Friday, July 30, 2010

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Free Energy -- Stuck on Nothing

Sweet and sour. It's a winning combination in the kitchen, and it works just fine in rock 'n roll, too. Philadelphia power popsters Free Energy deliver the sweet by way of memorable singalong choruses and '70s classic rock riffage that recalls Thin Lizzy and T. Rex. Lurking beneath that sugary surface, however, is something equally classic; the sour adolescent mopester who can't get a date to save his life, and who thinks too hard about metaphysical issues such as what happens when people die, and why all the pretty girls are content to stand around mindlessly and snap their gum:

Bang bang, pop pop
When does the searching stop?

This is a disposable summer album with just a hint of autumn chill in the air. Listen closely enough and you might convince yourself that the adolescent mopester nerds will eventually take over the world, and still end up disappointed by it.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Corporate Punks, and Other Non-Sequiturs

I hate the army and I hate the RAF
I don’t wanna go fighting in the tropical heat
I hate the civil service rules

And I won’t open letter bombs for you

Career opportunities are the ones that never knock

Every job they offer you is to keep you out the dock

Career opportunities, the ones that never knock

-- The Clash, "Career Opportunities"

I couldn't be a punk if you dolled me up in a ripped t-shirt and safety pins, teased my thinning hair into some pathetic semblance of a Mohawk, and gave me unlimited Cockney elocution lessons. And, despite my sporadic efforts, I apparently don't qualify as much of a corporate American, either. So I'll admit from the start that the title of this post is absurd. But grant me this: I think Joe Strummer had it exactly right. Economic recovery my ass.

Another thing I am not is an economist, so I have no idea how this is all going to shake out; whether this is some momentary, albeit several-years-and-counting, blip on the otherwise-bright horizon, or some cataclysmic hemorrhage in the vaunted American Dream. Being an extreme melancholic sort, where the glass is neither half full nor half empty, but rather contains a few botulism-filled drops that are utterly insufficient to slake a thirst, and will kill you if you dare to swallow, I tend to gravitate toward the latter view. But what do I know?

Here's what I do know: There are currently two types of jobs available in Columbus, Ohio. The first type requires you to say words like "Cash or Charge?" and "Grande or Venti?" If you have a master's degree, as I do, you won't even get a sniff, because you're overqualified. These jobs only require a bachelor's degree, as the 82% of 2009 graduates from Ohio colleges who are now working minimum-wage retail positions have found out. The second type is the contract consulting position, which pays a straight hourly rate without benefits. You'll be qualified for these positions (possibly as many as two at a time in a metro area of 2 million people), but you'll be competing with anywhere from several hundred to a thousand people for the same job. If you're fortunate enough to secure one of those jobs, you'll be given somewhat meaningful work for three months, maybe six months, or, alternately, a day or a week or whatever period of time the employer decides. Timeframes mean nothing. A thousand years is as a day in the eyes of the Lord, and six months is as a day in the eyes of an employer. This is the way it goes. If you don't like it, you can be unemployed for all 365 days per year instead of 364.

There are no other alternatives. Let me repeat that. There are no other alternatives. Welcome to the brave new world.

The irony is that poor, uneducated yobs have understood this for eons. The truth is just now filtering down (almost wrote "up," but it's most definitely down) to the middle class. Historically, the poor, uneducated yobs suffer under this yoke for a while and then all hell breaks loose, and eventually palaces are burned down and prisoners are set loose and kings and queens are beheaded, or nuked, etc. Only bread and circuses seem to delay the inevitable revolution. Go Bucks.

So, in the midst of these little economic epiphanies, I'm reading Babylon is Burning by Clinton Heylin, a great history of punk music. It's probably a dangerous book anytime, but it's particularly incendiary given my current mood. Can you tell? And the punks simply did what great music has always done -- get in peoples' faces and tell the truth. London in 1977 was full of unemployed, hopeless yobs and bread and circuses. It was the Queen's Jubilee Year, a time of great celebration, of pomp and glory, until Johnny Rotten hijacked the airwaves:

God save the queen, she ain't no human being
There is no future, and England's dreaming

Thank God for the snot-nosed truth tellers. Somebody needs to do it again, cut through the morass of political speeches and photo ops and lies that pass for Want Ads. Who will be this generation's Joe Strummer or Johnny Rotten?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Kate Rusby

I'm a sucker for Kate's. Aside from being married to one, I have yet to hear a musical Kate -- whether Bush, Nash, Taylor, or Wolf -- I haven't liked[1]. And that's certainly true for Kate Rusby.

Kate essentially only has one trick, but it's such a deep and heartfelt one that I find myself being moved again and again. She's the prototypical English folk nightingale, and her singing is so sweet and lovely that you expect rainbows and butterflies to magically appear whenever she opens her mouth. She mines the same Trad territory as Sandy Denny, mixing in her own excellent original songs that sound centuries old, but she doesn't have Sandy's soulfulness or world weariness. But I can't really get too upset about it. Her pure Yorkshire folk soprano simply soars, and the tasteful and unobtrusive Trad accompaniment (acoustic guitars, Uillean pipes, pennywhistles, flutes, etc.) stays out of the way and puts the emphasis where it belongs -- on that remarkable voice.

