Friday, February 27, 2009

Musical Lent

Gavin Bryars--"Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet (pt. 4)" (mp3)
Sonny Stitt--"Sonny's Blues" (mp3)
Pavement--"Here" (mp3)

I'm always a little surprised to find myself in church.

Wednesday night was no exception. With very little advance warning, I was kneeling, praying, passing the Peace, having a cross of ash put on my forehead, receiving Communion, singing, reciting, pondering--all of those things you would do during an Ash Wednesday service.

The Lenten season has always intrigued me, regardless of where I am in "my walk with the Lord" in any given year. The idea of giving something up has so many interesting possibilities, and I think almost anyone would be hard pressed to deny that sacrifice leads to self-reflection and possible growth.

If we were honest with ourselves, we would admit that there is a bit of a competition concerning one's Lenten vows. My pal who normally gives up chocolate has given up Coke this year. That gets a big ho-hum. I get the denial of pleasure aspect of giving up chocolate, but don't you want your Lenten vow to draw a gasp of surprise and/or admiration for its sheer scope or audacity? "I'm giving up sex," you might say. "I've just been doing it too much and enjoying it too much." And your friends would gaze at you with a knowing nod that hides their jealousy.

But as I am often a neophyte in all things Christian, the concept of taking something on, rather than giving something up, has only come into my viewfinder in recent years. And, with this blog, and with my feelings about music, "taking something on" seems like the natural and good thing to do this Lenten season.

Why not declare a kind of musical Lent, where I take on the duty of presenting elevating music that brings a listener closer to God? Why, yes, I can try to do that.

And so, I present, for the next (now) 38 days a selection of songs that, in my opinion, aim above the stratosphere in their ambitions, that promote a contemplation of God or larger things, that offer a profound beauty not constrained by traditional forms, that free the mind to ponder.

To get caught up, I offer songs I've been listening to lately now that I've got 97% of my CD collection sorted out and back into the fold. The first, Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet, by Gavin Bryars, features an entire orchestral piece built around a snippet of a homeless man (tramp) singing a slightly-off-key song:

Jesus' blood never failed me yet, never failed me yet, never failed me yet;
Jesus' blood never failed me yet, there's one thing I know, for He loves me so.

And using the repetion of that strand, the composer Bryars gives it various orchestral settings, eventually bringing in Tom Waits to duet with the tramp. Depending on your state of mind, it is either dirgelike and transcendent or the most repetitive thing you've ever heard, given that it goes on for 72 minutes. I tend toward the former.

Sonny Stitt is one of those superior, but slightly lesser known, jazz saxophonists who helped to define the Golden Age of jazz. He shines on "Sonny's Blues," a tune I enjoy both for its own qualities and because it is the title of a powerful James Baldwin short story that was quite meaningful to me a couple of decades ago, especially the closing lines:

There was a long pause, while they talked up there in the indigo light and after awhile I saw the girl put a Scotch and milk on top of the piano for Sonny. He didn't seem to notice it, but just before they started playing again, he sipped from it and looked toward me, and nodded. Then he put it back on top of the piano. For me, then, as they began to play again, it glowed and shook above my brother's head like the very cup of trembling.

"Here," the Pavement song written by Stephen Malkmus, removes any doubt that he is one of the premier songwriters of his generation. Its lyrics and exquisite beauty transcend its low-fi production:

i was dressed for success
but success it never comes
and i'm the only one who laughs
at your jokes when they are so bad
and your jokes are always bad
but they're not as bad as this

come join us in a prayer
we'll be waiting waiting where
everything's ending here

Let us break musical bread together; let us sip melodic wine. Let us enter Lent with a spirit of communion with beautiful music. Certainly, we can take that on. Come join us in a musical prayer.

Gavin Bryars and Pavement are available at Itunes. The Sonny Stitt recordings with Harry Edison and Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis may be available on import.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Light in the Attic

Gravity - Josh Joplin Group (mp3)
Rudderless - Lemonheads (mp3)

While over at my mother's house for dinner recently, I was following my 16-month-old whirling dervish as he two-stepped like a drunken penguin down her hallway. I looked up at the entrance to our attic and noticed a light had been left on up there.

Our attic is a place of personal myth and legend, as I suspect attics and basements are for many children. I remember thinking it was a grand privilege to be allowed to go into the attic. I felt special climbing those rickety wooden ladder-steps and pulling myself up into a place that was always 50 degrees colder or warmer than the hallway below. The temperature change made the attic feel supernatural -- certainly ghosts and other creatures caused such climate change -- and having to maneuver around and over the entrance lest you fall to your premature death added a constant sense of risk.

Back in my childhood and teenage years, the attic was so packed you couldn't hardly get to anything. Boxes packed in so tightly that the only way to reach the ones farthest back would be to remove the ones in-between from the attic altogether. Entire undiscovered species of rodentia could have (and probably did) lived comfortably amidst this cardboard and fiberglass city.

Even when I was much shorter, I couldn't stand up in the attic, so going anywhere required crawling on all fours, which made it feel as if I were on reconnaissance in some military exercise. Perhaps the military feel came from the long line of Navy uniforms my father kept hanging on a pole that stretched what seemed 30 feet along the left side of that attic. Because this clothesline sat right near the narrow middle aisle, it was inevitably the focal point for anyone truly hoping to explore the greater mysteries on the darker, sketchier end. Beyond those clothes was increasing darkness and thus an ever-increasing ominous feeling. (Not to mention that if you went up there in July, the deeper in you went, the more likely you could pass out from the overpowering heat before you could reach the exit.)

When I lived there, one trip into the attic virtually guaranteed a week-long obsession over a single box or region. I must have spent several hours a day during one of my junior high summers, going into that attic and carefully investigating every yearbook my mother had tucked away. The ones she saved from her own school years were fascinating, but it was her collection of '70s and '80s books from teaching at Central High and Red Bank that I would study with hunger.

What were those high school students like? Were they all as fucked up as my step-brothers, who failed to make it out of there with a diploma? What made the cute girls cute in 1975? What made the popular guys so popular in 1980? What did happiness look like for a teenager? Was there anything more worth coveting than being captured permanently in a book for all eternity dancing with or standing next to, with arm around the neck of, a beautiful girl?

It was the pictures of couples I studied more than anything else. Why were those two people together? What did she see in him, and he in her, and who the hell on this planet will ever consider being in that kind of picture with my arm around them, or dancing next to me?

Other times I'd explore my father's boxes of military paraphernalia, things I'm absolutely certain he never once looked at once he boxed them up. He liked saving things for the symbolic act of saving them, because he knew they were somehow important enough to keep, but I don't recall him spending much of his life traveling down memory lane. As much as he enjoyed golf, I don't even think he enjoyed golf stories. He was a gardener at heart. You don't garden in the past. You garden for the present and future. Last year's tomato crop ain't worth talking about. Once the seasons change, you box the important memories up, stuff 'em in the attic, and let 'em sit there until you die.

After my brief obsession would end, I'd forget about the attic for a couple of seasons. More boxes would be shoved into all corners. The journey would get more treacherous, and the lighting would reach fewer nooks and crannies. And these changes made going up there again in eight or nine months all the more delicious.

I'm decades older, but I still look up at that entrance every time I walk under it. It still holds sway in me.

As I crawled toward the back of the attic to turn out that light, I passed by several boxes of my things I had yet to take to my house. Magazines I kept over time filled two boxes. Several years' worth of Esquire back when it wasn't trying to be Maxim. Several "Collector's Editions" of LIFE. Two years of Atlantic Monthly. And what kind of male would I be if I hadn't stuck a few Victoria's Secret catalogs and three highly-adored issues of Playboy in-between these other mags?

