Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Human Shields, Vollmondbar, Basel, Sept. 23, 2010

My band Human Shields played the Vollmondbar in Basel last Thursday. It's the kind of place where some people come to hear the music, but most of the people have come to eat and drink and chat. I once had a terrible experience playing music at such a place, but at the Vollmondbar the sense that we were playing background music for most of the audience was actually pretty liberating, and we just relaxed and played and had a good time. I've rarely, if ever, had as much fun playing live music as I did there!

Setlist (all tunes by me unless otherwise noted)

First set

I Will Survive (the tune Gloria Gaynor made famous)

The Morning after the Night Before

Friend of the Devil (Garcia-Hunter; from the Grateful Dead)

Penny a Point

King Solomon

Raining (With the Sun in the Sky)

The Ferryman

Turned in Time (music by Markus Bachmann with my English version of his German lyrics)

Second set


Brain Damage (Roger Waters; from Pink Floyd)

Alisa's Bridge


Land without Nightingales

Spring in My Step

Triolet on a Line Apocryphally Attributed to Martin Luther (lyrics by A. E. Stallings)


You Know I Know

Third set

Gingerbread Blues

Trinklied (lyrics by Paul Celan)

Long Enough

Hair of the Cat

It's All Right With Me (Cole Porter)

Pale Horse

If I Had Known


Better Never Than Late

You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go (Bob Dylan)

By the time we were done with our three sets, we had played two songs new to our repertoire (Brain Damage and Trinklied), and we had played all but four of the songs we have ever played live! I was tired, but I still could have played more, thanks to the most powerful drug I know: adrenalin.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Garbage, Beautiful Garbage

Garbage, Beautiful Garbage

I've had this album on my iPhone for several weeks; a friend of mine gave it to me with a bunch of other stuff a while back. It's on my "songs" playlist, which I often listen to on shuffle, and as occasional Garbage songs kept coming up, I made a note to myself to listen to the whole album. And then shuffle presented with "Shut Your Mouth," and I liked the song so much that the album moved to the top of my listening list, and I listened to it while running yesterday.

"Shut Your Mouth" is the opener, and it is really good. The lyrics move at a fairly simply level, but they are biting, bitter and ironic enough to make more out of the simple text: "And the world spins by / With everybody moaning / Pissing, bitching and everyone is shitting / On their friends / On their love / On their oaths / On their honor / On their graves / Out their mouths / And their words say nothing / Shut your mouth / Try not to panic / Just shut your mouth / If you can do it." And the music: a thumping beat, effective distorted guitar, well-mixed vocals, a sinister overall feel. Good stuff.

But the rest of the album, frankly, makes "Shut Your Mouth" seem like an accident. The music is less interesting, the lyrics remain simple and sink into the worst kind of clichéd phrases, and the mix puts the words front and center so that you can't just ignore them and get into the groove. If Iron and Wine's lyrics are good enough to deserve more prominence in the mix, Garbage's lyrics should be downplayed, rather than emphasized!

Final analysis: one great song (I've been listening to it again while typing, and it's a great song!), and an otherwise boring record that even makes the great song seem weaker. (And the live video is nowhere near as good as the recording.)

Iron and Wine, "The Shepherd's Dog"

Simfy listening: Iron and Wine, The Shepherd's Dog

With its layers of mostly acoustic instruments and a touch of electric guitar, and with its haunting melodies and hypnotic mid-tempo grooves, this is a record for me to love. If I'm ambivalent about it, it has to do with the vocals: with how they are sung and how they are recorded. Samuel Beam (who is Iron and Wine; it's not a band name but his stage name) has a very soft, dreamy voice; he doesn't slur his words as many singers do, but he doesn't clearly articulate them either. And the vocals are recorded with a touch of reverb and closely sung background harmonies that further wash out the words. This singing and recording style contributes hugely to the album's trance-inducing effect—but the lyric love in me feels shortchanged. The bits that I do catch make it clear that there's some excellent lyric writing going on here—but in a sense the lyrics are sacrificed to the overall sound. That sound is wonderful, but I would still like to hear more of the words.

