Wednesday, September 30, 2009
Forgotten Gems -- The Move
Wood's primary musical vehicle was The Move, the late '60s/early '70s British band that eventually spawned the better-known Electric Light Orchestra. You've no doubt heard the latter, but you're a serious rock 'n roll fan indeed if you've heard the former. Although The Move had several Top 10 hits in their native England, the magic never crossed the pond. These days The Move -- and Roy Wood -- are largely forgotten relics of a bygone era. And it's too bad. Some of those relics still make for very fine listening.
The eponymous debut album (1968), Shazam (1970) and Message From The Country (1971) are all well worth tracking down, but it's Message From The Country that really sticks with me. The album was recorded simultaneously with the first Electric Light Orchestra album. Most of Jeff Lynne's songs ended up on ELO I; most of Roy Wood's songs ended up on Message From The Country. And while ELO did rock/classical fusion as well as anyone, it is Roy Wood and his unapologetic, no frills rock 'n roll that has held up the best over the years. There are at least two songs here that deserve classic status -- "Do Ya," which has one of the greatest bludgeoning guitar riffs ever recorded, and "California Man," a rockabilly/surf pastiche later covered to great effect on Cheap Trick's Live at Budokan. The rest of the album -- recently re-released and fitted out with the usual assortment of outtakes and demos -- is almost as good; a wildly eclectic mix of psychedelic rockabilly country show tunes that are united only by their uniform excellence and their unstoppable hooks.
Do yourself a favor and check out this criminally ignored music.
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
"Hand over the nun, padre" I told him. "And the copy of St. Benedict's Rule while you're at it. Come on, I don't have all day."
The padre hesitated, and I didn't blame him. Sister Stella had a beatific face that would have made an archbishop kick out a stained glass window. She was one righteous nun; sweet, pink, white.
"Not so fast, gumshoe," the monk countered. "Look, a stigmata!"
I looked. I knew immediately that I shouldn't have looked. The monstrance cracked against the back of my head, and I saw stars. And I was nowhere near Hollywood.
Monday, September 28, 2009
The Lost Boy
“Oh,” I said.
Matt died on Saturday of a heroin overdose. He was 22 years old. I can only imagine that his parents, whom I’ve never met, moved to the suburban idyll of Westerville, Ohio for the same reasons that many people head to the suburbs. They wanted safety, protection, pleasant neighborhoods, good schools. They wanted to give their kids a fighting chance. But you can’t protect people from themselves. Many people saw this coming, but no one was able to stop it, primarily because the protagonist didn’t want to stop. And when your kid wants to be Kurt Cobain, or Jimi Hendrix, or Jim Morrison, things can only end badly.
Friday, September 25, 2009
The Mountain Goats -- The Life of the World to Come
-- Matthew 25:21
The prolific John Darnielle and his revolving cast of bandmates, collectively known as The Mountain Goats, are about to release a new album called The Life of the World to Come. As with all Mountain Goats albums, this one is a lo-fi indie folk hootenanny, not too concerned with technical instrumental prowess or vocal pitch. And like the others, it's pretty great.
