Friday, October 30, 2009
This is intelligent music that rocks like crazy, and Craig Finn and The Hold Steady have some worthy competition for the Best Boss Acolyte of 2009 award. And they've recorded an album that is a far sight better than what The Boss has delivered this year.
Oh well. It's better than the alternative, which is death. Barely.
So last night I got to hang out at the Ohio Health Sleep Disorders Clinic. At the sleep clinic they wire you up real good. Not only do you get to wear the mask/snout, but they smear white goo all over your body, and then attach various wires and electrodes to the goo. Then they hook all the wires up to another machine, and tell you not to move and to go to sleep.
I thought about busting out with my mask on, dragging my wires and electrodes behind me and roaming the surrounding suburban neighborhoods. It was the perfect night for it. Hi, kiddies. 'Tis now the very witching time of night, when churchyards yawn, and hell itself breathes out contagion to this world. How you like me now?
I didn't. I pulled the covers up over me like a good boy/elephant and tried not to move. It was a long night. I didn't sleep much, but I hope the hour and a half or so will provide enough data to evaluate the current state of my non-breathing. I look forward to doing it all over again in a couple more years, assuming I keep breathing.
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
Because it is a sacrosanct rule that the wife always gets the new car, everybody else shifts accordingly. I get the 2009 Mazda 6, previously driven by my wife. My 23 year-old-daughter gets the 2004 Chevy Cavalier, previously driven by me. It had better last her through grad school. The 1995 Geo Prizm (no, they don't make 'em anymore), formerly driven by my 23-year-old daughter, now sits in the driveway, waiting to be driven by my youngest daughter when she's home on school breaks and needs to get to work.
It is actually this vehicle that started the snowball rolling. The Geo Prizm is a two-tone (blue and rust; blue because that's the original color, rust because it's now mostly rust) monstrosity that is the official scourge of our suburban neighborhood. The defrost, heat, and AC don't work, which means that the windshield fogs up quite menacingly whenever there is a hint of moisture in the air. It is only safe to drive about 4 days per year in Ohio. It is also truly an ugly car. When my testy neighbor complains about the length of my lawn, I tend to park it on the street, close to his mailbox. Just being neighborly, praise God. Perhaps I need to read the post below again.
Monday, October 26, 2009
Going to church
Spiritual disciplines (e.g., fasting)
Going on spiritual retreats
Reading religious books
Arguing with evolutionists
Sending your child to a Christian school or providing education at home
Using religious language
Avoiding R-rated movies
Not reading Harry Potter.
The point is that one can fill a life full of spiritual activities without ever, actually, trying to become a more decent human being. Much of this activity can actually distract one from becoming a more decent human being. In fact, some of these activities make you worse, interpersonally speaking. Many churches are jerk factories.
-- Dr. Richard Beck
I watched the popular television show The Amazing Race last night. One of the competing couples, wholesome Barbie and Ken lookalikes, had made it a point throughout the race to emphasize their faith in Christ. They were racing for Jesus, and trying to win a million bucks for Jesus, presumably on the understanding that their local church would receive the $100,000 tithe. They were smiling and happy, confident in their abilities. Then they hit a bump. Barbie needed to go down a big, scary, nearly vertical water slide to continue in the race. She balked. It was too tall, too fast. She was afraid of both heights and water. Ken encouraged her. Remember, baby, I mean sister, a million bucks is at stake here. You can do it. Then he, umm, exhorted her. Come on, you've got to do it. I mean it. You've got to do it. Now! Then he got behind her and forcibly tried to push her down the slide. Barbie fought back, kicking and screaming. Then she cried. Then she pouted. "I wish I was back in Nashville," she whined.
She never went down the slide. Barbie and Ken finished last, and were eliminated from the race. At the end, summing up their achievements, Ken stated, "I don't hold it against Barbie. There is freedom in forgiveness." Well, yeah. But here's the deal, Ken: you're an abusive jerk. And Barbie is a pampered, whiney, jerkette. Praise God. Or better yet, don't, at least not in front of a camera. It's better that the watching world isn't aware of your life-changing faith.
