Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Steve Winwood -- Nine Lives

Quite honestly, I don't expect much from my '60s rock 'n roll heroes. With the exceptions of Bob Dylan and Richard Thompson, who still manage to surprise me from time to time, most of the artists who made me care about rock 'n roll in the first place are either dead or have been coasting since the Nixon administration. Paul McCartney? That 1970 solo debut album was really something. And that's about the best I can muster. Van Morrison is hit and miss (and entirely miss on his latest Keep It Simple), Eric Clapton only emerges from his now three-decades-long lethargy about once every ten years or so, and John Fogerty keeps on chooglin' while pandering tired Summer of Love nostalgia.

So I really don't know why I bothered to pay attention to Steve Winwood's latest, Nine Lives. I loved those early Spencer Davis singles. I loved those Traffic albums, but everybody loved those Traffic albums, and that was a long, long time ago. The first few solo albums from the early-to-mid '80s were decent, but they weren't Traffic. And then I stopped paying attention. Nine Lives is the first new Winwood material I've heard in more than twenty years. And I take it all back. There is at least one '60s dinosaur out there who is making music that can stack up just fine with his classic material.

Last time I checked, Winwood’s music was being used as the backdrop for Michelob commercials. It was slick, glitzy, synth-driven pop, and it was the perfect accompaniment to nighttime video shots of the Manhattan skyline. Nine Lives sounds nothing like that. It’s a jamband album, a la the Traffic classics The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys and John Barleycorn Must Die, and, like all jamband albums, its biggest drawback is the absence of discernible hooks and singalong choruses. But look, if you’re going to go in for seven-minute jams, who would you rather listen to, boring young Dave Matthews or the suitably ancient but surprisingly frisky Steve Winwood? And how about if we brought along Eric Clapton – a totally resuscitated Eric Clapton at that – to play guitar? Is this sounding like a better proposition now? Because that’s what Winwood has done. It’s Son of Blind Faith, with some Latin rhythms and occasional sax and flute solos thrown in for good measure.

Winwood’s bluesy, soulful voice has lost none of its power, and the synths have given way to a much more organic sound dominated by Winwood’s Hammond B3 organ. It’s an admittedly calculated return to the past, and it recapitulates everything that was great about The Spencer Davis Group, Traffic, and Blind Faith. Sax/flute player Paul Booth ably fills the Chris Wood role in the band, and Winwood wraps his soulful pipes around, you guesed it, nine tunes that are surprisingly reflective and introspective. Best of all, Clapton shows up on “Dirty City” and unleashes his best guitar solo in at least a decade, a searing and yes, dirty, take on his patented blues playing. There are no hit singles here. Michelob won’t come knocking. But this is a warm, expansive slow burner of an album, and a welcome return to classic form.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Satan is Real

This album is a double winner. It simultaneously features one of the worst album covers ever and some of the most glorious country gospel music ever recorded. Really. If you haven't heard it, you should.

Here's something I wrote for Paste a long time ago about The Louvin Brothers.


It may be the most startling and strangest album cover in music history. In 1960 the Louvin Brothers, arguably the greatest country duo of all time, released an album called Satan Is Real. The cover art has become something of a kitsch classic. A beaming Charlie and Ira Louvin stand in the foreground, adorned in snowy white suits, arms outstretched in a come-home-to-Jesus pose. Behind them a bed of smoldering lava threatens to inundate the would-be evangelists. And in the background is the cheesy masterstroke: a 12-foot cardboard cutout of Beelzebub himself, a crude rendering of the devil complete with horns, slanted eyes, a pitchfork and vampire-like protruding fangs. It is so garish, so over-the-top, that it would have amused even the most zealous of Bible-thumping fundamentalists.

The devil looks like he’s ready to pounce. And Ira Louvin would have certainly confirmed that that was no laughing matter. Ira would have told you that the album title simply reflected personal experience. He alienated and abused almost every single person who crossed his path. He drank constantly, cheated compulsively, married and discarded three wives, and walked around with three bullets buried near his spine — the work of his third wife, who shot him five times after he tried to strangle her with a telephone cord. “Ira Louvin was the meanest son of a bitch I ever met,” one of his former managers stated flatly. And therein lies the conundrum; Ira Louvin lived like he was haunted by demons, and sang like a slumming angel.

Ira Louvin and his brother Charlie, three years younger, were born and raised in the hills of northeast Alabama, and even when their music took on a more sophisticated, urbane sound in the late 1950s, they never lost the characteristic bite and yelp of their Appalachian heritage. They also never lost their lifelong enmity for one another. They occasionally loved like brothers, but mostly they fought like brothers, and when their voices intertwined, they sang with a transcendent beauty and a palpable tension that perhaps only brothers can create.

It was a tension between the sacred and profane, and it defined both the lives and the music of the Louvin Brothers. Ira, the raging drunk, and Charlie, the pious churchgoing teetotaler, could not have been more different in temperament, and their differences reveal themselves repeatedly in the music. Sometimes they played it straight, and songs like “The Family Who Prays,” “The Christian Life,” “The Angels Rejoiced Last Night,” and the be-saved-or-be-nuked Cold War classic “Great Atomic Power” are now recognized as standards of the country gospel genre. Sometimes they played the part of grieving, heartbroken lovers, and songs like “When I Stop Dreaming,” “If I Could Only Win Your Love,” “You’re Running Wild,” and “You’re Learning” provide the template for the close-harmony singing of The Everly Brothers and Simon and Garfunkel. Gram Parsons, who recorded their songs as part of The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers, brought the Louvin’s music to a new generation of rock ‘n rollers, and then passed it on to Emmylou Harris, who has carried the Louvin torch throughout her career.

