Thursday, July 31, 2008

Neil Diamond

Look at this man. Look at that sculpted mane. Look at that button casually left unbuttoned, and look at that chest hair. Don't you just want to throw a banana cream pie in his face, or zap him with a cattle prod?

Perhaps my reaction is exaggerated. But you have to understand the extreme trauma this man has caused in my life. I was young. Whatever money I made came from mowing lawns, and it wasn't much. Buying an album was a big deal. And so I savored the days before Christmas, knowing that I had wisely provided my parents with a shopping list of desired music. Surely some of it -- Fairport Convention, maybe, or Pink Floyd -- would show up under the tree.

Instead I got Neil O. (as in "Oh, shit!") Diamond. My parents loved Neil Diamond. In their minds he was the classiest entertainer on the planet, a smoldering mass of songwriting, singing sensuality. He was what Frank Sinatra had been in his younger years. He could make the women, including my mother, swoon. He was so good that he ought to be in Vegas.

And so instead of Meddle I got something called Moods. I was already in a bad one even before I listened to the music. And then it got worse.

Song sung blue, everybody knows one
Song sung blue, every garden grows one

People paid for this crap? I was writing better lyrics than that in second grade. But I knew the problem. I didn't have chest hair.

Then there was:

You are the sun
I am the moon
You are the words
I am the tune
Play me

No, Neil. You are the mustard, I am the pretzel/You are the wiener, I am the schnitzel/Screw you.

And so it is with grudging admiration that I admit that his last two albums are actually pretty good. Not great, mind you. Neil still has a tendency to employ the vapid cliche and to slather on the bombast like whipped cream from the can. But those tendencies are reined in considerably. Both 12 Songs and his latest, Home Before Dark, have the decided advantage of employing Rick Rubin as producer, and Rubin, just as he was with Johnny Cash's American Recordings, is a master of the "less is more" school of production, and that's precisely what Neil Diamond has needed all along. The arrangements are spare, stark, and simple. Where Diamond previously gravitated to bloated string sections and sweeping arrangements, he's now content with acoustic guitar, bass, and understated keyboards. Half of Tom Petty's Heartbreakers provide the rootsy accompaniment, and Diamond himself contributes several introspective gems to offset the usual overheated love songs. Maybe it's age and maturity; maybe it's just the realization that making the women swoon doesn't work as well at 67 as it worked at 32. In any case, Neil Diamond has delivered arguably the best music of his career in the past few years, and easily his best work since his late '60s Bang singles.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Country Duets

Josh Jackson, editor of Paste Magazine, just posted a list of his favorite 10 country-rock duets on the Paste website. Good times, I tell you. There's nothing better than music nerds sitting around in coffee-stained t-shirts debating the Top 10 male/female country duets. And eating pork rinds.

Here's my list. Some of these are better classified as "country" than "country-rock," but there you go.

10) You're Running Wild -- Buddy and Julie Miller
9) Just Between the Two of Us -- Merle Haggard and Bonnie Owens
8) Darkest Hour is Just Before Dawn -- Emmylou Harris and Ricky Skaggs
7) We Could -- John Prine and Iris Dement
6) Holding on to Nothin' -- Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton
5) Dirty Little Texas Story -- Chip Taylor and Carrie Rodriguez
4) Jackson -- Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash
3) We Loved It Away -- George Jones and Tammy Wynette
2) Party Time -- Caitlin Cary and Thad Cockrell
1) The Angels Rejoiced in Heaven Last Night -- Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris

What are yours?[1]

[1] Anyone posting the words "Kenny" or "Rogers" will be automatically banned from future comments on my blog.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

An American Tune

This single-parent lifestyle is hard. Kate is in Akron with her dying mom. I'm trying to hold down the fort, work ten-hour days, write about music in the evenings, check in on my dad, be a parent to two very different daughters, cook dinner, do the laundry, mow the grass, vacuum the floors, and meet with exterminators (centipedes are the problem, not human beings; don't go envisioning Sopranos scenarios).

I listened to a whopping one song last night, way too late, right before I went to bed. I've written about it before. It's one of those songs that I've carried around with me for more than thirty years, and I never grow tired of it. It's the perfect marriage of words and melody (hat tip to J.S. Bach), and it spoke to me again last night. It almost always does, usually because "still, tomorrow's going to be another working day" is right on target about eighty percent of the time.

Many's the time I've been mistaken
And many times confused
Yes, and I've often felt forsaken
And certainly misused
Oh, but I'm all right, I'm all right
I'm just weary to my bones
Still, you don't expect to be
Bright and bon vivant
So far away from home,
so far away from home

And I don't know a soul who's not been battered
I don't have a friend who feels at ease
I don't know a dream that's not been shattered
or driven to its knees
but it's all right, it's all right
for we lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the
road we're traveling on
I wonder what's gone wrong
I can't help it, I wonder what's gone wrong

And I dreamed I was dying
I dreamed that my soul rose unexpectedly
And looking back down at me
Smiled reassuringly
And I dreamed I was flying
And high up above my eyes could clearly see
The Statue of Liberty
Sailing away to sea
And I dreamed I was flying

We come on the ship they call the Mayflower
We come on the ship that sailed the moon
We come in the age's most uncertain hours
and sing an American tune
Oh, and it's alright, it's all right, it's all right
You can't be forever blessed
Still, tomorrow's going to be another working day
And I'm trying to get some rest
That's all, I'm trying to get some rest
-- Paul Simon, "American Tune"

Monday, July 28, 2008

Buffalo Bill's Obituary

Buffalo Bill's
who used to
ride a watersmooth-silver
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat
he was a handsome man
and what i want to know is
how do you like your blueeyed boy
Mister Death
-- e.e. cummings, “Buffalo Bill”

I have all these memories, I don’t know what for
I have them and I can’t help it
-- Sun Kil Moon, “Like the River”

We're always amazed and puzzled by the slow, inevitable degeneration of the human body. We wake up in the morning, callow youths trapped in middle-aged, sagging bodies, and we wonder what the hell happened. In our minds we are still 21 years old, right out of college, and all of life is before us. And if the events of the past few days are any indication, nothing much changes. Apparently we also wake up at 75, at 90, and the reaction isn’t much different. Oh, look at the time. And look at the human body, shutting down. I bet Buffalo Bill, virile, macho Buffalo Bill, felt that way as well.

