Monday, August 31, 2009

Print is Dead; Long Live Criticism

I rag on Pitchfork enough, so I need to acknowledge when they do something well. Eric Harvey's excellent The Social History of the MP3 ought to be required reading for music fans and sociologists alike. He persuasively discusses the impact of the MP3 and file sharing on our current culture, neither ignoring its obviously deleterious effects on the capitalist foundation of the music industry nor histrionically announcing that the sky is falling. It's a good read. I was particularly struck by this:

If, as so many newspaper trend pieces assert, the number of "tastemakers" has exponentially proliferated through unmitigated access to music, that means that, on average, individual tastes are on the upswing as well. It's hard to argue this fact, if only through anecdotal evidence. While the Internet does not represent "the world," and there are plenty of folks who are just fine keeping with their old habits, those who keep up with online music have the capacity to turn into bona fide musical dilettantes, and occasionally straight-up experts, in no time flat. But broadening out to the aggregate, this trend looks different, and less rosy. The ideal would have been that a new network of independent music lovers would have elevated different types of music, or even found new ones, the way nascent rock'n'roll, honky tonk, bluegrass, and R&B benefited thanks to the 45. But online, new genres risk being strangled in the crib before anyone knows they exist, and people are "done" with new albums before the cover art has been approved. This time-compressing aspect of mp3-based music culture does not flow naturally from the technology itself-- it's a result of a lot of people, at the same time, publicly failing to resist their most basic passions for acquisition. Experiencing music in small, never-ending bursts is exciting, sure. But it's far from sustainable.

Part of me wants to weep, as so many critics have, for "what could have been." Yet a wiser part of me knows that there's no point in crying over a utopian benchmark. As it stands, the musical public sphere created by mp3 blogs and filtered through the Hype Machine is more varied and open to taste-based audience input than the U.S.'s industrial model has been in recent years (though a far cry from what it was like throughout most of the rock era), and an increased amount of music from around the world is getting more exposure than could have been imagined just a decade ago. So I'm not sad that print magazines, or newspapers, are dying; I'm sad that music criticism and journalism are endangered. I'm sad that publishers, advertisers, and corporate owners have lagged behind so incredibly long, holding onto an outdated critical model out of blind faith, leaving so many talented writers in the lurch. People expressing their musical taste to an eager audience in the offtime of their day jobs is one thing, and by all accounts a very good thing. But alongside these folks, we desperately need people to get paid to listen, discuss, contextualize, and critique music on a full-time basis. Until someone figures out how to make this work, a music culture will continue to take a significant hit. Print is dead: long live criticism.

My kids -- one a recent college grad, the other midway through her undergraduate studies -- know a fair number of other kids who are studying Communications and Journalism. It's never been the path to fame and riches, but lately the path has been overrun by weeds. It's a challenge to see the path at all, and it's just plain hard to navigate. One of those idealistic kids, a budding music critic, recently asked me: "So, how did you do it?" He envisions me, I suppose, as some sort of Model Journalist, some flabby middle-aged dude with a receding hairline who has, inexplicably, managed to parlay his background into published articles and occasional interviews with kids with tattoos. Far be it from me to disillusion him. "Some perseverence, some luck, the grace of God, and a day job," I told him. "And lately the day job gig has been spotty."

The model presented to these kids in college -- start off at some small paper in Podunkville, U.S.A., write whatever and whenever you can, hone your skills, and eventually move up to The Big Time[TM] -- is so hopelessly outmoded that I don't even know where to begin. For starters, The Big Time is smaller than it's ever been, and it's getting smaller every week. Another major publication bites the dust every few days. And the survivors are barely hanging on. What used to provide a nice little boost to the day job income -- enough to fund, say, a vacation to Europe -- now provides nothing at all. How much is your time and energy worth to you? If you can't answer that question with "Nothing, Zero, Zilch," then I'd advise you to bail out of that journalism major.

It is what it is. But the notion of "full-time journalist," or, God forbid, "full-time music critic," is as quaint and antiquated as the eight-track tapes I used play in my Ford Pinto. Say bye-bye.

Here's the real problem with the MP3 model and the attendant fallout in music criticism: Consumers used to rely on music critics to steer them in the direction of what to buy. You found a critic whose taste you respected, who could articulate why a given album was worth owning, and you followed his or her advice and ventured out to buy the album. Now nobody buys music in the first place. If you download an album from a file-sharing site, and the album sucks, it's no big deal. You send the files to your trash can and you try again. It costs you nothing. You've invested nothing. And the music critics -- the ones who are left -- have earned nothing.

There is, of course, an art to music criticism. At least I would like to think so. And perhaps a few people will stick around for the value of a well-written review or feature article. But I feel bad for all the starry-eyed recent graduates. They've been fed a daily diet of assumptions and presuppositions and facts that became obsolete the minute some nerd figured out how to convert entertainment into invisible, free and easily shareable chunks. Mr. Harvey's devout desire to support full-time critics is a praiseworthy gesture. So was Antony's speech over the dead body of Caesar. Neither will bring something dead back to life.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Best of the First Two-Thirds of 2009 Playlist

That's Two Cow Garage, Columbus' own cowpunk heroes. I suspect they will never appear on MTV's Total Requests Live. It's okay.

