Monday, March 31, 2008

Presentation/Spatial Challenges

Presentation is everything. Big plate, little food. It's the Californian way. And it's currently my way as well, as I prepare to talk for nine hours over the next couple months. I have to open my mouth and speak intelligently for three hours at a conference in Dallas. Then, a couple weeks later, I have to open my mouth and speak intelligently for six hours at a conference in Illinois.

These are big plates. And right now there isn't a whole lot of meat on them. The panic is starting to set in, which is probably a good thing because it may actually motivate me to do something. But wow, I have a lot of work ahead of me.

In equally mundane news, I am struggling with spatial relationships today. Rounding the corner between my bedroom and the bathroom at 6:00 this morning I misjudged the turn and slammed my toe into the wall. Now it's a bloody, swollen mess. An hour and a half later at work, I actually walked into a wall, much to the delight of my co-workers. Anything for a laugh. I'd like to tell you it was intentional. I can't type worth shit today, either.

Friday, March 28, 2008

What I Want To Be When I Grow Up

My friend Karen has a fun discussion on her blog about kids and their career aspirations. Honestly, I don’t think I ever went through a fireman or superhero phase, although for a while I did consider a future in the NBA. The seventeen-inch legs and the inability to soar higher than two inches off the ground derailed my plans. But old dreams die hard. I’m telling you, if it doesn’t require movement, I’m your guy. I may be the greatest one-on-none and H-O-R-S-E player in America.

But here’s what I really wanted to be when I grew up: for as long as I can remember, I wanted to be a writer. I wrote after-the-nuclear-holocaust short stories on the playground in third grade. Neighborhood kids would congregate in my garage, and I made up horror stories on the spot (paintings with eyes that moved!). I wrote a poem in sixth grade that was essentially my own eulogy (yes, I was insufferable then, too), in perfect iambic pentameter, even though at the time I didn’t know that’s what it was called. The cognitive dissonance associated with writing iambic pentamenter and, say, making the mortgage payments, never even occurred to me. I just wanted to be a writer.

As I’ve listened to peoples’ stories, I’ve come to find out that just about everybody wanted to be a writer at one point in their lives. Many people still do. It’s one of those professions that has a certain romantic cachet associated with it. There is, for instance, the example of Thomas Wolfe staying up all night and pouring out his soul on the page, running out onto the streets of Baltimore at 4:00 in the morning, pages in hand, shouting “I wrote ten thousand words today!” And there is the example of Jack Kerouac pounding on the typewriter keys as he crossed the country, high on words and America and amphetamines. It turned out that the romanticism wasn’t always the ticket to longevity. Wolfe died at 39, Kerouac at 46. But they went out in a blaze of glory.

Early on the idea of “leaving my mark” also became very important to me. And writers left their marks. You could find those marks in libraries and bookstores. The writers died, but their words lived on, and for a guy who was obsessed with death (note iambic pentameter story above), this sounded appealing. And so I set before myself the modest goal of writing the Great American Novel, a novel that would be so moving and so beautifully written that generations of future romantics and beautiful hippie chick English majors would read my words and swoon. You can’t imagine how much my life was driven by the thought of beautiful, swooning, literate hippie chicks.

And so I became a writer. Kinda. Almost. Okay, I spent 40+ hours every week writing sentences like “The following table shows our current A-B/multivariate testing capabilities as compared to those capabilities needed for market differentiation.” And yeah, nobody was swooning, and it was hard to find beautiful, literate engineers. Still, it was a living, and that seesaw that has romanticism at one end and making a living at the other has been tottering back and forth for decades. I’ve gone back to school a few times since that Creative Writing degree, even though I know for a fact that I had it right the first time. And here’s about the only thing I’ve figured out: it’s a tradeoff. There’s no romantic glory in starving to death and subjecting your family to abject poverty. And the only way to combat the soul-crushing tendencies of corporate America is to do things like write iambic pentameter and to wax rhapsodic about that album that feeds your soul.

More and more, though, I find that I am identifying myself in ways other than “writer.” It’s not that the “writer” tag isn’t important to me. Anyone who knows me knows that’s important to me. But honestly, here’s who I want to be when I grow up: a less selfish jerk, a person capable of caring deeply about others, entering in to their joys and sorrows, a person who is engaged in trying to make the world I live in a better and more just place, and a person who wants to communicate above all to my wife and daughters how much I love them. I will never write the Great American Novel. It’s entirely possible that I will never finish any novel that I start. I’ve got 52+ years of a not-so-great track record. But I will leave a mark. And I will leave it on the people whose lives I encounter. I want the mark to be a good one. No one will swoon. But I hope that it will be a mark characterized by love.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Taking Christ Out of Christianity

From the 3-22-08 Toronto Globe and Mail:

That triumphal barnburner of an Easter hymn, Jesus Christ Has Risen Today – Hallelujah, this morning will rock the walls of Toronto's West Hill United Church as it will in most Christian churches across the country.

But at West Hill on the faith's holiest day, it will be done with a huge difference. The words “Jesus Christ” will be excised from what the congregation sings and replaced with “Glorious hope.”

Thus, it will be hope that is declared to be resurrected – an expression of renewal of optimism and the human spirit – but not Jesus, contrary to Christianity's central tenet about the return to life on Easter morning of the crucified divine son of God.

Generally speaking, no divine anybody makes an appearance in West Hill's Sunday service liturgy.

I am always amazed by these kinds of churches, not because of the obvious theological issues, but because of why anyone would bother to attend. To that end, I find the pastor's statement to be highly ironic: "I just don't think we can placate those in the pews long enough to transition into a kind of new community that doesn't keep people away."