But the last box... it's exactly the kind of box that makes an attic magical, because no matter how many of these "last boxes" you find, you only find one of them at a time, and you find them when you most need to find them.

To be continued...

"Gravity" is from Useful Music. "Rudderless" is from It's a Shame About Ray. The latter can be found on or iTunes while the former is only on iTunes.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Week of Living Dangerously

Steve Earle and The Dukes--"The Week Of Living Dangerously" (mp3)

I guess I shocked a co-worker on Monday when I told him that I only had $45 in the bank to last me until payday. But, hey, it happens, especially at this time of year. Not only am I behind from Christmas, but I'm also trying to pay down a credit card pretty aggressively. And, I've already "pre-spent" some money for a New Orleans trip by paying for the hotel for four people.

The rut I've been in for several years is that I've got that "paycheck to paycheck" mentality going--for the first few days after I get paid, I buy whatever I want. I also pay all of the bills that can be paid right away. Then I try to hang on until the end of the month and hope that I haven't forgotten about the bills that I haven't paid. I know school tuition is coming, I know insurance is coming, but I forget about the smaller ones, like the bank draft for the newspaper subscription or the Netflix subscription or the $20 I gift to my children on Itunes every month. It's those little guys that can sneak up and bite you in the ass when you least expect them.

Especially when you only have $45 in the bank.

Now don't get me wrong, we have plenty of money, but my wife and I figured out that separate checking accounts were the way for us to go a long, long time ago, so sometimes she has money when I don't, and, less often, vice-versa. And I make mine work (usually) out of pride.

Here's a strange day to consider: did you ever have a day where you didn't spend any money? Did you ever string 6 or 7 of those together in a row?
Because the goal is not to bounce anything on the check card. Each overdraft is a $28 flush of money down the toilet.

So I'm on Day 3. After my New Orleans chowdown spending spree at the Publix on Saturday, I haven't spent a cent. Oh, wait, yes, I have. And this is life with bill-paying on the Internet. About 9 or 10 days ago, my daughter and I rented two movies from a Walgreens--Nick and Nora's Ultimate Playlist and Eagle Eye. We've had the movies for a long time, racking up a buck a day for each flick, but there's a question when you have $45 in the bank. Do you return the movies and pay the fee or do you keep them out until after payday, knowing that you won't be charged if you don't turn them in?

I turned them in. I'm ultimately richer, but short-term poorer.

Yesterday, I turned down a lunch invite. I ate at home. Chicken and sausage gumbo. Tuesday, I expected to do the same, but ran into a friend as I was driving home and off we went to the Boathouse. When it came time to pay, I decided to go credit card instead of check card. But then the waitress gives me the message: "Uh, sir, your card didn't go through."
Tomorrow, I will stick to my vow. Thursday, I'll forego the usual lunch out and hope that, with a Magoo's event looming in the evening, my wife will pick us up.

Friday, I'm in love. Because I get paid.

Will the same awful cycle start again? Probably not, since in the month of March, I've got to have money for New Orleans late in the month as well as some Florida Spring Break time. So I've got to hold out for some dough. Chances are, next month, once the bills are paid, I'll be looking for those days when I can say I didn't spend a cent.

Those days are few and far between.

Steve Earle's "The Week Of Living Dangerously," no less ironic than mine, comes from his second CD, Exit O, available at Itunes.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

I Wonder Where My First-Grade Classmates Are

Pretty Babies - Dishwalla (mp3)
What's the Matter Here? - 10,000 Maniacs (mp3)

Billy is on sick leave today. In his stead is a column he wrote for the Warner Robins Daily Sun in the spring of 1995.

I Wonder Where My First Grade Classmates Are...

I didn't learn everything I needed to know in Kindergarten. Or first grade, for that matter. But I always tell people I wish I could stay that age. I wish I could be in first grade forever, because nothing was wrong with anyone. Everyone looks at me like I'm weird when I say this. I don't understand why.

My cousin Cathy was in my class. While me and Timmy Burkhalt were busy being Bo and Luke Duke, driving around the playground in our imaginary General Lee, Cathy was sitting on the monkey bars with Mason Jenkins.

Mason was black, and Cathy used to tell me she was going to marry him. One day, Cathy told that secret to her parents. Cathy and Mason never talked to each other after that. I don't think I ever heard Cathy call him that bad name until after she told her parents. After that, though, Cathy called him that word all the time. But not to his face, because she knew it would get her in trouble.

Mason moved to New York in the middle of the second grade. I think his father got a job trading on Wall Street. They were rich, and his father was a genius.

Cathy's married now. To a white guy. Her husband likes fishing. I hear he especially likes to fish for bass. And women.

Last time I talked to Cathy, she asked me if I remembered Mason, if I remembered how she used to say she'd marry him. Back before she noticed the color of his skin, before she knew how bad black people were.

Bill Robertson lived down the street from my aunt, the aunt I stayed with after school until my mom could pick me up. My aunt knew Bill's mom, so they always made us do stuff together in the afternoons.

Bill loved cartoons, and he was a little strange. We usually played with his Superfriends dolls, but sometimes he'd start shaking and banging his head against the floor. His mom would come and get him and put him in bed and tell me Bill couldn't play anymore that day.

One day during show and tell, he got up and said he was the Incredible Hulk. He started growling and hitting the chalk board with his fist. Then he peed in his pants. Bill didn't return for second grade. I never told anyone I used to go to his house.

Bobby Fields was pretty popular. He was pretty smart, if second graders can be smart, and nobody ever talked bad about Bob. He was a politician even in first grade, always saying the right things to the right people.

Bob and I used to talk about baseball, because his uncle was a pitcher for the Astros. I changed schools in third grade, and I lost touch with Bob.

Five years ago, Bob was away at Texas Christian University, where he had been voted into the student council as a sophomore, and he was coming back home for Christmas Break. Unfortunately, Bob stopped at a gas station that was getting robbed. He was back at the coolers getting a soda when the masked guy came in with a gun.

According to the papers, Bob tried to talk the guy out of robbing the store. The robber didn't take any money. Bob died from the gunshot wounds before they could get him to the hospital. Bob's murderer never got caught.

Nikki White was the most gorgeous girl. Even in second grade, our classroom of guys, who usually didn't admit to liking girls, battled on the playground for Nikki's attention.

I never knew Nikki well enough, because I wasn't the most impressive playground competitor, and Nikki only allowed the best to court her.

A friend of mine told me Nikki lives in a trailer park outside of Rossville, Georgia. She has four children from three different fathers and lives alone, on welfare. Nobody competes on the playground for her anymore.

Rachel Russell was shy. She was always sitting under trees and wouldn't really talk to anyone. After I learned Nikki would never be interested in my advances, I spent quite a while trying to impress Rachel. Maybe because Rachel was the one girl harder to reach than Nikki.

Rachel made good grades, and Rachel dressed for school like most of us did for church.

Rachel moved away just after Valentine's Day. Her mother took her away, and we never found out where. I learned later that Rachel's father loved Rachel more than a father is supposed to. But he didn't ever beat her, if that's a concession. Funny how she never looked anything but pristine in those Sunday dresses.

I was the only person she gave a Valentine to. I still have it. I miss Rachel, and I wonder if I should have tried harder to talk to her under that tree.

I don't understand why people look at me weird when I tell them I wish I was back in first grade. I wish it all the time.

The only thing I wish for more often is for Rachel's father to trade places with Bob at that gas station.

"Pretty Babies" is from Dishwalla's debut album, Pet Your Friends. "What's the Matter Here?" is from the MTV Unplugged album. Both can be hunted down on iTunes and

Monday, February 23, 2009

Victory Garden '09

Kesang Marstrand--"Grow A Garden" (mp3)
Ana Egge--"Johnny's Garden" (mp3)

What is a Victory Garden?

