to the Center of the Earth -- Wakeman was the keyboard player for Yes. He liked to wear capes and dress in armor, and he would occasionally toss in Prokofiev quotes into the middle of rock songs. Eventually he had a solo career, and this was his second album. In typically overblown fashion, this one featured not only Rick's phalanx of pianos, organs, and synthesizers, but the London Symphony Orchestra, the English Chamber Choir, and several classically trained actors and actresses portentously intoning passages from Jules Verne's early sci-fi/fantasy novel. This is classic Spinal Tap fodder, and as such it has its comic elements, but it also features some astounding keyboard work from Wakeman. Strip away the ostentatious trappings and there's some great music here.

Steve Earle -- Shut Up and Die Like An Aviator -- By most accounts, this is the nadir of Earle's career. He was deep in the throes of heroin addiction when he recorded this live album, and he sounds like it. His voice, always an acquired taste, barely rises above a raspy whisper, and his band is loose in all the wrong senses of the term. The drummer can't keep the beat. The guitarist really likes that D chord, and plays it continually, whether it fits the music or not. Steve's long monologues in between songs are rambling and incoherent. But I like this album for the same reasons that I like to rubberneck at car accidents on the freeway. The carnage is fascinating. And these songs of desperation sound even more desperate.

There are so many albums that fit the latter category, but for starters I'll offer:

Tir Na Nog -- A Tear and a Smile and Strong in the Sun -- Good luck finding these albums. Tir Na Nog were a couple of Irish folkies who rose to what could charitably be thought of as their ascendance at the same time as Nick Drake and the early solo Richard Thompson, and they were clearly influenced by those artists on these early '70s albums. Nobody cared. They cover several Drake tunes (long before anybody knew who Nick Drake was), they write sweetly aching, melancholy originals, and they intertwine their acoustic guitars in breathtaking ways. Of course, they sank without a trace. But these are gorgeous albums, right at the top of my Best Music You've Never Heard list. Imagine Nick Drake harmonizing with himself, and you're in the ballpark, or on the soccer pitch, or whatever.

Chris Whitley -- Din of Ecstasy -- I will continue my one-man crusade for the greatest songwriter and guitarist you've never heard. Whitley caused quite a stir with his debut album, Living With the Law, an eerie mix of Edge-like atmospherics and raw Delta blues. Then he disappeared from the scene, and re-emerged four years later with this, his "grunge" album. At the time it was brutally slagged as a derivative attempt to jump on Kurt's bandwagon, and it effectively ended whatever chances Whitley had for hitting the big time. But listen to it now. It's raw, it's searing, it's gloriously explosive. And then there are the words -- an addict chronicling the desperate battle between soul-numbing escape and the desire to matter, to mean, to recapture some semblance of life. It's profane and it's angry. It's a man at the end of his rope, and it's a prayer. It's one of the most harrowing albums I've ever heard.

The Weakerthans -- Fallow, Left and Leaving, and Reconstruction Site -- Granted, these guys aren't exactly unknowns, but they are nevertheless criminally underappreciated. The transformation that lead singer/songwriter John K. Samson has wrought from Punk Brat (best shown in his former band Propagandhi) to Thoughtful Poet is nothing less than spectacular. The band mixes it up quite eclectically, tossing in influences from folk, country, and loud, abrasive rock 'n roll. But the secret ingredient is Samson's songwriting. He's one of the few songwriters whose words can stand alone as poetry. He tackles all the big subjects -- love and the loss of love, God, death, loneliness and alienation, the hole in the soul -- and he does so with compassion, warmth, humor, and something that sounds uncannily like wisdom. And he rocks like crazy.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The Myth of Self-Sufficiency

This faith business is puzzling.

I often experience the reality of God's presence in my life in the midst of turmoil and trauma. I rarely experience the reality of God's presence in my life in the midst of plenty, peace, and prosperity. When really, really good things are happening in my life, I tend to take God for granted. When all hell breaks loose, I sense my need for God, and I eagerly seek His peace and comfort. And God delivers. It's happened to me many times. My external world may be falling apart, but I have known a peace that passes understanding. Don't try to make sense of that from a logical standpoint. It doesn't make sense. But I know what I know. But when I am living my comfortable, complacent, middle-class American suburban life, God can seem superfluous. Thanks for being there, God. I'll check back with you when the shit hits the fan.

