Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Road

Whatever Gets You Off - The Last Vegas (mp3)
The Road to Ensenada - Lyle Lovett (mp3)

I cried twice when I first read Cormac McCarthy's The Road three years ago.

The only other time I ever recall having to wipe away tears from my eyes while reading a book because the damn pages got too blurry was when I was in seventh grade and read Where the Red Fern Grows for summer reading. In that book, I cried when the boy is carrying his disemboweled dog home in the desperate hopes of saving its life. What can I say? The kid's name was Billy. I was young and took the book very personally.

This isn't because books don't stir my emotions. But, much like a book is played out in the mind, on the storyboard of imagination, my tears for a novel's plot are usually leaked inside the synapses in my brain. I weep more openly for movies and TV shows. It's more visceral, for better and worse.

On Tuesday, I saw the film version of The Road. I'd read the reviews. It was going to be a draining and miserable experience, but I'd promised myself I would do it the day I first heard about the movie. I owed it to the book, strange as that sounds. To the characters. Especially that father, and that son, but to others as well. For books I really love, I feel obligated to see the films, knowing damn well the movies can't be as good. But they don't have to be. I don't expect that out of a movie. It's not fair.

Few if any of you will see this film. Doing so means you want to be weighed down, sad, full of despair, for almost two hours. And you're paying an ungodly amount of cash to do so.

That said, here's my take: It's the perfect film to conclude 2009.

Although I haven't seen Up in the Air and desperately want to, and although lots of folks claim that flick captures much of 2009's angst and zeitgeist, I can't imagine it's a more pristine way to wrap up this year than The Road. Especially if you watch it alone. No one to share your reactions. No one you can look over and see their reactions and feel like you've got company in that hellhole of a film. Just you, with a handful of strangers, miserably engaged in a nightmare scenario.

Massive unemployment? Skyrocketing health care costs? Political backbiting better suited to professional wrestling? Terrorists with explosives next to their nuts? Yup, that all feels pretty damned oppressive. But 20 minutes into The Road, all that shit ain't shit.

None of the world's current burdens matter as much. You just want to go find a loved one and hold them. You want to go out and start your car engine and hum along to its happy engine tune. You want to roll down the window and look at all that glorious light pollution coming from street lamps. You want to play that glorious iPod and hear mindless stupid shit like The Last Vegas, whose sole skill is making AC/DC seem high-minded. (No offense, Vegas... I enjoy the hell out of this song.)

You think you got problems? Try living in a world without electricity, without plant life, with few mammals, and where your fellow man is just as likely to eat you as shake your hand. Try shepherding your child in that environment, without any assistance from anyone.

Parenting, brought down to it's very primal core of love, protection, and nurturing.

You want some theology? You want a kind of violence that makes the shit in Transformers feel even more fakey and meaningless than it already does? You want Robert Duvall pulling off a kind of role only Robert Duvall can? You want to see a kid evolve from an almost ignorable sidekick into an actor who convinces you he's really living the part? This flick's got it.

You want to leave a movie feeling a moral compulsion to be a better parent, to savor the mundane miracles embracing us every minute, to go watch some sitcoms and maybe back that up with The Hangover? This is your film.

Sure, it's probably 2010 when you read this. But it's not too late to watch a film that makes 2009 seem pretty damn OK.

And the next time you find yourself about to say the words, "I'd do anything for my children"? Maybe you'd best comprehend just what you're saying, and then maybe you should find another way to say it.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Loose ends and forgotten promises...

Yeah, it's that other kind of summing up, the kind where you try to take care of all of the leftover stuff you didn't get to. I'd compare it to cleaning out a closet, but since every single closet and cupboard in our house is packed to the gills, I don't think that metaphor works for me.

First, the blog and the music. I suppose that Billy and I have enough of our own agendas that we don't always get around to posting the music we said we'd post. He's been better at it than I have. Anyway, here are some things I'd been planning to put up by some people who are trying to get heard. It's an eclectic bunch of songs, so even if you don't like all of the choices, maybe this will give you a song or two to surprise someone with in the new year:




High On Stress--"Alcohol Smile (unreleased)" (mp3)

My favorite band that sent us stuff in '08 was kind enough to share an unreleased track with us. Good songwriters. Good stuff.









Chris Hickey--"Kerouac" (mp3)

Can't remember the context for how we got this song and can't find the email, but I've been planning to post it for a while. Companion piece to Bill Malonee's "Hard Luck and Heart Attack."





The Orphan Factory--"Night Shift" (mp3)

A guy who might just be a whole band who sends his own stuff without a publicist. Worth a listen.









Lamar Holley--"Forgotten Friends" (mp3)

Holley has written a concept CD called Confessions Of A College Student. Production is slick and the songs have kind of a geekier Ben Folds vibe to them.





Next, the resolutions. I'm not even going to go back and check, because if I can't even remember them, you already know what kind of progress I made. I think I vowed to do three things: 1) write more, as in a novel or something, 2) go see more live music, based on my life belief that it is always worth it to make the effort to see live music, and 3) lose weight.

I didn't do too badly with the writing. Without counting, I can safely claim at least 120 posts to this website, but I didn't write beyond that. Wrote one poem. Have a good idea for a novel that came to me a few weeks ago, if I can just remember it. As for the music, not too bad. Particularly good job of getting out to shows while in Chicago over the summer. Special thanks to TroutKing for dragging my ass to a Springsteen show and breaking the 31-year curse. I truly enjoyed myself until this guy passed out and fell on my wife, but was not able to shake that wistfulness for seeing the Boss when I was 21 and "believed" the songs. My last concert of the year, thanks to my brother dragging my ass to it, was just two nights ago at Snug Harbor in New Orleans, a 4-piece jazz band led by a terrific clarinetist playing traditional New Orleans jazz. My weight held steady, but still needs to drop. Maybe if I gave up beer for Lent. Maybe if Lent was all year long.

Finally, the compadre. Thanks, as always, to Billy for.....Billy? Billy? BILLY?

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Neutral Years

The Bottle Rockets--"Brand New Year" (mp3)
The Bottle Rockets--"Another Brand New Year" (mp3)


There is talk right now about what a bad decade this has been, this first decade of the new century--9/11, economic woes, War on Terror, Rwanda, waterboarding, Wall Street, global warming, you name it. Those social observers claim that we are off to a rough start and that things can only get better.

Better, you say? I am reminded of Szymborska's poem written for the end of the last century:






THE CENTURY'S DECLINE
by Wislawa Szymborska

Our twentieth century was going to improve on the others.
It will never prove it now,
now that its years are numbered,
its gait is shaky,
its breath is short.

Too many things have happened
that weren’t supposed to happen,
and what was supposed to come about
has not.

Happiness and spring, among other things,
were supposed to be getting closer.

Fear was expected to leave the mountains and the valleys.
Truth was supposed to hit home
before a lie.

A couple of problems weren’t going
to come up anymore:
humger, for example,
and war, and so forth.

There was going to be respect
for helpless people’s helplessness,
trust, that kind of stuff.

Anyone who planned to enjoy the world
is now faced
with a hopeless task.

Stupidity isn’t funny.
Wisdom isn’t gay.
Hope
isn’t that young girl anymore,
et cetera, alas.

God was finally going to believe
in a man both good and strong,
but good and strong
are still two different men.

“How should we live?” someone asked me in a letter.
I had meant to ask him
the same question.

Again, and as ever,
as may be seen above,
the most pressing questions
are naïve ones.


Sorry, gang, but we can't blame it on the decade. Years, tens of years, hundreds of years, they're all neutral. They're just time passing.

Nope, we've got to blame it on us. I don't know that things are going to get better. They certainly haven't gotten better so far. Oh, I know, the economy maybe improving, the surges may ultimately help the Arabs to kill each other instead of us, and my family has been recycling on and off for the past year, but real improvement anywhere for a long time is pretty hard to see. A few steps up, a few steps back, here and there. That's about it.

