Saturday, June 28, 2008
Nico Muhly -- Mothertongue
"Wonders," a track on "Mothertongue," includes the ethereal voice of Helgi Hrafn Jonsson, an Icelandic performer, singing fragments in English from "The Travels of Sir John Mandeville," a sonnet about sea monsters, composed by King James I; and a 1619 complaint against Thomas Weelkes, the composer and organist at Chichester Cathedral, for his repeated drunkenness. "The Only Tune," also on "Mothertongue," is another Muhly collage -- a dismantled traditional English song about a violent sororicide, delivered with affecting flatness by an American folk singer named Sam Amidon, to the accompaniment, variously, of a sampled Farfisa organ similar to that used by Philip Glass in "Music in Twelve Parts," a pair of butcher's knives scraping against each other, a recording of whistling Icelandic wind, and the sound of raw whale flesh slopping around a bowl."
It's hard to pass up a good sampling reference to raw whale flesh slopping around in a bowl. Eat your heart out, Jay-Z.
Thursday, June 26, 2008
No one plumbs the depths of the human condition better than Joni Mitchell. With the possible exception of Jackson Browne, nobody pulled back the veil to reveal a battered, scuffed heart the way Joni did, and nobody spoke with such poetic grace about the pitched battle that goes on within human souls.
I'm going to be talking about Joni and playing her song "Hejira" at next week's Cornerstone Festival in Illinois. I don't know how well a pensive jazz/folk tune will translate to tents set up in the middle of a cornfield, but I'm going to give it the old post-college try. It's one small segment of Part Four of a six-part presentation on the intersection of music and faith. Part Four is called "The Enemy Within," and it attempts to come to grips with the notion that in spite of our best efforts to dislocate evil and blame it on external factors "out there," it frequently shows up most clearly when we look in the mirror.
In this song Joni does her best trick. It's the old, sweet tug of war that she explores again and again in her songs; the desire to connect, to matter, to mean something in a deep way to someone vs. the the desire for independence, for maintaining one's own identity, and the fear of being subsumed under someone or something else. It's one of her greatest songs, augmented in no small part by Jaco Pastorius' wondrously liquid bass. It's about how we can travel the world and never escape from ourselves, and it's the title track to her 1977 album Hejira:
I'm traveling in some vehicle
I'm sitting in some cafe
A defector from the petty wars
That shell shock love away
There's comfort in melancholy
When there's no need to explain
It's just as natural as the weather
In this moody sky today
In our possessive coupling
So much could not be expressed
So now I'm returning to myself
These things that you and I suppressed
I see something of myself in everyone
Just at this moment of the world
As snow gathers like bolts of lace
Waltzing on a ballroom girl
You know it never has been easy
Whether you do or you do not resign
Whether you travel the breadth of extremities
Or stick to some straighter line
Now here's a man and a woman sitting on a rock
They're either going to thaw out or freeze
Listen ... strains of Benny Goodman
Coming through the snow and the pinewood trees
I'm porous with travel fever
But you know I'm so glad to be on my own
Still somehow the slightest touch of a stranger
Can set up trembling in my bones
I know - no ones going to show me everything
We all come and go unknown
Each so deep and superficial
Between the forceps and the stone
Well I looked at the granite markers
Those tributes to finality - to eternity
And then I looked at myself here
Chicken scratching for my immortality
In the church they light the candles
And the wax rolls down like tears
There's the hope and the hopelessness
I've witnessed thirty years
We're only particles of change I know, I know
Orbiting around the sun
But how can I have that point of view
When I'm always bound and tied to someone
White flags of winter chimneys
Waving truce against the moon
In the mirrors of a modern bank
From the window of a hotel room
I'm traveling in some vehicle
I'm sitting in some cafe
A defector from the petty wars
Until love sucks me back that way
-- Joni Mitchell, "Hejira"
It's a message that echoes from Monty Python all the way back to Adam and Eve: run away, run away! It never works. You end up trusting in the efficacy of a fig leaf, or hiding out in some smoky cafe, thinking that no one sees you. But God sees you, and if you have your eyes open you see yourself. The wonder is that we seem to be hard-wired to play hide and seek, to flee the scene of the crime that is ourselves, to think that we can fool the Creator of the universe and our battered, scuffed hearts one more time.
Romania Ponders Girl's Abortion
I understood the conflation of "Obama" and "Mania" quite clearly. Obviously Barack Obama's rabid followers were pondering abortion. But the "R" threw me. Who was "R"? Karl Rove, perhaps? But why would he be grouped with Obama's supporters? It was all quite puzzling.
Eventually I figured it out. God bless the land of Dracula.
Wednesday, June 25, 2008
The Temple of Music
People are no longer leaving their houses. They are content to wirelessly import digital music straight into nano-engineered storage devices implanted in their grey matter, and the digital revolution is killing brick-and-mortar retail. But, to paraphrase Mark Twain, rumors of the record store's death have been greatly exaggerated. Just as people of faith need houses of worship in which to commune, music zealots are no less dependent on shrines dedicated to their own decibel-cranked passion. For that reason, Paste hereby celebrates the record store, bestowing superlatives on a few of America's finest. May they live long and loud!
Bravo to that. And Paste profiles seventeen of the best record stores in America. Their list:
- Amoeba Records, Los Angeles, CA
- Criminal Records, Atlanta, GA
- Other Music, New York City
- Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art, Clarksdale, MS
- Waterloo Records, Austin, TX
- Aquarius Records, San Francisco, CA
- Dusty Groove America, Chicago, IL
- Ernest Tubb Record Shop, Nashville, TN
- Shangri-La Records, Memphis, TN
- Music Millennium, Portland, OR
- Ear X-Tacy, Louisville, KY
- Louisiana Music Factory, New Orleans, LA
- Newbury Comics, Boston, MA
- Grimey's New + Pre-Loved Music, Nashville, TN
- Turntable Lab, New York City
- The Electric Fetus, Minneapolis, MN
- Jerry's Records, Pittsburgh, PA
I've been to about half of those places, and I'll generally vouch for their quality. Some of them (Other Music in the Lower East Village) are celebrated more for their location than their actual musical selection. The selection is fine, and wildly eccentric, but it's small. It's a little hole-in-the-wall store. Of course, they left off the best record store, one that is, in fact, better than the seven or eight on the list that I've actually visited. That's because it's in Columbus, Ohio, a part of the nondescript flyover zone where no culturally clueful people actually live and where nothing happens except corn growth and the consumption of corndogs at the State Fair.
I refer, of course, to Used Kids Records on N. High St., across from the Ohio State campus. Used Kids used to be part of the Schoolkids Records/Used Kids Annex empire, the great new/used behemoth that, alas, fell ignomiously in the '90s when fire gutted the original Schoolkids Records location. Reopening as Used Kids a few months later, the store initially focused only on selling used vinyl and CDs, but later added new releases. And that's what it is today.
Take Other Music and blow it up to five or six times its size, with a corresponding increase in the available selection. Yeah, you'll probably find eight copies of the latest Bon Jovi album clogging up the racks. But you'll also find thousands of little known/underappreciated artists in every genre imaginable, and lots of music from local artists. And, of course, snarky employees who will quizzically raise their eyebrows if you bring one of those Bon Jovi CDs to the counter, or who will engage in debate with you, just like the Jack Black character in High Fidelity, over whether Elton John began to suck in the mid-'70s, or as early as '72. That's Used Kids.
This is what you cannot possibly get when you click the little iTunes button. You get to interact with real human beings, almost all of whom are passionate about music. I cannot tell you the number of great conversations I've had with people while scouring the music racks at Used Kids. Nerd A, a total stranger, will pluck out a CD, turn to me, and ask, "Know anything about this one?" Sometimes I do and sometimes I don't. But it doesn't matter. It's a chance to connect with people who care deeply about the same stuff you care deeply about. There simply aren't that many opportunities in life, and the places that make them possible are worth celebrating.
So pick up the new issue of Paste. Read about some great record stores. And then head down to Used Kids if you're in central Ohio. You could tell them that Andy sent you, but they won't know who that is. But if you tell them he's the guy who bought all the Van Morrison bootlegs, they might.
If I Had a Boat
The last time I went sailing on that lake the boat (not owned by me) tipped over, I fell into the water, my lifejacket went up around my neck, constricting my arm movements, and I kind of bobbed there on the surface, a human buoy, until some kind owner of another boat towed me in to shore. It was not all that great of an experience. Still, I want a boat.