I wonder why that is.

Right now life is good on all fronts. I'm surrounded by family I love, friends I love. My employer pays me a lot of money to do work that isn't all that difficult. Free CDs magically appear in my mailbox. I win the door prize at random drawings. Blessings are busting out all over on the writing front, and I'm being offered opportunities that ought to leave me shaking my head in wonder and amazement. I'm heading out on vacation next week. And it's summer, and the sun is shining. God? Sure, He can come along to the beach, too. Maybe He can make it sunny all next week.

I am not as thankful as I ought to be. And I am not as cognizant of God's role in this process as I ought to be. This is particularly true on the writing front. It's about time, damn it, I think. I've worked hard, and I've waited years for the rest of the world to recognize what I've always known. Is "genius" too strong a word? I think not. Well, okay, maybe. How about "literary stud?" Andy Whitman, Poet of the Prairie, Westerville's Wordsworth, the Shakespeare of Suburbia, Dostoyevsky with a Dental Plan and a well diversified stock portfolio.

The problem is, I really do think that way sometimes. There is an ever-present tendency to incorporate all of reality into the Kingdom of Me, to see all of these seemingly random events through a lens in which I am the star player in a tragicomedy whose subject matter is no less than Life, the Universe, and Everything, as told (in marvellously entertaining fashion) by Andrew J. Whitman.

It's bullshit. If I have gifts and talents, they come from God. If I have peace and prosperity, it's because God has allowed that to happen. If I have trials and traumas, it's because God has allowed that to happen. And if I have breath enough to conclude this sorry posting, it's because God has allowed that to happen.

Here's a prayer: Jesus Christ, Savior of the world, have mercy on me, a sinner. It's not a bad way for Dostoyevskys with Dental Plans to pray. Please forgive my foolish pride. Help me to recognize that if I am the author of stupid and ultimately meaningless Birdmonster album reviews, you are the author of life itself. Take my story, which I have written badly, and re-write me into something beautiful for your kingdom.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Tracking Comments in Blogger

Someone named Mark! (love that exclamation point!) sent me the following comment in email: "I've always loved them."

Now, this is all well and good, and I like to share the love whenever I can, but honestly, I have no clue as to the object of Mark(!)'s love. To quote the great bluesman/early rocker Bo Diddley, who do you love? I've now written hundreds of blog posts about all kinds of subjects, and the possibilities are almost endless -- Sigur Ros? Julie Andrews? My family? (back off, Mark!). He apparently left a comment somewhere on my blog, and hotmail dutifully forwarded it to me.

So my question is this: is there some sort of blogger add-on that will allow me to identify a particular blog post when someone adds a comment to it? That would be very helpful in this case, and would possibly eliminate the feelings of jealousy and hostility that I'm currently experiencing toward Mark!

Friday, June 16, 2006

Birdmonster in Columbus

Because of my writing gigs for Paste Magazine and, I get a lot of free CDs in the mail. Every week twelve or fifteen of those shiny plastic discs get unwrapped, along with breathless press releases informing me of the rock ‘n roll epiphany I am about to unleash when I press the Play button. If I actually experienced half the thrills and chills I was promised, my heart would have given out years ago. There’s only so much excitement and aural orgasmic delight one fifty year old body can withstand, you know. I don’t get around to listening to half the music I receive. It’s nothing personal. It’s because I have a life, and sometimes I need to do things like go to work and actually relate to real, flesh-and-blood human beings. Of the half I listen to, most albums get a cursory overview -- the first fifteen or thirty seconds of each song. I end up going back to some of them and playing them all the way through. And once in a great while an album shows up, out of the blue, from an unknown performer or band, and I listen, and my body involuntarily engages in what could loosely be construed as “dance,” and I can’t hit the Replay button fast enough.

So about a month ago one of those CDs showed up in the mailbox. It was called No Midnight, and it was by a San Francisco band called Birdmonster. No label contact information, no big-time promotion, no glossy photos; these guys apparently adhered to the DIY school of music making. So out of curiosity I played it, and not once did I sense the urge to move on quickly. The first song was good. The second song was better. The third song was a flat-out aural orgasm, with an impossibly infectious hook, a rubberband bass line that would do The Strokes proud, and an unhinged lead vocal that left the detached Julian Casablancas marinating in his ironic cool. This music was not cool. It was hot, white hot, and it was passionate and intense, full of the manic whisper-to-a-scream shtick that The Pixies and Nirvana perfected years ago, but tricked out with banjos and cellos and deft little touches that left all the influences behind and gave the band a sound all its own. It also happened to rock like crazy. There were thirteen songs on the album, and twelve of them sounded about as fresh and explosive as anything I’ve heard this year.

