Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Best Albums of the First 4.9 Months of 2007

Dave Marsh, my #1 rock ‘n roll critic of all time (#2 some days, depending on whether I’m enchanted by or annoyed with Lester Bangs), loves lists. He once wrote a book called The Heart of Rock and Soul: The 1,001 Greatest Singles Ever Made where he ranked his favorite songs from #1 to #1,001. I find this oddly endearing, and can envision Dave agonizing over whether some old Little Willie John track should come in just ahead of Ruth Brown at #972, or should slip down to #973. Decisions, decisions. I also love the overwhelming scope of his undertaking. Why stop at a Top 10 or a Top 100 when you can do a Top 1,000? Better yet, a Top 1,001. The sheer extravagance is dizzying.

In that spirit, I offer you my list of the Top 10 Albums (Plus Honorable Mentions) of the First Four and Nine-Tenths Months of 2007. Why? Because

1. It’s almost the end of May, surely enough time to form some tentative impressions of the musical year as a whole
2. Everybody loves to label the frontrunners, and
3. We haven't had any good musical arguments since Paste Magazine left off Peter Gabriel and Joe Henry from their list of the Top 100 Living Songwriters. What were they thinking? And didn’t Paul McCartney die in 1968 anyway?

#1 -- Frog Eyes -- Tears of the Valedictorian

Weird, brilliant, and unsettling, Tears of the Valedictorian is notable for two reasons: Carey Mercer’s songs of madness, and his oddly compelling querulous yelp that emerges midway between David Bowie and Jimmy Swaggart. Mercer’s reptilian cohorts whip up a fine Tom Waits clanging trashcan symphony, but Mercer steals this freakshow, declaiming sermons about God knows what. “The wheat’s got to last/London, you’re cold, but the wheat’s got to last!” he shrieks. Easy there, dude. I suspect there is medication for this sort of thing, but Mercer’s poetic unraveling is both exhilarating and disturbing.

#2 -- Panda Bear -- Person Pitch

Mr. Bear is part of the freakfolk Animal Collective, but he’s got a serious Beach Boys fixation on his second solo album. The melodies and harmonies are worthy of Pet Sounds. Okay, not quite. But toss in the heavy reverb, the tape loops, the samples, and the electronic blips and beeps and this album answers the intriguing question of what would music sound like if Brian Wilson met Beck.

#3 -- Future Clouds and Radar -- Future Clouds and Radar

A brilliant, frustrating album. First, what band disgorges two discs and 27 songs on its debut release? And it's as bloated as that sounds. A quarter of these songs aren't merely filler; they're embarrassingly bad. But the other three-fourths comprise the best pop music I've heard this year -- perfectly written little power pop ditties that recall early Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Guided by Voices, and, above all, John Lennon and the late-period Beatles.

#4 -- Loudon Wainwright III/Joe Henry/Richard Thompson -- Strange Weirdos

You know, I once had a dream that Loudon Wainwright, one of my favorite singers, would sing a song written by Joe Henry, my favorite songwriter, and that Richard Thompson, my favorite guitarist, would provide the accompaniment. And my dream came true.

#5 -- Devon Sproule -- Keep Your Silver Shined

Devon Sproule’s music resides at the intersection of folk, country, and jazz. Pedal steel collides with clarinets. Sproule elongates her vowels and stretches out like a young Billie Holiday as she sings an old song associated with The Carter Family. And she writes a batch of sharp, finely delineated tunes about falling in love and getting married, finding joy in the simplest acts of life. There have been better musical albums released this year. But none have put a smile on my face like this one.

#6 -- Arcade Fire -- Neon Bible

Okay, let the coronation begin. Can I say that it’s a foregone conclusion that this album will end up at the top of most music critics’ lists? And I can’t quibble too much. It's very good, it's stirring, it's thought-provoking, and Win Butler captures the fine art of emoting better than anyone since the young Bono. But it's not as good as Funeral, and maybe, when the furor dies down, people will hear the awkward rhymes.

#7 -- The Clientele – God Save the Clientele

The Clientele wrote the quintessential soundtrack for 3:00 a.m. mopery and regret in Strange Geometry. And if God Save the Clientele isn’t quite that seamless masterpiece, it has the dinstinction of almost rocking in places (to the extent that twee tea drinkers can rock), and thus of being a more varied and wide-ranging effort. But no one does wistful melancholy as well as Alasdair MacLean, and on songs like “From Brighton Beach to Santa Monica” and “No Dreams Last Night” he’s damned near perfect.

