Monday, July 31, 2006

The Church as a Sanctified Place

Copied over from another discussion list. I'm responding to the person in italics.

In my experience too much of the church service is performance based, so we've lost the ability as an audience to make any meaningful distinction between performance and service, so we might as well go whole hog and just judge the participants on their performance rather than their heart. But as I've gotten older, I've been drawn increasingly to liturgical services in part because most protestant American churches that I've visited have not retained any vestige of the pulpit (much less the sanctuary) as a sanctified place.

In my opinion, performance comes with the territory, whether the church musicians are playing electric guitars or wearing matching gold robes in the choir. I don’t know how you escape that. I just think some people prefer certain types of performances (without acknowledging that they are, in fact, performances) rather than others, and that they are more likely to label what they don’t like in church music as “performance.” I know that personally, as a non-liturgical rock ‘n roll snob, I’ve seen some amazingly ostentatious, offputting performances involving virtuoso pipe organ. But that’s also my bias peeping through.

I also wonder about the notion of church as a sanctified place. For many people (an increasing number in our post-Christian culture), churches don’t represent something that is “sanctified”; they represent something that is “foreign.” To ask an unchurched member of our society to attend church, when their primary knowledge of Christianity consists of occasional glimpses of whatever ranting, toupeed televangelist they happen to skip by as they are channel surfing, is to ask that person to step deep into the unknown, the threatening, and the weird. And as hard as it is for liturgical types to understand, for this audience responsorial readings and four verses of “Come Thou Font of Every Blessing” are no less weird than Tuvan Throat Singing or taking a stroll over hot coals.

God is holy. And I struggle with the “you ‘n yer cosmic buddy” approach used by many seeker-sensitive churches too. But I wonder how effective a focus on church as a “sanctified place” can be. To ask the unchurched part of our society to step into a place of stained glass windows, massive pulpits, pews, and 80-foot pipe organs (with portentous Telemann and Buxtehude antiphonal and recessional hymns) is to ask them to lose their minds. It’s not going to happen. Like it or not, people raised on rock ‘n roll are going to be more receptive to a message if it is presented within the context of rock ‘n roll (or at least mid-'70s Fleetwood Mac tambourine shaking pop), and they’re not going to be able to relate, at all, to the same message if it is dressed up in what many consider to be an antiquated and irrelevant form. I’m not suggesting that that is so; I’m only noting what I suspect is a fairly common response.

I also question the implied dichotomy between the presumably more sanctified church service vs. the rest of life. Rather than setting aside an hour or an hour and a half per week as sanctified, and therefore excluding the garage band approach as somehow inferior to that goal, why can’t we bring the sanctified approach to the garage, and expect Christian rock ‘n roll musicians to play punk rock for the glory of God? I don’t believe that the world needs more punk CCM bands. But I do believe that Christians musicians can and should play any style/genre of music as an act of worship, and that there’s no reason why a particular genre should be excluded from the sanctuary.

The whole world is a sanctified place – every nook and cranny of it. We don’t need to compartmentalize it, and I’m all in favor of breaking down those walls and inviting those who feel threatened, weirded out, and distrustful of the artificial world of church in to a place where they can be welcomed, and can play amidst the holiness.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Paste #23

The new issue of Paste (Issue #23) is out. Thom Yorke of Radiohead is on the cover, and there are feature articles on Yorke, The Long Winters, Snow Patrol, Paul Simon, and filmmaker Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). I have four album reviews, my backpage column (this time on Celtic punks The Pogues), and an article on poetry slams, featuring (for you Columbus folks) a flattering photo of the big, bald head of Dan Thress. Plus a 21-song CD and a 4+ hour DVD with short films and music videos from Al Green, Patty Griffin, Iron and Wine, The Shins, The Raconteurs, and many more.

Paste is going monthly, which means that I now have twice as much work to do. But that’s a good thing, and I’m thankful.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Gram Parsons: Safe at Home

I haven't had any time to do any new writing here for a while, but here's a sneak preview of an upcoming article in Paste.