I don't say that as a pessimist. It hasn't gotten me down. Nor am I enjoying the wallow in some kind of "told you so" penchant for pointing out bad things.

I don't say that as a realist. I'm not so shrewd an observer that I'm able to fully understand either the trends or the patterns or the how what we once did is not coming back to haunt us or the how what we will do is too little, too late.

I don't say that as a scientist, though I can see what a giant, unwieldy organism we have become, not unlike a slug that can't react until the salt is already falling in its direction, until the first few sprinkled crystals of trouble have already started to pelt our flanks.

No, I say it as the optimist that I am. No, things haven't gotten better. But it doesn't feel to me like we've given up, either.

"How should we live?" the poem asks. I don't think the answers are that difficult: with love, with caring, with sacrifice, with awareness, with understanding, with faith. But those are always going to be places we're going to have to work to get to, as has always been the case. Naive, to be sure, but what optimism isn't?

Both songs come from the Bottle Rocket's Brand New Year, which may or may not still be available. The photo of the guy is somewhat random, though his picture did come up in a search for "bad decade" images.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Cars: An Appreciation

The Cars--"Good Times Roll" (mp3)
The Cars--"Moving In Stereo" (mp3)


The thing about decades is that life does not package itself so neatly and conveniently. Even as we try here at the end of the first ten years of the new century to do various kinds of summing ups, I hope that we still realize that trends and patterns don't necessarily fit the package so well.

Case in point: the Cars.

If decades really worked as decades, then the Cars would have come onto the scene sometime around January 1, 1980 and would have announced at that time: "Listen, the upcoming decade is going to have a distinctive style of music, and here, on the songs from our very first album, are the characteristics of those songs you'll listen to for the next ten years."

But it didn't happen that way. Like the Talking Heads, who provided a jarring coda to the late '70's, straddling the disco beats and rhythms of the dance clubs and the jaundiced sensibilities of a rock music that was dying and trying to reinvent itself, the Cars seemed to come out of nowhere from Boston with a couple of years still to go in the '70's. Boston? At that time, we thought music coming out of Boston was either the biggest guitars you ever heard and songs just as big (from the band named after the city) or the long-admired-but-always-on-the-fringe bluesy bar band sound of J. Geils (who would take a lesson from both Boston and the Cars in creating their commercial juggernaut, Love Stinks, a few years later).

But the Cars? They don't sound like they like they're from anywhere except all of pop/rock music, stealing standard riffs and solos from the likes of Roy Orbison and the Beatles, with some laconic vocals mixed low, as if they don't trust their lead singer, and cheesy, but catchy, synthesizer parts. One might almost be tempted to call them generic. Instead, I call them the template. They sound much more like what was to come than what was going on at the time.

Sometimes, when I hear the Cars, I hear all of the supposedly-revolutionary New Age and the pop music outcroppings that followed. Put on "Let The Good Times Roll" or "My Best Friend's Girl" and see what's there. Think Thomas Dolby copped this one? How about Gary Numan's Tubeway Army? Wang Chung? Soft Cell? The Outfield? Rick Springfield? Marshall Crenshaw? Who else?

The Cars take a lighter tone, rarely deviate beyond the subject matter of girls, and generally capture the self-focused 80's in a way that few bands can, but there's always a sadness there, as well. They've lost a girl, they've settled on a girl who is "all I've got tonight;" even the good times "make you a clown." Ric Ocasek, the principal songwriter, had clearly experienced his share of pain, which became obvious later on when he married a supermodel and the media could not understand the connection between beauty and the beast. The Cars are the geeky music nerds who never fit in in high school, but figured out how to rise above that. Yeah, after them, the pop music got more minor key sometimes, maybe more self-important, but for the sheer fun of being alive at that time, despite personal tribulations, I'm not sure that there was anyone better.

Of course, when I really like a band, even against all odds, there's usually a guitar involved. The Cars are no exception. Eliot Easton's licks and solos are among the most inventive of that time period. No matter how many times I hear "Just What I Needed," I still wait for and enjoy Easton's counter-rhythmic solo that echoes the melody of the chorus while establishing itself as an additional motif for the song. He is a player who is not bounded by a particular style; he's playing what the song requires instead of forcing the song to accept what he can play.

I don't think I appreciated the Cars enough at the time, thinking that what they were doing was too simplistic, too derivative, but paralleling the punks as they did, I see now that they did their own kind of straddling, drawing on the stripped-down ethic of that movement, while embracing the earliest rock patterns and a few of the tricks from the bloated supergroups that punk was trying to counteract. Whether you like synthesizers or not, it is hard to argue against the idea that the Cars used them more infectiously than almost anyone. Usually, the synth adds another, single-note-melody layer to a basic song and gives it almost a depth.

But not really. The Car's music is mostly candy. Good candy. The kind that is so sugary that you can't stop eating it, even if the only taste you're getting is sugar. And their lyrics aren't deep either, but they're just quirky enough that they engage you each time you hear the songs. "Let them brush your rock and roll hair" it says in "Let The Good Times Roll." What does that even mean?

The Cars, and especially this first album that I'm referencing, certainly don't need verification from me. The record was on the charts for almost three years and spawned 6 hit singles. But I'm here as someone who started listening to it all again this week and realizing that, hey, it all holds up thirty years later. There is a lot of music from back then that doesn't.

The Cars are available from Itunes.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

He's a Hoarder

It's My Own Cheating Heart That Makes Me Cry - Glasvegas (mp3)

My name is Billy, and I'm a music hoarder. ("Hi Billy.") I've been a music hoarder for going on two years now.

If you haven't, in a fit of late-night tossing and turning, found yourself watching a little of A&E's show Hoarders, then bully for you. But if you have, then you've seen some screwed-up tales of incredibly screwed-up people whose houses have become overrun with, to bastardize U2, all that they can't leave behind.

Houses where every square inch is covered with trash, or boxes, or belongings in various states of decay. Floors piled sometimes four and six inches high with it, so thick and long-trampled that it's like an extra few layers of cushion. A mess so horrendous that mice, rats, sometimes bigger pests have passed entire generations through the experience. Some people can't even bear to throw away their own fecal matter.

Anyone who has visited my home on a normal chaotic day will know that I ain't makin' fun of these folks. We are very much a "there but for the grace of God..." kind of family on this one. Our house is rarely immaculate. Our house is usually quite disheveled. And by "disheveled," I mean fucking messy. But I see these people on Hoarders and I think, Hmmm... we ain't so bad after all...

No, I watch this show for some of the same reasons I watch Supernanny: to witness a cautionary tale of what we cannot allow to happen to us.

I learned growing up with two massively screwed-up step-brothers that sometimes we learn the right path by witnessing first-hand where the wrong paths lead. Sometimes we learn what best to do by learning what not to do and how not to do it.

Hoarders -- and according to the show there's an estimated 3 million of them in the US -- have a mental illness. I would have laughed at that suggestion a decade ago, but now I firmly believe it to be true. Still, that illness places them only a hair's breadth from the sane and normal world in which most of us live.

But back to my original point.

Since I started blogging with Bob, I have become a music hoarder.

This is due to a perfect storm of events: (1) the rise of the almighty iPod as the centerpiece of a music lover's life; (2) the starting up of a music-themed blog where we aim to post songs with every musing we make; (3) the increasingly narrow window of time in my life where I can sit down, uninterrupted (by my own urges or those of my friends and family), and simply listen to and savor music.

In my younger days of albums and cassette tapes, I would buy something and listen to it several dozen times in the first week. I can remember having the entire words to Rush's Hold Your Fire memorized before the first weekend of ownership had concluded. This memorization was done with the same kind of pride and conviction that some people ascribe to memorizing lines of Shakespeare or entire Robert Frost poems.

