Sunday, October 18, 2015

Album of the Week: Something More Than Free, by Jason Isbell

The first time I saw Jason Isbell was at Knucklehead’s half a decade ago.  It was a heck of a show – he and Justin Townes Earle brought white-hot, coked-up energy.  They were both skinny, unhealthy looking, and incandescent with bad behavior and self-destruction.  It was a great show, though I’m a bit ashamed of the pleasure that I took in watching them thrash against whatever demons they were fighting.

At that time, it was pretty clear where Jason Isbell was headed, and it wasn't pretty.  He got kicked out of the Drive By Truckers, for Christ’s sake.   He was a crown prince of rowdiness.  

So what happens when your rowdy friend settles down? 

In Jason Isbell’s case, you come out with “Southeastern”, one of my favorite albums of all-time.  It’s a song of lonely roads that lead back to love.  Miserable nights that lead to a breathtaking sunrise.  Dangerous people who are more wounded than evil.  All set to beautiful guitar and gritty bass.  I love that album.

“Something More Than Free” is his next effort.  It’s a truly great album, though I don’t love it quite as easily as “Southeastern”.  If “Southeastern” was about finally heading in the right direction, “Something More Than Free” is more about figuring out how to live in a better place.  Frankly, the struggle to get there is a bit more edgy, a bit more threatening, and a lot more evocative.  At least it's simpler.

This album feels a bit calmer than its predecessor – fewer haunting guitar notes stretched taut.  Less intensity and more pensiveness.  It’s probably prettier than its older brother, but it’s harder to be sure exactly if that’s right.

The thing is, I’m not sure about where he’s really at, and that ambiguity makes a big difference in the way I hear the songs.  Take the first song, for example.  “If it Takes A Lifetime” can either be a barely-better-than-trite zippity-doo-dah song about living past addiction, or it might be a terrifying warning from a tortured soul.  I mean, “I don't keep liquor here, never cared for wine or beer/And working for the county keeps me pissin' clear/The nights are dry as dust, but I'm letting my eyes adjust/If it takes a lifetime” is a straightforward statement of sobriety and a determination to live a clean life, right?  But what about “Man is the product of all/the people that he ever loved/And it don't make a difference how it ended up/If I loved you once my friend, oh, I can do it all again/If it takes a lifetime.”  I’ve seen reviewers take that as making amends and a tip of the hat to the people he’s left behind  - but what if it isn’t?  I can see it also as a reference to his addiction as something that he’s loved, and he can do it all again.

The more I listen to this album (and that’s been quite a bit), the more I see subtle moral ambiguity and struggle.  It’s not as clean and sharp as “Southeastern”, though – it’s not about trying to get right; it’s about trying to stay right.  Maybe there’s a bit less urgency, but there might be more real struggle and soul.  It’s a haunting, important album by one of the country’s best songwriters.

Over at Deliberate Obfuscation, Robin is just damned happy to be listening to her Jason Isbell.  It's an understatement to say she appreciates him, but her review is a more straightforward appreciation of an album we agree is truly great.

Next up: Ryan Adams, 1989

Saturday, July 25, 2015

An Elegy for My Fantasy Baseball Team

My 2015 Fantasy Baseball team has not performed anywhere near the lofty expectations that were established on draft night. In the happy moments of draft night, "Melky Way Galaxy" seemed like a pretty sure thing. Solid pitching, strong bats, and a healthy blend of veterans with exciting rookies of untold potential. As owner of this freshly assembled group of athletes, I left the draft feeling confident and even, perhaps, a bit arrogant.

Now, well past midway in the season, my team stands in last place of its division, and nearly last in the league.  I don't think I am mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, but math isn't my strong point.

Of course, I take much of the blame on myself. At the beginning, I was an attentive manager, shifting players on and off the bench according to number of games to be played in the next week, hitting streaks, and strength of opponents. Perhaps the high point of the season came in the second or third week, when my managerial skills let us to a five point victory over a stronger, but less intensely managed team.  Bu then came managerial debacles like sitting in a Monday afternoon meeting and suddenly realized that I had not set my line-up, resulting in healthy players on the bench while red "DTD" or "DL15" designations adorned my starting line-up.

But not all the blame belongs to me. Lately, my team goes out and just doesn't show the hustle or love of the game that I expect of professionals. My rookies have floundered, and I blame my veterans for not giving them leadership. True, I may have deflated the team somewhat when I cut the eponymous Melky Cabrera and replaced him with a hot hitting outfielder who turned out to merely be streaky.

But what is going on in the clubhouse? How can Cody Anderson put up -5.5 points against the Brewers after having been on a streak? And why has Todd Frazier failed to help out David Peralta with some swing tips? It seems like my team goes out on their various fields every night without any sense of burning passion to win one for me and the Melky Way Galaxy.  When I see the members of some of the better teams in my league, such as Dick Howser M.D. and Gattis Great Gattis Good take the field, you can just sense that they know they are playing for a higher cause than their MLB team. They have a sense of spirit, because they are united to help a fantasy team in my league.  Sometimes, I think I see them winking to each other across dugouts. 