As far as I was concerned, Gram Parsons ruined The Byrds, the best American rock ‘n roll band of the mid-1960s. Sure, the warning signs had been there for a couple years. Roger McGuinn’s chiming 12-string Rickenbacker had gradually given way to gently strummed country-tinged hippie anthems on Younger Than Yesterday and The Notorious Byrd Brothers, but it was Gram Parsons who masterminded the coup d’etat, hijacking my favorite band when he joined in 1968, and taking them completely over the country cliff.

Sweetheart of the Rodeo, the official death certificate, was a full-fledged piece of honky-tonk hokum, replete with weeping pedal steel and songs about prison cells, Jesus, mama, empty bottles and broken hearts. I could not believe that it was The Byrds. I played it a few times upon its release, hoping that my disdain would pass, then gave up in disgust, vowing to never buy a Byrds album again. It was all Gram Parsons’ fault, and I wanted nothing to do with his clichés and his hillbilly version of reality. I was too cool for that.

A few years went by. I had just started college when Gram Parsons died of a drug overdose at the ripe old age of 26. I was a couple hundred miles away from home in a town I didn’t know, and the transition to my new life was not going well. The DJ on the campus radio station dutifully reported Gram’s demise and the strange events that surrounded his funeral, then played “Hickory Wind,” one of the songs from Sweetheart of the Rodeo. I listened, and I heard something I hadn’t heard before:

It’s a hard way to find out that trouble is real
In a faraway city with a faraway feel

That didn’t sound like a cliché. It sounded like my life. And this time I heard the soulfulness and the world-weariness that had been masked by my uncritical rejection of all things country. And so I pulled out my barely used copy of the album and played the song. And then I played it again. I played it again and again, probably eight or nine times in a row. And by the end of that little repetitive mini-concert, I was ready to admit that I was wrong.

I love that song. I love that album, although it took me a while, in my desperate attempt to be cool, to admit it. It launched what has now been a 33-year love affair with Gram Parsons and his music. In a bizarre twist, somebody stole Gram Parsons’ coffin and burned it in the Joshua Tree desert. The irony isn’t lost on me. Like the Phoenix rising from the flames, it took a funeral and a fire to mark the rebirth of an album and a man I had written off as a country bumpkin.

I had some catching up to do, and so I caught up – an album with the International Submarine Band, several gems with The Flying Burrito Brothers, two stunning solo albums featuring duets with a very young Emmylou Harris. Those six albums – the shockingly sparse output of a too-short life – opened up a whole new world for me. From the music of Gram Parsons I learned about The Louvin Brothers and The Stanley Brothers, Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. And always Emmylou. It was the real shitkickin’ deal, as raw and as soulful as life itself turned out to be, and I eventually figured out that I didn’t have to be a coal miner or a truck driver to relate to it. I just needed to be alive, and awake enough to witness the searing beauty and heartbreak.

A few months ago Rhino Records released The Complete Reprise Sessions, just about every note Gram Parsons recorded during his short tenure with Reprise Records. The two solo albums, GP and Grievous Angel, are there, along with a couple dozen more alternate takes and bonus tracks.

Listening to those songs now, remastered, placed in a new context, I remember all over again what drew me to Gram’s music. His voice is weathered, imperfect, cracked, much like the life he lived. And he wrote some dazzling lyrics, this country bumpkin who also happened to be a Harvard dropout – the kind of hardscrabble poetry that still resonates with loss and regret and hard-won peace. You can hear it in “Return of the Grievous Angel,” one of those impossibly lovely duets with Emmylou:

I remember somethin’ you once told me
And I’ll be damned if it did not come true
Twenty thousand roads I went down down down
And they all led me straight back home to you

Gram Parsons was obsessed with the notion of home; something he never really experienced in his short life. The sole International Submarine Band album is called Safe at Home. Hickory Wind was calling him home. The grievous angel returned from his wanderings and found home. So maybe it’s only fitting that I call his music home. In all my musical wanderings, I keep coming back to Gram Parsons. This is where I started my exploration. And I’ve never found a better place to visit.

Best Albums

The Byrds – Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968)

It wasn’t the first country-rock album, but it may be the best. Where performers like Bob Dylan dabbled in country music, Gram Parsons dove in headfirst. These are truckstop jukebox anthems, and they’re great.

