Nick DiUlio

Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

Review: “Topography of a Bird”

In Music, Reviews (Of Any And All Things) on May 7, 2009 at 2:35 am

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“Three things are necessary,” wrote Thomas Aquinas, “for the salvation of man: to know what he ought to believe; to know what he ought to desire; and to know what he ought to do.” It could be said that Topography of a Bird, the charming full-length debut from singer-songwriter Mark Rice, is an exploration of that path to enlightenment. Full of transcendental petitions for love, comfort, and understanding, Topography is a record that explores some complicated queries through some improbably uncomplicated folk melodies and introspective lyrics; the meditations of a journeyman concerned less with the answers than he is with the questions at hand.

Topography of a Bird is the stuff of Sunday night introspection; of those solitary moments that descend after the church lights have dimmed, the monks have retired for the evening, and the rest of the congregants have gone home. In those instances, alone and unhinged against the backdrop of forever, one rarely thinks in nuanced poetry or grand declarations. Instead, he thinks (prays, meditates) on the perpetually dawning sweep of his life in the broader scope, and Rice seems to understand this quite well, whittling his search down to its most primary parts. How have I failed? How have I succeeded? What do I desire? What do I despise? Who am I now and what do I eventually wish to become? That his music appeals to these (quote-unquote) big life questions without proselytization or solipsistic trifling is a laudable feat, and it’s what males Topography at once so enjoyable and also so severe.

Belief, desire, and action. Rice raises the curtain on these concerns from the outset with the album’s whispered opening track, “Show Me How To Love,” a lyrically and sonically understated entree that begins with the chirping rhythm of nighttime crickets before the first strum of guitars. As the song builds Rice returns to one simple refrain over and over again: “Show me how to love/ Show me how to love/ When the stars are so bright…so bright.” It’s a soft meditation that sets the table for the album’s ensuing 13 tracks.

To be sure, Rice’s brush strokes are broad, even at times a little vague, as he peppers Topography with supplicant titles like “Hold Me Now,” “Don’t Let Me Down,” and “Save Me Tonight.” But this strain of indeterminate invocation—to a woman? to a friend? to God?—is the record’s greatest strength. It’s what binds the album as an honest and accessible work. And even when he sometimes dances on the edge of sentimentality Rice never gives in, always managing to avoid preciousness with an easy turn of phrase. His songs—along with all of their potential vagaries—are both intensely personal (see the wonderfully haunting “Ohio”) and yet universally appealing to a hunger for understanding what it means to be frail and broken and human.

In “Hold Me Now,” Rice is “at the crossroads/ Looking for the ancient way, the good way.” In “Don’t Let Me Down”—a road-ready, drive-time ditty—he beckons, “Don’t let the day get away/ Until I make amends.” And in “Maybe This Time,” one of Topography’s standout tracks: “I’m messed up and broken/ And I can’t see past my pride.” The cynics may confuse these for the lamentations of an old-world Pollyanna, the cries a man who still believes that perhaps salvation is simpler than we think. But where Rice’s silence and simplicity leave off, the vibrancy of the album’s musicality picks up.

Topography’s edge of enlightenment owes much to the production of David Young, a vintage stylist with some serious pop-rock predilections that harken back less to Dylanesque balladeers than to The Beach Boys or Weezer. Pulling from that tradition, Young allows Rice’s otherwise simple, coffee-shop melodies to blossom and grow into their fuller organic potential. Consider “Tuscan Sun,” a bittersweet number that, in the hands of a lesser reggisseur, might suffer under the weight of its own importance. But Young—who sings backup and also plays several studio instruments on the record, including some impressive lead guitar and harmonica—transforms the track into something wholly anthemic. You can almost see the lighters being raised in unison as a grand, harmonic chorus swells in the final minute, begging “Don’t let the sun go down now/ All my life I’ve waited now I/ Know your eyes, your life, your smile with mine.” It’s a sublime moment.

The same could be said of “Be With you Tonight.” What begins as an unadorned bedroom ballad—a little bit Elliot Smith, a little bit Ray Lamontagne—slowly builds into another one of Topography’s unexpected anthems, swelling with pianos, thudding percussion, and electric guitars. Just when it seems Rice’s spirit is beyond saving, his music finds redemption yet again. Torture, death, rebirth. Let the rain fall down.

Rice also gets a lot of help from a respectable swath of studio musicians here, including the venerable Verien Brotzman on percussion, Tom Swope on bass, and Sissy Clemens on violin and vocals (more about her in a moment). But Topography’s background players do more than add layers to the music; they lend the album a casual air of good nature and inviting humor. Despite their gravity, Rice’s tunes are not depressive. In fact they are remarkably optimistic, and this chorus of musicians at his back only serve to drive home that point.

Only once on the album does Rice take a backseat to his fellow musicians, and the moment is one of Topography’s greatest triumphs. On “Starting Ground” Clemens takes the reigns and delivers a beautiful slice of smoky sensuality and sadness that thoroughly bely her mere 20 years. “Starting Ground” is a Clemens original and the only non-Rice tune on the record. Delivered at the album’s half-way mark, this late-night, bar-room piano ballad (I am painfully resisting the all-to-obvious Billie Holiday comparison here), which concerns itself with the simple sorrow of deception, takes the pathos to an entirely new level while never feeling out of place within the context of Topography’s greater aesthetic.

Rice has said the Topography’s title is derived from a quote he once heard about the ways in which thoughts are like birds. “We can’t stop them from flying over our heads,” it goes. “But we can keep them from making a nest in our hair.” What Rice has done is craft an album that is rich with flight and absent of any nests. It’s a patient album for a throughly impatient time, and at every turn it feels as though silent salvation is at hand.

BONUS TRACK: Check out the following clip of Rice performing “Ohio” last month in Pittsburgh during his record release concert.

Native American Pale Ale Rock (or, How I Came To Know The Great Unkown)

In Music, Personal Essays on February 25, 2009 at 11:43 pm

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The February sun had set on Saturday night and Theatre 941 in Northern Liberties was becoming quite crowded with the weird beards and biceps cartoons that can so often be found wherever the mighty blue ribbon is served. Everyone was gathered that evening on North Front Street for the first annual Pabst Blue Ribbon Art & Craft Fair, which, for the nominal entry fee of $6, promised live music, an endless well of the beer being praised, and wall-to-wall PBR-inspired wares like red white and blue quilts, beeramid cupcakes, and bottle-lid cufflinks.

I had no intention of discovering new music that night. I was there to cover the event for Beer Magazine and around 7 p.m. found myself talking to Julie Roboczi, the show’s founder and organizer. Roboczi heads up the venerable Philadelphia Independent Craft Market and had, on a whim of inspiration, decided to launch this first of many PBR fairs to come. We were halfway into a chat about the event when a broken bathroom poet arrived on the scene to declare an emergency.

“I was sent to tell you there’s a problem with the bathroom,” said the young man in a brown leather coat trimmed with sepia fur. He had appeared from nowhere, leaned in, and spoke in an easy, calculated rhythm, like the bathroom was a lady and its problem was a broken heart. He wore dark country jeans with a rolled left cuff, workingman shoes, and a hapless fedora on a curly head of hair. His wide, unblinking eyes bounced from corner to corner. “I think you’ll want to attend to its needs,” he said. And then he smiled.