Keep people away? Why bother attending in the first place? Just stay home and drink Bloody Marys over a late brunch, or head out for a round of golf. Church without God is like an Up with People concert; all feel-good cliches that last only as long as the last note of that "Glorious hope is risen today" chorus. Then it's back to the Kingdom of Me. I honestly can't fathom why people would bother to invest a couple hours of their week in such activities. They can do the Kingdom of Me quite nicely on their own. In fact, it tends to work better that way.

Whatever it is, it's not Christianity. When you remove Christ then you are, by definition, not a Christian church. And yet West Hill United Church retains the form of a Christian church, appropriating old hymns and changing the words to self-help pep talks. Now, there are plenty of people who are not Christians, and who engage in self-help pep talks. And I'm not unsympathetic to these folks. Many of them are my friends. But they don't get up on Sunday mornings and appropriate old hymns. So I'm genuinely curious as to why somebody would give up some sleep on the weekends for such an experience. If I were in their shoes (or slippers), I'd simply opt for more time in the sack.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Collective Mirage

The two-part PBS Frontline series called "Bush's War" ought to be required viewing for every American. Part 1 aired last night. Part 2 airs tonight. If you've been a sentient being over the past five years, you already know much of this history. What is new, and remarkable, is the synthesis of hundreds of hours of videotaped war footage, political speechifying, and behind-the-scenes interviews.

What do we find out?
  1. As early as the afternoon of 9/11, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld were searching for a pretext to include Iraq in the retaliatory measures surrounding the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
  2. If you start with the conclusion, you make the premises fit the conclusion. You will see aluminum tubes, Nigerien yellowcake, and germ warfare wherever you look.

What's fascinating and deeply disturbing here is the phenomenon of the collective mirage. It's impossible to say, really, how much of the mirage was due to a willful twisting of the facts versus, shall we say, merely a creative interpretation of the facts. The key is that the mirage was real. People see funny things in the desert. They always have. They did five years ago. They still do today.

Best Albums of the First Quarter of 2008

These are the albums that have impressed me the most over the first three months of this year. Some of them may not yet be released. Sorry about that. I receive albums months in advance of their release dates, and it’s a thankless task to go back and check on these things. All I know is this is what I’ve heard, and this is what I like. If it’s not out now, it will be out soon. There is no implied order here other than alphabetical.

Marco Benevento – Invisible Baby

An impossible, goofy convergence of jazz, post-rock minimalism, classical wankery, and video arcade game sounds, this is the album to put on for all your friends who think that instrumental music is boring.

T Bone Burnett – Tooth of Crime

T Bone moves forward by going backward. 2006’s The True False Identity was underwhelming, the product of too much vitriol and not enough wit (AKA Steve Earle Syndrome). These older songs from the ‘90s, written to support the Sam Shepard play of the title, are dense, witty, and wonderfully offbeat.

Firewater – The Golden Hour

In which a Nick Cave/Tom Waits acolyte travels to Pakistan, hangs out with the locals, and makes Sufi cabaret punk rock music.

The Fleshtones – Take a Good Look

Garage rock in the noble tradition of ? and the Mysterians, The Standells, and The Animals. No guitar solos. Three chords. Twelve tracks. 30 minutes.

Frightened Rabbit – The Midnight Organ Fight

Winner of the prestigious Best Indie Rock Album of the First Quarter of 2008 award, the second effort from the Scots trio is soulful, full of U2-like anthems, and offers creative uses of the work “fuck” on more than half the songs. Who doesn’t love a good midnight organ fight?

Jacob Golden – Revenge Songs

The most conflicted and honest divorce album I’ve heard in years. Golden veers wildly between I wanna kill myself/I wanna kill my baby modes, and his sorrow and anger are tinged with the kind of regret that can only accompany a first-class asshole. “I’ve got no integrity to cling to/I don’t have myself a backup plan,” he sings in an angelic choirboy voice that masks the demons within.

Old 97’s – Blame It On Gravity

After 2004’s subdued Drag It Up, this new one is a fine return to form, and features everything we’ve come to love about the 97’s – Rhett Miller’s smartass, lovelorn songs, and Ken Bethea’s surf guitar king workouts.

Matthew Ryan – Matthew Ryan vs. the Silver State

Matthew Ryan has two moods: sad and angry. Sometimes you get both in the same song. You get more of the same on this album, but with a sympathetic and sloppy band backing him up. And what you end up with is a Replacements album with a very literate singer/songwriter. Nothing against Paul Westerberg, but he never quoted the great World War I soldier/poet Wilfrid Owen.

Son Lux – At War With Walls and Mazes

Oh boy. A capsule summary just will not do. But anybody who combines classical minimalism, Radiohead, hip-hop, techno, opera, and plainsong chant on the same album is almost certainly going where no man has gone before. Recommended for non-Trekkie fans too.

Sun Kil Moon – April

Mark Kozelek can’t write a short song to save his life. As is customary, he divides his long songs between lovely acoustic ruminations and winding, Neil Young-like rockers. He’s excellent at both, and he may have surpassed ‘70s-era Jackson Browne as the King of Literate Mopery on this latest effort.

Monday, March 24, 2008

International Punk

My memories of Cop Shoot Cop (yes, a band, not a badly written newspaper headline) are not positive ones. I recall a couple vocalists who yelped more than sang, a distinct lack of melody, and a series of confrontational songs. White Noise was the name of the album I heard, and that was pretty accurate. One could listen to a jackhammer breaking up the pavement or one could listen to Cop Shoot Cop.

