Music & Performing Arts

The Voice of Summer

We’ve tried something new with the piece. Click here to listen to  Laura Tokie read her review of  “Ernie. Below you’ll find the transcript. We hope you enjoy it. 

On a rainy Thursday night in June, I took my eighty-five-year-old aunt to the current show at Detroit’s City Theatre.

The show is in its third year, sort of. It hasn’t run continuously for three years. Rather it returns like the weather, in its season, when, as it says in Song of Solomon, “…the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.”

The play was written by Mitch Albom, best known for his book Tuesdays with Morrie. This is his fourth play, titled “Ernie.”

“Ernie.” I imagine that name might be obscure, but my aunt instantly guessed the full identity of the title character. Ernie Harwell, the voice of summer, the voice of the Detroit Tigers for 42 seasons. He began each season with that quote from Song of Solomon, for the last time in 2002, at the age of 84. He died in 2010, and was mourned like royalty, lying in state at the ballfield, more than 10,000 fans paying their respects.

And now a two-man play. A play, an unexpected form. Theatre is by nature collaborative, but Harwell was an old-school broadcaster, calling his innings solo, without a color commentator. This was a part of his special connection with his audience-he was the storyteller, allowing only the sounds of the game to float between his words.

So a play was not the obvious choice, but taking my aunt was. She calls her spare bedroom “the Tiger room.” It’s filled with baseball memorabilia. She’s a lifelong theatregoer too, and as I sat with her, surprised by her response, I realized that telling the story onstage was right.

***

The play is set in the tunnel of Comerica Park, the Detroit Tigers home field. The Old English D sits high above the light bar. Three screens act as a backdrop, and they are put to good use throughout the course of the show, allowing the audience to see pictures and footage of some of the stories mentioned during the play. It is the evening of September 16, 2009: the night that Harwell, diagnosed with terminal cancer, said his last goodbye to the fans. The character Ernie is struggling with the idea of going before the crowd; he feels that all the attention is too much. During a rain delay, a young man, called Boy, appears. Time stops. Boy asks Ernie to share his life story.

At this point, the show seems purely biography dressed in the theatre’s clothes. Not that I minded. His is quite a tale, beginning in Georgia as a writer, becoming a broadcaster in Atlanta, being traded to New York, bearing witness to the rise of Jackie Robinson as the Dodgers broadcaster, then moving across town to the Giants, joining the military and spared heavy combat in World War 2, marriage, children, finding faith, trying his hand at television and other sports before coming to the Tigers, the stories woven together with light stage business between Ernie and Boy.

Beautiful. Touching. My aunt is enjoying herself. But the question lingers–beyond the fact that Harwell liked the idea, why a play?

The answer is hinted at as the show continues, and becomes clear as Ernie tells of a moment from the 1984 World Series: Kirk Gibson’s at-bat versus Goose Gossage in Game 5.

Onstage, Ernie begins with the backstory. This is the right time in the game for an intentional walk, but Gossage thinks he can get Gibson out, can strike him out, because of their history. We watch the video moments unfold – the conference on the mound beween Gossage and his manager, the cut away to Tiger’s manager Sparky Anderson in the dugout hollering at Gibson, “he don’t wanna walk you.”

Ernie and the kid repeat it, “he don’t wanna walk you… he don’t wanna walk you,” just like Sparky. You can feel the crowd in the theatre responding. Are people shaking their fingers, mouthing the words? I don’t know, because my aunt can no longer contain herself. She tells me she watched this same footage of the game in Cooperstown, on a huge screen, amazing, she says, her eyes lit by the memory as much as by the stage. She’s not whispering and no one is shushing her because it is amazing. It is elevated story, it is shared story. There’s the wind-up. And the pitch. It’s a long drive to right, the call begins, and we are stirred, thrilled at the sight of Gibson’s arms in the air as he rounds first. The 5:30 Thursday night crowd in the theatre is on the verge of erupting.

This is why theatre is the perfect medium to tell this story. As Boy says, quoting from Tennyson’s Ulysses, “I am a part of all that I have met.” Theatre is a collaborative medium, and this isn’t purely biography. “Ernie” is a story of the stories we share.

** “Ernie” | Written by Mitch Albom, directed by Tony Caselli, featuring Timothy “TJ” Corbett as Boy and Will David Young as Ernie Harwell.

 

On Going (or Not Going) to Concerts

The problem started about seven years ago. There was a particularly pleasant stretch of weather near the end of summer, I remember, closing in on the week approaching my birthday. Summers in western Pennsylvania tend to skew either toward grossly humid or outright hot, so I was thankful for a respite from either. Los Lobos had a free concert scheduled outside of Pittsburgh on that Saturday; a relaxing drive to hear some good music felt like the right choice. It was the right choice.

But I didn’t go.

I’m still not entirely sure why this happened when it did. I was a veteran concert-goer at that point, even in my mid-20s. Since my senior year of high school, I had gone to maybe 40 concerts—everything from Cheap Trick to second-wave emo bands to local power pop acts. And this was Los Lobos! A genuinely great band, playing for free at a beautiful outdoor venue! A band with a legendary live act! Free! I shrugged and fell asleep on the couch. I remember regretting it the next day (missing the concert, not the nap) and then proceeded to do the same over and over for the next seven years. I even bought a DVD of Los Lobos playing live to make myself feel better and, maybe somehow, make Los Lobos feel better about me not coming. (It’s a good DVD, by the way.)

And thus began a virtually endless parade of reasons I decided not to go to concerts. “Can’t find any friends who are free, I really hate that one venue, I’m tired, Pittsburgh seems so far away, I won’t be able to hear for days, I really hate that other venue, the tickets are expensive,” et cetera. Oh, and my favorite: “There will undoubtedly be at least one obnoxious drunk who will ruin the fun.” There’s some truth behind this laundry list of complaints.  Driving an hour to and (especially) from a late-show concert is draining, especially after a mind-numbing day at work.

Now, despite what this laundry list of complaints might suggest, I don’t hate people. I like the spark of excitement that seems to travel through a mass of tightly huddled concert-goers. “Hey, we’re all here together to see a show! Humanity, unite!” It’s a great feeling!

It seems like this experiential factor is a major draw to concerts. As a blog post at the electronic music site Sophisefunk pointed out, some research seems to point to the fact that people would rather spend money on an experience in an area they enjoy than on a material thing. Or, specifically, music fans would rather spend money going to concerts than spend money on the music itself. The post points to several reasons why concerts ultimately trump buying music: the social aspect of concerts is a big factor, and people’s tendency to think back wistfully to all of the enjoyable aspects that wrap together in the concert experience (instead of, say, merely buying an album on Amazon).

The author of the blog post brings up some really good points. Some of the best concerts I attended have improved over time, and some aspects—like little spontaneous alterations a guitarist makes to a song—still resonate. Plus, being a part of a temporal community of music fans is incredibly appealing. I love seeing flashes of joy on other concert-goers’ faces as they dance, sing along, or even just listen quietly. While I’m usually in the latter camp (with the occasional head bob), I have nothing but appreciation for people who enthusiastically express their love for the music—like the guy who broke into interpretive dance at this one Built to Spill show I went to in Cleveland. That guy was loving the concert as an experience. I remember that he wasn’t the only one; people were cheering on the band as they pulled off crazy guitar solos, new friends were laughing and talking as they bobbed their heads, and a few couples awkwardly danced in the venue’s aisles. I went to this concert almost a decade ago and I still remember it fondly.

But I don’t know if I buy that concerts are really better than listening to recorded music, especially when faced with the “experience versus material” argument. Shouldn’t listening to recorded music also be an experience, and hopefully at that a worthwhile one? And can’t concerts become just a thing to do and not really experience? (Based on the number of people who were doing anything BUT listening to music at The National concert I went to a few weeks ago, the answer is “yes.”) To give credit where it’s due, the author of the blog post at least admits that listening to a studio album can be an experience in its own way. But I get the feeling author is saying that since listening to a recorded album is connected to buying a “thing,” it’s not as pure as going to a concert.

Nonsense, I say. The experience of listening to music in your living room or while driving your car or listening in the gym can be as rewarding as going to a concert, especially if you treat it as something more than the consumption of a material item. We listen to music a variety of ways and in a variety of places and, hopefully, learn to think about it and wrestle with it in a variety of ways, too. Listening to music doesn’t happen in a vacuum, thankfully. Some of my favorite albums and songs are framed around the experiences where I really got them. Like how I enjoyed a few songs from Sun Kil Moon’s Ghosts of the Great Highway, but I never let the album as a whole sink in until I was (get ready) on a roadtrip across Ohio. I can’t listen to the album now without thinking about the stretch of highway between Columbus and Indianapolis. Or like a few years ago when I was looking at jeans in Old Navy when, quite suddenly, I realized that Big Country’s “In a Big Country”—which was playing over the store’s PA— wasn’t just a good song, but maybe one of the best singles of the past fifty years (a fact so profound at the moment that I had to run across the store and excitedly tell my wife). I now hum the tune every time I go into Old Navy. These are just two of many experiences that made me love music more.

This isn’t a knock against concerts or those who swear by them—I still like concerts enough to go to at least a few each year. I just happen to enjoy the experience of digging into recorded music a bit more. I think it’s healthy to approach music, live or not, with the mindset that listening to it could be an experience that will change your life forever.

photo by: marfis75

Here’s Where Superchunk Comes In

Superchunk just announced that their tenth studio album “I Hate Music”  is set to release on August 20th. To prime the pumps, we thought we’d run Jason Panella’s 2010 piece on why Superchunk is great: “Here’s Where Superchunk Comes In.” 

 
Nice. But . . . who? The Chapel Hill-based band has been making music for over 20 years, but are on the musical fringe in a lot of ways, despite their football field-long resumes. Their brand of frenetic, loud pop rock – combined with singer/guitarist Mac Caughan’s still (at 42) squeaky voice – isn’t anything new. Why do they matter?

Some reasons, in no order:

1) You can call them “pop punk” without feeling ashamed.

Superchunk underline both words in “pop punk” with a Sharpie: their songs are fiercely hummable while remaining rooted in an equally fierce punk ethic and aesthetic (do-it-yourself record distribution, roaring buzzsaw guitars, the works). The four members – McCaughan, guitarist Jim Wilbur, bassist Laura Ballance, and drummer Jon Wurster – are all capable musicians, and can craft melodically complex and lyrically nuanced songs that sound nothing like the prefab mall punk wheezing from every Hot Topic in the United States.

2) Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance created, own, and run Merge Records.

And Merge Records is important. The two formed it in 1989 as a way to release Superchunk albums; now they’re releasing albums from Arcade Fire, Spoon, M. Ward, Dinosaur Jr., She & Him, Conor Oberst, and the list goes on and on. Plus, while overly corporate machinations are often hid behind an opaque “indie” skin, Merge are still quite independent. But more on that later.

3) Superchunk are both traditionalists and innovators.

Their first few albums in the early ’90s leaned heavily toward the second half of the “pop punk” label, but the band started branching out more with each release after realizing they needed to shake up the formula a bit. 1994’s Foolish debuted a slower, more introspectively dark side of the band’s sound, and 1995’s Here’s Where the Strings Come In added a few more cups of pop texture to the batter. By the late ’90s, the band was still playing energetic punk pop, but occasionally fusing it with avant-garde arrangements, vintage keyboards, and horn sections.

4) The four band members spend their extracurricular time wisely.

As I mentioned before, McCaughan and Ballance still run and operate Merge records, but there’s more. During Superchunk’s hiatus, McCaughlan recorded fairly prolifically under the Portastatic moniker, covering lots of ground that he normally wouldn’t: bossa nova, soundtrack scores, and baroque pop, to name a few. Most of Mac’s Portatstatic work is excellent, especially 2005-06’s back-to-back releases Bright Ideas and Be Still Please. Jim Wilbur has kept busy helping with Portastatic and a few of his own bands, but the real busybody is Jon Wurster – he’s half of a pretty popular comedy duo with Tom Scharlpling, having written for several TV shows (including Monk), and acts as session or touring drummer for a staggering number of artists, including R.E.M., Jay Farrar, Ryan Adams, The New Pornographers, Charlie Daniels, and Katy Perry.

5) They’re all really friendly, kind and funny people. And they make videos like this:

6) Superchunk can legitimately be called “indie rock.”

Forget the trend to lump everything not easily pigeonholeable as “indie rock” (remember when everything was “alternative”?) – Superchunk actually are indie rock. No major labels own Merge Records, despite the amount of interest the label and its bands have garnered. They’ve done it their way, made mistakes and learned from them. As the music industry is imploding, Merge is actually succeeding – and they still have less than 15 employees and respond to e-mails personally. McCaughan, Ballance, and reporter John Cook told the label’s tale in Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records. It’s worth picking up.

7) Superchunk make great music.

Some of their albums are better than others, sure, and they’re certainly not for everyone. But Superchunk write well, play well, and have fun doing so – and have been doing this for around two decades. All of their releases could serve as formidable entry points for new listeners, even Cup of Sand; the band’s mammoth collection of left-over tracks spans their whole career and has plenty of examples how the band has grown over their career. Come Pick Me Up is my vote for their most consistent album, though. The songs balance between playful and pensive, and McCaughan sells his lyrics – no matter what he’s singing about – as if they’re the only thing in the world worth buying.

Over 20 years and still going strong. Long live Superchunk.

Nothing But The Blood

One of Dickens’ antagonists, Ralph Nickelby, boasts he is a man never moved by a pretty face, for he always sees the grinning skull beneath. It’s a vision whose austerity is meant to be an attribute—a steely verisimilitude which prides itself on seeing through all such delicate coverings. But it must be a very poor realism that can’t see the pretty girl staring it in the face.

Fortunately for us, Ezra Koenig and Rostam Batmanglij, the primary songwriters for the band Vampire Weekend, are no Ralph Nickelbys. Their latest album, Modern Vampires of the City, is no nihilistic gutter crawl through a world devoid of meaning. It is, in fact, frequently joyous and relentlessly buoyant. But neither has the band “found religion,” despite the spiritual imagery and themes in their latest. Instead, the lyrical thrust of the album captures the experience of many college-educated, twentysomethings in the city emblazoned on the cover: a smoggy, slightly-retro, slightly-futuristic New York. Heaped upon itself, only partially visible through a mist made of humanity’s greed and ambition, the city becomes us: an existential muddle, alive to ironies, unsure about dogma, unsure even about our unsure-ity, possessing an aversion to strict dichotomies yet full of longing, full, at times, even of faith, drawn by turns to the old and new. It’s the skull and the girl, all in one, but without the assurance that anybody knows what either of those facts really mean.

First, the skull. Death and the inevitable passing of time infuse nearly every track on the album. “Diane Young” elaborates on the homophonous pun in its title by managing to reference both the Bruce and Dylan Thomas (“So grab the wheel, keep on holding it tight / ‘Til you’re tottering off into that good night”). Koenig plaintively asks on “Don’t Lie” if “the low click of a ticking clock” bothers you, since “there’s a headstone right in front of you / and everyone I know.” (“Bother” puts it mildly, one might say.) The ambitious “Step” dons the mantle of elderly wisdom to intone: “We know the true death—the true way of all flesh / Everyone’s dying.” Absent are the wispy impressionistic vignettes of earlier albums in favor of a more direct lyricism that somehow manages to traffic compellingly in ideas and less in recounted experiences.

Not that direct means unambiguous or simplistic. Koenig and Batmanglij are too subtle a pair of lyricists to allow their songs to be straightjacketed into singular readings. Lines are undoubtedly chosen for their multiplicity of understandings. Take, for example, “I was made to live without you,” from “Everlasting Arms.” If the “you” is understood as God—which the title suggests, referring to the 19th century hymn—then this could be a simple expression of evolutionary logic: no divine intelligence, no “you” to live for. Or perhaps, more cannily, “made” here follows the secondary meaning of “forced” or “led,” as though society has (wrongly?) influenced the narrator into discarding the idea of a divine being as a meaningful premise for existence. But let’s be honest: it’s just as likely about a really, really bad breakup.

Such purposeful ambiguity speaks to a sense of craft and intentionality that is missing in the earlier two albums. In the press, members of the band have cultivated the notion of the three albums as a trilogy, with themes developing and maturing as the artists have aged. A bildungsroman for our time—from the carefree college days of their self-titled debut, to the worldly travels of Contra, to the purposeful and denser Modern Vampires of the City. It’s a neat narrative, but it’s also one without any real resolution. Fittingly, the album was first announced in The New York TimesLost and Found section—as unresolvable an existential conundrum as any, if taken literally. Many press outlets have noted an evasiveness from the band when asked what it means. Pitchfork says Koenig and Batmanglij are “scrupulous and cautious” as though “each Vampire Weekend song and artifact comes along with its own little puzzle”; The Guardian’s interviewer calls them “pretty circumspect” and “suspicious…second-guess[ing] our queries.” Meaning always hides, it would appear, just like our lads from the Upper West Side.

Instead, we get longing. That great and terrible longing—the soul-thirst that poses questions to divine beings only half-believed-in, that sees the possibility of something beyond the world in the world. It’s the pretty girl that is no less than a grinning skull but is possibly something much more.

Koenig implores so sweetly in the aforementioned “Everlasting Arms” to be held in “your everlasting arms,” even as death like a chandelier comes crashing down. He sings of the Dies Irae used in the Funeral Mass, and pleads, in words similar to C.S. Lewis’ concept of discipleship as a kind of dying to live a truer version of the self, “Lead me to myself / Don’t leave me in myself.” He asks, in various tracks, “Who will guide us through the end?” and “Who’s going to say a little grace for me?” He speaks of “never-ending visions” and of Milton’s “red right hand” of the Lord. And in “Unbelievers” he sees holy waters everywhere yet wonders if any “contain a little drop for me.”

But the biggest thrill, for the religious listener, is the dubby “Ya Hey,” with its direct references to Exodus 3 and its implicit sympathy for a God who has love for everyone even if it’s mostly unrequited. A marvel of referential compression, the chorus puns off the unpronounceable personal name of the Lord and Outkast’s famous song (you know the one) with swinging confidence, evoking wistfulness for a God “who won’t even say your name / Only I am that I am.” It’s hard not to get a sense of respect for Jewish tradition here, and I suspect those who see this song as an attempt to knock the Big Guy down a notch are badly mistaken. (Note that the Steve Buscemi-directed videos for the album tend to put the lyrics to the fore by pasting them in large letters in front of moving images of New York City. Yet the mutant chirping that sings the name of God demurely gets but a single question mark.)

The concept of a God who won’t even say his name seems to fit the album’s millennial unease. After all, an unknowable God is one that makes no demands. It’s an empty signifier to be filled with whatever passions hold us in their grip. But such a situation soon grows intolerable. Contradictions and questions inevitably assert themselves. And indeed the sense of being mistaken about the holy, even with its demands and humiliations, leads to what may be Vampire Weekend’s circa-2013 version of the prayer in Mark 9:24: “ I don’t wanna live like this but I don’t wanna die.”

“I can’t relate to any ways of thinking that divide the world into two distinct parts,” Koenig tells the music magazine NME. “There’s all these false dichotomies in the world that can be very confusing…I’ve always had an extreme dislike of these false choices you’re presented with.” Rather than the skull or the pretty girl, Modern Vampires of the City’s reasonable impulse is to see the two together as one. Listening to it all, one wonders if Koenig and Batmanglij finally show their hand for a moment by lifting the album title from the opening lines of Junior Reed’s reggae track “One Blood.” Do the boys from Columbia agree with the singer from Kingston that red blood, the common mark of our humanity, can really cover over the “false dichotomies” which plague and divide us? (See the patois-chant of “blood” on “Finger Back.”) Ever referential, it would be supremely fitting if Vampire Weekend’s latest located a balm for the metaphysical incongruities of modern life in the same place—a vein.

For my part, I’m not so sure if the skull and the pretty girl, if alienation and transcendence, can be reconciled so easily. A stronger tonic may be needed. But blood!—they’re on to something there. In fact, it reminds me of another sanguinary song I heard somewhere: “O precious is the flow / That makes me white as snow…”

 

 

 

Tinker, Tamper, Strings and Dampers: the Prepared Pianos of HAUSCHKA and John Cage

discovered via The Avant/Garde Diaries

 

Hauschka – Noise is Music from The Avant/Garde Diaries on Vimeo.

When you place objects between or on the strings or hammers or dampers of a piano, you create what is known as a “prepared piano.” When the piano is played, the “preparations” create a resistance against the strings or hammers or dampers, changing the timbre of the instrument and creating a different sound than what is normally expected of a classic piano. Though the beginnings of the prepared piano are sometimes credited to Erik Satie and Heitor Villa-Lobos–these two musicians placed sheets of paper between piano strings for an affected noise–the name that receives the most recognition in regards to the instrument is John Cage, an American composer, music theorist, writer, and artist.

Cage describes his arrival to the creation of his prepared piano in the following account of composing a piece for Sylvia Fort in 1938:

I needed percussion instruments for music for a dance that had an African character by Syvilla Fort. But the theater in which she was to dance had no wings and there was no pit. There was only a small grand piano built in to the front and left of the audience. At the time I either wrote twelve‑tone music for piano or I wrote percussion music. There was no room for the instruments. I couldn’t find an African twelve tone row. I finally realized I had to change the piano. I did so by placing objects between the strings. The piano was transformed into a percussion orchestra having the loudness, say, of a harpsichord.

Cage’s passing in 1992 left room for a successor in the ways of prepared piano. Volker Bertelmann–better known as HAUSCHKA–pays homage to Cage by continuing the experimentation with piano transformation. HAUSCHKA uses bottle caps, plastic foil, parchment paper, duct tape, screws, and erasers among other things to manipulate the sonic compositions tinkering out of his enhanced instrument.

It all began in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s when HAUSCHKA became interested in electronica music, seeking a way to somehow emulate it without the electricity. He recollects the process:

It was during this period that he became more and more fascinated with electronic music, developing a particular interest in stripping back anything that he considered redundant within his compositions, until the obsession led to him trying to achieve a similar effect without the use of electricity at all. He discovered that placing material within a piano opened the doors to a whole new sonic world in which he could transform his instrument so that it loosely replicated the sounds of all sorts of others, whether bass guitar, gamelan or the hi-hat cymbal of a drumkit.

Don’t fret if you don’t have a piano handy to tamper the dampers of your own piano because over at John Cage’s official website they’ve created an iPhone app that allows you to play meticulously sampled sounds of John Cage’s work! It features a piano prepared with the actual materials used by John Cage in the preparations for his Sonatas and Interludes (1946-48)!

Hospitality, Intimacy and The Great American Songbook

Hospitality is an open hand. It’s a gesture. It’s a way of telling someone that they are welcome, that they belong. In order to be hospitable, there must be space for another person.

Our culture uses the word as if it were the same as entertaining. This is wrong. The pure entertainer isn’t concerned with offering space. At best, the audience has an experience: they are razzled, dazzled, awed, and delighted. Think Sinatra in Vegas, singing the songs of a bygone era with panache.

It is grand to sit in the shadows of a great performance, but what happens when entertainers, musicians, choose to play host?

In 1978, a few Vegas-y numbers found their way into different hands: a singer-songwriter from Texas best known for his work in country music, and an arranger/producer/musician with a great history at Stax Records in Memphis, Tennessee. Long before interpreting standards became trendy or cliche, in the era of outlaw country and disco, this unexpected pairing tendered a collection–ten songs written by the likes of Hoagy Carmichael, Irving Berlin, and the Gershwins.

The album went on to storied success, peaking at #1 on the country charts, producing the country vocal of the year, named country album of the year, going platinum 8 months after its release, remaining on the Billboard 200 album chart for 10 years, listed as #260 of the top 500 albums of all time according to Rolling Stone magazine.

All these accolades, but let me add mine. Their album extends the Great American Songbook in ways unknown to the Strip, offering listeners something better than entertainment. From the opening finger-picked guitar notes of the title track to the final chord on the B-3, a listener is invited to not only stay awhile, but to draw close. This is not entertainment. This is a gift of hospitality and intimacy.

***

Our two artists first appeared on the Billboard music charts separately but in the same year, 1962. The country artist, best known for writing Patsy Cline’s hit “Crazy”, released his first solo album. Over the next 15 years, Willie Nelson would release 35 songs that became Hot Country hits. During this time, he became embroiled in record-label issues and ‘retired’ from music and especially from Nashville. He moved to Austin, TX, honing his sound. His biggest post-Nashville hits during this time were “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” and “If You’ve Got the Money I’ve Got the Time”, but the hits don’t tell the whole story. The period also includes concept albums like “The Red Headed Stranger” and “Phases and Stages”, as well as his first recording of an outlaw country classic, “Whiskey River.”

 

Booker T. Jones was 17 years old in 1962, a session musician at Stax, writing lead sheets and string arrangements. That summer, between graduating from high school and starting college as a music major at Indiana University, he and the Memphis Guys recorded a #1 R&B hit that crossed over and became a #3 hit on the pop charts.

 

Jones eventually landed in California. He still recorded as a part of Booker T. and the MG’s, but also played with other people and worked as a producer. Nelson asked Jones to arrange a song, and liked the arrangement so much that he had Jones arrange and produce all ten tracks on “Stardust”.

“One of the reasons Willie had come to me for the album was because of how simply I approach everything. I think he really liked that. We had a lot of space on that record, a lot of time to think about the words and the melody.” –Booker T. Jones in an interview at emusic.com

That simplicity, that space, still stands out 35 years after the album was made. It is as if Nelson and Jones have taken all their great talent and skill, and have decided to use them to open the door to you. They’ve invited you in, won’t you listen to these great songs, won’t you hear them as your own, as ours?

And how can you not? The opening song, “Stardust”, considers the memory of a song. Surely you’ve heard melodies echoing your heartaches, regrets, changes in fortune? They’re here, along with shifts in perspectives that seem nearly holy (“Blue Skies”), light takes on brokenness (“All of Me”), and then there’s “Moonlight in Vermont.”

Robert Christgau from the Village Voice called this number ‘a revelation’, and it is. The guitar begins, and then comes Willie’s voice (they’ve invited us in; we’re on a first name basis now). When he whispers, we lean in, and when he sings in full voice, it sounds like an orchestra, so rich in tone and timbre. Easy as a ripple comes the keyboards, the piano merging perfectly into Booker’s Hammond B-3, and then the strings and piano licks. By the time Willie sings the third verse, the one that begins ‘evening summer breeze’, I’m sitting on a porch and I can’t tell if it’s the wind or the very music itself brushing against my neck. Each bit of instrumentation contributes to the picture of the whole, the passing of seasons, a subtle, unrhymed, impressionistic, haiku-based lyric that doesn’t have to tell us that it’s in love. Through the craftsmanship, through the musicianship, through the space we have been given and the gifts of the hosts, we know it. Intimately.

 

 

Buy the album on Amazon.

“Stardust” Track List (original 1978 recording)

1. Stardust (Hoagy Carmichael, Mitchell Parish)
2. Georgia On My Mind (Hoagy Carmichael, Stuart Gorrell)
3. Blue Skies (Irving Berlin)
4. All Of Me (Seymour Simons, Gerald Marks)
5. Unchained Melody (Hy Zaret, Alex North)
6. September Song (Kurt Weill, Maxwell Anderson)
7. On The Sunny Side Of The Street (Dorothy Fields, Jimmy McHugh)
8. Moonlight In Vermont (John Blackburn, Karl Suessdorf)
9. Don’t Get Around Much Anymore (Duke Ellington, Bob Russell)
10. Someone To Watch Over Me (George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin)

 

 

 

SXSW Interview with Easter Island

On the eve of their SXSW debut, brothers Ethan and Asher Payne, founding members of up-and-coming dream-pop outfit Easter Island, sat down with The Curator for a quick chat about djimbés, their forthcoming new music video, and life on the road…with typical class and humor. Listen to two tracks from their debut LP, Frightened, below.

Zach Terrell: So, you guys, like, play music?

Easter Island: Meh. [Laughs]

ZT: That’s cool. I used to play the djimbé. Lately taken up the cajón. Anything with an acute accent, basically.

EI: [Laughs]

ZT: So anyway, maybe we should start with the brand new music video for “You Don’t Have A Choice”. Tell us about it.

EI: The concept of intimacy is something Ethan and I have been thinking a lot about. And you know, you can’t talk about intimacy without talking about sex, touchy as it is. We decided to express intimacy in the video as a communal, consequential reality. We wanted to ask questions like, you know, how connected are people before, during, and after sex? Does the intimate act only affect the parties directly involved? Is sex something shared in community? Obviously not [laughs] in the literal sense, but, you know, what are the wider meanings of the act? What about when either or both parties have had multiple partners? Does that change the communal aspect? We’re just asking things we think are relevant. Not trying to draw silly conclusions. It was a fun project.

ZT: You dealt with similar themes in the video for “Hash”, no?

EI: Kind of, yeah. Community was in that one, too, I guess. The main concept of “Hash” is escape. You see at the beginning these two kids, a boy and a girl, who’ve grown up in a cult. They’re just starting to realize there’s a whole world out there beyond the boundaries they’ve been living behind as members of this cult. The video fast-forwards to their wedding where [spoiler alert] they make a daring escape.

ZT: So it’s like The Village meets Plato’s Allegory of the Cave?

EI: What did you call me? [Laughs]

ZT: Never mind. What part of playing at SXSW are you guys most excited about?

EI: We’ve never played SXSW before, so we’re just really excited. We’re playing five showcases. We’re excited about the food. We’re excited about being surrounded by hundreds of other bands. We’re excited about the sense of community we’ll probably feel when we see fellow Athens bands. We’re excited about the weather. We’re excited about experiencing something new!

ZT: Tell us a bit about how you got this opportunity. How’d you get to where you are today?

EI: Not long ago we were playing weddings and Bar Mitzvahs1 under our Ke$ha cover-band name Tequila Mockingbird (Where Is My Clothing).  [Laughs]

Really though, it started about two and half years ago when Ethan and I, after writing music separately our whole lives, decided to join forces and with a few friends and write music together. After playing a handful of shows in Athens, we decided to record the five or so songs that we had under our belts into an EP, Better Things, released in March of 2011. Soon after the release, we got a call from ABC for the rights to play “Proud” (our first single) on an episode of “Off The Map”. It was pretty hilarious because the song ended up being played over a montage of sex scenes.

ZT: Oh! Inspiration for the “You Don’t Have A Choice” video?

EI: Exactly.

ZT: Go on.

EI: Not long after that, we started to work on Frightened, our first full-length record, which released at the end of the summer. We received a lot of positive and humbling press from all over. We were pretty flattered when Paste gave us a handsome review, and put us on their list of the “Best of What’s Next”.

ZT: Yeah, we’ve seen you up at Paste a few times now. We’re glad they found you.

EI: Us, too. It helps that we’re based in Athens, GA, just a hop, skip, and jump from the Paste headquarters in Decatur.

ZT: Speaking of Athens, what’s it feel like to follow in the footsteps of such Athens greats as R.E.M., of Montreal, The Whigs, etc.?

EI: Very humbling. Thankfully we are close with some of the more recent Athens bands that have made a splash in the international scene. Being part of the Athens music culture in our small way, I mean…it’s just so fun. The bands like the ones you mentioned have paved a way for younger musicians like us. The least we can do in return is to create the best art we can.

ZT: The guys in the band seem to have such great relationships—you’re like the anti-Oasis. That must make life on the road a lot easier.

EI: We have our ups and downs like any band…heck, any relationship. But we really do care about each other. It’s remarkable how well we work together for the same goals: to create the best art we can, and take care of one another and the community around us. It helps that each of us are pretty laid back as well…taking each tour or show as flexibly and professionally as possible. Each person has a specific skill set. If we were talking Captain Planet skills…Patrick [drummer] would be fire, Nate [lead guitarist] would be earth, Ethan (singer, rhythm guitarist) would be water, Ryan (bassist) would be wind, and I would be…uh…heart…I guess? [laughs]

ZT: [Laughs] Short straw! Thanks, guys, for chatting. Have fun in Austin and “Go Planet!”

Follow the hyperlinks to stalk Easter Island on Facebook, and/or follow them on Twitter and Instagram.

Not by Fate

 The Wyly Theater Dallas is built for sleek, modern productions. The building is a square adorned with brushed metal pipes and the mostly concrete lobby is lit by vertically mounted, fluorescent tubes. The theater walls are black, and seats on movable risers allow directors and set designers to rework the space to accommodate whatever whims they might have. The productions are sleek and modern too, and the theater’s recent production of Shakespeare’s King Lear was no exception.

The story, of course, endures not because of its modernness but because of its timelessness. The story of King Lear dividing his kingdom between his two scheming daughters, Gonreil and Regan while shunning the true love of his faithful daughter Cordelia taps into themes of family and politics and power. And the modern updates are meant to serve these themes. Though the Shakespearean language remains, the cast dresses like the corporate elite, decked in tailored suits and dresses. They brandish pistols instead of swords, and as the play turns to open combat, they don paramilitary gear complete with survival knives strapped to their thighs.

As with many modern takes on Shakespeare, such updates work best when they are used to immerse the audience in a more familiar world, to help them remember that the story is a story for our times too. This, of course, is a hard line to walk because such appointments are often an attempt to make Shakespeare relevant, and attempts at relevance often careen into a crushing self-consciousness. When this happens the updates end up distracting from the show and make the sometimes unfamiliar language even more unfamiliar because of the disconnect between what we see and what we hear.

Thankfully, this production mostly avoids these pitfalls, and this is in no small part due to the brilliantly designed set. Michael McGarty’s set design conveys the halls of power with wood paneled walls and hulking columns. We could easily be in the throne room of a palace or in the corner office of a high-powered executive. It is a minimal affair built to serve the story, masterfully walking the modern/timeless line. And as the play progresses the set becomes more and more a part of the show.

Another update is the decision to cast Gloucester as a female, a choice that mostly works. Gloucester as mother and Lear as father expands some the play’s familial themes, as we see the dynamics of a father with his daughters and a mother with her sons. But not all the modern updates work as well. Some have commented that Brian McEleney’s portrayal of Lear comes off at times like the ravings of a demented man. There is something to this criticism. So much of the play is modern, so why not a modern explanation for Lear’s irrationality? From our modern viewpoint Lear’s irrational raging and his inability to recognize Cordelia’s deep love might very well seem like the ravings of an aging mind. Unfortunately, such an explanation undercuts much of the play’s intrinsic moral weight because it is Lear’s moral culpability and the possibility that he might repent that lends the play its sense of tragedy.

Strangely, it is the set itself that most communicates the moral weight of the play, particularly in the storm scene. As Lear rages and the storm roars, the set begins to collapse around him, and as I watched the deluge bring the set crashing down, I was reminded of Peter Leithart’s discussion of the play in Deep Comedy.

In that book he argues for a Christian view of history that is essentially comic, in contrast to a Greek view of history that is essentially tragic. He discusses how these viewpoints play out in literature and uses King Lear to illustrate that the comic view of history actual deepens our sense of tragedy. To put it in terms of the play, if we are, as Gloucester asserts, only the playthings of the gods, then things are tragic because they could not be otherwise. Fate or the gods rule the day so that history itself becomes tragic. But if, as Edmund says, what befalls us is “often the surfeit of our own behavior,” then things are tragic precisely because they could have been otherwise. It is the possibility of redemption, the possibility of the comic ending, that makes tragedy all the more tragic.

Which takes us back to Lear on the heath, raging in the night against the gods. Though rain leaks through the ceiling and the thunder claps all around, the set reminds us that Lear’s world is crashing down not because of the cruel machinations of fate, but because of his own blindness and hard heartedness. The storm strips the set almost to stone, and as the scene progresses, Lear strips himself too. Lear, the once great king, is naked and alone, and as he stands stripped on the ruins of the collapsed set, we know that Lear’s exile is because of Lear, not because of cruel gods or faceless fate.

And what makes Lear’s state even sadder is that the possibility of redemption stands open for him. He could reconcile with Cordelia, and it is the possibility of reconciliation that deepens our sense of tragedy. As Leithart puts it, “The play is filled with the unrealized possibility of restoration, redemption, resurrections in a way that ancient tragedy could never be” (125). To be caught up in machinations beyond ourselves is tragic, but it is far more tragic when those machinations come from within us. Lear is exiled not because of fate, but because he is seduced by flattery and unable to accept the love of his faithful daughter. Gloucester is blinded not because she is a plaything of the gods but because of Edmund’s scheming. And it is this simple insight that makes the tragedy actually tragic—it could have been otherwise.