#8 – Do Make Say Think – You, You’re a History in Rust

It’s the usual post-rock slow build from pastoral quiet to shrieking wall of noise, and it’s a trick that is getting a little tiresome. But in the absence of new music from Sigur Ros or Godspeed You! Black Emperor, it should be noted that Do Make Say Think is getting better and better, and that they are unique among their glacial cohorts in incorporating jazz elements into their music. This is their finest album.

#9 -- Antibalas – Security

Afrobeat jazz with wicked political commentary. If this were Bruce Cockburn I'd be slamming him for the sloganeering simplicity of his political songs, but somehow equating G.O.P. with Greedy Old Politicians works for me when it's combined with a strutting horn section and a singer who takes his cues from Fela Kuti.

#10 -- Graham Parker – Don't Tell Columbus

The former angry young man is now well into his middle age, but that doesn’t mean that he’s let up on the vitriol, and this is finest batch of songs in 25 years. If it’s not quite Howlin’ Wind or Squeezing Out Sparks, it’s close.

Honorable Mentions

Wilco – Sky Blue Sky
The Safes – Well, Well, Well
The Broken West – I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On
John Reuben -- Word of Mouth
Patty Griffin – Children Running Through
The Twilight Sad – Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters
Grinderman – Grinderman
Rickie Lee Jones – The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard
Dungen – Tio Bitar
Richard Thompson – Sweet Warrior

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Jerry Falwell -- The Legacy

A quick chronology:

1977 – Jerry Falwell founds the Moral Majority
1977 – 1.31 million abortions performed in the U.S.[1]
2006 – 1.29 million abortions performed in the U.S. [1]
2007 – Jerry Falwell dies

Yes, I’ve heard the old saw about lies, damned lies, and statistics as well. But in this case the numbers surely tell us something. And it must be stated at the outset of any overview of the life of the recently deceased Reverend Jerry Falwell that the cause for which he labored so passionately was an abject failure. In terms of effecting social change, it simply didn’t work. It didn’t work in 1977, and it didn’t work in 2006. It didn’t work much in between, either, in the years when the Republican Party that Jerry Falwell championed controlled the White House for 20 of the past 28 years.

In the middle – in the thirty years that that admittedly skewed chronology skips over – was a life. It was a life characterized by private grace and public pugnaciousness, one of the many conundrums that those who seek to understand this complex man will need to address. Falwell was capable of blaming "the pagans, the abortionists, the feminists, and the gays and lesbians” for the September 11th attacks, and of labeling warnings about global warming as "Satan's attempt" to turn the church's attention from evangelism to environmentalism. He could also be generous with his time and money, and gracious to those with whom he disagreed. The Rev. Al Sharpton and pornographer Larry Flynt called him friend, a fact so startling that it should give pause to those of us in the Church family who disliked him. He started with a tiny congregation and turned it into a megachurch and multimedia conglomeration. He founded a thriving Christian college. And he very nearly singlehandedly lit the fire under the dormant derriere of the evangelical church and caused it to rise from its private, pietistic stupor and to scream out in pain and cultural indignation. There is much to admire. But oh, that cultural indignation.

The language that he used in his public pronouncements – that of the warrior, the battlefield, the crusade, the myriad enemies – tells us a lot about his worldview. For Jerry Falwell, the “world” wasn’t the field of lost souls, the unharvested crops waiting to be loved unconditionally into the Kingdom of God. The “world” was the adversary, full of secular humanists and relativists opposed to eternal truth, butchers and baby killers, queers and godless liberals. And if Jerry Falwell never abandoned the language of the evangelist, his was an evangelism by eradication.

Early on he crawled in bed with the Republican Party, and persuaded millions of other evangelical Christians to play the whore. It’s nothing personal, you Republicans. I would say the same thing if Jerry had crawled in bed with the Democrats. Predictably, the Republican Party used him, tossed him a few dollars every once in a while, and conveniently ignored him. Look at those abortion statistics again. This is Jerry Falwell’s great failure; his inability to differentiate between God’s eternal truths and the inevitable compromises and concessions that come with any political party bent on power and its own perpetuation. Jerry certainly read the Bible, and quoted from it liberally, ironically enough. Sadly, he never seemed to read the whole Bible, and he missed the parts about caring for the poor and oppressed, about sitting down and reasoning together, about a gentle answer turning away wrath.

