Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Rocktober: "The Monsters Were Just Trees"

But the monsters turned out to be just trees
When the sun came up
You were looking at me


My nomination for the Song of Halloween 2014 includes the lyrics above. The song is one of doomed romance, doomed by fears of fate, fears of failure, and just fears. Allegorically, it captures an essential part of our psychological zeitgeist.

That song? "Out of the Woods" by Taylor Swift.

Are we out of the woods yet
Are we out of the woods yet
Are we out of the woods?
Are we in the clear yet
Are we in the clear yet
Are we in the clear yet? Good.

It's repetitive, with good reason. The song pounds along in a minor key. Everything about it feels a bit paranoid and dark. 

It speaks for our evolving nature of romance, where no relationship ever feels completely safe. You ask this question after the first date, after the first kiss, after meeting the parents, after he gets down on one knee, after you say "I do," after that first four-month stretch of no sex, after the baby weight won't shed quickly enough, after his work becomes his second wife, after the kids move away to college. Hell, it could be the song for the closing credits of Gone Girl, the ultimate twisted fable of our modernized middle and upper class relationship values. 

It speaks for parenting in the 21st Century. It's removing swings from playgrounds for being dangerous. (Are we out of the woods yet?) It's not allowing your child to go into the backyard beyond your eyesight lest something awful happens. (Are we in the clear yet?) It's attending all their practices lest the coach does something mean or insensitive. (Are we out of the woods yet?) It's worrying whether they know enough math, whether they'll get into a good college, whether they'll be straight, get married, have kids, a job they enjoy but that lets them be comfortable. (Are we in the clear yet?) 

It's our worries about health. It's avoiding the wrong foods lest we get cancer, and it's the six-month MRIs to see if we're still in remission. It's processed foods and gluten and shellfish. It's Ebolanoia. It's our fear of vaccinations.

It's the economy, and our job security, and our fears that we're not completely in control of ourselves, much less the circus and chaos that surrounds us and morphs daily.

It's how a lot of Christians treat their relationship with God, as if there's some checklist of behaviors or attitudes that will guarantee their safe passage, but they're always just a little bit scared that they're not quite in the clear yet. It's that realization that maybe we've been raised to worship a God who is a scary and vengeful mofo rather than a parent who wants to give us a hug, who wants to give us shelter no matter how many times we've screwed up.

The lyrics to "Out of the Woods" aren't scary, exactly, but they are haunting, and the narrator is haunted. "Oh I remember!" she repeats toward the end. Memories are a big deal to Taylor. If "forgive and forget" is the rule, Taylor is rarely interested in forgiving anyone for anything lest she lose the fuel for another hit. Ultimately, though, is there much difference between refusing to forget and being haunted?

Some will dismiss OotW as just another song Taylor wrote about a short-term boyfriend, likely inspired by her fleeting romance with Harry Styles of One Direction. Please, however, take a moment to consider that perhaps Miss Sure Thing Pop Queen is being just a tiny bit more ambitious. Because OotW is a bold and impressive pop gem.

Intentional or not, she has expressed our modern paranoia, our fear that anything and everything is out to get us, bound to ruin us or devour us or kill us. We're doomed, and we're just waiting for the bell to toll.

But the monsters turned out to be just trees
When the sun came up
You were looking at me

We're scared of nothing but our own shadows, of one another, of frappin' trees. And even when we see the truth in the harsh clear light of day, we still can't convince ourselves that we're safe.

Our desperate need to be afraid of and worried about everything, constantly, is surely what will kill us.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Rocktober: Trunk Or Treat Playlist

Billy and I would be remiss, would we not, if we did not have at least one Rocktober post that focused on Halloween and the music that relates to it.  While it might be easy to cite "Monster Mash" or "Werewolves Of London," I'm taking a different tack this year.

I absolutely despise the concept of "trunk or treat."  I mean, despise it.  As defined at Homestead.com, here is a good explanation of the event:

Trunk or Treat is a Halloween event that is often church- or community-sponsored. People gather and park their cars in a large parking lot. They open their trunks, or the backs of their vehicles, and decorate them. Then they pass out candy from their trunks. The event provides a safe family environment for trick or treaters.

But as a Halloween activity, it is built upon one or two flawed concepts, and maybe both:

1.  That trick or treating is an unsafe activity for a typical suburban or small town or small city or rural or subdivision kid, either because there people giving out razor blades in apples or because it is no longer safe for children to walk around their neighborhood.  You live in a dangerous, urban area and feel the need to trunk or treat, more power to you.

2.  That Christian children or socio-economically similar children, and their families, are best served by spending this most pagan of holidays together in a spirit of fellowship, like mindedness, and safe exclusivity.

Both conceptions are wrong.  First, the belief in maladjusted neighbors giving out dangerous treats has long been proven to be nothing but Urban Legend,  and even if they weren't, children could be trained not to eat those tainted apples until they got home.

The most dangerous woman in my neighborhood on Halloween makes children recite a Bible verse before she will give them candy; the second most dangerous house gives out toothbrushes, which clearly ignore the spirit of the holiday.

But it is the second belief, the safe, spend-the-night-with-people-you-know aspect of trunk or treating that I find most troublesome.  It is holiday as privilege; it is holiday as exception.  Rather than mix with The Great Unwashed, these families who meet in a well-lit parking lot or a school playground or within reach of a national chain store isolate themselves with high quality, expensive candies, stellar costumes, and clean, new or newish automobiles to create the Halloween equivalent of a gated community that keeps out the riff-raff, whether it come from lower social status, lower "Believer" status, or simply people of different races.

My neighborhood, by contrast and whether it likes it or not, has more children from out of the neighborhood than in it, traipsing along its sidewalks and streets in a never-quite-expected-enough frenzy of costumes and candy, parents and chaperones, extra bags for relations who couldn't be there and a willingness to keep knocking on doors after the neighborhood's stated curfew.

Halloween is the wild in us, the irrational, the holiday that makes no sense in terms of nutrition or protection.  It only makes sense in terms of hospitality, in giving to strangers, in spending money for people we don't know, and welcoming them to our yard, our front door, or even into our homes.  Trunk or Treat is a violation of all that Halloween stands for, even all that America stands for, or at least those parts of America that are still willing to rub elbows with each other.

In the spirit of trunk or treating, though, I offer this playlist to pipe from the fine sound systems of the clean cars at such an event:

1.  "Ooh, The World Is Scary" by No Shades Of Grey.
2.  "Onward, Christian Trunk Or Treaters" by The Sunday Schools.
3.  "Lock The Door, Turn Out The Lights" by Neighborhood By Day.
4.  "Just Us" by Us.
5.  "Ain't No Junk In This Trunk (radio edit)" by Workin' Out Women (featuring Annie Rex).
6.  "You Can Choose The Candy, But You Don't Get To Eat It" by The Moderations.
7.  "Jesus Wants You In Bed By Eight" by The Near Christmases.
8.  "I'll Pick The Costume, You Pick The Position" by Creative Counterparts.
9.  "Daddy's Got Candy" by The After Darks.
10.   "Your Friend Sarah's Got A Nice Momma (Who's A Good Christian Woman)" by The Ten Commandments.