It is as fine a body of work as country music has produced. But it is Ira’s gospel songs, the songs of the conflicted, raging drunk -- full of not love, but fury, not grace, but judgment, not joy, but deep regret – that continue to haunt and trouble me. Ira fought a pitched battle with God and Satan, who were very real -- and lost on both counts. In early 1965, on a song called “The Price of the Bottle (Is Just a Down Payment)” he sang:

I talked to myself one night in my room
And looked back on my wasted years,
Just me and my conscience while facing my doom …
A slave to the bottle that makes a man fall
And sink to a life of regret.

It’s the stuff of classic country music, played on honky-tonk and truck stop jukeboxes all over America. But Ira Louvin was simply singing his life.

So maybe he knew, somehow, what the end was to be. It is startling, in retrospect, to hear the number of Louvin Brothers songs in which drunk driving and violent death figure prominently. It is the logical end of those for whom Satan is all too real, who cannot escape the clutches of their addictions, and Ira sings these cautionary tales with the sure knowledge of one who wishes to be saved and yet knows he is doomed. One of the last songs the brothers recorded, the suitably melodramatic “Wreck on the Highway,” finds that potent mixture of the sacred and profane that characterized all their best work. Now it sounds prophetic:

O who did you say it was, brother?
Who was it fell by the way?
When whiskey and blood ran together
Did you hear anyone pray?

In June, 1965, Ira and his fourth wife, singer Anne Young, were killed by a drunk driver in a fiery collision outside of Williamsburg, Missouri. He was forty-one years old. At the time of his death, he had a warrant out for his arrest on DUI charges. Charlie, now in his late seventies, still occasionally performs, and toured with the rock band Cake as recently as 2003. The brothers’ harmonies remain; soaring and otherworldly, alternately sweet and jarring, beautiful and harrowing, a musical tug of war that echoes into eternity.

Louisville Sluggard

Kate and I spent the weekend in Louisville, visiting our niece Jessica and her husband Kyle. Her parents -- my brother-in-law Bill and sister-in-law Jan -- were there as well. It was my first time in Louisville, and, although there were some relaxing times that verged on sluggard territory, for the most part we kept busy. Surprisingly, there was a lot to see.
That's the Louisville Slugger factory where, you guessed it, they make baseball bats. Naturally, we had to take a tour. And we hit a grand slam. We happened to arrive on the day when the fine LS employees were making the hot pink bats that will be used by all major league teams on Mother's Day as part of an effort to raise awareness about breast cancer. So we watched hot pink bats rolling off the assembly line.
We also ventured down Bardstown Rd., home to various trendy restaurants, coffee shop(pe)s, and one of the great indie music stores on the planet, Ear X-Stasy Records. I found that long-out-of-print Joe Henry album to complete the collection. I noted with approval the Paste Listening Station. That was cool. I restrained myself from purchasing dozens of albums, and contented myself with two. That was a good move as well. Damn college tuitions.
It was one of those magical convergences of good company, good conversation, 70-degree weather, blue skies, and good beer. I had a fine time.
On the way there and back I listened to two albums I have to review, over and over again. This is the price one pays, I suppose. We were in the midst of fullblown, long awaited springtime, the redbuds were in bloom, the Kentucky hills were a glorious riot of color, purples and pinks and whites and greens everywhere, and I wanted to roll down the window and crank up my favorite tunes. Instead, I listened to two earnestly bland folkies harmonizing about how they're each others' favorite song. Won't you sing it again? they asked me. I didn't, but I played it again. Because I kept thinking that I owed it to them, that I needed to give them a fair chance. Six listens, and the verdict was in. Nope, you're not my favorite song. You're boring.
But the rest of the weekend was not boring. It was great fun.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Twenty Great Christian Albums: A through C

Some extended commentary to go with my earlier posting ...

Adam Again – Dig

I only know of three songs that have been written about the Cuyahoga River: R.E.M.’s “Cuyahoga,” Randy Newman’s “Burn On, Big River” and Adam Again’s “River on Fire.” They’re all great, but I’ll give the nod to Adam Again.

For most of Dig, Adam Again frontman Gene Eugene does a very passable Michael Stipe imitation, and his band excels at mimicking the frenetic jangle pop of R.E.M. But “River on Fire” is something different. It’s slow, labored, hesitant. It’s the chronicle of a man and a woman who love one another, and who can’t stay together. The singer struggles to find the right language, the proper ways to express his bewilderment and confusion. He sifts through the relational rubble to figure out what went wrong. “I’ll grab a metaphor out of the air,” he sings, and then he does just that, finding the perfect image for a marriage that should have been lifegiving, that should have been sustaining and nurturing and lovely, and that was ending in bitterness and recrimination.

Gene Eugene sings:

I know a lot about the history of Cleveland, Ohio
Disasters that have happened there
Like the Cuyahoga River on fire

He found his metaphor. It’s probably the most devastating divorce song I’ve ever heard.

Aradhna – Amrit Vani

I’ve already written about Aradhna, right here. What I said.

