Lesson Number Three: What The Music Taught Me (Part II)
Musical Insight #5: I Admit. I Was Wrong About “Sky Blue Sky.”
“You’re crazy. You’ve lost your fucking mind and your right to sit at this table any more. I can’t believe you would say that!” Outside of sixth period lunch, Keith Herndon wasn’t a terribly effusive character. More often than not he expressed a quiet, rueful disposition that bellied how bright he was and how keenly he observed the world around him. His was the type of sharp, silent cynicism you wanted to know better but rarely got to see—unless, of course, you happened to share a table with him during sixth period lunch.
As each of us was want to do from time to time, Keith had just proposed his “would you rather” question of the day. These often ranged from the silly (“Would you rather eat an entire box of Altoids in one mouthful or lick the floor of a public restroom?”) to the semi-profound (“Would you rather go back in time and kill Hitler before the war or be granted the power of invisibility?”). On this particular afternoon sometime during our senior year at Shawnee High School, Keith’s hypothetical was a little bit of both: “If you were stranded on a desert island,” he began, “would you rather have the entire musical catalogue of James Taylor or Bob Dylan? Discuss.” Without exception, everyone at the table said Dylan. I, however, was the lone voice of dissent, claiming that I would much rather have every record James Taylor had made.
Cue Keith’s outrage. “James Taylor? Really! You obviously don’t know anything about music.”
No! He was wrong. I knew plenty about music, and what I knew as certainly as the inevitability of sunrise was that James Taylor was the better choice in the matter. End of story. For the remainder of the lunch period I fought this conviction with impossible fervor. The argument eventually reached such heights that one of our favorite teachers was called over to moderate. “Mr. Baker,” Keith said, “what would you rather have?”
During the brief pause of Mr. Baker’s contemplation, I actually thought there was a chance I would have found an ally in my little war. An adult ally nonetheless. But then Mr. Baker gave his answer—“Dylan. It’s a no-brainer.”—and I knew I had lost.
“Ha! See! It’s settled,” Keith said. “You’re an idiot.”
It took me several years to realize it, but Keith was right. I was an idiot. Sometime between my freshman and sophomore years of college, I went on to discover the unparalleled genius of Dylan, and since that discovery I have thought back to that lunch period debate many times. How could I have ever felt so convicted toward something about which I was so clearly wrong?
To be sure, the lunch table incident wasn’t the only time I’ve been wrong about my musical tastes. I used to think Bob Marley was boring. I used to cringe at the sound of Lucinda Williams’ voice. And (horror of horrors!) I used to make fun of my parents for listening to Frank Sinatra. Try as I might, it seems impossible to avoid these lapses in sonic judgement from time to time, and once again I submit another egregious error with humble resolve: I was wrong about Wilco’s 2007 release Sky Blue Sky.
Before I go any further, you have to know that I love Wilco. Unequivocally and without apology, I think they are one of the best bands to emerge in the last decade. I’ve seen them live on more than one occasion and typically adore everything they produce. But last year, when it came to Sky Blue Sky, something was stifling the bloom of my expected adoration. For reasons now unknown to me, I found the record tedious, derivative, and, frankly, boring. Perhaps I was still hung up on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Perhaps I wasn’t in the mood for Jeff Tweedy’s delicate, literary angst. Perhaps evil aliens had temporarily invaded my body and mind, severely effecting my judgement. No matter the reason, whether my heart or my shoes, I went on quietly hating Tweedy’s blues. Until about three months ago.
Since its release, the subject off Sky Blue Sky’s brilliance was a perpetual debate between my friend Dave and me. Whenever the band came up in conversation, Dave never failed to try and sway my opinion, claiming I was certifiably insane for disliking it so much. “‘Impossible Germany’ is one of the best song’s they’ve ever written,” he would say. “And I think Sky Blue Sky may be the best album they’ve ever made.” His protestations, of course, only made me slink further and further into my little cave of disagreement. Once again I was lugging James Taylor off to the desert island, with a proud middle finger to the world I was leaving behind.
Well, for reasons just as inexplicable as those that led me loath the record, Sky Blue Sky has finally been revealed to me for what it truly is: a beautiful, soulful album with some of the most breathtaking guitar work in Wilco’s catalogue and some of the best lyrics Tweedy has ever written. Consider this, from “You Are My Face”: “Trying to be thankful/ Our stories fit into phones/ And our voices lift so easily/ A gift given accidentally/ When we’re not sure/ We’re not alone…”
It’s been more than a year since Wilco released Sky Blue Sky, so I know I’m late to the party. But I’m happy the door remained open, despite my hostile pacing on the street outside. Now, if only someone could explain to me what all the fuss is about when it comes to Pink Floyd…
Musical Insight #4: The Hold Steady Still Might Kill Me
For a while there it seemed like I couldn’t remember a time when The Hold Steady wasn’t a part of the American pop-music landscape. Sometime over the course of the last five years, this pub-ready, post-Keroucian rock band from Minneapolis became as ubiquitous as oxygen. If one music magazine wasn’t crowning them the best band in America, they were instead knighting them the best band to ever lay down a track. All of this swirling pother, of course, only made me want to dislike them more. But then I spent a night in Long Beach Island with my friend Joe, and everything came into focus.
It was mid-July and we were standing outside a tavern that boasted one of those summer bands that hammers out the usual cover songs to the drunk and shameless—you know, “Livin’ on a Prayer,” “White Wedding,” something lame by Sugar Ray or Smashmouth. Smoking and lamenting, Joe started exclaiming the virtues of The Hold Steady, which were eventually echoed by an Irishman who came over to bum a cigarette and tell us all about his days on the road with Bowie and Springsteen and Tom Petty. (“Aw, Petty man, he was a fooking laid back son of a bitch!”) And while I had heard Joe go off before about how phenomenal The Hold Steady supposedly was, something about his fervor at that moment struck me as important. For the first time I finally felt ready to figure out why he loved them so much. The drunk Irishman agreed. “Right oh, mate. Fookin’ check it out.”