I sing this song:
If I had a boat
I'd go out on the ocean
And if I had a pony
I'd ride him on my boat
And we could all together
Go out on the ocean
Me upon my pony on my boat
If I were Roy Rogers
I'd sure enough be single
I couldn't bring myself to marrying old Dale
It'd just be me and Trigger
We'd go riding through them movies
Then we'd buy a boat and on the sea we'd sail
And if I had a boatI'd go out on the ocean
And if I had a ponyI'd ride him on my boat
And we could all together
Go out on the ocean
Me upon my pony on my boat
The mystery masked man was smart
He got himself a Tonto
'Cause Tonto did the dirty work for free
But Tonto he was smarter
And one day said Kemo Sabe
Kiss my ass I bought a boat
I'm going out to sea
And if I had a boat
I'd go out on the ocean
And if I had a pony
I'd ride him on my boat
And we could all together
Go out on the ocean
Me upon my pony on my boat
And if I were like lightning
I wouldn't need no sneakers
I'd come and go wherever I would please
And I'd scare 'em by the shade tree
And I'd scare 'em by the light pole
But I would not scare my pony
on my boat out on the sea
And if I had a boatI'd go out on the ocean
And if I had a ponyI'd ride him on my boat
And we could all together
Go out on the ocean
Me upon my pony on my boat
-- Lyle Lovett, "If I Had a Boat"
Tuesday, June 24, 2008
You're a Big Girl Now
The professor was a frustrated social protest/folk singer. He wrote a song called "Bullshit," and he performed it most Fridays at The Union after he had a few beers in him. It was about politicians in general and Richard Nixon in particular. It was a good song, cathartically pissed off and full of righteous indignation, and we all sang along.
One Friday he solemnly laid down his guitar, put his hand over his heart, and vowed that he could never write another song. It was all hopeless. He waved a purple album cover in front of us. "This," he said, "has done me in. You can't write a better album than this. There's no sense in even trying."
It was Bob Dylan's new album Blood on the Tracks, which had come out a couple days before. A few folks had heard it, but most people had not, so the professor slapped it on the turntable and cranked up the volume.
And he was pretty much right. Everybody knew Bob Dylan. He was a folk protest singer. He had written those surrealistic rock 'n roll classics in the mid-sixties. He was the country squire of Nashville Skyline. But he had never written anything like this. And he was writing about something he had never written about before: Bob Dylan. Maybe divorce does that to you.
I've heard that album so many times now that it's almost part of my DNA. It's arguably the best album from the best songwriter of the rock 'n roll era. But initially I couldn't take it all in. There was only one song that immediately struck me, sitting in that bar, and it still raises the hairs on the back of my neck. It goes like this:
Our conversation was short and sweet
It nearly swept me off my feet
And I'm back in the rain, oh, oh,
And you are on dry land
You made it there somehow
You're a big girl now
Bird on the horizon, sittin' on a fence
He's singin' his song for me at his own expense
And I'm just like that bird, oh, oh,
Singin' just for you
I hope that you can hear
Hear me singin' through these tears
Time is a jet plane, it moves too fast
Oh, but what a shame if all we've shared can't last
I can change, I swear, oh, oh
See what you can do
I can make it through
You can make it too
Love is so simple, to quote a phrase
You've known it all the time
I'm learnin' it these days
Oh, I know where I can find you, oh, oh
In somebody's room
It's a price I have to pay
You're a big girl all the way
A change in the weather is known to be extreme
But what's the sense of changing horses in midstream?
I'm going out of my mind, oh, oh
With a pain that stops and starts
Like a corkscrew to my heart
Ever since we've been apart
-- Bob Dylan, "You're a Big Girl Now"
It was a form of voyeurism, a kind of window into the heart that was a little too clear. I had never heard that kind of vulnerability before. And it was uncomfortable. It was painful to hear. It was the kind of song that somebody writes when they're wide awake at 3:00 a.m., staring up at the ceiling, pondering the fact that the best part of life has just walked out the door.
I love that song for many reasons. But the best reason, the reason that sticks with me, is the singing. You have to hear it to understand. Yeah, I know. Bob Dylan can't sing. And as my professor used to say, "Bullshit." Bob Dylan can sing, and nowhere does he sing any better than on this song. Here is the Voice of a Generation, the Pied Piper of the Counterculture, The Songwriter of all Songwriters, and do you know the best part of that song? It's when Dylan sings "oh, oh." You can't transcribe that properly. You have to hear it. It is what the apostle Paul describes as "groanings too deep for words." It's Bob Dylan opening the window on his soul. It's too painful. But it's thrilling.
I haven't played Blood in the Tracks for a few years, but I've been listening to it over the past few days. I'm going to play that song at the upcoming Cornerstone Festival in Illinois. And I'm going to talk about why the words "oh, oh" might constitute some of the best songwriting ever.
Kasey Anderson -- The Reckoning
Steve shows no signs of relinquishing the throne, so the waiting may be prolonged. Nevertheless, there are plenty of contenders who are worthy of celebration. Chris Knight keeps making superb albums full of mournful, soulful little ditties about coal towns after the coal is gone, smalltown losers and roustabouts who make trouble just because it's so damn boring otherwise. And Scott Miller and his old band The V-Roys have made a handful of the best Americana albums this decade, singing songs about those same smalltown hoodrats who look for salvation behind the wheel of a car and from a Bruce Springsteen 8-track playing in that same car.
Kasey Anderson's latest album The Reckoning needs to be added to that list. I've had Kasey's album for about a year now, and I liked it after a couple spins but didn't really pay much attention. Kasey sounds like Steve Earle. Yeah, yeah, yeah. We've got a lot of those. Next. But it's one of those albums that has snuck up on me, primarily because of the quality of the songwriting. Here's the way one of his songs starts out:
Somebody said State Street's covered in ashes
I didn't ask for a name, I knew it was you
Those are the best opening lines I've heard in a while; mysterious and dangerous, pulling you in to the narrative from the first word. If this music thing doesn't work out, Kasey may have a career as a short story writer to fall back on. But the music is just fine. If there are a couple too many generic good ol' boy party anthems ("Wake Me Up," "Hometown Boys"), there's also a literary approach that is formidable and wonderful. Who else starts off an alt-country album with an almost 6-minute atmospheric spoken word piece? You'd better be able to write well to pull that off, and Kasey writes well.
So chalk up The Reckoning as one of those albums that sneaks up on you from behind, probably a lot like that guy who started the fire on State Street. It's a contender for my "Best of 2008" list, even though it came out in 2007.
The Worship-ness of Sigur Ros
Forget Matt Redman, MercyMe, Hillsong--the band most important to worship music today is an Icelandic post-rock quartet with pagan leanings and a gay lead singer whose lyrics are often made-up syllables with no distinct meaning. Ladies and Gentlemen: Sigur Ros.
Read the rest of the article here.
And for similar thoughts from me, you might want to check out this.
The new album, með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust (say that real fast three times) is out today. Guess where I'm heading after work?
Monday, June 23, 2008
Power Chord Heaven
In truth, these are some of the most Neanderthal-like and misogynistic of all lyrics in a genre that is filled with swill. I have no excuse, except for Angus Young. But I'm telling you, there's something about those power chords. No drugs. Just sex, sex and rock 'n roll. And power chords.
Friday, June 20, 2008
God and Country
Among many other salient points, he says:
In the scriptures, I’m commanded to love a lot of things: my God, my neighbor, my wife, my enemy…I’m never commanded to love my country. In fact, if “loving my country” means that I demonstrate preference to someone based on their ethnicity, their nationality or, for instance, their loyalty to America’s foreign policies, I think I’ve pretty much undermined a very important aspect of Jesus’ mission on this earth — to make his temple a “house of prayer for all nations” and ours, to “make disciples of all nations.” And when I’m willing to value American lives over, say, Iranian lives or when I’m willing to promote America’s economic interests over the interests of the world’s poor simply because I’m American I may actually demonstrate my infidelity to the only Kingdom worthy of my allegiance.
This is dangerous thinking that will get anybody in trouble, but he can perhaps alleviate the threat by wearing a flag lapel pin. In the meantime, I'm surely glad I get to hang out with people who think this way.
But that's not what I wanted to write about. It's not her fault that she's beautiful. We work with the cards we're dealt, but man, she was dealt a bunch of aces. This woman is 61 years old. And she's flat-out beautiful.
On numerous occasions people have met my wife Kate and commented, "Wow, you kind of look like Emmylou Harris." She doesn't really, or if she does it's a vague resemblance. But I'm no fool. Can I just say that I'm a lucky guy?
Jamey Johnson -- That Lonesome Song
Instead, Johnson sounds like a good ol' boy from Montgomery, Alabama, which is what he is, and his second album, That Lonesome Song, recaptures everything that was great about those classic Merle Haggard and George Jones honky-tonk singles from the mid-to-late '60s. The pedal steel weeps, the lead guitar rumbles deep in the bass range, and Johnson unleashes one of those voices that is equal parts heavenly soul and red clay dirt.
