Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Calvin Inclined

On the right is harpist, accordionist, and transgendered icon Baby Dee, one of the artists performing at this weekend's Festival of Faith and Music at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Say this: Calvin doesn't play it safe. They could have invited Dana Scallon, on the left[1].

So Kate and I are hitting the interstate Thursday morning, heading off for three days of goodness. It's certainly the most intriguing mix of music and thoughtful presentation I've ever encountered: everybody's favorite bar band/roots rockers/Springsteen revivalists The Hold Steady, rapper Lupe Fiasco, mainstays Over the Rhine and David Bazan (Pedro the Lion), Baby Dee, Vic Chesnutt, Julie Lee, Kenneth Thomas, Princeton professor/theologian/cultural observer Cornel West, visual artist Makoto Fujimura, cultural critic Andy Crouch, and a couple dozen of my favorite thinkers/authors/friends. It's like a party where a thousand of the most interesting, creative people you could imagine show up. I can't wait.

[1] For the record, I don't know Dana. I have nothing against Dana. I'm sure she's a lovely woman. She simply projects a slightly different image than Baby.

Monday, March 30, 2009

The Circumlocution Office

Because the Circumlocution Office went on mechanically, every day, keeping this wonderful, all-sufficient wheel of statesmanship, How not to do it, in motion. Because the Circumlocution Office was down upon any ill-advised public servant who was going to do it, or who appeared to be by any surprising accident in remote danger of doing it, with a minute, and a memorandum, and a letter of instructions that extinguished him. It was this spirit of national efficiency in the Circumlocution Office that had gradually led to its having something to do with everything. Mechanicians, natural philosophers, soldiers, sailors, petitioners, memorialists, people with grievances, people who wanted to prevent grievances, people who wanted to redress grievances, jobbing people, jobbed people, people who couldn't get rewarded for merit, and people who couldn't get punished for demerit, were all indiscriminately tucked up under the foolscap paper of the Circumlocution Office.

Numbers of people were lost in the Circumlocution Office. Unfortunates with wrongs, or with projects for the general welfare (and they had better have had wrongs at first, than have taken that bitter English recipe for certainly getting them), who in slow lapse of time and agony had passed safely through other public departments; who, according to rule, had been bullied in this, over-reached by that, and evaded by the other; got referred at last to the Circumlocution Office, and never reappeared in the light of day. Boards sat upon them, secretaries minuted upon them, commissioners gabbled about them, clerks registered, entered, checked, and ticked them off, and they melted away. In short, all the business of the country went through the Circumlocution Office, except the business that never came out of it; and its name was Legion.
-- Charles Dickens, from Little Dorritt

In one of the small ironies of my life, I once spent six months redesigning the State of Ohio web site that is used to file unemployment claims. Fittingly, the State of Ohio used none of my suggested improvements, because obfuscation and consternation are valued more highly than clarity and ease of use. God knows that if the average Jobless Joe could actually navigate the site, then even more unemployed people might file for unemployment compensation, and we can't have that.

Naturally enough, we start our tour of Bureaucratic Hell with the Login Screen (hereafter abbreviated as OH6423918O&C, OH for Ohio, 6423918 because random numbers are good, and O&C for Obfuscation and Consternation). Here the Blissfully Naive User (hereafter BNU), still actually expecting to receive money for his efforts, is encouraged to use either an existing login or create a new login. "Ah," the BNU thinks. "I'm new to this, so I'll create a new login." Already the faceless bureaucrats are snickering up their sleeves. After selecting "Create a new login" the BNU is instructed to enter a login ID and a PIN. And here's where the real fun starts. Regardless of what the BNU enters, he or she is directed back to the OH6423918O&C screen, and sees the message "Invalid PIN." "What the hell," the BNU thinks. "I'll try another number." But it doesn't matter, because each time the user is redirected back to OH6423918O&C. Thinking that perhaps the "N" in "PIN" might mean something other than "number," the BNU tries various alphanumeric combinations. An old address. The name of the first pet. The old high school locker combination. Nothing works. Finally, in deperation, the increasingly less blissful BNU notices the "Help" phone number at the bottom of the screen. "I give up," says the now merely naive user, and dials the number.

The NU is greeted by the sound of, you guessed it, a recording. In Spanish. Knowing very little Spanish, the user (no longer naive, and now merely U) tries several measures. "Buenos dias," he says. "Gordita." Nothing. The recording jabbers on for a while, then stops. Dead silence. After a two-minute interval, the recording resumes again. "May Day! May Day!," the U says. "Is there anybody out there?" But, of course, there is not. The U hangs up the phone.