Darnielle's always been a literate songwriter, and this time the entire album is based on impressions from a book; in this case, the Bible. Every song is Darnielle's idiosyncratic take on a Bible verse or verses. Representative titles include "1 Samuel 15:23," "Hebrews 11:40," and "Matthew 25:21." This being a Mountain Goats album, you won't hear those verses quoted in the lyrics. Darnielle is too quirky and too introspective to write about anything but himself. But there is a generosity and an open-heartedness in his scriptural musings that is astonishing. What we have here is a musical lectio divina; the Word interacting with a life that is fully cognizant of the pain and suffering of others; and a life interacting with the Word. It's the farthest thing removed from a rote CCM Scripture Quote fest:
They'd hooked you up to a Fentanyl drip
To mitigate the pain a little bit
I flew in from Pennsylvania
When I heard the hour was coming fast
And I docked in Santa Barbara
Tried to brace myself
But you can't brace yourself when the time comes
You just have to roll with the blast
And I'm an eighteen wheeler headed down the interstate
And my brakes are gonna give, and I won't know 'til it's too late
Tires screaming when I lose control
Try not to hurt too many people when I roll
Find the Harbor freeway and head south
Real tired, head kind of light
I found Telegraph Road
I'd only seen the name on envelopes
Found the parking lot and turned right
I felt all the details carving out space in my head
Tropicana's on the walkway, neon red
Between the pain and the pills, trying to hold it at bay
Stands a traveler going somewhere far away
And I am an airplane, tumbling wing over wing
Trying to listen to my instruments, they don't say anything
People screaming when the engines quit
I hope we're all in crash position when we hit
And then came to your bedside
And as it turns out I'm not ready
And as though you were speaking through a thick haze
You said hello to me
We all stood there around you
Happy to hear you speak
The last of something bright burning
Still burning beyond the cancer and the chemotherapy
And you were a presence full of light upon this earth
And I am a witness to your life and to its worth
It's three days later when I get the call
And there's nobody around to break my fall
That one's called "Matthew 25:21," and the biblical reference is quoted at the beginning of this post. It makes me want to weep and gnash my teeth and bang my head against the wall, which can be problematic when you're listening over iPod earbuds, and there's a co-worker on the other side of the cubicle wall. But it's great because of the little details, because Darnielle understands that cancer is always particular and personal, that it involves real people with real names and faces, and with real friends and family members they leave behind. Maybe I react the way I do because I know too many people right now who are facing that kind of fate. But that's why the song succeeds so well. We all have those stories. Fucking cancer. Darnielle's story is our story, too, but it's magnificent and worthwhile because the life he celebrates was a presence and a light in a specific time, in a specific place, known and communicated by a guy with a wobbly tenor and a tentative guitar technique and a hole in his big, big heart.
This is a fabulous album, and a profoundly Christian one, although I suspect the artist might deny the charge. That's okay. I'm not God, nor do I play Him on the internets, but I'll still give him a hearty "Well done, good and faithful servant."
Thursday, September 24, 2009
Jesus the CEO
Occasionally -- maybe once or twice per year -- somebody brought in a real suggestion that had ideological implications, and that's when things heated up, as they are wont to do once ideologies enter the mix. And one day, one of the elders suggested that we bring a program into the church called Jesus the CEO, the gist of which was that Jesus was the greatest organizational leader the world had ever seen, and that by following his policies and techniques we would expand our church membership, attract new and vital interest from the Younger Generations[TM], and enhance the church coffers.
At first I thought it was a joke. It was not a joke. The aforementioned elder, and several other members of the board, were dead earnest. Our church was failing because we had neglected sound business principles in its operation, business principles established by Jesus, our Lord, Savior, and yes, CEO.
I pointed out that Jesus' leadership style took in attracting the dregs of society, the dubiously impractical business model of leaving the 99 behind and searching for the 1 who was lost (what was the cost/benefit ratio on that one?), and a disastrous close-the-sale deal involving a crucifixion and the flight of his closest followers, and that was made right only by the whole resurrection bailout.
In short, I was not in favor of the Jesus as CEO paradigm. They went ahead with the program anyway. I don't know if it was the last nail. But it was a nail in the coffin. It was time to go. And we went.
Michael Moore, provacateur, pest, and amazingly entertaining guy, is about to release a new film called Capitalism: A Love Story. In it he interviews several members of the clergy, all of whom avow that the basic principles of capitalism are incompatible with the basic principles of Christianity. That's Michael Moore, and he stacks the deck. Nevertheless, we're about to have the Jesus the CEO debate all over again. I'm just giving you fair warning. Me? I figure that I still need to be rescued from a failed project. I'm way behind schedule, and I've missed several critical milestones. I need a CEO who rewards me not on my merits, but in spite of my screwups. It's not very Darwinian of me, but I'm hoping for a non-Darwinian solution.