They are part of my Best of 2009 Playlist As It Now Stands (yes, there are four more months left in the year), but I strongly suspect that no one is going to knock them off. That's because they write killer ragged Americana, all grit and heart, and still manage to sound like slumming poets:

She wore a Led Zeppelin T-shirt
A Virgin Mary tattoo
On her left shoulder like a badge of honor
Fading green to blue

For the record, the first three songs prominently feature the work "fuck." Praise God. I don't know why. It just worked out that way. There's a bit of everything here; raw rock 'n roll, weird freak folk stuff, New Wave retro throwbacks, power pop, raunchy blues, lounge music from the Holiday Inn on Pluto, a psalm featuring a guy who wails at the top of his lungs, some hip-hop, and some latter-day prog rock. Here's who is on the list, which just barely fits onto one 80-minute CD:

  1. California On My Mind -- Wild Light
  2. Love Ire & Song -- Frank Turner
  3. Car Bomb Times -- Gretel
  4. Party To Survive -- No Through Road
  5. To Ohio -- The Low Anthem
  6. Preacher Blues -- Dave Perkins
  7. Sadie Mae -- Two Cow Garage
  8. Norman Bleik -- I Was a King
  9. Shreveport -- The Gourds
  10. Channel -- Joe Henry
  11. Quest for Noah's Ark -- Southeast Engine
  12. End in Flames -- Strand of Oaks
  13. The Dethbridge in Lethbridge -- The Rural Alberta Advantage
  14. In Babylon -- Aaron Strumpel
  15. Stream (A Well Dried Up) -- Gasoline Heart
  16. Cooperstown -- The Felice Brothers
  17. The Heartbreak Rides -- A.C. Newman
  18. This Goes Out -- Will Gray
  19. Amazing Thing -- The Receiver

Friday, August 21, 2009


Any time you can mix ghosts, baseball, and Bob Dylan into the same song, you're doing all right. That's what The Felice Brothers do on their song "Cooperstown" from their latest album Yonder Stands the Clock.

It's hazy and indistinct, propelled by accordion wheezes and guitar strums, and those snarling Dylan words that are, impossibly, written and sung by somebody named Ian Felice. And like a lot of the songs that Dylan sings, it communicates a great deal without making a lot of literal sense. The ghost of Ty Cobb wanders the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. There's a church service, perhaps a funeral, going on. And then we're back in 1905, a young Ty Cobb on the basepaths, a young woman watching him from the stands. And from there it gets seriously weird and metaphysical.

For those who may not be familiar with the man, Ty Cobb may have been the greatest baseball player to ever play the game. And he was universally despised; a mean, contentious sonofabitch who never had a kind word for anybody, and who came into a base with spikes flying, determined to injure any poor schlep who happened to be between him and his goal. In the summer of 1905, his mother gunned down his father. Three weeks later, he played his first game for the Detroit Tigers. And he spent the next 21 years with a chip on his shoulder, daring anyone to stand in his way.

So a line like "he had a game like a war machine" sounds just about perfect to me, as does that line about the wolves that stand between first and third. I think I've been in that game. It's a great song; a fever dream of a bygone era, poetry excavated from the Georgia clay, simultaneously earthy and transcendent.

The water's wide
It's deep and wide
It's down a long and windy road
And everyone knows that a boy can't swim it

In Narrow's Church
The white walled church
They're singing that gospel song
"Bye and Bye, I will see my King"

The clouds will break
And the pews shake
And the choir softly cries
And it's Georgia in the spring of 1905

Oh, Ty Cobb
You're dead and gone
You had a game like a war machine
And through the great
Hall of Fame you wander

In Tigers Field
A girl in heels
She had a face like a magazine
And through the long metal stands she wandered

The ball soared
The crowd roared
The scoreboard sweetly hummed
And tomorrow you'll surely know who's won

I'm on First
And you're on Third
And the wolves are all between
And everyone's sure that the game is over

The catcher's hard
He's mean and hard
And he nips at the batter's heels
And everyone's sure that the game is over

The ball soars
And the crowd roars
And the scoreboard sweetly hums
And tomorrow you'll surely know who's won

The water's wide
It's deep and wide
It's down a long and windy road
And everyone knows that a boy can't swim it

The clouds break
And the pews shake
And the preacher's feet do pound
As the rain beats the streets of Cooperstown
-- The Felice Brothers, "Cooperstown"

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Ears to Hear

He who has ears to hear, let him hear.
-- Jesus

They will rebuild the ancient ruins
and restore the places long devastated;
they will renew the ruined cities
that have been devastated for generations.
-- Isaiah 61:4

My baby sister Libby was in town this weekend, venturing back to humid Ohio from idyllic San Francisco for my niece's wedding. She's not a baby anymore, of course, and hasn't been for quite a while. She's 45 years old, and had her husband Mark and 13-year-old daughter Helen in tow. But old memories die hard. I remember the day she arrived home from the hospital as a newborn. She will always be my baby sister.

