Freedom from Blog

Don't call it a comeback . . . .

Friday, December 26, 2014

2014: My Year in Dad Rock

Where to begin? Another year, and I'm feeling more and more dadrocky. Gotta watch what I play, given the girls' increasingly astute ears for lyrics. Appreciate those discussions, but let's save some for the teen years, eh! My tastes have never been especially cool, but in an era of explosively eclectic music sampling, I am increasingly aware of how narrow my auditory sweet spot is, even as it has deepened (rediscovered catalogs from Dylan, Young, Costello, Velvet Underground) and widened (classic soul from Sam, Otis, Etta, Bobby, or African indie rock from Bombino and Tinariwen). To keep this simple, I'm going to limit myself to original material, excluding reissues of various stripe. If I included those, Dylan's Basement Tapes would steal the show, since it is the definitive (and radically restored) version of what may be the best record ever made. Add in REM's Unplugged, 1991/2001 and Wilco's Alpha Mike Foxtrot: Rare Tracks, 1994-2014, and this has been an almost unbeatable year. Here's the new stuff I've geeked:

1) the War on Drugs, Lost in the Dream. For the second year running, in a show of daring originality, I share my best record with Paste Magazine. Bastards. In my defense, I was already gonna pick this. To my detriment, I can't top what they already said about it. Still, a great record. Put David & David, Springsteen, New Order, and Yo La Tengo in a blender and pour yourself a mug on a gray day when you need a fix of epic 80s guitar bliss. That didn't make sense, did it? Try "Red Eyes."

2) Lucinda Williams, Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone. God, I love her. Right now I love this even more than Car Wheels (1998), a sacrilegious thought. For a sprawling double album, Down Where is remarkably cohesive, from the opening ache of "Compassion," whose lyrics she adapted from one of her father's poems, to the closing cover of J.J. Cale's "Magnolia," which she expanded from a couple of minutes to nearly ten. In between, nothing but the best country soul from an incomparable songwriter. Paste, BTW, utterly ignored this record. Idiots (see what I did there?).

3) Beck, Morning Phase. This record has gotten endless comparisons to Sea Change (2002), for its shift away from cryptic pastiche-rock toward confessional singer-songwriter beauty. This one's better! No, really. Of course, Sea Change featured "Lost Cause," his best song and on my short list for all-time favorite songs by anyone ever. But aside from that and a couple of other great tunes ("Golden Age," "Guess I'm Doing Fine") I never though the whole quite lived up to the hype. Morning Phase, by contrast, is nearly perfect from front to back, with special props to "Blue Moon," "Heart is a Drum," and "Turn Away." He got a surprise Grammy nod for Album of the Year. He'd deserve to win but will likely lose to something. . . popular (hence, more momrocky than dadrocky, he typed condescendingly). 

4) Tweedy, Sukierae. Another sprawling double album. In some ways, this is a hard album to process. At times I think it's just another great Wilco album ("Low Key") and at other times I think that by pairing with his teenage kid Spencer as drummer (a pretty great one at that) he's onto something completely new ("Please Don't Let Me Be So Understood"). Disc 1 is one of the best rock sequences JT has ever assembled, building a lot more Pavement and Velvet Underground into his usual sound ("High as Hello"), while disc 2 sounds more like a lost Neil Young folk rock gem from the early 70s ("Flowering," "New Moon").Put this together with the 4 discs of Alpha Mike Foxtrot and it has been an orgiastic year for Papa Tweedy. Is there anyone else who has managed to assimilate as much canonical American music (Woody Guthrie, the Band, Big Star, the VU, the Dead, Television, Mavis Staples, Sonic Youth) into his own distinctive songbook?

5) Spoon, They Want My Soul. I know it's been a great music year because this is number 5. More genius from Austin New Wave savant Britt Daniel & co. "Do You," "Rent I Pay," "Knock Knock Knock," "I Just Don't Understand" (an Ann-Margaret cover!), and "Inside Out" stand up to anything they've ever done, which is a vertiginous standard.

