Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Best of 2007 Music Lists

You could troll the Internet, searching for Best of 2007 music lists. But why? Right here on the Paste website you can find all the variety you need, including the official "Paste Top 100 Albums" list, plus individual Top 10 lists from various staff members and writers. And if you act now, you can vote on your own choices for Best Albums of 2007.

What is glaringly obvious from these lists is that the music world is more fragmented than ever, and that there is no clear-cut consensus on "Best of" anything. Out of approximately thirty lists, I don't think the same album appears twice in the top spot.

Here's my list, by the way, which shouldn't contain too many surprises for anyone who's been paying attention to this blog.

1. Ezra Furman and the Harpoons -- Banging Down the Doors
2. Southeast Engine -- A Wheel Within a Wheel
3. Devon Sproule -- Keep Your Silver Shined
4. Joe Henry -- Civilians
5. Bruce Springsteen -- Magic
6. Frog Eyes -- Tears of the Valedictorian
7. Peter Case -- Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John
8. Arcade Fire -- Neon Bible
9. Anders Osborne -- Coming Down
10. Future Clouds and Radar -- Future Clouds and Radar

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Watermelon Slim

I don't know if there are many blues fans here, but this guy Watermelon Slim is one Delta Mack Daddy, the most exciting and authentic blues performer I've heard in years. Surely the ghosts of Muddy and the Wolf are smiling. Mr. W. Slim is one William P. Homans of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma -- Vietnam veteran, truck driver, forklift operator, sawmiller, firewood salesman, collection agent, funeral-parlor director, small-time criminal, watermelon farmer, college graduate times three, and member of Mensa. You can hear all that and more in his songs, which have justly made him famous at an advanced age, almost forty years after he recorded his first album.

The three albums you're likely to find -- Up Close and Personal, Watermelon Slim and the Workers, and The Wheel Man -- are as raw and as viscerally moving as any blues albums I've ever heard. This is no dilettante dabbling in some ancient, petrified musical genre. He's very much invested in the proceedings, he's one hell of a bottleneck guitarist, and he's got that cry in his voice that only the greatest singers in the genre have had before him. In short, he's the real deal. He covers Muddy, the Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Mississippi Fred McDowell, and he writes originals that can hold their own with the classics. And yes, he wrote most of those originals while behind the wheel of his big rig. He's got a big, raw sound, equal parts Mississippi Delta acoustic and Chicago electric. He's fabulous. You should check him out.

Adoration of the Storm Troopers*

On coming to the manger, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of light sabers and oxygen masks and black rubber gloves. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Darth Vader, they returned to their planet by another route.
-- 1 Tattooinians 2: 4-5

* With thanks to Karen, from whom I shamelessly stole the photo.

Monday, November 26, 2007

In Praise of Obscurity

In the current issue of Paste, esteemed music critic Geoffrey Himes laments the decentralization of the music industry, and points out that his favorite album of 2007 will go unnoticed, even by most ardent music fans.

And I’ll see Geoffrey’s obscure artist and raise him two: my three favorite albums of 2007 are by a Boston wunderkind named Ezra Furman, a bunch of Ohio indie rockers called Southeast Engine, and a Virginia country/folk neo-hippie named Devon Sproule. Who? Are those albums better than the ones released by Bruce Springsteen, Arcade Fire, and The National, the albums that occupy the top three rungs on Paste’s Best of 2007 list? Sure. At least I’d argue that they are. But nobody’s heard them, and even when it’s your business to pay attention to new music, as it is to the staff of Paste Magazine, it’s impossible to cover all the worthy music released each month. It’s inevitable that some gems fall through the cracks. There are a million bands with their self-produced CDs and their MySpace pages. Ninety-eight percent of them are utterly forgettable. And a few of them are astoudingly great, and undeservedly obscure.

The problem, as Geoffrey points out, is one of promotion and distribution. You can’t buy an album you can’t find. And you can’t find an album if you don’t know to look for it. And in an era when big music labels are fighting for their very lives, and responding to sluggish sales by employing increasingly conservative tactics to sell the same tired old musical formulas, it’s almost impossible for new and innovative bands to get noticed. Geoffrey is absolutely correct, and the old fart Baby Boomers I relate to every day are wrong. There’s no lack of great music being made these days, and no, it hasn’t been all downhill since John married Yoko and Led Zeppelin stopped using Roman numerals in their album titles. The ratio of greatness to crap hasn’t changed significantly from the supposedly halcyon days of the sixties. What has changed is the ability to hear the great music.