After several phone calls to unemployed friends, the secret is revealed. The former BNU is instructed to call a different phone number, this one not listed on the web site. It seems that the BNU is expected to use the PIN he used five years ago, the last time he was laid off. No other PIN will do. And God knows that he can't remember that PIN. The new phone number connects to another recording, this one, yes, thank God, in English. After a short forty-five minute wait, the BNU actually speaks to a real human being, who resets his PIN. He should now be able to get into the system and start the 15-screen registration process.

And so he does. But he hits a snag on Page 4. "Enter your work code" he is instructed. The BNU isn't really sure what the work code is. "Be thrifty, productive, and industrious," he thinks, and "Be a good team player," but there isn't room enough to enter those things in the field. Being the savvy tech user that he is, the BNU opens up another tab and does a Google search on "Ohio Work Codes." And he is directed to a helpful web site that lists all Ohio work codes, such as "TZ49712" for "Welder" and "CW75619" for "Short Order Cook." The code lengths look about right. They should fit into the field. All he (a hypothetical "he," of course) has to do is find the right code for "Technical Writer/Web Designer and Developer/Marketing Communications Specialist/Usability Analyst/Business Analyst/Music Critic." Nope. Nothing. "Big-Rig Driver" they've got. "Lathe Operator" they've got. But nothing even remotely resembling anything he's done for the past quarter century. So the BNU decides to skip the field and move on. Bad move. The screen beeps and an error message flashes in angry red! HE MUST ENTER A WORK CODE! So the BNU identifies himself as a Short Order Cook. What the hell. Will cook food for food.

The BNU nostalgically recalls the conversations he had with various managerial types at the State of Ohio. "Nobody will understand this work code business," he told them. "They will have to," he was told. "Those work codes are hard-coded into the system." And so they were, and apparently still are. I can be a CW75619. Whatever it takes. And so, several days after he started, the TCU (Thoroughly Confused User) completes the registration process. After pressing the magic Submit button, he is informed that the State of Ohio is here to serve him, and that his Work Code will be used to match him with new job openings.

Three days later the TCU receives email notice of his first prospective job, a part-time opening for a Short Order Cook at Denny's.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Taking Our Lumps

Two of my favorite people in the universe -- my daughter Rachel and my sister Libby -- have recently discovered lumps under their arm. This is cause for concern. Rachel's are apparently due to swollen lymph nodes; a pain, to be sure, but relatively benign and very treatable. Libby is not so fortunate. Libby is a breast-cancer survivor, and the past ten years have been a roller coaster ride of chemo and radiation treatments, nausea, fear, hope, joy, and the final felicitous pronouncement of the cure. Now it appears she has another type of cancer. We won't know much information for a few days, but she is undergoing a biopsy today. Please pray for her. This makes me sick, and very sad. God, I hate cancer.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Random Musical Notes: Heirs of Nick Drake, Most Pointless Band Reunion, Best Power Pop of 2009?

Heirs of Nick Drake

Looking for more of doomed, melancholy folkie Nick Drake? Fans knows that there is precious little of the real commodity: three proper albums, a fourth of outtakes, and a highly questionable and utterly irrelevant fifth, consisting of Nick's mom Molly taking a star turn and the 9-year-old Nick tootling on his clarinet. But for music in a similar lovely, brooding, melancholy vein, you could hardly do better than Irish duo Tir na Nog, pictured on the left. It's like two Nicks for the price of one. The self-titled debut, A Tear and a Smile, and Strong in the Sun, all from the early '70s, might be a little hard to track down, but are supremely worth the search. And if you're willing to venture a bit wider, several of the recently deceased Scots folkie John Martyn's early albums -- Bless the Weather, Solid Air, and Sunday's Child -- will call to mind Drake at his jazzy, meditative best. A little closer to home, Scott Appel's Nine of Swords is both a touching tribute to Drake's music (Appel covers several of Drake's best-known songs) and a logical continuation of Drake's music if he had lived.

Most Pointless Band Reunion, Ever

-- It's hard to blame the old coots; the economy's bad, and you still have to put the Swiss cheese on the table. But of all the pointless musical reunions, that of Focus may be the most pointless of all. You may or may not recall Focus and their one and only hit, "Hocus Pocus," from 1972. To refresh your memory, and to help you recall what you may long to forget, "Hocus Pocus" remains the only Top 40 hit to feature yodeling. Here they are in 2008, back together again after all these years, and reprising their hit.

Best Power Pop of 2009?

Anacortes, Washington's The Lonely Forest are about to release the best power/indie pop album I've heard thus far this year. It's called We Sing the Body Electric (h/t Walt Whitman), and it's full of memorable hooks, indelible melodies, and loud guitars, just the way I like it. Check out their MySpace page to listen to the wondrous first single, "We Sing In Time."

Monday, March 23, 2009

Job Update

-- The Polish metal (as in gold and silver, not music) industry appears to be booming. Yet another company has offered me a lucrative salary and access to the Polish resorts.

