Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Mixin' Up A Witch's Brew of Halloween Tunes

For those of you who don't tend toward the musical or who don't have the time in a world paced in microseconds to click on a song and listen to it, thank you for indulging us for this all-music month. I fear that a certain job malaise seeped into even these posts. Please know that we are ready to return to our usual societal noodlings and attempts to vent frustrations and still not to get ourselves fired.

Still, Halloween remains.

Perhaps some of these tunes will add to your enjoyment of this weirdest of holidays, a night that my little corner of the world and the city that I live in has had the hardest of times figuring out how to schedule. Halloween on a Sunday conflicts with church, with spirituality, and so we have bounced back and forth three times now (so far) trying to figure out whether Saturday or Sunday is the proper night for children to walk around a neighborhood and collect candy.

My apologies to the great bloggers out there--I've been picking and choosing favorites from among your stuff, while mixing in some of my own, and, at this point, I'm not even sure where all of it came from. So, I acknowledge all of you and your wonderful work posting for our mutual enjoyment.

Halloween is a great time for music because you can get a little weird and you can explore your darker side and you can have a little fun. It is also a fitting end to Rocktober because all of us expect Halloween to rock, at least a little bit. Hopefully, I do a bit of that here. The Crystal Castle song may not quite fit thematically, but it certainly fits sonically and it is a great Robert Smith song.

May your demons be imaginary and not ones that actually enter your house and your psyche and leave you lying awake at night listening for their return!

Bright Eyes--"Devil Town" (mp3)

Broken Social Scene--"Romance To The Grave" (mp3)

She and Him--"I Put A Spell On You" (mp3)

Ryan Adams--"Halloweenhead" (mp3)

The Doors--"People Are Strange" (mp3)

Crystal Castles (feat. Robert Smith)--"Not In Love" (mp3)

The Pierces--"To The Grave" (mp3)

Beck--"Devil's Haircut" (mp3)

Jellyfish--"Season Of The Witch" (mp3)

Freedy Johnston--"The Mortician's Daughter" (mp3)

Fairport Convention--"Tam Lin" (mp3)

Evangelicals--"The Halloween Song" (mp3)

Gillian Welch--"The Devil Had A Hold Of Me" (mp3)

John Carpenter--"Halloween main theme" (mp3)

Spoon--"The Ghost Of You Lingers" (mp3)

A Study In Reverb

Reverberation is the persistence of sound in a particular space after the original sound is removed.[1] A reverberation, or reverb, is created when a sound is produced in an enclosed space causing a large number of echoes to build up and then slowly decay as the sound is absorbed by the walls and air.[2] This is most noticeable when the sound source stops but the reflections continue, decreasing in amplitude, until they can no longer be heard. The length of this sound decay, or reverberation time, receives special consideration in the architectural design of large chambers, which need to have specific reverberation times to achieve optimum performance for their intended activity.[3] In comparison to a distinct echo that is 50 to 100ms after the initial sound, reverberation is many thousands of echoes that arrive in very quick succession (.01 - 1 ms between echoes). As time passes, the volume of the many echoes is reduced until the echoes cannot be heard at all.

Mazzy Star--"Fade Into You" (mp3)
George Harrison--"Awaiting On You All" (mp3)

Reverb is like salt. For most aural palates, a light sprinkling of it makes music sound better. It, too, is a flavor-enhancer, one that gives both depth and complexity to any kind of music. Like salt, it is found in nature, though not always in usable form, and methods can be introduced to concentrate and enhance it. Like salt, too much of it can overwhelm everything else that is on the palate.

Reverb is like a 3-D movie, only kind of in reverse. Rather than send images racing towards your face, it recreates the sounds of a room and gives them depth.

Harmonies are richer with reverb. The quavering voice conveys even more emotion. The sinister sounds more sinister.

John Lennon, in his latter years as a Beatle, and especially during his solo career, became a reverb junkie, especially where his voice was concerned.
Sam Phillips, the ex-wife of T-Bone Burnett, once recorded a CD with no reverb on her vocals as an "innovative" technique to give the music starkness.

There are particular songs that are hard to imagine without their reverb component. Roger Daltrey's scream near the end of "We Won't Get Fooled Again" would not achieve its incredible crescendo. Every song by the Doors gets its creepy feel from reverb. "Sympathy For The Devil" would not have a rich, percussive opening without it. Patsy Cline might not have a career.

Try listening to the two songs above. Both have heavy reverb. One works, I think. One doesn't. On every song I've ever heard from Mazzy Star, Hope Sandoval's voice is drenched in reverb; I have three of their cds. It is, without a doubt, the main signature of their sound, that plus the downer, minor key nature of the vocals. But I think it works. It gives her a kind of gothy/emo vibe to a sound which, stripped of everything else, is actually kind of country in its simplicity and its chord changes. But if you listen to her a lot, or if you just listen to this most popular of their offerings, you know she's going to take a mopey, depressed attitude toward whatever she is singing about. "I think it's strange you never knew," she sings, and the music echoes that strangeness.

Harrison's song, by contrast, is a peppy, up-tempo religious number. It's a song I like, but in its live version. "Just chant in the name of the Lord and you'll be free," he sings. It's a happy song, but it sounds like it sounds like it was recorded inside a hookah (or Davenport Gym). In his arrangement, which has a lot of instruments, everything is swamped in reverb. By using the reverb effect to push all of the instruments and all of the background vocals deeper into the mix, Harrison (or his producer, if it isn't him) creates mud. Too much reverb + too many instruments creates a mess where individual performances become part of a "wall of sound," to use the Phil Spector label.

Maybe it worked with the Ronettes, when you had Ronnie Spector's powerful, immediately-recognizable voice as the basis for a song, but Harrison's voice is thin and weak, and he gets as lost in the mix as everything else.

Arguably, more than anything else, it is the use of reverb that distinguishes the rock sound. Other recordings before rock based their recordings on the sonic qualities of the room, choosing a room, or hall, or other space that would be sympathetic to the sound that a performer was trying to create. But when rock and roll dropped the "and roll," and even before, and became a bigger, richer sound, the most effective way to give everything from the snare drum to the power chords the guitarist was playing some depth was to attach a bit of reverb to it.

Not too much now, unless you really know what you are doing.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Tracks of My Sounds

Fire in the Twilight - Wang Chung (mp3)
Cry Little Sister (Theme from The Lost Boys) - Gerald McCann (mp3)

For a stretch of time in my life, soundtracks were the most important albums in my life. Often I never even knew it.

Now don’t confuse soundtracks with musical scores, which are also great. It might make my classical music-loving father-in-law cringe, but I’m just as likely to listen to James Horner or John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith or Ennio Morricone, composer of the greatest movie score ever ever ever, otherwise known as The Mission.

But what I’m talking about are soundtracks, collections of songs from a variety of artists designed to give a movie its defined musical soul, to be the movie’s ghost long after someone has left the theater. (You see, back many years ago, people had to go years, sometimes forever, without the chance to re-watch a movie on video. Listening to the soundtrack provided them a connection to the film in its absence.)

The most important soundtracks approach the task in one of three ways:
TYPE A. The Lazy No-Brainer Popularity Contest -- Make arrangements with the biggest record company. Compile some of their bigger stars. Take some B-sides that fit the flick and pay someone with a penchant for writing a catchy single to put something together for your flick. Think Footloose or Top Gun or Pretty Woman.

TYPE B. The Memory Lane -- Best done with movies glued into a specific time, you take the best collection of songs from that era you can afford and cram ‘em into a sort of retrospective. Think The Wedding Singer or Forrest Gump.