So they came to Columbus last night and played in a campus basement dive called Bernie’s Distillery, the kind of place where the pipes on the ceiling leak some sort of dubious liquid on the heads of the patrons, and the bathroom stalls are covered with graffiti. About 25 people showed up, of whom I knew about ten, because I had conducted my own little private Come See Birdmonster crusade. That was apparently about 22 more than had shown up the previous night in Pittsburgh. It’s never good when the band members outnumber the audience.

At any rate, they played most of the songs from that album, and a couple I didn’t recognize, but which I assume appear on the EP I bought from Zach the drummer/merch table guy. They didn’t have the banjo or cello, and they were sloppy on some of the songs that came as unexpected requests from the audience (What? You know that song? Cool!), but they more than made up for it in the wildman abandon with which they played, and in the pure, unbridled joy of four friends making music together. I have no idea what kind of relationships these guys have with one another. But they certainly sold me on the kind of community that can develop when four guys are locked in together, playing their asses off, and reveling in the wonders of creating a glorious din. I have been to mega rock festivals, and watched with 100,000 other people some iconic rock figure the size of an ant projected onto a Jumbotron screen. But I’m telling you, nothing beats the pure pleasure of standing in a campus dive, three feet from a stage, watching some great but unheralded band strut their stuff. It’s the best feeling in the world, and I got to experience it last night. It was worth dragging the family out from the burbs, two generations of Whitman’s experiencing some genuine rock ‘n roll bonding. That was fun. It was worth hanging out with Zach the drummer/merch table guy afterwards, and discovering a wide-eyed music fan who is having the time of his life, even when only three people show up. And it was worth the wear and tear on the fifty-year-old body, the go-to-bed-at-two-and-get-up-at-six horror of a ringing alarm clock and another day in corporate America, totally fried but totally exhilarated.

These guys don’t have a big PR department behind them. It’s all word-of-mouth advertising. So watch my virtual mouth moving and telling you to go see them if you get the chance. You won’t regret it.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Favorite New Wave Albums -- UK Edition

I am an incurable list maker, and I am an unreformed taxonomist. I love categories and sub-categories, so here is a list of my Top 10 (okay, 11) favorites roughly conforming to the following taxonomy:

Rock ‘n Roll
New Wave
U.K. Performers/Bands

“New Wave” is a notoriously slippery label, vaguely encompassing the primal energy and DIY aesthetic of punk and the hook-laden ethos of pop. To its Mohawk-sporting detractors, it was simply diluted punk, the commercialized bastard stepchild of what was supposed to be menacing and anarchic and anything but commercial. These were the folks who didn’t know that The Sex Pistols started out as a marketing gimmick in a sex/bondage clothes shop. For me it was simply superb music. I don’t have a problem with melodies and hooks, nor do I have a problem with three-minute singles dominated by intelligent songwriting and the immortal combination of guitars, bass, and drums. And these are the folks, circa 1978 – 1982, who did that the best. It was a great musical era, and a great time to be from the U.K. There were good American New Wave bands as well, but this was a musical epoch, like 1964, when the best and most bracing music was imported to American shores.

In no particular order other than alphabetical:

Any Trouble – Where Are All The Nice Girls?

This was the greatest early Elvis Costello album never recorded by Elvis Costello. By this time (1980) Costello was veering off into the genre experiments that have characterized his music up to the present day. But Any Trouble, led by future Richard Thompson band member Clive Gregson, was clearly enamored of Costello in his Angry Young Man phase, and they made angry music about being uncool dweebs. Gregson, who looked the part, pulled it off not only because of his bookish librarian glasses, but also because he wrote superb little chiming guitar pop gems with titles like “Second Choice” and “When You Lose at Playing Bogart.” Bonus points for the genuinely rockin’ New Wave cover of Abba’s “The Name of the Game.” Uncool guys who can make Abba look cool are particularly praiseworthy.