Kate has nine or ten albums out now, all of them very fine. But if I had to recommend one, I'd suggest Sleepless from 1998, which features the usual Trad ballads, some unusual and welcome guest appearances from American bluegrass stalwarts Tim O'Brien and Darrell Scott, and a wondrous Iris Dement cover.

[1] Note: Katie's are not the same as Kate's. Katie's can be nasty, musically and personally. Katie's are the cute, pop, satanic side of Kate's. Katie's should not be mentioned in the same post as Kate's. Neither should K.T.'s, although the only one I know, Tunstall, is decent enough. Still, she's no Kate.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Hank Cochran

Legendary Nashville songwriter Hank Cochran died earlier today. Chances are, if it was a tearjerker from the '50s or '60s, Hank wrote it, either solo or in collaboration with buddy Harlan Howard.

Hank had a couple hits on his own, but the for the most part he was content to stay behind the scenes, churning out song after song for Nashville's iconic stars. What Bacharach and David, Boyce and Hart, Leiber and Stoller, and Pomus and Shuman were to the pop word, Hank Cochran was to the world of country music. It's hard to imagine country music without him. He's probably best known for "I Fall to Pieces," a song usually associated with Patsy Cline. And that's a great one. But I'm most fond of "It's Only Love," performed here by the consummate country gentleman Ray Price. R.I.P., Hank.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A More Perfect Union

This is my favorite song from the first half of 2010. It's got a Bruce Springsteen quote, Civil War soldiers, and a great shoutalong chorus. Let's hear it for beardos.

Monday, July 12, 2010

A Blessing

The five days Kate and I spent in the Bay area with my sister and her family can be conveniently labeled as "a blessing." What does that mean? It means that it was a rich time together, full of laughter and meaningful conversation, hugs, affirmations, a few tears, and some downtime that enabled us to see some natural beauty, to read a couple books, and, mercifully, to sleep. I was tired.

In the weeks before we left for California I was scrambling to accomplish a ridiculous amount of work in a pressure-filled environment, and I passed with flying colors. I wrote more than I've ever written; something like 53 documents, ranging in length from 1 to 30 pages each, during the seven weeks of my last contract assignment. I didn't know I could type so fast, let alone think so quickly about complex technological issues. But I did, and I left my project in great shape, accomplishing exactly what I needed to accomplish before the vacation break. And that was a blessing, too. I suspect I had some supernatural help.

So we went to California. We watched my sister, she of the cancer-ravaged spinal cord, walk through a redwood forest, the first time she'd been able to walk more than a few feet in more than a month. That was an incredible blessing. We went to San Francisco by ourselves for a day, and did the normal tourist things. We rode cable cars, ate bad seafood on Fisherman's Wharf, took the ferry across the bay to Sausalito, ate absurdly decadent chocolate sundaes on Ghiradelli Square, and visited Grace Cathedral, way up at the top of Nob Hill, an astounding church that is a pint-sized replica of Notre Dame in Paris.

We wondered why we live in Ohio. This is a natural reaction to blue skies, 73 degrees, and one of the most picturesque parts of the planet. Then we looked at the cost of real estate and we remembered. We do live in Ohio, and it was nice to arrive home, but it was also surely nice to have a respite in what seemed like paradise, except for the damn cancer. That still seemed like hell. As my brother-in-law Mark put it, "Well, now we live with the reality of morphine in the medicine cabinet. It's amazing what you can get used to." I suppose you do what you have to do, and you adapt. But I'm not yet used to the thought, and I want, more than anything, for my sister to live. It was all a perilous blessing.

We arrived home on Monday to find out that my job had been eliminated. Who knows the real reasons? They're never entirely communicated. Something about the end of the fiscal year, and no budget for FY 2011. Sure thing. I'm certain that somebody knew the budgetary constraints on June 29th, my last day of work, but I guess it's easier to drop the bomb on the phone, from a distance.

I'm somewhat inured to this by now. The reasons change -- companies are bought and sold, the minions are laid off to appease the stockholders, the recession puts the squeeze on support jobs, departments are consolidated, consultants are always the buffer between the "real" employees and the harsh realities of an economic downturn, etc. But it always amounts to no job, and no sign of a job on the horizon, and starting all over again. Again. And again. It's enough to get a guy down.