But the play does not end merely in tragedy. At the end of the production, the newly crowned Edgar stands on the summit of the collapsed set. His ascent to the throne is a kind of resurrection—Poor Tom raised up from the dust to be king. The set plays its part again by reminding us that something good might come from the ashes.

Swn y Chwedlonol (The Legendary Sound)

This story starts with a couple of chairs.

The first: a folding steel chair, slid across a recording studio floor in 1966 by the Welsh musician John Cale. He aimed it at a stack of plates. That’s the crashing you hear at about the minute mark in “European Son (to Delmore Schwartz),” the last track on The Velvet Underground & Nico.

The second chair was tiny and silver, probably small enough to set on the palm of your hand. It was given to a Welsh poet in 1568—his name, apparently, went unrecorded—for composing the best awdl (ode) in a strict, formal poetic style called cynghanedd.

That silver chair was a miniature gadair farddol, a bardic chair. In 1176, Rhys ap Gryffydd, Prince of South Wales, held an eisteddfod, a series of music and poetry contests (that literally translates to “sit/be,” but there’s no good translation in English—“arts festival” gets offered up, but what is that in America? Raku pottery and beer and smooth jazz!). When Lord Rhys invited the winning bard to sit at his table, “chairing”  became a verb, at least for Welsh poets. Nearly 850 years later, you can pull up the BBC Wales website in early August and see headlines about the National Eisteddfod, with photographs of the winning poet, and the bardic chair; a new one is made by hand every year. Sometimes it’s tall and thin and almost in the shape of a lyre, other times, short and squat, with armrests and feet like bear paws.

As for John Cale’s folding chair, both he and it were in America where chairs are functional, not ceremonial, and things rarely follow long unbroken lines. America is all about breaking and rejiggering, about moving, about jaggedy fragmented bits that break apart and come back together in interesting ways. So the plates got chaired, not the poet, as chaser to Lou Reed’s elliptical lyrics about Schwartz, a poet broken and drunken, who rejected his elders and “spit on those under 21.” Of course Cale was a European son too, one that broke away from his coal-mining town of Garnant, where he spoke only Welsh until he started grammar school at 7, a place he says “scared,” him in its stillness and entropy. Though he was classically trained in viola (he played with the Welsh Youth Orchestra), he was organizing Fluxus concerts at Goldsmith’s before he was 20. At 21, he fled to New York on a Tanglewood scholarship, and soon found himself playing 18-hour Erik Satie pieces with John Cage and hanging out at Andy Warhol’s Silver Factory with Lou Reed.

It would be hard to diagnose exactly why this is—maybe in response to the tart, Puritan mainstream culture—but America’s music has always had a Dionysian flavor to it. Ragtime, jazz, blues, boogie-woogie, hillbilly music, rock, country, punk, hip-hop, happy hardcore, all of those weirdo tribal San Fran bands of no discernible genre—so much of it is about intoxication, whether with dollar beers or mushrooms, whether you are making the music or listening to it. Though The Velvet Underground stole its name from a seedy paperback about S&M, it’s the drug songs that feel most dangerous and true—“Venus in Furs” feels like a book report compared to “Heroin.” And though the lyrics and percussion describe the opioid experience, that crazy viola drone sprang directly from Cale’s work with minimalist composer La Monte Young and his Theatre of Eternal Music—Young enthusiastically embraced pot, LSD and peyote as part of the creative process. (TEY, also known as the Dream Syndicate, generally smoked up together before they performed.) So it is heroin with a mildly psychedelic afterburn.

In 2010, Popjunkie asked, “Are the Welsh the Most Psychedelic Nation on the Planet?” 

They mention the legendary Meic Stevens (“the Welsh Dylan”), Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, Super Furry Animals, and Cardiff’s See Monkey Do Monkey label, whose resident bands include The Method, The Broken Vinyl Club, Houdini Dax, The Keys, The Moles and Colorama—all inspired by 1960s garage-ania, and all Welsh (except for The Moles, who hail from Bristol). It didn’t even mention the Rheola psych festival, or the Green Man Festival, or acts that may not yet have been in the public consciousness three years ago—Islet, Cate Le Bon, H. Hawkline (who is now “the Welsh Dylan,” though his theory is that’s because he’s also got a big head of curly hair). Still, watching those YouTube clips, one might find oneself nodding and saying, “Yes, they are the most psychedelic nation.”

But I would say: well, no. That’s the wrong word. The sonic markers may be similar (e.g., what pop critics love to call “swirling guitars”) but the spirit is completely different. The Holy Modal Rounders, the first band to describe itself as “psychedelic,” would attest that this phrase means drug music. In fact, the band’s original name was the Total Modal Rounders—a really stoned friend thought it was “Holy” and they liked that name better.

The Super Furry Animals have stated that their mind-expander of choice is the same as most “Northern European males”—beer. And in the case of SFA’s frontman Gruff Rhys, myth: he traipsed off to a Welsh colony in Patagonia to find his long-lost, poncho-wearing, folk-singing uncle, Rene Griffiths, and made a movie about it, Separardo! Last summer, he started a second film, American Interior, winding his way through the Midwest, playing music, interviewing people, and tracing the path of his distant relative, John Evans, who came to the U.S. in search of a tribe of “Welsh Indians,” rumored to be descendants of the Welsh prince Madoc. (We should also add that Gruff Rhys’ dad, Ioan Bowen Rees, was a white robe druid of the Gorsedd of Bards—that is, the collective of poets that’s long been a part of the National Eisteddfod.) Though Cate Le Bon’s been compared to Nico, there’s nothing in her catalog (that I’ve heard anyway) that radiates the weariness and burned-out hedonism of wrapping oneself in foil and sniffing magic markers in the Chelsea Hotel. Le Bon grew up on a farm in Penboyr, West Wales, and says she writes songs “about the sea, matters of the heart and animals—or a mish-mash of all three.”  Her songs can be dark and strange—her first record, Me Oh My, was originally called Dead Pets—but it is the vibrant darkness of the natural world, where dead things have their logical relation to the living things, and terror is in response, say, to the terrible sublime of the sea. The original wave of psychedelia sprang out of American coastal cities, like the East Village of the Holy Modal Rounders, or Owsley’s San Francisco. It was, in the parlance of the time, kind of a head trip, more thought than felt. (It was psyche-delic, after all.) Death was abstract; existential crises arrived during bad trips from iffy acid brewed in some whiskery guy’s bathtub.

For those who think I’m dissing American psychedelia, I’ll send you a screen shot of my music collection to prove otherwise. I’m just making a distinction. The argument I’m making here is similar to the one Emily Gould made in her essay for The Awl, “Barbara Comyns is Not Anyone on Acid.”  Comyns was a British painter and novelist, born in Bidford-on-Avon in 1907, and was still covered with the fairy dust of the Edwardian era, and that is the source of what sounds strange to a modern ear. As Gould notes:

“The acid part is a cop-out; her voice is clear and direct, even when describing surreal or hyperreal situations, and her crisp descriptions are not kaleidoscopic or druggy in the least.”

So perhaps if American psych is Dionysian, Welsh psych-pop is Orphic. They both call up from the underworld, but Welsh psychedelia’s not so much about pot epiphanies or machine elves; like Barbara Comyns, it too speaks clearly and directly. It drawns on the bardic chair and John Cale’s folding chair crashing into plates, eisteddfodau and punk rock, Welsh and English. It’s the sound of Huw Jones singing “Dŵr,” a song about the Llyn Celyn reservoir, which drowned the Tryweryn Valley in 1965 to provide water to Liverpool. It is the loopy organ riffs on H. Hawkline’s The Strange Uses of Ox Gall. It is protesters sitting on Trefechan bridge in February of 1963 to campaign for a bilingual country. It’s Meic Williams singing “Y Brawd Houdini,” in the’ 60s, and Super Furry Animals singing it in the ’90s. It is a tinny little transistor radio on a beach, playing records pressed by Cwmni Sain, all sung in Welsh. It’s what was wiped out by the two hours’ silence that recently descended on Radio Cymru, the result of a showdown between the BBC and the Welsh musician’s union, Eos. It is not a soundtrack for approaching the peephole of the kaleidoscope, like in America. It the sound of an unbroken line that goes back so far it makes your head feel kind of weird to think about it, and your heart too. A kind of weirdness that calls for a sober heart and a sober head. So many strata of lives and stories and songs, uncountable, yet always teetering on the brink of being lost.

The Shot Heard Round the World: Meditations on “Son of a Gun”

“If there is no combat in love, then it has ceased.” ~ Søren Kierkegaard

A few weeks ago I arrived fashionably late to the folk-rock musical Son of a Gun at The Beckett at Theatre Row. I’ve learned by now, though, that tardiness is relative. Depending on how you see it, I was just in time. You see, as I transitioned from the foyer to my seat in the seemingly eternal abyss of optical darkness, I was greeted with a better greeting than the opening act. I was greeted by Cowboy Jesus (played by Ryan Link). And the rest of the musical was, as they say, history.

Cowboy Jesus stole my heart.

Before I reached my seat three feet away, Cowboy Jesus was my savior. I was filled with the Holy Ghost before I could sit down. In a matter of seconds I was entranced, laughing, involved, and absolutely oblivious to anything in my periphery. Door whispering, feet dragging, lips parting, smile budding, the chortle was birthed.

And, for most, that’s all she wrote. “What did you enjoy most?” I asked several. “Cowboy Jesus.” “Cowboy Jesus.” “Cowboy Jesus.” Cowboy Jesus was a big hit. I mean the guy plays drums. (Come to think of it, I read that somewhere in one of the so-called “Lost Gospels.”) But there’s more to enjoy about the musical than Cowboy Jesus, as much as it pains me to say so. Lord, have mercy.

Son of a Gun tells the tragic story of the Khrusty Appalachian band and tumultuous experiences of the eldest son Danderhauler Agamenon Khrusty (Van Hughes). Lead by vocal foreman Winston Khrusty (Jimmie James), this family band is comprised of three rather silly, and at times naïve, folky brothers and their assertive, but wise mother, Elmadora Khrusty. We watch Danderhauler as he considers leaving the band, eventually lead it, fall in love and marry the tour’s opening act, Lucy Sunshine (Rebecca Hart), wrestle with his father’s choice to die from tongue cancer and cope with his lover’s miscarriage. It is a story of pain and love.

Its catchy score and excellent musical performances are no distraction.

Stylistically Son of a Gun blends the literal and figurative well. It performs the actual in its thick complexity and irony. Literally there is a son (an aspiring, musically promising, but existentially conflicted, Danderhauler Agamenon Khrusty) with a gun and he is a son of a gun (an ambitious, emotionally absent, alcoholic father in Winston). Figuratively though, as we see in the end, a son is birthed through this gun. A duel brings peace. A wound brings healing. Death brings life, and the story of Danderhauler resonates on more than one level. It can captivate beyond simply exact circumstances. This is art in its most flattering stroke. No matter what genre of art one engages in, one cannot go wrong in capturing the “actual” in all its complex turmoil and angst, even if this done with a little dose of dark humor and irony. Son of a Gun does just this.

There was no dearth of valuable themes in this script. And evocation was not absent. It was meaningful. It was provocative. It was unsettling. It did violence to our comfort. And rightly so. In some sense, many of us were onstage. Those experiences were ours. Those questions came from our mouths. Those actions were ones we regretted. Perhaps still do. Son of a Gun is so human that it seems to bring us to the mirror of existence and let us see for ourselves how much our outline resembles that of others. In a rather twisted and concocted instance, its story is telling many of our stories.

That’s to be expected.

We are too eager to not be affected by those we long for. Our parents, siblings, spouses and professions hurt us (especially if our profession is playing in a band composed of our parents and siblings and our wife is the opening act). In some manner, and for some reason, our loved ones and things bring us pain. In some cases, they do us evil. That is certain. But, as Son of a Gun suggests, what isn’t certain is our response.

A musical brings us to the precipice of existential options and encourages us to choose wisely. It invites us to consider just how satisfying it really is to respond from pain, anger, and resentment. And in a dark, almost horrifying pivotal moment when Danderhauler confronts his dead father, it invites us to consider just how meaningful it would be to perpetuate the behavior of our offender, especially if that offender is someone so close to us.

In this pivotal moment Danderhauler has a choice: he can either imitate his father or change himself. He can either cower from his past or confront it. He can either despise his family or honor them. He can either let his trauma and pain destroy his marriage or make it the foundation upon which it stands. He can either offend others through his pain or heal them through a reckoning of his situation.

As we watch Danderhauler make poor and sensible choices throughout, and recollect the choices of his father, it draws our attention to the formidable nature and danger of ambition. Ambition can take many forms as he and his father can testify to: suppressing the past, leading a family appalachian band, wanting to be a good father. As their choices make clear, some days ambition looks more like denial or narcissism. As we see Danderhauler wrestle with his own ambition in relation to his father’s, we are invited to consider our own. And, by seeing the repercussions of his unfold on stage, we are tempted to discern right ones from wrong ones.

The talented guinea pig is there for our prudential benefit.

The right choice and the right kind of ambition require courage, hope and persistence. People like Danderhauler need help from mothers, brothers, and spouses. People like Danderhauler need to be reminded of the possible. People like that need time to heal. People, that is, like us. Like Danderhauler, we end up wounding ourselves by not dealing with our wounds. The shot that wounded him was a shot felt by the rest of us in that theater. It was a shot that many of us have ourselves been wounded by. And like Danderhauler we must attend to this wound.

The question is, do we accept the blood loss and let the lead set in or do we pull out the bullet and medicate and wrap the wound? Do we try to change what happened or do we try to create what can be? Do we fight for love or do we let it pass us by?

Buckley’s “Hallelujah”

Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah” resides in that pantheon of great songs that have been sung, interpreted, chopped, parodied (intentionally and unintentionally), and beaten to death, ranking so high on the scoreboard of abused songs that I suspect only “Amazing Grace” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” are above it.

However, to call the song “Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah'” is to omit a very important part of the song’s ever-increasing history: Leonard Cohen didn’t make the song famous, Jeff Buckley did. Were it not for the fact that Buckley was covering Cohen, one might argue that they are two entirely different songs. In fact, I will. Jeff Buckley took Leonard Cohen’s song and made it into the transcendent, over-covered, misinterpreted both by listeners and performers, incredibly famous song that it is today.

In a recent article/op-ed, Marvin Olasky provides some reflections on “Hallelujah.” After admitting that the melody is beautiful, that the song is popular, he gives a cursory analysis of the lyrics, declaring the song unfit for Christian consumption and debuts some “improved lyrics.” (Following the smashing success of his “Gr8 is Thy Faithfullnss x Doxology vs. St8 Anthem of the USSR” mashup). Olasky doesn’t try to answer the questions “Why is this song so popular? And why can’t I reconcile it with my faith?” with anything other than giving credit to “partly the tune.” Reading over Olasky’s piece several times I could come to no other conclusion than that the deadline was tight, he had just read the kindle preview of The Holy or the Broken? by Alan Light and then decided that instead of listening to the song, meditating on it, and coming up with a thoughtful reflection, it would be better to declare it heretical and fix it or, in his words,“take it captive,” by slapping a ichthus sticker on its lyrics. He was wrong to do so.

Jeff Buckley took Leonard Cohen’s song, with its problematic, tongue-in-cheek, cheeseball gospel choir mockingly singing “Hallelujah,” and interpreted the music and the lyrics into a beautiful reflection on brokenness, imperfect love, and most importantly, grace. Cohen’s lyrics are about fallen and sinful perversions of love. The second verse beautifully captures the falls of David and Samson, with broken crowns and cut hair, Bathsheba and Delilah drawing from lips “hallelujah.” “Hallelujah” is the highest praise that can be bestowed upon God, and it appears at the end of each verse in this song, repeated with nuanced subtlety and fragility, defeat and ecstasy. With each declaration of “hallelujah” Buckley expresses the misplaced love, the fall, the shame, the regret, and even the hope in grace that comes from God himself. Even though David and Samson both fell and fell hard, they were not beyond the redemptive mercy of grace and forgiveness. They both accomplished incredible things despite their faults, because that is what it means to be human. This is where Buckley shines—in drawing out the nuance of these two stories and establishing a tone for the rest of a song in which “hallelujah” is used not sarcastically but as an emotionally charged exploration of what it is to be human, to fail, and to still be able to see the goodness of love.

With these biblical stories in place, the rest of the verses follow suit in reference to the singer’s experience, and Jeff Buckley executes each verse perfectly. The third verse delves into loneliness, and how messy love is (“Love is not a victory march/It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah”) and the uncertainty of human fickleness that is outstripped by the glory of relationships that are worthy of a “hallelujah.” The fourth verse (which Olasky seems to have a problem with because it refers to orgasms) describes a relationship gone cold; the lover who is left behind reminisces about the intense intimacy that sex offers, likening the consummation of their past love to the holy dove. There is so much meaning in this verse, and you can interpret it however you want, but you can’t deny that this scene is given tender and respectful treatment by Buckley. From Adam to “Song of Solomon” to Jesus and his bride, the Church, the discussion and depiction of sex is intertwined with an understanding of not only mortal relationships but also divine.

At its core, “Hallelujah” is a song about the depth of our longing for love and our understanding of its inherent goodness, despite the symptoms of our brokenness that often accompany our pursuit of it. It is a love song for love that has died, misappropriated love, and lost innocence that can’t be restored, and yet, beside the grief, there is still an active choice, to declare “hallelujah,” again, and again, and again. That’s heavy. It’s a profound statement against every Sunday School RomCom story with its head in the sand pretending that love always wins with happy endings and no casualties.

Furthermore, it’s a song that grasps how emotionally and spiritually complicated imperfect love is, that contrasts the experience of broken love with that which is perfect, steadfast, and unchanging, even in the midst of suffering for our faults. This is the greatness of the song, and the delicate balance that is held between the beauty of the melody and the teetering emotions in Jeff Buckley’s voice from defeat to ecstasy and everything in between. One cannot help but be moved by it, which is why it’s so often used for cheap emotional impact in soundtracks—but that’s another thing altogether. This song’s fame has skyrocketed because it has a sound that is transcendent and it has words of mystery and prayer without alienating its listeners. It speaks to the central tension of sin. What Olasky has done in trying to ‘reconquer’ this song for Christ is sanitize the humanity out of it.

I don’t think that Leonard Cohen took the word “hallelujah” lightly when he wrote his song, and I don’t think the song he ended up with takes it lightly either. Admittedly, in the original version, the last two verses are odd and bitter, though not without their merit.  I think Buckley chose to sing only five of the verses because he was striving to understand it intimately and bring life and feeling to the words to make them his own. But he didn’t turn it into a Christianized commodity. He did something creative, constructive, and rich.

Christmas Tunes of Another Sort

Christmastime is here again, which means the return of Christmas music. If you’re like me, you have a love/hate relationship with this genre created to be listened to for about five weeks a year. Strangely, it’s also one of the most oversaturated genres. Hundreds of pop musicians have released Christmas albums, and pretty much all of them contain the same thirty or so songs. It can get nauseating to hear the fourth or fifth different “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

In my quest to avoid becoming a musical Grinch, I’ve spent the past few years looking for solutions to the Christmas music predicament. Here are a few great albums that I’ve discovered:

If On A Winter’s Night by Sting. This has been one of my favorite Christmas/winter albums since its release in 2009. Sting, who was already known for exploring historical forms in his Songs from the Labyrinth, turns to the folk and holiday traditions of the British isles in this album, with renditions of lesser known Christmas tunes like the haunting “Gabriel’s Message,” “Lo, How a Rose E’re Blooming,” and “The Cherry Tree Carol.” The great thing about this album is that it is, as I said, a Christmas/winter work, evoking not just the holiday season, but the whole brooding atmosphere of darkest time of year. The lovely folk and Celtic instrumentation certainly creates a large part of this mood on the album. Personal standouts: “Gabriel’s Message,” “Christmas At Sea,” “The Snow It Melts The Soonest,” “You Only Cross My Mind in Winter.”

To Drive The Cold Winter Away by Loreena McKennitt. Keeping in line with the whole moody traditional British Christmas music theme is Loreena McKennitt’s first Christmas album. This album has a decidedly more medieval feel than Sting’s album, with McKennitt playing in the echoing spaces of monasteries and cathedrals with the spare instrumentation of harp, strings, and accordion most of the time. As such, it evokes the Yule season of the medieval era, where kings and their vassals would gather in their castle to pass the dark days of winter in feasting and fellowship. Most of the songs on this album will be unfamiliar to modern audiences, except maybe “The Wexford Carol,” which is somewhat known. Of course, this is a good thing if you’re trying to find some really fresh Christmas music.

A Midwinter Night’s Dream by Loreena McKennitt. McKennitt followed up her first Christmas album with a more traditional work about twenty years later. This album contains recognizable tunes such as “The Holly and The Ivy,” “Good King Wenceslas,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman” and “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”  Still, she finds a way to bend the sound of these songs, with her unique blend of Celtic and Middle Eastern sounds, in a way that defies the traditional Christmas-song rendition. Add to that some more unusual songs like the French carol “Noel Nouvelet,” “The Seven Rejoices of Mary” and the “Gloucestershire Wassail,” and you’ve got a somewhat more traditionally accessible and yet highly unique Christmas album.

Celtic Christmas by Eden’s Bridge. Can you tell I like Celtic-influenced Christmas music yet? This is an album I’ve had for many years. Case in point: I listened to this on cassette tape until it got all warbly, then bought it on CD. This album is a balanced mix of neo-Celtic styled traditional songs like “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Coventry Carol” and splendid originals like “Christmas Is With Us Again,” “Unto Us” and “Crying for the World.” Although the mood of the record is very ethereal, these original songs make the Christmas story feel very contemporary as they dig into the tangled thoughts of the characters.

The Promise by Michael Card. Card’s Christmas album is already a bit of a modern classic in certain circles, but it is still not as well known as it should be. The cool thing about it is that all of the ten songs are original—nary a traditional Christmas tune among the lot. And they range from the epic scope of prophecy in “Unto Us A Son Is Given” and “Vincit Agnus Noster” to the small tender moments of the Christmas story in “What Her Heart Remembered” and “Joseph’s Song.” Card has always been a bit of a theological songwriter, which provides a rich depth to this album, yet is never inaccessible.

Behold the Lamb of God by Andrew Peterson. Last but not least is another modern classic, although it’s only been around for less than a decade. The interesting part about the album is that most of the songs don’t seem to really talk about Christmas at all, at least not in the way we think—only three songs actually reference the events spoken of in the Gospel accounts. Rather, what Peterson and company do is tell the story of redemption leading up to and including the Incarnation. It’s kind of like Handel’s Messiah for banjos and guitars. Granted, there are several traditional tunes in there, including “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” “The Holly and The Ivy”  and “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks,” but they are either amazing instrumentals or so artfully rearranged as to sound non-traditional.

So if you’re looking for a fresh batch of Christmas music, something that won’t make you want to stab the singer with a stake of holly, consider seeking out some of these albums.

 

 

 

Christmas Unicorn

Being a Christian in the midst of Christmas is hard. I have tried making presents by hand; I have tried not going to malls. I have tried abstaining from peppermint lattes; I have sat in midnight mass and prayed to feel sober and holy like I should. But time and time again my good intentions get crowded out in the collective search for a holiday that is my own invention. I am overwhelmed by the nostalgia of times with family, before people got sick or moved across the country, before we knew what things were really like around the world. I find myself longing to forget my troubles, my struggles, and instead find myself looking fondly at all the cultural displays—presents, Santa, spiked eggnog. I guess everything does look better under twinkly lights.

Sufjan Stevens, with his penchant for nostalgia and world-weary sighs, just might be the perfect troubadour of this current holiday mood. His new 58-song Christmas box set titled Silver & Gold (a throwback to the song from Rudolph that most of us grew up watching) both celebrates Christmas kitsch and despairs of it. This tension is seen most poignantly in a video for the title track (also called “Justice Delivers Its Death”), set on an isolated beach. In the background, we hear:

Silver and Gold, Silver and Gold.
How have I wasted my life?
Trusting the pleasure it gives here on earth.
Lord, come with fire. Lord, come with fire. Everyone’s wasting their time
Storing up treasure in vain.
Trusting the pleasure it gives here on earth.

In the video, a boy runs around the beach, playing with a kite. He is so unaware of the lures of the earth; I am forced to wonder how much longer he will stay like this, how long it will be until he grows up just like me. How did I learn how to be this way? When did I start to trust the pleasures of silver, of gold? I can’t even remember.

When I was 17, I found myself in India on Christmas Eve. I was there to save the world, on a two-month long mission trip with twelve other college-aged kids. As we drove through the city, dark and hot and full of the sounds of life being lived, we were silenced by an unexpected miracle. Paper stars were raised high on the tin roofs of several buildings, clustered throughout the city slums. They were lit from within, either by fire or electricity, and were scattered about our drive back to our little flat. Our driver told us that the stars signified a Christian home, a place for the infant Jesus to come and rest.

These were the only decorations we saw, the only tie we had to our own childhoods full of trees and carols and hot chocolate and church services; but we were all silent as we stared at the stars, sprinkled throughout the city.

What did they know about Christmas that we did not? Stripped of cultural celebrations, it seemed like they had everything they needed to be joyous. They had Jesus, dwelling with them, in the midst of the dark night. We were silent; looking back, it seems as if we were envious of their untainted holiday.

Sufjan’s latest Christmas album juxtaposes gorgeous, traditional-sounding hymns with other, less holy sounding music. But even his funny songs have a bit of an edge (I am Santa’s helper, you are Santa’s slave), and many of the spiritual songs are unrelentingly sincere. They almost catch you off guard, transport you to dark nights and shining stars all over again.

But Sufjan is also very clear-eyed about the nostalgia of Christmas past and what exactly we have done to the memory of that Holy Night. His thoughts are best summed up in the song “Christmas Unicorn,” a meandering, 12-minute long meditation on syncretism and consumerism. Some of my favorite lyrics include:

Oh I’m a Christian holiday
I’m a symbol of original sin
I’ve a pagan tree and magical wreath
And a bowtie on my chin

And

Oh I’m hysterically American
I’ve a credit card on my wrist
And I have no home nor field to roam
I will curse you with my kiss

It speaks to me because I am a little like Sufjan myself: I love the glitter of things too much in this world. And part of me despairs that I love it.

And this is where I connect with these songs. They are nostalgic, they are hopeful, they are full of Christmas past and present. They are also aware that this might not be the very best thing. For of course it is lovely to be a child, running along the beach, flying a kite high in the air; but those times were still fraught with small terrors and worries, family arguments at the dinner table. Do we really long to go back to a time when we were so oblivious? We who grew up, be it over the span of months or years or in a series of days, do we truly want to forget all we know, to carry on and wish everyone a Merry Christmas? I think what we really want has already been put down for us. We want peace on Earth and goodwill towards men. We want the heavenly kingdom to come, through little babies. We want to remember how Jesus came to give life to those walking around not really alive—consumed with a shadow, unaware of the glories to come.

But sometimes we forget this is what we really want. Or perhaps we are running away from it: drinking heavily, shopping manically, forcing magical camaraderie—these have all become a part of the American Christmas narrative. We don’t know how to recreate what the shepherds on the hill felt, stunned by the glory of the gospel. We don’t know how to worship in action, to align our lives with the Prince of Peace. We don’t know how to signal to everyone else in our world that Jesus is here, that he is with us. We don’t know how to celebrate Christmas anymore without abandoning our pasts.

The songs on this latest album make me realize that the holidays are the perfect time to stare these contradictions in the face—that beneath the glitter all is not truly gold. And it makes me realize just how much I love Mr. Stevens, and what a rare bird he is.

He’s the Christmas unicorn, for sure. But then again, so am I.

 

Matthew E. White on Craftsmanship, Gospel Music & Andre 3000

A winding phone conversation between Meaghan Ritchey & Matthew E. White, the man behind “The Big Inner” and  SPACEBOMB in Richmond, VA. 

Meaghan Ritchey: This is Meaghan from Curator Magazine.

Matthew E. White: Yeah, it’s good to hear your voice.

MR: I’m jumping right in. Great emphasis is put on your lyrics. I think that your narrative form will resonate with our readers, I do, but I want to be deliberate about the instrumentation on Big Inner because it’s incredible!  Can we talk about a few instances that struck me? Can I get specific right off the bat?

MEW: Yeah! Sure.

MR: Is it Phil Cook playing piano on Big Love?

MEW: Yes.

MR: How did you meet? And how much of what he did on that song was intentional?

MEW: We happened to be in two bands that were playing the same show one night in Nashville—it’s been a long time, 7 years ago now—and it took us 5 minutes to realize we were connected in a very soulful way. We’ve worked together previously with the Sounds of the South project. Liking his vocal arrangements, I asked him to do some on my album. I also had a few piano bits I wanted him to play on, and ‘Big Love’ was one of them.  My instructions were:  be sort of  rocky, Jimmy Hendrixy with a Jerry Lee Lewis playing piano on top. There’s just piano, and there’s blues piano, and New Orleans piano, but there’s this very particular sort of piano like Jerry Lee Lewis, Richard Manuel, and the Band— rock ‘n’ roll piano—I wanted that, and he did a good job.

MR: Yeah, he did!  So up for a little more grilling? On Brazos there’s a very marked change at the end of the song. Can you talk about why you did that?

MEW: I’d written the song—up until that point it was kind of complete, or it was getting there—and I heard this lyric in this Brazilian tune called ‘Brother’ off an album in the 70s—sort of obscure —and its that “Jesus Christ is your friend”—and I liked the way the words worked over that particular chord progression in his song. Immediately I knew it would be great sort of coda ending for the record. Brazos adds a spiritual flavor, clearly, but also just a narrative flavor that made the song three-dimensional to me. It was a way for me to flesh out the narrative and pay tribute to an artist that I respect greatly and a tradition that I respect greatly. And also an instrumental platform to really ride out the record. It’s the biggest thing that happens, and I think really closes it down nicely.

MR: The melodies immediately draw you in and force you to pay attention to the lyrics. What are some musical experiences that have done that to you?

MEW: Umm that’s a good question (laughs). Let me look at my CD shelf.  You mean sort of like records that I’ve sort of have fallen in love with from the get-go?

MR: Albums that like on first listen have grabbed you, with an understanding of the fullness of the lyrics coming thereafter?

MEW: Unfortunately this album doesn’t have lyrics, but Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew was the record that changed my life. I didn’t get the complete scope of it the first time. Listening to it more I realized it was something sort of transcendental. Now, something with lyrics? Maybe uh—that’s interesting—you know I’m sort of a lyricist by accident.  It’s funny that you mention people pay the most attention to them and if you asked me what my strengths were that is not what I would answer. I’m still trying to think of a record from before…you know there’s a lot of soul records! Let’s say Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”—that’s a good record to think about.  Actually Outkast is a good example! Like hip hop stuff because it’s so vibrant rhythmically, you sort of just like go with the flow—whatever they’re saying.

MR: That’s how I feel about Wu-Tang. (laughs) Like despite myself, I go with the flow.

MEW: …then you start thinking about the words and then you’re like: they’re saying real stuff, about life and death, and culture, and society, and wealth, and poverty. Do you want to know the best example? (The man’s mind running) Gospel.  The way people listen to gospel music is funny. Some turn it on as party music or fun background music, but it’s incredibly religious.

MR: And it’s incredibly participatory.

MEW: It’s not under the covers at all. It’s just religious. Never in a million years would you turn on praise and worship music from the 1990s, or play it in the background for just like fun. When I hear friends of mine that are non-religioius listening to black gospel, they act like it’s Bob Dylan.  Because it’s so good.  Don’t laugh, that’s sort of a weird example.

MR: It’s the right kinda example.That’s actually helpful because it touches on how we participate with music—how we can be both passive and active listeners, how the function of music changes based on setting and audience.

MEW:  It’s kind of a blessing and a curse. What’s interesting is the racial element there, too. Non-religious, white audiences  don’t give the same sort of seriousness —at least not the intended seriousness to gospel music. There’s an irony in listening to it for them, or something.

MR: I lived in Harlem for a while right by the legendary Abyssinian Baptist Church. It seems like the same reason hundreds of European tourists line up outside for performances (tailored for them) that aren’t worship services. They’re watching, but participation isn’t there, never a drive to stand up, clap, weep, even sing along, which mystifiesme.

MEW: (overlapping Meaghan) Yeah, that’s weird. There’s weird racial stuff going on in there that I don’t want to get into. (Laughs).

MR: Me either!

MEW: It’s a little weird.  And I figure a little touchy. I wouldn’t be comfortable going into it too much, but when practices aren’t attached to their cultural context—I don’t know—to me they lose a level of seriousness. I think that’s troublesome. In instances like that, white culture almost becomes a caricature of itself while it caricatures others.  Shouldn’t what’s serious in black culture be taken seriously in white?  At least far as these worship practices are concerned?

MR: It’s pretty exciting to me that you brought this up because it’s one of the things I was thinking about before I started to prepare. I mentioned it to a friend and he said, “Meaghan you can’t go there, that would be weird. And difficult to talk about.” It was triggered by my thoughts about Richmond. I just wondered if it affected you… having an audience composed of a certain “type” of person—as bad as that sounds—when you’re performing music steeped in a tradition that isn’t theirs?

MEW:  The audience is how you’d imagine it. Richmond is very divided—it’s not like violently divided—but demographically there’s a black part of town and a white part of town. Richmond was the capitol of the Confederacy. Richmond was a gospel mecca, but no one knows that here. There’s these huge black churches here that have amazing gospel choirs.  On Sundays I’d attend and be one white guy in a room of 5,000 black people. One time—not on purpose or else I wouldn’t have gone— I was there on the Sunday after Coretta Scott King died. The church was singing freedom-type songs, civil-rights spiritual play: “We Shall Overcome”. I thought: What am I doing here? I’m here intentionally. Working in Richmond, I hope to have the resources, time, and courage to go into that uncomfortable world and explore it.

MR: Were you intimidated? Or were you just overwhelmed?

MEW:  I wasn’t intimidated. No one made me feel like I shouldn’t be there. But it isn’t my history, you know? There’s an African American history that is strong, powerful, sensitive, and sacred. To be perfectly honest, if we’re talking about granddads, like the guy next to me—like your granddad and my granddad—that’s not going to be a pretty scene.  I try to be really sensitive about it. That’s what Brazos is about.

MR: Maybe one day I can come back to this subject with you? You mentioned falling into songwriting by accident. How much of your music-making is in the studio is accidental? Or do you find that a high level of intentionality gets you where you need more often?

MEW: I don’t mean that I wrote the songs by accident. The initial plan was for the record to be an introduction to SPACEBOMB and the Richmond community. I felt like I should kind of go first to demonstrate the process. We have specific production ideas, instrumental ideas, and orchestration ideas — the things we were talking about— but I didn’t have songs. The songs on Big Inner weren’t songs that were sitting around. And I don’t mean that to make it impersonal—they were just written specifically for a specific project.

MR: I think they’re more purposeful becauseof that.

MEW: I want to be a producer and an arranger, and I’m entrepreneurial, so I started a record label. But I needed songs. You can have all the great ideas in the world, but if the songs aren’t good, then the ship doesn’t sail anywhere. The songwriting part was just consulting of the rest of it. I could be a professional arranger, but as a songwriter and as a singer I’m kind of primitive. It’s sort of an adventure. And that’s fun. I like the duality of it.

MR: If you could bring anyone out to Richmond to record with SPACEBOMB, who would it be?

MEW: Anybody?

MR: Anybody.

MEW: Beyonce.

MR: (Laughs) Really? Truly?

MEW: Yeah!

MR: And not Jay-Z? Just Beyonce?

MEW: Yeah! Or like uh, maybe, like Andre 3000.

MR: That’d be rad! I bet he’d say yes.

MEW:  Andre 3000 is a little in the territory of like… maaaaaaybe I could convince him (laughs). I feel like Beyonce’s a little unreasonable.  Andre 3000 for whatever reason I don’t feel is unreasonable. That would just be…

MR:  He’s a reasonable man.  Look at his clothing. (MEW laughs in the background).  We address longevity in artistic practice a lot at IAM (our publisher). What does longevity look like for you?

