Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Soul of John Black

Meet John "JB" Bigham, AKA The Soul of John Black. And hold the Marvin Gaye and Otis Redding comparisons.

The latest crop of retro soul singers -- Anthony Hamilton, Amy Winehouse, Ricky Fante, Adele, Raphael Saadiq, James Morrison, Jamie Lidell, Sharon Jones -- invariably mine the sounds and mannerisms of Motown and Stax/Volt. It's understandable; that's the mother lode of soul music. But it's refreshing to encounter in Bigham a soul singer and songwriter who dials the Wayback machine to radically different eras. Like 1969 San Francisco and the proto-funk of Sly and the Family Stone. Like 1971 James Brown and the blaxploitation soundtracks of Curtis Mayfield and Isaac Hayes. Like 1983 Prince. Like the swamp boogie of 1968 Creedence Clearwater Revival. Like, God forbid, the country blues of 1927 Son House and Charley Patton.

To say that Bigham is heir to multiple traditions is a major understatement. A former member of Miles Davis' band, a cornerstone of the great funk-ska band Fishbone, and session man for everyone from Dr. Dre to Bruce Hornsby, Bigham has used his diverse musical background as a springboard for an exploration of the intersection of blues, rock, soul, and funk. He seamlessly merges influences and eras, and the results can be heard on his fine new album Black John, out February 17th on Electro Groove Records. The groove is, indeed, the thing. It's relentless, and it's enough to get this sedentary, couch-potato white guy off his backside and spasming in suburbia. Look, I try. The lyrics are inconsequential; what matters is the soul and funk, and Bigham brings it on every track. He's a fine singer, too, throwing in Godfather of Soul grunts and gospel melismas and pleading, sexually-charged asides that are worthy of Al Green.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


Long before the election of Meester Beeg, AKA President Obama, pundits and other paranoid human beings have been pointing out the similarities between Obama campaign posters and posters from mid-20th century Soviet iconography. Convinced that this was the first harbinger of oppressive governmental intervention (I thought that was the Bush administration, but never mind), many have surmised that we're well on our way to a socialist state. Just look at those posters again.
And perhaps they're right. So in the spirit of collective ownership, I'd like to point out that you, too, can get in on the act. But don't delay, comrades, or you will be sent to gulag! Ees better than borscht!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Paste at 50

Issues that is, not years. Congratulations to my favorite music magazine for making it to this milestone. May there be many more (issues and milestones) to come.

Along the way I've written about 150 articles/columns/reviews, and probably an equal number of blog entries on the magazine's website, and I have to say I'm thankful for the gig. On a personal level, the staff at Paste has been unfailingly supportive. And on a professional level I still think they're putting out the best contemporary culture magazine on the market today.

Six (seven?) years ago Josh Jackson, Paste's editor, badgered me to write an article for the first issue of the magazine. I procrastinated, thinking that I'd be contributing to something that might be a little better than a mimeographed fanzine. I was wrong. Appreciative articles in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal quickly followed, and so did numerous awards.

Times are tough, and they've got to be tough for any enterprise that essentially relies on the disposable incomes of people who may not have much disposable income. I don't love every single article I read in Paste (for that matter, I don't love some of the articles I've written myself), and I don't agree with every review, but I can confidently state that Paste has made the cultural landscape a better place, a more interesting place. "Signs of Life in Music, Film, Books, and Culture" is the tagline, and they keep uncovering those signs of life, those works (perhaps they can even be called works of art) that move beyond the shallow end of the cultural pool and may actually have something to say about who we are as human beings early in a new century on a fragile planet. I'd like to think so. I'm fairly sure I know so. Kudos to Paste.

John Updike, 1932 - 2009

John Updike will always be one of my favorite writers. He wrote a dozen or more best-sellers, and could certainly be accused of pandering to the more lascivious tastes of contemporary readers. But in my mind he was the best writer on sex as commodity in American fiction, and he always brought an icy, contemplative chill to his sex scenes. If you got aroused during this stuff, you just weren't really paying attention.

His lasting legacy will probably be his four Rabbit novels -- Rabbit, Run, Rabbit Redux, Rabbit is Rich, and Rabbit at Rest -- one published at the end of the '50s, '60s, '70s, and '80s, respectively. They were meant to be encapsulations of the American zeitgeist at the time of their writing, and it would be difficult to recommend a more accurate portrayal of the unraveling of America in microcosm.

I had a dad who was very much like Rabbit Angstrom -- former star athlete, insecure romantic, incessant salesman, serial adulterer, insufferable jerk. Reading those novels was like reading my family history. Rabbit was one of the most fully realized and complex characters in American literature, and I still marvel at the ways Updike was able to communicate the many facets of his personality. Now Updike himself is at rest. I'm thankful for his supremely moral vision and his always sparkling prose. May he rest in peace.

Willard Grant Conspiracy

Over the past couple days I've pulled out a few albums from one of my favorite bands, Willard Grant Conspiracy. And that reminded me of something I wrote a while back. This is an essay that originally appeared in the late, lamented Mars Hill Review.