The purple costume feathers sprouting from the head of Roboczi twitched in time with her mild flustering as armies of ironic sneakers marched around her and so many tattooed fists clutched cans of warming Pabst against their patch-work hoodies and striped cardigans. The music was loud, the din beneath the buzzing fluorescent lights getting boozier by the minute. A malfunctioning bathroom was indeed an urgent matter. “Well,” she said, “I think I should go see to it then. I’ll be back. Excuse me.” And then she smiled. And then she was gone. I was left standing next to the messenger.

“You don’t want that tonight,” he said, still darting his eyes, still smiling. “Lots of PBR going down easy. Lots of pissing going on, I’m sure.” He took a sip from his can of Pabst and swallowed hard. “Like lava.”

“What’s that?” I asked. His voice was low and muted beneath the thundering of some punk outfit playing loudly in the adjacent room.

“Like laaava.” He drawled. “Laaava. Pissing lava.” I wasn’t sure what he meant by this. Not in the least. But whatever he was trying to say was clearly dear to him, clearly the most important moment of that moment because his eyes stayed wide and the humor of his internal monologue registered with every slink of his puckish frame. So we kept on talking.

This, I came to find out, was none other than Todd Henkin, and Todd Henkin’s band was about to go on in thirty minutes. “We’re The Great Unknown,” he said. “But we’re different than what you’re hearing right now. It’s nothing like this.”

“This” was thudding, post-Pixies metal mixed with a dash of slick Interpol angst, the kind that comes on at 2 a.m. after one too many PBRs. “We’re more like…Americana? Or uh, or like roots style music. Lap steel and all that. I don’t know. It’s…it’s not like this. It’s not PBR kind of music, I don’t think.”

“So what kind of beer should somebody drink to your music?”

“I don’t know. Maybe an IPA? Yeah!” Henkin liked every pet theory that came to mind. And he really liked this one.

“There’s your genre right there, man,” I told him. “IPA rock.”

“Right! Yeah. We’re an India Pale Ale.” He laughed a little and tossed off the moment with a shrug. It was then I realized that I wasn’t sure about anything he was saying. I had been at the craft fair for nearly two hours at this point, and to be sure, nothing breeds suspicion quite like these sorts of No Libs gatherings. Everything is a joke and everything is a serious edict at once. Sincerity and sarcasm do a mad, opium dance of the dead and suddenly all one is left with is the certainty that nothing is certain. Ever. For all I knew Henkin was full of shit. For all I knew he could have been a solo hip-hop free stylist who dressed as a clown on stage and rapped about Kierkegaard’s latent fascination with Muppets or accountants with Dixie Cup fetishes.

Or he might not be a musician at all. Who was to say? This was Northern Liberties. This was Pabst.

“Either way,” he continued, “I don’t really like the term ‘Americana.’ That’s not it. Maybe we need another genre. Like…like native American.”

“But then people might think about American Indians,” I said, noticing for the first time a subtle scar that ran from the corner of his mouth to the dip of his five-o’clock chin. “I don’t think that’s what you’re going for.”

“But…yeah! No, that’s it! Native American. American Indians. We are American Indians. I’m an American Indian. Like Bob Dylan.”

“Bob Dylan was an American Indian?” This, I knew, was certainly not true.

But then again…

“Hell yeah! He was an Indian.” Henkin laughed again.

“Dude, he was Jewish. You’re telling me he was a Jewish American Indian?”

“Oh…wait. No, yeah. Jewish! He was Jewish.” More laughter. More mad, darting eyes. He looked at me like he was on the lamb and I was about to call the cops. “That’s what I meant. Jewish. They’re so similar, ya know? Jewish. Indian. I get ‘em mixed up. So maybe Jewish American rock? Whatya think?”

The conversation continued like this for a few more minutes until Robosczi finally returned to tell us all was right with the flushable world. I shook Henkin’s hand and told him I was anxious to hear the band. He told me to find some IPA.

Later, while waiting in the back of the theatre for some more PBR to arrive (the natives growing restless) I began to hear the copper strumming of an acoustic guitar. The thudding of a country bass. The slick slide of a lap steel. The Great Unknown was warming up. When the new batch of beer finally arrived I grabbed myself a chilled, cozi-less can and made my way to the crowded front room, where I found Henkin and Co. already well into the second song of their set.

So he was telling the truth after all.

For thirty minutes I watched The Great Unknown churn out some of the most exciting and finely crafted American music I have had the pleasure of hearing in this city. Henkin lead the outfit with his loose acoustic and sharp vocals, backed all the while by a jangly electric guitar, sweet and subtle lap steel, excitable bass, and riverstone drums. They were harmonizing three parts, laughing between beats, and moving in mountain step with one another the way one imagines wolves might if they had smiles and voices and hands to play such sweet, rollicking tavern anthems to the night.

For thirty minutes I watched The Great Unknown conjure up images of its woozy urban cowboyism played against the mossy backdrop of an American forest, or through the smoky blur of a basement in the dark, pensive Pennsylvania hills. Henkin sang about love declared to sleeping ladies and whistled his way through a number’s closing. He made Tom Waits references between songs and all the while kept darting his wide, junkyard eyes from corner to corer, just as he had done when I met him less than an hour before.

For thirty minutes I watched the members of The Great Unknown have the time of their lives, as though every number was the closing of a concert given to celebrate the end of the world. I watched them inspire some in the crowd to belt out delirious rebel yells that would make the sober eyes of nuns rattle in their heads and young women shudder for the impossibility of affection. This was the young man music for which rock and roll was first invented. The music of getting drunk when it matters the most. The music of reckless love in dusty jukebox corners. The music of being snowed in by time and guarded against its sinister march. The music of long conversations that mean nothing, save for their assurance that long conversations still exist somewhere in the hearts of the young.

For thirty minutes I watched The Great Unknown restore my faith in the possibility of accidentally stumbling upon a band that makes you want to sing until your voice is raw and stomp until your feet are blistered and ghostly. I have spent many years seeking out such possibility, going from Philly pub to Philly pub with the hope that I might leave with the desire to tell everyone about the band I just saw. Sadly, that expectation is most often met with disappointment, and I wind up wondering if anyone is yet to be discovered. But last weekend I was treated to thirty unexpected minutes of The Great Unknown, and now I know the search has been worth it. And it is worth it still.

It’s unfortunate that the indie world has become so bloated with expectation and slavish devotion to novelty and irony these days, because what so many local outfits miss in their efforts to become the next Arcade Fire or Deerhoof (fine bands in their own right, don’t get me wrong) is the bliss of being enveloped by the simple, singular pleasure of solid songwriting and a band bleeding its life on stage. Consider that just last month I watched a seven-piece group crowd the North Star with a violin, three guitars, synth keyboards and marching band drums. In all of their expected grandeur, those guys and gals couldn’t manage to eek out a single melody that came close to even the simplest lines of The Great Unknown. These dudes know how to summon the muse, and they do it damn well.