Friday saw the unlikely scenario of a husband and wife, separated across the space of 120 miles, caring for parents in hospitals in Cleveland and Columbus, respectively. Our two surviving parents – Kate’s mom and my dad – are dying. Kate’s mom has Stage 4 pancreatic and liver cancer, and will probably be dead within a month. My dad has congestive heart failure, and after suffering what may have been a heart attack on Wednesday, was released to go home on Saturday. He thought the good doctors would perform another heart bypass operation and that he would be as good as new within a couple weeks. They didn’t, and he’s not. They sent him home, telling him that his heart disease is too far advanced and that there’s nothing they can do for him. He’s a ticking time bomb, and the next explosion will be the last.

It is interesting and instructive to watch the ways people prepare for death. My dad, a master of denial, doesn’t acknowledge that there’s a problem. He doesn’t talk about it. He doesn’t prepare for it. He simply goes home and continues the same self-destructive patterns that have led to his congestive heart failure. When all you know is sand, perhaps it’s too traumatic to consider pulling your head out of it. Kate’s mom, by contrast, is praying, gathering her family and friends around her, making sure that all the important words are said before it is too late.

But both of them are kids again. My dad wants to talk about his childhood self and his brother and sister, the Columbus version of the Little Rascals, and the mischief they got into when they were young adolescents. My mother-in-law wants to talk about her girlhood in Akron, about her home on East St., about how she met my father-in-law Carroll. There is an ordering going on, a taking stock, but it’s an ordering that goes back to the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression. And I’m fascinated by the process.

Not long before Carroll died, he commissioned me, as a “writer,” to set down the story of his life. He talked into a tape recorder, filled up six or seven ninety-minute tapes, and then passed the mess along to me. He wanted me to put it into some kind of order.

And that’s the trick, isn’t it? My father-in-law wandered off during his narration, went down a hundred rabbit trails, provided far too much detail on how he invented carbon brakes for the airline industry and not nearly enough detail on his wife and kids. How does one order that? How should one order that?

I butt up against two utterly unreconcilable notions: the uniqueness of a human life, and the shabby sameness of death. On one hand there is profound mystery. “How did you get this way?” I want to ask my father. “What happened to that kid who was full of life? What were the unique circumstances, the choices you made, that made you turn aside from living life to the fullest?” And on the other hand there is death, the great leveler, from virile, insatiable Buffalo Bill and his macho cowboy life to my dad, who is not virile, who is not macho, but who has blue eyes, just like Bill.

Yesterday my wife Kate helped write her mom’s obituary. She wanted to do it when her mom was still lucid and could still communicate her thoughts clearly. But oh, what a terrible assignment.

The resulting article, full of names and dates, is imminently unsatisfying. It doesn’t begin to address who my mother-in-law is, the woman who loves Beethoven and Native Americans and the rosary and a little piazza in Rome, the woman who, when told that she was dying of cancer, and that her family would be by her side, exclaimed, “Oh, that will be lovely.” But this is where we find ourselves these days; cutting, editing, letting go. We are trying to reduce life to two hundred words, a three inch by two inch column. And we are mourning all that’s left unsaid and all that will be left behind, all the recollections of East St. and the Columbus Little Rascals that no one will ever know. We are sifting through the lives to find what is important, and looking around and seeing it right in front of our faces. But it’s fading fast.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Obama Speaks to 200,000 in Berlin; McCain Speaks at German Restaurant

That was actually a headline on MSNBC yesterday. But it was our German restaurant, Schmidt's in German Village, home of the inexplicably named Bahama Mama.

It's either the best or wurst political headline I've seen in a while. Media bias? What do you mean?

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Favorite Songs of the First Half of 2008

Just because ...

Adele – Hometown Glory
Marco Benevento -- Atari
Black Francis – When They Come to Murder Me
Blind Pilot – Oviedo
Bon Iver – Creature Fear
The Botticellis – Up Against the Glass
Hayes Carll – She Left Me for Jesus
Centro-Matic – The Rat Patrol and DJs
Firewater – Borneo
Tim Fite – Sing Along
Fleet Foxes – White Winter Hymnal
Fleshtones – First Date (Are You Coming on to Me?)
Johnny Flynn and the Sussex Wit – Shore to Shore
Frightened Rabbit – Head Rolls Off
Jacob Golden – Out Come the Wolves
Al Green/Corrinne Bailey Rae – Take Your Time
Hacienda Brothers – A Lot of Days Are Gone
Hayseed – God Shaped Hole
Headlights – Get Your Head Around It
Malcolm Holcombe – Goin’ Downtown
The Hold Steady – Constructive Summer
Jolie Holland -- Palmyra
Jamey Johnson – The High Cost of Living
Scott Kempner – Beyond the Pale
Chris Knight – Crooked Road
Amos Lee – Won’t Let Me Go
Man Man – The Ballad of Butter Beans
Adam Marsland – My Kickass Life
Mercury Rev – Dream of a Young Girl as a Flower
Old 97’s – No Baby I
Portishead -- Silence
Matthew Ryan – Dulce et Decorum Est
Mando Saenz – Wrong Guy
Shearwater – On the Death of the Waters
Sigur Ros -- Gobbledigook
Son Lux – Stand
Sun Kil Moon – Moorestown
Watermelon Slim – Archetypcal Blues No. 2
Steve Winwood – Dirty City

New and great albums are on the way from Lucinda Williams, Ezra Furman and the Harpoons, and The Broken West.

Ed Askew -- Little Eyes

What are the odds that a former member of a band called Gandalf and the Motorpickle, and whose first solo album is called Ask the Unicorn, would release an album that approaches musical masterpiece status? I know, I wouldn’t make that bet either. But it’s happened. And you can chalk it up to the pervasive hippie influence of Vashti Bunyan. Ever since Vashti's "discovery," thirty years after the fact, small indie labels have been scouring the vaults to uncover the first generation of freak folk artists. Enter Ed Askew, who fits the bill perfectly.

Yale graduate, painter, poet, art teacher, and yes, founding member of the fortunately long-defunct Gandalf and the Motorpickle, Ed recorded his debut album Ask the Unicorn in 1969. In spite of the twee title, the album was anything but a hippie-dippy lovefest, and offered surprisingly unsentimental and unsettlingly poetic ruminations on love and the loss of love. This was confessional singer/songwriter fare before the genre really took off with Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne. His followup, Little Eyes, was recorded in 1970, but languished in musical limbo when his label went under. And there it sat.