Bassist Todd A., one of the principle yelpers, left the police academy twelve years ago to embark on a relentlessly eclectic exploration of world music. His first solo album under the Firewater moniker, 1996’s Get Off the Cross, We Need the Wood, was an immediately breathtaking affair, equal parts Tom Waits seedy cabaret and gypsy wedding party, and predates indie rock’s current obsession with all things Balkan (see Beirut, Gogol Bordello, Balkan Beat Box) by a good decade. Subsequent albums have explored Bollywood, klezmer music, and Big Top circus sounds.

Naturally, Firewater’s new album The Golden Hour (out May 6th on Bloodshot Records) sounds like nothing that has come before it. Newly divorced and disgruntled by George W. Bush’s re-election, Todd left New York in 2005 with a backpack, his laptop, and the clothes on his back. The ensuing three-year hejira/debauch through India, the Punjab, Pakistan, and parts of Afghanistan and Turkey is fully chronicled on the new album. Setting up shop wherever he could find willing musicians, recording at times around tribal campfires, Todd provided the songs and the punk attitude, native musicians provided the accompaniment, and a single microphone and a laptop provided the recording studio. The results are endlessly fascinating and disturbing; a man at the end of his rope, rootless, and without hope, howling at the moon, and leading the locals through a nihilist hoedown. Singing about his divorce and the unraveling of normality, Todd yelps “This is no joke/This is my life.” You tend to believe him. Normal must have been a long time ago. Along the three-year trek he was drugged, beaten, robbed, and almost died of a mysterious intestinal illness “I was forced,” he says, “to end my trip at the Khyber Pass on the Afghan border, due to general ill health and the unnerving likelihood of kidnapping.”

The Golden Hour is not pleasant listening, but it comes close to being essential listening. It’s a superb, disturbing slab of desperation and creativity.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

4 X 4

There is a concept that exists in the blog world (and perhaps many other places, although I've primarily encountered it in therapy sessions) called the "meme." When you break it apart it looks like "me" "me." And that's pretty appropriate, because that's what it's about. Michael "tagged" me, which is a fancy way of saying that he wants me to write about my life, and then ask two other people to write about their lives. So I tag Martin and Carol.

Four jobs I’ve had

Busboy -- Holiday Inn, Crete, Illinois -- During high school. This was a relatively fancy Holiday Inn, and I had to wear a bow tie and a gold jacket. I looked like Liberace. My first day on the job I ignited the carpet and burned several square feet by spilling sterno (used to light the bananas in bananas flambe). Amazingly, they didn't fire me.

Business Consulting Salesman -- Oh, the odd career paths trampled by a Creative Writing major. I was out of school. I needed a job. And the George S. May Company offered me a job. I walked into various company headquarters, without an appointment, and asked to speak to the CEO. If I was lucky (about 1 out of every 20 calls) I tried to convince various plumbers and building contractors that my company (with me as a shining representative; will quote poetry upon request) could help them run their business more efficiently. I didn't last long.

Technical Writer -- Well, I guess this is what I've done since 1982, and it's what I do most days 8:00 - 5:00. I've worked in most of the IT organizations of most of the high-tech companies in Columbus, mostly at AT&T Bell Labs/Lucent Technologies, but also at Qwest Communications, J.P. Morgan Chase, Nationwide Insurance, various agencies associated with the State of Ohio, Checkfree Corporation, Symix Systems, and KarlNet, Inc. Yes, I'm a consultant, which means I move around a lot. I've developed websites, and written technical manuals, online help systems, marketing literature, online training courses, standup training courses, newsletters, and speeches for CEOs. And one script for an animated training course featuring a blowhard cartoon character who looked and acted a lot like Dick Cheney. That was a lot of fun.

Music Writer -- Currently for Paste Magazine, All Music Guide, and Christianity Today Magazine. And occasional speaker on music and music criticism at various colleges/universities and arts conferences/festivals.

Four TV shows I’m watching


Cleveland Cavaliers basketball.

Cleveland Indians baseball.

Ohio State football.

There's nothing else I watch with any degree of regularity.

Four places I’ve been

Athens, Ohio

Venice, California

Florence, Kentucky

Berlin, Ohio

Four musical artists I’m listening to

Frightened Rabbit -- The Midnight Organ Fight

Matt Beckler -- new and still untitled album

T Bone Burnett -- Tooth of Crime

Old 97's -- Blame It On Gravity

Friday, March 21, 2008

We Call This Friday Good

My childhood memories of Easter are inextricably linked with the Church Services from Hell. Growing up in the Catholic Church, Holy Thursday through Easter Sunday represented the ecclesiastical gauntlet. It took real courage and stamina to make it through four services in four days. The Good Friday service, in particular, was a killer. I write that metaphorically, of course. None of us had spikes through our hands or a spear through our side. But we had to stand and kneel a lot, and Father Soltis would solemnly intone almost three entire chapters from the Book of Matthew chronicling the arrest, crucifixion and death of Jesus. The readings alone took twenty minutes. And this was in the same church where the normal Epistle or Gospel readings consisted of three- or four-verse snippets, little biblical soundbytes to get us through our days.

But there was no way to turn the death of Jesus into a soundbyte. The gospel writers took up about a fifth of their narratives to tell the story, and made a big deal out of it. But other than feeling sad, I wasn’t quite sure how I was supposed to react. Jesus died, and then three days later he rose from the dead, and that was very cool, and quite unusual, and everybody got to eat chocolate and jellybeans and be happy again.

The cross, for my first twenty years on the planet, was the great mystery of the Christian faith to me. I don’t think I heard a single sermon that explained its relevance to my life. It made me feel very bad for Jesus, who was a good man, and the Son of God, and who could do many things, such as generate a lot of food from a little food, a quality I greatly admired. But the fact that the cross actually had something to do with my life was never explained.