Gram Parsons – GP/Grievous Angel (1972/1973)

For those who don’t want to spring for the 3-CD Reprise collection, this single CD contains both of Gram’s solo albums. It’s transcendently great country rock music, features some of the finest country duets (with Emmylou Harris) ever recorded, and it’s a bargain.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Pop Quiz

In the past seven days, more soldiers and civilians have died in:

a) Israel and Lebanon than in Iraq
b) Iraq than in Israel and Lebanon

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Bird by Bird

“My older brother was trying to get a report on birds written that he'd had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, "Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird." – Anne Lamott, from Bird by Bird

It is easy to be overwhelmed by the immensity of suffering in the world. Take the case of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, off in a corner of the globe that we Americans would rather forget. Didn’t we use to bomb the daylights out of those people back in the days of the Vietnam War? Yes, we did. I wonder what ever happened to them.

What happened was civil war. Genocide. Three million people systematically executed by a radical Marxist government because they happened to be educated, or had books in their homes, or wore a wristwatch, which showed that they might have had a little more spare cash than the average peasant. Twenty-five percent of the population died in prison camps. Try to wrap your mind around that. One in four, throughout the whole country. Now a Phnom Penh museum called Tuol Sleng stands at the place of one of the most notorious of the Killing Fields, a stark reminder of the hole in the heart of a country. You don’t just get over that. Now, a generation down the line, kids who normally would have had grandparents and parents, a social and economic structure in which to frame their lives, don’t have any of that. And so they raise themselves, mostly, living life out on the streets, scrounging for food, taking shelter wherever they can find it, becoming easy prey for the ruthless bastards who use them and abuse them through drugs and sexual slavery. There are hundreds of thousands of those kids, maybe millions. It’s overwhelming.

A few blocks away from the Tuol Sleng museum there is a little two-story orphanage. It houses twenty people. It was founded in large part by my friend John McCollum, who comments here frequently, and it is funded and operated by my little church, Central Vineyard of Columbus. Those twenty kids are our kids. We know their names and their stories. We hear about them all the time. We pray for them. We send our money to help support them. And in October we will visit them. Members of my church will spend three weeks in Phnom Penh doing, what? Playing games. Singing lullabyes. Trying to undo the curse.

It’s just a little orphanage, and we’re just a little church. Twenty kids. It’s nothing. It’s a drop in the ocean. But I’m so honored and so proud to be a little part of it. We live in a world that tells people that they are nothing, that they do not matter, that their worth comes from what they do, not from who they are, that soaring hope is just a myth, that it’s for the birds. They’re wrong. We’re taking it back. Bird by bird. Kid by kid.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Johnny's #1

In news that is either awe inspiring or conclusive proof that only old farts still buy music, and that everybody else downloads it for free, I offer:

This Marks the Man In Black's First-Ever Number One Debut
Nashville, TN - July 12, 2006 -- Johnny Cash's "American V: A Hundred Highways" (American Recordings/Lost Highway) debuts at Number One on both the Billboard Top 200 Albums and Top Country Albums charts. The album, which was released on the Fourth of July, takes the top spot with sales in excess of 88,000 copies, according to Neilsen/Soundscan.Since 1958, while seven of Cash's albums have reached Number One on Billboard's Country Album charts, only one other album of his has reached the Number One position on Billboard's Top Albums charts - 1969's "Johnny Cash at San Quentin." "American V" is Cash's first-ever release to debut at Number One.

"It meant so much for Johnny to be accepted by a new audience," said Rick Rubin, who produced "American V" and heads up Cash's label, American Recordings. "Nothing would make him more proud than this overwhelming vote of acceptance. Thank you."

"American V: A Hundred Highways" is the fifth installment of Cash's critically-acclaimed American Recordings series, and was recorded in the months leading up to his passing on September 12, 2003. The 12 songs on the CD address love, life, trains, mortality and faith, and the result is an album that is sparse, honest, and inherently beautiful. "American V" has also received tremendous media praise - "...remarkable"/Rolling Stone; "...a powerful, final statement...4-stars"/People; "...arresting"/Washington Post; "...sad and gorgeous"/Village Voice; and Entertainment Weekly's, "Johnny Cash's latest shows he still has the power."