MEW: SPACEBOMB is built to be long-term. As an artist, your face is on the front of a record, you have a few albums, might have ten years, something like that, but people get tired of you after a while and you loose your fame and power. There is this other side of the music world focused on being a craftsman, being excellent at what you do. I try to be thankful for this every day. But I will be out of the spotlight. Not sure when, but whenever that light goes out, I’ll still be able work SPACEBOMB. That’s the goal. It’s about work ethic. I need to get better at writing and arranging. I need a deeper understanding of the music that I’ve taken in, and I need knowledge of music that I haven’t heard. There has to be a continuous push as an artist to struggle with your art. If not,  you’re going to find yourself inactive at fifty. Visual artists do pretty good at succeeding late in life.  Classical composers do pretty good, too. If you’re trying to keep your finger on pop culture for your whole life you can forget about it.

MR: Do you think it’s possible to rework pop music’s infrastructure?

MEW: Hip Hop has this amazing infrastructure: first you get in the game guest rapping on some records, then you have your debut, then you become a producer, and then you become an entrepreneur/businessman. There’s a graceful entrance and then exit out of the spotlight that rock n roll doesn’t really have.

MR: A reorientation has to occur, right? You have to ask yourself from the get-go what your bottom line is.  You spoke of courage in your answer. From my perspective, a good dose of discernment and a whole lot of courage is absolutely necessary to work at an artistic practice, whatever it may be.

MEW: That’s really all it is. It is wisdom, courage, imagination, and work ethic. Those four things will get you a really, really, really long way.

MR:  I’m glad we ended with this, because as a magazine, we believe that artistic excellence creates a pathway by which humanity can flourish.

MEW: If  you’re able to be courageous about your decision-making, and particularly imaginative, that’s the golden ticket. And that’s not easy.

MR: I agree wholeheartedly. Is there any wisdom that you could pass off to people doing work like yours in other places?

MEW: When you can marry true vision with something you’re good at, it starts to become attractive to people. This record is the closest thing that I’ve made to myself. Like I said, I didn’t mean for this record to do anything, I mean nothing, I didn’t have any expectations for it and here I am talking to you on the phone (talking to like forty other people on the phone in the next few days).  It’s crazy! It took me ten years to distill my knowledge, and my listening, and my stuff  that I’ve been taking in through my personal life and professional life into a group of songs that I felt represented myself. Not only are they pure in that sense, but they are also married to ten years of work. Now I can bring a skill set and a self-awareness to the table. People want to see what humankind can kind of do despite the fact that things are broken. And there’s sort of a redemptive quality in watching that.

MR: Thank you so much! Your words are valuable to our community and we’re grateful that you took the time.

—–goodbyes——-

MR: He’s a good man!

We Need To Talk About Mumford

“Listening to the new Mumford & Sons album. Wait nope just some goats eating a banjo.” —Sammy Rhodes, a.k.a. @prodigalsam

With their tweed jackets, braces (suspenders to us Yankees), and brogues, pickin’ banjos and strummin’ and stompin’ and hollerin’ with all their ragged might, Mumford and his sons (who in fact do not own a dry goods store) want so desperately for you to believe. They want you to earnestly believe that those moments when you’re feeling flawed, and sometimes hurt, beaten down, and need to heal are the moments when music can capture our lowest lows and our highest highs, leading us on a path to triumphant, exuberant, ecstatic, cathartic joy. All this can be yours if you just suspend your disbelief and accept that Mumford & Sons are an old-timey band from some nondescript town where they had to learn about life and love the old-fashioned way: through blood, sweat and nearly dying of dysentery. And now, with calloused hands and waxed mustaches, clad in tweed, they have come with their music to give you the soundtrack that you need to get through it, to feel it all, to be who you were meant to be, fully yourself.

Do they sell it?

Mumford & Sons are in a tough spot because there is a vast dissonance between their music and their words. This dissonance arises from the prioritization of style over substance. Their sound borrows heavily from American folk and bluegrass, the local music of rural people of modest means, but their words are the self-expressive, spiritual, existential crisis tweets of the city-raised, university-educated sort. Folk comes out of cultural tradition, oral histories, shared stories and specific regions. The songs belong to nobody and everybody, but they’re always telling a story. Marcus Mumford is not very good at telling stories, or rather he tells stories with such broadly painted obscurities of reference as to not be stories at all. Mumford & Sons’ lyrical style is ambient or atmospheric at best. Perhaps it’s just spheric, in that when Mumford is at his best, there is a general sphere of songness that the words sing and poke around in for five minutes. Oftentimes the only clue as to what an entire song is about is the title (“Babel,” “I Will Wait,” “Hopeless Wanderer”), and even then only the chorus seems to say anything about the title. At less coherent times, such as in the title track on their new album, we have advanced free association (editorial commentary in parentheses):

‘Cuz I know that time has numbered my days (life is short)
And I’ll go along with everything you say (just along for the ride)
But I’ll ride home laughing, look at me now (the laughing ride, Chris Brown reference?)
The walls of my town, they come crumbling down (town is a metaphor, perhaps it’s a Potemkin town, Babel/Jericho reference)
And my ears hear the call of my unborn sons (reference to the future and our potentiality, also babies)
And I know their choices color all I’ve done (back to the future)
But I’ll explain it all to the watchman’s son, (who watches the watchmen?)
I never lived a year better spent in love (it must’ve been love, but it’s over now)
‘Cuz I know my weakness know my voice, so now believe in grace and choice (he is finite, and not a Calvinist)
And I know perhaps my heart is farce, but I’ll be born without a mask (farce is not an adjective, possible poetic dropping of article, vague reference to a resurrected body)
Woo! (actual lyric, also the last word uttered by Falstaff in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, part 2 [radio edit])

It’s as if Mumford writes his songs by throwing vaguely spiritual, esoteric truths and literary one-liners into a hat and drawing them out at random.

Reading the lyrics from a Mumford & Sons song is a daunting task, not because they’re challenging, but because they’re incoherent. Mumford seems afraid of writing thoughts that are longer than two or three short lines, not that this matters when your main audience is looking for a style, catchiness and a hook rather than challenging lyrics. Songs don’t have to be philosophical treatises, but a good song—like a good poem—marries truth and efficiency of language through subtlety and the suggestive power of the unspoken. Creative Writing 101: “Show, Don’t Tell.” Someone missed the memo or doesn’t have enough faith in writing or audience or some combination of the above. This is of course what makes Mumford & Sons so quotable (especially on Twitter and on Sundays). Attention deficit results in a failure to tackle the difficult questions; the songs feign to wrestle with anything approaching thoroughness or even a serious effort.

This leads us to the greatest virtue of Mumford & Sons, which is also their most obvious crutch: they know how to get a crowd going. Consider them the acoustic-folk-rock cousins of Muse, with a sound that’s built for big, loud, live performances without much room for dynamics. If Muse is about the screaming sounds of an intergalactic quest on full blast, Mumford & Sons are about spiritual crisis and desperate faith packing out a pub. They got their chops playing live, and their first album showed it, but at least maintained some sort of musical restraint. On Babel they’ve taken all the things that make for energetic concerts, cut out the parts that made for a better studio album on Sigh No More and ended up with a monotonous album that drones—in short, a 21st century Billboard chart topper. This album is regressive.

Music is emotional, but there’s a problem when its emotions lack in nuance, variety, and don’t correspond to the lyrics, as is often the case in pop music. You can take any song by Mumford & Sons and skip to about two-thirds of the way through and it will sound about the same as any of their other songs, but surely not every one of their songs is about the same thing. “Hopeless Wanderer” features a double-time punk banjo ending just because it can. Screaming, harmonizing, double kick drums, trumpets, and furious banjo picking could elicit earnest vulnerability, but it could just as easily be considered overwrought.

The sincerity that Mumford & Sons attempt to present us is, simply put, hard to believe. This is in part because of how banal the lyrics are (a pop necessity that makes for easy relatability) and in part because they take themselves so seriously. The Avett Brothers (an inevitable comparison) exude a sincerity even deeper than Mumford’s. But they have a sense of humor, a personal aspect, and an unapologetic but entirely believable awareness of their occasional absurdity. Frightened Rabbit, a band that harbors more angst than all of Mumford put together, gets to indulge in raucous screaming and chorus builds because they, like the Avetts, have tender moments of non-stylized honesty and a sense of humor. More importantly, their honesty comes with musical restraint and selective orchestration. With restraint, “Riding in your cargo van/ Driving your mom’s cargo van/ If you only knew how charming it was/ The lure of your folks’ cargo van,” which are admittedly ridiculous words, believably capture the entirety of adolescent love, its innocence and its magic.

It is the unimaginative, manufactured earnestness that ultimately makes Mumford & Sons as emotionally unfulfilling as a lot of contemporary Christian praise music. They have perfected a songwriting formula lifted straight out of the Hillsong playbook: Take any deficiencies or failings of the lyrics to elicit emotion and add accompaniment with sufficient volume, then take a few lines and repeat them again and again with feeling and honesty. Surely if the drums come in at the right time and we throw in a key change, the song will be really emotional. It’s a problem in church, and it’s a problem on the radio.

When I first heard Sigh No More, I didn’t love it, but I didn’t hate it. Listening to his music, I think that Marcus Mumford has an artistic vision in mind and an idea of what he wants to say, he just doesn’t know how to say it. He has a fine voice, and the band is talented and capable of playing tight with a lot of energy whether live or in the studio, but this second album is not the direction they should have gone. I had hoped that they would take the best parts of their first album, the lyrics that do make coherent sense and explore truth, hope, and doubt, and develop them in a deeper way with the band paired back and learning to assemble a song that stands on its own without a blaring PA to accompany. The sophomore album is a chance for musicians to develop, carefully explore their material and use the success of their first album as a means of introducing their millions of fans to better music, but Mumford & Sons have instead pandered to pithy phrases and hackneyed emotionalism. Sadly, they chose to go in the opposite direction with even more opaque and scattershot lyrics accompanied most often by loudness. It isn’t too late, there’s always hope for a third album, but given their popularity, sales numbers (Babel having just overtaken Justin Bieber’s As Long As You Love Me as highest grossing album of 2012), and audience, I suspect they won’t. Mumford & Sons are striving to grapple with serious questions of faith, existence, and relationships and their efforts to date haven’t been entirely unsuccessful, but I also think their ideas and their audience deserve better.

“Music is a moral law.” –Plato

I love music because it can’t be conquered.  No one will ever get to the end of music, solve it or master it, although it can be dumbed down.

I love music because it is only occasionally black and white.  It deigns to be black and white only because it represents all colors, and black and white technically qualify as colors.  Music has no more desire to be black or white than it does chartreuse.

I love music because no one should make it because they feel required to.  I don’t mean musicians don’t have a responsibility to make it; rather, I mean anyone who isn’t making it because they love to, probably shouldn’t be.  Music is there to be made, or not, just as you please.  It is the opposite of bills, jogging, taxes, health insurance and laundry.

I love music because it’s such an easy way to get happy.

Music is good for you.  What some people do to music can be bad for you, but music itself is good and does not require moderation.  It is good for weekdays, the weekend, holidays, Sundays, cloudy days, sunny days, fast days, slow days, work or play, alone or with friends, home or traveling, relaxed or serious, weddings and funerals and Tuesdays, year-round.  And it is especially good for boredom.

I love music because it is free and unregulated, and anyone can make it.

I love music because it is never offended by incompetence.  It’s very patient with my pitiful efforts.

I love music because it’s like food:  after you’ve made it, you can enjoy it.  Also like food, music can be complex or simple and still be delicious.  It’s also better than food:  once made, it can’t be used up.

I love music because no one can spoil it.  It can be insulted and abused, adulterated and prostituted, but music is never harmed for good.  It still exists in its pure form, ready and willing for somebody more humble to visit.

I love music because it is not of this earth.  It has its own dimension.  We hear ourselves in music, but we also hear something else, something we can’t quite wrap our minds around.  It is beyond us.

I love music because it is better than I am.  It is more beautiful, cleverer, stronger, truer and more creative, and I have to respect that.

But most of all, I love how music makes no sense.  Life is terrible when it is made up only of things that make sense.  In this way, music is both an escape from real life and a glimpse of what life is really all about.  Music is impractical and pointless and absolutely vital to existence.  Perhaps the best observation of this is found in Oscar Wilde’s introduction to his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, when he declares, “All art is quite useless.”

Music would never make the traditional list of basic human needs:  food, shelter, clothing.  But just see how long you could get along without it.

 

photo by:

Ocean’s Wonder

Frederico Fellini’s 1963 film is brilliant for many reasons I won’t pretend to fully understand. But at the center of all its nuance is Fellini’s ego. In , Fellini created a complete picture of his soul, his ambitions, his sexuality, his narcissistic attitude, and his interpretation and creative organization of the environment around him. He synthesizes all of the poignant elements of his life into a new narrative with as much emphasis on dreams as on reality, and with as much detail in the characters’ dialects as in their dialogue. The result is odd, indirect, and poetic, and as a unique glimpse of human nature, it’s as vivid and as challenging as a piece of art can be.

What’s interesting about 21st-century creative work is that, due to the revealing nature of the Internet, fans can become aware of an artist’s narrative prior to encountering the art itself. With the help of a couple quick wiki searches and a trip through some credible blogs, the public can become experts on an artist’s background and aesthetic inclinations. In many ways, this can hurt the artistic process: art no longer stands by itself because it must be accompanied by an online marketing campaign. Listeners might fail to meet art on its own terms because of the source through which they discovered it. Artists may find their art glossed over in the mass consumption of streamed music and film. The list goes on. In some cases, this runaway commodification can benefit the artist and his work; in these cases, there is a sense in which it allows for the telling of a three-dimensional, all-encompassing narrative à la .

Frank Ocean’s debut album channel ORANGE may be permanently defined by the online letter he wrote to his fans two weeks before the album’s release. In the letter, Ocean chronicled his confused sexual history in profound poetic language. The takeaway for most mainstream media sources was that hip-hop and R&B were finally becoming civilized: a popularly accepted black artist came out of the closet, thus transforming the rift between black music and the gay community into an accessible platform for principally pluralistic conversation.

While this may be the case, what shined through more clearly was Ocean’s intimate understanding of the human condition, and the unique vision with which he sees it. Toward the beginning of his cryptic letter, he laments, “In the last year or three, I’ve screamed at my creator, screamed at clouds in the sky for some explanation. Mercy maybe. For peace of mind to rain like manna somehow.”

Frank Ocean is no stranger to turmoil. Through the course of channel ORANGE, he notes the financial troubles of his youth, the foul nature of his own self-indulgence, his sexual anxiety, masturbation, the harshness of urban life, and unrequited love. He weaves each of these tragedies into the sprawling narrative of his own experience, making use of a number of fascinating characters.

There’s his mother in “Not Just Money,” a junkie in “Crack Rock,” a romantic in “Pilot Jones,” filthy rich suburbanites in “Super Rich Kids,” and of course Ocean himself bookends the album with the opener and blogosphere favorite “Thinkin Bout You”, and then the heart-breaking “Bad Religion.” His place in his own narrative becomes clearer in the big picture of the album: he’s the only character whose problems are all internalized. In a world of drug struggles, crimes, low incomes, and rampant sexuality, Ocean stands out as the troubled artist who sees things simply and seriously as they are, and is able to explain them eloquently.

What’s more is that he creates this stunning mural in such a musically rich context. Comparisons to Stevie Wonder are unavoidable: his buttery voice and intricate musicality harkens back to Stevie’s daring pop-oriented aesthetic. He’s not the musical innovator that Stevie was, but his capacity for phenomenal melodies and his fresh take on R&B lyricism prove him to be comparably gifted.

As a lyricist, Ocean communicates through a topsy-turvy dialect of extended metaphor and cleverly juxtaposed imageries. In “Sweet Life,” he describes the relationship that his real life characters have with his music:

The best song wasn’t the single
But you couldn’t turn your radio down
Satellite needed a receiver
Can’t seem to turn the signal fully off
Transmit the waves
You’re catching that breeze ‘til you’re dead in the grave.

Later he continues, “But you’re keepin’ it surreal / Not sugar-free / My TV ain’t HD / That’s too real.” Perhaps the pseudo-realism of popular media, whether in television or in his own art, is too much to bear. He and presumably his listeners are overwhelmed by the realness, the sweetness, the intrigue.

Drake describes the state of hip-hop and R&B this way: “A time where it’s recreation / To pull all your skeletons out the closet / Like Halloween decorations.” But where Drake and others (see The Weekend or The Dream) use their music as an outlet for harsh confessions, Ocean goes deeper: he sings with poetic integrity, creates fitting, elaborate musical soundscapes, and invites his audience to engage in the reality that he has constructed. This isn’t The OC, this is .

Without a boring moment, a twinge of artistic self-indulgence, or triteness, Ocean opens a window into the human condition, and peers in fearfully. It’s beautifully simple. In the summer of 2012 this unexpected masterpiece was a breath of fresh air compared to the drone of the radio (I’m looking at you, Pitbull). I, for one, can’t wait to see what’s next for Frank Ocean. Here’s hoping he gets that manna.

With Feeling

This piece was originally published in July 2011. 

The concert had been delayed for two months, and anticipation was high.  The last time the Avett Brothers had come to town was before the Rick Rubin-produced album, before the placement in Starbucks, before the performance at the Grammys.  Last time, they’d been at the outer stage of a second-rate venue while a metal show droned away on the main stage.  When their return finally seemed imminent, there was a last second snag.  Scott Avett was whisking away to attend the birth of his son.  Our town and several others on the tour schedule would have to wait.  Until tonight.

So when the lights dimmed, and the three members of the band crowded around a single microphone for a hushed rendition of the elegiac “Murder In The City”, a proverbial hush came over the crowd.  And when Scott made his way to the line about telling his sister that he loved her, we were surprised by his improvisation:

“Tell my son I love him…”

Photo by Jess Hodge.

Lumps appeared in six hundred throats instantly, mine included.  In some other context, this might’ve been a contrived tug at the heart strings, a crass attempt to gain the audience’s good graces.  But that’s not the Avetts’ game, and the fact that Scott’s sincerity struck such a powerful nerve is indicative of what we normally expect from musicians and the culture at large.

Earnestness takes us aback.  It elicits the question, are you for real?  When the indie tastemakers at Pitchfork reviewed the Avett Brothers most recent studio album, the incredulity was palpable. “(A)fter a while, you may begin to wish they’d get angry about something, or, god forbid, crack an ironic joke,” the review pleads.  It’s okay to express sincerity, but to actually be sincere is uncomfortable.

But music, as with all other art, is designed to elicit an emotional reaction.  It can be attractive and winsome, or abrasive and repulsive, and both have a rightful place as honest expressions of human emotion.  Yet we are often loath to approach the heights of real emotion in art, so we put on a protective cloak of irony, a distancing that allows us to laugh off any real sincerity.

“You didn’t really think I meant what I said, did you?”

Irony allows us an out in our personal lives.  It also provides an armor when we explore unfamiliar or dangerous territory.  Most of all, it maintains our cool.  Hidden behind sunglasses, covered with a smirk, and swaddled in a snarky t-shirt, we cruise by unaffected and uninfected.

Artists are by no means to shy from this.  In fact, after the optimism and idealism of the mid-twentieth century wore off, glossed over with disco and Saturday Night Live, then subsequently deconstructed by “alternative” rock and Fight Club, irony and detachment provide a unified theory of culture in the past forty years.

Even though there were voices calling in the wilderness during these times, harkening back to a purer spirit of expression, even some of these artists found it necessary to slather on a slick sheen.  The earnest Weezer of the Blue Album and Pinkerton becomes a YouTube joke soundtrack, and innumerable indie darling actors and actresses “sell out” by doing a Hollywood blockbuster between small-budget films.

I think Ryan Adams alternates albums based on how “cool” he’s feeling at that time.

Does it then follow that ironic entertainment and art are inherently inferior to their sincere counterparts?  Of course not.  It would be elitist and unrealistic to think so, and there have been many excellent examples to the contrary.  Nor is this tied to any particular genre of music or art.  There is as much true emotion in some rap music and Modernist architecture as there is in the most plaintive folk musician’s discography. But if you’re inclined to pursue beauty and excellence as ends unto themselves, a certain amount of concreteness is assumed and necessary.

As anyone who has been in love can tell you, moments arise when the emotions are too strong to contain, when they boil over seemingly of their own accord. Being audience to sincere art, even when we’re feeling cold and detached, spills some of that emotion onto us, and we can’t help but feel it.  We sing along.  We pause to take in the canvas.

Our hard shell finally cracks and we weep.

Their emotion becomes our emotion. Their soul speaks to our soul, and reminds us that we have one in the first place.   It’s healthy and it’s right.  It’s art at its most human.

The tide of cool often takes us away from this emotion.  We retreat into the cocoon, and take our cues from a culture that is aggressively indifferent, oxymoronic as that might seem.  To get too invested is to invite a label: Nerd.  Fangirl.  Dork.  Parrothead.

Okay, I even made myself shudder at that last one.

This isn’t a call to revisit the Good Old Days, when songs were honest, skirts were longer, and only Kennedys wore Wayfarers.

We must play the cultural hand we’re dealt.  But just as we can’t gorge on junk food without the occasional salad, we can’t deny the importance of allowing ourselves to feel through art, directly or vicariously.  Scott Avett could no sooner ignore the impact that the birth of his son had on his identity as a musician and on his music than he could stop breathing and expect to live.  So also we can feel free to let our context and our lives flow into the art we choose and the way that we experience it.

Just remember to bring a hanky.

Grace & Other Precious Remedies

There’s a new album out by The Welcome Wagon, and it’s called Precious Remedies against Satan’s Devices. The music is all written by Thomas Vito Aiuto, who plays guitar and sings on the album. The other half of the band is Vito’s wife, Monique, who sings and plays harmonica. It’s probably worth mentioning at the outset that Reverend Aiuto is the pastor of a Presbyterian church in Brooklyn, and those of his parishioners that I’ve met call him Vito.

The album’s style runs the gamut from the jaunty, up-tempo folk-rock of songs like “I’m Not Fine” and “God Be With You Till We Meet Again” to the meditative, down-tempo folk of “My God, My God, Parts 1&2.” When Rev. Aiuto puts someone else’s words to music, he chooses from four centuries’ worth of English-language hymns and religious poetry. When he writes his own lyrics, he writes about the gifts of friendship in times of trouble. There’s also a gentle cover of The Cure’s silly-sweet love song “High” on the record, original melody intact.

If you heard the Welcome Wagon’s first album, Welcome to the Welcome Wagon, this one has simpler arrangements and keeps the vocals front and center. Sufjan Stevens, a songwriter and composer well-known in indie music circles, produced Welcome to…, and he once explained that he meant it to be kind of “community theater,” where a bunch of noisy happy people are corralled into putting on a rollicking show. This time around, producer Alexander Foote treats the album more like a film: again, a lot of people pitching in to help, but if they’ve done their jobs you won’t notice them because you’re absorbed in what they’ve captured.

The Welcome Wagon – Would You Come and See Me in New York from Asthmatic Kitty on Vimeo.

Now that the capsule review’s out of the way, I’d like to tell you about some interesting things I’ve noticed on the album. Not having read the book from which The Welcome Wagon got the title of this album, I’m not sure exactly what the “precious remedies” in question are, but grace, praise, and church together make a pretty good start on a list.

Grace

The Welcome Wagon sings about our need for grace. The album’s first song, “I’m Not Fine,” is nearly as concise as possible on this subject. Over a punchy setting where the guitar and drums hit twice on the first beat of the measure, Rev. Aiuto sings: “I’m not fine, and you’re not fine, and we’re not fine together dear… I told you I was sorry, are you sure that it’s enough?” This is repeated, and then we’re left hanging for a few more bars as the guitarist takes a solo. Even mutual recognition of not-fineness (or, as the theologians say, “sinfulness”) doesn’t solve the problem. But the band drops out again, and then Monique Aiuto sings gently those centuries-old words of comfort: “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world.” Though the comfort is real and the hope is true, it’s not the end of the song. The original verse returns, and the problem of sinfulness and the hope of redemption exist as countermelodies. Isn’t this familiar from real life? And all this in just two and a half minutes of power-folk-pop.

I’m also impressed by how The Welcome Wagon handles John Donne’s “Holy Sonnet XIX,” eight lines from which give the lyrics for “My Best Days Parts 1&2.” John Donne was a poet and clergyman who lived around the same time that Shakespeare did. Though he wrote some stunningly bawdy poetry when he was a young man, he also wrote some of the most vivid poetry of the Christian life that we have in English. In this particular sonnet, Donne wrestles with troubling shifts in his day-to-day attitude towards God.

 

The Welcome Wagon’s song starts with a haze of synthesizer, before Reverend Aiuto’s melody enters and tiptoes carefully along a tricky chord progression. The words are: “Oh, to vex me, contraries meet in one.” It’s a lovely melody, but the situation is precarious both musically and thematically, and the wandering melody invites our attention to the individual words, and helps us meet Donne’s strange language halfway. Though no one today would say “inconstancy unnaturally hath begot a constant habit,” one of us might say at any time, “I’m so consistent in my inconsistency.”

But after this section, we move suddenly to the rock-and-roll drums and the electric guitar riff of Part 2, and John Donne’s pentameter locks in over the beat in a way that makes it sound almost modern. For most of Part 2, Vito repeats the line “those are my best days, when I shake with fear.” Do you know what he means? I think I do: the days when I feel weak and needy are the days when I have the truest view of myself. And that’s where grace finds us. As the old hymn says, all the fitness He requires is to feel your need for Him.

Praise

If you’re a fan of the “Praise and Worship” genre or you’re the sort of person who checks liner notes obsessively (I’m only the latter), you’ll notice that “Remedy” is The Welcome Wagon’s arrangement of lyrics by David Crowder, who’s the leader of an acclaimed Christian praise band. By recording this song, The Welcome Wagon has opened up space for comparisons and conversation, and the lesson is, I think, double-edged.

The Welcome Wagon – Remedy from Asthmatic Kitty on Vimeo.

First, there’s a lesson for people like me, who may find ourselves being snobbish or condescending about music that means a great deal to many people. These lyrics are lovely, and once again tell the story of grace in a way that’s concise and immediate. The facts of the situation: “Here we are, the bandaged and bruised, awaiting a cure… here you are, our beautiful King who brings us relief.” And the response is to gather together and rejoice in the gift of grace: “We lift up our voices and open our hands to cling to the love that we can’t understand.” If I just heard the original, I’m sure I’d miss the beauty of this.

But the second lesson cuts the other way. I may be pulling this out of the air, but it’s interesting to me that Aiuto’s arrangement drops Crowder’s bridge from the song. Here’s the text that’s not in the Welcome Wagon version:

Oh, I can’t comprehend
I can’t take it all in
Never understand
Such perfect love come
For the broken and beat
For the wounded and weak
Oh, come fall at His feet
He’s the remedy

Notice that this is the only section that uses the first person singular, the only place that says anything about “I”. In the verses and chorus, the song talks about “you” and “we” in an explicitly communal confession. This bridge shifts the focus noticeably. My question is: does the Welcome Wagon lose anything in the story by leaving this out? I don’t think so. In fact, to me there seems to be a danger in building individual psychological responses into our common worship. Speaking very much from experience, it’s a loneliness of a high degree to see yourself as the only one in the crowded stadium who can’t feel what he’s supposed to feel. I can confess the facts — “I’m a sinner, He’s the savior” — but I often find myself unable to become the “me” that praise and worship songwriters portray in their songs.

Or perhaps there just wasn’t a melody that fit this bit of text. I’ve been known to overthink things before.

Church

As I listened to this record more and more, it starts to strike me as a blending of two other albums that have meant a lot to me. First and somewhat obviously, there’s Seven Swans, Sufjan Stevens’s album of songs inspired by Bible stories and/or Flannery O’Connor’s fiction. In terms of melodies and musical style, it’s got a lot in common withPrecious Remedies. And you’d expect this, because Precious Remedies is dedicated to Sufjan Stevens. The second album is Rich Mullins’s A Liturgy, a Legacy, & a Ragamuffin Band, an effort by Mullins and his friends to write a pop album that brought together elements of formal Christian worship and songs about secular life in a unified whole. It’s an ambitious album, trying to at least suggest the sweep of American experience, and the “Liturgy” section is a real success.

Precious Remedies is a little less grandly conceived — The Welcome Wagon isn’t trying to wrestle down the whole complicated legacy of the United States — but it does a similar thing in drawing together Christian worship and the day-to-day, particularly in the remarkable sequence of songs on the second half of the album centering on the communion hymn “Draw Nigh and Take the Body of the Lord.” The music for this song is remarkable. A little skip in the time signature sets the song apart from the normal four-four and waltz beats on the other songs and maybe accounts for the tingle this song sends down my spine. A clarinet wanders around on this rhythm, suggesting an awed walk to the altar rail. “Draw Nigh” is preceded by a hymn of hope and followed by a hymn of celebration, which leads to a very straightforward and joyous benediction: “God Be with You Till We Meet Again,” in a really bouncy pop arrangement that makes you want to dance your way out of a sanctuary and into the afternoon sunlight.

All of this evokes Christian communion’s way of being at once mysterious and everyday. The album begins with a series of songs confessing human sinfulness and hoping for salvation, and also adds songs about friendship, hinting at the ways in which we can pass peace (so to speak) to each other in response to grace. In the communion song, all those threads somehow weave together. But it’s at heart a folky song, so that on some level it’s also utterly familiar. Again, isn’t this like real life?

Until We Meet Again

I’ve been thinking about art-for-art and art-for-life recently. There’s art that challenges your idea of what music can be. This kind of music is exciting, and gets accolades from critics. But there’s also art that is good because it fits well in the context of a life. Though Vito Aiuto isn’t a virtuoso songwriter like Sufjan Stevens or Rich Mullins, he’s very good, and I think he, Monique, and their band of collaborators have given us an album that will give a measure of comfort and help on the journey of faith, on the quest to live in the light of grace.

This review was originally published at Mockingbird. Visit their site for publication, conference information, and online resources.


At Least I Author My Own Disaster

“The past is a grotesque animal,” begins the eponymously titled Of Montreal song; “and in its eyes you see / how completely wrong you can be.” What follows is a beautiful, rich, long composition, one that’s as mesmerizing lyrically as it is musically.  Its lyrics might qualify for great poetry on their own, they so precisely describe the human condition.

The older I get the more I see that my own past is not merely a mistake or series of lapses in judgment but more of a whole cloth, a fabric of mistakenness. Having done wrong becomes having been wrong, there’s so much wrongness woven throughout my memory—throughout my self. And if I’m in the midst of a dark, bourbon-enhanced night of the soul, my past comes to life, bares its teeth at me. If it gets close enough to bite, I risk becoming the mistakes I’ve made, losing hope, and “like a dog returning to its vomit” (Proverbs 26) going back to them. It’s a vicious cycle that can remove the promise, the meaning from life, as the next lines of the song indicate:

The sun is out, it melts the snow that fell yesterday—

makes you wonder why it bothered.

The poetic beauty of this Of Montreal song—and the genius of Kevin Barnes, the band’s founder, lyricist and lead singer (basically the whole band)—lies in the way one very specific memory has come to symbolize “the past.” At a Swedish festival, he says, “I fell in love with the first cute girl that I met / who could appreciate Georges Bataille.” Blame his impulsive neediness, his imaginative tendency to see more in the woman than was there, and maybe on both of their parts a tendency towards eroticism (hence the Bataille reference): he had allowed himself to develop a quick, deep attachment. And when he realizes they don’t quite see eye to eye on Bataille’s Story of the Eye, he understands that what he had taken for love was really only half a thing. What comes next is almost a gag reflex:

It’s so embarrassing to need someone like I do you—

How can I explain? I need you here—and not here, too.

Evidence of “how completely wrong you can be”: In no legitimate “fell in love” scenario is the loved one inexplicably both needed and not needed—nor is true love a source of shame. But you know, these connections tend to strike swiftly and with deadly accuracy. Barnes’ imagination becomes his rationalization, too:

I’m flunking out, I’m flunking out, I’m gone, I’m just gone;

but at least I author my own disaster.

Performance breakdown, and I don’t want to hear it.

I’m just not available. Things could be different, but they’re not.

This pattern of attachment and regret-filled detachment, like the “cruelty” in Bataille’s Story of the Eye, is “so predictable,” says Barnes. He recognizes he’s become a “perihelion” to her—a point of closest orbit—and muses, “sometimes I wonder if you’re mythologizing me like I do you.” Then he adds a damning confession: “We want our film to be beautiful, not realistic.”

Yet still—still—he swoons, “You’ve lived so brightly, you’ve altered everything” and in the end turns back to indulgence, profound and seemingly indefatigable:

I’m so touched by your goodness,

You make me feel so criminal—

How do you keep it together?

I’m all, all unraveled.

But you know, no matter where we are,

we’re always touching by underground wires.

Herein lies the immense appeal of this song, as if twelve minutes of glam rock/electronic pop perfection weren’t enough. We want to believe in a connection that always holds, no matter where we go, no matter what we do. It’s not just sexual or erotic, though it might begin that way. It’s a desire for spiritual presence, a need to be “touched by … goodness.” It’s a need for blessing. This is why wallowing in a lost past or reveling in the pain of an abortive romantic attachment makes us feel good. It’s like candy for the soul. “None of our secrets are physical now,” concludes Barnes, further emphasizing the transformation of random “cute girl” to goddess, object of worship.

My theory is that Barnes’ desire is a desire for God. Compare the song’s conclusion to Psalm 139: “You discern my thoughts from afar” writes David; “Where shall I go from your Spirit? / Or where shall I flee from your presence?” David wanted the same thing, to be loved in an inescapable way, always touching by underground wires. David knew this desire in a Godward sense, but earlier in his life he also had known it in its shadow sense. He, too, had fallen in love with a cute girl that he saw bathing on a nearby rooftop (2 Samuel 11) and chose beauty over the reality that she was married to one of his most faithful warriors. I’m sure that when her husband was sleeping on his doorstep, David felt the “need you here / and not here too” anxiety Barnes expresses in “The Past Is a Grotesque Animal.” David was looking for the same thing, discovered destructively in Bathsheba’s beauty and eventually known more dependably in God’s love.

We all want to be known, loved—given. Especially in a culture of ephemeral electronic communications and multiplying forms of social networking, we’re desperate for permanence. Instead we’re finding replicated versions of ourselves, mini-myths constructed around our own avatars, shrines of self-indulgence that look like other people. What we tend to forget is that the people we’re mythologizing actually are other people, children of parents, members of communities. Remember that although Barnes’ song spins into a kind of self-flagellating love-candy even the Cure never dreamed of, the whole song is submitted in evidence of “how completely wrong you can be.”

I’d revise that, come to think of it. “The Past Is a Grotesque Animal” demonstrates how partly wrong you can be. It’s right to desire deep connection, to be loved by someone who’s “lived so brightly [they’ve] altered everything.” Everything needs to be altered in my own dark, memory-filled heart. Still, I’m not sure how to soldier through without a splash of bourbon now and then.

 

Machine Girl and Her Remedies

  When I first heard a song by Lana del Rey, I was tipsy-drunk and wondering whether or not we were going to run out of alcohol in the midst of an escalating party. The song was “Video Games,” her first, immensely popular single, and it only took a few moments of hearing the pleasant strings and gentle vocals of that song to convince me that I loved the woman who was singing to me. “Video Games” is about love in all of its idol fascination, and argues that the only true reason for living is “if somebody is loving you.” Even in my rum-fogged state of mind I knew that was a special moment. I had found the woman for me—Lana del whatever—and we were going to have a lovely life together. I downloaded the song within the hour and our love affair began amidst the din of chatting partygoers and the haze of hard drinks. I think Lana would have preferred it that way.

———-

Lana Del Rey (aka Elizabeth Woolridge Grant) is the face that launched a thousand think pieces. She was born in New York City and sings songs made for hot, sultry Manhattan summers. The following is some historical perspective:

Lana Del Ray

After “Video Games” was released on her MySpace page, the music world was abuzz with speculation and expectation regarding this self- styled “gangsta Nancy Sinatra.” Who was this girl who seemed so aloof and elusive in interviews? How do we react to a young woman who openly admits to choosing her stage name because it evokes a ”faded seaside glamour” aesthetic? Doesn’t she realize that you can’t be this honest about image creation with music critics? Name dropping Williamsburg and claiming that she “had a vision for making her life a work of art” in interviews didn’t help the question of authenticity. Authenticity. It became hard to refer to Lana Del Rey without at some point mentioning that troublesome word. And all of this was before her wealthy upbringing came to light. She didn’t fit the indie motif she peddled. Occupy Wall Street and Brooklyn co-ops were cool. Trust funds and cocktail parties in the Hamptons were not. Yet the indelible quality of “Video Games” could not be questioned. It was what Betty Draper would have listened to if she could have taken a break from shooting birds and vomiting in cars. 1960’s glamour is cool, right? Keep in mind all of this was before her full-length album “Born to Die,” was even released.