Look, this band isn’t going to push the limits of pop music evolution. The Great Unknown probably won’t rearrange the sonic landscape as we know it or woo the critics with its visionary scope. But I can tell you this: they will make you feel, they will give you one hell of a good show, and you’ll find yourself humming their tunes long after the others have packed away their violins and cut off the power to their canned orchestras.

With the PBR fair finally winding down I managed to catch up with Henkin as he and his mates packed up for a show later that night in Center City. But before I could get a word in to tell him how incendiary their set was, he looked at me and said, “So. Did it make you want an IPA?”

Check out The Great Unknown here. Or better yet, go see them play at Johnny Brenda’s on March 7. You won’t be disappointed.

Review: “Cardinology”

In Music, Reviews (Of Any And All Things) on November 7, 2008 at 2:10 pm

 

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It’s probably an obvious point, but the so-called “digital age” of pop music in which we presently find ourselves helplessly fixed has numerous drawbacks. Consider the veritable death of album artwork, for instance. A shame. The possible death of the album, for that matter, as a work of artistic entirety at the hands of easily plucked ninety-nine cent single songs also comes to mind. And what about liner notes? These seemingly superfluous bursts of an artist’s thoughts can provide revealing aspects about an album’s greater purpose otherwise lost on the casual listener. I think about this in light of Ryan Adams’ newest studio effort, Cardinology, which was released last week on October 28. Buried deep within a collage of lyrics, black and white photos, and painted clouds that scatter across the record’s jacket are Adams’ requisite “thank you’s.” The first one reads: “Thank you Universe, for connecting us one and all. Consider this music as a gesture of our appreciation.”

I mention this little detail because it speaks volumes about this record; and while I think the sentiment is quite evident in the music itself, reading the statement was a confirmation of a nagging suspicion I had harbored throughout my first few listens, namely that Adams is painting with unprecedentedly broad, musical and lyrical strokes here, each one aimed at battles for individual spiritual redemption never quite won and a struggle to listen for a voice from God never quite heard. It’s an ambitious effort that feels familiar when it works but foreign and forced when it doesn’t, making Cardinology one of Adams’ most perplexing and, sadly, forgettable showings to date.

 

Ryan Adams and His Cardinals

Ryan Adams and His Cardinals

To put this in context, let’s first acknowledge another obvious point: Ryan Adams loves The Cardinals. No, he really loves them. The backing outfit of Neal Casal, Chris Feinstein, Jon Graboff, and Brad Pemberton has been with Adams off and on since 2005’s brilliant Cold Roses. In fact, Cold Roses, its 2006 followup Jacksonville City Nights, and this most recent album, were all released not as pure solo records but as works by the larger package known as Ryan Adams & The Cardinals. Much in the way Neil Young teamed up with Crazy Horse as a perpetual sonic compliment to his solo efforts, so Adams has indelibly married himself to The Cardinals’ remarkable ability to infuse his music with a broader complexity otherwise absent in his solitary arrangements. And his respect for these musicians with whom he plays is vast (and well deserved). Consider that in recent live performances Adams has been known to take a backseat to the staging of this band, hiding in the side shadows instead of bringing himself to the front of the stage. Here on Cardinology he does just that. Make no mistake, this is a band album, as Adams’ vocals and individualism play second fiddle to the quartet’s broader picture. Oh yeah, and lest we forget, the record is called Cardinology!

Before it was even released, the prospect of a new Adams effort bearing a title that gave serious props to his band was thrilling, as The Cardinals have leant wonderful compliments to Adams’ brilliance as a songwriter and composer over the last four years. Despite the critical disparity levied upon it, Cold Roses is as solid a work of brilliance as Adams has ever produced, and much of its success would not have been possible without his band’s significant contribution. But whereas that record’s two-disc sprawling ambition is peppered with nuance and character, Cardinology is plagued by overproduction and vagueness. It feels as though Adams is indeed trying to swallow the Universe whole; but he’s not savoring the meal. He’s choking on it.

The first four tracks are immediate indications of Adams’ intentions here, bearing optimistic tittles like “Born Into A Light,” “Go Easy,” “Fix It,” and “Magick.” On the first, Adams petitions the listener (himself?) to embrace the idea that we were all “born into a light/ we were born of light/ we were born into a light” and the promise that if you “heal your vines, eventually you’ll heal inside.” On track two he begs “go easy on yourself,” and while the subject of the lyric’s petition may very well be a specific lost love, the broader implications of the song are clearly aimed at the principle of individual forgiveness for ourselves and the mistakes we’ve made—a subject in which Adams, an infamous reveler in the sins of the flesh, is quite well versed. Look, I want to be lifted by these songs. I want to feel the redemption that inspired Adams to write them. But the obviousness of the message kills the rawness of the emotion, and that’s a shame. In other words, nothing in the entirety of these first four seemingly uplifting numbers comes close to achieving the absolution Adams realized with one beautiful line on Cold Roses’ “Magnolia Mountain,” wherein he sang, “It’s been raining that Tennessee honey/ So long I got too heavy to fly/ Ain’t no bluebird ever gets to heavy to sing.”

On “Fix It,” Adams is yearning to do just that. “I’d fix it/ I’d fix it if I could/ And I’d always win/ I’d always win/ I’ll always win in the end.” Casal’s chunky guitar riffs launch the track and set up the song for a quiet rebel swagger that sadly dissolves as the song meanders and collapses under its own weight (a problem throughout). On “Magick,” the album’s fourth track and obvious single, Adams picks up the pace and harkens back to his Rock N Roll days, only this time with more parts Oasis and less parts Green Day. Clocking in at just over two minutes, “Magick” is a quick, unassuming rollick that tells us to “turn the radio on/ So turn the radio up/ So turn the radio up loud and get down/ Let your body move/ Let your body sway/ Listen to the music play/ It’s magick, it’s magick.” I believe Adams here for the first time on the album, even though he can’t resist the urge to remind us of yet another Universal truism (“What goes around comes around”).

While the record never fully abandons the theme of Universe’s Greater Purpose Meets Individual Unrest, the remainder of Cardinology is somewhat less obvious in this regard; and when Adams familiarly opens himself up to the bittersweet conflict of yearning for enlightenment but meeting instead the silence of God and bedtimes spent alone, the results are far more interesting. Consider the semi-sleepy swing of “Let Us Down Easy,” wherein Adams admits that, “Every season I spend alone/ Feels like a thousand in my heart and in my soul” and that “Instead of praying I tell God these jokes he must/ Be tired of himself so much he must be more/ Than disappointed, Christmas comes we eat alone/ A pretty girl’s smile surrounds a pretty girl who/ Takes your order she yells it and cries alone in/ The backroom once in a while until it stops.”