Your Tax Dollars At Work

From a story on CNN:

A Homeland Security database of vulnerable terror targets in the United States, which includes an insect zoo but not the Statue of Liberty, is too flawed to determine allocation of federal security funds, the department's internal watchdog found.

Much of the study by Homeland Security Inspector General Richard Skinner appears to have been done before the department announced in May it would cut security grants to New York and Washington by 40 percent this year.

The report, which was released Tuesday, affirmed the fury of those two cities -- the two targets of the September 11, 2001, attacks -- which claimed the department did not accurately assess their risks.

Instead, the department's database of vulnerable critical infrastructure and key resources included an insect zoo, a bourbon festival, a bean fest and a kangaroo conservation center. They represent examples of key assets identified in Florida, Illinois, Indiana, and Maryland.

I think people are over-reacting.

Frankly, I'm surprised that the insect zoo isn't a more high-profile target, and if I was part of the Department of Homeland Security, I'd market the hell out of this angle -- send brochures to shadowy training camps in Afghanistan touting the zoo's pivotal role in America's psyche, interview a few entomologists about the veneration Americans have for dung beetles and cockroaches, and send the video off to Osama U., etc.

Look, people pay Orkin to take care of this kind of thing, and here we have a perfect opportunity to have it done for free. Terrorists are perfect for pest control, and the thought of a car bomb taking out potentially billions of nasty critters ought to be lauded and supported. Sure, the Pest Control lobby in D.C. will probably be upset, but isn't it about time we took these crucial functions away from the so-called "experts" and gave them back to people with passion and ingenuity?

And take out the bean fest, too, while we're at it. Those farmers are probably growing soybeans, which somehow end up in things that are creatively described as "burgers," and which I am forced to eat. Damn vegetarians.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The Sails

Hoo boy, there's enough glucose here to induce a diabetic coma.

The debut self-titled album from UK quintet The Sails is so thoroughly drizzled with gooey power pop confection that your teeth will positively ache by the end of it. But hey, we all love a good sugar buzz, and these folks deliver. We're talking gigantic hooks, singalong choruses, multi-tracked boy-girl harmonies, and chiming guitars. There are times when they venture dangerously close to Cowsills and Partridge Family territory, but for the most part they stay just this side of the bubble gum machine. More accurate touchpoints would be early '70s icons The Raspberries and Badfinger. If you're looking for a more modern counterpart, look no farther than the debut album from The La's.

"Cover me in chocolate" the most infectious tune here says, putting a new spin on dippy music. So pay no attention to the lyrics, and just bask in the gorgeous sweetness. It's best managed in small slices, but the album is only 36 minutes long, so you don't feel quite so guilty in the morning. I think this may be one of the best debuts I've heard this year. But I don't want to overdo it, and I should probably wait another week before I listen again.

The Sufjan Backlash

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, one of my favorite music critics, weighs in on Sufjan Stevens' new album The Avalanche, and offers a revised take on the Suffi phenomenon in The Case Against Sufjan Stevens.

It's inevitable that a Sufjan backlash would ensue upon the release of whatever followed Illinois. That album was both universally heralded and massively overhyped (yes, I might have played a small part in that too), and I think Erlewine is right to insist that the hype doesn't match the reality of the music. So Sufjan the Wunderkind isn't the second coming of Mozart. Okay, I'll buy that. But he's still very good, and a lot better than Erlewine is willing to admit.

First, he totally misses the point of songs like "John Wayne Gacy, Jr.," which isn't about an adolescent obsession, as Erlewine claims, but about the darkness at the heart of every individual -- including Sufjan the Wunderkind -- and which can turn even oboe and banjo players into mass murderers.

Second, I think Erlewine either misses or overlooks the many personal moments on Illinois that transform the album into far more than a geographical checklist. "Casimir Pulaski Day" is the obvious example, and if it has anything to do with geography, it is the nameless and universal geography of loss and grief. Even the songs that namecheck Illinois cities and landmarks -- "Chicago" and "Jacksonville" -- have far more to do with internal journeys and changes than they do with encyclopedic facts and figures. Sufjan isn't playing musical Jeopardy here. He's exploring his soul, as all good songwriters do.