Happy Halloween!

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Rocktober: Heresy

About five years ago, maybe more, we got a new music venue in town, Track 29.  Located in a building that used to house a hockey rink at the far end of a hotel complex, Track 29 revolutionized Chattanooga's music scene.  Almost immediately, Track 29 began to attract a caliber of national artist who previously might not have considered a stop in our city.

Track 29 is a quality operation: thorough, impeccable security, a lock-tight ticketing system which prevents scalping and ticket reselling, an adjustable stage which can make the space intimate, if necessary, sprawling, if necessary, seated, if necessary.

My only beef with Track 29 is that I didn't get tickets for Jack White, even though I pulled over while driving in East Ridge and hit the "Purchase" button on my phone at the exact second those tix went on sale.

No, I've seen any number of great shows at Track 29--Steve Earle, Trombone Shorty, Jason Isbell, Justin Townes Earle, Drive-By Truckers (briefly), Sufjan Stevens' Christmas Show, among others.

So, look out, because here comes the heresy:  I much, much, much prefer seeing shows at Rhythm And Brews, the tiny venue that used to draw most of the top talent that would come to Chattanooga (barring, of course, the larger acts that would play the stiff settings of the Tivoli or Memorial Auditorium).

People criticize Rhythm And Brews as being oddly-shaped, a music venue that was too wide and not deep enough, maybe some issues with sound, tight quarters, etc.  Not for me.  I was there the other night for a Chris Knight show, and I was reminded immediately how much I have missed it.

There is no security at Rhythm And Brews.  You show your printed out ticket voucher, your ID for beer, and you are in.  Some shows have tables, some don't, and, depending on when you arrive, you might get a good spot, you might have to go to the balcony, you might be jammed in on the main floor, you may get pushed off to the side.  Bathrooms are close and easy.  You can get food.  You have a waitress.  You don't have to wait a long time at the bar.

I've seen any number of great shows at Rhythm And Brews--Steve Forbert, Richie Havens, Drive By Truckers, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Son Volt three times, Justin Townes Earle, Dinosaur Jr.,  Jake Shimabukuro, Chris Knight, and many others, as well as a bunch of local acts and tribute bands.

I know I should prefer the larger, more professional venue and the music that it has afforded us, but I don't.  I like the little hometown hole-in-the-wall, warts and all.  It hasn't changed.  It hasn't improved.  It has less of a chance than ever of bringing in quality acts on a regular basis.

Still, for years, it was the only game in town and we thrilled with the offerings it provided us.  But now, for most of us, it is under the radar.  It is rare that an artist on tour that we hoped to see will set up shop there.

But I love the evening it allows--meeting friends at the Big River, enjoying drinks and/or a meal before walking easily to the other side of the building, maybe heading in early to put a coat down and reserve a table, maybe just taking a chance on a show we don't know much about because we know the setting, at least, will be accommodating, and that makes us more inclined to give the music a chance.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Rocktober: Naive Disillusionment & the Data Mining of Music

This summer I attended a semi-exclusive A&R event in midtown Nashville, where a collection of up-and-comers and hopefuls on the country music scene performed for a small crowd and hobnobbed with label reps, hoping to get the right one’s attention and be offered a contract and a path to the big time.

While there, I got into a fascinating conversation with a guy who has begun a start-up company specializing in data-mining hit music.

Basically, he said, making chart-topping music is more science than art. It’s no different than cooking. You need to know the precise ingredients and measurements required to make any specific dish. Then, and only then, can the supremely gifted chefs add their “little something special” that vaults a simple recipe into another stratosphere. But even the “little something special” things can be measured, tracked, investigated, analyzed.

Likewise with music. Hit songs are, truly, recipe driven, and it’s more true in contemporary, mainstream country music than anywhere.

So his company takes hit songs and breaks each one down into hundreds of different data points. Beats per minute. Primary chord and chord progression. Number of words per verse, per chorus, per song. Time length of verses, of chorus, of bridge. If it can be isolated or categorized, they’re doing it. Song by song, note by note, data point by data point, all going into columns and rows for comparison and contrast.

“Once we’ve built up a sufficient database of hit songs, we will be able to take someone’s new song, run it through the analysis, and identify the precise likelihood of that song becoming a hit,” he said. Even now, he explained, with the limited database they’d built up, their predictions were stunningly accurate and were only going to improve as they tweaked the system. They could isolate the comparison to the past year's worth of hits or the past two decades' worth.

Surely they’re not the first ones to try this, to come up with scientific formulas as a means of dissecting hit music, I said. No, he said, but the music industry is not unlike professional baseball.

“Have you seen or read Moneyball?” he asked. And he had me. Because I frappin’ love Moneyball.

“How long did it take baseball, a sport swimming in statistics, whose popularity is built around statistics, to wake up and realize that you could use those same stats to build championship teams rather than relying on the judgment of scouts and GMs? It took a long time, right? Because they were in denial.

“That’s where the music industry is. They’re just waking up to the reality that they’ve spent lots of time crunching music stats, but they’ve been looking at the wrong numbers in the wrong ways and relying on A&R reps and talent spotters rather than using the stats to build championship teams.”

It's cool. It's believable. It's utterly depressing.

Music isn't baseball, dammit.

Inside the scaffolds and structure of a song, the innermost part of myself can seek sanctuary, that endless hunger for inspiration and insight can often be fed. Music is my real church. Like love and faith, I perceive my relationship with music as a mystical experience, not a scientific one. I don’t need to understand why I like a song or a band, only that it moves me somehow in a way I seek to be moved.

My heart wants to believe you can't do this. You can't entirely make art into a science. But I'm sad because, and my heart hurts because it's probably true.

But. If it were completely true, if science was vehicle by which we could all be pulled back together into a shared love of particular songs, why are we more splintered musically than ever? Why is everyone fighting for ever-smaller slices of an ever-smaller pie?

No no. There's still plenty of magic in music. Or, as Olivia Newton-John would say so well, "I have to believe we are magic."

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Rocktober: Billy's Lilith Fair, a.k.a. Bilith Fair

When Sarah McLachlan attempted to revitalize the late 90s modest Grrl Power success story of Lilith Fair for a v2.0 run in 2010, things didn’t go as planned. A third of the dates were cancelled, and several artists backed out for fear of not getting paid. Taking full responsibility for the failure, McLachlan told The Globe & Mail:
"Bringing the same thing back last year really didn’t make any sense, in retrospect, without due diligence being done on how women have changed... In 12 years, women have changed a lot. Their expectations have changed, the way they view the world has changed, and that was not taken into consideration, which I blame myself for.”
She’s right, of course. Add to this the not-minor fact that the music scene is in the midst of an armageddon of sorts, an earthquake that has megastars giving away their music and nobodies rocketing to the top of the charts but making minimal money in the process. It hasn’t been all bad for women, though.