During World War I and World War II, the United States government asked its citizens to plant gardens in order to support the war effort. Millions of people planted gardens. In 1943, Americans planted over 20 million Victory Gardens, and the harvest accounted for nearly a third of all the vegetables consumed in the country that year. Emphasis was placed on making gardening a family or community effort -- not a drudgery, but a pastime, and a national duty.

Like most good ideas, someone else had already thought of reviving the Victory Garden before the idea ever entered my brain. So, I'll just do some promulgation: there is no better time to start a garden, and now you can do it for your country, too.

Yesterday, despite a chilly wind, I put in a few rows of peas and green beans in a bed that won't be needed for tomatoes and peppers for some time. I certainly felt strange out there with a hose in the middle of February, trying to soak those seeds. It's an experiment; I haven't tried to grow those kinds of early spring crops before, but I am excited to see how they do.

Today, I hope to plant all kinds of starter pots for tomatoes and peppers that I hope to put into the ground sometime in April. They can sit in moist soil covered with plastic wrap in the dining room window until the seedlings get hearty and firm. Probably, these should already be growing, but it does take a little effort to get everything together.

And, I've brought a large empty clay pot from outdoors that I'll use to start a kitchen herb garden which should flourish in a sunny window somewhere. I forget what all is in the packet I bought, but I think I'll be growing chives, basil, oregano, and parsley. You figure, if you buy this stuff in a grocery store, and you almost always have to buy more than you need, then you're spending at least a couple of bucks every time you need a fresh herb. With a kitchen herb garden, you get a pair of scissors and cut off what you need, and let the the plant grow back. When it's played out, you just clear out a space and plant some new seeds.

My gourmet reach this year is broccoli rabe. I have no idea if that stuff will grow here, and if it does, if it will grow decently or will be infested with bugs. But that stuff is awfully good and awfully expensive, so spending a buck and a half to see if anything will happen is a worthwhile risk, eh? I think I'll try to grow it on the deck to cut down on the bugs.

And when the onion bulbs come out (if they're not already out at Ace Hardware), I'll plant a ton of those. You're crazy if you don't at least plant green onions. They grow anywhere with very little effort and have so many uses.

I feel like Mr. Rogers, talking about this, by the way. But, most people don't have gardens.

At this point, total expenditure is about 12 bucks, all for seeds and a bit of potting soil. And here's the good new for you: not only are packets of seeds cheap, but they give you many, many more seeds than you would actually use unless you had a huge garden. Consequently, you can have seeds for the following plants for free:

green beans
Roma tomatoes
broccoli rabe
jalapeno peppers
and some others I can't think of

Just let me know if you want some seeds.

Some of you may be wondering, as I do when I think real hard, how planting such a Victory Garden helps the country. I mean, if I grow my own stuff, then I'm not buying it from someone else, then they're not selling it, etc. When spring comes, I already buy a lot of my produce from a stand in East Ridge, in hopes of supporting local farmers, but let's face it, a lot of that stuff isn't local, unless you consider Florida local.

Maybe, as during WWII, if you provide some of these things for yourself, it frees up the other stuff to be used elsewhere. At the very least, growing some of your own produce contributes greatly, if done in mass, to a greener country and planet.

Certainly, it helps you, your psyche, your sense of purpose. And your kids, if you have them. And maybe that's the victory.

Kesang Marstrand and Ana Egge both have MySpace pages where you can hear more of their music.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Mardi Gras in Chattanooga. Yawn.

Rockin'Dopsie Jr. & The Zydeco Twisters--"Party Down" (mp3)
Rockin'Dopsie Jr. & The Zydeco Twisters--"Listen To The Music" (mp3)

So what have I done today? Well, ever since I've finished working for "the man" (I thought I was the man), I've been in the kitchen. You see, here in Chattanooga, Mardi Gras doesn't have much of a meaning. You can find a King Cake in the Publix. I have a couple of friends who use it as their indication that it's time to do penance and give up the eating of chocolate for the next 6 weeks.

But there isn't a whole lot more going on. Tuesday night, when I thought I might bring a bunch of people over here, there's actually a faculty development event at school. Last year, there was an admissions thing I had to go to. Don't people realize there's a holiday, a celebration going on?

Mardi Gras, I guess, doesn't travel north all that well. And, maybe it shouldn't. I guess it's one of those regional holidays that feels kind of silly if you don't have an entire city celebrating it with you.

But I'm at least going to get the food aspect of the holiday into my life. I started this afternoon at what was once a great restaurant and is now owned by Greek alums of the school, and I tried their "Shrimp Hash," thinking maybe they had been able to capture the glory of the old Southside Grill and how it brought New Southern cooking to Chattanooga.

I was wrong.

The dish came swimming in a couple of competing sauces--the Creole Hollandaise and whatever the other one was. The crispy grit cakes were soggy. The shrimp in the shrimp hash were small, few, and far between. The poached eggs, though, were perfect. But whether it's Creole or Cajun, New Orleans cooking is about concentrating flavors, often creating layers of flavors. These flavors were diffuse.

So, taking matters into my own hands, I went to Publix, spent about $100 bucks and started cooking some of my New Orleans favorites. I've declared it "NewOrleansFest" over here, since I plan to eat nothing but New Orleans food for the next three days. After the better part of the last 7 hours in the kitchen, here's what I've got:

1. Chicken and Andouille Sausage Gumbo--I got the roux to the color of mahogany and made the chicken stock myself

2. Roast Beef Po-Boys--the beef slow-cooks in a basting liquid of onions, garlic, carrots, celery, red wine, beef broth, and various spices for several hours, then you shred the meat and boil the gravy down to about half

3. A King Cake with a cream cheese center (Emeril's recipe) that's about to go in the oven--I suspect we will never buy a King Cake again

4. Homemade remoulade to go with the (as yet unfried) green tomatoes and (as yet uncooked) shrimp--in honor of the beloved, defunct Uglesich's

5. A "Vegan" gumbo on the stove, since my wife has gone back in that direction--It's better than I thought it would be

Ya'll drop by. And laissez les bon temps rouler! Billy and I will be taking Bottom of the Glass on a roadtrip to New Orleans in less than a month!

One of the other things that I don't think travels well outside of New Orleans is zydeco music. Nevertheless, when you are in the city, you get seduced, and so you find yourself back at home with a cd or two, wondering when the hell you are ever going to play this stuff. Rockin' Dopsie's CD, Zydeco Man, is available locally in New Orleans.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

My Museum

She Swings, She Sways--"Flown The Coop" (mp3)
She Swings, She Sways--"Highway" (mp3)
She Swings, She Sways--"Even So" (mp3)

These are the statistics of my museum:

1. purchased CDs--close to 1000

2. burned CDs made by me, given to me, burned by my daughter in the early years of her driver's license when she would make mixes like "Kath's Monday Mornings in April Drive To School Mix--in the several hundreds

3. locations where CDs are stored by my family:

a. the sun porch
b. the kitchen
c. our bedroom
d. the guest room
e. both children's rooms
f. the living room
g. by the computer in the kitchen
h. my office at school
i. my wife's car
j. my car
k. the various locations where my loaned, but forgotten CDs reside

4. % of CDs that don't have cases--4%

5. % of cases that don't have CDs--a different 4%

6. % of CDs that are well-intentioned by rarely-listened-to classical CDs--6%

7. % of CDs that are meaningful, important, but rarely-listened-to jazz CDs--6%

8. % of total purchased CD collection recorded by Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison, Tom Waits, the Grateful Dead or the Beatles--at least 14%

9. # of Neil Young's last 6 CDs that I purchased online and are therefore not represented in the above collection--6

10. # of CD's that I intend to purchase during the remaining months of this year--0, as in, zero

Yesterday, as the break was winding down, I took on the insane project of trying to sort out all of my CDs and to gather them all in one central location--the shelves in the basement. It took the better part of a day, but I'd say that I now have about 80-85% of them in place.