-- I applied for a job in Jersey. Jersey, in this case, is a nine-mile-by-five-mile island in the English Channel, fourteen miles from the Normandy coast of France. If offered the job, I would at least consider it. Europe appears to be happening. As opposed to, say, Columbus, Ohio. Au revoir, Buckeyeville.

-- I have a couple friends of friends who might know about job openings that may be coming up sort of near home in industries for which I am at least tangentially qualified.

-- I am writing the Great American Novel. When it is published, you should buy it. This will allow me to feed my family.

-- I am working on my church's web site.

-- Typing in the words "communications" and "Ohio" in the monster.com or dice.com search engines reveals job openings for car mechanics. Go figure. Maybe it's because they know how to search engines. Otherwise, I'm missing the connection.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Bono Vocalism and His Manpowers

More fun takes on my reviews, translated out of English, and then back to English:

This is an album all about clip: the ravages of the relentless March of hrs and years, chronos
and kairos, calendar clip and timevs. those moments that are out of clip, that prolong us, those in which we meet something of the Lord. It Holds a subject researched explicitly in `` Minute of Resignation '' and `` Unknown Company, '' and sideways in posterior courses such as the anthemic rocker `` Breathe '' and the atmospherical closer, `` Cedars of Lebanon. ''

This is an album done by middle-aged manpowers still playing a shaver 's game, goodly cognizant of the absurdness of the furnishing ( see the humourous, self-deprecating lines in the funk-driven `` Standup Comedy '' ), and seeking for and sometimes chance grounds to locomote along. Intrinsically, these are vocals that could hold ne'er been composed by Bono Vocalism, the nave, ideal younker of early albums. And in and of itself, these are vocals that could simply hold been indited by Bono, the aging, iconic stone star taken with with Redeemer and himself in equal step, and troubled by the incongruousness. They are great religious and human vocals.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Worst Band Name Ever

Worst band name: MSTRKRFT. It looks unpronounceable, and probably is, but even once you decipher it phonetically it appears to be an advertisement for macaroni and cheese. Perhaps only FLRWXDSRTTPNG would be more heinous.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Job Offers!!!

First, on the international front:

Your resume was found on the job site. We examined your candidacy and want to offer you a position in our company. If your resume changed, please send us an updated version to email, indicated at the end of the letter.
My name is Julia Glass, I am a employee manager in the company Poland Investments Inc.
Briefly about our company: we deal with selling and purchasing of certificates of metal in Europe. Our central office is located in Poland. The first license for activity in Poland was provided in 1998. Nowadays, we have our offices and employees all over the world. We work with individual clients, as well as with corporations.
We offer ideal conditions of work. Once in a year we grant a 2-week vacation on the resorts of Poland. All our employees are provided with a whole kit to have the possibility of working in every part of the world. Absolutely gratuitous we grant a laptop (brand Dell, HP or Apple) and mobile phone (brand Blackberry or iPhone), we pay for internet access and mobile communication.
We aren't standing still and that is why having the European market conquered we move on to reach the U.S. one. The primary stage - is to form the staff. And namely you are offered a position in dynamically developing company.
At the stage of forming the staff we offer a possibility of flexible schedule or part-time occupancy.
Annual salary is $125,000. We appreciate well-educated employees; that is why if you have MBA, the raise in the salary is granted. Each certificate of degree is individual that is why the markup must be stipulated with head manager, after being accepted for employment.
With the expansion of the influence of our company in the U.S. market, promotion track is naturally granted to you.
We are always glad to answer all your questions and stipulate the conditions of collaboration. You can get in touch with us by phone (from 8 am till 6 pm, Monday-Friday) or through email in any time, convenient for you. We are looking forward to your answer.

Wow, a employee manager wrote to me. And I'm so relieved to read that promotion track is naturally granted to me. Perhaps grammar checker will also be part of job. I am also forward looking to 2-week vacation on resorts of Poland.

And, on the domestic front:


Blog posters are earning $12-$50 per hour.
Article writers are earning up to $25-$45 per hour.
Why not stay at home & get paid for typing on your computer!
Write Fiction and Non Fiction Stories - $450 per story
A Great Job Even if you aren't a "natural born writer"

Where to begin? First, I Really like The Random capitalization. Second, I'm a big fan of the ampersand, & all aspiring natural born writers use it & love it. Third, last time I checked, the phrase "up to" is usually followed by a number indicating the top of a pay scale; as in "earn up to $6,000,000 per year while eating Oreos and swigging chocolate milk." So the phrase "up to $25-$45 per hour" is a little confusing to me. Which is it? Finally, I love job postings that equate writing to "typing on your computer." I bet these folks have MBAs and were once in corporate management.