Good ol' boy is a relative term, by the way. Like another good ol' boy from Montgomery, Hank Williams, Jamey's lived a hard life. After an eight-year stint in the marines, Johnson got off to a belated start, recorded the superb 2005 debut album The Dollar, which was both a critical and commercial smash, and then proceeded to drink and drug himself right out of a career. Erratic gigs, the emotional devastation resulting from a separation and divorce, and general boorish, obnoxious behavior led to him being dropped from his first label in 2007. For the, umm, record, you have to work pretty hard to do this when your first album generates a Top 10 hit. But give the man credit. He screwed it up royally.
So he's back with his second album (out August 5th), and let me just say it now. This will be the best country record released in 2008. Hands down. Chronicling the sordid and sad events of the past three years, That Lonesome Song is both a traditional country music tour de force and a harrowing singer/songwriter confessional album. Imagine Late for the Sky-era Jackson Browne hitchhiking to Redneckville and given a George Jones voice transplant. This is wild, untamed music sung in a wild, untamed voice, and it's brilliant.
"The high cost of livin' ain't nothin' like the cost of livin' high," he starts out, and it's one of those classic country turns of phrase that is almost, but not quite, too cute for its own good. But he fleshes out the details with a tale of whores and cocaine and toking on a bong in the Baptist Church parking lot, and by the end it's not too hard to believe that the cost was a steep one indeed. For one, the price included the loss of his marriage, a fact that he documents in mournful detail on "Sending an Angel to Hell" and in pissed-off fashion on "Mowin' Down the Roses," where he fires up the John Deere tractor and smashes right through his ex's beloved garden, disembarking long enough to dump her perfume down the toilet as well. There's repentance here, and some clear-eyed acknowledgement of being a fuck up, but there's plenty of righteous and not-so-righteous indignation as well. What else would you expect from somebody who signs off with a song called "Between Jennings and Jones," which is right where you'll find Jamey's music at the record store? Like Waylon he carefully cultivates that outlaw image, and like George he has the voice of a slumming angel. He's made a superb album. And I'm not just saying that because he looks and sounds like the kind of guy you don't want to piss off.
Thursday, June 19, 2008
Network Diagrams and Passion
So I've been back from the Trinity Arts Conference in Dallas for four days now. During the past two days I have been heavily involved in generating the World's Biggest, Most Convoluted Network Diagram. It looks something like the diagram on the left, but mine is actually a lot more complicated. When printed out it is something like 10 feet by 6 feet.
This is a High Priority Diagram! The world will stop if it is not completed tomorrow. Infrastructure architects anxiously await the results. They pace their cubicles, waiting for me to be finished. They send me email messages. They call me. They send me Instant Messages, which are kind of like email you can't ignore. They would like me to work half days, any twelve hours I prefer.
The problem is that I don't care about this diagram. It's the damn arts conference. I go away and get energized, and I come back to ... network diagrams. When I am not interrupted by things I love I can adopt a sort of dogged, lobotomized persistence which results in managers who are pleased with me. I find a sort of pathetic pleasure in working with Microsoft Visio, in mapping server names to IP addresses, in making sure the routers and firewalls are correctly labeled. And then I go away and I find myself asking the unanswerable question, which sounds something like this: what the hell am I doing?
Actually, I know what I'm doing. I'm earning a paycheck. I'm supporting my family. I'm helping to put two kids through college. These are all noble goals, and abject poverty, which is what would result if I stopped doing these diagrams, is not a noble goal. But right now I don't care, and I need to care, hard and long. For those of you who are praying types, please pray that I can muster up the energy and enthusiasm to get this done.
Evangelicals and Barack Obama
Here, for instance, is a recent article from ABC News that notes the inroads that Barack Obama is making among evangelical voters, and which claims that Obama has significantly narrowed the historically large gap between Republicans and Democrats among evangelical voters.
It reads, in part:
Obama's evangelical supporters, like Obama himself, view Christianity in a similar light, interpreting the Bible literally but concentrating on its message of social justice. Older voters, he said, will never stop thinking about abortion and gay marriage as key issues, but young people might.
"There is a broadening of the agenda among younger evangelicals. Young people are tired of the homosexual issue. They have class and sit in the commons of their colleges and have open discussions with gay people. They know the things they hear on conservative radio about gays aren't true," he said.
Younger evangelicals are also increasingly convinced that helping people out of poverty is a way toward reducing the number of abortions. Obama, like his former contender Sen. Hillary Clinton, D- N.Y., has pushed an agenda to reduce the number of abortions by lifting women out of poverty, Campolo said.
And here, from the same day, is an article from USA Today called "McCain Enjoying Usual Republican Margin Among Highly Religious Voters" that reads, in part:
A strong bias towards the GOP candidate among highly religious Americans is in essence the starting point for any modern American presidential campaign. My review of the data suggests that McCain so far is no exception. He has very big margins over Obama among highly religious voters across the board. McCain actually appears to be doing a little better among this group than did George W. Bush in 2000, although he’s doing a little worse than Geroge W. Bush did in 2004.
To summarize, and to quote another political pundit, John Lennon:
All I want is the truth
Just gimme some truth
I apologize for the hit-and-run nature of this post. I really don't have time to engage in a protracted political discussion with you, not do I particularly want to. My mind is already made up, and yours probably is too, so let's not waste our time. My primary point here is that the objective data sure is screwy, isn't it? It's all lies, damned lies, and statistics.
Be that as it may, Boston Spaceships is the name of Robert Pollard's new band, and Brown Submarine is the name of that new band's album. Pollard, of course, is the impetus behind the now defunct Guided by Voices, Dayton's best musical export. Hey, the Deal sisters (Pixies, Breeders) might argue, but that's my story, and I'm sticking with it. GBV was occasionally great and maddeningly inconsistent, and Pollard's solo career has been more consistent in a mostly forgettable kind of way, but this new band has me very encouraged. I really like what I'm hearing. Pollard sounds energized, and if the end results aren't that far removed from, say, Mag Earwhig! or Isolation Drills (i.e., good but not great GBV), then I'll take that. There are fourteen wildly eclectic two-minute power pop anthems here. Like all Pollard songs, if you don't like what you're hearing, you don't have to wait long to find something you do.
This is, I'm pretty sure, the fourth new Pollard effort I've heard in the past year. It's by far the best. It's out in early September.
Wednesday, June 18, 2008
Reva Williams and Gretel
The music business is a strange world. People do karaoke to old Motown and Rod Stewart songs on American Idol and become instant stars. Meanwhile, hundreds of deserving singer/songwriters and bands toil in virtual obscurity, waiting for the big break that may or may not ever arrive. I won’t flatter myself with the illusion that I have any kind of clout to make or break anybody. But I do know that Reva and her band are deserving of that big break, and that the world would be a better place if that happened.
I’ve seen hundreds of concerts over the years; okay, over the decades. And this was one of the best I’ve seen. Reva played guitar and banjo, and sang in a powerhouse raspy howl of a voice that reminded me of Lucinda Williams. She writes songs about being a fucked up human being in love with Jesus some days and just in love with herself other days. Sounds about right to me. Her poetic imagery was startling; beautiful, and disturbing and uncomfortable. Melissa Myers played keyboards, snare drum, and saw (!) and added sweet harmonies that perfectly complimented Reva’s scuffed alto. Bass player Phil DePertuis filled the Hansel role and added harmony vocals. It all left me with a big, shit-kickin’ grin on my face.
There are two albums for your listening pleasure: Unreturnable Dirt, from 2005, and a new 6-song EP called The Meteorite. I think Reva’s getting better, so I’d actually recommend the EP if I had to choose. The songs on Unreturnable Dirt are just fine (actually, a lot better than fine; they’re close to brilliant), but the production and arrangements are a little more subdued than what I heard in concert, and come a little closer to the standard singer/songwriter fare of folks such as Dar Williams. The EP is more raw and adventurous, with woozy clarinet threading through the proceedings and some very unstandard songwriting structures. I like it a lot. And the new songs I heard this weekend, and which have yet to be recorded, convince me that the best is yet to come. There’s a song called (I think) “Jesus” that I can’t wait to hear again. It’s the kind of desperate hymn that people who are out of hope write. So buy Reva’s music and give her some hope. We could all use that these days. And you just might find a smidgen for the future of the music industry as well.
Tuesday, June 17, 2008
Quick Takes: Adele, The Ting Tings, Blind Pilot, The Gabe Dixon Band
Members of the breathless British music press have hyped Adele as the next Amy Winehouse. She’s not. Where Winehouse traffics in updated Phil Spector and Motown, Adele takes her cues from Nina Simone and Dinah Washington. She’s an old-fashioned torch singer who is more beholden to blues and jazz than soul and rock ‘n roll. She’s also very good. The “19” of the title refers to Adele’s age, and there are some predictable problems in the songwriting. In the liner notes Adele states that she loves poetry; not to read it, you understand, but to write it. And the yearbook sentiments of the lyrics bear out the pitfalls of that approach. But she has a glorious, brassy, big voice which she uses to surprisingly restrained effect. She holds back on the robodiva scale trilling for the most part and finds some marvelous bluesy nuances in her phrasing, particularly on the elegiac “Hometown Glory.” She’s good now, and she’ll probably get better.
