Friday, August 29, 2008

Music Review - J. Matthew Gerken, Christian Kiefer, and Jefferson Pitcher - Of Great and Mortal Men: 43 Songs for 43 U.S. Presidencies

It’s about damn time someone wrote a song with William Henry Harrison as its main subject. Authored by musicians J. Matthew Gerken, Christian Kiefer, and Jefferson Pitcher, Of Great and Mortal Men: 43 Songs for 43 U.S. Presidencies is an ambitious and imaginative effort that explores the mythology and nature of the American presidency and the men who have inhabited that office. Ranging from songs of genuine sympathy to those of scathing criticism and satire, it’s worthwhile listening for both music fans and those die-hard Millard Fillmore lovers still out there.

Originally conceived as part of February Album Writing Month in 2006, the demos created for that project were eventually pounded and shaped into this current three-CD set, with additional songs added. Somewhat reminiscent of Sufjan Stevens’ various “States” albums, it’s an overall success in the dangerous landmine that is the concept album. Artistic license is taken but within a defined historical context and with supporting historical details. And with contributions from artists like Califone, Bill Callahan, Marla Hansen, Alan Sparhawk, Rosie Thomas, and others, it boasts more collaborations than a Justin Timberlake record.

A variety of character portraits emerges throughout the album. With an emphasis placed on the cruelties and acts of violence committed under specific administrations in the name of progress or destiny, the musicians offer some harsh criticisms for several presidents. In “Benevolence,” Andrew Jackson is portrayed as an unapologetic killer, with God and destiny used to justify his actions against the Cherokee Nation: “I told them we would come and I did it and that left half less animals to feed. You have to understand: We were moving on and destiny had ways to rule the land from one sea to the next. And I did it and they stood in the way of God’s whole plan.” Zachary Taylor is likewise depicted in “Rough and Ready” in similar terms: “Mexico, here I come to tear the line down! Here I come to steal all of your land! With six thousand men I’ll take your twenty down and start this war.”William Henry Harrison receives similar treatment; behind a sparse piano, the president’s premature death is viewed as revenge for his treatment of Native Americans: “The pneumonia will claim his lungs tonight…He will lay there just as dead as smelt. And the Whigs will wither up and die forevermore; well deserved.”

Other presidents are depicted as, well, egotistical bastards and as silver-tongued as a swampland salesman. Backed by a colonial marching tune, Washington Dreams of the Hippopotamus paints a decidedly unflattering account of the first president. Part swindler and part schemer, Kiefer’s Washington reeks of cynicism and political expediency: ‘“It is devoutly wished on my part that these precedents may be fixed on principles,”’ I said and those dumb asses believed me. With their powdered wigs and piggy eyes: Believed me.” Likewise, Chester Arthur, finding himself president after James Garfield’s assassination in 1881, is imagined in “The Epitome of Dignity” as an NFL-quality trash-talker who really doesn’t seem too bothered by his predecessor’s sudden death: “Oh hell yes. Now I am the president, but they’re on me like flies on shit… Oh Abraham, you got nothing on me. Just take a look at Chester! Aren’t I so beautiful?”

Other presidents are mocked as hapless and unfit for the job. Herbert Hoover, surveying the wreckage caused by the Great Depression, is derided as a clueless “dummy” unfit to counter the effects of the Depression. James Buchanan is similarly helpless, unable to stem the tide that would lead to the Civil War. In “God Will Strike You Down,” all he can muster is a plaintive admission of “what a mess we’re in…A war it will come to bury lonely me.”

Yet there are some genuine moments of compassion that offset the cynicism that runs through many of the songs. As successor to William Henry Harrison after his death by pneumonia in 1841, John Tyler is viewed with pity in “Hindsight Falls on Deaf Ears.” Sung by Bill Callahan and featuring minimal violin and guitar, Tyler admits that “in my darkest thoughts I never really wanted any of this.” Several others beg for a different life as they look back on their time as president. Jefferson Pitcher’s Harry Truman wishes for a simpler life as a clothing salesman after the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. In the mandolin song “Suits and Fine Trousers vs. Hiroshima,” Truman is a mess of conflicting emotions: “And where will they bury all of the bodies? I feel so sick inside. But every night I will pray that I have done the right thing. Oh God, forgive me. And ruin will rain down. Ruin will rain down on them…Will I rot in hell? Oh what was I thinking?” Lyndon Johnson confronts the legacy of his presidency – war in Vietnam, riots in Detroit, and the Great Society ultimately a failure – and alternately recalls his badass younger days (“1957. I was on top of the world. I’d corner them in the cloakroom and watch them shaking in their shoes”) and begs his wife to take him home to his ranch.

The presidents that receive complete praise are few and far between. Richard Nixon is held up as a paragon of virtue and morality, and as a man helpless to halt the corruption of those around him, in “2 Under Par Off the Coast of Africa” (just kidding – Nixon finds himself shamed and disgraced in San Clemente, imagining a round of golf with Napoleon). Perhaps not surprisingly, FDR and John F. Kennedy receive the most praise. Between some provocative swipes at today’s GOP and conservatives, Gerken describes FDR as motivated by “improving the world for people and earth. Now, we all know that government can be a force of good.” Kennedy is viewed as an honorable and visionary man (“the spirit and soul of all that is good fell for this man”) whose death altered the future of American politics (“I imagine two whole terms and then Bobby for two more. There would never have been a Nixon nor Ford…”).