Somehow it seems that Erlewine misses this. I understand, on one hand, the cynical reaction that almost had to follow the effusive outpouring that came with Illinois. I still think that Sufjan is a very good songwriter, even if he is not brilliant, and that he manages to sound like no one but himself. I would also agree with Erlewine that The Avalanche is not as good as Illinois. No kidding. The Avalanche consists of outtakes from Illinois, and usually outtakes are outtakes for a reason.

That said, The Avalanche reminds me all over again about what it is that I love about Sufjan -- his obsessive nerd tendencies combined with a soft, compassionate heart, and an ability to concoct dazzling arrangements. That's still a good combination, and I'm enjoying it all over again on the new album.

Monday, July 10, 2006

The Write Stuff

All good things must come to an end, including this blog.

Is this the end? Maybe. I hope not. But maybe.

People want to pay me to write, which is another good thing, and one that I don't want to pass up. And I am currently in over my head.

I am writing more than ever for Paste Magazine. I recently finished a lengthy feature article on poetry slams, an article on San Francisco band Birdmonster, my regular back-of-the-issue column on Talk Talk, and three album reviews.

I just finished my first batch of album reviews for All Music Guide. Reviews of Birdmonster, Bernard Fanning (Powderfinger), and Ollabelle should be available online over the next few weeks as the albums are officially released.

I am trying, somewhat feebly, to put together a book -- tentative title Confessions of a Born-Again Asshole. Look for it at a Christian Family Bookstore near you, right next to the posters of puppies and kitties with inspirational Bible verses. Or maybe not.

And I am about to accept the job as Music Editor of a new website called Don't look for it yet. It's not there. But it will be there. Nick Purdy, founder of Paste, recruited me, and I'm excited about the prospects. Basically, the idea is to combine the best aspects of sites such as MySpace and Flickr with the more community-oriented aspects of newsgroups and discussions lists. Members will be able to share music, videos, and photos, and read site-supplied content on a variety of channels -- with the Arts (music, films, books), and Social Activism (Bono's One Campaign, Environmentalism, etc. ) -- being prime components. Members can also add their own content via postings within the channels, links to blogs, etc. It's not exactly a brand new thing, but nobody's combined the elements in quite this way before, and I'm pretty psyched. This will require 15 - 20 hours of my time each week.

And, oh yeah, I'm also working a 40+ hour per week job designing a training course for one of the cumbersome organizations that make up the unwieldy bureaucracy known as the State of Ohio. Gotta love that regular paycheck, too.

The bottom line? I'm maxed out.

It's all good. Really good, in fact. But something has (or somethings have) to give. I won't say goodbye. I trust I'll be back when I can. But if I am uncommunicative here, I hope you understand. Thanks, loyal readers (both of you) for reading.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Blues, Fried Chicken and Waffles

This will mainly concern folks in Columbus, Ohio, but all you out-of-towners, feel free to come on down, or up, or whatever, and join the fun at Smackies Smokehouse. These are good chefs, good musicians, and good poets. Besides, how often can you attend an event that is co-sponsored by a church and Budweiser? It's a great church by the way. The beer? Eh, remember it's for a good cause.

Boldly stolen from Dan Thress's blog:

Get yourself a taste of Harlem with Columbus's own Fried Chicken & Waffles! And enjoy a little country flavor with our Southern Buffet featuring: fried chicken, pulled pork, chopped beef, black-eyed peas, candied yams, cheese potatoes, collard greens, mac and cheese, corn bread, red velvet cake, sweet tea, and lemonade.

Friday Night:

6-8 pm: CD RELEASE PARTY with Crix Savage. Crix Savage, aka. Chris Gatton will be featuring music from his latest CD. Catch him he leaves these parts for Nashville's greener pastures.

8:30-11: BLUES & POETRY SLAM with slam-master and NPR featured poet Scott Woods. Come share your blues sonnets with a live band! Judges are picked from the audience. Guaranteed to get down. Poets signup @ 8pm.

Saturday Night:

4-5: Ryan Sullivan & Josh Foote, acoustic guitars and vocals. Original, soulful stuff.

5-6: Just confirmed: Matt Beckler & special guests. Matt is really happy to be doing this festival. We're really happy to have him.