Libby grew up in the same house that I did, which means that she was subject to the hell on earth that was the Whitman family. The difference was that while I was old enough to strike out on my own when all hell broke loose, Libby was still a little kid, and had to witness first-hand the insanity, the adultery, the alcoholism, the Christmases with mom passed out on the couch, the suicide attempts, the violent episodes involving smashed plates and butcher knives. I've since come to realize that our story is not unique, although it certainly seemed incredible, and incredibly bad, enough at the time. There are many families who could share their woes with Jerry Springer. But suffice to say that it was still horrible, and Libby had to live through it in a way I did not. It's a wonder she is not a basket case.

But she's not. Instead, she's Dr. Verber. She has a Ph.D. in Audiology, and she's involved in research that will allow people to hear better, and she gets to jet off to exotic locales (okay, Connecticut) to present her findings at conferences. The fickle gods who left me bereft of common sense and mathematical and scientific capabilities have blessed Libby with those abilities in spades, and she's able to use her gifts in some fairly direct ways to benefit humanity. And I admit that I have something of a vested interest in her success. I earn part of my living by listening to music and pretending to write intelligently about it. And I have a fairly severe hearing loss, enough to warrant one, and soon to be two, hearing aids. Who needs earrings when you can sport those babies? And I'm rooting for Libby to improve the lives of thousands of people, and mine while she's at it.

Now if she could just figure out a cure for cancer ...

Here's the deal: Libby has Stage 4 breast cancer, and this weekend was the first time we were able to spend together since her diagnosis. It was a sweet time, as it always is, because I dearly love my sister. But it was a hard time as well. Stage 4 breast cancer is a death sentence, and although Libby has, we all hope and pray, several more years to be a wife and mom and sister and scientist extraordinaire, the ongoing and upcoming battle tended to put a damper on the proceedings. There were times when I wanted to weep. There were times when I wanted to ram my head through the middle of the table at the genteel First Watch Restaurant, and the only reason I didn't was because I didn't want to be carried out in a straitjacket. Yes, I got the melodramatic, emotional genes.

But look, this weekend was a gift. In the midst of the deep sorrow, I marvel at how God has worked. People from our backgrounds don't lead normal, or even remotely productive, lives. They end up in jail. They end up hanging out in methadone clinics. And if we have not -- and indeed, we have not -- then perhaps there is some evidence that the old, familial ruins are being rebuilt, brick by brick; too slowly for my tastes, but rebuilt all the same. You want evidence that there is a God? You should have listened to my sister matter-of-factly discussing the need to mentor someone to carry on her work after she is gone. You don't need to see a miracle. You just need ears to hear.

For now she is here, and I'm so thankful. But the work needs to happen on multiple fronts. She has a daughter who is just entering her teen years. She has a husband who dearly loves her. Please pray for them. They're a great blessing in our lives. She's a remarkable sister, and a remarkable woman.

The Top 500 Songs of the Aughties

Pitchfork is counting down the Top 500 tracks of the Aughties. And it's a list that has me thoroughly confused. Part of it is that a Top Songs lists used to fairly reliably represent singles, and singles only. And singles were those hits you heard on the radio. Thus, you might find the Captain and Tennille on such lists, but you wouldn't find Captain Beefheart, even though Captain Beefheart arguably made better, and inarguably made more interesting, music. That's because Captain Beefheart didn't make singles. He just made his surpassingly strange music.

So I have no idea what the Pitchfork list is intended to represent. Singles? Really? What chart did Sigur Ros's whalesong "Svefn-G-Englar" appear on? Cultural impact? Yeah, that Akufen track was on the tip of everyone's tongue, wasn't it? The Top 500 songs that Pitchfork likes? That would be fine, and it might be the most accurate label for what appears to be going on, but this list also includes folks such as Kelly Clarkson and Rihanna, who are undoubtedly popular, and who certainly make singles, but who make music that most critics would dismiss as the usual ephemeral fluff. That's the problem with discussing, and certainly with ranking, individual tracks in the aughties. The music world is so fragmented that any such list is bound to come off as hopelessly solipsistic and ingrown.

I also find it fairly amusing that Pitchfork actually ranks the Top 500 songs. I have delicious visions of the editors arguing over whether that Akufen track should slot in at #496, or should upstage Weezer for #495. Personally, I wouldn't put it any higher than #498.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


I start a new job on Monday. It's a short 6-week IT contract at Nationwide Insurance, implementing a tool that is very much like Facebook For Nerds. Instead of typing "It's really hot, isn't it? LOL!!!!!" the nerds will type things like "Need help with an AJAX script bug. Anybody? LOL!!!!" Just doing my part to immerse the world in social networking awesomeness.

It's not much, but it's something, and I'm thankful. Still ... six weeks. The hiring manager mentioned that it's possible that the contract could be extended if he can convince those who hold the purse strings to loosen up a bit. For those of you who are praying types, that would be an appropriate prayer.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Joe Henry -- Blood From Stars

Joe Henry is a world-weary romantic; too jaded by false claims and hyped hopes to swallow the vapid Hallmark Card cliches, too cognizant of the tiny miracles of everyday existence to write off the promise and redemptive power of love. That's the uneasy conundrum that informs every song on Blood From Stars, his eleventh album in an ongoing series of dispatches from the war-ravaged front lines of a life.