It's that last 15% that are the problem. And, frankly, I'm so pissed off at my CDs right now that I can hardly stand it. I seem to remember them as perfect little packages, so nicely tidy in comparison to the cumbersome, scratch-prone vinyl albums I had collected. Now, they are completely uncooperative--they're dusty, when I try to put them in shelves like books, they tip over and slide away from each other. In fact, they seem to like to slip out of my hands onto hard surfaces so that when they hit, one of the two thin pieces of plastic that connects the cover to the case is guaranteed to break off. And trying to match up the final CDs to their covers is like playing a game of Concentration, where you keep trying to remember where the other match to your pair is when everything is hidden--except that sometimes the match isn't there at all. I remember where some of them are--there's a Tom Petty CD, and two Paul Westerbergs, trapped in the CD player of a Buick Rodeo I quit owning about 3 years ago (since repurchased on Itunes, of course)--but others, I have no clue. It seems like there are only two or three places where a particular Christmas CD that we never found this year could have been, but then I look at my list above and realize that there are at least 11 places that CD could be that I can even remember.

But when I get everything sorted out, it's a very impressive collection, with fascinating juxtapostions like Vivaldi next to the Velvet Underground and a mere Eagles CD separating Bob Dylan from Steve Earle. You'd probably be very impressed. But then we'd go upstairs and listen to whatever was on the Ipod.

We are talking about a museum, after all, aren't we? CDs exist only as fuel for Ipods; it would be far too cumbersome to use them just for themselves at this point. Even as I line them up perfectly ("You're arranging them alphabetically?" my daughter asks. "Ugh!" "How else would I find anything?" I counter. She stares at me like I am an extinct animal), I can't help but feeling sorry for them. I know there are some real beauties, some classics, some once-wasses that I'm never going to play again.

Well, maybe someday when I'm in the basement, hanging out and feeling nostalgic.

The problem is I never hang out in my basement.

I heard the songs by She Swings, She Sways over the weekend on someone else's blog and liked them.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009


Theme from Deadwood - David Schwarz (mp3)
Cowboy Romance - Natalie Merchant (mp3)

"Why do you watch that awful show?" my wife asked me as I was enjoying yet another trip through HBO's deceased show Deadwood.

"Because it's the best show ever made is why. It's the closest thing to Shakespearean drama I think I've ever seen."

"But people don't talk like that," she said, referring to the non-stop string of foul language emerging from the TV speakers. "Especially back then."

I shook my head and rolled my eyes. As if people were more noble in the Wild West. "They sure as f*#k did," I said. Except I only said the F-word in my head.

"No. No way. Real people don't talk like that. Not then, and not now."

Deadwood was a town of, like, 95% men. And prolly half of the few women there were prostitutes. There's a reason they coined the phrase "cuss like a sailor." Cowboys, sailors, no matter. Any environments overrun by testosterone can't be anything but vulgar places. Still, I said nothing. I finished my IBC Black Cherry soda and stuffed my mouth with a big bite of STFU. Sometimes it's better to forfeit an argument than win it.

Last Saturday I returned from a road trip with three co-workers. The four of us, all regular participants in our neighborly monthly poker tournament, hopped in a Honda and headed for Tunica, Mississippi, and stayed at the Wal-Mart of casinos for two nights. We were each prepared to gamble away an amount hovering around $300. In other words, we could only afford lose, in 48 hours of gambling, 3/4 of what John Edwards pays for a haircut. Yup, we must be in education.

Three of us are heavily involved in our churches -- each a member of significantly varied Protestant denominations -- while the fourth is a semi-practicing Catholic. Yet not even God or our belief in Him could protect that car from six hours of the foulest, filthiest, most disgusting kinds of words pouring out of our mouths. You would have thought we actually cooked and ate Linda Blair from The Exorcist before entering that car. When we finally got home and and went our separate ways, that poor Honda prolly drove itself to the nearest car wash and idled in pelting hot sudsy water for hours trying to erase the offensive stuff we said. It probably wept battery acid.

It's dangerous and foolish for me to say that all men do this, but the exceptions prove the rule. If you place a handful of men who are on similar levels socially and economically into a semi-private environment, 95 times out of 100 those men will cuss their brains out with no reservations. They'll say stuff so vile their grandmothers up in heaven would wail (although the grandfathers would chuckle and think about those times with their platoon overseas and think our generation had lost the ability to cuss good 'n' proper. We'd lost an artful flair for cussin' and traded it in for ostentatiousness, dammit!).

The topic of conversation has no bearing on this. Sex, work, religion, love, hate, war, pretty flowers, beautiful and innocent small children. Anything can be garnished with foul language like ketchup on meatloaf.

If we're talking about how much we love our mothers, we confess how damn much we a-f*#kin'-DORE our f*#kin' mothers. Holy s&#t we owe those women every f*#kin' ounce of success or joy we've ever f*#kin' had! And then someone else has to make a comment about how many ounces of successful lovin' they'd give our mother. And then someone inevitably digresses with a comment about the value of length versus weight versus thickness. And then one of us says something about having to stand outside of a bathroom stall in order to take a piss without getting their d*#ks wet from the toilet water.

And downward into the hellish spiral of mantalk we descend. Even in our most tender and sincere f*#kin' moments, men can't help but be vagrant, uncouth cowboys out on the plain. I only censored most of these 'cuz there's womenfolk around.

"Cowboy Romance" came off Natalie's biggest-selling and solo debut, Tigerlily. That album and the Deadwood soundtrack can be purchased through iTunes and's mp3 site.

Monday, February 16, 2009

"Two Soldiers"

Jerry Garcia and David Grisman--"Two Soldiers" (mp3)
Bob Dylan--"Two Soldiers" (mp3)
Julie Miller--"Two Soldiers" (mp3)

Last year, I ran a post about the traditional song, "Girl From the North Country," one of those classic songs whose universal themes and many versions and variations intrigue me. I'm offering another one today--"Two Soldiers."

I first heard "Two Soldiers" wandering around the shops in Petoskey, Michigan when I was up there with a friend for a Hemingway and Fitzgerald conference. It was right after the first of Jerry Garcia and David Grisman cd's, the eponymous Jerry Garcia/David Grisman, was released. A beautifully-recorded acoustic record, it contained a stunning range of song types, from reworkings of Dead songs and blues songs in traditional or bluegrass setting to 16 minute instrumental, "Arabia," which captures the rhythms of that land.

Buried there somewhere in the middle was "Two Soldiers." The song is about two Union soldiers during the Civil War who are about to go into battle, to assault a ridge, and since one has a loved one and the other one a "dear mother," they are making final plans in case they are killed. I suppose by this time, the cinematic scene where the one soldier asks the other soldier to deliver something for him if he is killed has become almost a cliche, though I'd have to believe that it is a true one which stills goes on today.

But the rich language and skilled storytelling of the song abolishes any cliches--these men are not stereotypes. Their language sounds anguished and true. The narrator starts the song in the middle of the story. The "tall dark man" has already asked "the blue-eyed Boston boy" to tell his lover if he is killed. The Boston boy's comment concerning his mother ("I'll see her soon, I know") takes on a grim, rather than naive, implication. The descriptions of battle are evocative and metaphorical, worthy of Stephen Crane or Ambrose Bierce. And, of course, the outcome, though no surprise, is still shattering, for the narrator plays on dramatic irony to remind us that we know what happened before the battle, but the loved ones back home never will.

