Friday, September 29, 2006

Next Blog

Blogger has a "Next Blog" button, which I've never noticed before, that appears in the upper right corner of the blog window. So, while checking my blog, I clicked it. And this is what I found:

"Life........ its a very strange thg... neither u can live with it nor u can live without it....sometimes life gives u everythg.... i mean everythg u need. U dont even have to ask for it... its thr decorated in plate and handed over to u... just like tht... In such moments i think how strange? I didnt ask for it!! why? wht for??"

I don't know how this person arrived next to me in the blog world. I don't know how these things work. But I am so glad to hang out next to someone who realizes that life is something you can neither live with nor without. Particularly without, I would guess. Welcome, virtual neighbor! May u ponder life fr mny yrs 2 come.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Utopia v5.0

One of the seductions that bedevils Christian formation is the construction of utopias, ideal places where we can live totally and without inhibition or interference the good and blessed and righteous life. The imagining and then attempted construction of such utopias is an old habit of our kind. Sometimes we attempt it politically in communities, sometimes socially in communes, sometimes religiously in churches. It never comes to anything but grief. Utopia is, literally, “no-place.” But we can live our lives only in actual place, not in an imagined or fantasized or artificially fashioned place.
-- Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, p. 73.

I am no stranger to utopias. Version 1.0 crumbled when I was an adolescent, when my happy, secure home morphed into Hell’s Half Acre, thanks to marital infidelity and alcoholism and mental illness. I didn’t realize I was living in utopia at the time. I just took it for granted that it was home. Then the butcher knives came out and the suicide attempts started and the ambulances started pulling in the driveway at 3:00 a.m. Joni Mitchell once sang, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone?” And she was right. But I was determined to find utopia again.

I found Version 2.0 a few years later in an unlikely place – what passes for a ghetto in Columbus, Ohio. I was a new Christian, I was deeply (for better and worse) influenced by the counterculture, and I wanted nothing to do with stained glass windows and hardwood pews. But a Jesus Freak commune/community in the middle of the city sounded just fine. It was home for eight years. I met my wife there. Before that I lived with a married couple with kids, and watched them work through their conflicts, and learned something about what it was like to live in the midst of a normal, healthy marriage. I lived with single guys. I lived with dogs and cats. I lived with goats. I lived with homeless people who got picked up off the street, brought home, given a place to sleep and a warm meal the next morning. I lived with a church full of people who were committed to trying to live like Jesus in what sometimes passed for a war zone. Women got raped. Houses got robbed. And in the midst of that incredible turmoil, I found a group of people I grew to deeply love.

And then it fell apart. The Jesus Freaks got married, started having kids, and figured that they didn’t want little Joshua and Sarah to be exposed to the crack dealer on the corner. And unlike their poor, downtrodden, and frequently violent, crazy neighbors, they moved because they could. I understood it. I didn’t blame them. But utopia started looking like suburbia in less than a decade. And part of me – the cynical, resigned part of me – smirked at the injustice of it all. It was either that or cry. So much for the lofty vision of ministering to the least of these. Now people were ministering to their lawns.

But idealism is a tenacious little virus in me, and a few years later it came back with a vengeance. Version 3.0 involved a move to Norman Rockwell’s America – specifically, Mount Vernon, Ohio. Mount Vernon was a picturesque little burg with coblestoned streets and lovely Victorian homes and a real downtown shopping district and churches within easy walking distance and a quaint little park with a Civil War statue smack dab in the middle of everything. And I convinced myself that that’s what was missing from my life. You couldn’t manufacture community, the way we had tried in the ghetto. You had to move to a real community. So we packed up the kids and headed to Smalltown, USA, where all the men would doff their caps and say “Mornin’, Andy” as I strolled the cobblestoned streets, and where all the apple-cheeked children would smile and wave.

Somebody should have warned me that Norman Rockwell was a sentimental schmuck. Or somebody should have at least warned me that I was a sentimental schmuck. In any case, it didn’t work. Nobody told us about the insular world of small town America, where four generations of a family all live within a couple blocks of each other, and where, if you’re lucky, you might lose the “outsider” tag if you stick it out for twenty years. We stuck it out for seven. And then we headed to the wilds of suburbia, where everybody’s an outsider, and where, if you’re lucky, you might be able to have a conversation with your neighbor before he pulls into his garage and presses the button on the automatic garage door contraption that shuts him in for the night.