The 21st Century music scene has mirrored the rest of corporate and artistic America in that women are no longer the lessers. In most cases, they’re neck-and-neck if not outright ahead of their male counterparts.

College-educated women make up a lower percentage of the unemployed than their male contemporaries.

Fifteen of the Top 20 NYTimes bestsellers are authored by women (yes, I’m counting Nicholas Sparks as a woman), and four of the men are there by riding the coattails of long-running characters Virgil Flowers, Stone Barrington, Michael Bennett and Jack Reacher. All 10 of the 11-20 sales are by women authors.

All of the top 5 Billboard Top 100 spots are currently claimed by women, although their numbers dwindle noticeably after that. Very soon Taylor Swift will probably occupy every spot in the top 10 with static.

(Amusing side note: Only two of the Top 10 Country songs are by women. The Age of the Country Woman has begun to dwindle. Then again, Country is currently in the Glam Rock phase of mid-80s rock, and no one sane and interested in making good music really wants to compete for the drinkin’ sleazin’ boot-scootin’ truckin’ competition that currently marks the race to the top of the country charts.)

With the exception of Bonnaroo, it seems that the time of music festivals and events with a Star-Studded Lineup of Musicians is in the past. Unless you count the never-ending string of music awards shows on network television that exist solely to cover up the fact that their regular programming sucks. I don’t. Count music awards shows.

The lovely and talented Sarah McLachlan was right, though. Her attempt to revitalize Lilith failed because she failed to realize that the landscape of feminism and music had changed underneath her. I can fix that.

I would like to propose Billy’s Lilith Fair, or BILITH FAIR. Two-days per stop. Eight cities. Done. General ground rules:
  1. Instead of stubbornly creating a lineup built to attract women, build a lineup that would play like the best kind of Ladies Night at a good bar. Aim for 35% attendance by males who believe they can find an impressive and appealing assortment of heterosexual women in the audience.
  2. A wide mix of styles should evolve throughout the day, from folk and country to rock and electronic, but with of course the bigger names at the peak hours.
  3. Start smart, end wild. Start smooth, end with a party. It's gotta end by partying like it's 1999.
None of the acts can be so strong and popular that they sell out big venues by themselves. This should be the Kansas City Royals of female musicians, not the Yankees. It should be Texas Christian, not Texas. It should be Trapper John, M.D., not M.A.S.H. It should be a celebration of music that just happens to be female-led, not a celebration of females who just happen to play music.

My lineup for the 2-day, 2-stage Bilith Fair tour. Eight stops. The order of acts could be improved. You could add a few and drop a few names and lose little of the pull or punch.

Day One
(acts on alternate stages throughout the day, 90-minute sets, noon to midnight)

  • Lori McKenna
    • Boy
  • Holly Williams
    • Haley Bonar
  • Lucius
    • Ingrid Michaelson
  • Kacey Musgraves
    • Jenny Lewis
  • Sleeper Agent
    • Sara Bareilles
  • Garbage
    • Sleigh Bells

Day Two

  • Caitlin Rose
    • Jenny Owen Youngs
  • Shovels & Rope
    • Broods
  • Lake Street Dive
    • Haim
  • ZZ Ward
    • Chvrches
  • Brody Dalle
    • Tegan & Sara
  • Grace Potter & the Nocturnals
    • Paramore

Additional acts for consideration or substitution:
Tift Merritt
Hurray for the Riff Raff
Katie Herzig
Lana Del Rey
Metric
The Royalty
Neko Case
Zola Jesus
Lykke Li
K.T. Tunstall
The Rescues (or just Kyler England and Adrianne Gonzales)
Robyn
St. Vincent
Against Me!
Patty Griffin
Brandi Carlisle
Indigo Girls

Monday, October 20, 2014

Rocktober: Musical Alchemy

A Boy And His Guitar--"Interrupted Prayer For A Lost Friend"

And what would Rocktober be without a discussion of the act of still trying to rock?  And so the greatest musical joy of this particular Rocktober has been the arrival of a Bugera V22, a new amplifier to me, but an old-style amplifier in terms of its tube-driven sound and classic features.

The amp has a clean, clear sound, if that is what I want, but it can also get dirty like a panda, if that is the sound I'm after.  And anywhere in between.

As pleased as I am with this amp, this praise is neither an endorsement nor what I really want to write about.    Nope, today I'm jazzed about musical alchemy, the explicable blast of discovery and creativity that occurs when I plug one of my old guitars into that new amp and all that was old becomes new.

But it doesn't have to be an amp.  It could be a different guitar.  It could be the ukulele that you bought to take to Korea.  Or the harmonica that you pick up at your friend's house.  It could be Talking Heads' "This Must Be The Place," where they all swapped instruments and came up with a "naive melody."  It could be the "vibe" Neil Young felt when he bought Hank Williams' Martin guitar.

Ask any musician and he or she will confirm, I am certain, the indisputable magic in the air around a player with a different instrument, an fresh effect, a better sound reproduction system, a new set of strings, a vintage purchase.  It can lead to a song, a riff, a combination of chords you've never tried together, a run or a reach you couldn't get to before.

Nor is this some kind of bogus, romantic superstition, at least not to me.  It has simply happened too many times.  When I received a dulcimer for Christmas while I was in college, messing around with it that day, before I knew chords or patterns or anything else, I got a pretty interesting, intricate song out of it.  Same thing when I first got a 12-string from my brother.

Same thing with this amp.  Since plugging it in a week ago, I have come up with three song structures different from anything I've come up with.  Songs I haven't played for years by other artists have come back to me strangely in different keys than I've played them in before.

And I am absolutely convinced that these would not have happened had I not plugged my old guitars into this new amp.

Take the fragment I've posted above.  While I would claim neither that it is genius nor that it is poised to change the direction of modern music, I do think that a listener would be hard pressed to miss the excitement and the joy in the playing that comes from the little lead run and from my discovery of a C#m-Cm-A chord progression that I've never put together before.

And the sound.  The sound of the guitar coming out of the amp is key to the alchemy, the bit of distortion, the subtle reverb, the sustain that allows notes to flow into and over each other.

Like any good alchemist, I'll be back in front of that black box, trying to get gold out of it, before nightfall.

(Producer's note: The ultimate in lo-fi, the track was recorded using the Voice Memos app on the iPhone 5s.  The impromptu title shows both a desire to give the piece some weight and the reality that an incoming phone call interrupts the recording on this app.  While I call it a prayer for a lost friend, my daughter says it sounds like the theme music to a mid-season replacement television show.)

Friday, October 17, 2014

Rocktober: Flood Warning

Editor's Note: it has been a few days since I started this post.  Where I live, the storm did not achieve original predictions, my basement "flooding" consisting of mere rivulets that I was mostly able to wipe up with a towel.  Still, the impetus for this post had me looking for a great batch of related songs, so I'll carry on with the original concept.

It has been a strange, rainy October around here, not typical at all.  Right about the time when we might be expecting an Indian Summer, instead we've been getting a fairly regular soaking over the past several days.