Of the three versions I've posted, I prefer Garcia's. I think he has a voice well-suited to these traditional songs. Dylan's is a close second. The Julie Miller version, though certainly more than listenable, is a rare misfire for her, given her and Buddy's own skill in working traditional-sounding songs. To my ear, the harmonizing with Emmylou Harris gives the song a high shrillness that detracts. But, I heard her version last, so maybe I had come to expect a sparseness that the subject matter seems to merit. And, that's really nitpicking. It's such a beautiful, timeless melody that it's hard to imagine anyone doing a bad version.

If you know of other versions of the song, please let me know. I have a Norman Blake/Tony Rice version somewhere, but in the CD chaos of my life, I can't find it.

"Two Soldiers"

He was just a blue-eyed Boston boy,
His voice was low with pain,
"I'll do your bidding, comrade mine,
If I ride back again,
But if you ride back and I am left,
You'll do as much for me,
Mother you know, must hear the news
So write to her tenderly."

"She's waiting at home like a patient saint,
Her fond face pale with woe,
Her heart will be broken when I am gone,
I'll see her soon, I know."
Just then the order came to charge,
For an instant hand touched hand,
They said "Aye" and away they rode,
That brave and devoted band.

Straight was the track to the top of the hill,
The rebels they shot and shelled,
Plowed furrows of death through the toilling ranks
And guarded them as they fell.
There soon came a horrible dying yell
From heights that they could not gain,
And those whom doom and death had spared
Rode slowly back again.

But among the dead that were left on the hill
Was the boy with the curly hair,
The tall dark man who rode by his side
Lay dead beside him there.
There's no one to write to the blue-eyed girl
The words that her lover had said
Momma, you know, awaits the news
And she'll only know he's dead.

Julie Miller's Broken Things, Garcia and Grisman's first CD, and Dylan's World Gone Wrong are all available at Itunes.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

A WiiFit State of Mind

I Can't Stand Up for Falling Down - Elvis Costello (mp3)
I Don't Wanna - The Von Bondies (mp3)

Forthwith is an assortment of thoughts inspired during or in the aftermath of my WiiFit workouts.

--- As Sheriff Buford T. Justice would say, Ain't no way, nooooo way, I can do the Super Hula Hoop (get a picture of that!) exercise routine for five minutes rotating my hips clockwise and another five minutes rotating my hips counterclockwise, without thinking, "I wonder if this helps my sexual endurance." Looking at all the pretty colors on the TV screen and the goofy avatars does nothing to cure this mindset. And with each successive workout, my circles are looking more and more like ovals because I'm thrusting my hips forward and backward much more than side to side. But by God I'm a "Calorie Burner," and that means something!

--- I mocked the yoga exercises, and I shrugged indifferently at the high stress WiiFit places on "core" muscles, but there's no question my posture has improved and that my back, long a particular area of weakness, is getting stronger. My balance, while never too shameful, has improved fairly drastically. And I'm almost capable of imagining myself with stomach muscles!

--- As mentioned on a previous Facebook status update, there's no way I will ever admit vocally that I regularly and willfully place myself in the Downward-Facing Dog pose (get a picture of that!). I can write it; but can't say it out loud without resorting to an eye-roll or giggling like a child. That I regularly score a 99/100 on this particular exercise is even more reason to not go talking about it. ("You sure are mighty skilled at throwing your ass into the air, Billy!")

--- Lunges, even without weights, make me feel like a total girly-man. Even after eight or nine successful times at 20 reps per leg, I still have to fight and claw to get through it. And after I'm done, I walk around for 15-20 minutes like Roy frakkin' Rogers after his first whole day riding Trigger and getting along his little doggies on the plain.

--- I find nothing remotely redeemable about the step exercises on a board three inches above the ground, and less redeemable about jogging in place. To those who can enjoy either, bully for you. That I can somehow justify swiveling my hips in large ovals for 10 minutes whilst imagining I'm keeping five hula hoops going around me at mach speeds (and simulating some bizarre sex act, apparently) while thumbing my nose at any other activity on the planet is merely proof of humanity's love affair with hypocrisy. But I can do 1,800 rotations in 10 minutes and am going for 2,000, dammit! I've got dreams!!

--- Once every three or four days, I'll start my workout, and the male trainer (get a picture of that!) pops in and tells you he's filling in today for the female trainer. Apparently this is to keep you from getting too attached to a trainer. Or maybe these characters get sick or have personal problems. Maybe my female trainer had an illness in the family, or maybe she was depressed and refused to get out of bed that day, or maybe she choked on a granola bar or something. All I know is that the male trainer has this little bitty pig tail sticking out of the back of his head, and seeing it makes me realize that even I have yet to hit rock bottom when it comes to fashion sense and personal grooming.

--- A friend of ours got a WiiFit, and her husband, who has himself a modestly-sized pot-belly, hopped on for the initial Body Test. It labeled him a hair's breadth away from OBESE and right at the top of the OVERWEIGHT category. He stepped down, turned the TV off, and walked out of the house. He now refuses to stay in the room when his wife is using it. Apparently there are some things a computer game was never meant to have the right to tell you, and labeling you a fat ass is one of them. No one needs to pay close to $100 just to be called labeled "obese" unless they're into techno-masochism.

--- On more than one occasion, I've wondered what my female trainer's name is.

--- On two separate occasions, I found myself wondering what kind of alcoholic beverage she might like, and where she would hang out if she lived in Chattanooga. (get a picture of that!)

--- On one occasion, I even left my hotel key on the console just to see if she'd pick it up and meet me.

--- I found a note, unsigned, on the console the next morning that read: "I'm just not that into you. But keep working on your hula hoop motion, and we'll talk." I'm not sure if she's just trying to find a way to motivate me or if she means it.

--- Frequent reader and emotional support John showed me this WiiFit parody the other day. It's funny as hell regardless of whether you've ever stepped on a WiiFit board.

Yes, I'm kidding about everything about my female trainer other than wondering what her name is. If you know any video game programmers, then you damn well know they named that woman.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Taken Down A Notch

Jay Farrar--"Damn Shame" (mp3)
Richard Thompson--"I Misunderstood (live)" (mp3)

Getting taken down a notch is not really a bad thing.

In the past few months, both my wife and I have tried for new jobs--she for a judgeship, me for an upperschool head position at a school in New Orleans.

Neither of us got the job. Neither of us got to the final round of three. Both of us were told, in one way or another, that we were fourth from the top.

And there's the beauty of the whole "didn't get the thing you were trying for/hoping for" system. Unless you're talking about the Olympic Games, where positions and medals are determined by sophisticated machinery calibrated to 100ths of a second, anyone can come in fourth. Let's say that 50 people applied for the job that I did--everyone of us, if we aren't told by someone else, can tell ourselves that we were just a hair's breadth away from getting to that final round, from securing, if you will, at least the bronze medal. And, in our minds, we then can tell ourselves who knows what might have happened if someone had had the good sense to tap us for the finals. I mean who's to say that we might not have won the whole damn thing--salary, benefits, new workplace, new city? Or, that we would have enjoyed for a few days the ultimate luxury of deciding if we even wanted the job at all.

But, then, in our quiet moments, we have to remind ourselves that we didn't get to the final round, that we probably weren't really fourth, but that even if we were, it isn' a whole lot different from 49th.

Having been taken down that notch (or two), I'm here to argue that it was a good thing. In order to function in this competitive, capitalistic society, we have to remain champions in our minds most of the time. I couldn't imagine that they were looking at a better candidate; I couldn't imagine that I wouldn't get asked down for an interview. But the groundhog did see his shadow, and a cold winter gust of reality has blown through the house I was readying up for spring.