Delivery took a while. When it emerged, blinking into the sunlight, 37 years after conception, the new baby already had a beard and a middle-aged beergut. And a tiple. But more about that in a minute. Sporting a damaged, off-key voice that emerges midway between Bob Dylan’s anguished howl and Tiny Tim’s fey falsetto, Askew sings visionary songs full of mystical imagery. He’s William Blake with a better sense of melody. Playing up the esoteric hermit role, he plucks the tiple, a ten-stringed South American instrument that looks like an overgrown ukelele and sounds like an autoharp with unbelievable sustain. The drone-like quality of this music is its most haunting quality, and that, combined with the mystical lyrics, creates an overpowering sense of awe and mystery. This is music by which to explore the cosmos, redeemed from total heaviosity by Askew’s skewed eccentricity. The earnestly poetic anti-war anthem “Song for Pilots” careens into a woozy “nah-nah-nah” coda that sounds like the “Hey Jude” choir after a hard day’s night of partying. “Little Infinite Love Song,” a melancholy, minor-key gem, skirts around but never alights on the reason for the sadness, and is all the more moving because of its dislocated angst. “Waiting in the Station” frames its abstract lyrics around a basic 12-bar blues structure. These songs are out there, strange and exotic, but never so far removed from the familiar world that they fail to connect in their impressionistic beauty.

And this a lovely album. There is a yearning, elegiac quality to this music that comes through loud and clear; a lonely hippie looking for and not always finding something solid and worthwhile to stake a life on. That theme sounds as relevant in 2008 as it did in 1970. It took far too long, but I’m grateful that the baby saw the light of day.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Roots Roundup -- Watermelon Slim, Hacienda Brothers, Mando Saenz

Three new(ish) roots albums of note …

Watermelon Slim and the Workers – No Paid Holidays

Bill Homans’ (AKA Watermelon Slim’s) first record was a 1973 protest album. Recently back from a grunts-eye view of Vietnam, he used a tin can shard as a pick and his Zippo lighter as a slide, and laid down a series of bitter, acerbic ruminations on the horror and the folly of that memorable war. In the meantime he’s passed his days as a truck driver, forklift operator, sawmiller, firewood salesman, collection agent, funeral parlor director, small-time criminal, watermelon farmer, college graduate times three, and member of Mensa. And, oh yeah, one hell of a slide guitar player and blues singer.

Never mind that Bill went thirty years between albums. The last five years have seen five new albums, and No Paid Holidays continues the winning streak. There are original field hollers here, original laments that sound like they come directly from the Delta, original electric Chicago blues, and an oddly endearing blues cover of Laura Nyro’s “And When I Die.” On “Archetypal Blues No. 2” Bill conjures the spirits of Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf. “Most of my heroes are dead,” he mumbles, and then burns through a solo that would raise the dead. The guy is good. Real good.

Hacienda Brothers – Arizona Motel

Most of my heroes are dead, too. One of them is named Chris Gaffney, who succumbed to liver cancer in April of this year. In addition to his stellar work with Dave Alvin’s band The Guilty Men, Chris was the co-leader of Hacienda Brothers, his partnership with former Paladins guitarist and songwriter Dave Gonzalez. Unable to decide on whether they were a soul band or a country and western band, the Hacienda’s simply split the difference, and Chris’s smoky, souful baritone could plead like Otis Redding or swoop down to nail the bass notes on a honky tonk weeper just like George Jones. He was a great singer, and nowhere is the breadth of his talent displayed more dramatically than on Arizona Motel, the Hacienda’s swan song:

A lot of days are gone
But I’m still holdin’ on to what they used to be
Back when it was yesterday the future seemed so far away
And there was always time, but now it’s slipped away

That’s from the album’s opening track, a classic honky tonk weeper. A month after wrapping up the recording Chris was diagnosed with cancer. Two months later he was dead. There are thirteen more that are just as moving, just as soulful, just as rocking. It’s hard country, hard soul, and a hard life. It’s a beautiful thing, not to be missed.

Mando Saenz – Bucket

Mando Saenz’s 2004 debut album Watertown was a pretty if somewhat slight excursion down the well-traveled trail of the plaintive folky with a twang. His sophomore effort is considerably more muscular, and features gritty contributions from guitarists Richard Bennett and Will Kimbrough and superb backing vocals from Kim Richey. The strengths of the debut album – Mando’s keening tenor, eye for detail, and undeniable melodic gift – are still intact. But this time he’s even better thanks to the all-star accompaniment. If Crowded House frontman Neil Finn hailed from Texas instead of New Zealand, this is what he would sound like.

Thursday, July 17, 2008


Sometimes the lack of comments is disheartening. So in an effort to jumpstart the comments, I offer two proven winners:
1) Diapers: cloth or disposable?
2) Breast feeding or bottle?

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Four Views of My Father

The Slurred Message

“Thishis Bob,” he says on his cellphone message, an unfamiliar lisp creeping into his voice. Has he had a stroke? Is he drunk? Both are possible.

But he’s not home right now, and I don’t want to leave a message. I want to talk with him in person, but he’s not answering his phone these days. He’s mad at me, and my guess is that when “Andy Whitman” shows up on Caller ID he studiously avoids contact. There’s nothing unusual there. It’s been a lifelong pattern for both of us. I’ve been a disappointing son. He’s been a disappointing father. We mutually express our disappointment with one another, but not to each other. That would involve actual communication, something neither of us is very good at.

“I’m dying,” he told me the last time I talked with him. “I have congestive heart failure, COPD, my kidneys are failing due to diabetes, and I can’t walk.”

“He’s not dying,” my sister tells me. She would know. She’s the only family member who has any sort of a relationship with him. Or maybe she wouldn’t know. She has her own issues – an abused kid and an abused adult who keeps coming back to my father for more abuse. “He just likes to whine,” my sister says. “It gives him something to live for.”

He is 75 years old, and he can’t remember my kids’ names. It’s not encroaching senility. He’s never been able to remember my kids’ names. I’m not sure if he remembers my name. But he remembers my wife’s name, Kate, because Kate belongs to the gender that matters. He’s always loved women. He loves Kate. And he’s pursued relationships with women, one after another, all through his crappy marriage, and long after that marriage ended. Actually, “relationships” doesn’t quite describe it. My dad doesn’t know how to have relationships. But he knows how to pursue women. Possessor of two heads, he’s always been led by the wrong one. Now he’s too old for women, a shriveled up old geezer whose pickup lines don’t work anymore, and so he pursues relationships with men. He’s recently decided to change his will, to leave his meager possessions to his “roommate.” And, as the executor of his will, I am having none of it.

“I want you to change your will,” I told him the last time I talked with him. “It’s your will, and you can do what you please, but I don’t want to be the executor if you’re going to leave your stuff to someone who’s not a part of our family.”

Now he’s mad, and he won’t answer the phone. “Thishis Bob,” is the only response I hear. But he’s not there, or if he’s there, he’s not telling.