And presenting the lyrics less dreamily would not actually detract from the effect: on Iron and Wine's Around the Well, which I talked about here recently, it was the clarity of the words that made "Belated Promise Ring" stand out for me, without the song being any less hypnotic than the other songs on the album.)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

John Gallaher, Map of the Folded World

"You know the secret language," John Gallaher writes in "Your Golden Ticket," but the poems in Map of the Folded World are not in a secret language. There's nothing esoteric about them; they do not gesture towards hidden depths that demand subtle interpretation. Instead, they are surfaces on which a train of thought is skating, "suggestions, not depictions," as Gallaher writes in "What & Who & Where & What." The beginning of "The Universe is Incapable of Disappearance" strikes me as exemplary, as a statement leads to a series of qualifications and hedgings that generate a quite singular humor:

They keep talking about a road, but there never is a road,
and if there was, it would always be ending,
the way everything is always ending
unless you're of the mind that everything is always some sort of middle,
or some continual beginning
that rises and falls from a never quite completed something
that we're continually waking from
in a kind of polite vagueness.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Bright Eyes, "Lifted, or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground"

Bright Eyes, Lifted, or the Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground

The real reason that I have been commenting on albums lately is not that I started listening to albums on Simfy but that I started running regularly, and while I run I listen to albums on my iPhone (some on the iPod, some on Simfy). Since I keep making asides about Conor Oberst and Bright Eyes, I thought I'd listen to a Bright Eyes album while running and see whether I could come up with some coherent comments about it without just gushing about how fantastic I think CO and BE are. I chose the earliest CD I have by Bright Eyes as a starting point.

This turned out to be more difficult than I thought it would be, simply because I found so many things to comment on that I could not keep them all in mind while running! So I found the lyrics to the album on-line and put them all in a Word file and printed it out and read them, looking for themes I had noticed while running. Even then, I had too many passages to comment on! If Conor Oberst was a poet (well, he is, but that's a different issue), and I was doing literary criticism, I would look for the exemplary passages that stand for all the others, but this is my blog, so I don't have to be rigorous, and I've just picked out a few of my favorite bits.

In the first song, "The Big Picture," I laughed out loud at the line "don't go blaming your knowledge on some fruit you ate." Over and over again, Oberst picks up on Christian imagery to look at it from all sides and challenge it, and he almost always does so with this much wit. The end of "Waste of Paint," with the singer at choir practice at the cathedral, provides a kind of summary of this theme of the CD:

But when I lift my voice up now to reach them,
the range is too high, way up in heaven,
so I hold my tongue, forget the song,
tie my shoe, and start walking off,
and just try to keep moving on,
with my broken heart and my absent God,
and I have no faith, but it is all I want,
to be loved and believe in my soul, in my soul.

Oberst was 22 when this CD came out, and there are a few moments here where he shows his age, as it were, but here the specificity of the scene allows him to arrive at a very general, quite abstract conclusion that is fully grounded in the imagery. Here, music leads him to a clear statement of the problems he keeps addressing, but the music only clarifies, even heightens, the problems, without solving them.

The last lines of the CD, though, in the song "Let's Not Shit Ourselves (To Love and To Be Loved)," return to these themes:

But where was it when I first heard a sweet sound of humility?
It came to my ears in the goddamn loveliest melody.
How grateful I was then to be part of the mystery,
to love and to be loved. Let's hope that is enough.

The "conclusion" of the CD seems a bit flat, actually: we should "love and be loved," that's all that we need to do. But that flatness is offset not only by the uncertain hope that is actually the end of the CD but also by the rich and biting writing that precedes it. There is too much irony in Oberst's lyrics to allow the conclusion to flatten out what has come before it; in fact, the irony and imagery of the lyrics as a whole tend to undermine the possibility that "to love and to be loved" is "enough."

These lines also provide a conclusion to the album's theme of what music is for: the "loveliest melody" provides access to "a sweet sound of humility" and the experience of being "part of the mystery." At times, this theme is as hopeful as it is at the end, as here in "Bowl of Oranges":

But when crying don't help,
and you can't compose yourself,
it is best to compose a poem,
an honest verse of longing or a simple song of hope.

Here, and elsewhere on the album (and in Oberst's writing in general), I'm struck by how he represents what poetry is for: here, it is poetry as therapy, as a way to make up for not being able to "compose yourself." But the song concludes with a different understanding of art:

But if the world could remain within a frame like a painting on a wall,
then I think we would see the beauty.
Then we would stand staring in awe
at our still lives posed like a bowl of oranges,
like a story told by the fault lines and the soil.

This is a much different sense of art's purpose: not as therapy for the artist but as an experience for the recipient, as a frame for the world that makes it possible to "see the beauty" that is otherwise lost in the details. The "still lives ... like bowls of oranges" provide a sense of "awe" that make one think that "the goddamn loveliest melody" might be enough to redeem the world.