Hire me! I have mad keyboarding skillz!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Alt-Country Roundup: The Believers, The Von Ehrics, Jason Heath and the Greedy Souls

Alt-country music arguably peaked in 1995, with the formation of Whiskeytown, The Jayhawks' Tomorrow the Green Grass, Emmylou Harris' Wrecking Ball, Old 97's Wreck Your Life, Steve Earle's Train a Comin', and the releases of the debut Wilco, Son Volt, and Buddy Miller albums. Don't look now, but that was almost a decade and a half ago. In the meantime, the genre, which once seemed to breathe fresh, new life into hoary country music, has gotten a little long in the tooth. Tastes have changed, and the audience, for the most part, has moved on. That's most evident in the demise of No Depression Magazine, which championed this music throughout its history, and which closed its doors a year ago. But don't write off the old warhorse just yet. Here are three new albums that hearken back to the days when the music was a thoroughbred. One of them looks good in the starting gate, but never lives up to its lineage. The other two look like beat-up old nags, but really kick it into gear for that push down the backstretch.

The Believers -- Lucky You

Seattle's The Believers -- singer/songwriters Craig Aspen and Cyd Frazzini, with help from members of Band of Horses -- play a slick brand of alt-country that owes as much to Heart and Foreigner as to Gram and Emmylou. The sweet harmonies are there, to be sure, with Aspen's raspy tenor blending perfectly with Frazzini's pure soprano. But the guitars and production are pure 1977 arena rock. Depending on your perspective, that's either a welcome return to a long-overlooked chapter of rock 'n roll, or a sad reminder of the music in its most corporate incarnation. Cyd has a big, brassy Pet Benatar/Ann Wilson voice, the kind that begs for radio airplay on AOR stations. The songs, for the most part, are hook-laden and memorable, with opener "Higher Ground" offering a soulful, country blues take on Hurricane Katrina, and the title track offering the most representative merger of singalong choruses and bludgeoning guitar hooks. Hit me with your best shot, indeed. My verdict: No win, no place, but a decent show.

The Von Ehrics -- Loaded

Dallas cowpunks The Von Ehrics work the simplest of alt-country formulas: take the early Johnny Cash/Tennessee Three freight train rumble, speed it up, and distort the hell out of it. They do it ten times here, blasting through a short half hour of tales of excessive alcohol consumption, excessive alcohol consumption, and excessive alcohol consumption. Yeah, these are one-trick ponies out on that racetrack. Yeah, it's a hell of a lot of fun. If you like the early Old 97's albums, particularly Wreck Your Life and Too Far to Care, you'll find much to love about this album.

Jason Heath and the Greedy Souls - The Vain Hope of Horse

Here's the class of this field. Heath is an L.A. cowboy with a Tom Petty fixation, and he brings along some impressive buddies to help: Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello, The MC5's Wayne Kramer, and Wilco's Nels Cline. Musically, this is fairly standard rootsy fare, with only Cline's mournful, inventive guitar work to distinguish it from hundreds of similar albums. But the songs are first-rate, and Heath spins out tales of down-and-outers that sound authentic and honest, and offers some political commentary that doesn't sound like warmed-over Steve Earle. Best of all is "Anarchist Girl," a left-field, left-wing love song to a girl who "throws a kiss just as good as she can throw a brick." The press release opines that the album is for those "who keep Springsteen and The Sex Pistols side-by-side in their record collections," and that actually sounds, for once, about right. It's a wonderful debut; ragged, soulful, and well written.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Cat Power (No, Not Her)

Steven Demitre Georgiou is an almost forgotten man these days, even when he goes by his much more famous musical pseudonym Cat Stevens. For a while there in the 1970s he was one of the biggest pop stars in the world, and he released two unquestioned masterpieces in Tea for the Tillerman and Teaser and the Firecat. But even on those unmistakeable triumphs there were signs of the discontent and restlessness that made him abandon music entirely at the end of the decade. Cat Stevens, perhaps more than any other pop star, was a spiritual seeker. He saw through the hollowness of fame and fortune, and he simply walked away from it. What he walked toward is a matter of some controversy. But as an ongoing document of one person's search for Truth with a capital T, those early '70s albums can hardly be improved upon.

His music arrived at the perfect time. The cockeyed optimism of the 1960s had given way to the deaths of some of music's brightest stars, and the violent and senseless debacle of Altamont had tolled the death knell for the simplistic preachers of peace and love, man. There was a growing realization that rock stars were not only incapable of saving the world, but that they couldn't even save themselves. Into the breach stepped Cat Stevens, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, the newly introspective Bob Dylan. The music was quieter, more contemplative, more focused on the internal warfare of the heart.

Cat Stevens was a part of the sixties whirlwind. He wrote a series of hits for others, and had some moderate success with his own early albums, but the turning point came in 1968, when he contracted tuberculosis. He emerged from a three-month hospital stay with a new lease on life and a newfound appreciation for the deeper issues, and instead of writing "Here Comes My Baby" he was now inclined to write songs with titles such as "But I Might Die Tonight." Maybe near-death experiences will do that to you.