My brother-in-law Jim died of cancer of the everything in mid-April. The cancer started in his colon, and in true egalitarian fashion gradually spread to every major system of his body. It’s the American way; no organ left behind. Jim would have appreciated the irony. Jim was a big, tattooed body builder, but when he died his shrunken body was a hollow, emaciated shell, eaten out from the inside. He was my longtime friend, and these days I walk around with a Jim-shaped hole, an imprint of twenty-three years of a shared life, slowly fading in spite of my best efforts to retain every common and uncommon moment.

I cope by playing his songs. I love music, and every aspect of my life has its accompanying soundtrack. A couple years ago I carried a Bruce Cockburn song called “One of the Best Ones” around with me just before my twentieth wedding anniversary, pulled it out of my head whenever I needed to remind myself of the mystery and wonder of the marriage dance. This spring and summer I have played one album far more than any other. I play it on my drives to and from work and I play it at home late at night. When I am not near a CD player I play it in my head. It’s my Death of Jim soundtrack, an album called Regard the End by the intriguingly named Willard Grant Conspiracy.

There is mystery and wonder here, too. There is no Willard Grant, as far as I can tell, and I have no idea why he would be involved in a conspiracy. There is only a man named Robert Fisher and a loose affiliation of musicians who play with him. Robert is fiftyish, heavyset, and has black horn-rimmed glasses and a big, thick grey beard. He looks like Moses as college professor. And true to his image, or lack thereof, he makes distinctly unhip music, the kind of music that might have been popular during the Civil War, but which scarcely has an audience today. His various conspirators play acoustic guitars, mandolins, fiddles, cellos, pump organ, piano, and trumpet. Robert writes lyrics that sound as ancient as the Psalms, and he sings in a craggy baritone that wanders in and out of pitch and yet still manages to find just the right mix of soulfulness and grit and weathered imperfection. He reminds me of a deeper-voiced, less nasal Willie Nelson, or the world-weary Johnny Cash of the American Recordings years, two of Jim’s favorite singers. It’s a hopelessly non-commercial venture, but I cherish it, take it out and listen to these wise old contemporary tales as if they were the prayers of a desperate saint. And maybe they are.

On “The Trials of Harrison Hayes” Fisher entwines acoustic guitar, cello, trumpet, and piano in a lovely waltz, but his lyrics sting:

Misery doesn’t come from the earth
Trouble doesn’t sprout from the ground
People are born to trouble
Just as sparks fly upward
Into the clouds

It’s an echo of the Book of Job, a decidedly Old Testament pronouncement that leaves little room for mawkish sentiment or we’ll-meet-again-on-the-other-side platitudes. It’s plainspoken, no frills, to the point. Jim would have liked that. He was an engineer by talent and trade, and he had little patience or use for flowery poetry. But it leaves me uneasy, unsettled. It’s true enough, but I want more. Is that it? Is trouble the final word?

It is on Regard the End. On “The Suffering Song,” the epic final song on the album, a mournful fiddle weaves between the verses, an electric guitar drone builds and builds, and Fisher waits until the cacophony is a wall of sound behind him before he delivers his punch line:

Suffering’s gonna come
It’s as old as the world
Suffering’s gonna come to everyone someday

He could be Jeremiah or Job. He could be me on the black days, the days when all the minor joys – the impossible beauty of a bright green day in May, the easy dinnertime conversations with my wife and children – seem to collapse into that aching hole. But I don’t like the relentless nihilism. I wrestle with this music the way Jacob wrestled with the angel. I want to pin death, drive its shoulders to the mat and proclaim the end of sorrow and suffering. Enough already.

On Ash Wednesday I used to walk around with a cross of holy dust inscribed upon my forehead, a badge that proclaimed to a watching world the knowledge of my inevitable death. “Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shall return,” the priest declared. Remember? It’s not that difficult these days; I track Jim’s dust wherever I go. Jim was a tough kid from a tough neighborhood in Cleveland, an ex-soldier and a boxer, and he never bargained for colostomy bags and morphine injections and hospice care. Who bargains for these things? But he got them.


Robert Fisher’s music is haunted by ghosts. On “The Ghost of the Girl in the Well” a fourteen-year-old slave girl, fleeing from her abusive master, falls into a well and drowns, never to be found. Fisher uses echoing feedback to great effect, and he and Throwing Muses vocalist Kristen Hersh wail softly in tandem, a lament that is both eerie and heartbreakingly lovely. On “The River in the Pines” a young Wisconsin riverman drowns in a boating accident, and his new wife dies shortly afterwards from a broken heart. Stark fiddle accompaniment only accentuates the gloom. It’s genuinely spooky music, the horror based not on the fantastical or the macabre, but on the common tragedies of everyday life. Death comes casually and with shocking swiftness, at any time, without notice or fanfare.

Jim battled cancer for four years, went through round after round of chemotherapy and radiation treatments. You’d think that I might have been prepared. But Jim was upbeat, even defiant. He was a battler, and there was no way the Big C was going to lick him. I believed that, everybody believed that, right up until a few days before he died. Even at the funeral home I half expected him to sit up in his coffin and laugh heartily, saving his best joke for the last.

Now I am haunted by a ghost. This one loved the Cleveland Browns and Jack Daniels whiskey, sailing on Lake Erie and listening to Johnny and Willie, loved most of all his wife and son and daughter. He was a real flesh and blood human being, holy and profane and utterly uncategorizable in all the ways that people we deeply know and love tend to be, and now he is turning to dust.

