Archive for October, 2008

Another album that mattered

October 30, 2008

I’ve written about the Jayhawks on here before. I’ve probably preached the gospel of their Byrdsish brand of folky countryish poppish rock to you personally, if you’re reading this. But it’s really hard to overstate how important this band was to me.

If you’ve read my album posts so far, you’ve probably detected a common theme. I’m not a real current, with it kind of music fan. I’m more likely to be listening to the Carter Family than I am anything on the current charts. And I’m kind of a music snob. I disdain most of what passes for modern pop music and if I’m not careful, I get holier-than-thou about it REALLY fast.

I discovered the Jayhawks at a time in my life when I had a) no time, b) no money and c) no inclination to care about anything less than 25 years old musically. It didn’t matter. These guys broke down the wall. The album above, Rainy Day Music, was my favorite. It might still be on some days. Of course, I was somewhat relieved to learn that the band was on hiatus by the time I discovered them, so I did not have to worry about any sort of commerical explosion which would make me another pop fan lunatic. (Sorry, there’s the snob).

The Jayhawks, to quote the legendary Ricky Bobby, piss excellence. This album flows through emotional and musical realms with grace and ease. “Tailspin” is a great rocker, “Angelyne” is the haunting poppy regret, “All the Right Reasons” is as good of a love song as you’ll ever here. There are phrases on here that are so beautiful and well-sung that they could be on my favorites list just off of those phrases.

“Rainy Day Music” was the last Jayhawks album. It’s a great one. So are all the others really. Every true music fan has a singer or band that they love that never really hits commerically, that makes them question marketing, label commitment, and sanity of the people who don’t dig this band. The Jayhawks are mine. Even if they never save the world or even scratched radio play or the Billboard charts, they gave me some great music and washed out a healthy dose of musical cynicism. Small miracles are sometimes the best kind.



Onto the bandwagon totally

October 16, 2008

I’ve been very halfway in my support of Barack Obama in this campaign season. This morning, I am on the bandwagon completely though. I saw the future of American politics, and his name is Obama.

Throughout this campaign, I have contended, whether fair or unfair, that Obama, as potentially the first African-American president, could not be merely okay. He needs to be a trailblazer, a great leader, and a stable hand. I saw it last night in the final presidential debate.

My touchpoint with the Obama comparisons has always been Jackie Robinson. In coming into a game from which his race had been systematically excluded, Robinson couldn’t be merely an average player. He had to be a great player. And he had to be a special kind of great player. The maybe apocryphal, doubtlessly classic story that circulates is one of Branch Rickey testing Robinson, telling him that he would be booed and cursed and have names yelled at him and be spiked and beaned and beaten up whenever possible. Robinson ultimately recoiled and asked Rickey if he wanted a ballplayer who was afraid to fight back, and Rickey indicating that no, he wanted a ballplayer who was courageous enough not to fight back. One version of the story I just googled indicates Rickey then said, “You will symbolize a crucial cause. One incident, just one incident, can set it back 20 years.”

This is the vacuum into which Barack Obama steps, whether he wants to or not. I have been very excited as a white man by the prospect of an African-American or a female president because it opens the door to a day when it won’t be NOTEWORTHY that a candidate is an African-American or is a woman. I think of John F. Kennedy, and the victory he won for his faith in 1960. It scarcely is worth noticing now if a politician is Roman Catholic. Before Kennedy, it simply was not so.

If Obama does this job the way that America needs him to, and the way that I believe he can, he will do nothing less than change the way that African-Americans are perceived by a great majority of the U.S. population. And if he does less than that, he will also change the way African-Americans are perceived. Considering the stacked deck of national misery Obama stands to inherit, this was what scared me.

And last night, it all changed. He was asked a question about the qualification of Sarah Palin to serve as President. This might have been the Jackie Robinson moment. A lesser man would’ve been offended, would’ve taken the hate and fear-mongering that the Republican campaign has thrown at him, would’ve taken the overt lack of qualification of the lovely, doubtlessly charming, and wildly underqualified Ms. Palin and would’ve balled up his metaphysical fist and gotten ugly.

