Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Say Cheese!

Number One Camera - Nina Gordon (mp3)

I got a scanner for Christmas. Best Buy ran out of the complete series collections of The Wire, so my wife got me the second thing down on the list. It took several days before the Christmas air cleared and offered me the opportunity, but I finally got a chance to spend the evening scanning some pictures from my past.

Photo albums are journals that people incorrectly assume others care to see. (NOTE: Worse could be said about blogs, I grant you.) I can't recall a single time when I was visiting a friend's home and they said, "Hey! Wanna sit down with me and read some of my journals?" Yet, for some reason, we all find ourselves at some moment begging our friends and acquaintances and relatives to endure the journey down photographic memory lane with us, looking at pictures they're not in nor had any role in taking.

It's not human nature to want to look at collections of pictures that involve us in no way. Sure, we all have those experiences, those pictures, so beyond the realm of everyday life that people are curious, maybe even truly interested.

When I went to Kenya, for instance. Folks at least acted interested in seeing those pictures. Most of 'em probably had genuine curiosity. But hell, I had to go half-way around the world to get those pictures. I had to squat over a big hole in a tiny shack in order to take a dump. I worked for those pictures, dammit! Look at 'em! Look!!!

Generally, however, pictures are a personal thing, a private thing. They may be worth 1,000 words to us, but they're hardly worth a haiku to everyone else.

If you've spent any time on Facebook, you'd be inclined to disagree. But you can look through 45 thumbnail pictures on Facebook in the time it takes you to turn a page in a traditional photo album. Everything's faster in Computerland. We don't mind being polite or curious for a few minutes. Just don't sit us on your couch with some lemonade and a big fat 200-page album of Kodaks. (See: Fletch, Sally Ann Cavenaugh.) Further, when are we notified that a friend posted pictures? When we're tagged in them. Because everyone wants to see pictures someone else took when we're in them.

The power of personal pictures is not necessarily in the sharing of them, but rather in their ability to conjure the feelings, the events, the in-the-now moment of months, years, decades ago. In fact, I love my high school photos for much the same reason I love Naked Eyes' "Always Something There to Remind Me." Not because either is particularly artistic, and not because I loooooved high school or Naked Eyes, but both manage to put transport me to a particular moment in my life, complete with the awkward feelings and even the very thoughts you were thinking when you took the picture, or when you posed for the picture.

[For the record, "Always Something There to Remind Me" takes me instantly back to my elementary school playground one afternoon in the sixth grade when I played said song to a girl named Lindie. We'd been "going together" for, like, a whole month or something, and I recorded this song on the radio that night and made her sit there and listen to this damn song the next day. As if playing it might reunite us or, hell, I don't even know if I had a purpose other than to make sure she knew she shouldn'ta gone and done dat. We hadn't even gone past the hand-holding stage. And yes, it's possible to be simultaneously embarrassed by an act yet also be so in the moment that you also feel it was totally justified and appropriate.]

High school and college was like a great '70s or '80s TV miniseries. You knew you had to be there for every episode, and you couldn't miss it, because it wasn't coming around again, and it might never come out on VHS. If you missed it, you missed it, probably forever. Unlike a regular series, you couldn't hope to catch up next season or after a few episodes.

Adult life more often feels like it's a long-running series, like M*A*S*H or Law + Order, and if you miss one episode, you'll catch up with it tomorrow and will miss nary a plot point. Or, you can always record it on your DVR. While having children helps minimize this problem -- every moment with my own children has the potential to feel transcendent, even more amazing at times than my own childhood -- those little rugrats come with their own complicated production costs.

And I know we're all s'posed to embrace that crap about how every day could be our last and we've gotta savor every single moment. Great. Terrific theory. But we're also running a marathon. If you run your marathon like it might end any minute, you'll never finish the damn race. And if you take pictures like tomorrow's your last day, you might end up immortalizing the wrong things... (See: Facebook, Vanessa Hudgens, etc.)

Happy New Year. And as the great and all-wise Pee Wee Herman would say: Take a picture -- it'll last longer.

"Number One Camera" is from Nina's first solo album, Tonight and the Rest of My Life, available on iTunes or Amazon.com's mp3 site.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Reinventing Rock, Pt. 2: "The clumsy grace of the original"

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band--"Wings For Wheels (live)" (mp3)

There have been so many pleasures to entering the blogosphere this year, but among the best has been the chance to track down some old favorite concerts.

It's no secret that I am partial to live music, a position I plan to broaden in the coming year, but there are two legendary concerts from my past, which have only extended beyond my memory this year since we started this blog. The first is Bruce Springsteen's legendary Main Point concert in 1974. The second is Jackson Browne and David Lindley's concert from that same venue.

I suppose I should insert the following here: it's a Philadelphia thang; you wouldn't understand. But the fact is that I went to college in Philadelphia and took ample advantage of the thriving music scene that existed there in the later half of the 1970s. And that scene, while evidenced by an extensive list of concert offerings all 5 years I was there, was held together on a day-to-day basis by a radio station, WMMR. And WMMR played the two concerts I've alluded to above repeatedly. I had them on cassette and listened to them over and over, and, yes, not only did I "own" them then, but I feel like I have a right to own them now.

I have two points I want to make to justify my title, "Reinventing Rock," in this ongoing series. The first is this: when the ball falls on New Year's Eve, I will be beginning my 44th year collecting music, and though that term "music" has come to include almost all kinds of music, most of it is, obviously, rock music. As that ball falls on New Year's Eve, it will likely mark the beginning of another year where the music industry sees declining revenues, and, in their panic to control what's owed to them, they'll likely continue to harass little music sites like this one, as they have done twice this year.

But let's ponder a different perspective, shall we? As a 44-year collector of music, I want to change the question: what am I owed? To the music industry, I say, I have hung with you through 45's, LP's, cassettes, CD's, and now digital music. If you had your way with me, and sometimes you did, I would have bought the same music in 5 different formats. The same music. Just to keep up with the accessibility and playability of the exact same songs. So, again, I ask you, what am I owed? Why wasn't I allowed to buy the song once, and then, assuming I could provide the evidence, why wasn't I allowed to get a free upgrade to the next format? I mean, if a song is a song, why does it make a difference what medium it is played on? Once I purchased the right to play it, why was I required to re-buy it so many times?

Which takes me back to those two concerts at the Main Point. The radio played them and I taped them off the radio. And, because they were such an important part of my "formative music years" I want to hear them again whenever I want to. And so, I tracked one down on a blog, and I know that the other one exists, because I've seen reference to it, but I don't have it quite yet. But I intend to keep trying. Is that really illegal activity? Is it?

Because the real point, the main point (pun intended), is that full access to all kinds of music from an artist allows us to understand the process, the growth, the false starts and bad turns, the learning that makes, for me at least, the songwriters I admire more worth listening to. Case in point: check out the Springsteen track above. "Wings For Wheels" is from that Main Point show I listened to so many times so many years ago. I always assumed it was just "Thunder Road," which of course it is the precursor to. But it is also not "Thunder Road," and not just in its title. "Thunder Road," in its final version, has pretensions of becoming one of the great rock anthems of all times, a goal that it reaches. "Wings For Wheels" is more of a greaser song, the story of a nowhere guy who doesn't have much to offer but a car, and a not very reliable one at that:

Well, this 442, she's gonna overheat,
Make up your mind, girl, I gotta get back out on the street.

Contrast those lines with the final version:

Oh-oh, come take my hand
We're riding out tonight to case the promised land.


In the revision, the narrative becomes part of the great American metaphor. Even the girl's name change, from Angelina to Mary, broadens the song's appeal.

Of course, like so many others, I went with Bruce on this revision and along on his journey to become an international rock star, but often I still prefer the clumsy grace of the original narrator and his self-awareness:


Now the season's over
And I feel it gettin' cold,
I wish I could take you to some sandy beach
Where we'd never grow old.
But, girl, you know that's just jive,
But the night's bustin' open and I'm alive.