6) Elbow, The Take Off and Landing of Everything. These guys slipped under the critical radar this year, maybe because their popularity crested with the Brit rock smash "One Day Like This" back in 2008. As always, I'm late to the party since I didn't discover them until this year. But Take Off is really, freakin' good, like a less annoying Coldplay (low bar!), or a tightened-up pub-rock version of early, Gabriel-era Genesis. "My Sad Captains," and "Fly Boy Blue/Lynette" are two of my favorite songs of 2014.

7) Sharon van Etten, Are We There? The most emotionally bruising record of the year, from a former Boro Blue Raider and barista at the late, lamented Red Rose Cafe. She made a lot of top-10 lists this year, and deservedly so. "Your Love is Killing Me," "I Love You But I'm Lost," and "Every Time the Sun Comes Up" make this sound like P.J. Harvey singing Elvis Costello's Blood & Chocolate.

8) Justin Townes Earle, Single Mothers. Not quite up to either Nothing's Gonna Change the Way you Feel About Me Now (2012) or Harlem River Blues (2010), but still pretty strong. The sequel, Absent Fathers, comes out next month.

9) St. Paul and the Broken Bones, Half the City. Thanks, NPR! Paul Janeway is the whitest Otis Redding you will ever see sing. Not a lot of lyrical depth or musical innovation, but they do kick up an old school ruckus.

10) Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Hypnotic Eye. This has been a pretty good year for classic rock oldsters, and I could give this slot to the Drive By Truckers or Springsteen, but Petty edges them out, at least for the consistency of Eye, which is Petty's best overall record in years, even if it lacks that one immortal jukebox tune that he has managed to write a dozen or more times now.

That's a pretty good year for music, especially when I left off some good records. I liked the Black Keys Turn Blue and Ray Lamontagne's Supernova, but just didn't feel that compelled to go back to them over and over. The New Basement Tapes, which has Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford, Jim James, and others taking on a drawer of lost Dylan lyrics circa 1967 is intriguing, but I haven't made up my mind on it yet. The name oversells. Who could live up to that hype? It doesn't help that these recordings are so much more polished than the actual Basement Tapes, the gold standard for back-to-basics simplicity, that it seems like a mismatch. That said, there is a lot of great music in there. I also don't know what to say about U2's Songs of Innocence. Like much of the planet, I was so alienated by the gonzo marketing drop that I've barely listened to it. Maybe Sam will convince me to change my mind. I'm also still wrapping my brain around bands like Foxygen, Ty Segall, and Ages and Ages, whose records I have only heard once or in fragments.

So that's the dispatch from the land of white dad blues, where my artist demographics could pass for a GOP congressional panel on race and gynecology. Let me know what I've missed (either here or FB)!

Monday, January 20, 2014

Sweater weather

Since the tenacious one is posting again, maybe I should stick a toe back in the water? Also, this blog will be nine years old this year? Is that right?
Looking back over the paltry content from the last few years, I saw this post, about how I really can't wear sweaters any more. What follows may be filed under "cool story, bro".
It's almost the end of January, and I haven't worn a sweater all season. I did wear a sweater vest for a few days when it was actually very cold here. But I'm not sure I actually own a real, live 'sweater' at this point. I have a couple fleece North Face things, which might count, but I haven't put either on this winter, including on the Thanksgiving trip to Michigan.
Now, I do wear hoodies a fair amount. But an actual sweater--especially, like, a wool sweater--no deal. And I used to wear turtleneck sweaters back in college. Cannot even imagine.

2013: My Year in Music Geekdom

Time passes slowly up here in the daylight
We stare straight ahead and try so hard to stay right
Like the red rose of summer that blooms in the day
Time passes slowly and fades away

 ~ Dylan

There's a tap on my window
There's a ring at my door
And I'll answer in Tennessee time

 ~ Valerie June

Has it been a year? It has. And here we are. As much as #3 and I have lost touch with actual blogging, I'd hate, after eight (!) years, to abandon my annual ritual of middle-aged, middlebrow, music geekery. (See 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006) Over the last few, as "the crazy" built, crested, crashed, and ebbed, I've done some personal stock-taking here too. So I can happily report that 2013 was a refreshingly boring year, generally devoid of drama and full of paternal joy. Transitory? Probably. Illusory? Nope. What did I accomplish? Milestones. (So close to "millstones.") Grew a scruffy beard, ran a half-marathon, painted some rooms, did a conference, got better at knotting ponytails, figured out how to cook that Vietnamese pineapple-catfish soup I'd been missing--all that bucket list stuff.