Tonight, we await a long, fierce storm that continues to make its way from the west.  The storm has already brought tornadoes and punishing winds, as well torrents of rain.

Tonight, I have preparing my basement for the inevitable flooding that will occur.  Maybe it won't be deep, but it will be wet. And with the ground already wet, we don't really have any way to stop it.

If what happens to my basement is the worst thing that happens in this area, that will be just fine.  Recent years have brought too many storms, devastations and deaths, floods and downed trees, and I imagine all of us feel a certain amount of trepidation when a major storm approaches.

Still, I have to try to find s little bit of good news in all of this imminent water:  we are trying to grow grass in our backyard and it was seeded a week ago.  Now, if the seed has rooted. Another dose of rain could be great; if it hasn't, our seedlings will be washed to who knows where.

But on to the music.  For those of us aging rockers, music has provided a soundtrack to so many events--painful teenage breakups, holidays, car trips, rites of passage.  Tonight, as I'm thinking of all of the rain and potential flooding headed this way, I realize that such storms have provided the basis of any number of great songs.  And while I know this would be more effective if we could all click on the songs, I still offer my favorite storm songs (some winched in to fit contextually).

1.  "Stormy Monday"--the Allman Brothers' version.  The storm here is emotional, the beginning of a long week where something goes wrong most every day.  Along with Derek and The Dominoes, this song introduced me to the blues.

2. + 3.  "Texas Flood" and "Couldn't Stand The Weather" from Stevie Ray Vaughn.  The full range of Vaughn's genius in just a pair of songs, one a cover with all the power of the original and more and the other a blues update with a riff built around a long pause (warning: not for beginning bands) that shows off the tightness of his band.  And a blistering solo.

4.  "Higher Ground" from the Tom Petty and the Heartbreaker's CD, Wildflowers.  One of those great Perty songs buried in the middle somewhere that just makes you say, "Holy shit, this rocks!"

5.  "Rain" by The Beatles.  One of John's greatest songs driven by Ringo's best drumming, a complicated pattern like no other.  And one of John's most dismissive couplets: "When the rain comes, they run and hid their heads/ They might as well be dead."

6.  "If I Had A Boat" by Lyle Lovett.  And if I had a pony, I would ride upon my boat. Exactly.

7.  "Shelter From The Storm" by Bob Dylan.  Like "Tangled Up In Blue," another star-crossed lovers song with a killer, double-edged last line to every verse.  "In a little hilltop village/ they gambled for my clothes."  Only Dylan can get away with that one.

8.  "South Central Rain" by R.E.M.  I have no way of knowing what an early R.E.M. (or late one) is about, but with a chorus of only one repeated word ("Sorry") this one achieves that mythic level of high art.

9.  "Drowned" by The Who.  A yearning, a cleansing, a primordial desire, an escape.  Townshend loads the water with the full weight of symbolic possibility.

10.  "I Don't Wanna Go Down To The Basement" from the first Ramones album.  I don't what was in their basement, but I know what will be in mine, and it will involve fans, towels, dehumidifiers, mildew, and a whole lot of work.


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Rocktober: Hope Amidst Ashes

The music is what matters. Period.

The artist’s real name, or the band’s behind-the-scenes drama, or the reason the lead singer formed a band, or whether the drummer is sleeping with college-age girls… or boys, or whether the singer is messing around with the backup singer, gets divorced, marries the backup singer, then begins a string of affairs with other women. (Which, by the way, would make a great sitcom titled "Who's The Boss?")

If we were to judge music on the personalities and backstories of the people making said music, most of what we love, artistically, would wither and die swiftly, replaced by a vastly different kind of music. And that music would be known as "Lawrence Welk Music."

So it’s dangerous to let a band's story influence liking them. Which is why I’m sort of glad I fell in love with Augustines before I found out why they’re Augustines.

Their 2014 self-titled release caught my notice when their video for “Nothing to Lose But Your Head” landed somehow in my Twitter feed. Totally random. A sampling of their album on eMusic led to a quick purchase. It was love at first listen. It is without question a top candidate for Album of the Year.

My immediate description of the Augustines’ music: Frightened Rabbit, ‘Merca-style. Not surprisingly (or coincidentally?), they opened up for Frightened Rabbit for a while. I wish to holy henna I’d been able to witness such a combination, but alas. Maybe my heart couldn’t have handled it.

Only recently, in researching the Augstines’ first album, the 2011 Rise Ye Sunken Ships, did I discover that its genesis was inspired by the suicides of the lead singer’s brother and mother. The kids never knew their father.

Some could argue that the Augustines' brand of rock is sentimental. Melodramatic.

Like the FRabbits, Augustines play a brand of rock music where the heart is duct taped onto the sleeve, where the world is a harsh and heartbreaking place full of disappointment and disillusionment, and where the only way we continue driving down our road is because we hold out hope beyond reason, that those fleeting orgiastic moments of joy we seek are enough to keep us warm in the cold dark night.

Perhaps it’s nothing spectacular or unusual, for someone to suffer the loss of a loved one, to suffer excruciating pain, to suffer from the loss of self or purpose, and to find a way out of it. People do it every day, right? We all fall down, ashes to ashes, and many of us find a reason to get back up and keep going.

I will never grow weary of such stories. Nothing, and I mean nothing in the universe, so singularly calls me to celebrate and dance in the midst of our imperfect humanity like these stories. Of redemption. Of recovery. Of following the light at the end of that long tunnel.

It is the story of childbirth.
It is the aftermath of natural disasters and most human ones.
It is, believe it or not, the reason for “The Walking Dead.” For most great TV dramas, I'd argue.

As their probably inspiration St. Augustine wrote, "God judged it better to bring good out of evil than to suffer no evil to exist."

That search, that message, infuses everything the Augustines have recorded. Sometimes, in a song like “Kid You’re On Your Own,” when he growls lines like, “Here everyone you love slips through your hands like sand,” and “Everyone feels so far away,” his growling vocals and the aggressive punch of the music buffer the desperate words, as if they simply can't accept the words being uttered.

Sometimes, like in “Walkabout,” the song I consider to be the cornerstone of their album and maybe of the band, it’s blatant. The hope -- the sentimentality, if you’re jaded -- is screaming at you through your earphones.


(Side Note: A fun challenge with Augustines is trying to figure out WTF he’s singing. Their songs are, admittedly, begging to be misunderstood. The only more unintelligible singer I can think of at present is Sia.)

Monday, October 13, 2014

Rocktober: The Rise and Fall of eMusic

eMusic might not see the dawn of 2016.

I've been a loyal member of the online music club since 2009, paying them $12/month, plus another $20-30/year for extra purchases, and have never been anything but complimentary of their business. The occasional technological glitch is counterbalanced by an attentive and responsive customer service model.