Because so much of this album’s inability to triumph can be attributed to the overwrought sound of the band involved, it’s probably no coincidence that Cardinology’s most successful track is the one that features the fewest Cardinals. “Crossed Out Name” is a swelling acoustic number that finds Adams in the familiar territory of wandering darkened streets alone and yearning, once again, for home. It’s when he’s afraid (not scared), when he seems like he’s about to crack, when he questions his motivations and future, that Adams is often at his best. Consider the following reflection on solitude: “I wish I could tell you just how I felt/ I don’t pray I shower and say goodnight to myself/ And when I close my eyes/ I feel like a page…/With a crossed-out name.” Or the subtle perfection of the way he conveys new love with this: “I kiss her mouth and I know/ For everything there is a word/ For everything but this./ I like the dresses, the shoes, and the clothes./ And everything, you know, that goes/ With loving a girl I suppose.” Damn. That’s what Adams does better than any singer-songwriter in music today. He is at once both, you know, conversational and poetic. Oh how I yearned for more of that on Cardinology.

Another refreshing emergence from the muddiness of this record’s overproduction and thematic heavy-handedness is “Evergreen,” which leans on the whisper of Graboff’s deft pedal steel, Adams’ acoustic, and Casal’s tickling piano, all of which compliment the front man’s cracking, fragile falsetto. Again, I believe Adams when he sings here, “And maybe you’ll find someone/ To lay some roots down next to you/ Be more like the trees and less like the clouds.”

“Natural Ghost” and “Sink Ships” are potential alt-country teases that forsake their inherent possibility for understated greatness with an unwelcome mess of too many guitars, confused harmonies, and throwaway lines like, “Keep the faith, keep moving in time, with the music rolling in your mind.” Really Ryan? Come on man. You’re better than that. Sonically speaking, “Natural Ghost” in particular reminds me of the most egregious errors Adams made in producing Willie Nelson’s Songbird in 2006, an album that found Willie’s voice buried fathoms deep beneath the instrumentation (a sin for Mr. Nelson!) and the emotion of the songs therefore lost in the jumble. Consider that “Natural Ghost” feels anything but ghostly. What could have been an eerie, haunting ballad about rickety stairs and moonlight is reduced to one of the album’s most forgettable tracks.

To be sure, Adams achieves a refreshing musical and lyrical maturity with Cardinology, as he did on the preceding Easy Tiger in 2007, but his recent grasps at a steadier hand have not yet commingled fully with the wilder, unhinged efforts of his earlier works that, while often yielding more than a few duds (“Luminol” anyone?) also ushered forth some of modern American music’s most timeless compositions (“English Girls Approximately” or “To Be Young”). The shame here is that Adams seems suddenly intimidated to embrace his musical and personal demons the way he has so beautifully in the past. And it’s not that this album feels safe, it’s that it feel underwhelming.

In short, Cardinology is not what I expected; but then again, no effort from Adams is ever what anyone expects. After Jacksonville, fans and critics alike were poised for Adams (and The Cardinals) to finally inherit the dusty alt-country throne left vacant by Gram Parsons in 1973 and deliver a quintessential disc of pure Americana. But what did Ryan do instead? He came out with 29 less than a year later, a hushed, sleepy, dance-of-the-dead solo effort that veered significantly off the expected course. And then, two years later, Easy Tiger found Adams newly sober and suddenly harkening back to his 2001 Gold era polish, alluding to a forthcoming effort that would have finally silenced the fans and critics who have been begging for another “Rescue Blues” or “Answering Bell” since 2001. And this is what they get. Peculiar. In some respects, Cardinology feels like a necessary crossroads, a collision of Adams’ most recent history that will undoubtedly yield more greatness in the future, so long as he can start trusting in the Universe instead of trying to thank it so profusely.

BONUS TRACK: For an example of Adams and The Cardinals kicking some ass, check this out. It’s easy to see why Adams loves this outfit so much:


Let Us Now Praise…

In Let Us Now Praise..., Music, Personal Essays on November 6, 2008 at 1:17 pm

Music For Coming Down:

David Mead and the Post-World-Series-Election Hangover

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Fade In: Interior. Nick’s Roast Beef. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Wednesday Night. 7 p.m.

The clocks have been turned back. Another hour has been saved. Second Street in Old City is dark and desolate and wet with rain. Just one week ago to the day this place was clamorous with the delirium of hundreds in the street weeping and clapping to everyone, to no one in particular. Just one week ago to the day this place was filled with what seemed to be potential for new birth. With beer-stained hearts on fire. With senseless love overflowing. With the careless inspiration only triumph can bring forth. Just one week ago to the day, Second Street was alive.

Just twenty four hours ago, Second Street was alive, brightened by the hope of change in America, of change in the city of Philadelphia, of change in our dusty, cynical hearts. By this time yesterday, Barack Obama was already on the doorstep of victory. By this time yesterday, everyone braced for the eventual collision of history and expectation. By this time yesterday, legions of the lesser angels of our nature seemed poised for destruction. By this time yesterday, Second Street was yet another temple at which we could all worship the deity of possible hope. By this time yesterday, Second Street was alive.

Now, sitting inside Nick’s Roast Beef, Second Street is tired and alone. The bar is virtually empty. No music plays on the speakers. The Phillies already seem a distant memory. Two small televisions hang from a brick wall. One broadcasts a silent, subtitled Charlie Gibson, who guides America through replay after replay of last night’s Presidential victory, parsing every second down to the fabric of the dress Michelle Obama wore on the stage. On the other screen, a prime-time Hollywood program silently displays a montage from a new Broadway musical staring Chazz Palminteri. The disparity of the two images seems at once both obvious and obscure. There is something that connects them, I’m just not sure what that is.

More than anything else, what strikes me is how exhausted I feel—how exhausted the entire city feels—overwhelmed by a month that went by in a blur and culminated in a championship victory for a beloved baseball team and the election of the first African American to President of the United States of America. In the course of just one week, both of these events took place, and there is an overwhelming, atmospheric sense that the peak of joy has been reached, and now we must all come down. We must all swallow the bitter sweet fog of the morning after.

That’s why we’re going to see David Mead at the Tin Angel.

Some friends of mine arrive and we share a few pints over talk about quantum physics and Mr. Rogers; over the previous night’s election and the virtues of ketchup; over getting old and electric cars; over cheesesteak hoagies and the small entertaining bits of our own personal histories only we find important or funny. I know we are children of this time, I’m just not sure what that really means.

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When our rambling comes to a close we leave for the show. Two doors down we climb some narrow stairs and order some more pints. First to take the stage at the Tin Angel are The Sways, a Nashville-based husband-and-wife duo comprised of Carey Kotsionis and Adam Landry. Carey’s got her acoustic, Adam’s got his medicine-red electric, and just two lines into their first song I am struck by both the beauty of their harmonies as well as the undeniable pleasure of lines like, “Knowing what to wear doesn’t make you a lady/ Showing up at my door doesn’t make you my baby.”

It would be easy for me to call this duo a marriage between the Innocence Mission and She & Him, so I won’t. Instead, The Sways are a fragile little outfit with the icy edges of their tender sound rimmed in traces of southern attitude and rust. They’ve got California flowers in their hair, but they’ve also got dusty, Memphis boots on their feet. It’s sweet, American swaying, music perfect for the autumn and summer both. They are a pleasure to watch and I would recommend checking them out if they come to town again.