And now he is gone. I couldn’t stand the man, although I admit my grudging admiration for some of the things he accomplished. He stood for some things that were right, and he stood for some things that were wrong, but at least in his public life he mostly stood up and yelled shrilly. For what it’s worth, I have the same tendencies. Speaking the truth in love is the damndest thing, and I frequently fall on one side or the other, and often enough fail at both. I suspect he was a great man, in both the great good and the great evil he accomplished. God grant him peace and eternal life. I hope and I pray that I am nothing like him, and I see every day how much I follow in his footsteps.

[1] National Right to Life Website

Friday, May 18, 2007

The Hold Steady, Part VI

Hearkening back to that golden musical age when bands still used Roman numerals in their album titles ...

Yes, I still I love The Hold Steady, and at least at this point I'm not wavering in my fanaticism. To be sure, there's an element of calculated hyperbole in Craig Finn's songwriting that is probably intended to appeal not only to rock critics, but also to anyone who actually had a misspent youth, or would like to imagine that they did. It rings a little false and hollow. Quite simply, he plays the "I partied 'til I almost died" trump card a few too many times, and I don't believe him anyway. You did not, Craig. You were flippin' burgers at McDonald's.

But he's such an amazing songwriter, and his bandmates are such unassuming yobs (they'd be content playing for Pabst Blue Ribbon money at the local tavern) that I can't help but love the lot of them. I thought Amanda Petrusich's cover story in the latest issue of Paste really nailed the appeal of the band. Amanda posited a 33-year old with a desk job as the prototypical fan. All I know is that it works at 51 as well. This is the band -- and Boys and Girls in America is the album -- that I foist off on all my Boomer friends who stopped listening to the radio when all that weird punk shit started happening, and who despair that there hasn't been any good music since the debut Boston album. And it's interesting to me that the Boomers hear what they want to hear. Everybody hears Springsteen. And some people hear The Who, and Thin Lizzy and AC/DC. The ones who were still paying attention in the '80s hear The Replacements. And the almost universal reaction is, "I'd still be buying music if I knew there was more stuff like this."

The other factor -- and it's huge for me -- is the appeal of the gutter poet. It's a persona with Craig Finn, I have no doubt -- a role much like The Crazed Madman is for Ozzy Osbourne -- but it's such a mythic part of America and the history of rock 'n roll that I'm almost always glad when somebody dons the mask. There's a noble lineage there that stretches from Rimbaud and Baudelaire to Kerouac to Dylan to Springsteen to Cobain. It's the doomed romantic in a leather jacket, the outsider with a drink in one hand and a pen in the other, scribbling on the bar napkin.

I also think that Finn's songs capture a sense of place very well. It's all in the details, and nobody piles detail upon detail the way Craig Finn does. Sometimes the places are named -- Minneapolis, Brooklyn, Ybor City. Sometimes they're not. But Springsteen's "Backstreets" didn't name its town either, but I've been there all the same. I recognize the scenery. And I do in Craig Finn's songs as well.

Oh, and one more thing ... Craig Finn is my favorite lapsed Catholic. That's a factor that can't be emphasized enough in appreciating his songs. There's self-destruction everywhere in every Hold Steady song, but there's also an underlying sadness, an acknowledgement of the hound of heaven even as these desperate characters do whatever they can to obliterate their consciences. There's also a fair amount of hope; hints of glory shining through the wreckage. Listen to "How a Resurrection Really Feels" from Separation Sunday. It's probably my favorite song from the oughties, or whatever the proper label is for the decade in which we currently find ourselves. I don't know if Craig Finn is a Christian. I have no idea what he believes. But if I could offer a model for how Christians should write songs, that would be it.

"Damn right, I'll rise again."
-- The Hold Steady, "Your Little Hoodrat Friend"

Thursday, May 17, 2007

In Search of the Perfect Playlist

I am an incurable creator of iPod playlists. What used to take days (mix tapes) or hours (mix CDs) now takes mere minutes, and I can’t resist the opportunity to create esoteric connections between songs.