When I joined, eMusic prided itself on being a hub of independent music and castaways, a sort of hipster online Columbia House. Everything was done in credits instead of dollar amounts, and the selection forced a mainstream-loving guy like myself to stretch my tastes and take chances. The business took a leap and opened its doors to the bigger music groups -- Sony, Universal, Warner -- offering most new releases at lower cost than Amazon or iTunes. While this decision kept a customer like me from moving on from inevitable boredom, it angered their indie distributors, many of whom backed out, and their indie-loving collectors, who backed out in response.

eMusic gambled on getting more customers like me -- loser sellouts with questionable and easily-manipulated musical tastes -- at the cost of guys who prefer vinyl, don't use deodorant, and insult all bands who have been heard of by people living in more than a single state.

Two weeks ago, I signed into my eMusic account, something I do once every week, on Tuesday evenings. My monthly account was set to wrap up in the coming days, so it was time to find some music. Except I was greeted with a message, the Cliff's Notes version of which goes like this:

"Effective immediately, we will no longer carry 92% of the music you'd marked as wanting to buy. Instead, we will return to our roots and only provide independent music you've never heard of. Have a nice day."

I put my account on hold two days later. Ninety days from now, my five-year membership in eMusic will likely be done.

You can never go home again. I don't care if Thomas Wolfe says it, or if Battlestar Galactica names an episode after it. In the world of business, once you grow, or attempt to grow, you cannot shrink. It doesn't work with shirts, or with skins, or with online music clubs. (Or record stores, bookstores, restaurants, clothing stores, or bars.) Backpedaling signifies the moment you've dug your own grave deeply enough that you can no longer crawl back out. And unless someone comes along who can pull you out, you'll be in that hole 'til you starve to death or give up.

For the company's sake, I hope I'm wrong. I hope they reconfigure their payroll and their budget, and enough VIP indie labels return to them, and enough unbathed hipster music lovers rejoin their ranks, that they maintain a sustainable business model. eMusic will never be a BFD, but world domination should never have been in eMusic's mission statement to begin with.

I wish them well as we part ways. It's the kind of breakup that good indie songs are made of, where I'll remember our time together fondly, and where I'll hope they find whatever it is they're seeking for meaning and purpose, and maybe, who knows, our paths will cross again down the road.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Rocktober: What IS "Good Songwriting"?

“Good songwriting.” I’m not sure I really know what that means. As a phrase. As the adjective and noun music critics and fans use to describe an essential quality in most music they identify as “good,” as “worthy” of their attention and listening ears.

Many music lovers carry this assumption that popular music cannot have “good songwriting.” Oftentimes I find music critics who call out one verse as brilliant songwriting, another verse as trite or derivative or bad, and I swear to God half the time I can’t tell the difference.

Let’s take a song from the latest Ryan Adams eponymous album, an album that I love as much as my blog partner. “Feels Like Fire” is the catchiest (and maybe best) song on the album for me. It encapsulates, to me, the panicky feeling of loss, a kind of pain that doesn’t translate to the epidermis, but rather feels like someone using a pickaxe on your soul, some deep internal recess that has no nerve endings but still somehow seems akin to searing agony.

But I don’t believe it’s a particularly well-written song, lyrically. Take the second verse:
Feel the sunlight
The sunlight on my face
It’s cold out here
Lost in outer space
I mean no disrespect to Ryan Adams, but if this verse were in a Miley Cyrus song, people would mock it. They’d be flat-out brutal about how awful it is. But Adams is considered by many to be an excellent and mature songwriter and churns out song like Stephen King does books, so he generally gets a pass.

As much as I love the chorus, as much as the line “driving past your church and all the houses in a row” feels deep and meaningful to me -- it reminds me of driving away from my high school girlfriend’s house night after night in high school -- it’s difficult for me to proclaim that it’s proof of genius.

So, do I love the song because of the songwriting or despite it?

What makes “good songwriting”? Is it the turn of each phrase in a song or the feel of the whole? The poetry of the collected lines rather than the occasional predictability of a couplet or rhyme? Is “good songwriting” entirely about how the instrumentation of the piece breathes additional life into mere words?

Lyrically, is “Sweet Child O’ Mine” even a fraction as brilliant a song without the music? Does that make it “good songwriting” or entirely the opposite? Is it the song or the writing or their inextricable interconnectedness?

I’m not being flippant here, or smart-alecky. These are genuine questions to which others seem to have a confident answer while I barely know where to start.

One of the things I immediately notice and frequently appreciate in songs are the use of barbaric yawps and primitive utterings, the heys and yeahs and oohs and boo-bop-gowl-do-wop-kachow moments that aren’t lyrics. Those moments are the rare moment when I believe maybe there’s something to churches that speak in tongues, because when Steven Tyler goes into ki-ki-ki-ki-kow mode, I know what he’s saying, sorta, and I love him for doing it so damn well. The only thing that cushioned the fall of my disappointment discovering how many songs Aerosmith had written for them by others was the realization that the gutterals and nonsensicals Tyler injects into songs are not things anyone could write for him. They are his. That’s his best songwriting (again, I'm not being sarcastic or cruel here).

But does that make Steven Tyler a good songwriter? Dunno. How much is "good songwriting" in the ear of the beholder?

Anyone care to help me out? Is there a definable criteria for “good songwriting,” or is it just a safe way for people who don’t like an artist or song to criticize or celebrate while sounding intellectual?

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Rocktober: The Curse Of Being Prolific?

I'll tell you who really irritates me:  critics who malign a musician for creating too much music. Case in point is the generous output of Mr. Ryan Adams, a songwriter who is often at the peak of his skills, but who has struggled with finding the proper vehicles for his many, many songs.  His new eponymous CD contains some of his best work, some great songs, but it is difficult to celebrate that too much when I know how long it has been since he last put out new material.  He even tossed off a Minutemen-like CD of brief, punk numbers on the side just for the hell of it, as if to remind everyone that he can write riffs and hooks in his sleep whenever he feels like it.

See, whatever record company Adams is with at the time tends to give him a hard time, sending CDs back because they aren't enough "something," like the brilliant Love Is Hell, which he was only allowed to release as a pair of EPs, after he cranked out Rock And Roll to satisfy the sound demands of the corporate execs (this CD is superb in its own right, regardless of the conditions under which it was recorded).  Said company also  forced Demolition, a CD comprised of the "best" tracks from 5 different CDs Adams had recorded in different styles ranging from rock to bluegrass.

But if, like me, you tracked down versions of those original CDs (48 Hours, The Suicide Handbook, and others), then you know how many other good to great songs are out there.  You also there are a bunch of great songs on III/IV, the leftover tracks from his work with The Cardinals.  Maybe you've even heard the Elizabethtown demos, good songs from a not-so-good movie.

The point being that Mr. Ryan Adams writes a ton of songs and I, for one, welcome any and all output from him.  I don't expect that it will all be "great," but I'm pretty sure that most of it will be interesting.  The Beatles, as we recall, averaged about two albums a year during their now-brief career.  But Adams, who became at some point, the Great _______ Hope, never could quite meet critics' expectations, so they went after his sprawling talent, implying a lack of discipline and coherency.  Not me.  I miss him any time he isn't putting out new stuff.  Hell, I bought $150 worth of live, solo acoustic stuff recorded in Europe with many repeated songs, just to bridge the gap.  So, much as I am enjoying Ryan Adams, his excellent new CD, I have yet to be convinced that it is better than it would have been had it come out three years ago.