The Ting Tings – We Started Nothing
That’s for sure. They’ve started nothing, they’ve borrowed everything, and it’s only okay some of the time. English duo The Ting Tings steal wholesale from late ‘70s quirky pop bands The B-52s and The Tom Tom Club, creating nervous, jittery New Wave dance music. The problem is that they’ve taken everything but the fun. Except for the infectious single “That’s Not My Name” (an almost note-for-note cop of “52 Girls” from the debut eponymous B-52s album), there’s nothing here even remotely memorable.
Blind Pilot – 3 Rounds and a Sound
Uh oh. Another mopey singer/songwriter with an acoustic guitar. This one is named Israel Nebeker. He’s from Portland, Oregon, where it rains all the time. You’d be mopey too. But his melodies are lovely, his songwriting is literate, and he sounds a lot like what James Mercer of The Shins would sound like if he recorded a solo acoustic album. And there are trumpets, lots of trumpets. It’s quite wonderful.
The Gabe Dixon Band – The Gabe Dixon Band
Gabe Dixon started out making jamband music, took a three-year detour to play and tour with Paul McCartney, and is now back after a lengthy hiatus. With his latest album, and his debut for Fantasy Records (out August 26th) Dixon stakes his claim as the next great Pop Piano Man. More soulful than Ben Folds, and far less irritating than the Elton John of the past thirty years, Dixon will remind you of Elton when he still had hair and was making albums like Tumbleweed Connection and Madman Across the Water. That’s high praise, and this is one of my favorite records of the year.
Monday, June 16, 2008
Trinity Arts Conference Address
Thank you for the opportunity to speak this morning. My name is Andy Whitman. I’m 52 years old. You should know three things about me. First, I work in corporate America for 40 or more hours every week. Second, for as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to be a writer. And I became a writer. Sort of. But I will tell you that I never envisioned that I’d spend most of my writing life honing sentences about systems management and database capacity planning. I don’t know anyone who set out in life to write sentences about database capacity planning. But that’s what I do. Third, I leave my little eight-by-eight cubbyhole in corporate America and I go home and I write about music, all kinds of music. I write about music for Paste Magazine, for Christianity Today Magazine, and for a website called All Music Guide. I’m going to talk about the intersection of those three things this morning. It’s a strange kind of life. Occasionally I venture forth and interview a bunch of shaved-headed, pierced, tattooed musicians. They look at me as if they were being interviewed by Dick Cheney. And then the next day I go back to my cubicle.
I’m thankful to be here. One of the great privileges in participating in an event like this is that it brings people together who otherwise would probably never encounter one another. That’s the case with my friend Dave Sims. Dave has been a “virtual” friend for many years, and we’ve exchanged a lot of email messages with one another, but it’s wonderful to finally meet him in person. And that goes for all of you as well. It’s nice to meet you, and I look forward to getting to know all of you a little better as well.
I’ll start off with the obligatory talking animal story. David Foster Wallace, one of my favorite novelists, and a very astute observer of both human and animal nature, tells the tale of two young fish swimming along. They happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says "Mornin’, boys. How's the water?" And the two young fish swim along for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and says, "What the hell is water?"
I love the story because it suggests that the world as it is, the world as it is meant to be seen from God’s perspective, is something that we can be blasé and cynical about, bored with, habituated and hardened to, even to the point of not really seeing it at all. The reality is that we live on a planet that is teeming with glory and horror, full of six billion people with at least six billion different stories, every one of them loved and desperate for love in the most amazing ways, a world that shouts out, if we have ears to hear, Look at this! Look at this place and these people, fallen and beautiful, broken and resplendent. That’s what we’re swimming in. That’s water. And I love the story because it suggests that we can be swimming in it, and totally miss it. What the hell is water?
The theme of this conference is change. And change is perhaps the defining characteristic of our culture. We live in a rapidly evolving world in which the knowledge and skills that carried us through to where are today may very well be outmoded next year, and where we have to constantly retrain and retool to keep up. I spend 40 hours or more of my week working in the high-tech world. The skills I learned five years ago are as antiquated as the eight-track tapes I used to play in my Ford Pinto. I have to change continuously or I will be out of a job. The parenting skills my wife and I acquired when my daughters were five and two no longer apply now that they’re almost twenty-two and nineteen. Timeouts don’t seem to work any more. For that matter, the relational skills my wife and I acquired when we were newly married no longer seem to apply much, either. We’re different people than we were twenty-six years ago. Not only have our interests changed, but in some significant ways our personalities have changed. We’ve had to adjust to each other, and to life with kids, and now to life without kids as empty nesters. There are new challenges every step of the way.
But there is another and deeper aspect to change that I’d like to focus on this morning. It’s reflected in the fact that you’re here this weekend, at a conference that seeks to investigate the relationship between the Christian faith and the arts. We all have different stories of the ways we have journeyed toward or away from God, but mine involves growing up in the Christian Church, and then rejecting the Church’s teachings, and later coming back to the Christian Church. And I want to start in the middle of that story, during a time when I wanted nothing to do with God.
When I was eighteen years old I made the mistake of enrolling at a Christian college as a non-Christian. I didn’t think it would be a big deal at the time, and I figured that the denominational affiliation of the college was simply a historical nod to the past, but I quickly figured out that the place was infested with Jesus Freaks.
Somehow, in ways that are still unclear to me, primarily because it was a really fuzzy kind of year, I became the campus evangelism project, and by the end of my freshman year I had collected a drawer full of Four Spiritual Laws booklets. You may be familiar with the Four Spiritual Laws booklets. They were yellow, and using nice, easy-to-understand illustrations, they walked the non-Christian and potential convert through the process of repentance and acknowledging the lordship of Jesus Christ. By the end of my freshman year I knew the contents of the Four Spiritual Laws booklet by heart, probably far better than the people who were sharing the gospel with me, and I had mastered the art of communicating to several of the more attractive sisters that I loved them and had a wonderful plan for their life. That tended not to go over too well, but at any rate I had decided to transfer, so at the end of my freshman year I packed up all my belongings and moved to Athens, Ohio, home of Ohio University. I had done my research meticulously. Ohio University was rated the #2 university in the country at the time for creative writing, which was my prospective major. It was also rated as the #3 party school in the U.S. Both factors figured heavily in my decision.
So I transferred to Party School U.S.A. and became a Christian. It was a long and involved process, consisting of countless arguments and bull sessions in dormitory rooms at 2:00 in the morning, but what it came down to was this: my life wasn’t working. I didn’t like the person I was becoming. And I remembered those Four Spiritual Laws booklets, with their handy drawings showing Self on the throne of life and Jesus on the throne of life, and I decided to abdicate the throne. I was a lousy king, and so I decided to give Jesus a shot at ruling the royal realm. The way my friends explained it, it was a simple transference of power. I stood up and walked away from the throne, and Jesus walked in and sat down on the throne, and that was that.
Within a few days I had figured out that it wasn’t quite so straightforward. I was a Christian, and Jesus was the Lord of my life, but I found the same patterns in my life that I had found so distressing before my conversion. I was angry. I was selfish. I didn’t treat people in the ways that I wanted to be treated myself. I wanted to change, but I didn’t know how to change. The old man, my old carnal self, was theoretically dead, but I kept dragging his sorry carcass around with me. And he kept messing up that full and abundant life I was supposed to be experiencing as a follower of Jesus Christ.
That was 34 years ago. I would like to tell you that I’ve arrived, but I haven’t. I’ve had thirty-four years of Jesus on the throne of my life, and there are still many days when Jesus looks a lot like King Andrew the Magnificent, beneficent ruler of the Kingdom of Me. And the question that I would like to pose to all of you is the same question I often ask myself: if change is possible, if Christ changes our lives, then why do we look so much like the jerks we looked like before?
The predominant disposition of our lives – the way we are hard-wired – is for self to be on the throne. We are all expert rulers of the Kingdom of Me. It’s what we do best, and it comes as naturally as breathing. Selfishness is our default setting. And yet we serve a Lord who states in very unequivocal terms, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me.” If you don’t experience the cognitive dissonance between that statement and the everyday realities of looking out for number one, who is not named Jesus Christ, then you’ve never really grappled with the issue. We’re not there yet. There is a gap between who we are supposed to be and who we are, the way we live our lives. And the only way that gap will be narrowed is if we change.