6-8: Smackies presents local blues legend Willie Phoenix. Born in the Deep South in Camden, Alabama, Phoenix was raised on blues music. He was taught to play guitar by his father the Reverend Willie J. Creagh, who played with such legends as Muddy Waters, Little Walter, and Sonny Boy Williamson.

8-11:30: BLUES JAM SESSION. Bring your guitar, harmonica, voice, or whatever you got, and sign up to perform with the band. Food prizes will be given to the best performers!

Sponsors: Dan & Annie Thress, Smackies Smokehouse, The Columbus Music Hall, Writer's Block Poetry, Central Vineyard, Music in Motion Films. Columbus Blues Alliance, and Budweiser.Located right outside of New Albany. Take 270 to the Morse Road exit. Head east off the exit on Morse Rd. Turn left onto Hamilton Rd. We're located on the right side of Hamilton Rd, just past the Home Depot on the corner of Thompson Rd. (614) 939.5801.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Outsourcing Prayer

"Outsourcing to India is now also embracing the sacred, according to a NYTimes article . Blaming it on a shortage of priests, requests for a special mass or prayers are routed from Americans, Canadians and Europeans often via the Vatican to clergy in India.Increasing numbers of them arrive by email, especially to India's southwestern state of Kerala, where one of the largest concentrations of India's Christians can be found. "In Kerala's churches, memorial and thanksgiving prayers conducted for local residents are said for a donation of 40 rupees (90 cents), whereas a prayer request from the United States typically comes with $5, the Indian priests say."Responding to the concerns expressed by Westerners, Indian church leaders point out that this is not a recent development, but that rich churches short on priests have been sharing their needs and resources with their poorer brethren for decades. "The Rev. Paul Thelakkat, a Cochin-based spokesman for the Synod of Bishops of the Syro-Malabar Church, said, "The prayer is heartfelt, and every prayer is treated as the same whether it is paid for in dollars, euros or in rupees."
The New York Times -- June 13, 2004

Vatican CEO Benedict XVI responded to the report by noting, "We simply needed to improve on our Answers To Prayer Index (ATPI) and re-envision our Prayer Production Metrics (PPMs). By offshoring these prayer concerns, we free up our American prayer force for enterprises such as watching American Idol (we don't fully approve of this, but it is at least a religous activity) and filing Unemployment claims. As a result of this shift in the prayer force, I must announce a rightsizing of 25% of our American prayer force. Effective August 1st, 2006, some 13 million American People of Prayer will no longer be employed under our auspices. We are confident that these beloved yet displaced workers will find future employment in other churches, or perhaps other religions, and that such measures will result in a closer walk with God as these dear but screwed disciples encounter increased trials and tribulations in their lives."

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Paste on NPR

Last week Paste Magazine editor Josh Jackson was on NPR's All Songs Considered. If you'd like to listen to the show, you can do so here.

Here's the blurb for the show:

"The editors of Paste magazine wondered: who are the best living songwriters around. They gathered a team of 50 musicians and writers and put together a list of the top 100. On this edition of All Songs Considered host Bob Boilen talks with Paste magazine editor Josh Jackson, the arts editor for NPR News, Bill Wyman and songwriter Mary Gauthier. They discuss great songwriters, life-changing songs and the art and craft of songwriting."

The Half-Way Point

We’re now at the midway point for 2006, which seems as good a time as any to take a look back on the musical highlights of the first half of the year. Here are mine:

Benevento Russo Duo – Play Pause Stop – Jazz meets The Chemical Brothers meets The Flaming Lips. Endlessly creative, and top-notch musicianship.

Scott H. Biram – Graveyard Shift – Biram takes the raw minimalism of The White Stripes and does it one better – he’s a one-man band. Ravaged vocals, a Delta Blues sensibility, questionable but enthusiastic guitar skills, and a broken heart like Hank Williams.

Birdmonster – No Midnight – Imagine The Strokes with banjos. Or Interpol with cellos. Then imagine an unhinged singer who sounds like Win Butler from The Arcade Fire. You’re in the New New Wave ballpark.

Camera Obscura – Let’s Get Out Of This Country – A sweet early ‘60s girl group reprise, but with decidedly modern sensibilities. Gorgeous pop music.