Dr. Richard Beck, Psychology professor at Abilene Christian University, writes persuasively about the lengths we go to as Christians to avoid the nebulous but incredibly challenging task of living less like jerks. We substitute activity for deep spiritual change. And when I say "we," I mean we, meaning you (if you're a Christian) and me. I understand the appeal of Dr. Beck's laundry list. I once spent an evening in seminary getting drunk and reading 100+ pages that distilled the arguments on whether the apostle Paul was writing to churches in north Galatia or south Galatia. I'm thinking that north Galatia won in the long run. I could be wrong. I know I lost.
And really, as much as I cringed when I watched the interpersonal debacle unfold between Barbie and Ken last night, I felt a great deal of empathy for them. They're broken. He's got anger issues, she's a passive-aggressive princess, and they just happen to love Jesus. They're a lot like you and me. It would take someone far more versed in Church history and polity than me to address all the factors that contribute to a Christian culture of busyness that never quite gets around to addressing systemic life changes; in less fancy terms, how to be a jerk less frequently. I'm content to leave it as the product of settling for the good instead of the necessary. There's nothing wrong, per se, with any of the activities Dr. Beck lists. They simply don't address the deep spiritual wrestling and surrender that needs to take place before real change can come. That can be a real-life horror movie, and most Christians don't approve of horror movies.
In the meantime, I'm going to advocate the radical, anti-evangelistic practice of shutting up, at least for me. I can't control other people, which is one of those deep spiritual lessons I'm still learning. Today's commandment: I say unto you, shut up and be less of a jerk. I can fantasize about how it would have applied on a television show last night. I'm fairly certain that it's a commandment that I need to heed today.
For what it's worth, I have nothing but admiration for Dylan's charitable goals. And yeah, it's a Christmas album, but that's admittedly a genre that doesn't do much to inspire holiday cheer in me in the first place. However, I do take issue with those who find value in the overproduced schlock/ragged yelp contrast. At its best (e.g., the early albums of Tom Waits), bombastic and ragged can work wonderfully together. The impossibly romantic strings and Waits' gravelly musings could conjure a world of poignancy and sadness. This was love on the wrong side of the tracks, and Waits' cast of losers was illuminated movingly by the raw vocals and the sometimes saccharine nature of the musical accompanment. Waits' cover of "Somewhere (There's a Place For Us)" from Bernstein's West Side Story was such a moment. This was the high melodrama of the Broadway musical, all right, but it was being performed way, way off Broadway, and it was sung by someone who sounded like he was launching his big aria while holding a brown paper bag and slouching against a dumpster. It worked, and it worked beautifully. But it worked because of the inherent tension in the songs, because the desperate optimism and hope of Bernstein's music and Sondheim's lyrics met the dead end of Waits' shattered vocals.
In contrast, Dylan sounds like your old, sloshed uncle banging away on the family upright piano and belting out some familiar carols, with the added "bonus" of production and accompaniment right out of a Cecil B. DeMille biblical epic. It's a horrendous idea horrendously executed, incompetence meeting unvarnished hokum. Sorry to be such a Scrooge, but your holidays will be so much brighter if you just skip the music. Donate the money to the charity of your choice.
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
Favorite/Best Artist of the Decade
Buddy Miller, without a doubt. He's been consistently excellent, whether recording solo albums, recording duets with wife Julie, or contributing as a sideman to the work of countless other artists. If Buddy's involved, chances are it's good-to-great. He's got the Richard Thompson (another country artist, although his country is England) triple threat going: great songwriter, great guitarist, great singer.
Close, but No Honorary Stetson: Gillian Welch, Neko Case
Kids to Watch
Okay, some of them aren't kids. But they've all emerged in the past ten years. Here are some upstarts who have contributed to a fine musical decade: Kathleen Edwards, Justin Townes Earle, The Avett Brothers, Devon Sproule, Hayes Carll, Kasey Anderson, Lori McKenna, Mando Saenz, Mary Gauthier, Ryan Bingham, Scott Biram, Southeast Engine, Holopaw, Deadstring Brothers, Dexateens, The Felice Brothers, Heartless Bastards, Lucero, and Two Cow Garage.