T-Bone Burnett – Proof Through the Night

T-Bone’s a hotshot producer (O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Elvis Costello, Counting Crows, and dozens more), but he’s also carried on an intermittent recording career of his own. Proof Through the Night is my favorite of his nine albums, but they’re all worthwhile. The title is a nod to Francis Scott Key (as in “gave proof through the night that our flag was still there), not Bruce Springsteen, and as such the album serves as a State of the Union address for God’s own U.S. of A., circa 1983. T-Bone finds a culture obsessed with image (the homage to/lament for Marilyn Monroe called “Fatally Beautiful”), image (the delightfully skewed “Hefner and Disney”) and image (“Hula Hoop,” which starts out with the arresting verse Way up in the hierarchies Mr. Big picks up his horn/Floats a note down through the lowlands and another star is born/Then he turns another billion and he deals a little porn). If you’re picking up on the notion that T-Bone isn’t charmed by what he sees, you’d be right. And he recruits a trio of pretty fair guitarists to help him out – Richard Thompson, Pete Townshend, and Ry Cooder.

Incidentally, Proof Through the Night was the first and only “Christian” album to receive a warning sticker from the PMRC, the one-time watchdog committee headed up by Tipper Gore. The reason? A song called “The Murder Weapon,” which suggested violence. The context of the song was a commentary on the power of the tongue, as found in the Book of James. This stuff is too good to make up.

Peter Case – The Man with the Blue, Postmodern, Fragmented, Neo-Traditionalist Guitar

I first encountered Peter Case in the movie “Valley Girl,” which was a smart update/transplant of the Romeo and Juliet story to suburban L.A. That was Peter fronting the bar band, which in this case actually turned out to be his bar band/power pop band called The Plimsouls. TMWTBPFNTG (I’m not going to type it all out again) is his second solo album and, in spite of the unwieldy title, it’s a pretty straightforward folk-rock commentary on what happens when all the usual suspects (sex, drugs, rock ‘n roll) turn out to be insufficient. There’s a great, poetic reflection on adolescent rebellion (Mixed up kid is here to join the crowd/The ones who only fit where they’re not allowed/He’s out on the streets and feelin’ blue/With a hole in his soul that the wind blows through). There’s a superb commentary on the inscrutable and overwhelming love of God (“Hidden Love”). And there’s a harrowing narrative on homelessness, and the studied indifference with which we greet it, on “Poor Old Tom,” which concludes with the devastating couplet:

Progress and love got nothin’ in common
Jesus healed a blind man’s eyes with mud

Bruce Cockburn – Humans

I know I said my list was in alphabetical order, and that no favorites were implied. And that’s true. But here’s a secret. Humans is #1. I don’t know what it is about divorce. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy, but there have been times – many times, actually – when the hypercharged days leading up to the bad ending of a good relationship have produced music of uncommon beauty and power. See Adam Again, above. See also Beck, Bob Dylan, Richard and Linda Thompson, Van Morrison, Jacob Golden, and The Mendoza Line.

And see Humans. Up until this point in his career (1980), Bruce Cockburn was a gentle soul and a hippie Christian mystic, spinning out his tales of the beauty of nature and the wonder of sunsets and the Northern Lights, etc. etc. Then the shit (all natural, biodegradable) hit the fan, and the course of his life changed. Humans finds him mid-way through the carnage, and finding blood everywhere, including on his own hands.

The trio of songs that conclude Side 1 of my gloriously scratchy vinyl copy (“More Not More, “ “You Get Bigger as You Go,” and “What About the Bond?”) maps out the terrain in stark, brutal strokes:

so i find out what the luxury of hate is
as exciting maybe as doing the dishes
face toward window -- light received
you walk away to see a film see some
people see a man
stab in throat twist in gut all too clear
not too new -- all been done before
planet breathes exhaustion
staggers on
enemy anger impotent gun grease
too many thoughts
too dogshit tired
one small step for freedom
from foregone conclusion

Side 2 brings some tentative resolution, but it’s bought at a high price (Bloody nose and burning eyes/Raised in laughter to the skies/I’ve been in trouble but I’m okay/Walls are falling but I’m okay/Under the mercy and I’m okay). It’s a remarkable, devastating album, a song cycle that suggests that there are no easy answers, but that there are answers. It’s easily one of my Top 20 Desert Island discs.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Oh Lord, I Have Made You A Place In My Heart

Oh Lord, I have made you a place in my heart
among the rags and the bones and the dirt.
There's piles of lies, the love gone from her eyes,
and old moving boxes full of hurt.
Pull up a chair by the trouble and care.
I got whiskey, you're welcome to some.
Oh Lord, I have made you a place in my heart,
but I don't reckon you're gonna come.

I've tried to fix up the place, I know it's a disgrace,
you get used to it after a while -
with the flood and the drought and old pals hanging out
with their IOUs and their smiles.
bare naked women keep coming in
and they dance like you wouldn't believe.
Oh Lord, I have made you a place in my heart,
so take a good look - and then leave.
-- Greg Brown, "O Lord, I Have Made You a Place In My Heart"

That's just about the saddest song I've ever heard. It's also one of the truest songs I've ever heard, if not necessarily in all the details, then at least in the attitudes expressed. Several people contacted me about my previous "Twenty Great Christian Rock Albums" posting. "What do you mean by tension, complexity, and ambiguity?," they asked me. "What's wrong with straightforward, overtly Christian art?" And "What do you have against Christian music?"