And so I want to hold on to this time, and I want it to pass in the worst way. I don’t like the pain, the constant, jarring reminders of a life that is gone. But I must be a glutton for punishment because I keep coming back to the same Willard Grant Conspiracy album again and again. I want to hold on to this hypercharged reality, this sense that every moment is fraught with meaning, this certain knowledge that these tiny, insignificant choices – the choice to wash or not wash the dishes, the choice to listen or not listen to my daughter as she recounts every detail of her school day – echo into eternity. It’s “Carpe Diem” and it’s “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may;” it’s every tired Hallmark Card cliché you’ve ever heard, and it’s as real as the man I saw in that coffin. His name was Jim. He had, as they say, a history; twenty-five thousand days upon which he made his imprint on the world, five hundred thousand choices that defined the man he was. He lived a long time, and he died too soon. Time stretches out endlessly, and there isn’t enough of it. There isn’t nearly enough.

Robert Fisher states it in deceptively simple language in a song called “Day Is Past and Gone.” In what sounds like a fiddle-driven campfire folk song for Puritans, Fisher sings:

Day is past and gone
The evening Shades appear
Oh may we all remember well
The hour of death is near

Moses, whom Robert Fisher resembles, at least the Charlton-Heston-gone-to-seed Moses I conjure in my mind, said the same thing. The only Psalm credited to the great lawgiver contains these words:

For all our days have declined in Your fury;
We have finished our years like a sigh.
As for the days of our life, they contain seventy years,
Or if due to strength, eighty years,
Yet their pride is but labor and sorrow;
For soon it is gone and we fly away.
Who understands the power of Your anger
And Your fury, according to the fear that is due You?
So teach us to number our days,
That we may present to You a heart of wisdom

The idea of divine fury rests uneasily with me. It seems so unlike the God I know. The God I know loves the little sparrows, has numbered the very hairs of our heads, and knows us all personally and intimately. “Fear not, little flock,” Jesus told his disciples, “for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.” That kind of God I understand – a God of comfort and solace.

But the divine fury is inscrutable, mysterious. It manifests itself in cheerfully decorated hospice rooms, the tasteful way to die, and in IV drips and the antiseptic smell of hospital disinfectant. It shows up in Oxycontin prescriptions, in pain so searing that the strongest drugs in the world have no effect at all, in the sickening smell of flesh rotting from the inside. And it packs a wallop. This is how it is, and how it will be. Look closely, and remember. Another day is past and gone.

We lay our garments by
Upon our beds to rest
So time will soon disrobe us all
Of what we now possess

There is, apparently, hope for intractable souls. Moses knew it, and Robert Fisher knows it, too. There is a heart of wisdom, a way of living that lessens the divine fury and ameliorates the sting of death. It comes from remembering the end, the constant, ever-present knowledge of our finite span. It’s the simplest thing in the world, and it costs us everything. And so we enter a new classroom every morning, trying to learn this most elementary of math lessons – counting the days, counting the cost, over and over again. It’s revealed in the choices we make, the way we spend our limited time. It’s revealed in what we hold dear, and in the mystery of choosing messy, frequently unrewarding relationships over pragmatic material gain. Perhaps it’s revealed in what might be the greatest mystery of all – finding the love of God in the midst of the fine art of dying. I wouldn’t know yet. But I’ve seen some clues.

I listen to the news, the daily litany of the horrifying and the mind-numbingly banal – suicide bombers and Ricin in the water supply, the Afghan rebels and the New York Yankees, American Idol and Survivor. Survivor? Here’s a clue: Death is the ultimate reality programming, and nobody wins. None of it matters compared to the unfathomable intersection of cancer of the everything and mercies that are new every morning, the promise of inevitable death and the promise of new life. I walk through these hypercharged days, and I want to shake the world from its complacency. These silly squabbles, these petty diversions – you don’t have time for these things. Let them go. Life is too short. Another day is past and gone.

Lord, keep us safe this night
Secure from all our fears
May angels guard us while we sleep
‘Til morning light appears

If there is a heart of wisdom, I’d like to apply for that transplant. Everywhere I look there are numbered hairs on numbered heads, living out their numbered days between the love and fury of God. I’m holding out for love.


My favorite song on Regard the End is called “Beyond the Shore.” Behind a mandolin-driven, Celtic-tinged melody Fisher sings of love and loss, and it sounds like the kind of classic folk song that Bob Dylan used to toss off every other week or so in the early 1960s. It arrives as a soothing reprieve in the middle of the album, surrounded by songs of senseless tragedy and suffering and unremembered ghosts:

The time has come to leave this shore
No more will I find my way
And those I leave behind me now
Will soon take my place
I’ve struggled long with shame’s great load
And shouldered my share of pain
To feel the caress of the long black veil
I’ve worked, but not in vain

I’m bound to go beyond this shore
In Glory I will be placed
Goodbye, my loves I’ll not forget
Your sweet familiar grace
I’m bound to go beyond this shore
In Glory I will be placed
Goodbye, my loves I’ll not forget
To share this sweet embrace.