“Listen to this,” I say to my wife. “See if you can spot the theme.” Then I play The Byrds’ “Eight Miles High” and Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb.”

“Umm, songs about drugs?” she ventures cautiously.

“Nope,” I tell her, “songs written by people named Roger.” She then typically leaves the room.

But I can’t help it. This is the brave new world of the iPod, a world in which the most tenuous connections are only a click away. And I take full advantage of the opportunities afforded by a big music collection and a hyperactive, widely ranging mind. Recent playlists have included the Songs About New England States Mix, the Gloria Mix (with outstanding contributions from Bach, Vivaldi, Van Morrison, and Patti Smith), and the Notes and Letters Mix, featuring songs with references to Don DeLillo, Flannery O’Connor, Jack Kerouac, Thomas Pynchon, and many more erudite 20th century writers. Okay, maybe I have too much time on my hands. I admit this with some trepidation, having fully outed myself as an obsessive nerd. But it’s also great fun, at least in the weird little world I inhabit, and it’s not uncommon for me to spend my Saturday mornings musing over the thematic links between, say, B.B. King and Queen (they both feature songs about fat-bottomed girls). Hey, it makes my rockin’ world go ‘round.

More than anything else, though, I look for the sonic connections. It’s what I listen for in reviewing albums, and it’s what I automatically gravitate toward when left to my own obsessive devices. I grew up with The Beatles and The Byrds, and I’ve followed the far-reaching threads of their music through Big Star and Badfinger and The Raspberries, REM and Robyn Hitchcock, The Posies and Matthew Sweet and Teenage Fanclub. More than forty years after four young men from Liverpool remade the musical world in their own image, I still hear their reverberations everywhere. And they still sound bracing and invigorating. I am in a constant search for new power pop gems for the simple reason that the world can never have enough great three-minute pop songs with loud, ringing guitars and sweet harmonies.

And so, after much deliberation, analysis, and fretting, I offer the perfect power pop mix, circa 2005 and 2006. There were only two rules. First, all songs had to conform (more or less) to the hallowed mid-sixties power pop template. Second, all songs had to have been recorded in the past two years. And here it is:

1. The Safes – Cool Sounds are Here Again
2. Johnny Society – Don’t Talk Me Down
3. Richard X Heyman – Stockpile
4. The Broken West – Down in the Valley
5. Mas Rapido! – Girl du Jour
6. Pete Yorn – Georgie Boy
7. Fountains of Wayne – Someone to Love
8. Lemonheads – Pittsburgh
9. Apples in Stereo – Beautiful Machine, Pts. 1 – 4
10. Sam Roberts – When Everything Was Alright
11. The Sails – Peter Shilton
12. Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs – And Your Bird Can Sing
13. The Essex Green – Don’t Know Why (You Stay)
14. Andy Partridge – My Train is Coming
15. Deathray Davies – Plan to Stay Awake
16. The Detroit Cobras – Cha Cha Twist
17. Graham Coxon – Freakin’ Out
18. A.C. Newman – Secretarial
19. The Orange Peels – Circling the Sun
20. Nada Surf – Always Love

This particular mix is bracketed by echoes of The Beach Boys and The Beatles. In between are sonic reminders of the early Who and The Kinks (you think Deathray Davies picked their name randomly?), two forays into late-sixties psychedelia, and two brief sojourns into the seminal garage rock of virtually forgotten bands such as The Easybeats, The Nightcrawlers, and The Shadows of Knight. But above all it’s the kind of sturdy, guitar-driven, and highly melodic stuff that has formed the backbone of rock music for the past forty-four years. What goes around comes around. The miracle is that, now well into the sixth or seventh popular wave of this music, it still sounds absolutely fresh and vital.