When it comes to the headliner, I am as ignorant as a man can be. Going into the night, I had only ever heard one, maybe two David Mead songs in my life; but the show came by way of a zealous recommendation from my friends T. David and Kristine Young, and since I trust their respective musical tastes so implicitly I figured it was worth the $12 admission fee. And friends, after sitting through an 90 minute set of this man’s music, I can honestly say that I would pay twice as much to see him again.

Oh that dastardly breed of man known as the so-called “Singer Songwriter” is everywhere, and usually I do not suffer him kindly. Look, he’s got a lot to live up to, so I think it’s only fair to be so critical. Every college-aged crooner strumming his acoustic guitar in a coffee shop or on a lawn full of pie-eyed ladies is cooing in the shadow of geniuses like Jackson Browne, Ricky Lee Jones, James Taylor, Joni Mittchell, Cat Stevens, or even Ryan Adams. It’s not their fault the genre has been so well mined, it’s just a fact. All of that being said, when David Mead takes to the cozy, dimly-lit stage at the Angel, my skepticism is tempered only by Dave and Kris’s admiration for him.

Now watch as David Mead lifts the glass statue of my vapid cynicism, hurls it across 90 miles of jagged rock, and allows it to shatter into pieces so small and numerous as to be indistinguishable from the air surrounding them. For the entire length of his set, I am as captivated as I have ever been by a performance. Mead is a master songwriter, crafting everything from bittersweet ballads about looking out of windows at girls walking away to traveling songs about rambling to lovers and friends in drivers seats as the landscape of America unfurls its lovely, lonely distances. He even covers “These Days”, giving an apropos nod to the man to whom I believe Mead is the obvious heir apparent.

Moreover, Mead’s stage persona is a delight. Irreverent, erudite, commanding, humorous, and humble. Watching him in the intimate confines of the Tin Angel feels like being part of a sublime secret. I look forward to nights that will surely unfold with Mead’s music lining the walls of my house and of the mornings over coffee and new love wherein his tunes will kiss the moment with the tenderness for which it begs. I’ve got him on right now, in fact, and I can think of no better soundtrack for coming down from the chaotic hand life has dealt me in recent weeks.

Check out this video of him at the Tin Angel in 2004:


The Endorsement: Lady Chatterley On The Radio

In Let Us Now Praise..., Literature, Music on October 17, 2008 at 5:36 am

 

Tonight I bring you the beauty of contemporary juxtaposition, a dual endorsement that marries perfectly the old and the new. First, the old…

“Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically…”

I recently finished reading “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” by D.H. Lawrence and cannot let another moment go by without encouraging anyone who has not yet read this novel to do so. Immediately. Written by Lawrence in 1928, the book was not published in Britain until 1960 due to the swirling controversy surrounding both the language and themes expressed in its pages. The plot is simple enough: An aristocratic, intellectual (Constantine Chatterley) finds herself in a passionless (loveless?) marriage several years after her husband returns from World War I paralyzed from the waist down. In her quiet quest for wholeness, Lady Chatterley becomes involved with one of her wealthy husband’s groundskeepers and spends the rest of the novel wrestling with the principles of devotion to her husband as weighed against the pull of organic, uninhibited passion.

As I read it, I continually had to remind myself that this novel was written in 1928 and not last year, not only because it so liberally tosses about words like “fuck,” “orgasm,” “ass”, and (oh, shudder!) “cunt”, but also because its sociopolitical themes are so incredibly contemporary. It’s unfortunate so much discussion surrounding this book concerns its more salacious moments (and believe, there are plenty), because on the whole, the novel is about so much more. It is one of the most humanistic stories I have ever read because the primary question it asks over and again is this: What makes us whole? In it you will find contemplations on sex disguised as love and love disguised as sex; socialism vs. capitalism; property and wealth as religion; the virtues and damnations of solitude; and so much more.

I picked up my copy for 50 cents at a local used book sale, and while you may be tempted to think the fusty nature of its cover makes it hopelessly dated, fear not. You are in for quite a radical treat.

And now, the new…

If you have not yet picked up a copy of TV on the Radio’s newest release “Dear Science,” do so. Now. When I first started hearing about this band four years ago, I was admittedly cynical about its supposed brilliance. The ceaseless, ubiquitous implication that everyone should be listening to these guys started feeling like a mother wagging her finger because her son will not eat his peas. I almost didn’t want to like them in spite of their acclaim, but once I realized this was an absurd feeling to have I opened myself up to their influence and have not looked back since.

“Dear Science” is one of the most solid and enjoyable records I have come across in the last year. This band blends emotive lyrics and melodies with crunchy, post-industrial electronic soundscapes so seamless as to make it sublime. Have a listen for yourself and tell me what you think. If you’re looking for a soundtrack to the age in which we live, “Dear Science” is a great place to start.

\”Halfway Home\” by TV on the Radio

[audio http://wpcom.files.wordpress.com/2007/01/mattmullenweg-interview.mp3]

XPN’S Most Essential Mistake (A Repost)

In Music, Personal Essays, Pop Culture on October 16, 2008 at 6:13 pm

88.5 XPN began it’s annual countdown this week, so I think it’s an apt time to repost one of my earliest entries from this summer. Why? Because it outlines precisely why this countdown is, well, kind of a dumb idea. Let me know what you think…

ORIGINALLY POSTED JULY 29, 2008:

For those of you not keeping score at home, it’s been a few days since Post Number One. Days pregnant with the pressure and tedium of deciding what Post Number Two was going to concern. Throughout that time, I kept making subtle promises to myself that it would not be wasted on the banal or superficial. That the post would center on a “big idea”, like the recently dreadful irresponsibility of the media as it pertains to the status of America’s economy; or that maybe it would elucidate the virtues I have recently discovered are inherent in the act of walking; or perhaps it would poetically eulogize Tony Snow, or maybe showcase an exciting and exclusive interview I had with Beck, wherein we discuss everything from Scientology to his new album “Modern Guilt”. But after all the internal haranguing and wringing of hands, I have finally settled on a topic—and, ironically, it concerns perhaps one of the most superficial creations of modern times: The countdown list.

To put a finer point on it, the particular list I’m thinking about right now is 88.5 WXPN’s forthcoming countdown of the “885 Essential XPN Songs.” No, this is not a matter that will make or break the evolution of mankind for centuries to come, or one that will most likely even register on your radar of importance so much as five minutes after you’ve finish this reading this. But when I heard this countdown theme mentioned on the radio yesterday morning while I was enjoying a delicious bowl of Craklin’ Oat Bran, my body responded as I would imagine it would were I having a stroke. And this was when I knew the issue could not be avoided.

To be sure, the fact that I would even express of modicum of concern over this matter—let alone care enough to make it a post on my blog—says more about me than it does about the countdown itself. But life is full of moments when one is forced to decide whether or not he will be the bigger person and ignore an evil obviously lesser than the strength of his own character, or give into the temptation and wage a losing battle against a pettiness sure to make him seem smaller than he was at the start. In this case, I have sadly succumbed to the temptation. I have chosen to wage a very silly war.

Without equivocation, I adore XPN. If the radio station were a woman (and personally, I think she would look something like Natalie Portman), the two of us would have been married for almost ten blissful years by now, with a beautiful brood of talented, ambitious children to boot. To extoll its innumerable virtues here as one of the greatest radio station in the tri-state region would be a waste of both our times. But if thiswere a marriage, the countdown about to occur would most certainly send us both into counseling (or force me to cheat).

