Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Year-End Lists

This is the best time of year, and it's just beginning. The magazines and websites bravely set forth their Top 10 (20, 50, 100), and then everybody else takes potshots.

Here's how it works:

1) Magazine publishes list.
2) Stereogum reposts list on website.
3) 893 hipsters leave comments, stating that the 1,493 albums mentioned in the comments are the albums that really should have appeared on that Top 10 (20, 50, 100) list.
4) 1,922 hipsters leave more comments, ridiculing the tastes of previous 893 hipsters. Popular rejoinders include:
a] I can't believe you put [Album_Name] at #33. You suck.
b] No, you suck. You're probably some 14-year-old who has to repeat fourth grade for the fifth time.
c] Yeah? Well you're probably some 55-year-old boring old fart in slippers who has to carry around a colostomy bag.
d] No, I'm not. What's a colostomy bag?
e] I knew you were clueless.
5) 2,873 commenters leave comments stating that lists themselves are stupid, that they, as the true arbiters of popular taste, are above lists, and that they are content with creating a year-end music matrix, the goal being to sniff haughtily at the very presupposition that music can be numerically and/or objectively rated.
6) All hell breaks loose when 5,983 commenters begin the round-robin debate on aesthetics, invoking names such as Cicero, Duns Scotus, Alberti, Shaftesbury, Hegel, and Ulrich of Strassburg.
7) Pitchfork publishes the definitive list at the actual (December 31st) end of the year.

Five more weeks to go, and that doesn't even include all the post-mortems of the Pitchfork list.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Il Divo -- The Promise

Are we not men?, the smouldering cover asks. No, we are Il Divo, they proclaim, better than those "Whip It" nerds from Akron, better and more numerous than the three (old, fat) tenors, we are four young James Bonds who can, get this, sing opera AND Abba!

Which they do on The Promise. From the same marketing masterminds who gave us The Backstreet Boys and American Idol comes installment 5 of International Sex Appeal. And let's just be honest and say that it works just fine as international sex appeal. The pre-fab group is made up of tenors Urs Buhler (Switzerland), Sebastien Izambard (France), and David Miller (U.S.A.) and baritone Carlos Marin (Spain). They are a multi-cultural, mult-ethnic stud farm, programmed at the factory to facilitate love in all its carnal and romantic incarnations, and if this album, candlelight, and a little Merlot doesn't do the trick, you're probably hopeless.

The title track (actually "La Promesa" as billed on Track 2 because, hell, it just sounds more smouldering, but you can't put that on the album cover because it would confuse all the Wal-Mart shoppers) is typical; over-the-top emoting sung in Italian. It's what these guys do, although they toss a little Spanish and French into the mix to keep it exotic and interesting. There's a hyperventilating cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," a song now so ubiquitous that I'm waiting for it to show up on Maxi-pad commercials. There's "Amazing Grace" with bagpipes, just like in my old Presbyterian Church. And yes, there's Abba's "The Winner Takes It All" sung in Italian, a sort of awkward rockin' aria that leaves me, and seemingly the four studs, utterly baffled.

It is what it is, music for babymaking, dripping in romantic schmaltz, and my prediction is that hundreds of thousands of PBS-watching, Merlot-sipping suburban women will flock to the call. Guys, get ready. Simon Cowell (yeah, that Simon Cowell) and David Krueger (producer and engineer for The Backstreet Boys) have found their backdoor men. Cha-ching!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

A Short, Private History of the Big Game

I don't know when it started, but deep in the recesses of early childhood I was taught to revere the man. My father would regale me with tales of Great Americans: Washington Crossing the Delaware, Lee and Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, St. Woody Hayes leading the Ohio State Buckeyes against the hated Michigan Wolverines in the famous 1950 Snow Bowl.

In my family, St. Woody Hayes had the special aura usually reserved for presidents and Popes. A light shone around him, and he blessed all who crossed his path. His shadow fell on small, sickly children and they were instantly healed, growing up to become big, strapping linemen. He carried a football around with him that seemed like a natural body appendage, and we longed just to reach out and pat that football, knowing that we would be better human beings if we could just touch it for an instant.

We actually ran into him one day in the early 1960s at Lazarus, a downtown Columbus, Ohio department store. Woody was buying Christmas lights, as I recall, and we were behind him in the checkout line. My father could hardly contain himself. He was so servile and obsequious that he almost bowed. "This is my son, Andy," he proudly told the old coach. Woody was gracious, kind, and avuncular. "It's wonderful to meet you," he told me, patting me on the head. "Stay in school."

I was six years old. Having recently discovered the wonders of the alphabet, I resolved to take him up on his advice. But I never forgot that moment. And I never lost sight of the fact that the third Saturday of November was a high holy day, better and more important than Thanksgiving or Christmas. That was the day of the annual Ohio State vs. Michigan football game. At that time the game wasn't even televised, so I huddled near my radio, listening to every play on WMNI, the Voice of the Buckeyes.

It all culminated in the national championship year of 1968. Sister Mary William, my eighth grade teacher, assigned us an essay entitled "The Greatest Day of My Life." I wrote about November 23rd, 1968, the day the Buckeyes crushed the Wolverines 50 - 14 en route to the Rose Bowl and a victory over O.J. Simpson and the USC Trojans. That was the Michigan game in which Woody, up 48 - 14 late in the game, went for a two-point conversion after a touchdown, and made it. "Why did you go for two when you were already ahead by five touchdowns?," reporters asked Woody after the game. "Because I couldn't go for three," he said. It was a glorious day, and at that point it was the pinnacle of my youthful existence. What the hell. I was only thirteen.