Version 4.0 has been progressing nicely for a little more than seven years now. It’s a smaller, more circumscribed world where I don’t expect too much. Maybe Mount Vernon cured me of that. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a pleasant life. I love being able to walk outside my door and see sailboats on a lake. Bruce Cockburn once sang “All the diamonds in this world that mean anything to me/Are conjured up by wind and sunlight sparkling on the sea.” That sounds about right. But for the rest of my days, I’m going to stop counting utopias. I have a wonderful wife, and great kids, and a bunch of friends, a church full of courageous and generous human beings whom I love and admire and am challenged by and amazed by. I would be a fool not to be thankful for these things, and at least in this area I am not a fool.

But I walk around with a hole in my soul, just as everybody does, just as it must be for all those who stumble around on a planet that is not utopia. There are places that even those closest to me cannot touch. There are aches I cannot even articulate. There are losses I cannot name. What is the word for the disconnect that makes me indifferent to the sufferings of others, that makes others indifferent to my deepest longings, that imprisons us all in our garages of insecurity and anger and unforgiveness? I long to go someplace else. I long for a country I’ve never visited.

And so I limit myself to a dream, a hope, a prayer. I can’t wait for version 5.0.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Oh Boy! New Dan Reeder and Steve Goodman

John Prine's record label Oh Boy! can usually be counted on for quality music, and he hasn't disappointed in the month of September. The label's two new releases, Dan Reeder's sophomore album Sweetheart and Steve Goodman's Live at the Earl of Old Town, are both superb.

Reeder has the kind of world-weary rasp that makes it easy to understand why Prine would be drawn to him. He has Prine's wit and fine eye for detail, too. He's a crass son-of-a-gun (three of the song titles are "I Drink Beer," "Pussy Titty," and "Pussy Heaven"), but I can't fault him too much. The middle song is a wry commentary on men's room graffiti, while "I Drink Beer" solemnly declares, ""I drink beer to improve my mind/End all war, and help mankind/Through these dark and trying times.'' Yeah, me too. He takes Procol Harum's prog-rock classic "Whiter Shade of Pale" and turns it into a Neil Young country-folk ditty, and on "Bach is Dead and Gone" he offers a line that has to be in the running for lyric of the year: "I said, 'Let's write some motets.' He was already done." Cynicism and a heart that cares in spite of itself haven't sounded this good since Prine's early albums.

I love Steve Goodman, and have almost everything he's ever recorded, so I may not be the most objective source here. But somebody unearthed a long buried concert tape from 1978, and for me this is the equivalent of a life-changing archaeological discovery. The sound is miraculously good, Goodman is at the height of his powers, which means that he's funny, sad, profound, and a hell of an acoustic guitar picker, and he concludes his hour-long set with an ode to the Chicago Cubs, who were only four games out of first place when the concert was recorded.

They finished 11 games out of first. They will break your heart every time. Those of you who care about Chicago know that the Cubs can do that. So can Steve Goodman, who was thirty years old when this concert was recorded, and who died a mere six years later of leukemia, just a few days before the Cubs clinched their first playoff appearance in what would have been his lifetime. I love his songs and I love the way he plays them here; full tilt, no-holds-barred, heart-on-the-sleeve folk music that somehow manages to rock. He was a great talent, and I still miss him, and I'm glad to have another artifact of his too short life.