Like all such mixes, this one is very subjective and highly debatable. You would probably end up with a different mix, and I’d encourage you to come up with your own, assuming that you have an obsessive personality and a remarkably understanding spouse who tolerates long stretches of daydreaming in front of iTunes. But it’s my list, and it’s my story, and I’m sticking with it. At least until next week, when I’ll feel the need to come up with another playlist, perhaps a Best Songs About Sports Cars mix. Ah, the ways we fend off the midlife crisis.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

5-Star Albums from the New Millenium

A friend asked me a couple days ago if I thought that the overall quality of popular music had declined in the past twenty or thirty years. I told him “No” because I don’t think it has. Although I know plenty of boomers my age who lament that it’s all been downhill since Led Zeppelin stopped releasing album titles with Roman numerals, this guy is not one of them, and he stays fairly current on popular musical trends and innovations. But he did start me thinking. Are there as many great albums being released now as there were during, say, the supposedly halcyon days of the 1960s (funny how everybody forgets Herman’s Hermits and Freddie and the Dreamers)? And I don’t know the answer to that question. Part of the dilemma is that hindsight is a great teacher, and artists who were virtually ignored when their music was initially released (e.g., Nick Drake) are now justly recognized as the innovators they were. So it’s entirely possible that some obscure band in Vancouver or Omaha will be heralded as musical geniuses in 2030.

But I certainly believe that great music is being made these days. You have to dig a little deeper for it than you did thirty years ago, when you could actually hear it on the radio in most major American cities. That’s no longer the case. But there are ways to find it. Think Paste Magazine. Paste is your friend.

For what it’s worth, these are, in my opinion, the 5-star albums that have been released since 2000:

Radiohead – Kid A
Sun Kil Moon – Ghosts on the Great Highway
Sigur Ros – Agaetis Byrjun
The Arcade Fire – Funeral
Camera Obscura – Let’s Get Out of this Country
Drive-by Truckers – Southern Rock Opera
Brad Mehldau -- Places
Godspeed You Black Emperor! – Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven
Sufjan Stevens – Come on Feel the Illinoise!
Bob Dylan – Love and Theft
The Hold Steady – Boys and Girls in America
Konono No. 1 – Congotronics
Kate Rusby – Underneath the Stars

That’s my list. What’s yours?

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Hope Dies Hard

Burn on, big river, burn on
Burn on, big river, burn on
Now the lord can make you tumble
And the lord can make you turn
And the lord can make you overflow
But the lord can’t make you burn
-- Randy Newman, “Burn On, Big River”

I am a lifelong fan of Cleveland professional sports teams. For those of you who follow such things, this is a little like admitting that one votes for perennial U.S. Labor Party presidential candidate Lyndon LaRouche – distasteful to some, irrelevant and pointless to most. The last time the Cleveland Indians won a world championship, Harry S. Truman was president and people still drove Packards and Edsels. Hell, for all I know, the women all wore bonnets and crossed the country in Conestoga wagons. The last time the Cleveland Browns won a Super Bowl .... wait, the Cleveland Browns have never even appeared in a Super Bowl. The Cleveland Cavaliers? No appearances in the NBA Finals, no NBA championships.

To add to the ignominy, these teams play in Cleveland, where it snows from October to May, and where the clouds are a continuous ashen gray except for the nights when the old steel mills spew their orange smoke in the air and the spacious skies take on a hue that resembles something out of Dante’s Inferno. You know the jibes: The Mistake on the Lake, The City of Burning Rivers. They are, alas, all true. No one wants to live in Cleveland. Cleveland will let you down every time. To quote an old Howlin’ Wolf blues tune, I asked for water and you gave me gasoline.

Still, it’s home, hellish landscape and all. Except it’s not – not quite – and therein lies the mystery. I live near Columbus, midway between Cleveland and Cincinnati. And Cincinnati, in addition to occasional blue skies, also boasts some sports teams that occasionally win. So explaining my lifelong allegiance to Dante’s teams is a little perplexing. All I know is that the allegiance is there, and that hope springs eternal. It is a flaming river that is never extinguished. And so I hope. And this year, almost in spite of myself, I find myself hoping more than usual.