The downbeat news for all those wonderful but obscure musicians and bands: don’t give up those day jobs. It’s harder than it’s ever been to secure the big break. If the big break is your goal, then sign up for American Idol and practice your Motown covers. But if you can live with the notion of making music because you love it, you’ll do fine. Music blogs like this one and music magazines like Paste will continue to champion your work. And there will be an audience for what you do. Just don’t be surprised if some nights there are only twenty people in the club.

Deer Season

Today is the start of gun deer season in Ohio, a high holy day for Bubba and Wanda and their progeny. Schools are closed in many counties in southeastern Ohio, not because of weather or natural disaster, but because the savvy superintendants have learned that little Maideen and Bubba Jr. are going to be out hunting with pa, and won’t be bothered by little things like homework. Supper’s on the line.

And so I bring you a very special high holy day playlist:

1. Twin Killers – Deerhoof
2. Sun – Lost Fawn
3. Peace and Quiet – The Rifles
4. Meat is Murder – The Smiths
5. There’s a Hole – John Doe
6. A Devil in the Woods – Gun Club
7. These Old Shoes – Deer Tick
8. No Smoke Without Fire – James Hunter
9. Buckaroo – Buck Owens
10. Southern Comfort – Shooter Jennings
11. Pathetic – Venison
12. Lake Somerset – Deerhunter
13. Hungry Like the Wolf – Bambi and the Boys
14. In the Snow – The Antlers

Thursday, November 22, 2007


This song doesn't reflect my experience (at least not for this particular holiday). But there's a lot of truth here. As he usually does, Loudon cuts through the schmaltz to find the bittersweet core. For anyone out there who understands the sense of something lost, it's my hope and prayer that this Thanksgiving you will find something -- or somethings -- for which to be grateful.

Lord, every year we gather here

To eat around this table
Give us the strength to stomach as much
As fast as we are able
Bless this food to our use
Though communication's useless
Don't let me drink too much wine
Lord, you know how I get ruthless

Let us somehow get through this meal
Without that bad old feeling
With history and memory
And homecooking redeeming
Remind us that we're all grown up
Adults no longer children
Now it's our kids who spill the milk
And our turn to want to kill them

I look around and recognize
A sister and a brother
We rarely see our parents now
We barely see each other
On this auspicious occasion
This special family dinner
If I argue with a loved one, Lord
Please make me the winner

All this food looks and smells so good
But I can hardly taste it
The sense of something has been lost
There's no way to replace it
After the meal switch on the game
There's just a few more seconds
But after the meal I need a nap
The guest bedroom beckons

I fall asleep, I have a dream
In it is the family
Nothing bad has happened yet
And everyone is happy
Mother and father both still young
And naturally they love us
We're all lying on the lawn at night
Watching the stars above us

Lord, every year we gather here
To eat around this table
Give us the strength to stomach as much
As fast as we are able
-- Loudon Wainwright III, "Thanksgiving"

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Random Musical Notes


I don’t have one, maybe for the first time in my life. For more than forty years I’ve been able to conjure up a playlist to fit my every mood. Not this time. I could go with the usual emo whiners and sadsack romantics, but they don’t really capture my peculiar little world. Besides, I’m not sure that a song could accurately capture just what it’s like to feel knitting needles probing one’s inner organs.

Worst Christmas Album of All Time

I recently received Conway Twitty’s 1983 album A Twismas Story with Twitty Bird and Their Little Friends. This just may be the nadir of recorded music. First, Conway sounds like he’s been pulled away from the honky-tonk to fulfill some contractual obligations. Various reindeer songs appear, as do songs about snowmen, as does a song about someone called “Happy the Christmas Clown.” A vocal group that may be The Ray Conniff singers accompanies Conway, and adds that special holiday schlock to the proceedings, chiming in with “like a lightbulb” after Conway tells us that Rudolph had a shiny nose. But the real piece de resistance here is the inclusion of Twitty Bird, a chirpingly upbeat little avian friend with a lisp, who routinely crashes the musical proceedings to offer, “Mawwy Twismas, evwybody!” Sounding somewhat like Alvin from Alvin and the Chipmunks, there are times when Twitty Bird’s duets with Conway are tinged with the surreal, as on the aforementioned “Happy the Christmas (Twismas) Clown,” when man and munk entwine their voices to bring us the tale of the clown “a winkin’ and a blinkin’ at you and me.” This is either the best album or the worst album I’ve heard in the new millennium.