Then we moved. Chicago was a pro sports town. To my amazement and chagrin, no one seemed to care about Ohio State vs. Michigan. "How 'bout dem Buckeyes?," I would say, an expression as commonly understood as "Good morning," in Ohio, and I would be met by puzzled stares. People only cared about the Cubs and the Bears and the Bulls. The only college to speak of was Northwestern, an egghead university where they couldn't play sports worth shit. Even so, my dad and I dutifully drove up to Evanston every other year and watched the Buckeyes dismantle the Wildcats. Midway through the fourth quarter, when the score was usually something like 70 - 3, a desultory chant would arise from the Northwestern stands:

That's all right, that's okay
You're gonna work for us someday

It might have been true, but at the time I didn't care. The Buckeyes, and Woody, were the best.

I moved to Athens, Ohio for college, and for a few years there I lost sight of the Big Game. I had other things on my mind; Jesus, Kafka, Shakespeare, weed, girls, not necessarily in that order. I still made it down to the dorm lounge to catch OSU vs. Michigan, but dorm lounges are dorm lounges, and the game was more of an excuse to party than to pay attention. The Archie Griffin years are a mystery to me. But I still followed Woody, was aware of his endearingly passionate antics; storming out onto the field and harranguing the officials, snapping the occasional sideline marker over his knee. Woody was a card.

In the late '70s I moved back to Columbus to attend grad school at The Ohio State University. And I missed -- totally missed -- my first OSU vs. Michigan game. It was a fairly traumatic experience. I was working part-time at a Christian bookstore, and the owner insisted on playing soothing classical music -- Mozart and Bach, mostly -- for the erudite, pious patrons. I begged him. "Look," I said. "Just this one time, let's play the radio. Everyone will understand. These are folks who care more about St. Woody than they do about St. Augustine." But he wouldn't budge. I fumed through multiple playings of the Brandenburg Concerti. The biggest game of the year, possibly of my life, was happening a mere mile from where I grinned like an automaton at all the pathetic customers who actually had the audacity to shop for theological works and Precious Moments figurines while history was being made. It was hard to maintain that grin.

Then, the end, that tragic denouement in which Woody was finally proven to be a crazy, deranged old coot. After losing to Michigan at the end of the 1978 season, Woody actually coldcocked a Clemson player who had the temerity to intercept an Ohio State pass near the end of the Gator Bowl. My friends and I watched in horror and amazement.

"Did Woody just punch that guy?" somebody asked.

"No," somebody else responded. "At least I don't think so. He couldn't have."

"No, but he did," somebody else opined.

And he really did. You can watch it here.

And that was it. Woody Hayes, one of the three greatest Americans to ever live, according to my father, was fired ignominiously.

Shortly afterward I got married, and fairly early in our marriage Kate and I ventured, with some trepidation, up to Ann Arbor, Michigan. The bumper sticker that I used to have on the back of my Chevy Nova, the one that read "Directions to Ann Arbor: north 'til you smell it, west 'til you step in it" proved to be surprisingly accurate. It was my first time in the heart of darkness. And I was stunned. Ann Arbor was a charming college town, full of great bookstores and music stores and ethnic restaurants, and although I kept waiting for the slavering, blood-thirsty zombies to emerge from darkened doorways, it never happened. I've gone back a few times since, and each time I've had a blast. It dawned on me that perhaps I had been fed a load of incredibly biased propaganda.

No matter. Come the third Saturday of November the denizens of Ann Arbor are my mortal enemies. It has always been this way. It may always be this way. For most of my marriage we've decamped to a state park in southeast Ohio for the Thanksgiving holidays, four days of hanging out with Kate's family -- a time that has often coincided with the Ohio State vs. Michigan football game. It's isolated down there, eighty miles from anything, and trying to pull in the OSU-Michigan game has often proven to be problematic. Nevertheless, I've done what I can, adjusting and re-adjusting the rabbit ears on the TV to try to eliminate the snowy reception. I've made it through the mediocre Earl Bruce years, suffered through the debacle of the John Cooper years, and ultimately triumphed through the Jim Tressel years; five victories in a row now, and counting, most certainly counting.

I watched the game yesterday, this time in the comfort and privacy of my family room. The HD TV signal came in just fine. Truth be told, I lost interest about midway through the third quarter, when it became apparent that the game would be a rout, and that the Buckeyes would win quite easily. There was something a little sad and tawdry about the proceedings. For the first time in my lifetime my dad wouldn't have his eyes glued to a TV set. My dad was gone, and Woody was long gone, and Michigan sucked. I'm glad the Buckeyes won. I would have been far more glad if both teams had come into the game undefeated, the way they seemed to do every year when Woody and Bo were duking it out for the Big Ten championship, and often a national championship. I've figured out that there have been quite a few "Greatest Days of My Life" since that 1968 stomping, and it's been good to gain that perspective. But I watched the game yesterday and thought about Woody and my dad, and how a game -- The Game -- has framed my life. I was thankful for the memories, including the fresh ones of watching Beanie Wells barrel down the sidelines and into the end zone.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Big Game

We train 'em up young in these here parts. The first words that Columbus toddlers learn are "mommy," "daddy," and "Fuck Michigan."

So there's the Big Game here tomorrow, except this year the Big Game has lost some of its gravitas and import. First, the Buckeyes, at 9 -2, have been abject failures. Ask 75% of the people in Columbus and they'll tell you that they suck. Second, Michigan's suckage is off the charts. They suck when they come into the Big Game at 11 - 0. This year they are 3 - 8, which has all the eye-popping surreality of Britney Spears singing Puccini or a Hold Steady review in Christianity Today Magazine. We need a new vocabulary, something that will take in mega-suckage of such monumental proportions that all previous suckage is relegated to a footnote.

Me? I had kinda forgotten about the Big Game. And so it was probably fortuitous that I found myself on the campus of The Ohio State University last night for reasons that had nothing to do with football. At 11:30 p.m., helping to load gear into a van after a concert, I was stunned to see hundreds of nearly naked and drunken OSU students making a beeline to the center of campus. There, amidst the inspiring architecture of the world of academe, lies Mirror Lake, an algae-covered swamp during the beautiful Ohio autumn days (Sept. 23rd - 28th), but last night frozen over with a thin sheet of ice. And all the nearly naked and drunken OSU students were jumping into Mirror Lake. This is apparently a hoary tradition that dates back to the '30s when all the students drove around in Packards and wore beaver coats. But it has survived down to our frantic telecommunications age, and I could see various clumps of students frantically texting their friends to come on down and participate in the collegiate camaraderie.