As my obsession with females became less of a theoretical notion worried over in the isolation of my bedroom, and as I passed through high school and then college and then into the precious career world, I simply couldn't sit with my back against a wall, album liner notes and lyric sheet in my hands, studying every line break and chorus. Then, suddenly I not only had a job, but I had kids and obligations that went beyond the work day and the family life, and what time I stubbornly fought to keep for myself was devoted to going out and getting beer with friends or watching a movie or playing some mindless video game. Memorizing the lyrics to a Rush album suddenly became the punchline to some twisted joke about having way too much fucking free time on your hands.

With my first iPod and initial trip into iTunes, I was only downloading 1-5 songs from most of my CDs. The idea of wasting precious hard drive real estate on the detritus of albums, even "pretty good" albums, felt foolish. Who listens to "Rats" off Pearl Jam's second album all that much anyway, right?*

On my first iPod, I knew every song I'd placed on it. Not just the name of the song and the artist, knew it. On my latest iPod, I'm fast approaching the 8,000-song mark, and probably 10-15% of the songs I couldn't tell you the artist and song title. Sometimes I don't know either, mostly thanks to all the free stuff given to me through BOTG.

"In the old days," even if I didn't like a CD I'd purchased, I could trade it in at McKay's, get some trade value out of it, and let myself believe that CD would find a happy home, like a pound puppy. Buying them digitally, however, changes the game. My only choices are to keep it or delete it forever, to wipe it out of existence, to declare it to have zero worth.

That's tough for me to do. I just can't declare a song I purchased worthless, even if it actually is worthless, gathering cobwebs in the dark recesses of my iPod. I am incapable of declaring something that I've paid for to be utterly worthless.

* -- This is a rhetorical question and does not need to be answered by nutty Pearl Jam-ites who happen to think "Rats" is the most brilliant work of musical art since Mozart wrote kick-ass requiems.

Monday, December 21, 2009

"I'm Scared, Ain't You Boys Scared?"

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers--"Spike (live)" (mp3)


"I'd like to see a poll on this. Yes or no: Have we become a more vulgar country? Are we coarser than, say, 50 years ago? Do we talk more about sensitivity and treat others less sensitively? Do you think standards of public behavior are rising or falling? Is there something called the American Character, and do you think it has, the past half-century, improved or degenerated? If the latter, what are the implications of this? Do you sense, as you look around you, that each year we have less or more of the glue that holds a great nation together? Is there less courtesy in America now than when you were a child, or more? Bonus question: Is "Excuse me" a request or a command? "

In her latest Wall Street Journal op-ed piece, "The Adam Lambert Problem," former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan makes the argument that, yes, we as Americans have been beaten down by the economy and health care, but that what has really worn us out has been the cultural assault on us and our children. The springboard to her position is a recent poll that shows that 55% of Americans think that America is going in the wrong direction and very few (27%) think that their children's lives will be better than their own.

Noonan hauls out the usual suspect--televison. She characterizes it as a medium focused on graphic violence, highly sexualized behavior, and "cultural messages that...may be destructive." In short, using the language of a culturally conservative friend, she says that the "cultural left" has no right to inflict its "cultural sensibilities" on the rest of us. And the most recent, most awful example of this is Adam Lambert.

May we first take a couple of moments and dismiss the overgeneralizations that she relies on? First, I accept (I have to) that a majority of Americans think we have lost our way, but what I refuse to accept, especially in such a pluralistic society, is the notion that all of those dissatisfied Americans are dissatisfied about the same things in the same way. It's ridiculous. While you may think that we are not religious enough, I happen to think that we let religion impact far too many aspects of our way of life. Or witness the current health care reform struggle where both the far left and the far right are dissatisfied, but for exactly opposite reasons.

Noonan also pulls out her broad brush in her attempt to paint our cultural woes, whatever they may be, on the "cultural left." Does anyone really need a reminder that it is the Fox networks, owned by arch-conservative Rupert Murdoch, that present the most graphically violent and sexual shows on television? From 24 to Family Guy, from The Shield to Damages, it is the Fox networks that push the boundaries on channels that are very accessible to children. If there is blame, spread it across the political spectrum, Peggy, and include the network you regularly appear on!

I didn't see Adam Lambert's performance. Based on the way Noonan analyzes it from a distance, neither did she. She sounds outraged by something she heard somewhere else. I, of course, did hear about the gay kiss that took place, that Barbara Walters chastised him for. And it's that gay kiss that has lingered in the American discourse. It seems that each gay moment on television breaks a new boundary and has to be parsed and dissected in the court of public opinion. Lambert's performance does not sound like something I wish I had seen. Nor does it sound like quality television. But Noonan's idea that the assaults of the Adam Lamberts are shocking our children and unraveling our moral fiber seems off the mark.

What's more harmful to our country--a simulated sex act during a musical number (which has been around on television since Elvis 50 years ago or so) or a government whose two sides cannot reconcile on anything? We are complacent while the Chinese are motivated. Is that because we are lying around waiting for Adam Lambert to come ravage us? We are the great nation of equality, and yet we still lack gender, race, and sexual orientation equality. Do we blame television for that? I doubt it. Not when television and movies portray artificial worlds where women, minorities, and gays are all more empowered than they are in real life.

As for Ms. Noonan's questions highlighted above, despite her clear implication that the proper answers to all of those questions are negative, I must heartily disagree. As someone who has taught the same-aged children in the same private school now for nearly 27 years, I see the same tendencies toward human decency and self-interest that I have always seen in teenagers. Which is to say that from where I'm sitting, we're hanging in there pretty well. If today's students are indeed more selfish in their desires and more coarse in their ambitions than their earlier counterparts, the fault lies not with television, but with their helicopter parents, who have coached their children to focus on resume-building and gamesmanship.

Alex Keaton from Family Ties may have predated such a phenomenon, but he is hardly to blame for it.

Has Noonan forgotten that her own heyday, the Reagan years, are inextricably linked with the "Me" Generation? Was that a more moral time? And, caught up in her nostalgia for the good old days when we treated each other more sensitively, i.e. 50 years ago, has she forgotten that 50 years ago, segregation was legal? Perhaps we did say "Excuse me" more as a request to the other white people gathered around our white water fountains, bathrooms, and bus seats back then. I don't know.

No, to me, the real problem is the kind of cultural hysteria that Ms. Noonan perpetrates. Something is bad wrong; therefore something must be blamed. And that something should be something that is outside of the good, mainstream "us." That her latest something is a performer who is openly-gay makes her argument even more insidious. I will agree with her that Lambert's argument that he should be able to act as perversely on television as women do seems a bit thin, but to single him out as the one, distinct inspiration for her societal analysis is the worst kind of scapegoating.

But it certainly saves us from having to look deeper, doesn't it?

Tom Petty's song came off of Napster, back in the "good old days."

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Billy's Year-End Favorites Mix

OK, here's a dirty secret. I'm not really sure our loyal and faithful readers give much of a shit about our opinion of music. And I get that. Most of y'all know us and read us because you are friends or enjoy hopping on for those flashes of clever insight or revelation that sometimes-decent writers mired in obscurity can manage. Or maybe you read it 'cuz you like us, you really like us.

But our music? That's for all these people who don't know us, I guess.

But we're a "music blog." And as such, having year-end salutes to music just feels right. It feels necessary. Music is our muse. It's like this big megaphone emerging from our hearts and penetrating the ears of all those prisoners at Shawshank. Without it, neither of us could write anything.

So please take a listen. [NOTE: Alas, you missed the boat on this one. Copyright folks have already flagged me, so the links are gone.] Pick a few songs. If you like 'em, jump to the bottom and download a collection of many of these songs. You might even consider buying an album, or buying a song, and showing a little bit of Christmas love to some hardworking musicians.