For the most part, the music compliments the lyrics very well. Acoustic and electric guitars, saxophones, pianos, banjos, violins, and violas are used often, and combine to set the appropriate tone for each song. “It Was Foreshadowed Here: The Beginning of The End” uses a slow acoustic guitar accented with piano as Gerken dismisses the first Bush administration with a terse “history will be very cruel.” The melodies are also nice; the U.S. Grant song “Helicopters above Oakland” is perhaps the finest of the set.

There are some occasional flaws in the album’s execution. Sometimes the lyrics don’t quite fit into the space of the music and thus subvert the melody to get a point across; songs about Teddy Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Van Buren (“capitalism explored political liens and the inherent internal contradictions therein”) most noticeably suffer from this. Though most of the vocals are warm and upfront, occasional distorted or distant vocal arrangements detract from the album’s mostly-consistent style. The John Quincy Adams song “Death In the Speaker’s Room” is one such case.

The album’s packaging is also worth mentioning. A lengthy hardcover book includes each song’s lyrics as well as the writers and performers for each song. Even better, the book contains images of the presidents from 43 different artists; many of these compliment the themes of the various songs. Nicole Roberts’ artwork for Bush Junior consists of an outline of the state of Texas in the colors of the American flag, along with a crown, church, spouting oil, and rows of gravestones. Trystan Bates’ humorous drawing of Jimmy Carter shows the former president as an alien being beamed up to home planet, in keeping with the song’s lyrics (“Oh Jimmy boy. Soon your people will come to take you home. They will crash through the atmosphere tonight and we earth people will sadly wave goodbye”). For his piece on Herbert Hoover, Bart Woodstrup forgoes a portrait of the Depression-era president in favor of a bleak painting that consists of a barren landscape, a single brown shack, and rows and rows of faceless (and presumably unemployed) men beneath a giant, empty spoon.

As an artistic interpretation of both the highs and lows of the American presidency, as well as the nature of the presidency itself and the mythology of the men who held that office, Of Great and Mortal Men is a fascinating and thought-provoking concept album. Although the album should not be interpreted as a purely objective history – plenty of artistic licenses are taken, which could twist a few wigs (no pun intended) – it’s still an excellent examination of the presidency and, perhaps more, how presidents have shaped both America’s history and the lives of her citizens.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Comedy Review - Mitch Hedberg - Do You Believe In Gosh?

Recorded about two months prior to his death in March of 2005, Do You Believe In Gosh? is comedian Mitch Hedberg’s first posthumous release. Only 37 years old at the time of his death in a New Jersey hotel room, it’s still likely a bitter and depressing pill for his fans to swallow.

Hedberg’s on-stage persona was unique: wearing sunglasses and often times performing with his eyes closed or with his hair in front of his face (a way to manage stage fright was the usual explanation), he delivered his jokes in an odd slacker cadence that could make the most banal aspects of life seem hilarious. Topics ranging from how Do Not Disturb signs are misleading (“Do…I get to disturb this guy…Not…Shit!”) to what’s enjoyable about golf (“I didn’t get a hole in one, but I did hit a guy. And that’s way more satisfying”) to sheer laziness (“I sit at my hotel at night. I think of something that’s funny, then I go get a pen and I write it down. Or if the pen’s too far away, I have to convince myself that what I thought of ain’t funny”) were fair game. And to think that the current crop of redneck/hoosier comedians will probably be inflicting their particular brand of torture on audiences for another 30 years before they’re called to that great trailer park in the sky.

In some ways, Gosh is markedly different from the comedian’s previously released shows. Most notably, it contains a large batch of jokes Hedberg was working on at the time of his death; these jokes will most likely not be familiar to listeners (some jokes were performed in various shows prior to this 2005 show). The performance is also far less polished – if a Hedberg performance could ever really be called that – than the shows captured on Mitch All Together. Occasionally it’s clear that some of the jokes are works in progress; at one point the comedian even comments that some still need work. There’s also more audience interaction on Gosh than on Hedberg’s previously released shows. In one exchange, Hedberg mishears a heckler’s name as “Phil” and asks if he works at a gas station (think about it for a minute).

Yet this release still has all the hallmarks of Hedberg at his finest: comments about his own abilities as a performer, random observations about everyday life and its absurdities, wry asides and non-sequiturs, and a very subtle bastardization of words and their connotations. He jokes at the start of the performance that after a bad show he gave at the Improv the previous night, the letter “E” had been added to the end of the venue’s name; later he says that comedy is part of his “get rich slow scheme…and it’s working.”

The names people attach to objects are skewed in a manner that’s either completely idiotic or brilliant, depending on one’s point of view, with Hedberg commenting that a “fly is very close to being called a land.” Hedberg takes common phrases and their well-known meanings and intentionally misunderstands them, asking whether a hippopotamus is just a really cool “opotamus,” joking that he had a piece of Carefree gum but was still worried, stating that he’s tired of soup of the day and that it’s time for “soup from now on, and joking that people in Venice have “canal smarts,” not street smarts.

Some of the jokes seem ridiculously obvious or silly, yet they remain damn funny even after hearing them several times. Hedberg’s drink of choice in this performance is Nyquil on the rocks, since he’s “feeling sick but sociable.” He comments that “where are they now?” shows should be about people who are easy to find (“Where’s Jay Leno? Still in Burbank”), describes a burrito as a “sleeping bag for ground beef,” explains that “when you wear glasses and talk to someone you always think they’re outside of a window,” and says that a sheet lying on the floor of his hotel was simply a ghost that had passed out.