First, the easy one: there's nothing wrong with straightforward, overtly Christian art. I love the Sistine Chapel. I loved all the Madonna with Child paintings I saw in Italy last fall. I love liturgical worship music. I love old hymns. I love some of the worship choruses we sing because they cut to the heart of the matter, and "I'm desperate for you/I'm lost without you" may not be great poetry. It just happens to be true.

But my comments were intended to reflect my views on popular music and singer/songwriters. It was an admittedly biased, opinionated take on what I want to listen to. But I will say that, in general, I want to have very little to do with most overtly Christian contemporary music. There are exceptions, and I listed some of them in my "Twenty Great Christian Rock Albums" posting. There are others as well. But in the singer/songwriter realm, voice is everything. And by voice I don't mean vocal qualities, I mean the unique perspective that a singer/songwriter (or any kind of writer) is able to bring to the proceedings. And if all you can bring to the proceedings is a sanitized, cliched musical version of a Hallmark Greeting Card, then I'll pass. And that's mostly what I hear in contemporary Christian music.

I am drawn to singer/songwriters who wrestle with real life. And real life, at least as I have experienced it, doesn't conform to nice, uplifting aphorisms or simplistic biblical choruses. Does the Bible inform my life? Sure it does. But so do battles with addictions, and besetting sins such as anger and cynicism, and a desire to follow Christ, and a realization that some days I really don't want to follow Christ at all, and that all I really want to follow is the path of least resistance, which amounts to comfort and hedonism in my case. Leave me alone, Jesus. Greg Brown had that one right. That's the way it is some days. So I'm looking for singer/songwriters, regardless of their philosophical or religious convictions, who understand those kinds of conundrums. That's what I mean by tension, complexity and ambiguity. And I'm looking for people who express those things in song in unique ways.

Most singer/songwriters simply have nothing to say. The airwaves are filled with such mindless fodder. But there are people out there, including Christians, who are willing to bring their unique talents to bear on messy life. And I want to hear them and celebrate them. I don't want somebody singing about how their chains are gone and they've been set free -- unless it's really true. And I will confess that even then I'm unlikely to believe them, although I'm much more likely to believe that they're in the process of being set free. I want somebody -- some Christian -- to sing to me about how they're dead to sin, and how the old man has been crucified with Christ, and yet they still drag the old man's sorry carcass around with them, and that it weighs them down. Because that's reality, at least for me. It's just a desire for creativity mixed with truth, a truth that is more than propositional truth, and that recognizes that even Christians still live in a fallen world, and that they are a part of the problem as well as part of the solution. At least I am.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Twenty Great Christian Rock Albums

I participate frequently in the Arts and Faith forum. Unlike most Internet discussion lists, this one is almost always civil and intelligent, and some of my favorite people hang out there. One of those people, author Jeffrey Overstreet, linked to a recent article in The New York Times where the author listed and discussed ten great Christian rock songs.

Well, I thought about that. The particular confluence of the words "great," "Christian," and "rock songs" is a problematic one. "Christian" music, almost by definition, tends to be driven by an agenda. That's not only true of Christian music, of course. It's true of Michael Moore films, and Steve Earle albums, and George W. Bush photo ops on aircraft carriers. But if your overriding concern is to get your message out, then it behooves you to make that message as clear and as attractive as possible. There's nothing wrong with that if that's your goal. You're trying to convince somebody to buy your product.

It just happens to make for lousy art. Good art is full of tension, complexity, and ambiguity. It recognizes that the world is not black and white, that it is in fact very messy, and that even when one is addressing issues of objective truth, the message is muddled and compromised by the messengers. It knows that there are at least two sides to every story, and sometimes as many as six billion sides. And hence my struggle with the words "great" and "Christian rock songs" being used in the same sentence. Propaganda serves its purpose. But nobody is ever going to mistake Bush's Axis of Evil speech or Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code as great literature, either. Oops, I take that back about Dan Brown. It's worse than I thought.

Nevertheless, I have encountered not only songs, but entire albums made by Christians that I would consider great, at least partly because the messengers display something that is almost always in short supply: humility. Well, except for Bono. I've listed twenty of them below, with no order implied other than alphabetical. A few of them come from the insular Contemporary Christian Music industry, proving that, incredibly, sometimes good can even come from "ministers with guitars." Many more of them come from folks who would identify themselves as Christians, but who are taking their chances out there in the bars and small clubs, just like everybody else. Each album deserves some commentary, and I'll try to get to that within the next few days. But for now, here's my list of Twenty Great Christian Rock Albums (and cut me some slack; "rock" is used pretty loosely in some of these selections).
  1. Adam Again – Dig
  2. Aradhna – Amrit Vani
  3. T-Bone Burnett – Proof Through the Night
  4. Peter Case – The Man with the Blue, Postmodern, Fragmented, Neo-Traditionalist Guitar
  5. Bruce Cockburn – Humans
  6. Delirious – Mezzamorphosis
  7. Bob Dylan – Slow Train Coming
  8. Aretha Franklin – Amazing Grace
  9. Mark Heard – Dry Bones Dance
  10. The Louvin Brothers – Satan is Real
  11. Julie Miller – Broken Things
  12. Ed Raetzloff – It Took a Long Time to Get to You
  13. Resurrection Band – Awaiting Your Reply
  14. Son Lux – At War With Walls and Mazes
  15. Mavis Staples Have a Little Faith
  16. Sufjan Stevens – Come On, Feel the Illinoise
  17. Tonio K. – Life in the Foodchain
  18. U2 – War
  19. Vigilantes of Love – Killing Floor
  20. Victoria Williams – Loose