I started to get it as a freshman in college. I wasn’t a Christian then. In fact, in my nineteen-year-old wisdom, and having figured out all the great problems of human existence that had baffled theologians and philosophers for millenia, I wanted to distance myself as far as I could from the superstitious teachings of an outmoded religion. But in an English class I read this:

The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer's art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.

Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But to remind of our, and Adam's curse,
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.

The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.

The chill ascends from feet to knees,
The fever sings in mental wires.
If to be warmed, then I must freeze
And quake in frigid purgatorial fires
Of which the flame is roses, and the smoke is briars.

The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood—
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.
-- T.S. Eliot, from Four Quartets

Here was some evidence, albeit in highly poetic and cryptic form, that the cross had something to do with my life. I liked to think of myself as sound and substantial. After all, I had graduated from high school and been on the Honor Roll for four years, and I was well on my way to writing the Great American Novel, after which time untold generations of Americans would honor my memory and speak my name in hushed tones. That was pretty damn substantial.

But there was that business with the ruined millionaire and the dying nurse, those disturbing images of dripping blood and bloody flesh. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of them. They surely had to do with Satan, and the fallen world in which we live, and the cross, and communion. But they were so striking that I decided to just sit with them for a while, meditate on them, try to puzzle out their meaning to my life. And then there was that reference to being restored. Restored to what? Restored from what?

That was all a long time ago. In the meantime I’ve read a lot about the cross, listened to countless sermons about the cross, at one time puzzled over the Koine Greek in those chapters Father Soltis used to intone back in my childhood, trying to wring out every last nuance of meaning about the cross. Here is what I know: T. S. Eliot got through to me in ways that no church service ever could. I’ve bought into the paternal oversight of the ruined millionaire. I’ve been under the care of the dying nurse. And I am not sound and substantial. Our sickness – my sickness – was killing me. And the cross is the way back to health. And here’s the great irony, one that T.S. Eliot understood quite well himself: to get well, we have to die.

This is the way he concluded his great cycle of poems:

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre—
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire
-- T.S. Eliot, from Four Quartets

Dying is terrifying. Just ask Jesus, who sweated drops of blood thinking about it, and who cried out in agony on the cross. The Bible speaks of the Holy Spirit as a comforter. But there is another aspect to His work that we rarely think about, and which T.S. Eliot reminds us about. He is a terror. He convicts us that the only escape from the flames of hell are the flames that burn up all our useless striving, arrogance, accomplishments, self-sufficiency, all the shit with which we surround ourselves and insulate ourselves and tell ourselves that we are solid and substantial and good. These are holy flames, but they still burn. They are flames infused by love, but damn, they still burn. This is what the cross means: when I die, I live. It’s the great conundrum of human existence, and it’s a lesson I need to be retaught, day by day, because everything in me screams out for self-preservation, protests my own solidity and substantiality, wants to insist on my own innocence. But I am not. I am guilty. And I am forgiven. This is why the cross is good news. This is why we call this Friday good.

Nelsonville Music and Arts Festival

This will probably only be of interest to people from Ohio, and maybe not even to them, but in this age of three-day music festivals costing hundreds of dollars and attended by hundreds of thousands of fans, it's nice to find an intimate, inexpensive and fun festival. This one is in Nelsonville, Ohio, and takes place May 16th - 18th.

The big names are probably Akron/Family, The Avett Brothers, and Betty LaVette, but a few of my under-the-radar favorites (Southeast Engine, Justin Townes Earle, O Death) will be there as well. Best of all it's forty bucks for the weekend, and you'll be hanging out with a couple thousand people (at most) in Ohio's little Appalachian corner.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Paste Nominated for National Magazine Award

This is an amazing thing, and as cool as it gets in the magazine world. It's the magazine equivalent of being nominated for an Oscar. Congratulations, Pasties.


* * *
The New Yorker Receives Most “Ellie” Nominations
* * *
Magazine Industry Toasts Best and Brightest
on May 1 at Jazz at Lincoln Center

NEW YORK, NY (March 19, 2008) — Marlene Kahan, Executive Director, American Society of Magazine Editors (ASME), today announced the finalists for the43rd annual National Magazine Awards, the magazine industry’s highest honor. Named after the Alexander Calder Stabile “Elephant,” the 2008 “Ellies” represent a record-setting 1,964 entries from 333 print and online magazines. Twenty-five winners will be announced at a gala event on May 1, at New York City’s Jazz at LincolnCenter, Frederick P. Rose Hall.

“Magazines retain their unique appeal even as they traverse platforms to provoke and please today’s most discerning media consumers. The unparalleled mix of immediacy and depth in magazine editorial keeps bringing readers back for more,” said Marlene Kahan, executive director, ASME. “From perennial favorites to unexpected newcomers, this year’s record number of submissions speaks to the exceptional level of quality consistently delivered to our newsstands and mailboxes.”

Two hundred forty industry experts voted on the 2008 finalists, which represent the full spectrum of magazine journalism from politics and science to child-rearing and the arts. Among the emerging themes and statistics from the 2008 nominees:

The awards honor print and online magazines that consistently demonstrate superior execution of editorial objectives, innovative editorial techniques, journalistic enterprise, and imaginative design. Established in 1966, the National Magazine Awards is the preeminent program in the magazine industry to honor editorial excellence. ASME presents the awards program in association with the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

Barnes & Noble is the exclusive sponsor of the awards. There will be a reading of winning and finalist articles at a Barnes & Noble location in Manhattan in early May.

GENERAL EXCELLENCE: Recognizes overall excellence in magazines in six circulation categories. The award honors the effectiveness with which writing, reporting, editing and design all come together to command readers’ attention and fulfill the magazine’s unique editorial mission.