Despite the many laughs, this release still carries a definite sense of loss with it. Though no one will likely ever really know what prompted the drug use that eventually led to Hedberg’s death – speculating is pure BS armchair psychology – what’s clear is that his death cut short the career of one of the most creative, inventive, and original comedians in many years.

For both long-time Hedberg fans as well as those unfamiliar with his routine, Gosh is essential listening and an excellent document of the comedian at his best.

Music Review: Giant Sand - proVISIONS

“Every girl is like a pearl/hearts strung along and then left stranded/this world is worn, all frayed and torn” Howe Gelb sings on “Stranded Pearl,” the opening track on proVISIONS, Giant Sand’s first album in nearly four years. A slow, brooding song ostensibly about a woman and a glass-eyed soldier whose relationship to each other is vague, it sets the tone for most of the country-tinged tunes that follow. An album that establishes a definite somber tone – crying in your beer is perfectly understandable in this case – it evokes isolation and restlessness as Gelb’s characters head toward various personal defeats.Images of hard travel and its cruel byproduct, loneliness, run through several songs. Gelb’s characters find themselves stuck on the fringes of an unnamed place in an unnamed town, knee deep in the dark stuff. The narrator in “Out There” admits with detachment that he’s “just so home sick/and just so sick of home.” The song provides little hint of resolution, only an acknowledgement of mortality for someone who will become “all grey and faded/all worn and jaded.” Similarly, “Spiral” deals heavily in despair and a hint of apocalyptic and wartime foreboding. Against a backdrop of sparse piano and even sparser background singing, Gelb says that “there’s a lot of people out there having a hard time tonight/among the whispers of revolution and shouts of hang on tight/a lot of crippled hearts out there, some will never mend.”

Other songs take a more sinister turn. “Pitch and Sway,” heavy with political undertones, lets the listener know that some serious shit is about to go down: “way out on the horizon there’s a monsoon waiting… with the darkness here prevailing even stars are taking cover/the sheets held up once for sailing are going to bury another.” The song also features a melodic instrumental break that heightens its overall tension. Even the closing line of “stand up and face your fears in stormy atmospheres” on final track “Well Enough Alone” comes across more like a warning than a statement of perseverance or bravery.

Perhaps because of his background (Gelb is based in Tucson), close ties to “southwestern” bands like Calexico, or the lengthy list of musicians he’s inspired, Gelb is often wrongly characterized as an poster boy or city father. With songs that incorporate various musical styles and for the most part are not explicitly set in the American Southwest (though that very famous of tragic towns, Galveston, makes an appearance), the album is in many ways more expansive that previous Giant Sand releases and should dispel that image of Gelb in some fans’ minds.

With assists from Isobel Campbell (“Stranded Pearl”), M. Ward (the well-worn trucker tale “Can Do”), and New Pornographer and sometime lingerie auctioneer Neko Case (“Without a Word”), Giant Sand’s proVISIONS is an atmospheric, layered album about loss and isolation. Though a wry sense of humor sometimes tries to punch through (“don’t want to live forever but another generation would be nice,” Gelb dryly jokes on “Spiral”), the overall tone of the album is one of loss and defeat. Rarely has such bleak subject matter sounded so good.

Book Review: The Indie Band Survival Guide - The Complete Manual for the Do-It-Yourself Musician by Randy Chertkow and Jason Feehan

If your grand musical plan to jump start your career is to win American Idol and enter into a life of indentured servitude to a mega conglomerate, ignore Randy Chertkow and Jason Feehan’s The Indie Band Survival Guide. However, if you’re an independent musician without a label who feels your unique blend of goth-thrash-folk-punk-polka could reach an audience if you only knew how to go about it, consult this book. Covering topics such as setting up an effective website, creating and maintaining a consistent brand and message, getting your music recorded, distributed, and heard at a global level, getting booked for live shows, shaping and conducting an effective PR campaign, and navigating various copyright and publishing legal landmines, Chertkow and Feehan’s detailed and well organized book is essential reading for both veteran and budding independent musicians.The two authors certainly have the experience and background to craft such a book. As members of the Chicago-based band Beatnik Turtle, they have recorded 18 albums, written music for films and the idiot box, and licensed music to the ABC Family Channel, all without the support (or interference) of a record label. The authors bring this real-world experience to their logically structured and easy-to-navigate book.

The impact of the Internet on independent musicians — and specifically how it has revolutionized how people discover, discuss, and consume music — forms the backbone of much of the authors’ tips for succeeding as an independent musician. Chertkow and Feehan persuasively show how the Internet can play a major role in enabling musicians to get their music heard by a global audience, instead of just being a vast wasteland where a pervert might try to lure you somewhere. They systematically show how the Internet is a powerful tool in everything from getting an artist’s music heard via podcasts, blogs, and other new media, to developing and maintaining important relationships with music venues, promoters, and journalists. One of the more interesting points the authors make is that the independent musicians should consider focusing on niche media, markets, and websites when trying to get their music heard and publicized. This means that while your concept album about a small-town necrophiliac who was just elected county coroner might get ignored on iTunes, it might find a dedicated — if demented and incredibly disturbed — following if targeted to a specific Internet audience. As a real life, and non-offensive example, the authors describe how a song they wrote about the movie Star Wars led to a video mash-up that received over 15,000 plays at the movie’s official website.