The Old Farts Still Have It
Kudos to Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle (minus half the material recorded during the Bush administration; GW was not kind to Steve's creativity), Loretta Lynn, Paul Burch, The Bottle Rockets, Calexico, Old 97's, Willard Grant Conspiracy, Son Volt, Dave Alvin, Chris Knight, Drive-By Truckers, James McMurtry, and Webb Wilder. Some are a little longer in the tooth than others. But they've all been around for multiple decades, with no real diminishment of quality.
Most Disappointing Artist of the Decade
This will be disputed, no doubt, but Lucinda Williams takes the black ribbon. She's recorded one very good album (World Without Tears), one mediocre album (Essence) and three stinkers (West, Little Honey, Live at the Fillmore). She can still muster up a wondrously raw, plaintive sound. But she's forgotten how to write songs.
Buddy Miller -- Universal United House of Prayer
Gillian Welch -- Time (The Revelator)
Neko Case -- Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
Thad Cockrell/Caitlin Cary -- Begonias
Kathleen Edwards -- Back to Me
Willard Grant Conspiracy -- Regard the End
Jamey Johnson -- That Lonesome Song
Chip Taylor/Carrie Rodriguez -- The Trouble With Humans
Emmylou Harris -- Stumble Into Grace
The Felice Brothers -- The Felice Brothers
Southeast Engine -- A Wheel Within a Wheel
Devon Sproule -- Keep Your Silver Shined
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
My only real criticism of the movie is that it wasn't what I thought I was going to see. I expected whimsical. And when the kid has just broken up with her boyfriend, and is feeling blue, and you say, "hey, let's go to a movie," I can tell you that you're hoping for something that Where the Wild Things Are was not. In spite of the dozens of toddlers and little tykes around me, this was not a children's film. I can't imagine what the little ones thought, but my guess is that the real-life scenes might have inspired more nightmares than the monsters on the island.
That said, I thought the film was a warm meditation on the frightening hazards of being a kid in a big, scary world. I thought Dave Eggers' script and Spike Jonze's images did a fine job of communicating what life is like in a post-Edenic universe. The yearning for something that had been lost -- on both Max's and Monster Carroll's parts -- was palpable. I'm not suggesting that Eggers and Jonze were making a movie from a consciously Christian worldview. They just happened to get the tone exactly right. The idyllic little model village that Carroll constructed, and its subsequent smash-up, were the strongest images in the film for me. For what it's worth, I didn't find the neurotic whining of the monsters particularly bothersome. I work with neurotic monsters like that every day.
Still, there are problematic elements in the movie. It’s based on a well-known children’s book, and one thing this film was not was a children's movie, although I think it's a fine film for anyone, say, ten years old or older. Why is this a big deal? Well, because it's been billed as a kids movie, and because I saw a lot of parents with toddlers and young elementary age children with them in the theater. And those kids seemed to alternate between being upset and bored. Who could blame them? What young child is going to be able to take in the concept of the end of the universe and a dying sun? If it's confusing for Max at 9, imagine the fun images in the heads of 4- and 5-year-olds.
That's my struggle with the movie. It wants to play it both ways -- kiddie romp and weighty film that addresses the uncertainties of broken families and, God forbid, the impending apocalypse -- and because of that it works well for adults. But those damn muppet costumes are going to fool a lot of parents. And some of them are going to be understandably unhappy. We need a new rating -- E for Existential Dread. G or PG doesn't even begin to cover the issues.
Friday, October 16, 2009
For those of you who are praying types, please pray for my sister Libby, who has Stage 4 breast cancer, and who will be undergoing tests in the next few days to determine the progress (what an inappropriate word that is) of the disease, and for my friend Joe, who has inoperable stomach cancer that has spread to other organs of his body. In both cases, there are spouses and kids involved, and in Joe's case, there's a kid on the way as well.
There are no words. But there is great sadness. And love. I believe in miracles, and I'm praying for a miracle. Still, there is great sadness and love.
Thursday, October 15, 2009
98% of Christmas albums are utter tripe, but I think we may have reached a new low. No, it's not Bob Dylan, although he's a contender. I'm referring to the new Neil Diamond extravaganza A Cherry, Cherry Christmas. This finds Neil in self-congratulatory mode (because, as everyone knows, Christmas is all about lounge singers), with the title track reprising his late '60s hit "Cherry, Cherry," but in a festive, Xmas kind of way. It's the equivalent of Neil Sedaka writing, "God, Mary's Having Your Baby." The rest of the album isn't much better, and finds Neil covering Adam Sandler's beloved holiday classic "The Chanukah Song" and shimmying through the obligatory Vegas version of "Jingle Bell Rock." Yes, we've been a beautiful audience. Bye, Neil.