All of this expectation was smashed by an SNL performance in mid January, two weeks before the official release of “Born to Die.” Lana Del Rey looked nervous and sounded shaky in what some called one of the worst SNL performances ever. The expected backlash burst forth. SNL parodied her performance and Lana’s perceived awkwardness was confirmed for many– mere few days before the release of the LP. I’m sympathetic towards Lana’s SNL performance. Selecting the worst SNL performance, music or otherwise, would be an almost impossible task for anyone due to sheer volume of possible selections. But I digress, and the story continues.

Reviews were mixed when Lana’s “Born to Die” was finally released. Pitchfork, Paste, Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly all gave it less than stellar marks. Pitchfork, the Death Star of music publications, compared the album to a “faked orgasm.” Ouch?

Let us conclude this bit: due to sky-high expectations and an environment of hype usually reserved for new Radiohead albums, coupled with her own innate ability to raise questions of authenticity and arguments pitting sincerity against phoniness, Lana Del Rey’s “Born to Die” is hyper- scrutinized and her inability to live up to all of the buzz seems to disturb.  And thus concludes the back-story of Miss Elizabeth Grant.

———-

 There is a serious tension in the cultural discussion of Lana Del Rey. The combination of the hype and her own Devil-may-care attitude toward any criticism has moved perceptions of Lana Del Rey away from the actual quality of her music (let’s give her a solid B) to a her role as an emblem of greater culture values.  Does the fandom of Lana Del Rey illustrate the end of authenticity in music? The perpetuity of narcissism? Or is she just another weird trend-celeb that vapid music “fans” can gravitate towards?

Lana Del Rey’s own music only adds to this exchange. Her song “National Anthem,” a love song to materialism and decadence, which if performed by any other artist would be considered social commentary, but feels sincere in LDR’s hands, talks of “blurring the line between the real and the fake;” her own admission that she “wanted to be part of a high-class scene of musicians…hoping that (she) would meet people and fall in love and start a community around (her), the way they used to do in the ‘60s,” sets her up as an architect of her own public personae. Again, is she real or is she fake? Does purposely trying to construct an identity make it any less authentic once it’s achieved? At some level, I would argue that all artists are trying to purposefully create their own perceived realities. While no artist admits to this, LDR seems proud of her “vision for making (her) life a work of art.” The femme fatale personae feels contrived and overly produced; Lana Del Rey simply doesn’t give a damn that it bothers.

Rather than address the authenticity of Lana, I view Miss Del Rey’s place in popular culture as a remedy for an affliction: the constant need for icons of cool.

Popular culture rides on the ebbs and flows of consumer tides, and the concept of “cool” is the moon to these mercurial obsessions. Modern cultural taste develops from one artistic icon of reality to another. Consider the following: real life occurs (the 1960s), art creates a perspective on the actual event (books and tv shows about the 1960s), a particular piece of art is constructed rather well (AMC’s Mad Men), this exceptional artistic snap shot becomes associated with the authentic “real life” and established as cool (critical acclaim and 1960s themed cocktail parties) and the new icon is born. For those who didn’t experience America in the 1960s, art such as Mad Men is now the widely accepted version of those real events. In essence, Don Draper as an icon of American masculinity and complexity informs the new perception of the 1960s, bringing with it the label of cool due to proper artistic construction. Perhaps in 10 years a different historical era will emerge as cool, but for now Mad Men serves as the icon of cool that leads to a potentially misplaced nostalgia. It is this process of icon creation and the subsequent cultural attraction to these icons that powers the machine of Lana Del Rey. It may be true that at one time Lana Del Rey may have “just wanted to be seen as a good singer, and not much else,” however she now seems more than pleased to become much more. Lana Del Rey is a machine: a hype machine, a sex machine, a beautiful, glassy eyed machine that provides all of our pop culture remedies.

———-

 Lana Del Rey has attempted to build herself as yet another icon of cool, taking advantage of the storehouse of nostalgia in modern pop culture created by past icons. What makes Lana Del Rey ultimately so compelling is not her attitude or questionable authenticity, but rather the positioning of herself in perhaps the most potent “cool” icon factory of all: the cultural tradition of New York art.

New York City seems to always find a warm welcome in the American mind, and this New York mythos of popular imagination provides the appropriate blueprint for understanding the Lana Del Rey machine. Countless articles can and have been written about New York as a nexus of art, culture, and as an idea; Lana Del Rey has inserted herself within this context and seeks to gain from the established affection for New York art. When I refer to New York art, I do not just mean art that has been created within the geographic confines of the five boroughs and surrounding landscape, but more specifically art that directly addresses and reflects the varied manifestations of New York City in popular perception. Let us briefly examine a few select New York icons of cool:

 

For the bibliophile:

Few American novels are held in such high regard as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, a series of slices of the elite New York lifestyle revolving around the exploits of the determined-in-love Jay Gatsby, the ever-observant Nick Carraway, and the dynamic duo of Tom and Daisy Buchanan during the Roaring Twenties. Booze- filled parties, philandering husbands and a prevailing carefree attitude define the lives of the Long Island socialites. Lana Del Rey’s Born to Die would have been played on loop at one of Gatsby’s rollicking parties while she downed cherry schnapps with three lacrosse players in the moonlit pool. The Great Gatsby’s legacy as an icon of cool? Drinking became sexy and the high school prom theme of the “Roaring Twenties” was born.

For the classy music fan:

So he was born in New Jersey and he spent an unhealthy amount of time in Las Vegas– Frank Sinatra has still become almost inseparable from any pop culture representation of New York, thanks in part to his music and his legendary affection for Gotham City’s nightlife. When she describes herself as a “gangsta Nancy Sinatra,” Lana Del Rey isn’t leaving too much up to the imagination. Yes Lana, we get the connection you’re making. Sinatra in New York? Yep, that’s about as cool as it gets.

For anyone who has ever met a sorority girl:

The movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s, based on Truman Capote’s novel of the same name, is sublime. I hated this movie the first time I saw it, and then I awoke from my dream, ate some cake, and realized the whole thing is genius. Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly is one of the most iconic characters of all time. Go into ten female freshmen dorm rooms in an American university and I’d bet at least six of them have a poster of Audrey wearing that black dress and those pearls, holding a cigarette in that hoighty toighty way of hers. Breakfast at Tiffany’s took the raging party fun of The Great Gatsby out of the Hamptons and into the Upper East Side. Mix in some implied prostitution, a struggling writer, mobsters, and some uneasy racial tension on the part of the audience (sorry Mickey Rooney), and you have a New York tale forever engrained in popular consciousness. Holly Golightly would have probably listened to Born to Die after waking up with her cat wrapped around her neck. Lana Del Rey simply modernizes and continues the iconic party-girl aesthetic popularized by Holly Golightly and her New York escapades.

 For the  angsty, barely-holding-onto-the-y yuppie:

Don’t worry, The National has nothing in common with Lana Del Rey…except for the song “Available.”

Did you dress me down and liquor me up, to make me last for the minute, when the red comes over you, like it does when you’re filled with love, or whatever you call it.”

Yes, Lana Del Rey could have easily written those lyrics. Watch it, Matt Berninger.

For the same people who listen to The National:

Mad Men has already been referenced enough in this piece, but it bears reiterating the important role that this show has had on creating a modern perspective of the 1960s, a perspective that paved the way for Lana Del Rey styling herself as a throwback to the newly imagined glamour and swank of that decade. Without the “cool” icon creation of Mad Men, it is hard to imagine that such a high level of expectation would have existed for LDR’s 1960s personae.

———–

In an attempt to provide an alternate interpretation of Lana Del Rey, I find comfort in viewing her as yet another icon of cool in the New York City tradition, rather than just the most recent vapid addition to the female pop star carousel. The image of Lana Del Rey as a machine is crucial to this understanding: she knowingly creates the remedies for popular culture’s desire for new emblems of cool, conveniently packaging all the allure of past icons into one sexy and, admittedly, talented machine girl. It seems that Lana got what she wanted after all: her life has become a work of art, and we’ve all been caught staring.

 

Can Anyone Make Me Less “Miserables?”

The more I go over it, the more I’m torn on how to react. My instinct is to despise and dismiss. But many viewings of the trailer for the new film interpretation of Les Miserables – due out Christmas 2012 – force a more considered analysis of my concerns.

After hearing Anne Hathaway singing “I Dreamed A Dream,” though I have been a fan since the Princess Diaries, my immediate response was to see her as a vessel ill-equipped for the musical delivery of a song as untouchable in the musical theater world as “And I’m Telling You” and “I Will Always Love You” are in R&B diva-land. Incidentally, Jay Caspian King of Grantland presents a marvelous breakdown of all the monumental performances of those two songs. And I was tempted to do the same here. I combed through every possible distribution channel for recorded music in order to make an airtight case against this new “musical mockery” of Les Mis.

But, in my fervor to defend the truly great singers of the stage against this “interloping hack,” I stumbled upon something truly beautiful.

I make no apologies for having nearly impossible standards of excellence for female vocal performance – regardless of genre. And as a result I can only really enjoy the singing of a small, select handful of women, and can barely listen at all to those that fall even a little short. This is by no means braggadocious, in fact, quite the opposite. As a result of what simply amounts to snobbery – well-founded snobbery perhaps, but snobbery nonetheless – I am unable to enjoy a whole host of beautiful songs and the “good” singers that perform them. I am locked in a prison of the “great.”

So as I embarked on a mission to annihilate Ms. Hathaway’s daring attempt at musical theater (based, of course, solely on the film’s trailer – more on that later) I found myself unable to compile much evidence of singers, that in my opinion, are so monumentally superior to her in skill and execution, that she has disgraced the very thing she – in all likelihood – adores.

That is, until I rediscovered Judy Kuhn.

Judy Kuhn has been a major Broadway performer since the 1980s. She ought to be a Broadway legend, but it seems she may fall into that honorable, but unfortunate, designation of a “singer’s singer,” those who are venerated by other performers for their talent and skill, but are mostly unknown by the public. She’s received several Tony nominations, but hasn’t won. She’s overshadowed by Elaine Paige, Lea Salonga, and, hell, even Susan Boyle. But her voice soars over all theirs with a grace and completeness only a handful of women come near.

The irony is that we’ve all heard her and didn’t know it. She was the singing voice of Pocahontas in the Disney feature by the same name. But unlike Jodi Benson (Ariel), Paige O’Hara (Belle), or the aforementioned Lea Salonga (Fa Mulan AND Princess Jasmine), Ms. Kuhn has not garnered as much notoriety for the role. (Perhaps because that movie wasn’t nearly as well-liked as the others.)

But, her version of “I Dreamed A Dream,” which I discovered while trying to smite what may be the greatest-threat-to-musical-theater-in-the-history-of-the-world-embodied-in-the-person-that-is-Anne-Hathaway, immediately halted my crusade. I was transfixed. I played the clip over and over and over again. It was a breathtaking experience. One very unlike those sublime moments in life that defy explanation. This one I can explain.

What struck me first was the effortlessness with which she sings. As a listener I’m cradled comfortably in her mastery of her voice. This is the opposite feeling of hearing anyone sing on American Idol. There, at any moment, the whole thing might come derailed. That foreboding, awkward dread of what might happen in another note or two, is entirely absent when listening to Ms. Kuhn. As I rest assured in her control I start to notice other things. The pacing of the lyrics is relaxed but doesn’t lack motion. Her diction is clear without getting too “Whitney Houston” with the consonants. The front of every word holds pitch and tone cleanly and with precision that comes only from years of labor. Often you can hear an affectation of the voice’s timbre when certain vowel-consonant combinations or diphthongs occur. Kuhn’s timbre is thoroughly consistent and changes only when she commands it to. Her releases are full of energy. Her vibrato is pure, even, controlled and balanced.

The true test of her mastery of the song comes as the melody’s direction turns downward on the line “but the tigers come at night.” The word “night” is placed near the low-end of the vocal range for an average mezzo-soprano. If you listen to many versions of this song you frequently hear a loss of power behind that note. Not in Ms. Kuhn’s performance. She arrives at that moment with such rich presence and darkness to the sound. If that wasn’t difficult enough, a few bars later a parallel phrase occurs with the lyric “as they tear your hope apart.” Here the gesture is lowered a whole step, and yet she delivers with just as much strength and resilience. That gauntlet is chased by the next stumbling block for most performers. The line “as they turn your dream to shame,” concludes with a stepwise ascension in the melody, accompanied by a necessary increase in volume and intensity. In order to amplify the emotional moment, a singer can often fall prey to the temptation to over-sing, which results in a loss of control of the timbre and vibrato creating what I hear as schmaltziness. Yet again, Ms. Kuhn maintains musical integrity without losing any of the emotional effect the composition works to evoke in that moment. Then there’s the high sustained passages, the emotional connections to the lyrics, the tension between hope and despair, intonation, pitch, breathing… I could go on and on with the technical analysis, but I trust my point has been conveyed.

The fact remains, Judy Kuhn’s singing is truly inspiring. What makes this rendition all the more awe-inducing is the time and place of its performance. She’s singing a concertized version – sung outside the context of the actual theatrical work in which it would naturally occur – for President Reagan and the First Lady who were truly beloved figures. Let me not forget to mention this was a live performance captured with the A/V technology of 1988, observed decades later though YouTube, and lacking any kind of substantive musical production. This song ought to have a whole orchestra filling every corner of the room and allowing the voice to truly flourish. Instead she’s got one piano and a snare drum (other guys are on the stage but it’s hard to tell what or if they might be playing). No offense to those musicians, but, the accompaniment is garbage. Still Kuhn completely obliterates this song. I’ve never heard a better version. Period. Go ahead and take a couple of hours to listen to all the different versions you can find. It’s possible you might prefer another one – and you have every right to do so – but it won’t change the fact that, from a musical and technical standpoint, Judy Kuhn is untouchable.

So where does that leave Ms. Hathaway. Well, it is terribly unfair to judge her, her performance of the song, and the movie solely on a 90-second preview. We don’t even get to hear the whole song. It’s decontextualized from its true dramatic setting, and the emotional connectedness between her performance and the drama is interrupted. This song is a total downer. As Hillary Busis put it, “”I Dreamed a Dream” is one of musical theater’s greatest bummers — a pathos-drenched ballad about one woman’s descent into despair[.]” It may be that the cinematic elements and Ms. Hathaway’s performance work together in a way that overcomes whatever deficiencies would be exposed in a more traditional staged performance. I hope.

If, and it doesn’t seem like much of an “if” at this point, the filmmakers are going for a very dismal, dark and über-realistic interpretation of Les Mis, then a realistic and somewhat poorly sung version of the song might work to great dramatic and narrative effect. Though by listening to what evidence is currently available, it does seem that Ms. Hathaway is attempting to do a mixture of both pure singing and melodrama. She may be biting off more than she can chew. My hope is also that all the filmmakers recognize their actors’ strengths and limitations, and use that to great advantage in giving us a profound and potent story. If, on the other hand, they hope a few months of singing lessons and a highly paid vocal coach can help Hathaway go toe-to-toe with Judy Kuhn, I’m afraid it may be their dreams that turn to shame.

The Tyranny of Taste

George Eliot once said, “I think I should have no other mortal wants, if I could always have plenty of music.” She would have loved our modern era. It seems that we have more music available to us, and more music being produced, than ever before. iTunes has over 20 million songs for sale, and as of October 4, 2011 had sold its 16 billionth song. Spotify, the latest trending digital music source, has a 15 million song collection. One of the slogans on their website reads, “Get listening. Millions of tracks are now at your fingertips.” Millions! If the average length of a song is four minutes, and you listened 24/7, it would take you about 7 years to listen to just one million songs. That’s a lot of music.

And more music than ever is being made today. With the advent of YouTube and the rise of distributors like CDBaby, Tunecore, and Bandcamp, it has become easier to skirt around the traditional industry and make your own music– and many people are doing it.

Under this looming avalanche of sound, one needs certain survival skills. It’s not possible to listen to everything out there, or even what any good musical aesthete is “supposed” to listen to, so we’re forced to pick and choose. This is well and good.

Much of the time, at least in my own observations, I find our choices are governed by personal taste, what we “like.” Now, taste certainly has something to do with it. But lately I have wondered whether, in our consumer-driven, individualistic society, taste hasn’t started to get the better of us.

Think of this scenario: have you ever been in the iTunes store, or on YouTube, and said “Naaah” after listening to a new track of music for maybe 30 seconds? An artist’s creative output, judged within a few blinks of an eye. I raise my hand as guilty. Now, sometimes music is just that bad, and deserves an easy dismissal, but I fear that when this becomes a pattern in our listening experience, it is a sign of the tyranny of taste.

In his pop culture analysis, All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes, Ken Myers observes,

“In an age of egalitarianism and relativism, it is easier than ever to regard matters of taste as wholly private and personal. I like Bach, you like Bon Jovi, praise the Lord anyhow. But is aesthetic judgment purely a subjective and neutral matter? Is ‘beauty’ exclusively in the eye of beholder? Is something ‘beautiful’ just because I like it, or does it have some objective quality rooted in creation that allows me to recognize that it is beautiful?”

Myers raises the question of an objective standard of goodness and beauty in art, and he argues that such aesthetics are spiritually based, “Culture has very much to do with the human spirit. What we find beautiful or entertaining or moving is rooted in our spiritual life.” This is true of any culture that has held to an objective worldview. The problem, Myers points out, is that today’s more subjective ethos arises out of a cultural relativism. With the disappearance of any concept of transcendence, personal preference reigns. The result of relativism and the commodification of music, is that pop culture today is increasingly market driven. We are so awash in it wherever we go, that it is only fitting that individual taste would be the dominant factor in our artistic consumption decisions.

The problem is, when we let our own sense of taste dominate our artistic sensibilities, we can begin to think that music as an art form is our servant, that it is there for our sole benefit, and exists only to satisfy us. A lot of music and music listening today has become a form of emotional masturbation. We tend to like and listen to music that matches our mood or makes us feel good.

But music does not exist solely for us, which is hard to remember in our age of market-crafted pop stars and he-who-gains-the-most-votes-wins talent shows. As the late Francis Schaeffer observed about perspectives on art, “The first is the most important: A work of art has value in itself….If we miss this point, we miss the very essence of art.”

Scott Avett, singer and songwriter of the Avett Brothers, has recently made a similar connection between the value of art and the “success” of art in pop culture terms:

“In all types of art there is a choice. Create what you feel because you believe in it, or create what you think will be ‘successful’. The difference between the two is this: with the latter, that which will be ‘successful’ can only succeed’ for a temporary moment with you and your physical state. But that which is created in sincerity, that which reveals part of your soul without control or plan, will outlive all of us and be generated between men for years to come. Though the work may not succeed in number of viewers, it still bears a life.”

As music listeners, I think it is helpful to remind ourselves of this truth from time to time. What we hear bears a life of its own, sparked by the life that created it. And if it has been made for beauty, that beauty is part of it regardless of our like or dislike.

So what’s the pay dirt? How should understanding this reflect in our music listening experience?

First, I think it should remind us not to devalue the very thing that we enjoy. Treating music as just a means to an emotional end makes listening a utilitarian, rather than artistic, pursuit.

Second, we should be aware of how the dominance of taste can close us off to types of music that we wouldn’t normally listen to, which is to our detriment. Technology has made a wide variety of music more available to listeners,  but it has often also led us into our own own tiny, personally-crafted ghettos.

This leads to my third point: we should actively find ways to expand our own sensibilities. One thing that I have done in recent years is to seek out and listen to older musicians who have been recognized for their musical talent and prowess. I admit, the sometimes dated nature of the sound has occasionally  jarred my personal preferences, but I’ve also been surprised by how much truth and beauty I have found.

Fourth, we should seek to become more aware of our own spiritual traditions and what they teach us about beauty. What is the place and value of beauty and art in our worldview? This question of aesthetics is an age-old one, and its pursuit is one which will not offer up easy, drive-through-window answers. I’m still wrestling with these questions, with my own culture, and with my place within it. But these questions are worth grappling with and worth pursuing, for they are the pursuit of the eternal over the temporal.

 

The Death of Live Music

One of the definitive moments of my life was my first live concert. I’ll protect the shred of dignity I have left by not disclosing the artist, but rest assured that at that time, they were one of the most popular acts in the country. The show took place at a major venue in Hartford, Connecticut, and I paid less for those tickets than I pay to see some local shows in Brooklyn today. I was twelve years old, but I felt like I had the world at my fingertips.

Immediately hooked on live music, I started saving my allowance to buy tickets to the next great show coming to town, much to the chagrin of my father who was tasked not only with driving me and my friends to the shows, but also with taking us to the Ticketmaster outlets to buy tickets. (You couldn’t buy tickets on the Internet then, and it was generally agreed upon that there was really no point in trying to penetrate busy signal after busy signal on the phone.) In those days — because it really does feel that long ago — ticket sales began on Saturday mornings, giving everyone with Monday through Friday work and school schedules an equal opportunity to land tickets. I’d wake up at the crack of dawn and my father would drive me down to the local donut shop — you know, when towns had local shops — for some early morning trans fat before making our way to the empty parking lot of the nearest ticket outlet in the next town over. There we waited for hours, always the first in line to get the best seats available for whichever band had captured my attention. It was, for a young man, a grand adventure that is now a very fond memory.

Nowadays, I question how many young people will have the opportunity to make such memories. The state of live music has changed dramatically in the last fifteen years, and so has the state of ticket sales, neither for the better. With quality and affordability stacked against them, I wonder — and frankly, worry — about the increasingly limited access to events that not only create lasting memories, but that also reaffirm over and over again the importance of live music in our culture.

The irony, of course, is that there is no lack of musical performances going on in America today. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more musical acts taking various stages across the country than ever before. But quantity has never been a very good substitute for quality, and live music is the furthest thing from an exception. That there are hundreds of musicians lining the stages of bars, concert halls, stadiums, festivals, and the like does not mean that the live music industry is thriving. Instead, I suggest it means that music, like so many other things, has become far more about business than it is about art.

Take one of the most basic venues for live entertainment: the bar. Now the functional purpose of a bar is to provide people with a place where they can socialize, engage one another in community, and otherwise unwind. What people don’t — or at least, never used to — go to a bar to do is to listen to live music. Live music, once upon a time, was part of the package, one way among many in which bar owners sought to placate their patronage. Now, at least in New York City, bar owners don’t want to simply deliver live music to their customers, they want the live music to bring in the customers. And they frequently don’t want to pay their live music to do so — they offer a late time slot on a weeknight, require a pull of at least twenty people (usually friends of the musicians), charge five to ten dollars at the door and a two drink minimum, pocketing more than half of the door charge. Those looking to unwind apart from the music suddenly have to pay a cover to do so, and those looking to support the music have to force themselves to either down two drinks in an hour or simply pay for a drink that will never be consumed.

From the standpoint of the art, there are a few problems with this business tactic. The first is that bars offer slots to artists primarily based on how many people they can bring in, not how good they are. So a tone-deaf, lo-fi, prog-rock, insert-any-other-hyphenated-descriptor-here band of college students with a collective total of 3,000 Facebook friends might be offered a gig over an accomplished solo jazz artist ten years in the business not because walk-in customers happen to enjoy noise rock, but because the individuals playing the noise rock will bring their friends into the establishment, even if only for an hour. Those friends become compulsory customers, and so a bar’s business will likely be much greater than it would have been had they brought in a more talented act with a smaller network. Suddenly the tone-deaf, lo-fi kids are being offered regular gigs despite the fact that the quality of music being performed is questionable.

By bringing in audiences of twenty people or more to tiny or no-name bars, it may appear that a band has a particular talent or appeal, even though the majority of that audience is friends who are simply looking to show support. Regular draws bring regular gigs, presenting the illusion that a band has achieved some measure of musical success when in fact, they have only so far been successful in strengthening a bar’s cashflow. Through self-promotion — still not a measure of musical prowess — this illusion spreads to larger venues, which means finally reaching a wider audience. The larger venues are no different than the bars in that they want to know how many tickets they will sell, not whether the music is of any notable quality. When a venue promoter believes that a band will bring in a large audience of their own, they use it as a springboard to bring other people in. “Look at what everyone else is doing,” they seem to say, “Don’t you want to do this, too?”

I don’t mean to say that buzzworthy bands never catch a break, but oftentimes, the wrong bands are given opportunities because they are better at promoting themselves than they are at playing music, and venue owners and ticket brokers are happy to cash in. It is at this stage where the cultural value of live music really takes a hit. While the quality of music presented remains relatively subjective — everyone has different musical tastes — the imperfect way in which ticket sales are handled has hurt music fans across the board.

As long as I can remember, there have been service fees associated with any ticket purchases made through a vendor as opposed to a box office. And while these surcharges have always been annoying, they were also nominal — maybe four dollars a ticket — so we dealt with it. Now, tickets sold through a vendor like Ticketmaster will cost the music fan somewhere in the vicinity of fifteen dollars on top of the list price — and that doesn’t even include receiving the tickets in the mail. Indeed, the only method of ticket delivery that does not include an additional charge these days is e-mail delivery, which means the consumer is now even responsible for his own printing costs. Why, exactly, have surcharges increased if the service provided has decreased?

More frustrating is the increasing popularity of presale tickets — tickets that can be purchased ahead of the release date by those willing to spend more. That isn’t to say that those who want to pay more shouldn’t be able to if it guarantees them seats to their favorite band, but true fans aren’t the only ones paying inflated pre-sale prices, and frequently, they are in the minority. Professional “scalpers”, or ticket resellers as they’ve come to be known, have access to significantly more funds than the average music lover, and ticket presales open the door wide for them to make the investment because they will only turn around and sell the tickets at marked-up prices anyway. The profits still outweigh the costs, leaving music fans with less access to regularly priced tickets on regular sale dates.

Ticket resale sites like StubHub and TicketsNow provide a platform for people to sell their tickets to any event, at any price set by the seller. Thus if I happen to purchase two tickets to see the Rolling Stones for $100 each, I can turn around and sell them for $1,000 each. It’s bad enough that the average Joe is empowered to make such disgusting profits off a ticket resale, but imagine the field day for the brokers. Because they have more resources to access tickets — as a business, they have more computers, phone lines, and agents seeking to purchase — they are more likely to actually land high-demand tickets. With entire teams of people working under brokers to secure tickets to the hottest shows, the access music fans have to those same tickets exponentially decreases. And I can’t help but feel that there is something fishy about the best seats to the best shows appearing on StubHub and TicketsNow within five minutes — barely enough time for the average person to complete a transaction — of going on sale through Ticketmaster, and for unreasonably inflated prices.

Unfortunate as it may be, I won’t deny that as long as capitalism is here, then business will need to remain a part of music so that musicians can make livings for themselves just as anybody else. But there was a time — and it wasn’t that long ago — when this was achieved with more harmony. Musicians were paid to do their jobs, ticket outlets and venues made money doing theirs, and fans had access to the bands they wanted to see at prices they could reasonably afford. Now at the grass-roots level, musicians aren’t paid fairly (if they are even paid at all) and at the higher levels, many fans are denied access to their favorite bands because of obstacles put up by venue owners and ticket sellers and resellers who are seeking to make a profit, regardless of whether or not they are promoting something of value.

All of this needs to be taken back to formula, so to speak. In a culture saturated with songs and sounds, we have grown to take music for granted, viewing musicians as dollar signs for those who would give them a platform to make a name for themselves. We need to remember that music is, first and foremost, a gift, one that is able to transcend the routine of everyday life, providing us an outlet for our thoughts, emotions, and our souls. It’s not the sort of thing that should have ever had a price tag on it, but since it does, then it is not merely a good idea, but it is our duty to ensure that the musicians who offer us this gift are provided for, without robbing audiences of the myriad other priceless riches that music will always, no matter the state of the economy, afford to culture around the world.


The Baddest Girl Around

Maybe Canadian-born rapper Drake has never read Rainer Maria Rilke’s advice in Letters to a Young Poet: “Do not write love poems; avoid at first those forms that are too facile and commonplace: they are the most difficult, for it takes a great, fully matured power to give something of your own where good and even excellent traditions come to mind in quantity.” Or maybe he has chosen to ignore it.

Drake was ranked #2 on MTV's Hottest MCs In The Game VII list in 2012.

In “Shut It Down” Drake writes, “Baby, you finer than your fine cousin / And your cousin fine, but she don’t have my heart beating in double time” and later asks, “Why do I feel like I found the One?” Drake was 24 when he composed these lines. He was by any definition, even T.S. Eliot’s in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” a young poet. Yet his rhymes flow so easily.

In fact, according to a report at SOHH.com, Drake did not write “Shut It Down” with pen and paper, but rather composed it orally to lay over a beat in a studio. He created it out of the ether, as pure music, perhaps without Rilke or Eliot in mind at all.

Whatever their creator’s process or posture towards German Romanticism and Modernist criticism, the lyrics in “Shut It Down” are, arguably, rather dope. But are they among the dopest? A quick survey of love poetry written by male poets will help us find the answer. Let us journey backwards in time, beginning with Rilke himself, whose themes of blindness, shadow, nature, and the soul position him poorly to address a young woman in a nightclub:

It was a girl, really—there is a double joy

of poetry and music that she came from—

and I could see her glowing through her spring clothes:

he writes in “Sonnets to Orpheus.” But then: “she made a place to sleep inside my ear.” Should the young woman in the club decide to give this sonnet sequence a chance, she would discover that she has “no desire to be awake”; “When will she die?” asks the poet. “Do not be afraid to suffer,” he later writes. Scratch.

French poet Charles Baudelaire wrote poems often in prose and loaded with symbols, among them one particularly memorable love poem that begins, “Long, long let me breathe the fragrance of your hair. Let me plunge my face into it like a thirsty man into the water of a spring, and let me wave it like a scented handkerchief to stir memories in the air. If you only knew all that I see! all that I feel! all that I hear in your hair!”

The poem goes on and on about hair. By love-poetry standards, Baudelaire gets carried away and kills his subject. He’s enthralled, it would seem, not with the woman herself but with the memories and sentiments she evokes. By symbolizing her he objectifies her. The young woman in the club has heard this before and desires not to hear it again.

A century earlier Alexander Pope sat at his desk in a small, dingy attic room, “gnaw’d his pen, then dash’d it on the ground, / Sinking from thought to thought” (his own self-caricature from “The Dunciad”) while writing mostly satiric verse and, just occasionally, a love poem. “On a Certain Lady at Court” begins with a backhanded compliment:

I know a thing that ‘s most uncommon;

(Envy, be silent and attend!)

I know a reasonable Woman,

Handsome and witty, yet a Friend.

Not warped by Passion, awed by Rumour…

Then concludes by saying that this woman has one “fault”: “When all the World conspires to praise her, / The Woman’s deaf, and does not hear.” This form of compliment, though it presages Rodgers’ and Hart’s popular “The Lady Is A Tramp,” is just too witty for the woman in the club. Not to say she doesn’t get the wit, but to say it’s just too witty, too circumlocutory, whereas Drake gets straight to business: “These girls ain’t got nothin’ on you. / Say, baby, I had to mention / that if you were a star you’d be the one I’m searching for.”

Also in the 18th century, we find Robert Burns who lit up Scotland with not only sexy verse (sometimes downright pornographic) but scandal, and ultimately collapsed under the weight of his own continually multiplying passions. He gave the world

Oh my Luve’s like a red, red rose

That’s newly sprung in June.

Oh my Luve’s like the melodie

That’s sweetly played in tune.

He promises to love her “Till a’ the seas gang dry … and the rocks melt wi’ the sun” and finally refers to her as “my only Luve,” but Burns loved love itself more than the woman to whom this poem is addressed, as Robert Crawford’s astute biography, The Bard, amply illustrates, should the woman in the club take time to check it out from a library and read it. Burns had numerous short affairs throughout his life, frequently paid for sex, and died in despair. A true gangsta.

A century before Pope and Burns (now we’re in the 1600s), the Metaphysical and Cavalier schools produced poems even more wit-driven—clever constructions that, like origami boats, are fun to unfold. They’re also provocative and extremely sexual. John Donne’s “The Flea,” which includes in its first stanza the memorable line “It suck’d me first, and now sucks thee” (hey now!) proceeds to craft an argument that the woman addressed should also be the woman undressed—an argument based in clever logic.

While many readers revel in Donne’s wit, and cherish his later religious verse, too, there’s no way his love poetry is not overconceived for today’s audience. The woman in the club won’t entertain a contrived, if humorous, argument. She’s busy laughing with her girlfriends and checking her iPhone.

So what about Robert Herrick? Same century, a bit more direct, he liked to describe clothes and appearances, attempted to define beauty, but wrote nary a poem directed toward a singular maid. There’s no sense of uniqueness of one person, one beloved, in either Herrick or Donne. They were mesmerized by their own inescapable logic.

It’s tempting to spend some time discussing the medieval Italian poets Petrarch and Dante who, a few centuries earlier, had written of their loves Laura and Beatrice. But these were women who served as muses only. The great Italian poets’ love, about which they sang and sang and sang, was unrequited. So they, like others mentioned here, wrote about love only, love’s effect, love’s halo, its glow—not about a singular other, a beloved, the way Drake does.

Get dressed, says Drake, speaking with authority to the woman he desires:

Put those [cussword] heels on and work it girl.

Let that mirror show you what you’re doing.

Put that [cussword] dress on and work it kind of vicious

like somebody’s taking pictures.

Shut it down, down, down,

you would shut it down, down, down

you be the baddest girl around, round, round,

and they notice, they notice.

You would shut it down, down, down.

Shut what down, though? This complex idiom connotes both taking complete control—as of a social situation, perhaps in a club or at a party—and giving complete satisfaction in a physical sense. Drake is saying that this amazing woman, should she get dressed and go out on the town, would not only silence her would-be competition (to borrow a rap-world idiom, “all them other hoes”) but deliver, to her mate, in this case Drake himself, the most compelling sort of physical intimacy possible between two humans. Drake is positing authentic spiritual and physical epiphany.

The romantic poets imagined this sort of experience in very different terms, alone in nature or in the darkling plains of their own souls. The 17th and 18th century poets, so full of ahems and asides, so blessed with their own rhetoric, threw darts in love’s outer rings. Maybe Burns nailed it, but he also badly failed it. Drake, though, hits the bulls-eye, and his song is precisely what the young woman at the club wants to—needs to, according to the design of her imago dei—hear. Conclusion: Drake’s poetry is indeed among the dopest.

It is not the dopest, however. There is one poet in history whose conception of love and ability to authoritatively address his lover exceed Drake’s—King Solomon. “The Song of Solomon” proceeds in much the same way as “Shut It Down,” almost point for point, but adds even more energy to the mix. Solomon compares his beloved to other hoes: “as a lily among brambles, / So is my love among the young women.” She, he imagines (the poem is structured as a dialog), sees him in a crowd “as an apple tree among the trees of the forest … distinguished among ten thousand.”

Solomon admires his beloved’s clothes, jewelry, perfume—her hair, eyes, lips, neck, torso, everything. She, too, desires him physically: “While the king was on his couch, / my nard gave forth its fragrance. / My beloved is to me a sachet of myrrh / that lies between my breasts.” Loving him exhausts her to the point that she requests, “Sustain me with raisins; / refresh me with apples, / for I am sick with love” (so many double meanings here). She sees him as food, and she’s hungry for him. “His mouth is most sweet” she says. She “goes down to the nut orchard / to look at the blossoms of the valley” and becomes disoriented with desire. This language is both sexual and symbolic, plainspoken and complex.

From Solomon’s point of view, his beloved is “My dove, my perfect one, the only one … The young women saw her and called her blessed.” In short, she shuts it down. As a result, he wants to get with her. She responds in the affirmative, suggesting they “break out of this fake-[cussword] party” (to borrow a line from another rapper, Kanye West) and “go out early to the vineyards / and see whether the vines have budded, / whether the grape blossoms have opened / and the pomegranates are in bloom. / There I will give you my love.” Drake concludes his song along similar lines: “Take those [cussword] heels off, it’s worth it girl; / nothing is what I can picture you in, / so take that [cussword] dress off, I swear you won’t forget me. / You’ll be happy that you let me lay you down, down, down … / you still the baddest girl around, round, round.”