Nobody told me it would be like this; left holding on to a sweetly sentimental song instead of a live human being. It’s a lousy tradeoff. But nobody told me that a song could reach me so deeply as soul music, either, could serve as a balm for a raw, open wound, could work so well as a soundtrack for a plea and a prayer. I don’t know that it’s true, but I take it on faith that it is. It’s the kind of homespun, pie-in-the-sky twaddle that cynics will despise. But I’m not a very good cynic these days. In fact, I don’t know if I ever want to be a cynic again. I don’t want to hear it, don’t want to hear the objections to the sentiment and the sweetness. I don’t have time for it.

Jim would have probably scoffed at the sentiments. He didn’t talk much about Glory, didn’t go to church, had been burned a long time ago by people who wanted to forcefeed the love of God down his throat. But he knew something about shame’s great load, and he had more than his share of pain. He knew a lot about the sweet, familiar grace of those he loved, and he knew enough to embrace his family warmly and freely, quite regularly, even more frequently after he had been diagnosed with cancer. He would get it; he would understand what the song was about even if he didn’t agree with every line. So I pray the song for him. Even if he wouldn’t mean it in quite the same way, I play it over and over again, work it like rosary beads, my little private offering between God and Jim and me.

If I were a priest I would re-write the Ash Wednesday liturgy, balance it out the way Robert Fisher does on Regard the End. Listen: invest your life in those you love. This world is just the terminal ward; the real action is yet to come. Remember, man, that thou art dust, but remember Glory as well. The heart of wisdom matters, and it starts with numbering your days. It starts with regarding the end.

That’s how I would write it. But I’m not a priest, and I’m not good at composing liturgies, and I don’t have a congregation. I only have a Jim-shaped hole and a CD. And so I pronounce my homely benediction silently, talking to myself, talking to my friend, talking to God. You’re gone, and I miss you. You did well; your work was not in vain. May you be found in Glory, and may you know Love’s sweet embrace. I carry around these songs, Robert Fisher’s songs, Jim’s songs. They are new songs and as old as the world, and I pass my days with the sound of ancient music humming in my ears.

Monday, January 26, 2009

I Was a King

I haven't really followed the Norwegian music scene. From a distance, it appears to be split equally between doom metal bands in Viking gear and bookish, sensitive wimps like Kings of Convenience, who mash Simon and Garfunkel impressions with electronica blips and beeps.

So a Norwegian band called I Was a King didn't really inspire much confidence. Yeah, well, we were all once kings, Olaf. I myself used to dress up as Sigurd the Nearsighted, and slew several dragons menacing central Ohio. Then I started third grade.

I was fully expecting guys with food in their beards and rotting teeth who growled songs about nuclear warheads and Armageddon. What I got was fifteen short tunes high on the bubblegum content and the guitar distortion, a sort of psychedelic Archies. Not that that’s a bad thing, mind you. Unlike fellow Scandinavians Dungen, who employ a similar sonic palette, I Was a King features songs with genuine hooks. And unlike Apples in Stereo and Teenage Fanclub, with whom they share a similar love of fuzzed-out power pop, there is some truly gonzo guitar work here to satisfy the biggest Hendrix fan. Grading on the curve (I’m assuming that English is not their native language), there are fourteen very fine originals here, all of them immensely hummable, all of them reminiscent of the days when The Electric Prunes and The Strawberry Alarm Clock were ruling the radio airwaves. Most surprising of all is the sole cover, “Hard Luck and Bad News,” by the granddaddy of Christian Rock, Larry Norman.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Old Fart Roundup: Van Explodes, Broooce Implodes

The Van Morrison live experience is a confounding thing. He can be totally mesmerizing (see It’s Too Late to Stop Now, from 1974). He can be professionally competent (see Live at the Grand Opera House Belfast, from 1984). And he can be petulantly inaccessible (see One Night in San Francisco, from 1994, where he turns over many of the vocal duties to his backup singers). What he is on Astral Weeks: Live at the Hollywood Bowl is simply great.

For the fortieth anniversary of his landmark second solo album (and the one that put him on the singer/songwriter map), Van rounded up a few of the original musicians, hired a couple horn players and a string section, rehearsed the unwieldy band once, and then hit the Hollywood Bowl stage determined to wing it. The results, recorded over two nights in November, 2008, are nearly miraculous. What we get is the entire Astral Weeks album, albeit played slightly out of order. Then he tosses in "Listen to the Lion" and "Common One" for good measure. Those of you who know Van's early recordings know that these songs basically define the Holy Grail of a certain esoteric movement, of which Van is the primary if not the sole practitioner, in which Musical Performer Goes Apeshit/Has Out-of-Body Mystical Experience Where Muses/Gods/Ancient Caledonian Ancestors Are Encountered. On the original albums (and I'd recommend Astral Weeks and 1972's St. Dominic's Preview as the best examples) these are strange and hair-raising experiences indeed. They're a little more subdued and earthbound here, but still thrilling. Van has been a scintillatingly great singer, and can still be when he wants to be. He wants to be most of the time here, and the band he's assembled plays the music with passionate abandon. More impressively, the extended improvisational codas stretch the music in ways that are entirely suited to Morrison’s ecstatic singing. Van excels at moaning, humming, scatting, and soaring off into the stratosphere, and he gets, and takes, plenty of chances to sail into the mystic. The end result is a 70-minute tour-de-force, something delightfully unexpected and daring in a late career that has been increasingly characterized by playing it safe and keeping it simple.