Isn't it nice to know that both exist and that you have a choice? I asked in the last post if you would prefer to study history or to chart and predict the future. With music, the answer is, of course, both, and the great gift of the Internet is that it allows us (for the moment, at least) to forge on in both directions, constantly revising our perspectives on the music and the musicians we think we know.

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Tyranny Of The Same Things

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers--"The Same Old You" (mp3)

My family is in a New Orleans rut. Each time we go down to visit America's greatest city, we allot ourselves about the same amount of time for the trip and find ourselves doing the same things over and over again--muffulettas and beer at the Napoleon House, shopping along Magazine Street, a movie we can't find in Chattanooga at Canal Place, coffee and croissants at Croissant D'Or.

Behind visits to places like those are my own, internal, obligatory checklists. I must have a shrimp po-boy. Check. I must enjoy the freedom of holding a beer while walking throughout the Quarter. Check. I must eat bread pudding. Check. I must hear live music. Check. I must drive randomly through Garden District streets and look at the beautiful homes I could never afford. Check.

Of course, if I could get to do all of those kinds of things a couple of times a year for the rest of my life, I'd be pretty happy about doing that. And we did stray from the beaten path a little. We drove over to Metairie to look at a school. We found the place in the Lower Ninth Ward where Brad Pitt has started a project to rebuild that area with architechurely-interesting, environmentally-sound, affordable homes. And we spent an evening with my wife's friends, who took a chance a bought a mini-condo (about the size of your kitchen) in the French Quarter and who now have a very cool place to sleep and to cook Christmas dinner when they retreat to New Orleans as often as they can.


But, yeah, we're in a rut. And this is the time of year when all of us tend to think about ruts. What patterns are we stuck in that require an examination of career, diet, exercise, goal-setting, you name it. You get the drift--it's resolution time in Tennessee!

The causes of our life ruts are not necessarily bad. Friends, conviviality, responsibility, faith--plenty of disparate forces like these can help us to stay in a holding pattern with the best of intentions. I mean, the reason I eat too many french fries is because I like to get away from work and eat lunch out with friends. I'm certainly not frying stuff up at home. And getting to enjoy friends' company at lunch always feels like a celebration, so I eat like I'm on vacation. My fault, of course.

I'm not really much of a "resolution" guy, per say. Sure, I have some internal goals that I like to try to keep track of (and usually don't). What I like about this time of year and the idea of a fresh start, but not to correct the wrongs of the past so much. More often than not, I'm thinking about what I'd like to accomplish in the coming year that I haven't done so far. Positive additions to life empower me more than shameful recriminations about what I've already done.

And, like most years at this time, the "bad guy" seems to be doing the same things again. So, I'll be looking to add something different and probably adding something that didn't even seem like a real possibility at the time when everyone was doing resolutions. This week marks the 9th month of this blog. Last year at this time, I had no idea that Billy and I would be cranking something like this up three months later. Or, that it would last.

Beware the tyranny of the same, lest it rule with an iron fist!

"The Same Old You" comes from Tom Petty's best and, most likely, overlooked cd, Long After Dark, available at Itunes.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Best Music Blog Finds of 2008

One final Best Of music list should round out the year nicely, don'tcha think? (Or maybe Bob had plans for another...?)

While I agree in toto with Bob's commentary that music now comes at us so hard and fast and unrelentingly that it's almost impossible to savor each quarter-note morsel we ingest, I also must admit that I've been exposed to more kinds of music by more bands in the last nine months than in any 9-month stretch since I was in college. For every band whose songs I was able to sample thanks to the ten or so music blogs I regularly frequented, I'm sure there were handfuls of other bands I only wish I could have heard.

But we gotta start somewhere. And we gotta end somewhere. So, for better or worse, below are the Musical Waldos I found, my favorite musical discoveries owed exclusively to the blogging of others.



(For those dying to know, here's the order in which I've been playing them on my iPod, with song title and artists name.)
  1. Push It Along - Paul Weller
  2. Umbrellas (First Dance) - Sleeping At Last
  3. I'm Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How to Dance With You - Black Kids
    (Dude, y'all owe at least half your profits to Robert Smith)
  4. If You Don't Care - Smoking Popes
  5. The Night Starts Here - Stars
  6. Beulah the Good - James Jackson Toth
    (I don't know where this song is going or ends up, but it's a damn chilled-out fun journey)
  7. Everything Good is Bad - JJ Grey + Mofro
    (I hear this and wanna wear a smoking jacket and attend a key party)
  8. Lose It - Cartel
  9. I'm Not Scared - Ladytron
  10. First Sight - These United States
  11. Hardly Enough - WAZ
    (He played for Pete Yorn. He sounds kinda like Pete Yorn.)
  12. All My Friends Are Crazy - 500 Miles to Memphis
    (I hadn't really heard of country/punk before, but I'm cool with it)
  13. The Reason Why I Still Live Here - Floormodel
  14. Graveyard Girl - M83
    (I hear this, I think of John Hughes, Martha Quinn, and Patrick Dempsey)
  15. The Good Old Days - The Lodger
  16. Yesterday's Lunch - Lemuria
  17. You Made Me Like It - 1990s
    (Oh it's just so damn catchy...)
  18. Is There a Ghost - Band of Horses
    (Three different people asked me what this song meant... I was utterly unhelpful)
  19. You, Me + the Bourgeoisie - The Submarines
  20. Turn the Page - The Streets
  21. Lazy Eye - Silversun Pickups
    (If Kim Deal, early Billy Corgan, Dave Grohl and one of the Luscious Jackson chicks all had a single baby, the song would sound something like this)
None of the artists above are living the lush life of a Tina Turner, so please consider forking over a few post-holiday dollars and buying one of their albums! Most of them can be found at either Amazon.com's mp3 site or on iTunes.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Reinventing Rock, Pt. 1: "I Think Music Is Like A Marriage"


The Who--"Music Must Change" (mp3)

May I present to you a few paragraphs that may not have anything to do with each other.

It seems like there is more ukelele than there used to be. Not only are there the virtuosos like Jake Shimabukuro, but when you surf the blogs, you hear a fair number of folky ukelele players, some of them well-regarded songwriters. Is this true, or is it simply that because I bought a ukelele this year I am more conscious of it?

My brother, who over the years has led me in several important musical directions--David Bowie, Grateful Dead, King Crimson, J.J. Cale, Jimmy Dale Gilmore, --declared a few weeks ago that he is no longer interested in the newer bands. "I don't have time to discover My Morning Jacket," I think he said, or something like that. Finally, somehow, he has enough?

I think music is like a marriage. How would you finish the simile?

Part of me wants to cut loose the baggage of classic music. I did it with the Eagles. There came a moment, I think it was more than 10 years ago, when I realized that I never wanted to hear any more Eagles. Sure, I liked the hits okay, but I had heard them enough and had gotten tired of them enough that I thought, you know, I can do without this. I've got a bit of Eagles in my head and I can call on that if I ever need to, though I can't see why I would. I never liked them all that much to begin with, then got bombarded with them, and just said, no more.

Would you rather be a historian or a social visionary?

I've grown tired of collecting books. No, I haven't tired of reading; in fact, I probably love it more than ever. But I've lost the need to maintain possession of what I have read. Is a personal library intended as a monument to oneself? Wouldn't it be better to give away every book you read? Shouldn't the amount of love you have for a book determine how quickly you give it away?

For the past couple of weeks, I've been looking at "best of" lists from all over the place--Entertainment Weekly, the blogs, Time, the local paper, my own list on this site--and I've made a strange discovery. It is very unlikely that if you cross-referenced a number of different places yourself you would find anything close to the same list of songs. There simply is no great consensus out there. Maybe that's a good thing; I'm not sure. Some want to celebrate the new artists and begin to make a case for their place in the pantheon. Some, like me, tend to lean on old favorites, the Springsteens, Westerbergs, Moulds, etc.