When we last heard from Henry on 2007's Civilians, he was warily surveying the eroding legacy of America, a big, blustering nation that seemed to have lost its way. But the weighty themes were wedded to some of the starkest, most minimal music of his career, as if he didn't want the lyrical urgency to be drowned out by the sonic whirlwind. In contrast, Blood From Stars shows off Henry's most personal, intimate songwriting, but this time out he's backed by a hyperactive band and a full horn section, by turns soothing and cacophonous. No one in contemporary pop music uses horns as tastefully or as menacingly as Joe Henry, and the sonic palette on display here rivals that of the dizzying, claustrophobic greatness of 2003's Tiny Voices.

The core Blood From Stars band is comprised of the usual suspects: Marc Ribot on guitar, Patrick Warren on keyboards, David Piltch on bass, and Jay Bellerose on drums. They've worked with Henry for years now, and the interplay they've developed with one another borders on the telepathic. Henry gives them plenty of room to maneuver, too, and one of the great pleasures of the album is in listening to four virtuoso musicians strutting their stuff, and yet never stepping on one another.

Henry is working deep within the blues tradition on these songs, but these are blues that have been more informed by Duke Ellington and Langston Hughes than by Robert Johnson or Son House. Henry hangs his tunes on the blues framework, but the sounds and words are more reminiscent of the Cotton Club and the Harlem Renaissance. "The Man I Keep Hid," the opening track, is typical, with its sonic hints of Ellington's "East St. Louis Toodle-oo" and its poetic, confessional tropes. "Somebody used my mouth and laughed out loud," he marvels midway through, and it's a wondrous, telling line that will speak to anyone who has ever experienced the shock that greets the wounding remark that seems to emerge, unbidden, from the murky, subterranean depths of the human soul. It's one of many lyrical delights on the album.

Henry's first-person narratives can never be taken at face value; this is a man, after all, who has given voice to the conflicted inner dialogues of Richard Pryor and Charlie Parker. Somebody used my mouth, indeed. Nevertheless, many of the songs on Blood From Stars bear the unmistakable autobiographical imprint of someone who is wrestling with his inner demons. These are not so much love songs as marriage songs. They emerge a couple decades into the long, contentious, glorious dance, with no end in sight, and with all the old, familiar missteps and minor epiphanies on display. "My favorite cage," Henry calls it on the lovely torch song of the same name, crooning behind Ribot's Django-flavored gypsy guitar arpeggios, and it's a fitting metaphor for the themes he explores throughout these thirteen tracks.

On the album's most beautiful song, the shimmering "Channel," Henry fully explores the relational conundrums; pissed off, wanting to escape, desiring to change the channel or turn off the power switch altogether, and yet recognizing the severe mercy at work that tames his desperation and disarray. It's a lovely, disarming track, the kind of musical marital counseling manual that ought to be required listening for jazz fans and newlyweds alike.

It's serious stuff, to be sure, and yet there is a lightness and grace in these songs that transcends the sometimes portentous themes. In "Progress of Love" Henry moves from the personal to the global for the first and only time, and he addresses that big, blustering nation that so preoccupied him throughout Civilians:

We say "never forget" and mean "never forgive"
No, never as long as ever we live,

It offends our dead to surrender all this,
To even think we might go on --
And freedom doesn't need to be free when it sells

Like ocean waves offered from inside of shells

We bet the farm trying to ring its bells

While love still goes for a song

And just to prove it, he follows that up with with an impossibly romantic instrumental showcase for his son Levon's smoky sax, the kind of smoldering babymaker ballad that Sonny Rollins and Stan Getz used to toss off in the late '50s. It's the perfect antidote to the angst and self-examination, and it suggests some simple truths: Relax. Take it easy. It's nothing that a little candlelight and Merlot can't address.

Such is the genius of Blood From Stars. It's the work of a poetic asshole who is well loved, and grace has the final word. I'm tempted to call it a stone cold masterpiece, but there's nothing cold about it. It's a big, open-hearted, warm paean to the hazards and triumphs of love, human and divine. There's no use separating the two, Joe Henry seems to be telling us. The human is illumined by the flickering light of something better and outside ourselves, and the divine is given substance and form by messy, redemptive relationships. It's the truest album I've heard this year, and the best.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

R.I.P. Les Paul

Most people do well to excel at one thing. Les Paul excelled at many. He was not only one of the greatest guitarists in the world, but he was the Thomas Edison of the music industry, inventing multi-tracking technology, overdubbing, and the solid-body electric guitar. The music world as we know it today simply would not exist without Les Paul. He was one of the giants.

Here he is at 75, a mere slip of a youth:

Riceboy Sleeps

Anybody listening to this Sigur-Ros-once-removed album? Riceboy Sleeps is Sigur Ros songwriter/choirboy Jonsi and musical/life partner Alex Somers. It's Sigur Ros Lite, or, if you prefer, all of the ethereal noodling and none of the big, bombastic payoff. I don't mean that as negatively as it probably comes across, although I'll admit that it's no substitute for a proper Sigur Ros album. What it is is an hour plus of heavily reverbed cooing and sighing, complete with the requisite appearances from string quartet Amiina and a children's choir. As background music it's first rate; ambient enough to allow you to concentrate on whatever task is at hand, varied enough to occasionally pique your interest and make you realize that music is playing. But, for the first time, Jonsi has concocted a batch of music that, if not quite inconsequential, is certainly inessential.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Job Search Strategies

1) Apply for every job that looks remotely palatable.
2) Wait for someone to call you.
3) When asked if you are interested, say "Yes."
4) Explain the now six-month gap in your resume as "self employment," which includes non-paying gigs doing laundry, washing dishes, mowing the lawn, and writing for music magazines.
5) Wait for interviews and job offers to roll in.