The extreme guilty pleasure I derive from countdown lists is no secret to those who know me. I can recall numerous evenings as a child when, during dinner or after brushing my teeth, I would casually posit questions to my mother or father such as, “What are your top ten favorite scary movies of all time?” Or, “Who are the five worst worst quarterbacks in the NFL?” I didn’t know it at the time, but thinking back on those moments now, I realize forcing my parents to categorize their preferences so succinctly was just another way for me to make sense of an increasingly chaotic world. In other words, it was impossible for me to conceive of a universe wherein Bob Dylan was no different than Jimmy Buffet, or Joe Montana was no different than Randall Cunnigham. Such a world would be unjust and insane, and I needed my parents to assure me this was not the case.

At the age of 27, the situation is no different today. I still engage in endless debates with family and friends over the qualification of artistic brilliance; and while in a few rare cases these melees of personal opinion have almost ended friendships (“Rush vs. Zeppelin 2003” comes to mind), most are superficial, forgettable, and, in the eternal scheme of things, a waste of time. But they are one my dearest addictions, and I cannot give up the habit. For this reason, I was quite excited when XPN announced its “885 All Time Greatest Songs” countdown in 2004 (in my opinion, “God Only Knows”). I was doubly excited in 2005 when they launched the “885 All Time Greatest Albums” marathon (in my opinion, Houses of the Holy). And I was giggly as a schoolgirl for the “885 All Time Greatest Artists” countdown in 2006 (in my opinion, Bob Dylan). But then, in 2007, desperate to keep the trend going, the station took a turn for the worse and started tallying the ridiculous list of the “885 All Time Greatest Musical Moments.” What the hell does that even mean? Music is not defined by it’s “moments.” It’s defined by its music! (And even if it were, why wasn’t “The birth of Mozart” number one on the list?). Now, in 2008, XPN goes and dives right into its own nascent pool of pretension and lays this egg on us. It’s a crime against the righteousness of the countdown art form—and I cannot abide.

As I said at the outset, it’s a silly war to wage; and to be sure, XPN is so transparently reaching in this case that its absurdity needs little exaltation. But I could not let the moment pass without crying out with my displeasure. On it’s Web site, XPN claims this countdown is supposed to highlight “the tracks that are at the heart of the XPN listening experience.” But since XPN prides itself on being relatively genre-less (which is kind of a lie anyway, since I can’t recall the last time I heard them play something from Mos Def or Rage Against The Machine) doesn’t it seem absurd to ask people what songs are “at the heart of the XPN listening experience”? Not only is it self-absorbed and severely affected, but it’s also no flippin’ fun. Arguing about albums or musicians or songs gives a person the thrill of taking ownership over the art in his or her life. This does not. Imagine the conversation:

“Yeah man. I think the most quintessential XPN song is ‘A Case of You.’”

“Hell no! How can you say that? There’s no way ‘A Case of You’ is more XPN essential than ‘Into the Mystic!’”

Bullocks.

The XPN “experience” is about the sum of its parts, not the parts themselves. I listen to the station because that experience includes everything from The Hold Steady to Bjork to Jackson Brown to James Brown to Sigur Ros. I can’t reduce it, nor would I ever want to. Debating the “885 All Time Greatest Songs” over a few beers is thrilling and reckless. Debating the “885 Essential XPN Songs” sounds about as exciting as arguing over the best way to cook asparagus, or why she really still is just “Jenny from the block.”

The Endorsement: Okkervil River

In Let Us Now Praise..., Music on October 2, 2008 at 5:21 am

The most troubling aspect of being such a voracious fan of music is that I often fill my life with so many various (and varied) artists that becoming obsessed with one in particular is a rare occurrence. And I miss this. I miss my early teen years of listening to Led Zeppelin II so many times that the CD laser burned holes in the plastic. I miss going to the record store with only one goal in mind: collect every last album ever recorded by The Beatles. I miss trying to memorize every line to every Bob Dylan song I heard, if for no other reason than to be able to recite them at will whenever I thought it would impress a girl. I miss my obsessions.

But every once in a while the bug will bite, and I’ll feel that insatiable, crackhead desire to listen to a particular artist over and over again without cease. Iron and Wine did this to me. Wilco did this to me. My Morning Jacket did this to me. And I think Okkervil River is doing this to me right now. Walking the line between sleepy, deep-woods reflection and rollicking Americana rock, Okkervil—an Austin, TX outfit led by frontman Will Sheff—has captured my heart and mind, and I think it will be a good long while before the love affair ends. The lyrics are simultaneously introspective and self-deprecating, sad and full of joy, sweet and bitter. It’s everything I could ask for in a band and I’m happy to share a piece of them here with you.

The Endorsement: Darker My Love

In Let Us Now Praise..., Music on September 28, 2008 at 9:09 pm

 

I always seem to have a strange relationship with opening bands. Most of them make me feel either (a) completely disinterested (as was the case with the droning, unenthusiastic neo-country, Cowboy Junkies wannabes that opened for She & Him at the Troc in July) or (b) as though I am cheating on the musical love I paid to come see (as was the case last weekend when the California outfit Darker My Love opened for The Dandy Warhols at the TLA).

Because of the pre-show buzz and rollick that always seems to infect me whenever I go to a concert, I usually greet opening bands with a great response. If the band I am here to see loves these performers enough to take them on tour, I think, well then there must be something to dig. And usually I am correct to be so forgiving. Two years ago, Razorlight opened for Muse at the Wachovia center, and I left that show with a greater interest in and excitement for Razorlight than I did the headliners. When my sister and I went to see Rufus Wainwright at the Mann Center last summer, it was Neko Case’s brilliant opening performance that captured her soul. And last weekend, Darker My Love’s 45 minute set is what has stayed with me these past seven days.

To be sure, The Dandys were sub-par. Their performance was marred by a disproportionate ratio of their better post-pop ditties to those fuzzy, expansive shoe-gazer numbers they inexplicably love so much and that never seem to go anywhere; along with the sleepy, too-cool-for-school antics of a somewhat disinterested Courtney Taylor-Taylor who, amongst his many front-man sins poked fun at South Street several times (“It’s like a fucking mall out there. What’s that all about?”). Regardless, even had the main attraction delivered a stellar show, I still would have left with a newfound excitement for Darker My Love.

During their performance, my sister leaned in and said to me, “This band is everything Oasis still wishes they could be.” And while that may be overstating it a tad, she was right. The five-piece band delivered the kind of hard-driving, California psychedelia with Brit-pop twists for which American radio is in sore need right now. (See: “Summer Is Here”, a single that could have gotten phenomenal play during this past season of heat had it ever been given a chance.) The on-stage imagery—floating amebas, cellular blobs, and trippy swirls of god-knows-what projected on a large screen behind them—served to accent the influences even more, while the juxtaposition of front men Tim Presley (vocal and guitar) and Rob Barbato (vocal and bass) illustrated the wonderful aesthetic dichotomy present in some of America’s most exciting bands. Stage-left, Presley wore tight slacks and a shirt buttoned all the way to the neck, rocking a nostalgic British mop-top reminiscent of Roger Daltry circa 1965. All the while, Barbato’s lumberjack beard and layers of flannel grounded the visual experience in a cozy Northern Oregon woodsiness. They were a pleasure to hear and see.