Here's my concern though. Take a song like "White Winter Hymnal" by Fleet Foxes. It's a good enough song, and appears on more lists than most. But it's a fairly slight song, kind of a "Hazy Shade Of Winter" for the new generation? It's not a song that revolutionizes music in any way, shape, or form. At the same time, an interesting experiment like Paul Westerberg's 49:00 barely registers on the blogs of the young. It's a montage of full and partial songs that flow smoothly or jarringly into one another. No matter which way you tend, neither project is worth fighting for too much. And that's the problem.

Maybe the ghosts of the past (as well as those rock giants still with us) have become too overwhelming. Maybe we should retire that early catalog altogether and just keep it available to Kid Rock when he needs to sample some good riffs for his next hit song. Maybe if we retired the concept of Dylan, there wouldn't be the ongoing need to find the next Dylan, the next Springsteen, the next Duane Allman, the next Stevie Ray Vaughn......

I think music is like a marriage. As Woody Allen's character in Annie Hall once put it, "Relationships are like sharks, they have to keep moving forward or they die." I think the same is true of music, and so I enjoy discovering what musicians come up with each year, in fact, I see that as my obligation as a listener. But, ultimately, I see this year as a series of small successes rather than grand reassessments of the status quo.
I guess when I was actually living the year 2008, I thought it would be more. But, again, when you look through "best of" lists, the grand dramas of the year--the election, the war, the economy, the starving world, the environment, the oppression of gays and the lingering racism--are rarely, if ever, touched upon in the year's "top" songs. Maybe that is not the purpose of music.

I chalk up 2008 as an in-between year, though in between what and what, I'm not sure. Thoughts?


The Who's "Music Must Change" appears on Who Are You, available at Itunes.



Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Simple Superficial Pleasures

Snowing In Seattle - Sherwood (mp3)
Ice Cream - Sarah McLachlan (mp3)
Favorite Things - John Coltrane (mp3)

Twice in the final days before Christmas, I have found myself freed from Calypso (read: work) with my shipmates (read: all three of my children) journeying through the fourth circle of Hell (read: Hamilton Place mall traffic), through Lotus-Eaters and Cyclopii and HHGreggses of the seas in the hopes of returning safely home in time to give Santa plenty of booty to drop down the chimney (read: move up from the basement at 1 a.m. Christmas morning).  [NOTE: I realize that Dante and Homer are unfairly intermingled in the above reference. Chalk it up to laziness.]

These experiences were sandwiched around a 48-hour bug that created Exorcist children and poopy parents. While this might be TMI for some readers, this is essential information, as it is when we are in times of great misery, stress and suffering that we become most aware of that which makes us happy and appreciative.

And, because my weekend experiences were entirely wrapped up in the superficial and marginal trappings of illness and "Christmas" (read: puke and presents), I found myself gleeful and grateful for those superficial and marginal things in life that touch my heart in particular.

Orange Julius: The original Creamsicle drink. In reality, anything that tastes remotely like a creamsicle qualifies here. The flavor of creamsicle is better than kettle corn, dark chocolate, brown ale, or even caramel. Creamsicle tastes like heaven.

A Charlie Brown Christmas: The acting is as bad as acting can be in something animated. The animation isn't much better. It's not particularly funny. The Zapruder film has better editing. Yet... we watch. And kids love it. It's almost as if the shittiness is exempted because it is so damned pure of heart. And isn't that what Christmas is all about? Sorta?

Movies You'd Never Watch if You Weren't Sick and Bed-Ridden: In-between grimacing sprints to the bathroom, I would lie half-conscious in my living room watching the best and worst DirecTV had to offer. The Black Hole. Click. The Goonies. Days of Thunder. I own none of these movies, nor would I (except for maybe The Goonies), but something about being too weak to care and desperate for anything to take your mind off of the demons in your intestines makes these movies blessed opportunities. But dear sweet God The Black Hole just ain't very good, no matter how amusing I might find Earnest Borgnine.

Baked Lays: It continues to be the crystal meth of processed foods. No medical professional and no reasonable loved one would recommend a sick person eat entire bags of Baked Lays, yet there I was, 12 hours into my recovery, licking out every last crumb of a bag that had only been opened a few hours earlier. I kept convincing myself it was for the salt intake. Truth is, at times when you feel like anything and everything in your body is only there for a very brief visit, you just want to maximize the enjoyment of welcoming it in.

Drivers Who Wave You In: One of my biggest pet peeve is when people make ridiculous jumps in logic. Just because someone has never cheated at golf doesn't mean they won't engage in insider trading. Just because a President never screwed around on his wife doesn't mean he won't stick a big metaphorical dildo up the ass of the collective citizenry. So this is only worth what it's worth, but I sincerely appreciate people who, jammed into lines of hundreds of other miserable cars in mall parking lots at this time of year, find it in their hearts to wave other people in. They might be serial killers or tax dodgers the rest of their lives, but for those few hours they spend waving people in and letting other desperate drivers catch a break, they are saints, and they are Godsends.

Threadless.com: I spent close to $200 on presents for various people at Threadless.com this Christmas season. And for every dollar I spent, I got several minutes of childish glee from jumping around on that site. I started stuffing my online shopping cart with T-shirts in late November but didn't finalize the order until December 15, because the experience was a constant "two steps forward, one step back" waltz of changing my mind, finding better shirts, missing out on an item that went out of order, and diving back in to find another option. Those dudes deserve their income, and so do the dozen or so shirt creators (anyone can be one!) whose designs had me beeming.

Bands Who Send BOTG (Tasty) Free Songs to Promote: He had me at "Superdrag." This dude named Dan sent us the song "Snowing in Seattle" and described it as "Superdrag/Nada Surf/Beach Boys" while admitting that it's much harder to identify the music you put your own sweat and blood into as opposed to the music of others. Thing is, as far as Superdrag is concerned, Dan is spot on. The song is scrumptious power pop and right up my alley, so it's included above. Sherwood's upcoming album is expected to come out next summer on the MySpace record label, so keep it in mind if you dig this ditty.

I figured I'd share these few minor things with you here. Feel free to offer some of your own in return. And have a splendid, phosphorescent, Merry Christmas.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Are You Talkin' To Me?

The Smiths--"Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before" (mp3)

We all have people who talk to us too much, who can trap us in our offices and ignore whatever hints or body language or continual returns to our computer screens we might offer.

(Hint: unless you have your coffee machine in your office, I've learned that the best way to break the spell is to stand up with your empty coffee cup and ask the person if he or she wants to go get some coffee. It works!)

But I'm not here to condemn those people; actually, I like those kind of people a good bit of the time and have enjoyed where those unexpectedly-lengthy conversations have taken us. I've been witnessed to, cried to, made to laugh harder than I've ever laughed, and made friendships I didn't expect to make. I'm a pretty good soundboard because I don't say much. It's only when I'm under time pressure myself that those "super talkers" are too much for me to handle.

I think I'm getting older and more generous. Ha.

But, I'm sure you can tell my bow and arrow is indeed pointed at a target: it's those people who will tell you something that they've already told you, and probably more than once. And here's why: those people have devalued you as a human being.

Now, don't get me wrong. I have a father in his 80's who occasionally repeats himself. I had a grandmother with Alzheimer's whose turntable needle got stuck in the groove of the vinyl album of her life in about 1939 when she was visiting her family in France and war was declared and she had to return to America on an ocean liner where they feared that they might be torpedoed at any moment. If you have to hear a story over and over, it's not a bad one to hear.

But there are people out there who have lost touch with humanity in a far more tragic way. They are walking around the rest of us, engaging in what they think are meaningful human interactions, when the reality is that they are only talking. They are dispensing information, and, more often than not, because they are dispensing information, they do so in a montonic manner. And the thing is, they would be talking about the same thing, whether it was you or me or the security guard standing next to them, or, quite frankly, if it was the same you or me or security guard that they said the same things to last week.