Willie Nelson, Silversun Pickups, Peter Walker, Unwed Sailor

Willie Nelson – Songbird

These days Willie is hit-or-miss for me. He followed up his horrendous reggae album Countryman with the surprisingly lovely You Don’t Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker. Now he’s back with Songbird, aided and abetted by fellow renegade Ryan Adams and his backing band The Cardinals. Willie’s voice, always a somewhat dubious instrument, is thinner than it used to be. But he makes up for it in engaging in some rowdy good times. As smooth and countrypolitan as the Cindy Walker album was, Songbird is all jagged edges and bar band raunch. There are some mediocre covers (please, not Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” again, and Gram Parsons’ “$1000 Wedding” is surprisingly lackluster), but Willie’s take on The Grateful Dead’s “Stella Blue” is an unexpected highlight, and the title track (yes, Willie does Fleetwood Mac) is pure gold. Adams and the Cardinals kick up a fuss behind him, and Willie sounds more energized than he has in years.

Silversun Pickups – Carnavas

It was about time for an early nineties revival. L.A.’s Silversun Pickups clearly listened to a lot of My Bloody Valentine, Smashing Pumpkins, and Pixies during their misspent youth. So if their debut album is derivative, and it is, then at least they they picked some great influences. Singer/songwriter Brian Aubert takes Kevin Shields’ hazy wall of guitar noise and marries it to some infectious hooks. Bassist Nikki Monninger has her Kim Deal moves down, and sings/shouts the harmonies. And overall, Aubert writes better songs than Billy Corgan has written in fifteen years. If it’s not original, it’s at least good. That’s better than anything I can say about the reconstituted Pixies, the increasingly bland Corgan, or the long gone Valentine.

Peter Walker/Various Artists – A Raga for Peter Walker

First Vashti Bunyan. Now Peter Walker. The old hippies have decided to become productive again in their dotage. The legendary/infamous guitarist Peter Walker was the musical director for Timothy Leary’s LSD experiments at Harvard, recorded two folk albums for the venerable Vanguard Records in the late 1960s, and then took a 37-year break. Hey, everybody needs to stop and smell the roses. And have you ever tasted red, man? I mean, like, really let red permeate your whole being? So, after a colorful few decades, Peter’s back with a new album, A Raga for Peter Walker, which features Walker on four new tracks, and musical friends such as Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore on seven more. It's lovely music, too, combining some intricate acoustic fingerpicking with the drone that you would expect given the album title. If Leo Kottke and Ravi Shankar joined forces, this is what they might sound like. Far out, old man.

Unwed Sailor – The White Ox

Unwed Sailor’s previous album, 2004’s The Marionette and the Music Box, was a 17-song concept album about a lost marionette trying to find the music box he/she/it called home, and featured a track called “Distraction. A Conflict of Interest. Enchanted by the Unicorn.” It gave credence to the notion that drugs can do serious damage to human beings. Astoundingly, given the premise, it was pretty good in spite of its pretentious/twee aspirations, and managed to present a series of coherent all-instrumental songs whose meaning/content was conveyed by the illustrations in the CD booklet. This time out Unwed Sailor mastermind Johnathon Ford is joined by Early Day Miner’s Dan Burton, who actually sings words on a couple tracks. But musically, it’s the same winning formula – ambient, brooding, mostly instrumental songs that are as dark and foreboding as they are lovely. There’s not much here that you can hum along with, but it’s perfectly wonderful mood music.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Last Day of Summer

It's the last day of summer, and what better way to celebrate it than for middle-aged fat guys to revel in the wonder that is surf music? So I sit in my cubicle, eat my leftover meat loaf sandwich, and contemplate carving a line atop a 50-foot wave at Malibu. Don't dwell too long on the image. It can make you crazy.

Still, I'm a sucker for surf music in general, and surf instrumentals in particular. Even if I can't surf, I can still vicariously participate in the culture. To that end, Rhino's Surfin' Hits compilation is still the best place to start, and features the expected Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, and Dick Dale tunes, along with marvellous one-hit (or sometimes two-hit) wonders The Marketts, The Chantays, The Rumblers and The Trashmen.

Another big favorite is San Francisco's Mermen (one of whom is a woman, but why quibble about beings with fins?). All of their albums are good, but 1995's A Glorious, Lethal Euphoria has to be heard to be believed. There are definite Dick Dale influences, as well as some hints of Sonic Youth and John Coltrane, all speeded up to ridiculous tempos and put in a sonic blender. Plus a song called "The Drowning Man Knows His God" and a surf take on Brahms' 3rd Symphony.