I almost dodged the brutal truth. The school had been so bad at communication that, after nine weeks and only one communication from them, I gave them a deadline (in my mind) that if I didn't hear from them, I would drop out. This just a little over week after I wrote them a 1500 word document of "vision" at their request. But when you lay it all out, you want either praise or a good smackdown, not silent indifference. So I wrote them a note and drop out: "Dear ___________________, I wish you the best of luck in your search. Bob."

At that point I should have been free of it, but by 5:00 AM a day later, and no response to my dropping out, I woke up with the situation gnawing at me and wrote a letter taking the school in question to task. A kind of "damnit, I matter, and I will be heard" mentality had kicked in. Well, as far as I can tell, the headmaster took the search committee chair to task, and the search chair got the last laugh on me by laying out in fairly elaborate detail that, though they'd just been looking at my file the day before, they'd elected to invite down three other finalists and those visits were going on right now. Sorry, you can't drop out of the process, we had already dropped you. Double-secret rejection.

So, yeah, I felt kind of bad, and played a number of the mind games mentioned above, but, really, I was glad for the closure. Friends, because they are friends, have said and will say a number of nice things to me and will make disparaging remarks about the school, but it was my search and I'll be doing a variety of self-evaluations and recalibrations of who I thought I was versus who I probably am. And that's a good thing.

On this Valentine's Day, it's wonderful to be loved, but it's also helpful to get an email from someone who isn't quite so enamored. I was reading in Harper's magazine index today that 94% of Americans think that "their lives serve 'an important purpose.'" At the same time, the head of Russia's foreign service academy says that "the United States will have totally disintegrated by 7/4/2010." I certainly hope that the former is true, but a comment like the latter suggests to me that we need to do a bit more self-reflection to figure out what we're reaching for and why and what will happen if we don't get it, because there are outside observers who don't see the same rosy picture we see of ourselves. Believe me, at a couple of notches lower than I was last week, I'm already doing my part.

"Damn Shame" comes from the Jay Fararr cd, Sebastapol. I will be seeing Jay and the boys from Son Volt tonight in concert. The cd is available at Itunes.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Please Read The Letter

Page and Plant--"Shining In The Light" (mp3)
Page and Plant--"Please Read The Letter" (mp3)
Page and Plant--"When The World Was Young" (mp3)
Page and Plant--"House Of Love" (mp3)
Page and Plant--"Walking Into Clarksdale" (mp3)

Hey, I'm as happy as anyone that Robert Plant and Allison Kraus had such a good showing at the Emmys! I own their cd, and though I never listen to it, I appreciate the musicianship contained therein. I have even written with great eloquence in these pages about my experience at their concert here last April.

But, come on! "Please Read The Letter" gets the Grammy for Record Of The Year? That's a little hard to believe. It isn't even the most popular song on the album. isn't even the best version of the song.

There are a number of things wrong with the music business, and I'm in no mood to articulate all of them here. I'm certainly not cranked about the Grammys; I actually had a pretty good time watching what parts of it I watched. No complaints.

No, instead, I'm going to go in a direction that Billy first mentioned when we were putting this blog together in the first place. He suggested that we would be an alternative to "radio that was on an iron lung." A great metaphor, by the way.

Now, we all know what radio is like, so I don't need to go too far down that road.

Here's what surprised me. It was 1998. I was pretty close to the Class of '99, especially musically. I would battle with them about Phish (I was a late, late convert), mock them about their worship of Pink Floyd (a good, not great, band), and celebrate, of course, anything to do with Led Zeppelin. I was, am, and always will be a fan of that greatest of 70's bands.

But, anyway. So word came out in 1998 that the two remaining pillars of the House of Zeppelin--Page and Plant--would be putting a out a cd of new material. They were coming off of a triumphant largely-acoustic tour that culminated in the Unledded concert cd a year or two earlier. MTV's concept of "unplugged" concerts still entranced America.

So, the cd came out, I bought it, I loved it. It was an update of Led Zeppelin--you knew the songs were Page/Plant originals, but the sound was updated and stripped down, not the multitude of overdubs that you'd expect to hear on a Zeppelin album. It was the sound of a tight, touring band who go soft to loud efficiently.

The more I listened to it, the more I realized that there were a number of radio-friendly songs, even potential hits, songs like "Shining In The Light" and "Please Read The Letter," in particular. The former had the vibe of the Houses of the Holy/ Physical Graffiti era, a blend of acoustic guitars and synthesized strings; the latter sounded like classic Zeppelin, a pretty, melodic ballad with crunching guitars.

So, I started getting curious, wanting to know which songs would emerge as the radio classics. I tuned into the main rock stations in town and waited expectantly. Here were two of the giants of the '70's with a strong, relevant cd. But you know what they were playing on the radio? "Stairway To Heaven." After all, classic rock is classic rock, and rock stations must pretend that the 70's never ended. For the stations that played more contemporary rock, Page and Plant were no longer contemporary.

So, I think the album tanked. At the very least, it didn't bring many new Zeppelin lovers into the fold. And now, "Please Read The Letter" has new life with T-Bone Burnett's NPR-friendly guidance. If you want to hear the great guitarists of a generation--Page, Beck, Clapton (all Yardbirds, by the way)--and among the great guitarists of all time, these days, you've got to hear them on NPR. Same with Dylan and Young.

You've probably got access to the Plant/Kraus version of "Please Read The Letter," the Grammy winner. Give it a listen. It's good. Then click the arrow at the top of this post and hear the original. It's great.

Page and Plant's Walking Into Clarksdale is not available at Itunes.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Who's the Fairest of Them All?

Sadly Beautful - The Replacements (mp3)
Beautiful - The Marvelous 3 (mp3)

"I don't feel beautiful."

Miley Cyrus sings this. Christina Aguilera has a song imploring people to find themselves beautiful. In several conversations with high school girls over the years, nothing has been more clear than the fact that almost all of them wish they were at least a little prettier. The smartest girl in my elementary school got called "It" by others in her special class, and she was plenty cute. It starts in frikkin' fourth grade, and she even admitted on her Facebook account the other day that it still haunts her.

Maybe as much as money, beauty and attraction seem to make the world go round, yet we can't seem to quantify either of them like we can cold hard cash. Beauty and attraction are as immeasurable and weightless as happiness, yet they seem so vital to how we view ourselves and others.

I've never felt particularly attractive. This confession is not in the hopes of getting some extra hugs, because it's been more than 20 years since I felt particularly unattractive, either. Other than, like, when I would drink too much and find myself hurling into a toilet or something equally unbecoming. But no one should feel attractive when kneeling at the porcelain altar.

Other than those rare moments, however, I've somehow managed to avoid getting too hung up on my physical appeal. I just assume I'm somewhere in the neighborhood of Mediocreville, falling somewhere near the peak of the Bell Curve of attractiveness. I'm mostly OK with looking OK, so I don't spend a lot of my time thinking about it. I don't, nor have I ever done, any of those metrosexual grooming or dressing details. I don't preen. I don't pluck eyebrows. I don't groom very obsessively. No hair product or hair removal of any kind. No shopping for clothes without a gift card or a damn good reason. In fact, none of my hobbies or joys come from all the things people do because they're concerned with their attractiveness or their beauty.

This isn't an I'm better than you post. I've got suitcases full of hang-ups and self-esteem issues, so it's really OK if I dodged this one. This whole issue comes up because I was watching a Disney Channel made-for-TV movie with my daughters. Stuck in the Suburbs was standard teen fare, and it dripped with the issues of teenage insecurity, and it was awful to watch, especially with my girls. But we can't avoid this. Hell, even Kim Possible and Teen Titans are rife with teen angst. Part of me wonders if I should let them watch these shows... but if you start censoring teen angst from what's permissible for your children, you might as well throw out the TV, entire sections of the library, and every music file you own. And you can only watch Pippi Longstocking so many times before you throw up in your mouth a little.