People tailor conversations. That's what we do. We tell the story differently, we emphasize something that might be important to a particular person, we edit what someone might not need to hear, we ask questions, specific questions, that remind both parties in a conversation of previous encounters and shared memories. The talker does not do this. Instead, he has a flow chart in his brain that offers about 5 different options to him, and, whether or not his listener pushes one of those buttons, he is going to take the "conversation" down one of those paths.

The point, you ask? The point is that this is one of those seasons that highlight loneliness, and this time around, it strikes me that there is nothing more lonely than a person who walks through a day talking to people about things that neither he nor they are listening to. He's already had the conversation with himself in his head. The other person, no doubt, heard it before. And both probably walk away with misconceptions--the listener with the idea that this person cares so little about him that the talker doesn't even remember the previous conversation(s), the talker with the belief that he has made contact with the human race.
"Stop Me If You've Think You've Heard This One Before" is off the Smiths' Strangeways, Here We Come, available at Itunes.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Bob's BEST SONGS OF 2008 (Wherein I occasionally invoke the privilege of including songs that I didn’t hear until 2008 and other fallacies of logic)

20. “Magick” by Ryan Adams and the Cardinals

This is the year I turned on Ryan Adams. I like his live sound, where the Cardinals have more of a chance to play the Grateful Dead in their arrangements, but there’s a sameness to much of Adams’ recent studio work. I start this list off with “Magick” because it gives me hope that Adams will rock a bit more in the new year.

19. “Looking At The Sun” by Gramercy Arms Gramercy Arms--"Looking At The Sun" (mp3)

Good, clean retro-pop that portends good things to come, until someone snaps this up as the soundtrack for a TV show and ruins everything.

18. “Freeway” by Aimee Mann

A simple, droning Aimee Mann toss-off, built around the verbal irony of “You gotta a lot of money, but you can’t afford the freeway.” But, the riff is insistent and hummable and the chorus soars just enough to shake you out of your reverie. I sing this one all the time.

17. “Ordinary People” by Neil Young

I guess this song was performed back in the late ‘80’s, but it wasn’t released until this year on Chrome Dreams II. The band is Neil Young and the Bluenotes, the historical references don’t have the impact they once might have had, and the song goes on for over 18 minutes. Who else could pull this off? Like much of what Young writes, this opus is in need of some editing, but each verse tells its own mini-story and helps to create a cumulative effect of the resilience of people in the face of corruption and injustice and the general downtroddenness of life that seems very appropriate as we face our current troubles and the hope of our new president.

16. “Ruby” by the Kaiser Chiefs Kaiser Chiefs--"Ruby" (mp3)

Everything that joyous, girl-crazy rock and roll should be. Wait for the chorus. Wait for it. I was in the car yesterday listening to this with some other people and when someone came up to the car to talk, we stopped the Ipod so we wouldn’t miss the chorus. How often does that happen?

15. “Stupid Now” by Bob Mould Bob Mould--"Stupid Now" (mp3)

There are a number of very good songs on District Line, but I like the opener “Stupid Now” because it ratchets up the emotion immediately. I don’t know much about Mould’s personal life, but with each new cd, it seems like some guy has broken his heart again. This time, it feels like the stakes are higher, like there was the expectation of a long-term relationship that exploded/imploded. One of Mould’s many gifts is his ability to convey either the explosion or the implosion with equal dexterity.

14. “Pull Up The Roots” by the morning benders the morning benders--"Pull Up The Roots (Talking Heads cover)" (mp3)

Stumbling across the bedroom covers, a little ep of odd covers from the morning benders, stuff by Paul Simon and Fleetwood Mac to Roy Orbison and the Beach Boys among others, was one of the great small treasures of this year. The vibe is of a band sitting around and most anything that they can think of they can cook up into a version that honors the original but becomes their own. To my ears, this Talking Heads cover is the cream of a very good crop. The benders write good stuff, too: their “dammit anna” was one of my favorites a year or so ago.

13. “Devil’s Arcade” and “Terry’s Song” by Bruce Springsteen

“Devil’s Arcade” feels more like a song that should have been on The Rising than Magic. The subject matter has been updated from 9/11 to post-Iraq war, but the circumstance of individual people, husbands, wives, and soldiers having to come to terms with what has happened to them feels very much the same. That you get the hidden track “Terry’s Song,” an ode to a lost friend, is both simpatico and pure gravy.

12. “Tiny Island” by Leo Kottke Leo Kottke--"Tiny Island" (mp3)

The greatest re-release of the year. How do I know? Because I re-released it, with the help of the USB turntable I got last Christmas. This long-lost gem of the out-of-print Greenhouse album is the sonic definition of “wistfulness.”

11. “This Girl” by Jordan Zevon Jordan Zevon--"This Girl" (mp3)

It’s not just that his voice sounds like he’s channeling the old man; this is catchy stuff. Lost in the Zevon mystique of crazy song subject matter and an overdeveloped sense of irony is the fact that Warren Zevon wrote melodic, radio-friendly pop songs. It sounds like Jordan is a chip off the old block.

10. “Scare Easy” by Mudcrutch

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know Tom Petty can probably write songs like this in his sleep, but this is a tightly-played single by a group of veterans who clearly enjoy being back together and trying to make the years between disappear. Perhaps to honor that spirit, the production is cleaner and simpler than most Petty records of late, and I’m not sure he’s put out anything this direct in quite awhile.

9. “Hittin’ It Hard” by Jim Lauderdale Jim Lauderdale--"Hittin' It Hard" (mp3)

I despise modern country music’s typical fallback on a nostalgic vision of agrarian-society-meets-Roadhouse world that never was. How refreshing, then to encounter Jim Lauderdale’s honest song about a friend who drinks too much.

8. “Expecting To Fly” by Emily Haines*

The blog world loves covers, and I am no exception. I think this actually might have slipped in near the end of last year. Nevertheless, it’s my favorite cover song of this year, taking a beloved late Buffalo Springfield track and stripping all the layers of nervous Neil Young and David Brigg’s inventive (at the time) engineering. Nothing but piano and vocal, Haines’ version takes us back to the heart of the song.

7. “Jesus Had A Sweet Girlfriend” by Justice of the Unicorns* Justice of the Unicorns--"Jesus Had A Sweet Girlfriend" (mp3)

To me, this is the slacker, lo-fi hit of the year. If it’s true that every generation remakes Jesus and Hamlet in its own image, then the Christ had the typical relationship issues, parent issues, enemies, and just-get-me-through-these-years resignation that any teenager encounters.

6. “Live Your Life” by T.I. (featuring Rhianna)

I’m always susceptible to whatever my children are listening to, and this rapper’s manifesto is just friendly enough that I’ve grown to really like it. I have to admit, though, the first time I heard it, I thought Rhianna was saying “ ‘cause I’m a big, fuckin’ slut” each time at the end of her section. That’s a judgement on my hearing, not her lifestyle. Apparently, she says, "'cause I'm a paper pusher."

5. “You Don’t Know Me” by Ben Folds and Regina Spektor Ben Folds (featuring Regina Spektor)--"You Don't Know Me" (mp3)

The catchiest song of 2008, with Regina Spektor’s sexy, breathy vocals playfully mocking the mock-seriousness of Fold’s complaint. You know I love duets; this is a good one. It will stay in your head forever, and at least you can tell your brain, hey, back off, I’m listening to Ben Folds.

4. “The Devil Raised A Good Boy” by Paul Westerberg and “Cop Light Parade” by High On Stress* High On Stress--"Cop Light Parade" (mp3)

If I didn’t like Paul Westerberg so much, the grouping with High On Stress might seem like a tiresome comparison for the younger band. Maybe it’s just me, but if someone said, “You know, that song you just played reminds me of Paul Westerberg,” I’d beam. So hats off to the Stressers for showing their influences and for being named, by me, as the best band who sent a song to this blog this year! “Devil Raised A Good Boy” begins at minute 14:28 of Westerberg's conglomerated cd, 49:00. It’s his best rocker in years.