Here’s the good news: I believe that change is possible. And I also believe that it’s difficult. I wish it was as easy as abdicating the throne and allowing Jesus to be the king of our lives. But I suspect it takes a lifetime. At least, that’s been my experience. The work of the Holy Spirit in our lives plays a significant role in this process, as does prayer, as does our relationship to the Church and its sacraments, and those times when we allow our brothers and sisters in Christ to know us, warts and all, and to speak into our lives and tell us the truth instead of merely what we want to hear. We’ll never get it entirely right. This side of paradise, we will always have moments, days, maybe weeks where the Kingdom of Me reigns supreme. But we can be changed. We can look more like the people God intends us to be.
And here’s more good news, news that speaks directly to why we’re here this weekend: art can play a role in the change process. We’ve all read articles and heard talks at conferences about the transformative power of art. It’s something of a cliché, and if you’re like me you start to yawn within the first thirty seconds of some earnest presenter who’s ready to wax rhapsodic about beauty. But here’s the deal: it also happens to be true. I’ll try to keep you awake.
I told you that I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. And that’s true. What I didn’t mention is that I also have a morbid streak a mile wide, a death-obsessed, depressive personality that fixates on the maudlin and the tragic the way some people fixate on their favorite sports teams. When I was nine years old, while all my other classmates were playing kickball and tag out on the playground, I sat in the stairwell and wrote after-the-nuclear-holocaust short stories. I wrote my own eulogy, in perfect iambic pentameter, at age twelve. It’s a kind of sickness, one that was, in fact, officially diagnosed many years ago when a doctor told me I was suffering from depression. In terms of the four humors of the ancient world, I am a melancholic. I see the world through black-colored lenses.
The problem is that depression doesn’t fit very well within the Christian template. I can run down the Fruits of the Spirit checklist the apostle Paul lays out in the fifth chapter of his letter to the Galatians. Love? Check. Good stuff. I don’t always do it well, but I’m all about love. Peace, patience, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, kindness, self-control? All great stuff. I don’t always see evidence of them in my life, but I’m always encouraged when I do. And there’s one I left out.
For anyone who suffers from depression it’s almost incomprehensible. It’s the dreaded J word: Joy. Wow, it’s even hard for me to speak it.For someone who writes “after the nuclear holocaust” short stories for grins, Joy makes about as much sense as asking someone to flap their arms and fly to the moon. Joy is watching the televangelist’s wife on TV, singing her solo with her beehive hairdo, beaming like she’s on Ecstasy, as fake and phoney as can be. Joy is those crazy Christian loonies who won’t admit it when they’re really sick, like when they have cancer, because that would be a negative confession, and so they walk around smiling and claiming the victory as they rot away from the inside, nutty as fruitcakes.
But there it is, in the Bible. It’s apparently a good thing, something to be sought after and diligently prayed for. And I hate that. It would be easier if it were optional, if that was a smorgasbord list from which we could pick and choose. The extroverts can have the J fruit if they want it. So what are you supposed to do with this Joy stuff, Mr. Death?
Here’s what I do with it: I listen to music. Aside from my family and friends, the reason the word “Joy” has any meaning in my life, any connection to the world I live in and the world inside my head, is because of music. I listen to the Icelandic band Sigur Ros, or to Miles Davis’s classic album Kind of Blue, or to Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run, and I get it. Oh yeah, that’s what that is. It’s what makes me want to jump on the couch cushions and play air guitar and completely embarrass myself by acting utterly and inappropriately not my age. It’s joy.
And for that reason I want to thank the committee who put together this conference for identifying me as a “music reviewer” instead of a “music critic.” Can I tell you much I hate the term “music critic”? Do you want to spend time with a critic? I don’t. And every time someone identifies me as a “music critic” I want to hang a sign around my neck that says something like “Will complain for food.” Yes, I write about music, and yes, sometimes I write about albums I don’t like very much, and I say that, but I don’t write about music to criticize it. I write about it because I love it. And I write about it because it connects in ways that go deep down, and because it helps me understand who I am and who God is. It helps me grasp the fact that all of these strangers who surround me are not so strange after all, that we share a lot in common. And it helps me understand joy.
That’s a big deal. But let me warn you that you will encounter many people in your life who won’t understand that, and who will want to turn it into a little deal. They are the pragmatic, no-nonsense Type A doers of the world, and they won’t understand a focus on the arts. Their reactions may vary from viewing the pursuit of music, or the pursuit of the arts in general, as a relatively harmless hobby to viewing the pursuit of the arts as a complete waste of time. “Why don’t you do something with your life?,” they may ask you. I work with these people every day. These are the people who genuinely get excited about routers and firewalls and budget reports and spreadsheets. I don’t mean to belittle these folks. I’m glad they exist. If everyone was like me, nothing would ever get done, and we’d all sit around with headphones on until we got hungry, and then we’d discover that we didn’t have any money to buy food.
But the writer Nick Hornby nails it in the introduction to his book Songbook, which is his tribute to the power of specific songs and specific albums in his life: "I love the relationship that anyone has with music,” he says, “because there’s something in us that is beyond the reach of words, something that eludes and defies our best attempts to spit it out. It’s the best part of us, probably, the richest and strangest part."
That’s it. That’s why this strange, impractical pursuit that adds nothing to the Gross National Product of God’s own U.S. of A. or your own bank account, is completely worth it. But there will be subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle forces that come to bear on your life that will try to convince you that it’s all a silly, idealistic focus that should fade once you grow up and become engaged with the real world. So let me try to project out into the future a little bit for you, particularly for those of you who aren’t that far removed from your high school or college years. It doesn’t get any easier. If you are a student now, the odds are likely that you’ll get married, and that you’ll have kids, and that you’ll embark on a career. There will be real pressures on you to stop paying attention. And I know a lot of Baby Boomers my age who have stopped paying attention. I encounter people all the time, people like me who were raised on The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and Motown and Dylan – who bemoan the current state of popular music, who are stuck in some bizarre Woodstock timewarp where they’re convinced that no decent music has been released since Led Zeppelin IV and that it’s all been downhill since John married Yoko.
I feel bad for these folks, but I don’t believe them. Listen, I understand how it happens. You get out of college, you get a real job, you get really, really busy, and eventually you end up focusing on fertilizer debates with your suburban neighbors and discussions about your sorry golf game and your even sorrier investment portfolio instead of some hot new band from London or New York City. But I still don’t believe them. It’s not true for me, and I don’t believe that it has to be true for you. I don’t believe them because I hear new music all the time that still provides that same visceral thrill that I experienced when I was a kid, and when I first heard Led Zeppelin IV or The White Album.
It’s the same reaction. It’s the same mingling of excitement and awe and (God forbid, this coming from a depressive type) just plain joy that accompanies the discovery of some musician or some band who says the same old sweet nothings that rock ‘n roll has said for fifty years, but says them in a way, either musically or lyrically or both, that it all sounds fresh and vital and new. I’d like to believe that God is wrapped up in that process. In fact, I know He is. And I try to express that in what I write, and I’m going to try to express that in the words I speak this morning. In the end, I’m after the same things the musician is after. I’m trying to find what matters, and bear witness to the beauty of God’s creation, and the ugliness within, the tug of war between the surrender that leads to wholeness and healing and the death grip on self. And then I try to make the words sing. I’m privileged and blessed to be able to make that attempt. You want to know how it’s possible for an aging, balding paunchy Dick Cheney lookalike to write about rock ‘n roll? You pay attention, and you keep waking up in the morning. You keep looking for those messages that startle you, that energize you, that make you feel alive, regardless of whether they’re packaged in a book or a painting or in a film or a plastic disk or an MP3 file. That’s why we’re here this weekend. To stop would be a form of death, and frankly I’d rather talk about life.
So let me talk briefly about the things I’m looking for in a good song or a good album, and the things I try to emphasize in an album review. First, let me tell you that I’m not much of a musician. I can string together a few chords on the piano and the guitar, and I have some knowledge of music theory, but I’m far from an accomplished musician. What I am is a fan of music. That started when I was a small child, when my parents bought me a transistor radio, and I figured out that there were these things called rock ‘n roll stations that offered an alternative to the Frank Sinatra and Herb Alpert records my parents were listening to. And it’s continued ever since.
The first record album I ever bought was The Beatles Second Album, when I was nine years old. I saved up my allowance money, 25 cents per week, to buy it. The first concert I saw (or more accurately, didn’t see, because I was too short to see over the crowd) was the Beatles at Severance Hall in Cleveland in the summer of 1964. I hopped in the wood-paneled station wagon owned by next-door-neighbors, and we drove up to Cleveland from Columbus, sat in the next-to-last tow, and listened to a bunch of teenaged girls scream. I don’t think I actually either saw or heard The Beatles that evening. But I was there.