We decided to watch for a bit. "O-H!," one particularly drunken and belligerent frat boy chanted in my face. I considered my options. "S-H-I-T!" came to mind. I let it pass, which was probably a good idea. He ran off to jump in the lake. After fifteen or twenty minutes or so the students started jogging back to their dorms. "I'm so cold," one miserably wet young woman told us as she shivered her way back to south campus. I thought of starting the "N-O! S-H-I-T!" chant. Again, I let it go.

So now I'm stoked for the Big Game. I'm hoping to borrow a toddler, perhaps from one of our church friends. There's no better time to get started, and to help train up a child in the way he should go. In another eighteen or nineteen years he or she will be ready to jump in the lake.

She and Him, and Him and Him, And the Other Him (Not Pictured)

The new issue of Paste arrived yesterday with She and Him (Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward) on the cover. I didn't get a chance to read it.

This is because Kate and I spent the evening, the late night, and the early morning hanging out with Aradhna, who played a concert at the Ohio State University. That's them, minus the tablas guy, above.

I am far from a connoisseur of Indian music, and probably the very use of the term "Indian music" belies my ignorance. Imagine how huffy and put out my vast, musically astute international readership would be if I started talking about "American music" as if it was some monolithic, easily identifiable genre. So forgive my ignorance. All I know is that the music I've heard, both last night in concert and on CD, is utterly, strikingly beautiful. It's quiet, contemplative, and makes me want to shout for joy[1], all at the same time. It's unabashed worship music, although God knows I've done more than my share of whining and kvetching about contemporary worship music. And it touches places that only a few other musicians and bands -- chiefly Sigur Ros and Miles Davis and Sun Kil Moon, nary a CCM crooner among them -- can touch for me. It gives voice to otherwise unnamed and inarticulate longings and yearnings and groanings too deep for words. It's speaking in tongues -- in this case, primarily Hindi -- and those tongues are hotwired to my soul. And if all that sounds unbearably mystical, and it probably does, then it's only because I cannot truly name what this music does for me. It's beyond words. It's better than words, which the best music always is, and this is some of the best music. Nouns and verbs are simply inadequate.

So I and a couple hundred other people got to experience that last night. I don't know that everyone experienced some sort of spiritual epiphany. I do know that everyone I talked to was moved, surprised, taken aback by what they heard. One guy merely shook his head, as if acknowledging that anything he said would be ridiculously feeble. Another guy simply said "Wow." A lot more people simply smiled. It was a grand evening.

And it continued. Fiona (on the far left, above) and Pete (on the far right, above) managed to follow us successfully from the crazed inner city (where drunken OSU students were jumping into the shallow hole that is Mirror Lake, even though the temperate was hovering around 20 degrees) to the wilds of suburban Westerville, where we hung out for another couple hours, and talked about books and music and writing and God and how we push God away from our deepest wounds. It was an enlightening and gracious conversation. And then we all went to bed, far, far too late, and I got up this morning and went to work, far, far too early. You know what? I'd do it again in a heartbeat.

I am so thankful for nights like this. They are a wonder and a privilege. For those of you who are looking for a good entry point for Aradhna's music, I'd highly recommend their latest album, Amrit Vani.

[1] For those of you with long memories, or who know me personally, you may remark on how unlikely it is that the concepts "Andy Whitman" and "joy" should be combined within the same sentence. And you'd be right. Nevertheless, that's the reaction I have when I listen to this music.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Lone Star Beer and Bob Wills Music

My yellow rose of Texas packed up and left this mornin'
I don't know where she's gone and most of all I don't know why
I only know I've got the blues I've never been this lonesome
It's enough to make a man lay down and die

Lone Star Beer and Bob Wills music
When I hear Faded Love I feel at home
Lone Star Beer and Bob Wills music
Have kept my heart alive since you've been gone
-- Red Steagall, "Lone Star Beer and Bob Wills Music"

Only a music geek would get excited about the release of a batch of old tunes recorded in obscure radio station studios in Oklahoma and Texas in 1946 and 1947. So I'll let my geek flag fly. I know and love Bob Wills' music, albeit not to the level of the true fanboy. But I'm about to be indoctrinated. The massive, 10-CD box set The Tiffany Transcriptions is winging my way (or, more appropriately, I hope, being transported on some big rig). When it arrives I'll have 150 tunes to digest, many of them the bedrock "western" part of "country and western." Eventually my thoughts will end up in Paste Magazine, but in the meantime I'll have a lot to take in. If you see me attempting the occasional Texas Two Step, you'll understand. You might mistake it for random, otherwise inexplicable spasms, but at least you'll know the intent.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Anathallo -- Canopy Glow

My review of Anathallo's new album Canopy Glow is now up on the Paste website.

It's a superb album, and I could go on and on about it, but I already have, so read the review. :-) This is Best of 2008 material; probably in the Top 3 for me, in fact.

Press Releases

Writing a press release for some little-known artist or band is a thankless task, and I salute the music publicists who do it well. These are folks who strive mightily to get my attention, and sometimes succeed.

Here's the reality that I (and they) deal with. I receive 20 to 25 new CDs per week, four or five per day. I work a fulltime job that has nothing to do with music (this gig is good for pizza money, but it's far from a living). I have a wife and kids. I have interests and friends outside of music. Given all that (and it's the world of most music critics), publicists routinely have to invent new and striking ways to capture my attention. Here are a few of my favorites, with some examples (perhaps slightly exaggerated) to give you a feel for the appropriate technique.

The Hyperventilating

When in doubt, claim life-altering properties for the music.