Monday, April 21, 2008


Last Thursday night I spoke at a fun and challenging gathering of Columbus artists called Wild Goose Creative; a group of writers, musicians, actors and actresses, and visual artists who come together once per month to share their work and support one another. There were a few people from my church and many people I didn't know. Since this was my first public speaking opportunity that didn't take place on the campus of a Christian college/university, I reveled in the absence of unanswerable and fundamentally misguided "What are five rules we can use to determine what Christians should listen to?" questions and I rejoiced in the genuinely excellent work I saw all around me.

Afterwards, a big, hulking mountain of a man came up to me and introduced himself as Hayseed. He was wearing overalls. He looked the part. Underneath the overalls was a t-shirt sporting the logo and name of The Bad Livers, one of the most debauched and funny bluegrass bands most people have never heard. Hayseed wanted me to listen to his music. "Sure," I said. This isn't that unusual at these kinds of events. People want me to listen to their music and write about it. And I try my best, although I make no promises. I can't write about everybody. On the other hand, if I can shine my little light on some deserving musicians, then I'm more than happy to do so. So Hayseed went out to his car and brought back a couple CDs for me. They were called Melic and In Other Words.

Holy hoedown, Batman. Where has this guy been all my life? Let's start with a quote from Lucinda Williams:

"Hayseed is, in my mind, on the same level as Bob Dylan and Neil Young and Van Morrison. That's just what I think, that's my opinion, for what it's worth. I don't say that about everybody who comes down the pike."

Is he that good? Nah, he's not that good. But maybe Lucinda was exaggerating to make a point, and the point is that Hayseed writes songs that borrow equally from the Bible and T.S. Eliot and P.B. Shelley and his own scuffed soul, and he sings them in a huge, untamed voice that recalls a young George Jones. He's got that wild Kentucky high lonesome soul that can't be faked, he's got a great old-time country band behind him, and he writes some of the most literate and soul-searching music I've heard in months.

Instrumentally, these are old-time country albums, with a twist of Delta blues. They are most certainly not bluegrass, although banjos and fiddles are featured prominently. Lyrically, they sound like the work of a philosophy/theology major. And he's recruited a few fairly decent folks to help him out, among them Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris, Joy Lynn White, Doug Dillard, and Bruce Cockburn guitarist Colin Linden. Imagine, then, a song called "God-Shaped Hole," which is a concept borrowed from St. Augustine, and imagine that indispensable Christian concept delivered as a holy hoedown. That's what you get on these two albums, with a vocalist who understands soul in all its theological and sonic nuances.

These albums are apparently ten and four years old, respectively. God only knows why they didn't leave more of a mark. No Depression ran a couple flattering reviews, and that was about it. Hayseed grew up the son of a Pentecostal preacher in western Kentucky. His family didn't own a TV, or listen to the radio. And then the kid struck out on his own and started reading Augustine and Eliot and Shelley. And so what we end up with here is something that literally sounds out of time. It's perhaps the most unabashedly culturally unaware music I've ever heard, it's crackling with all the big questions about God and love and life and death, and it's full of the joy of self-discovery. I'm very glad I listened. I think you will be too.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Wild Goose Creative

I spoke at Wild Goose Creative’s Third Thursday event last night. I had a lot of fun. I hope other people did as well. I’m thankful that these geese are honked off enough to do something substantial and meaningful by bringing Columbus artists together to talk about the creative process.

I knew maybe a third of the people, and had no idea who the other two-thirds were. And not knowing one’s audience can be both a daunting and a freeing prospect. I’m used to giving my spiel at Christian colleges, where I can usually anticipate questions such as “What are the five rules we can use to determine what Christians should listen to?” and “Amy Grant – Angelic Ambassador or Spawn of Satan?” It was actually refreshing to talk about music as music, and to be able to scrap the whole “get out of the CCM ghetto” exhortation.

I talked about Radiohead. Everybody knew Radiohead. Amazing. I talked about many other things as well, and played some music, and fielded a lot of good questions. I had a blast. I also met a guy who calls himself Hayseed, who wanted me to listen to his albums. This isn’t that unusual at these kinds of events. He told me that Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris played on his albums. Sure. And then I listened to the albums today, and they do. Cool. He also told my wife that she looks like Emmylou Harris, which she does. Lucky me. She can’t harmonize worth a damn, though.


I am looking at my calendar and getting depressed. My next free weekend is in mid-July. Most weeknights between now and then are already booked as well.

I like being busy, so that's not really the issue. But what I don't like is that there is no leeway to be spontaneous. What that means is that when something like the Justice Revival, which is currently happening in Columbus, comes up, I'm out of luck. Those nights were booked long ago. Give me three months notice and you've got a shot. Two weeks notice? No chance.

I thought this Empty Nest phase would free up some time. It hasn't. And the kids are coming home soon, too. It would be nice to be able to fit them in. I think June 23rd is currently free. Maybe we can catch up on the school year then.