It’s silly to talk about the salvation of rock and roll these days, because rock and roll for rock and roll’s sake is nothing worth fighting for. The evolution of pop music is as ceaseless and inevitable as the rotation of the Earth, a fact for which I am glad. I’m tired of making the case—and even more tired of hearing it made to me—that there are certain bands out there (are you listening Kings of Leon?) who subscribe to some sort of rock and roll purism that’s supposed to somehow be more nobel and righteous than the records produced by those who have no interest in recreating a sound Credence Clearwater Revival already mined 35 years ago. For example, as perhaps the greatest band of the last decade, Radiohead has not shown any need to partake in this silly nostalgia, instead choosing to let rock music evolve; to usher in a new way of making music that is both visceral and progressive at the same time.

Darker My Love seems to understand this principal (less in the way Radiohead does and more in the way, say, The Hold Steady does) and in doing so they may actually save rock and roll. Oh shit. Did I just say that? All of this is to say: give them a listen.

Smoking In the Boys Room (Or, What I Learned From The Dandy Warhols Last Weekend at the TLA)

In Music, Personal Essays on September 28, 2008 at 7:07 pm

 

 

The Dandys Looking Dandy

The Dandys Looking Dandy

 

 

Here’s the situation: I still have no idea what it means to be cool. And here’s the question: Does that even matter? Consider the following interaction during last week’s Dandy Wharhols show at the TLA in Philadelphia.

Another overly-priced Yuengling down the hatch and the the first of the two opening bands had just finished its set. The time had come to journey to the bathroom. I left my sister to stand guard over our spot at the TLA’s rather crowded bar and shuffled my way through the peculiar gaggle gathered to see The Dandy Warhols—an amusingly thrashed together collection of the in-the-know XPN faithful and the dangling remains of Philadelphia hipsters (of both the post- and pre-Iraq-war variety) sitting in ironic Indian style poses and sleep-stained, painted jeans. Tired eyes, all of them. Disclaimer: Of this scene I was far less cynical than my tone here would imply.

When I pushed open the door to the men’s room I almost hit a man with its swing. His inky black hair was slicked back and curly behind the neck, shining in time with his maroon leather jacket and complimenting to his rather sensible goatee. He was standing close to the entrance and smoking a cigarette over the sink; and what immediately struck me was the coolness with which he did this. Not cool in the way 1950s America once made smoking seem dangerous and sexy, but cool like a man standing on the top floor of a burning building roasting a chicken on the murderous flames while he composed one last love letter to the woman who stole his heart in Paris ten years prior. In other words, he was in no hurry and showed no signs of care for potentially getting caught. I suppose this means I still find disregard for authority cool, which probably also means I am still, in fact, young. In thinking this, I too felt cool, even though I had looked down at my black and white Chuck Taylors several times that night and thought, “Who the hell am I kidding. These are so 2004!”

I apologized to the smoking man—who looked to be in his late 30s—for the interruption, and made my way to the urinal. We were the only two in the small bathroom, and for some reason, as soon as I sidled up to the fount I cleared my throat. Suddenly, I could not have been less cool. In the seconds it took me to do this, I felt myself being transformed from a young man sharing this little corner of world rebellion with the smoking man to a thoroughly prickish dullard. A square. A jamoke. For only the most unscrupulous of individuals, I thought, would be so lame as to send an anti-smoking message by way of a high-pitched, faux cough of disgust to a man lighting up in a concert bathroom—even though this was not my intention in at all. I really just had to clear my throat at that moment. But I knew the man would probably interpret the act as my way of saying, “Um, excuse me, but I am highly offended by your obviously insatiable need to smoke, and the fact that you choose to invade my small, inescapable space with your odious addiction is beyond the pale, sir!” My Chucks might as well have been brown, laceless boating shoes. I might as well have just pissed on the floor like a child.

“I’m sorry man,” the smoking man said before my last throat-clear was even finished. He had an accent (Spanish, I believe) and spoke with even more cool, languid disregard than he smoked. “I’ll be done in a moment.” I immediately told him not to worry about it; told him I didn’t care in the slightest that he was smoking in the bathroom and that were I savvy (cool?) enough to have brought a pack with me to the show I would most likely have joined him on the spot. Go right ahead, I said. Smoke away. Enjoy it. Love it.

And this is when the smoking man started his speech.

“Fuck this place, man. Who are they to tell me I can’t smoke if I want to? Who the fuck are they.” This last line he uttered as if maybe I actually had a literal answer to the question. Like, Oh yes. I know exactly who they are, friend. Michael and Janet from Pine Street. Those non-smoking, oppressive bastards! Let’s ditch this concert and go show them a thing or two! Put a goddamn cigarette out right in their self righteous little eyes! “If I want to smoke, I’m going to fucking do it. And fuck them. They can’t tell me I can’t smoke at a fucking concert. Fuck them.”

I nodded my coolest nod, as if to say, Right on sir. Fuck them indeed.

Finishing, I made my way to the sink, where the Spanish smoking man was dipping the remains of his fag in a small, still pool of someone else’s handwash. I explained to him that I completely agreed. That I had always thought it was absurd for the powers-that-be to create laws making it illegal for free citizens to willfully partake in a thoroughly legal substance. That there was no difference between this concert venue and someone’s living room. And then, feeling proud to have shared this moment, I smiled a cool, rebellious smile, and made my way to the door. That’s when the smoking man put his arm around me.

“You know what I mean then, my man. You get it. You’re cool.” With a strange man’s arm wrapped around my shoulders in a cramped bathroom, I actually didn’t feel quite as cool as he made me out to be. Lest you think the discomfort had anything to do with a vibe of homophobia, rest assured, that was not the case. No. What made me uncomfortable, what usually makes me uncomfortable in these sorts of situations, was that the smoking man was overselling the moment; that his coolness was now coming into question because he couldn’t just let the moment happen and pass. He had a need to make it last, like a drawn-out ending to some twisted episode of “Full House” that concludes in  a sweaty, smoke filled concert bathroom. I listened for the swell of heart-string orchestration. Waited for Danny Tanner to make a cameo in the stall behind me.

Thankfully, someone else entered at that moment, breaking the connection. So the smoking man and I walked back into the lobby, still crowded with stereotypes and cynicism and the thudding of break music over the speakers. I looked toward the bar for my sister but couldn’t see her. As I started to walk back in that general direction, the smoking man stopped me again. “You like the Dandy Warhols?”

“Yeah,” said. “They’re pretty cool. I dig it.” This, even though I was honestly still unsure how I felt about the band, even after having listened to them for almost three years now. But what was I going to say? That I thought they were underselling themselves? That they continually seemed to resist being the great band they should be because of their unreasonable obsession with shoe-gazer tracks that seemingly serve no purpose in the grander scheme of their better pop repertoire? That would have been very un-cool.