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
Random Musical Thoughts -- Dave Perkins, Apples in Stereo, The Knickerbockers, Cotton Mather, Frank Turner
-- Denver's Apples in Stereo have just released a very fine career retrospective called #1 Hits Explosion. Funny guys (and girl). In spite of the K-Tel title, they've never had a hit, and probably never will, but that shouldn't stop you from checking out a criminally underrated band. This is deliciously sweet power pop with psychedelic trimmings. The guitars go all the way to 11, and there are more hooks here than can be found in a fishing and tackle shop.
-- All the latest Beatles hoopla has sent me thumbing through the old record collection, looking not for Beatles music (that would be too obvious), but rather for bands that have been influenced by The Beatles. I know, there are thousands of 'em. But a couple have managed to fool me in the sense that if I didn't know any better, I'd swear I was listening to a long-lost John and Paul rocker. In the Early Beatles Soundalike category, I give you "Lies" by The Knickerbockers, circa 1966. The Knickerbockers only had one great song, and this is it. Otherwise, they were a frat party band from New Jersey who did nothing memorable. But oh, that song. And in the Latter/Psychedelic Beatles Soundalike category, I give you "Camp Hill Rail Operator" from the 1997 album Kontiki by Austin, Texas misfits Cotton Mather. They were from Texas, but they'd have preferred to be from Liverpool, and they captured the Revolver/Rubber Soul era just about perfectly.
-- London folk punk Frank Turner's new album Poetry of the Deed is a real grower, and is quickly moving up my Best of 2009 list. Turner's earlier music was a little too beholden to Billy Bragg. Nothing wrong with that influence, but sometimes he didn't sound like his own man. He does here, though, with a batch of witty, sharply written punk/pop tunes. "Live Fast Die Old" dares to question the unspoken assumption that real punks need to burn out fast, and "Try This At Home" features the memorable lines:
They're just people who play music
And some of them are just like us
And some of them are dicks
Love that rhyme. And the sentiments.
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Hallelujah the Hills -- Colonial Drones
Church bells ringing out commercials for Jesus
Future ex-girlfriends all promise to leave us
Life is tough. But at least it's tuneful.
Thursday, September 17, 2009
Propaganda or Masterpiece?
Certainly this is a problematic topic, both for artists and the meaning of art. But it is not a new one, and I'm somewhat baffled by the outcry over this particular manifestation of an age-old issue. Commissions -- and frequently state-sponsored commissions -- of works of art have characterized every age, from the Greek and Roman eras to the present day. And governments have employed artists for their own ends since time immemorial. Jacques-Louis David's paintings of the emperor Napoleon glorified and mythologized a tyrant, and they were paintings that were frequently commissioned by Napoleon himself. A significant number of the architectural wonders of Europe were commissioned by governments. In the modern era, we remember with horror the propaganda generated by Goebbels and the Nazis, and the stylized Russian worker posters of Stalin's totalitarian regime. But we overlook the film reels of our gallant boys in World War II, and we tend to think of the massive temples and obelisks scattered around Washington D.C. as national monuments, not propaganda.
It would help if we could define the terms, and not simply label any politcally-motivated art we don't like as "propaganda." Sometimes other people call these things "masterpieces."
I can't imagine that attempts to promote the Obama administration's push for health care reform would result in worthwhile or good art, but I'm willing to give it a shot. To the tune of "Blowin' in the Wind":
How many trips to the emergency room
Can the uninsured make 'til they're denied?
Yes, and how many $462 prescriptions can one man fill
Before all his savings have dried
The answer, my friend, is health care reform
The answer is health care reform
That will be $2,000,000.00, please. Please?
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
Two Cow Garage and the Small-Town Blues
Monday, September 14, 2009
Down for the Count
Another Person Who Died
I'm going to stop writing about old musicians in Paste.