What to say about Bruce Springsteen’s latest product? For starters, I never thought I’d be using the words “Bruce Springsteen” and “product” in the same sentence. But the clichéd title of Springsteen’s new album – Working on a Dream – should have clued me in to the generic framework. Perhaps only Born to Run in the U.S.A. would have been more pandering.

God only knows what led to this New Jersey Transit train wreck. Magic, Bruce’s last album, was as fine a late-period arena shaker as could have been expected. But this time Bruce forgot the tunes, the hooks, and the lyrics, and he mistakes the usual first-rate songs about common men and women for common songs about Bruce.

The album roughly divides into two categories. There are the limp approximations of the E Street swagger – the title track, “My Lucky Day,” “Surprise Surprise.” And there are the sonic experiments, Bruce pushing in new directions, none of them successful. Album opener “Outlaw Pete” is Springsteen’s take on a spaghetti western outsider badass, a sort of Woody Guthrie meets Ennio Morricone mashup that could easily lead to Clint Eastwood’s death by self-inflicted gunshot. “Queen of the Supermarket” is this album’s wall-of-sound anthem, the kind of homage to Phil Spector that succeeded so well on Magic’s “Girls In Their Summer Clothes.” But this time Springsteen finds his dreamgirl at that checkout register at Wal-Mart, a scenario so implausible as to invite the question of whether Bruce has ever gone shopping in his life. Producer Brendan O’Brien slathers on the reverb and stacks the overdubbed vocals as high as they will go, but the bombast can’t rescue the ludicrous premise.

The songwriting is mostly abysmal. Usually a sure and compassionate writer, Springsteen actually resorts to puppy and kitty poster sentiments on “Surprise, Surprise”:

And when the sun comes out tomorrow, it'll be the start of a brand new day
And all that you have wished for I know will come your way.

All right, who are you, and who replaced Bruce Springsteen with Rainbow Brite?

The songs pick up at the end, with a sincere and affecting tribute to fallen E Streeter Danny Federici on “The Last Carnival” and the subdued, mostly acoustic character study “The Wrestler.” But it’s too little, and it’s way too late. This is Springsteen going through the motions, writing by the numbers, and missing wildly on the few chances he takes. It’s his worst album by far, a surprisingly inept blemish on what has been a consistently great career.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Bob Dylan, Performing Artist

I'm midway through Paul Williams' massive, three-volume Bob Dylan: Performing Artist series, and I'm enjoying it immensely.

Williams makes the convincing argument that the primary unit of the Dylan ouevre is the "performance," and that those performances need to be considered in the same light as a jazz performance, with the same focus on improvisation and the inspiration (or lack thereof) that comes moment by moment.

I'm buying it. Anyone who has ever seen Dylan in concert knows that he is likely to transform even his greatest and best-known songs into almost unrecognizable cover versions. And anyone familiar with the wealth of material on The Bootleg Series sets has heard alternate takes on the officially released songs that essentially constitute new songs. The words may (or may not) be the same, but the arrangements and the overall "feel" of the music is completely different.

He also makes the convincing case that Bob Dylan is the greatest, most nuanced singer of the rock 'n roll era. But you all already knew that, right?

U2 -- No Line on the Horizon

I find it virtually impossible to review a U2 album until about six months after it's released. By that time, of course, the time for reviews is long past. But there is so much hype -- both positive and negative -- surrounding a new U2 release that I find it's best to let the dust settle before posting a reaction. Some people, including hipsters in general, love to hate on U2. Part of this is the human tendency to want to take the hotshots down a peg, and when the hotshot spouts off as frequently as Bono, that tendency can be exacerbated. And, of course, you don't get to be the biggest rock 'n roll band in the world by being universally hated, and there is a sizeable contingent that will love every fart and/or messianic proclamation that emanates from Heaven's Spokespersons.

This new album is no different. It doesn't help that Bono and Brian Eno are proclaiming it as better than a Cure for Cancer, a critical cultural turning point in western civilization as we have known it. Quite honestly, this makes me want to dislike the album intensely, in spite of what it might, you know, actually sound like. So I'd prefer to hold off, let the hype diminish, listen a good twenty or thirty times, and then write a more measured response.

Unfortunately, in the universe of U2, it doesn't work that way. U2 are the singularly most unhelpful band on the planet when it comes to people who have to review their albums in a timely fashion. They won't release advance copies. For How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb they herded a bunch of music critics into "Listening Rooms" in NYC and L.A., gave them one shot at hearing the album a day or two before its release, and then said, "Go to it. Write your reviews." Not surprisingly, some shellshocked writers wrote about a 5-star masterpiece (it wasn't), some shellshocked writers wrote about a disappointingly massive sonic letdown (it wasn't), and nobody had the time to get it right. On March 2nd I get to run out after work, snatch up a copy of No Line on the Horizon the day it is released, go home, listen one or (hopefully) two times, and then turn in a lengthy review later that night. Chances are I'll get it wrong. I'll be contending with all the hype, and I'll be contending with the challenge of finding reality somewhere in the midst of shrieking expectations. Welcome to the world Bono lives in every day.

Cold Mix

I’ve already done a Winter Mix. Now it’s time for the Cold Mix, as in runny nose and eyes, sore throat, fever, inability to breathe (or sleep, which means that one keeps one’s spouse up all night, too, which wildly endears said spouse to you), and general desire to curl up into a ball and die. This is what I’ll be listening to today, assuming I can summon the energy to press the Play button on the iPod.

1. Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die – Bob Dylan
2. Breathe – Pink Floyd
3. The Medication’s Wearing Off – Eels
4. Sleepless Nights – Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris
5. Fever Dream – Iron & Wine
6. Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu – Johnny Rivers
7. T.B. Sheets – Van Morrison
8. The Drugs Don’t Work – The Verve
9. Girl, You Have No Faith in Medicine – The White Stripes
10. Cough Coughing – Menomena
11. Leave Me Alone – New Order
12. I Wanna Be Sedated – The Ramones

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Prettiest Thing on Saltcoats Beach

I have no idea what the beaches are like in Scotland; cold and rocky, I would imagine. But I listen to this song by Glasvegas (formerly mentioned here) and I have visions of Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello frolicking amidst the warm waves and basking in the southern California sun. There's a delightfully nostalgic element here. Maybe it's the unabashed sentimentality; you really can't get much more hokey than to write a song about some unknown babe on the beach. But I love the dreamy, slow buildup, the sound effects of the waves crashing on the beach, the synths that imitate a whole schmaltzy orchestra, the Duane Eddy guitar solo that breaks out at the end, even the punk crooning, as if some poor, inarticulate yob can't help but to bust out into silly romantic doggerel at the sight of such rapturous beauty. This song sounds like nothing else on the debut album. But it's impossibly romantic, and goofy, and somehow touching; the kind of song a car mechanic named Ray might write for his girlfriend.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


Are there any Tindersticks fans out there?

A brief recap: Tindersticks' eponymous 1993 debut album was named Album of the Year by Melody Maker. Virtually no one bought the album anyway. They released a handful of critically acclaimed but commercially ignored albums on Island Records throughout the 1990s, switched labels around the turn of the decade, dropped old members and added new members, took a five-year hiatus from 2003 to 2008, and released yet another critically lauded but virtually ignored album last year in The Hungry Saw. The Hungry Saw has been on repeat play on the iPod over the past couple of days, and I'm rediscovering what I love about this band.
Tindersticks create a sort of world-weary lounge music. If you're familiar with the music of Mark Eitzel/American Music Club, Lambchop, or the last few Joe Henry albums, you'll have a fair approximation of the sound. There are strings here, and horns, and heavily reverbed guitars, and, in Stuart Staples, a distinctive songwriter and vocalist whose philosophical ruminations rarely rise above a whisper. It's Emo music for adults, and the mopery is based on a deep-seated existential despair. A girl hasn't let Stuart down. The universe has. I can't dwell in that place for very long. I can head down that alley fairly easily, and it tends to have a deleterious effect on the rest of my life. But on certain days -- say, when it's six degrees outside, and grey for the tenth day in a row, and white snow is falling on top of the grey snow -- then this music sounds just about perfect. The Hungry Saw is a good place to start, as is the 2004 compilation Working for the Man, which cherry-picks the best tracks from the first four albums, and where every song is sad and vital.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Bob Wills -- Tiffany Transcriptions Update

This music is great, although I have to say that Bob Wills has the most annoying vocal tic since Keith Jarrett started moaning along orgasmically to his lovely solo piano work. Wills' trademarked falsetto "Ahhhhh-haaaah" is trademarked a little too frequently. It's kind of cute the first time, mildly annoying the fifth time, and by the five hundredth time I'm ready to string him up by his fiddle strings and sic a team of Swiss yodelers on him.

Musically, though, this is everything I hoped it would be -- cowboy tunes, big band songs from Ellington and Basie, proto rock 'n roll. All of it swings and stomps. There's a guitar player here named Junior Barnard, heretofore unknown to me, who gets such a dirty tone from his instrument that I can't help but think that blues primitivists such as Hound Dog Taylor and, yes, The Black Keys, must have studied this material. It's wondrous stuff, raw and jumping, and it's enough to make me overlook Wills' vocal antics and the dulcet, sweet tones of lead singer Tommy Duncan, who really sounds like he's hankering for a duet with Doris Day.

A Man Of Somebody's Dreams: A Tribute to the Songs of Chris Gaffney

As former bandmate and friend Dave Alvin points out in his liner notes, Chris Gaffney was a man who didn’t care much for boundaries or borders. Torn between his love of the classic country songs of George Jones and Merle Haggard and the pleading soul music of Otis Redding, Chris and his band The Hacienda Brothers simply split the difference. And that facile description doesn’t even begin to account for his love of accordion-driven norteño polkas or AC/DC balls-to-the-wall rock ‘n roll. Music programmers and record labels had no idea what to do with him. And so he lived in virtual obscurity, touring with Alvin from time to time, recording a handful of absolutely great but ignored solo albums and with his songwriting partner Dave Gonzales as part of The Hacienda Brothers, playing west coast dive bars on the weekends, and writing a couple hundred of the best songs you’ve never heard.

When the virtually unknown Gaffney died last April of liver cancer, Alvin rounded up a bunch of buddies to record his fallen comrade’s songs. The resulting album, A Man of Somebody’s Dreams: A Tribute to the Songs of Chris Gaffney, highlights why the man was so special. These are sad, poignant, joyous, stomping songs. And maybe people will actually notice this time, because they’re played by some of the best and best-known roots rockers in the world.