An underlying argument that runs throughout the book is that musicians do not need a record label to cultivate a loyal fan base. Certainly the authors’ success with their own band supports this assertion. However, it should also be noted that the authors have a professional background that is likely far stronger than that of other musicians: Chertkow is an IT professional in a Fortune 100 company, and Feehan is a practicing attorney. This combination of tech and legal savvy is probably not the norm for independent musicians; many of the ones I’ve met over the years have a hard enough time remembering to put on deodorant in the morning. For some musicians, the support of a record label might be a welcome avenue for getting their music distributed and concerts booked; it should also be noted that today’s “best known” indie bands are signed to labels.Despite a few other minor flaws -- the book doesn’t contain an index and the authors plug the book’s website many, many times -- The Indie Band Survival Guide is a complete and comprehensive guide that can benefit all independent musicians.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Music Review - The Baseball Project - Vol. 1: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails

As the story goes, in 1992 Steve Wynn (Dream Syndicate) and Scott McCaughey (Minus 5 and Young Fresh Fellows) met for the first time in the bathroom of a concert venue in Seattle. They eventually discovered a shared interest in baseball and planned to create an album that focused on the sport’s history and players. Of such chance and borderline sanitary encounters are great ideas born.

15 years later – the duration of some American League games these days – the duo began writing and recording the album that would finally be released in 2008 as Vol. 1: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails. Rounded out with drummer Linda Pitmon (Giant Smog) and Peter Buck (you know the band), the album contains mostly narrative songs about baseball’s history and folklore, and, variously, its legendary, eccentric, or otherwise tragic players. Incorporating musical styles like folk, pop, and indie (the haunting and melodic song “Fernando” includes a bit of each), the album is alternately humorous and poignant.

On its surface, the album is a true geekfest for hardcore baseball fans, who might enjoy the album more than those not familiar with the players and stories recalled in the songs. If the number of obscure players recounted here is any indication, Wynn and McCaughey clearly know their baseball past and present and could probably field a seriously badass fantasy team. “Harvey Haddix” is a damn funny tune that questions the definition of success and name checks all 17 pitchers who have thrown a perfect game. It’s probably also the first time Cy Young and Addie Joss have been mentioned in the same song. Another song explores the death of Ed Delahanty, a big swinging, hard-drinking, and skull-busting player who died under mysterious circumstances at Niagara Falls in 1903. Songs about more widely-known figures like Satchel Paige, Ted Williams, and Jackie Robinson provide some relief for those with only a cursory knowledge of the game’s history.

Yet it’s not accurate to dismiss the album as a pure vanity or one-off project solely about baseball. Many of the songs evoke larger themes and universal emotions by simply using baseball’s history and mythology as a backdrop.

Several songs explore how a public figure’s persona and legacy are shaped by both fellow players and the public. “Gratitude (for Curt Flood)” is written from the point of view of the former Cardinals player, who successfully challenged the reserve clause that prevented players from becoming free agents. And boy, is he pissed; the song finds Flood unrecognized, unappreciated, and ignored by the game’s current millionaires: “On the day that I died and they laid me in the ground where was everybody? They couldn’t be found. I’m gone and they don’t know my name. No plaque, no speech, no hall of fame.”

Similarly, “Broken Man” takes a largely sympathetic approach to the story of former slugger and hulking wall of muscle Mark McGwire, who went from being baseball’s savior as he chased and eventually shattered Roger Maris’ home run record in 1998 to an outcast after his evasive and embarrassing showing during the Senate’s steroid investigation confirmed his guilt to many.

Other songs are heavily saturated with nostalgia and mortality. Opening track “Past Time” invokes the names of players from past eras and subtly questions baseball’s relevance in our current era (and also features a nice rhyme of “the Dimaggios, Shoeless Joe, Minnie Minoso, and Yo La Tengo”). “Long Before My Time” finds a still-young Sandy Koufax aged beyond his 30 years, struggling to decide whether to retire and questioning what the game has really given him: “The summer game has let me down, standing lonely on the mound. A crossroads only I can see between oblivion and destiny.”

Standout track “Sometimes I Dream of Willie Mays” continues these themes as it contrasts the narrator’s fond memories of going to games with his father to see Mays in his 1965 prime with seeing Mays in 1973, when the outfielder’s skills had greatly diminished. It’s a layered and complex song; the narrator looks back at these games with both fondness and a twinge of sadness. The aging figure of Mays serves as a reminder that those days are long gone.

The album’s liner notes and design also deserve mention. The liner notes provide sufficient historical background to the songs and thus add much-needed information for those who don’t know Frank Viola from Frankie Valli; after all, Harvey Haddix and Ed Delahanty aren’t exactly household names. The album’s design is likewise superb. Clever without being overly cute, the back cover lists the song order like a manager’s lineup card, and also has each band member’s name included on their own vintage Topps baseball card (in the uniform of each member’s hometown team, no less).

As a concept album about baseball, Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails is filled with enough baseball lore to make even Peter Gammons giddy. What makes it truly succeed is its ability to convey larger themes that extend far beyond the confines of the game.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Book Review: On the Road with the Ramones by Monte A. Melnick and Frank Meyer

Equal parts oral history of a band and memoir of a tour manager, On the Road with the Ramones is essentially a Ramones fan’s bible. At turns both hilarious and poignant, it’s a sympathetic yet brutally honest account of the band, as told by those who witnessed the band’s many highs and lows over their lengthy musical career. Now republished with details about the recent death of Johnny Ramone and a brief update regarding the surviving Ramones, Frank Meyer’s and Monte Melnick’s book still remains one of the best musical memoirs to be published.

