Wednesday, October 31, 2012

I'll Take This Psychedelic Pill Anytime You're Offering

Three Dog Night--"The Loner (Neil Young cover)" (mp3)

Neil Young warned me, and I filed it away, but I forgot.  It was all those years ago.  I'm drifting back now.  An interview in Rolling Stone, I think, probably back in the late 70's when he got late into the interview and then commented, "But I might remember it all differently tomorrow."

I went after him a little bit in my last post.  Now, I think I get it.  You can't get the book without the CD.  This is the soundtrack.  These are songs he was waiting for the inspiration to write that he kept referencing in the book.  This is the way he remembers it this time.  The book is not a biography at all.  It's a snapshot, a balance sheet of the moment, and only those thoughts that rise to the surface, however randomly, matter to him.

This has proven to be a Neil-heavy Rocktober for me--writing about Zuma, reading his book, referencing him in posts or using his songs to reinforce posts. I also found online a treasure trove of people doing Neil Young covers. All of that's been a good thing.  I like going all in with Neil.  So now I'm going to do this Neil-style.  He doesn't like to edit himself, a trait has led to some beautiful lyrical associations and some brilliant first takes, as well as some songs that I wanted to take back to the store to get a refund.  He likes the first take on things as much as anything, doesn't want to overthink.

And now I'm not going to, either.  I'm sitting down with his new CD, listening to it for the first time, and I'm simply going to record my reactions as they come to me.  I'm cleaning up a room, too, trying to busy up a house where the heat isn't working so it will get warmer, maybe you'll hear the vacuum cleaner in the background or realize that I've hit pause for a minute while I change out the laundry or go upstairs to check on the hurricane's devastation.  Once, I thought I saw you in a crowded, hazy bar...

"Drifting Back"--Young opens his double-CD with a 27 1/2 minute statement of purpose.  Who else does that?  The song begins acoustically and then the full band drifts in behind a multi-voice chorus.  He references his book, Picasso, religion, the sound limitations of mp3s, how he deals with his anger, and how corporations ruin things.  His words are very simple and repetitive (he used to dig Picasso until a corporation turned him into wallpaper), always returning to the mantra "I'm drifting back."  In between his random thoughts are guitar stretches that maybe stretch on too long, that maybe aren't as transcendent as Young's best instrumental work, but each time it starts to get a little tiring (and let's face it, our ears weary of soloing more than they used to) he pulls you back in with his words.  If it's possible that a near-30 minute song could set the tone for a 90 minute CD, then that is exactly what "Drifting Back."

"Psychedelic Pill"--the title track is an examination for a party girl "looking for a good time."  It's a slight story, not all that revelatory, but the music is strong, especially Young's solos which hearken back in style and sound to his very first solo album 42 years ago.  The whole song has a wash over it, a phase shifter or something that takes it underwater and back up again.

"Ramada Inn"--on first listen, sounds like the centerpiece of the CD.  It clocks in at over 17 minutes and opens with one of his solos that you would like to go on for as long as he would make it go on.  It's the story of a marriage, the different stages as the years go by, especially now in its latter stages, including a battle with alcohol.  The melodic solos are the perfect complement to the sweet but realistic words.  One of Young's soloing patterns involves playing around the melody when the melody is strong, as it is here.  While "Drifting Back" challenges the listener's patience just enough that he is aware of its length, "Ramada Inn" takes the listener beyond time.  The song is the reality, and little beyond matters.

"Born In Ontario"--A quick, happy, autobiographical reminder of Young's roots, it's musically-reminiscent of one of his country songs or "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere," but without the underlying disillusionment of the latter.  It's the second song where Young references his anger, but otherwise it's a bit of a ditty.

"Twisted Road"--Almost echoes "Born In Ontario" with its sense of nostalgia and country structure, but this one is an homage to Young's influences like Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, and Roy Orbison.  What's funny about this reimagining is that now these people play "old timey music," a label once relegated to really old traditional country tunes.

"She's Always Dancing"--The second song on the CD about a woman or girl who seems to be in party mode.  There is no doubt that Neil Young likes to watch women move.  Many of his best songs--"Like A Hurricane," "Unknown Legend," "Slip Away" and countless others--zero in on a woman in a social setting that the narrator can observe and understand the mind of.  Like the other longer songs (this one runs 8 minutes), the soloing paces the song.  This song moves in too many places for me to get it on the first listening.  I can follow the lyrics, but I can't follow the solos, if that makes any sense at all.  The title says it, but I'm not sure what it is.  Several of the songs have interesting ending, and this is one of those.

"For The Love Of Man"--sounds like an outtake from Harvest Moon.  Probably about his severely-handicapped son.  Not a pretty or unpretty song, in spite of it being the tempo-changing song on the CD.  I'm sure this is an important, personal song, but it sounds like a misfire to me.  Both the melody and the message are too meandering.  A ballad that really only finds itself in the final repeated question, "I wonder why?"   

"Walk Like A Giant"--from the opening searching minor chords and background whistling, you can tell that this one is an epic.  And that Neil is going to solo until he feels the time is right to sing the words.  "I used to walk like a giant on the land" are the opening lines.  Powerful stuff happening here and you can't quite figure out what it is, but you know you're going along.  Interesting chord changes. Great guitar sounds. A shift to a look at the 60's/70's and when Young and his friends were going to change the world.  The song has a ton of different parts and sensibilities.  I'm hooked.  The song is a journey and seems to brush the edges of any number of popular songs, including Young's.  This song is a middle finger to time, this is a defiant yelp, this is a revelation coming from a 65-year-old man and his age-appropriate band.  "Walk Like A Giant" concedes nothing to mortality, to popular music, to convention, and as it descends into chaos, it echoes the riff from "Hey, Hey, My, My."  And then the whistling again.  And then the sounds of the giant walking.  Recalling Arc/Weld and Sonic Youth.  And Metal Machine Music.  And a bombardment or a pummelling.  And then, somehow, it comes back.  Into primitive, percussive brilliance.  Or a train.  Or Ragged Glory's songs' end noises beamed out into the universe.

"Psychedelic Pill (alternative mix)"--this takes the wash away.  And I like it better.  It's doesn't gain any more weight, but it gains more clarity.

What I've always loved about Neil Young's music with Crazy Horse, especially the live shows (and the studio records like Ragged Glory that might as well be live shows), are the way the songs create a sonic force field that welcomes you in and protects you from the outside.  "They all sound the same," says a heckler who opens the live set Year Of The Horse, to which Young responds, "They're all the same song."  That's not a glib response.  I get exactly what he means.  Neil Young at his best welcomes you into that idiosyncratic world. 

Psychedelic Pill does exactly that.  It isn't going to awe you like a hungry new band would; it's going to show you that Jethro Tull was wrong with their notion that someone could be "too old to rock and roll/too young to die," and that Pete Townshend's naivete that anyone would "hope I die before I get old" is silliness undercut by The Who's own efforts to hang on.  But no one keeps the rock flame alive like Neil Young.  He does it with words a little and with guitar a lot, and he tells us that he isn't interested in elder-statesman status or an emeritus position.  He's just going to, as Michelle Shocked's friends who have settled down in "Anchored In Anchorage" exhort her, he's going to "keep on rockin'."  What else is there?

BTW, that pill looks more like a frisbee, Neil.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Roctober Mailbox Sampler #2

Roctober Mailbox Sampler #2
A 7-song EP sampler of beauty. Please take, sample, and consider exploring more from these bands. Every song purchase keeps the music alive a little longer!

Divide - The Technicolors
Ain’t Much More to Say - Matthew Mayfield
Firechild - Solomon Grey
Martyr - Wintersleep
Matador - Maria Taylor
Everybody Pays - Big Harp
Generals - Mynabirds

The Technicolors: Their album Listener worships at the altar of several rock gods, from Led Zeppelin to Oasis to U2. With the pool of decent upcoming rock bands. They conclude their album with a cover of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game.” The best compliment I can give this attempt is that it would take most folks until the chorus before they recognize the original, and that generally means there’s more than straight boring cover work going on here. While the whole album feels a bit derivative at times, there are some definite gems from a band that has promise. My faves include “Divide,” “Sweet Time” and “Again.”