BEST UP-TEMPO

1. Sharp Knife - Third Eye Blind
If one is inclined to believe Third Eye Blind had some damn fine pop/rock songs at one time, then one should give this gem of a track a whirl. When Stephan Jenkins pulls off his talky-singy thing well -- and he does it superbly in this song -- it gives the songs an immediacy and passion that help forgive what are admittedly eyebrow-raising lyrics ("My mp3 is out of juice"). But somehow it makes some quirky lyrics work quite well ("How did we get not so loose"). Took me a while to figure out he was saying "a shiv," which isn't exactly a sharp knife, but it certainly gets the job done. Personally, this song hit the right nerve at the right time. Sometimes you wish you could grab a tourniquet and lop off the crappy parts of your soul in the desperate hopes of rescuing the rest.

2. I Don't Wanna - The Von Bondies
Songs about being fucked up -- but angry and unsatisfied with it -- certainly seem to resonate with me. "Sharp Knife" mines similar territory. This song gives little warning before cranking to 11 and screaming its way deep into your eardrum. I don't even know what to call the signature sound in this song -- hell, I'm not even sure if it's someone's voice or some funky instrument -- but it's mighty catchy. My love of this song probably belies the fact that a catchy riff and one potent line overrides any interest I might have in lyrical brilliance.

3. Quiet Little Voices - We Were Promised Jet Packs
If I were to base the size of a country on how many of its bands I like, Scotland would be roughly the size of Brazil. This ditty is never gonna win a songwriting award, but sometimes simplicity and repetition just fit. And this song just fits. I'd run to you. I'll come for you. I'd die for you. Quiet little voices. Quiet little monsters. 

4. Turn It Off - Paramore
Hayley Williams would be one of those surgeons who could eat rare steak while talking about operating on a man with gangrene. I don't know how, but this chick must have had her heart broken a couple dozen times before she even learned to drive, because she's not even old enough to buy beer, but she's got an anchor of Love Bitterness tied to her. Haley, if your scorn is what drives your music, I selfishly hope you never stay in love for too long.

5. Pass the Buck - Stereophonics
Although this album was released in the UK in 2007, I wasn't able to get my hands on it 'til this year, and this song quickly became one of my all-time favorite 'Phonics songs. These guys are famous for feeling jilted by specific people and taking it out in song, but this song feels less about them and more about a moment all of us can identify with.

6. Be All That You Can't Be - Broadway Calls
Bob claimed yesterday that bands aren't writing songs about the war. But this somewhat-popular proto-punk band mines that territory with this song about our military's habit of selling a dream of fool's gold to the lower classes. This album is one of the most unabashedly political collection of songs by a young band I've heard in a long, long time.

BEST BLATANT POP
Links to songs not included in the hopes it protects me from angry lawyers.

1. Taking Chances (Glee Version) - Rachel (Lea Michelle)
"Don't Stop Believin'" was the Song That Launched a Thousand Gleeks, but some of my favorite Glee songs are those I never noticed or had never heard. And this Celine Dion cover is all the better for my having never heard the Celine version. In a show dependent upon the viewer's willing suspension of disbelief, perhaps the toughest moment for me was when I was forced to believe Kurt could sing "Defying Gravity" from Wicked as well as Rachel if only he could hit that high F. Don't you believe it. Lea Michelle has soul in her voice. Like, a shit-ton of it. She's every awesome part of American Idol wrapped into a fictional high school character. Except my preferred version's Simon Cowell is a cheerleading coach named Sue. Which means Glee is better.

2. Bad Romance - Lady GaGa
Lissen, I'm not proud of this, but I gotta give this woman her props. This song is intense and catchy and bitter and self-involved (gotta love people who put their names in their songs!).

3. I Do Not Hook Up - Kelly Clarkson
As the father of girls, I'm unavoidably drawn to any songs that might catch my daughters' ears that also might hint even slightly of being Anti-Slut. This song and Taylor Swift's "Fifteen" get frequently accidentally played when we're all in the car together. A part of me wonders if the "Keep your head in my hand" line is a sexual one -- maybe she's actually saying she only allows the hooking up to occur if she's on the receiving end -- but I let it slide.

4. Sometime Around Midnight (Acoustic Version) - The Airborne Toxic Event
You wouldn't think someone could steal from The Arcade Fire and make it into something commercially appealing, but that's what this song feels like to me. It's like a slightly dumbed-down, slightly more superficial version of The Arcade Fire's stuff. Clearly I don't find this to be such a bad thing, or it wouldn't be on this list. I knew I was gonna like this song from the opening guitar riff,  maybe because it reminds me of one of Bob's most-hated pop songs ever: "Blinded By the Light" by Manfred Mann.

5. Relator - Pete Yorn + Scarlett Johansson
Gotta agree with Bob on this one. It's a great song. The album has ups and downs, but I've always had a soft spot for Pete Yorn and a hard spot for Scarlett Johansson. (Sorry. Couldn't help myself.)

6. Pantry - Lyle Lovett
Although this was first released on an album in 2009's Natural Forces, it's actually something Lovett has played in many a concert prior. It's like many of his best songs: clever and light-hearted, but with a weighty center that keeps you listening to it long after most simple pop songs have been forgotten.


BEST OF THE OTHER STUFF

1. Matthew 25:21 - The Mountain Goats
If music critics are to be believed, John Darnielle might be the best fiction-based songwriter in the country. His songs are all apparently based not on his own life and experiences, but rather characters he invents. Hell if I know. What I do know is that Live of the World to Come's songs are all named after Bible verses, and each explores a (usually modern-day) life or event related to the verse. Quite incredible, and this is my favorite one on the album.

2. Northshore - Tegan + Sara
The worst break-ups shouldn't result in ballads. They should result in something like this song, a whirlwind of panic and conflicting emotion and a paranoia that you might just be enjoying the misery and pain because you can't seem to stop wallowing in it. Then, after you've lived this song a few dozen times, maybe you're drained enough and sane enough to sit down and write a ballad.

3. Even if it Breaks Your Heart - Will Hoge
OK Beck, I know you don't like the guy, but this song is the guy's story. He'll never be rich. He'll never make his name in Billboard magazine. But he's out there on the road, even after a scooter wreck almost killed him, because he's in love. It's a love that's almost an unreasonable and frightening obsession, but it's a love I can't help but admire.

4. My Time Outside the Womb - Titus Andronicus
Dude, these guys make some of the early Replacements stuff seem immaculately produced. Their album is a shoddy bloody mess, but out of chaos comes some truly brilliant moments, and this particular song is almost an actual SONG. You can get this whole album on eMusic for the equivalent of $4-5, so if you like this gem, you really should check it out.

5. Out of the Blue - Julian Casablancas 
There's a lot of similarity between Julian Casablancas' album Phrazes for the Young and the latest Brendan Benson, but while I find the latter to be a more consistently strong collection, this song from Casablancas is superbly catchy. That's all I'm gonna say now.

BEST FREEBIE SONG OF THE YEAR

Dorchester Hotel - The Sounds
This gets honorable mention as my favorite free BOTG song. While we got a lot of good stuff, this is one of a small handful of freebies that earned its way into frequent and regular play on my iPod.

MERRY CHRISTMAS! Click here for some of my favorites (removed due to warning of Copyright Violation), but watch out, 'cuz at 132MB, this file is much to big to fit down some chimneys.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Songs I Listened To A Lot In 2009

I guess the title gives me away, huh? I'm trying to minimize the "what abouts" and the "you should haves" and such, because it really doesn't matter, does it? While I continue to have a huge interest in hearing really good songs that I haven't heard before, the need to try convince that songs are better or best is, I hope, just about gone.