I'll tell you who I've really begun to appreciate:  critics who malign a musician for creating too much music.  Case in point is the unfiltered output of Mr. Neil Young, a songwriter who has produced some of the most meaningful and memorable music over the last 5 decades, but who seems to think that, these days, anything that he thinks is worth putting out is worth putting out.  That includes any live recordings from his past, a CD about an alternatively-fueled car, and a CD of lugubrious standards recorded in Jack White's phone booth.

For years, decades even, Mr. Young was able to put out a fascinatingly-eclectic mix of songs recorded off the cuff, one-take wonders, demos, things that the other musicians thought were rehearsals, and not only get away with it, but also generate some great, spontaneous, brilliant work.  But I think people have had enough.  I think even I have, and I list Neil as my favorite musical performer for Internet security questions.

At some point, though I'm not sure when, I started to feel ripped off by the very artist I admire because he seems to have lost any sense of the quality of his material or his production values, or worse, doesn't seem to care.  Young's proliferation of songs used to be his strength, with hidden gems surfacing at concerts and appearing years later on CDs, but as covers have replaced original songs in his output, and when even original songs are spotty in terms of quality, it is time to argue that it is time for Mr. Young to pull back and to learn some discernment and refinement of his material.

Of his last studio 10 CDs, dating back 11 years, I would argue that three of them--Greendale, Prairie Wind, and Psychedelic Pill--are superior works.  I know that some, perhaps many, people would not even go that far with me.  Living With War and Chrome Dreams have their moments, but overall, both are too flawed or uneven to be enjoyed as whole CD listening experiences.  And now it seems like critics who have given Young the benefit of the doubt are speaking more brutal truths.  Or, at least, like me, are saying, what the heck?  Expect that to ramp up now that Young has left his wife for Darryl Hannah.  But it saddens me to realize that, for my musical companion of 44 years, great music from him has become the exception, rather than the rule.


Me, I'd much rather an artist put out too much material instead of too little. No doubt about it.  One of the reasons I never took Pink Floyd very seriously was because they have a pathetically minuscule body of work for a band that's been around for five decades.  I mean, what were they doing all that time?  Songwriters write songs; that's what they are supposed to do.  And until they become a bit too unhinged, those songs are what I want to hear.  I hope Ryan Adams puts out another CD next month.  I'd buy it.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Rocktober: Where We're Going is Downhill from Here

Where do we go? Where do we go now?
or
Where do we go from here?

If you have a rock band and want your best musical days to remain ahead of you, these are bad questions to ask. Guns ‘n’ Roses began to weaken the minute Axl Rose began to believe the claims of his genius, which was the minute their debut went Platinum. Radiohead began to weaken the minute Thom Yorke decided that the way to stanch the bleeding of his soul was to delve further into the mystery of humans increasingly disconnecting from one another.

Some people say OK Computer was Radiohead’s masterpiece, and maybe in one sense it was, but it not only killed Radiohead’s desire to make accessible music, but it arguably fired the first shot in the firing squad that killed rock as a means of mainstream music expression altogether. (Yeah, I’ve griped about Radiohead before.)

A few years ago, loyal reader John passed along to us an article praising “Sweet Child o’ Mine” as a defining song for the time and generation, praising GnR for being geniuses and this song as their pinnacle of songwriting brilliance. I’m not positive this was the article, but it’s close enough. However brilliant “SCoM” is -- and it’s a pretty gosh darn amazing rock song -- “The Bends” mines similar thematic territory with better songwriting and orchestration.



"SCoM" is about finding yourself trapped in a world that has lost its innocence; "The Bends" is about finding yourself trapped in your own miserable and lost self:
I need to wash myself again
To hide all the dirt and pain
'Cause I'd be scared that there's nothing underneath
The former is a lament to what we can’t control; the latter laments what we think we can… but still probably can’t… which is what goes on between our ears, the synapses firing, the chemicals releasing, the feelings bubbling.

Axl sings of a girl, and of nice and pretty days, long gone. He sings of warm safe places replaced with thunder and rain. Thom sings of addiction, separation, and the feeling of powerlessness to control your own mood, your own destiny:
I'm just lying in a bar with my drip feed on
Talking to my girlfriend
Waiting for something to happen
And I wish it was the 60s,
I wish I could be happy, I wish, I wish, I wish
That something would happen
Where “SCoM” is yearning and melancholy, “The Bends” is desperation, a sadness on the edge of madness. Both songs come to their emotional climax through a crescendo of electric guitars. Slash takes an increasingly up-tempo, increasingly frenetic chord-by-chord journey into the abyss of wailing guitar, each note plucked, hectic but precise. In “The Bends,” while a two guitars crunch out the foundation, the lead wails a few plaitive notes here and there. It is the musical version of the scene from A-Ha’s “Take On Me” video where the sketched version of the guy is pounding desperately against the walls of his animated prison, trying to break out.

Where Axl keeps asking the same question, hoping it might eventually answer itself, Thom Yorke pleads alongside that guitar:
I wanna live, breathe
I wanna be part of the human race
The climax to “The Bends” gives me goosebumps every time I hear it. My breath staggers. I feel the desperation, the pain, the loneliness, and that tiny fading glimmer of hope. I hear it and feel it every single time.

Unfortunately, while A-Ha manages to escape (metaphorically, I mean, from crappy animation), I’m not sure Radiohead ever did. They remained trapped in a computerized and distant, friendless universe, unsure of how to return.

I can’t ever express it enough, the line Radiohead found between brilliance and accessibility for that fleeting stretch of early ‘90s, a line they could have mined for many albums and made me a full-fledged fan along the way. Instead they went inaccessibly weird and required their fans to pretend they were musical codebreakers to enjoy the journey.

Dammit, Radiohead, the correct answer to the question, “Where do we go from here?” was actually “Don’t go too far, because you’re right at home.” Instead, they found a place where the words came out all weird.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Rocktober: Defending '80s Music - When Weird Was Cool

Herein, Billy attempts to discredit any music snoot who summarily dismisses the 1980s as weak in the realm of music in either quality, style or relevance. He probably doth protest too much. Eventually he will get to his real point, which is to declare his love for Kate Bush and The Art of Noise.

Do you remember being a little kid, and visiting your grandparents' house? And you thought how huge everything was? The rooms, the yard, the trees, everything was huge!

And then, 25 years later, you find yourself driving by the place where your grandparents lived, and you wonder what they did with the huge mansion and multi-acre lot, and you wonder why they replaced it with a tiny house on a quarter-acre.

And you think, That's impossible! And you say it in that Luke Skywalker You can't be my father! kind of way.

Music from the 1980s is my grandparents' house. At the time, I thought the music was huge and full of endless adventure and possibility. Teens in 2387 AD would discuss Rush and U2 with the same reverence with which we speak of Brahms.