Band X will change the course of your life. No, really, Imagine your life before Band X: bored, enervated, prone to creeping ennui. Even your mother ridiculed you. Now imagine your life after Band X: spunky, witty, without those annoying coffee and nicotine stains on your teeth.

The Obscure

Pull out the trivia trump card whenever possible. No one will know what the hell you're writing about, but you'll be able to feel better and more smug about yourself.

Band Y emerged from the seminal Winnipeg proto-Snowcore scene that included Phlegm, Don's Shovel, and Half Maggot, Half Madonna. Produced by the legendary Bob Smith (Cool Whip, Zulu Toboggan), Band Y's debut album Slush mixes elements of Mancunian-tinged postrock with Winnipeg's signature icy but warm sound. It will melt your brain.

The Weird

These are real. I swear to God.

"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."

Now that's entertainment.

"Lion Land" (the name of the album) is basically an e-card sent to grandma back in Africa from a tribe of lions on their first visit to Disneyworld/Kissimmee St. Cloud Florida. Damns and whirlpools of itchy frightening frequencies tenderly romance lyrics that orbit the worlds of ecstatic parochial school patriotism and junglebook moral codes. Industrial beats are stocked by hems of cinematic synthesizers suckering you, as a sunset might, into having an emotional moment. Quinn's feral musicianship flows freely through every anthem and a warm, howling wave of screams and whispers and pounding drums will feel at times like fuzzy hugs, at other times feel like the result of letting a blind lion cub into the kitchen to invent a new recipe for lasagna."

I have an emotional moment every time I read this quote. Sadly, although plenty weird, this press release really didn't do it for me. This is because I'm not sure that I want to hear the musical equivalent of blind lion cubs in the kitchen, inventing a new recipe for lasagna. Manicotti, maybe. Or giraffes. In the conservatory. With the candlestick.

""In Old Yellowcake" utilizes imagery of the destruction of Fallujah. This is coupled with the album's overall narrative of Mary Todd Lincoln as Queen of Florida, with her blimp armies having attacked Pitcairn Island, where Fletcher Christian's son Thursday emerges as a resistance icon, before the record's grand end and subsequent denouement."

Now this one works for me. First, there's a historical (Mary Todd Lincoln) and literary (Fletcher Christian) context that pulls me in. And blimp armies. Who can resist blimp armies? As it turns out, it's also a pretty accurate summary of the song in question. Yes, it's one weird song on one weird album (Rasputina's Oh Perilous World). Just because it's weird doesn't mean it's not true.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Lilybandits -- Shifty's Tavern

Once upon a time -- 1997 or 1998, I'm thinking -- there was a Columbus band called The Lilybandits. They were the second greatest band to ever not emerge from Columbus, right behind Ronald Koal and the Trillionaires. This is because nobody ever emerges from Columbus. Occasionally some local yokels head out to New York or Nashville or L.A. and experience a modicum of success. But The Lilybandits never made it past Stache and Little Brother's, and on a good night you could find 50 or so of the local diehards, crowded up against the stage, clutching their bottles of Rolling Rock and swaying to the sounds of the sweaty guys up there playing their alt-country asses off.

All Music Guide, an exhaustive music reviews database where you can find anybody and everybody, has this to say about The Lilybandits. You can click if you want, but here's the deal: there's nothing there. There's a placeholder without content. And that's the story of The Lilybandits. They had no image to speak of; just five nondescript guys who looked like they held down boring day jobs, and probably did. They only made one album, and it was called Shifty's Tavern. It sounded like Counting Crows if Adam Duritz had balls, and it featured a batch of superbly catchy tunes driven by chiming guitars and banjos and mandolins and a lead singer with a great, gritty voice.
I pulled out the album yesterday and played it for the first time in years. It's still great. And no one has ever heard it. There appears to be something of a Lilybandits cult in Europe, and you can find an import version of the album on Amazon for something like $52. Domestically, somebody in Louisville is selling it on eBay for $39. I recommend that you pass on both. But if you're the type who scours used record stores in Columbus, Ohio, I bet you could hunt down a copy if you're interested. It's wonderful stuff, and it reminds me again why Columbus is the premiere place where great music comes to die.

Southeast Engine -- From the Forest to the Sea

I've been listening to Southeast Engine's new album From the Forest to the Sea, due out in February on Misra Records. Musically, the band has punted the alt-country influences entirely, emerging with an amalgam of folkie gospel, angular indie rock that recalls Pavement and Sebadoh, and some wondrously cheesy circus organ/calliope that reminds me of the work of Steve Nieve, the keyboard guy from Elvis Costello's Attractions. Oh yeah, there's some honky tonk piano in there, too. Lead singer/songwriter Adam Remnant's raw, soaring vocals are double- and triple-tracked, and there are times, particularly on the closing track, when he reminds me of a choir of Ralph Stanley's. Yes, that's a very good thing. So we sort of end up with Appalachian indie circus music.

Lyrically, Remnant reminds me more and more of folks such as Mark Heard, David Bazan (Pedro the Lion), and Bill Mallonee (Vigilantes of Love). By that I mean there is a clear Christian context in which these songs emerge, and there is biblical imagery galore, but these are songs of struggle and doubt. There are songs about knowing the right thing to do, and doing the wrong thing anyway. There are songs about losing the thread, the vision that connects our souls to all that is worthwhile and meaningful. There's a song in which Remnant, apparently as part of some mystical vision, ascends towards the heavens to grasp the hand extended toward him, only to be slapped back to earth and told that it's not his time yet. Hoo boy. It's either incredibly gutsy or incredibly foolish to write stuff life this, but I'm inclined to go with the former. But mostly these are songs made by and for screwups. Since I seem to fall into that camp, I take some solace in knowing that somebody's turned my life into a musical.

It's a wonderful, and wonderfully strange, album. I'm sure I'll be writing more about it as its official release approaches.