The Coach

My dad was an all-city football player. He had the right genes. My grandfather was a member of the Canton Bulldogs, who won the American Professional Football Association championship in 1923. Jim Thorpe, often named as the greatest athlete of the 20th century, was their star player. My grandfather was a guard, and a good one. My dad was a guard, and a good one. I was a guard, and at 5’ 4” and 140 pounds, a little too undersized and immobile to withstand the assaults of linebackers, even in eighth grade.

My dad watched impatiently from the sidelines. “Stay with him!,” he would yell. “Don’t let up on that block! Stay with him!” I would be lying on the ground, flattened by some 6’ 2” flying missile.

At some point my dad took it upon himself to become the line coach. He would come home from work, change out of his business suit, don an old football jersey and sweatpants, and head out to the practice field, where I and my teammates were toiling away in the mud. “You don’t mind if I work with the linemen, do you?,” he asked Coach Best, whose son Art was destined to star for Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl. And so the St. Matthew Elementary School Mustangs took on another coach, and my dad explained the intricacies of proper footwork and strength and conditioning and the physics of using the legs as leverage in blocking. He’s in all the team pictures, a little off to the side, a faded football jersey stretched over his beergut. He squints out at the camera as if he’s ready to lunge out and knock the photographer on his backside.

None of it helped. I never could be anything but a lousy pulling guard.

A Candy Foxxx Christmas

It’s Christmas Eve, 1994, and my daughters, ages 8 and 6, anxiously await the arrival of Santa Claus.

Instead, my dad shows up with a new girlfriend in tow. Her name is Becky, and she’s a dancer. “Oh, do you do ballet?” Kate asks. Kate is so sweet. “No, I dance at a club,” Becky says. Kate ponders that one.

My dad totes in a bulging plastic trash bag. He dumps the contents out on our living room floor. There are presents, lots and lots of brightly wrapped presents. My daughters’ eyes widen. “Seventeen presents!” my daughter Katryn marvels. My dad picks one up. “This one’s for you,” he says, and hands a package to Becky.

Becky, whose nom de strip is Candy Foxxx, is maybe 30, maybe 50, it’s hard to tell. She looks at my dad with utter contempt. I know within the first two minutes of meeting her that she doesn’t give a rip about this old man and his Sugar Daddy pretensions, that she’s here in my house for one reason, and one reason only. She rips open the package, unwraps a dress. “Thanks,” she says.

My dad picks up another present. “Oh, look,” he says, “this one’s for you, too.” Becky unwraps a necklace. “Thanks,” she says in a monotone.

We watch this sordid exchange fifteen more times. The second hand inches along. There is wrapping paper scattered all over my living room floor. I watch my daughters’ eyes. I would give anything to shield them from this, to spare them this scene.

We eat our Christmas cookies and drink our eggnog in almost total silence. “Well, we have to be running,” my dad says. He bundles up the dresses, the necklaces, the purses, the perfume in the plastic bag. “Nice to meet you,” Becky says, averting her eyes. And then they are gone.

“Grandpa didn’t even say goodbye to us,” Katryn says.

“No, he doesn’t know how to,” I tell her. “He doesn’t know what to say.” And it’s true.

One on None

It’s a late summer Saturday evening in 1970. I’m fourteen, almost fifteen, and my dad is 37. We’re out in the driveway, shooting hoops, as we often are, and a couple of my friends stop over. Then a couple more dads drop by and something wondrous occurs. Fathers and sons engage in an impromptu pickup game of basketball.

Bodies bang. Elbows flail. The dads are into it, hearkening back to the glory days in their high school gynmasiums, and each kid wants to show the old man a thing or two about his own mad skills. It’s a ferocious game fought on an unassuming middle-class suburban Chicago cul-de-sac.

My father, overweight, out of shape, hangs back on the perimeter. No one pays much attention to him. The real action is underneath the basket. Finally, out of desperation, one of his teammates notices him out there, twenty feet from the hoop, wide open, and passes the ball to him. He launches a shot from his hip, an odd, crabbed-looking shot that anyone within five feet of him could easily block. But there is no one within five feet of him, and he swishes it.

It happens again. And again. The old pulling guard muscles, long atrophied, kick into gear, the old motor memory vaguely recalls how this is done, and he does it. Again and again. Our team – my dad and I, another friend and his dad – win the game, easily, and my dad is the surprise star player.

“You leave me open and I’ll kill you,” my dad confides afterward to an admiring dad. “I may be the greatest one-on-none player in America.”

Now he won’t pick up his phone. I let it ring and ring, and eventually hear “Thishis Bob.”

I go outside in the summer sunshine and shoot some hoops. It’s not much, but I’m too out of shape to run, and I have to get rid of this nervous energy, this tension. I make five shots in a row, ten shots in a row. I may be the greatest one-on-none player in America. I’ve never really learned to shoot properly. I’ve tried, but I just can’t do it. And so I stand out there in the driveway in suburban Westerville, Ohio; shoot from the hip and drill it from twenty feet.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Amusing Ourselves to Death

A new cable system is offering access to 1,056 channels. Since it would take me all night to figure out what's on, I think I'll read a book instead.

The Orphan Train

Come you abandoned you forsaken
friendless and alone
come refugees left homesick for some place
you've never known
here princes paupers criminals and saints
are all the same
no more or less than god's beloved child
aboard this train
Come ride ride on the orphan train
put your ear to the track you can hear your name
come ride ride on the orphan train
it'll take you all the way home
-- Julie Miller, "Orphan Train"

There was a great article about my friend John in last Friday's Columbus Dispatch. John is is in Cambodia now, along with 8 other members of our church.

The Hold Steady -- Stay Positive

I talked to a young music critic in Los Angeles last week. He's a Christian, and he loves The Hold Steady, and he's trying to put the two together. "How can I tell people to go out and buy an album that tells us that we're our only saviors?" he asked me.

Good question. "You tell them that Craig Finn is wrong on some big issues," I told him, "and that he's the best songwriter on the planet."

And he is. And he continues to be on Stay Positive, The Hold Steady's latest album, out Tuesday. Those of you who have followed this saga know that Craig Finn, who looks like a near-sighted accountant or Charles Nelson Reilly, take your pick, wants to be young Bruce Springsteen really, really badly. You probably also know that his band features a a fantastically mustachioed keyboard player who wants to be Professor Roy Bittan, Bruce's keyboard foil, and a guitarist with a beergut who wants to be in The Who or AC/DC. These Pabst-fueled yobs play melodramatic, outsized rock 'n roll songs meant for the back row of the arena. And they also play songs that bear close scrutiny as superb writing. It's all done by regular guys, just like you and me, and that pretty much defines my heavenly house band, which will feature at least one seraph with a beergut.