I thought I had left Billy with the tougher task. After all, when forced to choose the top CDs of a given year, you are also, by default, required to, more or less, characterize the year itself, its trends and highs and lows. But Billy really didn't do that. He just went with CDs that he really liked.

Perhaps, without colluding, we just decided to leave "the bests" to the national press and the larger blogs (though last time I looked, it seemed like Said The Gramophone had been hacked into and taken over by some viral Bulgarians) and those who thrive on debate and controversy.

I remember as teenage males in about 1973, we were completely obsessed with who was the fastest guitarist in the world. Then, one day, a good day, I figured out somehow that it didn't matter.

So here are some songs I put on this blog or featured on my own mixes and playlists or searched for dangerously while driving down the road with the Ipod in my right hand and the steering wheel in my right. I hope you will play them. I hope that you like them. I hope that you will suggest some of your favorites, too.

In no particular order...

Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey--"Begin Again" (mp3) The Dbs were my favorite band for much of the 80's, and especially these two guys, who released a pretty solid CD together in the 90's. "Begin Again" is a mature song, probably not one that would attract many teenage listeners. It's far too world-weary for that. Think of it as a salve after a failure, a divorce, a loss, any moment when you have to gather yourself and start over. Brilliant chord/key changes to get you to the bridge, and an inspired use of saxophone.

LeeRoy Stagger--"Petrified World" (mp3) Every year needs a good road song, a "Blue Skies" or a "Runnin' Down A Dream." This was my favorite road song in 2009. The apparently-autobiographical story of the singer on the road with his band, the song has a simple, pleasant, two-chord riff, some "na na nas," and some astute observations along the way.

Summer Tonight--"Who Knew" (mp3) In the same spirit as the Sheds for me. Such a simple, but daring first line: "Who knew that life was good?" Like, woah, I never thought of it that way. And not carrying any of the irony of the Joe Walsh exploration. I like it when a man and a woman sing together, especially when the way they do it sounds natural. Like here. One of my top songs of the summer.

The Bottle Rockets--"Kid Next Door" (mp3) No one, and I mean no one, is talking about the war(s) in popular music right now. Except the Bottle Rockets. This chilling reminder drives the point home quite convincingly:

The kid next door, the kid next door,
He ain't comin' back no more.

Think back to that Dixie Chicks' song about the traveling soldier, strip away any of the hope or romance, and you'll have this song. Sung by an older neighbor who hears the confidence of the young soldier, but knows better. And accompanied by lonely, eerie electric guitars.

Girls--"Hellhole Ratrace" (mp3) Perhaps the only song on this list that will be on some other people's lists. An eMusic find. It took me a while to get through the heavy reverb of the production. The sound takes you back to the 60's and back to the Ramones, but the sensibilities are very modern. Like the ending repetitions of a Springsteen song, the repeated "I don't wanna cry..." over and over really makes the song stick. The lyrics are not especially deep, but they effectively capture the angst of everyday living.

Richmond Fontaine--"You Can Move Back Here" (mp3) Probably not on your radar and one of my favorite bands of the last 5 years, I "discovered" Richmond Fontaine thanks to a subscription to the incredible music magazine, Uncut. The Brits, who are quite obsessed with Americana, raved and raved about this band. So, I bought up all their stuff and entered the down-and-out world of the far west, not California or Oregon, but Montana and Wyoming and other places with wide open spaces. To some extent, they're kind of like what a band led by Raymond Carver would be like.

The Fiery Furnaces--"The End Is Near" (mp3) Some songs that you really like, like this one, are purely contextual. Much as I enjoy listening to this version, what I hear in my head is the live version from Millenium Park in Chicago, where as a 3-piece with a singer, the guitar played all of the parts that the the keyboard plays here. But, ultimately, this is a solid pop song no matter how you play it.

Yo La Tengo--"Nothing To Hide" (mp3) Another contextual song. Saw this band at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago. I've gotten choosy with Yo La over the years. They have some droning songs and some keyboard-driven songs that are hard for me to take for very long, and entire CDs that I've avoided, but when they just revert to the guitar, bass, and drums set-up, they still rock with the best (of the lo-fi's).

Withered Hand--"Hard On" (mp3) This guy is probably my favorite Scottish band. What's yours?

Pete Yorn and Scarlett Johanson--"Relator" (mp3) I've stated my love for duets on these pages before. This song, though the whole little EP is good, is about the catchiest duet of the year. I read some critical comments when the disc first came out about how this was ripping of M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel's She and Him CD, etc., but guess what? This is better. Yorn's songs are stronger than the other CD's ironic, arch covers, and, if it matters, I got tired of Deschanel's character in 500 Days of Summer and it's kind of turned me off to her.


LEFTOVERS:
Rosanne Cash, "Sea of Hearbreak"
David Bazan, "Hard To Be"
St. Vincent and The National, "Sleep All Summer"
Pixie Carnation, "When Did The Lights Go Out"
The Fiery Furnaces, "Charmaine Champagne"
Jeff Beck, "A Day In The Life (live)"
Buddy and Julie Miller, "Take Me Back" (would have listed it if Billy hadn't)
Neko Case, "People Gotta Lotta Nerve"
Lil' Wayne, "Ms. Officer"
Avett Brothers, "I and Love and You" (ditto)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Top 10 Albums of 2009, Billy-style

"Ain't it like most people? I'm no different. / We love to talk on things we don't know about." -- The Avett Brothers, "Ten Thousand Words" 

As Bob noted in a recent post, the notion of buying and listening to albums has returned to a level of irrelevancy not seen since the 1950s and early '60s, when the standard practice for music at a home part involved stacking 10 or so 45s onto the spindle and playing them as they dropped one at a time. (The really kick-ass record players could handle 20 or more at a time!) This was also the heyday of the traditional Jukebox, packed merely with singles, something rarely even found in a Waffle House anymore.

So, the notion of having a Top 10 Albums list feels very much like listing my Top 10 Cassette Tape Sides. Ironically, at a time when the album is dying, I'm buying more albums than ever before. (Those who know my fashion tastes shouldn't be surprised.)

So, I shall soldier on at least this one more time with an album list. I will, however, insist on following in the footsteps of my partner -- and of an amazing string of Slate.com articles about the year in music -- and list my Top 20 Singles from the year on Thursday. (NOTE: If you love music, I dare you not to get sucked down the rabbit hole of cool music links available at that Slate link above, especially  Blender's Top 500 Singles Since 1980 list... May Blender Rest In Peace.)

1. fun. - Aim and Ignite
All the Pretty Girls (YouTube)
For those of you who hate Electric Light Orchestra, I have some bad news: ELO has returned as a primary influence in many rock and pop circles. In at least six or seven of the albums I bought this year -- including four mentioned here -- the hints of ELO are as certain as garlic from an Italian restaurant. Aim and Ignite worships Queen as much as ELO, with tempo changes, abrupt shifts in tone, and other ways of screwing with pop expectation, but Nate Reuss' greatest gift is reminding the listener that misery is a crucial ingredient in the Human Comedy. At some point, you either find a way to laugh through the tears, or the music stops. The Format (RIP) mined similar territory, and his new band kicks the smiles into an altogether different gear, even while the subject matter is... well, mostly kinda sad.


2. Buddy + Julie Miller - Written In Chalk
Ellis County (mp3)
When people talk about the glory days of country music, their talk means nothing to me unless they know of Buddy and Julie Miller. Written In Chalk might not be a modern version of classic Loretta Lynn or Waylon Jennings or George Jones, but the essence of the country music I love stems from its folk roots, and this couple do an almost-flawless take on modern folk.

3. Paramore - Brand New Eyes
Brick by Boring Brick (YouTube)
The survival of what fogeys like me think of as "arena rock" is tethered to the careers of a precious few bands in 2009. One of the bands looking capable of keeping the iron lung of arena rock pumping with vim and vigor is the Tennessee-born Paramore. Thanks to a little Rock Band and a little Twilight soundtrack, the band rocketed to a different tier of success, and their 2009 album proves they deserved the adoration. It's tightly-produced and intense in all the right ways, and Hayley Williams' voice has just the right mix of Scream and Sing to cover the lyrical territory of fatalistic love.