Aztec Camera – High Land, Hard Rain

You have to have a hit in order to be a one-hit wonder. So I’m not sure what to call Aztec Camera. But Roddy Frame, essentially a one-man band, wrote at least half a dozen songs on this album that deserved to be massive hits, and he achieved a surprisingly full sound with just overdubbed acoustic guitars and vocals. There are some absolutely timeless pop gems here like “Oblivious,” with its swooning backing vocals, and “The Bugle Sounds Again,” which swelled to a glorious crescendo like some Phil Spector Wall of Sound symphony. Roddy kept trying, but he never came close to this, his debut album. It’s a deliciously melodic, melancholic offering from a No Hit Wonder.

Elvis Costello – This Year’s Model

Well, you know, it’s a classic for a reason. As strong as Costello’s debut (My Aim Is True) was, This Year’s Model surpasses it in every way – in the wildly inventive wordplay, in the perfectly manic vocal delivery, and in the furious circus music dominated by Steve Nieve’s Farfisa organ. For me, this is still the definitive New Wave album, and it stands as the high water mark in a career full of very strong albums. Costello did vituperative scorn and musical one-finger salutes better than anyone since mid-‘60s Dylan, and his band The Attractions managed to capture the sound of a runaway roller coaster careening off the tracks. It was a 1978 model, but it sounds just as relevant and just as urgent today.

Dave Edmunds – Tracks on Wax 4
Nick Lowe – Labour of Lust
Rockpile – Seconds of Pleasure

Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe were veteran pub rockers, compatriots of the Brinsley Schwarz guys who eventually formed the backbone of Graham Parker’s band The Rumour. Edmunds was at heart an unreconstructed rock classicist, as much in love with Chuck Berry and early ‘60s Girl Groups as he was with punk. His early solo albums are almost slavish imitations of Berry’s trademark guitar licks and the Phil Spector Wall of Sound, but Tracks on Wax 4 finds the right balance between artistic homage and creative exploration, with Nick Lowe’s songs exploding with manic rock ‘n roll energy. It’s easy to play Spot the Influence – Chuck Berry here, The Everly Brothers there, the Wall of Sound everywhere – but Edmunds’ singing and guitar work and Nick Lowe’s songs were a great combination. The same combination shines on Lowe’s Labour of Lust, this time with bassist Nick stepping to the forefront. Edmunds’ solo on “American Squirm” is a model of economy and precision, while “Cruel To Be Kind” and “Switchboard Susan” remain the models for something, perhaps how to write lascivious songs while employing as many bad puns and double entendres as possible. Eventually these blokes stopped making solo albums and officially joined forces in the band Rockpile, where, you guessed it, Nick Lowe’s songs and Dave Edmunds’ guitar work were the high points. Between them, they made a good half dozen albums that verge on greatness, but these three are my favorites.

The English Beat – I Just Can’t Stop It

At the forefront of the multiracial groups (The Specials, Madness) who merged ska with punk attitude and pop sensibilities, The English Beat delivered a masterpiece of a debut album. Dave Wakeling wrote the great punk/pop songs, toastmaster Ranking Roger and Desmond Dekker alum Saxa added the authentic ska influences, and together they created impossibly propulsive music, whether they were covering Smokey Robinson (“Tears of a Clown”), writing disquieting suicide anthems (“Click Click”), or protesting the indignities of Thatcher’s England (“Stand Down, Margaret”). You try to sit still, but your body wants to move, and you just can’t stop it.

Joe Jackson – Look Sharp

Before he turned into a piano lounge/ersatz jazz crooner and made millions, Joe Jackson was just an ordinary, not-so-good-looking bloke who had woman troubles and alternated between bouts of self pity and strident denunciations of all things feminine. That’s when he was at his best. Look Sharp, his debut album, features the ultimate study in sexual frustration, “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” and several more caustic bombs whose titles – “Happy Loving Couples,” “Fools In Love” – betray both the psyche of a wounded lover and an incurable romantic. Jackson’s band never rocked harder than they did on this album, and the whole thing has the sound of a greatest hits package, all wrapped up and delivered with a sardonic bow, the portrait of the artist as insecure asshole and raging libido.