I also have to put in a plug for French, Frith, Kaiser and Thompson's (as in Richard Thompson) album Live, Love, Larf, and Loaf, which features a goosestepping version of "Surfin' USA" as it might have been performed by Heinrich Himmler.

Surfers have their own version of human depravity and the fallen world that we live in. It doesn't really account all that well for the Heinrich Himmler's of the world, but I've always loved it just the same:

There's a moon in the sky somewhere I know
Waiting for all the love to burn below
If you fall and it happens all to soon
Blame it all on the surfer moon

But not today. It's the last day of summer. The sun is shining gloriously. It's as beautiful as California, only with corn. I'm going to take the iPod outside after I finish my sandwich, stroll sedately to some old surfin' tunes, and imagine that I'm on Zuma beach.

Monday, September 18, 2006

New All Music Guide Reviews -- Birdmonster, Bernard Fanning, Ollabelle

Some new reviews at All Music Guide (

Birdmonster -- No Midnight
Bernard Fanning -- Tea and Sympathy
Ollabelle -- Riverside Battle Songs

Paste #25

Paste #25 is now out, with moviemaker/movie star/TV star/Shins fan Zach Braff on the cover.

Those who care about virtual Andy Whitman sightings will find my lead review of Mindy Smith's latest album (Long Island Shores), a short review of the new Bruce Hornsby box set, and my back-page article on cosmic cowboy Gram Parsons. Those who care about physical Andy Whitman sightings can catch me at home most evenings this week, writing feverishly, mowing the lawn, helping my daughter with occasional homework requests, cooking dinner, washing the dishes, and, time permitting, trudging faithfully on the treadmill. Yes, Kate is working evenings most of this week.

For the virtual sightings, visit your friendly neighborhood Borders or Barnes and Noble Bookstore. For the physical sightings, call me at home, but give me advance warning so I can bathe first.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Sin City

This is a cautionary gospel tune written by two hippies who may or may not have known Jesus. It just might be my favorite gospel song. Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman left The Byrds in 1969, determined to play old-time country music. They formed a band called The Flying Burrito Brothers and wrote songs like this. Influenced by authentic Appalachian music from the likes of the Louvin Brothers and the Stanley Brothers, they engaged in some fabulous picking and high harmony singing and raised an impossibly glorious hymn to paranoia and impending Armageddon. Somehow it seems more timely than ever.

This old town is filled with sin
It'll swallow you in
If you've got some money to burn
Take it home right away
You've got three years to pay
But Satan is waiting his turn

This old earthquake's gonna leave me in the poor house
It seems like this whole town's insane
On the thirty-first floor a gold plated door
Won't keep out the Lord's burning rain

The scientists say
It'll all wash away
But we don't believe any more
Cause we've got our recruits
And our green mohair suits
So please show your ID at the door

This old earthquake's gonna leave me in the poor house
It seems like this whole town's insane
On the thirty-first floor a gold plated door
Won't keep out the Lord's burning rain

A friend came around
Tried to clean up this town
His ideas made some people mad
But he trusted his crowd
So he spoke right out loud
And they lost the best friend they had

This old earthquake's gonna leave me in the poor house
It seems like this whole town's insane
On the thirty-first floor a gold plated door
Won't keep out the Lord's burning rain
On the thirty-first floor a gold plated door
Won't keep out the Lord's burning rain
-- Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman, "Sin City" -- 1970

Blues for Jesus

The Christian music press is making a big noise over one Jonny Lang. Jonny is a hotshot blues guitarist. He made his first album (Lie to Me) when he was fifteen years old. And it’s a good album, too, featuring blistering guitar runs and Jonnny’s voice, which sounds like he’s fifteen going on fifty, and which has that whiskey-and-cigarettes quality that one hopes is merely a good imitation, at least at that age. So Jonny, now at the ripe old age of 24, has made a new album (Turn Around), where he sings about his love for Jesus. And various Christian magazines are falling all over themselves about what a wondrous and new thing this is – Christian blues. And they are proclaiming this as Jonny’s greatest triumph.