And then, 25 years later, I find myself listening to all these people who insult '80s music, who state -- with a discomforting, disarming level of certitude -- that the '80s was probably the worst decade in modern music history. (Sometimes they'll concede that the current decade might end up worse.)

The inescapable undersized nature of my grandparents' house can be measured in square feet and acres. I can look upon it and know, even if it hurts, that it wasn't as endless and ginormous as my childish mind envisioned. But '80s music was endless. It was ginormous and huge and wild and free, just like Dee Snyder's hair! And the way '80s music looks or sounds in your rearview mirror is based on a sort of random selection from "The Jerk." If you pick the wrong songs or bands, the '80s look sorta pathetic, but if you pick another set, the '80s were the galactic space station of awesomeness.

Take, for example, weirdness.

The '80s was superbly comfortable with weirdness in music. Oddity was frequently incorporated into the fabric of pop and mainstream rock. While both the '60s and '70s were totally weirder, I believe both decades were so tripped out on drugs that they didn't realize how weird they were. They thought it was normal. By the '80s, however, the weirdness was clearly weird, and it was embraced unironically.

"She Blinded Me with Science" and "My Future's So Bright..." are just two extremely easy examples. Weird Al broke into our pop culture world in the '80s. Bauhaus and the entire goth and pseudo-goth movement went bonkers in the '80s. The fact that millions of young girls and women became sexually attracted -- (insanely so!) -- to men who spent more time on their hair and makeup than women was gag me with a spoon weird.

But amidst the embrace of weirdness was some stunning brilliance, and a lot of it. That Robert Smith, for all his theatrics and freaky facades, always thought of himself foremost as a pop artist said a lot about the '80s. "In My Room" by Yaz is wicked weird and all the more awesome for it.

Lately I sought out two albums that served as capstones to my love of weird artists: In No Sense? Nonsense! by The Art of Noise and Hounds of Love by Kate Bush. Neither are on Spotify. Neither are in Amazon's digital music collection. I had to buy In No Sense... in CD form through an Amazon-affiliated distributor, and Hounds was thankfully available on iTunes at reasonable cost.

Without Kate Bush, many of today's slightly off-beat pop goddesses (or goddess wanna-bes) wouldn't exist. Lorde, Goldfrapp, Bjork, Florence (of the Machine), KT Tunstall, St. Vincent, and yes, even Lady GaGa. I'm not even sure we'd have Katy Perry. What I can't say with certainty is how many male singers and rock acts were influenced, but I'm sure there were many.

Who knows if Art of Noise inspired anyone? All I know is theirs is the rare band name which precisely and entirely describes their musical mission. In No Sense is what happens when Blue Man Group worries more experimenting with sound than spectacle. Take every ounce of experimental or showman energy BMGroup spends on facade and appearance, and channel it back into the music, and you get AoN.

While In No Sense... was not the band's most popular release or the most beloved by their ardent fans, I cherished it because it was a modern take on classical arrangements. The album has recurring themes, with key sounds pushing up to the surface several times over the record, with key instruments playing important roles, then fading back or out, then reemerging. And in the hands of AoN, anything and everything is an instrument. Keys on a key ring, Freighter horns. People walking in halls. All noise, in the right hands, can become part of a moving symphony.

Now, the mainstream sounds increasingly assimilated, and everything else is fringe because no one listens to radio anymore, so there's no unified celebration of oddity in music.

Perhaps we have been blinded by science after all.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Rocktober: Rock Room

Long time readers of this blog know that I am obsessed with space and what it means.  Not the distance between stars and the size of the universe, of course, but the spaces that we live in.  I have written about bathroom stalls, man caves, the private universes of cars, the space between two headphones.  How we use space, the decisions and concessions we make, fascinates me as a benchmark of our culture and where it is heading.  And no space interests me more than the spaces where we listen to music.

Do you have a rock room?  I do and I don't.

I have a room where I like to listen to music, but that does not mean that I ever, except maybe when no one is home, get to listen to music in the room at the volume that I would like to hear it.  More likely, the music is a little bit louder than a conversational level, but it is not at an "unacceptable" level and I worry about family and neighbors, if the garage door is open, if I play it too loud.

It is a room where I am now and it is getting late on a Sunday night and I am listening to Joseph Arthur (I know this post is about rooms where we listen to music, but is there any songwriter working today who has the range and depth of Joseph Arthur?  It can't be many) and my room is open on the world, sending music out into the night, but not loudly, not at the volume that it was recorded and meant to be played.

And that is the point, isn't it?  Music is meant to be played and heard at a certain volume, but everything around us wants to push the music back, to relegate it to the background, unless it is dance music, which is often crappy music with just a beat, and then no one challenges the volume.

So back to the room.  Houses have a "living" room ( we were never allowed in ours as children), a dining room, bathrooms and bedrooms and dens, so why not a music room?  Why not a listening room?  Why not a rock room?

Well, here's one reason why not: listening to music at substantial volume is considered to be anti-social.  If you do it, then no one can talk to you.  Music, good music, cannot be allowed to do the talking.  The only time that was ever allowed in a social setting was, years ago, when a bunch of people were sitting around stoned and they felt like they were getting inside the music in ways they could never explain to anyone else.

So instead, listening to music at the volume it was recorded and was meant to be played is juvenile.  What mature, evolved adult could possibly want to sit in a room without speaking and just listen to the instruments and the melody and the lyrics (if any), when he or she could be having a conversation?  You might get away with it if you are a classical buff becoming one with Yo-Yo Ma, but you ain't going to pull off your personal moments with Tom Petty.  It's just too loud.  It shakes the rafters.  It's just rock music.

Yeah, I/we could listen to headphones.  That is not an unrewarding experience.  But I would ask a related question:  when is the last time you were able to do extended listening on headphones without being interrupted?

I finish with two anecdotes.  The first happens at many gas stations around where I live.  Chances are, if you stop to get gas, someone near you or next to you is going to pull up, stop his car (it is a male) and continue to blast hip-hop music at mind-numbing, F--- you volume, seemingly indifferent to the circumstances of anyone around him.  And you, and everyone around you is going to give at least a sideways WTF glance at the guy, like, how dare you intrude like this?  I'm susceptible to that, but I also recognize that a guy is just rockin' and doesn't want to concede that.

My other anecdote is a memory.  When my wife was a social worker back in the 80s, we knew another couple whe she was a social worker and he was I cant remember, but what I do remember was a room in their home where there must have been 3000 albums and the means to listen to them--great stereo and speakers and an attitude in the room that said, this room is for whatever music I feel like playing--Jazz, blues, acoustic, classical, rock, anything.  THAT was a rock room.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Rocktober: Love Is Patient; Love is Kind

I love U2. I don't love U2 like I would love a lover, or a wife, or a long-term girlfriend. I don't love U2 like a best friend or a brother. I don't love U2 like a father or a pastor or a counselor.