But "Waste of Paint" (the song that ends with the choir practice and the "absent God") provides another understanding of what poetry is for and what it "makes happen" (to finally refer to W.H. Auden, whose lines keep crossing my mind as I think about Bright Eyes):

As I hide behind these books I read,
while scribbling my poetry,
like art could save a wretch like me,
with some ideal ideology
that no one can hope to achieve,
and I am never real;
it is just a sketch of me,
and everything I made is trite and cheap
and a waste of paint, of tape, of time.

Here, the writing of poetry is not therapy, not an attempt to make up for being unable to "compose yourself," but it does not provide a sense of awe, either. The artist cannot see the work from the outside, cannot see the "bowl of oranges" in such a way that he is awed by it. The imagery may make me, as the listener, feel that sense of awe and wonder and humility that Oberst keeps circling around, but his own work only ends up feeling like a "waste" to him.

It's when Oberst does let the "bowl of oranges" speak for itself that he does his best writing. Here's a favorite passage of mine from the beginning of "Let's Not Shit Ourselves (To Love and To Be Loved)":

I've seen a child caught in the sad trap of gravity.
He falls from the lowest branch of the apple tree
and lands in the grass and weeps for his dignity.
Next time he will not aim so high.
Yeah, next time, neither will I.

This is all just a perfectly described scene with a deft little interpretation provided, but of course the scene is full of resonances that make it much more complex than the issue of how much ambition one should have, how high one should aim: the apple tree alone manages to connect Genesis and Isaac Newton. Even as Oberst says he will reel in his ambition because of what he has seen, the lines make clear just how ambitious he is, driven by the problem of "the absent God" and the "end of the world" as described by modern physics to try to find meaning for himself and others, in art and in love, hoping that is enough.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Trouble House

Swiss poet and rapper Jürg Halter (whose rap alias is Kutti MC) has a new band called Schule der Unruhe. I was just playing around with the idea of how to translate "Schule der Unruhe" into English with more assonance than "School of Restlessness," and I remembered my three-year-old niece telling me at great length about "Trouble House," the place you got sent if you were in trouble, and how I kept asking her if she could take me there, and how every time I asked her that it got farther and farther away.

What taxes are for

Wizard of Id

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Amit Majmudar, "0°, 0°"

"Inevitabilities found by accident" are what one should "look for in a ghazal," according to the final line of Amit Majmudar's ghazal "By Accident," and hte interplay between the inevitable and the accidental runs through his collection 0°, 0°—or how the accidental later seems to have been (or perhaps makes itself seem?) inevitable: "You can / Make anything sound predetermined just / By rhyming on it twice," he writes in "M. C. Escher and the Art of Tessellation," which suggest that poetry produces the sense of inevitability Majmudar keeps circling around, and that he's aware that that might be the case.

But there's something else going on here, too: Majmudar keeps looking at how things might seem if seen backwards, not from the accidental to the inevitable but the other way around. The Escher poem begins with a stanza about mathematicians:

Mathematicians make the toughest audience.
Your complexity has to arabesque a chalkboard
And then, with joyful slashes, above, below,
Cancel itself before their eyes. Simply put,
They expect you to write them a Paradise Lost
And then resolve it back to Genesis.

This provides a nice twist on Jorge Luis Borges's suggestion that the Odyssey could be read as a version of Ulysses [though I just checked "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" and discovered that I had misremembered it: he speculates on reading the Aeneid as having preceded the Odyssey], but it also marks how Occam's razor cuts away elaboration in favor of simplicity—sacrificing poetry to proof? Producing a reading of history based on its outcome? [Avoid Nietzsche digression here.]

Yet the source does not inevitably contain what flows from it, for accident must still play a role, and in "Merlin," Majmudar develops an elaborate conceit (Merlin living his life backwards) to arrive at a scene in which Merlin meets the first cave painter: "How will all he has witnessed / result from that stargazing hunter?" How does the accidental come to seem inevitable? "Answers for the Whirlwind" concludes with a passage that reads like an answer to that question:

Who paved roads when they found themselves blocked off
From one another by the wilderness
Who bruised their heels against the wilderness
Who named it tasted every leaf of it at least once
Who remembered which was medicine and which
Was food and which was poison shuffled with
The rest its green no different to the eye
Who sawed and sanded it to crib and casket
And who did that to the wilderness Lord God

With nothing but hands

Experimentation, memory, and technology lead from the stargazer to us; the work of hands turns accidents into inevitabilities.