TYPE C. The Trailblazer -- Prove your movie is cool by taking musical risks. Collect bands and acts from the indie music fringes, few if any who have signed big contracts or even hit Gold in sales. Your movie is popular and sales for a few of your artists start shooting through the roof, and you’re a hero to musicians and a Creator of Cool. Think any John Hughes movie.
Rarely did I enjoy Type A after I reached my tween years. Sure, Heavy Metal was and still is heavily worshipped, a double album of crunchy raucous goodness, but at some point my desire to be cool meant rejecting candy from strangers, and that’s what those first types seemed like: desperate attempts to make us like them.

Older folks love Type B. In fact, you know you’re at a movie where the target audience is the 30+ crowd when you’re listening to hits from the mid-70s or the early 80s or the freewheelin’ 60s. They’re simultaneously trying to set the scene while stirring every last desperate reminiscent memory about the good ol’ days to help sell tickets.

The soundtracks that meant the most to me and my friends, however, were Type C. They were safe ways to dip a toe into new musical waters. We could sample a variety of artists in a genre without having to sink into an entire album. Some of the great soundtracks of my youth that had tremendous influence, for better or worse, on my musical tastes:
  • The Breakfast Club -- It’s easy to overlook now, but Simple Minds wasn’t exactly a guaranteed pop chart-topping success. The album is full of decent if not superb 80s alterno-syntho-pop and includes arguably Wang Chung’s best song. (Which, yeah, is debatably not saying much.)
  • The Golden Child -- No, seriously, this was one of my first exposures to anything along the lines of funk or soul or R&B or whatever. Unless you count Hall & Oates. But it also had an Ann Wilson song and a Ratt song on there, and the B-side was the musical score, so it was a wild mash-up of sounds.
  • Valley Girl -- A friend of mine made a tape of this when the movie was making its heavy rotations through HBO. Either the original version included “I Melt With You” or it got added by this girl.
  • The Lost Boys -- This album forced me to reconsider INXS, which I’m sure many readers will think insults me or insults this soundtrack. The Echo & the Bunnymen cover of “People Are Strange” forced me to reconsider The Doors long enough to remember why I never liked them. And the song “Cry Little Sister” was haunting enough to keep you awake at night yet also keep you moving the needle back so you could get chilled by it one more time.
  • She’s Having a Baby -- The Kate Bush song is worth the price. But Bryan Ferry’s awesome cover, Love & Rockets’ “Haunted When the Minutes Drag,” and an assortment of other fringy alternatives pulling in some strong pop moments makes this a personal favorite.
  • Say Anything -- Cameron Crowe was the kind of genius who managed to make soundtracks that went a little in all three directions. Maybe a classic song or two, or at least an older tried-and-true artist. Lots of music from the edge. And he has occasionally thrown a clear hit into the mix. While Fast Times... and Singles bookend this movie and are equally amazing at capturing the zeitgeist, but this one has the Replacements, the Chili Peppers, Cheap Trick, wife/hottie Nancy Wilson and Peter Gabriel, which is in bowling terminology, right in my pocket.
I’m a little too removed from those youthful years to say for sure that art of the Type C soundtrack has diminished. Maybe it’s actually gotten better with the slow death of radio. Although I haven’t seen the Twilight movies, I was definitely encouraged that the second and third soundtracks went a little further off the mainstream line. They didn't have to. Good for them.

We need ways to expose ourselves, sometimes accidentally, to music we might not otherwise consider. For a stretch of time, soundtracks was hands-down the best method. Now? I guess it's music blogs.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Concert

Neil Young--"Thrasher (live)" (mp3)


A full arena. The lights go down. Everyone cheering, expecting the performers to walk onstage. Instead, taped music begins. First, Jimi Hendrix's version of "The Star Spangled Banner." Then the cheering gets even louder. Then the Beatles' "A Day In The Life."

The expectations are unbelievable. Whatever follows had better be pretty fucking good.

The stage set consists of giant amplifiers with covers over them and a giant microphone at the front of the stage. Slowly, the cover lifts off of the amplifier on the left; underneath it, the performer stands up, dressed in white, holding an acoustic guitar with a harmonica holder around his neck.

He begins to play "Sugar Mountain," a song his fans know only from bootlegs and from a muddy version from a retrospective album. The acoustic guitar and the vocal are superbly miked and command the entire large arena. He follows it with "I Am A Child," a Buffalo Springfield classic. The acoustic set continues with "Already One," a song from the album he has just released. The other songs no one in the audience has likely ever heard before, and they are stunning. The first, "Thrashers," which builds on the metaphor of human life being like a stalk of wheat waiting to be chopped down by a machine. The second he introduces by saying, "When I get old, I'm gonna get an electric guitar." And with "My, My, Hey, Hey," he begins one of the most distinctive riffs and messages in the history of rock and roll.

The performer, of course, is Neil Young. He is in the midst of pulling off the greatest concert I have ever seen.

We have all seen good concerts, I hope. Maybe exceptional ones. I saw the Who on their final tour with Keith Moon. I saw Led Zeppelin in a baseball stadium in Pittsburgh when they were touring behind Houses of the Holy. I saw Yes, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, Bowie put on shows with elaborate sets and light shows. I had my rock and roll spirit reawakened on Springsteen's Darkness tour twice.

But Neil Young's Rust Never Sleeps tour stands as the pinnacle in my mind. We can never really fathom how much Neil Young plans, since so much of his music is based on first takes, so many records and cds cobble together songs from different times and places, so we can’t know if he envisioned this particular tour as the most ambitious of his career, but I’d like to think so. Here’s why I think it set the standards for an ultimate concert experience:

1. The right blend of new and old material. And, I would add, the right blend of acoustic and electric. While it may not be the easiest thing to make a list of Young’s “greatest hits,” it is fair to say that he did not play them in 1978. Except for “After The Goldrush.” Instead, he played fan favorites—“When You Dance, I Can Really Love,” “The Loner,” “The Needle and the Damage Done,” “Tonight’s The Night”—as well as fairly recent guitar workouts like “Cortez The Killer” and “Like A Hurricane” that would become concert standards in the years to come. Add to that the “wow” factor of the new material—“Welfare Mothers,” “Sedan Delivery,” and especially the beautiful story song “Powderfinger” (which Skynyrd was to have recorded but for the plane crash), as well as the aforementioned “Thrashers” and “My, My, Hey, Hey”--and we knew that whatever came next was likely to be magical.

2. An assault on the senses. Something always going on. In addition to the aspects of the set mentioned about, the show included taped Woodstock announcements between some of the songs, roadies dressed as Star Wars characters, a giant fan for “Like A Hurricane,” crazy figures who came out and interacted with the band. It all played out like a hallunincatory dream, part personal history, part American history.

3. Surprise. When Young embarked on the Rust Never Sleeps tour, he had just released Comes A Time, a slickly-produced (for him) countryish album of mostly-acoustic songs, so an average concertgoer like me had no reason to suspect that he was going to unleash the second version of Crazy Horse at the peak of their powers. The concert did include two songs from Comes A Time—“Already One” and “Lotta Love” (which was a Top 40 hit for Nicolette Larson). So the sheer force of the rock, the surprise of a second acoustic set, and finally, the final encore featuring the sonic assault of an electric version of “Hey, Hey, My, My” left the crowd in a delighted stupor, not quite sure what had just hit them.

4. Kick-ass performances. The death of original Crazy Horse rhythm guitarist Danny Whitten left a void that Frank Sampedro began to fill around 1974, and while he wasn’t as inventive as Whitten, Sampedro’s guitar (and occasional keyboard) helped create the wall of fuzzed-out noise that earned Young the eventual title “The Godfather of Grunge.” For the fan of great riffs, lead guitar, distortion, acoustic playing, tight drumming, thunderous bass, Crazy Horse circa 1978 was one of rock’s peaks.