Obama didn’t take the bait. He said it was up to the voters. In that moment, he was Jackie Robinson. The pitcher threw inside and he hit the dirt. But he wouldn’t charge the mound, wouldn’t even act like the incident (or in this case two years of mud-slinging, from his nationality to his faith to his name) even bothered him. He got up, got back in the batters’ box, and indicated that it was time for the game to decide the merits of the players, not the color of their skin, or their odd middle name, or their irrelevant alleged association with “dangerous radicals”.

I know how the rest of the game went many times for Robinson. He lined out base hits, stole bases, made great catches, won countless victories for his team, and was generally known as a player’s player. He was so great that even the people who were predisposed not to like him had to admire him.

I was finally convinced last night that Obama has the same quality. The United States of 2009 stands to be even more challenging that the National League of the 1940s and 1950s. But Obama is a fearless leader ready to face down the challenges. And for the first time in a while, that knowledge (althought admittedly on hold pending Election Day) makes me happy for my country.


Yet another important album.

October 14, 2008

I don’t know what I think about Bob Dylan. That may not seem unusual to an outsider, but it’s a great deal more unnerving than that to me. For year upon year, I hung upon Dylan’s every word, mumble and grunt. I bought all the official albums, I collected literally around 1,000 bootleg concerts, I bought books, subscribed to magazines, and generally spent way more time than any sane person would thinking about, talking about, listening to, playing the music of, or writing about, Bob Dylan.

Somewhere along the line, it became a very disillusioning process. There’s a lot of genius in Bob Dylan, but there’s a lot of bullshit too. Those lyrics are elliptical, elusive and brilliant, but sometimes, I don’t think a large percentage of them mean anything. And while Bob Dylan, when he is on his game, is wonderful, he has spent the last several years stumbling further and further into incurable old-manhood. Many of the same things that I loved Bob Dylan for, I now find Bob Dylan rather disingenous, and maybe even a little bit dispicable for.

But “Highway 61” is still a great album. Of course, he opened the record with “Like a Rolling Stone”, which is such a natural fit, it’s now slightly more obvious than Genesis opening the Bible. He closed the record with “Desolation Row”, which might be the most ambitious song anyone ever wrote. Sometimes it might try a little too hard, but there is some sort of prolific genius in there, along with some elegant flamenco-sounding guitar riffs.

In between, the songs, while a bit lesser, are still not the least disappointing. “From a Buick Six” is the only one of these Dylan didn’t return to again and again in the live setting, and frankly, it’s a shame he lost its chugging rhythm and hipster edge. “Ballad of a Thin Man” is just the sort of seething venom that every young person can tap into. “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” plods along mysteriously and invites and teases its audience into trying to figure out exactly what is happening here.

“Highway 61” is Dylan at the top of his game. “Bringing It All Back Home” is a little more simple, and “Blonde on Blonde” is a bit more self-indulgent, but it never really gets any better than “Highway 61”.

On the day when a 17 year old version of myself went off to college, I packed a boombox in my passenger seat (my car’s stereo had only a tape deck). “Highway 61” was the album I listened to over and over that day. It matched my mood perfectly. Ultimately, it’s an invitation into a new and different world. Not necessarily a better world, frankly a much stranger one, sometimes paranoid, sometimes jumbled, but always alive and adventurous. And it’s a world anybody with a CD player and a copy of “Highway 61” can still find.


Another album that mattered to me… or two.

October 13, 2008

When I was thirteen or fourteen, there was a record I started hearing everywhere. I didn’t know where these guys came from, or much about the contemporaries or influences, but the songs just imprinted themselves on my brain and didn’t let go. I wore out a cassette of this album, and was pleased to see that these hook-laden tunes caught up in a large way. The album?

Green Day’s “Dookie”.

About two years later, I bought another album on an impulse buy. Again, I didn’t know much about the artists’ contemporaries or influences, but the songs again grabbed ahold and refused to let go. The playing was impeccable and fast and frenzied. This time, however, absolutely nobody in any kind of proxymity to my age, ever listened.The album?

The Best of the Best of the Stanley Brothers.

What did this say about me? Well, probably that I was (and yet am) a very, very sick person. But mostly, it said what I’ve tried to explain a thousand times since– that punkpop and bluegrass are absolutely two sides of the very same coin. Much of what makes one work makes the other work– the music is fast and intense, songs fly by in two maybe two and a half minutes. The chords are simplistic and generally major, and are played with breakneck speed and intensity. The subject matter is sometimes eerily similar (death, alcohol, the devil) and sometimes eerily different (amphetamine abuse, sex, and masochism versus old standard hymns). The self-depreciation of “Basket Case” really isn’t that different from “If I Lose”. The self-loathing of “Longview” and “I Am A Man of Constant Sorrow” are from the same neighborhood, if not the same block. 