That was forty-four years ago. In the meantime, I’ve explored just about every genre of music that there is to explore. I like some better than others. I’ve never been much of a heavy metal fan, and I tend to skip through all the long recitatifs I hear in operas to get to the arias. But just about everything else is fair game. And I’ve found meaning and value in all of it. I started out as a fan of rock ‘n roll, and my first real exposure to popular music was listening to Top 40 radio in the mid-sixties at a time when The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and all the great Motown and Stax/Volt soul artists were vying for the top of the charts. It was a great time to discover popular music, but like every musical era, it had its share of schlock and shallow pop ditties as well. And I’ve continued to explore. Rock music has always been the foundation of my musical interests, but over the years I’ve gone backward to dig into the early days of rock ‘n roll and the great jazz and blues of the past, some of the early pioneers of country and bluegrass music, and the vast classical music catalogue. I’ve gone forward to explore new trends and changes as they occur, from the burgeoning singer/songwriter movement of the early ‘70s through the early punk music of the late ‘70s through all the hybrid, hyphenated genres that have names like New Wave, Alt-Country, Post-Rock, Hip Hop, Indie Rock, and so on. And I’ve gone outward, exploring far more than the western music of the U.S. and the British Isles, and some of my favorite music these days comes from places such as Jamaica, North Africa, and the Balkans. I’ve even circled back to the music of my parents and found great value in the songs of Frank Sinatra, a person I viewed as an old fogie when I was a kid, and a person I now view as one of the greatest singers of popular music ever.
To quote the great music critic Solomon in the Book of Ecclesiastes, there is nothing new under the sun. Actually, I’ll amend that slightly to state that there is very little new under the sun, because on very rare occasions – maybe once or twice per decade – some musician or band comes along and actually invents a new sound, something we’ve never heard before. In spite of what all the breathless press releases from music publicists tell me, about 99% of the music I hear is a reworking of old and tired variations on a theme. There are only so many notes and so many chords and so many rhythmic ways to play them, and when you’ve followed this stuff for close to half a century, a certain sameness starts to set it.
So if, in spite of music publicist claims, my life isn’t going to be radically altered by that new Celine Dion album, and even if western civilization as we have known it really isn’t about to undergo a seismic shift, I still try to find some minor pleasures in the new albums I hear. Sometimes I look for music that faithfully recaptures and then slightly twists a classic sound. The Beatles are still inspiring musicians almost forty years after they broke up, and there are literally hundreds of power pop bands who aren’t really doing anything new, but who have discovered that a couple verses, a catchy, hook-filled chorus, some chiming guitars and multi-tracked harmonies are still a glorious combination. Sometimes I look for musicians or bands who mix up genres that seem incompatible, and who emerge with a hybrid that is surprising because of its unexpectedness. I’m going to be talking about a couple of those hybrids in just a minute. I’m also a big fan of melody, and sometimes I look for something as simple as a lovely song. The recent Sun Kil Moon album April is a great example; the good, old-fashioned acoustic folkie template applied to a bunch of pretty songs about memory and longing and regret and loss.
In general, I tend to prefer rough and raw over slick and well produced. I tend to like idiosyncratic – some would say “bad” – singers over classically trained vocalists. And in general, soul – impossible to define, but I know it when I hear it – trumps just about everything else. I’ll take Van Morrison singing Sesame Street songs – which he’s actually done – over a profoundly literate but bland singer. Those are personal preferences. There’s nothing objective about it. It’s what I like.
Mostly, though, I listen to the words. I don’t mean to downplay the importance and value of instrumental music, nor will I deny that I’ve heard many, many albums of well-written songs that have been sabotaged by the same boring music I’ve heard a thousand times before. But all else being equal, I’m looking for songwriters who attempt to move beyond the mindlessness and sterility of party anthems and easy rhymes and I Love My Baby or My Baby Left me sentiments. I want to hear someone with a unique voice – not the vocal kind, but the literary kind. I want to hear someone who asks all the big questions about God and love and death and where to find meaning and purpose, and I want to hear someone who asks those questions in ways that they haven’t been asked before. That’s the Big Quest. That’s what I’m hoping to find every time I open up another shrinkwrapped CD with another breathless PR release folded around it. I’m looking for musicians and bands who break out of the pack and stamp themselves as unique individuals, with something unique to say. There’s a simple test here, really: does it wake me up? Does it shake me out of the lethargy that can easily set in when I’m in the middle of seemingly interchangeable days in my cubicle? Does it make me feel more alive?
Paste Magazine, the music publication I write for most frequently, calls it “Signs of Life.” It’s the tagline for the magazine. And it’s a pretty accurate description of what I’m trying to find. Everybody knows that there is formulaic, disposable music out there. It fills the airwaves. But I’m also here to tell you that there is wonderful, beautiful, disturbing, uplifting, lovely, sad, heartbreaking, thrilling music out there, and it has nothing to do with genre labels. It’s not Christian. It’s not non-Christian. It’s human.
I’d like to tell you about a few of those signs of life I’ve encountered over the past few months, a few of the outposts in my musical world where I am challenged and startled and where, at least on my better days, I’m more likely to change because I’ve been exposed to what I hear. So here are five or six relatively new albums that for very different reasons have impressed me and challenged me and made me want to jump up and down on the couch cushions.
Let me tell you about a band from Athens, Ohio called Southeast Engine. Southeast Engine sounds a lot like the band Wilco, a band you may be familiar with. They play a particularly aggressive brand of what is today called alt-country, and what used to be called country rock, and they have a raspy, world-weary lead singer who could double for Jeff Tweedy, Wilco’s singer and songwriter. Their latest album, which is called A Wheel Within a Wheel, may contain as many biblical allusions as the entire U2 catalogue, starting with the opening rocker “Taking the Fall” and continuing right on through the final track, which sounds something like Wilco discovering the Book of Revelation. There’s an openness and vulnerability about the singing and the songwriting that I find totally disarming. It’s both highly literary and highly confessional, and I like it very much.
Let me tell you about the band Aradhna. There’s no great secret here, but I’ll spell it out. I usually have very little use for Christian music and the Contemporary Christian Music genre, although Christians have made some of my favorite music. Like a lot of other Jesus Freaks, I threw away a lot of my favorite “secular” albums, and for a while I tried my best to focus on overtly “Christian” music. But I didn’t really like it, and sometime back around 1978 or so I went through my own little musical counter-Reformation and I threw away a bunch of CCM albums and repurchased a lot of that worldly, pagan music that just happened to sound better and speak to me in more direct ways. I’ll go even further and state that the Worship Music wing of the CCM genre holds little appeal. There’s too much imitation of Fleetwood Mac circa 1975, and too many wince-inducing, sub-Hallmark “apple of my eye/wind beneath my wings” references. When it comes to music that actually connects in spiritual ways for me, and that I actually want to listen to in the car outside of Sunday mornings, give me Sigur Ros or Miles Davis. They probably didn’t know they were creating worship music. It just worked out that way for me.
So when an album comes along that fits squarely within the Worship Music tradition of the CCM genre, and I actually like it, then there may be some evidence that hell has begun to freeze over. But that’s what happened with Aradhna. The four core members of the band are as Americans, but they’ve all spent significant portions of their lives in Bangladesh, Nepal, and India. And therein lies the strange and wondrous merger of two worlds that contributes to the uniqueness of the band’s music, and to the surprising vigor of their latest album Amrit Vani. There are sitars here. And tablas. They sound as exotic as you would expect. And there are acoustic guitar arpeggios and gently lilting violin solos that wouldn’t sound out of place on a very western Windham Hill album. It works beautifully. The lyrics are sung in Hindi and are taken from the Hindu sacred scriptures, but they’ve been reworked to reflect devotion to Christ and to conform to an orthodox Christian worldview. The music digs deep in a contemplative, meditative way that few worship albums even begin to approach, and, as a bonus, it’s quite lovely. I highly recommend it.
As I mentioned, I’m also a big fan of musicians who take seemingly incompatible musical genres and mash them together and come up with something new and unexpected. And so I want to recommend the latest album from a band called Firewater called The Golden Hour. Firewater is led by a former punk named Tod who was once in a band called Cop Shoot Cop. You can imagine how uplifting that music was. But Tod left the police academy twelve years ago to embark on a relentlessly eclectic exploration of world music. His first solo album was an immediately breathtaking affair, equal parts Tom Waits seedy cabaret and gypsy wedding party, and it predates indie rock’s current obsession with Balkan music by a good decade. Subsequent albums have explored Bollywood, klezmer music, and Big Top circus sounds.
Perhaps not too surprisingly, the latest album The Golden Hour sounds like nothing that has come before it. Newly divorced and disgruntled by George W. Bush’s re-election, Tod 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, Tod 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 nihilistic hoedown. Singing about his divorce and the unraveling of normality, Tod 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.” It’s not pleasant listening, but it comes close to being essential listening. It’s a superb, disturbing slab of desperation and creativity.