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
Not content to rest on that legacy, Sedaka returns for his first album in ten years, The Music of My Life, out January 19th on Razor & Tie Records. Having already used the Sedaka's Back title in 1975, Neil offers what appears at first glance to be a career restrospective, but which is, in fact, an album of all new material. I'm hoping that there will be an accompanying tour, if only to see whether an 87-year-old guy is still trotting out "You've Having My Baby." Hey, it worked for Abraham and Sarah.
Friday, October 09, 2009
The Resistance, the latest from the Devon, UK trio, ups the already supersized ante. Not content with releasing merely overblown songs, Muse here adopts the most overblown of all musical genres: the prog-rock concept album. And who really cares if the concept is a bit muddled? In the Muse version of reality, the world has been hijacked by faceless corporations, and only a daring, courageous boy and girl dare to resist the commercial onslaught. Opening single "Uprising," with its jack-booted martial rhythms and hammering guitars, sets the tone. "The paranoia is in bloom," lead singer/songwriter Matthew Bellamy sings. Yeah, you might say that.
Naturally, George Orwell figures heavily in the proceedings, nowhere more so than in the ominous "United States of Eurasia," a dystopian take on western-style totalitarianism that features Bellamy in full-throated, multi-tracked "Bohemian Rhapsody" mode. Somewhere Freddie Mercury is smiling. It's lovely dread, and manages to quote Chopin before hurtling into the yawning abyss.
And so it goes for the first eight songs, with Bellamy and band making an unholy racket, reveling in the existential despair, and never settling for dramatic when melodramatic is at their disposal.
It's great, histrionic fun, the kind of kitsch that is all the more funny because one senses that the band doesn't mean it at all ironically. Beneath the rock star veneer, it's not too difficult to imagine the insecure adolescent living out his high school chess club revenge fantasies:
They will stop degrading us!
We will be victorious!
So sings Matt Bellamy. Right on, Black Knight!
Ironically, it's on the multi-part, 15-minute suite "Exogenesis Symphony" that Muse lets down on the melodrama. I know. A title like "Exogenesis: Symphony Pt. II (Cross-Pollination)" would appear to be a bombastic slam dunk. It has Greek words, Roman numerals, and hyphens, all in the same title, and the music features full-on mellotrons and a Rachmaninoff piano concerto imitation. Alas, it's boring, and the only prog you'll experience is the progressive descent of your eyelids over your eyes.
Still, most of The Resistance is wondrously entertaining, and the high points occur frequently enough to allow me to ignore the glorious inconsistency of a mega-band on a major label railing against corporate excess. Screw 'em, comrade. Where's my cape?
So here's a playlist dedicated to water. Water is our friend. Especially when people can drink it.
Dirty Water -- The Standells
I Asked for Water (She Gave Me Gasoline) -- Howlin' Wolf
Living Waters -- Silver Jews
Wade in the Water -- Mavis Staples
Underwater Moonlight -- The Soft Boys
Water -- P.J. Harvey
Don't Ask for the Water -- Ryan Adams
High Water Everywhere -- Charlie Patton
Oily Water -- Blur
Trouble Waters -- Cat Power
Dust and Water -- Antony and the Johnsons
Gone Like the Water -- Freedy Johnston
Moses Smote the Water -- John Lee Hooker
God Moves on the Water -- Blind Willie Johnson
Tuesday, October 06, 2009
The Cave Singers -- Welcome Joy
Members of The Cave Singers can claim a great but underappreciated punk band as part of their legacy -- Seattle's Pretty Girls Make Graves -- so I had high hopes for this Americana incarnation. Alas, two chords may make for bracing punk anthems, but they quickly grow tedious as the foundation for front-porch hootenannies. Lead singer Pete Quirk has a Stevie Nicks ovine bleat that he almost compensates for through an abundance of raspiness and soulful energy, but in the end there's too little variety in the songs. And when you focus on a genre known for pickin' and grinnin', it helps to know how to pick.