Every year we gather here to feast around this table
Lord, give us the strength to stomach just as much as we are able
-- Loudon Wainwright III, “Thanksgiving”

Many people dread the holidays. I don’t. Or at least not this one. For the past thirty years, and long before I arrived on the scene, Kate’s family has filled up a bunch of cabins in Old Man’s Cave State park in southeast Ohio, where they hike, eat and drink their way through three days of the festivities. I won’t be doing any hiking, but I’ll be there. The nieces and nephews are all grown up now, and have toddlers of their own, but they still get in their cars and drive long distances to make it to the proceedings. There will be about thirty of us this year, and four generations. In what may be the closest thing to a miracle that I’ll ever experience, I get to hang out with a functional family. People seem to genuinely like and love one another When I think about reasons to be thankful, I won’t have to look far. I’ll just look around the room.

Family Bonding

Rachel’s back from Ohio U. for the start of her Christmas break. And what better way to get in that family bonding time than by hanging out in a local bar listening to some great local bands? Saturday night we saw Columbus’ Spanish Prisoners and The Whiles and Athens, Ohio’s Southeast Engine. Very good stuff. I am becoming a major Southeast Engine fan. Not only does the band have a great sound – simultaneously raw and melodic – but lead singer/songwriter Adam Remnant’s songs keep opening up in new ways for me. At one point, in the same song, I heard oblique references to the Bible, Abraham Lincoln, and T.S. Eliot. This is an English/Theology major’s dream come true.

Positive Proof that Music Publicists Don’t Know Who They’re Dealing With

I just received the new Celine Dion album in the mail.

Friday, November 16, 2007

You Can't Fail Me Now

My virtual friend, e-mail pal, and songwriter extraordinaire Joe Henry doesn't think he writes prayers, but he does.

I know that fan is moving air
I can see it in your hair
But I can’t bear to breathe it in somehow
I’ll rise and fall with you ‘cause you can’t fail me now
I’ll rise and fall with you ‘cause you can’t fail me now

Salt is sweet upon my mouth
And dark throws sparks against my house
The state of love is a smudge on my brow
But you see through me and you can’t fail me now
When you see right through me you can’t fail me now

I’ve bit off more than I can chew
It’s something that I tend to do
When fewer words are what we need and how
Well, you bite my tongue and you can’t fail me now
I rant and rail but you can’t fail me now

I’ve lost the thread among the vines
And hung myself in story lines
That tell the tales I never would allow
God knows the name of every bird
That fills my mind like angry words
But you all know my secret heart avows

We’re taught to love the worst of us
And mercy more than life
But trust that mercy’s just a warning shot across the bow
I live for yours and you can’t fail me now
I live for your mercy and you can’t fail me now
-- Joe Henry, “You Can’t Me Now”

Today's Playlist

I haven't listened to much music in the past two weeks. I haven't had time. But when I have listened, these songs have dominated the CD player and the iPod. Music really is the soundtrack to life.

What Do You Want From Life? – The Tubes
Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow – Frank Zappa
Hospitals I’ve Visited – Jerry’s Kids
Bring Me the Head of Jerry Garcia – Iron Prostate
Piss Factory – Patti Smith
Urine Palace – Tiger Lillies
Pissing in the Wind – Badly Drawn Boy
Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit Bag – Red Foley
Hospital Vespers – The Weakerthans

Monday, November 12, 2007

Southeast Engine

Southeast Engine are a band from my old stomping grounds of Athens, Ohio, the best place in the world to spend the years 18 - 22. They've released one of my favorite indie/Americana albums this year, a little gem called A Wheel Within a Wheel. For you Bible scholars, that's a reference to the Book of Ezekiel. I don't know anyone in the band, nor do I know what any individual members may believe. I do know that they make wonderfully melodic, sadsack indie rock, and sound a lot like early Wilco.