I’d also like to tell you about the most impressive album I’ve heard in the past year, an album called At War With Walls and Mazes by a young New York musician who calls himself Son Lux.
About a year ago, I was asked to officiate in a contest called “Bandspotting,” which was part of Calvin College’s 2007 Festival of Faith and Music. It was like American Idol in that I got to judge a lot of musical unknowns and wield extraordinary power over the lives of musicians looking for their big break (okay, at least some kind of break). It was unlike American Idol in that I didn’t get to make any snarky comments from the peanut gallery.
The winner of the contest was a young man named Ryan Lott, who goes by Son Lux as his musical alias. Ryan is a classically-trained pianist who is enamored with Kid A-era Radiohead, and in college he alternated between playing Brahms in a tux and playing keyboards in a funk and hip-hop band. And on his debut album he sings in a sort of hushed rasp, throws in some Rachmaninoff dramatic flourishes, and then slices and dices everything via tape loops, lots of sampling --everything from fairly standard hip-hop beats to operatic divas -- and then adds some electronic blips and beeps. And although that certainly qualifies as the kind of musical mashup that I like, it doesn’t really tell you much about the songs themselves. And the songs are astounding. I was immediately struck by Ryan’s use of Scripture (and lines clearly derived from Scripture) throughout these songs. He starts with a biblical verse, a fragment of a verse, a spiritually charged word – and repeats it over and over again, like a mantra, or like Rosary beads. And listening to the same scrap of truth repeated, sliced and diced, taken out and examined from all sorts of musical angles, I finally got it. This is the musical equivalent of Lectio Divina, the spiritual discipline of meditating on a small segment of Scripture and soaking in that truth in all of its ramifications. And here this classically trained indie kid had found a way to do it via Radiohead and Rachmaninoff. The music is quiet, and it’s thunderously beautiful. I think it’s a fabulous album. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
I’m also drawn to sad, mopey characters who wring melodrama out of relational breakdowns and breakups. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the music of Nick Drake or Elliott Smith, but they both had an uncanny way of distilling sadness and melancholy and making it seem supremely melodic. My latest favorite in that genre is a guy named Jacob Golden, whose recently released debut album is called Revenge Songs.
Revenge Songs is a divorce album. I’ve never been divorced. I don’t know what that feels like. But I’ve sat up some late nights with friends who are going through a divorce, just as I’m sure you have, and I think I have some idea of the messy ambivalence that accompanies those hypercharged days; the anger and self-loathing and sense of relief that seem to co-exist, impossibly, in the same human beings.Jacob Golden’s album captures that ambivalence just about perfectly. It’s easily the best breakup album I’ve heard since last year’s bitter flameout from the band The Mendoza Line, which was called Thirty Year Low, and it just may stand a chance of joining the pantheon of the Great Divorce Albums: Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, Richard and Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out the Lights, and Beck’s Sea Change. It’s that good.Golden sings in a lovely choirboy tenor that belies the desperation of his lyrics. He double tracks his voice, and there are numerous times on the album where he channels the sound of those old Simon and Garfunkel albums very convincingly. But there’s a naked honesty and vulnerability there that is quite startling. I don’t expect choirboys to sing things like:
I never said I had any answers
I never claimed to be the better man
I’ve got no integrity to cling to
I don’t have myself a backup plan
That’s from a song called “Zero Integrity,” and it’s only one facet of a remarkably complex album that also takes in the reeling, kaleidoscopic emotions of bitterness, sorrow, confusion, anger, recrimination, relief -- the whole gamut of emotions that people tend to go through during such emotionally overwrought times. It’s the most human thing I’ve heard in months. And you’ll be singing along with the heartbreak.
Finally, let me tell you about a kid named Ezra Furman, who really wants to be the next Bob Dylan. I love Bob Dylan. I always have. But if any of you have followed music for any length of time, you will know that the term “new Dylan” is the kiss of death. Anybody remember a guy named Steve Forbert? See what I mean?
So I won’t tell you that this 20-year-old kid from Boston is the new Dylan, even though he howls more than sings, disdains trivial little things like pitch, pummels his acoustic guitar like a madman, has a harmonica rack on top of his guitar, and writes the most astounding metaphors and consistently surprises me with his imagery. I don’t know who that would sound like.
So Ezra Furman has a band called The Harpoons, and he has one album, which is called Banging Down the Doors, which was my favorite album out of the hundreds of albums I heard last year. One of his songs takes in faith, doubt, the virgin Mary, alcoholism, Starbucks coffee, premature death, and Soren Kierkegaard. In about three minutes.
These are acoustic songs, for the most part, although they’re a million miles removed from laid-back folky territory. There’s a manic, propulsive energy at work in almost all of the tracks, and the songs hurtle by at breakneck speed. That other guy who we won’t mention once said that he wrote songs so quickly because he couldn’t envision the world lasting much longer, and you get the same sort of feeling listening to these songs. Ezra Furman sings like his skull is ready to explode. He’s got the world’s biggest migraine, and he spits out his words like machine gun fire, and at times he abandons language altogether and simply howls like a feral wolf. It’s frightening, and it’s brilliant.
So those are some examples of new music that has breathed new meaning into my life over the past few months. I mentioned earlier that I spend forty or more hours every week working in corporate America, with the Type A doers of the world. I moan about it, but the truth is I’m thankful for the gig. It’s allowed me to make the mortgage payments and support my family and send two kids to college. But it’s not how I envisioned my life would go. By this time I figured I would have written the Great American Novel, worked on the Hollywood screenplay, counseled Robert DeNiro and Meryl Streep on how to play the lead roles, and settled down to a life of public adulation and reverence, bestirring myself for occasional appearances on NPR and PBS. I had modest dreams.
Instead I write about database capacity planning. The two books I’ve written – Creating Graphics for Your Commodore 64 and Lotus 1-2-3 for Beginners – are long out of print. You wouldn’t want to read them anyway. Neither would I.
So I go home, and I spend time with my family and friends. I pray, and I try to be awake to the possibility of loving and serving people, of acting like Jesus really is on the throne. I read books. And I listen to music and write about it. All of that’s tied up in who I am.
I live in the suburbs, but I go to church in the city. I do that for a couple reasons. First, I have no great interest in talking about golf and fertilizer. Second, I think it’s important to leave my comfort zone. I like comfort. It’s pleasant. But at this point in my life, the point where I once thought I’d have it made, and that I’d be able to kick back and take it easy, I find that I don’t want to take it easy. My pastor is constantly exhorting us to engage suffering, to be the eyes and hands and feet of Jesus in a hurting world, to care, and to get off our sentimental duffs and do something good for the Kingdom of God. And so a couple times per week my wife and I get in the car and drive down to the city. Our church is full of artists – writers, painters, musicians, concert promoters, entrepreneurs. By and large they’re a bunch of tattooed, pierced wounded warriors with MFAs.
It’s not a perfect church. I’m far from a perfect human being. But sometimes I look around on Sunday mornings and I’m amazed. Some of the people there wouldn’t identify themselves as Christians. They’re watching, taking it all in. They’re looking at these people who claim to be changed by God, and who claim to love one another and the whole world around them, and they’re just waiting to see us slip up, to be those standard-issue hypocritical Christians who say one thing and do another. Usually they don’t have to wait very long. We’re pretty obliging in that way. Me too. I’m not making excuses. Everybody I know wants to be changed in this journey toward God, to be a less self-centered person, and everybody I know blows it on a fairly consistent basis. But we do so as screw-ups loved by God, and that’s what we try to communicate.
Everybody has a story to tell. That, to me, has been the biggest revelation I've encountered while being a part of our current church. Many of the stories are sad ones, some of them heartbreaking, pound-your-fist-into-the-pillow ones. People have had to put up with such crap, and have done such crap to themselves. And who knows where one leaves off and the other begins? Not me. It's a mess. But I'm fairly convinced it's a holy mess.
The music that touches me most deeply is also a holy mess. It’s touched by God, it’s true, and it reminds me that in the midst of the wreckage and the carnage there are human beings who are infinitely loved. And, when I let it, it can shake me from my self-imprisonment and release me from the captivity of the Kingdom of Me. It reminds me that I have a choice, and that I am not powerless in these matters.
I can obsess about the hard knocks of life, and I can put on my melancholy, depressive lenses and see the world in shades of dismal grey. Or I can recognize the strange, incongruous blessings that flow from the mess and the brokenness. I see it all the time in my church, and in my own life. And I hear them all the time in music. Jacob Golden gets a divorce and writes a beautiful, honest, poetic masterpiece. The jazz pianist Bill Evans spends all his money on heroin, his wife dies of an overdose, the power company shuts off his electricity because he can’t pay his bill, and he goes into the studio and in one take lays down an impossibly moving hymn called “Peace Piece,” a little slice of transcendent beauty and longing. How can that be? But it is. It happens all the time. It all fits together, and I get to write about it. And I’m so thankful to be able to do it.