Edit: Blogspot tells me that this is post #666 on my blog. Should I be worried if Southeast Engine plays at the Obama inagural?

Monday, November 17, 2008

Cyber Personalities and Walking Turds

I'm fairly certain that I have a Facebook page. I signed up several months ago because I wanted to see some pictures of a friend's baby, and the only way I could do that was to create a Facebook account. So I did. Then I got a flurry of requests from people, some of whom I didn't even know, who wanted to be my friend. That was nice, so I clicked the Facebook button that said, "Sure, you can be my friend," and I meant it. I've never even looked at my Facebook page, and I'm also fairly certain that my face does not appear there, but the requests to be somebody's friend still keep rolling in. And I say "Yeah, you bet" every time. Give me your tired, your poor, your wretched, friendless cyberhordes, and I will be your friend. You just call out my name, and I'll be virtually there.

It's a strange phenomenon, this Internet. This article by Hal Niedzviecki appeared several weeks ago in The New York Times. You can read the original article here, or just read it below. It's worth your time:

One day this past summer, I logged on to Facebook and realized that I was very close to having 700 online “friends.” Not bad, I thought to myself, absurdly proud of how many cyberpals, connections, acquaintances and even strangers I’d managed to sign up.

But the number made me uneasy as well. I had just fallen out with a friend I’d spent a lot of time with. I’d disconnected with a few other ones for the usual reasons — jobs in other cities, family life limiting social time. I was as much to blame as they were. I had a 2-year-old kid of my own at home. Add to that my workaholic irritability, my love of being left alone and my lack of an office environment or mysterious association with the Masons from which to derive an instant network of cronies. I had fewer friends to hang out with than I’d ever had before.

So I decided to have a Facebook party. I used Facebook to create an “event” and invite my digital chums. Some of them, of course, didn’t live in Toronto, but I figured, it’s summer and people travel. You never know who might be in town. If they lived in Buffalo or Vancouver, they could just click “not attending,” and that would be that. Facebook gives people the option of R.S.V.P.’ing in three categories — “attending,” “maybe attending” and “not attending.”

After a week the responses stopped coming in and were ready to be tabulated. Fifteen people said they were attending, and 60 said maybe. A few hundred said not, and the rest just ignored the invitation altogether. I figured that about 20 people would show up. That sounded pretty good to me. Twenty potential new friends.

On the evening in question I took a shower. I shaved. I splashed on my tingly man perfume. I put on new pants and a favorite shirt. Brimming with optimism, I headed over to the neighborhood watering hole and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Eventually, one person showed up.

I chatted with my new potential friend, Paula, doing my best to pretend I wasn’t dismayed and embarrassed. But I was too self-conscious to be genuine. I kept apologizing for the lack of attendance. I looked over my shoulder every time the door opened and someone new came in. Paula was nice about it, assuring me that people probably just felt shy about the idea of making a new friend. She said she herself had almost decided not to come.

“And now you have me all to yourself,” I said, trying to sound beneficent and unworried. We smiled at each other awkwardly.

We made small talk. I found out about her job, her boyfriend, her soccer team. Paula became my Facebook friend after noticing I was connected to a friend of hers. She thought it would be interesting to drop by and meet me.

Eventually we ran out of things to say. Anyway, she had to work in the morning. I picked up the tab on her Tom Collins and watched as she strode out into the night, not entirely sure if our friendship would grow.

After she left, I renewed my vigil, waiting for someone to show. It was getting on 11 o’clock and all my rationalizations — for example, that people needed time to get home from work, eat dinner, relax a bit — were wearing out.

I would learn, when I asked some people who didn’t show up the next day, that “definitely attending” on Facebook means “maybe” and “maybe attending” means “likely not.” So I probably shouldn’t have taken it personally. But the combination of alcohol and solitude turned my thoughts to self-pity. Was I really that big of a loser? Or was it that no one wants to get together in real life anymore? It wasn’t Facebook’s fault; all those digital pals were better than nothing. For chipping away at past friendships and blocking honest new efforts, you really have to blame the entire modern world. People want to hang out with you, I assured myself. They just don’t have the time.

By now it was nearing midnight. My head was clouded by drink, and it was finally starting to sink in: no one else was coming. I’d have to think up some other way to revitalize my social life. I ordered one more drink.

The beer arrived, a British import: Young’s Double Chocolate Stout. I raised my glass in a solitary toast and promised myself I’d spend less time online. Then I took a gulp: the beer was delicious but bittersweet. Seven hundred friends, and I was drinking alone.

I've never thrown a Facebook event, but I'd be afraid to do so, fearing that the result would be no different from Hal's. So I tell myself that it's better to keep it at the level of the impersonal and the pixelated. Here I can be whoever I want to be. I can write about rock 'n roll. I can filter my life through a lens that casts all events in a nostalgic, elegiac tint. I can think deep Christian thoughts, and exude a kind of thoughtful, compassionate, progressive evangelical hipness. And parts of that are even true, and that's the most heinous kind of deception, because there's enough truth mixed in with the bullshit to make you, and even me, swallow it whole. Here's why: I am a walking turd. In real life, you probably don't want to be my friend. I will let you down.

To that end, I'm going to declare a moratorium on all but the music-related posts. I've always listened to music, regardless of the circumstances in which I found myself, and I have no reason to think that will change. So I might as well write about that. It's something I love, and on some level it sustains me. But I won't be writing about politics, and the Church, and doing my little bit to pretend that I'm some sort of social critic. There's a proverb in the gospel of Luke. Jesus is speaking, and he says:

"No doubt you will quote this proverb to Me, 'Physician, heal yourself! Whatever we heard was done at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well.'"