We're now at Step 5. There is a current opening for a technical writer in Columbus, the first opening I've seen since March. Let me note again that there is one opening. And I've had six contract/consulting companies contact me during the past two days about the position, so I'm assuming that it's a real job, and that this might bode better than some of the interviews I've had for non-existent jobs (just beefing up the employment pool for when the job market opens up, is the way it was explained to me). It's with a large company in Columbus with whom I've had a previous working relationship. I did well. They liked me. I've done the kind of work for which they are hiring dozens of times in my life. And I'm open to downward mobility, which, no matter what the salary, will be sorta, kinda like upward mobility after six months of unemployment. Will work for food. And health insurance, but nobody's offering that these days.

So here's an interesting phenomenon. I've now answered the "Are you interested?" question with a "Yes" six times in the past two days. And now I'm getting yelled at by two of those companies because I've responded the same way six times, instead of "Yes" the first time and "No" the other five times. Here's the way I look at it: I don't have a job. I would like to have a job. And at this point no one has offered me a job. So why would I, in the absence of interviews and job offers, turn down any queries about my interest in a job? Beats me, but apparently that's what I was supposed to do.

Apparently only one company is supposed to "represent" me. Yeah? Well, I'm an equal-opportunity unemployed geek. We'll see what happens, and I'm assuming nothing. But I'm also not feeling particularly guilty.

Monday, August 10, 2009

When Did Editors Start Doing Their Jobs? (or Shirley, You Jest)

In my ongoing quest to struggle through novels in which tea parties are viewed as scintillating plot devices, I've recently finished Charlotte Bronte's brick of a novel Shirley. To be fair, Charlotte masterfully portrays fully three-dimensional, complex human beings, and there were many scenes in the novel that I greatly appreciated. But there were also several aspects that drove me slightly batty, and I realized that they all centered around quirks and longwinded stratagems that most modern editors would have pointed out in a Harlequin Romance heartbeat. Specfically, the title character isn't introduced until the novel has meandered its way through the first 150 pages, the primary romantic conflict is resolved by Charlotte dropping in a hunk-ex-machina from the skies to restore the needed relational symmetry, and the title character, the forthright, "manly" Shirley, is subdued and put in her place by novel's end, resulting in a distasteful (at least by modern terms) Taming of the Shropshire Shrew approach.

None of this would fly in modern fiction. I wanted to take out a red pen at several points and slash whole chapters. And that started me wondering. At what point, historically, did editors start to play a major role in polishing works of fiction? I'm assuming that Shirley was not edited, at least by an outside source. And I also assume that the status quo held true at least until the late 1800s, because Dickens completely switched course 50 pages into The Old Curiosity Shop, and Victor Hugo was allowed his 50-page digression on the sewer system of Paris in the middle of Les Miserables. None of these things would have made it past an even remotely competent editor these days. Does anyone know when editors started to play a major role in the history of the modern novel?

Friday, August 07, 2009

Awesomefest '09

It's that time of year again. Awesomefest '09 takes place tomorrow in environs in and around Columbus, Ohio.

What is Awesomefest, you might ask? Awesomefest is the most awesome of all fests, and involves three distinct activities:

1) Riding a bike
2) Watching lots of movies, and
3) Getting a tattoo

Specifically, this entails riding a bike for 25 - 30 miles, watching the four Jaws movies, and getting an Awesomefest-themed (think sharks!) tattoo. Here's the schedule:

Registration @ Wild Goose Creative (2491 Summit St, Columbus, Ohio 43202) (coffee will be there courtesy of Cafe Brioso): 8:00-9
Jaws: 9-11
First Ride: 11-12:30 (route TBD, 15-18 miles)
Lunch: 12:30 (at WGC)
Jaws 2: 12:30-2:30 (tattoo appointments start at Evolved: 1906 and 1880 N. High St, Columbus, OH 43201)
Bike Olympics: 2:30-6 (at Medary Elementary: 2500 Medary Ave, Columbus, OH 43202)
Dinner/ Jaws 3D: 6-8 (at WGC)
Second ride: 8-9:30 (route TBD, 10-15 miles)
Jaws: The Revenge 9:30-11 (on Gay St. outside at dusk, courtesy of P2 Pedal Power)
Afterparty at Tip-Top: 11-?

Note that Bike Olympics involve both bike jousting and bike polo. Note too that the final Jaws movie will be shown outdoors, against the side of a building in downtown Columbus, and will be powered via a generator, the juice generated by people (what else?) riding bikes.

And this year the event is bigger and better than ever (okay, it's only the second year, but still ...). People from more than, oh, three states will be participating. Local establishments such as Cafe Brioso, Roll, Paradise Garage, Evolved Tattoos, Seagull Bags, and The Drexel Theater are there to lend a hand. And a writer from 614 Magazine will be there, embedded deep in the heart of the competition, to offer his insights on the wacky proceedings.

The tattoos? Take your pick. They're more varied than ever, too.