So very much of teen angst is focused around being cool or uncool, and so much of being cool or uncool is trained on attractiveness and beauty.

And if we think this hangup somehow becomes less invasive and destructive once we escape the confines of our adolescence, I offer up this web site. Yes, Hot Chicks with Douchebags proves that our hangups and insecurities linger like Herpes and cling to our booties like these dudes with gelled hair and outsized egos. We get to mock these goobers because, in this case, the Bell Curve saves most of us.

Perhaps more than any other single thing, I fear this most for my daughters: that they'll struggle to feel beautiful enough, attractive enough, worthy enough, that they'll punish themselves in mind and/or body in order to live up to some unattainable illusion that can never be met nor maintained only to earn them attention that is superficial and temporal at best. This godforsaken and seemingly eternal wrestling match between pride and shame, between vanity and meekness, and the parental illusion that we can somehow guide our children through that Scylla and Charybdis unscathed and unscarred.

What I can't deny, and where karma might kick my ass, is that I am very much a conspirator in our cultural notions of beauty. I look. I judge. I assign value to attractiveness, particularly in women. I act happier and joke more exuberantly in the presence of a beautiful woman. This isn't something I admit proudly, because it's the very kind of behavior and the very kind of game I pray my daughters don't get too sucked into. No, I'm never gonna be one of those aforementioned douchebags, but that hardly absolves me of my responsibilities and that I have frequently fallen far short of them.

So I'm only left to hope the sins of the father don't get visited upon the daughters.

"Sadly Beautiful" is from All Shook Down. "Beautiful" is from ReadySexGo! Both albums are available through iTunes and's mp3 site.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Rock. Out.

Note: as is the apparent norm in this "business," today Bob's file storage site disappeared completely from the Internet, leaving his current song posts unplayable and leaving him without an immediate option for putting up songs in conjunction with this post.

I hope to resume normal programming shortly.

Last Saturday night, I did something that I haven't done for a long, long time.

And, no, I'm not talking about sex.

My family was out of town, and so, I put very, very loud music on in the living room and rocked out. I haven't done that since I don't know when. It reminds of how I haven't played my purple Stratocaster in over a decade and am about to loan it to a former student to see if he can get some use out of it. Apparently, it being a 1972 Strat, it has increased in value since I bought it, so I don't know if I can sell it to him for the price I originally planned (or at all), but I am going to send it his way.

The loud music is the same way. Music, the way it should be heard, has been isolated and compartmentalized--relegated to alone-time in the car or headphones.

When I became a parent, I put away non-parentish things.

But last Saturday night, I got to take them out again. Loud music is college. Loud music is not background music. Loud music is the evening, not part of the evening. Loud music does not need assessments or any other talking about. In fact, the person who has anything much to say beyond "This is rocking my ass" really doesn't need to speak while loud music is playing.

And, oh, the joys of hearing that music the way I've always liked hearing it. Immediately, of course, I wanted to hear live music. I found online a Springsteen concert from New Year's Eve 1978, the Darkness On The Edge of Town tour that I loved so much live and now love in nostalgic ways. It's the tour where Bruce decided he wanted to show off his guitar prowess; though he may not be a master guitarist, he is an idiosyncratic one who, when you hear him, you know it is him playing the solo, and that is what does it for me. The guitarists who have an identity are the ones I really love. And so, I let songs like "Streets of Fire," "Badlands," and especially "Prove It All Night" blast my ears.

From there, I moved on to Tom Petty. "Rebels," "The Waiting," and "Southern Accents" all live.

The next day, I said to my wife, "I'm back into Tom Petty."

"So what else is new?" she returned.

But that's the way it goes. Get to hear somebody loud and live, and all of a sudden, they're back on your radar.

I think we forget most of the time that music is the point, not the window dressing to some other event. I think it takes a night of nothing but you and the music to remind yourself of that.

When I was a child, there were days when I would come back home from somewhere, maybe a friend's house, and there would be no one home but my dad, and he would be in the living room, blasting Glen Miller from the RCA console and when I walked into the room, he didn't turn it down, he didn't ask me how my time had been with my friend. He just said, "Listen to this."

Sunday, February 8, 2009

New Music on the Bottom

Billy is not a music critic. (Hell, he can't even hear the Springsteen influences in a Gaslight Anthem album.) But he does love music, and we have a dozen or so bands and artists sending free music our way every month. No sane music-lover likes turning away free music! So on occasional Sunday, he's going to offer my thoughts and recommendations on the better stuff we get sent to us. This isn't American Idol, so he's not gonna go all Simon on any of the stuff that sucks. (And let's be honest -- we've received some bona fide stinkers that you'll never hear.)

So, with that in mind, here's the first official installment of New Music on the Bottom.

The Bottom's Top Song of the Week: Blind Rhetoric
I Am a Ghost - Blind Rhetoric (mp3)

Blind Rhetoric only sent me two songs, and it's tricky to judge a band on a single album*, much less just a song or two, but here's my take. Nothing about these two songs made me think this band is trying to blaze a new trail of sound. Still, they've got some power in that pop, and if it's derivative, then they're deriving it from a place I enjoy visiting. If I stumbled into one of their concerts, I'm sure I'd stick around and enjoy myself plenty. These songs are tightly-produced -- which for me is a good thing but can annoy more finely-trained folks. Their lead singer has a honey-sweet voice capable of packing a punch, although it doesn't have a particularly unique signature to it. Then again, a band shouldn't need singularity of Axl Rose or Elvis Costello to kick some rock butt.

* -- If we judged artists on a single album, then according to Bob, Bruce Springsteen would f*#king suck.

The Bottom's Top EP of the Week: Gas Station Robber's Out of This Place
Cigarette - Gas Station Robber (mp3)

Their sound is definitely on the melancholy electronic tip. Neither of those descriptors would be words that draw me in, normally, since I tend to prefer my sad whiners be folksier or with a little more rock bombast. But something about their sound is worth paying heed. They call their sound "electroacoustic," and who am I to argue? The song I've included, "Cigarette," is the least electronic and most acoustic of the songs they sent us, so naturally that's the one I find most mesmerizing, but none of the five songs they sent had me holding my nose or praying for it to end.

More to the point for you, dear readers: They are all about sharing their music in DRM formats without asking for anything but donations. While it's possible they're as financially secure as Radiohead, I highly doubt it, so if you like what you hear, maybe you'll consider tossing a few bucks their way.

The Bottom's Top Album of the Week: Wintersleep's Welcome to the Night Sky
Oblivion - Wintersleep (mp3)

Don't ask me to defend my connections with this band, but when I hear Wintersleep, I think Arcade Fire. I think Weakerthans. I think a hint of Coldplay and a dash of the Eels. Maybe even the haunted spirit of the Mountain Goats. Except Wintersleep feels like it has a little more country and roots rock in them than these other bands. But again, I'm totally spitballing here. The key factor in all of those comparisons is that I either really like or mostly like all of the bands I just mentioned. They're all a little bit avant garde, and other than Coldplay they only hit the "pop" category infrequently and seemingly by accident.

Wintersleep are legit. "Oblivion" is their catchiest and most pop-friendly song, but a few others lean in that direction. "Astronaut" could have been performed by one of those many '80s bands from Athens, and "Weighty Ghost" deserves consideration on any college radio station worth its salt. The concluding 8-minute-plus number, "Mismal Smoke + The Yellow Bellied Freaks," might alone convince me to desert my family and obligations and see them live.

This band feels like an album band, with music better suited for a 40-minute investment rather than mixed in on your iPod's shuffle. Assuming the dudes don't secretly hate each other or dream of solo careers, I'd be stunned if this album is anything but a strong step up to bigger things.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Annals of Live Music, Vol. 1: Frampton Comes Canada?