Matthew Mayfield: A Banquet for Ghosts is Mayfield’s second album. He banks a lot of his sound with his voice, an instrument full of intensity and growliness. The occasional rise into falsetto and the occasional rise from the more standard nigh-whisper into full-throated power is effective. The instruments tend to be sparse and atmospheric, rarely more than a couple of instruments scattered in the background. While little about his lyrics have blown me away, they’re solid enough, and it totally makes sense that this guy’s music has found itself on various “hip” TV shows, the kind that needs an emotionally raw song to remind their viewers it’s OK to cry.

Solomon Grey: "Firechild"
When I first played this song, I expected to not like it. One more band drowning itself in electronics and little else behind it. But I kept listening, and it got even stronger once the vocals kicked in, and the next thing I knew, I was at the end and clicking to replay it because the damn thing gets into the bloodstream effectively. It’s a catchy, moody ditty. It’s the best kind of unexpected earworm.

Wintersleep: "Martyr"
Canadian band that tours with Elliott Brood. We like Elliott Brood. A lot. Any band that tours with Elliott Brood must have something going for it. “Martyr” is a spooky little up-tempo song. I reviewed their album Welcome to the Night Sky back in 2009 and was pleasantly surprised by it. This is a slightly different sound but the kind of quality you'd hope to expect in a follow-up.

Saddle Creek Sampler (via eMusic)

Maria Taylor: Jenny Lewis comparisons are deserved. Her sound on “Bad Idea” leans country, and “Matador” is pure indie rock, and both are catchy. I’m not sure if it’s a good or bad thing that I was surprised that both songs are by the same artist.

Big Harp: I remember Bob and John introducing me to the dark soul of folk singer Bill Morrissey (RIP). Big Harp isn’t quite that dark, but there’s something very Eeyore in their sound. A mopey and bitten singer fronting a slightly upbeat sound makes for an interesting listening experience.

The Mynabirds: This one’s where I start getting impressed with Saddle Creek. This Omaha NE group has an impressive ear that covers a lot of sonic territory and genres. “Generals” is a very catchy indie rock song. Check out more from their first album here:

Other decent bands: Cursive, The Rural Alberta Advantage.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Rock Books

(Scattered and no doubt self-contradictory, the following post was written in airports on an iPad while I was running from the hurricane and wishing I was blogging about how much I hate US Air, but I wanted to be true to the Rocktober vision even in primitive conditions. Sorry there are no pictures or music.)

 It is appropriate, I think, to finish up my Rocktober posts by focusing on the rockers themselves. Especially since they themselves are so good at focusing on themselves. It's a narcissistic business. It has to be. If someone is going to get it into his or her head that he or she has the talent and the charisma to stand or sit in front of a crowd of people for several hours and entertain, perhaps even enlighten, them, then it is no surprise that these people are, perhaps, even more self-focused on the rest of us. They have to care about every step or misstep they take, every public appearance, every weight loss or gain, every release or re-release. Someone is always watching, always evaluating.

 The disconnect comes when we realize that each of these little aspects of a rock star's life is far more important to them than to us. The problem is that these rockers now have some pretty good years on them, and this has seemed to suggest that this means that they have life stories to tell. Like the WWII veterans who are dying at an alarming rate, these rockers are unleashing biographies, and, especially autobiographies, in numbers that, were we talking about victims of a disease, would signal the beginnings of an epidemic.

As you might guess, I'm not a huge fan of this slew of rock histories, even though I admire or respect the icons who are delivering them (or serving as the focus of them)--Neil Young, Keith Richards, Rod Stewart, Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen. I don't go to bookstores often these days, but on a recent browsing, all of these books were featured prominently.

Two I own. I bought Keith Richards' Life when it came out and, but for the mistake of loaning it to my neighbor for a quick read, I might have read it by now. As it stands, I left Keith in childhood getting his first guitars. The early childhood years of rock stars bore me, though to be fair, the early childhood years of great writers or statesman also bore me. Give me a few significant details and I'm good. If you killed a bear when you were three, I want to hear about it.

I'm currently deep into Neil Young's Waging Heavy Peace, which I'm hanging with, but the path is serpentine and the narrative, by the writer's own admission, is seat-of-his-pants one draft material. I'm interested in where Young is and has been, but his book reminds me that what I'm really interested in is the music, and I wade through the rest of it to get to that.

A few years ago, I read through Eric Clapton's book, and wish I hadn't read it. Frankly, I wish I didn't know what a drugged out, womanizing, careless-with-his-career shithead he was, nor was I pleased to discover his safe retreat into 12-step religion (I know I'll catch some flack for that, but sorry it's so cliched). I'm glad he's alive and off drugs and alcohol, of course, but these last years take up way too much of his story.

There are two key mistakes I think most of these books make: 1) they often rely on sordid details about excesses and sexual liaisons, and 2) the "writing" of these books tends to consist of either dictation into tape recorders or single-draft versions that tell it like it was (remembered) but with little flair. Rod Stewart's new autobiography is getting press for him and Ron Wood not wanting to have plaster casts made of their penises once they saw the mold of Jimi Hendrix's. Rock lore for sure but surely there is something more.

Tell me about the songs. Tell me about the music and the creative process. If you are Eric Clapton, realize that you had peaked by 1972 and tell us about the glory years. If you are Neil Young, realize that while your toy train, alternative fuel, and sound reproduction projects are kind of interesting and let us know who you are today, you have also been involved some of the greatest moments and songs in rock, and if you can't or don't care to remember that those times are where your fame came from, then you are missing out for your audience. It's the music first and last, and platitudes about what a good friend so-and-so is or what a genius Stephen Stills is are going to need some fleshing out to become relevant and believable.

The most satisfying account I ever read was Hammer Of The Gods, about Led Zeppelin. A trashy read with no agenda other than to tell what life in the band had been like, it pulled no punches and glossed over nothing. And since the boys in the band had nothing to do with it, they weren't there to give it their spin.

Many of today's rock books are substitutes for the next record, extensions of the brand. If the music is kind of played out, then the book, the tales can serve the same purpose of providing "new material." The book says here's who I am, just a different way of seeing me and my manager thought it was a good time to write since the other wankers are doing well with theirs. And it's a whole lot harder to share a Kindle or a book than it is an mp3.

The great irony is that the "rock star" who would seem to have the least chance of offering an account that was actually meaningful and coherent set the standard several years ago and none of these newer accounts, based on what I've looked into, can touch him for insight or eloquence. Bob Dylan's Chronicles, Vol. 1. remains the best of the bunch. If you're going to tell about your life, Mr. Rock And Roll, please preserve some of the magic and mystery and take the time to craft the tale. Like Dylan.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Cross-Bearing Sand Kickers

[Taking a day off from Roctober for a more urgent matter.]

A woman named Elizabeth T. Wood sent a message to our school’s Facebook page. She wrote to warn that our school was engaged in “promoting a pro-homosexual agenda" by hosting a "Mix It Up Day" on our campus.

Not only was our Facebook page contacted, but emails were sent to at least five school administrators, and one phone message was left, all warning us of our participation in Mix It Up Day.

We were not the only school receiving this message.

Mix It Up at Lunch is an annual event encouraged by Teaching Tolerance, an educational offshoot of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Not to brag, but I'm quite skilled at the art of Googling, but it took a while to find what the hell Ms. Wood was talking about. Eventually, I located our name on the embedded map of a third-level page. Very non-search-friendly.

For the record, and to the best of our knowledge, no one from our school registered us as a participant in this program. We've had a couple of teachers use information from Teaching Tolerance for lessons in past years, and our best guess was that registering for these kits might have put us in the mix.