All proceeds benefit Asia's Hope, as worthy an organization as you could possibly find. Get a tattoo. House and feed an orphan. It's a pretty great deal, and beats the hell out of a bake sale. Kudos to Nick Fancher for pulling it together.

Goth Country

A few months ago, at the Festival of Faith and Music at Calvin College, guitar slinger and ace songwriter Dave Perkins presented a paper on Goth Country, that strange and macabre mixture of Old Testament fire and brimstone, bad whiskey, loose women, and the intersection of backwoods theology and murder ballads. It's a potent and disturbing musical brew that has fueled everyone from Flannery O'Connor's Hazel Motes to The Louvin Brothers to Johnny Cash to Nick Cave to 16 Horsepower. And since then I've been burrowing in to this moving and disturbing genre. I'd love to know if anyone else is a fan.

The musical touchstones are as old as the traditional Appalachian ballads and the Delta Blues, but some of the more contemporary practitioners are Nick Cave, 16 Horsepower, Johnny Dowd, Woven Hand, Slim Cessna's Auto Club, Jay Munly, The Builders and the Butchers, Jim White, and The Blackeyed Susans. Anybody else follow these folks?

Thursday, August 06, 2009

The Top 10, Okay 300, of the Decade

A friend asked me last night to name my Top 10 albums of Aughties. Heh. Here they are. I haven't given it a lot of thought, but off the top of my head, and with thanks to iTunes, these are the albums that would be on my long list for Best of the Decade.


Soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Eels -- Electro-Shock Blues
Erykah Badu -- Mama's Gun
Flogging Molly -- Swagger
Godspeed You! Black Emperor -- Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven
Michael Penn -- MP4 (Days Since a Lost Time Accident)
Neko Case -- Furnace Room Lullabye
The New Pornographers -- Mass Romantic
Nickel Creek -- Nickel Creek
Outkast -- Stankonia
Radiohead -- Kid A
Ryan Adams -- Heartbreaker
Spoon -- Girls Can Tell
U2 -- All That You Can't Leave Behind
The Weakerthans -- Left and Leaving
The White Stripes -- De Stijl
16 Horsepower -- Secret South


Bob Dylan -- Love and Theft
Chris Whitley -- Rocket House
The Dismemberment Plan -- Change
Explosions in the Sky -- Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever
Gillian Welch -- Time (the Revelator)
Jay-Z -- The Blueprint
Joe Henry -- Scar
Jon Brion -- Meaningless
Old 97's -- Satellite Rides
The Pernice Brothers -- The World Won't End
Pete Yorn -- Music for the Morning After
Red House Painters -- Old Ramon
Sam Phillips -- Fan Dance
A Silver Mt. Zion -- Born Into Trouble as the Sparks Fly Upward
Sparklehorse -- It's a Wonderful Life
The Strokes -- Is This It?
The White Stripes -- White Blood Cells


Beck -- Sea Change
Boards of Canada -- Geogaddi
Bruce Springsteen -- The Rising
Death Cab for Cutie -- You Can Play These Songs with Chords
El-P -- Fantastic Damage
Interpol -- Turn on the Bright Lights
Iron & Wine -- The Creek Drank the Cradle
Linda Thompson -- Fashionably Late
The Mountain Goats -- All Hail West Texas
Neko Case -- Blacklisted
Nick Cave -- Murder Ballads
Patty Griffin -- 1000 Kisses
Sigur Ros -- ()
The Streets -- Original Pirate Material
Tom Waits -- Blood Money
Wilco -- Yankee Hotel Foxtrot


All Things Bright and Beautiful -- Love and Affection
The Bad Plus -- These Are the Vistas
Belle & Sebastian -- Dear Catastrophe Waitress
The Black Keys -- Thick Freakness
British Sea Power -- The Decline of British Sea Power
Chip Taylor and Carrie Rodriguez -- The Trouble With Humans
The Clientele -- The Violet Hour
Erykah Badu -- Worldwide Underground
Fountains of Wayne -- Welcome Interstate Managers
Holopaw -- Holopaw
Jay-Z -- The Black Album
Joe Henry -- Tiny Voices
Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros -- Streetcore
Kathleen Edwards -- Failer
My Morning Jacket -- It Still Moves
Nada Surf -- Let Go
Over the Rhine -- Ohio
The Postal Service -- Give Up
Radiohead -- Hail to the Thief
Rufus Wainwright -- Want One
The Shins -- Chutes Too Narrow
Sufjan Stevens -- Greetings from Michigan
Sun Kil Moon -- Ghosts of the Great Highway
Ted Leo and the Pharmacists -- Hearts of Oak
The Thermals -- More Parts Per Million
The Weakerthans -- Reconstruction Site
The White Stripes -- Elephant
Willard Grant Conspiracy -- Regard the End