Young must have known it was a great tour. Not only did he release it as a film, but he also tried to go back to that well time and again with muted success—the Rusted-Out Garage tour had similar ambition, but weaker material; several tours, including the Greendale tour and Everybody’s Rockin’, tried to spring surprises on the audience, but surprises that were too much or too unpleasant.

If you were lucky enough to have seen this show way back when, then you are probably nodding your head. If you weren’t, then I hope you have had or will have a similar experience.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Why I Hate The Rolling Stones

The Rolling Stones--"The Last Time" (mp3)
The Rolling Stones--"It's All Over Now" (mp3)

It was not always so.

Back in the late 60's and early 70's, I had two Rolling Stones albums that got as much turntable play as anything else I owned--Big Hits (High Tides and Green Grass) and Through the Past Darkly (Big Hits, Vol. 2). Songs like "Heart of Stone," "The Last Time," "As Tears Go By," "Paint It Black," "Ruby Tuesday," "She's A Rainbow," and "Dandelion" were favorites that I'd play over and over, stacked album side after stacked album side on my record player. The songs from those two records comprised much of the soundtrack of my early teens.

What I didn't realize until I was researching this column is that these songs are hits from the Brian Jones era Stones; by the time Through the Past Darkly came out, Jones was both out of the band and dead.

For most people, I realize, the pinnacle of the Stones as a band came after this--Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main Street all the way up to Some Girls, but by that time I was already pretty much done with them. In 1974, we all had tickets to see the Stones in Cleveland, but I ended up selling mine, with the vague excuse that I had to work (which was true, but not essential--I was being paid $2.00/hr by the Mt. Lebanon Parks and Recreation Dept. to schedule and oversee tennis courts that cost $.50/hr to rent, but all of them but one was closed due to construction!). I have never been sorry that I didn't see that show, great as my friends said that it was.

What happened? What happened to me? I've never really tried to figure that out until now. I just knew that I had a vague dislike for what the Stones had become, and that feeling has grown from distaste to loathing over the years. I hung with them until about 1972, and then I was finished with them, but for a smatterin of great songs on Exile.

I suppose, in the simplest terms, the, Rolling Stones, especially Mick and Keith, became more celebrities than legitimate musicians to me by the mid-70's. The Stones seemed like they were more of an event, a brand with a logo, and those two guys more like larger than life figures than members of a hard-working band. I suppose it's why I never liked U2 much; they believed their own mythology and became bigger than their music.

Why didn't my disdain spread to other megabands like the Who or Led Zeppelin or Bowie? With the Who, it was obvious: Pete Townshend continued to write songs that helped him to work through his childhood and England and the meaning of rock. Like Neil Young or, even more so, Bruce Springsteen, the songs of the Who always had their contexts built in. With Quadrophenia, whether it was true or not, I always felt like I was glimpsing Townshend's own teenage angst, difficulties fitting in, romantic failures. The Who rocked, but they were confessional, too.

And Zeppelin? Much as they were (rightly) accused of stealing other people's blues riffs, I never doubted that they were bluesmen, that everything originated there. And, I never lost interest in whatever Jimmy Page had to play.

Bowie never pretended to be anything but a chameleon.

The Stones, though, were never more than dabblers. Satanic for awhile when it was cool. Yeah, they went bluesy on Exile, but wasn't it just a pose? It certainly didn't carry over. Maybe go a little reggae a record or two later? Maybe embrace a disco beat when that is hot? Occasionally country for shits and giggles. While some bands can successfully intergrate the latest trends into their sounds, with the Stones, it always sounded to me like a purely commercial endeavor. What sheen could they put on their sound so it would sell?

Sensing the change in rock in the late 70's, Townshend confronted the Sex Pistols, both in person and in song; Neil Young also did so in song and recorded with Devo. Where was Mick at that time? Studio 54.

Because rock and roll is all about the lie. That's right. It's just a lie, but it's a lie that we want desperately to believe. The men and/or women up on the stage, like any performers, must convince us that they are indeed what they seem--troubadors, revolutionaries, chroniclers of our times, lovers, visionaries. We want to believe that the people in those songs are people they know, that they care about, maybe even them. And if the listener/audience member doesn't buy the lie, the whole house of cards that is a band's persona collapses.

With the Rolling Stones, I never had any trouble seeing through the facade. From Keith's pathetic "acting" in Gimme Shelter to Mick's spraying down the audience with a firehose in concert, the Stones became the epitome of Queen's implied mantra: You will not rock us; We will rock you. To me, the lyrics "But what can a poor boy do, except to sing for a rock and roll band" are among the most laughable I've ever heard. Great a song as "It's Only Rock 'N' Roll" might potentially be, I don't buy it for a second. There's nothing about the Mick persona that suggest that he has ever been the guy with the broken heart, or even that he would be "waitin' on a friend." Sorry, boys, but the public personas can't play the material convincingly.

Finally, you'll notice, I haven't said a word about anything past the late '70's. That's because there isn't anything to say. Their sporadic output of new material over the last 32 years is, to be kind, forgettable, to be direct, embarassing. The Rolling Stones are the worst example of a band that didn't know when to hang it up, and so they have become the Beach Boys of hard rock, dusting off the show every few years for an international money grab from the kinds of people who still believe that Mick Jagger and Keith Richards never got any satisfaction.

I know that most of you will not agree with me. That's fine. But I'll bet you have your own versions of the rock and roll lie that you refuse to believe. This is just mine.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

I Pity Da Foo

DOA - Foo Fighters (mp3)
Missing You Now - Foo Fighters (mp3)

I’m about to commit the kind of music blogger error deserving of musical seppuku.

Foo Fighters is, pound for pound, a better band than Nirvana.

They’re musically, instrumentally better. Grohl has a stronger sense of hook. His bite and jab are slightly less impressive than Mr. Cobain’s, and at his best Cobain was a better songwriter. The problem was, Kurt wasn’t at his best very often. Or for very long.

When people dare to make the idiotic statement that Cobain is some modern incarnation of John Lennon, they make an absolutely and unabashedly ludicrous claim. Lennon wrote more amazing songs in two years than Cobain wrote songs period. Good bad or ugly. It’s like equalling Harper Lee with Shakespeare or Arrested Development with M.A.S.H.

Foo have doubled up Nirvana’s curriculum vitae and are still going fairly strong. And yes, longevity and productivity have to be factored into comparisons between bands at this level. They are important, and Nirvana has neither.

Bleach really isn’t very palatable. Their final two are masterpieces or damn close.

Foo Fighters have at least three albums that, while not masterpieces, are superb albums. (For those who insist on specificity, it’s The Colour & the Shape, There is Nothing Left to Lose, and In Your Honor. Their first album is mighty fine as well, but just a smidge below these three.) Their weakest album, One by One, is vastly more accessible and more listenable than Bleach.

Some say Foo is a very gifted two-trick pony. Perhaps. Frankly, I don't enjoy when Foo Fighters slow down into ballad/quiet mode that much, so I'm only fanatic about one of their two specialties, yet I still categorize them as some of the best rockers of the last 15 years. Their two-album near-masterpiece In Your Honor very intentionally splits their personality in two, and I've bathed in the sonic assault of their first disc a dozen times for every one time I enjoy their quieter Disc Two. Which is still plenty incredible.

Unfortunately and admittedly, my opinion of Nirvana is clouded by a very unusual glitch in my musical matrix. In almost all cases I can manage to separate my opinion of an artist from his or her art. Exactly what it is about Kurt Cobain that makes me seethe, that makes me detest him unreasonably, is a little uncertain. But let’s give it a shot.