To repeat: Our school had no "Mix It Up at Lunch" event planned.

Nothing is as annoying as having to defend yourself against an accusation that is simultaneously untrue and pointless. With a single day's barrage of contacts from a single fringe group, our school found itself drawn into a polarized controversy by doing absolutely nothing!

Were any sane person to read the Teaching Tolerance page about Mix It Up Lunches, they would never close their browser window believing the goal of the event was to infect teen- and pre-teen brains with some "vicious homosexual agenda." The event was merely intended to encourage (or require?) students to sit at another table, with classmates they don't know very well. Best I could tell, this worked best if the students at any table represented a healthy spread of racial, cultural and religious beliefs. It was inspired by the poignant book Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together In The Cafeteria?

Therefore, when the American Family Association -- another group I knew or cared little about two weeks ago -- and its disciples aggressively launched an all-out information assault attempting to discredit this event as something that is at the least misleading if not outright false... that group's trustworthiness must be questioned.

I’m not an apologist for the SPLC, nor am I thoroughly educated on their comprehensive history. I don’t doubt the SPLC has occasionally overstepped their bounds and stepped on the wrong toes.  However, a wise way to judge an organization and its aims is to look at their actual words and their actual deeds.

At first glance, and after more examination, one of these groups certainly looks cleaner and more honorable than the other.

The SPLC informs its readers of AFA leader Bryan Fisher by revealing the man’s own words. What a hero this guy is, wielding fear and bigotry in the name of Jesus. I’m not sure what scares me more, Mr. Fisher’s screeds, or the thought that a significant number of followers are out there proactively assisting him in the name of the very same deity I worship.

For the last half of the 20th Century, the timeless image of the bully was a muscle-bound galoot kicking sand in some nerd's face on the beach. In 21st Century America, that galoot wears a golden cross necklace and pushes around the weak and needy with righteous pride. After they've kicked the sand, maybe even kicked the person, the galoot lovingly reminds them that they're going to hell. Because that's what God would want.

The Susan G. Komen Foundation might never completely recover from the zealotry that infected it last winter, and that tragedy, too, will fall at the feet of uncompromising right-wing polarizers. Obliterating charities, splitting them into shards, to accomplish their goals seems to be acceptable collateral damage.

Fearmongers and zealots are getting increasingly aggressive, often creating fictional or truth-stretched narratives, forcing organizations and individuals who have minimal involvement into defensive responses and "picking sides." They draw lines in the sand. Their mission is to drag the entire world, in all of its nuance and complexity, into their binary universe of right and wrong, heaven and hell, good and evil.

What I want, honestly, is for people to work together, to compromise, to negotiate. When did that start making us "relativists"? When did that stop making us human?

Like that nerd on the beach, I don't want to fight. I just want to hang out with my cute little beach babe and enjoy the rays. But they keep kicking sand in my face, in her face, in the faces of others who are just trying to live their lives.

At some point, we're forced to consider whether the only way to stop it is by fighting back. Unfortunately, that solution doesn't seem to be in the New Testament.

FOLLOW-UP (10/26, 8:50 a.m.): In light of rkeefe57's comment, it's worth noting that the left wing extreme has more than its share of extremists willing to bend rules and the truth for their cause. Personally, I get more aggravated at the right wing portion because they so often endorse their cause hiding behind the name of God. From PETA and Greenpeace to the SPLC, it's clear that the right doesn't hold a monopoly on these matters.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

At The Halloween Parade

One of the most touching songs I listen to year after year is Lou Reed's "The Halloween Parade."  Situated on his now-classic New York CD, the song is the lone tender and melancholy offering on a record that is largely a diatribe against the problems of a city and a country.  Most of the songs simmer with anger and sarcasm.

"The Halloween Parade," by contrast, is a lilting tune, whose pleasant guitar signature is undercut by the many variations of each verse's ending sentiment:  "Especially to be here without you."

The song is a brilliant rendering of the annual Greenwich Village Halloween parade, especially as it focuses on the LGBT crowd in attendance. The extravagance of the event has made it synonymous with gay pride in a themed public display. Here are the opening details that set the scene:

There's a downtown fairy singing out "Proud Mary"as she cruises Christopher Streetand some Southern Queen is acting loud and meanwhere the docks and the badlands meet

There's a Greta Garbo and an Alfred Hitchcockand some black Jamaican studThere's five Cinderellas and some leather dragsI almost fell into my mug
What Reed captures is both the scope and outrageousness of the event, the participants and the onlookers (some who are there for nothing but trouble).  The parade is something that would be hard to picture or perhaps even believe without the evocative details he provides, especially for someone like me living in a sleepy, conservative Southern city.

But, if you know the song, you know that it is even more about who isn't there than who is.  An elegy for the gay AIDS victims of the 80's, "The Halloween Parade" both humanizes and personalizes what an outside viewer or " some Homeboys lookin' for trouble down here from the Bronx" might see as some kind of freak show."  For after the first two verses, the specific names and characters shift to a litany of all of those who have passed away--"Hairy" and "Virgin Mary" and "Johnny Rio" and "Rotten Rita" and "Brandy Alexander" and "Peter Pedantic" and "Three Bananas." Reed reminds us that "you won't see those faces again."

But there's someone else.  There's the person that Reed really misses, the unnamed "you" of the song and the reason why "this celebration somehow gets me down" and "it's a different feeling that I have today/especially when I know you've gone away."

The song accomplishes at least three distinct goals.  It salutes the living who carry on, despite their fallen comrades.  It honors those dead.  And it shows Reed's efforts to shake off the melancholy that overwhelms him and keeps him from enjoying a yearly cornerstone event in his life:

The past keeps knock knock knocking on my doorAnd I don't want to hear it anymoreNo consolations pleasefor feelin' funkyI got to get my head above my kneesBut it makes me mad and mad makes me sadAnd then I start to freeze
It's one of those funny things about life that during the happiest times we miss those whom we have lost the most.  It isn't that we don't still enjoy, in my case, Thanksgiving and Christmas and Easter; it's that we can never enjoy them in the same way that we did.

I like the way Reed's anger seeps in at the end of the song and connects it to the rest of the record.  It reminds me, removed from the circumstances of the song by time, geography and lifestyle, that when AIDS began to ravage the gay community, research and funding for research was slow in coming because they were, after all, gays.  
Many of those problems that Reed articulates on New York have not gone away, including America's ambivalence towards its immigrants and its gay citizens.  So much ambivalence, in fact, that both issues sit on the sidelines of our current presidential election.  The complex emotions battling in the narrator of Reed's song stir me and connect me to a situation I might otherwise have no business understanding every time I hear it.

"The Halloween Parade," in Lou Reed's able hands and with the masterful monotone of his voice, reminds us that loss is one of the themes that rock and roll captures best.  The song accomplishes what "Walk On The Wild Side" never could, even though it dealt with the same kinds of characters.  Through a shared loss of loved ones, "The Halloween Parade" makes them become us.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Carpenter and The Ingenue

Viva La Vida (acoustic) - Taylor Swift (mp3)

In January 2011, Bob wrote a piece lovingly titled “Assault on the Avetts.” His assault is one of the most highly-viewed pieces in our blog’s history, and at 29 comments, it also has one of our highest feedback rates, most of it wishing Bob would jump off a tall cliff. #HumbleBrags

In it, Bob commits the unthinkable act of accusing this lovable band of two crimes: (1) being safe, and (2) being too beloved by Conservative Christian teenagers.

The glory of music criticism is in how a particular trait can damn one band while uplifting another. A style or approach that makes one album transcendent can doom another to complete suckitude.

In an almost-apologia to The Avett Brothers for being swayed by Bob into liking them a little less after his post, I purchased The Carpenter on eMusic last week. I wanted to give them a fair shake, since the only album of theirs I’d owned, I and Love and You, sounded not nearly so cute and deep once Bob had thrown the band into the gallows.