3. “Acid Tongue” by Jenny Lewis Jenny Lewis--"Acid Tongue" (mp3)

I know critics weren’t as positive about Jenny Lewis’ second outing, but “Acid Tongue” is a quality (autobiographical?) stand out track. Rockers were never supposed to get older, but since they do, assessments of earlier lives can be quite compelling, like this is.

2. “Can’t Go Back Now” by The Weepies The Weepies--"Can't Go Back Now" (mp3)

Having made a case for really short songs in a post earlier this year, it’s not surprising that this perfect little gem from the Weepies should be one of my favorites. Put simply, it’s a song about life that cheerfully, for two minutes, helps us to come to terms with what we’ve lost and what we have to face. It reminds me of one of my favorites by the Sheds, “All The Right Things.” It’s hard to ask much more from a song than what this delivers.

1. “Lord, I’m Discouraged” by The Hold Steady* The Hold Steady--"Lord, I'm Discouraged (live)" (mp3)

The Hold Steady’s music is often not as engaging as their lyrics, but everything clicks in this song. Maybe this is where Craig Finn finally shrugs off any comparisons to Springsteen (though musically Meatloaf, John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band or Bon Jovi might have worked, too). Springsteen tends to traffic in impressionistic images and abstract ideas, while Finn give you the gory details. The narrator misses the frivolous fun of dancing because his girlfriend is hooked on drugs and spend time across town and in the company of sketchy characters. I like lists in songs, and I have to say, "Excuses and half-truths and fortified wine" is one of my favorites. There is an unease in America right now as we begin to face what we’re really about, and, in capsule form, this song captures that for me.

What were your favs?

Many of these songs are available at Itunes, though a few have not made it that far yet or are out-of-print. Those marked with an asterisk (*) have been previously posted on this site.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Billy's Top 11 Albums of 2008: The Top Five (and a half)

Below are my top five (and a half).
Click here for 6-11.

5. The New Frontiers - Mending
"The Day We Fell Apart" (mp3)
The New Frontiers is Radiohead if Thom Yorke was from Texas. While this description probably insults both bands, I stick to it. Mending is a supremely chilled-out rock album with some country influences injected for good measure. I don't really like using the word "rock" because nothing in this album is particularly cutting or hard. It's more like a river rock, worn smooth from having sat on the bottom and endured heavy currents over time.

In fact, this is not my generally preferred style of music. It's far too relaxed. (I could say the same thing about Snow Patrol, for example, whose most recent album is good but failed to make my Top 10.) But this album penetrated my hunger for hooks and bombast with some great harmonies and a melancholy sweetness that I find tough to explain.

4. Girl Talk - Feed the Animals
One of my favorite mix CD bands of the 21st Century is The Go! Team. It's quite possible Girl Talk has surpassed them with this album. What the Go! Team does with retro sounds and muffled cheerleaders Girl Talk does with every damn song you've ever heard and another hundred or so you might not have.

This album is like the super-tough edition of a music trivia game, except it never stops, never slows down, and never comes across as anything less than fun.

The one knock I have is that, when all is said and done, the songs have no message, no meaning. There isn't some thematic or lyrical intent linking "Every Little Thing She Does is Magic" with a Busta Rhymes hit. He just mashed 'em 'cuz it sounded awesome. And it does. Sound awesome. It even sounds awesome several months after I first heard it, which is unexpected.

Sometimes, it's OK for music to mean little beyond bringing a smile to your face.

3. The Gaslight Anthem - The '59 Sound
"Meet Me by the River's Edge" (mp3)
Mix two parts Flesh for Lulu, two parts The Killers, and a sprinkling of Vigilantes of Love, and I'm pretty sure the resulting mixture would sound like The Gaslight Anthem. Reviews I've read of this band keep using the word "punk," which is a big head-scratcher for me. Was Flesh for Lulu "punk"? Does anyone beside me know who Flesh for Lulu even is?

Anyway, because I love Flesh for Lulu and enjoy what I've heard from Vigilantes of Love and, yes, have a weak spot in my heart for the first Killers album, the Gaslight Anthem's album just warms me to the bone. Several reviews use the dangerous word "Springsteen" when discussing this band, but other than both being from Jersey, I don't get it. Might as well use "Bon Jovi" in there, since it's equally ludicrous. The title track is sublime, but there's nary a weak moment in the bunch.

If this is punk, sign me up. (And you can sign up too, for cheap! This sucker is on sale at Amazon.com for $3.99.)

2. The Rescues - Crazy Ever After
I must confess a particular vulnerability to the story of The Rescues. You have three hungry singer-songwriters who don't quite seem to be making it on their own, and some serendipitous occasion brings them all into the same room, whereupon they decide to throw their fates into a single hat.

Either because they were all desperate enough or humble enough, or because they actually liked one another from the get-go, the resulting album is something greater than its parts, although I'm not quite sure of the genre's title under which their music falls. Indie Pop? Folk Pop?

Regardless, the music is often tender, sometimes leaking into sappy. Occasionally it's fun and light. Apparently their music is regular fodder for a variety of TV shows, but that's not how I found them, nor do I hold such a "crime" against them. What up-and-coming band would turn down "Grey's Anatomy" or any show for that matter? It's not in the same boat as selling your song for an ad.

1. Mates of State - Re-arrange Us
"Blue and Gold Print" (mp3)
I've already said what needs to be said about this album. Most of these songs could be used in old Scooby-Doo chase scenes when the meddling kids are running from the ghost du jour. Theirs is an acquired taste, and if their first single "Get Better" doesn't perk up your ears, then nothing on this album is likely to convert you. The good news is, you'll know with one song and one listen whether you're gonna like this band.

Some of their following, whose adoration and critiques I've read on other blogs, find this latest album a little too poppy, not quite as off-kilter as their previous work. Which is precisely why I find this new album to be their most compelling and endearing. They're dancing with the devil (contemporary pop) in the pale moonlight, but it never feels like they're selling out or moving away from the music they love to make.

Plus they have their own cool-as-hell blog (Band on the Diaper Run), which just makes someone like me like them even more. ABC News even ran a story on them, 'cuz they're just that damn cool.

0. The Format - Dog Problems
"Inches and Falling (I Love Love)" (mp3) -- previously posted
This is #1 with a Bullet (point) because it technically is cheating. Dog Problems was released in 2006, which by even the wackiest of standards is too long ago to be considered the Best Album of 2008. However, I'd never heard of these dudes 'til March of this year, so they were totally new to me. And this is my list, dammit. So I'm putting them at #1.

This album is an alternative pop carnival of break-up songs, and I mean each and every word of that description. "Alternative" because Nate Ruess' voice will never be confused for David Cook or someone who could have even made the first cut on American Idol. "Pop" because these dudes can craft a sticky hook like nobody's business. "Carnival" because several of the songs quite intentionally convey that feel. Much like clowns can amuse or sometimes scare the shit out of people, Dog Problems can sound on the surface like a Funhouse album when it's actually more of a Horror House of Mirrors with some amusing makeup. "Break-up songs" because the dude can't get over it. I mean, at least half of U.S. states would arrest this guy for obsessing over whoever it was that stomped his heart flat.

I'd start breaking down individual songs, but the truth is, the reason this tops my list is because it's the most cohesive and consistently strong collection of songs on an album I bought this year. The only weaknesses are the first and last songs, which serve more as a way to allow the listener to slowly enter and exit this Format carnivale without getting the bends.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Billy's Top Eleven Albums of 2008: Six Through Eleven

So let's just cut the crapola and get started, shall we?

11. Will Hoge - Draw the Curtains*
Any gifted musician who depends on constant and impassioned touring to make money and is involved in a near-fatal scooter accident that results in his touring being ground to a halt as he rehabilitates himself back to some modicum of health is automatically given a 3-month bonus period for consideration on this list. (* -- Hoge's album came out in late 2007, but I didn't buy it until January, after I'd received all my gift cards for Christmas.)