4. Tinted Windows - Tinted Windows
Dead Serious (mp3)

No one in 2009 did a better job at cutting to the simple heart of power pop than the sugary collection of tunes from this mashup band. All you had to know was that the quartet consisted of men from Hanson, Fountains of Wayne, Smashing Pumpkins and Cheap Trick, and the sound that emerged from this catchy CD was exactly what you'd expect. If those four bands mean nothing (or nothing good) to you, then neither would this album. But if, like me, you have almost every CD from those four awesome bands, then this little gem is like some Super-Sized X-Men Special Edition comic book, awesome both as a novelty and for the quality of its contents.

5. The Avett Brothers - I and Love and You
I and Love and You (YouTube)
As is usually the case, I'm usually hopping onto a musical bandwagon right when the really cool people are jumping off. I guess Rick Rubin deserves credit for that. But for me, a newbie to the Avett scene, nothing about this album felt over-produced or excessively commercial. It sounds like a band with an amazing talent for the simple and appealing, and I suspect if I'd owned this album longer than a mere three weeks, it might be higher on my list.

6. Tegan + Sara - Sainthood
Hell (YouTube)
"It's an acquired taste." That's what I think of Tegan and Sara. Their compositions are off-key. Their singing is almost antithetical to my beloved Indigo Girls. Where the latter are always impeccably harmonized, T+S specialize in awkward juxtaposition and eyebrow raising "melodies," if you can call them that. Sainthood is the perfect curveball for my power pop sensibilities. It cleanses that pop palette quickly and efficiently.

7. Superdrag - Industry Giants
Aspertame (YouTube)
We return to Tennessee for this power pop band and a collection of songs that puts Industry Giants neck and neck with my two previous faves of the band's. John Davis' newfound faith and journey of recovery from addiction fuels a completely different mindset to the 'Drag's lyrical journey. Where words once belied a clouded (if highly amusing) cynicism, now they reveal a clouded and amusing cynicism... but now with this ginormous silver lining of religious warmth and a word almost verboten from rock: hope.

8. The Von Bondies - Love, Hate, and Then There's You
Pale Bride (YouTube)
Maybe I love this album because the lead singer had his ass kicked by Jack White. Seriously. How pathetic must one be that Jack White can kick your ass? Hell, all 73 pounds of Avril Lavigne could clean the floor with Jack White. I suspect Theodore Chipmunk could, too. So Jason Stollsimer must have a healthy warehouse of angst and insecurity built up, and it comes out with plenty of anger and energy on this gem of a CD.

9. Brendan Benson - My Old, Familiar Friend
A Whole Lot Better (mp3)
I'm apparently infamous for making connections that leave other music lovers flummoxed, but when I hear Brendan Benson, I hear the bastard son of Elvis Costello circa Get Happy. With a little bit of A.C. Newman and other indie pop acts thrown in. If the name "Raconteurs" means anything to you, then you probably already know this guy. Another Jack White connection, except without the ass-kicking part.

10. Dashboard Confessional - Alter the Ending
Belle of the Boulevard (Dashboard Site Link)
BOTG Bonus Fact: Video shot in the French Quarter!
I've already mentioned my love of this deja vu double album, so no need to go back into it. Suffice it to say that Chris Carrabba deserves to be the poster boy for Emo pop rock. I'm sure listening to more than one album of this guy's stuff could lead to suicidal tendencies, but this album, standing on its own, is catchy and strong and fun... in a sort of "woe is me" kind of way.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Best CD of the Decade?

The Sheds--"Reflection Of The Sun" (mp3)
The Sheds--"All The Right Things" (mp3)
The Sheds--"Mtn Cat" (mp3)


“Best of” lists are surfacing everywhere right now. In fact, before this week is finished, you’ll also have appraisals of the best CDs and best songs from your friends here at Bottom Of The Glass. But I thought I’d kick things off by biting off a whole lot more than I could possibly chew. So here goes. As this first decade of the 21st century prepares to come to a close, let me deliver the news that the BEST CD of our nearly-done decade is You’ve Got A Light by The Sheds.

No doubt, there are several problems with this proclamation. First, you’ve most likely never heard of the Sheds. Second, the CD was never released, at least not in any tangible way. You could download the songs off of the Internet. Third, the Sheds were an unsigned band, as far as I can tell, and have now forfeited even the rights to the website address where you could download their music, most likely because my detective work tells me that they are no longer together. So what I’m claiming has risen above the Coldplays and Kanyes, the Nellys and the Nickelbacks, is an amateurishly-produced set of recordings by a flash-in-the-pan duo who never earned a dime from it.

To complicate matters even more, I don’t own the CD in question. Oh, I used to have it on a previous Ipod, owned all three the Sheds’ CDs as a matter of fact, but when that Ipod flatlined, I thought ‘No worries, I’ll just download them again” and never got around to it until it was too late. Now they’re gone, though you can hear some of the band’s stuff on their MySpace page. Already, though, they are something of an archeological memory I’m trying to piece together.

So be it.

For a CD to earn this kind of high praise from me, it has to have either reinforced or changed the way I think about music. This one did both. There’s not much to the Shed’s music: acoustic and electric guitars, sometimes bass, drums, and cheap synthesizers. But the best music shows us that we didn’t need more than we got. Though stripped-down, the songs sound polished and complete. To add to the homegrown feel, the songs call on friends from the Cincinnati area to help out on the songs. In fact, the songs often name-check those friends. In fact, “Reflection of the Sun” even builds the participation of those friends into the lyrics of the song:

“Hey, look, here come the Seedy Seeds!
Would youse agree that people need sunlight?”


And then the Seedy Seeds, Uncle Smokin’ Joe, and Matthew Shelton all sing the lyrics written for them.

In my mind’s perfect world, You’ve Got A Light spawned three hit singles. “Reflection Of The Sun,” one of the catchiest sing-a-longs in whoknowswhen, busted onto the charts out of nowhere. Like a clever YouTube video, incredible word of mouth fueled its rise. The band wisely followed up with the toned-down, acoustic “All The Right Things,” another positive song, this time about how things will work out . But it was the release of the third single, “Mtn Cat,” that guaranteed You’ve Got A Light a long run on the charts. A kind of slacker anthem about a bunch of musicians about to get together to jam in a trailer, its call-and-response chorus is a hymn of affirmation and friendship (and good rockin'):

“What we gonna when the boys get here?
When the boys come, we will all rock the trailer.
What we gonna do if the boys don’t rock?
The boys will rock, yes, the boys will rock.
Kind bud, can I have another beer?
There’s a cooler in the front and a cooler in the rear.
Might I sample of your fine mashed potatoes?
Better have some now, there ain’t no later on.”


Seems like silly lyrics, I know. But there is no music from the last decade that has made me feel better about living than the Sheds’. It’s simple. It’s real. It stays with you. That, I promise.The Sheds reflect the changes that have taken place in music. Tangible CDs don’t matter as much. Music companies don’t matter as much. They also remind us how, with the explosion of outlets of information, in the 21st century, it is paradoxically easier for a band to get heard and harder to achieve success.

Who even knows how many Sheds are out there? This was not the greatest decade for popular music, with many major artists either losing their inspiration or spinning their wheels not quite sure how to proceed or putting out enjoyable, but minor, works. It may be time once again for the hometown, homemade music scenes to assert themselves and take us all to some new musical places. Long live the Sheds!