Cetan Clawson and the Soul Side -- White Heat
Lord knows we need another guitar god, another Clapton or Hendrix. The closest we've had for a while is Jack White, but he's not really given to 5-minute solos, so he doesn't quite count. So here is young Cetan Clawson, all of 17 years old at the time his debut album was recorded. The good news is that Cetan rips off dazzling 5-minute solos, plays behind his back, and plays with his teeth. The bad news is that he really, really wants to be Jimi Hendrix; not a bad goal in and of itself, but a bit of a problem when he covers "Killing Floor" and "Voodoo Chile" and comes up the loser in the comparison. More problematically, his originals are often direct Hendrix knockoffs, with "Short Fuse," a note-for-note cop of "Let Me Stand Next To Your Fire," as the most egregious offender. Maybe by the next album Cetan will find his own voice. But the kid can surely play.
Codes in the Clouds -- Paper Canyon
More instrumental post-rock sturm and drang. I've heard this hundreds of times now, and hearing it again doesn't do much to alter the fact that I find this music increasingly tiresome. It's certainly pretty. It's soft. Then it's loud, very loud. Repeat x 6. On the up side, Codes in the Clouds get to those soaring crescendos faster than most of their counterparts, and the first four songs are in the commendable three- to six-minute range, thereby skipping most of the soporific buildup. On the downside, these Dartford, Kent UK brooders are simply fifteen years too late. Perhaps they were contemplating their navels and just missed Mogwai, Sigur Ros, Mono, and Do Make Say Think.
Cory Chisel and the Wandering Sons -- Death Won't Send a LetterIn this case, the whole is less than the sum of the parts. Appleton, Wisconsin troubadour Cory Chisel is gifted. He's got a supple, soulful voice. And he's got a sympathetic backing band that can rock out when needed, but otherwise lays down tasteful, unobtrusive Americana that doesn't get in the way of Chisel's well-written lyrics. So what's the problem? Maybe it's the feeling that these are write-by-the-numbers Starbucks odes that will provide the perfect background music for your lattes. Or maybe I'm just being tired and cranky. In any case, he's Mr. Sensitive Troubadour #7,843. He's okay. He sounds like every other M. Langhorne Bright Cutie I've heard in the past few years. Next.
Monday, October 05, 2009
Charlie Poole, it turns out, visited more than a few bars himself, and he lived out the short, dead-at-39 self-destructive melodrama that would later be followed by Hank Williams and a hell-raising host of country outlaw musicians. But his songs are really fine, and swing like crazy, particularly when ace fiddlers and mandolin pickers like David Mansfield and Chris Thile latch on to them, as they do on most of these tracks.
The whole dysfunctional Wainwright family -- son Rufus, daughter Martha (who once wrote a song dedicated to her old man called "Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole"), and musical ex-wife Suzzy Roche -- is on hand as well. And Loudon contributes a handful of originals that are impossible to distinguish from Charlie's old material.
High Wide & Handsome is a fine tribute to a criminally unknown minstrel, and it's another gem in Loudon's criminally underappreciated catalogue.
Contrary to the hyperbole you hear from some music critics, rock 'n roll did not save my life. I grew up in the insulated worlds of Worthington, Ohio and Park Forest, Illinois, where I was more likely to die of fertilizer poisoning than gang warfare.
The bucolic cul-de-sacs of Worthington had names like Raven's Nest Court and Hidden Hollow Drive. So I could never claim the blue-collar badge of rock 'n roll authenticity, that old Springsteen trick of rising above the mean streets and the dead-end towns through perseverance, a little faith, and the insistent squall of an electric guitar.
That doesn't mean that I couldn't relate to the sentiments, though. Hidden Hollow Drive didn't value kids who wrote poetry on their lunch breaks any more than the mean city streets did, and fairly early on I pledged my allegiance to anyone who wrote songs that could be roughly translated as "It's you 'n me, babe, against the world." These were the perfect sentiments and the perfect musical anthems for misfits like me: the young, the misunderstood, and those who took umbrage with the universe.