It’s a tendency I’ve seen far too frequently. I remember similarly ecstatic responses for the debut “Christian” albums of Richie Furay (Poco, Souther, Hillman, Furay Band), B. J. Thomas, and, of course, Bob Dylan. The quality of the music is almost an afterthought, and the primary message that is communicated is "Hey look, we got ourselves a legitimate musician from the big, bad, pagan world, and now he gets to engage in 'loss' and 'cross' and 'grace' and 'face' rhymes.” Whoopee.

It's truly unfortunate when the Christian music press takes this approach. For the, umm, record, I think it's great that Jonny Lang knows Jesus. I really do. But his music still needs to be evaluated on its own merits. Just as a footnote, Jonny was singing about Jesus on his previous album, too (Long Time Coming). And you know what? It was a lousy album, and that had nothing to do with the subject matter. It had to do with the cheesy '80s arena rock production, an over-reliance on Pro Tools, and banal lyrics. When will the Christian music press start to understand this?

And just as another footnote, the Christian music press has got it all wrong if they thing Jonny is breaking new ground with this Blues for Jesus thing. Ed Raetzloff did it back in the seventies. So did Resurrection Band/Rez Band/Rez, and "Broken Promises" is still the best "Christian" blues I've ever heard. And moving outside the CCM world, I'll take Blind Willie Johnson over any of them, and he was recording his great gospel blues songs back in 1927.

To quote Larry Norman, "There ain't nothin' wrong with playin' blues licks." He wrote that in 1972, forty-five years after Blind Willie. And it's still true. So God bless Jonny Lang. But please, I think I may have a coronary if I read too many hyperbolic comments about Jonny's breathtakingly innovative approach.

Monday, September 11, 2006

New All Music Guide Reviews -- Elanors, Bobby Bare Jr., Mark Hummel, Horse Feathers

Some of my new reviews have shown up on All Music Guide:

Elanors -- Movements
Bobby Bare Jr. -- The Longest Meow
Mark Hummel -- Ain't Easy No More
Horse Feathers -- Words Are Dead

Forgetting and Remembering

At 10:30 a.m. on 9/11 I walked in to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles in Westerville, Ohio to get my driver’s license renewed. I strolled in, knowing nothing of what was happening, watched the second World Trade Center tower tumble to the ground, and then about a minute later had to sit in front of a camera and have my picture taken for my driver’s license. The world is about to end; smile at the count of three. I carried that photo around with me for four years. I look like I’m in shock, possibly because I was. I’m smiling, right on cue, and tears are rolling down my face. Amazingly, within a couple weeks I, along with most Americans, was back doing the things I always did, pretending like none of it had happened.

But it did. I have a friend who wrote about an extraordinary lunchtime conversation he overheard on 9/11. Less than three hours after Armageddon, a group of women sat around in a restaurant and talked about their weekend sexual conquests and discussed plans to go shopping. My finely tuned sense of moral outrage kicked in when I read his story. How can people be so shallow? How can they be so self-centered?

Me? I went home and alternated between being drawn to the television and being repelled by the television, wanting to watch and wanting to turn it off and make it all go away. I cried easily. I prayed easily. I wanted to pound my head into the wall. But the next week I started a new job. I had a lot of new information to assimilate. I had to be “on.” And, as rumors of another impending attack filled the airwaves, as stories of ricin and anthrax in the water supply made the rounds, I did my best to concentrate on electronic data interchange and X12 standards and other esoterica that had little or nothing to do with the state of the world, but everything to do with the state of my ability to put food on the table. In short, I went back to normal life.

We cannot sustain the kind of hyper-charged reality that 9/11 temporarily thrust upon us. Some people get past it remarkably quickly, and end up making very, very small talk at lunchtime on the day of a catastrophe. For others it takes a few days, a few weeks. But we all get past it. We go back to doing what we do – going to work, spending time with our families and friends, listening to music, watching TV, puttering around in the woodshop or the garden. It is mundane life, and it is better, or at least easier to bear, than abject fear and terror.