Solomon and Drake are not unique in their descriptions of how attraction becomes desire, desire becomes love, and love blossoms into euphoria. But they are doper than most in their positioning of the beloved as the one who, in both her finery and beauty, outshines all the others and shuts down the party. From now on, imply both poets, it’s just me and you. You are the one. It’s a message of hope and, as the rest of the Bible teaches, ultimate healing. The image of God in us needs total love and total satisfaction and will settle for no less. If we seek other loves, stopgaps, placeholders, we rain down destruction on ourselves.

For those of us of the Christian faith, what makes God’s love unique is that we believe he regards the Church as his bride, the exclusive, despite our earthly whoring. Drake reflects this in another song, “Practice,” in which he says “I taste pain and regret, / In your sweat /
You’ve been waiting for me, / I can tell that you been practicing
/…
All those other men were practice, they were practice / for me, for me, for me, for me.”

As full of sorrow as these lyrics are, they suggest the message of Hosea, in which God summons his beloved Israel from its worship of idols—false gods in place of the real one. “I will make you lie down in safety,” he says, forgiving them and assuming his position as only lover once again. This, too, might be a message the young woman at the club needs to hear, even as does the rest of humanity. Despite our falling so far short of the perfect lover for whom we were created, by His mercy, we’re still “the baddest girl around.”

I suspect English majors will quibble with the preceding argument as follows: “Drake is a rapper. His ‘poems,’ if you want to call them that, are verbally thin and embarrassingly direct. They lack artfulness. Maybe they’re entertaining, even somewhat moving, when accompanied by music, but Drake is no Rilke. And Drake is no Pope or Burns, crikey!” To which I will reply, you are correct. Drake might not find a place in a future edition of Harold Bloom’s Western Canon, but he still has something that many English and American poets lack: cojones.

A second objection might be: “Drake, forreal? He’s not a one-woman man in real life!” And again, perhaps that’s right, but he has something else poets lack: charm. He writes, he says in a recent MTV interview, “just to make women feel special”—necessary, affirmed, wanted. He tells them, it’s okay to dress up and try to be noticed. Drake is as charming as Solomon, whose wives, it is said, numbered in the hundreds. We can appreciate that Drake, like Solomon and—fine, whatever—Burns before him, writes poems that celebrate “the one”—the perfect beloved whose love, requited, outshines all else. We should still be allowed to believe in that.

The Sound of a Voice

I stand beside another man in casual day-wear and sing the same words and melody he sings, and we learn from each other. I learn, among other things, that one of us is better at staying on pitch than the other. He discovers that I like to belt the music out, occasionally to the detriment of others. I find out that he is a bass, and he finds out I have sinusitis. We make noise. We hope it’s joyful.

Every Sunday this picture is painted manifold. People sing beside each other while professionals stand before some and amateurs stand before others, conducting or playing and generally trying to keep everyone together. People play along in strange configurations – a slow chant, an old man with the oboe, a kid with some plastic congas, a Doctor of Music for an organist, a hippie strumming a guitar. All of it is to accompany the voice, this one instrument that plays not only notes but words. People get impassioned about it. You have the I-believe-we-should-do-this-or-thats and the you-really-don’t-get-it-do-yous. Churches split. Theories are constructed. Talks are held.

And it’s worth asking why.

We sing “Happy Birthday” together and, for the most part, no one panics, though we rarely sing it solo. It just wouldn’t seem right. There’s something about well-wishing in song that calls for group participation. Perhaps it’s that we don’t want to feel awkward about it.

I’m interested in discovering what it is that is distinct about congregational singing. However, I suspect that to do so would be akin to discovering what is distinct about light or water.  In J.R.R.Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, the demigods co-create the world, including elves, and the elves praise the world, but “water most of all.”  This one thing which has no nutritional value (according to the label on the bottle) is both a constant on our planet and is indispensible to all life. It shapes land and shatters stone.  In C.S.Lewis’s The Man Born Blind, we discover how impossible it is to distill light down to an essential definition. Scientists everywhere find it constantly evading them as well, becoming a particle here and a wave there as if it had a mind of its own. In accordance with these mysteries, I don’t believe I’m taking the easy way out by saying that there is something rich and ineffable about singing together.

My wife and I try to read to our daughters most nights. Usually, we have a couple of good kids’ books on the docket, but I’ve been supplementing, for my own sake as well as theirs, with poems from a large collection of famous works that we own. It’s no Norton Anthology, just one of those beautifully bound, shoddily edited, moneymaking shelf sitters. There are typos I discover that occasionally make me cringe, but we read from it anyway. It was a gift, and we’re cheap.

One night, my wife and I decided to go through “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” in unison, as it’s a favorite of ours. There was no fanfare. There was no synthesizer intro or fog machine. There was no organ-heavy summation of the motif to give us the tempo. We were two parents, sitting in our eldest daughter’s bed, reciting a poem together, and our children paused to listen. Let me say again, our toddler and baby paused to listen. Now, they’re usually fairly attentive, often teaching me a great deal about the discipline of sentience, but they do not often turn together to give any one thing full consideration for so long.

My wife and I read the poem, simply, quietly, trying to live in the rhythm that Frost intended, trying to let the meter teach us. When we finished, the silence was more than the absence of noise. It was the release of breath in wonder at what had just occurred.  Though we could put no name to it, something had transpired as we read together that never would have happened had one of us read alone. We looked at each other knowingly, not understanding what it was we knew, just knowing that we had both noticed it. Being in the room with a number of other people singing the same thing is powerful. We see it every time Bono points the microphone toward the audience and the band quiets down to let the crowd belt out “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”

Can this be distilled empirically? Likely not.

However, it is well worth remembering in the midst of figuring out what it is that we like and what it is that we want out of congregational singing – an ignoble and foolish place to begin – that we are dealing with something which is, by default, mystical in the human experience. The effect of one person’s voice on another person is more than a mere chemical reaction. If it were not, then it could be seamlessly synthesized, but such is not the case. These things were created uniquely, made out of more than pure whimsy.  There is intention behind them.

I have always recalled a conversation I had with my father about the lack of sound in space. A studied musician, he told me that, in order to have sound, something must create the sound, something must transmit the sound, and something must receive the sound. Did he know at the time what beautiful Newtonian theology this would turn out to be?These three criteria are the legs of the milking stool, as it were – creation, transmission, reception. Without any one of them, the cycle is not complete. Sound does not exist. There is purpose in audibility. At least in part, we must sing together so that I can hear you, and so that you can hear me.

If we were not meant to hear the sounds of our voices, then we would not have been commanded to raise a ruckus. The human voice is a liturgy all its own, carrying with it the weight of woe, of joy, and of desperation. Every vowel or plosive is the audible story of the soul who bears it, and that story is worth telling. Talent is inconsequential. Sing me your story. Sing, “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” so that I know how much you feel the nagging doubt that it may not be true, and I will no longer suffer in the shadow of the pedestal I put you on. Sing, “a wretch like me,” so that we’re both human enough to stand beside each other. This exchange of sound is a gift unto us, a perilous entrance into communion with each other and with the Almighty. Small wonder that it’s awkward. Family affairs usually are, and it’s cowardly of us to try so very hard to make it less so.

The man next to me and I stop singing, and for a moment, I hear the space where his voice was – where our voices were. Like emerging from civilization into the relative quiet of the woods or the countryside, it is both the borders and the space which give us definition and time to contemplate. In the breath after our voices cease, I recall that I heard the sound of his heart in it.

Channeling Affections: Whitney, Modigliani, and Me

I keep thinking of things I’d like to read, eat, or clean today, (Lauren Winner’s new memoir! Roasted Tomato and Eggplant Cous Cous! The guest bathroom!) instead of doing what I know I should be doing– writing.

In the last few months I’ve spent a lot of time and energy talking to artists of faith about their process, about the importance of showing up for their work, even if, especially if– in that day, or that hour, it isn’t any good.

But today I am squirming; I am doing everything I can think of to avoid just that.

Here’s the thing– if I’m honest, I’m terrified of writing something “not very good.” And I’m also afraid of writing something really good. I’m afraid of being corny, or revealing too much. I’m also afraid of revealing too little. I’m afraid my work matters, and I’m afraid it doesn’t. I’m afraid this essay isn’t as good as my last, that you’ll see the truth about me- that on my best day I’m quite mediocre.

The one thing we obsess over more than building an artist up is watching them fall apart.

Even though we were both Jersey girls, I never met Whitney Houston, though some of my childhood friends did; her spectre loomed large in our small, North Jersey bedroom community. Back then she was one of a kind, the only female artist who could seamlessly blend the vocal gymnastics and conviction of gospel with the catchiness of pop. I sang her songs each night into my bathroom mirror, slicking back my hair in imitation of her first record cover, heart longing and prepubescent voice straining to emulate this beautiful, powerful woman.

As I sit here in my pajamas two decades later, avoiding my work, I cannot imagine the mounting pressure Whitney Houston experienced with each profound achievement. Back then it seemed each song, each album or movie was more wildly successful than the next. And with those successes came our scrutinizing glare. No matter how much we claim to love our artists, our culture doesn’t allow them to fail– not creatively or personally. The one thing we obsess over more than building an artist up is watching them fall apart.

After decades of unfathomable success, in the last handful of years Whitney Houston’s personal demons, her abusive marriage, and struggle with drugs and alcohol, threatened to eclipse her triumphs. It was like watching a train derail, and most of us, no matter how much her music meant to us, preferred to look away.

I recently watched a film called “Modigliani,” about Italian born artist Amadeo Modigliani. It was an interesting time to watch such a movie, all about the struggle of a profoundly gifted artist to survive his addictions, to keep up with his more successful contemporaries (Pablo Picasso) and leave a meaningful legacy. And though he left behind a magnificent body of work, his story, his difficult life and painful death, is one of the most tragic in modern art. Someone once told me I resemble a Modigliani painting– and so when I went to the MOMA in New York to see a collection of his work I was shocked by what I saw. Not by the paintings resemblance to my features, but by their resemblance to something unnameable in me I thought I was doing a good job hiding from the world. Modigliani’s paintings saw me. And obviously, I am not the only one who feels this way.

“I Will Always Love You” came out a few months after a high school friend of mine died in a car accident. I was sixteen, and I remember listening to that song over and over on my headphones, walking each day to the subway that would take me to my classes at the High School for the Performing Arts & Music & Art. With my broken heart lodged firmly in my throat, I found it very hard to sing in those days. But something in me resonated when I heard her sing. Something in her voice elevated my grief above the black and white and grey of everyday. Something in her voice, in that song, heard me. And of course, millions around the world felt exactly the same way.

I’ve been singing since I was a child, and for much of my life music bordered on obsession. So when I first moved to Texas almost ten years ago, I decided to ‘fast’ music, in much the same way one might fast coffee or meat for Lent. The previous year I had performed a lot to support my first CD, one that took me forever to record and absorbed all my meager savings. I hauled my cheap keyboard up and down the east coast on the Chinatown bus, sometimes playing to 100 people, sometimes 10. A song of mine was being played on an influential college radio station in Boston, and its success struck me with terror– how could I ever repeat this? Music was my golden calf, I had no doubt; it was something I worshiped in the place of God, something I loved even though it couldn’t love me back.

When I stepped away from music the ugliest parts of me came out. I was paranoid, I feared I would never make another record, that I’d missed my window of relevance, that I’d ceased to matter as an artist. I scrutinized my songs, convincing myself they were never very good to begin with, but deep down I feared I was worthless without them. It took some time– about six months actually. As I waited for God to give music back to me, I learned a lot about myself. And when He did give it back to me, it wasn’t in the way I’d expected.

I remember standing outside the double glass doors of the church on the rainy, Friday evening, sweating, heart pounding in my throat, trying hard not to run back to my car. I had never sung in church before, and feared I would be struck by lightening. I hardly thought myself pious, and I was a new Christian, but I’d accepted the invitation to sing, and later as I did, I experienced peace for the first time in a long time. The pieces of my musical identity that had been so scattered, so painful, seemed to fall directly into place. A small voice whispered to my heart, “This is what you were made to do.”

As artists, our relationship to our work is complicated. I am still often guilty of foisting unreasonable expectations on my creative work, of expecting it to tell me who I am, to tell me that I matter. It’s only when I step away, when I pause to listen– not just to my own hopes and fears, but to God, that I learn who I truly am; I am more than my work. I can only wonder what would’ve happened, what songs and painting and stories we’d have from the artists we’ve lost too soon, had they stepped away from it all, had we let them, even if for just a season. What would’ve happened if the songbird from Newark, or the Italian-Jewish painter, had stepped away from their work before it consumed them?

A friend once described worship leading as “channeling affections;” of drawing the love of the people for God and reflecting it back to Him. I am convinced this is just what artists must do, no matter what their medium. When an artist channels the affection of her audience back to God, never letting it rest long on her, then and only then can she escape being crushed under its weight, under the pressures of its successes and failures. Perhaps then will she have the courage to see herself as God sees her; not through the lens of her last song, or painting, or essay, but through the lens of the Great Artist, the Creator, the one for whom she is the greatest masterpiece.

photo by: KUUNSTKUULTUR

What Will We Do without the Avant-garde?

I recently had the distinct pleasure and honor of performing a new piece of music with composer Christian Wolff and the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in the final performances of its Legacy Tour. This groundbreaking dance company served as a vital space for cross-fertilization between dance, music and visual art for what became a legendary generation of New York artists. According to the final wishes of the choreographer, the company is now officially disbanded as a performing unit after archiving the entire body of work. The company’s final round of performances around the world concluded with six performances in New York’s cavernous Park Avenue Armory.

The experience was breathtaking, and I’ll attempt to describe it here, as I hope to answer a question posed to me by an audience member as I was standing up with the rest of the musicians at the end of the performance while the audience applauded us and the dancers. He looked up at me on the stage and he said in a loud, earnest voice “What will we do without the avant-garde?” He was very concerned, and I, at a loss for words, just gave him an awkward smile. This kind of response is pretty typical for me. I have rows of dimples in my cheeks from smiling when I’m uncomfortable. But I thought the experience, if not the question, was so interesting that he deserves a response.

When I was hired to play trumpet on this piece, all I knew was that it would be a new work by Christian Wolff. (The piece turned out to be Song (for 6), a fragile but vivid and democratic music where individuals have an important role in the creation of an ensemble voice.) This was already a dream gig, and I eagerly said yes. I later found out that the performance was with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and a dream gig became the realization of two dreams. I took the opportunity to read several interviews and books about the company’s history– about Cunningham, Wolff, Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage and all the other famous artists who have been associated with the company throughout its history. Learning about the humble beginnings of the MCDC put this man’s question into an interesting context.

I don’t want to attempt to define the avant-garde of today, if we can even use that term, or to tell this man where to look for it, if in fact he is actually interested in being exposed to it. I would rather look at how the company became what it was this year as it formally closed up shop, and then to draw lessons for how we might see the development of an arts institution approaching the significance of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in the future.

After sixty years, the company was a well-funded and fully-staffed organization, an institution. Given the challenging artistic choices that Cunningham and company made over and over, even through its last performances, it is a remarkable achievement that the company thrived in this way. In contrast to the MCDC’s final performances, where six shows in three nights were filled with 1,500 eager audience members, the first performances of the company were actively disliked by critics and audiences. It wasn’t until ten years into the company’s history that it achieved financial stability and a degree of favorable status with critics and audiences. Merce Cunningham and his partner and music director John Cage, saw a bright and productive future for this company, and over many years they realized this goal, with results probably beyond their wildest dreams.

In its early years, MCDC toured in a Volkswagen bus driven by John Cage with just enough room for six dancers, the two musicians, and a stage manager, who was often Robert Rauschenberg.

One of Cunningham and Cage’s most important innovations was the separation of the dance and the music. In traditional dance, the music supports the dance in terms of its rhythmic structure, and also in an echoing of the narrative or sensibility of the dance. The MCDC began disconnecting these elements by creating pieces where the dancers didn’t hear the music, and the musicians and costume designers didn’t see the dance until the dress rehearsal. Though a traditionalist might see this as a killing of all the meaning of dance, I see it as a great-hearted embrace of human potential. When I think of an ensemble learning a dance with complicated steps that move in and out of coordination with nothing to depend on but each other, I am moved by how they can work together to execute such a difficult task with such grace and precision. When I watched the dance, music and everything else each pursuing its own separate yet complimentary logic, I was struck by the vibrancy and the multiplicity of this created environment.

The potential of human beings as creators, working in collaboration among people with different talents, is greatly expanded by the company’s repertoire. More artists have been and will continue to pursue this goal, and fortunately, this is true among those who are following Cunningham and company’s line of inquiry, and those who have found their own. The exact mode of the work is not important, only the pursuit of broadening human potential. The “avant-garde” hasn’t disappeared; one just needs to know where to look.

So, to ask what we will do without the avant-garde is to miss what’s truly important. For anyone who is interested in new artwork, the only way to proceed is by looking forward. The most important part of my answer to this question is that there are plenty of artists out there in all media, working to find a new way to answer the same questions, and I hope there always will be. I hope this man will look for them and support them. For me, the most important lesson I learned from my experience was to continue working on the art that is important to me, and that if I work diligently enough, perhaps I can build something that will be as dear to me as the company was to Cunningham.

The Lost Art of the South

A gift from my musically esoteric boyfriend, my record player has been my proverbial time capsule to the American Southlands I call home. I load dusty albums from the past–kings and queens of country–on the record’s arm and they drop by themselves. So I stack up five of those melancholy discs, and listen to the A-sides. They play through, drop down, and I flip and start with the B-sides. Sadness, coated with betrayal, layered with loss, all held within the grooves of the black vinyl. These artists sing a different tune than the post-millennial country. They sing about dusty clay roads, but they also sing about the lowest lows of desolation and the prayers of the darkest night. They sing about prison and adultery, tragedy and comfort. Their words are not contrived and sometimes not even catchy–slow and dull and long–dragging on one continuous chord. But they come from a place exclusive to the South, a place that the South could be forgetting.

I was raised in and by the hills of Virginia so I am acquainted with bluegrass and the bucolic banjo pluck of the Appalachians. Life in the South to me has meant mountains and magnolias, bourbon and a sauntering pace of life. But until recently, I did not know the darkness of the deep musical movements coming from the South less than a half century ago. In this place, in the acapellas of low sadness and the hymns of wandering, I have found camaraderie with the land that hemmed and honed me as a young woman and as a contributor to family and place. The deeper I listen to Emmylou Harris, Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and the like, the deeper I enter the old South; a place where despondency, pride, and revelry exist within each other. Ever since the needle scratched and crackled through that first disc, the open space between me and my homeland, and all her past sins, triumphs, and profundity, has sealed.

Emmylou Harris was quoted recently in Garden & Gun magazine saying that she has given up on present-day country radio. “It no longer has that washed-in-the-blood element,” she said. And she’s right, alluding to this spiritually infused land where God is seen more with dirty shoes holding out redemption, rather than a glowing halo bestowing blessings. Some present-day artists–Gillian Welch, Patty Griffin, David Rawlings in particular–hold fast to the tenets of powerful, bleeding and vulnerable music of the South, but these artists are rare. The influence of the South is too often watered down to an occasional mechanized twang, girls who wear dresses with cowboy boots, and cheap beer cans. And behind the barbeque and pickup trucks, we have lost, or are at least losing, our edge.

William Faulkner at work.

It’s the same edge that the writers of our Southern fiction have made famous. The place of darkness which honed the literary voices of Flannery O’Connor’s grotesque, Edgar Allan Poe’s nightmares, and William Faulkner’s pontifications on death. The South provided a backdrop unmatched by other geographies, fostering art that feeds on our ability to make the worst of our lot.

This land of moonshine and muskets belies a deep disenchantment. O’Connor wrote that since we lost the war in the 19th century, we have ‘had our fall’–the type of fall that keeps the whole populace awake to their potent inability to pride themselves on themselves. We are aware that we can believe deeply and still, with sweat and blood, lose everything. The artists who embody the South do not wash worries in whimsy, but attempt connection amidst isolation, loss, and disillusionment.

Flannery O’Connor herself said that we may not be Christ-centered as much as we are ‘Christ-haunted.’ And these ghosts, as much as they keep us fearful and frightened, keep us wide-eyed and questioning. We have been the “Bible Belt” for decades, a symbol of centrality as much as corporal punishment. And we Southerners have been beaten by our own faith. We are holy tormented and wholly sanctified.

The South has created from this fallen place and offered the nation a voice otherwise unheard. A perspective cast through an interminable mix of searing nostalgia, bated hope, and a weighty present balanced between the two. For decades, artists let this land mold their perspectives. It was the Southern zeitgeist, and it is this curious mix of hope and sadness.

More recently, the blurring of state and cultural lines has come as a detriment to artists. We lose our senses and loosen our allegiances, as we drift above the lands. As O’Connor said, when we cease to create from the reality of our place, this Southern place, we have lost ourselves, and we have lost the South. Makoto Fujimura has said before, we have a language for the waywardness. What the South is beginning to miss is the language for the ties that bind. So the challenge for Southern artists now is to stay connected–to keep the ankles in the mud and the fires smoldering. To be a product of the palpable senses, and to let the sights, sounds, emotion and memory of your place build your reality and your platform. We need to reorient our perspective to move beyond what we do in the South, beyond fishing, hunting, and cooking with butter, and enter into who we are, in joy and in trial.

And perhaps, optimistically, we can find ourselves anew in the people who understand and channel this spirit, regardless of their geographical upbringing. Because in the end, what the South did was connect in the darkness. It is the invaluable voice of a fallen community that still echoes from my record player, and is still found within my pages of “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”

Johnny Cash sang that he wore black for the sick and lonely, for the reckless, and the mournin’, for the poor and beatin’, and the prisoner and the victim. And as artists create today, perhaps it is our duty to take on the strands and fringes of black both to honor and connect us to the spirit, land and people of our place. So we take from the fragmented pieces of our community’s collective conscience, take the black, and take the blood, and in doing so, create an enduring piece of work, reminiscent of this old melancholy.

Music from Life

We are often told that our sense of smell is the means of perception most closely associated with memory. For instance, for me, “childhood” smells like the hot vinyl upholstery of a 1980 Caprice, Ivory soap, and slightly stale Cheerios. “Fall” evokes the smell of burning leaves, and “college” smells like a particularly over-sweetened latte. You (almost literally) get the picture.

Lately, however, I’ve noticed how many of my memories have a soundtrack. Not just a soundtrack of ambient sounds, or like a montage in a film, but particular songs have the ability to transport me back to a specific time and place, and open a window into who I was at that moment.

This phenomenon came to my attention recently when I reached into the deeper recesses of my music collection for some new commuting music. My twenty minute sojourn to my office is my last slice of free mental energy before the drudgery of the workday, and the return trip is my decompression chamber before a return to real life. But as soon as I slipped the disc for the Snatch movie soundtrack into my stereo, the drive, and the route suddenly changed.

Photo by Maggie Stein

I was transported to southern California, 2006. I was now behind the wheel of a gleaming red Dodge Magnum station wagon, careening down the 101 at a speed that almost matched the highway’s number. It was nearly midnight as I returned to my hotel in Anaheim, and my adrenaline was pumping along with the glitchy, thundering techno of the soundtrack. It’s impossible to drive slowly to this music.

I’d left Santa Barbara an hour before, leaving behind my high school crush and her recently minted fiancée. She and I had shared a celebratory dinner near her college on my expense account, and she’d discussed wedding plans and how much she enjoyed his family. I couldn’t have been happier for her; time since high school had proven our fundamental incompatibility, so there were no lingering hard feelings.

My expense account had also purchased the Snatch soundtrack, which accompanied me around the greater Los Angeles area that week. At the time, I was working in sales, and when I travelled (which was often) I had a habit of driving straight from the rental car pickup location to the closest place to purchase music that I could find. Subsequently, every trip brought home a new album along with a new batch of sales.

So as I listened to Massive Attack’s “Angel”, I almost missed the exit for my office, and I could well have continued on Interstate 10 all the way back to the City of Angels. Brought back to reality, I considered the differences between my 2011 and 2006 selves.  No longer selling, no longer travelling for business, of course, but more subtle differences, too. The momentum that sent me hurtling back to my hotel in Anaheim, and bouncing like a pinball between coasts and relationships and jobs has slowed considerably, too. But the inspiration of the bass and drums still makes it difficult to maintain the speed limit.

I began to consider the other albums accumulated in my travels, too. How The Zuton’s “Who Killed The Zutons?” takes me back to the piney woods outside Jacksonville, the day after the overwhelmed north Florida burgh had hosted its only Super Bowl. I arrived to a shell-shocked crowd of morose Eagles fans and rejoicing Patriots fans (who were just approaching their zenith of obnoxiousness), had one early morning meeting, and had to waste the rest of the day until my flight departed.

I saw Jacksonville from one city limit sign to the other, with the blaring clarinet and nasal harmony of The Zutons keeping me on edge. I almost accidentally drove into Georgia as the pines grew so close together that I lost track of time. I briefly panicked, remembering the somber rental car clerk who’d asked me accusingly if I planned on driving out of state. I found the first exit I could, and high tailed it back to the airport.

Another album was acquired when I became stranded in the smallish east Texas town of Tyler. My boss and I had flown up early in the morning for a nine o’clock meeting, which had wrapped quickly enough for us to return to the airport for the morning’s only flight back to Houston. There was only one standby seat available, and I certainly couldn’t pull rank in this situation. I fished the car keys out of the return box, and made my way over to the sad little shopping mall. I overpayed for The White Stripes’ “White Blood Cells” at Sam Goody, and went bombing down backroads until my afternoon departure, Jack White’s snarling guitar and petulant voice giving expression to my frustration.

In Tampa, Outkast’s “Speakerboxx/Love Below” double CD provided the much-needed running time after I failed to realize how far apart Tampa and its sister St. Petersburg are, and how setting appointments on the same day on both sides of the bay bridge that separates them is probably not a great idea.

All these memories are relics of a time in my life typified by searching, wandering, and a lack of solid grounding. Hearing these songs now is not always pleasantly nostalgic; regret buzzes faintly in the background, too. But reminders of these times are healthy. They remind me of the grace that brought me to where I am now. They recall immaturity, but also growth and discovery, both of musical and life varieties.

So take this challenge: dig into your box of CDs, or sort your iTunes library by date added, find the oldest purchases, and reflect as you listen to them. Who were you when you bought this music? (Is it old enough that you actually got it on Napster?) What does the music itself say about you at that time? Lord knows, the percentage of my music catalog occupied by metal and emo has dropped precipitously. Where does the music take you?  Back to junior high or college? Prom or your first job? I could write a whole thesis on the impact Snoop Doggy Dogg’s “Doggystyle” had on my first high school job, but I’ll spare you, gentle reader.

A well-selected soundtrack can elevate a meager narrative, ho-hum acting, or clunky dialogue in our favorite shows and movies. Our soundtracks are more complex, and not always as flattering, but they tell a story in tones that are just as vivid.  Listen closely.

 

The Return of the Old Time Variety Show

 

The Friday before Halloween sees queues for New York City’s Fright Shows snaking round corners, but two Curator writers and a half dozen of their friends coiled into Tribeca’s City Winery to peek into John Wesley Harding’s Cabinet of Wonders. While nobody screamed in horror, the evening is worth an explanation. As the Master of Ceremonies, Wesley Stace a.k.a John Wesley Harding gathered and limerickally introduced his cabinet of writers, comedians, and musicians for individual vignettes and group performances. In the box for the evening were: Emma Straub, Craig Finn (The Hold Steady), Paul Harding, Hamilton Leithauser (The Walkmen), John Hodgman, John Darnielle (The Mountain Goats), Eugene Mirman, and Rosanne Cash. All accompaniments were made by The English UK.

And after,  a chat followed…

CM: So, I have to admit that I had no idea what to expect. I signed up because someone told me the PC was going to be there.
MR: PC?
CM: You know, that guy from the “I’m a Mac.” “I’m a PC.” commercials?
MR: Oh, John Hodgman! He was there donning a smashing ‘stache.
CM: Nearly unrecognizable. Almost….almost like he could now be a Mac.
MR: He read from his new book: That Is All, the last in a trilogy meant to be full of answers, but none that are correct. Did you know poltergeists aren’t the only ‘geists’? There are a whole bunch.  My favorite was the FREUNDLICHERGEIST– at first a friendly geist who eventually goes MIA, unreachable without FB & Twitter.
CM: Hysterical. Let’s talk about Paul Harding. More of the same?
MR: He tinkered with the audience a bit, but in a truer way. Moving from Hodgman’s humor to Harding’s Pulitzer Prize winning prose showed the night’s variety.Was the piece written for the night?
CM: I believe it was a new one. We really couldn’t guess what each performer would do–and that’s the joy of vaudeville, isn’t it? And so we heard an affecting story set in oil-laden Nigeria with themes of astrology, life, and the speed of light.
MR: Then Hamilton Leithauser (he was so much taller than I thought he’d be) lit the house up with a cover of Beach House’s “Used to Be”.
CM: And he also covered “Strangers” by The Kinks, while Craig Finn did his best Jagger swagger with “Evening Gown”.
MR: Covers by hit makers were the glue that held the night together.  And then there’s the  soon-to-be-covered: John Darnielle.
CM : If people were hesitant about what the Cabinet had in store, Darnielle (pronounced: Darn-EEL) broke down the barriers by sheer force of his enthusiasm.
MR: He’s the the man of mystery behind the prolific band The Mountain Goats. He was so excited, constantly readjusting his dark rimmed glasses and tossing his hair. He strummed his favorite chords (D, A, Em, G) hard. He performed a song about Frankie Lymon and last encounters.
CM: Who’s that guy?
MR: He sang “Why do Fools Fall in Love?” He also did “You Were Cool”  which had the perfect amount of repetition. By the end of the song, even I felt like I was cool.
CM: Umm, so was John Wesley Harding a president?
MR: I actually thought something like that. John Welsey Hardin was a famous gunfighter.
John Wesley Harding was the name of a Bob Dylan studio album.
CM: Well, the Cabinet was a good place for today’s American singer-songwriter-type. And there were dueling comedians, so I can see why it fits. Of course, I’m talking about Eugene Mirman.
MR: Mirman’s childhood stories made me laugh. As an average student who secretly hoped I had a little wit up my sleeve, I followed him. He went places!
CM: His comedy is really comfortable. You just have no doubt he’ll make you laugh.
MR: Did you feel safe with him, Chelsea? Like you were home? You’re right though. He’s charming. We all went to high school with a Eugene Mirman. The stories he told!
But really, the image of him playing the theremin sums it up. “Woooooo. Weee. Wooo!”
CM: Glee all over his face.
MR: Then the Man in Black’s daughter stepped on to the stage. She played a few of her eighties hits with JWH’s back up band and, as she was a surprise addition to the show, was genuinely glad to be there.
CM: At the end of the show, everybody piled onto the stage, most singing, some just standing there–I’m looking at you, Leithauser.
MR: For the evening to be over, I felt about as sad as my grandfather when Lawrence Welk went off the air. It had been a treat. And so we left the Cabinet behind, locked up for another evening of poetry and prose, lyrics and laughs.

If you’d like to enjoy some old time vaudeville via the radio, the entire show was recorded for NPR, so stay tuned.

 

The Stomping String Rock of Uncle Daddy

In our over-stimulated, access-to-everything digital universe, seeing a band perform live is an increasingly precious commodity. When Uncle Daddy came through town I knew I was going to get a good show, but what I didn’t see coming was the intimate energy so finely-tuned by such well-versed musicians.

Hard to nail down, but hope with a side of southern homefries is one way to describe Los Angeles-based Uncle Daddy and their latest album Good Mourning. If you go looking for a clear definition of the term “Uncle Daddy” you will find a spectrum of answers ranging from the strangely disturbing to the unorthodox hopeful. These guys got their name from cellist and member Jacob Szekeley, who, upon hearing a sound that has become their signature, said, “That’s so Uncle Daddy!”

Put a mandolin, violin, cello, acoustic guitar, bass and drums together and there tends to be a certain expectation, something that should sound like a Nashville studio session. Uncle Daddy, though, came together in L.A., so while there are some elements of Country/Southern Rock, it sounds more like an intentional rough and rugged roll through a mud-sloshed Mississippi creek bed, the kind where you come out covered in dirt, sweat and a smile. “We’re doing things with our instruments that people keep saying to us, ‘you can’t do that,’” explains Andrew Jed, who sometimes uses a brass slide on his Mandolin. Those things “you can’t do” are bending classical and acoustic strings with blues notes backed by a busting John Bonham-like percussion from drummer Christopher Allis layered in the hip-hop lyrics of L.A. Riots’ Thurz or SensMusiq.

Good Mourning is filled with challenges to the status quo, uninhibited confessions of doubt, and throughout there is a calling out invitation to something more, something akin to a homecoming. Opening their set with the album’s first track, TJ Stafford proclaims, “I wanna scream til my lungs explode/Fight the Devil til it kills my soul/Burn in hell til there’s nothing left/ And I will rise again,” while Andrew Jed’s mandolin and Robbie Anderson’s violin contrast the despair and hope with Allis’ drums and Noah Needlman’s bass rhythms.

In a live show they cover the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage,” replacing the opening scratch synth and power-chord guitar with Jed’s banjo while maintaining all the thrust and energy of the original. They then transition to a gentle, unplugged acoustic in-the-round sendoff with their own “Come To The Well”—a benediction of sorts as the lyrics suggest, “Lift your eyes up from the ground/Find out where the lost are found/When the desert dries your bones/Come to the well and I will take you home.”

When you bring together six guys who have moved beyond the years of youth-filled-angst songwriting into the professionals that started Uncle Daddy at the beginning of their 30s you get a cask-aged maturity and honed energy with a tight performance that thrives both in the studio and on the stage. Lead vocalist and guitarist Stafford says, “There’s a release of ego” within the group. They aren’t fighting for the spotlight but laying it aside for each other. This generosity of play results in a humility and visceral quality that creates space for the listener to join the revelry.

There are plenty of bands that sound more like untrained kids in a jam session. Uncle Daddy has a level of play and performance reflective of its members’ formal educations and extensive experience. Each member brings to the round a curriculum vitae that lists contributions to film and TV such as Toy Story 3, Battlestar Gallactica and The Walking Dead. Anderson and Szekely also run a music school called String Project LA that teaches improvisational string performance. String Project gives kids permission and the instruction necessary to play the likes of Hendrix and the blues on a violin while learning how to perform professionally. So not only are the members of Uncle Daddy top-shelf musicians who know the intricacies of their craft, they keep looking for ways to invite anyone and everyone else to participate.

Good Mourning is an album that begs the “repeat” setting in your player. It is a rollercoaster ride of mixed-genre that will have you wanting to punch your ticket for another ride. Add them to your list of most sought-after live shows. Whether you catch them on tour or in your headphones, you will enjoy the rumpus that is Uncle Daddy. That said, just plan on both.

Boffo Socko Jaco

This article originally appeared in The Curator November 14, 2008.

Let’s start like this. Can you name any professional bass guitarists?

Mm-hmm.

And, how many recordings made by those bass guitarists do you have?

Good. Good.

If you could name one or two bassists, you have every musician’s respect and appreciation. If you could name a few, and own some of their recordings, you have our most sincere admiration. If you could name more than a handful and own their recordings, you should write the remainder of this column. Because in all likelihood you already own – and dig heavily – the record that sets my fingers to these keys.

I don’t know many musicians, if any, who do not recall with jaw-slacking stupor the first time they heard Jaco Pastorius play his Fender Jazz Bass (which he painstakingly customized by removing its frets, wood-filling the subsequent gashes, and applying coat upon coat of epoxy).

He played like no other had played before him. He changed a generation of players. He played jazz, funk, pop. He played with Joni MitchellHerbie HancockWayne ShorterDavid Sanborn; he was a pioneer of electric bass playing. So much could – and deserves – to be said about this complicated man, this artist. Yet, it’s impossible for me to summarize here the complex and tragic life that was Jaco’s. And not just because his wiki entry has more potholes than the 405. (Actually, I have no idea if the 405 has potholes or not. I’ve never even been to L.A. The 405 is in L.A., right? Well, whatever. I think you’ll still hang with the analogy.)

The words that describe his life form a perfect stereotype of “artist”: genius, friend, husband, alcohol, drugs, anger, bipolar, human, loving son, early death. There swirl around his greatness many stories of dubious authenticity. So, it’s hard to say what can really be said about him. Even his biography is considered a sham by some, and I’m not sure that that accusation is all that accurate, either.