When I heard Green Day, it felt like an album I’d already heard somewhere. When I heard the Stanley Brothers, it felt like somebody speaking in a language that I had been born around, and then taken away from, never to even heard of it again. High and lonesome, if you could quantify it, is as doubtlessly in my bloodstream as hemoglobin or iron. It made a great deal of sense to me to learn that the Stanleys haled from a tiny town about 30 minutes from the one where I was born and lived until just before high school.

I was very interested to learn that Ralph Stanley, all 80-some odd years old of his hillbilly genius, recently recorded a series of radio ads for Barack Obama. I might say I was even surprised to see a notoriously old, rural and white endorse an obviously young, urban and African-American candidate. But if I’d thought about it, I’d have understood. Green Day has made its political vent well known (See “American Idiot” for one scathing indictment of the Bush world). Even if Billie Joe Armstrong and Ralph Stanley wouldn’t seem to agree on much, there is a commonality there. A few more blasted, speedy power chords and banjo breaks and a few good Democrats might just unite them together and start the party. Hey, I can dream, can’t I?


Yet another album that mattered/matters to me…

October 1, 2008

“One two three FAH”

It was that way that Paul McCartney leapt out of the speakers on the first Beatles record I loved, ironically enough the first Beatles record, at least for us poor Americans, “Introducing the Beatles”.

While I have very few regrets about the times in which I happened to be born and live, I am genuinely sorry on some level that I wasn’t alive in 1964, more accurately I guess that I wasn’t at least in mid-elementary school in 1964, so that the Beatles were a new phenomenon bursting onto the scene like so many supernovas, instead of being the Mount Rushmore of 20th century music. It is profoundly sad to me that neither I, nor most (maybe all?) of you reading or many other people, dead, living and yet unborn, will not have the experience of a NEW Beatles album.

But in a sense, around 1986 or so, I guess I did. And Introducing the Beatles was it. My Dad was never a collosal Beatles nut, like I would be. He had Introducing, as well as Meet the Beatles and Beatles ’65. And that was all. I saw a documentary about the Fabs and when I asked about them, it was “Introducing” the was put on the turntable.

Introducing was released on VeeJay records, which operated out of Chicago and was basically unfortunate enough to get saddled with American rights to the early Beatles records in the pre-Ed Sullivan Era, when the Beatles were as unfamiliar to the American public as bangers and mash for supper. VeeJay recouped its minor costs by selling 1.3 million copies of this album, mostly after the Ed Sullivan explosion.

The album is basically an Americanized (see bastardized) version of “Please Please Me”, the first British Beatles album. The version I heard had “Love Me Do” and “P.S. I Love You”, which were later cut due to some kind of legal problem, and then were replaced by “Please Please Me” and “Ask Me Why”. Since “Please Please Me” is one of my favorite Beatles singles, this would likely have bothered me, had my Dad not also had a 45 of “Please Please Me” backed with “Ask Me Why”, which I nearly wore the grooves out of, but I digress…

Four songs that still stand out from this album are the afore-quoted “I Saw Her Standing There”, “Baby It’s You”, “Do You Want to Know a Secret” and “Twist and Shout”. Mostly “Twist and Shout”. I liked the whole album, but I would play side two over and over again, just to get to the end to hear the vinyl grooves yield John Lennon tearing into his larynx as a sacrifice to rock and roll one more time.

It’s an album about being young, and about possibility and forward motion. It has some fairly lazy cover songs, and was recorded start to stop in one day. It matters to me because it was sort of my gateway drug into the Beatles, one musical addiction that I’ve never really thrown off and am pretty sure I never will. They were here before me, they’re still here with me, and they’ll be here long after I’m in the ground. And years and years on, whatever the new technology is, I hope there are still people out there listening to these same songs, and maybe amazed that these songs don’t bear the fingerprint of what it sounded like to be alive in 1963 as much as they just bear the fingerprint of what it sounds like to be alive period.