Here’s the deal: the Cleveland Cavaliers are two wins away from reaching the NBA East Finals. The Cleveland Indians are in first place with a 20 – 10 record, and this looks like the year when all those promising young kids finally come into their own. I should know better. I’ve been here many times before, and I’ve seen it too many times. I think back on the Cleveland Browns disasters that are known simply by the monikers The Fumble and The Drive, the Indians meltdown in 1995, when they were clearly the best team in baseball but were done in by David “There Is No” Justice and the Atlanta Braves. I think back on that damned Jose “Costa” Mesa (as in “You put me in the game, and I’ll costa great team the world championship”) in 1997, the heinousness of Art “Satan” Modell slinking out of town with the Browns in 1999 and instantly turning our beloved team into the Baltimore Stealers. There is a lot of grief. But I can’t help myself. It’s spring. The snows have melted. The skies are threatening to turn blue. The Cleveland Cavaliers are still playing basketball, and the Cleveland Indians are in first place. Hope dies hard here in the heartland. Pity me or pray for me. But don’t you dare tell me I’m deluded.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Current Faves

Some newly released (or about to be released) albums that have been floating my catamaran (perfect for summertime sailing):

The Clientele – God Save the Clientele

XTC. Crowded House. The Pernice Brothers. What that disparate group of musicians has in common is that they know how to write a perfect pop song. Add The Clientele to the list. 2005’s Strange Geometry was a classic of 3:00 a.m. mopery and regret, a pop symphony to lost love, complete with heavily reverbed guitars and weepy strings. The new one is just as good, albeit a little more varied. “The Garden at Night” actually rocks, something altogether strange for this rather twee band, and opener “Here Comes the Phantom” comes close, but far more typical are the wistful“From Brighton Beach to Santa Monica” and the gorgeously aching“No Dreams Last Night.” A few folks from Wilco and Lambchop stop by to play, and the album was produced in Nashville. But make no mistake, The Cliente is the brainchild of one very British Alasdair MacLean, and he’s again created the aural equivalent of fog lying low over the Thames; thick, mysterious, eerily lovely music.

Devon Sproule – Keep Your Silver Shined

I don’t know if this is the best album I’ve heard this year. It’s close. It’s easily the most joyous. Devon Sproule’s music meets at the intersection of folk, country, and jazz; clarinets colliding with pedal steel, old-time country songs that sound like they could come from The Carter Family subverted by some Django Reinhardt gypsy guitar work. Sproule’s songs are something to behold: Victoria Williams’ playfulness and spunk meeting up with Joni Mitchell’s confessional songwriting chops. To top it off, this is the sexiest, sultriest southern album since Lucinda’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. Is that good? What do you think?

Scissors for Lefty – Underhanded Romance

So file this one under Guilty Pleasure. I have no defense. The music is derivative in the extreme, and the lyrics veer between meaningless and silly. Mix some Cars new wave synths, some Robert Smith vocal histrionics, and some dance floor beats and angular guitars courtesy of Franz Ferdinand. The thing is, when I listen to the absolutely ace singles “Ghetto Ways” and “Mama Your Boys Will Find a Home” I find my middle-aged body moving involuntarily, more or less in rhythm. Don’t tell the wife and kids.

The Traveling Wilbury’s – The Traveling Wilbury’s Vol. 1/The Traveling Wilbury’s Vol. 3

I was never much of a Tom Petty or Jeff Lynne/Electric Light Orchestra fan. George Harrison was great -- from 1963 to 1970. Roy Orbison was past his prime, and Bob Dylan was in the worst funk of his career. Given the era and the massive egos, it shouldn’t have worked. But it did. And if you missed it the first time in the late ‘80s, you can catch it again when Rhino Records rereleases the two Traveling Wilbury’s albums in a few weeks. What you’ll discover is that all of that musical talent and all of those raging egos came together in the most unassuming ways imaginable; these are the kinds of lowkey, relaxed songs that friends play while sitting around on the front porch. And it works for precisely that reason. Vol. 1 is a minor classic; the guys trading off on verses when they feel like it while collectively writing some of the best songs of their storied careers. And if the incongruously named Vol. 3 is missing the spark (not to mention the recently deceased Roy Orbison) from Vol. 1, it’s still good, clean, friendly fun. As an added incentive, let this Dylan fan note that these are Dylan’s best songs from the ’80s.

Monday, May 07, 2007

The Orphans of God

Sometimes I lose my patience. Sometimes I fear that "America" and "Christianity" are so inextricably linked that it is impossible to separate one from the other, that Godncountry is just one big, unwieldy word, and that our particular brand of materialistic consumer religion is too overpowering to fight against, and that I should just resign myself to the notion of Jesus the Helper of Dieters and the Divine Investment Counselor.

Then I listen to Mark Heard, who understood those feelings as well, and I feel better.