Those who know me know I have an irrationally soft spot in my heart for this guy, because he frequently stops in at The 'Noog, and because his performance is clearly modeled after The Boss in that every minute he's on stage, Hoge knows he's working, and he desperately wants to give his audience their money's worth and have fun doing it.

After almost a year of this album remaining on fairly heavy rotation, I'm comfortable claiming it is his best album. Although Draw the Curtains does not have any of my three favorite Hoge songs, it definitely has four of the top 10 and is his strongest collection from start to finish.

10. The Hold Steady - Stay Positive
Magazines (mp3)
I've been dangling off the back of the Hold Steady's bandwagon since 2005, when I picked up Separation Sunday on an out-of-town trip on something of an inspired whim. Their music is consistently praiseworthy and manages to feel simultaneously original and ripped straight from an E Street Band jam session.

While most critics claim Stay Positive is the band's strongest effort yet -- and while it's possible those critics are correct -- I've found myself a little bit numbed to their charm after so much heavy rotation. The Hold Steady is, for me, a band best served in 20-minute increments. They are a wonderful change of pace for me, but not a great main course.

So, while Stay Positive might truly be better than Boys and Girls in America, I would undoubtedly have ranked the latter one higher on my list in 2006. The band seemed fresher to me back then. Now? It's still plenty brilliant, but less fresh. Like Springsteen's post-concert T-shirts.

9. Paul Westerberg - 49:00
With my mind on my money and my money on my mind, Paul Westerberg's 2008 release was the best bang for your buck. The $0.49 download from Amazon.com (no longer available) provided a 44-minute mp3 file containing 10-12 bona fide songs interspersed with random sound garbles and glimpses of cover songs.

It is messy, and it is imperfect. But for half the price of one Britney Spears song, you could hear an entire album from a man who is still madly talented and can turn a clever and occasionally brilliant lyrical phrase with minimal effort. It makes the list based on value, plain and simple.

8. Keane - Perfect Symmetry
Again + Again (mp3) -- Removed lest I inspire people to purchase Keane's albums, thus infuriating their lawyers

To say I hated Under the Iron Sea would be a slight exaggeration, 'cuz I didn't hate it. But I sure as hell didn't like it very much. It was a colossally disappointing sophomore album in an era where sophomore albums seem almost destined to disappoint. So I didn't remotely expect to like this new one. Didn't even plan on buying it, really, but I overheard it playing in a record store and, not knowing what it was, found myself listening intently.

Perfect Symmetry is pretty cut-and-dried Brit Pop, full of hand claps and synth-overdose. I feel a little more James when listening to this one, although in the first 20 seconds of the opening song, if you aren't thinking about The Human League, your ears aren't working properly. Yet, for all of this negative-seeming commentary, I keep listening. This album is more enjoyable from start to finish than either of their previous efforts and is darn tasty pop music.

7. The Heavy - Great Vengeance and Furious Fire
The Heavy is never going to be accused of mining new territory, musically speaking. Their style is a mesh of various influences, although most swim in the '70s with Sly and some other funk-rockers of the era. But the sound is decidedly updated, with some grunge and '90s rock noise thrown into the stew. Their subject matter is the stuff of timeless inspiration: getting laid, having fun, drinking, and getting laid some more. But anyone who tires of such topics should stick to Barry Manilow or Charlotte Church.

The last time I remember being this surprised at how much I enjoyed a throw-back album was when I discovered the debut Black Crowes album months before they ever dented the cultural/MTV conscience. No one ever accused the Robinsons of being particularly original.

Great Vengeance... is certainly not flawless, and I'm always fascinated when a band chooses to open up with some atmospheric or moody piece that has almost nothing to do with the rest of the album and doesn't even stand very well on its own, but there's enough strength in the collection to merit mention on this list.

6. I Nine - Heavy Weighs the King
Alive (mp3)
The harsh critic would say that this band hopped on the Avril Lavigne Clone Train and headed for the metropolis of Wannabe. And, if you don't listen past the first two songs, I guess that would be a jaded yet defensible claim. But if you listen to the entire album, you will hear an expression of nascent rock/pop talent that is searching for itself, strangely preoccupied with space and some oddball literary references, and capable of kicking some musical ass.

This band earned a recording contract because Cameron Crowe "discovered" them and put them on his Elizabethtown soundtrack. But where the song on that soundtrack leaned more country-rock, their debut album is pure-on rawk, full of energy and exuberance and, occasionally, teen angst. Which is a good thing, particularly to those of us who work with teenagers every day.

Based on how often I've listened to it, this was easily my favorite pure pop rock album of the year, but there's just enough Avril in the lead singer's voice that I'm hesitant to openly admit it. Which is a shame, 'cuz she can belt out some serious tunes.

These albums can be found on iTunes and Amazon.com's mp3 site.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Our Best To You

"Consider this my yearly reminder we could all be something bigger." --The Hold Steady

"Those of us up here realize that without those of you out there we wouldn't be up here." --Richie Havens, at Rhythm and Brews last night

South--"Better Things" (mp3)

Although we don't have any particular milestone to celebrate (# of posts, existence of blog, etc.) the end of the year gives us pause, just like anyone else. It is a reminder to us that we started from nothing on a whim and are still here and appreciate the support that we have received from those of you who comment and those of you who don't. Sometimes, we expect to be shut down any day, based on the blog climate out there and the shifting rules for the sharing of music. Sometimes, we see this as an ongoing entity that will one day allow Billy to have a full-time job.

I love the end of each year, being the big fan that I am of lists, and especially "best of" lists. I love to see what other people, often people that I respect, think were some of the best cultural moments of the year. Agree or disagree, it's meaningful to me to know what the world out there was thinking.

Coming up this week will be our own "best of"s. That doesn't mean that we will in any way offer you our own favorites that mirror national or blogging trends. Even Billy is too old and idiosyncratic for that, and me, well...............

Each year, it is probably important that we leave with at least one big insight, one "ah ha" moment that justifies the 31, 536,000 seconds we spent living the last year. Here's mine (not that it's all that important): it is no longer possible for me to keep up with all of the music I am being exposed to. I suppose it is indicative of the information explosion, but the music that comes to me through Itunes, Internet, blogs, downloads, burns from friends, popular culture and whatever else is out there is far too much for me to appreciate. Probably, I should have realized this at that point several years ago when I couldn't get all of my cds and their cases together for a union of holy matrimony. But even back then, at least the music was all in one room, all in one house. Now, it's out and about in so many different places and spaces that when I recently looked at my Itunes "Purchased" list, I noticed at least two full cds--Phish's Billy Breathes and Fionn Regan's The End of History--that I've never even listened to. I look foward to that.

Only God knows what is on my Ipod. Any time it plays on "shuffle," I invariably end up picking it up a few times to see who is singing. There was a time, back in the 60's and early 70's, when it was all pretty easy. First, if it wasn't on the top 40, then I didn't even know it existed, and then, if it didn't make the expanded playlist of FM radio, at least I knew it was out there and could track it down if I so desired. Now, I carry all of that plus new bands at every level and it's more than I have time to listen to.

All of which is perhaps a long-winded way of saying that our "best of" lists, like everyone else's, will be about as eclectic as they come. It would be easy to list Vampire Weekend, Of Montreal, Fleet Foxes and some of the other high profile "indie" bands that are making the rounds, but the fact is that there is so much stuff out there that the game has changed. There may have been a time when you looked to a "best of" list for verification of your own good taste. No longer. Now, and this is a lot more rewarding, you look to "best of" lists to see what other people like that you haven't heard of.

So let us know what you think of our choices and don't be discouraged, as one friend was earlier this week, if you look at either of our lists and hardly know any of the songs or bands. It's yet another chance to expand your palette. Not that you'll have time to listen to any of it once you own it.

"Better Things" comes from South's 2008 release, You Are Here, available at Itunes.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Attack of the Charitable Causes

What If We Give it Away? - R.E.M. (mp3)
You Can't Take It With You - Kelly Willis (mp3)

I don't know when it started. Maybe it's always been like this, but it only started affecting me once I hit a certain age of perceived tenderheartedness and incorrectly presumed financial security. But at some point in the past decade, and with an aggression and melodrama that seems to increase with each passing year, it's been drilled into my skull that I'm just not doing enough for Other People.