There are a few new musical twists with this round -- baroque harpsichord on "One for the Cutters," some Stax/Volt horns on (naturally) "Sequestered in Memphis," a spooky theremin drone on "Both Crosses." But mostly this is more of the same, which means that it's full of classic-rock-leaning literary songs about people who are too old to be kids, who drink and drug too much, and who wonder about that brick wall straight ahead. They party on the weekends. Hell, they party just about any night. But there are casualties this time, some kids who didn't come out on the other side of Too Much Fun, and a growing awarenesss that although growing older doesn't have much to do with growing up, it's still a bitch. "We gotta stay positive," Finn sings on the title track, and there's more than a hint of desperation in the pep talk.

Finn is about nothing if not assembling his own internal mythology and rock 'n roll hierarchy, and so we have references and in-jokes to previous Hold Steady songs, and oblique lyrical nods to Led Zeppelin and The Clash. "Raise a toast to Saint Joe Strummer," he chants over the blistering punk assault of opening track "Constructive Summer," the best song I've heard this year. If he's proposing a new form of canonization, who am I to question him? I've experienced a few holy moments with The Clash frontman as well. But Finn is at his best when he's poking at the malaise, probing the disconnect between the neverending party and the hollow comedown of the wee small hours of the morning. Like Hazel Motes in Flannery O'Connor's darkly comic novel Wise Blood, he's obsessed with asserting his own autonomy, and he can't stop talking about God:

She says sometimes she sees these things
Right before they're happening
Hail Mary full of grace
Some nights she swears she feels her face
She's known a couple boys who died
And two of them were crucified
And the last one had enlightened eyes
But the first guy he was Jesus Christ
Hey Judas - I know you made a grave mistake
Hey Peter - You've been pretty sweet since Easter break
Now it's four a.m. and she's wide awake
She's shivering and smiling

That's from "Both Crosses," a harrowing little ditty about a holy wreck of a human being, and it's what Craig Finn does best. She might be Holly, the hooker from previous Hold Steady albums who shows up at Easter Mass with her hair done up in broken glass. It's hard to tell; this time she's not named. But that's what Craig Finn does. He writes about messy people, wrecked and precious.

Here's the deal: five years in, The Hold Steady apparently still adhere to the crazy notion that rock 'n roll can change your life for the better. They hold out the music as a form of salvation. It's not. From that standpoint, it's just another idol. But it's a good thing, even a precious thing when it's written this well, played as if life was in the balance. That's the great irony. The Hold Steady don't hold steady. They hold nothing back. They revel in the messiness and the power chords and the arena-thumping bombast, and they do it as well as they've ever done on Stay Positive.

Music Filing: CDs or MP3s?

Saturday morning was devoted to filing. And since I've been on the road or otherwise occupied the past few weekends, it was more horrendous than usual. The CDs pile up in the den, and eventually the piles become so obtrusive that I have to deal with them. And so I turn into a cataloguing fiend, shuffling between several rooms in the house, on three different floors, all in a vain attempt to provide order to my universe. All those CDs have to be stored, in alphabetical order. That's the only way I'll ever be able to find anything. But it's more and more of a pain.

There are the usual filing dilemmas (Jethro Tull: J or T?). But beyond that, there's the sheer, numbing mathematical need to figure out how to make the best use of the storage space. This involves counting. I hate counting. There are the big bookshelves in the den. There are smaller shelves upstairs. There are the forty or so big plastic bins in the basement. All of them are more or less full of music, and the CDs have to be moved around from floor to floor, from shelf to bin, or bin to shelf, in order to accommodate the batch of new arrivals. And so I count. Shift four CDs from Bin 17 to Bin 18 to make room for the four new "L" CDs. But then Bin 18 is too full, so shift CDs from Bin 18 to Bin 19. Except Bin 18 needs to accommodate several new arrivals as well. Etc. Etc. You can see how jolly of a time this is.

Kate's solution: Throw a bunch of music away. Get rid of it, at least what you don't like. And she's right. The time has come, although it grieves me.

In the meantime, I spent several more leisurely hours (thank God I can read when I do this) burning CDs to iTunes, and then transferring files to the new 160 GB iPod. The iPod is tiny. It takes up hardly any space at all. But it still takes forever to burn those CDs to iTunes. I've been at it, in fits and starts, for more than a month, ever since I got the new iPod. I'm still on the Ds, and I still have months to go if I stay disciplined. And I don't know if it's worth staying disciplined. The music still sounds tinny, regardless of whether it's played through those stinking earbuds or the Altec-Lansing iPod Player. Only my big honkin' KEF speakers sound good. And I can only played LPs or CDs through them. And the LPs and CDs take up way too much room.

I love music. I hate music.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

The Baseball Project

I love baseball. I love all sports, and have been known to watch synchronized swimming and the Westminster Dog Show when there's nothing else on the tube, but I particularly love baseball. Every April I am imbued with renewed optimism as I contemplate the prospects of a world championship banner in Cleveland, Ohio. By July these hopes are dashed, cruelly, because the Indians suck. But I keep coming back, year after year, because baseball is the most human of all sports. It's slow. You can watch the grass grow between pitches. And you can watch that never-ending duel between pitcher and batter unfold cinematically, watch the mannerisms of the players, discern a little bit about who these people are as they go through their gyrations.

That's the spirit captured on The Baseball Project's Volume 1: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails. That's baseball terminology for the non-initiated, but don't sweat it. The band is Steve Wynn (Dream Syndicate), Scott McCaughey (The Minus 5), Peter Buck (R.E.M.) and Linda Pitman. The guitars buzz loudly, the drummer (Pitman) slams the kit, and Wynn and McCaughey unfold thirteen tales (both tall and short) of real-life major league baseball players. Some of them are legendary (Ted Williams, Willie Mays). Some of them you've probably never heard of (Big Ed Delahanty). All of them are characters, in the best and most three-dimensional sense of that term, and the magic of this album is that these two songwriters manage to find the flesh-and-blood human beings behind the statistics and the Hall of Fame careers.

