Thursday, December 31, 2009

Holy Handouts

I know approximately 1,438 people who need money, not counting me. That's just in my immediate circle of friends. On an average day, I would estimate that I receive ten requests for money. Almost all of them are for good people and good causes. And I feel bad. I have no money to give. I need money myself.

I feel particularly bad when the people asking for handouts are friends, and the money they are asking for is to support causes that I very much want to support. This recession has been brutal on so many levels. It's not only about layoffs and reductions in services. It's also about good people who may not be able to continue doing good. But sometimes it's overwhelming. There are 8,752 mission trips, publications, orphan homes, homeless shelters, and homes for victims of sexual abuse out there. And a few more sisters, nieces, and nephews. I wish I could support them all. I really do. I can't, though.

Pundits can call it a jobless recovery if they like. It doesn't look like much of a recovery from where I sit.

Monday, December 28, 2009

A Very Personal, Highly Idiosyncratic Musical Overview of the Aughts

This is not about American Idol, Kenny Chesney, Radiohead, Sufjan Stevens, Beyonce, Wilco, or The Arcade Fire. If, for the past ten years, you’ve followed popular music beyond the narrow confines of Top 40 radio, you already know the big albums and the major musical trends of the decade. This is not about that. The Aughts were ushered in by a cavalcade of short-lived (sometimes all too literally) rap stars, pre-fab boy bands, and pop divas, and they will be ushered out by a cavalcade of rap stars and pre-fab artists who made their names by covering classic rock and Motown tunes on TV. Now that’s innovation. During the intervening ten years Pitchfork became the de facto arbiter of all things hip, and hyped a bunch of tuneless bands with animals in their names. MTV continued to have nothing to do with music, preferring instead to pump out reality shows of has-been rock stars dating D-list actresses. And Rolling Stone steadfastly held its ground, holding out for a Beatles reunion. To all of them I bid auld lang syne, and good riddance. I’m more interested in what happened in the margins, in those places where musical taste was not a fashion or lifestyle accessory, and where certain albums and songs intersected with my life and informed my understanding of what was happening around me.

So here’s a strange and idiosyncratic musical overview of the decade that was. Much of the music that was most meaningful to me was made by people who are not household names, perhaps not even in their own homes. But they made music that thrilled me, challenged me, and made me believe, all over again, in the everlasting value of three chords and a backbeat.

The Next Dylan, Twice Removed

The “new Dylan” tag has historically been a curse, the musical equivalent of appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Anybody remember Steve Forbert these days?

But since I’m inordinately fond of Bob Dylan, I tend to pay attention to these labels. The Aughts featured their share of nasal upstarts, but the most promising Dylan acolytes were Dan Bern, Ezra Furman, and The Tallest Man on Earth. Bern drew out his vowels and wrote epic nightmares on albums such as New American Language and Fleeting Days. Furman’s debut album Banging Down the Doors was a bracing, poetic yelp and snarl. And Swedish troubadour Kristian Matsson, who records as The Tallest Man on Earth, delivered a fine surrealistic opening salvo on 2008’s Shallow Grave.

It should also be noted that the original of the species is doing just fine, at least when he’s not attempting to croon Christmas carols best left to Bing Crosby. Dylan’s late-career renaissance continued throughout most of the decade, with two very strong albums (Love and Theft and Modern Times), and yet another Bootleg Series release (Vol. 8) that proves that Dylan leftovers and throwaways are far better than most artists’ Greatest Hits albums.

Jazz Finds a New Canon

I have nothing against George Gershwin or Cole Porter. They were marvelous songwriters. But their songs have formed the backbone of jazz for more than eighty years now. Do we really need another interpretation of “Someone to Watch Over Me”? Do we really need to give Rod Stewart another excuse to plunder the Great American Songbook?

And so it was a great pleasure to watch jazz musicians adapt during the Aughts. Pianist Brad Mehldau championed the music of Radiohead and Nick Drake. Punk piano trio The Bad Plus covered Nirvana and The Pixies, and deconstructed The Bee Gees. Jazz found a new canon, and if the old standards will never entirely go away (thank God), there was ample evidence that the genre was evolving, assimilating the great music of the near past, just as it always has.