Last night CBS showed a remarkable documentary. Two French filmmakers were making a documentary about the life of a young fireman, tracking his progress from the training academy to life on the job. He was stationed in Engine House #7 in lower Manhattan, seven blocks from the World Trade Center. In the middle of their documentary a catastrophe of unimagined horror happened. Quite by accident, they ended up filming a remarkably stark, graphic portrayal of 9/11, embedded with the first firefighters who arrived on the scene, milling about in the lobby of Tower #1. There is chaos all around the firefighters. People are running. Every minute or so a frighteningly loud thud is heard. That is the sound of bodies who have jumped from eighty floors above them. Their bodies literally explode on impact. A young fireman looks shocked, the fear radiating from his eyes. “What the fuck must it be like up there,” he muses aloud, not even knowing that a camera is trained on him, “if people think that jumping from the eightieth floor is their best alternative?” Fifteen minutes after the firefighters arrive the first tower collapses, and that is caught on film from inside the lobby of the tower. The roar of collapsing floors above the firefighters is, I think, the saddest sound I’ve ever heard in my life. I couldn’t stand it. I hated it. But I couldn’t turn it off.

We will never forget. It’s a marketing slogan these days, a handy catchphrase that encapsulates and trivializes an event so massive that it cannot be contained. But we do forget. We have to in order to go on living. We file it away like we would the snapshots from our family vacations. We pull them out occasionally, acknowledge that they happened, and then go back to the mundane. And perhaps that is all we can do. But today, at least for today, it is worth remembering, really remembering. Don’t trivialize it. Go back to 9/11 and relive it, just for a little while.

The events of the past five years have deeply divided America. We are at war. We have sacrificed valuable freedoms. And we could be attacked again, at any moment. There are no easy answers. But regardless of your political persuasions, think about these statements. They are true. You can read them defiantly if it makes you feel better. That’s the way I prefer to read them. Take that, you purveyors of doom and despair. Or you can read them through tears, read them in memory of the 3,000 people who died on 9/11. I do that, too. Either way, read them, and believe them, and remember what has been lost, and remember what cannot be lost.

Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood since the earth was founded?

He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth,
and its people are like grasshoppers.
He stretches out the heavens like a canopy,
and spreads them out like a tent to live in.

He brings princes to naught
and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing.

No sooner are they planted,
no sooner are they sown,
no sooner do they take root in the ground,
than he blows on them and they wither,
and a whirlwind sweeps them away like chaff.

"To whom will you compare me?
Or who is my equal?" says the Holy One.

Lift your eyes and look to the heavens:
Who created all these?
He who brings out the starry host one by one,
and calls them each by name.
Because of his great power and mighty strength,
not one of them is missing.

Why do you say, O Jacob,
and complain, O Israel,
"My way is hidden from the LORD;
my cause is disregarded by my God"?

Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.

He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.

Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;

but those who hope in the LORD
will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.
-- Isaiah 40:21-31

Friday, September 08, 2006

Sweet Revenge

I am not a fan of indie music site Pitchfork. Sometimes they get it right, and sometimes they get it spectacularly wrong. And, most damningly from my point of view, even when they get it right they still have an uncanny knack for writing smarmy, condescending prose full of ad hominen attacks, the point of which seems to be to inflate their hipness factor. And here's a clue: hipness is way, way overrated in the music world, not to mention a fairly shallow way to view human beings. If I was ever hip, it was perhaps back in the Carter administration, and it's been downhill ever since. And you know what? It doesn't matter, because music is still worthwhile, and still worth writing about, even when it's made by people with bad haircuts and not enough tattoos. I wish Pitchfork would learn that lesson, but I'm not holding my breath.

But I have now figured out a way to take out my frustrations against P'fork's editor. Take that, poser.