Graham Parker – Squeezing Out Sparks

Yet another Angry Young Man, Graham Parker was the antithesis of the stereotypic rocker – he was short, balding even in his early twenties, and a buttoned-down conservative. But no one ever said that conservatives and spleen can’t mix, and Parker does some major venting on this album. He gets in his shots at the local girls (“Local Girls,” naturally enough) and his record label (“Mercury Poisoning”), but he saves his best and most incisive observations for “You Can’t Be Too Strong,” an anti-abortion commentary that still startles today:

Did they tear it out with talons of steel
And give you a shot so that you wouldn’t feel
And wash it away as if it wasn’t real?
It’s just a mistake I won’t have to face
Don’t give it a name, don’t give it a place
Don’t give it a chance, it’s lucky in a way

For some reason, no CCM band has covered that.

Parker’s band The Rumour burns throughout, squeezing out not sparks, but white hot, rampaging rock ‘n roll. Parker sounds like his head is ready to explode. Frothing at the mouth never sounded so good.

Squeeze – Argybargy

This isn’t the best-known Squeeze album (that honor probably goes to 1981’s East Side Story), but it’s stood the test of time for me. Every track is an idiosyncratic pop gem. Some Squeeze albums sound dated, but not this one. The gifted songwriting team of Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook spin out clever lyrics and sprightly, ever-shifting melodies on every song, and if you’re looking for evidence, consider “Pulling Mussels from the Shell” and “Another Nail in My Heart,” the opening tracks to this album. Driven by Jools Holland’s Farfisa organ (which somehow manages to sound hip instead of cheesy), these songs remain both quirky and endlessly accessible. The former, a quintessentially English story of tourists and their culinary preferences while on holiday, has to be the best song about bivalve mollusks ever recorded (with Soul Asylum’s Clam Dip and Other Delights a close second). The whole album offers convincing proof that pop music can be surprising, strange, and insanely catchy.

The Undertones – The Undertones

I never really bought the idea of The Undertones as a punk band. The Sex Pistols were a punk band, The Clash were a punk band, but The Undertones were a power pop band who liked to play their guitars really loudly. Feargal Sharkey, with his sheeplike, bleating vibrato, was about as punk as Maurice Gibb of The Bee Gees. That’s okay. John Peel, legendary BBC DJ, liked “Teenage Kicks” so much that he played it twice in a row over the air. And I think I probably played it five or six times in a row myself the first time I heard it. It’s that good. So is the rest of this debut album, in spite of Feargal’s ovine imitations. That’s because these Derry, Northern Ireland boys wrote perfect two-minute pop songs about adolescent hormones and the ageless fear of rejection – not only “Teenage Kicks,” but “Jimmy Jimmy” and “Male Model” and “Get Over You,” songs that still barrel out of the speakers and bowl you over, twenty-seven years down the line. The original album, which has since been padded out with demos and B-sides for the CD release, came in at a rousing 28 minutes. It’s not a second too long or a second too short, and by the end of it, you feel like you’ve been on one exhausting, exhilarating ride.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Sweet 'n Sour

I have lately been drawn to the musical equivalent of sweet 'n sour -- vocally ravaged singers backed by lush, romantic strings, as if a besotted Frank Sinatra had just escaped from a rehab facility and found refuge in a studio with Nelson Riddle.

Some new singer/songwriter favorites:

Micah P. Hinson and the Opera Circuit -- Micah P. Hinson and the Opera Circuit -- Micah P. Hinson grew up in a strict fundamentalist home, ran away, ran afoul of drugs and the law, spent some time in prison, and emerged as sort of an alt-country Tom Waits. This is far from Christian music, but it's Christ-haunted in the way that Flannery O'Connor's stories are Christ-haunted. You can hear the Holy Spirit moving over the turbulent waters, and you get the distinct impression that these tales of debauchery and Too Much Fun are desperate cries for help. His ragged yelp sounds a bit like Tom Waits with a southern drawl, and it stands in marked contrast to the sweetly romantic strings and old-time oompah brass band accompaniment, which reminds me of some of the sepia-toned music Waits did in the mid-to-late seventies on albums like Blue Valentine and Nighhawks at the Diner.

William Lee Ellis -- God's Tattoos -- Ellis comes out of the tradition of Rev. Gary Davis and Blind Willie Johnson, bluesmen who want to share the gospel while sliding a broken beerbottle neck over the strings of their guitars. He's a phenomenal slide guitarist, and these mostly original blues/gospel songs are far better than average. The title track is a fine meditation on the role of tragedies/trials in our lives, and how God uses them to refine us.