A brief rundown of the roster is enough to make roots fans salivate: Joe Ely, Boz Scaggs, Los Lobos, Dave Alvin, Peter Case, Calexico, James McMurtry, Alejandro Escovedo, John Doe, Los Straitjackets, Ollabelle, Freddy Fender, and Dan Penn, just for starters. The performances vary from tender, accordion-laced Tex-Mex ballads to Bakersfield honky tonk to blues-based rockers to pleading Philly soul. It’s a fair cross-section of Chris’s music, but more than that, it’s a long overdue showcase for a criminally underappreciated songwriter. Dave Alvin recounts a story at the beginning of Gaffney’s song “Artesia” about growing up in the San Fernando Valley of California, of watching the orange groves being plowed under and replaced by freeways and shopping malls, and of the constant smell of cowshit that disappeared around that time. It’s hard to make that sound romantic and nostalgic. Gaffney’s song does. There are eighteen songs here, all of them revelatory, the last by the man himself called “Guitars of My Dead Friends.” It’s the last thing he sang, recorded a few weeks before he died. With any luck, this tribute album will go a long way to ensure that the songs of this dead man will be ringing out for years to come.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Kids Today

These are reflections from the Internet Monk:
  • When you have small children, you can simply never realize what it is going to be like to one day face them, as adults, with the realization that YOU have shaped them into the persons they will be for all of their lives. If we realized what it really means to create, nurture and shape another person in the deepest of human ways, we’d be frozen with fear. So much of what they are comes from us in ways that were unintended, or unknown or unplanned. Your children are truly a legacy of the kind of person you really are, and of how you’ve lived, how you’ve loved and what you’ve considered most important.
  • Thankfully, our kids are more than what we make them to be.
In my more optimistic moments, I think I did the best I could do. But I know that's not really the case. There were many days when I was tired, disengaged, fed up, or a thousand other things that constituted a half-assed job of parenting. The wonder is that they appear to be turning out pretty well, and that the storms of adolescence are mostly past, and that, amazingly and delightfully, they are in the process of becoming fine young adults. This is the grace of God. I'm so thankful for my kids.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Winter Mix

Step out the front door like a ghost into the fog
Where no one notices the contrast of white on white
-- Counting Crows, “’Round Here”

Here in Columbus a winter mix means a combination of rain, sleet, and snow. We don’t have real winter, where the rosy-cheeked kids go flying down the snow-covered hills on their sleds, and where the horses pull the sleigh full of happy holiday revelers, like in those Budweiser commercials. We have a winter mix, and this is the third day in a row of that particularly noxious combination of rain, sleet, and snow. A typical day, like today, means 35 degrees and more sleet, changing over to ice and snow toward evening. For what it’s worth, Dante describes this in The Inferno as the predominant weather pattern of the inner circle of hell.

So I’ve put together a music playlist to suit the times. Naturally, I call it the Winter Mix. Here it is.

1. Cold, Haily, Windy Night – Steeleye Span
2. Bare Trees – Fleetwood Mac
3. Sleet – The Futureheads
4. If the World Should End in Ice – The Handsome Family
5. Valley Winter Song – Fountains of Wayne
6. Antarctica Starts Here – John Cale
7. Always Winter But Never Christmas – XTC
8. Tenth Avenue Freezeout – Bruce Springsteen
9. Hazy Shade of Winter – Simon and Garfunkel
10. Ain’t No Sunshine – Bill Withers
11. Song for a Winter’s Night – Gordon Lightfoot
12. January Rain – David Gray
13. Surprise Ice – Kings of Convenience
14. Winterlong – Neil Young
15. Obscured by Clouds – Pink Floyd

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Folkie Roundup: Damion Suomi, Ruthie Foster, Strands of Oaks

Damion Suomi – Damion Suomi

Damion Suomi’s self-titled debut album answers the question that nobody ever asked: What if Michael Stipe had moved to Dublin and joined The Pogues? Suomi, a Florida native with the R.E.M. frontman’s voice and Shane MacGowan’s sensibilities (no word on his teeth), writes desperate little ditties about drinking yourself to death and losing everything of value in your life. This is ragged roots music featuring guitars and fiddles, and it would probably go over well in a pub where the lubricated patrons could slosh their pints and sing along. And while there’s an undeniably visceral punch to these tracks, the relentless despair and nihilism gets old quickly. “San Francisco,” with its whomping drums and tale of relational dissolution, is a rousing singalong to divorce by reason of inebriation. But when the same tale is told ten more times, with only slight iterations, the effect is merely depressing. “Nobody’s gonna save your ass except for you,” Suomi sings near the end of the album. Wrong, Guinness breath. How’s that working out for you?

Ruthie Foster – Truth

Ruthie Foster has released several albums of tasteful blues and R&B, and she doesn’t vary her tested formula much on her latest album Truth. Possessing a marvelously supple, soulful voice that recalls Tracy Chapman, she reworks Otis Redding’s “Fa Fa Fa Fa Fa (Sad Song)” and dresses it up with a reggae beat on “I Really Love You,” adds a Stax/Volt Memphis horns approximation on “Dues Paid in Full,” and cuts loose on “Joy on the Other Side,” which sounds like an old Blind Willie Johnson Delta hymn. But for the most part this is blues and R&B with the edges blunted. It’s a little too polished and NPR-ready for my tastes, but fans of Tracy Chapman’s early work or the ‘90s albums of Bonnie Raitt will find much to admire, if not love.