VISIONARY RUNNERS-UP:

Radiohead’s In Rainbows. Though at first this seemed like the weirdest release by a weird band, the more you listen to it, the more you connect with, and the band’s you-set-the price download scheme forced everyone to rethink the marketing and sale of music, paving the way for Paul Westerberg’s 49:00 and beyond.

Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising. Though its appeal is, by now, time-specific, there was a period of years when this felt to me like the only proper response to 9/11, focusing as it did largely on the human tragedy rather than the politics.

Ryan Adams and The Cardinals’ Cold Roses. The most complete top-to-bottom CD release by a “major” artist this decade, Cold Roses is the mature vision of a songwriter at his peak, finally with the band that allows him to provide the proper musical settings for the songs. Sure, it channels the ghosts of Gram Parsons and the Grateful Dead, but why is that a bad thing?

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s eponymous CD. This one first revealed the powerful influence that the Internet could have on music sales and started a revolution of self-promoting bands and bloggers.

These songs by the Sheds are available here and, most likely, nowhere else..

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Dirty Dogs Bark First

My Song - Brandi Carlisle (mp3)
Working in a Coal Mine - Lee Dorsey (mp3)

New leaders should be wary of those most eager to catch their eye or bend their ear.


I wrote this on a scrap piece of paper, in a left-handed scrawl, and bent to slip it under the door of our recently-hired pastor's office. But I didn't do it. It felt too sneaky and snaky, too cowardly. But that's the rub, no? If you go in person and offer this kind of advice to a new leader, aren't you precisely the kind of person about whom said leader should be suspicious? Perhaps that is fine. Perhaps that proves your point. But perhaps the new leader chooses to eye you and only you suspiciously, leaving himself or herself all the more vulnerable to the real Slytherins.

Surely you've witnessed this yourself, either in your workplace or in some other organization or group to which you belong? New leaders, clueless to the details and specifics of their new environments, must rely on the information and experience of those around them, to ease them into the culture and expectations of a place, to acclimate them to their new environment and show them the ropes. And who are the very first people most eager to serve such a role? People with agendas. People hoping to move up that glorious corporate (or social) totem pole of power and influence.

Perhaps studies have been done. Perhaps there's a specific percentage. I don't know. But some very large fraction of those most eager and excited to grab audience with a new leader are in it because they're Lookin' Out for Numero Uno, like a legion of Grima Wormtongues hissing into the ear of King Theoden.


It happens in churches, in schools, and definitely in companies. It happens anywhere power is bestowed upon those unfamiliar with a group or a community and their environment. And in those transitional moments, those who have been marginalized -- often for good reason -- begin slinking back into the light from the corners and crevices where they'd been hiding and biding their time, anxiously waiting for regime change, for a new opportunity to squeeze into higher realms, to regain a foothold of influence.

To be sure, some who seek audience and attention from a new leader have unselfish motives. But if I had any single advice for a new leader, it would be this: the faster someone is at your door, the more suspect their motives.

The last time such a transition happened at my workplace, I was so far down on the pecking order that it didn't matter. But it was still interesting to see various people jockeying for position, nipping at one another for pecking order rights. The next time a change at the top occurs, presuming I'm still around, I'm going to be caught up in this game. I might not actively participate. I might not be one of the first squeaky wheels to enter the new boss' doorway. But not doing it is still a way of playing the game by a different strategy. As Rush so wisely puts it, "If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice."


What little I've seen of life at the top o' the heap offers little to envy. It seems lonely. Even those with whom you are closest and most intimate in the work place are ultimately answerable to you. Which has to eventually create some friction, some awkwardness. But when you're at the top, you hardly have time to make friends outside of work, to have a life outside of work, because that level of responsibility requires grotesque amounts of your time.

By happenstance, I became something of a trusted friend and confidante to my former pastor. We would go out for beer once a month or so, and we would talk about anything and everything, but often it was his chance to safely express frustrations with our church. The people who drove him craziest. The rules or expectations that bothered him. The theological discussions that, had certain parishioners heard him, would have sent him packing in a New York minute.

In a perfect world, a leader has someone they can trust without having to worry about power plays or greed. In a perfect world, a leader finds people whose focus is on the greater good and not on himself or herself. And, in reality, most good leaders find these people. Most good leaders can sniff out the snakes and weasels, at least more often than not. In fact, most good leaders know that snakes and weasels both can serve very important functions inside a thriving and healthy backyard setting so long as they're kept in check and in their proper places.

But in those first few months and years, when a new leader is going through the ropes, it's tough to watch the snakes and weasels come back out to play, because you never know who will move up, only that a change of power at top inevitably creates ripples down the line.

"My Song" is off Brandi Carlisle's second album, The Story. She has a new one, Give Up the Ghost, that just came out if you're interested. This is my second posted version of "Working in a Coalmine," but this one's the original '60s hit.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Funeral

Elton John--"Funeral For A Friend/ Love Lies Bleeding" (mp3)

I stood at a funeral, out in the bright sun of a Saturday afternoon, staring down at the cap of an acorn. We were high on a hill. Occasional leaves fell around us. The pastor spoke of the celebration of life, the connection with Jesus Christ that could never be broken, the deceased's confidence in this fact. With the angle of the sun, half of the cap was shadowed. An ant circled around the acorn cap, somewhat erratically, but still taking the same general path. I watched the ant for a long time. I wondered if it would ever try to climb inside the acorn cap.

Later, by my other foot, many more ants, not from an anthill that I could see, but still a community, out on a Saturday afternoon milling about, doing small labors, crossing over twigs and under leaves, carried out their own small play.

Something had brought them there. Death perhaps? Something that had landed there, dropped, used up, beginning its return to the earth?

I had known the woman. I had loved the woman. But the day, the sky, my own desires, even the slow journey of a leaf downward had overwhelmed me, and all I had to offer to the proceedings was the extended contemplation of those ants. They were not Hemingway's ants from A Farewell To Arms, clustered on a log and then tossed into a burning fire, meant to represent all of humanity tossed into the fire by an indifferent or malevolent god. They were just ants. But they were ants indifferent to the proceedings and unconcerned by the giant foot in their midst.

There are a thousand reasons to avoid a funeral and only one reason to go.

That single reason is duty. Obligation, if you will. To the deceased, to the family, to community, to one's job and the obligations that go with it. To friendship, to appearances, to peer pressure, to tradition, to your own history, to closure. But, oh, the avoidance of that duty is so easy. Who is going to call you on it? Who is going to challenge your priorities? With this latest funeral, one friend stood in my office and I could watch his mind cycle through the many reasons why he had already decided he wasn't going to go. But it was the fourth one that stuck: "I've been to too many funerals lately." Who can argue with that? So, yes, it is a difficult duty to fulfill.

What about love? Love makes you cry for your loss, makes you want to embrace the members of the family, yours or theirs, makes you miserable for the tragedy if the death was tragic, makes you wake at night with the sudden recognition that someone who mattered so much to you is gone. Love does not send you to a funeral.

My father, an 83-year-old man, admitted to me the other day that he had never been to a funeral. That would be something you would have to work at. He is excepting, of course, the funerals of his own parents. I missed my grandfather's funeral, I don't remember why, but I was at his mother's funeral--just him, me, and my Springer Spaniel waiting out in the car for the long drive back. We stood in a small room of the funeral home, just the two of us, and he said to me, "Well, I promised her I would do this, so here goes." He began to whistle the French National Anthem perfectly, all the way through an entire verse. Then we stood there silently for several moments. Then we left.

My wife, by contrast, comes from a very small town, a town, as I like to tease her, where people die more frequently than they do anywhere else. I base this on the fact that every time she calls her mother and I am in hearing distance, the conversation shifts to who has died since the last time they talked. As she reminds me, in a small town, it isn't that people die more often, it's just that you know everyone who dies. And what her father taught her is that the least you can do is to go to someone's funeral.