Lambchop -- Damaged -- Lambchop is original misfit/growler Kurt Wagner and whoever else he can coax into the studio. The band ranges from three to seventeen members, and it's not uncommon to hear pedal steel guitars, saxophones, and xylophones on the same song. Mistakenly billed as an "alt-country" band (probably because they hail from Nashville), Lambchop is, in reality, unclassifiable. Soul music, country, indie rock, and lush chamber quartet strings all find a home here. Wagner is the most idiosyncratic of songwriters, finding subject matter in the mundane, inconsequential, and anatomically explicit, but he sometimes startles me with his images. One song begins, "Here we sit out this tropical storm/Burning pages from your notebook just to keep your hands warm." Another starts off with, "Here’s a little story ‘bout regret/Doesn’t have an ending, it’s not finished yet." That's the best couplet I've heard this year, and the entire album is full of little bon mots and epiphanies. The fact that Wagner "sings" like Lou Reed is irrelevant. He makes lush, strange, and compellingly lovely music.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Writing, But Not Here

Life is busy. I'm writing a lot, but I don't have much time to do it here. Here is what is on the plate:

1) New music reviews for Paste Magazine
2) New music reviews for
3) A feature article on poetry slams for Paste Magazine
4) A proposal for a new IT development project at Columbus State Community College. This is actually taking up far more of my time than I desire. Damn employers. :-) But I have mad Work Breakdown Structure and Gantt Chart skillz, and I'm using them to great effect.

5) A book. We'll see. This is a huge effort, and I'm making far less headway than I want, but here's where it stands. Over the course of the last twenty years or so I've written literally thousands of pages. Many of those pages simply tell my story, much as I do in some of my blog posts. I've written about my life, my faith, my questions and doubts, my stupid choices, my joys, my sorrows. And those of you who read my blog already have an idea of what that looks like in print (or at least in pixels). Probably several hundred of those short, self-contained essays are salvageable to the point where I wouldn't be totally embarrassed if others read them. And so I'd like to salvage them, add some narrative padding around them, and turn them into a book. If you've read Donald Miller's Blue Like Jazz, you have some idea of what that might look like. He's just telling his story, too.

Is it farfetched? Maybe. But I'm going to go for it. The guys who run Paste are behind me in this, Donald Miller apparently is willing to help, and I have the backing of a marketing guru who can walk into anyplace and convince the powers that be to do almost anything. I figure if he can walk into CNN and convince those folks to give a fledgling little music magazine air time on a weekly basis, he can probably convince somebody to publish my writing.

For those of you who are praying types, I'd appreciate prayers for perseverence. A lot of work needs to happen before it can even be considered as a realistic possibility. In the meantime, I'm still working a fulltime job, writing for a couple magazines, trying to be a husband and father, and trying to be involved in other peoples' lives as a friend and fellow traveler on a spiritual journey. But I'm excited, and I'd like it to happen, not for any great desire for fame, but because this is what it feels like when the key fits the lock. Eric Liddell said in Chariots of Fire, "When I run, I feel His pleasure." I know that feeling, but it comes when I pound keys on a keyboard.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Core Warrior Values Training

I note with some interest that the U.S. military chief in Iraq has ordered all troops to undergo "core warrior values training." It's a great phrase, and would presumably include precepts such as "don't massacre the civilians." So the soldiers will watch a PowerPoint slide presentation, and then go back to driving down roads that may be booby trapped, and opening doors behind which someone may lurk with an AK-47.

I respect the troops in Iraq. They have been given an impossible job, and I can fully appreciate their desire to stay alive, and why they might snap when one too many roadside bombs goes off beside their vehicles.

This reminds me of a "Teamwork" seminar that I attended back in the early 1990s at Lucent Technologies, when U.S. workers were asked to train workers in other, cheaper parts of the world, who would then take over their jobs. The "Teamwork" ideas were, umm, not very well received. Good luck with that PowerPoint presentation, General. Better yet, send the troops home and forget about absurd and contradictory concepts such as core warrior values training.

Complimentary Extreme Makeover

My email informs me that I have just been offered a complimentary extreme makeover. I don't feel that complimented.