So imagine Jeff Tweedy, his voice cracking in all the right places, accompanied only by an acoustic guitar and a mournful cello, and singing this little straightforward repentance song:

If I return would you take me back?
Teach me to learn to face the facts?
I’m so sorry for all I did
Oh God, let me back in

When I was a child I believed in you
A simple thing for a child to do
I could see the sky and my mind was set
I could feel okay when I was so upset
But as I grew it was so easy to forget
Oh God, let me back in

Because I’ve taken for granted all that you gave
I threw away what I was supposed to save
So if you would erase my doubt
And let me appreciate what I’ve got left
And be here in the moment
Oh God, let me back in

‘Cause I’ve been so selfish, toneless and cruel
I’ve done whatever I wanted to
So if you would forgive my sin
I won’t be who I have been
I’ll put my stock in you not them
If you let me back in

For so long now I’d just like to know
I’ve sawed off the branch that I was resting on
And as I fell from limb to limb
I found I was no real exception
So here I’m beggin’ for redemption
Oh God, let me back in
Oh God, let me back in

-- Southeast Engine, "Oh God, Let Me Back In"

Normally I'm a metaphor and simile guy. There's no great poetry there. But sometimes you just have to cut to the chase. I've sung that song. Maybe you have too.

The band is playing at Scully's Saturday night and celebrating their CD release on Misra Records, one of my favorite indie labels. I'm going to be there. Y'all are welcome to join me.


I had a terrible weekend. I had a great weekend. Let me explain. Physically, I had a terrible weekend. I feel like crap. I still don't know what's going on with my prostate/bladder/whatever else may be affected/infected, and I still have that #%$!@ catheter, which still hurts like nothing I've ever quite experienced. I was told by my doctor that I might experience some "discomfort." Does "discomfort" include wincing every two minutes, involuntary grunting in pain every five minutes, and a general feeling of having a razor-sharp knife on the inside of your body? Because that's what it feels like.

So I spent most of Saturday morning in a grunting, depressive funk. I tried praying, and I did, but my prayers quickly devolved from the the highminded and Elizabethan "Oh Lord, let thy servant grow closer to you through mine own suffering" to "Father, if it be your will, taken this cup (or attached bag, if you prefer) away from me" to "Shit, this hurts," and "Help me, help me, help me."

Saturday afternoon and early evening we hosted a marriage mentoring session at our house, with three other couples/marriage mentors discussing intimacy. I started out cynical (Helpful suggestion #1: Avoid a tube in your dick), but ended in a better place. It's hard to stay cynical when you're relating with six people, all of whom have come close to shipwrecking their marriages, and who genuinely desire to help others navigate the treacherous shoals and pointy rocks. It was good. I love these folks, and feel honored to be a part of a bigger calling.

Yesterday morning was church, and I felt like crap. But it was good to worship, to acknowledge that God is good, and in control, even when I don't see it. And I do acknolwedge that. I am so thankful to be a part of a church where we are known, and cared for, and I deeply appreciated the people who prayed for me, who were concerned about how I was doing, and who didn't try to put on a pious front. "That sucks" is a perfectly acceptable response as far as I'm concerned, because it does. But these people do not suck, nor does the church as a whole.

Yesterday evening we had dinner with our friends Tim and Beth, and that was good, and affirming. The Indian food was first rate, the conversation both silly and deadly serious, and it was good to be reminded that there are people who are facing far more serious issues than I am, and that infected bladders/prostates have nothing on Stage 4 cancer.

Life is difficult. It just is. We get brief respites from the gloom, and then we are blindsided by our own inadequacies and incompetence, or by the latest senseless tragedy or health crisis. The good news is that we get to experience these things together. I don't take that for granted. I'm hanging in there.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

David Foster Wallace

Are there any David Foster Wallace fans out there? He's probably my favorite contemporary writer, a dazzling stylist who works the postmodern metafiction territory of Pynchon and Barthelme, but who tempers his cynicism and "look ma, no boundaries" zaniness with a surprisingly compassionate vision.

His best known work is probably his 1996 novel Infinite Jest, which is utterly uncategorizable, but which the Wikipedia article bravely attempts to summarize as follows:

The book's plot centers on a lost film cartridge, titled Infinite Jest by its creator James Incandenza, and referred to in the novel as "the Entertainment" or "the samizdat". The film is so "entertaining" to its unwitting viewers that they become lifeless, losing all interest in anything other than endless viewings of the film. In the novel's future world, North America is one unified state composed of the United States, Canada, and Mexico, known as the Organization of North American Nations (O.N.A.N.). Corporations purchase naming rights to each calendar year, eliminating traditional numerical designations; e.g., "The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment," "The Year of Dairy Products from the American Heartland." Much of what used to be the northeastern United States and southeastern Canada has become a massive hazardous waste dumping site known as "The Great Concavity"/"The Great Convexity."

And that doesn't begin to tell the story. It is, for example, the best and most realistic study of addiction I've ever read.