I won't give up. With a 4 and 10 record, I stand little chance of catching the leader of my division, L'Infante Terrible, but I can still bring up my total points past some of my fellow cellar dwellers, such as Not George Brett's Pants, and Moustakis Is Loose. My fantasy team has suffered much so far this year, but I hope that this experience will drive them to make 2016 a better year with an underdog spirit.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

A Sonnet - Kansas City Royals Lose the World Series, 2014

Kansas City Royals Lose the World Series, 2014

Two outs, ninth inning, down by one, game seven
Gordon’s line drive skips free in center field
One run would tie the game – our baseball heaven
Could still be reached, decades of loss be healed.

The city watched as Gordon rounded first
Then second, as the ball rolled in center, free.
He might or might not make it home!  Then fans cursed.
He stopped.  The next batter was out number three.

The forefathers of Kansas City fans
Boldly left the East coast for a fresh start
And opportunity in western lands
But only got half way, saw plains, lost heart.

When Gordon stopped, he opened an old wound.

Could they have made it?  Did they stop too soon?

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Too Bright, by Perfume Genius, (Album of the Week)

I’m glad it took us a couple weeks to write our review of “Too Bright” by Perfume Genius, because my thinking has evolved miles from my first impressions.  Honestly, this review is going to be more about me than it will be about the music, but, in my defense, I think that is exactly what Perfume Genius is aiming for.  Perfume Genius is looking to produce reactions at least as much as sound. 

On first listen, I enjoyed the slick production, catchy melodies and the beautiful vocals, but I rolled my eyes a bit.  The album is focused on the homosexuality of Michael Hadreas, the solo artist behind “Perfume Genius”.  The album cover itself looks like an amalgamation of David Bowie covers, and the near-falsetto voice sings songs like “Queen”. 

I’m sorry, but here’s the initial reaction of a white, middle-aged straight , male liberal – “I don’t think being gay is as interesting anymore as he thinks it is.”  In a day when marriage equality is rolling through the states like Germany rolling through Poland, in a city with a gay Country-Western bar, and an environment where athletes, sit-com characters and politicians are openly gay, isn’t a bit late to the party to come out with an album obsessing about being gay?

In other words, aren’t we post-homophobic?  (Kind of like we’re post-racist?)

In other words, can’t you just be quiet about it, Michael Hadreas? 

In other words, you’re pushing my buttons, Michael Hadreas, playing me like the piano and making me, gasp, realize that my shallow “I’m okay, you’re okay” acceptance of homosexuality isn’t all that far removed from quiet bigotry.  I might not be spewing hatred like Westboro Baptists, but I’ve still got some growing to do. 

Enough about me and my confessional – there’s a lot of great music on this album.  It opens with “I Decline”, a carefully arranged piece with gentle piano and soaring synthesizer and slow lyrics.  “Queen”, the next song, draws a bunch of musical hooks together to have some fun.  “No family is safe/when I sashay”, he brags in a skewering of the anti-marriage-equality folk, before playing with the fears of those who oppose allowing gay people to serve in the military – “Casing the barracks/For an ass to break and harness into the fold”.

For a solo artist, Perfume Genius brings a variety of sounds.  “No Good”, a sad song about the difficulty of building a real love in the furtive gay world, has a distinct Avett Brothers sound, and “Don’t Let Them In” drops his voice down a couple notches and he sounds a bit like Jake Bugg.  You won’t be bored by the sounds on this album – it’s fresh, inventive, and professionally produced.

Over at Deliberate Obfuscation, Robin appreciates the creativity and the boldness of Michael Hadreas, without my initial narrow-mindedness.  Later in the summer, we will get the chance to see Perfume Genius live.

The closing lyrics of this album could have been written directly to me, and those, like me, who might feel just a twinge of deeply-buried, ugly discomfort on hearing this well-composed, beautiful album:

I don't need your love
I don't need you to understand
I need you to listen

This is definitely an album worth listening to.

Next up:  Rips, by Hex Ex

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Larry McMurtry's Birthday - 6/3/36

"if you wait, all that happens is that you get older."

Of course I wanted to quote my favorite line of McMurtry dialogue, delivered when Gus McRae was accused by his friend, a prostitute, of cheating when he won a draw of cards,obligating her to provide her services for free.  Without admitting or denying the offense, Gus observed, "A man who wouldn't cheat for a poke don't want one bad enough."

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Way Out Weather, by Steve Gunn (Album of the Week)

Steve Gunn’s album, “Way Out Weather”, is impressive without being showy, catchy without a single hook, and mellow without being dull.  It’s also like s whole guitar store playing at once – many of the songs feature picking, strumming, sliding and fingering guitars working together to build a sound that is somehow always comfortable and controlled.

Many of the songs swell from a single guitar into a wall of sound, but the instruments step in so naturally that you don’t notice until suddenly you’re in the middle of a rock song jamming to a a full band.  It’s well-crafted, lush and welcoming. 