This new album, which has received a preponderance of praise since its release in September, is to my ears a subtle but impressive improvement on their sound from their previous release. While I readily admit that I don’t quite understand why the Avetts have the volume and loyalty of the fan base they’ve garnered (if talent and output is the sole determinant), I also fail to see how some egregious injustice has been done by them just because they don’t make earth-shattering music.

Which is my way of acknowledging that The Carptenter is, ultimately, More Of The Safe. But in an OK way.

Which leaves me wondering, what is “safe” in music?

Most popular hair metal bands from the 1980s sang of women like they were f*#k dolls with capillaries. Was that safe? Was it all that risque, since they all seemed to be doing it? Was Motley Crue being “unsafe” by writing “Girls Girls Girls”?

Is it safe for Taylor Swift to translate every last tabloid-worthy picture into a pop song, to literally play out her too-public romances as if they were merely experienced for the purposes of packaging them into three verses, a bridge and a kickass-catchy chorus?

Truth is, I don’t know what musically "safe" is, and I don’t know what musically "risky" is. Perhaps I’m too jaded; I only know what sells, what gets high critical praise, and what flops. Artists who play safe rarely sell the units of the Avetts. Artists who push too far either make platinum or disappear. As for critics, their opinions have a quicker expiration date than 1% organic milk, so no need worrying over them too long.

Speaking of expiration dates, let’s go back to Taylor Swift.

I’ve spent the entire week listening to Lori McKenna’s new EP Heart Shaped Bullet Hole. It’s six beautiful songs varying in tempo and in the degree to which they penetrate your heart like a hypodermic needle. What they all have in common is the need to have experienced a long-term relationship with a single human being. If you have been in a relationship with someone more than a decade and don’t find yourself floored by Mrs. McKenna’s lyrics, I want to meet you and learn from you, because you are not one of us normal folks.

Taylor Swift is, in my mind, the musical progeny of Lori McKenna. If Lori’s songs speak perfectly to dedicated but troubled spouses in challenging times, then Taylor’s speak to youth. It’s about breakups and the roller coasters of every day’s emotions. It’s about wanting everything, about trying to learn compromise, about shattered illusions and ideals that just won’t go away.

While I secretly believe Taylor Swift might be crazy, or at least off most of her rocker, it’s time we all stop pretending she’s just some flash-in-the-pan pop star. She’s writing her songs, and she’s about to release her fourth consecutive multi-platinum album. There’s not one single song on any of those albums she didn’t write herself.

It’s time to acknowledge it. In ways no other pop ingenue of our time can or has, Taylor Swift is dialed into the experience of young love. And it’s not because she’s just milking cash from it; it’s because she lives it and has the smarts to attack her pain ASAP with a rhyme scheme and catchy hook.

She might not get men in their midlife crises, but she gets girls, and she gets young love, and she writes about it in ways that, whether my generation sees it or not, cuts past the surface. Sure, it’s highly-produced and has a fine sheen, but there’s a reason my tween daughters and their friends have long forgotten Justin Bieber and One Direction and even Katy Perry yet have never strayed from Taylor Swift:

The others are making pop songs; Swift is sharing some real version of herself.

Is it safe? I’m not sure it matters.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Building The Perfect Concert

Neil Young and Crazy Horse--"Are You Ready For The Country (live)" (mp3)

Over the next month or so, I begin a fairly intense (for me), if brief, concert season--Springsteen in Louisville, Sufjan Stevens in Chattanooga, The Who in Nashville.  These are all big shows for me in one way or another.  Several of my friends going have never seen Springsteen before, so the chance to experience that with them is exciting.  Our seats are behind the stage; I've never done that before, but Trout assures me it's a satisfying concert experience.  Sufjan is playing Track 29, our newish, popular concert venue for pretty big, not huge, acts.  I saw the Drive-By Truckers there briefly, until circumstances and friendship caused me to have to leave.  He is playing a Christmas show; I love his homemade Christmas CDs.  Seeing the "half-Who", as Trout calls them, is something I was talked into.  It wasn't too difficult; they're playing Quadrophenia in its entirety and that was a seminal album during my teenage years.  That concentration of shows got me thinking, what makes for a perfect concert?

(It didn't hurt that I had to drive a group of boys back from Nashville the other night very late and the only thing that kept me awake was blasting through the headphones a bootleg recording of Neil Young's current tour, specifically his stop at Red Rocks in Colorado. A live music can create an envelope, a trance-like experience that you don't want to leave.)

So, after some pondering while driving a microbus, while cutting the grass, while not watching football all weekend, here's what I've come up with:

1.  Actually, Billy and I agreed on this a few weeks ago: the ideal length for a concert is about 2 1/2 hours.  Unless an artist is a solo performer playing an acoustic show, 90 minutes makes it seem like he or she is doing the bare minimum.  To go beyond 2 1/2 hours, you had better be pretty damn good because you've got to hold people's attention in this modern, fragmented for a long time.  Not easy.  So, 2 1/2 hours.

2.  Of that, I'd say that almost all of that, at least 130 minutes of that, should be the main show, not the encore.  There was a time when an encore meant something, when the chances of it were always in doubt, and the audience had to earn it with their enthusiasm.  Then, for someone to play 2, 3, or even 4 encores represented a real connection between artist and audience.  With encores now obligatory, I'd argue that even the greatest artist should play one or two songs and then get off stage.

3.  A perfect concert contains music that the audience hasn't heard before.  In our world, for anyone with some Internet savvy, that is almost impossible to be true, so what I mean is that the artist is playing songs on the tour that have not yet been released on CD.  If a song has been written during the tour, even better.  Usually.

4.  But, much as I admire Neil Young, the extreme case should not happen.  An artist should not play all new material, or even mostly new material.  That demands too much from the audience.  It even violates a kind of unspoken "social contract."  We deserve some reference points, some reminders, some great songs from the past, even if they only reach the faithful, that anchor the new material and remind us of where the artist is coming from to get to where he or she is now.

5.   I kind of think the best concert takes place outside.  For now.  That is probably because Bruce Springsteen outside at Wrigley Field had a special vibe.  These three shows I'm seeing are all inside, so I'll probably change my mind.  Hard to argue against the reality, though, that when it's warm outside and music is playing, almost anything sounds good.  And that the good can become great.

6.  The easy thing to say about the size of a venue would be to say the smaller the better, the more intimate the more rewarding.  But I've found from experience that isn't always true.  I've seen Led Zeppelin in a baseball stadium and barely enjoyed it; I've seen Alejandro Escovedo with 50 or so people in a very small venue and his apparent disappointment with the size of the crowd also led to an underwhelming experience.  So it isn't the size of the venue, it's what the performer does with it.  Springsteen made a stadium work; being right up on Son Volt in a small club when Jay Farrar was in a good mood and the band was clicking was equally unbeatable.

7.  There needs to be a surprise.  It could be a guest, it could be the set, it could be the setlist, it could be a cover song.  Given that my friend Trout researches every show so thoroughly, I'd like for it to be something that catches even him off guard, like discovering that Eddie Vedder makes a good foil to Springsteen on "My Hometown."  It could be something specific for the town that the concert takes place in.

8.  I'm challenging Billy with this one.  The known songs, at least some of them, as presented in concert, need to expand on their recorded versions.  Whether that means a more extended jam, a reimagining, an acoustic version turned electric rocker or vice-versa, the audience should get to hear some songs in new ways, so that when they get back to their homes and music players, they have a different appreciation for some songs that they thought they knew or that they had ignored.  But sorry, Eagles, it doesn't mean playing "Hotel California" exactly the same, note for note, except on acoustic guitars.