Ever seen Trainspotting? Remember that scene where the couple are so nonstop strung out on heroin that their baby starves to death in its crib? Fair or not, that couple seems inspired by Courtney and Kurt. Heroin is not, as best I can tell, remotely like alcohol. I don’t know many people fighting the variety of mental issues Kurt apparently had who can casually limit their heroin use to "only after the children have been tucked in for the night." Kurt’s cocktail of issues couldn’t have made him a very good father.

Bob Dylan wasn’t a good father, but I don’t seem to seethe with him. A bajillion musicians have or had intense drug addictions and mental issues either before or because of their habits, and I seem to give most of them a pass. But the combination of the two, and the degree to which Cobain is worshipped as if he were Jesu Christo Part Deux, are all just too much for me. (OK fine, Courtney Love makes a spot-on modern version of Mary Magdalene, but we ain’t living in “The DaVinci Code.)

The mythology of a strung-out loser who had some legitimate musical flair and potential has so far outpaced the level of adulation he deserves that I stubbornly, perhaps unfairly, hold a grudge against his band. Meanwhile, Foo Fighters just have fun. Even when they’re pissed off and bitter and miserable in their music -- and dammit, they're exceptionally gifted at being pissed off and bitter -- they manage to carry themselves like they know they’re living a pretty awesome life doing something they are fortunate in doing.

One band is angry about life; the other was angry because life wasn't much worth getting through.

The first one is the better band.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Breaking Down Bob (Birmingham, 10/13/2010)

Bob Dylan--"Ain't Talkin' (Bootleg Series version)" (mp3)

It's been common knowledge for decades that attending a Dylan concert is a crapshoot--potentially obscure songs, mumbled staccato lyrics, inconsistent musicianship, obtuse arrangements. I had the pleasure of seeing Mr. Dylan last Wednesday night, even though all of those things might have been, at least somewhat, true.

I've been thinking about the concert for several days now, expecting that mulling over the "what" will lead me to the "why." But I'm not sure that it has.

The current show is tight, with 15-16 songs, fourteen of them coming during the set and another couple as encores. All told, it clocks in at about 1 hour and 50 minutes.

HIGHLIGHTS: With 9 of the 16 songs coming from albums released before 1975, the song list has enough favorites to keep the mostly-older crowd engaged. Favorites include "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," "Stuck Inside of Mobile," "Simple Twist Of Fate," "Just Like A Woman," "Tangled Up In Blue," "Highway 61 Revisited." On "Simple Twist Of Fate," Dylan finds a guitar signature that almost seems like it's always been hidden in the song and that now brought to the forefront makes the song shine. "Workingman's Blues" is another beautiful standout. Dylan himself takes organ solos, many of the guitar solos, to the delight of the crowd, and his harmonica solos are handled with great panache. The band is pretty tight. The setlist builds to a climax with "Ballad of a Thin Man," and the evening concludes with a sing-along second encore of "Like A Rolling Stone."

LOWLIGHTS: Everything Dylan does is in short bursts, whether he's dashing off lyrics, playing the guitar, or even blowing the beloved mouth harp. All of it is idiosyncratic rather than particularly good. He does not speak to the crowd (expected), and the band does not interact with each other, except for the occasional slightest of nods to or from Dylan to start a solo. No member of the band plays anything that is distinctive or exceptional or geared to the audience, though the drummer is highly-skilled. The stage set is equally impersonal, the band in various shades of gray, Dylan in a black suit with a wide brimmed hat. Occasional visuals from a camera over the stage or random graphics add neither coherence nor invitation. Always, the audience is on the outside, looking in. Even on a sing-along song, no one onstage is singing along, except for Dylan, who is doing his best to confound the expected rhythm of the singings. Finally, this is a rockin' show, but most of the rockin' numbers sound remarkably similar to one another, couched as they all are in a kind of rock-swing context.

People say it is hard to look away from a train wreck. Dylan is hard to look away from, but he is not a trainwreck. But what is he in 2010? Cultural icon? Masterful performer? Just a 69-year-old man? Was he so freaked out by the expectation that he be the spokesman for a generation that now he must invent little games to subvert the power of the music? Is he the ironic, over-the-hill showman playing off of his own irrelevance? Is he wrapped in so many layers of irony that whatever truth may still be at the center is either undiscernible or insignificant? Is he just a man working a carny?

There are many challenges to being Bob Dylan that I cannot understand, but there is one that intrigues me most: how do you represent 50 years of songwriting in a 2-hour, or even 3-hour, concert? Do you cherrypick to try to show all of your selves? Do you play just your new music? Do you leave entire decades untouched? Dylan opted for the latter option, working in the realms of the very old and the relatively new. That seemed to work, at least in theory, with the chance to bring new life to old chestnuts and continued energy and exploration to the newer songs.

But I play just enough music to know that if you're going to deconstruct a song, you do it for a reason, and always for the same reason--to reveal something new about it. In Dylanworld, I can't figure out what that reason is, perhaps with the exception of "Simple Twist Of Fate." The poet Anne Bradstreet once compared her poems to children. If the metaphor is accurate, Dylan's brood is being treated with ambivalence, shown off for company when he feels like it, but never allowed to have as much of the spotlight as their father.

Dylan's show, and I mean this as a comment, not a criticism, is all about seeing Dylan, knowing full well that his songs and his treatment of them will be secondary. You go to see his quirks and oddities, his jerks and gestures, his grand flourishes for a ho-hum harmonica solo. As my friend Troutking suggests, you go to bask in the "Bobness" of it all. I think he's right. Few would dare to try to get inside the mind of Dylan, but here's my shot at his 2010 self: if he can keep himself mysterious, he can keep it all interesting. That seems to be pretty "natural" for him.

Photo courtesy of Troutking.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Fiddle Me This!

Chopsticken - Barrage (mp3)

Life ain’t nothin’ but a funny funny riddle.

This week, my fine wife and I took our children to a special performance at another private school in town. The school played host to the musical “fiddle-fest” known as Barrage.

You take some Stomp!, you add a little Riverdance, and you center it around some kick-ass violin-playing, preferably by disarmingly charming young adults who can sway some mean hips, and you’ve got a totally entertaining spectacle that dares to suggest that fiddle-playing is neither stiff nor nerdy.

Granted, what cannot be removed from any musical spectacle where the description includes “Riverdance” is what we like to call Velveeta, as in highly-processed cheese product. The cheese factor with Barrage is high, and if you don’t like cheese on your musical burger, then you were bound to be a little put off by their schtick.

But children love cheese. Teenagers, in the right setting and mood, love cheese. And adults who don’t cotton to Beethoven or Puccini can handle a little cheese if it lets them enjoy some fiddlin’.

Barrage was born in 1995 and has gone through several member changes, much like Menudo or other groups where the performance is more central than the performers. (I just like writing the word “Menudo.”) Without doubt, energy, sensuality, and flair are all essential concepts to their performance.

The act centered around four hip and happenin’ violinists, two of each gender, all of them phenomenally talented at pickin’ the fiddle and playin’ it hot. The two guys were each charming in their own ways. Justin from Arizona had this kind of Justin Timberlakey feel to him, curly hair and big smiles and imminently comfortable with himself on stage. Mark was the bigger and slightly clunkier stage presence (probably because he was the newest member of the troupe) who could play bagpipe! Both seemed very comfortable connecting to the audience, although Mark’s approach felt like the guy you’d rather have a beer with. You grab a beer with Justin, and he’s too busy scamming on the girls or the guys (whichever way he leans) to pay you much attention.

The girls were a mixed bag. Annette was from Germany and lacked a bit of stage polish. Her biggest handicap, however, was having to perform anywhere near the presence of Christine.