The Soundtrack to Mortality

My father, father-in-law, and mother-in-law died this decade, as did assorted aunts and uncles, cousins, brothers-in-law, friends, and children of friends. There was a time in my life when it seemed like most of my spare time was taken up by weddings. I have apparently now crossed that threshold where funerals have supplanted weddings as the unhip way to pass the time. And time is surely passing. As a cousin pointed out to me at the funeral of her father and my uncle, “I guess this means we’re on deck now.” Whee.

Maybe it’s for that reason, or maybe it’s because I’ve always had a morbid streak a mile wide. In any event, I probably played Regard the End, by the curiously named The Willard Grant Conspiracy, more than any other album this decade. Nobody bought the album. It was a morose Americana meditation on death by drowning, ghosts, and Old Testament judgment and dread, leavened by a few glimpses of sweetness and hope. And it was a superb album that met me right where I lived, and that immeasurably helped me cope with loss. Robert Fisher’s craggy voice sang of shame, of pain, of missing what is gone and what isn’t coming back, and it was a soothing balm for the soul.

By Any Other Name

Mark Kozelek was my great musical discovery of the decade. I missed the Red House Painters albums in the ‘90s, dismissing them as morose whining. My loss. I discovered them during the Aughts. It was a good decade to discover Mark Kozelek. He started off good and got ridiculously great. Old Ramon, the 2001 swan song from Red House Painters, was Kozelek’s most accessible work yet, substituting melody and, gasp, choruses, for the unremitting drone. Ever the iconoclast, Kozelek released a batch of odd covers throughout the decade; songs ostensibly written by the likes of AC/DC, John Denver, Modest Mouse, and Yes, and sounding nothing like the originals and wholly like Mark Kozelek.

But he saved the best for last. Changing the name of his performing/recording band to Sun Kil Moon, Kozelek released two albums that will, if I have my way, someday be recognized as lost masterpieces, 2003’s Ghosts of the Great Highway and 2008’s April. By the way, the key word here is “lost”. No one probes the recesses of memory, of lost time and lost relationships, better than Mark Kozelek. He is, to pull out an obscure literary reference, Marcel Proust with a guitar. Those memories and relationships form the warp and woof of his worldview, and the tapestry he weaves is stunning in its longing and beauty. Musically, Kozelek alternates between gentle acoustic picker and Neil Young Godfather of Grunge mode, unleashing winding electric solos. But the longing, the yearning, is a constant, and it is a palpable reminder of why he is one of the most distinctive and worthwhile artists of the decade.

Great Scots

You can have your Brooklyns and your Portlands. For my money, the best music scene of the Aughts came out of Glasgow, Scotland. Belle and Sebastian and Camera Obscura continued to release delightful pop mini-symphonies. Mogwai balanced massive, sculpted guitar noise with surprisingly tender sentiments. The Twilight Sad, The Fratellis, Glasvegas, and Franz Ferdinand released a dozen soulful, soaring indie rock near masterpieces. Alasdair Roberts and Trembling Bells built on the foundation of traditional folk music and took it down some engaging, completely idiosyncratic byways. And Frightened Rabbit, one of the few animal bands that remembered how to engage in emotional catharsis, released three albums that heralded a new and potent folk-rock hybrid.

Heaven’s Garage Band

After the great but unheralded Minneapolis art punks Lifter Puller fizzled at the beginning of the decade, singer/songwriter Craig Finn and bassist/guitarist Tad Kubler relocated to Brooklyn and formed The Hold Steady. It was hard to envision what a change of scenery might mean. The band’s debut album, Almost Killed Me, didn’t sound appreciably different from what Lifter Puller was doing all along. Kubler rocketed power chords to the back of the bar, and Finn declaimed his hipster poetry, rattling off literate tales of losers and desperate hedonists.

So what happened? On the surface, not much. The sound didn’t change radically. Finn sang a bit more and declaimed less, and Franz Nicolay added vintage E Street Band keyboards. But at some point – either on Separation Sunday or Boys and Girls in America, take your pick – Finn became the best songwriter in rock ‘n roll, and the band itself became a juggernaut, the embodiment of all that was great about all the earnest schleps who actually seemed to believe that rock ‘n roll was a kind of salvation. In the process, they made transcendent music, a wondrously muscular and poetic concoction that delighted the classic rock fans and indie kids alike.
Heaven’s Choir

If the angels form bands (no heavenly hosts allowed; these are strictly small guitar, bass, and drums cherubim/seraphim combos), then I hope they sound like Sigur Ros. I hate the label “post-rock” (what?), and I hate the fact that these Icelandic Vikings have spawned a less-than-heavenly host of imitators. But there was no other band this decade that left me in such gaping, open-mouthed wonder. They went for the jugular every time, building their epic songs from the ground up, from sedate, ethereal beginnings to majestic, thunderous crescendos. It’s the “post-rock” formula, of course; one they pretty much invented and perfected. But the secret ingredient was the ravishing beauty, best encapsulated by Jonsi’s wordless (sorry I’m not seriously going to consider Hopelandic as a language), soaring falsetto. They made a glorious din; five albums worth this decade.