9. Women.  I'll be blunt; I know rock is mostly a man's game, but when a band adds a woman, for vocal contrast, for back-up, because she's simply in the band, because she walks on stage to sing a song or two, it tends to humanize everything. I know the women may not like it, but for us, it goes without saying that a woman enriches the concert experience--aurally and visually. That may not have mattered as much when I was a teenager, but it matters now.  When the Smithereens sing "I'm in a lonely place without you" without the woman who is singing the other vocal on the CD, the song is diminished.  If we could see that voice, even better.

10.  The artist has to have some rapport with the audience.  I'm really not interested in the engmatic, misanthropic performer who can't be bothered to acknowledge that he (or she, though not likely) is actually playing for an audience of living, breathing people.  If that wall is that high, stay home.  I'll listen to your CDs instead and try to pretend you're not a freak show.  Even if all you have to say is "Thank you," say it, over and over again. 

No doubt, concert fans, your criteria would be different.  I'd enjoy hearing what your own standards for a great show are.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Here's to You, MP3

The Only Sound That Matters - Band of Joy (mp3)

“There’s nothing quite like listening to music on vinyl. Best sound quality there is.”

Whenever I hear these words, I have to fight to roll my eyes, for I know then and there I am in the presence of a music snob hipster. Anyone who in 2012 insists that music cannot be appreciated without the presence of a fancy schmancy record player that costs upwards of $500-1,000 is someone with more money than sense.

Those who trumpet the sublime supremacy of vinyl love telling you how shitty mp3 files sound, how the mp3 has killed sound quality in music.

If you are a casual music fan with only casual music friends, perhaps you’ve never heard a music snob damn and degrade the mp3. Perhaps you’ve never said “mp3 is the best format” to someone and watched their faces contort and turn colors, their foreheads break into cold sweats, or their lips first smirking then smugly laughing like Uncle Joe Biden in a nationally-televised debate.

Well, dear music snob hipsters, choke on this: mp3 is the best damn thing that’s happened to music in my lifetime.

The mp3 is 17 years old or, as this NPR blog article phrases it, Midlife. (Aside: If you love music or are intrigued by the business of music and don’t keep up with NPR’s “Music Industry” blog, you're really missing out. It’s wicked good.)

Soon enough, a new format will end the mp3 reign, but that new format will not sacrifice channel efficiency for sound quality. And the sound quality isn’t nearly as bad as most snob hipsters would have you believe. Don’t take my word for it; ask an expert who wrote the book on it:
“What I would say is every medium makes compromises. So people always talk about the arbitrary — especially with digital; They say 'Well it's so arbitrary, it doesn't reproduce sound below 20Hz or above 20kHz' and those are arbitrary limits. But you could say the same thing about the RIAA curve that's applied to records, which is also a way of compensating for some of the physical limitations of the medium. So yeah, the thing about them is they sound pretty good. If you're listening on expensive speakers and paying attention, the CD version or the lossless version of something could well sound better than the MP3 version, but you also might not be able to tell, especially if you don't know what to listen for.” -- Jonathan Sterne, professor and author of MP3: The Meaning of a Format
To be clear, Prof. Sterne isn’t claiming that mp3s deliver the best sound quality, but he is suggesting that most people can’t tell a significant difference in even the ideal situations. This very unscientific test suggests as much, when even trained and music-loving ears have trouble consistently separating the high-quality sound from the crap. (There are other tests and similar findings out there, but this one amused me.) Those who praise vinyl don’t prove their point with Fisher-Price mono record players. They use high-end, expensive equipment in highly-controlled settings. But then they want to compare the resulting sound to those shitty old school 128kb (or worse) quality mp3 files. But throw on some high-quality noise-cancelling headphones and make the fight between a record player and a 192kb mp3 (which isn’t even the best), and only the best of the best music ears could tell a difference.

However, rarely in the modern world are we listening to music in ideal situations in the first place. We’re running, or we’re in our car, or we’re in our office, or we’re cooking dinner or mowing the lawn, and the music is our escape or enjoyment, soundtrack or distraction. MP3s don’t skip. A big bass thump doesn’t knock it out of kilter. The cassette deck can’t eat it. The heat can’t warp it.

Further, while that music hipster is stuck in his living room with his wall full of vinyl and cardboard, walking over to his turntable to flip the record every 15-20 minutes, I could run a marathon and listen to my mp3s the entire way, even if it took my out-of-shape ass 11 hours to complete.

I can keep my entire 11,000-song collection on one device smaller than a pack of smokes, back it up to my laptop or my deskop, and keep it in the cloud just in case. My house could burn to the ground, but my music will survive anything but a “Revolution”-like event.

So, MPEG2-Audio Layer III, I raise my drinking glass to you. You’re getting old, and those who should love you most have spent their time bullying and mocking you, but I love you, and so do millions of others out there. I hope you go out in style, and I can’t wait to see what format comes along to end your wonderful and industry-changing reign.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

A Pumpkin Rant

Smashing Pumpkins--"Cinnamon Girl (live)" (mp3)

A few words about pumpkins.  It isn't that I hate them.  In fact, I like them.  I bought three for the front of the house so that we would look more inviting on Halloween, since our neighborhood can't sort out its overall ambivalence toward trick or treaters who come in from the outside and some people just go dark so they won't have to deal with the hordes.  But, my wife and I, we love it.  We set up shop in the front yard, or she does, with or without the help of a friend or two, while I prepare inside for the Halloween after party and fret about whether or not we'll have enough candy to withstand the onslaught.  It's a fine line.  Because we don't want to have a bunch of candy leftover that we'll eat for no good reason; nor do we want to run out and have to turn children (and adults) away.  But back to the pumpkins.  So there they sit, two on side, one on the other, to let visitors know that we're all in for Halloween.  Some years, if I'm home early enough, I carve them and put candles inside--an even more obvious beacon.  But that's all.  I don't ever buy pumpkins to cook with.  And that's where my current frustration lies.  You see, pumpkins as an ingredient, as a flavor, are everywhere, and I just don't see it.  An average flavor at best, with a limited number of uses, pumpkin has become the darling of the fall.  When I gave up Facebook several weeks ago, I joined Pinterest instead.  And I joined it for the food, because I like to cook.  But lately, as I've started to figure out how to use the site, I have been overwhelmed by pumpkins.  Cruise through the "Food and Drink" section of Pinterest, and you will be bombarded by the offerings--pumpkin bread, pumpkin cake, pumpkin creme brulee, pumpkin pancakes, pumpkin soup, pumpkin-based pasta sauce, pumpkin cookies, pumpkin pie, pumpkin coffee drinks, pumpkin cheesecake, pumpkin ice cream, pumpkin ale and on and on and on. It's like Forrest Gump made friends with the Great Pumpkin instead of Bubba.  The lead story in the food section of the Chattanooga newspaper the last two weeks has been either all pumpkin or half pumpkin (pumpkin and squash).  Really?  That's the extent of our fall palate?  Hey, I like a piece of pumpkin pie as much as the next guy, especially homemade, where the ingredients have kind of carmelized and maybe somebody's got some whipped cream to put on top, but it's not like I'm then thinking, 'Wow, I've got a whole lotta pumpkin pie left in the fridge and I'll be mealin' on that bad boy all week.'  Nope, one and done.  Enjoy the slice and wait until next Thanksgiving for another one.  Because, if you think about it, it's all over by Thanksgiving.  The turkey, the dressing, the cranberries, and all that other stuff, even butternut squash?  They might get a repeat performance at Christmas, but not the pumpkin.  Serving pumpkin after Thanksgiving would be like ordering a gin and tonic after Labor Day.  Gauche!  It's like we're supposed to indulge in this pumpkin mania for the month of October (because no one is talking pumpkin in September) and most of November, but that's it.  Let's face it, the chance to eat pumpkin is not like that fleeting chance to get a McRib sandwich--we don't (or at least I don't) head to a restaurant just for the chance to try a pumpkin-based entree.  I'm not praying for a pumpkin pizza or Reese's Pumpkin Cups.  And I'm not really sure when I realized that I was living in the middle of a pumpkin frenzy.  I just don't need to eat it or drink it to rubber stamp my transition to autumn.  No, I think the pumpkin is best left uneaten, is better served with a black cat and a witch than with gourmet coffee.  Pumpkin works better by the innuendo and implication of being just a little afraid of walking alone in the dark with carved orange lanterns glowing in random places down the street than by the literal blandness of its flavor.  You've got to do a lot of work to eat a pumpkin, not just the physical effort necessary to get its flesh separate from the stringy innards and seeds, but the creativity and compensation to make it desirable by overwhelming it with sugar and spices and the fat contained in butter or cream.  But leave it alone, let it sit out in front of a house, even untouched, and it contains within its walls all of the imagination needed to anticipate dozens of stories and tales, movies and nightmares, and an entire magical evening of childhood fantasy and adult nostalgia.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

"We Get to Carry Each Other"

It's a bit foolish to think that there's a single verse of a single song in the history of music that could be a person's Favorite Verse Ever. Then again, of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, you wouldn't think Ilsa could pick Rick's Cafe, right?