Christine is the kind of presence around which you build an entire show.

Alec Baldwin, in Glengarry Glen Ross, says ABC means Always Be Closing. If real estate is about closing a deal, then stage performance is about opening. Create desire, or create connection. Put yourself out there in some way that makes as many viewers as possible connect you to something they need or want. Seem accessible.

The best stage presences open themselves to the audience and force the audience to take account of them. Wish you were me, or wish you were with me, or believe I’m that friend you never had.

Christine is a highly trained dancer with a focused background in ballet, according to their web site. Her body was its own instrument, and she wielded it with incredible skill. Every movement had purpose, and every position had reason. Everyone else moved a little stiffly. And why shouldn't they? They’re violinists, not trained dancers. That they were pretty damn good at all was pretty damn impressive. The others moved from Point A to Point B; Christine flowed.

She made eye contact with dozens of audience members, as if she was trying to communicate telepathically with us. She didn’t look as often at the guys, probably because they were all drooling, which probably gets annoying after a few hundred times.

But when she did deign to look at the men, her eyes said, “Jenkies, I know you’re drooling, and gosh I’m awful sorry I’m doing this to you, but gee willikers you have no idea the kind of damage I could do to you in 20 minutes.”

My daughters were also awestruck and waited in line for autographs mostly because they wanted Christine’s. On the way home they said more than once, “She looked at us!” If you can make the moms think you’re inviting them for coffee, the dads convinced you’re making goo-goo eyes, and the daughters think you’re the coolest aunt they never had, all done merely with the use of your eyes while you’re shaking your hips and playing some seriously nasty violin chords, then you are an exquisite stage performer.

Bigger than any performer, however, was the joy of watching almost 100 students from grades 6-12 on stage, performing to a captive audience, having enjoyed a lengthy afternoon workshop with some really cool and talented guys and gals. The look on those faces as they walked back off the stage, having participated significantly in the show’s second act, was... well, a barrage of glee. The song "Chopsticken," composed by one of the group's founders, is what they all played together.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Cult of Emmylou

Emmylou Harris--"Long May You Run (live)" (mp3)
Emmylou Harris, with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings--"Green Pastures (live)" (mp3)

Women don't get it, I don't think. My wife certainly doesn't. She thinks that I live in a state of perpetual heat, a stallion wanting to frolic in the pastures and lie down in the grasses with Emmylou Harris. She thinks that everytime I hear Emmylou Harris' voice it is a trigger for lust.

She is wrong.

While I wouldn't deny that Emmylou Harris is an attractive older woman, it isn't about that.

But she is onto something, my wife, and it may be something far more threatening to a fellow female than her stallion's attraction to another mare.

Most men I know belong to the cult of Emmylou. I do. Don't you?

And yes, "cult" implies worship, and worship is involved. Now, I don't necessarily want to get all Little Mermaid here, but what we worship is her voice. We worship that purity of tone, that bit of country syrup, that fragile, about-to-crack quality that she has developed in her later years. As much as anything, we may worship the way her voice harmonizes with other voices, especially male voices, so perfectly.

After all, if I were so head-over-heels for Emmylou, I'd have everything she ever recorded, wouldn't I? I don't. I've got like 4 CDs. Well, five, if you count that live one, and six, if you add in her Christmas album. She's released 27 studio or live albums. Okay, I might have seven, now that I think of it. And that duet album with Linda Rondstadt.

But really, my E.H. collection pales in comparison to the number of other people's CDs that I have that she sings on--Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Bright Eyes, Elvis Costello, Ryan Adams, Gram Parsons, Guy Clark, Steve Earle, the Vigilantes of Love, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, The Seldom Scene, Buddy and Julie Miller, O, Brother, Where Art Thou?, and Mark Knopfler, among many others.

So here's the problem. Cult? Check. Worship? Check. And then I remind myself that we humans tend to worship what we think is greater than we are. Uh-oh. I read a review about ten years ago that described her as having "the voice of an angel." I agree. Hmmm. That is a problem. Let's see, our women already know that we think that Emmylou Harris is attractive, at least, and now, on top of that, we have deified her voice. So, in effect, we are saying that this woman, or at least her voice, because it's really about the voice, you know, can sound like a heavenly creature, something no mere mortal woman could hope to achieve?

Or maybe it's because there isn't really a counterpart. I mean, who is the male version of Emmylou Harris? The best I could come up with was Eddie Vedder, simply because, at least for awhile, he showed up all over the place, singing with everyone from Neil Young and Pete Townshend to Neil Finn. Maybe it's Phil Collins.

Because I mean, if you start playing music randomly in the rock, folk, and country genres, you're going to hear Emmylou's voice. In fact, you're going to hear it a lot.

And that brings to light the other issue: it's difficult, if not impossible, to get tired of Emmylou Harris' voice. It's like cowbell. You want more. I've only heard her ruin a song once, singing backup on a live version of Steve Earle performing "Christmastime in Washington," where her voice didn't really fit.

There used to be a BASF slogan that they'd use on NPR: "We don't make the products you use; we make the products you use better." That is Emmylou Harris' voice.

You want to make a tender or nostalgic song sound more poignant? Listen to her join in on Neil Young's "This Old Guitar" in the film, Heart of Gold or on "My Sweet Carolina" off Ryan Adams' Heartbreaker. You want a sultry place to seem more magical, check out her word-for-word duet with Dylan on "Mozambique." You want to capture tragedy? Hear how Bill Mallonee uses her on "Resplendent." You want to hear how Gram Parsons or Townes Van Zandt songs should sound now that they are gone? Try her versions of "Pancho and Lefty" or "Wheels" or "She."

I know you wouldn't, but should you want to ignore the heavenly and return to the earthly and crawl into bed with her, then give a listen to "I Don't Want To Talk About It" from Red Dirt Girl.
If you could hear everything that Emmylou Harris has been a part of for the past 40 years, it could serve as a thick primer for what has been good in popular music--the songs she's chosen to sing, the people she's chosen to sing with, the songs she's written.

I'd have to imagine the cult is pretty big, maybe too big to be a cult, and more like a religion. Oh, yeah, she rescues dogs, too.

Thanks to Cover Lay Down for the live track.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Crazy Tender Heart Mercies

My Freeze Ray - Neil Patrick Harris (mp3)
Come What May - Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman (mp3)

Any fan of movies who fails to immediately connect the movies Tender Mercies and Crazy Heart upon viewing the latter... well, isn’t nearly the fan of movies they might think they are. It didn’t take a lot of hard work to find a 10-point breakdown of similarities between the movies. Heck, Robert Duvall all but admits he couldn’t play the main character because he’d already played the guy 27 years ago.

I’ll get to the music portion of this post in a minute, but I’d like to focus on Crazy Heart the movie for a couple of paragraphs first.

Jeff Bridges is easily on my list of top five best actors. (Most days, anyway. My top five would fluctuate more wildly than the DOW.) For him and Maggie Gyllenhaal to share prime acting real estate virtually guarantees I’ll find the movie palatable. Bridges’ acting job is stunning and deserved the recognition it received. Crazy Heart is good, but it’s not great.

The music in the movie is passable. It might even be “OK.” But the problem with almost all movies attempting to show the rise and/or fall of musical gods is that you’re required to believe that songs you’ve never heard before are songs that should have burned into your soul.

It’s a reminder how selective we all are in our suspensions of disbelief. I can watch dudes in outer space clash with light sabers and battle in funky-lookin’ spaceships under the command of an ugly-lookin’ lizard named Ackbar, and I won’t bat an eye. But ask me to believe that some song I’ve never heard of was a famous piece of immortal Americana, and I blanch.