I will rise from my bed with a question again
As I work to inherit the restless wind
The view from my window is cold and obscene
I want to touch what my eyes haven't seen
But they have packaged our virtue in cellulose dreams

And sold us the remnants 'til our pockets are clean
Til our hopes fall 'round our feet
Like the dust and dead leaves
And we end up looking like what we believe

We are soot-covered urchins running wild and unshod
We will always be remembered as the orphans of God
They will dig up these ruins and make flutes of our bones
And blow a hymn to the memory of the orphans of God

Like bees in a bottle we are flying at fate
Beating our wings against the walls of this place
Unaware that the struggle is the blood of the proof
In choosing to believe the unbelievable truth
But they have captured our siblings and rendered them mute

They've disputed our lineage and poisoned our roots
We have bought from the brokers who have broken their oaths
And we're out on the streets with a lump in our throats

We are soot-covered urchins running wild and unshod
We will always be remembered as the orphans of God
They will dig up these ruins and make flutes of our bones
And blow a hymn to the memory of the orphans of God
-- Mark Heard, "The Orphans of God"

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Llife Bites

It's minor in the grand scheme of things, but for those of you who are praying types, I'd appreciate your prayers. Kate and I had to cancel a trip out of town this weekend to see our friends Phil and Lauren because I spent most of Friday night awake, moaning, and holding my jaw, which ached like crazy.

Then I spent five hours at an emergency dental care facility today, and emerged with a root canal. Right now the whole left side of my face feels like it's been crushed by a sledgehammer, which is about how it felt before the root canal. It will get better, I'm told. But I'm bummed because we missed out on seeing friends, and I'm bummed that my face hurts. So prayers are appreciated.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Announcing the Campaign to Obliterate Offensive Language (COOL)

I’d like to start a campaign to remove certain words from the English language. They are either too offensive (e.g., ho; yes, I’m talking to you, Don Imus), too gross (e.g., pus), or too meaningless (wait for it) to retain their pathetic existences. Today’s offensively meaningless word is: indie.

How about we just do away with the label altogether? Can I get an “Amen” from the hipsters? Does "indie" music refer to music released on a particular label not affiliated with the major-label conglomerates? A particular sound? A movement first associated with college bands in Boston in the 1980s? Unsigned bands/artists? Some band that only eleven people have ever heard of because they've only played one show for their friends and grandmothers in some dank basement in Seattle? All of the above? None of the above, and something else entirely?

From what I can tell, "indie" is used above all as a marketing term. It's a code word for "cool" and "hip". It's the same idea that is used to sell designer jeans with pre-ripped holes in them and Camel cigarettes. And frankly, I can't stand it. "Indie" is a label that can mean anything, and nothing.

So I asked a friend about it. And he told me that “indie” music refers to any music "not coming from within the walls of the Hollywood or Nashville music ghettos." Good enough as far as it goes, but it still doesn't really tell me anything. It tells me what the music isn't, but it doesn't tell me what it is. Thelonious Monk, Bill Monroe, and Bjork all fall outside the realm of the Hollywood or Nashville music ghettos, but a music label that would lump these folks together as "indie" would convey absolutely nothing about the very different types of music they

He also told me that “indie” has an ideological component. Yeah, buddy. And let me tell you, I'm very wary of the ideological connotations of the word. "Indie" music plays up the anti-industry, anti-authority angle pretty heavily. But here's a musical marketer's dream: a million kids all buying the same album, each thinking that his or her little hip group of friends is onto something special that they and a few others have discovered. This is, in fact, pretty much the ideal scenario that music labels would like to create in the minds of music consumers. Tacking an "indie" tag onto a particular album is a great asset in this process.

So here's today's conundrum: What does it mean for someone who "fits that anti-music-industry sound" to sell 500,000 albums? Pretty soon the anti-industry, anti-establishment, anti-authority hordes will descend on places like Bonnaroo, and 100,000 identically clad rebels in tie-dyes will groove to their favorite indie bands. Rebellion has been big business for the past forty years.