The four albums he released between 1970 and 1973 -- Mona Bone Jakon, Tea for the Tillerman, Teaser and the Firecat, and Catch Bull at Four -- remain his lasting legacy. Armed with a soulful voice, an uncommonly facile way with melody and hooks, and a batch of deeply moving, spiritually searching songs, he was both critically respected and massively popular. Those albums sound as fresh and relevant today as any albums recorded during that time.

This was Cat's basic approach:

I listen to the wind
to the wind of my soul
Where I'll end up well I think
only God really knows
I've sat upon the setting sun
But never never never never
I never wanted water once
No, never, never, never, never

I listen to my words but
they fall far below
I let my music take me where
my heart wants to go
I swam upon the devil's lake
but never, never, never, never
I'll never make the same mistake
No, never, never, never, never
-- Cat Stevens, "The Wind"

To explore, click here, and listen to the song and watch a video featuring flowers, trees, and swirling clouds. Because it's that kind of song.

It was also one of those songs that could make the hippie chicks swoon, and any decent guitarist with moderate picking and strumming abilities and a normal sex drive took a crack at it. It was moral, but vague enough to mean almost anything, and left the listener with the impression of both spiritual high-mindedness and heightened emotional sensitivity. You're damn right the dudes played it. It was best not to delve too deeply. Swimming upon the devil's lake seemed like a sensible and perhaps life-saving alternative after sitting on the setting sun, but Cat seemed to think little of the notion, so most guys played it straight. There was also that old adage about not looking a gift horse in the mouth.

Cat left it all behind in 1978. He converted to Islam, changed his name to Yusuf Islam, entered into an arranged marriage that eventually produced five children, gave away his substantial wealth, auctioned off his possessions, and founded a Muslim school near London. He was out of public view for more than ten years, and then shocked the world at the end of the '80s by supporting the death sentence ordered by the Ayatollah Khomeini against novelist Salman Rushdie for writing the book The Satanic Verses. Oldies stations pulled his songs. Old fans reacted with dismay, and wondered how the author of "Peace Train" and "The Wind" could have changed so radically.

In the intervening decades he's recorded sporadically, mostly music heavily influenced by his Islamic faith. But in 2006 he released An Other Cup, a surprisingly deep, moving collection of new songs, and a welcome return to the musical territory he left behind thirty years before. His voice sounded unchanged; rich as ever. And the sentiments sounded considerably more conciliatory.

But it is those early '70s albums that will endure. I've taken out my old, scratchy vinyl records and played them over the past few days. There is a beauty and an honesty about them that can be heard loud and clear, even over the clicks and pops. I'm very thankful for this music. If you missed him the first time around, you might be pleasantly surprised by how well he has endured.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

The Gourds, Squashed

This is what happens when an album review gets translated to another language, and then re-translated back to English. I am thinking that I writed this not the way it appears in the paragraphs subsequent and later.


There's a drove out of Austin, Texas call The Gourds. It's organic and soulful. There be songs compactly otherwise unknown culture name Thurman. And near are rigid be enthusiastic about and unreturned love songs. They enjoy two front singers who fulfill impressively sheltered imitation of Levon Helm and Rick Danko from The Band -- simply two of the goo of the mask batter vocalists ever. There are songs about fossil.

They have a unsullied album called Haymaker!, which will be out rightly after the lead in the air of the year. It's probably their best album inside a prolonged vent of proper and excellent albums. All of which would lead you to agree to that they're a sort of weirdly teen, pop-culture-obsessed innovation accomplishment, which they are, but next they go around in the borough of and knock you out next to a correct unrequited love chant that sound hence gummy and full-strength and desperate that you'd give your declaration the singing page be textual in blood. Yeah, I know. There are songs about do rag. They have an accordion recitalist named Claude. They do what they've always done, free better. I've loved them in favour of years, but I always find myself to some extent faltering (or keyboard-tied) when I try to mark them and their music. Right presently it's at the pinnacle of my Best Albums of 2009 account. And the songs? They recite about flatulence, Star Trek, weather girls, Schoolhouse Rock, and Catwoman. They crop a sort of slush rock/boogie/Cajun/country conglomeration that doesn't eligible confidently within any of those niche. There's a miniature more of a Cajun force and of equal kind to idiotic more classic Levon Helm hillbilly wail this occurrence around. A twosome of them have skanky ZZ Top beard, beerguts, and form like they should be driving great rig. But I'll unmoving guarantee that it won't modify decomposed the list. --Paste Magazine's Andy Whitman Country / Alt-Country Haymaker!.

Are You a Christian Hipster?