My Favorite Verse Ever isn't necessarily The Best Verse Ever, although it's damn near perfect in my book:

Well it's too late
to drag the past out
Into the light.
We're one
but we're not the same
We get to
Carry each other
Carry each other

Doesn't seem like much, does it? My favorite verse ever is a scant 30 words. It's barely enough to make two haiku. (Haikus? Haikee? Haikea?)

If you don't recognize it, this is the second half of the second verse from "One" by U2, which merits consideration as one of the best-written pop songs of the last quarter-century, maybe ever. For such a simple-seeming song, the interpretations of its meaning vary wildly. Some say it's about the band on the verge of a breakup, or about the possible breakup of Bono's marriage, or about the schizophrenic nature of Germany before and after its reunification. Doesn't matter, really, does it? I'm partial to it being about "all of the above." Whatever the specific inspiration, the song is ultimately about dichotomy.

The first verse transitions into an exploration of "one":

(You say)
One love
One life
When it's one need
In the night

The second verse mirrors the first with a brilliantly subtle exploration of "two" (numerology used for emphasis):

(Well it's)
2 late
2 night
2 drag the past out
in 2 the light

This isn't intended to be a Prince allusion. Although the man of paisley and purple deserves props, this song's structure and particularly this verse feels e.e. cummings-esque.

The use of "two" in each of the lines without directly referencing the number, and following it with "We're one / but we're not the same" is perfect. It doesn't try too hard. It's not overtly or excessively cute or clever. It doesn't demand attention. Four lines and four dichotomies: now & later, night & day, past & present, light & dark. Two... two... two... two... we're one...

Throw in a few good Biblical references. Throw in the brilliant "is that a reference to sex?" line of "Well we hurt each other / then we do it again." The entire song floors me, to be honest, but it all revolves around those twos of verse two.

Marriage, civil war, presidential elections, reunions. If you've loved, if you've felt simultaneously a part of something and completely isolated...

We're not the same
We get to
Carry each other

Do you have a favorite verse ever?

Monday, October 15, 2012


Can teens survive without music? Perhaps this is a #FirstWorldProblems observation, but I don’t think so. Music is an instinctive and natural thing for all humans (if not all animals), but is it ever more essential than in adolescence?

Teen dependence on music to process and relate to the world around them might not be the primary theme to The Perks of Being a Wallflower, but it flows throughout the book and film. Different kids make mixtapes for their friends, or their girlfriends, or their crushes.

The way music speaks to teens and moves their emotions is the closest thing I’ve known to “speaking in tongues.” If you’ve seen two or three teens listen to a song that makes absolutely no sense, that is void of much real meaning, you know what I’m talking about, because that nonsensical or utterly superficial song can mean everything to those two or three kids. It can mean love and pain and heartache and betrayal and confusion all at the same time, and it can bottle all that emotion up into its notes for decades so that even a middle-aged man or woman can hear a song from their youth and instantly -- sometimes uncontrollably -- travel through time.

The film adaptation of …Wallflower, of a book I’ve read four times, annotated and underlined to death, is earnest and moving. It’s flawed, to be sure, but anyone who remembers their teenage years as tortured and twisted and confused will be quick to forgive it its shortcomings. In a few places, the scenes feel awkwardly pasted together, and Chbosky -- the first-time author turned first-time director -- chooses some odd places to cut off several scenes. (I’m still trying to decide whether that helps or hurts the movie.)

The three main actors all have a few weaker moments, but as a whole, they perform more than admirably in their roles. If Emma Watson ends up getting an uneven amount of coverage, it’s because she is utterly gorgeous in this role, a character carefully imbued with an imperfect slutty past and an emotional tenderness, all wrapped up in a look that recalls Ally Sheedy after Molly Ringwald gussies her up in The Breakfast Club.

The drug use is tough to watch. Maybe this is because I’m an overprotective father now, but I think it’s more because delicate matters are easier to handle in written form versus the screen. Gore, sex, drugs, all of these go down easier when I’m reading it. But when it’s displayed in vivid technicolor, these kinds of acts feel glorified and celebrated. This feels true even when the director is trying to be honest about it, is trying to offer the complicated picture of these teenage follies and “bad decisions.”

If you were ridiculously popular, a three-sport athlete, or maybe the squeaky-clean StuCo president who also regularly led youth services at your church, maybe The Perks of Being a Wallflower will leave you annoyed or even angry. Maybe you’ll find nothing redeeming or important in it. I can’t help but wonder if that’s true. I hope not.

Yes, there’s a gay kid, and The Smiths, and Rocky Horror references galore, all of which are signs that this is A Movie About Outcast Teens rather than the general population. But I wasn’t goth or on the extremes, and I never touched drugs, and never took a drink until my last semester of high school, and I led my church’s Youth Sundays; still this story sings to me.

Perhaps anyone with awkward high school friendships and awkward high school friends, with a past where crushes intermingled with real love, where Agape and Eros were easily confused, can lose themselves in this movie. In every scene where Sam and Charlie are alone with their beautiful awkwardness, I found my entire body tensing up, my eyes watering.

Thank God all that only happens once. And thank God it happens. And thank God we can throw on some headphones and share these moments with our friend and therapist known as music.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Leaves Falling, Mosquitoes Dying, Halloween Coming, Snuggling With Your Honey Mixtape #1

It's funny how the song fits the season, whether it was intended for the season or not, isn't it?  Not always, of course, but, I have to say, even when a Christmas song comes up on Ipod shuffle in the middle of September, it still feels pretty right. 

So, I went through the BOTG mailbox to see what had come in lately.  And what I offer you is another reminder that there is a lot of pretty good stuff out there.  Not all of it perfect.  Although "Sextape" sounds very much like it is ready for prime time.  Some of these songs may show more promise than anything right now.  I love that.  I thank the artists for giving me the chance to hear them.

As I wrote at the start of the month, mp3s for posting on blogs are getting harder and harder to come by.  But these artists wanted you to hear their songs that way.

I think you will enjoy these songs.  I hope that we, both you and I, are way past the notion of something not being "my style" or "that's not the kind of stuff I listen to."  What really do any of us gain by limiting ourselves?

Marika Hackman--"Spooky" (mp3)   Remake of the old Classics IV song, just so you have a little familiarity to start things off.

XOV--"Sextape" (mp3)  This sounds like a hit to me.  The title is both accurate and self-effacing.

Blind Moon--"Nothing Left To Lose" (mp3)  A bit trancier than what I would normally listen to, but no regrets here.  I was happy to enter this musical world and stay.

No Ceremony--"Feel So Low" (mp3) Female vocal over a male vocal "riff."  Simple electronic back drop.  This sounds like 2012 to me.

Early Alan Younger--"Only An Ocean" (mp3) Someone who shows the influence of Neil Young but doesn't sound at all like him is always going to catch my ear.