Tall Stacks Music Festival

I'm thinking about venturing down to the musical Mecca of Cincinnati at the beginning of October. Why? The five-day (Weds. Oct 4th - Sun. Oct. 8th) Tall Stacks Music Festival. Who's playing?, you might well ask. And that would be:

Abigail Washburn
Al Green
Asleep at the Wheel
BeauSoleil avec Michael Doucet
Bettye LaVette
Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys
The Blind Boys of Alabama
Buckwheat Zydeco
Buddy Guy
Charlie Musselwhite
Chatham County Line
Chris Hillman & Herb Pedersen
Chris Smither
The Del McCoury Band
Delbert McClinton
Dr. John
Hot Rize
Jerry Douglas
John Hammond
John Hiatt
Junior Brown
Loudon Wainwright III
Marcia Ball
Medeski, Martin & Wood
Nathan & the Zydeco Cha Chas
Old Crow Medicine Show
Over the Rhine
Peter Rowan
Ralph Stanley & The Clinch Mountain Boys
Rhett Miller & The Believers
Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder
Rodney Crowell
Rosanne Cash
Sarah Borges and the Broken Singles
Sean Costello
Sonny Landreth
Sonya Kitchell
Tea Leaf Green
Teresa James & The Rhythm Tramps
Tift Merritt
Tim O'Brien
Tony Rice
Yerba Buen

Here's the best part of the deal. I just received my invitation to SXSW in Austin next March. For a mere $700 I can get a week-long pass. The Tall Stacks Festival? $22 for five days of music. No, that is not a typo. If you like folk/roots/soul/blues/bluegrass/alt-country music, this is about as great as it gets.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Neutral Milk Hotel

So I've been listening to Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. In the last few weeks I've had four people, including my pastor and my daughter's cute little Italian gay friend, tell me in totally unrelated conversations that this album is the Greatest Album Ever Made, that it has Changed Their Life, and other hyperventilating things that music fanatics tend to say several times per week. I understand. I pat them on their cute little hipster heads and encourage them to simmer down. Pitchfork, that bastion of arch musical cluelessness and snarkiness, rated it a 10.0 out of 10.0, to my knowledge the only "perfect" album they've ever reviewed.

I will admit that I did not listen to this album for years because of that Pitchfork review. I want to shove banana cream pies in the faces of Pitchfork reviewers. Out of general principle, I tend to disdain whatever they praise. It just makes it easier to maintain my sanity. Plus I'm wary of the mythologies that surround Insane Songwriters Who Record Their Magnum Opus Then Are Locked Away In A Padded Room stories, a la Syd Barrett. But look, when your pastor tells you that something is really great, you start thinking that maybe there is some higher spiritual principle at work, and that your future sanctification may be at stake. So I listened to the album. And I've kept listening to the album.

And you know what? It's pretty great. It's not The Greatest Album Ever Made, but it's really, really good. I'm feeling holier already. Plus, it's hugely entertaining in a crazed, unhinged way.

Jeff Mangum, the aforementioned insane singer/songwriter here, made this, his second album, in 1997. Then he disappeared. Now he's a demented hermit somewhere, perhaps in a cave, where his fingernails are six inches long. And people eat this stuff up. It's National Enquirer for Hipsters fodder. So I was prepared to be cynical. But the songs won me over, primarily because they're utterly unpredictable and yet still rooted in an easily understood pop framework; catchy, hook-filled guitar rock until, say, a Turkish marching band crashes the proceedings, as happens in several songs. And the lyrics are absolutely harrowing. There's a song about Anne Frank called "Holland, 1945" that will break your heart. There's a song about young, passionate love that degenerates into a remembrance of dear old mum plunging a fork into daddy's shoulder. And yes, Mangum does sound crazed, spitting out the lyrics, veering off key so frequently that it gets alarming, but sounding like he's so intensely locked in that he has no choice but to careen out of control. It's spooky -- and surpringly moving -- stuff.

So I'll ignore the fact that the guitar chords are right out of the Mel Bay Beginning Guitar book, and that anybody with two weeks practice can play these songs. And I'll ignore the fact that one of these songs is a nine-minute folk tune with two chords. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is a fascinating, grim, and occasionally exhilarating ride.

Hootenanny Special

I’ve been in a mellow, folky mood of late.