Author Brett McCracken takes a crack at defining the Christian hipster:

Christian Hipster Likes and Dislikes (By No Means Exhaustive… Just a Sampling)

Things they don’t like:
Christian hipsters don’t like megachurches, altar calls, and door-to-door evangelism. They don’t really like John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart or youth pastors who talk too much about Braveheart. In general, they tend not to like Mel Gibson and have come to really dislike The Passion for being overly bloody and maybe a little sadistic. They don’t like people like Pat Robertson, who on The 700 Club famously said that America should “take Hugo Chavez out”; and they don’t particularly like The 700 Club either, except to make fun of it. They don’t like evangelical leaders who get too involved in politics, such as James Dobson or Jerry Falwell, who once said of terrorists that America should “blow them all away in the name of the Lord.” They don’t like TBN, PAX, or Joel Osteen. They do have a wry fondness for Benny Hinn, however.

Christian hipsters tend not to like contemporary Christian music (CCM), or Christian films (except ironically), or any non-book item sold at Family Christian Stores. They hate warehouse churches or churches with American flags on stage, or churches with any flag on stage, really. They prefer “Christ follower” to “Christian” and can’t stand the phrases “soul winning” or “non-denominational,” and they could do without weird and awkward evangelistic methods including (but not limited to): sock puppets, ventriloquism, mimes, sign language, “beach evangelism,” and modern dance. Surprisingly, they don’t really have that big of a problem with old school evangelists like Billy Graham and Billy Sunday and kind of love the really wild ones like Aimee Semple McPherson.

By this definition, I am a Christian hipster. I should also point out, however, that I'm 53, balding, overweight, and wear a hearing aid. I also have equilibrium/balance issues, by which I mean that occasionally I have trouble simply not toppling over when standing still. By most counts these defects would disqualify me from hipster status, although I'm still holding out hope for the ironic appeal of hearing aids, particularly when they are worn by music critics, either standing or prone.

But most of the people I know and hang out with solidly qualify in these "hipster" categories. Still, I have some questions, the chief one being why disliking things that suck is a sign of hipsterism, and not simply a sign of general discernment that should apply across the theological, generational, and hair-follicle spectrum. Who in their right mind believes that sock puppets are an effective evangelistic tool? For that matter, who in their right mind believes that statements such as "blow them all away in the name of the Lord" is an attractive and winsome way to articulate the gospel? Hear the good news: you're going to hell! Umm, what's the bad news?

As to the distinction between "Christian" and "Christ follower," it may sound like mere semantics, but there is something to the notion that the word "Christian" has been co-opted by people, both in power and out of power, who don't represent what I believe and who don't live the way I want to live. Almost every day I encounter statements by Christian leaders that make me wince, and that I disagree with on the most basic levels. I'm a screwup loved by God, and I have plenty of crap in my own life that automatically disqualifies me from making self-righteous pronouncements on others. That's the bottom line. Of couse, that doesn't always stop me from speaking and acting judgmentally, but that's part of the crap I need to deal with. And that's what I want to communicate to the people I encounter in my life. And yes, I want to distance myself from people who spew judgment, who are professional haters and whiners and bitchers. Frequently, Christianity in America doesn't look much like Christ, and to the extent that those two things can and should be distinguished, then I'm happy to make that distinction.

Things they like:
Christian hipsters like music, movies, and books that are well-respected by their respective artistic communities—Christian or not. They love books like Resident Aliens by Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger by Ron Sider, God’s Politics by Jim Wallis, and The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis. They tend to be fans of any number of the following authors: Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Wendell Berry, Thomas Merton, John Howard Yoder, Walter Brueggemann, N.T. Wright, Brennan Manning, Eugene Peterson, Anne Lamott, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, Henri Nouwen, Soren Kierkegaard, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Annie Dillard, Marilynne Robison, Chuck Klosterman, David Sedaris, or anything ancient and/or philosophically important.

Christian hipsters love thinking and acting Catholic, even if they are thoroughly Protestant/evangelical. They love the Pope, liturgy, incense, lectio divina, Lent, and timeless phrases like “Thanks be to God” or “Peace of Christ be with you.” They enjoy Eastern Orthodox churches and mysterious iconography, and they love the elaborate cathedrals of Europe (even if they are too museum-like for hipster tastes). Christian hipsters also love taking communion with real Port, and they don’t mind common cups. They love poetry readings, worshipping with candles, and smoking pipes while talking about God. Some of them like smoking a lot of different things.

Christian hipsters love breaking the taboos that used to be taboo for Christians. They love piercings, dressing a little goth, getting lots of tattoos (the Christian Tattoo Association now lists more than 100 member shops), carrying flasks and smoking cloves. A lot of them love skateboarding and surfing, and many of them play in bands. They tend to get jobs working for churches, parachurch organizations, non-profits, or the government. They are, on the whole, a little more sincere and idealistic than their secular hipster counterparts.