Listened to some good music too. Lots of vintage: Dylan, the Band, Sam Cooke, J.J. Cale (RIP), Dr. John, Etta James, Nina Simone, Mavis Staples, Howlin' Wolf. The more I know, the more I don't know. As for the new, well done, 2013. I suspect I'll be listening to some of these records for years. (But which ones?)

1) Bob Dylan, Another Self-Portrait. A bit of a cheat, since this was recorded from 1969-71, alternate takes and lost songs from the time of Dylan's most hated classic-era album, Self-Portrait, and its more amiable follow-up, New Morning. This two-CD recreation transcends, however, especially Disc 1. Dylan gives us ancient folk songs ("Pretty Saro," "Copper Kettle," surely the most lovely songs ever written about freeholder suffrage and the Whiskey Rebellion, respectively), gorgeously obscure covers ("Spanish Is the Loving Tongue," "Annie's Gonna Sing Her Song," and "This Evening So Soon"), and definitive versions of his own classics ("When I Paint My Masterpiece," "Time Passes Slowly #1," and "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight"). I think I listened to this first thing in the morning, every morning, for two months. Lang always wanted me to play "All the Tired Horses" over again for a sing-a-long before she went to school.

2) Phosphorescent, Muchacho. Confession: I had never heard of this band before Paste Magazine named this their favorite record of the year. Yeah, right, I thought. Better than Vampire Weekend? Actually, yes, says this bandwagon jumper. A stunningly beautiful album that goes amazingly well with my afternoon beer mug of Darjeeling. Think early 70s Neil Young, sitting on a Mexican bar stool, sharing beers and fears with Vic Chesnutt (RIP) and Bon Iver. For a sample, check out the haunting "Song for Zula."

3) Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires of the City. Save Kanye, probably the most critically beloved album of the year, and rightly so. Impossibly catchy, musically adventurous, lyrically inventive, indie rock. Nothing more I can say that hasn't been said better elsewhere. Three albums in, they're the real deal.

4) Valerie June, Pushin' Against A Stone. The newcomer of the year. If you loved the O Brother soundtrack, but wished it were (a) blacker, (b) sexier, and (c) co-written, produced, and accompanied by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, then this is for you.

5) Steve Earle, The Low Highway. I'm pretty much in the tank for anything Earle does at this point, and for much of this year, no record caught my mood better than this one. A deceptively simple record about love, resilience, defiance, and remembrance, Earle finds new treasures while riding old roads. And threatens violence to Wall Mart ("Burnin' It Down"). What's not to love?

6) Jason Isbell, Southeastern. Back when he was with the Drive By Truckers, Isbell wrote "Goddamn Lonely Love," which should be on the jukebox of every self-disrespecting dive bar in America but probably isn't on any. His solo work has been good but not quite great, until now. For pure singer-songwriter virtuosity, this is a tour de force. "Elephant," "Cover Me Up," "Traveling Alone," "Live Oak," "Songs That She Sang in the Shower," and "Relatively Easy" are perfect, character-driven, heartrending vignettes.

7) Patty Griffin, American Kid and Silver Bell. A quietly impressive year for Griffin, with one new album (AK) and the long-overdue release of a "lost" gem from 2000 (SB). Unfortunately, as effortless as her Americana craftsmanship can seem, the rock cognoscenti have started taking her for granted. Bastards.

8) Ron Sexsmith, Forever Endeavour. On the subject of "taken for granted," did anyone notice this record? Not a false note from one of the best songwriters alive. Melancholy beauty from that sweet spot between Roy Orbison and Paul McCartney.

9) the National, Trouble Will Find Me. It must have been a great year in new music if this brooding epic finished #9 on my list.

10) Deer Tick, Negativity. Not their best, but lots of good moments, including "The Rock," "The Dream's In the Ditch," and "In Our Time."