A.C. Newman -- The Slow Wonder
The Arcade Fire -- Funeral
The Black Keys -- Rubber Factory
Brian Wilson -- Smile
Buddy Miller -- Universal United House of Prayer
Camera Obscura -- Underachievers Please Try Harder
Damien Dempsey -- Seize the Day
Devendra Banhart -- Rejoicing in the Hands
Drive-By Truckers -- The Dirty South
Feist -- Let It Die
The Frames -- Burn the Maps
The Hold Steady -- Almost Killed Me
Iron & Wine -- Our Endless Numbered Days
Jolie Holland -- Escondida
Kanye West -- The College Dropout
Lori McKenna -- Bittertown
Mando Saenz -- Watertown
Mary Gauthier -- Mercy Now
Modest Mouse -- Good News for People Who Love Bad News
Nick Cave -- Abbatoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus
Pedro the Lion -- Achilles Heel
Ray LaMontagne -- Trouble
Ron Sexsmith -- Retriever
Sam Phillips -- A Boot and a Shoe
The Streets -- A Grand Don't Come for Free
Sufjan Stevens -- Seven Swans
The Thermals -- Fuckin' A
Todd Snider -- East Nashville Skyline
Vetiver -- Vetiver
Woven Hand -- Consider the Birds


Amos Lee -- Amos Lee
Andrew Bird -- The Mysterious Production of Eggs
Bettye Lavette -- I've Got My Own Hell to Raise
Caitlin Cary and Thad Cockrell -- Begonias
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah -- Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
The Clientele -- Strange Geometry
Damien Jurado -- On My Way to Absence
The Decemberists -- Picaresque
The Detroit Cobras -- Baby
Diana Jones -- My Remembrance of You
The Hold Steady -- Separation Sunday
Iarla O Lionaird -- Invisible Fields
Iron & Wine/Calexico -- In the Reins
Laura Veirs -- Years of Meteors
Lizz Wright -- Dreaming Wide Awake
Low -- The Great Destroyer
M.I.A. -- Arular
The National -- Alligator
The New Pornographers -- Twin Cinema
Okkervil River -- Black Sheep Boy
Robert Glasper -- Canvas
Serena Maneesh -- Serena Maneesh
Sigur Ros -- Takk
Silver Jews -- Tanglewood Numbers
Spoon -- Gimme Fiction
Sufjan Stevens -- Come On, Feel the Illinoise


Alasdair Roberts -- The Amber Gatherers
Amy Winehouse -- Back to Black
Anathallo -- Floating World
Arctic Monkeys -- Whatever People Say I Am, That's Why I'm Not
Art Brut -- Bang Bang Rock 'n Roll
Beirut -- Gulag Orkestar
Bob Dylan -- Modern Times
The Broken West -- I Can't Go On, I'll Go On
Camera Obscura -- Let's Get Out of this Country
The Decemberists -- The Crane Wife
Eleni Mandell -- Miracle of Five
The Frames -- The Cost
Gnarls Barkley -- St. Elsewhere
Grizzly Bear -- Yellow House
The Hold Steady -- Boys and Girls in America
James Hunter -- People Gonna Talk
Jolie Holland -- Springtime Can Kill You
Lambchop -- Damaged
Lucero -- Rebels, Rogues & Sworn Brothers
Lupe Fiasco -- Food & Liquor
Manchester Orchestra -- I'm Like a Virgin Losing a Child
Mastodon -- Blood Mountain
Neko Case -- Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
The Soul of John Black -- The Good Girl Blues
Thom Yorke -- The Eraser
Tim Fite -- Over the Counter Culture
TV on the Radio -- Return to Cookie Mountain


The Acorn -- Glory Hope Mountain
Andrew Bird -- Armchair Apocrypha
Animal Collective -- Strawberry Jam
Aradhna -- Amrit Vani
The Arcade Fire -- Neon Bible
The Avett Brothers -- Emotionalism
Blitzen Trapper -- Wild Mountain Nation
Bon Iver -- For Emma, Forever Ago
The Clientele -- God Save the Clientele
Devon Sproule -- Keep Your Silver Shined
Do Make Say Think -- You, You're a History in Rust
El-P -- I'll Sleep When You're Dead
Ezra Furman and the Harpoons -- Banging Down the Doors
Future Clouds and Radar -- Future Clouds and Radar
Iron & Wine -- The Shepherd's Dog
James Blackshaw -- The Cloud of Unknowing
Joe Henry -- Civilians
Levon Helm -- Dirt Farmer
M.I.A. -- Kala
Marco Benevento -- Invisible Baby
The Mendoza Line -- Thirty Year Low
The National -- Boxer
P.J. Harvey -- White Chalk
Radiohead --- In Rainbows
Robert Plant & Alison Krauss -- Raising Sand
Southeast Engine -- A Wheel Within a Wheel
Spoon -- Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
St. Vincent -- Marry Me
The Weakerthans -- Reunion Tour


Adele -- 19
Al Green -- Lay It Down
Anathallo -- Canopy Glow
Blind Pilot -- 3 Rounds and a Sound
Blitzen Trapper -- Furr
Bonnie "Prince" Billy -- Lie Down in the Light
British Sea Power -- Do You Like Rock Music
Darrell Scott -- Modern Hymns
DM Stith -- Heavy Ghost
Eleni Mandell -- Artificial Fire
Erykah Badu -- New Amerykah Park One
Fleet Foxes -- Fleet Foxes
Frightened Rabbit -- The Midnight Organ Fight
The Hold Steady -- Stay Positive
Ida Maria -- Fortress Round My Heart
Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey -- Li' Tae Rides Again
James Hunter -- The Hard Way
Jamey Johnson -- That Lonesome Song
Johnny Flynn and the Sussex Wit -- A Larum
Jolie Holland -- The Living and the Dead
Josh Garrels -- Jacaranda
Los Campesinos -- Hold On Now, Youngster
Loudon Wainwright III -- Recovery
M83 -- Saturdays = Youth
Morley -- Seen
Nick Cave -- Dig, Lazarus, Dig
Portishead -- Third
Shearwater -- Rook
A Silver Mt. Zion -- 13 Blues for 13 Moons
Son Lux -- At War With Walls and Mazes
Sun Kil Moon -- April
TV on the Radio -- Dear Science,
Vampire Weekend --- Vampire Weekend

I told you this was a long list.