Models of Consistency

They weren’t always great, but they were always good, and they stayed good for a long time. There were others who released better individual albums, but these folks put out quality albums again and again, and they made music that considerably brightened a decade.

Andrew Bird
The Black Keys
Bonnie “Prince” Billy
British Sea Power
Buddy Miller
The Clientele
The Decemberists
Drive-By Truckers
Eleni Mandell
The Handsome Family
Iron and Wine
Jolie Holland
Kathleen Edwards
Loudon Wainwright III
M. Ward
Matthew Ryan
The Mountain Goats
Neko Case
The New Pornographers
P.J. Harvey
Patty Griffin
The Pernice Brothers
Richard Thompson
Sam Phillips
Sonic Youth
Sufjan Stevens
Ted Leo and the Pharmacists
The Thermals
Todd Snider
Tom Waits
TV on the Radio
Watermelon Slim
The Weakerthans
The White Stripes
Yo La Tengo

Artist of the Decade

Nobody – and yes, that includes the crotchety curmudgeon from Hibbing Minnesota – wrote better songs this decade than Joe Henry. He released four albums in the Aughts: Scar, Tiny Voices, Civilians, and Blood from Stars. They’re all essential. Just buy them. I’d like to think that, in twenty or thirty years or so, when the musical wheel turns and the world reassesses all that has been ignored, these albums will be recognized as the masterpieces they are.

Joe Henry has been making albums for twenty years now, and almost nobody buys them. If you like Tom Waits, you might like him. Like Waits, his songs are densely layered, heavily percussive, prone to careen off in unexpected directions. Unlike Waits, he can really sing, and his nasal, ring-a-ding croon emerges somewhere between Elton John and Frank Sinatra. His songs are jazz and folk and blues, all rolled into one, and given a woozy, off-kilter spin to suggest that he’s the lead singer for the house band at some Holiday Inn on Pluto. Jazz greats like Ornette Coleman and Brad Mehldau and Don Byron like to record with him. So do alt-country bands like The Jayhawks. So does the supremely gifted Victoria Williams, whose vocals are even more idiosyncratic than Joe's. So does guitarist Marc Ribot, but he plays with everybody. He occasionally employs operatic divas to provide accompaniment for lines like “Because there was no gold mine, I freed the dogs and burned their sled." Good luck trying to find a label for the surrealistic dreamscape that is his music. I'm content to just call it great. As an added bonus, his lyrics also happen to be jaw-droppingly wonderful, and work more often as standalone poetry than those of The Poet of a Generation. His songs are as consistently, restlessly challenging and rewarding as contemporary music gets.

So maybe I’m bitter, sitting here in my coffee-stained T-shirt. I don’t know why the rest of the world doesn’t recognize this incontrovertible truth. Maybe it’s the nondescript name that keeps people from discovering music that is anything but nondescript. Maybe it’s as simple as the fact that Joe Henry’s songs don’t fit into an easily defined box, and are too genre-busting to slot within the confines of today’s narrowcasting world. Whatever it is, Joe Henry is the Dylan that scarcely anybody knows.

I interviewed him five or six years ago, right before the release of his album Tiny Voices. He had woken up shortly before I called, and he had just returned from dropping his kids off at school. It was delicious to imagine this dutiful father and devoted family man returning to his notepad after making sure that the kids had their lunch money in hand, jotting down lyrics about widows of Central American revolutionaries, junkies, and rape victims, reveling in apocalyptic imagery involving bombers and tanks and beauty queens and circus freaks selling lemonade. He was writing the kind of shadowy, surrealistic nightmares that Dylan hadn’t explored since “Desolation Row,” and I imagined that he was doing it in his pajamas.