What I can write about Jaco is really something that, well, was written by the great Pat Metheny. (And, in case you don’t know who that is-he’s really important.)

From the liner notes for the reissue of Jaco’s debut album:

Jaco Pastorius may well have been the last jazz musician of the 20th century to have made a major impact on the musical world at large. Everywhere you go, sometimes it seems like a dozen times a day, in the most unlikely places you hear Jaco’s sound; from the latest TV commercial to bass players of all stripes copping his licks on recordings of all styles, from news broadcasts to famous rock and roll bands, from hip hop samples to personal tribute records, you hear the echoes of that unmistakable sound everywhere. –Pat Metheny

As with all really great artists though, getting to know him is really a matter of getting to know his art. It is a matter of hearing him speak to us and tell us his story in every note and every gesture that emanates from the instrument that became a part of him. That is one way the truly great ones emerge from a crowd of excellent peers. They don’t simply wear their axe. They don’t just put it on and take it off. They are one with their instrument. There isn’t a point at which the man stops and his instrument begins. This was Jaco.

Like all greats, he raised the bar – both of the possibilities of the instrument, but also of the music itself and those that played with him. He made other players better players by his presence. And when on those rare occasions greats come together, each in their prime, something magical happens. Jaco’s album The Birthday Concert stands out as one of those special moments in music history.

In the winter of 1981, Jaco threw a surprise birthday concert for himself, gathering a superstar-studded cast of musicians for a performance that, praise God, was recorded. Here’s the a short list of behemoths that shared the stage that night: Bob MintzerMichael BreckerDon AliasPeter ErskineOthello Molineaux, and others. I realize that unless you’re a jazz aficionado, you might not know many of these names, but it’s like saying that Kurt Cobain, Bono, Madonna, The Boss, and Eric Clapton played a concert for and with Stevie Wonder. And, since Jaco, Michael Brecker, and Don Alias are all no longer with us, the magnitude of this night looms.

The evening begins with the palpable anticipation of an audience that knows what is about to come. Before a note is played, we hear Jaco address the audience: “Good evening everybody. I’d like to say hello to my mother.” Ten seconds later the count begins. “One, two, three. Two, two” CRACK . . . and Soul Intro blasts off. Think Saturday Night Live, minus everyone save the band – to the tenth power. Mintzer squeals and screams and squeezes more funk from his tenor saxophone than one thought possible, until finally Jaco fully takes the reigns with a bass line so hair-raising it makes Rogaine look like a Flintstones vitamin. At this point we are fully into The Chicken, a tune with whaling solos by two saxophoning giants and a groove so fat it should have its own zip code. It’s the kind of tune that sends you into a funky stride embodiment of 70s John Travolta no matter where you are. (Save maybe funerals. And why are you listening to soul/funk/jazz during a funeral anyway. Have some decency.)

Check out this YouTube video of Soul Intro/The Chicken (from 1982).

After listening to The Chicken anywhere from two to ten times, we move on to hear the essence of Jaco’s playing in the floating and mysterious, Continuum. Harmonics, chords and strong melodic movement don’t usually characterize bass playing, but Jaco derives much of his distinctive style from them. This cut also brings an opportunity to soak in the sound of Jaco’s axe and his unique array of equipment. His tone is unmistakable and here we really get to know it best.

Every track brings gem after gem; from the lilting waltz Three Views from a Secret, to the exotic Reva, to the Stan Kentonesque Domingo. From start to finish, this record delivers. I’ve often heard a complaint about instrumental music; that it’s monotonous without lyrics, that eventually it gets boring and backgroundish. This album offers a rebuttal fit for John Grisham; a vibrant diversity of musical elements that appeals even to those who aren’t drawn to “jazz.” It’s a piece of history; a glimpse into the heart and soul of one man’s passion and genius – of his love for music.

So, whether or not you end up grabbing this disc from your local record shop, the big chain store putting your local shop out of business, or an online megastore putting both of them six feet under, you can at least name one more bass guitarist than when we began. Unless of course, you were already savvy to Jaco and own this record – in which case, be glad I reminded you to blow the dust off that old CD, load it onto your MP3 player of choice and strut your funky stuff.

 

photo by:

Ultimate Liberty, Ultimate Fun

Later this month I will pay a visit to Chicago’s Harold Washington Library. It holds nine floors of books, with one whole floor devoted to literature. I’ll have to restrain myself from adding thousands of titles to my to-read list. This confronts me with something that faces every art aficionado eventually: Art takes more time than I have. I will never read all these books, and it’s the same with my own writing–the projects in my head vastly outnumber the actual hours I can spend on them.

The sentiment is an old one. Hippocrates said, “Ars longa, vita brevis.” Longfellow translated this, “Art is long, time is fleeting.” Some artists, like Grace Paley in a Paris Review interview, take this to mean that art is not the only thing they want to give their time to. Others take it to mean “life is short, but art endures.” Taking the translations together, a quandary arises: Art’s endurance makes it seem worthy of life’s time, but life is short and life is more than art.

Photo: David B. Thomas

Ron Thomas has been producing and recording original jazz and classical music since the 60s.  This enables him to look back over a strong musical legacy and forward to work ahead, and to comment on the relationship between art and time.

In terms of work already accomplished, Thomas has released eleven albums. If you begin to talk shop with him, you’ll discover he knew John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen. In 1964, when Stockhausen was Visiting Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Thomas studied with him (or, as he puts it, “became glue on Stockhausen”).  Thomas teaches piano and composition with “a full, full heart,” he says. “It’s full-throated teaching.” He writes essays on aesthetics, musical theory, teaching, and more. If you visit him, I promise you won’t leave without a new book or photocopy in hand, fodder for new art.

His music is at once ethereal and comforting.  It delves into imaginative, cerebral themes—Blues for Zarathustra is the title of his 2008 collaboration with Paul Klinefelter, and 2003’s Scenes from a Voyage to Arcturus explores David Lindsay’s novel A Voyage to Arcturus.

In thinking of work ahead, Bartόk’s life and music have been on Thomas’s mind, and he hopes this will inspire new music drawn from the new experiences this stage in his life is presenting.

Pacing and Discipline

Working with an art form for several decades has given him a good sense of pacing. “I’ve never thought of composing as something I have to do every day,” he tells me over one of his four or five cups of coffee for the day. Instead, he laughs, “My craft is all designed for this total freedom that I seem to need.”

He doesn’t force himself to compose for long swaths of time every day, nor even necessarily every day. His creative routine is much more exuberant than that.  He believes that even though it may often make the artist sweat, his artistic process needs to bend away from “negative stress” and instead capture “ultimate liberty and ultimate fun.”

The one rule he does set for himself is not to end a work session with something questionable.  He has to reach the point where he can pick up from where he left off.  When he writes something good, though, he says to himself, “That’s it for the day,” and then, he says, “I go and jump around the room.  There’s only so much creativity I have in me. I don’t want to drain it dry.”

In writing classes, my professors always told aspiring writers, “Write every day.”   They advised this, I’m sure, because once we’d left the rigor of academic deadlines, who knows what non-artistic deadlines would swallow our days whole?

“But do you want to write every day?” Thomas asks me.  He has a good ear for artistic anxiety.

“Partly,” I say, “I enjoy giving myself this gift of time, and partly, I feel like I have to do this if I want to be a good writer.”

“I would drop the one that says ‘I must do this every day if I am going to be a good writer.’”

Photo: David B. Thomas

When it comes to being disciplined as an artist, Ron Thomas remembers that “it’s a discipline of the imagination,” and he leaves room for discovery.  His musical craft is “all about spontaneity. I want my music to be totally fresh. Maybe ‘alive’ is a better word.”

He believes that work born of surprise and joy is the ars longa, the work that endures.

Time and Detachment

This kind of art may be spontaneous, but it takes a great deal of freedom and space to cultivate, so that even when an artist is not making art, art might still be in the making. “You need to digest things,” says Thomas. Whenever he says “you need to,” his tone holds recommendation, more like let yourself do this.

Taking time to digest life and to let other art forms sink in means cultivating some detachment from the artistic work.  Feeling time pressure can push artists to compose too frequently, at a faster pace than new inspiration actually comes.  Thomas relates the story of painter Joan Mirό standing in front of his canvas for hours on end as idea after idea would come.  Mirό would stand and the ideas would flow, but he would not paint. When he’d accrued several really good ideas, then he would begin to paint them. “You should reject some things,” Thomas advises.

Similarly, Picasso’s pattern, says Thomas, “if a painting resisted completion because of some undetectable formal flaw, was to find the wonderful thing in that work and then destroy it.”  This would yield a breakthrough, “and the final form would come successfully: the one wonderful thing to which he was too emotionally attached” was setting the whole piece off balance.   People asked Picasso, “But what happens to the wonderful thing?” And Picasso would answer, “It comes back.”  Thomas  repeats, “It comes back.”

This holds true for Thomas’s own work. He has stumbled across fragmentary work he’d composed and abandoned fifteen years ago and been able to incorporate it. This perspective frees him to compose and reject, knowing that his process is fluid.

Competition and Hurry

His process not only banishes critics but also takes a gracious and realistic approach to competitors. Competition can easily add a sense of hurry and negative stress to the artistic process. He remembers his father saying that an artist’s only competition is with himself or herself.

“If I thought too much about Stravinsky and Miles Davis, I wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning. How could you possibly be in competition with them? It’s ridiculous!”

As a teacher, too, he dismisses thoughts of competition, favoring instead the saying, “Poor is the pupil who does not surpass his master.”

The Sound of Time and the Voice of the Artist

Even as he discusses his process, Thomas keeps perspective: what works for him won’t work for everyone. The discipline of art, he says, is not universal.  “Unilateral rules are counter-productive.  I have tricks to keep myself from thinking too much about the seriousness of what I’m doing so I don’t get too nervous about it, but you have to select and reject the tricks you will use. As long as it’s legal, and as long as it works for you.”

Thomas urges artists to find their own voices among the clamor of critics and voices that tell them what they “have” to do as artists.  What works for one may not work for another.  It’s true, too, that the voices that remind artists about time and tasks to be accomplished can become part of the chorus of critics.  They smack of the practical yet disciplinary reminders “Be back by midnight” or “Hurry up, you’ll be late.”  Hippocrates himself can thus become no more than a disgruntled adult, saying, “Kid, you haven’t got all day.”

So, if it helps you, listen to the tock of clock-hands or the screech of clockwork gears.  From this sound, find focus.  Hear, too, the tumble of future piano keys.  Trust that even though life is fleeting, the days allotted are enough, and in them, find space to enjoy the freedom and fun of the art that has been given to you.

With Eyes Closed

My daughter spins in circles, stands arabesque, and attempts a small Jeté across the living room floor in her favorite faded rainbow dress. Ballet class is her inspiration, but watching her I think perhaps it is Dance that was first inspired by a little girl just like her. She tells us one day she’ll be able to twirl like a real ballerina . . . with her eyes closed.

We laugh and I tell her, “Honey, no they don’t.” But today I remembered, dancing alone in that very same living room, it is better when your eyes are closed. That’s when the dirty walls, unfolded laundry, and well-worn carpet disappear. Freedom dances in through the open window and raised blinds shake off their former importance.

Photo by Maggie Stein

It no longer matters who is watching, the way it did when I was growing up in a small town Baptist preacher’s home (who cares now if I am seen shaking my groove thing?), but for too many years of my life, it did. To be fair, there were times when we thought no one was looking, and Momma would turn up Elvis on the oldies station, and my sister would grab the small crystal owl from the display shelf for a microphone while I danced before a mirrored audience. Come Sunday morning, however, we donned our frilly dresses and patent leather shoes, braided our hair, and sat like model citizens on the front row.

Dancing had absolutely no place in church, and I’m pretty sure I will never get over that. By the time I was in high school, a couple of praise choruses had made their way into our services, and you might catch a few people clapping along. But emotion was reserved for the penitent during altar call, and even then you couldn’t let yourself get too carried away. Five verses of “Just as I Am” was about all the emotion any of us could handle on a Sunday evening.

Now, twenty years later, I attend a church whose band plays loudly and some in the audience even raise their hands as they move with the music, but I struggle to relax and let go. There are still many times when the most natural, real responses in me do not seem appropriate, so I bend them back in place. And I’ve been wondering lately, is this what it means, for me anyway, to “grieve the Holy Spirit?”

A few years ago, my husband and I went to see the band Over the Rhine at the Bijou in downtown Knoxville. We had returned the day before from a trip to Maryland for my cousin’s wedding. We were tired and scattered, but my mother-in-law came through as a last minute babysitter and away we went. It was a muggy evening, but as we walked up the hill from the parking garage, I remember feeling cooled from the breeze. In fact, I remarked to John that this time of year, this time of night, dampness was usually a relief, and here I was in holey jeans and a thin T-shirt with a chill. Why do I remember that detail? I’m not really sure. Is it important? Perhaps not, but the thing it reminds me of is how aware I was, of everything; how heightened my senses were.

I’d been listening to The Trumpet Child album non-stop the week before and the day of the concert, and “I’m on a Roll” was running around my temporal lobe with glee. I even toyed with the idea of purchasing a pair of black flamenco shoes just for the occasion. In my head, I pictured it: me all decked out, flowers in my hair, dancing alongside all the other girls gathered beneath stage front right. We were smiling, rolling our hips from side to side, and clapping — all delighted to share in some tangible warmth. Sadly, the concert did not completely live up to this happy vision.

I think it had something to do with the building. The Bijou, while a lovely venue, paled in comparison to the Tennessee Theatre we’d been to the year before for a Wilco concert. Then again, maybe it was the crowd that was different. College beer drinkers had swayed in the wooden aisles of the Tennessee Theatre and here at the Bijou, older academic types sat rigid on their cushioned seats.

For at least three days following the concert, Karin Bergquist’s voice rang out in my head, and I contemplated writing a song-by-song review of the show. I so wanted to write a good story for Karin and her husband Linford Detweiler. One that might salvage the night from the cold crowd and clueless patrons, a story to wash the dirt off their tired feet and keep them going, clean and strong, as they finished out the rest of their tour. The band deserved a good tale, not because of how they were received, but because of how they had given. It was the gift of authentic, live music, and that vulnerable gift led me to dance.

It was the beginning of the second song when this little white Baptist girl hopped up from her seat to find a deserted place in the wings of the mezzanine, so she could groove without blocking anyone else’s view. I slipped off my flip flops, and began to sway. Barefooted, slow falling waves moved me. My toes pressed diminishing circles into the worn red carpet. I closed my eyes, snapped my fingers, and mouthed the words I loved. So what if the theater felt more empty than full? So what if the performers gave off a slightly overworked and greatly underpaid vibe? What mattered to me was the dancing. Yes, I was completely alone and obtrusive, and maybe I wasn’t even any good, but I danced. And in my mind, we were all in heaven.

Not the kind you see in Philadelphia Cream Cheese commercials either. My heaven is a hardwood floor in an open country kitchen. Wind rustling light colored curtains as dusk falls, miles of nature looking through the open windows of a wraparound porch as friends and instruments make music together. Singing and dancing, long into the night; we live a pastoral life together and nothing separates the performer from the listener but space.

My dancing lasts exactly three songs, before the real world returned to me and I thought it best to rejoin my seated husband, my date. After the concert he teased me about slow moving melodies not really being the kind of songs you dance to. My answer to him was, “How can I not dance when Karin testifies that she wants to learn to love, without fear?”

“Did you just say testify?” he asked me.

Yes. I guess I did.

I’ve heard Wilco frontman, Jeff Tweedy, say that a good concert is what church should feel like — when people in the crowd set aside their individuality for a time and experience what it’s like to be part of something much, much larger. I have been in church services like that, but they are pretty rare. Maybe it’s the result of all that non-dancing tradition. Maybe it’s because we spend too much time with our eyes open, checking out the people around us, wondering if they’re also checking us out.

I don’t tell this story in hopes of fixing everything about worship services or rock concerts. (They’re not meant to be perfect anyway — just real and shared.) The secret I want to tell you is this: we can’t keep complaining about how much the perfume costs and still expect the tears to clean the dirt off our feet. The point is not what we give, but how. Whether we’re members or musicians, performers or even simple concert goers, the gift is in the bowing down, and the letting go. It’s in the looking up and the paying attention, the crying and the dancing. And if you have to close your eyes to really move, go ahead, you won’t miss anything you need to see.

A Passion for the Possible

I spend a lot of time listening to music and reading at the same time. I’m not proud of this behavior—I end up giving neither music nor book the attention it deserves—but I have an excuse: my downstairs neighbors are beginning violin students. Given the choice between being distracted by a squeaky rendition of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” or Mark O’Connor’s “Appalachia Waltz,” I choose the professional. Sometimes, however, this desperation tactic pays off, as it did recently when I read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road to the accompaniment of Jakob Dylan’s album Women + Country.

I didn’t give much thought to my music selection as I started into the novel, though the spare, rootsy album felt superficially appropriate to McCarthy’s depiction of the postapocalyptic American West. I paid only occasional attention to Dylan’s lyrics as I read, but I could nonetheless sense a deeper convergence between novel and album. McCarthy’s father character, struggling to protect his son in a desolate and dangerous land, was reflected in the opening track of the album: “I give my tears and I give my blood / I’d give nothing but the whole wide world for one.” Songs like “Down on Our Own Shield,” “We Don’t Live Here Anymore” and “Everybody’s Hurting,” with their themes of struggle against desolation, resonated with the narrative of the book. Novel and album share remarkable similarities: each draws on the culture of the American West; each takes place in a desolate, postapocalyptic world; and each depicts the quest for hope in the midst of destruction. Yet despite the two works’ convergences, the signs of hope they uncover are strikingly different.

As befits McCarthy’s more intimate narrative, the sign of hope in his novel is smaller, more tenuous than Dylan’s. McCarthy’s nameless father and son are “carrying the fire,” the light of civilization, in their own bodies alone. Given the challenges they face, that fire is often a flickering candle at best. When the boy encounters another family, he asks: “Are you carrying the fire?” Joining the others, the boy himself becomes a sign of hope, carrying the fire forward into another tiny community. Two other children are members of this group, and so the fire seems to grow, ever so slightly.

The sign of hope after McCarthy’s apocalypse is closely to tied to the fragile human bodies of the novel’s protagonists. As the novel concludes, McCarthy gives us this depiction of the boy’s faith:

The woman when she saw him put her arms around him and held him. Oh, she said, I am so glad to see you. She would talk to him sometimes about God. He tried to talk to God but the best thing was to talk to his father… The woman said that was all right. She said that the breath of God was his breath yet though it pass from man to man through all of time.

The boy thus begins to treat his father as a kind of saint, an intermediary between himself and God. And yet not precisely an intermediary, for there is no suggestion that the boy’s goal is to reach God through his father—indeed, the reverse might be more true. Yet this does not make the boy’s faith precisely idolatrous or sacriligious. In Christianity, arguably the primary background of both the novel and the album, God is understood as both immanent, wholly involved in the world, and transcendent, wholly other from it. Though his suffering could have driven him away from an immanent divinity—how can God be near us if he’s letting us suffer like this?—McCarthy’s boy clings to a hopeful vision of an immanent divinity. Despite his grief, for the boy the face of God remains the benevolent and intimate face of his father, and the boy’s own body remains the sign of divine hope. The Road thus allows to boy to retain hope in a loving God despite the destruction of his world.

The larger cast of characters in Dylan’s album allows Women + Country to present a more transcendent, mystical sign of hope. God is often only a distant presence, as when the farm laborers of “Everybody’s Hurting” ask “My eyes are open Lord / Where did you go, have we just left you bored?” Nonetheless, on the centerpiece of the album, “Holy Rollers for Love,” Dylan presents a vision of hope-beyond-hope, a wild and even irrational spirit discovered in a world “Filled with canteens and tear gas / From this last voyage of us.” The song’s verses are grim: “Hereafter’s bringing more funerals than fairs / And it’s a book of blank maps / That we’re using to get us there.” Directionless, humanity has brought itself to the verge of destruction, and there seems to be little hope until Dylan’s voice lifts in the gospel-tinged bridge and final chorus:

Glory glory hallelujah be warned

God is still marching, still raising his sword

Board these windows and guard your stretch of floor

Something sinister’s got you the minute you open the door.

 

With battle songs filling their lungs

Move them out down under the sun

Give them tears for cherry red blood

Stack them old, we cradle them young

World is crazy or maybe just holy rollers for love

World is crazy or maybe she’s holy rollers for love

World is crazy and making us holy rollers for love

In Dylan’s world, hope continues despite the terror and sheer unreason of divine glory. Hope is grounded in the mystery of the sufferings of the world, “making us holy rollers for love.” Divine hope is inexplicable, shining through violence and destruction to bring blessedness. Though God may be distant and inexplicable—even dangerous—hope endures not just in the flickering flame of human survival, but as a certainty that somehow, “God is still marching.” Dylan’s God is the Lord of Hosts—perhaps not as approachable as McCarthy’s father God, but a source of comfort in his power and eternal justice. Hope thus arises from the power and majesty, not the closeness, of the divine.

***

I had intended to end the essay around here. I had a nice conclusion about needing both McCarthy’s immanent and Dylan’s transcendent hope for a full picture of spirituality—true enough, as far as it goes. But having drafted the piece earlier, I intended to write my conclusion on March 10, 2011, the day massive earthquakes and tsunamis hit Japan. My wife spent two summers in Japan and we have many friends there, so we spent much of the day anxiously watching CNN and Facebook for updates. At the end of the evening, with most of our friends safely accounted for, I sat down at my computer as planned to work on the piece. As I tried to write my conclusion, writing about hope in literature and music began to feel increasingly strange. Can Cormac McCarthy really say anything to the suffering in Haiti, New Zealand, or Japan? Why bother with amusements like these? What hope can Jakob Dylan really give?

With these questions haunting me, I went rummaging through some old readings from a class on spirituality, and found an excerpt from Jürgen Moltmann’s Theology of Hope. Moltmann takes Kierkegaard’s phrase “a passion for the possible” to refer to a hope that is grounded in something real—a coming Kingdom which makes all our hopes possible. And for Moltmann, “the man [sic] who thus hopes will never be able to reconcile himself with the laws and constraints of this earth.” One who hopes cannot rest easy, because that person possesses a desire to see hope realized, and a belief that it can be. What profit, then, a passion for the impossible worlds of literature and music?

Again, it’s hard to see the relevance of McCarthy’s nameless fugitives or Dylan’s marching God to a situation that seems to call rather for the Red Cross. And yet “a passion for the possible” could also suggest that what we are tempted in our despair to call impossible—carrying the flame, justice rolling down—may in fact be possible after all: embracing the seeming-impossible, we hope for hope. We embrace what I might call a “prevenient hope,” riffing on a term originally used for grace. A prevenient hope would allow us to shake free of a despair which has closed off even the possibility of hope, limiting our imaginations to the realm of the actual. By enlarging the hopeful imagination, perhaps art can help in bringing us to the point from which we can begin to hope. Though prevenient hope is hardly the final virtue, neither is it merely trivial. McCarthy and Dylan, with their contrasting but hopeful visions, help keep that prevenient hope alive in me.

The Power Lies in the Performance

There are few activities I was pumped by as a pre-teen to which I still find myself committed. Over the last two months, I’ve been reminded why some enjoyments haven’t changed with age. Crowded venues, high ticket costs, spilled beer on new shoes, and a redundant resolution at night’s end that I won’t stand for hours hoping for a return on the bet my back makes, I still attend shows. I think it comes down to one thing: participation. Granted, it may not be the most sincere form of camaraderie—we’re a bunch of people standing arms crossed in a dark room embodying our autonomy with a most uninviting stance—but nonetheless, it is participation. Ask any fan, any performer, and they’ll tell you they’ve experienced it.

Certain acts creep so low beneath the radar that only a few devotees are let in on the secret shows they play. BKLYN is rampant with them, and there are bands who gain major momentum via college town NPR affiliates; they play relatively small venues, so only gals glued to their computers can snatch tickets in time. On the flip side of the pop culture record, there are new, exciting, and expensive monster balls, too.  I’m grateful to say, there are still plenty of good ‘ol singer/songwriters who gather a fitting crowd regardless of venue, wardrobe, advertising, or irony earning points. Bill Callahan and David Bazan are those types of musicians.

Before Callahan signed with Drag City, he recorded lo-fi instrumental songs on cassette tapes.

Recently, I attended a Bill Callahan show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. I was first introduced to Callahan when a friend from North Carolina gave me a mixtape with a few Smog songs on it. Smog’s sound was experimental, lo-fi, and dissonant. After twenty years of Callahan making music, Drag City Records picked him up in 2007. Callahan dropped the pseudonym and began releasing his albums under his own name. Since then, his music has taken on a more refined, produced sound while still retaining its nitty grittiness. His newest collection of songs is balloted this way on Drag City’s website:

“A mirror held up to the self and then turned around to the world. This record makes us wonder what has really happened in the last 100 years. And what will happen in the next 10. The soul of your country called and left you a message. Seven messages.

Callahan ushered in his own musical “Apocalypse” with catastrophic instrumentation and delivery on stage that night. His performance destroyed the summery distractions outside the walls of the Music Hall. Callahan sings baritone from the pit of his stomach; his deep voice lacks much tonal variation making it seem sort of emotionless, but the powerful imagery of his lyrics does the howling for him. Particularly noteworthy was his rendition of “Drover.” Take the track as it’s recorded there, add two very powerful drum and guitar solos, plus the energy of a grateful crowd and you’ve got something worthy of a sincere, eyes closed hip swaying hop and sing along. When the song finally ended, Callahan reacted with the remark, “Finally an audience who knows how good that song is.” We did.

This man inhabits a sort of effortless charisma. Joanna Newsom, a gal twenty years his junior and every hunky hipster’s dream boat was impressed by it,too. Counter to many a celebrity break up, the dissolution of their romance has done nothing to hamper his fans’ commitment. It doesn’t matter who he’s with. All that to say, it’s difficult to gauge what sort of man he is privately because he doesn’t leverage details of his personal life as a marketing tool. On stage, however, he carries the refined sensibility of a seasoned performer, well-learned and willing to contribute to the ever fluctuating scene with steady songs of introspection. After a remarkably long and loud pleading from the crowd for an encore, his white linen suit finally strutted the stage for an encore. He joked with the audience like he was grateful for our camaraderie, but even more grateful that he could poke fun at our pleas. The night ended with a sincere expression of thanks and a courteous bow. We were all set to go home satisfied.

Several weeks prior to that, I saw David Bazan at the Bowery Ballroom immediately preceded by a second screening The Tree of Life. Setting up a performance by Bazan with the film that A.O. Scott said, “ponders some of the hardest and most persistent questions, the kind that leave adults speechless when children ask them” seemed fitting. David Bazan, the former frontman of Pedro the Lion recently released his third solo album “Strange Negotiations” on Barsuk records.

Bazan packed out the place with expectant fans. The Bowery Ballroom is one of NYC’s most legendary venues, but Bazan had been playing house shows for a few seasons prior to this traditional tour. His strategic approach to fostering a fan base on a dime added to the excitement in the crowd that night. House shows make for intimate performances, and while I’m sure a faithful few at the Bowery had also caught a house show, most of us were seeing him on stage for the first time in a while. Like the habit of wearing a black t-shirt (the uniform he’s worn on stage for years), he’s settled into a performance routine. It starts with a long set of songs interrupted with a not so spontaneous question/answer time with the audience, followed by more songs, followed by a solo encore. This routine keeps people coming back. While they know the show remains the same, it is bolstered and flavored by the journey he’s unabashedly welcomed his fans to participate in since the early nineties. And they are a devoted bunch. “Strange Negotiations” was produced by fans via online giving and Bazan credited them as “associate producers” on the album sleeve.

Much like his other solo projects, this album continues the account of his publicized departure with Christianity. He asks many of the same questions The Tree of Life confronts while no less easily arriving at a different set of conclusions. The song “Level With Yourself” carries the burden of the wrestling that imbues entire album.

“wake up in the morning
check your revelation
making sure you know it
as well as you can
then sell it to yourself man
cause it won’t make a difference
if everyone believes it
but you don’t believe it
just level with yourself
level with yourself”

The ins and outs of these performers’ personal lives and the material they address is undoubtedly affirmed and contested by their fans. Yet, it remains the case, that its source has lasted. In a very sincere way, they’ve figured out how to make their work habit forming. Every performance and song is imbued with personality. Singer/songwriters of ages past can make the same claim. Paul Simon, Eric Clapton, Bruce Springsteen, and of course Bob Dylan have outlasted many of their counterparts in large part because of a life long sustainable approach to their work. And if slow and steady wins the race for a lifelong career in the music business, Bazan and Callahan surely have a shot at it.

Baby Boy Idols

I don’t like Justin Bieber.

That may come as no surprise, considering that I’m a 27-year-old male, and his audience is teenage girls. It’s not that he doesn’t have talent — I think he has a decent voice. It’s more about what he represents in himself, and furthermore, what he has started in terms of a new trend of teen idols. So perhaps it would be better to say I don’t like Justin Bieber the product.

Now, certainly the teen idol has already been a long standing figure in American culture. Elvis Presley and James Dean rocked the teenage world of the ‘50s and defined a generation. The Beatles inspired the youth of the ‘60s. The ‘90s brought the rise of boy bands like New Kids on the Block and the Backstreet Boys.

Photo by flickr user www.chicagofabulousblog.com.

Justin Bieber performs at the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards.

These newer groups in particular all represent a rather emotionally driven and shallow genre of music directed towards the romantic tendencies of teenage girls precisely at a time in life when they are not exactly tempered by reason or maturity. Lyrics usually focused on all the raging hormonal issues surrounding the romantic desires of these impressionable girls. Most of us get this and seem to accept it as some kind of bizarre phase that parents have to suffer through.

The thing about the teen idols of yore, at least, was that they were all in their late teens or early twenties.  Granted, they were still young and inexperienced in the ways of the world, but at least they had a few years under their belts. But what we have in the rise of Justin Bieber is a whole new class of teen idol: the “I don’t even shave yet” teen heartthrob.

My introduction to this twilight zone came with my first viewing of Bieber’s music video for his first single, “One Time.”  You have likely seen the video, but I’ll set the scene. Bieber’s mentor-daddy Usher is away and wants little Justin to keep the house while he’s gone. But of course, what Bieber does instead is invite a bunch of friends over for a house party.  It’s basically college freshman keg party sans keg. None of the swaying teens are holding red cups, and I’m assuming there’s no beer pong going on in the background somewhere. Oh yeah, and also there’s no promiscuous sex happening or drugs involved, because of course parents across American would burn the record label to the ground. These kids are 13 after all. I mean, we want our kids to grow up fast, but not that fast, right?

But perhaps the most surreal part of this experience is watching Bieber do his thing. With his fresh sneakers, baggy pants, sideways brim and shaggy locks, he throws down his rapper gestures like the big dogs except he’s in middle school. But who am I to judge? Maybe Canadian middle schools have gangs that revolve around drugs, violence, and promiscuity — you know, the stuff that 90% of rap music talks about.

Of course, there’s also the lyrics. Bieber sings to his sweet little thing: “And girl, you’re my one love / My one heart / My one love for sure.” But then he really ups the ante: “Your world is my world / And my fight is your fight / My breath is your breath / And your heart.” Be still my beating heart! Man, the Biebs is obviously a pro when it comes to the ways of the female psyche. I bet he was dating at 8 years old. He knows from experience what the ladies want.

In this manner, Justin Bieber was unleashed on our world to sing about things he has absolutely no familiarity with. I won’t bother to delve into the rest of Bieber’s lyrical catalog (particularly his slightly disturbing collaboration with Sean Kingston on “Eeenie Meenie”).

What elevates the ridiculousness of all of this is that Bieber’s rise to stardom seems to be spawning a class of Bieber clones. Two perfect examples of this are Greyson Chance and Brandon Pacheco.

Greyson Chance was discovered early last year at the age of 12 when his cover of Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi” was put up on YouTube and went viral, particularly after he was a guest on the Ellen DeGeneres show. Ellen soon signed him to her new “eleveneleven” record label. Ironically, since his arrival, a bit of a war has emerged between the Bieberites and the Greysonites over which artist is better. But really, Chance is cut from the same lyrical cloth as Bieber. His newest single, just released in May, is a breakup song called “Unfriend You” (a song for the Facebook generation if there ever was one). In it Chance laments of his lost love, “You’re beautiful and crazy too / Baby, that’s why I fell into you / Even though you would pretend to be / You were never with me.” He fell into her — such poetry. But wait, it gets better. The chorus unleashes the masterpiece: “So it’s over, yeah we’re through / So I’ma unfriend you / You’re the best I ever knew, so I will unfriend you / ‘Cause I should have known, right from the start / I’m deleting you right from my heart / Now it’s over, my last move is to unfriend you.”  You, young sir, are the Shakespeare of your generation, which is going to give me nightmares for months.

Exhibit C in this group of baby boy idols is Brandon Pacheco. He’s 13, from Canada, and also got his start on YouTube (OK, now this is getting creepy).  He actually looks 10, which I’m sure will help him someday . . . maybe. Like his compadres, Pacheco’s songs come in the standard cookie cutter form. In his single “Broke Up,” while staring at us with his little boy eyes and pre-acne face, Pacheco sings to the girl who broke his oh-so-fresh young heart, “Take another piece of my heart / You know it’s falling all, all apart / I miss you so bad and every time you look at me / I think of how we used to be.” But lest his baby face deceive you, he’s out to show you how hardcore he is.  Later on in the song he protests: “I’m too young to be this damn lonely.” That’s right people, he used the d-word. He is obviously so adult in both feelings and experience that he can now use adult language. Oh Brandon, you are so eloquent in your raw intensity!

But perhaps the even more troublesome underlying factor here is how these three boys got to where they are. They all rose to young fame because they became viral sensations on YouTube. They weren’t foisted on us by the record industry. We created them. What does it says about the mental and intellectual state of our young people when they are spending their lives pushing people like this to the top of the fame ladder and then having their own little teen idol wars? Shallow art is a cycle that both reflects what is already present in the culture but then feeds back into it.  I fear in some measure for the current generation of kids if this trend of immature pop stars continues. It is a sad time in a culture when the “wisdom” of youth is exalted, and getting younger all the time.

I Try To Keep My Language Classy

Chicago-based indie band Cains & Abels befriends dichotomies.  David Sampson, Josh Ippel,  and Jonathan Dawe forge a lush, engulfing sound, with intricate guitar-and-drum interludes, soothing harmonies, and haunting reverb. Yet the band’s folk influence means many moments stay sparse and echoing, with drums beating as steadily as a distant barn-raising.  It means the lyrics lay bare the writer’s thoughts, Sampson’s lead voice stays raw, and the vocals often craft a call and response.

I wrote about the band just before their first full-length album, Call Me Up, came out in 2009.  Since then, the band has released Call Me Up on vinyl, toured, recorded a Daytrotter session, and released the EP The Price is Right. They’re in the final stages of producing a second full-length album, tentatively titled My Life Is Easy.

Through these milestones, the band has worked closely with friends.  One signed them onto his record label (Positive Beat), others helped book shows, and friend Erik Hall (NOMO, In Tall Buildings) continued as producer. The band’s community experienced a huge change, too—Michelle Vondiziano (keys, cello, vocals) left the band.  She and her husband have a new baby, Inez, who gets a shout-out in the EP.

With all these changes in the past two years, it felt like time to check in with the band again.

Cains and Abels (L- R): Josh Ippel, Jonathan Dawe, David Sampson.

Last time, we talked about your music’s honesty. What have been some recent challenges to this?

David Sampson (bass, vocals): Maybe the hardest part has been watching musicians that I believe are being disingenuous or flip or cute gain big attention and popularity? That’s a deeply honest and ugly answer.

Jonathan Dawe (drums, vocals): I don’t think there’s such a thing as “dishonest” music, broadly speaking. Sure, our music is not Lady Gaga and the lyrics are confessional and drawn from real experience, but was there ever any doubt?

DS: We’re trying to make music that is us first and foremost, and that serves the lyrics in the songs we’ve written. I even try to keep the instruments and sounds we use to a very small number. The three of us are corn-fed flatland dudes. If I sang in a southern accent, it might help people put our music in a category, but it wouldn’t be me.  The way I sing, or the way we play, is undeniably a construct on some level, but I’m trying to make it as true to my background, my experience and my identity as I can.  Neil Young is a total inspiration. A lot of his music is in a country vein, but he’s not putting on a Merle Haggard act to do it.