What did I leave off? Plenty. I really like and respect that Haim CD, but it's not my natural musical niche. Same for Bill Calahan's Dream River. And I was disappointed by Arcade Fire's polarizing, but much loved, Reflektor. They do a credible David Bowie meets LCD Soundsystem impersonation, but the whole thing, especially over two CDs, is just too abstract and electronic for me. What's up for 2014? Listening to the controversial new Springsteen (his Rattle & Hum), and going back catalog on some vintage Neil Young, Aretha, and CCR. Timeless. As 2013 fades away, I'll close with a few lines I hope pass slowly. May we meet again in 2015, smarter, stronger, saner. Try hard to stay right.

With the luxury of hindsight
The past becomes so clear
As I look out on the twilight
My days have become years
It's strange, as people we're prone to dwell
On things that we can't undo
And we're liable to wander down
If only avenue

~ Ron Sexsmith

You see, the moon is bright in that treetop night
I see the shadows that we cast in the cold, clean light
My feet are gold. My heart is white
And we race out on the desert plains all night

~ Phosphorescent

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

I'm really late to this debate, but I finally saw ZD30 last weekend, and, as much as I liked the movie from a cinematic standpoint, in IMHO the movie is pretty unambiguously pro-torture. The film's heroine, "Maya," was not just an observer of torture early in the film, she became an active part of the torture team. Although she eventually finds clues to UBL via other means, she never renounces that initial outlook. The main torturer is presented sympathetically, and he is Maya's main confidant throughout the story. The clear implication of the film is that torture was only abandoned because of weasly politics, hence the cut to footage of candidate Obama denouncing it--his only appearance in the film, which otherwise seeks to erase his pivotal role in (a) re-prioritizing the hunt for UBL, and (b) making the final call at great political risk. Finally, when the key players have their meeting on assessing the odds that UBL is the mystery man in the compound--the scene where everyone else says 60% and Maya says 100%--the intel folks make it clear that there are no direct sources on the ground because we gave up torturing. Eh? How's that logic supposed to work? Were we sending the tortured back out into the field as double agents? Methinks not.

Maybe I missed something, but the pro-torture slant of ZD30 didn't seem that ambiguous to me. One other minor gripe: the scene where Maya's friend and station chief lets the suicide bomber inside the American outpost and gets herself and a bunch of other people killed was way overplayed. The woman was jumping up and down with joy at the arrival and grinning like a little girls at Christmas. I kept expecting her to say "goody, goody!" as the car drove in. For all its "feminist" bona fides, I found this depiction a bit insulting. Since most of the actual participants in this event were killed, this must have been a speculative imagining, but it did not seem to me a credible one.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Hacked! Spam! How in the heck . . . ?

So when my GMail account got hacked, and I became an unwilling spambot . . . the spammers appear to have sent spam to every email I have ever used. That includes an email account with Blogspot that enables me to post by email. (Which, admittedly, I haven't done in a long time.) That explains the spam post, which I am now going to try to delete.

Update: Spam post deleted. 

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Hall of Fame, Walk of Shame

In honor of this weekend's Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction, I got curious about who's in and who's out. Not that my talentless opinion matters, but bitching and list-making are our true national pastimes. So here are my top-10 outs who should be ins and top-10 ins who should be outs. As you'll see, I don't have much quarrel with early inductions, from 1986-2009. But the recent crops (2010-13) seem almost random, when you compare who's still standing outside. The numbers next to the unjust outs are the years eligible and the times nominated.

Stupid snubs:
1) Warren Zevon (18/0): You gotta be kidding me that he's never even been nominated. One of the smartest songwriters ever--"Lawyers, Guns and Money," "Poor Poor Pitiful Me," "My Ride's Here"--and had a huge hit with "Werewolves of London." He's added more classic tunes to the great American songbook than half the artists in the Hall.
2) Big Star (15/0): a primary influence on REM, the Replacements, Whiskeytown, and Wilco, four of the best bands ever. And all three of Big Star's 70s studio albums are on Rolling Stone's list of 500 best albums ever, and they're all ranked way too low.
3) Lucinda Williams (8/0): arguably the best woman rock songwriter of the last 30 years, and one of the best songwriters period. Lucinda Williams (1988) and Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (1998) are perfect records.
4) the Replacements (6/0): the sine qua non of 80s indie rock.
5) Gram Parsons (20/3): seems likely to eventually make it, but come on.
6) Eurythmics (6/0): really? No love for Annie Lennox? Sweet dreams are not made of this.
7) the Cure (9/1): not necessarily my favorite band or genre (goth), but they defined an entire genre in post-80s rock & roll and were expert musicians and song-smiths. Classic songs and big hits, lots of them.
8) Husker Du (6/0): once again, not a lot of establishment love for 80s indie-rock
9) the Jam (10/0): see # 8
10) Steve Earle (2/0): Still early. I understand this snub--intellectually. But not in my gut. He's making better records right now than anyone on the schlub list made ever. See #1, #3, #8.