Circulation under 100,000
Aperture ● The Georgia Review ● Metropolis ● Print ● The Virginia Quarterly Review

Circulation 100,000 - 250,000
Foreign Policy ● Mother Jones ● Paste ● Philadelphia Magazine ● Radar

Circulation 250,000 - 500,000
Backpacker ● Cookie ● New York Magazine ● W ● Wondertime

Circulation 500,000 – 1,000,000
Budget Travel ● The Economist ● GQ ● National Geographic Adventure ● Wired

Circulation 1,000,000 – 2,000,000
Men’s Health ● The New Yorker ● Play, The New York Times Sports Magazine ●
Popular Mechanics ● Vanity Fair

Circulation over 2,000,000
Glamour ● Martha Stewart Living ● National Geographic ● People ● Time

No Country for Old Magazines

Harp Magazine announced on Monday that their current March/April issue (Dave Grohl for President on the cover) would be their last. This now makes three music magazines (Contemporary Christian Music, No Depression, and Harp) that have folded within the past month. T.S. Eliot was right. April is the cruellest month.
Harp was one of Paste's primary competitors. So am I happy that there's one less competitor out there? Not at all. First, Harp was a fine magazine. Its articles were well written, its scope was eclectic, and its mission was a noble one -- to shine a light on the thousands of worthy musicians and bands who didn't fit within the narrow confines of the Top 40/MTV/American Idol hegemony. The world, in general, is a better place when more people write about these things, not less. Second, a number of talented writers (not to mention the editors) depended on Harp for (at least part of) their livelihoods. I feel bad for them.
Music magazines come and go. The shelf-life (quite literally in this case) is usually a few years. Harp made it for eight, longer than most. But it's bad out there, folks, and right now this is no country for old magazines. It's hard to justify the $20 or $30 per year it might cost to subscribe to a music magazine when it costs $60 every time you fill up your gas tank. So chalk it up to a lousy economy, less disposable income, and the increasing tendency for music fans to check out online vs. print sources for their daily/weekly/monthly musical fixes. R.I.P, Harp. We hardly knew ye.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Searching for the Yarragh

William Butler Yeats, a conflicted soul and superb poet, once wrote about the “yarragh.” For Yeats, the yarragh was a cry of the heart, a haunting and haunted sound that could be found in Celtic (and particularly Irish) song and poetry. It was sorrow and lamentation for what had been lost, and for centuries of foreign oppression. It was anger and self-righteousnessness, a loud and belligerent cry that insisted on the inherent dignity and worth of a people. In short, it was soul, but soul with a particularly nationalistic fervor.

It’s a sound I’ve been seeking out for most of my adult life, ever since I heard Van Morrison sing “Listen to the Lion” for the first time, heard him break free of language altogether and engage in the kind of feral moaning and roaring that was alternately frightening and thrilling. Van has the yarragh, and he can almost always be counted on to let it rip on through once or twice per album. Sadly, his latest album is utterly lacking in anything other than cliches and anemic R&B horn arrangements, so I’ve been forced to do some soul searching in other places.

It should be noted that the stamp of authentic Irishness is not a guarantee of the yarragh. Bono, undoubtedly Irish, doesn’t have the yarragh. Neither do The Chieftains, Ireland’s chief exporter of jigs and reels to the PBS world. Nor should it be all that surprising that the yarragh has occasionally crossed the Irish Sea and taken root in Scotland. In any event, sometimes it can be found in some unlikely places. Here are three artists/bands that have the yarragh. I listened to them all yesterday, nursed my celebratory Guinness, and remembered why St. Patrick was one feisty, soulful missionary.

Damien Dempsey

For my (increasingly inflated) Euros, Damien Dempsey is the best Irish soul singer since Van Morrison, and his last three albums – Seize the Day, Shots, and To Hell or Barbados – have the same vocal voltage as Van at his ‘70s peak. He pushes way over into the red on the yarragh meter. There’s a very Irish thing going on in this music – taking one-syllable words and stretching them out over, say, seventeen notes. That gives the yarragh room to maneuver, and it bursts through in almost every one of Dempsey’s songs. His lyrics and narrative skills alone are enough to recommend this music. But oh, the voice is a force of nature.

Frightened Rabbit

As a poet from the oppressive occupying nation once stated, “What’s in a name?” In the case of Glasgow indie rock band Frightened Rabbit, thankfully not too much. It’s a dreadful moniker for a band, conjuring up images of quivering whiskers and Farmer MacGregor’s garden patch. No matter. The songs on the band’s second album The Midnight Organ Fight (out on Fat Cat Records in mid-April) have the yarragh. “Jesus is a just a Spanish boy’s name,” lead singer Scott Hutchison laments. “How come one man got so much pain?” That’s heading for yarragh territory right there, but Hutchison clinches it with that winsome Scots brogue and an untamed, keening tenor that will make your hair stand on end. Disguised as a typical indie rock band, Frightened Rabbit have more soul than any band I’ve heard recently. I can’t wait to explore their debut album, which I’ve yet to hear.

Sinead O’Connor

Sinead O’Connor’s peripatetic career is a controversial and sometimes sad one, an ongoing chronicle of greatness and missed opportunity. She hasn’t had the yarragh for a while now, and the last sighting was a couple of fleeting glimpses on her massive 1990 hit album I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got. But oh my God, that debut album The Lion and the Cobra has it in soulful spades. And on songs such as “Mandinka,” “Jerusalem,” and “Troy” she stomps all over her confessional material and does W.B. Yeats proud. It’s an irresisitable combination -- those big doe eyes, that big bald head, and that big, howling, beautiful mess of a voice.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Abba/Music Fatigue/Fuck Bands

That’s Abba. They had an accordion player. I didn’t know they had a drummer, but they did. I guess it makes sense that somebody had to lay down the beats for the dancing queens. He died yesterday, falling through the roof of his greenhouse and slitting his throat on the broken glass. This sounds like a very suspicious way to die (slitting his throat on the broken greenhouse glass? Really?), but that’s what they say.