Josh Ippel (guitar): We’re all influenced to some extent by the sounds we’ve digested over the years and it would be impossible to completely leave that aside when writing songs. We do make a conscious effort not to write any songs that directly nod to a specific genre, though there are certainly recognizable elements.

Do you think of the album as a story?

DS: There are a lot of connections and story elements, but there’s no beginning or end, and I don’t think it would benefit in being thought of that way. The images are all meant to compound and refer to each other.  There are common metaphors in a bunch of the songs. Deer represent people/women, but in more of an empathetic way than birds on Call Me Up. It took me a long time to figure that out. I was just like, “Oh weird, this time I’m writing about women as deer instead of birds.”

JI: It has the character of a film like Sans Soleil by Chris Marker. It’s filled with beautiful, intuitively connected scenes.

The image of roots keeps coming up in this record, too.

JI: They’re the foundation for the life of a tree but they’re also gnarly, twisted and buried in dirt, so there’s a range of meanings they can conjure.

DS: They’re bigger than the rest of the tree, and they’re impossible to get rid of, and that’s the way I think of difficulties in my life, especially difficulty that comes from bad habits and destructive ways of living (like the ones I’m confronted about in “Why Are You Lying to Me”). The roots in “Roots” represent something that has ensnared people in greed since the beginning of civilization. The “branches grow thick and wild” is imagining the manifestation of that tree with money for roots. It grows out of control like a Brothers Grimm tree, dark and twisted and leafless and moaning in the wind. It becomes the trees in the other songs that taunt me and hold me from happiness.

“Roots” reminded me of Johnny Cash’s “Redemption,” and your line “great is thy treachery” sounds like “great is Thy faithfulness.”

DS: This song is a backwards hymn, a song of negative praise to mammon. Instead of “faithfulness,” money’s treachery is never ending. The first line of the song, in that washy intro is, “Oh, for you cannot deny yourself,” which is a reference to a Bible verse: “If we are faithless, he is faithful, for he cannot deny himself.” Money cannot deny itself, and by very definition brings us misery and strife and death.

“Where Did You Go” has changed since early performances.  Do songs tend to evolve in practice, or live?

DS: Both. Totally both. We work really hard on the songs in practice and do our best to make them finished compositions.  Our songs have usually existed for a year or more when we record them for an album. Practice is where we change things in songs, but live is where we test them out.

JD: Both live performances and the studio experience have made these songs more heavy. “Where Did You Go?” is a good example of this. I didn’t originally like that song much, but now it has more force and rocks harder. I don’t always think that “rocking harder” is synonymous with making a song better, but in that case it is.

The band’s following has expanded.  Has that led to a more complex relationship with listeners?  Do people ask about the lyrics?

DS: More people listen to us now, but I have had only two conversations with people inquiring about lyrics. Either they’re so clear that no one has any questions, or no one cares about the lyrics, or I’m such an intimidating person that they’re all terrified.

Is it strange that people listen to your music without the band being right there getting a sense of audience reaction?

JD: I think a lot about what it’s like to listen to our music on a recording (or live) without being in the band. It’s a perspective I’m jealous of.  Would I like it if I weren’t a part of it?

JI: I’ve always wished I could be in someone else’s brain when they’re at home, cooking dinner and listening to one of our tunes. I guess I’d have to quit the band and get brainwashed to have that sort of experience.

Does the new album work with dichotomies, building on your original concept that each person is both a Cain and an Abel, cruel and kind?

DS: This is the question I had the hardest time with. The most obvious example is in “Where Did You Go,” where I talk about walking north with “peaceful pastures on my left, and howling trucks were on my right.” It’s a reference to “the highway’s right lane stands for grieving and pain / the highway’s left lane stands for rising again” in “Black Black Black” on Call Me Up.

JI: The new songs seem to slide between a disembodied, abstract voice and a grounded, first-person narrative, which fits with the way we deal with concepts like money and survival.

Are dichotomies not up front in your lyrics anymore?

DS: Well, it’s something that I’m always interested in, and it was tough to think about the songs and realize that I didn’t have that theme in there very prominently. In “My Life Is Easy,” I contrast myself with the buck who is shot at. It’s been a popular thing to talk about “white people problems” in the last year, and while I think the concept is a deeply unsettling and decidedly un-funny thing to laugh about, “my life is easy” is talking about that. Compared to an animal being shot at (or an African being shot at in his home), my life is one of a prince. I never lack for comfort. I worry not about eating too little, but about eating too much. I worry most about love. My life is so easy. Beyond that, the dichotomies aren’t too present in the songs. It’s not that I’m not interested in them, but maybe they just didn’t come up?

What’s your take on how you came to use Wesley Willis’s “Vultures” live and on the EP, why you changed his lyric “dead ass” to “body,” and your familiarity with Willis and the original song?

JD: Replacing “dead ass” with “body” is in keeping with David’s approach to lyrics and keeping unnecessary crassness/vulgarities out. I admire him for that and think it’s the right move.

DS: I try to keep my language classy. Talking about damage to “my body” is something that is already in Cains & Abels lyrics, so it seemed to fit. Mark Neigh [a friend who helped with booking and filled a variety of other roles] actually suggested that we cover the song, and I looked up the lyrics and realized it did an amazing job of bridging themes from Call Me Up and the new record, so it made perfect sense to put it on the EP.  I love Wesley Willis. On my first trip to Chicago I spotted a Wesley Willis drawing framed on the back wall of the Burger King on Milwaukee in Wicker Park. It made me love Chicago, to think that a Burger King would mount and display his drawings.

Is the EP a bridge between Call Me Up and My Life is Easy in other ways?

DS: It’s kind of a palette cleanser. There is a slower, more soulful mode on it, as well as a lower-fi sound that allows it to be itself. If you’re following the band release by release, the EP dismisses any expectations of what the next album will be like.

Sean Talbot contributed to this article.

All photos by Maren Celest.

Where Are We Now?

The image to the left it Caspar David Friedrich’s painting “The Wanderer Above the Mists”: that quintessentially Romantic image. In it, the solitary, heroic individual stands with his back to civilization, facing the Nature’s sublime and formless power. The color palate is earthy, mysterious, suggestive, and primitive. Vast distances stretch to the vanishing point directly behind the central human figure. This is the icon of the nineteenth-century Artist: the lonely Genius standing by himself before the infinite canvas of Nature’s might, untouched by squalid crowds, and bending Chaos to the shape of his Will.

Now, in your mind’s eye, change the picture. The man turns around, smiles, and beckons you forward with one hand, while his other gestures towards the scene, offering it for your interpretation. In place of jagged mountains, the skyscrapers of a cosmopolitan city rise through smog. Instead of swirling mists, the distances are crowded with working-class people, all cheerfully clamoring together as they pick up rocks, flowers, and rubbish for communal examination. Every ethnicity is represented in the throng, both genders, and all sorts of lifestyles.

This is the twenty-first-century arts scene: friendly, open, and diverse. The image of the Starving Artist in the garret has been supplanted by the Savvy Artist-Administrator in the office, on the stage, and on the iPhone.

A year ago, I began asking “Where are we now?” I was teaching at a homeschool program where each academic year corresponded to one historical time period. I had already taught literature and music from Medieval through Modern: the upcoming year would be “Postmodern” (1960-present). I realized that, while I had some idea of the prevailing ideas, themes, and techniques of the past (in Europe and North America), I could not characterize my own era with confidence.

So I set out to take the pulse of the moment. To do this, I began interview people in the arts.

For a year, I have posted these interviews on my blog. I have talked to poets, novelists, musicians, composers, actors, theatre directors, graphic designers, photographers, college arts students, arts educators, movie reviewers, a film art director, a sculptor, an editor, a publisher, an arts journalist, an arts theologian, and a former NEA chairman. I met them in New York City, Philly, the Berkshires, and my own Lehigh Valley; I talked to them on the phone; I interviewed them via email. I asked them the same questions over and over:

“What topics tend to recur in your work?”

“What specific techniques do you use?”

“What theories inform your work?”

“Do you think these are typical of those working in your genre?”

“Do you belong to any particular ‘school’ or ‘movement’?”

“Who are your favorite writers, composers, filmmakers?”

“How is the ‘sacred’ faring in contemporary North American arts?”

“How are the arts reacting to postmodernism, posthumanism, and globalization?”

“How do you think we got to the phase where we are now?”

“Where are we going?”

—and anything else that came up in conversation. We talked about the internet, Sherlock Holmes, mystical minimalism, Shakespeare’s view of time, recycling, the Parable of the Lost Chicken, adults with disabilities, Miley Cyrus, nude paintings, Pop Surrealism, quantum physics, Photoshop, Romeo & Juliet’s robot, dirty dancing, virginity, an inaudible instrument, missionary work, Greek and Buddhist chant, 3-D movies, El Sistema, vampires, and opera libretti. Mostly we talked about each individual artist’s work, which was exactly what I wanted. I wanted to build up a picture of the current arts scene in North America by a series of snapshots.

Now I have a composite portrait, made up of glimpses into fifty-some-odd artistic lives, and what does that palimpsest reveal?

It reveals the death of Romanticism. Of course, we already knew that Romanticism is dead everywhere except, well, except for film scores, individualism, environmentalism, landscape painting, figurative sculpture, our idolatry of sexual romance… But we may have overlooked the fact that the Artist of the nineteenth century no longer works in the twenty-first.

The Solitary Genius has been replaced by the high-energy young artsy person who understands money, management, public relations, and education as well as she understands her craft. She believes art is an industry, not a monastery. This person, latte in one hand, SmartPhone in the other, opens up to the audience, inviting viewers to share in the creative process from idea through execution to interpretation. This suit-clad hard-working urbanite has one goal: engage the audience. It’s about collaboration, entertainment, openness, and diversity. It’s about real people, not inspired supermen. It’s about making connections across the arts.

A theatre company performs free Shakespeare plays in public. A pop singer stands around for hours, meeting her fans. An actor performs his life story, then holds a Q-&-A for audience members to drink beer and ask him about his religious journey. A symphony orchestra director and her visual artist husband recreate a Medieval altarpiece in conjunction with a musical performance. A violinist performs Pachelbel while a dancer dances and a painter paints—in church, during the worship service. A symphony orchestra invites college kids to sit amongst the musicians during a rehearsal. A theatre director invents a new genre of textual performance. A poet and a fiber artist collaborate on a chapbook, then the poet and a dancer perform a commentary on the Iraq war. An actress jumps into a freezing pond so a photographer can create composite images for a new style of graphic novel. A Broadway show tweets out to half a million followers. A painter sets up his easel in a Philadelphia park and talks to passers-by as he paints the Crucifixion.

Why? Why should artists care about reaching out to their audiences? Why should they take the time away from honing their peculiar craft?

Well, for one thing, because everybody’s broke, and nobody’s coming to the old-fashioned shows anymore. Every artist and arts organization continues to deal with the aging of its original, subscribing audience. Every artist and arts organization has to deal with technology. Audiences are asking: “Why should I pay all that money and go out in the cold when I can sit at home and watch it on YouTube?”

And for another, artists have to figure out what to do in a strange new environment of vapid freedom. As has happened over and over in the history of the arts, the old revolution became the new tyranny, then the new tyranny was overthrown, and the current rebels and their children stand in the colorless streets asking, “What do we do now?”

The revolution in poetry was the invention of free verse, around about the nineteen ’teens and ’20s. This led to a second wave of confessional verse. By the ’80s, the only way to be radical was to write formal poetry, and a poetry war began. All of the poets I interviewed pick and choose from the gamut of free and formal techniques without inhibition. Some of them have learned that the only way forward is back.

The big revolution in music was the invention of the 12-tone row, or dodecaphonic music, around about the 1940s. By the ’60s, this was the new establishment. Any composer who wanted to be taken seriously had to write 12-tone, or at least atonal, music. Minimalism was a re-reaction, but has become another familiar member of the ruling regime. Many of the composers I interviewed are trying to find a newly tonal voice of either simplicity or expansion.

The revolutions in the visual arts in the 20th century included cubism, photorealism, minimalism, pop surrealism, and street art. Some of these movements became so experimental that they threw the very nature of art into question. Some artists have reacted by retrograde motion. One painter I interviewed has returned to the meticulous, demanding, and dangerous techniques of Baroque glazing to create masterpieces on a scale and with an emotional impact like those of Velasquez, Goya, Caravaggio, and Vermeer. A sculptor I interviewed uses the 5000-year-old method of bronze casting, completing every stage of the work himself from the initial sculpture through making the molds, pouring the metal in his own foundry, and putting the patinas on the final sculpture.

So the old rebellion has become the new tradition, and the new rebellion is turning back to even older traditions. At this moment of transition, there is an openness to new ideas, new voices, new methods, and newcomers. The positive side of such openness is the rich variety it makes possible. The negative side is the proliferation of, quite simply, bad art. Also, art about badness. Lewd content is old hat. Moral certainty is rated as propaganda or, worse, hate speech. Nobody wants to admit to communicating a message through art.

And, unsurprisingly, hardly anybody wants to talk about theories, put themselves in categories, or offer a label for our times. One composer might consider herself a “Maximalist.” One poet might fit the term “Expansive Poetry.” One theatre director has developed “Panoramic Theatre.” One graphic designer advocates stewardship of the “Creative Economy.” There is a movement towards more Storytelling in literature, film, and radio. Form and Narrative are alive and well. While I am not prepared to label my era yet, either, all of these words suggest something large, welcoming, vital, and comprehensive.

Yet, oddly enough, while there are individual arts and artists worth getting excited over, American poetry is pretty boring right now, publishers are wondering if the Book is going extinct, the visual arts are a gallimaufry, and music is just struggling to pay the bills. Artists are searching for a sense of order in the universe. Contemporary art is trying to make meaning from disparate pieces rather than from a holistic cosmology or a rationalist epistemology. There is nothing to hold on to as towers fall, economies crash, and truth is always just out of reach.

Artists long to offer something for the sustenance of the inner life. They look to the past to find what the present is missing. They value mystery and intimation over virtuosity. The source of their inspiration is in their embodiment. Some of them are recovering their lost role as public voices: heralds of ceremony, satirists of government, and meaning-makers after tragedy. Beneath the varied techniques, artists offer what human beings have always needed: horror and hope, fear and faith, grief and glory. Dana Gioia told me, “I want my poems to have clear surfaces and troubling depths.” The art of the moment that has troubling surfaces and no depth will not last, no matter how accessible, engaging, entertaining, or inclusive. Works that are profound and well-crafted will last, as they have always done.

The Listening Room Speaks

The history of Richmond, Virginia, my beloved hometown, is not one of collaboration. If anything, our dark past has quieted us. We live honest lives of looking forward, never looking back. We have been branded with a forced forgetfulness of our history as the capital of the Confederacy, fearing our pride will disrespect. So over the past century the suburbs have crawled and crawled, scratching the long fingers of subdivisions over the hills, across the borders of the town. And the city ever so slowly passed away, as the ominous cloud of fear and regret swept over the blocks. Buildings vacated, trash uncollected, industry dissolved.

Birdie Busch performs at The Listening Room. Photo by Rob Jefferson.

Only over the past decade or so, has life returned to the city. Revitalization efforts bring cross-sections of the populace together for a common hope. A turn is happening in my city, one where not only the college students inhabit downtown, eat downtown, listen downtown. The divisions of the city are beginning to blur, lost in commonality and community; supported and purported by events and people that know no bounds.

One group of people in the city, named The Foundry, have formed to do just this– bring people back to appreciation of the independent music scene. This powerful, yet quiet, collaboration has created one event in particular, called The Listening Room, that has been drawing all corners of the city together. Every third Tuesday of the month the Foundry organizes a show, much like any other music show seen in any other town, except there is one very important rule: no talking during performances. Yes, you can talk before the performance, you can talk in between and after performances, but when the music is playing, there is silence, and there is respect.

Silence means, of course, that the audience is hushed. Unlike the background music wailing at a bar on Friday night, where the band is nothing more than a stage to young peoples’ plays of drunken fraternization, silence means listening. I believe it was the first grade when my meek elementary teacher extolled the purpose and necessity of active listening. “Really listening,” she would say, “is not just sitting silently.” And only now have I learned it is a process of intake, and also, digestion, and occasionally, explication.

So to be one of the listeners, you must uphold your charge with the utmost seriousness. We listen intently to three acts, each punctuated by a fifteen-minute break, where we mill about, sigh at the impressiveness of the previous performance, grab at quartered donuts, and pour the free coffee. Being a listener is exhausting. For the caliber of performers that play, your heart is placed on the whims of the artist. We swell in their joys, we cry in their sorrows. For the few minutes that each artist plays, we parallel their songs. We are a diverse audience, representing generations and upbringings incongruous with homogeneity. Yet together we are a whole, and an audience in the fullest sense of the word, attuning our very selves to roll with the undulations of their music.

It is the musicians, though, who hold the most difficult task. In a world where independent artists grasp at the elusive attentions of the apathetic bar folk screaming ‘Free Bird’ yet again, they are instead met with silence. With a crowd ranging anywhere from one to two hundred people, their very admiration and reverence weigh in the balance of the performance. The artist has much to lose. In this rare state, when respect actually can be won, where their message can be heard, when their style can pervade– the artist stands before the crowd. Usually with sweat on their brow, and a guitar slung across their shoulder, they stand making quaking jokes, fully understanding the severity of listening, even if they are before the most gracious of an audience.

The vulnerability required to play The Listening Room is a serious trial, and not to be demeaned. The audience can hear inauthenticity, just as they can hear a misplayed chord. Performers do not just muster their strength; they muster their humility. For without pretense, show, or guises, they have to be fully human. And the audience reciprocates, providing a happily supportive and safe fan base: individuals eager to hear and accept this artist as yet-another great.

In the end, The Listening Room is not just a musical venue. It is a concept that brings the vitality of music back to the musicians and the audience. It is a gathering that has breached gaps unprecedented by the people of Richmond. It represents something far greater than the sum of its parts. It reminds musicians and listeners alike that music does indeed have the power to weave lines of connection between hearts, span audience divisions, and foster a common culture where it did not first exist.

I now have a rhythm to my Tuesdays. A dinner with close friends before, then an early arrival through the doors, we briefly greet the welcomers, where my hand is stamped with an iconic imprint of a gramophone. I meet friends new and old, and I again witness a group of people giving their time and energy to create arts that matter– arts that change people, because they connect people.

The lighting is always low and warm, and the pastries are always soft. Souls slow down as they enter the room, dragged backwards in the irrelevance of worry or apprehension. You drift into the larger whole, a congregated body come to respect and support artists. You become an integral part in this momentous concept.

The Listening Room will go on, spurred only by donations and hope, as long as there are willing artists and quiet attendees. And not just for this city of fractured history, but for all people to remember the function and power of art, this type of gathering is absolutely necessary.

If you are ever in the area, we welcome anyone and everyone to join us on the third Tuesday of every month for The Listening Room.

In Word and Dance

I’ve been standing straighter since ballroom started. It is affecting my hunched overlook, the one meant to exude a contemplative writer lifestyle, the one that I adopt out of habit or out of a desire to imitate some sort of writerly posture. Don’t ask why I assumed that writer’s hunch. Ballroom dancers never hunch. Jolene, the dance coach, will wander the overheated gym adjusting bodies like a sculptor: pushing in bellies here, grabbing butts and hips to align them under the ribcage, slightly adjusting the minute angle of an arm connection. I’ve begun noticing when my shoulders come forward toward my chest and up towards my ears. There is a sharp pain in my left shoulder from where I’ve strained it into good posture.

Ballroom Dancers from yesteryears.

Making my body dance is like making my words work on a page–making me pay better attention to the world. Nietzsche said, “Dancing in all its forms cannot be excluded from the curriculum of all noble education; dancing with the feet, with ideas, with words, and, need I add that one must also be able to dance with the pen?” Writing and ballroom have become two partners in my own dance of being alive. They challenge me to constantly practice attentiveness to the world, keeping my body and mind aware and moving as intimate partners that cannot perform without the other.

Grounded

“Grounded. Cha-cha is about being grounded,” Jolene insisted. “The problem with you two,” (here she looked away from me and towards my partner, James), “and it drives me crazy to see you doing it, is the way you both live on your toes. What are you doing up on your toes?” We shuffled our feet seriously as if it had never occurred to us to do anything as silly as stand on our toes. I didn’t look at James. But why couldn’t I stand on my toes? I liked my toes. I thought it made me seem “light on my feet.”

We tried the routine again.

“No. This dance is about your relationship with the ground. Your weight is always pulling you into the ground. Push into it, against it. Don’t try to escape it.”

We tried again. Better.

“Dana, land on your whole foot.” She leaned all her weight into my shoulders, pushing my heels onto the ground. We did the basic step. “You’re still back leading. Stop leading. Wait for my weight transfers.” We tried it again. Better this time.

This felt different. We were dancing with gravity, playfully teasing it. Keeping weight centered, pushing the ground, staying low, keeping grounded:

That’s how to look like we’re flying.

Making words fly is not easy. My poetry prof said: “I think it’s sometimes easier for the people who just fill their words with real life things and then find out weeks later what it all meant. It’s harder for someone who has abstractions and then looks at real life objects.” I’m the second writer. I am abstract. And so is my dancing. I’d like to think that abstraction is valuable for its airiness when, in reality, it is as flimsy as a carnival balloon, rising and rising until the atmosphere shreds it. I’d rather have a hot hair balloon that rises steadily, heavy with canvas and basket and fire maker and sandbags that comes down when it’s time, watching the ground and playing with gravity. Trying to leave the ground permanently just gets the writing all tripped up.

Presence and Poise

I swallowed another spoon-full of my tomato soup. A sip of water. Our dance team was on the way home from a ballroom competition.

“Jolene… can I ask you a dancing question?”

“Sure.”

“What would you say is my biggest problem?”

“Presence and Poise.”

This wasn’t what I was expecting. I thought I knew my problem. I did. I thought it was frame. I thought it was my shoulders. But no. This.

She sat quietly, eating her apple. “I’m not sure how to explain presence. It’s a way of existing on the floor. Of being seen that isn’t quite the same as performance.”

“Performance implies force, action. It isn’t that?” I asked.

She shook her head slowly, choosing words carefully. “The only way I can explain it is that your movements look lazy a lot. Very soft. And you go, you stand tall, but you still look limp.”

I nodded. I knew this.

Poise. “It isn’t a straight back. It has to do more with things that go on here.” Jolene motioned towards her core. “It’s a way of being present, controlled and controlling, of self and audience. I’m sorry this is so abstract.”

I understood this hesitancy, inability to fully explain. She sounded like a writing instructor, not quite able to put into words what is missing in a paper. Your grammar is fine. Your structure is fine. But you aren’t writing yet. Writing with the whole self and not with tools. Dancing with the whole self and not just the body. It is the skill to take the spirit, my spirit, and make my words express me. It is the skill to take the spirit, my spirit, and make it alive in my body.

I had forgotten what I have learned in writing words: technique will never bring presence or poise. Technique is the accurate expression of that center, and not the other way around, even though the learning often takes working from the outside in. The spirit of the things has to come from the inside– changing and working its way out in the body.

Boundaries

The day had been tense. I was cold as we began social dancing (salsa at a local bar). It took a while to stop shivering. My friend Robbie was the only man I knew dancing. Knowing only him was enough; he was the best dancer there.

We were dancing. It was clear he was having a very good time. And in one movement he disorients me, some unspoken line crossed. I touch the small of his back with the tips of my fingers, measuring the space between us, awkward. He turns, laughing down at me; puts his head near mine to talk over the music: “It’s fun making you blush.”

Called me out: I am blushing. I continue to blush. I had never fit in at the bar, though I had pretended otherwise. There are things I don’t know how to do, like play in response to physical playfulness. So instead, my hand held distance without thinking.

I am embarrassed. “Great. Thanks for the comment. Now I’ll be awkward the rest of the night!”

He laughs at me again. “No, you won’t.”

And he is right. I keep dancing. He teaches me more salsa moves. I am getting better and I love it.

Creating boundaries is the most natural instinct I have, as a writer and as a body. I tell myself what I can do or say and when I can do or say it. I measure interactions based on comfort level. I can skirt around the edges of discomfort.

Or I can head straight for discomfort and see where the words take me. I can learn foolishness. I can learn embarrassment. I can become a better dancer. My mother reminds me often: “The moment you feel stupid is when you are about to do it right.”

Commitment

Holding boundaries is a sign that I am afraid to fail. Ballroom, on the other hand, forces me to “commit”. I learned “commitment” when Tal, a dancer from New York, came to teach some workshops.

Neither James nor I knew how to dance Paso Doble when Tal chose us to demonstrate the routine, which consisted of struts, spins, dramatic head tosses, flying arms, intense glances, and marches across the floor. “You have to think you’re the hottest shit to ever walk out there,” Tal kept saying.

Hottest shit. Right. I laughed nervously. James shook his head.

So we tried. Tal said to try it again. And then again. We danced the routine three times before he let us stop. I was blushing, but I was doing it. Each time, my feet moved a little more confidently. I threw my head a little more. I started walking like I was the “hottest shit out there” and lost awareness for the audience. Jolene just kept saying, “Wow, they really don’t have the technique but they win on commitment alone!”

I called my ballroom friend, Jesse, that night and asked him what Jolene meant by “commitment.”

“It means that you looked like a complete idiot but went for it and didn’t care.”

Writing and writing badly can be as awkwardly visceral as learning Paso. Muscles tighten, heart rate rises. Tight neck muscles, oncoming head ache. The audience does not exist for the writing yet, but I blush to imagine them reading my sentences nonetheless. But why not just let go and let them look ridiculous? Why care? Why not let characters and words strut like mad peacocks to a dance of their own invention?

Imperfect

My first State College salsa night was a cool early summer evening; dark, lively, the way only summer evenings seem capable of being. It was dark and warm, the dense sound of talking, and the middle floor filled with people spinning and twirling.

I noticed Matt, a rather good-looking fellow who had helped me in ballroom class, on the other side of the room. He nodded his head, came over to me, reached out a hand wordlessly and took me to the crowded dance floor. My back and arms were tense, trying to read his motions, trying to be a good follow, to not make him sorry he asked me to dance.

“Hey, loosen up!” he said. “This isn’t class. Loosen your hips. And look at me.”

Turning the mind off, letting it come, follow without thinking, without trying: this is dancing.

I try too hard to write. I have perfection in my head but forget that even my head probably has the wrong version of perfection. There is a bodily difference in unforced writing. Attempts at accuracy instead of spirit are felt in shaking hands, tense back, and bad following.

But in letting go, the body settles into focus and concentration, physically comfortable and content from hard word making.

Partnership

The physical stillness after dancing is the closest to silence I can imagine. Air is clearer, freer. Movement slows and the breeze feels cold and gentle. There is an awareness that comes when the body is tired from moving and moving well, from music in the ears that are now listening to its absence. The ear is trained on the body and its sound.

The quiet after writing is the same, when the work is done, the process complete. It comforts. I listen and am attentive. Mind and body move together. Mind and Body are partners. I return again to Nietzche: “Dancing in all its forms cannot be excluded from the curriculum of all noble education; dancing with the feet, with ideas, with words, and, need I add that one must also be able to dance with the pen?” And writing is the supreme partner for the mind and the dancing body. Learning is write is learning to dance. Dance is attentiveness and care, presence and performance. It is a practice. It is staying more alive.

And it is addictive, this being more alive.

Confessions of a Reluctant Bluegrass Fan

Let the record state, I have recently fallen in love with bluegrass music.

As a music fiend of many years past, I’ve doused my ears with everything from A Love Supreme to The Black Keys. In college, I was of the breed that packed like sardines into a local club for a few notes from the likes of Anathallo; and in early adulthood I have swooned over the tunes of Brooke Waggoner, Ratatat, and Jonsi. But never did I ever think I would fall over to the dark side of anything that resembled country music. Banjos and fiddles, no sir. The thought of rocking my hips to the beat of tunes reminiscent of country line dancers has always been the farthest thing from exciting in my book.

Second String Band.

Yet the same girl who once mocked Dollywood as backwoods country nonsense is now swooning over covers of “I’m Gonna Sleep with One Eye Open.” Truth be told, there is just something wonderful about that pared-down, comfortable enough to cut the fool when a few wrong notes are hit, experience. It feels authentic and inviting. Likewise, it breathes a sympathy that acknowledges that the world is spinning rapidly but reminds us that we don’t always have to keep pace.

In my short relationship with this brand of music, I have learned that bluegrass cannot be fully appreciated until it is experienced “in the moment.” There’s something about the genre that just does not translate the same at a distance as it does in the flesh. The ethos of a few hours of shared aural experience in a sparsely decorated room with antique wood floors and a few tattered thrift store chairs strums a rhythm that brings its audience together. Social barriers are broken down, and people feel at ease approaching strangers to strike up a conversation or ask for a dance. All in all, the connection that is experienced through such music is a feeling of presence, a feeling of rootedness. To fully grasp it, you must taste and see. It is, to reference Polyani, a kind of tacit knowing.

At a recent office-wide lunch, I joked with a few colleagues that I had become a groupie of a bluegrass band here in town. The great irony is that this joke is fairly true-to-reality. As I recently recounted my weekend past, I realized that a brief house show played by said band, was the true highlight of my time out of the office. After only a small initial dose of their elixirs, I can now hardly avoid any opportunity to listen closely, jig and sway, to the tunes of these musicians. Following this band-multiple days a week at times-I have become enraptured in the experience of their music. Again and again, surrounded by a roomful of grinning twenty and thirty somethings, the stresses of my week melt away to a series of foot tapping beats. Collectively, we experience songs that stir our spirits and warm our hearts like hot toddies on a cold winter evening.

In surprising ways, my experience of bluegrass has moved me. It has stirred up the part of me that longs to live in a place where I know my neighbors’ names and spend Saturday afternoons sitting on a front porch with a big pitcher of lemonade. Stepping into musical experiences where one might find a husband and wife duo jovially strumming melodies on a small stage in a wooded backyard, my heart fills with nostalgia. The pace of life to which bluegrass tunes often allude is characteristic of my childhood in the south. Yet today, the very notion feels incredibly foreign and almost idealistic. My day-to-day is now filled with subway rides across town and afternoon tet-a-tets in tea shops filled with foreigners. Life feels exciting, but it also sometimes, perhaps even often, feels exhausting.

My generation is craving the lessons that the bluegrass experience can impart. Modern bluegrass artists like The Dave Rawlings Machine, Gillian Welch, and my new friends in The Second String Band here in DC, remind us that there is more to life than rush and go, see and be seen. There is a casual restfulness to such music, which one cannot help but soak up when basking in its presence. Grasping to put this feeling into words, one might say that this music speaks to the part of us that often lies below the surface but is longing to be unearthed. If my own experience is any indication, the more persistent we are to discover it, the stronger its allure.

The Last Show

The last show ended with the band literally dismantling the stage, and standing on each other’s shoulders.  The drum kit was in its component pieces, passed around the stage, through numerous sweaty hands.  The noise was thunderous.  The crowd was cacophonous.  And then the whole thing was over.  The show.  The band.  The dream.

There were only a few hundred people at that final show, played on the sprawling back patio of a slightly hippie coffee shop in a Texas college town.  The band had played bigger shows, but their headlining gigs usually topped out around that number.  Among the less conservative students at the university, they were a phenomenon, a slice of Austin in their Baptist burg, a real live rock band with professional CDs and everything.

The local shows were better attended than any others.  The fans sang the harmonies while the singer flailed and the guitars shrieked.  They knew these songs so well, were so tight by the eighth year of their existence, that they could’ve played them in their sleep.  The song with the hooky, guitar-driven chorus was getting long in the tooth in the band’s mind, and they rarely played it any more, but it drew the biggest crowd reaction when they did.

You don’t know what band I’m talking about, but you’ve heard this band.  Well, maybe not this band, but one like it.  Maybe they were from your hometown.  Maybe you got into them in college.  Perhaps they provided the soundtrack for your first untethered years. They had meaning to you, this gem you’d discovered.  And then it was over.  Real life intervened, for them and for you.

For every rock n’ roll glory story, there are hundreds more like this one.  The local band made almost good.  Those who saw and heard them knew, knew that they were destined for greater things, but those Greater Things found other suitors instead.

The band I loved, whose last show I attended a couple years ago, I’m convinced were victims of timing.  Their sound wasn’t right for the moment.  I saw their second show ever in 2002, and innumerable ones thereafter until late 2008.  During that window of music history, they didn’t have a place.  In the late 90’s and earlier 00’s they would’ve been hailed alongside The Dismemberment Plan and Swervedriver, but a few short years later they were swamped by bedroom folk and Joy Division revivalists.  They were post-Seattle and pre-Williamsburg, and so found their home where they started, in central Texas.

They were always hard to classify.  Not spacey enough to be prog rock, too nice to be punk.  The songs were too free form to be pop, but formal and fast to be post-rock.  They were too out there to be emo, but much too sincere not to be.  Like so many bands after “OK Computer,” they could easily have worn the label of Radiohead wannabes.  They just rocked, and felt, and most of all, performed.

Their songs would soar and sweep in a way built for arenas, but that rattled and practically deafened in the coffee shops and tiny punk clubs that they normally played.  All the band members but the bassist played violently, as though exorcising each note or beat from their own bodies, by way of the instruments. (The sedate bassist was the band’s press spokesman, naturally.)  The live shows built their reputation, but they struggled to harness that energy in the studio.  The first album is flat and echo-y, and only the knowledge of how it works live provides the key to unlock its promise.  The second album did better, but only the post-mortem EP really got the essence right.

But it was too late.  Real life caught up.  The members married, had kids, started careers.  The little college band that could didn’t survive in the post-college world.  The positive mentions in Relevant and Alternative Press weren’t enough to secure a record deal, and $8 shows don’t put food on the table or pay off the student loans.  The choice had to be made between toil and stability, and the rent won out.

So it goes across the country.  As many bands as there are at this moment, struggling to find their place in the spotlight, the avenues for making the leap are still limited.  The kingmakers may have changed – a positive Pitchfork review carries the same weight a Rolling Stone rave once did – but the money spent by the public on music is tighter, and they just don’t really make stadium bands anymore.

It doesn’t rob any of the joy from these bands.  The best among them know their ceiling.  Every night, they play their greatest hits, getting a crowd reaction that touring bands who travel halfway across the country to play in front of a bored barroom would kill for.  It’s not a hollow dream; those of us without any musical talent would love to have even five minutes of a crowd eating out of our hand like that.  Even if it’s not on stage, we would love to have that many people recognize that we’re good at something.

Even after they moved on, they couldn’t resist.  They played a reunion show last year, and this year released an EP of final studio recordings.  The pull was too strong.  Once you’re a rock star, even in a small way, your regular job kind of pales, doesn’t it? The bar for success is set wherever you like, and they didn’t need to be a blog band phenomenon or a hipster champion to make a limited-time-only comeback.

I’m disconnected now from the close-knit little music scene that fostered several bands I fell in love with in the years after I graduated from college and moved back to my hometown.  I found this band by showing up to a show at a soon-defunct dive bar in a shady part of town, but now I find out about bands through blogs and Twitter.

It’s not worthwhile to play the futures market with the commodity of Cool; it’s for us to proselytize for them, hoping that by sheer force of will we can put them over the hump to stardom.  It’s for you to drag friends to that shady dive to see them play, then buy a t-shirt and chat with the band afterward.  Many artists can survive in obscurity, but few can live without the encouragement that comes from knowing they’ve been seen and heard.

Bands like this are still out there.  Music is an arbiter of cool, but sometimes it’s more important to listen to the music that needs listeners than the music that everyone listens to.  It’s not about snobbery, or who heard them first, it’s about being the crowd that encourages; any night could be their last show.  The men and women in the band on stage could end up playing packed arenas or being your kids’ favorite teacher.  Invest in those moments, and let music be the uniter of crowds and expression of the soul that it was designed to be.

Darkness and Redemption from “The Boss”

“Everything dies, baby that’s a fact, but maybe everything that dies someday comes back.”

— “Atlantic City” by Bruce Springsteen

I’m a rather recent convert to the musical greatness that is Bruce Springsteen.  Sure, I’ve known about him for the longest time, but what average American kid grows up not knowing about him in one way or another?  If nothing else, they have heard their patriotic celebrations graced, ironically, with “Born in the USA,” which is surely one of the most interesting examples of misappropriating a song that I’ve ever heard.  Nevertheless, Springsteen is a living American rock legend, and I finally came to this realization myself just recently.