Danny Federici

Danny Federici, longtime keyboard player in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, died of melanoma yesterday. He was 58. I have a DVD of Springsteen and his band that was recorded in Los Angeles in 1973, when Bruce was just starting out. Danny Federici looks like he’s about 12 years old. Neil Young told us a long time ago that was it better to burn out than to fade away, but he was wrong, and thankfully wrong about himself as well. Nevertheless, it’s unsettling to encounter news like this, to find that the guys who manage to escape the car and plane crashes and the drug overdoses still succumb to the much more mundane, prosaic ravages of cancer and heart disease at the other end of this tunnel of love.

That’s Danny on accordion on Bruce’s wistful valentine to his native New Jersey, “Fourth of July, Asbury Park.” Bruce sings:

Sandy, the waitress I was seein' lost her desire for me
I spoke with her last night, she said she won't set herself on fire for me anymore
She worked that joint under the boardwalk
She was always the girl you saw boppin' down the beach with the radio

Kids say last night she was dressed like a star in one of those cheap little seaside bars,
and I saw her parked with her lover boy out on the Kokomo

Did you hear the cops finally busted Madame Marie for tellin' fortunes better than they do?
For me this boardwalk life's through
You ought to quit this scene too

Then Danny comes in with that sweet, romantic accordion, turning the dives along the Jersey Shore into caf├ęs on the Left Bank of the Seine. He quit the scene yesterday, but I’m hoping there are greasy dives in heaven, and that they hire accordion players.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Worst Album Cover Ever?

There are many outstanding candidates for this honor. But I am particularly partial to Geraldine and Ricky's debut (and only?) album Trees Talk Too.

Ricky, as you can probably see, is a nice guy, albeit a little wooden. And see, he talks (well, actually it's Geraldine, but don't tell anybody). Geraldine, who looks a bit like Lucy Baines Johnson, daughter of former President and talker Lyndon Baines Johnson, has the creepy kind of smile that can only come from having your hand on somebody's ass.

Given the tropical panoply in the background, Ricky was apparently once teak, or perhaps mahogany. As any J.R.R. Tolkien fans knows, it's not so surprising that trees talk. What is surprising is that this one looks a lot like Michael Jackson.

Jackson Browne

In preparation for an article I'm writing about him in Paste, I've been listening to Jackson Browne's first three albums -- his eponymous debut (AKA Saturate Before Using), For Everyman, and Late for the Sky. Does anyone listen to these albums?

Along with Joni Mitchell's Blue and For the Roses, these are the quintessential SoCal confessional singer/songwriter albums, and at one time they were among my most cherished musical possessions. It's odd to come back to them thirty-five (or more) years down the line and hear them in a quite different context than when I originally heard them. I still think they're pretty great. Although the confessional mopery heard here has become something of a musical cliche (see the whole Emo genre), Jackson did it first (or close to first), and he still may have done it best. Late for the Sky, in particular, still sounds like a perfect album to me. It's beautifully poetic, soulful, and it goes places where most songwriters never dare to go -- in this case, the exploration of numbness and sorrow that characterizes your life when, say, your wife commits suicide (which is what happened to Jackson. It's like Courtney Love's Live Through This, but with, you know, an actual songwriter). There's some harrowing writing here.

I quit paying attention to Jackson Browne after Running On Empty. That wasn't a terrible album, but it wasn't all that good either (although, naturally, it was his biggest seller -- see U2, REM, etc.) , and it didn't bode well for Jackson's future as far as I was concerned. I hated the fact that suddenly millions of people were buying Jackson Browne albums. I liked him better when he was pretty much the exclusive property of me and a few of my close friends. That was also about the time that people like The Clash and Elvis Costello came along, and my attention was diverted in that direction and away from the old hippies with acoustic guitars.

In any case, aside from a few assorted songs here and there, I haven't pulled out those old scratchy Jackson Browne albums in almost thirty years. Listening to his first three albums in their entirety again, back to back to back, has been quite a revelation. I thought that maybe I'd hear an overly earnest guy whose songs were typical of the age in which they were created, and that hadn't aged very well. But his songs have aged just fine. In fact, in some ways they might connect a little more deeply now that I'm eligible for the AARP discount. I hadn't lost anyone I loved when I first heard those songs. Now I have. It's heartbreaking writing, and although he could have easily turned maudlin and manipulative, he didn't. I'm staggered by the lines in "Fountain of Sorrow" (on Late for the Sky) about looking at old photographs of his now dead wife, and finding the one that wasn't the most flattering, but that best captured her spirit. Because that's what you do in that situation. You don't care about the glamour shots. You're trying to find something, anything, to remind you of a real human being who is gone, and you look for shards of a human spirit. There are so many lines like that on those first three albums. They're just true. It's been a great pleasure rediscovering this music.

Monday, April 14, 2008

U2 3 X 2

The first three U2 albums (Boy, October, and War) are being re-released in June and getting the deluxe re-isssue treatment (remastering, extended liner notes, and a second disc of B-sides and unreleased tracks for each album). I get to review them for Paste.

I'm a happy guy. These are my favorite U2 albums, and I'm looking forward to hearing all the goodies and sharing my thoughts.

Thursday, April 10, 2008


I realize that it is the nature of music PR to engage in hyperbole. Every week I'm deluged with albums that, according to their accompanying press releases, will change my life and cause a seismic shift in western civilization. And here I just wanted to hear something with a good beat. But I'm currently puzzled by the number of press releases that assure me that the new album I hold in my grubby little hands is, in fact, #1 on the charts. What charts?, you may ask. Or you may not. How about #1 Indie on the Streetpulse Chart (the band Sword, for my curious and ever-expanding fanbase)?