Ted Williams, as iconic a baseball player as has ever lived, is here shown to be both a blowhard and an insecure little boy, just as he was in real life. "Don't you know who I am? I'm Ted Fucking Williams," Wynn sings, and that, better than any other catchphrase, captures the essence of the man. Curt Flood, a good ballplayer and a principled human being, is justly celebrated as someone who quietly changed the game. Best of all is "The Death of Big Ed Delahanty." Who is Big Ed Delahanty? I didn't know, so I looked him up. He played for several major league teams during a fifteen-year career late in the nineteenth century and early in the twentieth century. He got kicked off a train traveling near Niagara Falls for drunken boorishness and obnoxiousness, wandered over near the falls, and fell into the abyss. Now that's a baseball story, and Wynn and McCaughey tell it beautifully.

There's sturdy rock 'n roll and Pete Buck's chiming guitars to back it all up, and if the hooks aren't quite as memorable as I would like them to be, these are still solidly conceived and solidly executed songs. So call it a double into the gap, and a far better performance than the sorry Cleveland Indians have been able to muster in 2008.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Back from the Circus

Kate and I are back from the circus that is Cornerstone. For those who may be unfamiliar with what goes on, Cornerstone is a week-long party/music and arts festival sponsored by Jesus People USA (JPUSA), a Chicago-based Christian community. I spoke six times from under the Big Top, but then again, everybody does almost everything at Cornerstone from under the Big Top. That’s because Cornerstone essentially consists of a bunch of big circus tents and food vendor stalls (elephant ears!) set up in the middle of a cornfield outside Bushnell, Illinois. 15,000 people show up for this. And now I understand why. It’s billed as a music festival, and it is (some 600 bands played over the course of the last week), but it’s so much more. And honestly, the “so much more” outweighed a lot of the mediocre music I heard. I’ve been challenged, amazed, boggled, bummed out, and many more things since last Wednesday when I showed up, and I’ll tell you a little bit about why. There were many, many good things, and a few not-so-good things. Here are a few impressions of Cornerstone 2008.

Goth Evangelist

Our trip from Ohio to Illinois, by air, took a mere 11 hours. Curse the very broken American airline industry. There were cancelled flights. There were weather delays. And by the time we finally arrived in the sprawling urban metropolis that is Peoria, Illinois, many hours late, on a different airline from which we were scheduled to arrive, none of our Cornerstone contacts were in sight. I tried calling the Cornerstone folks a few times along the way to let them know what was happening. No answer. They tried calling me a couple times when I was flying in an airplane, and where I wasn’t allowed to use my cell phone. The result: a couple of weary Ohioans sitting for a few hours outside a nearly deserted tiny midwestern airport, waiting for a ride, watching the sun go down.

The ride, when it turned up, turned out to be Scott. And Scott looked like Marilyn Manson. He was wearing a black veil. He had white makeup caked all over his face, and heavy black eyeliner. “My wife almost got fang implants,” he told us a couple minutes down the road. “But she decided against it because she thought it might scare some of the little kids at the preschool where she used to work.” Uh huh.

It started to rain, hard. We were on dark country roads, surrounded by tall standing corn. Do you know the scene in Annie Hall where Woody Allen is being driven by Annie’s suicidal brother, played by Christopher Walken? That scene flashed through my mind. I was ready to bail out at a second’s notice, and considered the proper way to exit a vehicle traveling at 55 MPH. I was trying to send non-verbal “this is how we’ll jump if we have to” signals to Kate, who was picking up on none of it.

But we kept listening to Scott. He talked about being misunderstood. I was guessing that the Dracula costume might have had something to do with that. He told me I was right. And so we all had an hour-and-a-half long conversation (those cornfields outside Bushnell are a long way from the bright lights of Peoria) about Goth culture, and how God has used that culture to enrich his life. He told us about his band, which was called Leper, and which was playing at Cornerstone. He invited us to the Goth tent, where he and his friends hung out, and he invited us to his concert. It was a good, enlightening conversation.

So we went. The next night we wandered over to the Goth tent, and met people who looked a lot like Scott and his wife Rachel, and who were wearing gas masks over their faces. And Saturday night we went to hear Leper. The music wasn’t nearly as foreign as I expected it to be. It was grating and melodic, pretty much the way I like it, and it sounded like music made by misunderstood teenagers, a farflung and omnipresent musical genre that goes back at least 50 years. And it was about Jesus, a guy who was misunderstood to the point of being crucified. I’m glad we went. And I’m glad we encountered Scott.


Everybody at Cornerstone wore a costume. There were the Goths, of course, who looked like radiation victims after Hiroshima. There were the old hippies from JPUSA, who looked like they were still taking their cues from Woodstock. There were the neo-hippies, hundreds of kids who wished they were alive in 1969. There were the punks. There were the indie hipsters, everywhere. There were the folks from Aradhna, Americans and Canadians who dressed as Indians. There were the Rastafarian wannabes with their dreadlocks. And there were a few folks like Kate and me, middle-aged, middle class farts wearing the official costume of suburbanites on vacation; chinos and sandals and Oxford cloth shortsleeve shirts.

I thought a lot about “identity” this weekend. Everybody was trying so hard to stake out their cultural space, complete with the right image and corresponding lifestyle choices. And everybody mingled together, listened to the same speakers and the same music, thought about what it was like to be a follower of Jesus Christ within their own local communities. It was good.

I am what I am, a 53-year-old aging, balding, paunchy old fart who loves rock ‘n roll, and who won’t pretend to be something I’m not. My costume is pretty much the same one worn by Donald Rumsfeld. Nobody seemed to care. I didn’t either. That may be the best thing about Cornerstone.

Oblivious American Idols

Glenn Kaiser, who is the lead singer and songwriter for The Resurrection Band, is my hero. At a time when Christian music utterly sucked, when I despaired of hearing a single worthwhile thing in the vast syrupy desert of over-emoting and cornpone, along came Glenn and The Resurrection Band, and they restored my faith that Christians with integrity could actually make music that was the equal of anything in the “secular” world, and that the rock ‘n roll gene wasn’t supernaturally removed upon Christian conversion.

So I told him that. He nodded politely, then started to talk about Jesus. And he talked with me about Jesus for about a half hour, and about the need to love people in their brokenness. He didn’t care that he was my idol. He let it wash over him, and then he moved on. I think I love him for that.

Under the Big Top

I spoke six times under the big top, twice per day on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. I rambled about a lot of different kinds of music, played about 20 different songs, and chatted with the folks who were there. I learned a few things that will serve me in good stead if I’m ever invited back, such as don’t play a six and a half minute Joni Mitchell jazz tune when you’re dealing with the multitude of sounds that bleed through from the other tents that surround you. But I had a blast, and as best I can tell, the folks who were there seemed to get what was I saying, and were engaged in the proceedings.