But such a process does not necessarily involve progress; a dark thread of violence runs through Majmudar's book, at great length in "Letter to the Infantry" and "The Cherry Blossoms at Walter Reed," both of which address the Iraq war, and allegorically in "Michael Reminisces about the War." That's the Archangel Michael, and the war in question is the one between God's host and the fallen angels. The poem concludes with God and Michael celebrating their victory and their soldiers:

On the throne with a wineglass, He praised me
For discovering good little killers inside
Of those golden androgynous boys.

And in retrospect, of course, it seems inevitable that the "golden androgynous boys "had "good little killers" inside themselves, even it was accidents, not inevitabilities, that gave those killers life. The darkness in Majmudar's book is alleviated by his sensitivity to the accidental, unpredictable, human side of violence, all of which it makes it possible to choose or refuse it. And (even though the poem in question is called "The Miscarriage") he ends the book with "hope dry and brittle but intact." That hope is fragile, but it survives the accident that creates it, and ends up seeming inevitable.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Ani DiFranco, Evolve

Ani DiFranco is so prolific that I have ended up avoiding listening to her music for a long time, because I was somehow sure I would be so into it that I'd end up wanting to be a DiFranco collector (the way I am a Greg Brown collector or a Bill Frisell collector: with completist ambitions). Now I've finally started listening to her with this CD, Evolve, from 2003, and I was right: this music makes me want more. If this were a band, I could rave about the great singer and the great songwriter and the great guitarist and the great arrangements, and I'd be praising several different people, but it's all Ani D, and it's all fantastic. The songs are built around her guitar work (mostly acoustic, mostly superb fingerpicking), with some additional instruments added for most of the tracks; the instruments provide her with the foundation for her bold singing: she has a great voice, and she takes it everywhere she can. Favorite line, from "Slide":

The pouring rain is no place for a bicycle ride;
try to hit the brakes and you slide.

I was running when I listened to the album, and I heard this line and just knew the song was called "Slide." :-)

(This was not Simfy listening, but finally giving my full attention to something someone gave me a while back.)

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Iron and Wine, Around the Well

Simfy listening: Iron and Wine, Around the Well

So I've been pretty critical for the most part in my posts about what I've been listening to on Simfy, the streaming service that just started up in Switzerland two weeks ago. In part that's because I left out the one batch of music that totally thrilled me, Conor Oberst's two CDs under his own name (rather than with/as Bright Eyes). I find it hard to say anything about how utterly brilliant I think Oberst is ... It might just end up as boring gushing.

So I was listening to Iron and Wine's Around the Well while running today, and for a while, I thought, "Well, I can say good things about this: fine picking, excellent arrangements, good lyrics and melodies, the singing a bit too dreamy to really get my attention, but a strong record that makes me interested in hearing more."

But then came "Belated Promise Ring," and such cool, distanced praise went out the window. In fact, as soon as the song started, I thought, "Yes, this is a good one." Perhaps that was just because it was almost the first (or may even the first) song on the CD with drums on it, but it also just seemed fuller and richer and more complete from the start. And then the vocals come in:

Sunday morning, my Rebecca sleeping in with me again.
There's a kid outside the church kicking a can.
When the cedar branches twist, she turns her collar to the wind.
The weather can close the world within its hand.

This is just first-class writing. I've listened to the song at least three times since my run this afternoon, and it just gets better and better. And the song is good enough to make me want to hear more by this band (which, it turns out, is not a band but one guy, Samuel Beam, who goes by this name). [I tried to find an Iron and Wine version of the song on YouTube, but there are only a bunch of cover versions of it—which shows that others love the song as much as I do!]

Isobel Campbell and Mark Lonegan, Hawk

Simfy listening: Isobel Campbell and Mark Lonegan, Hawk

Here's another pairing I've heard great things about and am disappointed by. The album is atmospheric without building up any tension; it's surprising that a band with a singer (Lonegan) with such a dark voice seems so unthreatening, so bland. The beginning is especially dull, but I stuck it out and enjoyed the cover of "Time of the Season," and then things do pick up quite a bit at the end, culminating in a fine closer called "Lately." Still, given the hype, I sure expected more from these two.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Left Behind

And here's another poem worth a comment this morning, "Left Behind," by Kristin Berkey-Abbott, from qarrtsiluni. Lots of layers of resonance here, from miracles to rapture. I'm a bit hesitant about two of the line breaks ("hungry / families"; "mystical / theology"), but these breaks between adjectives and their nouns, though not very productive in the poem, are at least not distracting.