I don’t know if that’s literally true, of course, and Joe Henry wasn’t telling. But maybe that’s because he’s the master of the oblique, of the truth that resides in between the lines on a page, of the indirection that conveys as much in what isn’t said as in the black and white lyrics in the CD booklet. His song “This Afternoon” is a masterpiece of impending dread, of ominous detail piled atop ominous detail, and he never once gets around to saying what actually happens. But you have a pretty good inkling, and it isn’t good.

As an added bonus, he just might be the producer of the decade as well, and during the past ten years he’s worked with artists as diverse as Elvis Costello, Ani DiFranco, Teddy Thompson, Aimee Mann, Mavis Staples, and Mary Gauthier, and has almost single-handedly revived the careers of Solomon Burke, Allen Toussaint, and Bettye Lavette.

It’s a staggering body of work. Do yourself a favor and check him out now, before the musical wheel turns.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

R.I.P. Connie Hines

Man, tough year for celebrity deaths. Connie Hines, a distant co-star to a horse on '60s sit-com "Mr. Ed," has died.

“She was a girl married to a fellow listening to a horse. Her biggest line was 'lunch is ready,' ” co-star Alan Young said. "The rest of it was reacting to it. Connie never complained. How many actors would react that way?"

It's funny how the media affects one. I'm sorry for Brittany Murphy and her family. But I never connected with her. But I was in love, to the extent that 8-year-olds can be in love, with Connie Hines. I wanted to marry her and raise Palominos. May she rest in peace.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Favorite Albums of 2009

The usual disclaimers apply. I’ve made no attempt to calibrate what I like against the rest of the culture. This is what I like. If you don’t like it, that’s fine. But if it doesn’t appear on the list, it either means a) I didn’t hear it, or b) I heard it, but didn’t like it better than the 100 or so albums that appear here.

Oh, another thing: ten means ten. Yeah, I listed a bunch of Honorable Mention albums. That means I cheated a bit. But over and over again I’ve seen people pissed off at these kinds of lists, with indignant lists of their own comprised of the 100 or 200 artists who should have appeared in the Top 10. But ten means ten. Really. And I promise that I counted.

10. Lucero – 1372 Overton Park

Continuing on in the grand tradition of The Replacements and The Hold Steady, Lucero offer 12 ramshackle, raw bar band tales of scruffy losers and outsiders. There’s great Stones-like riffing. There are Memphis horns. There’s a raspy-voiced poet. What’s not to love?

9. David Bazan –
Curse Your Branches

Bazan breaks up with Jesus, barely hangs on with his family, and writes a wounded song cycle about it, full of anger and confusion. These aren’t merely the most harrowing songs in a career noted for its vulnerability and honesty. They are also the best crafted songs musically, a career high point in the midst of a life low point.

8. Mount Eerie – Wind’s Poem

Phil Elverum wins the award for combining the most disparate sounds of 2009. Writing songs of epic length, Elverum concocts a mixture of soothing ambience that wouldn’t have been out of place on a David Lynch soundtrack and grating, industrial noise, a sort of black metal lullaby. But good luck sleeping. Beneath the clang Elverum coos disturbing verses about mortality and disintegration. Beautiful and strange.

7. Florence and the Machine - Lungs

The best pop album I heard this year. Part Kate Bush pagan priestess, part Amy Winehouse R&B belter, Florence Welch unleashes 13 delectable tracks on her debut, some perfect pop/punk confections (see “Kiss With a Fist”), some so woolly and esoteric as to defy categorization entirely (see “Cosmic Love”). All of them are marvelous; there’s no filler.

6. Dave Perkins – Pistol City Holiness

Stevie Ray lives, sorta. Dave Perkins has backed everybody – Ray Charles, Willie Nelson, and most of the CCM contingent in Nashville. But he steps out here and rips off a brilliant blues/rock hybrid, spraying guitar notes, howling his literate laments and prayers, and engaging in inspired interplay with a red-hot band. This is the blues with a social conscience and a spiritual bent. And with a sense of humor. “I would hang with the Baptists if they could get that girl for me” is still the funniest line I’ve heard all year.

5. Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society – Infernal Machines

Big band music like you’ve never heard, mixing Ellington arrangements with tape loops and fuzz-toned guitar solos. Argue leaves plenty of room for the soloists, who are incendiary, but the arrangements are still the highlight here. This is big band music the way Duke and Mingus used to play it, but thoroughly immersed in modern sounds and sensibilities.