Here's just a list of the things that have been "organized" and "recommended" in the last two months by groups in which I am a part:
  • Purchase instruments for poor middle school band by church choir
  • Pay for and deliver meals to families in ICU waiting rooms by Sunday School class
  • Sponsor a child for Christmas by different local choir
  • Sponsor a child for Christmas by my office mates
  • Sponsor a child for Christmas with the group of students I mentor
  • Support the homeless organization on whose board I served for a year
  • Support breast cancer research
  • Tithe to my church
  • Operation Christmas Child through church
  • "Loaves of Love" change boxes through church
  • Donate items or money for work in Darfur and Rwanda
  • Donate items to the troops
  • Pledge money to Habitat for Humanity
  • Donate canned goods
  • Donate coats
  • Donate shoes
  • Donate ties
  • Buy ornaments to support a local private school
  • Give to our public school's "annual fund"
  • Give change to Salvation Army bellringers
  • At least a handful of others I know I'm forgetting
  • And let's not forget the monthly deduction to United Way, since we've been told at our workplaces year after year that supporting that one organization is almost like magically supporting half of every charitable cause in existence.
My wife and I are not poor, nor are we remotely in need of things we don't have, but we're not exactly swimming in spare cash. We can't afford decent life insurance. We're struggling to stash a few bucks away to prepare for the multi-million-dollar investment that will be the educational costs of three children. My retirement/401k has dropped down to 3/4 of one year of my salary. We're constantly trying -- as in making a sincere and deliberate effort -- to live a fiscally responsible life while also enjoying the little expenses just a little here and there along the way.

This isn't a cry for pity. It's merely an assertion that we're not exactly the Gates Foundation. And it's exasperating -- no, exhausting -- to give to our church, to the United Way, and to at least a dozen or so other causes at the levels we do yet still find ourselves having to turn down five or six or 10 pleas for help for every one cause or fundraiser we support.

In some ways, it's started to feel like I'm in some Dawn of the Charitable Dead movie. At first, it was just one or two Charity Zombies, but you could inject them with the Antivenom, and they'd be cured. But slowly, inevitably, more and more Charity Zombies start showing up, and you're running out of Antivenom, and you realize you're not going to be able to save them all. Hell, you can't even save more than one or two. So mostly you start to panic, and you grab the shotgun and the machete and get your family and try to protect them from this onslaught of Needy Zombies, but they're coming through the windows and down the chimney and from the basement crawlspace.

And you see that some of these zombies are just little children. And some of them are your relatives. And some of them are people from the small town where you grew up. But you only have five doses of Antivenom left, and you were really hoping you could hold onto a couple just in case your own children get infected. So you're forced into playing God and decide which ones you'll save and which ones will feast off the living for eternity.

Shit, Charitable Zombies were multiplying with increasing verve when the economy was sailing along! Now that it's going to hell in a Hummer, the zombie population ain't gonna wane anytime soon.

Some will think -- perhaps rightly -- that I'm an asshole for complaining about this. Perhaps my aggravation is more of a sign of my own conscience haunting me than it is a sign that I'm drowning in causes. But wouldn't I more of an asshole if I could somehow numb myself to this? If having to turn down so many of these (usually) noble and worthwhile efforts didn't phase me? Is there some magical formula for pulling oneself out of this "never enough" dilemma? Can we ever give enough, do enough, pay enough, donate enough to stem the tide of our own conscience?

When I'm overwhelmed by all the charitable pleas and find myself wanting to wash my hands of it all, I try soothing myself by reading all those kickass Mother Teresa quotes that remind me I'm doing important work by being a loving parent and bringing happiness into others' lives, that small things matter in the big picture. Her quotes are a balm, even if their efficacy is fleeting when the zombies are at your door.

"What If We Give It Away?" is from Life's Rich Pageant. "You Can't Take It With You" is from Easy. Both are available on iTunes or Amazon.com and are highly recommended, truly awesome albums.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Those Damn Nuts!

Kanye West--"Addiction" (mp3)

My friend Chet has done it again. And if he wasn't such a wonderful person, I'd suspect him of malignant maliciousness. After all, he has put into my possession 5 pounds of fresh, plump, easy-to-open pistachios. If it were heroin, you would all look at him with disgust. If it were alcohol, you would blame him for knocking me off the wagon and then rolling over the wagon with a steamroller. But, oh, it's just pistachios.

My name is Bob and I'm an addict.

I cannot stop eating pistachios. Put a bag in front of me and I will crack them open one after another after another after another..............

I am like the dog that would eat itself to death as long as there was enough food in front of it to accomplish the task.

NUTRITION QUESTION: If you eat 5 pounds of still-in-the-shell pistachios, once those shells have been discarded, how many pounds of nut meats are you actually eating?

You've probably looked at the bag, so you know how they've even made pistachios healthy as part of their advertising: high in fiber, high in protein, no cholesterol or trans fats. Can I even afford not to eat them?

So there they sit in my office. I try to put some of them in the glass cannister that sits way over on the table at least 5 feet from my desk. To get them, I'd have to actually stand up from my chair, lift the glass lid, and remove the selected pistachios from their sequestering. But, I've got a stash on my desk as well-- the rest of the bag. To eat pistachios is a lot like doing infield practice on a baseball team. The ball is hit to you, you scoop it up, and throw it to first over and over. With pistachios, you take one out, crack it open, and, while chewing, toss the pair of shells into the trash can. Repeat, ad nauseum, until you get into a rhythm, until you can make that throw into the trash almost without thinking.

Here's the funny thing about the ritual: wouldn't it speed up the whole ritual just to go to a place like the Fresh Market and buy a bag of pre-shelled pistachios and just pop them into my mouth one after another? The answer would be no: I don't like pre-shelled pistachios and will even claim that they don't taste the same as the ones in the shell.

Part of addiction is ritual. Part of it is work. Think about it. If you didn't have to do a bit of work to get your "fix," you would probably flame out within a matter of days, if not hours. A bag of pre-shelled pistachios is a woman you paid for and who will dutifully pleasure you. A 5-pound bag of fresh, naturally-opened pistachios is a conquest, every salty-sweet crunch, chew, and swallow an earned pleasure on the path to fullfilment, and a reminder that you will have to keep working to get sated.

Damn you, Chet! Damn you, bittersweet nuts! Damn you, weakness!


Kanye's song "Addiction" comes from his Late Registration cd, available at Itunes.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Office + Porn = YTF?

Rocks - Primal Scream (mp3)
The Shot Heard Round the World - Ween (mp3)

Roughly one-quarter of the workforce watches porn while at work. Porn sites are visited more often during office hours than at any other time of day. These tasty factoids according to an article in the December 8 issue of Newsweek.

Translation: Look at the picture at right. Four of the people depicted regularly or occasionally watch porn while sitting in the vicinity of their coworkers.

As a guy, I can hardly claim an aversion to the naked female form in print, high-rez digital form, or even in a movie. I can't stand up on a soapbox and proclaim porn as the worst thing to ever happen to the human race; however, having made this confession, I gotta say: Porn web sites in the office? Really??

Let's give the painfully practical, non-moral, hard-nosed reason first: Why the f*$k would you set yourself up to get fired like that?!? One out of every four of us put ourselves at risk of being terminated in order to sit in a cubicle or office and see some form or fashion of tatas, nunus, bumbums, and bumping fuzzies.

We're not talking:
  • the accidental Google image search that results in, say, a picture of Shaggy having sex with Daphne just 'cuz you searched for pictures of "Daphne" (yes, this really happened to me, with my daughters sitting on my lap); or
  • clicking a link that one of your boneheaded doofus friends sent you in an email and stumbling on a porn site or at least something equally and pornographically embarrassing (guilty!) ; or even
  • keeping some kind of hidden folder somewhere on your computer that has some emergency nekkid pictures in it (tried it! got paranoid! trashed it!).
We are talking the regular or at least occasional choice to visit sites out on the Net that swim in pornography.