Music Roundup

There was music at Cornertone. Duh. Because I have been spectacularly unaware of the Christian music scene and its attendant stars for the past 25 years or so I’m probably not the best person to comment on what went on. But do you think that will stop me?

There were 600 bands, of whom about 500 seemed to play the emo/screamo Bellow For Christ form of pain management that I simply can’t abide. I can find something of value in about 98% of the musical world. Cornerstone seemed to focus on the 2% that simply gives me a headache. I’m told that former members of Anthrax and Korn were there. Good for them. I’ve never heard Anthrax or Korn either, to my knowledge.

I did hear some good music. Mike Farris, formerly of the Screamin’ Cheetah Willies, performed a great rootsy gospel set, and did a more than passable Al Green As White Boy impersonation. The 77’s and The Lost Dogs, comprised of old farts who hearken back to the days when I paid attention to CCM, were there, and they were solid. The 77’s, in particular, were pretty wonderful, and laid down a marvelous cover of Blind Willie Johnson’s (by way of Led Zeppelin) “Nobody’s Fault But Mine.” The Lee Boys performed an incendiary set of sacred steel music, a la Robert Randolph. A Toronto band called New World Son did Otis Redding proud, and resurrected an old style Stax/Volt soul revue in their set of original gospel songs. The Resurrection Band, God bless ‘em, reunited for the first time in many years and played the hits. Josh Garrels, from Muncie, Indiana, impressed me to no end, and delivered the best sets of the festival as far as I was concerned. Josh has the Ben Harper soulful folkie vibe down, and his songs were amazing; full of poetic imagery and internal rhymes.

There seems to have been a particularly virulent outbreak of worship music in the intervening years since I stopped paying attention. Don’t get me wrong. I like worship music. For worship. But the hyperventilating, hip MC with the shaved head and goatee kept whipping up the crowd as one earnest worship leader after another closed his eyes and sang his worship tunes. We all sat back on the grass and watched them strum their guitars and close their eyes. Kate and I left after a while. We couldn’t deal with it anymore.

We weren’t, by the way, at a worship service. We were at a concert. And nothing fails more spectacularly than worship music at a concert. I hate it, hate the whole artificial Madison Avenue/Nashville hype machine surrounding this music, and couldn’t stand that f#&$ing MC for good measure. I don’t care who’s a rising star in the worship music field, and the whole approach strikes me as fundamentally, spectacularly wrong. I wish it would go away. Worship, by all means, and if you want to write original music to make that happen, then more power to you. But don’t stand up there in front of 15,000 people and peddle your latest (and best yet!) CD and sing your trite “apple of my eye/wind beneath my wings” rhymes to U2 accompaniment for the 20,000th time. Do something better for God. Just quit.

And while I’m at it, according to the breathless, relentlessly hyped video we witnessed multiple times, there’s apparently an upcoming preaching/rock ‘n roll tour where cute Christian guys tell all the 13-year-old Christian girls what Christian guys really want, and which features the music of latest Christian heartthrobs Hawk Nelson. You people have no shame. God, I hate the Christian music business.

People Roundup

I got to hang out with a lot of amazing people, some of whom were known to me before Cornerstone, some of whom I met for the first time. I spent time with my old Ohio University friends Keith and Darlene Wasserman (and son Timothy) from Athens, Ohio. Keith runs several shelters for the homeless in southeastern Ohio, and he was at Cornerstone speaking about his work with the homeless. It’s always a joy to reconnect with these folks.

I hung out with Chris Pyle, who runs a recording studio in Athens, Ohio as well as Donkey Coffee Shop; a quality guy who is very interested in quality in its caffeinated and non-caffeinated manifestations, and a fun rock ‘n roll bass player to boot.

I got to meet longtime e-friends Jim Eisenreich, Joe Kirk, and Mark Mayhle, and their families. These are folks I’ve “known” for twenty years. It was a joy to meet them face to face.

I got to spend good, challenging and stimulating time with Crystal Downing, who teaches English at Messiah College, and who was at the conference speaking about both post-modernism and the relationship between Dorothy Sayers and C.S. Lewis. I was able to spend about an hour with Charlie Peacock, watch him eat a corndog, and listen to him explain his work with the Art House in Nashville. I got to hang out briefly with theologian Miroslav Volf, a very smart man who wears his knowledge humbly, and who interrupted his work at Yale and in working toward Christian/Muslim reconciliation to speak at CStone. I hung out with Mike and Janey Hertenstein, the unsung heros of CStone, longtime JPUSA members who worked long and hard to coordinate the appearance of dozens of speakers in dozens of locations at the festival. And I met and connected briefly with dozens of other folks, and I wish I’d had more time to get to know them better.

I had a great time. It was exhausting. It was challenging. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Contemporary Worship Music, Round MDCCLXXII

I'm part of an online community called Arts and Faith. And every six months or so another "Contemporary Christian worship music sucks/No it doesn't, you suck" debate emerges. This is part of the latest round. The comments in italics are from another person on the mailing list. The regular text is me.

You say they're not up there to have people look at them. Then why, pray tell, are they up there? On a stage? In front of people? There is something to be said of the old model of placing the choir behind the congregation. While I certainly don't know the hearts of folks doing this, I know where the dangers lie. For years, I played guitar in front of a church, etc. I don't blame the musicians for the existence of that stage, but would urge music ministers to get musicians off of them. They don't need to be there.

They're up there to lead worship. Frankly, the position/place of musicians in a worship service is immaterial to me. I don't care. It doesn't affect my ability to worship (or lack thereof) one iota. My ability to worship depends on me, the attitudes I bring into a worship service, and how I position/place myself before God. Whether someone stands in front of me or behind me with or without a guitar is simply not worth debating, in my opinion. In terms of worship, I think you should find a church where you're able to fully and freely worship. And I think I should do the same. And I think it's problematic for either one of us to imply that our worship preferences ought to be shared by everybody else.

As far as the performance aspect of worship, I simply don't see it as the menace that you do. Performance is a potential pitfall in any aspect of the Christian life where communication is involved. I've seen plenty of Christians bullshit one another in entirely convincing ways because they were able to articulately mouth the words they were expected to say. And I've done that, too. Some of those performances were worthy of an Oscar. But I left a very nice, proper stained glass and pews and robed choir church partly because of the performance aspects I saw, complete with strutting mezzo-sopranos in the choir loft and virtuoso Buxtehude organ preludes, and I'm quite content in a church that incorporates contemporary praise and worship music precisely because I don't see those performance aspects. I see men and women who face me and play their musical instruments and sing, and whose desire is to facilitate the congregation in worship. Most of the people who do this appear to have some musical talent. This is a good thing, in my opinion, just as it's a good thing that my pastor has some insight into the Christian life and can communicate well. Why would it be a bad thing to acknowledge that some people are more gifted than others musically? But again that doesn't impact my ability to worship. Only I can worship. That band up there can't do it for me. And I'm fairly confident that the people in the Samsonite chairs (no pews, although that's yet another thing I don't give an ecclesiastical rip about) understand that as well.