4. Aaron Strumpel -- Elephants

In the CCM world, the Psalms have often been used as set pieces for over-the-top emoting and Big Hairdos and Big Smiles for Jesus. Aaron Strumpel strips them back to the basics – tribal percussion, chanting, and occasional wailing, rediscovering the Lament in the Psalms of Lament in the process. Utterly striking and original, Strumpel’s music accentuates the soul in both the music and the words.

3. Various Artists – Fire In My Bones

This 3-CD set spans sixty years and almost as many stylistic shifts in African-American gospel, offering the best available overview of the music. There's nothing polished to a studio sheen here. These are the unfiltered sounds heard in church services throughout black America, and as such it comes closer to worship music than most of the more sanitized imitators. Raw, raucous, and uplifting, this is music for Sunday morning, Saturday night, and everything in between.

2. The Felice Brothers – Yonder Is the Clock

The Dylan/Band comparisons are inevitable, but look – Bob Dylan and The Band made some of the best and most timeless music ever. So Ian Felice sounds like Bob Dylan; specifically, like the mid-‘60s electric Dylan on “Chicken Wire,” and like the early ‘60s folkie Dylan on “Cooperstown.” And The Felice Brothers sound like The Band circa The Basement Tapes. You got a problem with that? I don't.

1. Joe Henry – Blood From Stars

An album about love – human and divine – delivered by a song-and-dance man fronting a jazz/blues combo. And a profound meditation on the intertwined natures of darkness, grace, and change. Joe Henry is the finest songwriter in contemporary American music. His catechism – thirteen songs in this case, bordered by a prelude and an epilogue – teaches me new things about myself, and love, and marriage, and God, every day.

Honorable Mentions

A.C. Newman – Get Guilty
Alasdair Roberts – Spoils
Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion
The Antlers – Hospice
Antony and the Johnsons – The Crying Light
Arctic Monkeys – Humbug
The Avett Brothers – I and Love and You
The Bats – The Guilty Office
Bibio – Ambivalence Avenue
Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears – Tell ‘Em What Your Name Is
Brandi Carlile – Give Up the Ghost
Buddy and Julie Miller – Written in Chalk
Camera Obscura – My Maudlin Career
The Clientele – Bonfires on the Heath
Dan Auerbach – Keep It Hid
Dan Deacon – Bromst
Dave Rawlings Machine – A Friend of a Friend
The Decemberists – The Hazards of Love
Dinosaur Jr. – Farm
Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca
Early Day Miners – The Treatment
Eleni Mandell – Artificial Fire
Frank Turner – Poetry of the Deed
Fuck Buttons – Tarot Sport
The Gourds – Haymaker
Gretel – The Dregs
Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest
Hallelujah the Hills – Colonial Drones
I Was a King – I Was a King
Ike Reilly – Hard Luck Stories
Imogen Heap – Ellipse
James Blackshaw – The Glass Bead Game
Josh Garrels – Lost Ahimals
Justin Townes Earle – Midnight At the Movies
Kevin Devine – Brother’s Blood
Laura Gibson – Beasts of Season
Leonard Cohen – Live in London
Levon Helm – Electric Dirt
The Low Anthem – Oh My God, Charlie Darwin
Madeleine Peyroux – Bare Bones
Manchester Orchestra – Mean Everything to Nothing
Marianne Faithfull – Easy Come, Easy Go
Maxwell – BLACKsummers’night
mewithoutYou – It’s All Crazy! It’s All False!
Mos Def – The Ecstatic
The Mountain Goats – The Life of the World to Come
Muse – The Resistance
Neko Case – Middle Cyclone
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
Passion Pit – Manners
Patrick Watson – Wooden Arms
The Receiver – Length of Arms
The Rural Alberta Advantage – Hometowns
Russian Circles – Geneva
Sondre Lerche – Heartbeat Radio
Southeast Engine – From the Forest to the Sea
St. Vincent – Actor
Sufjan Stevens – The BQE
Telekinesis – Telekinesis!
Trembling Bells – Carbeth
The Twilight Sad – Forget the Night Ahead
U2 – No Line on the Horizon
Watermelon Slim – Escape from the Chicken Coop
Why? – Eskimo Snow
Wild Light – Adult Nights
Will Gray – Introducing Will Gray
Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Mars Volta

There is no excuse, really. These guys represent everything I hate about prog-metal hyperventillation. They shriek. They change time signatures about every eight seconds. They write indecipherable lyrics that might involve sci-fi themes, might involve horror themes, and might merely involve poor communication skills. It's really hard to tell. But they have decapitated heads on their album covers, and the decapitated heads emit a glowing light from the eye sockets, so I'm guessing there's a horror/sci-fi connection. God only knows.