The general meaning is to attend to one's own defects, rather than criticizing defects in others. It's pretty good advice, but I'm not a physician. So I'll amend it to "Turd, flush thyself." For what it's worth, this isn't a pity party. This is my life. I desperately need all the crap to be flushed away. For those of you who are praying types, I'd appreciate your prayers. And for those of you who know me in real life, and who unfathomably determine to hang out in the midst of the stench, bless you, thank you, and bring the Lysol.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Charles Dickens -- The Old Curiosity Shop

My history with Charles Dickens is a checkered one. Forced to read Great Expectations in high school, I developed a decades-long aversion to his work. Don't get me wrong. It's a marvelous novel, but I wasn't ready for it at 15. Re-reading the novel a few years ago, though, I discovered the joys of Dickens' inimitible style and storytelling ability, and I've been slowly making my way through his work. It's been a great delight. I only have two novels to go -- The Old Curiosity Shop and Martin Chuzzlewit. I'm currently midway through The Old Curiosity Shop.

And I want to throw the book across the room. For the first time since my re-discovery of Dickens, I'm stymied. This is such a maudlin, melodramatic story that I can scarcely believe that it comes from Dickens' pen. And I'm curious to know if anyone else has experienced this reaction. Perhaps it will get better, but right now my take is that this is the worst of Dickens' novels. The point of view (and narrator) abruptly switches focus about a fifth of the way through the novel. And the story repeatedly resorts to cheap and manipulative plot twists to carry it forward. This is Dickens novel #13 for me, and 12 for 13 is surely a more than respectable success rate. But I'm very disappointed in The Old Curiosity Shop. Has anyone else experienced this reaction?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Darrell Scott -- Modern Hymns

Darrell Scott's Modern Hymns gets my vote for Best Bluegrass Album of 2008. Here "bluegrass" is used loosely, and is a catchall term for music anchored by acoustic guitars, fiddles, and dobros. It certainly doesn't fit within the fairly narrow strictures of the genre. But Scott, best known as a songwriter (Tricia Yearwood, Dixie Chicks, Garth Brooks) and sideman (Steve Earle) is a soulful, nuanced singer, and here he lends his pipes to songs written by pretty much the whole Sixties/Seventies Folkie Pantheon -- Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen, John Hartford, Guy Clark, Mickey Newbury, and Kris Kristofferson, for starters.

The resulting covers are more than reverent homages, though; these are fresh takes on songs you know, and the songs open up in new ways because of the instrumentation and Scott's phrasing. Paul Simon's "American Tune" -- an elegiac, heavily orchestrated lullaby in its original incarnation -- emerges here as a quietly mournful lament, the song of a weary coal miner rather than the faintly grandiose merger of Bach and the Brill Building. It's a great song either way, but it's all the more starkly beautiful in Scott's hands. Aided and abetted by the likes of Alison Krauss, Mary Gauthier, Tim O'Brien, Del and Ronnie McCoury, Danny Thompson, and Sam Bush, Scott sings simply, soulfully, and beautifully, and the rest of his talented cast adds the filligree. It's a lovely album, easily one of the highlights of my musical year.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Tradition and the Death of Churches

I've only seen a couple local churches on life support, and I've never truly witnessed the death of a local congregation. But I have friends who are struggling with the notion of leaving their local church, and have watched hundreds of other people do it before them, and so I thought I would try to summarize some of the thoughts I've been sharing with them.

Kate and I were a part of a Brethren Church in the suburbs of Columbus for about seven years. The Brethren (not Grace Brethren; the folks I'm talking about are more closely aligned with the old order Mennonites and Amish, but without the funny hats) were and are conservative theologically and in terms of lifestyle. They were good, godly folk, and they did community really well. The issue was that they were in the midst of Yuppieville, trying to reach out to yuppies, and they did so by holding all-church sings and potluck dinners featuring green bean casseroles and jello salad. Nobody came. They also were faintly scandalized and mildly titillated when a member (let's just call him "Andy" as a pseudonym) talked about, say, listening to The Beatles. Suffice to say that one didn't really talk about the roach in the ashtray left over from Saturday night. They had, and have, a base of 50 - 75 folks, almost all of whom grew up in Brethren, Mennonite, and Amish communities and later moved to the big city. Most of their kids are grown up now, and have moved on; either to other churches, or out of the Church altogether. When the generation that founded the church passes away, the church will die. And that will be sad. These are culturally clueless, good people. They drove me crazy, and I appreciate them and miss them.

Then there is our Presbyterian church in Mount Vernon, Ohio. It too will die within the next 10 - 20 years, when the hardliners who care more about being Presbyterian than they do about being Christian pass away. It's the same story. Everybody there (perhaps 100 - 150 people now; down from about 400 when we lived in Mount Vernon) is between the ages of 60 and 90. Their kids and the kids of their kids are nowhere to be found. There are certain traditions -- many of them, in fact -- that have carried on for multiple generations within the church. The women, for example, get together a couple months before Christmas and sew together little dolls that they later distribute to the needy urchins of Knox County around Christmas time. But nobody wants the dolls. They look like something Half Pint would have played with on Little House on the Prairie, and these needy kids want Malibu Barbies. Still, the tradition continues. As does the handbell choir. As does the Kirkin' o' the Tartans, where every year Ohio farmers dress up in Scots kilts and get teary eyed as they reminisce about their glorious ancestors from the Auld Country and bagpipes play "Amazing Grace." They wouldn't let me wear blue face paint. Freedom! Through Christ!

I don't know. The traditions are what they are, and they surely meet some emotional, and perhaps spiritual, needs of those who value them. And as easy as it is for me to make fun of them, there is also a part of me that recognizes that tradition can be and often is a good thing, a way of providing rootedness in an increasingly complex and confusing world. But these churches will die, probably within my lifetime. And the primary reason is because of traditions; ways of thinking and ways of living that are so far removed from most of society that there will simply not be enough people left to carry on once the founding and/or dominant generation passes to that great potluck dinner in the sky.