“Foolish consistency...” is my best and only defense.

It’s not just movies that do an injustice to music for me. Books that try to deal with music the wrong way leave me cold as well. My absolute least favorite parts of The Lord of the Rings trilogy is when Tolkein breaks out the lyrics. I just don’t know what to do with them. They’re not poems; they’re supposed to be set to music. So I find myself drifting away into a place where I’m trying to find some tolerable tune that works with the words. And I’m doomed to fail, because if I could succeed, then I’d be off churning out awesome Middle Earth ditties.

Dan Jenkins, author of many a guilty pleasure, is famous for including lyrics to made-up country songs in his books, and those are the only parts of his books I can’t stand. If Tolkein couldn’t win me over, a Texan has no chance.

Music is the tuning fork on my heart, on many hearts. Attempting to translate that into a different medium, into another art form, is to destroy the connection.

Glee? I can totally dig Glee. It’s dark teenage comedy with karaoke. Musicals like Moulin Rouge or Chicago or Dr. Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blog? They’re creating music for the medium, not crafting the medium around music that supposedly existed in the past but never really did. I can dig that. Soundtracks (instrumental or compilations)? Helllll yeah. Again, it’s about what comes first and about what role the music plays.

My beef with Crazy Heart has nothing to do with country music. Honestly, I don’t even know what “country music” means anymore. Music categories, in the last 20 years, have become as increasingly meaningless as bond ratings.

It’s one thing to translate comics or books into movies. Or to make audio recordings of poetry readings. Or to make a TV show into a comic book. But songs and music are different. They can’t be bandied about across media so easily. And that, my dear readers, is what makes music a unique snowflake of artistry.

Monday, October 11, 2010

AMERICAN SONGS: "Return of the Grievous Angel"

Gram Parsons--"Return of the Grievous Angel" (mp3)

One could probably put together a list of the best American songs and then discover that, wait a second, they've all been written by Gram Parsons.

Consider this list, for example:

1. "Hickory Wind"
2. "Sin City"
3. "Wheels"
4. "A Song For You"
5. "Return of the Grievous Angel"

If you don't know all of these songs, I'll wager you've heard at least some of them, as performed by The Byrds, Bob Mould, Emmylou Harris, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Peter Holsapple, and, best of all, Gram himself with Emmylou singing backup. On his new CD released just this past week, Pete Yorn has taken a shot at "Wheels."

Now I'm not the one to give you a history and a context for the life and curious death of Gram Parsons, his time in the Byrds, his connections to the Stones, and all of that. Those are available to you all over the Internet. I'll only say this: if country-rock has a father, it is indeed Mr. Parsons, and without him, you would not have the Eagles (a mixed blessing), Ryan Adams, and, ultimately, perhaps not even the alt-country movement at all. Without Gram Parson's use of Emmylou Harris as his back-up singer, everyone from Bob Dylan to Connor Oberst would not have been dialing her number for the past 40 years.

But the song calls me tonight, and it is "Return of the Grievous Angel." Yes, to me, it ranks as one of the very greatest American songs, another one that captures the space, the essence, the mystery of our country.

Usually, when arguing for the quality of a particular song, I find myself quoting and analyzing lyrics. I'm not going to do that here, maybe because that approach seems to draw almost no response, except from those already know the song. I'll only give you the opening couplet, because it serves my larger purpose:

Won't you scratch my itch, sweet Annie Rich,
And welcome me back to town.

Parsons has taken a great American tradition and added love, romance, even sexuality to that great genre, the road song.

Without a doubt, there are other wonderful examples of this kind of song--Chuck Berry's "The Promised Land" and the Beach Boys' "Surfin' U.S.A." stand as perhaps the most famous; Peter Case's "Satellite Beach" is an effective, though obscure, rendering of the same kind of journey. I love these kinds of songs that take the listener all over the country, aural road trips to parallel the Great American Journeys--Lewis and Clark, Huck Finn, the Joads, the Oregon Trail, the Great Migration after the Civil War, Jack Kerouac and Neal Casady, Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters.

But Parsons, like I said, adds romance, so even though his narrator "headed west to grow up with the country" and has encounters with "prairies," "waves of grain," "the King," the Bible Belt," nothing touches him as much as returning to the woman he loves. In doing so, he captures the dichotomy of American life--the lure of big cities and wide open spaces and the comforts of home and small town life.

Musically, the song is transcendent, containing, arguably, some of the finest harmonies ever put to vinyl and beyond. When Parsons and Harris sing "Out with the truckers, and the kickers, and the cowboy angels," when they take it even higher on "twenty thousand road I went down, down, down and they all led me straight back home to you," if you don't feel the chills, if you don't feel like an eagle soaring over the land, all I can say is, play it again. And again and again and again. Until you get it.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Soul Cages

Island of Souls - Sting (mp3)

I’ve always just been told that Gordon Sumner is completely full of himself and that his solo career -- you might know him as STING -- ruined what could have been a much better denouement for the band known as The Police.

Now, my pal Bob doesn’t much care for The Police, but I categorize them as “a very good band with a handful of supremely great pop songs.”

Having been a modest Police disciple in my late teens, I hopped on board the Sting solo wagon and bought all of his first four solo albums soon after their release dates. Yet I’ve always sat back and accepted the common proclamation that Sting’s solo work lost something, that he was too full of himself, that ditching Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers came at too high a price.

(I also bought Stewart’s following side project, Animal Logic, and absolutely loved it, so in hindsight their break-up just cost me more money.)

Lately I’ve spent some time rediscovering those first four Sting solo albums*. Most especially, I’ve found myself listening to his third album in that group, The Soul Cages. The third anniversary of my father’s death arrives in about a week, and Sting’s song “Why Should I Cry for You?” landed on my iPod shuffle a week or so ago, and I remembered that Sting wrote The Soul Cages as his own form of musical therapy in coping with the death of his own father.

So I’ve gone back and listened to his stuff, most especially this one album. And I’m gonna step out on a limb: Sting’s first-stage solo work is on par, quality-wise, with The Police. His best poppy songs might not quite compete with The Police’s poppiest, but that next level down, the second-best of the best? I think they’re every bit as good if not a little better. A little deeper. A little more complex. A little more soulful.

Fine, maybe they’re also a little more full of Sting being full of himself. But hell, Frank Sinatra names places as his kind of town and does things his way, and somehow an ego the size of Jupiter didn’t seem to destroy his ability to tattoo himself into the pop culture history books, so why should that quality make us hate ol' Gordon?

Sting’s first four solo albums show a musician and songwriter willing to take serious risks with his status. He leapt into faux jazzville with his debut. The next, ...Nothing Like the Sun, was mega-mellow. Like, it was soooo mellow it could’ve been called ...Everything Like Sta-Puft. I can totally envision Sting drunk and wearing shades and leaning against a street light for five straight months while composing this album.

...Nothing Like the Sun was great for an English major wannabe like me, because he was all literary-like and heavy and dabbled in politics. I can still very intensely remember watching my classmates from my sister school perform a dance to “They Dance Alone.” I loved that song already, but it moved up another notch when combined with girls I’d regularly drooled over moving around in skin-grabbing leotards. (And just how terribly wrong and guilt-inducing it is to have to try and hide one's excitement about watching girls dancing to a song about women dancing for their dead sons?? That's sick! That's wrong! I was so ashamed!)

Anyone looking for “Synchronicity II” or “Canary in a Coalmine” or certainly “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” was gonna be sorely disappointed with ...Nothing, because only one song even approaches that kind of BPM level.