At my workshop this afternoon I’m going to play several of the songs I’ve talked about this morning. I’m also going to play a longtime favorite by the English band Radiohead called “Fake Plastic Trees.” I’m sure many of you are already familiar with Radiohead. They’re one of the best-known indie rock bands, not only because of the creativity and innovation they bring to their music, but also because of their radical marketing strategy of skipping the record label entirely and offering their latest album In Rainbows for whatever their fans wanted to pay for it. The song I’m going to play is a fairly straightforward power ballad from one of their early albums. From the standpoint of song structure, it’s a masterful example of how to build a song from a pensive beginning to a soaring coda, and it’s the embodiment of how to merge words and sounds to generate something that is far greater than the sum of its parts. And, for my money, it perfectly encapsulates many of the ideas that I’ve tried to communicate this morning. It’s a beautiful, sad, desperate magnum opus on profound disappointment. It’s about love, and the loss of love, and the hollow feeling in the gut when it all comes crashing down. It’s a mess.
I’ve been married for 26 years to the same woman. It’s been a long time since I’ve experienced the kind of crushing rejection and emptiness that comes at the bad end of a relationship you thought was going to be very good. But it all comes back to me when I hear that song. And that helps me understand my daughters a little better when they’re in the middle of a messy breakup. It makes me understand a little better the hell my divorced friends have been through. And it makes me realize how much I’ve been changed in good ways by this messy, amazing, redemptive relationship I have with my wife, and how blessed I am that I haven’t had to experience that crushing emptiness. I listen to that song and think, “This is the way it is for a lot of people. It’s all sterile. It’s all fake. There isn’t a real human being on the planet.” That’s what I remember.
I’m not going to tell you that every minute I spend listening to music leads to some sort of spiritual epiphany. There are plenty of days when I’m content to hear a good hook, or some strange, new, innovative mashup, or just some well-structured verse-chorus-verse singer/songwriter fare. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying music for its own sake. But sometimes something more happens. Sometimes – many times, in fact -- it wakes me up from my lethargy, from the routine, from the monotonous, daily grind, and it reminds me of some basic truths: people matter. The big questions matter. There is a whole universe of life going on inside these human beings I encounter, and most of it is hidden and below the surface, and I begin to understand it better when I listen to music.
That’s what music can do. It’s a conduit for grace. It’s a gentle, persistent, beautiful, and sometimes very unsafe and alarming reminder that the world is not all about me. It doesn’t bring about any drastic changes in my life. It just reminds me, constantly, that I need to be changed, that there is more out there, that God isn’t through with me yet. And it reminds me, again and again, in infinitely varied ways, of one basic fact: the world is a lot bigger than the Kingdom of Me.
This – this place, this conference, all the hundreds of beautiful and tragic stories that encompass your lives, and the lives of all of the people who are not here with us this weekend – this is where I swim. This is water. This is what it’s about, and this is why I spend inordinate amounts of my time and money listening to music. It helps me remember what’s important. It opens up to me new vistas of what it means to be a less self-centered human being. And I’d like to think that it helps me, at least on my better days, to position myself in relation to God in ways that lead to positive change. It helps me listen better. It helps me pay attention to all the beauty and tragedy around me. It helps me to be less of a jerk. These are simple goals that take a lifetime, but they have some practical ramifications, like when I’m able to look at the people behind the mouths that talk about database capacity planning and at least try to see them as they really are: complex human beings who are loved by God.
We live in a time when the arts are increasingly marginalized and branded as superfluous, as a luxury we can no longer afford, and where arts programming in our schools and our cities is being severely curtailed. My sister-in-law, who is a wonderful artist and a wonderful art teacher, just lost her teaching job because her administration decreed that kids in the ghetto, where she works, don’t really need art. God forbid that beauty should be found in the hood. The symphony orchestra in Columbus, Ohio, where I live, just cut the number of its full-time musicians in half, and is in danger of going under altogether. It’s not a world-class symphony orchestra, but it’s an orchestra that plays Mozart and Beethoven pretty well, and decent Mozart and Beethoven is still a thousand times better than no Mozart of Beethoven at all. Two of my favorite music magazines – No Depression and Harp – folded in April. In some sense, both were competitors of Paste Magazine, where I write. Am I happy about their demise? No. I’m saddened by their demise. The world is a better place when more, not fewer, voices write about music that strives to be something more than a commodity, a fashion accessory, the hippest new ringtone for your phone.
We also live in a time when Christianity is seen as increasingly irrelevant, or worse, intolerant and judgmental, where any truth claims are viewed as arrogant and condescending. It’s okay that we hold to our silly, outmoded beliefs, but why can’t we have the common decency to keep them to ourselves, or to relegate them to an hour or two on Sunday morning? Why can’t we be content just knowing that we’re going to heaven? Isn’t that enough?
But it’s not enough. It’s never been enough. This isn’t about fire insurance. And it’s not about life after death. Look around you. This is water. This is about life before death. For me, it’s about staying up late with the headphones on, not because it’s a job, but because it’s a joy. I hope that through this weekend, and through the sharing of our stories, we’ll be able to recapture why we actually care about these things. Thank you for the privilege of being here with you.
Trinity Arts Conference
I routinely feel overwhelemed in these circumstances. And I did this weekend as well. I feel like I’m out of my league, an impostor, and that within mere minutes I will be exposed as the fraud that I am, a pathetic loser of a human being who really doesn’t warrant any kind of attention. I want to tell people, “Look, I know you didn’t pay money just to hear me, but it’s okay if you ask for a refund on my 20% of the conference proceedings. I wouldn’t blame you.” But I bite my tongue and fake it.
Kate and I spent three days in Dallas, Texas, right across the street from where the Dallas Cowboys play football. We took part in the Trinity Arts Conference, a gathering of visual artists, writers, and musicians who come together to discuss the relationship between Christianity and the arts.
Here were the speakers/entertainment:
Ann McCutchan, whose biography reads (in small part): “Ann McCutchan has received grants, fellowships and residencies from the Rockefeller Foundation, the MacDowell Colony, the Mid-America Arts Alliance, the Hambidge Center for Creative Arts and Sciences, the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, the National Park Service, Lancaster Theological Seminary, Cornell University, the University of Wyoming, the Wyoming Arts Council, and the University of North Texas.” Shit. Compare with: “Andy Whitman writes about database capacity planning, and loves the Cleveland Indians.”
Bruce Herman, an astoundingly gifted painter from Boston, whose triptych showing the Annunciation, the Holy Spirit overshadowing Mary, and Mary’s visit with Elizabeth, absolutely took my breath away. In addition to being a superb visual artist, Bruce is also a very articulate and erudite speaker. And a humble guy.
Reva Williams and Gretel (that’s a band name, not a person), who provided the musical “entertainment.” Look, just skip the trip to Chipotle for a couple days and buy all the CDs. I’m not kidding. I will be writing much more about Reva and her band, but think Lucinda Williams, think Sam Phillips, think every great woman singer/songwriter who wrestles with the faith, is a poet, and who, as a bonus, happens to have a howlingly great voice.
Greg Wolfe, who is the founder of Image Journal, head of the Creative Writing program at Seattle Pacific University, and author of numerous books, all of which are worth reading. Greg is one of my heroes. No lie. The Mark Heard journals he published, lo, probably seventeen or eighteen years ago now, informed the way I viewed the intersection of music and Christianity, and helped me formulate a way to think about popular music that helped me break free of the CCM ghetto. I will be forever grateful. Greg has a Ph.D. from Oxford. England, not Ohio.
And then there was, well, me.
To their great credit, all of these folks were extremely warm and gracious, not at all full of themselves. I was welcomed and affirmed. And because of the relatively small size of the conference (perhaps 100 people), I was able to connect with everyone there to a greater or lesser degree. I met a bunch of wonderful, talented people. I listened, I learned, and I was challenged in new and good ways. I had some wonderful dinnertime conversations. I got to sip some good bourbon at midnight. I came away with several new friends. Thanks to Mike Capps and Kim Alexander, who organized the conference and were the epitome of hospitality. Thanks to the numerous volunteers who made it happen. Thanks to Cynthia Miller, who transported us to and from the airport, whose photographs charmed and moved me, and whose two young children were a delight.
I spoke twice, once in front of everybody on Saturday morning, and once in front of a smaller group at a workshop Saturday afternoon. I hope that who I am came through. I hope Jesus came through. I am so thankful for these opportunities. I am a blessed man.