I do know that if you're a part of something like that it can seem like a slow death. And it's painful, because, regardless of the interpersonal issues and general cultural strangeness, these folks are something like family, and it's hard to let go of family. In those kinds of situations, Kate and I have opted for the easiest and least confrontational way out. We've moved, physically, to a different geographical location. In one case we moved from the suburbs of Columbus to the smalltown America of Mount Vernon, Ohio. In the other case we moved from smalltown America back to the suburbs of Columbus. But we did so, in large part, because of our dissatisfaction with our current church, because of the realization that we were withering away spiritually in the midst of cultural tradition and weirdness.

I've heard some people argue that membership in a church is like marriage, that it is intended to be an indissoluble link that binds people together for a lifetime. And maybe that's the way it's supposed to work. I certainly appreciate the call to faithfulness, in rejoicing in and savoring the good times and toughing it out through the bad times, and I realize that that idea can apply just as much to involvement in a church as it does to marriage. But I don't believe that membership in a church is equivalent to marriage, and I do believe that there is a time to leave a church behind. I don't think such a decision should be taken lightly, but sometimes it needs to be taken. When? When you're withering away spiritually. When you have no support relationally. When your most cherished beliefs are contradicted by and opposed by the beliefs of your local body and/or your denomination. When you consistently feel more depressed and defeated after going to church than you would have if you had slept in, stayed home, and enjoyed a late brunch over Bloody Marys. Any of the above reasons will do, particularly if they continue for a long period of time.

In any case, I'm hoping for jello salad in heaven.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


It's a long story, the way a preacher's son from Kentucky by way of New York and Nashville and alt-country music's brightest lights winds up in an insurance building in the middle of downtown Columbus, Ohio.

I met Christopher Wyant, AKA Hayseed, about a year ago at a gathering of Columbus artists. He told me he was a singer and songwriter. Cool. I've met a thousand of 'em. Everybody's a singer and songwriter. He dropped off a couple of his CDs, and when I listened to them the next day my jaw dropped. He sounded like George Jones. He wrote songs like John Prine. And he had people like Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris along for the ride, singing gorgeous harmony vocals.

It turned out that we both paid the bills by working in the same insurance building in downtown Columbus, Ohio, so in the weeks and months ahead I got to know him. I heard his story. I listened to his hopes and dreams. And he turned out to be a gentle, compassionate, good man who just happened to sing like George Jones and write songs like John Prine.

As much as I like him, he needs to get out of Columbus, Ohio, and I hope he does. In the meantime, he's playing a concert tomorrow night at 8:00 at Rumba Cafe, 2507 Summit St. in Columbus. If you're in the area, stop by. You'll be in for a treat. And say hello to me, too.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Load 14

At lunchtime today, while walking the streets of downtown Columbus, Ohio, a man in lederhosen ran up to me, his hand outstretched.

"Are you ready for Load 14?," he asked.

"Yes," I said, shaking his hand in what was intended to be an approximation of a complicated Masonic ritual. "Are you ready for Plan 9?"

It seemed to satisfy him. I suspect this does not happen very frequently in what Sarah Palin calls "the real America."

Secret Agent Man

Swingin' on the Riviera one day
And then layin' in the Bombay alley next day
Oh no, you let the wrong word slip
While kissing persuasive lips
The odds are you won't live to see tomorrow
Secret agent man, secret agent man
They've given you a number and taken away your name
-- Johnny Rivers, "Secret Agent Man"

In 1965 I was ten years old, and I wanted to grow up to be an international man of mystery. This was chiefly due to the influence of the television show "Secret Agent," which featured Patrick McGoohan as ultra-cool spy John Drake. Drake, top operative for shadowy government agency M9, almost never used a gun. He used a camera hidden in his tie pin and a tape recorder that doubled as an electric razor (for some reason, criminals never questioned his need to shave in the middle of the nefarious plotting to blow up the Eiffel Tower). And he always, always, always undertook missions involving national or global security. I thought of it as a very noble future career: save the world from sinister terrorist cells, earn the thanks of grateful democracies, and wind up with the pretty girl.

A couple nights ago I pulled out Johnny Rivers' Greatest Hits, and there it was again: the theme song to the TV series, called, naturally enough, "Secret Agent Man." Every person who played guitar in the 1960s has played, or tried to play, this song at one time or another. Even if you think you don't know it, you do. It's one of the classics of the era, and has been used in countless soundtracks since, including the Austin Powers spy spoofs. What I had forgotten is that the song was never really intended to be a song at all. Rivers and his band recorded all of 58 seconds of music, a quick tossoff meant to be played over the opening credits of the TV series. It was months later, when radio listeners began bugging DJs with requests for "that secret agent song," that Rivers went back in the studio and recorded the version we know today.

I listened to it at 53, and wanted to dive behind the futon, take pictures of my den with the camera hidden in my hearing aid, and abscond with my wife to the French Riviera. It's such a great song. Johnny Rivers was a great R&B and rock 'n roll singer, unjustly slagged because he never achieved that special countercultural late '60s hipness factor. But he never improved upon "Secret Agent Man." I'm not sure it's possible to improve upon it.

Dear President Obama ...

This is a letter from Rich Nathan, senior pastor of the Vineyard Church of Columbus, to president-elect Obama. Over the past months and years I've talked, ruminated, considered civilly and ranted uncivilly about what a true biblical engagement in the political arena might look like. For the incivility, I apologize. This letter won't resolve the argument, either, but I'd still maintain that it's a pretty good outline that we would do well to follow, individually and collectively.

(h/t to John)

President Obama, on behalf of the Vineyard Church of Columbus, I offer our sincerest congratulations and encouragement as you assume the awesome task of providing leadership for our country and our world. As a Jewish-Christian pastor of a congregation that includes blacks and whites, Hispanics, Asians, and Native Americans, the able-bodied and the disabled, old and young, rich and poor, Republican and Democrat, we come together now to support you as our president. We pledge to pray for you. Without God’s help we cannot succeed; with God’s help we cannot fail.