What? What is the Streetpulse Chart? Where do these charts come from? Who charts them? How important are they? And is there a hierarchy of charts I should know about that would tell me that, for example, the Streetpulse Chart is put together by three teenaged kids with acne in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and may not be as significant as the Billboard Chart? Anybody know?

Monday, April 07, 2008

Sun Kil Moon -- April

The recently deceased Madeleine L’Engle once said that said that she was immune to the effects of aging because she could so easily recall all the years that went before. When she was eighty, she claimed that she was also 21, and 35, and 50. The years ran together, the warp and the woof of an unbroken tapestry that stretched across a lifetime. It’s a sentiment that singer/songwriter Mark Kozelek must have taken to heart. April, his third album under the Sun Kil Moon moniker, is the perfect encapsulation of memory and longing. He conjures up the past again and again, mining his sometimes idyllic, sometimes dysfunctional Ohio childhood, his turbulent adolescence and young adulthood, all the lost loves who tarried for a time and are now gone, lost to everything but the mind’s eye. He could be singing about when he was fifteen. Or twenty five. Or forty.

It’s an approach that is fraught with potential melodrama and saccharine sentimentality, and it shouldn’t work. Nor does it help that Kozelek can’t write a concise song to save his brooding life, and three of the eleven songs on April stretch out to the ten-minute mark. Several more hover in the six-to-eight minute range. Impossibly, though, it works wonderfully. At a long, long 74 minutes, April is both an endurance test and a quietly remarkable example of how to sustain a mood across vast stretches of time. Unlike 2003’s masterful Ghosts of the Great Highway, Kozelek can’t be bothered here to mix it up very much. There are no cathartic rockers to relieve the beautiful drone of his songs. There’s only that drone; insistent, somber, the perfect distillation of sadness and regret.

It’s what he does. He did it for eight years as the leader of the Red House Painters, and for a couple more as a solo artist, and now he’s done it for five years as Sun Kil Moon. And if Kozelek simply writes the same album again and again, let it be noted that he does it better than anyone since Elliott Smith, and that he gives the blessed Nick Drake a pretty good run for his melancholy money. These songs are starkly, ravishingly beautiful.

Kozelek has two tricks: the acoustic crawl through mazes of memory and longing, and the slightly more sprightly Neil Young Godfather of Grunge electric exploration of memory and longing. The former is on display in lovely, haunted ballads such as “Moorestown” and “Harper Road.” The latter is on display in winding guitar workouts such as “Tonight the Sky” and “The Light,” although the electric guitars are mixed slightly in the background to bring Kozelek’s world-weary voice and lyrics to the forefront. Kozelek has no intentions of being a guitar hero. What makes it work is that his voice and melodies are perfectly, and I mean perfectly, pitched to convey the bittersweet overtones of lost love, but love nevertheless in all its complex glory. Like a musical Proust, Kozelek piles on detail after detail, and magically transforms his specific experiences – right down to character names and geographic locales – into something that sounds universally relevant. He simply captures the sound of sadness and loss. That's his gift, and he might do it better than anyone since Nick Drake.

“I have all these memories/I don’t know what for,” he sings early on. I do. What for is beauty. What for is the celebration of something fragile, ephemeral, and shimmeringly lovely. It can’t last. It never does. But for a while – for seventy-four minutes, in fact – Mark Kozelek makes it linger.

Thursday, April 03, 2008


You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
– Galatians 3:26-28

We must face the fact that in America, the church is still the most segregated major institution in America. At 11:00 on Sunday morning when we stand and sing that in Christ there is no east or west, we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation. This is tragic.
– Dr. Martin Luther King, 1963

Like attracts like. It’s so simple that there’s even an Immutable Law of the Universe associated with the concept. It’s called the Law of Attraction. And we see the fruits of that law all around us – in our career choices, where similarly-minded and similarly gifted people tend to congregate; in our choice of friends, who frequently share our interests; and in our choice of romantic/marriage partners. We tend to hang out with people who are a lot like ourselves.

The concept also is manifested in the Christian Church. In Mount Vernon, Ohio, where I lived for almost eight years, the local Presbyerian Church was full of buttoned-down professionals; doctors and lawyers and corporate executives who shared common educational backgrounds and a love of order and formally democratic governance. We had a board of elders, but it was still a board, and it functioned dysfunctionally according to Robert’s Rules of Order. Coincidentally, almost all of the dysfunctional doctors and lawyers were white. My current church, a Vineyard Church, is full of highly educated creative types; artists and musicians and writers and entrepreneurs. Coincidentally, almost all of the wounded artists are white.

And it begs the question: is this the way it’s supposed to work? The apostle Paul, quoted above, would seem to suggest No. The Rev. Martin Luther King, quoted above, would also seem to suggest No. In theory, our unity in Christ trumps all other distinctions. Paul even devoted an entire epistle (Philemon, for the curious) to the notion that the old, oppressive master/slave relationship had been turned upside down because of this unity in Christ. And if masters and slaves could find unity in Christ in a relationship that superseded the old power structure, shouldn’t it be possible for, say, white Christians and black Christians to find unity in Christ? And to actually, you know, maybe even hang out together as a way of showing that unity?