I love U2 like that cool older dude in the neighborhood who taught you stuff you would never be taught at home or school, the guy who just saw the world in a light you were too young yet to grasp. Or maybe the neighborhood guy taught the same stuff, but it was just soooo coool when he did it. Like doing bunny hops on a dirt bike or getting a salt shaker to tilting but balanced, amidst a few grains of salt.

As you get older, you start to understand that the older dude wasn't necessarily that much smarter or wiser than you, he was just smarter and wiser BEFORE you were. And what's the big deal about bunny hops anyway? They're entirely impractical!

You begin to see the relationship differently, and you realize that maybe that older dude was sort of using you, your naïveté, your youthful eager need to follow a cool older dude, and feeding off it. You were just a neighborhood minion, a clueless follower.

But dammit you can't help it, you still love that guy. Lots of memories, and Important Life Moments wrapped up in that guy. And he never did anything cruel or violent to you. He never bullied. He just fed off the attention. And, at the end of the day, what decent leader can't be described similarly?

Well, that's U2.

No matter how much my music loving friends and my music snoot friends insult this band -- what they've become, certainly, but even what they've always been, from Day One, from the first notes of "I Will Follow" -- I love them. The heart feels what it feels, and mere reason cannot penetrate such barriers.

U2 is the last rock band to have the audacity to make spiritually uplifting, sincere music catchy and moving enough to consistently pull 20,000-plus people to their feet night after night. Not just one song or a handful, but an entire arsenal of songs bigger than break-ups or hangovers, single ladies or fireworks. That they are my first and best option for music when I'm hungry for Happy Christian Thoughts is just one more mark in their favor.

This love doesn't prevent me from smelling shit when I step on it. And that's what No Line On The Horizon smelled like when it came out in 2009. My reaction to that album was similar to the first time I had to unclog a toilet in our home following the bowel movements of one of my daughters. How the *@^$ could an angel do such foul things in such large quantity?!?

To be sure, No Line wasn't the first time U2 took a dump in the form of a song ("Promenade") or an album ("Zooropa"), but it was the only one that clogged the musical toilet.

Songs of Innocence might not be The Joshua Tree, but in regards to the smell I had to endure while trying to plunge No Line out of my sewer line, this new -- and free! -- release has helped. The album marks their first relocation of hook and sincerity, gravitas and frolic, since 2000's All That You Can't Leave Behind.

Musically, the first half of the album is a modest attempt to please the pop gods, but the second half is an attempt to remember their origins. "Raised by Wolves" is the most early-80s vintage old school U2 song before Bono first became fixated on arena rock. Lyrically, the whole album is reaching back to a youth they've clearly lost. Swimming in more money than most African countries can obtain does that to a band.

Songs of Innocence falls well short of their heyday albums (if you believe U2 had a heyday worth appreciating). It's flawed, and it's a bit too forgettable in places. But I love U2, and I love free things. And love is patient and kind.

In the New Testament, Taylor Swift said "Haters gonna hate hate hate hate hate." Shake it off, U2. Shake it off.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Rocktober: When All The World Was Green

Due to a strange confluence of events, I was encouraged to wear black yesterday, for a "blackout" at a high school soccer match my wife's goddaughter was playing in, and because I don't have a whole lot of black in my wardrobe, I started looking through my drawers for a black t-shirt.  I finally found one in the fifth drawer I looked in (I work at a high school; I have a lot of t-shirts); it was a shirt from the R.E.M. Green tour, a shirt passed on from a friend, and despite the large yellow image in the center, I put it on.

I felt a little like I was wearing Halloween.  My wife thought from a distance that it was a Pittsburgh Pirates shirt in anticipation of tonight's game.  But, it was just a last-ditch blackout shirt.  As I walked out to my car, though, I thought, "Wait a second.  I'm wearing R.E.M. Green.  I have that CD.  I haven't listened to it in a long, long, long time, but this feels like the time.  It's synchronistic."  That's how I think.

And that's what led me to today's reconsideration of Green.  At the time, with R.E.M. coming off of a streak of what seemed like "important" records, like Life's Rich Pageant and Document, that were both redefining what "Southern" music could be and likely setting the stage for the Americana that would follow, Green was a slight, regressive, overly-commercial offering from a band who had more to say, even when I couldn't tell what that was.

Hit songs like "Pop Song '89," "Get Up," and "Stand" went farther down the popular path of "It's The End Of The World As We Know It" (probably not the actual title), without the lyrical intrigue.  The "deep" songs like "World Leader Pretend" or "Orange Crush" relied even more on the lyrical repetition than earlier songs.

Green, to my 1988-89 ears, was not as much stripped down as dumbed down.  To make matters worse, I saw the band on this tour, not in an intimate setting like The Grand Old Opry, where I'd seen the Life's Rich Pageant show, but in a basketball arena with swirling, booming acoustics and a lot more distance between me and the band.  I was not impressed by where the band had gone.

So what happened during my re-listen yesterday?  Well, if you're hoping for a revelatory, how-could-I-have-been-so-ignorant re-reading of a CD you probably liked more than I did 25 years ago, you are going to be disappointed.  Still, I was surprised.

First, because those poppy little numbers were, by far, what I enjoyed the most.  "Pop Song '89," ironic title and all, is just a damn good, tight, jaunty piece of musical craftsmanship, with neither a word nor a note wasted.  "Shouldn't we talk about the weather?  Shouldn't we talk about the government?"  Is there a yearning there for something more?  Indeed.  "Stand?"  "Get Up?"  Those songs feel like old friends, friends that I want to sing along with.  And did.

One of the other great pleasures of Green that I hear now is that it uses the backing and alternating vocals of bassist Mike Mills as a counterpoint to Michael Stipe more frequently and, perhaps, to greater effect, than any other R.E.M. CD.

The sadder realization was that I also think I hear in Green now the band's eventual dissolution, and, especially, the seeds of their unsuccessful later work.  At the time, the more acoustic breaks from the rockers ("You Are The Everything," "The Wrong Child") seemed like necessary changes of pace, chances for Stipe to emote, instead of spout inane lyrics.  But now, these strummer ballads sound largely tuneless and unnecessary, minor versions of more interesting previous acoustic numbers like "King Of Birds" or "Swan Swan H."

And "I Remember California" has to be the most morose offering the band ever released, a meandering electric drone of a song, maybe some kind of failed encounter with no insight.  Just awful:

I remember traffic jams
Motor boys and girls with tans
Nearly was and almost rans
I remember this, this

Low ebb, high tide
The lowest ebb and highest tide
I guess we took us for a ride
I guess its just a gesture.

At the end of the continent
At the edge of the continent


And, finally, and someone, maybe the band, maybe the marketing director, I don't know how sequencing and such things work, but at a time when the hidden bonus track may already have been fully played out, R.E.M. and co. still decide to sneak in a chipper little tune that takes us right back to the start of the record.  I didn't always get that far in.

Despite the underwhelming title, and the weaknesses I hear now in most of the last two thirds of the CD, "Song 11," this last song, can't help but leave me feeling good about the work that might come.  And there were many more highs to come--Automatic For The PeopleOut Of Time, and especially New Adventures In Hi-Fi.