Great Big Sea--"When I'm Up (live)" (mp3)
Great Big Sea--"Mari Mac (live)" (mp3)

The genius of Frampton Comes Alive, which came out over 30 years ago (yep, even I owned it), was the most overt subliminal advertising that anyone has come up with. Overt? Subliminal? At the same time? How so?

Well, you take a so-so, well-recorded concert from a lesser artist and you doctor the audience tracks. You have them become a presence on every song. You make them sound like the simplest, slowest talk-box notes are inducing orgasms. You have the crowd go berserk over pretty little instrumentals. You make the whole show sound like it was the concert event of the decade and that if, by some misfortune, radio listeners weren't among the 2000 or so people there, then they will have to buy the record so they to can bask in the glow of the experience.

It worked. People bought the record by the millions, the only time Frampton ever came close to anything like that. Frampton Comes Alive became the greatest selling live album of all time. The record both jumpstarted his career and pushed it up to a level that he could never hope to attain again, because he was never meant to be anything more than a pleasant, minor artist.

So, here's the overt subliminalism: a listener hearing other listeners having such a wonderful experience is lured into wanting to be a part of that experience himself or herself. I suppose if you thought about it, it's really not that much different from putting a laugh track on a sitcom, but on Frampton's record, unlike that laugh track, the crowd is timed to sound like it was really there. Or, maybe it was really there and they just put the audience much higher in the mix than what would have reflected reality. I really don't know. The only thing I don't believe is that the group of concertgoers were as into Frampton's show as they were made to appear to be. This article on the matter suggests that the audience tracks were a combination of the actual audience turned up and canned audience tracks.

Here's something even more amazing, though. I came across another such CD a few years ago, and it has had a similar effect on me. Road Rage, by the band Great Big Sea, captures their tour across Canada circa 1999 in such away that it revives the basic feelings that Frampton's record did: who are these guys and how have I missed out on something that everyone else is already so into?

Great Big Sea is what I would call Celtic-lite. They play originals and traditional Irish songs, but not with great virtuosity. There are two lead singers, and they have different, engaging voices. The band knows how to play their instruments, but not like, says, the Chieftans, where you are blown away their skill. They're just a good, tight band with a lot of stage presence and maybe they're very good looking, because their audience seems to have a large percentage of women, all of whom know the lyrics to their songs.

Listen to the two songs I've posted. I'm telling you, they are infectious. Maybe GBS pulled a Frampton and somehow sequestered the audience for several days while teaching them the lyrics to the songs and plying them with liquor or offering them favors. But I don't think so. The level of audience identification seems to come from good-natured boys singing good-natured Celtic songs. And the boys know how to play the audience. You'll want to know the words, just so you can keep up with the fun.

If you're driving to work and you want to pump yourself up for the day that lies ahead, you could do a lot worse than "When I'm Up." If you have kids, try the songs out on them. Even though "Mari Mac" is about the narrator getting Mari Mac "on her back" and the scandal or pregnancy that results in both mothers pushing for marriage, I dare you to try to play the song more than twice before the whole family is singing along.

So how come I never heard of these guys?

Maybe it's a Canadian thang. Was.
Great Big Sea is available at Itunes.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Soundtrack Lovin': Heavy Metal

My fascination with movies has long tied directly to my love of music. In fact, I'm fairly certain that without movie soundtracks, I wouldn't love music to the degree I currently do. So if I seem overly obsessed, musically, blame movies. With that in mind, I'm offering up a few of my favorite and most influential movie soundtracks for your consideration. With that in mind, I offer the first entry in Soundtrack Lovin'...

Radar Rider - Riggs (mp3)
Working in a Coalmine - Devo (mp3)


I realize this one word is the bane of many a female existence, so ladies, please bear with me. But at the time I was hitting the first pangs of gender awareness and puberty, young males had to actually fight tooth and nail to stumble across inappropriate sexual imagery. We had to dig through sock drawers, into the deep recesses of a father's closet, into the cobwebbed corners of the basement or the sweat-soaking heat of attic boxes. We had to earn our porn, dammit.

And pornography in the early 80s is much like "hard rock" in the early 80s. In the '80s, AC/DC and Queen were considered hard rock, and Alice Cooper was considered heavy metal. Judas Priest? Heavy metal. Sabbath? Heeeavy frikkin' metal. Nowadays, all of these acts would be considered "adult alternative" and sound downright placid and symphonic compared to "screamo" and "death metal." Daughtry is almost harder, fer Chrissakes.

When Heavy Metal first debuted on HBO in 1982 or '83 -- I couldn't see it in the theater in 1981 -- I was just starting to "learn the facts of life by watching The Facts of Life," as Chip Douglas so eloquently puts it in The Cable Guy. I'd seen boobies on several occasions, but mostly due to my step-brothers being stoned and casually flipping through their Playboys while I was in the room. Heavy Metal was considered the golden chalice of hot nekkid women with big boobies. Sure, they were animated, not real, but I was just approaching my teens, and -- I hope Ms. Stein will forgive me -- a boob was a boob was a boob.

If you're wondering how the hell I plan on transitioning from mammaries to my praise of a soundtrack, well, it ain't gonna be pretty. I'm not a miracle worker, Jim. I'm a doctor. I just wanted to have an excuse to use the word "boobies" a lot.

Truth is, Heavy Metal wasn't that great of a movie. Even for a comic book wacko and pre-teen, the film was a paper thin on short story plots. But the music... the music transcended the film. Not only did I own that album and play the grooves off the damn thing, but I can also to this day tell you with at least 70% accuracy what was happening in the movie when each of those songs were played. And I ain't seen the movie in probably 20 years.

Ironically, I suspect true fans of hard rock circa 1982 probably loathed that soundtrack. It was too corporate and packaged. Much of the soundtrack isn't even on the same continent as "heavy metal." Donald Fagan and "Open Arms" by Journey? Puhhleeze. Beavis + Butthead would rather French kiss than listen to that crap.

Don't get the wrong idea. Heavy Metal was bigger than just boobies and tunes.

Aw, who the hell am I kidding? It was pretty much just boobies and tunes.

I've already referenced one of Cheap Trick's two songs on this soundtrack as a personal favorite, but I think a lot of artists approached their pinnacle on this gem. Journey's "Open Arms" has to be one of their five or six best. (Note: If you hate ballads, then why the f*#k would you listen to enough Journey to pick out five or six of their best.) Sammy Hagar's "Heavy Metal" is super-groovy. Devo's "Workin' in a Coalmine" is fun. It's just a lot of fun. (And it also led to my purchase of Oh No! It's Devo! which was an '80s fave of mine, not to mention a centerpiece on the classically forgettable Sarah Jessica Parker vehicle Square Pegs. See YouTube video below!)

The soundtrack also gave me a good and accessible dose of hard rock. Two delicious Riggs songs, Nazareth and Sabbath. All the songs are... well, let's just say I listened to these a lot but never remotely wanted to get their albums. And then there's the cool in-between stuff by Grand Funk Railroad and Blue Oyster Cult.

But the song I listen to over and over and over again, the song that makes me smile and head-bob and air drum is Riggs' "Radar Rider." I haven't the foggiest what the hell this song is about, and it just doesn't matter. Some songs transcend their meaninglessness, and few better than this one. The screamy backup vocal. The growly introduction to the chorus. Neil Armstrong or a Stormtrooper or something talking in the background. The psych-out drum conclusion that's so awesome it has to be done twice. Just glorious.

I hear that song, and all I can see is the opening scene of that cheesy horny guilty pleasure film -- maybe the longest stretch of boob-lessness in the whole flick -- and those mental images just make me love the song even more.