I am reaching a point where I just don’t care that much about new music. It will pass. It always does. But right now I’m quite weary of reading breathless reports from SXSW about this or that buzz band. You know why? Because it’s all been done before, and I get tired of the artificial hype. Some 1,600 musicians/bands played at SXSW, a few of them well known, but most of them neophytes looking for their big break. Vampire Weekend, the current Big Buzz Band (last month it was Columbus’s own Times New Viking) played at SXSW, and drew lots of attention to themselves. They are, get this, a bunch of preppy students from Columbia University who mix Afro-pop with their indie rock and write songs about Oxford commas and mansard roofs. I don’t mind that they steal from Paul Simon. If you’re going to steal, Graceland is pretty great source material. I just find the relentless hype about the Next New Thing to be really old. One thing for sure: there’s nothing new about Vampire Weekend. Check out the Indestructible Beat of Soweto compilations on Shanachie from the mid- to late-‘80s to hear the people who did it first, and who had more important things on their minds than Oxford commas and mansard roofs.

Two of the big buzz bands have the word “Fuck” in their name: Holy Fuck and Fuck Buttons. I suppose this was inevitable, and probably represents the penultimate way to proclaim one’s independent-thinking, anti-authoritarian stance to the sheeplike indie masses. But I get tired of that, too. And why the hostility toward buttons? Zippers, hell yes. The damn things break, and pretty much ruin your winter parka. Fuck zippers. Fuck ‘em all. I’ll probably feel better tomorrow. But today I think I’ll take a break from music.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Where I'm Not

Here. It's called SXSW, and it's the biggest music/film/arts festival in the world, and it goes on, all over the city of Austin, Texas, throughout this week.

Every year I think I ought to go. 1,600 bands/musicians go. Some 13,000 music industry types go. I've received roughly, oh, 2,000 email messages (I'm not kidding) from various music publicists telling me about their bands who will be performing at SXSW, and where and at what times they will be performing, and inviting me down for free beer and barbeque. Some of them have even sent me the handy badges that I would need to enter their exclusive, industry-only-type tents where various bands play and where they serve the free beer and barbeque.

Now, I like music. A lot. And I suppose you could probably slot "free beer and barbeque" into the "Favorably Disposed Toward" category as well. So SXSW basically strikes me as an opportunity to catch lots of great music with people who love great music, to schmooze, and well, to eat barbeque and drink beer. I can think of worse fates.

But once again I am not there. This is because I have a job in corporate America, which graciously provides me with ten vacation days per year. And this year just about all ten of those vacation days are already slotted for speaking engagements at various music and arts festivals and college campuses.

I'm not complaining. Oh hell, yes I am. I could be on spring break with the music world in Austin, Texas. Instead I'm sitting in my cubicle on the 16th floor, looking out over a city covered by almost two feet of snow, and writing about database capacity planning.

I'll get over it. Even in the midst of my despair, I know that my life isn't so bad. I have, for example, access to free staples, and I don't even need to leave Columbus to get them. Life is great. I'll keep telling myself that.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Short Takes -- Van Morrison, Dub Pistols, The Acorn, Eddie Clearwater

Van Morrison – Keep It Simple

I love Van Morrison. But this is a disaster. Throughout his brilliant career Van has periodically phoned it in. And yes, that’s a bad connection you’re hearing. Consider this one then as a workmanlike but uninspired effort, full of predictable, generic rhymes, tepid R&B horn arrangements, and vocals totally lacking in soul and fire. Van, never known to back away from a headscratcher, offers a song called “That’s Entrainment,” which the dictionary defines as “To carry along (a dissimilar substance, as drops of liquid) during a given process such as evaporation or distillation.” Sounds like the blues to me. This is perhaps Van’s laziest and most confounding album ever.

Dub Pistols – Speakers and Tweeters

The Dub Pistols carry on proudly in the 2-Tone tradition of The Specials and The English Beat, mixing in whipsmart rap and house ingredients with the ska and reggae influences. Specials frontman Terry Hall drops by for a few tracks. There’s a mindblowing cover of Blondie’s “Rapture.” Best of all is the seamless fusion of skittering hip-hop beats, blaring trombones, and Cockney rhymes. Alternately playful, spacy, and pissed off, but always relentlessly danceable (you should watch me try), Speakers and Tweeters is one superb album. It’s been out for a while, but it’s new to me, so consider it an idiosyncratic early contender for Album of the Year.

The Acorn – Glory Hope Mountain

Let’s hear it for the oft-maligned concept album. This one, the debut full-length from Ottawa’s The Acorn, is dedicated to mom, perhaps a first in the annals of alienated indie rock. In this case mom is Gloria Esperanza Montoya (the album title is a rough translation of her name), and lead singer/songwriter Rolf Klausener wants you to know about her and the remarkable life she’s led. Employing a quavery folk tenor, indigenous Honduran instruments, and the occasional post-rock crescendo, Klausener and his bandmates offer a suite of songs about a woman who entered the world as a destitute orphan, endured domestic abuse and grinding poverty, and eventually made the long journey north to Canada. There are sentimental pitfalls galore in this approach, but Klausener mostly avoids them, offering impressionistic outlines rather than straightforward narratives, and keeping the syrupy melodrama to a minimum. It’s an understated love letter, and it’s a beauty.