We'll see, but I'm fairly certain that Joe Henry, The Antlers, Aaron Strumpel, and The Decemberists will be there.

Umm, narrowing this down to 10 might be challenging. I love all these albums.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Nancy Wilson

No, not the woman in Heart; the great jazz-pop singer from Columbus, Ohio. It's time to give a shoutout to the hometown girl.

Nancy Wilson doesn't get -- and perhaps doesn't merit -- the acclaim of compatriots such as Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, or Sarah Vaughan. She's often dismissed as a pop singer who aspired to jazz greatness, and, in truth, she recorded her share of pop fluff. So did Billie, Ella, and Sarah, by the way.

But when she's at her best -- and she's at her best when she's paired with established jazz giants such as Cannonball Adderly and George Shearing -- she's the equal of the holy triumvirate. Her 1962 album Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderly, is a case in point. Adderly was fresh off a longstanding gig with Miles Davis, and he sneaks in a couple quotes from Kind of Blue as asides in this mostly standards-dominated set. Nancy Wilson sounds invigorated and challenged, and she delivers a superb, and distinctly jazz vocal, performance. By the way, the pianist is a then-unknown dude named Joe Zawinul, who would go on to play with Miles before he started a little fusion band called Weather Report. This is a very fine and virtually unknown album. It's worth discovering.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Alasdair Roberts

Glasgow folk singer Alasdair Roberts has a couple new projects that are well worth your time. His short EP The Wyrd Meme, out in September, is a very fine and more conventional followup to his surpassingly strange early 2009 album Spoils. That one featured excellent singing and a mad prophetic metaphysical vibe, as Alasdair ranted about Jehovah, Zoroaster, and Allah, and offered sentiments such as "I was bilious and saturnine/As I walked from shrine to wayside shrine." He hasn't exactly abandoned the idiosyncrasies on The Wyrd Meme (one song is called "The Hallucinator and the King"), but I prefer the more straightforward Trad instrumentation of the four songs here, even though these are songs that could have only been composed by Alasdair Roberts. He's a wondrous singer, a quirky and intelligent writer, and a great talent.

And he's also an integral part of Black Flowers, a Glasgow supergroup of sorts, which features Roberts' alternating, and sometimes duet, vocals with Trembling Bells thrush Lavinia Blackwall. The resulting debut album, called I Grew From a Stone to a Statue, is something else entirely, and is impossible to sum up easily because each of the five very long songs sounds completely different. You like Neil Young/Crazy Horse? That's here on the stunning cover of Richard Thompson's "Calvary Cross." Church pipe organ? Check. That's on Blackwall's lovely "Sweet Rivers of Redeeming Love." How about skirling bagpipes and a choir of droning, discordant voices that recalls the work of contemporary classical composer Olivier Messiaen? That would be "And the Words Fell Like Malting Blossom." Oh, and there are a couple of Trad ballads, too. With winding Neil Young guitar solos.

Great stuff.

Ghost College

There is a minuscule market for what Antioch sells for a tuition, room and board of $35,221 — repressive liberalism unleavened by learning. -- George Will

George Will may be right, or he may be wrong. One thing is certain. Antioch College isn't selling anything anymore. The college closed its doors in June, 2008. The picturesque campus in Yellow Springs, Ohio, an hour northeast of Cincinnati, is crumbling, the weeds poking through the cracked walkways. Squirrels and birds are the only campus denizens. The only students you will find passing through the hallowed halls are ghosts.

Perhaps it's simply a sign of the times. When Antioch was at its height -- the late '60s and early '70s -- the Vietnam War was raging, the Civil Rights movement was still a relatively novel notion, and Antioch was at the forefront of liberal America. They didn't hand out grades at Antioch. They handed out narratives, paragraphs and pages of nouns and verbs in which students were evaluated in actual prose. But employers don't really care about letters other than A through C. And even the hippies want jobs these days, and livin' off the land, man, doesn't appear to be quite the romantic adventure it once seemed.

Kate and I wandered through Yellow Springs on Friday. The town still retains a bit of its hippie history. There is Alternative Everything in Yellow Springs: alternative food, alternative spirituality, alternative medicine; all marketed in deceptively capitalist ways. Even the mailman had dreadlocks. But the college was a sad and sober reminder of what can happen when the old ideals are outstripped by reality. At the pond beside the main campus building, pictured above in better days, a couple small kids were catching frogs. They were the only inhabitants, human or reptilian, that we saw. Antioch is a ghost college. It made plenty of mistakes along the way. I wish it was still around to prick the consciences and bug the hell out of people like George Will.