In roles that included tour manager, surrogate father, van driver, human punching bag, intermediary when certain band members weren’t on speaking terms, and occasional sound man – CJ Ramone likens Melnick’s job to “trying to babysit special-needs kids” – Melnick was certainly a key figure in the band’s story. His book, complete with numerous photographs and enough various band memorabilia to make sick musos insanely jealous, is an essential read for anyone with even a passing interest in music history.

Although both Melnick and many of the book’s contributors clearly share a definite sympathy and affection for the Ramones as both a band and as people, the book isn’t a fawning, biased piece of apologia. Indeed, the contributors’ willingness to address the band’s flaws and dysfunctions creates a far better understanding of each Ramone. The book’s not quite as direct, or as shocking, as Crystal Zevon’s recent oral history of ex-husband Warren Zevon, but it’s close.

Of the four original Ramones, Tommy receives perhaps the most sympathetic treatment. John Holmstrom, who also supplied the perfectly cartoonish cover art for the book, plainly states that the band “fell apart when Tommy left… He was the glue of the Ramones.” Tommy also receives much credit throughout the book for being a key component in shaping the Ramones sound; indeed, Tommy produced the band’s first four albums.

Lead singer Joey Ramone is essentially portrayed with great sympathy as well. At times painfully awkward and shy, many of the comments about Joey focus on both his overall gentle nature and his various physical and mental ailments, especially his eccentricities that were most likely signs of OCD (long before the disorder even had a name). Coupled with accounts of the singer’s death from cancer in 2001, it’s sometimes difficult and disturbing reading.

The commentary regarding the final two original Ramones, Dee Dee and Johnny, is frequently far from flattering. While Dee Dee’s significant contributions to the band are acknowledged (the lyricist behind some of the Ramones’ best songs, he even continued to provide material for the band after he was ousted), many of the interviews describe how the bassist treated himself like a pharmaceutical pin cushion, which in turn greatly altered his behavior. Most contributors agree that Dee Dee was a different person when sober, often times quiet, reserved, and polite. Possibly bi-polar and/or split personality, numerous comments recall how Dee Dee was intimidating and wildly unpredictable due to his drug intake; photographer Bob Gruen says that the bassist “used to walk around without a shirt on in the middle of the night carrying a baseball bat. He was a scary guy. You didn’t want to be on his bad list.” Dee Dee’s addictions would claim his life via an accidental overdose in 2002.

Many of the comments about guitarist Johnny focus on his intense focus and discipline on making the Ramones a success; one commentator goes so far as to say that “Johnny was a super hard-ass, but… they probably wouldn’t even be a band if he hadn’t taken control.” Yet this single-mindedness also came with some baggage. Johnny is often depicted as moody, domineering, aggressive, and militaristic; musician Cheetah Chrome says “we used to call them the Marones because Johnny was such a drill sergeant. They’re not the Marines – they’re the Marones.”

Johnny’s right-wing politics and racist tendencies are also the source of much discussion. Allegedly a card carrying member of the KKK (and the possible inspiration behind the song “The KKK Took My Baby Away”), the book’s contributors disagree over whether Johnny was racist or just trying to wind people up. Agent John Giddings wryly comments that the guitarist “was more right wing than Attila the Hun.”

The book is rounded out by a wonderful collection of various odds and ends. The contributions of the various later band members – Marky, CJ, Richie, and Dopey (wait, wrong group) – are finally acknowledged as key pieces in the band’s history. The importance of the band’s dedicated road crew is discussed, and the book offers a nice insider’s view of what it’s like doing the grunt work that makes a concert tour possible. The band’s relentless touring, legacy, and impact on later musicians are examined without any of the gross hyperbole that sometimes creeps into such histories. There are plenty of stories of hotel hijinks and practical jokes, some of them extremely juvenile and thus extremely funny, to break the sometimes heavy tone of the book. With terrific photos and enough memorabilia to satisfy even the most geeked-out fan, the book also serves as an excellent visual history of how the band was marketed and promoted.

Yet what remains most striking is that the band was able to overcome its dysfunction for over 20 years. The band’s members were never particularly close; Melnick likens the relationship between Joey and Johnny to a marriage that stays together for the sake of the children. While offstage the band had serious differences and their own demons to cope with, by all admissions they were consummate professionals onstage.

On the Road with the Ramones tells the band’s history with both affection and honesty. It paints a vivid portrait of each band member as a person, not merely as a punk stereotype or musical persona. Moving, heartbreaking, and hilarious, it’s still the most thorough and objective study of the band to date.

Music Review: Charlie Louvin - Steps to Heaven

Here’s hoping we’re all doing as well as Charlie Louvin by the time we reach the age of 81, instead of slobbering into our beers, boring the pants off strangers with exaggerated tales of our glory days, and fighting off senility. A recent surge of activity that would put much younger musicians to shame has seen Louvin tour with Lucinda Williams, appear at the Bonnaroo and Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festivals, and the release of 2007’s Charlie Louvin (when you’ve been recording since the Truman administration, I suppose you eventually run out of album titles). With contributions from Jeff Tweedy, Elvis Costello, and Will Oldham, many critics rightly went batshit crazy for that album.