The thing is, they're an astounding band. Every time I'm ready to write them off -- and I assure you this occurs just about every time I look at an album cover or read the song titles -- I'm stunned by the musicianship. These two guys put Rush, Yes, Frank Zappa, Santana, Return to Forever, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Metallica, Led Zeppelin, and Andres Segovia through the blender, and out comes some of the most outlandish music I've ever heard, all played at breakneck tempos. So yeah, you have to put up with some H.P. Lovecraft allusions, and titles like "Take the Veil Cerpin Taxt" and "Miranda That Ghost Just Isn't Holy Anymore C. Pisacis (Phra-Men-Ma)." Sure thing, dudes. Cedric That Title Just Bites Like Cerberus E. Pluribus (Wot-Tha-Fuk). I don't care. I love 'em anyway.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

David Bazan's Breakup Album

With the threat of hell hanging over my head like a halo
I was made to believe in a couple of beautiful truths
That eventually had the effect of completely unraveling
The powerful curse put on me by you

When you set the table
When you chose the scale
Did you write a riddle that you knew they would fail?
Did you make them tremble
So they would tell the tale
Did you push us when we fell?

If my mother cries when I tell her what I discovered
Then I hope she remembers she taught me to follow my heart
And if you bully her like you did me with fear of damnation
Then I hope she can see you for what you are

When you set the table
When you chose the scale
Did you write a riddle that you knew they would fail?
Did you make them tremble
So they would tell the tale
Did you push us when we fell?

What am I afraid of?
Who did I betray?
In what medieval kingdom does justice work that way?
If you knew what would happen
And you made us just the same
Then you my Lord can take the blame
-- David Bazan, "When We Fell"

David Bazan is breaking up with Jesus. The former CCM star and mouthpiece for Christian indie rockers Pedro the Lion is calling it quits. It's been nice. Maybe we can stay friends, J. But I can no longer call you Lord and Savior.

That's a message that is repeated over and over again on Bazan's latest album, Curse Your Branches. It's not the only message, though. There's also the one about what a screwup David Bazan is, stumbling home drunk, wrecking his marriage, letting down his little daughter. Curse Your Branches is many things: theological diatribe, combative response to family and "friends" who want to label him as lost, finger-pointing missive to all the naysayers and Pharisees. But mostly it's an apology for being a jerk. And because it's made by David Bazan, it's an eloquent apology, open-hearted, vulnerable, angry, and very sad, all set to the most varied and layered music the man has ever made. It's a hell of an album, and I mean that in both the best and worst senses of the term. It's a series of beautifully written, painful songs about a man dragging himself and those he loves through the beshitted back alleys of a desperate life. It's one of my favorite albums of the year, if "favorite" is still an appropriate term to use for something so voyeuristic and heart-rending.

Predictably and sadly, it's been met with confusion and judgment on the part of Bazan's former audience. I suppose that's what we do best; be confused and judge people. You'll have to pardon my cynicism. Apparently I'm not a fan of the former fans.

But the former fans -- at least some of them -- are fairly vocal. When Curse Your Branches was named by Christianity Today Magazine as one of the best albums of 2009, the backlash started immediately. How could a so-called Christian magazine call an album by a self-labeled agnostic as one of the best albums of the year? Isn't Dave Bazan a drunk? How can we reward people who sin when that music may be heard by our young, impressionable children?

I don't know David Bazan, although I've been around him. He shows up at Calvin College's Festival of Faith and Music, listens, takes it all in, talks openly to anybody who wants to chat with him, and typically puts on one of the best shows of the weekend. He's a guy who has been wounded by the Church, and who has undoubtedly made some bad decisions along the way. Welcome to the human race, Dave. You are loved, dude. That's all I got. Sorry. Well, that and you made a hell of a painfully good album. I hope it gets better for you.

In the meantime, those of you who appreciate great songwriting, and who don't mind some theological wrestling, would do well to listen to Curse Your Branches. For what it's worth, I can't imagine not asking the questions David Bazan asks.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Meaning of Christmas

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.
-- Isaiah 9:2

The worst Christmas I can remember occurred sometime in the mid-1970s. I don’t recall the precise year. I was home from college for Christmas break. My younger sisters were in early adolescence. My mother was in late alcoholism. My father may or may not have been around. I can never recall him being around during those years.