Eddie Clearwater – West Side Strut

Eddie “The Chief” Clearwater recorded his first tracks as an eleven-year-old in Cincinnati in 1961, so to call him a blues veteran is an understatement. But there’s no coasting here. Possessed of a guitar style that is equally indebted to Buddy Guy and Chuck Berry, Clearwater and his guitar slinger cohorts (Ronnie Baker Brooks, Ronnie’s papa Lonnie) rip through a set of blues standards and a half dozen originals that sound like standards. This is Chicago blues (with some rock ‘n roll blurring of the lines) the way it was always meant to be played, full of raw energy, passion, and stinging guitar leads.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame -- Class of 2008

It seemed like a good idea at the time -- enshrine the biggest and best stars of the rock 'n roll era, and give them their own building where fans can come and gape at the very guitar pick Eric Clapton used on "Layla."

Reality has turned out to be a little different. The problem is that the list of the "biggest and best" dried up a long time ago. And so, in a few weeks, we (okay, the shrinking number of people who actually seem to care about these things) will witness the spectacle of Madonna, John Mellencamp, The Ventures, and Leonard Cohen entering the hallowed halls. Let's see:

Madonna -- Possessing dubious musical skills, Madonna flounced her way to the top of the charts via a superb body, provocative panting, and savvy marketing. She also paved the way for artists such as Britney Spears. This is surely worthy of some sort of award. I'm not sure that the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame should be it, though. Maybe a plaque at the Playboy Mansion.

John Mellencamp -- Springsteen Lite for the midwest, Mellenhead had a few feel-good anthems. But that little ditty about Jack and Diane was, in fact, a little ditty, and Mellencamp has alternated between throwaway nostalgia and blowhard political diatribes ever since.

The Ventures -- Nothing like honoring an instrumental surf band 45 years after the fact. "Theme From Hawaii-5-0" was really cool, though.

Leonard Cohen -- Leonard Cohen is most famous for being depressed. He's articulate in his depression, but he can't sing worth shit, and his most famous songs -- "Suzanne," "Bird on a Wire," and "Hallelujah" -- have been made popular (and calling Jeff Buckley's "Hallelujah" take "popular" is really stretching it) by others.

So those are the big stars. Lesser-known producers and songwriters will also be enshrined.

I'm telling you, it's only a matter of time until REO Speedwagon and Toto have their shining moment in the sun. And when that happens, no one will care. Nor should they.

T Bone

I've been listening to T Bone Burnett and thinking about George W. Bush. I'm doing the former because I need to write about him for Paste. I'm doing the latter because I'm dumbfounded that GWB has vetoed a bill that would have banned waterboarding, a torture technique forbidden under the rules of the Geneva Convention -- rules we enthusiastically adhere to and support in the UN, by the way, unless or until they become a little too morally inconvenient.

At any rate, T Bone apparently thinks about George W. Bush, too. Listening to T Bone's back catalogue, which now stretches back 28 years, it's amazing to hear the consistency in both his music and his lyrics. He's always, always, always been focused on truth and the illusions we are likely to settle for instead. Here is one of his latest songs:

If we were to pass an Eleventh Commandment
In twenty years people would be shocked to learn
That there had once been only ten
And wouldn't care if there had been

It all comes down to a moment of truth
Clock ticking in a soundproof booth
From Corpus Christi to Duluth
From Ghengis Kahn to Babe Ruth

If I could only see through glass
I would know what has come to pass
I wouldn't hurry, but I'd get there fast
What's last is first what's first is last

Every time you feel the shift
You conjure fire in a hieroglyph
When you're out for revenge dig two graves
When you run from the truth it comes in waves

We're marching up to Zion
That beautiful city of God
-- T Bone Burnett, "Every Time I Feel the Shift"

Saturday, March 08, 2008


So we've had sixteen inches of snow here in the past twenty-four hours, with two or three more to go, according to the weather man.

Columbus news stations are in an absolute frenzy. You have to understand that with a normal Columbus snowfall (2 - 3 inches), all the news is given over to worried meteorologists tracking the storm, multiple shots of snowplows plowing the streets, interviews with guys who estimate how much salt the city of Columbus still has in reserve, pictures of cars that have slid off into the ditch, etc. But this is the mother of all winter snow storms. I suspect that reporters will still be filing breathless reports on this in July.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Stuff White People Like

This is the best blog ever. But you really need to read the commentary. As best I can tell, the list is also highly accurate. I appear to like about 90% of the stuff white people like.

Here is an excerpt from the #67 thing white people like: Standing Still at Concerts:

Music is very important to white people. It truly is the soundtrack to their lives, meaning that white people are constantly thinking about what songs would be on the soundtrack for the biopic. The problem is that most of the music that white people like isn’t really dance-friendly. More often the songs are about pain, or love, or breaking up with someone, or not being able to date someone, or death.

So when white people go to concerts at smaller venues, what to do they do? They stand still! This is an important part of white concert going as it enables you to focus on the music, and it will prevent drawing excess attention to you. Remember, at a concert everyone is watching you just waiting for you to try to start dancing. Then they will make fun of you.

The result is Belle and Sebastian concerts that essentially looks more like a disorganized line of people than a music event.

If you find yourself invited to a concert with a white person, do NOT expect to dance. Prepare yourself for three hours of standing reasonably still. It is also advised to get a beer or (if legal) a cigarette so you have something to do with your hands. Although it is acceptable to occasionally raise one hand and point just above the stage.

This is all true.