Though this resurgence probably won’t make Louvin a household name – the bulk of his audience will likely remain the more hardcore music history buffs and fellow musicians – it has certainly led to increased critical and media attention for the performer.Louvin’s Steps to Heaven is the first of two albums for the Alabama-born musician planned for release in 2008. Consisting of traditional gospel tunes, as well two Louvin Brothers originals, the album was produced by Mark Nevers and features a three sister strong gospel choir, Derrick Lee on piano, and Chris Scruggs on bass and electric guitar.

The risk any religious album runs is being excessively preachy or dogmatic, and thus turning off secular listeners by discounting the music in an attempt to spread a very specific message (similar to a truly heinous Christian rock album or even Bob Dylan’s Saved and Shot of Love debacles). Thankfully, Louvin’s album doesn’t have this particular character flaw; listeners who agree with every word as well as those who can quote The God Delusion from memory will both likely enjoy the album.

In many ways the album is reminiscent of Johnny Cash’s American Recordings releases. Like the best moments of those albums, Louvin’s voice, ranging from weary and ragged to powerful and confident, is perhaps Steps’ most striking and immediate feature. His voice carries the weight of a lifetime of experience with it; coupled with Nevers’ warm production and the band’s contributions, the songs take on a certain immediacy and impact that might not exist if sung by a younger musician or played in a different arrangement.

Many of the songs strongly evoke an acceptance of mortality without any fear of death; the promise of an afterlife runs through the songs. As interpreted by Louvin, these traditional songs are meant to offer comfort; standout interpretations of “How Beautiful Heaven Must Be” and “If We Never Meet Again This Side of Heaven” are perhaps the clearest expressions of this theme. This overtly religious theme is explored in depth without becoming overbearing; still, any listener needing a quick hit of songs about humankind’s ultimate demise can give Tom Waits’ Bone Machine a spin as needed.

Yet the album does have some drawbacks. Most noticeably, sometimes the background singing drowns out Louvin’s voice or is occasionally overwrought and affected. “There’s a Higher Power” and “Where We’ll Never Grow Old” are the most egregious offenders.Despite these few missteps, Charlie Louvin’s Steps to Heaven is an excellent release. The production is warm and clean, the musicianship is spot-on, and Louvin’s voice evokes a world of emotions and textures. Though it’s an album rooted in a very specific faith and set of beliefs, it doesn’t attempt to force such beliefs on the listener. It’s a worthy entry in Louvin’s varied and lengthy career.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Book Review - The Last Season by Eric Blehm

Eric Blehm’s The Last Season examines the life and death of Randy Morgenson, a backcountry ranger in the Sequoia and Kings Canyon mountain range who mysteriously disappeared in 1996. Despite a massive search effort in the days after Morgenson’s disappearance, no trace of the ranger was found until 2001. Even despite this grisly discovery, the circumstances that led to the ranger’s death will likely never be known.

Central to Blehm’s study is the fascinating, and sometimes contradictory, figure of Morgenson himself. Blehm shows how Morgenson, depending on one’s point of view, could be considered either a dedicated naturalist – the author gives numerous examples of the ranger’s genuine and sincere love of and respect for nature - or an environmental zealot (Morgenson refused his mow his lawn because he viewed the grass as a “meadow” that should be left undisturbed). Although Morgenson could sometimes take a condescending tone in his journals toward how people would, by his standards, disrespect nature, by all accounts he conducted himself with complete professionalism in his encounters with hikers, including several incidents where he risked his life to assist lost or missing visitors.

What Blehm makes clear is that by the time of his disappearance, Morgenson found himself at a crossroads. An affair with a female ranger had left his marriage heading toward a divorce, and he had apparently become increasingly fatalistic about his life. Without inserting his own opinion into what happened to Morgenson, Blehm explores the various theories as to what exactly happened to the ranger, including how these personal issues may have contributed to his death.

The majority of Morgenson’s colleagues, perhaps understandably, maintain that the death was purely accidental; indeed, the official ruling shares this assessment as well. Yet Blehm does show there is enough circumstantial evidence to support the argument that Morgenson took his own life. Some of Morgenson’s comments are chilling in retrospect (“the least I owe these mountains is a body”), and various rangers reported that their colleague seemed “out of sorts” and “in a funk” prior to his disappearance. The possibility of foul play is also briefly mentioned, but is quickly dismissed as a valid explanation. Ultimately it’s up to the reader to weigh the evidence and form an opinion as to what actually transpired.

The Last Season also touches on other interesting topics that separate it from the glut of also-rans in the adventure/nature genre. Certainly at its core this is a story about Morgenson and how he essentially dedicated his life to protecting his portion of the High Sierra. Yet it’s also about the lengths Morgenson’s colleagues went to in the days following his disappearance, and how they came to terms with this death. It’s about friendship and the lengths people will go to in honoring and remembering a loved one. It celebrates humanity’s place in nature, but also shows nature’s indifference to people. Well written and carefully researched, The Last Season is part biography, part detective story, and part cautionary tale. As a study of Morgenson, it’s a fascinating glimpse into the ranger’s life, death, and legacy.

Satire: Indie Music Fan Hopelessly Unaware of Current Pop Culture

Indie music enthusiast David Dennisson reluctantly admitted today that his love of the genre has left him completely out of touch with current pop culture trends, celebrities, and events.

“What initially began as a brief innocent flirtation in college has developed into a decades-long perverted dalliance; like irrational and hyperbolic praise and hype for the indie band du jour that two years from now will once again be stocking shelves at Target, it’s difficult to stop now. I’ve also experienced a burning sensation in my groin region since I first began this affair,” Dennisson stated.