Calvin Love--"Gut Feelin'" (mp3)  Remake of a Devo song; I've never heard the original.

I'm In You--"Ex-Cult" (mp3)  I thought for the longest time that I had the name of the song and the name of the band flipped.  Band name an homage to a bad Peter Frampton album?  Stripped down song with a horror film riff and a crisp snare.  It rocks.

pulse.--"Confessions (feat. Craig Walker)" (mp3)  Pop-ready electronica with a beat like Donald Fagen's "I.G.Y." and vocals that initially reminded me of "Under The Milky Way Tonight."

Guards--"Silver Lining" (m4a)  Classic rock melody with an electronic wash.  Catchy.

Nick Voyack--"Introspection" (mp3) Pleasant, jazz-guitar-driven, mid-tempo.  The perfect closer for this little set.

All songs are used with permission.

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Nostalgia Trap

nos·tal·gi·a (n -st l j , n -). n. 1. A bittersweet longing for things, persons, or situations of the past. 2. The condition of being homesick; homesickness.

Rick Springfield released his 13th studio album of original material on Tuesday. You’re likely reacting to this news with one of three thoughts:
(1) Who gives a shiitake?
(2) Ooh! “Jessie’s Girl”!
or (3) Cool!

If you’re still reading, I figure you’re not in Camp #1. I’m part of the small fraction of our society who reacted with #3. Rick Springfield is an essential cog in the musical machine known as Power Pop, and I’m gonna get his newest album, Songs for the End of the World, as soon as my eMusic credits refresh at roughly 5 p.m. tonight.

Today’s topic is tricky camp of people who react with #2, whose sole meaningful connection to Rick Springfield is a single Grammy-winning song released in 1981.

Colin McGuire over at PopMatters wrote a gem of an essay about Misguided Nostalgia for the Musical ‘90s, wondering why critics who hated Matchbox 20 in 1998 would 15 years later compare their newest album to the one they hated as if the one they hated was some underrated pop classic. McGuire mentions other bands artistically “trapped” by their ‘90s time like Third Eye Blind and Everclear.

The misleading assumption of his essay is to suggest this fate befalls only ‘90s bands, or only one-hit or one-album wonders. I'm not sure The Nostalgia Trap is so selective.

Can anyone move past their biggest hit, their biggest album? Did Michael Jackson ever completely escape the shackles of Thriller? It became the miracle against which every future album was measured. If Kurt Cobain had lived to make 10 more albums, he could never have completely escaped “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” The Nostalgia Trap doesn't merely snag the Hansons or Survivors of the musical landscape; it hits pop culture megastars, too.

Perhaps the only chance musicians have of escaping the zeitgeist is by failing to capture a peak moment in the pop culture timeline.

Perhaps the rose-colored blinders are on, but I follow Rick Springfield’s Facebook page, and the dude is busting his ass sideways to push this new album. He’s whoring himself to anyone with a camera and a cable channel, and if playing “impromptu” in an NYC subway terminal might sell a few more albums, he’ll do it (and did... and he made, like, $3 in the hat he put in front of him!).

The nostalgia of listeners is not something artists can fight, I don’t think. You can’t change the current  just by swimming upstream. But what kills artists -- or at least what deadens me to them -- is when the nostalgia infects them too deeply as well. I simply don’t understand why so many of us pay $50, $100, even more, just to watch the older versions of musicians crank out the exact same concert they cranked out when they were crisper musicians and more passionate about their work. (See: The Pixies, Eagles, Backstreet Boys, and so on ad infinitum.)

Rick’s old and wise enough to no longer worry whether “Jessie’s Girl” is what people think of him. He knows damn well he owes a huge chunk of his last 30 years’ change to that song, but he’s not content to let his story end, and he’s not content to just keep cranking out concerts where the setlists haven’t changed in a decade or longer.

Maybe my tune will change in early December, as I sit with my wife, celebrating her birthday by cheering on Hall & Oates from the balcony. Maybe we’ll all just swim happily in our nostalgia, my wife and I, reunited with Hall, and Oates, like it’s some musical hot tub time machine.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Instrumental

People overlook the instrumental.  Over and over, overlook it.  You think it is lesser, even unimportant.  When you encounter it on a CD, you think it is a few minutes to skip over, an afterthought, a lesser effort, a filler.

That's too bad, but I know why you do it.  You think that any instrumental, especially on a rock or pop CD, is something that the band or the artist couldn't quite finish.  They couldn't figure out what words to put with it; they couldn't settle on a melody, or couldn't find one in the first place. You think, to be British and crude, that it's a toss-off.

But, as person who writes a "song" or two from time to time, I am here to tell you that instrumentals exist because there are some pieces of music that exist better without words.  It isn't that a musician fails in his or her attempt to put words to it; it is that it doesn't need words.

I am thinking of:

Yes' "Mood For A Day"
Springsteen's "Paradise by the Sea (or C)"

Traffic's "Glad"
Carlene Carter's "First Kiss"
Steve Earle's "Dominick Street"
Phish's "The Inlaw Josey Wales"

Neil Young's "String Quartet from Whiskey Boot Hill"
Jorma Kaukonen's "I'll Let You Know Before I Leave"
Led Zeppelin's "Bron-Y-Aur"
The Who's "Quadrophenia"
any number of Meat Puppet songs
Nickel Creek's "The Smoothie Song"

Steve Howe plays "Mood For A Day."

That's dozen (or so) off the top of my head.  Without even trying. And I don't really know the names of Meat Puppet songs.  But all of the above are songs that I look forward to when I listen to the CDs they appear on. Little songs that I love and cherish.  To me, the instrumental track or tracks on a CD are sometimes the best moments.

But see?  Even I am doing it.  By calling them "little songs," I am suggesting that they don't merit the same examination, the same evaluation, as the big songs on a CD.  I am wrong.  It's just that we so desperately want the words to mean something, want the words to give us direction, that we ignore the possibility that the instrumental could speak to us just as much.

We allow the musical interlude, the instrumental break, the endless solo, but only as part of a structure that contains words to surround that wordless expansion of a song.  Would the Allman Brothers' "Mountain Jam" have a place today?  Would "Jessica"?

 The instrumental is a special piece, most of the time, a memorable melody carried not by words, but by some instrument, or several instruments.  It is a delicate piece, usually, something that might not even bear the weight of words.  It is not a song (usually) that someone couldn't be bothered to write words for.  The instrumental can change the pace of a CD, can show you a different side of a musician or band, can allow you to focus on the instruments, instead of the voices.  Meditative or awe-inspiring, the instrumental may end up as a backdrop, but it wasn't written that way.  It was first played as a show piece by someone extremely pleased with what he or she had just come up with.  Because it is not an accompaniment to a voice, it is probably more challenging, more intricate, more of a stretch for the player.

Heck, the great Bob Mould kicked off his entire solo career with the beautiful instrumental piece, "Sunspots." 

I may be working with an outdated paradigm.  If so, please give me a little leniency.  Think of, with me who can carry way too much history, surf music.  Think of movie soundtracks.  Think of "Classical Gas."  Even our most popular trends have been rife with songs that don't have words.  Even some that do have words have no meaning associated with those words.  But maybe no more.

All I would argue is, if you are a listerner, do not downplay the instrumental.  That it will be a gem, little or otherwise, has a high likelihood, and if it is something that you connect with early on, I promise that it will become one of your favorites on any given CD going forward.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Say Grace

The first concert I attended was in 1987. I was 16. I have no direct experience with the concerts of the ‘70s, but they seem to have been a pretty damn big deal.

I’ve seen the Rolling Stones Some Girls Live In Texas concert film. My friends and I used to watch KISS live concerts on VHS when we were kids. Plus, I’ve seen Almost Famous at least half a dozen times. So I know the mythical power and draw of concerts from the 1970s, and I mostly believe the hype that this was the pinnacle of rock as a live performance experience for the masses.