Johnny Dowd – Cruel Words – Gritty but poetic songwriting, a gravel-voiced visionary, an organist who worships at the B3 altar of Jimmy Smith, a guitarist who takes his cues from Black Sabbath and Metallica, and a drummer who aspires to play in a prog rock band. Crazy? You bet, and great.

Donald Fagen – Morph the Cat – Yes, it sounds like a Steely Dan record. The problem? Nobody does slick jazz/rock better than Fagen, and “Brite Nightgown” is the funkiest song I’ve heard this year.

Jolie Holland – Springtime Can Kill You – Although she doesn’t work in the jazz idiom, Holland surely sounds like Billie Holliday at times, and the way she sidles up to and dances around notes is a thing of beauty. She’s a great singer. As a bonus, she’s also a fine, idiosyncratic songwriter.

Lambchop – Damaged – Kurt Wagner can’t sing in the same way Tom Waits can’t sing, which means that although he won’t be taking out an ad to teach voice lessons, he’s still pretty great. He wants to be a romantic crooner in the tradition of Mel Torme or Tony Bennett, so he employs a lot of schmaltzy strings. But then he sings lines like "Here’s a little story ‘bout regret/Doesn’t have an ending, it’s not finished yet" and “You’re dripping wet from a midday shower/Soon you’ll be drying off your dick/I want to be romantic about it/But there’s really not much more to it.” Don’t look for him on Easy Listening radio anytime soon.

Iarla O’Lionaird – Invisible Fields – Celtic music meets Sigur Ros. O’Lionaird has a soulful, soaring voice, and these ethereal soundscapes frame it perfectly.

Derek Trucks Band – Songlines – Great slide guitar work, and the funkiest southern fried/soul/African/Indian/rock band you’d ever want to hear. I particularly appreciate Trucks’ eclecticism, and the marvelously soulful vocals of newcomer Mike Mattison.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Benediction For a Small Town

We moved from Mount Vernon, Ohio to Westerville, Ohio seven years ago. In Mount Vernon, we lived in a big old 150-year-old house with three-story white Corinthian pillars holding up the porch, hardwood floors, five fireplaces, and a wraparound staircase. We didn't have a garage. We had a carriage house. It was a cool place, if a little ostentatious. It looked like Tara in Gone With The Wind, and I think that when we moved there I expected the same kind of old-fashioned schmaltz to carry over into every aspect of our lives. Mount Vernon looked like an idyllic small town, and I had visions of raising apple-cheeked kids, and strolling the streets, and doffing my cap to passersby as they said "Mornin', Andy."

It didn't turn out that way. Here is something I wrote seven years ago, a couple days before we moved to Westerville.


My friend/pastor Don Muncie asked me, just before he moved to Tennessee, “What is it you want to leave behind in Mount Vernon, Ohio? What do you want to bury here and not take with you?”

I couldn’t think of a particularly meaningful response at the time. I think I gave him the Standard Christian Line: my sinfulness, my selfishness, my lack of love. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Good answer. Now what do you really want to leave behind?

Last night I walked around by myself for a couple hours. The kids were in bed. I had spent most of the evening taping and labeling boxes. I walked east, past all the grand old historical homes on Gambier and High Streets, their National Registry plaques proudly displayed next to the their front doors. I doubled back west and walked to the little park in the center of town. One hundred and thirty six years ago Abraham Lincoln sent the Union Army into this park to arrest Ohio Senator Clement Vallandigham, who was stirring up trouble among the Copperheads. Last night I was the only trouble afoot. Mike Merilees cruised by in his police car and saw me out there and waved to me. I waved back. Mike used to stop me and question what I was doing. Now he’s used to seeing this strange bearded fellow who has a tendency to stand by himself in parks at midnight. He can’t figure it out. I suppose I can’t either.

And so I made the rounds, walking north and west and south, keeping the night watches, making sure that Mount Vernon, Ohio was safe for democracy. It was. And I thought, and I prayed.