Personally, I am afraid of candles, and open fires in general. When you have equilibrium/balance issues, this is not necessarily a trivial concern. But it is also probably a reaction to my suburban neighbors, who spend their days playing golf, running power tools, chopping down trees, and building huge bonfires in their backyards. On summer nights my neighborhood looks like some vast, primordial campground in Tract Home National Forest. While this is happening I tend to listen to Sufjan Stevens and look out smugly from my back porch.

Again, I plead guilty. I like almost all of the authors listed above. But again I would like to think that this has little to do with hipness, and a lot to do with the fact that they write well and have worthwhile things to say. In terms of the eclectic theological approach, for too long the evangelical church has assumed that they have a corner on Truth with a capital T. Having been membered for years in a True New Testament Church(TM), the one bunch of misfits who finally got it right after two thousand years, and who had to deal with the attendant hubris and incessant bickering that accompanied that view, I'm grateful to acknowledge that maybe, just possibly, a couple Christians in the past might have some things to teach me. Personally, in terms of communion, I can deal with Merlot, grape juice, or the ingenious McCommunion Wafer 'n Wine Combo Pack, with throwaway cup. It's not worth fighting about, in my opinion. Re: the "some of them like smoking a lot of different things" comment, I'm sure that's true. It's been true for me. Idolotry can be an oppressive reality. Here's the deal: don't smoke, kids. It's bad for your health. So are double Whoppers. Depending on what you're smoking, and why you're doing it, it might also be illegal and immoral.

Stupid taboos probably ought to be broken. Thirty-five years ago almost every Christian male I knew had hair down to the middle of his back. I used to have hair down to the middle of my back. I used to have hair. Now a lot of the Christians I know have piercings and tattoos. Come to think of it, I'm the only member of my family who doesn't have a piercing and/or a tattoo. It's all about as eternally consequential as whether you like American Idol. But let me also state that Real Christians(TM) don't like American Idol.

By the way, the people shown above are Vito and Monique Aiuto. Together they make music, and are known as The Welcome Wagon. A lot of Christian hipsters like them. What I like about them is that that's who they are, that they aren't trying to be ironic, and that they really do carry off that Grant Wood/American Gothic in the City vibe quite naturally. As a parting word, let me encourage you all to be yourselves quite naturally.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Life in the Foodchain

Twenty years of schooling and they put you on the day shift
-- Bob Dylan, "Subterranean Homesick Blues"

That sounds about right. And right now I'd probably settle for the day shift. Searching monster.com, the world's largest database of job openings, shows that precisely fourteen positions have been posted nationwide for technical writers in the past month. The closest are in Alexandria, Virginia and Beloit, Wisconsin. Dice.com, the monster.com for techies, shows precisely zero technical writer openings in Ohio. My guess, extrapolating from the roughly 20 technical writers I know who are currently unemployed in Columbus, is that there are hundreds of applicants for each position.

Q: What are the odds?
A: Not very good.

I learned that in one of the numerous classes I took during the twenty years of schooling.

Well your mother was there to protect you
Your papa was there to provide
So how in the world did the excellent baby
Wind up in this hotel so broken inside?
You lie on your bed in the midnight darkly
Listening to every sound
Watching the shadows for anything moving
And hoping they don't come around

'Cause it's dog eat dog
And it's cat and mouse
It's watch your step and cross yourself
And get back in the house
And it's do or die
It's push and shove
Because everybody's hungry
And there isn't quite enough

That's right, we're talkin' about the good life
In the foodchain
Love among the ruins
I guess that you've finally got to accept
That there's nothing you can do about it
It's kind of like carving the turkey
It's kind of like mowing the lawn:
Everything gets to this certain dimension
Winds up on a customer's plate and then gone
-- Tonio K., "Life in the Foodchain"

Willie Nile -- House of a Thousand Guitars

Willie Nile doesn't make indie rock, psychedelic rock, or alt-anything. He makes blue collar rock 'n roll, the kind that used to emerge out of basement windows and garages a long time ago. It's all filtered through a late '70s/early '80s pop sheen, and it forever dooms him to the second tier of rock artists. He's more Eddie Money than Bruce Springsteen (come to think of it, Bruce Springsteen is more Eddie Money than Bruce Springsteen these days). But when he's on, and he's on about half the time on his new album House of a Thousand Guitars, he reminds me of the pure, primal joy of bashing out chords and reveling in the unmitigated pleasure of making a racket.