For whatever reasons, I thought it might be different this time. I was with a small company -- just the Pres/CEO and me -- and I thought we might make for a pretty dynamic team; he of the glib tongue and the charismatic presentations, and me the grunt to do the actual work. And, in fact, that's how it worked out. He talked a good game, and I did all the heavy lifting, and I can lift a lot in the IT communications world. But even more to the point, I thought I was due for a blessing. There's that word again. The reasons for that are complex, but they basically have to do with the silly notion that God rewards good behavior. And it's not that I was perfect; far from it, in fact. But relatively speaking, I was on the upswing. Things were going well spiritually, maritally, every way. And I don't think I ever consciously identified it as such, but I suppose I figured that God would honor that by dismissing the one thing that was most likely to trip me up in the past -- a lack of job stability. Apparently not.

Ironically enough, my former boss -- yes, the Pres/CEO -- just called. It's the first time I've spoken with him since he told me not to show up for work after I returned from my vacation. And this time I got to ask him all the things I was too stunned to ask him when I talked with him last week.

Me: Were you displeased with my job performance?
Pres/CEO: No, you did a fine job.

Me: What happened to the one-year contract?
Pres/CEO: It got canceled. These things happen. It's nothing personal.

No, it never is. Except when it is, which is every time. I suspect I'm not really cut out for this kind of work. And this kind of work is the only kind of work that's available.

Three times per day I pray the Lord's Prayer, which includes the sticky little phrase, "Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us." I stumble over those words every time I pray, but I know what they mean. They mean that I have no choice but to forgive. It's not an optional clause, and since I desperately need forgiveness, I need to forgive others who have wronged me. So lately -- over the past week or so -- I've been praying for help to do that, because right now I can't do it on my own. That kind of help would be a blessing. I'd be thankful if those of you so inclined could pray for that as well.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Bill Fox

Music is a funny thing, and the journey from A to B sometimes takes you through some pathless wastes. Witness one Bill Fox, he of the nondescript name and the unfailing melodic gift. Bill was the leader of a relatively obscure Cleveland band called The Mice in the mid-'80s, who should not be confused with the contemporary pop punk band of the same name from San Diego, or Modest Mouse, or any other musical rodent. Ever hear of these Mice? Me either, but I'm told their shows were legendary, which typically means that the 20 people who saw them might be exaggerating. In any case, I'd never heard of Bill Fox until If I Had a Hi-Fi, the latest covers album from power popsters Nada Surf. The opening track is a Bill Fox tune called "Electrocution," and the first time I heard it I pressed the back button on my iPod about five times in a row because I couldn't believe what I was hearing. It's one of those perfect, chiming, three-minute jangly pop tunes that used to be all over the radio, and now are difficult to find. Think The Byrds, The Beatles, Big Star, and Guided By Voices; that kind of jangly pop. It's pretty select company, but "Electrocution" belongs there.

So that led me on a search for Bill's old band. No dice on The Mice, but I did track down a couple of Bill's solo albums, Shelter from the Smoke and Transit Byzantium, two lo-fi gems (recorded at home in four-track splendor, no less) from the late '90s on SpinART Records. These are in the folk-pop vein, but the chiming guitar runs (acoustic this time) and effortless melodicism are still very much intact. There's the semi-expected Dylan influence, too, including surrealistic choruses and the occasional harmonica solo, but at least he does it well, and these songs are far better than average in their lyrical heft. And did I mention the melodies?

I love these kinds of discoveries. Last I heard, Bill Fox works a late-night telemarketing gig at The Cleveland Plain Dealer, performs rarely and reluctantly, and has a noted antipathy toward publicity. Imagine, a guy who writes songs because he likes to write songs. What a concept. So pretend you didn't read this. But for what it's worth, the guy has made some of the best music I've heard this year, twelve years too late.

Here's Bill doing the original version of "Electrocution."

Portrait of the Artist as Screw-Up

At the Image Journal blog.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Deciphering Corporatespeak

Maybe I'll feel better tomorrow. Then again, maybe I won't. If it weren't for little nagging worries like food and shelter, I can't imagine why anyone would subject themselves to the indignities of corporate America. God knows it's been obvious for a long while now that American business is based on the fundamental principle that the worker is entitled to the same rights and privileges as the cockroach.

Nevertheless, it occurs to me that some of you out there may be entering the job market for the first time, and may not have encountered the peculiar ways in which corporations communicate. Commonly used terms have their own very special meanings in corporate America, and it's to your advantage to understand precisely what you're encountering. So here's a little primer for your benefit.

Corporate term: One-year contract
Translation: Whatever we want it to mean. Could be one month. Could be one day. It doesn't really matter, because there will be a one in there somewhere, and people always work during some portion of a year.

Corporate term: Teamwork
Translation: You do the work, and we'll take the credit for it. Also known as "Work Smarter."

Corporate term: Employee morale
Translation: You'll learn inspiring, life-affirming slogans and possible company chants during the one-day to one-month interim you'll be employed.

Corporate term: Continuous feedback
Translation: You'll be told that you're doing a great job each day during your one- to twenty-day stay.

Corporate term: Consultant
Translation: Cockroach

Corporate term: Integrity
Translation: Bullshit