(HM: the Cars, Nick Cave, Cheap Trick, Dire Straits, Nick Drake, Peter Gabriel, Emmylou Harris, the Smiths, T. Rex, X)

Unworthy schlubs:
1) Heart (2013): they're an OK band, with some good songs in the 70s, and some awful 80s hair metal that almost nullify the earlier work. Just not in a league with the artists above.
2) Donna Summer (2013): disco queen, hits, yawn.
3) Rush (2013): my first concert, in high school. Again, not a bad band--good musicians (for Canadians!), horrible, horrible pseudo-intellectual Randian lyrics/politics. Making prog-metal almost listenable is not a reason to put them in the Hall.
4) Donovan (2012): ewwwww.
5) Neil Diamond (2011): shmaltsy pop-rock for which I have occasional respect.
6) ABBA (2010): please, let Disco die.
7) Genesis (2010): borderline. I understand this--intellectually. But not in my gut.
8) Sex Pistols (2006): yeah, yeah, yeah, invented punk music, one epoch-defining classic album, etc. But really only one album. And does anyone want to listen to it after they're 18?
9) the Bee Gees (1997): see #6
10) Frank Zappa (1995): genius? sure, but how many people actually listened to this? Or liked it?

I left off this list the artists I didn't know (who is Laura Nyro?), especially from the 50s and early 60s, along with the genres I don't much understand (funk, rap, etc.). There are also a few bands that I never liked much (Van Halen, Run-DMC, Metallica) whose induction I totally get and respect. So I limit the latter list to music I've heard, lived through, and even enjoyed on occasion. Can you do better?

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Move Along

That photo is from April 2003, downtown Chicago, as Chicago's finest prepared to meet the (largely non-existent) mobs of anti-IRAQWAR protesters. I took this picture. I remember those days. I was there. (I was not, on that day, a protester. I was there for MPSA.)

The 10th anniversary of this disastrous war is a sad occasion. I predicted that the war would go badly, and it did. Largely in ways that I predicted. I take little satisfaction in that. There's no satisfaction to be had when so many died, were maimed, displaced, etc. Whether removing Saddam Hussein was "worth it", I guess we'll never be able to ask the 100,000+ dead Iraqis. Maybe they would've accepted their own deaths for Hussein's? We'll never know.

What I am saddest about is that . . . our country has gone mad, and I don't see a path to bring it back. Whether it's the impeachment of Bill Clinton, or the GWOT, or irrational fears about Obama . . . . Madness. March it is, so March Madness. But it's been 20 years and counting. Is there hope yet?

This one is from March 2003 and is from a brief protest at CWRU--students laying down in Euclid Avenue, and, in this case, being dragged off the road. Curat Lex will remember this.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Pope Frances!

Congrats, Frances. I had no idea you were even nominated! You must have made a big impression in your brief stint as a Mississippi Papist. Can they put a child seat in the popemobile?

A week ago I predicted to a group of colleagues that the Cardinals would look for "the Marco Rubio of Popes": a modestly more diverse face (hence, Latin American) for the same old reactionary policies. My more knowledgeable former-Catholics seemed to think it was going back to Italy. Ha! It's so rare I get a prediction right that I'm recording it here. (Wish I had done it a week ago, but oh well.)

FWIW, based on my vast wealth of understanding of all things papist (i.e., a few short articles from the last 24 hours), I suspect Bergoglio will be an exceptionally good pick, at least from the Romanist standpoint. He seems to exude a charm and humility Ratzinger never had, and he's got some decent populist bona fides on economic issues. Meanwhile, he's pretty hard right on all that sex stuff, which makes the old boys tingle with repressed excitement. They could have done a lot worse. Says the Presbyterian Democrat.