Today’s true ideological lesson: we should be aware of and think about the images that are being marketed to us. And "indie" is an image that I find particularly problematic.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Marketing Mythtakes

The consumer gods would like me to buy this:

Zane: World Lit: Greek Mythology 2 (Software)

Embrace the heroic ideals of Greek mythology through five myths and legends. Soar with Daedalus and Icarus as they attempt to fly on wings of feather and wax. Elope with Helen, wife of King Menelaus, as she sets in motion events that cause the Trojan War. Delight in the touching story of Baucis and Philemon. Take arms with Theseus as he battles the mighty Minotaur. Review the story of Perseus. Includes a 48-minute presentation and 180 photos. Windows 95/98/Me/2000/XP/Vista and Mac.

Perhaps there is a bull/minotaur market for this sort of thing, and little Kaitlyn and Logan regularly pester their third grade teacher to regale them with the touching story of Baucis and Philemon. But if I’m right, and I’ll bet you five drachmae that I am, then this may be one of the worst marketing decisions ever made in the IT industry. Developing multimedia presentations is a costly endeavor. I’m not sure what marketing genius persuaded the corporate powers at Zane Software that there were thousands of little girls and boys out there who sat around dreaming about eloping with Helen, wife of King Menelaus, or (in a total failure of imagination) reviewing the story of Perseus. At any rate, it didn’t sell. Shocking, I know. And now it can be mine merely for the price of shipping. I’m thinking about having it shipped by air, as long as the flight involves feathers and wax.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Death by Suburb

“The suburbs weather onr souls. That is, there is an environmental variable, mostly invisible, that oxidizes the Christian spirit, like the metal of a car in the elements.”
-- David Goetz, Death by Suburb: How to Keep the Suburbs from Killing Your Soul

I will confess that I cordially hate the title of David Goetz’s book. Oh, good. Another smug hipster who can’t see because of the plank in his own urban eye. Suburbs bad. City good. Sure thing, Mr. Metropolis. Excuse me while I go fertilize my lawn.

Fortunately, that’s not what David Goetz is saying, and his argument is far more nuanced. Goetz argues that the danger of suburbia is that one will succumb to a life of comfort and ease; that the pull of the SUV and the Golden Retriever and the two kids running around on the well-manicured lawn is real precisely because it is good, that it represents an idealized sort of existence to which most people aspire.

My take: don’t worry about it, David. The “good life” is a mirage. It’s as illusory as any other vision of Utopia that crumbles in the light of harsh reality. It will sustain you for a while if you let it. But here’s a partial list of what you’ll find in suburbia: cancer, Alzheimer’s, alcoholism, drug addiction, mental illness, marital infidelity, job firings and layoffs, kids who break their arms when tumbling on the well-manicured lawns, Golden Retrievers who are run over by the SUVs. I don’t doubt that many people escape to suburbia with the goal of living a comfortable and protected life. But it won’t and can’t last, and people in suburbia are subject to the same senseless tragedies and self-inflicted wounds as any other demographic representation of humanity. This is because the world we live in is fallen and broken, and is apt to bite us in our well-padded asses even when we pretend that we can control it.

What is unique about suburbia is the degree of self-deception that often accompanies the lifestyle choices. Life in the ‘burbs is all about controlling what can be controlled – relative safety, retirement investments, the quality of our childrens’ educations, dandelions and grubs. And because people are more apt to function believing that they are in control, the degree of shock when it all falls apart may actually be greater in suburbia than in places where chaos and lack of control are woven into the daily non-routine.

I don’t think it particularly matters, from a Christian standpoint, whether people live in the city or the country, the ghetto or the ‘burbs. One lifestyle choice is not holier than another, at least in this area. But where it does matter is that when the shit hits the fan in suburbia, people are more likely to find themselves in a state of shock and disbelief; I live a protected life, and this can’t be happening to me. But it is. In those situations, I would like to think that Christians have a timely answer that both acknowledges harsh reality and offers a real sense of hope. That’s when suburban Christians need to put down their fertilizer spreaders and simply be neighbors and friends, to enter in to the pain and the confusion and the grief of those around them.

And honestly, that’s the most challenging aspect about living in suburbia. The ‘burbs encourage isolation. They foster a world where relationships with neighbors consist of waving from the front seat of the minivan or SUV as automatic garage doors go up and down. It takes intentional effort to break through that. But you can engage suffering in a house with a security system and overly-mulched flower beds just as well as in a shelter for the homeless or a nursing home for the destitute. One is not better than the other, because suffering is an equal-opportunity afflicter of humanity. Both are good, and both are needed.