If ...Nothing was mellow, then The Soul Cages sinks into a deep depression. It’s a super-mellow concept album about mortality with a shitload -- or boatload, if you will -- of thematic imagery surrounding the sea, sailing, and life in coastal harbourtowns. It’s a mere nine stinkin’ songs. The title song contains an entire section reprising the chorus from the first song. Standard concept album conceit.

The Soul Cages wasn’t remotely a safe play. It was a man on a very deep personal journey willing to risk most of his fame to exorcise something. That he even mostly pulled it off is amazing and admirable and attests to a level of talent some critics seem loathe to acknowledge. I went to his sold out show in Chapel Hill on his Soul Cages tour and absolutely loved it. The album was perfect counter-programming for the grunge and intense guitar rock of Pearl Jam and Smashing Pumpkins and STP that occupied speakers everywhere on campus.

Sting emerged from the bottom of that dark Scottish loch to create Ten Summoner’s Tales, which is a straight-ahead pop album full of pop songs. And mighty catchy, I might add.

So maybe Sting wouldn’t be the greatest guy to invite over for dinner. Maybe he’d spend the whole time talking about how awesome he is. And I’d definitely avoid asking him any questions or having any conversations with him where the word “tantric” might come up (unless you have a 10 or so hours to spare... ba-dump-kssh!).

But as a solo artist? Sting had one seriously impressive 8-year stretch.

* -- Sting helmed several solo albums after Ten Summoner’s Tales, but it’s my humble and confident opinion that I hopped off his bandwagon right before it began its descent down a very steep and crap-riddled cliff.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

"There's a protest singer, he's singin' a protest song"

Graham Nash--"Chicago (live)" (mp3)

"Blowin' In The Wind" is not a protest song.

Sure, people may have made it into one, but if you look at it, it doesn't zero in. Here's the most directly critical part:

Yes, how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, how many deaths will it take 'till he knows
That too many people have died?

What is the song protesting? Cannonballs? An archaic notion. Lack of freedom? For whom? For "some people"? Death? Death from war? Is the "one man" JFK, the president at the time? What war had kicked into high enough gear in 1963 to merit a protest?

Taken as a whole, the song seems almost to be arguing in favor of natural law, as if somehow, like nature, we will ultimately realize what should be obvious and true? Perhaps it serves as kind of a precursor to the International Declaration of Human Rights? It is certainly no Common Sense, where Thomas Paine used natural law to argue in favor of revolution so convincingly and metaphorically. No, it's so generalized that seems like it could fit almost any time or any place.

But leap ahead 43 years: Bright Eye's "When the President Talks To God" or Neil Young's "Let's Impeach The President." Now those are protest songs. Consider Connor Oberst's lyrics:

When the President talks to God
Are the conversations short or long?
Does he ask to rape our women's rights
Or send poor farm kids off to die?
Does God suggest an oil hike
When the President talks to God?

Or Young's: Let's impeach the President/ for lying.

Yes, pointed protest songs. But they were oddly ineffective, much as I disliked having George W. Bush as president. Both were so direct, so shrill, perhaps even so obvious, that they didn't carry much of an impact, at least not after the first listening, when you might have been thinking, "Hell, yeah," but without too much enthusiasm. And, already, their moment has passed.

Perhaps that is the genius of "Blowin' In The Wind" or "This Land Is Your Land" or "What's Going On?"

Sing broadly of broad themes and you will always stay relevant. Sing specifically of particular men and actions and flaws and you will seem mean-spirited at first and then, ultimately, dated.

Part of it may be context. If you listened to music in the 60's and 70's, you were likely to hear protest music, heavy or lite, on your radio, on television variety shows, and just about everywhere else. Neil Young's "Ohio" or Graham Nash's "Chicago" (which, hopefully, you are listening to as you read this) or any number of Jefferson Airplane tracks (with lines like "up against the wall, Motherfucker" in beautiful 4-part harmony) were part of the national musical conversation.

And there was actual protesting going on so that the protest music could serve as a kind of soundtrack--swaying people with candles singing "We Shall Overcome" and that kind of thing.

Now, despite whatever anti-government or anti-war or anti-racism sentiments are swirling around, and in some ways, those positions are as strong as they've ever been, protest music has no context in which to thrive or even to survive. Should a protest song even work its way into the rotation, it will spin out just as quickly as any other passing fad.

I really don't know if there's a place for protest, or perhaps even folk, music anymore. Probably, not as genres. But there may be another component that in a songwriter's haste to protest, he or she forgets. There is always a place for a good song, regardless of the subject matter. The modern examples I've cited above, and a myriad other specific protests, fail the cardinal rule of songwriting. They have potent assertions or shocking frankness, but they aren't especially good songs. Dylan and Guthrie and Marvin, and a younger Neil Young on the hastily-written "Ohio" transcend the genre by creating memorable, hummable memories or guitar riffs or harmonica fills. While I like the idea of protest songs, I'd much rather hear a protest SONG than a PROTEST song.

I've always had a lot of affection for Graham Nash's "Chicago," especially sung live with the botched piano notes. Today's listener would probably have no idea that he's talking about the aftermath of the Democratic National Convention in 1968 and the police violence inflicted upon the protestors to that convention under the orders of Mayor Daley, pere. This live version is on CSNY's 4-Way Street.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

... For What Ails You

The Perfect Girl - The Cure (mp3)
Last Dance - The Cure (mp3)

One of my two best friends from childhood, one of the most awkward* and intelligent guys I’ve ever known, attended a very small private school in Chattanooga. He was the valedictorian in a class of 14 people. In his valedictory address, at least three times he used Latin phrases and made repeated references and subreferences to literary and pop culture history that soared past at least 80 percent of his dumbfounded audience.

The summer before his junior year, Scott attended, of all things, a national 4-H student conference in Washington, D.C. Scott never acted like this was a strange thing for him to do, but all the adults who found out seemed perplexed by it. They knew 4-H for its agricultural roots, but apparently the organization has been working for decades to broaden its scope.

At this conference, Scott fell in love. As with any love yearnings from a nerdy comic book-reading, Rush-listening social misfit, these feelings went mostly unrequited, but matters are always made worse for us when there’s the slightest hint of possibility that lingers, like the smell of licorice. Like most nerdy social misfits, Scott’s clear harmlessness made him a quick and trusted sidekick for the lass in question: Tangie was her name.

Tangie introduced Scott to Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, a then-newly-released double album by The Cure. Tangie danced with Scott at the end-of-conference party to the haunting and catchy “Just Like Heaven.” Scott returned home utterly smitten and possessing a copy of that wild Cure ride.

The first 20 or so times I was forced to listen to the Cure’s 1987 extravaganza (one could not be friends with Scott post-Tangie and not listen to this album constantly in his presence), I was at best apathetic and at worst a little uncomfortable. The dude couldn’t sing very well. There were all these weird shoe-gazey moments that weren’t the guitar-raged solos I’d grown up thinking of as acceptable. The lyrics were just plain odd. It was one thing to get used to REM, but The Cure was another degree of separation from my pop radio roots.

That fall, in that rare stretch of time when my school and our sister school shared students in the afternoons, I took a German class with a sophomore named Susan. She was in all ways your prototypical 1987 Goth Girl. Dyed black hair. Super-heavy mascara. Blood-shaded lipstick. Funky earrings. Dour visage. Her version of a smile was my version of a frown. People couldn’t ever seem to tell when I was expressing sadness, and she was the exact opposite.

Her favorite bands were fairly predictable. Siouxie & the Banshees. Bauhaus. Depeche Mode. Sisters of Mercy. She wore their black concert shirts over her school uniform constantly.

The Cure was our compromise. We weren’t friends, and we hardly spoke -- one helluva compromise, I know -- but I’ve always been eager to find connections to the people around me, and here was this very strange and self-isolating girl who loved a band with which I had just become familiar, and it gave me more reason to pay attention to Robert Smith and his brood of brooders.