By the way, I grant that my statements were of the blanket variety, but as there are exceptions to most rules, I figured that went without saying.

But your rule is false. It's not that "there are exceptions to most rules." It's that your rule is based on an incorrect perception of contemporary worship. I don't doubt that there are some people who are involved in leading worship who are doing it for selfish/egotistical reasons. Ego has a nasty way of insinuating itself into even our best intentions. But I don't know anyone (truly, and I know dozens of people who are involved in contemporary worship music) whose goal is to draw attention to themselves, or who think "Wow, I sure hope, nay, pray, because I want to be spiritual about this, that the congregation notices that cool new guitar riff I've worked into "Now Is the Time to Worship."" The people I know, across the board, recognize that their egos can get in the way, pray earnestly that that doesn't happen, and genuinely desire to worship God and facilitate others in worshipping God.

You said: But you've essentially branded a huge segment of the evangelical church as inferior Christians. They can't worship. And you're wrong. I hope you'll rethink your position.

I'm not sure how this came across. Of course I don't think of any of these folks as inferior anything. I'm simply suggesting that while the music of most churches involves performance on some level, whether it's a robed choir or a rock band, there is an alternative which seems to suit the spirit of Christian worship more closely, to my mind. If you were to attend a Sacred Harp singing (not a performance!), I'd be very surprised if you didn't come away thinking how less like a performance it is than very many Protestant churches. Just a hunch.

It came across in this statement:

The congregation is not exactly playing a critical role. It's a performance. And the musicians want to be seen as much as the audience wants to see the musicians.

You're 0 for 3 in that paragraph. First the congregration is, in fact, playing a major role because they are worshipping. They're not watching people worship. They're worshipping. That's why they are there. Can you understand why someone might take offense when you brand huge swaths of the church as passive concert-goers? It's not true. Second, the musicians are not performing. They are leading worship. I've already discussed this. And third, the musicians don't particularly want to be seen. That's not why they're there. Some of the folks who play in our worship band also play in rock 'n roll bands. I've seen them when they want to be seen, on Friday and Saturday nights at the local bars, and I can assure you that their demeanor is quite different on Sunday morning. Although sometimes I think our worship might be enlivened if the guitarist played on his back while writhing on the floor.

Sorry if I offended you. Didn't mean to...

No problem, ,name>. Really. But I am trying to explain why some of your comments seem misguided at best, insulting at worst.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Catching Up -- Bash and Pop, Black Francis, The Botticellis

I receive more music than I can listen to. Don’t hate me. I do the best I can. What that means is that I periodically go back and semi-sytematically check out what what I missed the first time. Today’s edition is brought to you by the letter B.

I won't bother to tell you about all the crap I listened to briefly, and then disdainfully tossed aside. No sir, you get only the best, the cream of the crop, or, if you prefer, the Best of the B's, albeit belatedly.

Bash and Pop -- Friday Night Is Killing Me

I bought this album in 1993, when it was released. I must have played it, but I don't recall much about the music at all. My loss. This is Tommy Stinson's band, and Tommy had just left The Replacements because that old blowhard Paul Westerberg wouldn't let anybody sing or play anything but Paul Westerberg songs. So Tommy split the 'Mats, switched from bass to lead guitar, and then unleashed a batch of songs that sound rowdier and looser than anything The Replacements had recorded since the mid-'80s.

Tommy's a more than capable frontman, and his scratchy tenor recalls Rod Stewart when he could still sing rock 'n roll. And Rod really is the touchstone here because Tommy and his bandmates clearly love that early '70s ramshackle boogie when Ronnie Wood was still trading off gigs betwen The Faces and The Rolling Stones. It's an uneven effort. The ballads don't work, but there aren't that many ballads, and at least none of them are entitled "Tonight's the Night." The rockers and mid-tempo tunes are fabulous, though, and this album is well worth tracking down.

Black Francis -- SVN FNGRS

It's hard to keep up with Charles K. Thompson IV, or whatever he wants to call himself. Frank Black, which is what he's called himself through most of his post-Pixies career, was a good, solid, well-known commodity; you knew you could count on a good, freewheeling if spotty album with some filler. But Black Francis? Black Francis is messing with history, and it takes some kind of courage and/or foolishness to adopt that moniker again.

After last year's underwhelming Bluefinger (his first album under that old Pixies name) I was betting on "foolishness," but now I have to rethink my position. SVN FNGRS is terrific, and Black/Frank sounds more engaged and more bombastically weird than he has in a long time on this seven-song (naturally) EP. The subject matter is typically esoteric and strange, ranging from Irish mythological hero Cuchulainn to double orgasms to the joys of mail order shopping. This is, after all, the man who has written songs about Mose Allison, alien abduction, driving a car into the sea, and the video game Pong. Musically it's equally fragmented and delightful. Opener "The Seus" is either the oddest rap song or the most querulous chanting you've ever heard, with BF declaiming "I am the Seus." Sure thing, big boy. "I Sent Away," that song about mail order, is backed by the best Stooges homage I've ever heard. "Half Man" finds Black singing a tender ballad in a damaged falsetto, while "When They Come to Murder Me" is a raw rocker that hearkens back to the deranged days of "Monkey Gone to Heaven" and "Debaser." Good stuff? You bet. At a short 20 minutes there's not enough here to declare a full-fledged Pixies resuscitation. But there's plenty of reason for hope.

The Botticellis -- Old Home Movies

Every review I've read of The Botticellis' debut album pulls out the Beach Boys references. And they're right, although this music is a million miles removed from the sunny, carefree realm of surfboards, cars, and girls. The touchstone here is the late '60s Brian Wilson of "Caroline, No" and "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times," and the angst and the pretty melodies are perfectly balanced. There are sweet melodies here and bitter sentiments, all suffused with a sort of laid-back SoCal singer/songwriter warmth that is most evident in the gently strummed acoustic guitars and tasteful organ accompaniment. "The Reviewer," the standout track, almost rocks in a Big Star power pop way, but pulls back just short of passion. Otherwise, this is extremely well-crafted pop music circa 1966, when bands like The Left Banke melded pop, baroque, and broken hearts into a seamless formula.