I've been reading Wallace's 2004 collection of short stories called Oblivion. There's a story there called "The Soul is Not a Smithy" that is set in Columbus, Ohio in 1960. I've lived in Columbus, Ohio most of my life, including as a first-grader in 1960. The story takes place in an elementary school classroom and on the streets of Columbus. Foster, who to my knowledge has never lived in Columbus, not only accurately captures the zeitgeist of specific Columbus neighborhoods at the fag end of the Eisenhower era, but perfectly recreates a 1960 classroom, including the way the desks were bolted to the floor, and the pattern of the tiles on the ceiling. In true metafiction fashion, there's nothing straightforward about any of this. The story also contains a chilling description of a substitute teacher's mental breakdown in front of his students, and a young boy's gentle, lyrical reminiscence of his father's soul-sucking life, stuck in the headquarters building of a downtown Columbus insurance company, doing menial work for day after day, year after year, until he was a hollow shell. I don't know. Maybe it's because I know Columbus, and I know the neighborhoods Foster describes. Maybe it's because I'm currently stuck on the 16th floor of a downtown Columbus insurance company building, using my Creative Writing degree to write about database capacity planning and forecasting. But it hit me in the gut. It's an astonishing piece of writing. But then again, he regularly astonishes me.

As an added bonus, he's also written the only commencement speech worth reading, which he delivered to the assembled graduates of Kenyon College in 2005. As a general rule, don't waste your time reading commencement speeches. But read this one.

Sometimes I play the "if you could meet anyone alive right now, who would it be?" game. My answer varies, but I know who it would be today.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Today's Favorite Band ...

... is Seattle's The Catheters.

I don't know if any of you guys have ever sat around and wondered, "Hey, what's it like to have a tube up your dick?" I know I never did. But now I know. Wonder no more. It hurts just like you would think it would.

So I have an infected prostate glad that landed me in the hospital last night. But hey, given the tube and trusty legbag, I'm back in business. How humiliating. I'm walking like John Wayne, but I don't feel like him.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Malcolm Holcombe -- Gamblin' House

I've been enthralled with North Carolina singer/songwriter Malcolm Holcombe since I heard his debut album A Hundred Years back in 1999. Subsequent appearances have been infrequent, but memorable. On an otherwise forgettable soundtrack to the forgettable movie The Slaughter Rule, Holcombe simply astonished with his take on "Killin' the Blues," a feral country lament last heard on the recent Robert Plant/Alison Krauss duets album. Quite simply, he's a phenomenal singer. But to put it mildly, he won't appeal to everyone's tastes. If Tom Waits sounds a little too smooth for you, he might. Otherwise, you might want to give his music a pass.

But I love his voice; a big, gruff, soulful mess of a thing, and I love the sound he gets out of his band, who play dobros and mandolins like rock 'n roll instruments. The end result reminds me of what a homeless wino poet from Appalachia might sound like if he put down the bottle long enough to stumble into a recording studio. And yes, for those of you who feel adventurous, that's a strong recommendation.

His new album Gamblin' House is due out in January. It's a killer; English-major poetry set to raw, plaintive Appalachian melodies, with that voice growling and insinuating murder and mayhem. Holcombe can sing an innocuous lyric like "I'm goin' downtown to see the Christmas lights" and make it sound a menacing threat. He's weird, he's wild, and he's great.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Megahits and Bands Past Their Prime

Okay, I have a theory, made up of equal parts music snobbery and jaded listening habits, that states that a band's biggest/most popular album (or their "breakthrough" album) is always always inferior to albums that have come before it. Some examples:

Bruce Springsteen -- Born in the U.S.A. (compare to Born to Run)
U2 -- The Joshua Tree (compare to War)
R.E.M. -- Out of Time, Automatic for the People (compare to Murmur)
Death Cab for Cutie -- Plans (compare to We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes)
Wilco -- Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (compare to Being There)

Now, before I am inundated with indignant replies, let me note that I think all of these albums fall under the "Okay" or "Pretty Good" categories. None of them are stinkers. But I also think that all of these musicians/bands did far better work on earlier albums (specfically, the ones mentioned above). And I'm sure there are exceptions, but honestly I can't think of them. Why is it that most albums that go Platinum strike me as toned down/dumbed down when compared to the artists' best work? And why is it that the exceptions, such as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (which hardly strikes me as toned down or dumbed down) merely strike me as indulgent wankery? Anyone have any insight into my twisted musical mind?