The following Monday I did just that. During my lunch break, I downloaded The Hold Steady Almost Killed Me, the band’s debut record from 2004. Not since first pressing play on Led Zeppelin’s self-titled debut in 1997 and hearing the heaven-tearing riffs of “Good Times, Bad Times” had an opening track moved me as much as The Hold Steady’s “Positive Jam.” Not only were the lyrics coming from some crunchy, stream-of-consciousness bone alley of the brain (“Twisting into dark parts of big midwestern cities/ Tripped right through the 60s with some blissful little hippie/ Some Kennedys got shot while you were screwing san francisco/ The 70s got heavy we woke up on bloody carpets/ Got tangled up in gaslines/ I guess that’s where it started/ The 80s almost killed me let’s not recall them quite so fondly…”), but the guitar solo that comes at the end of the track was the precise shot in the arm I needed to finally feel what everyone else had apparently been feeling for some time now. I was finally infected with the magic of this oh-so American band and have not been able to kick the habit since. They are, quite simply, the best band in America right now.
There, I said it.
Musical Insight #3: Festivals Are Awesome
I know, I know. Late to the party once again. Your thinking: “Who hasn’t been to a music festival at least once in his life?” Well, until last July…me (okay, I did attend Creation once in 1998, but that doesn’t count). For whatever reason, I had never been afforded the opportunity of traveling with friends to whatever remote country-side locale was hip at the time to bask in the 48-hour glow of nonstop music, frivolity, and drink—which is why I was so excited when the opportunity arose for me to drive down to Maryland for the 2008 Virgin Mobile Festival (on someone else’s dime, nonetheless).
Not only did I have the opportunity to see artists like Wilco, The Foo Fighters, Bob Dylan, Citizen Cope, Andrew Bird, and She & Him, but I spent two days rambling around with whatever characters struck me as interesting. We painted our names onto brick walls. We sang duets with Iggy pop. We drank plenty of brew. We saw dirt bikes do backflips and a Sharon Jones & The Dapp Kings light up the morning. I’m not sure in what ways exactly, but when I pulled into my driveway at 3 a.m. the following Monday morning, I knew I was a different man.
Musical Insight #2: Everyone’s Lives Will Benefit From These Five Songs
Well, 2008 has come to a close, and my insights have all been spent. So, instead of the tedium of another lengthy post, I will endeavor to leave you with two countdown entires. First, the five best songs of 2008…
1) “Cape Canaveral” by Conor Oberst from his self-titled album: Only Oberst, undoubtedly, one of the best lyricists of our time, could wrap up so much poignancy in the line “I know that victory is sweet even deep in the cheap seats.”
2) “Highly Suspicious” by My Morning Jacket from Evil Urges: As you know from Dr. Master’s post last month, this album was both unprecedented and yet somehow obvious. One may be tempted to think of Jim James’s Prince-like falsetto on “Highly Suspicious” as nothing more than ironic, but that would be a great mistake.
3) “Nashville” by David Mead from Indiana: No, this song was not released last year, but 2008 was my first taste of Mr. Mead’s bittersweet song catalogue, and “Nashville” is a quintessential example of how Mead poetically fuses the everyday with the angelic.
4) “Human” by The Killers from Day & Age: Are we human, or are we dancers? This swirling, anthemic single from The Killers seeks to answer that very question.
5) “Time To Pretend” by MGMT from Oracular Spectacular: How is possible that when I first heard this song I was already nostalgic for it as though I were listening to it 20 years in the future? If I could answer that question I would be able to explain why this song is so fantastic.
Musical Insight #1: Everyone’s Lives Will Benefit From These Five Albums
1) Seeing Things by Jakob Dylan: Finally proving my long-held theory that The Wallflowers were never as good as Jakob Dylan’s songwriting chops, Seeing Things is an undeniable testament to that old apple and tree axiom. On this 2008 release, Dylan delivers stripped-down acoustic ballads about good and evil, love and loss, and youth and age. “I was born in the summer of sam/ Smaller and sooner than planned/In the spitting image of a man/ Raised by wolves on the fat of the land/ Clear of romance, beauty, and damned/ Tomorrow will come if she can/ Just want a woman who can walk on a wire/ With a trembling glass in her hand.”
2) Blame it on Gravity by The Old 97s: How this album snuck under the radar of so many critic’s Top 10 lists this year is inexplicable to me. Frontman Rhett Miller is as deft a pop-song composer as you’ll find these days, and with The Old 97s he delivers an album that mixes alt-country swagger with power-pop recklessness.
3) The Fleet Foxes by The Fleet Foxes: This mid-year debut from Seattle’s Fleet Foxes prompted comparisons to everyone from The Beach Boys to Modest Mouse, and guess what—it lives up to the hype. It is surely rare to hear such tight, layered harmony these days.
4) Volume 1 by She & Him: Another darling album of the indy circles, this collaboration between M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel captured my heart over the summer with its post-Patsy Cline Americana. And having seen the act live on two occasions, I can tell you that the magic certainly translates. This was no novelty fluke, and I can’t wait to see what She & Him brings us in 2009.
5) Evil Urges by My Morning Jacket: I thought about it long and hard, but the more I listen to this album the more I love it. No one is delivering the type of tight, weird, sweeping rock and roll that MMJ brings on this record. No one. They are one of this decade’s greatest gifts and I am thrilled to be alive to accept it with open arms.