Dennisson has also discovered that his rejection of all things mainstream has led to some embarrassing moments. “I heard ‘Float On’ on the radio years ago, and confidently told my wife it sucked since it was on commercial radio. When I found it was a Modest Mouse song and that the band was experiencing a minor bit of mainstream airplay, I was floored. My Lonesome Crowded West mind couldn’t stomach it.”Dennisson also acknowledges that a borderline psychotic knowledge of indie rock doesn’t lend itself well in social situations. “Think being able to alphabetically recite the songs in 69 Love Songs will impress your friends and coworkers? Well it won’t; it will just get you a lot of sideways glances and quickly locked car doors.”

The admission is a major victory for Dennisson’s long-suffering wife, Janelle, who views it as the first step in her husband coming to terms with his addiction, which she adds “trumps his previous fixation with Spanish Inquisition torture devices by a long shot.

“Plus, that music he listens to is way more disturbing and destructive than one of the darkest chapters in the depths of man’s depravity towards his fellow man.”

Even so, Janelle does acknowledge a modicum of complicity on her part. “When he’d sing Jesus Lizard songs in the shower, I found it endearing. When he cribbed the lyrics to a Dismemberment Plan song for our wedding vows, I found it romantic. And when he insisted that we dress up as Vic and Tina Chesnutt for Halloween, I enjoyed it, and even managed to play the bass pretty well at the party.

“But the fact that he thinks Beyonce is a type of ferret and that Rihanna is a rare and lethal Amazonian venereal disease is inexcusable. He couldn’t identify a Jonas Brother to save his life. He needs help.”

Janelle has developed a three-phased plan to bring her husband back into the 21st century of mainstream American culture. The first phase will consist of behavior modification, in which she will attempt to curb his tendency to answer everyone’s questions in a poor imitation of Tom Waits’ rough voice. The second phase will attempt to expand her husband’s musical horizons, in which every hour of indie music listened to must be matched by an hour of mainstream pop radio.

Yet the final phase promises to be the most difficult. This will require Dennison to be strapped into an inflatable Hannah Montana chair for an entire 48-hour period, where he’ll be forced to watch American Idol reruns, The Hills, and E! News Daily until he can sing his own overwrought karaoke version of Edwin McCain’s “I’ll Be,” identify each Hills character according to their petty, innocuous dilemma, and concisely explain why it’s completely rational for magazines to pay ungodly sums of money for pictures of the Jolie-Pitt children.”

Janelle is quick to point out she’s not seeking to fully eliminate her husband’s indie leanings. “If he wants to spend his time trying to find discernible differences between My Morning Jacket and Fleet Foxes, that’s perfectly fine. But when I ask him what happened on the season premier of Sunset Tan, he’d better damn well know.”

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Book Review: Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards - Memoirs of a Rock 'N' Roll Survivor by Al Kooper

Originally published in that most holy of musical years, 1977, updated and republished in the late 1990s, and now again revised in 2008 with an additional chapter, Al Kooper’s Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards: Memoirs of a Rock ‘N’ Roll Survivor remains one of the most honest, hilarious, and in many ways poignant entries in the bloated wasteland of the music autobiography genre.

Kooper is occasionally described as the “Forrest Gump of Music.” Besides making for lazy journalism, it’s not a particularly accurate or flattering depiction. Gump was an out and out moron who coincidentally happened to experience many of the key events of modern America; anything that happened to him was by pure accident and he never really understood the significance of those events. Kooper is quite different. Very intelligent and ambitious despite the laid-back persona he sometimes paints of himself in this biography, through determination and the occasional hustle he managed to maintain one of the most remarkable careers in music.

Of course one of the big draws in Kooper’s book is his interaction with Bob Dylan, particularly the hipster mid-1960s version. Recounting how being asked to play with Dylan was like “getting backstage passes to the fourth day of creation,” Kooper describes how he essentially tricked his way into playing organ on “Like a Rolling Stone.” A novice (at best) keyboardist at the time, his rudimentary organ playing is one of the song’s most recognizable features. The incident was a key moment in launching Kooper’s extremely varied career, which has included playing on Blonde on Blonde, founding the first incarnation of The Blues Project and Blood, Sweat & Tears, working as an A&R man, and producing that bastion of redneck music, Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Kooper also points out many of the inaccuracies that have seeped into musical lore; of note is his assertion of why the “Brill Building Sound” is a misnomer. However, some of Kooper’s claims are still open to debate. He maintains that people booed at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival because the set was so short (clocking in at around 15 minutes), not because of any folkie revolt against Dylan going electric. Yet bootlegs of the Newport performance don’t support this assertion; the booing occurs throughout the songs, from the start of Dylan’s performance. At that point no one in the crowd knew how long or short Dylan and the band would play. But, hell, as Kooper points out, he was there.

Backstage Passes is perhaps primarily considered a book of humorous musical anecdotes, which Kooper describes with great comedic effect. Certainly there are plenty of those, with stories ranging from the usual hotel hijinks and horizontal tangos favored by musicians on the road to stories of a cohort defecating on a poor music lackey’s desk. A veritable who’s who of music history ducks in and out of many of these stories: from Miles Davis allegedly threatening Kooper for simply (and unknowingly) talking to Davis’ wife to his interactions with pre-faces-like-a-catcher’s-mitt Rolling Stones, Kooper brings a definite comedian’s touch as he remembers them.