The presents were unwrapped. There was a turkey thawing in the kitchen sink. My mother was passed out on the living room couch. There would be no Christmas dinner, or, at best, there would be an evening trip to whatever burger joint had managed to stay open on December 25th. I didn’t really care about the presents. Or maybe I did, because I also recall that I hadn’t received the only present I really wanted. I wanted the new Pink Floyd album. My parents bought me Joni Mitchell instead. It was already a long afternoon, and it promised to be a much longer evening, so I retreated to the relative safety of my bedroom and slapped on Joni’s Blue album. I didn’t know the music, but some of it seemed to resonate. “I wish I had a river I could skate away on,” Joni sang, and I wished I had one too.

At some point during the evening there were shouts and curses and broken plates, carving knives that never touched a turkey, but which attempted to touch human flesh. My mother wasn’t just a drunk; she was an angry drunk. And she sported by chasing people around the house with knives. Shortly before she would have stabbed my sister I slugged her. I hit her as hard as I could, right under the jaw. I’m not a boxer. I don’t know how to deliver an uppercut. But it stunned her long enough for me to round up my sisters and get them in the car. We drove off to a motel. I didn’t have any money. I was a poor college student. I didn’t know how I was going to pay for any of this. We didn’t pack. We didn’t have any underwear, or toothbrushes. But we had ourselves, and that was enough.

I became a Christian right around that time. “Became” is really a euphemistic term because I’m still becoming a Christian, and there’s so much I still get wrong. But if “became” meant surrendering, flying the white flag of incompetence and sorrow and utter, overwhelming terror, then that’s what I did. Here God, please fix this. It’s too fucked up for me.

And God didn’t fix it. It got worse. My father’s absences and marital infidelities continued. My mother’s alcoholism and violence escalated. My sisters endured abuse. And in a results-driven world, I was sorely tempted to give up on God. What good are you? I mean it. Literally. What good are you? What good do you do? I’ve asked those questions again and again during my life. There’s a nice theological term that encapsulates the groaning: theodicy. Basically it comes down to this: If God is good, and all powerful, then why do the human beings He supposedly loves have to deal with such overwhelming shitstorms? In personal terms, behold your beloved child, delivering an uppercut to the woman from whom he suckled, so that she wouldn’t commit murder. Why? How is this evidence of overwhelming good and power?

I know Christians who tell me they don’t doubt. They are as alien to me as four-headed, purple Martians. I can’t imagine a life of faith without doubt. I can’t even envision what that would look like. And if you haven’t yet experienced the utter disconnect between an all-loving, all-powerful God and the unfathomable sorrow of a completely broken world and your completely broken life, I have only three words for you: just you wait. You will. You’ve just been lucky up to now.

Why not just give up, then? Why not throw in the Motel 6 towel, or wherever the hell you spent that wretched Christmas night? The only answer that I can give, the only rationale that makes sense to me, is that in the midst of the unanswered questions, in the midst of the real pain that I have experienced and that I have inflicted on others, there is some evidence that God is in the business of fixing me. And even the path toward wholeness is confusing. It’s full of sidetracks and detours, two-steps-forward-and-three-steps-back days and months and years, stupid choices, regrettable words, pompous declarations and arrogant pronouncements, and, sometimes, a greater inclination to get outside the Kingdom of Me and really care about others, a movement toward what is good and true and life affirming, a rejection of escape and numbness in favor of life in all its prickly, scary, glorious in-your-faceness, a greater awareness that all of it – this whole beautiful, fucked up planet and all the people on it – is a gift, a source of pain, yes, and a source of great joy.

Lord have mercy. Literally. What good am I without Him?

There’s been a fair amount of academic debate about the actual time of the year when Jesus was born. Most scholars seem to favor the early spring, perhaps some time in late March or early April. But we celebrate his birth in late December. If you prefer, you can hold on to the view that the date was changed to rope in the pagans with their winter solstice celebrations. I’ll hold on to the notion that the light dawns at the very peak of darkness and desperation. At the darkest time of year, Christ comes.