And so we go and stand and mourn and chat and fear and wish and wander. What else can we do? As Hamlet once said, in a different context, "Why, anything, but to th'purpose."

Perhaps this not-so-cheery post will be enlivened for you by, arguably, the greatest recorded moments of Elton John's career, available at amazon.com.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Onetwothree RED LIGHT!

Traffic Light - The Ting Tings (mp3)
Green Light - Bullet + SnowFox (mp3)

Does your town have Gotcha Cameras? You know, vans set up on the side of the road without human occupants, snapping shots of all cars traveling faster than the speed limit? Machines attached to red light intersections, snapping shots of every single time the lights turn red, fines attributed to any and all cars guilty of not quite getting all the way through in time? Johnny Law as Skynet.

Interesting article in the local paper a week or so ago about this. Apparently Tennessee is looking to follow Georgia and rein in these machines. They're a little bit too heartless for my tastes. I'm reminded of the funny scenes from Sandra Bullock's big film debut, Demolition Man, when this machine on the wall would fine someone for violating "verbal morality laws."

Did you know those traffic systems cost a boatload of money? Did you know they justify their cost by paying for themselves? That is, their entire existence is not based on safety, but on the economic notion that the system will not only cover the expense of owning/installing it, but also provide the police department in question with an additional stream of revenue.

A few lawmakers in Georgia -- probably after getting fined by one of these machines -- got together and required that all traffic lights equipped with cameras add one extra second to all yellow lights. And guess what? You give people a little more cautionary time and VOILA! the number of violators goes way down! Amazing. Having seen this law's impact, Tennessee is apparently considering the same law... and those who see this as a nice source of income are adamantly opposed.

Now, I don't personally know Chattanooga city traffic engineer John VanWinkle, nor can I be certain of his interests or motives, but I can say this. The following quotes are a bunch of horse shit:

Mandating an extra second of yellow time would create a lot more seemingly endless caution times for motorists, said Mr. Van Winkle, who is expected to testify at this week’s hearing.

Drivers “would think ... ‘This stays yellow a long time. I know I can beat it.’ So they’re more inclined to speed up to try to beat the signal,” he said.

While some cities in Georgia have reported dramatic declines in red-light citations since the new law took effect, Mr. Van Winkle said the real issue is what is happening with serious collisions.

Now I don't know about you, but if I had to take my pick of which option angers the ever-lovin' hell out of me, and which option just annoys me... I think I'd go with the annoying extra second of yellow lights rather than the pull-my-hair-out $60 fine mailed to my *@%$ house with a picture of my bumper barely nudged into the intersection.

VanWinkle might be sincere, or he might be protecting a very cushy source of income. Either way, his above explanation is full of crap. [NOTE: Mr. VanWinkle, if you're reading this, I drive a black 2004 Hummer, and my scooter is a green Vespa!]

No one should question the power of a "radar van" or "gotcha traffic cam" to alter human behavior. I've set foot in Red Bank (a local suburb) maybe three times since they installed these traffic cams, and then only due to absolute necessity. Ain't no way I'm sending my car (or scooter) under these cameras unless I have no choice. I have not yet received a speeding violation or a red light violation due to these devices, but businesses in Red Bank have definitely lost my business. Has my behavior been altered? Hell yeah. Mission accomplished, I guess, but careful what you wish for.

Same is true of restaurants in downtown areas where they increased the costs at meters and mechanized them to make it easier for meter readers to check them. Believe it or not, there are other Starbucks and other restaurants where I can park for free! No meters or anything! What a deal!

But back to my point.

The act of recording what happens at traffic intersections isn't unequivocally evil. Rather, it's the money. It's what the money does to people and institutions. In theory, even Communism was supposed to be egalitarian, but apparently the smell of money is too irresistible, too corruptible. So while I'm more trusting and supportive of police than many liberals, I know that even police officers and police departments can't ignore greenbacks forever.

Those cameras are more about generating revenue than protecting civilians. Period. I think the PD justifies it by thinking of all the ways they could better protect their citizens with a bigger budget. Unfortunately -- and you'd think cops would know this -- the ends are rarely allowed to justify the means in our system of justice.

Both bands above sound remarkably similar. One has been quite successful; the other sent us three songs for free for us to review, and we're happily posting one here. You be the judge!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Words

Neil Young--"Words" (mp3)

I was driving back to school after picking up some doughnuts for my advisee group the other morning, when I started looking through Ipod songs for one to kick off the shuffle back to campus. In the "R"s, there were the Doors waiting with "Roadhouse Blues." Seemed like a good choice. Hadn't heard it in a long time. So off we went. Good driving song, harmonica, basic blues pattern, distinctive guitar licks, Jim Morrison, the whole package. And then late in the song, the lyrics distilled into this:

"Well, I woke up this morning and I got myself a beer.
Well, I woke up this morning and I got myself a beer.
The future's uncertain, and the end is always near."

Yeah, I thought. Now we're at the crux of the matter. It's not just fun and games anymore. Now we're back in the mead hall with Hrothgar and his men, knowing that Grendel could bust in anytime he wanted to. By title, by subject matter, "Roadhouse Blues" seems like a girls-n-partying kind of song if you don't pay attention, but there's always at least a little more to a Doors song.

I think it was Eddie Murphy who used to do a schtick about how white people listen to lyrics and black people don't. He made the point in the context of why white people can't dance. They're focused on the wrong thing and missing the rhythm. But if that accusation is still out there, mark me down as 'guilty.'

I can't help but listen to the lyrics. I'm obsessed with them. I doubt that this comes as a surprise to those of you who know me or have read this blog for awhile and found me trying to squeeze deep meaning out of the nearly-dry sponge of a cheesy Jackson Browne song. I used to try to make sense of the early, impressionistic R.E.M. songs, which might not have made any sense at all. But, at least, I knew the words.

Often, I am disappointed when I know that there is a good line coming in a song and I try to get someone I'm with to listen, but people have other things to say, other things to think about (and maybe their own favorite words), and so something else will come up before we get to the line. Lyrics, I guess, are meant to be mulled over in private, to be dissected and applied privately.

But a lyric freak wants more. He wants to world to pay attention to the "poetry" that goes along with the melody and the beat. He wants the recognition that popular music can offer insights worth more than a momentary consideration, insights that are worth coming back to again and again. Often, the insights come in small snatches, couplets or turns of phrase or pithy sayings. I always think of Dylan's genius of insight in "Positively 4th Street:"

"I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes;
You'd know what a drag it is to see you."

But sometimes, somebody builds an entire song where he or she is really trying to say something, even say something amidst a mid-tempo, a variety of guitars, a good-rocking sound. Take a look at this little gem of a passage that opens Aimee Mann's very last song, "It's Not Safe," off of I'm With Stupid:

"All you want to do is something good,
So get ready to be ridiculed and misunderstood.
'Cause don't you know that you're a fucking freak in this world
In which everybody's willing to choose swine over pearls?
And maybe everything is all for nothing,
Still you'd better keep it to yourself,
'Cause God knows it's not safe with anybody else."

I can almost imagine someone cruising along with Aimee in the background, not paying attention, just kind of going, "Da da da da da da da, duh da da da da da da da da da da da da, duh da da da da da da fucking freak da da....wait, what?" Yeah, there's insight and powerful words there worth stopping for.

You know, popular music doesn't have to be an either/or, as in, either 'I like songs that make me move' or 'I like songs that make me think.' Well, I guess some of it does. But when you listen to the lyrics as a matter of habit, you not only enjoy the good ones, you get to make fun of the stupid ones. But those moments are hardly worth mentioning; all of us have been tuned in a little too carefully to some crappy words. Instead, I prefer to dwell on the opposite--those moments when the words shine, when the songwriter transcends the form and offers us true wisdom. That's the joy of listening to the lyrics.

Neil Young's "Words," from Harvest, is available at Itunes.