Yet what’s most striking upon rereading Backstage Passes are the poignant and emotional moments that Kooper describes with no pretenses or excuses. Though not exactly as explicit as Junkie, the passages in which Kooper addresses his early 1970s addiction to painkillers are among the most moving of the entire memoir. Likewise, a real sense of loss can be felt as Kooper offers a sincere tribute to his deceased friend, blues guitarist Mike Bloomfield. Finding himself recording with George Harrison at the time of John Lennon’s death, Kooper conveys the shock everyone, especially Harrison, felt, without coming across like a sleazy tabloid goon.

Kooper’s book also succeeds because he rarely comes across like a pampered rock star, even if he does tend to sometimes use the book to settle old scores or to grouse about financial issues fairly often at times. He never gets overly philosophical or pedantic (like Bruce Thomas in The Big Wheel). He never portrays himself as some sort of misunderstood, suffering existentialist (like Bruce Thomas in The Big Wheel). And though some stories probably have the benefit of hindsight and the artistic license of exaggeration, Kooper doesn’t make those stories so outlandish as to be unbelievable (like Bruce Thomas in… you get the point).

Although the chapter that covers 1998-2007 might not be enough to warrant another purchase of the book for those who own a previous edition, Backstage Passes is still one of the best music memoirs written. Kooper’s lived a pretty remarkable life; between releasing his own various albums, touring with musical giants, and producing some other ones, there’s plenty of good material to write out. That he put it all to paper is still a treat for any music fan.

Book Review: Shattered Air - A True Account of Catastrophe and Courage on Yosemite's Half Dome by Bob Madgic

On July 27, 1985, five hikers climbed Yosemite’s Half Dome even as the sky became increasingly menacing and thunder sounded overhead. Within hours of ascending to the Dome and seeking shelter inside a cave, two of the hikers were dead from a lightning strike, two others were seriously wounded, and the final hiker struggled to maintain his sanity as the situation deteriorated.

All of this is recounted in harrowing, and sometimes graphic, detail by Bob Madgic in Shattered Air - A True Account of Catastrophe and Courage on Yosemite’s Half Dome, one of the better and more informative recent entries in the outdoors/adventure genre. Madgic, a former teacher and Half Dome hiking veteran, writes in an engaging and suspenseful style, including details about the actual incident, and also provides a nice overview of lightning, its causes, effects, and how it has played a role in the park’s history.

Central to the tragedy described in Shattered Air are Tom Rice and Adrian Esteban, two men who would eventually discover a shared love of outdoor adventure and a half-baked, balls-to-the-wall philosophy that the only way to overcome fear was to confront it in whatever way necessary, consequences be damned. The men adopted Half Dome as their personal Mecca, and developed a near-mystical bond with the mountain (they certainly aren’t the first people to erroneously feel that Nature would willingly reciprocate such strong emotions).

It was this ill-informed philosophy and deep emotional bond to the mountain that greatly influenced the men’s actions and contributed to the tragedy Madgic describes so well. Along with three other hikers, all of whom had varying degrees of hiking ability and desires with or reservations about reaching the Dome because of the worsening weather conditions, Rice and Esteban eventually found themselves confronting a situation that, Madgic implies, neither felt their karma and connection to the mountain would ever allow to happen. Although both Rice - portrayed throughout the book as a gutsy daredevil who rarely considered the risks of his actions - and Esteban would survive the lightning storm, two of their hiking companions died on the mountain.

Madgic conveys a number of key points throughout the book. The first and most obvious is that the hikers made several critical mistakes in continuing to ascend the mountain when it was obvious that a nasty storm was approaching. The hikers plainly ignored the fact that a storm was imminent and also disregarded the advice of several groups they encountered along the way who told them to stop climbing the mountain; the fact that Rice would later comment that he wanted to reach the Dome so that he could dance in the lightning storm (which he indeed did) clearly shows where his head was during the climb. “Sheer stupidity and craziness” is how one of those involved would describe the incident, and it’s hard to disagree with this blunt assessment.

Madgic does a nice job giving a balanced portrait of the incident; he’s sympathetic to the victims but also doesn’t absolve them from the poor decisions they made or the actions they took afterwards (though one of the two men who died, a sixteen year old inexperienced hiker, is portrayed as a reticent participant throughout). The overall implication is that the entire tragedy could have easily been avoided, since the hikers had several opportunities to halt their climb but chose to continue upward. Several of the hikers were well versed in Half Dome and should have also been aware of the frequency of lightning strikes on it.

Esteban, who contributed to the book, is also not absolved from culpability; Madgic notes that Esteban didn’t attend the funerals of either hiker who died and also gave media interviews in which he embellished the story. At the same time, it is impossible not to feel sympathetic towards Esteban; his various comments about the tragedy years after it happened show that the burden of responsibility is a tough one to carry.

Madgic also shows that were it not for the courage and bravery of several other hikers, a couple of whom were trained EMTs and risked their lives to both help the wounded men and seek additional help, the tragedy could have been much worse. In the days before cell phones, the fate of the wounded men rested entirely on these hikers. This makeshift rescue crew was both able to gain control of the situation and to notify park rangers, who then arranged for a risky nighttime helicopter rescue.

Shattered Air is primarily a cautionary tale – of poor decisions and the results of those decisions, of a cavalier and disrespectful attitude toward nature and its power, and of the risks of adopting and following a philosophy of conquering personal fears and pushing personal limits without even considering the consequences. Despite the individual acts of courage shown by the hikers’ rescuers, the reader is still left with the overall impression that the tragedy was completely avoidable.