“They’re alright. But do you know the uh…the Brian, uh, the Brian Jonestown Massacre? Like in that movie?” He was thinking of the documentary Dig and I told him so. “Yeah! Dig! The Brian Jonestown Massacre. They are the best band, man. The uh, the Anton Newcomb…he’s the fucking shit, man. His music is…his music is the genius because he makes the Sixties sound mix with today’s sound, man. Right? Am I right?”

Sure, he was recycling the same things everyone has said about the Brian Jonestown Massacre since they first burst onto the scene in the early 90s. Sure, he was bringing up a rather passe comparison between that band and the Dandy Warhols (so 2004 man!). And sure, he was taking up valuable beer drinking time with a conversation I had already had with many friends and acquaintances over the last three years. But I let my cynicism slide because the smoking man clearly cared about this music, and he clearly cared about how I felt about the music. To do anything else but shoot the shit with him would have made me no better than the disinterested hipsters I clearly, if only internally, lampooned since I first entered the TLA.

“Yeah man” I said. “You’re totally right.”

“Fuck yeah!” he said. “I know I’m right.” And then the smoking man put his arm around my shoulder one last time. Then he smiled and said, “Enjoy the show.”

He walked off into the crowd, not to be seen for the rest of the night. And while the Dandy’s were slightly less than impressive (I still don’t know how I feel about this band!), I think I learned another lesson in being cool, although I’m still trying to figure out what that is.

XPN’s Most Essential Mistake

In Music, Personal Essays on July 29, 2008 at 5:31 am

For those of you not keeping score at home, it’s been a few days since Post Number One. Days pregnant with the pressure and tedium of deciding what Post Number Two was going to concern. Throughout that time, I kept making subtle promises to myself that it would not be wasted on the banal or superficial (e.g. how I believe the song “I Kissed A Girl” would be so much more interesting were it sung by Bjork). That the post would center on a “big idea”, like the recently dreadful irresponsibility of the media as it pertains to the status of America’s economy; or that maybe it would elucidate the virtues I have recently discovered are inherent in the act of walking; or perhaps it would poetically eulogize Tony Snow, or maybe showcase an exciting and exclusive interview I had with Beck, wherein we discuss everything from Scientology to his new album “Modern Guilt”. But after all the internal haranguing and wringing of hands, I have finally settled on a topic—and, ironically, it concerns perhaps one of the most superficial and banal creations of modern times: The countdown list.

To put a finer point on it, the particular list I’m thinking about right now is 88.5 WXPN’s forthcoming countdown of the “885 Essential XPN Songs.” No, this is not a matter that will make or break the evolution of mankind for centuries to come, or one that will most likely even register on your radar of importance so much as five minutes after you’ve finish this reading this. But when I heard this countdown theme mentioned on the radio yesterday morning while I was enjoying a delicious bowl of Craklin’ Oat Bran, my body responded as I would imagine it would were I having a stroke. And this was when I knew the issue could not be avoided.

To be sure, the fact that I would even express of modicum of concern over this matter—let alone care enough to make it a post on my blog—says more about me than it does about the countdown itself. But life is full of moments when one is forced to decide whether or not he will be the bigger person and ignore an evil obviously lesser than the strength of his own character, or give into the temptation and wage a losing battle against a pettiness sure to make him seem smaller than he was at the start. In this case, I have sadly succumbed to the temptation. I have chose to wage a very silly war.

Without equivocation, I adore XPN. If the radio station were a woman (and personally, I think she would look something like Natalie Portman), the two of us would have been married for almost ten blissful years by now, with a beautiful brood of talented, ambitious children to boot. To extoll its innumerable virtues here as one of the greatest radio station in the tri-state region would be a waste of both our times. But if this were a marriage, the countdown about to occur would most certainly send us both into counseling (or force me to cheat).

The extreme guilty pleasure I derive from countdown lists is no secret to those who know me. I can recall numerous evenings as a child when, during dinner or after brushing my teeth, I would casually posit questions to my mother or father such as, “What are your top ten favorite scary movies of all time?” Or, “Who are the five worst worst quarterbacks in the NFL?” I didn’t know it at the time, but thinking back on those moments now, I realize forcing my parents to categorize their preferences so succinctly was just another way for me to make sense of an increasingly chaotic world. In other words, it was impossible for me to conceive of a universe wherein Bob Dylan was no different than Jimmy Buffet, or Joe Montana was no different than Randall Cunnigham. Such a world would be unjust and insane, and I needed my parents to assure me this was not the case.

At the age of 27, the situation is no different today. I still engage in endless debates with family and friends over the qualification of artistic brilliance; and while in a few rare cases these melees of personal opinion have almost ended friendships (“Rush vs. Zeppelin 2003” comes to mind), most are superficial, forgettable, and, in the eternal scheme of things, a waste of time. But they are one my dearest addictions, and I cannot give up the habit. For this reason, I was quite excited when XPN announced its “885 All Time Greatest Songs” countdown in 2004 (in my opinion, “God Only Knows”). I was doubly excited in 2005 when they launched the “885 All Time Greatest Albums” marathon (in my opinion, Houses of the Holy). And I was giggly as a schoolgirl for the “885 All Time Greatest Artists” countdown in 2006 (in my opinion, Bob Dylan). But then, in 2007, desperate to keep the trend going, the station took a turn for the worse and started tallying the ridiculous list of the “885 All Time Greatest Musical Moments.” What the hell does that even mean? Music is not defined by it’s “moments.” It’s defined by its music! (And even if it were, why wasn’t “The birth of Mozart” number one on the list?). Now, in 2008, XPN goes and dives right into its own nascent pool of pretension and lays this egg on us. It’s a crime against the righteousness of the countdown art form—and I cannot abide.

As I said at the outset, it’s a silly war to wage; and to be sure, XPN is so transparently reaching in this case that its absurdity needs little exaltation. But I could not let the moment pass without crying out with my displeasure. On it’s Web site, XPN claims this countdown is supposed to highlight “the tracks that are at the heart of the XPN listening experience.” But since XPN prides itself on being relatively genre-less (which is kind of lie anyway, since I can’t recall the last time I heard them play something from Mos Def or Rage Against The Machine) doesn’t it seem absurd to ask people what songs are “at the heart of the XPN listening experience”? Not only is it self-absorbed and severely affected, but it’s also no flippin’ fun. Arguing about albums or musicians or songs gives a person the thrill of taking ownership over the art in his or her life. This does not. Imagine the conversation:

“Yeah man. I think the most quintessential XPN song is ‘A Case of You.’”

“Hell no! How can you say that? There’s no way ‘A Case of You’ is more XPN essential than ‘Into the Mystic!’”

Bullocks.

The XPN “experience” is about the sum of its parts, not the parts themselves. I listen to the station because that experience includes everything from The Hold Steady to Bjork to Jackson Brown to James Brown to Sigur Ros. I can’t reduce it, nor would I ever want to. Debating the “885 All Time Greatest Songs” over a few beers is thrilling and reckless. Debating the “885 Essential XPN Songs” sounds about as exciting as arguing over the best way to cook asparagus, or why she really still is just “Jenny from the block.”

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