Willie's been around for almost thirty years now, and his early albums document a witty wordsmith in love with three chords and a backbeat. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that, and if his subsequent history hasn't demonstrated much artistic growth, there's something to be said for dogged persistence. His 2006 album Streets of New York was a long-awaited comeback, and put Willie back on the cultural radar. Unfortunately, the new album is a step backward, awash in too many nondescript power ballads. Some of the song titles tell the story: "Love is a Train," "Her Love Falls Like Rain," "Little Light," "Touch Me." They're right out of the Bon Jovi/Creed playbook, and the rest of the lyrics don't improve on the initial impressions. But there are a handful of great, no-frills rockers here as well, particularly the scathing "Doomsday Dance," which boogies all over the apocalypse, and "Magdalena," which features the best shouted "Hey! Hey!" chorus I've heard since the early days of The Ramones and The Romantics.

So think of it as a house of 500 guitars. It's an album that begs for the use of the Next button on your iPod or CD player. And it's an album that offers up its share of small but satisfying rewards.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Trifecta Perfecta -- Justin Townes Earle, Gretel, Will Gray

It was one of the strangest triple bills I've ever encountered -- country traditionalist Justin Townes Earle, indie-folk stalwarts Gretel, and hip-hop/roots artist Will Gray. Imagine Hank Williams hanging out with Leslie Feist hanging out with ?uestlove and The Roots and you're in the ballpark. Or, in this case, the bar; specifically, Cafe Rumba in the north campus neighborhood. Nashville, Boston, and L.A. came to Columbus. It was an unprecedented geographic and stylistic mashup, and it was was an astonishingly redemptive, soulful batch of fun.

Justin Townes Earle, as he took some pains to point out, is not only Steve Earle's son, but his mother Carol's son (wife number 3 of 8, for those keeping score at home). To say that there are a few unresolved, simmering father/son issues might be a major understatement. I saw Justin last spring at an outdoor festival. He was uneasy in front of a large crowd, I was 500 feet from the stage, and the resulting set left me underwhelmed. There were no such problems last night. Playing in front of a hundred people tightly packed into a dive bar, Justin and musical cohort Cory Younts absolutely ripped it up, playing a two-hour set that featured most of the songs from Justin's two albums The Good Life and Midnight at the Movies, and wide-reaching covers from The Replacements, Randy Newman, Townes Van Zant, and Buck Owens. This was the real truckstop jukebox shitkickin' deal, and watching Earle on stage, and listening to that impossibly raw, keening voice, it was impossible not to imagine oneself transported back to Montgomery, Alabama in the late '40s, as Hank Williams was rocketing off on an all-too-short but brilliant career. Look at that photo. I suspect Justin might be aware of those comparisons, too. But look, they're deserved. The guy absolutely channels Hank, and he writes some tunes that can hold their own with the master. He's also a very fine picker, an aspect that isn't highlighted enough on his albums, and with Younts on banjo, mandolin, harmonica, and harmony vocals, they roared through a honky-tonk set that was pure magic, and that left me grinning from ear to ear.

Gretel, these three attractive Bostonians to the left, play raw, uncompromising folk music that belies their wholesome image. Singer/songwriter Reva Williams (on the right) writes and sings poetic, introspective soul scourings that are frequently disquieting and alarming in their intensity. Check out some of the lyrics from "Car Bomb Times":

Angels or doctors I can't afford
But I can pay to get fucked up when I get bored
Forty days and forty nights now I prayed to the Lord
I think he said it's high time I fall on my own sword ...

These are car bomb times, these are car bomb days
These are scared girl/boy rhymes, these are scared girl/boy ways

Don't look for it at a worship conference near you any time soon. But if you value honest songwriting sung in a Lucinda Williams howl, and if you're one of the three or four Christians who doesn't have his/her life totally together, you might find some thoughts that resonate pretty deeply. Kate and I had the distinct pleasure of hanging out with Reva, Melissa, and Phil at dinner, and I'm so thankful for their musical talent, their unflinching writing, and their friendship. Their new album Dregs, out in April, is well worth your time.

Will Gray and band took the stage about 1:30. I was skeptical: two rappers, a turntable maestro, an acoustic guitar player, a banjo picker (Reva Williams, from Gretel), and a cellist. Sure, dude. Good luck.

And it was absolutely mind-blowing. The rhymes were fabulous, Will Gray sang like an old-school Marvin Gaye, and that band, impossibly, gelled into a rockin', funky, folky R&B Americana machine. It was the freshest music I've heard in months. Will is currently recording his debut album with T Bone Burnett at the producer's helm. Watch for it in late summer or early fall. I know I will be.

Check out the video for Will's song "Back to the Wall" right here.

We left the house at 8:00 p.m., dragging our tired, middle-aged butts out for a night on the town. We arrived home at 3:00 a.m. and neither one of us wanted to go to bed. Such is the power and the wonder of great music. We saw it in abundance last night, a strange and wondrous sonic shot of joy. I live for nights like that, and I'm so thankful that every once in a while they turn from wistful dreams to reality.