According to the liturgical calendar, this time of year is called Advent. It is a time of waiting in darkness, waiting for the light to dawn. We are not good at waiting. I am not good at waiting. God hasn’t fixed everything. I look back at my life, and there are some real sorrows there. Some of them I had no control over. They just happened. And some of them are my own doing, and some of them were done in the process of becoming a Christian. During Advent we sing the carol “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” It is a song of yearning, of longing. Come fix this. Emmanuel means God with us. And because God is with us, with me, the old, tawdry life must and will change. I believe that more than ever. I am becoming.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Christianity Today's Best of 2009

There's our winner Sara Groves, looking like Molly Ringwald.

Christianity Today offers its take on the best albums of 2009.

These wouldn't necessarily be the albums I would select, but I think it's a fine list, and it's further evidence that CT is breaking out of the CCM box. I was happy to participate.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Evolution is So Overrated

Dinosaurs are extinct because they couldn't evolve. Dinosaur Jr. is alive and well because it can't evolve. You win some and you lose some. Too bad for the stegosaurus. Two opposable thumbs up for music fans.

Stubbornly stagnating in the same late '80s scene of sweet melodies, slacker sentiments, and skronky, overdriven guitars that they pretty much inaugurated, guitarist, singer, and songwriter J. Mascis and sidekicks bassist Lou Barlow and drummer Murph just keep on bashing out the same old same old. After a nineteen-year hiatus, the original trio re-united in 2007 with Beyond, and followed that up with the stellar and non-odious Farm, released earlier this year.

It's good to have you back, guys. And it's like you never left. Mascis is a ridiculously great guitarist, a hyperkinetic Neil Young who revels in the ragged glory and the grunge, but who can also race up and down the fretboard. He makes me want to jump on the couch cushions and play air guitar, a prospect that ought to have my wife and daughters concerned. And Lou and Murph are rock solid in their support roles, and Lou's softer, more introspective songs are the perfect foil for J.'s hypercharged antics. But what is most astounding is that after some significant and lengthy detours -- Mascis with the revamped Dinosaur Jr. and The Fog, Lou with Sebadoh, Murph God only knows where -- they are so easily able to recapture the synergy that made them such a thrilling, formidable band in the first place.

For old hippie dinosaurs like me (alas, still roaming the earth), weaned on Clapton and Hendrix and Page, and wholeheartedly sick of the mopey synth bands that dominated the early-to-mid '80s, J. Mascis was and is a revelation, the guy who connected the dots between the pantheon of the '60s/'70s guitar gods and the latter-day deities such as Kurt Cobain, Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo in Sonic Youth, Kevin Shields in My Bloody Valentine, and Joey Santiago in The Pixies. Those early Dino Jr. albums -- most notably You're Living All Over Me, Bug, and Green Mind -- were almost perfect distillations of slackerdom, but I never quite believed the ambivalent sentiments, either. Slackers didn't play guitar like that, like there was a real urgency in their getting off the couch, like they were on fire. But that's how J. Mascis played.

And so it's been a surprise and a delight to discover the same elements at work in the last two albums from the reunited band. They're older. I don't know if they're wiser. But if they've changed, they haven't changed the music much; maybe a little clearer production, that's all. Otherwise, the rhythm section locks in, and J. lets it rip. It sounds fabulous. It rocks. Across several musical epochs, dinosaurs still roam the earth.

Thursday, December 03, 2009


I don't have time to write much these days. But I'm always thankful for music writing that finds the human connection behind the usual song-by-song commentary. Here's my e-buddy Joel Hartse on Radioheads "Idioteque," from the 2000 album Kid A (Radiohead lyrics in bold):

There is another student in my graduate program who has similar interests to mine—we’re both studying, in part, the results of the worldwide spread of the English language. Which, by the way, is no longer interpreted Kipling's celebratory colonial way—thank God we’re spreading civilization and Shakespeare—nor even in a triumphantly liberal “the world is becoming flatter and more democratic and we can all communicate” way. Lately it feels more like a “there’s no escape from the dominiation of a single language and culture threatening to transform everything in its path into a combination KFC/Pizza Hut staffed by Disney characters singing Britney Spears songs where businessmen have meetings (in English) on their iPhones about price fixing and building factories on wetlands" kind of way. Mobiles working. Mobiles chirping. Take the money and run. Take the money and run. Take the money.

“Suddenly, I feel like everything we're doing is worthless,” my classmate said to me as we were leaving a seminar. I know what she meant.

You can read the rest of Joel's commentary here.