The Cure weren’t goth. Robert Smith dressed and caked himself up like one, but his music is and always was a teen-angsty chip off the indie-pop block. Goth was about being miserable and alone. The Cure was about being miserable and alone... but in a more collective sense. They were like the cool kid that chose to hang with the sullen kids in black. I’ve been there, man. I know. But it gets better. And trust me, you don’t have to become one of them either.

I would never say The Cure were one of my favorite bands anymore than I would say being 15 was one of my life’s favorite years. The connection between the two is not merely on my own life’s timeline, but rather in the subject matter and mood of the music, the confusion of self, the desperate wanting that often feels like physical pain, the need to know there’s someone out there with whom, eventually, just maybe, you might connect... but probably not. Because life sucks a lot.**

(Favorite Cure song: "Fascination Street") 

* -- I say he was awkward in the same way I'd call myself "one of the dorkiest guys I've ever met," which is to say with love and deep kinship.

** -- That's not ME. That's THEM!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010


Little Feat--"Willin'(live)" (mp3)

A truly great American song should have a sense of rebelliousness. It should convey a sense of mystery, leaving questions unanswered. It should nail down the details, the names and the places, of this sprawling land.

"Willin’," written by Lowell George of Little Feat, possesses all of these qualities. Written by George around 1970, the song has been recorded by, among a host of others, Seatrain, Linda Rondstadt, and Steve Earle. Beyond that, it has most certainly remained a staple of folksingers and guitarists in performance, with its descending chord G-D-Em-C (starting on the 7th fret) opening signature and the layered harmonies of its chorus, especially on the "Weed, whites, and wine" section.

Though no one would claim that Little Feat was ever a country music band, the song itself is about as country as it gets, or should get.

Perhaps you know the opening lines:

I been warped by the rain, driven by the snow
I'm drunk and dirty don't ya know, and I'm still, willin'
Out on the road late at night,
Seen my pretty Alice in every head light
Alice, Dallas Alice

An ironic paean to the life of a truck driver for whom the lure of the road is stronger than any attachments or petty moralities, the song captures the costs of choosing to stay on the move instead of settling down--battling the weather in all its forms, only occasional visits with a lover, drug and alcohol use to get through the long miles and hours.

I've been from Tuscon to Tucumcari
Tehachapi to Tonapah
Driven every kind of rig that's ever been made
Driven the back roads so I wouldn't get weighed
And if you give me: weed, whites, and wine
And you show me a sign
I'll be willin', to be movin'

In addition to a complex melody, the lyrical qualities of these classic songs also stand out. In "Willin'," the alliterative use of unusual Native American names for cities and towns not only sets the song in the wilder area of the country, the Southwest, but also, like the best poetry, the use of strange and interesting words adds to the aural pleasure of the song. A listener can't help but sing along with the chorus, waiting for the chance to say try these words on his or her tongue. In doing so, he or she becomes complicit with the narrator, sharing the social taboos and shortcuts that the life requires. Also the powerful verbs associated with the weather--"warped," "driven," "baked," "kicked," and "robbed"--enhance the struggle, even the battle, suggested by the trucker's lifestyle.

Now I smuggled some smokes and folks from Mexico
Baked by the sun, every time I go to Mexico, and I'm still

I've been kicked by the wind, robbed by the sleet
Had my head stoved in, but I'm still on my feet and I'm still... willin'

It's kind of fun to think of this 40-year-old song in the context of today's crazy America. Would Joe Hit Country Music Maker refuse to record the song because it references drug use, irresponsible driving, support for illegal immigrants, blatant breaking of the laws of interstate commerce? Or would he see that this is the kind of rebel who has always ridden our roads and that, like all other kinds of "don't ask, don't tell" situations, this little song captures the realities of what it takes to transport goods from one end of the country to the other.

If you thought truckdriving was more like B.J. and the Bear, think again.

And I been from Tuscon to Tucumcari
Tehachapi to Tonapah
Driven every kind of rig that's ever been made
Driven the back roads so I wouldn't get weighed
And if you give me: weed, whites, and wine
And you show me a sign
I'll be willin', to be movin

Willin'" walks an interesting tightrope. While it clearly romanticizes the life of a truck driver, it does so using only the potential negatives of this lifestyle, as if to say, not everybody could do what I'm doing, but it has to be done, and I'm willing to do it, and if I'm going to do it, I'm going to do it my way, and screw you, if you don't like it. More a testament than an explanation, it does not expect you to understand the why of what he does, but it shows you the what in brief, but powerful, detail.

This live version of "Willin'" comes from Little Feat's Waiting For Columbus, one of the great live albums, available in a deluxe edition for a cheap price at

Monday, October 4, 2010

Pianoless Man

The Load Out - Jackson Browne (mp3)
Fred Jones (Part II) - Ben Folds (mp3)

I quit piano in the spring of seventh grade.

It was cutting into time I thought was essential to my becoming an athletic success. Would that I were being sarcastic.

In the final two piano competitions I entered, I received “superior” ratings at both. Dunno what that meant exactly, but my teacher and parents acted like I was months away from Carnegie Hall.

“You’re going to regret this for the rest of your life,” my father told me when I said I was really really quitting. He’d told me this twice before, because I’d wanted to quit twice before, and his words had made me afraid to quit. Not because I thought I would regret it --  what 12-year-old worries about potential future regrets? -- but because I was so afraid of disappointing or angering my father.

My teacher insisted on classical music. There I am spending nights and ceaseless hours with my two best friends listening to Synchronicity and Grace Under Pressure and Jump. I’m watching hours of MTV (well, it's usually playing in the background while we’re enmeshed in one role-playing game or another). Nothing about Beethoven or Brahms correlated in my peanut brain with the music I loved, or I might have been more motivated to stick with the lessons. That she never even tried to connect those two worlds or even saw a reason to try is a fatal flaw I put on her. Pre-adolescents can’t predict regrets, and we can’t necessarily connect 200-year-old music with David Lee Roth without a little help.

Is it the job of a teacher or the job of a student to connect their passions and interests to the lessons at hand? Discuss.

I don’t regret quitting piano, but I regret never making a connection between my interests and my learning. It didn’t connect with the Thompson Twins, and I didn’t connect with Billy Joel.

When I hear Patty Griffin’s piano-centered songs, when Ben Folds shuffles into my earphones, when my Keane collection lands in the mix, nothing about those songs pull me into memories of my piano-playing childhood.

If I had remotely enjoyed Joe Jackson or Bruce Hornsby, maybe... but no. “Lonely Boy” and “I Don’t Like Mondays” were two of the 45s I played until they practically disintegrated, both plentiful with piano, but I doubt I ever really made the connection that the instrument I was learning was the same thing they used to make that music.

Ultimately, nothing about my own musical piano journey could have conceivably led me into an alternate future where I became Ben Folds and Ben Folds ended up some random NTAC blogger who just really really loved music.

I regret that I never connected all the dots, that I never quite found a way to marry, in my own hobbies and my own life, my love of music and my love of writing into anything symbiotic.

Fortunately, I’ve in most ways been a better cheerleader than one to earn the spotlight. (So what I mean is, cheerleading not as team sport but as something extant to support and encourage other teams.)

Regret requires, it seems to me, the ability to see an alternate reality, some better-seeming version of events that with one slight change in wind direction feels so real you can envision every moment of it. Fortunately (I think), I have never seen a version of events, an alteration of decision-making, that results in my being a successful and happy career musician, much less a rock star.

Sorry Dad. On this one you were wrong. But maybe one day, in the sweet by and by, we’ll get a chance to continue dueling our pianos.