Dozens of people in Mount Vernon have asked me why we’re moving. They express shock and dismay. This is Norman Rockwell’s vision of America, after all, beautiful old homes with wraparound front porches and porch swings and American flags and a cacophony of ringing church bells from the five main churches (Catholic, Baptist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Methodist) on Sunday mornings, county fairs and Amish buggies rolling down the cobblestoned streets and family-run diners and antique shops and a Wal-Mart, our one concession to corporate America. Why would anybody in his right mind ever want to leave that? That’s the unspoken question these people ask: what, are you nuts? And I give them the standard spiel: the work commute is too long, the grant money for Kate’s job is drying up, even the semi-snobby response that we need to find better gifted programs for our kids.

The real reason is profound disappointment. The real reason is loneliness, the feeling of almost total isolation in the midst of friendly, honking and waving people. The real reason is anger and resentment at never feeling a part of this community, of watching Bible Studies and small groups fall apart because people couldn’t find the time to make them a priority, of spending almost eight years of my life trying to make a go of it in a church where I don’t belong, and of having that church as almost my sole contact with the life of Norman Rockwell’s America. It’s the reality of having two close relationships with people in town, and of having both of those relationships disappear with the moving vans. It’s frustration with a whole passel of multi-generational Mount Vernon families who have lived in this town since time immemorial, and who simply don’t have time for new people in their lives. And it’s doubt and insecurity and wondering what the hell is wrong with me.

Those are the real reasons why the moving van will pull up to my house Monday morning. I can’t tell anybody that. It’s the shallowness and sterility of what Kate calls the honk-and-wave fellowship. Everybody in town knows me. And it’s wondering if that’s why they only honk and wave.

I came to Mount Vernon thinking I was pretty hot stuff, that I would be an asset to any community and to any church, and that they’d better be damn glad to have me, too. And I’ve struggled big time with these Presbyterians, these sons and daughters of the Reformation who don’t know a thing about what John Calvin taught and believed, and who don’t give a rip that they don’t know. And I’ve referred to the Bible and have been met with blank stares, as if appealing to the Bible in church was about as relevant as appealing to Sports Illustrated Magazine, that everybody was entitled to their own opinions, after all, and that there were plenty of fundamentalist (translation: bigoted, small-minded, ignorant) churches who thought that way if I would care to check them out.

I don’t feel like much of a hot shot these days. About all I know for certain is my own brokenness, which is something these Presbyterians are good at emphasizing, and one of the few things they appear to get right. I don’t have it together. I love God, but not very well, and I love my family, but not very well, and I wave to everybody else. And now it’s time to wave goodbye.

What I’d like to tell Don Muncie, what I should have told him, is that I’d like to bury all the hurt. I’d like to give it a rest. I’m tired of trying to figure out how much of this is other peoples’ fault and how much is my fault, what I could have done or should have done differently. I’m tired of thinking about it. I just want to move on. The problem is that I can leave everything behind but me.

So eventually I wandered back home, to this magnificent old house, this ramshackle mansion that we affectionately call Tara in the Corn, and I sat on the porch swing on the grand old front porch, underneath those three-story Greek pillars, and realized that eight years of my life were gone with the wind, irretrievable. And I prayed, again, that God would change me, that He would make me into someone other than who I often appear to be. I closed my eyes and envisioned myself stretching out my hands above the whole town in a gesture of benediction. In my vision it all got muddled together, and I thanked God for the joy I had found in Mount Vernon, and I meant it, and I asked him to take away the sorrow and the hurt so that I wouldn’t drag it behind me to the next town. I asked if he would help me bury it here. I thought about different people, and their faces came to mind, and I thought about the times when they had infuriated me and the times when they had made me laugh, or had simply exchanged idle pleasantries with me. And I thanked God for all of it, the good times and the bad, and I raised my hands heavenward, as if I were pushing the whole load upward. Here, you take it, I thought. I sat on the porch swing, my own little mercy seat, and heard in my mind the standard Presbyterian benediction I’ve heard Sunday after Sunday, year after year. And I said this for the town of Mount Vernon, Ohio: The Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you. May the Lord lift up his countenance to you and give you peace.

I felt lousy, but that’s the way it has to be for sentimental, nostalgic fools. I went in the house and went to bed and eventually fell asleep. This morning on my way out of town, dog tired, I passed a couple folks I knew and they honked and waved to me, and I waved back and felt okay about it.