So why do we look and act so much like each other on Sunday mornings?

I’ll propose an answer: because it’s the easiest course of action (or non-action) open to us. Like attracts like. To change requires a serious commitment to be intentional about seeking out those who are not like ourselves. That doesn’t happen naturally. We have to work at it.

While realizing that we all (and yes, I certainly include myself here) have a long way to go, I’m seeing changes, and good changes. People in my church are discussing these issues, talking with the minority members in our midst, trying to understand better the cultural barriers we unintentionally erect and that hinder unity. And starting with our church’s minority members is probably the right approach. There are no easy solutions, but it’s probably the obvious place to begin.

But I would like to suggest that marginalization can occur at every point where there is a departure from homogeneity. It can occur if you’re black in the midst of an overwhelmingly white church. And it can occur in countless other ways as well. Kate and I are a part of a church that is growing in many ways, but one of the principle methods is via reproduction. Crank out those babies. And that’s a great thing. It’s what married people in their late twenties and early thirties tend to do in our culture. But it gets weird to hear the unending discussions about disposable vs. cloth diapers, or the best methods to help the kids sleep through the night, when our kids are leaving home. I have no idea if they’re having problems sleeping through the night. I tend to wonder more about who they might be sleeping with. And there’s a disconnect there. There’s nobody to talk to about those things. Nobody’s been there. Usually it’s no big deal. But sometimes it is. And sometimes it’s a lonely place to be.

If I’m pontificating here, I’m preaching to myself as well. I can be as ingrown and as clueless about the needs of others as anyone. But the truth is that we all have unique issues and life circumstances, little and sometimes big joys and tragedies that have made us who we are, and it would behoove us to understand one another as well as we can. I’d like to see 11:00 on Sunday morning become not only the least racially segregated hour in America, but the least stratified hour in terms of all distinctions -- social, educational, political, class, age, whatever. Our oneness in Christ never looks more apparent than when everybody looks different.

Rediscovering the Dusty Gems

This isn't a quality to emulate, but I have great swatches of my music collection that are totally unexplored. And by "totally unexplored" I mean I've either never played the music or played it so long ago that I have no memory of ever playing it. So sometimes I rummage through the old, dusty stacks of vinyl looking to see what I might have missed. And this is what I find.

Moon Martin -- Escape from Domination

Okay, I played this one. Back in 1979. But it had, umm, been a while. Moon Martin may be the least likely rock star in the history of sorry rock stars. I mean, look at this guy. But his music is just fine; wonderfully catchy, hook-filled power pop about girls named Rolene and heartfelt laments about having no chance with the ladies (apparently Rolene didn't count, but she was no lady). Moon also penned the one-time omnipresent "Bad Case of Loving You (Doctor, Doctor)", which was a massive hit for Robert Palmer in the early '80s.

Andy White -- Rave On

I pulled this one out because I liked the name. :-) I bought the album, I think, more than twenty years ago, part of a big vinyl pile that was never fully processed. My loss. Wow. Imagine the early '60s Dylan transplanted to Belfast, given over to local political concerns, and howling and raging for all his poetic worth. Good luck trying to find this one. My guess is that it's long out of print. But it's a gem.

American Flyer – American Flyer/Spirit of a Woman

Two albums from the mid’-70s. American Flyer was a country rock band led by ex-Pure Prairie League singer/songwriter Craig Fuller. The band was also a prime example of a “supergroup” (featuring members from PPL, Blues Magoos, Blood, Sweat, and Tears, and The Velvet Underground) that fizzled. But given the raw ingredients, it’s hard to understand what went wrong. Primarily this is Fuller’s show, and he writes and sounds a lot like he did when he was writing great tunes like “Amie.” Nothing wrong with that. Maybe there was only room for one big-time band in this slot, and The Eagles had already taken it. Too bad. This band is better than The Eagles.

Batdorf and Rodney – Off the Shelf, Batdorf and Rodney, Life is You

And who said the ‘80s were the Big Hair decade? The recorded oeuvre of folkies/soft rockers John Batdorf and Mark Rodney was a mixed bag (there were a lot of mixed bags around at the time; I used to buy them), but if you cherry pick from these three early-to-mid ‘70s albums, you can end up with one pretty great album that you’d swear was by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. There are great harmonies here, and if you can get past the hippie dippie sentiments, you’ll also find some surprisingly deft fingerpicking.

Brewer and Shipley – Tarkio

Okay, I surely didn’t miss this one. It was a mainstay for a long time. But I probably hadn’t played it in fifteen years or more, and I pulled it out not long ago. It was dated, and it was worth revisiting. With members of The Electric Flag and The Grateful Dead in the backing band (yes, that’s Jerry Garcia on pedal steel), Tarkio is one of the great monuments to the counterculture, featuring paranoid folky anthems about being hounded by The Man (“Fifty States of My Freedom”), dodging the draft (“Don’t Want To Die in Georgia”) and, of course, marijuana, the B&S calling card (“One Toke Over the Line,” which was, incredibly, a Top 40 hit in 1971). As a historical curio it’s both wince-inducing and priceless:

Oh mommy, I ain’t no Commie
Please let me do what I wanna
I just wanna lay around the house and smoke marijuana

It’s also surprisingly passionate and soulful. Mike Brewer and Tom Shipley made a half dozen or more decent albums. This one is still, far and away, the best.