Unlike last week’s Dwight Yoakam album, there’s not a song here that will make you want to belt our your own version in the car or shower.  This isn’t a case of lyrics plus music equaling a song – the lyrics are part of the sound, and the whole thing fits together. 

This is a moody album, with a hint of foreboding but not a lot of action.  It is atmospheric and pensive.  You catch an occasional line of the lyrics murmured, but in at least 5 listens, I never caught enough to get a sense of what the lyrics were really saying.  That’s not to say that they’re not good lyrics – “Never look down at what you need to do” appears in the final track, and you get the sense that Steve Gunn takes pride in his workmanship without feeling the need to scream into a microphone. 

With the relaxed pacing and intricate instrumentals, this album recalls to me long hours of sitting around a dorm room listening to Steve Winwood or the Dead, enjoying the company of friends and perhaps a mood enhancer.  There’s nothing here to harsh the mellow.

I read a review somewhere refer to this album as “mope folk”.  I don’t think that’s a fair description, but I know what he means.  Gunn tends to drop his voice at the end of lines as though lapsing back into quiet is as important as speaking.  It’s the opposite of “up-talking”,  and it lends a world-weary inflection to the songs. 

Several of the songs hint at environmental concerns, and the album cover features a huge stack of refuse, but there’s not going to be a call to action in this mellow collection of songs.  Instead of “fight the power!”, you get more of a head shake and a mumbled “bummer” out of this effort.

If you want an album you can shut your eyes to and just listen to sonic layers of well-worked guitar, you will love this one.  I’m going to a festival this summer where he will be performing, and I am really looking forward to seeing him live.  He’s a hell of a musician, and I bet the crowd will be a real trip.

Over at Deliberate Obfuscation, Robin writes an amazingly similar review.  We didn’t discuss this album at all before writing our pieces, but you could accuse us of plagiarism in our write-ups.  Too funny!

Next up:  Too Bright, by Perfume Genius

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Dwight Eisenhower on Daily Goals

"Unless each day can be looked back upon as one in which you have had some fun, some joy, some satisfaction-that day is a loss." Dwight Eisenhower

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Mark Twain on Worry

"I am an old man, and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened." - Mark Twain

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Clara Barton Founded the Red Cross Today in 1881

"I may sometimes be willing to teach for nothing, but if paid at all, I shall never do a man's work for less than a man's pay."

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Second Hand Heart, by Dwight Yoakam (Album of the Week)

I may as well admit straight-out that I like Dwight Yoakam.  I’ve liked him ever since one of his songs showed up on a mix tape given to me be a musically sophisticated friend. It might have been “Fast as You”, or maybe “Thousand Miles from Nowhere”, but I remember being shocked that I was hearing twangy country music amidst the latest hits from England and New York.  I hated it – for about a minute.  Then I loved it, and I still do.

If you’ve listened to Dwight Yoakam before, his latest album isn’t gonna change your mind about him.  It’s another platter of broken hearts, tough luck and skepticism.  In the up-tempo opening song, he promises that all the hurts of love will disappear, not in his arms, but “in another world”. 

In the second song, “She”, he sings that a woman won’t show you what’s really going on in her heart, and it’s not till the song’s half way through that the “you” being addressed isn’t a general term – it’s an individual, and the “she” shows the truth in her eyes to the singer.  It’s no longer a general complaint about the difficulty of communication between men and women; it’s a tale of betrayal and hidden love. 

If it weren’t for broken hearts, Dwight Yoakam might not have much to sing about.  By the third track – the title track – two world-weary souls are warily contemplating giving love a try, though she suggests “It’s better off just not to start/Than to have to watch us fall apart.”  By the end of the song, though, she’s recalling that when she “trusted love I dreamed in color too . . .” and you know that the hard-won cynicism is buckling under the pressure of a yearning “Second Hand Heart”. 

There are nine songs of heartbreak on this album, but the closing song is a delightful hymn to hope.  The singer sees “blue skies and sunshine up ahead” and knows that “even fallen angels need shelter from the harm.” 

If that sounds like a tedious dose of misery, you haven’t heard the way that Dwight Yoakam can bend his voice and work his guitar.  It’s not a subtle parlor game to guess at some of his inspirations – Buck Owens, Elvis Presley, and Buddy Holly  live on in Dwight Yoakam’s memory and voice.  Each song sounds fresh and individual, but securely sewn into the fabric of the album. 

Over at Deliberate Obfuscation, Robin recalls the great show that Dwight Yoakam put on for us at the Forecastle Fest in Louisville last summer, and generously tolerates my tendency to sing along with some of my favorites.  (My version of “The Heart that You Own” will bring tears to your eyes, one way or the other.)  She proclaims herself a fan, and I have duets to look forward to on our road trips.

How can I have anything but praise for an album that I know will make my cherished road trips with my wife even better?

Next up:  Way Out Weather, by Steve Gunn