Tracking the Hurricane

Here's "Tracking the Hurricane," by W. F. Lantry, from The New Verse News, a poem that is as calm as the calm before the storm that it describes. I do have a quibble with it, though; commas would be helpful at the ends of the third and fourth lines of the second stanza:

or a day when everything has calmed
and the silence is like glass
still glowing orange from the forge [,]
small bits of rime forming around the walls [,]
each edge waiting to shatter,

But I have gathered over the years that many poets and readers of poetry don't mind having commas omitted at the end of lines (and often even prefer to leave them out there). For me, the absence of those two commas makes it distractingly difficult to parse the lines, which breaks up the poem's calming effect.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Alison Krauss, Forget About It

Alison Krauss, Forget About It

I first heard Alison Krauss singing backing vocals on Phish's Hoist, but I never got around to listening to any of her own CDs until a friend gave me her CD with Robert Plant, Raising Sand (another album with magnificent Marc Ribot guitar work on it). And I've never listened to any of her solo or Union Station CDs until today. What a voice she has! She likes slower tempos and melodies that give her room to linger on long notes. Really beautiful stuff. My favorite line (from "Could You Lie"):

Could you lie and say you love me just a little?

And check out the personnel list at the Wikipedia link above: Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, Lyle Lovett, Dolly Parton! Alison sure has a lot of talented friends!

Thursday, September 02, 2010

M Ward, Hold Time

Simfy listening: M. Ward, Hold Time

A friend of mine gave me a copy of M. Ward's Post-War a couple years ago (thanks, SJS!), and I liked it a lot, especially the wonderful "Rollercoaster." I'd also seen that Ward is part of Monsters of Folk with my current absolute favorite, Conor Oberst, so I thought I'd check out another CD of his. And it's a winner. The highlights for me are the gorgeous and completely startling covers of "Rave On" and "Oh Lonesome Me" (the latter featuring Lucinda Williams—I thought I recognized that voice when I heard the song while jogging today!) and Ward's "Stars of Leo" (with "Epistemology" also up there).

Ward does like to use rather stock phrases—but then he does things with them, as here in "Stars of Leo":

I get so low I need a little pick me up.
I get so high I need a bring me down.

Two poems at The Nepotist

Two poems of mine are featured today by The Nepotist. As the titles make clear, these contain explicit language (and explicit themes!): "Up Shit Creek" and "Cock and Bull." I'm flattered and humbled by the Nepotist's introduction to the two!

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

John Mellencamp, "No Better Than This"

Simfy listening: John Mellencamp, "No Better Than This"

As a kid, I was a big fan of John Cougar's "I Need a Lover," not as much because of the song itself but because of the great introduction to the song. And then he had his big moment in the limelight with "Jack and Diane," another tune I liked. But I haven't listened to anything by him in a long time. I was convinced to check out his latest when it was referred to in The New Yorker, and with Simfy I can easily check things out (simfy is something like Pandora in the US, I take it).

So I've listened to it once, and it's a very fine album that I'm going to listen to again: the sound of the record is fabulous (clean, simple folk-blues-country production), the playing is superb (somehow I knew before checking just now that Marc Ribot was on guitar here!), and the arrangements are varied enough to not get boring while also being consistent in sound and feel.

Still, my first reaction is to play with the title: "Why is 'No Better Than This' no better than this?" With one exception, my response to the lyrics was rather critical: they are good but not great. Too often, Mellencamp reaches for the standard lyrical turn from the folk-blues tradition, so that when he doesn't, on the stunning "Easter Eve" (the exception), it makes the "straightness" of the other tunes even more noticeable.

I have to admit I'm probably being unfair here, because I have been getting so into the magnificent Conor Oberst (and Bright Eyes) that almost all songwriting pales by comparison. But even without comparing Mellencamp to Oberst, I feel like he could have done "better than this" in the lyrics.

A streaming service changes how one thinks about music: do I want to own it for my collection? Do I want to listen to it again? Do I want to delete the album from my playlist right now? Those are the three basic responses. Here, at the moment, I'm with the middle of those: I'm going to listen to it again (and perhaps several more times after that, if only because of Ribot), but I don't think I'm going to buy it for my collection.

Oh, and there's also the category "songs to listen to again," and "Easter Eve" belongs in that one!