The other reason the thought of watching regular porn on the office computer is the thought of someone catching me. Although I haven't completely thought this through, I'm pretty sure I'd rather someone catch me drinking, toking, screwing, or even knitting before I'd want them to catch me jerkin' the gherkin.

As Woody Allen sez, "Don't knock masturbation. It's sex with someone I love." However, there are certain kinds of love you just don't want shared with others. Love of specific monitor sizes, for example. Love of a particular brand of pen, or a certain shape of mousepad. But atop that list, as offices go, would be love of self. That, my friends, should always remain between you and... well, yourself. Not because touching yourself makes Jesus cry, and not because it's an awful evil thing to do, but because the workplace is s'posed to be a Tree of Trust, a Cradle of Collegiality, a... aw screw it, just 'cuz.

Yes, I realize that most sane people are probably on the same page with me here. And I also realize that, humans being what we are, many of y'all have, on occasion, succumbed to a primal urge at the most inappropriate or irrational of times. These are the stuff of lifelong memories and laughter, or if someone else was with you, the stuff of Letters to Penthouse. But when you read that 25% -- 25 freakin' percent!! That's not a number that should be casually dismissed! -- of us are guilty of this on a consistent basis, it really just boggles the mind.

The fun part is walking around your office and trying to identify them. Remember: one out of every four...

Next week, I'll be writing on other can't-lose topics, such as why it's not right to run down small defenseless children with 18-wheelers and why killing and eating puppies is evil.

Coming Next Week: My Top 10 Albums of 2008

"Rocks" is from the album Give Out But Don't Give Up but is easily the best song on that thing. "The Shot Heard..." is from the album School House Rock! Rocks, where artists such as Moby, Buffalo Tom, Blind Melon, Moby, Skee-Lo and Ween cover classics from the Saturday morning show and is totally awesome. The first can be found on iTunes or Amazon.com. The second requires eBay or friends like me.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Smallest Gestures

Thom Yorke--"Nice Dream (live)" (mp3)

So, I'm sitting in the parking lot at the Rave movie theater on Friday night, waiting to pick up my daughter and her friend after their second viewing of Twilight. I'm kind off in a side lot, parked in a row behind a sweet little BMW convertible, a 2-seater. And, of course, as all of the groups of people begin to file out from the 7ish movies, I'm wondering idly who is driving that thing.

An asshole, I'm pretty sure. It's too well-kept, too flashy, a bit too-middle-life-crisis for my taste, but then I'm in a '95 Camry with darkened ghetto windows that have half peeled off and two broken front doors that can only be opened from the outside, so maybe I'm just jealous.

I see the couple long before they get to the car. They're about my age, maybe a little younger, both are casually well-dressed, him in pressed jeans. She's wearing dark pants and a light blouse and a kind of rugged lightweight winter coat, and is a attractive woman. I don't think they're married; I'm not sure why. Sometimes you just get that sense. He unlocks their doors with his key button about 30 feet from the car and walks to his side. And then here's the odd thing: just before she opens her door and gets in, she looks back at me and smiles.

Now, there is nothing more to be made of this than what was there. It was a smile--not a come on, not an "I wish you were him," nothing at all like that.

But, you know, people don't have to smile, and many of them don't. I feel kind of like Holden Caufield saying this, but when she smiled, 'It killed me.' I just like the idea that there are people whose immediate reaction when they see another person is to smile. I hope I'm like that. Or can become like that.

Because the alternative is repellent. Do you ever walk down the hall of your office and encounter a colleague that you never know whether he or she is going to make eye contact let alone smile let alone respond in any way if you greet him or her? I mean, really, what the hell is up with that?

Give me the stranger any day who, though about to get into a very nice car and probably finish off the evening in some wonderful way, glances my way and probably sees a father sitting in a dark parking lot on a Friday night who would rather be doing a million other things but who is waiting for his children to come out of a movie, and with an immediate feeling of sympathy or empathy, smiles. I've thought about that smile for days, even though I can't quite remember the woman who did it and had to make up details.

The smallest gestures are the ones that matter; the big ones are for everyone to see. Hers, well, let's face it, she doesn't even know if I saw it.

Thom Yorke's live performance is from one of Neil Young's Bridge Benefit concerts.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Believing in Make-Believe

Baby Learns to Crawl - Paul Westerberg (mp3)
And You Tell Me - Sugar (mp3)

My daughters came home from school last Tuesday and wrote letters to Santa requesting two of his elves to come live with them until Christmas. Have you heard of this? It's been on the periphery of our radar screen for a year or two now, but the girls only got sucked into the vortex last week, and it happened so fast we had little time to react. Here's one of about 100 blogs that chronicle the adventures of this nonsense.

The wife and I had to come to a quick decision: (a) run out in the dark of night and buy two of these bastards at Wal-Mart so that they were resting comfortably for the eager-eyed girls the next morning... or (b) do nothing.

Most anyone who knows me knows I was destined to choose (b) because it required less effort and offered me the opportunity for a "teaching moment" with the girls. That latter part helped excuse the former part. There's another reason for choosing not to do this. Just click on that link above and read some of it. That's a damn good reason, if you ask me.

Instead of just letting them wake up to utter disappointment, we wrote them a note back. The letter was from Tobias J. Elf, Director of Elf Resourses for the North Pole. He informed them that our house was so messy that they were under the impression elves were already stationed at our address, but if not, they could not dispatch elves to any house that had yet to put up a Christmas tree.

In the world of 21st Century parenting, the crossroads of make-believe and Christmas is a secret philosophical battleground. On one side, you have parents who don't even let their children believe in Santa. They believe it takes away a child's appreciation for their parents and endorses lying. They believe you can't teach your children about honesty if you spend time on the biggest holiday of the year aiding and abetting one of the greatest deceptions ever. On the other side, you have parents who look for more deceptions. They do Santa, but that's not enough. So they do the Tooth Fairy. And the Easter Bunny. They even do wilder stuff like these friggin' elves.

Our family falls closer on this side of the continuum. We deceive our children about tons of shit, enjoy it, and look forward to doing it for as long as they'll keep falling for it.

One of our closer friends falls on the other extreme, and at the heart of her concern is Jesus.

Seriously, her concern is that, if you spout all this nonsense about a fictional person you know doesn't exist, you're not only taking away the Christian part of the holiday, but you're also setting your children up to ask some of the same questions about God. If my parents gleefully misled me about the North Pole, why should I believe them about Heaven?

I never felt that kind of disillusionment with my parents. I was so proud of myself for having sleuthed my theories about Mom + Dad being responsible for those Christmas Morning presents that I spent nary a minute disliking them for deceiving me. I don't even think I ever really thought of it as deception so much as a game I hadn't realized I was playing. However, it's never wise to assume your own children will draw the same conclusions as you did when you were their age.

And I'm probably grateful I never saw the South Park pilot episode ("Santa v. Jesus" -- WARNING: it's even more vulgar than you might remember) as a kid, since there's no telling what that would have done to me.

So instead, my argument is this. I want my children asking questions. I want my children having doubts and exploring them, even actively investigating them. I want them to know that adults -- even their parents -- can sometimes be deceptive, sometimes misleading, and that trust and faith are priceless parts of our humanity, but not things that should be handed out freely without ever questioning. Doubt and healthy skepticism are not sins.

Fortunately, as with most things about parenting, how we choose to deal with our children and issues of Santa and make-believe isn't so much rocket-science as an exercise in knowing how you want to approach it and carrying it out, always placing the love of your children above the lesser considerations.

But... it sure is fun writing letters from the Tooth Fairy. Thank goodness Jesus is a pretty forgiving fella.

"And You Tell Me" is from Sugar's final album, Besides. "Baby Learns to Crawl" is from Stereo. Both are available on iTunes.