Teddy sniffing glue, he was 12 years old
Fell from the roof on East Two-nine
Cathy was 11 when she pulled the plug
On 26 reds and a bottle of wine
Bobby got leukemia, 14 years old
He looked like 65 when he died
He was a friend of mine
Those are people who died, died
They were all my friends, and they died
G-berg and Georgie let their gimmicks go rotten
So they died of hepatitis in upper Manhattan
Sly in Vietnam took a bullet in the head
Bobby OD'd on Drano on the night that he was wed
They were two more friends of mine
Two more friends that died
Those are people who died, died
They were all my friends, and they died
-- Jim Carroll, "People Who Died"
Jimmy wrote poetry, he was 60 years old
Never woke up from a heart attack
Was a teenaged junkie but he made it out alive
'Til he nodded off and then didn't come back
He wasn't my friend, but he wrote like one
I miss him, he died.
Jim Carroll made soundtracks to the horror movies in his head, but he had a beating heart until this weekend. He never lost sight of that heart.
Tuesday, September 08, 2009
The Record Store Guy
(h/t to Maureen, who pointed this out to me)
Once upon a time there were establishments called record stores. These were dubious enterprises, often dank and dark, housed in subterranean passages under city streets, and if the surroundings didn't scare you off, the employees often would. On a good day, a dubious purchase might merely merit a smirk or a raised eyebrow from the guy behind the cash register. More typically, an album by, say, Abba or Olivia Newton John, would elicit guffaws, chortling, and outright ridicule. I knew people who would rather lose money than sell you an Olivia Newton John album. It might have been bad for business, but these folks never claimed to be in business for business, and the clueless customers were always good for a laugh. They brightened up the day down in those cellars, and the sharks could always smell the fresh meat.
One of those sharks was a guy named Bela, who worked for many years at Schoolkids Records and Used Kids Records in Columbus. Bela has started a blog, where he remembers those days. I've met Bela, and Dan and Ron and Curt, and all the other guys he writes about whose approving nods would always validate my existence. If you've never spent a Saturday afternoon (yes, an entire Saturday afternoon) in a record store, or gotten in a heated argument over whether Elton John lost all credibility after Tumbleweed Connection (1971), or whether he held out until after Honky Chateau (1972), then none of this will make much sense to you. But some of us will recognize these folks, and will say, "Yeah, those are my peeps." On Bela's blog you will find things like this:
I admired a man named Craig Regala who worked alongside his longtime girlfriend at Magnolia Thunderpussy records, I had an undying crush on her but with her being with him and at least twenty-six years old was way out of my league. When the north location of Magnolia’s closed, I hired Craig at Discount where we laughed at the insanity of a corporate record store. We would sometimes crouch below the counter as the other one rang up a pain-in-the-ass customer and pull our penises out and wiggle them around, just out of eye shot of the customer. Craig had about seventy-seven ear piercings in his ears and tattoos that didn’t consist of roses or naked ladies on his arms, he was funny as hell and insightful.
If you're put off by that, then don't read. And some of us will think, "Man, I've always wanted to do that to some snarky customer." What can I say? I liked Jack Black in High Fidelity, too.
Number Nine, Number Nine
And isn't it amusing that those were considered moptops?
Friday, September 04, 2009
More Top 10
The Buck Stops Here
I have a love/hate relationship with country music. I can't abide the contemporary Nashville variety; aerobics instructors all duded up in Stetson hats, playing arena rock with a twang for all the people who couldn't get enough of .38 Special and REO Speedwagon thirty years ago. But I surely love the classic stuff. Give me George Jones, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Tammy Wynette, Waylon Jennings, Patsy Cline, and Hank Williams, and I'm a very happy man. And yessir, buckaroos, Buck Owens.