When Grace Potter & the Nocturnals took the stage at The Orange Peel in Asheville last Thursday night, she and her pals did everything they could to make sure the spirit of those long-ago days weren’t completely gone. Whether she succeeded couldn't really be for me to say, but by God she got a gold star for effort.

Grace Potter & The Nocturnals (w/Heart) - Paris (Ooh La La) & Crazy On You (YouTube)

Grace Potter isn’t even 30, so I’m not sure how she has a radar lock on the concert energy of an era that existed before she was the proverbial itch in her daddy’s pants, but she gets it. She was raised in Vermont, so maybe that explains some of it.

She kicked off the night with the opening song off her latest album of the same name, “The Lion, The Beast and The Beat.” This song was intentionally made to be the opening song of a rock concert. Everything about that song is intended to serve notice of the pending 2-hour sonic assault.

The slower and more touchy-feely moments of her concert felt mostly like respites from the TNT-level concussive blasts of their up-tempo numbers. At one point, my wife, who knew almost nothing of Grace Potter or her music before entering that concert hall, said, “The singer seems to enjoy these more than the crowd.” While that comment felt a bit harsh, there was truth in it. Then again, her song “Stars” was a slower number, and it was the first song my wife requested when we got into the car the next day, so maybe the slower stuff just took a bit longer to sink in.

The concert went two hours, with a perfectly-arranged 3-song encore that began with a decent cover of “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling.”

The subject of covers at concerts can be endlessly debated, but I’m an ardent believer in them. Cover songs in concert are so much more telling of an artist’s interests and loves than those that get recorded in studio. Two is acceptable, but one is enough. Playing a cover, to me, lets the artist remind us all that they, too, are music fans, and that they’re about the glory of song rather than the glory merely of themselves.

They ended the show with “Medicine,” a song practically crafted to quadruple in power and impressiveness for a live show. I love it when a band does something off the wall, and in the middle of this one, all five members grabbed some sticks and moved, one by one, to the drum set. Eventually the only sound filling the venue was the sound of five folks wailing mercilessly on various sections of the same drum kit. It could have failed; it was certainly a bit risky; but it fit the song and the mood and the wrapping of a wild and loud night.

Grace Potter & The Nocturnals - Medicine (acoustic) (YouTube)

There’s a reason Grace Potter & The Nocturnals were the only sold out show so far on The Orange Peel’s schedule. People love a band who loves a crowd, and they showed Asheville lots of love last week.

Monday, October 8, 2012

How Crazy Horse Got Its Groove Back

B-b-b-bobbity--"Don't Cry No Tears (Neil Young cover)" (mp3)

I picked up Neil Young's autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace, today, and it got me to thinking.  These days in rock circles, it is a given that Young has earned the moniker, "The Godfather of Grunge," but I'm not sure many people know where it started.  It started with Zuma.

Zuma, a brilliant record somewhat lost to the sands of time, is known, if at all, as the first context for the concert staple, "Cortez The Killer."  But if you've been running with Neil as long as I have, you know it as the re-emergence of Crazy Horse.  See, Crazy Horse died.  It died with Danny Whitten, Young's rhythm guitarist and onstage foil, who overdosed on heroin.  It died because its sound depended on the interplay between two electric guitars--a frenetic, scattershot lead player and a rhythm player who knew to play off of those attacks with fills and partial chords, not power chords.

There's a tendency to think that Crazy Horse kept going on Tonight's The Night, but that record, great as it is, has more of the feel of "let's record with whoever's around" than the tight focus of a working band.  And while the Crazy Horse members play their parts and the add-ons like Nils Lofgren and Ben Keith play theirs, it's a different sound.

Enter Frank Sampedro.  I don't know much about the man, and, frankly in some accounts like the book Shakey, descriptions of him are pretty disparaging, recognizing him more for his drug prowess than his playing, but there's no denying that he adds a crucial second guitar (and occasional keyboard) to the band's sound.  And while he's still not blasting barre chords, his is a heavier, more amplified sound than Whitten's. 

The original Crazy Horse had pretty thin guitars--that is not a criticism; it's a fact. Coming off of Buffalo Springfield in a town where the Byrds were in full flight, Young (on a Gretsch) and Whitten play with an electric, but country-tinged, sound.  The new sound on Zuma is fuzz and distortion. 

The first song, "Don't Cry No Tears," is a bridge between that old sound and the new.  It's a song that Young supposedly wrote when he was 14, and though it rocks pretty well, it relies on a wonderful verse/chorus/melody that would suit a bluegrass version just fine and countryish guitars.

By the 2nd song, "Danger Bird," everything changes.  Introduced with controlled feedback and a thumb-strummed super-amplified guitar, the song captures despair and loss not only with powerful lyrics, but with Young's controlled guitar signatures and vocals that color outside the lines. I'm not sure that any band besides Crazy Horse could play it.  It wouldn't cover well.  It's a Neil Young that no one had heard before at that time, the Neil Young that will pen "Like A Hurricane" and "Hey, Hey, My, My" and "Rockin' In The Free World."

The tension on Zuma exists, primarily, between the new life of the band and the death of Young's relationship with Carrie Snodgress, actress from Diary Of A Mad Housewife (you saw her as the mother in Pale Rider) and mother of Young's cerebal palsy-inflicted son, Zeke.  Like Dylan's Blood On The Tracks, which preceded it by several months and overshadowed it, Zuma paints the break-up using the full emotional palette, from vindictive ("Stupid Girl") to antagonistc ("Drive Back") to wisful ("Pardon My Heart").  Like Dylan, he uses different historical settings ("Cortez The Killer") to reveal the relationship; unlike Dylan, he turns the song back on himself, using the entire romantic reimagining of the Aztec culture as a set up for his own failings:

And I know she's living there,
And she loves me to this day,
I still can't remember when
Or how I lost my way.
Young does not throw words around as generously as Dylan, but his sentiment from "Lookin' For A Love" effectively captures the challenge presented to anyone who has ever pursued a relationship with an artist like Young or Dylan or Springsteen or Picasso or Frost or...:

But I hope I treat her kind,
And don't mess with her mind,
When she starts to see the darker side of me.In fact, Zuma contains some of my favorite lyrics ever, by Young or anyone else.  I'll admit to having a thing for vindictive albums and songs (like Dylan's "Positively 4th Street").  I think anger, and especially defiance, fuel rock as well as anything.  And never has that defiant tone been put to better use than in lyrics like these that close "Danger Bird:"

And though these wings have turned to stone,
I can fly, fly, fly, fly away,
Watch me fly above the city
Like a shadow on this life.
And the first line of the climactic verse from "Barstool Blues" gave me the title of my first novel that sits in a drawer:

Once there was a friend of mine
Who died a thousand deaths,
His life was filled with parasites
And countless idle threats,
He trusted in a woman
And on her he made his bets,
Once there was a friend of mine
Who died a thousand deaths.Yes, Zuma stepped outside of time and gave us the modern incarnation of Neil Young that most of us understand best today, the man standing onstage with "Blackie," his beloved Les Paul, ready to unleash some of the most powerfully-melodic and uncontrolled guitar notes ever played.  Zuma gave us that dichotomy between electric and acoustic that has paced Young's best albums.  Though its immediate predecessors, On The Beach and Tonight's The Night, are justly praised for their introspection and sense of immediacy, it is Zuma that feeds Eddie Vedder's imagination (and my writing) and Lou Reed's guitar playing (he famously goes nuts over "Danger Bird" in a Rolling Stone interview from the time) and that helps rock and roll to keep its edge through the excesses and electronics of the late 70's and 80's.  Best of all, it helped Crazy Horse to rise like a Phoenix from the flames of drug overdoses and to become the band that tours even now.

Correction: In reading Neil's Waging Heavy Peace, I've learned that he did indeed have "Blackie," his beloved Les Paul even for Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.  I guess it's the amp set-up that has changed over time.