Horse Feathers – Words Are Dead

The debut album from Portland, Oregon folk duo Horse Feathers, Words Are Dead, is rapidly becoming one of my favorite releases of the year. Singer/songwriter Justin Ringle has a high, reedy voice that favorably recalls (and God forgive me for making this comparison) Nick Drake. He writes poetic, enigmatic lyrics about something or other (the album may be called Words Are Dead for a reason). Multi-instrumentalist Peter Broderick (violin, banjo, mandolin, cello, viola, piano, saw, percussion) fleshes out Ringle's skeletal melodies with some baroque filigree. He may use traditional bluegrass instrumentation, but this is more chamber folk than hoedown. And it's lovely. There is a haunting, timeless quality in this music. These are songs that could come from 2006, or 1906, or 1806. It's front porch music, except when Broderick leans hard on his classical influences, and then it becomes front parlor music. The album is out September 19th. You might look for it if you're a fan of the new folk music of M. Ward, Jose Gonzalez, Iron and Wine, etc.

Various Artists – Old Town School of Folk Music Songbook, Vol. 1

The Old Town School of Folk Music is a Chicago institution, and they’ve been schooling kids on the folk music tradition for fifty years now. This compilation collects 23 classic American folk tunes that you know even if you don’t recognize the titles, and gives them a new spin courtesy of a batch of contemporary folk and alt-country artists – Jon Langford of the Mekons, John Stirrat of Wilco, Danny Barnes of the Bad Livers, Janet Bean of Freakwater, Robbie Fulks, Dan Zanes, and a whole bunch more. If the performances are uneven, the songs are uniformly great. They’re part of our collective national identity, and the themes – unrequited love, losing your job, the need to fill that hole in your soul – sound as relevant today as ever.

Maia Sharp – Fine, Upstanding Citizen

Our friend Emily heads up the Upper Arlington Arts Council, and this past Monday she was responsible for managing the Upper Arlington Arts Festival. Upper Arlington is a tony Columbus suburb where everyone plays golf and where 2% of the high school kids commit suicide when they don’t make it into the Ivy League school of their choice. The Chamber of Commerce does not advertise this fact. And because it is a functional, utilitarian, Midwestern kind of suburb, Art is typically thought of in terms of what would work well over the sofa. So I was curious to see what kind of magic Emily would unveil.

And she did wonderfully. There were many talented visual artists there, and the musical entertainment was provided by one Maia Sharp. I know Maia Sharp’s music. I have a couple of her albums. And I know her primarily as a songwriter’s songwriter, someone who contributes material to albums from Bonnie Raitt, The Dixie Chicks, Kim Richey, and the venerable, indestructible Cher.

So I listened. And she was superb – passionate, articulate, soulful. I was amazed. And then I went home, put on her latest album Fine, Upstanding Citizen, and was disappointed all over again. This album is Exhibit A on how bland, safe-as-milk production can ruin perfectly great songs. I read the lyric sheet, and recognized many of the songs I had just heard and loved in a live setting. But there was no passion, no energy. It was music designed to provide that perfectly innocuous accompaniment to paintings that go well over the sofa. I hate laid-back, soulless El Lay. Come to think of it, I hate Upper Arlington, too. No offense, Emily.

Nick Drake – Five Leaves Left, Bryter Layter, Pink Moon

It used to be that Nick Drake was the closely guarded secret of a few thousand rabid music fans. Then that damned Volkswagen commercial came along and ruined it, and hundreds of thousands of vacuous indie scene kids discovered his music Thirty years after his death. He’s, like, so sad, man.

Better late than never, I suppose. He is sad. Clinically depressed even, which is what eventually did him in. He only left three albums. Two of them are baroque folk classics, full of intricate acoustic guitar fingerpicking interlaced with a lovely string quartet, and more full of hope and cautious optimism than his PR would have you believe. The third one is a stark, minimalist masterpiece, the sound of a man cracking up. It is the slightly altered, utterly fragile haiku of despair:

Know that I love you
Know I don’t care
Know that I see you
Know I’m not there

And then he wasn’t. He hasn’t been there since 1974. What’s left are a few dozen impossibly lovely songs. He was the Keats and Byron of the hippie generation. He’s been romanticized, mythologized, written about ad nauseum. If you want to be hip, you have to like him. In my unhip, balding, middle-aged book, it’s okay to like him simply because he made beautiful music.