Buck came out of Bakersfield, same as Merle, and created the best honky-tonk music on the planet, all weeping pedal steel and rumbling Fender Telecaster. It sounded great pumping out of a truckstop jukebox, and it sounds great fofty-five years down the line. It's unfortunate that Buck is best known as resident buffoon on the long-running cornball variety hour "Hee Haw." He was a country music giant, and he understood, in the same way that the great blues masters understood, that singing about your sorrows can actually make people feel good:
Hello trouble, come on in
You talk about heartaches, where in the world you been?
I ain't had the miseries since you been gone
Hello trouble, trouble, trouble, welcome home.
He had a thousand of 'em like that, cliched little ditties that still struck a nerve because they were funny and wry and true. You can find his best music compiled on the 3-CD The Buck Owens Collection (1959-1990). Some of you will wonder if you actually need 3 CDs of this music. Yes, you do. A one-volume greatest hits collection doesn't get at the breadth and scope of the man's greatness. And make no mistake. He was great for thirty years.
The Brutal Season
Every year at this time several hundred thousand central Ohioans lose their minds. I've lived here most of my life, and I still can't get used to it. It is, and always will be, a bizarre phenomenon for me. Look, to the extent that I care, I want the Buckeyes to win their games, if for no other reason than it makes most of the people around me happier. But it also makes them crazier. I'm not sure if it's an even tradeoff.
Wednesday, September 02, 2009
Geography and Music
I've long held the view that there is an inverse relationship between the geographic components of a band name and musical quality. The bigger the geographic reference, the worse the music. The more obscure the geographic reference, the better the music. Let's test out the theory.
Obscure Geographic Features
Okkervil River, Speck Mountain, Nickel Creek. Who knows if they even exist on maps? But the bands are great.
City/town bands can teeter either way. They often achieve commercial success that is commensurate with their relative urban importance (Chicago, Boston), but that doesn't make them particularly great from a musical standpoint. On the plus side, we have Beirut, Architecture in Helsinki, and The New York Dolls. On the minus side, we have Atlanta Rhythm Section, Orleans, and The Bay City Rollers. Call it a Wash(ington, D.C.).
Here things start to deteriorate rapidly. Alabama. Georgia Satellites. Kentucky Headhunters. Black Oak Arkansas. Kansas. Granted, I'm not a fan of good ol' boys or '70s arena rockers, but I'm also convinced that there is a twisted bravura at work here that leads to hairy guys in overalls staking out hundreds of thousands of square miles in their band monikers.
Possible counter-argument: Oregon. No, they were New Age hippie dipshits. Never mind.
No, not the dudes in Stetson hats. The band that prompted this post, called These United States, has just released a new album called Everything Touches Everything. Except for Alaska and Hawaii. The album sucks, I think. It's honestly just kind of nondescript. It's not the worst music I've ever heard. It might be the most forgettable. Maybe. The same goes for Spain, Page France, and England Dan and John Ford Coley. If you can name even one song (no cheating, this has to be from memory) from anyone on that list I will personally award you with the National Geographic foldout map of my choice.
Counter-argument: Afghan Whigs, Japan, and Mission of Burma were/are actually good. Maybe the crap is limited to bands named after countries in the western hemisphere. But then there are ...
Asia. Europe. Mercifully, the contagion appears to have stopped there. More dreaded and dangerous than Bubonic Plague, these two bands are personally responsible for inflicting the most bloated, pretentious music ever. Ever. Compared to Asia and Europe, William Shatner's albums are understated and low-key. Compared to Asia and Europe, Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey and every other scale-trilling robodiva is a paragon of nuance and tastefulness.
If my theory is correct, sometime in the future a megaband will adopt the name of a galaxy or distant solar system. This will mark the end of the world. Even so, come Lord Jesus.
Tuesday, September 01, 2009
Cotton Mather -- Kontiki
But you know what? This is a 5-star album. There are fourteen songs here and fourteen winners, a pitch-perfect Beatles homage bursting with hooks and swooning harmonies. The album came out in 1998, 34 years too late for Ed Sullivan. Oh well. The kids haven't screamed hysterically since John married Yoko, but I'd sure like to holler about the virtues of this album.