Bruce Springsteen was the first to tap into that reservoir of resentment and pent-up angst. His 1975 album Born to Run rang in my head like an insistent alarm clock, awakening something long dormant in my soul. Wake up and smell the crushing boredom, the tiny, desperate lives that go through their tiny motions, the hollow, pampered, country club existence where the soul checks out a few decades before the heart stops beating.
It was, of course, utter shite, the kind of arrogant, self-serving twaddle that most people grow out of in adolescence. It just took me a couple decades longer to figure it out. The reality—my reality, in fact—is that people in suburbia experience the same hopes and fears as anyone else, and that they aren’t cushioned in any way from the heartbreaking realities of kids who make stupid choices, and pink slips from their employers, and the looming specter of colon cancer and heart attacks. And so I’m always intrigued and amazed when I encounter those impossibly romantic, escapist sentiments again.
Broooooce, what have you wrought?
In this case, the latest revelation came from a new album by a band called The Gaslight Anthem, Jersey kids just like Bruce, trying to get out while they’re still young, but one generation down the line:
Like Miles Davis, I've been swayed by the cool
There's just something about the summertime
There's just something about the moon
So I'll lay a kiss on a stone, toss it upside your window, by the roof
Before you change your mind, Miles, bring in the cool
Oh, Lord. There it is again; the old, insistent summons to elope from life, that silly, ancient whopper that you can get in the car and outrace the demons that follow you around. The name of the album is The ’59 Sound, a nod to Miles Davis and Kind of Blue, and it’s great, and it’s terrible. It’s great because it recaptures the manic energy and passion of those early Springsteen albums, the impossibly romantic mythos of the poet with a beat-up jalopy and a leather jacket and an electric guitar. And it’s terrible because it locates the solutions in all the wrong places.
It sounds wonderful, by the way. Lead singer/songwriter Brian Fallon has Bruce’s swaggering bravado, even if his lyrics are often little more than a pastiche of Springsteen’s perennial themes. The guitars slam and chime, and the drummer sounds like he wants to pulverize big boulders with his bare arms. All of that is to say that it’s enormously persuasive rock ‘n roll, sure to please the Boomers who haven’t really paid attention for the past thirty years. “No surrender, my Bobby Jean,” Fallon sings on “Meet Me By The River’s Edge,” thereby name checking three Springsteen standards in about ten seconds. There’s little doubt about the inspiration for these songs.
And maybe I would hear it all differently at 24 than at 54. At 24, I was convinced of my towering sensitivity; my ability to see more and feel more deeply than any of the shallow, money-grubbing schmucks around me. All I needed was to blow this pop stand with the right girl in tow, careen off to God knows where, as long as it was anywhere but here. At 54 I find myself living five miles from where I grew up, born certainly not to run, and probably not even to venture very far down the road, but perhaps to deal with the nasty character traits and besetting sins that hinder me from soaring. It’s redemption, to be sure, but it can’t be found beneath a dirty hood.
I still love Bruce Springsteen, and part of me loves Brian Fallon and those music critics who genuinely believe in rock ‘n roll as salvation. I hear the desperation, and I get it, even from suburbia. There’s got to be something, anything, better than this. They are right. The Gaslight Anthem looks back to 1959, and to 1975, the year of Springsteen’s coronation, trying to find the clues in a golden, mythic past.
Me? To quote the punk band The Buzzcocks, I feel a nostalgia for an age yet to come. I can’t wait.
It was all quite wonderful, but the best part of the weekend, for me, were the unexpected connections with the Cincinnati Reds, my childhood love, and a team I later abandoned because they suck. Saturday night at Nada we sat next to Paul O'Neill and family, a great outfielder in his day (late '80s through the late '90s), a member of the Reds Hall of Fame, and later a member of the hated New York Yankees. A guy's got to earn a living, I suppose. Sunday morning we met Russ Nixon, father of Vineyard Central pastor Dave Nixon. I didn't make the connection immediately, but it nagged me all day, so a bit of Googling revealed what I thought I remembered. Russ Nixon was a former major league catcher, and was later the manager of the Cincinnati Reds. He and his wife showed up at his kid's worship service.
These things tend to come in threes, so I was anticipating the prospect of meeting Pete Rose at the gas station or supermarket. It didn't happen. But two out of three isn't bad (it'll get you to the World Series every year), and it was a fun sidelight to a fun weekend.