The greatness of our nation will continue to be measured by our treatment of the least and the last. In our country the least and the last surely include the unborn and their mothers, immigrants, the medically uninsured, and those who still go to bed hungry in this land of abundance. Our congregation urges you to fulfill your commitment to reduce the number of abortions in our nation. Around the world, America is our brothers’ keeper of those suffering in the Darfur and the Congo. Please work on behalf of those enslaved by global sex trafficking, the billion people who live on less than $2 a day, and those who are the victims of religious persecution. As you lead, remember Jesus’ words: “As you have done to the least of these, my brethren, you have done it unto me.”

America has an extraordinary capacity to reinvent herself, rarely more so than in this election. We remain the screen upon which the world projects its greatest hopes and its most noble aspirations. Live a life worthy of our hopes. Be a reconciler. Be a peacemaker. May God bless you and your family. And may America bless God and the world.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Mavis Staples -- Live: Hope at the Hideout

A few years ago I picked up the phone and dialed Mavis Staples. I was writing an article about her for Paste Magazine, and she had graciously agreed to answer my questions.

I'm not sure that I had any expectations. I knew her music, or some of it, at any rate. There were more than fifty years of it to take in. I knew her history. And I knew her new album. "Okay," I said to myself, "just sit down and have a nice, friendly chat with a member of the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame who used to hang out with Dr. Martin Luther King, and who was the voice of the Civil Rights Movement. No pressure, dude."

It turned out that Mavis was in a talkative mood. She talked about Have a Little Faith, which was her current album, but mostly she wanted to talk about Jesus, and the sorrow of loved ones dying, and the joy of singing. At one point she started crying. Then she started praying. Then she prayed for me, and asked me the names of my wife and kids, and prayed for them. Then she started singing. On the phone. An impromptu version of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken."

At some point during the proceedings, and head-spinning proceedings they were because my agenda was shot all to hell, it dawned on me that maybe it wouldn't be inappropriate to be thankful for that little private concert. "Thank you so much for ..." I began. For what? For the music? Well, yeah, but this was something more. For the phone conversation? Sure, but it was more than that.

"Thank you so much for being you," I eventually blurted out, and immediately winced.

She laughed. "It's nothin', honey," she told me. "I wouldn't know who else to be."

In the midst of a couple other significant events, Mavis Staples quietly released a new album yesterday. It's called Live: Hope at the Hideout, and, as the title implies, it's an aural record of a recent concert at the Hideout Club, a tiny blues venue in Chicago. "I'll Take You There," one of the great R&B tracks of all time, is there, with Mavis somehow capturing all by herself the soulful glory of The Staple Singers. Pops is gone now, and her sister Cleotha resides in a nursing home, lost in the oblivion of Alzheimer's. And Mavis herself is 69 years old, and the voice is frayed at the edges. It doesn't really matter. She is, and always will be, a powerhouse of soul in all the best musical and spiritual senses of that term. She's singing for the audience, and for Jesus, and for all the pioneers who went before her. She sings a batch of Civil Rights era songs -- "Down in Mississippi," "Freedom Highway," "We Shall Not Be Moved" -- and she imbues them with a passion and an urgency that reminds us that 2008 really isn't all that far removed from 1963, and that hard-won freedoms can be lost, and are still worth fighting for. She sings "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," and she convinces you that the circle takes in not only Pops and Cleotha, but Jackie Robinson and Rosa Parks, and you and me.

I'm a white guy from a midwestern suburb, and I won't pretend to fully know or understand what yesterday meant, and means, to someone like Mavis Staples. But I thought about her a lot yesterday, and the conversation we had, and that little impromptu concert. I took breaks in between watching the electoral map change from red to blue for a black man, and headed for the den and listened to Mavis's new album. I was proud to be an American in ways that Lee Greenwood couldn't even fathom. There will be many days ahead when the old, partisan bickering will begin anew. But for at least this one day it occurred to me that I was thankful for this broken, divided country, and for a woman who couldn't help being herself.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

After the Election ...

"There will be an election, followed by rioting, the complete unraveling of society, and, I assume, a zombie problem. And everyone will agree it’s an improvement."
-- Scott Adams, Dilbert's creator, in The New Yorker

Monday, November 03, 2008

Best of 2008 Condensed

The response to my brave/stupid offer to make a bunch of free CDs was overwhelming. So much so that I've had to choose between making fewer CDs or buying Christmas presents for the wife and kids. Guess which option won?

So, those of you who requested the official Andy Whitman Best of 2008 CDs, don't despair. I've got your requests, I've got your addresses, and you'll get your CD. Yes, I said CD. Out of necessity (it's only time and money, you know), the 3-CD set has become a solo CD. It was actually quite challenging trying to pare a lengthy list down to 20 songs. I suppose it should be noted that "Favorite Songs" doesn't necessarily translate to "Favorite Albums," and that some of the albums on which these songs appear (Ting Tings and Alabama 3, you know who you are) wouldn't appear anywhere near my "Best of 2008" albums lists. But these are all killer songs, and this is what I ended up with:

1. Head Rolls Off -- Frightened Rabbit
2. Crooked Road -- Chris Knight
3. The Rat Patrol and DJs -- Centro-Matic
4. American Tune -- Darrell Scott
5. The River -- Anathallo
6. We Should Fight -- Ezra Furman and the Harpoons
7. Stand -- Son Lux
8. Sweetest Waste of Time -- Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson
9. Mao Tse Tung Said -- Alabama 3
10. When They Come to Murder Me -- Black Francis
11. Contemptual You -- Beaujolais
12. Tickle Me Pink -- Johnny Flynn and the Sussex Wit
13. Water and the Spanish Tongue -- Unbunny
14. Archetypal Blues No. 2 -- Watermelon Slim and the Workers
15. Out Come the Wolves -- Jacob Golden
16. That's Not My Name -- The Ting Tings
17. Emergency 911 -- Sloan
18. Borneo -- Firewater
19. Palmyra -- Jolie Holland
20. White Winter Hymnal -- Fleet Foxes