Strand of Oaks – Leave Ruin

Strands of Oaks is one-man band Timothy Showalter, a self-described Indiana Mennonite turned Pennsylvania Hebrew Dayschool teacher who drives a school bus for extra cash. Since I figured there weren’t all that many of those folks plying their trade at the open mic nights at the nearby college, I decided to give him a try. And I’m glad I did. Showalter reprises the fragile, quavering tenor of a neophyte Neil Young, and although it’s been done a thousand times before, he does it well. Album opener “End in Flames” is typical: a lament to lost love accompanied by gently plucked banjo. It’s the oldest trick in the world, but this is Showalter’s lost love, and he makes you feel the particular specificity of his sorrow and regret.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Barney Ruble Leaves the Midwest

My daughter Rachel will be studying in Moscow the second half of her junior year of college, which is a little more than a year away. This gives me time for a healthy start on the Tolstoy/gnome beard, and for us to save up for the trip, because when your kid is in Russia, plotting the overthrow of capitalism, you have to go. That is, if I still have a job. I think we'll try to visit St. Petersburg as well, and probably Prague and Bucharest since we're sorta in the neighborhood. Blini. Borscht. Onion domes. Da.

Google Eyed

Somebody tell me that I'm not the most conceited person in the universe and that other people google their own names. In any case, it appears that I made it to MSNBC.

At the Zoo

Pitchfork has weighed in on the new Animal Collective album Merriweather Post Pavilion, awarding it a 9.6 rating out of 10. Stereogum ha also weighed in, informing us that this will be the "Best Album of 2009." On January 5th.

Not so fast. The zoological shenanigans have just begun. We have yet to hear the new albums from Grizzly Bear, The High Llamas, Deertick, Deerhoof, Wolfmother, The Eagles of Death Metal, Republic Tigers, Frightened Rabbit, Unbunny, Doleful Lion, Pedro the Lion, Dr. Dog, Snoop Dogg, Cat Power, Mountain Goats, Caribou, Fleet Foxes, Band of Horses, Foal, The Wrens, Simian Mobile Disco, Gorillaz, The Jayhawks, The Black Crow(e)s, Birdmonster, Danger Mouse, Modest Mouse, Mastodon, Jesus Lizard, Lambchop, and the sheeplike Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes). We have a long way to go yet to determine the wildest of the musical wild kingdom.

In my opinion, SF band Or, the Whale has released the best zoologically-themed album thus far in 2009, and Eleni Mandell, human, has released the best album thus far.

Saturday, January 03, 2009


The musical capital of the world? It's not even close in my mind.

Glasvegas, who are Glasgow natives (see Camera Obscura, The Twilight Sad, Frightened Rabbit, Lloyd Cole, Teenage Fanclub, Belle and Sebastian, Paolo Nutini, Amy MacDonald, Mogwai, Franz Ferdinand and a host of others who have considerably brightened the musical landscape over the past ten years), have released a very, very fine self-titled debut album.

NME has dubbed them "the best new band in Britain," which is usually a sure sign of the Hype Machine in Overdrive. But this time they could be right. This is a surprisingly bracing combination of Jesus and Mary Chain guitar buzz, Proclaimers vocal bluster (complete with sometimes almost impenetrable Scots brogue), and, incredibly, impossibly, romantic '50s doo-wop. I like it a lot. The subject matter -- aimless violence, ennui, football yobs, endless pints, chasing skirts -- might be the best rock 'n roll portrait of disaffected youth since those early Clash albums. Best of all is the unnerving "Stabbed," in which lead singer James Alan matter-of-factly proclaims, "I'm gonna get stabbed/The Baltic fleeto are up my arse/No cavalry could ever save me" to the accompaniment of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. Stunning.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Bruce Springsteen and the Long Walk Home

I'm busy writing. Just not here. I'm almost finished with a long essay about Bruce Springsteen for Image Journal. I have upcoming reviews of Eleni Mandell, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, and Southeast Engine for Paste. I have a Listening to My Life article for Paste on my father and Simon and Garfunkel. Yes, there is a connection. I have a review of Mavis Staples' latest album for Christianity Today Magazine, and a review coming up of the new U2 album No Line on the Horizon. And I'm looking forward to playing talent scout/American Idol judge as Michael Kaufmann (Asthmatic Kitty head honcho) and I evaluate a bunch of hopeful musicians/bands for Calvin College's Bandspotting event, part of the 2009 Festival of Faith and Music in early April. Last contest's winner, Son Lux (Ryan Lott), was just named NPR's "Unknown Artist of the Year" for 2008.

In the meantime, here's a teaser on the connections I'm pursuing in my Bruce Springsteen article:

My father said "Son, we're lucky in this town,
It's a beautiful place to be born.
It just wraps its arms around you,
Nobody crowds you and nobody goes it alone
You know that flag flying over the courthouse
Means certain things are set in stone
Who we are, what we'll do and what we won't"

It's gonna be a long walk home
-- Bruce Springsteen, "Long Walk Home"

And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

-- T.S. Eliot, from Four Quartets