I would have to say that he came across my radar more noticeably when he and the E Street band played the Superbowl halftime show back in 2009.  Strange, I know.  I suppose it was the fact that, amongst the litany of recent Superbowl performances, Springsteen’s was actually decent and enjoyable.  I still have nightmares sometimes about Mick Jagger’s belly-shirt and his flailing attempts at groovy dancing (“Is he trying to fly?  Did he take too many muscle relaxers?”).  I was waiting to be impressed by somebody, or anybody, and Springsteen and E Street definitely caught my attention.  I made the mental note that I would have to listen to some of his music.

Earlier this year, I was at Borders, scrounging through the $7 CDs rack like the music junkie I am, looking for a new hit, when I came across Springsteen’s greatest hits album.  Here it was, a nice selection of songs from across his career, and for an amazing price.  Considering it my treasure for the day, I purchased it and popped it into the CD player as soon as I got in the car.

I have to admit, some of the sound was definitely dated to my ears, but once I got past that, I was actually quite impressed with the profundity of The Boss.  What I mean is that Springsteen comes across as no Sting, all smooth and intellectual; Bruce Springsteen is blue-collar American and proud of it. But beneath the crusty veneer of New Jersey grit, there are some deep spiritual themes that grace his music.

Flannery O’Connor, the great Southern Gothic writer, observed,

There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored. The reader of today looks for this motion, and rightly so, but what he has forgotten is the cost of it. His sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether, and so he has forgotten the price of restoration. When he reads a novel, he wants either his sense tormented or his spirits raised. He wants to be transported, instantly, either to mock damnation or a mock innocence.

Springsteen’s songs are littered with fallen people who have suffered evil, or seen it in themselves, and they long for the restoration of their dreams, or release from their hard labors.  Their regrets appear throughout the stories of Springsteen’s songs, like “Thunder Road,” where the glories of youth lie scattered: “There were ghosts in the eyes/Of all the boys you sent away/They haunt this dusty beach road/In the skeleton frames of burned out Chevrolets/They scream your name at night in the street/Your graduation gown lies in rags at their feet/And in the lonely cool before dawn/You hear their engines roaring on.”  Or in “The River” where a man whose life and marriage has hit hard times “remembers us riding in my brother’s car/Her body tan and wet down at the reservoir/At night on them banks I’d lie awake/And pull her close just to feel each breath she’d take/Now those memories come back to haunt me/They haunt me like a curse/Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true/Or is it something worse.” Nebraska alone is chock full of people on the run, at the end of their rope, or on the wrong side of the law.  The inexplicable nature of evil is highlighted in the words of the serial killer from the title song: “They wanted to know why I did what/I did, well, sir, I guess there’s just/a meanness in this world.”

Springsteen’s characters are also aware of their flawed status.  In “Born To Run,” which mixes youthful idealism with an already growing awareness of life’s hard edges, the man is “just a scared and lonely rider” who is on a “highway jammed with broken heroes on a last-chance power drive.”  In “Thunder Road” the main characters are past their youthful, high school glory days, and the man realizes  “Well now I’m no hero/That’s understood/All the redemption I can offer, girl/Is beneath this dirty hood.”  In “Dancing In The Dark” the main character expresses the frustration of being “tired and bored with myself…. I wanna change my clothes, my hair, my face/Man I ain’t getting nowhere.”  “Atlantic City,” my favorite Springsteen song, is also permeated with this sense of desperation.  The main character has “debts that no honest man can pay,” so he’s come to Atlantic City with his girl for one last desperate bid.  In the last verse, he reaches the point of uncomfortable compromise: “Now, I been lookin’ for a job, but it’s hard to find/Down here it’s just winners and losers and don’t/Get caught on the wrong side of that line/Well, I’m tired of comin’ out on the losin’ end/So, honey, last night I met this guy and I’m gonna/Do a little favor for him.”  Likewise, Joe Roberts in Nebraska‘s “Highway Patrolman” struggles with the act of bringing his own brother to justice because a “man turns his back on his family, well he just ain’t no good.”

If Sprinsteen’s songs remained here, in the darkness at the edge of town, they’d simply be depressing.  What makes Springsteen’s music truly great is that it often reflects the redemptive act, or offers the hope of redemption, which O’Connor says is so important to us as humans.  In “Thunder Road,” although the two characters are past their glory days, the man still offers Mary a second chance at love: “We got one last chance to make it real/To trade in these wings on some wheels/Climb in back/Heaven’s waiting on down the tracks/Oh, oh, come take my hand/Riding out tonight to case the promised land.”  Similarly, in “Born To Run,” the man offers the girl the chance to escape the “death trap” of “this town” to find out if love is real.  His offer is to partake in a pilgrimage of sorts: “Someday girl I don’t know when/we’re gonna get to that place/Where we really want to go/and we’ll walk in the sun/But till then tramps like us/baby we were born to run.”

In the iconic “Atlantic City,” in the midst of verses clouded with desperation and compromise, there are the haunting but hopeful lines of the chorus that ring out: “Well now everything dies baby that’s a fact/But maybe everything that dies someday comes back.” This resurrection-like hope reflects the accumulation of religious imagery that peppers the songs of Springsteen, reflecting some memory of the Catholic upbringing of his youth no doubt.  This kind of religious reflection of redemption is nowhere seen more powerfully than in “My Father’s House,” which almost serves as a retelling of the story of the prodigal son from the New Testament.  The protagonist in the story is lost in a dark forest at night as a child, hearing the whisper of the wind and ghostly voices, trying to find his way back to the light of his father’s house and his father’s arms.  The last verse creates a powerful contrast that is both beautiful and chilling: “My father’s house shines hard and bright/It stands like a beacon in the night/Calling and calling so cold and alone/Shining ‘cross this dark highway/where our sins lie unatoned.”

A sense of hope seems to grow stronger in some of Springsteen’s more recent works, particularly Working On A Dream, where in “What Love Can Do” he contrasts pain, trouble, and sorrow with the power of love:

Darlin’, I can’t stop the rain/Or turn your black sky blue/But let me show you what love can do/Let me show you what love can do.

Here our memory lay corrupted and our city lay dry/Let me make this vow to you/Here where it’s blood for blood and an eye for an eye/Let me show you what love can do/Let me show you what love can do.

Here we bear the mark of Cain/We’ll let the light shine through/Let me show you what love can do/Let me show you what love can do.

Springsteen’s music is great because it is an effective mirror of all of life.  In it we see all the darkness, the grime, the insanity and desperation of humanity’s darkness.  But in it we also see resilience, bravery, hope, beauty, love, and mercy.  Let our hope and faith be that of Springsteen in “Badlands”: “I believe in the love that you gave me/I believe in the faith that could save me/I believe in the hope and I pray that some day/It may raise me above these badlands.”

Off-Broadway: Long Tails, Affordable Tickets

A great quandary in the arts world is: how do you make programming affordable for all? If we truly believe in the importance and necessity of art, then it goes without saying that art should be sold with an egalitarian price tag. The last few holiday seasons have been characterized by lighter wallets, so it is encouraging to find that some arts institutions – namely those that were previously typified by audiences donned in fur coats and monocles – are beginning to offer creative alternatives in an attempt to diversify audiences.

The theatre world in New York is beginning to reap the effects of a long-tail culture. That is, different theatre companies and collectives are reaching niche markets of people who are interested in very specific styles of art. Off-Broadway is capitalizing on this new demand trend, while Broadway is still lagging behind, trying to fit their content into a one-size-fits-all product.

Off-Broadway has a more flexible structure, offering something for everyone. If you want to see something new and edgy you can go to Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. If you want to see something experimental and collaborative-based, you can go to SoHo Rep. If you want to see a re-envisioned classic, you can go to Classic Stage Company. Ars Nova is great for comedy and camp. MCC is an‘emotional powerhouse’ kind of place. And so on and so forth.

But it goes even smaller. Like the iTunes “listeners also bought” feature, the downtown theatre scene is made up of splinter groups known for pushing the boundaries of narrative and storytelling. The Amoralists, The Debate Society, Elevator Repair Service, Nature Theater of Oklahoma, among others are all grassroots collectives producing some of the best new theatre out there.

And Off-Broadway companies are starting to recognize the grassroots/collective appeal. Like indie record companies who found out how to create consumer allegiance through a like-minded aesthetic, Off-Broadway theatres are finally teaming up and sponsoring the work of these collectives to establish new audiences. The Public Theater recently co-produced something from Elevator Repair Service, and SoHo Rep did so with Nature Theater of Oklahoma. This pattern – of grassroots artist collectives teaming with non-profit Off-Broadway companies – is where theatre is headed, whether Broadway is on board or not.

This works best in New York, where space is at a premium. It only makes sense that a myriad of smaller theatres that provide an array of options will thrive, whereas massive theatres might dwindle. Sure, it’s not a lucrative business (has the theatre ever been?), but this trend is increasing as our culture morphs into niche-appeal. In order to support the trend, ticket prices to these smaller theatres have become more democratic and more competitive.

But word isn’t spreading quickly enough. New Yorkers and tourists alike still look first to Broadway when they consider seeing a show. And because of this, the casual theatre-goer still perceives the stage to be too expensive.

So, in an attempt to support the excellent community-reliant art form that is the theatre, here are a number of ways to take advantage of affordable theatre tickets from some of the culture-setting Off-Broadway houses in America’s theatre capital.

For Young Professionals…

HipTix with Roundabout Theatre Company

If you’re between the ages of 18-35, HipTix is an affordable ticket service through Roundabout Theatre Company, whose shows range from huge Broadway musicals to intimate black box plays. Membership is free. All tickets are $20 or less (I’ve purchased $10 and $15 HipTix via their handy email blasts). Plus, HipTix members can purchase advance tickets and receive invites to exclusive post-show parties. (Monocle and fur coat not required.) You can choose to upgrade your membership to HipTix Gold with a $75 tax-deductible contribution, which ensures two orchestra level seats to every HipTix show.

Vineyard Theatre

If you are a theatre artist or under the age of 30, a $30 tax-deductible Vineyard Theatre membership will get you $15 tickets to every single show. This, out of all deals in New York, is one of the best. The Vineyard Theatre is at the top of their game, and is arguably producing the best new American theatre out there. Recent productions of The Scottsboro Boys and Middletown prove that the theatre is still alive and well, so long as we’ll go to it. Vineyard Theatre has a sterling reputation that is being elevated each year, so see their shows in their intimate Union Square theatre before they head to Broadway and cost you a fortune.

Rattlestick Playwrights Theater – Under 30 Plan

A $20 membership for those under the age of 30 will get you one $15 ticket to each Rattlestick show. In addition, members receive priority booking, invitations to Under 30 Members’ nights with meet and greet with playwright, director, cast, crew and staff, and free admission to all public readings as part of their developmental Evening Reading Series throughout the season, including The Good Plays Festival, TheaterJam and other special events. Rattlestick is known for excellent, edgy, new theatre, where you can see plays from the best up and coming writers.

Playwrights Horizons Student and Under 30 Memberships

For students, a $10 membership gets you $10 tickets to all shows. If you bring a friend who is also a student, they can get a $15 ticket. For those who are under 30 but aren’t students, a $20 membership gets you $20 tickets. All tickets can be purchased in advance (no standing in annoying rush and lottery lines). Playwrights Horizons is another great theatre that serves as America’s home for fostering new plays and musicals.

For Smaller Theatres…

Most theatres under 100 seats won’t charge more than $20 for a ticket. If that’s out of your price range, the always-fascinating SoHo Rep has 99-cent seats for all Sunday shows– yes, 99 cents— and PS 122 has “Passports” available for purchase where $55 gets you into 5 shows.

For Everyone Else…

TDF (Theatre Development Fund) Membership

This is for those who prefer to have a wide-array of options. Shows available on TDF range from the most buzz-worthy musicals on Broadway to Off-off Broadway, with a smattering of dance, concerts, and variety shows in between. Full-time students, full-time teachers, union members, retirees, civil service employees, staff members of not-for-profit organizations, performing arts professionals, members of the armed forces or clergy are all eligible for membership, which right now costs $30. Broadway tickets usually cost $25-$35, Off-off Broadway shows cost $9. TDF also houses the famous TKTS booths that are situated around the city. If you don’t have a membership, brave the crowds and find discounted tickets in person. Or, get their brand new TKTS iPhone app to see what’s selling. See their website for more info.

Atlantic Theater Company – 15for15

Started by David Mamet and William H. Macy, the Atlantic is a mainstay of the American theatre scene. Plays from Martin McDonagh, Ethan Cohen, Sam Shepard, and Harold Pinter can all regularly be seen at Atlantic. And $15 tickets are available for the first 15 performances of all their shows.

General and Student Rush…

Most, if not all, theatres offer discounted rush tickets on the day of the show. If you are willing to stand in line, in the cold, and risk not getting a ticket, they are a fine way to see great theatre. Most are priced around $20 with a very limited availability. Each theatre’s rush policy differs. For general info on all shows go to the TalkinBroadway.com Rush Board.

Some of the best rush policies are found at 2nd Stage Theatre ($15), Atlantic Theatre, Vineyard Theatre ($20), MCC ($20), MTC ($20), and The Public ($20), which actually has a warm lobby and cafe you can wait in.

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Biscuit Tins and Moss: a Step Inside Peru

“It is difficult to find words strong enough for the sensation which came over me; Milton’s “enormous bliss” of Eden comes somewhere near to it.  It was a sensation, of course, of desire; but desire for what? Not certainly for a biscuit tin filled with moss, nor even for my own past.  And before I knew what I desired, the desire itself was gone, the whole glimpse withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased.  It had taken only a moment of time; and in a certain sense everything else that had ever happened to me was insignificant in comparison.” C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy

One morning I awoke to the sweat of a New York summer and the next, to the moist breath of the South American coast, thick and rich – a morning breath I can handle – it spoke Spanish. I took a staggered breath and opened my eyes to greet a green wool blanket bunched around my face and covering two thirds of my body.  No sooner had I stretched my legs westward than they recoiled in response to the Peruvian winter air.  Elbows bending — as they tend to do — the back of my limp hands moved to rest on the sockets of my eyes.   I rolled over to my back and stared at the ceiling.  My mind sped along with thoughts of music deep, warm and familiar, of coffee that I needed in my system, of how long it was going to take me to pack my things, and words that needed to be put on paper for the week of classes, of worry about my Spanish skills. My eyes shot open and I got that sinking feeling.  I’m not prepared.

Photo by Adam Sjoberg.

And in that instant, I wasn’t, at least not in the ways that I really needed to be.  My months of planning now seemed like a complete waste.  As I stepped out of bed that morning, I walked out of the expectations that I had held and so carefully crafted for that week, and set my heart about an eagerness to circle around a chapel filled with Peruvian kids trading tools and create something out of nothing.  My new plan.

I would spend the following six days alongside my friends with la Sagrada Familia as we taught six art workshops in a shantytown just outside of Lima, Peru.  The people that made this place, lovingly referred to as The Community, surprised me.  Their Joy surprised me.  The perpetual forward motion of this family unit, 800 strong, was paralleled only by the way they consumed the process of play and life with such a fierce energy and voracity.  In my daily dance class, we warmed up, learned ballet technique, created our own movement vocabulary, learned about composition, and had dance parties set to everything from The Beatles to Cumbia to Sigur Ros.  To my astonishment and delight, the boys ate up every plié and tendu, including Saul, my Michael Jackson- loving, break- dancing, sly- grinning tornado.  As the days went by, and the nerves left my body, I let go of the unrealistic and self-involved idea that what I was bringing to them had to be perfect, and these eager faces before me clenched with the reality: we have to perform.

I could see it coming.  It started in their bellies, worked its way into their hands and feet, and finally made its way to their eyes.  “We are scared,” they said.  “We can’t do it,” they pleaded.  “We all get scared,” I said.  “We are all going to do it,” I assured them.

Photo by Nate Poekert.

On Friday afternoon, four hundred kids streamed into the chapel hall for the ending ceremony, and with every recognition of a friend, a house mate, a teacher, the excitement grew and so did the noise.  My never-before-performed friends grew quiet, but the time had come.  “Ninety percent of the work has been done,” I said.  “The hard part is over,”  I encouraged.  “This is the best part – the sweetest time – you get to share.” And to my surprise, their stricken face turned as they took each other by the hand and ran, not walked, but ran to their spots and we all took our beginning positions.  As we lay down on the floor and waited for the first beat of Michael Jackson’s Pretty Young Thing to hit, I turned my head and glanced at my new friend Saul.  He was already looking at me smiling this fearless grin and at that moment, the moment before the music began to play, when we were all lying there on the ground of this Peruvian chapel filled to the brim with people, waiting in anticipation to break the stillness and the silence, I wasn’t thinking about plans.  I wasn’t thinking about things to do or words I wanted to write down.  I was looking at this young and fearless boy knowing that he was going to tackle with great voracity and courage a fear that was shared by many – that all twenty two of my comrades were about to share their joy.  In that moment, I took a staggered breath, closed my eyes for a moment to hold in the tears that were clamoring towards the surface and as the music began, we all stretched our legs westward.  The world would turn common place again when the music faded away but what would be left was a remembering, a recognition of a place inside we all know we have. What was left to my students was a conquered fear, a pride in their creation, an excitement about sharing their work.

Photo by Adam Sjoberg.

The moment that Lewis described with such startling and grandeous accuracy was longer than a clip; it was a reel, a reel of whose sequel I dream. The dream is that as we as a community continue to invest our love, skill, time, hands, eyes, and lives with these children, that they continue to have their moments of “enormous bliss.” My heart is that these moments would lead them to find their love– whether it is art, industry, education, family, or the people of the world– and live in their hope.  A hope that will grow in spaces made by biscuit tins filled with moss, and will live in their minds and hearts with the resources to make its way to their hands.

That they would continue not only to discover, but share their joy.

9.08 Christmas Albums Yule Love – Or Your Holiday Cheer Back

So this is Christmas; well, almost. It’s the weekend after Thanksgiving as I type. But for me, and everyone except Starbucks (for whom the Christmas/unoffensive-nebulous-holiday season began shortly after Labor Day), Black Friday is also Red and Green Friday — the day we start the Christmas tunes a ring-ting-tingling through our iWhatevers.

This is a big day — the day I dust off all my Christmas albums. And by “dust off” I mean open iTunes, navigate to the genre “Holiday” and “Select All,” and then “Check Selection,” to reactivate all those jolly gems.

Christmas songs fall into that category of things people strain to avoid talking about in small groups for fear of word wars about who thinks what’s best, and who hates that very thing, and so on. It’s right up there with politics, religion, and submarine sandwiches — you put signs in your front yard declaring your preferences on them, but you sure don’t talk about them.

Well, it’s time to take down those old, lame signs. It’s time to blaze a new auditory adventure. And, you can’t spell adventure without Advent.

As a Christmas canticle connoisseur (I could start my Christmas playlist and let it deck the halls all the way through the twelve days of Christmas before hearing a single jingle twice), I present these 9.08 Christmas albums, not as the best Christmas music ever, but simply the recordings I never tire of hearing. Those for which I have a yearly yuletide yearning.

(In a somewhat — but not overly — particular, non-qualitative order.)

A Charlie Brown Christmas, Vince Guaraldi Trio, 1965, CBS Records
If you don’t have this you aren’t from Earth. I can’t be certain what planet you are from, but either buy this recording TODAY, or go get in your flying saucer and warp back home.

If you already own it and don’t absolutely love it, there’s nothing neither I, nor Dr. House, can do for you. In fact, you probably have an aluminum Christmas tree and hate floppy-eared dogs and large-headed, cartoon children. The best advice I have for you is to stop reading. Just stop right now and think about how you got to this place. Our prayers are with you.

When My Heart Finds Christmas, Harry Connick Jr., 1993, Sony/Columbia
It’s hard to go wrong with a talent like HCJ. (He told me to call him that when we met at a JazzFest back in 1999 . . . actually, that’s not true. I lied. I’ve never met him. Please don’t tell him I said anything, though, in case we meet someday.)

Writing a new Christmas song is one of the most difficult creative endeavors. Ironically, the holiday commemorates the beginning of one of the archetypal stories to which most good stories and many amazing works of art point. Nonetheless, the pantheon of gifted artists that have left a heritage of unassailable classics makes tapping even this manger of creativity a tough one for anyone.

Yet, HCJ delivers no less than two new nativity numbers that ought to be standards, “I Pray on Christmas” being my favorite among all non-classic/traditional Xmas tunes.

Once Upon A Christmas, Dolly Parton & Kenny Rogers, 1984, RCA
Chalk this one up to nostalgia. If you don’t like for its 1980s sincere “we think this is really terrific music that will stand the test of time” optimism*, you’ll love it as one of the greatest pieces of American Christmas kitsch ever. I guarantee you’ll be singing along by the second song. It’s got an inexplicable irresistibly to it, like raw ground beef and raw onion on a slice of pumpernickel. Well, not like that at all. That dish, served all over southeastern Wisconsin around Christmas, is disgusting.

*(The original recording is no longer available; a re-release, that loses a few of the original tunes and gains one less than stellar addition, is.)

Since Kenny and Dolly are two icons of country music with distinctive and perfectly harmonious voices, the recording is not “bad” by any stretch of the imagination. They play to each other’s strengths and keep the schmaltz to a minimum, opening the doors for cynics like me to still enjoy this hard to find treasure.

A Very Ping Pong Christmas: Funky Treats From Santa’s Bag, Shawn Lee’s Ping Pong Orchestra, 2008, Ubiquity Records
I can only describe it thusly: it’s like being in the back of Starsky & Hutch’s 1976 Gran Torino, listening to Christmas tunes on 8-Track, and not wearing a seat belt.

Enough said. Download it right away.

A Jazzy Wonderland, Various Artists, 1990, Columbia Records
Good music deserves to be listened to, with focus. But, when you’re blasting the holly harmonies at your house 24/7, you’ll occasionally need to tone it down into the background. Therein enters this jazz jamboree for all you un-hip cats out there. If, like me, you love jazz, it’s perfect in the forefront.

This album is also perfect listening for tree-trimming, baking pumpkin pie, or maybe having just a half a drink more. It’s the only compilation on the roster because most complications are merely collections of songs that originally appeared somewhere else. Such is not the case with A Jazzy Wonderland.

Check out the list of artists that perform: Monte Croft & Terence Blanchard; Marlon Jordan & Delfeayo Marsalis; Fred Simon & Traut/Rodby; Richard Tee; Ellis Marsalis; Kirk Whalum; Wynton Marsalis; Tony Bennett; Karl Lundeberg & Full Circle; Grover Washington Jr.; Kimiko Itoh & Nancy Wilson; Joey DeFrancesco & Dwight Sills; and Harry Connick, Jr. & Branford Marsalis.

It’s a soulful parade of jazz hall-of-famers. I recommend you dim the lights, sit by the open fire, and get out your chestnuts for roasting.

The Andy Williams Christmas Album, Andy Williams, 1963, Columbia Records
Everyone knows this one even if they don’t know they know it. Sadly, that’s because it’s most often heard in Midwestern department stores two months out of every year. But, don’t let that hinder your ho-ho-ho. “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” is a celebratory romp that’s sure to get the eggnog flowing in that $700 electric eggnog fountain you bought from the SkyMall on the red-eye back from Seattle. At least it came with cool moose glasses.

Andy Williams, who is still singing, has some powerful pipes. No wispy, wimpy, Josh Groban-ness to be found.

The Christmas Shoes, Newsong, 2001, Reunion
Wait! Wait! Before you muffledly stomp your pointy-elf-slipper-shod feet away from the computer in absolute disgust, I am ONLY recommending their rendition of “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” (I bet you thought you’d entered a Twilight Zone Christmas nightmare for a second there.) That’s just one of the twelve songs on the record. The only other one of those twelve I’ve heard bears the same title as the album itself, which, if you heard it one of the exactly 12,445,678,453,124,245,456 times it was played last year, you know that song instantly disqualifies me from recommending any more than 8/100 of this album.

That said, it is a show-stopping arrangement. Quite fun.

The Season, Jane Monheit, 2005, Sony/BM
Jane Monheit’s singing is as angelic as her backstage persona. (I know this because, in fact, my wife and I met Jane and conversed with her for bit at the Blue Note jazz club in Greenwich Village some years back. True story this time.)

No other songbird’s call is quite as sublime. Forget Mariah, Whitney, Beyoncé, Celine, Ella, Dinah, Sarah, and everybody else. (Though Rosemary Clooney gives her a run for her money.) Jane’s voice is truly majestic, a soft waterfall cascading down upon a silvery unicorn bearing your life’s love, while the moon rises and comets streak through regal skies over snow-capped mountains barely visible behind shimmering rainbows cast by the fading sun through joyful tears falling from a host of heavenly angels.

One thing’s for sure, if you fill your hearing holes with Ms. Monheit’s magnificent music, you’ll multiply your merry moments by millions.

The Voice of Christmas – The Complete Decca Christmas Songbook, Bing Crosby, 1935-1956, Decca Records
He truly is the voice of Christmas, and perhaps the most recognizable, stunning, and perfect voice ever recorded. If I had a million years to imagine things, I still couldn’t imagine what it feels like to sing like Bing.

While listening to Bing bellow, it’s interesting to be reminded that people have been opening gifts and sharing time with family to the strains of these exact versions of classic Christmas songs for almost seventy years. It’s one thing for the song itself to belong to antiquity, it’s another for an actual performance of one to endure. Plus, the whole recording has that “old-timey” feel. Probably because it was made in the “old times.”

He Is Christmas, Take 6, 1991, Word Entertainment
Before I made it big as a writer, I was an editorial intern for an industry trade magazine. I was in charge of compiling a list of “desert island discs,” or “moon mission music” as I called it. An artist submitted this recording as one of the five he would take on a one-way trip to the moon. That’s high praise since the magazine was for musicians about chamber music.

Normally I’d tread lightly when recommending an a cappella group to an unknown audience, it’s sort of like sweetbreads, you either love them, or the thought of it sends you hurtling towards the water closet like Santa after a night of drinking warm, spoiled milk.

But, with all the Glee fanaticism these days, maybe now is a good time to dip your toe into the post-doo-wop-gospel-second-wave-jazz-a cappella-vocal-pop scene.

These guys are just like the cast of Glee, except middle-aged, African-American, all-male, probably bad actors and dancers, but can sing circles around the faux-teens any day.

Give them a try. Who knows, maybe if you like it, you’ll order sweetbreads next time you go to a restaurant that serves sweetbreads — whatever kind of restaurant that is.

So there you have it. 9.08 Christmas albums yule love, or your holiday cheer back.

Musical Christmas to all, and to all a not-so silent night.

The Blues Boy

Narratives aren’t just for fiction and history buffs; they help define and classify our friends, acquaintances and public figures.  Overlay a known character arc, and you’ve taken all the difficulty out of truly getting to know someone. She’s a know-it-all. He’s a player. It’s reductionist and ugly, but we all do it from time to time. The antidote often comes when the subject flips the script; the know-it-all shows humility, and the player finally settles down.

This dynamic is magnified when it comes to celebrities.  Since we don’t know them personally, we’re forced to rely on the information that comes from the press, whether in a controlled, PR-sterilized environment, or in a torrent when a public misstep becomes front page news. Especially once the celebrity has passed out of the public eye, the reputation that they’ve built is usually the one that will follow them into the history books. But one famous musician has the opportunity to alter a persona sixty years in the making.

On the set of the Mother's Best radio show.

Hank Williams was the template, not just for the modern conception of the rock star as heroic flame-out, but for the merging of disparate strands of American music into one.   His combination of musical genius and premature death has been repeated time after time in the years since his death in 1953. It would be quite easy to leave the story there, to be content to recognize his influence and the music he left behind, but his daughter and a new collection of his music are forcing a revaluation of that narrative.

Jett Williams never knew her famous father personally. She was born just days after he died of heart failure in Oak Hill, West Virginia, and she fought a protracted legal battle to be recognized as his daughter. On the majority of his records, Hank was recorded in-studio, and his one surviving live record did little to capture the essence of a live performer who played almost five hundred shows a year. Fortunately, hundreds of those shows were preserved and re-mastered, providing Jett with a lively connection to her father.

The Hank Williams: The Complete Mother’s Best Recordings… Plus! recordings encompass fifteen discs worth of previously unheard recordings, re-mastered and probably sounding better than they did when they were sent out to the radios of post-war America. Long thought to be lost to history, the tracks on this set were caught in legal limbo for decades before Jett and her brother Hank Jr. (the all-my-rowdy-friends one) were determined to be the proper heirs of Hank Sr.’s estate.

Listening to these new tracks, culled from Williams’s regular hosting gig on a radio show sponsored by Mother’s Best flour, it’s hard to think of him as the drug-addled hell-raiser. Even on a show that aired, usually live, at 7:15 AM, he’s lively and cheerful, clearly in his element behind a microphone.  He cracks on his bandmates, hoots when his fiddle player nails a solo, and dutifully plugs the product. And his voice. Oh his voice. This isn’t just the nasal croon familiar from “Your Cheating Heart”; his instrument floats effortlessly from gospel hymns to soaring torch songs, darting between genres in ways that modern musical chameleons wish they could.

At the outset of each radio show, he’s introduced as “that lovesick blues boy, Hank Williams,” followed by a snippet of “Lovesick Blues”. Upon the many repetitions of this refrain, combined with the country and folk standards he sang for the show, you begin to hear the way that Hank represented the coalescing of so many disparate kinds of American roots music. Mississippi blues meets mountain music, and together they swing and even rock, almost a full decade before that last category earned its name. The other half of the “rock star dead in his/her prime” narrative is a clearly recognized musical genius, and these new recordings only serve to bolster this part of the story.

Though it’s unlikely that you or I will change the course of musical history, this aspect of Hank’s story holds some appeal for us, in the sense that we all want to be seen and remembered for our achievements rather than our weaknesses and failures. But in situations where our reputation precedes us, we don’t have the luxury of introducing ourselves on our own terms. The unwanted labels resurface. Now you’re fighting uphill against not just your reputation, but every other person with that same label. I’m not like them, you see.

The terrible irony is that overcoming an entrenched perception of yourself is hardest with the people you’re closest to; they’re the ones who’ve been the victims of (or accomplices to) your sins, and the ones who have to forgive most often. Fortunately, they’re also the ones who see high points most clearly.

Grace is not to forget that the hurts and mistakes of the past don’t exist, but to deliberately choose to see the goodness and truth instead. We can’t demand grace; by definition it must be given freely. Our reputations and labels don’t disappear by cutting off the tags. Instead, we must live in the hope of grace, and with a mind to make our strengths at least as memorable as our weaknesses.

Hank Williams never got the chance to receive that grace in his lifetime. And while history has no doubt been kind in its recognition of his accomplishments, the long shadow of his early death has colored every mention of his name. So for Jett Williams, the salve of these new recordings doesn’t remove the sting of growing up without her father, but it serves as a reminder that her father’s fans miss him too. “Sixty years later, hearts still break,” she reminds me. They surely do. Thankfully, the redemption of a fallen hero is a story even older than the blues.

Sufjan Stevens’s The Age of Adz and the Irony Spectrum

Recently, the indie music world has been pulled taut between two very distinct ends of its Irony-worldview spectrum. Irony – that all- encompassing value of conscious discordance held by artists and audiences dwelling in places like Brooklyn and Portland – is an ingredient that you could say gives music its “indie” status. And for all the smug defeatism on the Gen Me periphery, the independent music world seems to be shrugging off the cynicism and fighting snark with two very different weapons: sincere folk-based orchestration and digitally futuristic innovation.

Sufjan Stevens. Photo by Marzuki Stevens

This tension could be further defined as the contrast of “where did we come from?” with the blinding chaos of “where are we going?” In this sense, the artist is both sage and soothsayer, preacher and prophet. If these categories are in fact the two ends of the irony spectrum, then Sufjan Stevens has tossed one hell of a curve ball into the mix with his long-awaited new album The Age of Adz.

In a recent article from Pitchfork, there was a curious term used that evoked murmurs of a musical changing of the guard. That term was “post-Merriweather world.”  The Pitchfork writer was off-handedly referring to Animal Collective’s 2009 album Merriweather Post Pavillion, which has set the bar for indie music standards on the digitally prophetic end of the spectrum. The album is seen by some as this generation’s White Album. And generally speaking, that assessment is correct. The influence that Merriweather has had in such a short amount of time is remarkable. Here, Animal Collective created a near-perfect model of melody mixed with chaos. The album is filled with tribal beats, digital loops, Brian Wilson-esque vocals, and is utterly enjoyable, despite its abrasive tendencies.

Where Merriweather anchors the digitally innovative side of indie music’s ambidextrous sound, several other artists anchor the opposite end. Fleet Foxes, Grizzly Bear, Joanna Newsom, and Bon Iver all express the clean and sharp tonalities of American folk-based orchestration with their own unique spin. Stevens’s most popular albums drifted more into this arena, and may have inspired some of the aforementioned artists towards their current sound. Illinois (2005), Michigan (2003), and Seven Swans (2004) all contained plenty of flittering woodwinds, handclaps, feel-good choral arrangements, and reflective banjoes.

The two ends of this spectrum started as ironic-laden attempts at creativity, but have since undefined themselves to (forgive the semantics) ironically yearn for sincerity. This, in a fascinating artistic turn of events, has given us musical forms that range from four-part harmonies to crushing keyboards. But the theme that has emerged from this creatio ex nihilo has been a return to the stalwart value of authenticity. “First one to the most ironic sounding sincerity wins.”

If all that hasn’t tossed you into a tilt-a-whirl of post-modern pathos, then The Age of Adz will.

In The Age of Adz, Sufjan Stevens has certainly flown over towards a “post-Merriweather” aesthetic, but he doesn’t go all the way there. Stevens cannot resist musing on where we’ve come from, and in this sense, he would seem to land somewhere in the middle of the irony spectrum. Adz is like a grab-bag of everything Sufjan. But more. Much more. Those hoping to hear something like a revamped hymn might be shocked to discover some of Adz’s new sounds. Like autotune.

But what is fascinating about Stevens’s aesthetic journey is that he has previously dabbled in a chaotic electronic sound in his early album Enjoy Your Rabbit. Diehard Sufjanians know that Enjoy Your Rabbit (2001) had more of an impact on Brooklyn’s electronica experiments than casual listeners care to acknowledge. You can hear premonitions of a “post-Merriweather” world in Enjoy Your Rabbit, yet Stevens decided to bank that prescience – at least partially – until now.

With Adz, Stevens is pushing the listener to evolve on both sides of the spectrum, if not create a new ear entirely. In one sense, his abrasive electronica is more in your face than ever (the title track, Age of Adz, at times sounds like a robot having a religious experience). But on the other hand, we hear recollections of the artist’s gentle folksiness in tracks like Vesuvius and Futile Devices.

But the final track, Impossible Soul, is really what the album is all about– or at least what everything leads up to. The 25-minute, 5 part symphonic epic approaches Wagnerian in scale, capping the album in jaw-dropping fashion. Ranging from mellow and contemplative, to probing and distorted, to catchy dance mix, to folk minimalism, this is where Stevens pulls out all the stops. The transitions are smooth and nearly inevitable, even when that autotune comes out. (When detached from its T-Pain prejudices, the autotune even seems to sound appropriately Sufjanian.)

The leitmotifs present in Illinois are even more subterraneous in Adz, giving the album Sufjan’s archetypal narrative feel, which isn’t surprising, considering he recently released his cinematic suite The BQE. One might even argue that it is Sufjan’s adherence to narrative that has set him above the post-modern irony humdrum, but Adz is far too grandiose for such a simple answer.

There is no doubt that Sufjan Stevens’s impact on the music world is huge. We have seen band after band take inspiration from his ambitious styling. Adz might have a similar influence; it certainly is large enough. Sufjan fans will find that a number of listens will be required to find all the beauty in Stevens’s incredible texturing.

The Age of Adz’s mysterious and epic qualities seem to give rise to the question: What happens to indie music when irony comes full circle? In the case of Sufjan Stevens, the answer is that it certainly won’t take us back to a familiar sound. But then again, what is irony’s aim if not originality?

If we were drifting above and beyond the irony spectrum, a sure sign would be an album with the scope of Adz. It would be unfair to label the album mystifying and difficult. If anything it is sincere and enjoyable in its own weird way.  Don’t call it a revolution, but what we have in this stage of Sufjan is an indie-rocker from Brooklyn who gave autotune some heart. That is no small thing. And neither is The Age of Adz.

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