That's the entrance to the Kahiki Supper Club on E. Broad St. in Columbus, sadly gone since 2000. When I was a kid, my parents would occasionally take the family out for dinner to the Kahiki. It was, to put it mildly, a marvelous sensory experience, although very little of that had to do with the food, which was terrible. But the Kahiki was another world right in the heart of central Ohio. There was a tropical rainforest in there, and a waterfall, Ohio farmgirls named Betty wearing grass skirts and leis, weird neon-lit fishes, Tiki torches burning brightly, and alcoholic beverages that bubbled like volcanoes. It was faux Polynesia on the prairie, and as a little kid I thought it was the most exotic place in the world.

I've been thinking about the Kahiki a lot recently. Paste Magazine has asked me to review the 18-album oeuvre of a musician named Arthur Lyman. Arthur, along with Martin Denny and Les Baxter, formed a sort of holy triumvirate of kitsch in the late '50s through the mid-'60s, and his exotic music was the soundtrack to a lot of Space Age Bachelor Pad cocktail parties. He played marimbas and vibraphones, and covered everything from Broadway show tunes to Bob Dylan folk protest songs with a Hawaiian twist. Then there were the parrot and macaw calls in the background.

I will confess that a little bit of this stuff goes a long way, and that nine double-album CDs is a lot to digest. But I'm also looking forward to the experience. I will listen to this music and think not about Hawaii, but about E. Broad St., and the Kahiki, and I will relive a wide-eyed part of my childhood. Aloha.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Bad for America

Here we are in the midst of another fun and frolicsome political campaign in America. And, as part of that campaign, certain well-known radio talk show hosts and religious leaders have urged their followers to vote for Hillary Clinton in the primaries. Because they want to see Hillary win? Of course not. Rather, because they believe that their preferred candidate has a better chance of winning against Hillary Clinton vs. another Democratic candidate (let's call him Barack; hypothetically, of course).

I struggle with this approach. On one hand, this is America. You can vote for whoever you want to vote for. But if, in fact, you support John McCain for president, then shouldn't you be voting for John McCain in the Republican primaries?

What's wrong with trying to sabotage the political process of the other side? Well, try this for starters:

Let's take a hypothetical situation. Let's say John F. Kennedy and John Kerry are both candidates on the Democratic ticket, and that Abraham Lincoln and Bob Dole are both candidates on the Republican ticket. You, as a Republican supporter of Honest Abe, fear John F. Kennedy. He's visionary, he's charismatic, and he just might win if he's the Democratic candidate. So you, as a Republican (or an independent who supports Honest Abe), vote in the primary for John Kerry, figuring that Abe can take Kerry without any problems in the general election in November. Let's assume that the same thing is going on on the Democratic side as well. Most Democrats support John F. Kennedy. He's a strong candidate. But Abraham Lincoln is a formidable opponent as well. So the Democrats all vote as Republicans (or independents) in the primaries for Bob Dole, figuring that JFK can take Dole without any problems in November.And if enough people think and behave as you do, we end up with a general election featuring John Kerry vs. Bob Dole. Who wins? Who cares? America loses. The two best candidates are not running for the highest office in the land.

This is not how the American political process was designed to operate. Our whole political process is intended to work when people vote for other people they want to win. And I would argue that you circumvent that process at every step of the way when you work to ensure that the best (or most formidable, if you'd prefer that) candidates are not represented in the general election. It's bad for America.

Am I off base here? Any thoughts?

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Proud Parents, Primaries, and Fox News

Fox News, stodgy bastion of conservatism, is trying to change its image. So they sent a group of young, hip reporters (you know it’s just a fa├žade; they’re all going to vote Republican in November) to a couple campuses in Ohio and Texas yesterday to chat with college students and find out how they voted in the big primaries. And they interviewed my youngest daughter Rachel, live and in person from the campus of Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.

I may be biased, but I thought Rachel spoke more articulately than the Fox News reporter. The reporter asked questions like, “Are you down with Obama?” Rachel actually responded in respectable English, and addressed specific political issues and why she favors the policies supported by Obama. She is more than “down with Obama.” I was proud of her, and it was fun to see her on the screen.

Alas, it didn’t matter. The Hillary machine rolled on inexorably in Cleveland, as I suspected it would. The old school Democrats control the northeast corner of the state, and always have, and Hillary is nothing if not an old school Democrat. Obama probably never really had much of a chance. And it made me realize, again, how limited our own personal perspectives are. Based on the people I know and hang around with, I would estimate that, oh, about 99.7% (Hi Bryan! It’s good to buck the popular trends!) of them are ardent Obama supporters. It’s apparently a skewed view of reality, which in Ohio roughly translated to 54% for Hillary and 44% for Obama. Still, I’m enjoying the political process in America. What an amazing thing. For the first time in my voting life, I’m actually excited about the prospect of voting for someone rather than simply trying to choose the lesser of two evils. Don’t tell anyone. It probably means the guy I’m down with doesn’t stand a chance.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Elvis Costello -- This Year's Model

My review of the reissue of Elvis Costello's great 1978 album This Year's Model is now up on the Paste Magazine website. You can find it here.

Son Lux -- At War With Walls and Mazes

Son Lux's (Ryan Lott's) debut album At War With Walls and Mazes has just been released. I've written about it here a couple times, and you'll find more of my thoughts in the upcoming issues of Paste Magazine and Christianity Today Magazine. The year is still young, but it will take some sort of miraculous effort to unseat this one as the best album of 2008. Beneath the icy chill is a warm heart, and it's the damndest collection of sounds (classical piano, hip-hop beats, gurgling synths, clattering trains, operatic divas) that you'll ever hear. It's also Exhibit A on how to make an album as a Christian, which is distinctly different from making a Christian album.

My friend Josh Hurst has just written a very fine review, which you'll find here.

And Pitchfork weighs in with a surprisingly positive review as well.