Monday, August 23, 2010

Cotton Jones: Tall Hours in the Glowstream

Cotton Jones
Tall Hours in the Glowstream
Rating: 3.5/5.0
Label: Suicide Squeeze

The best name an Elephant 6 group never thought of, Cotton Jones Basket Ride reportedly began as a side project for Michael Nau, best known for his work with Page France. With Page France still showing no signs of a pulse as of 2010 - at least we won't have to hear any more nonsense about them being a Christian rock band - this detour has since developed into the musician's main creative avenue. The name would eventually be shortened to the more sensible Cotton Jones by the time of their debut Suicide Squeeze full-length, Paranoid Cocoon, an undervalued album whose psych-folk arrangements, slow, deliberate vocals courtesy of both Nau and fellow Page France member Whitney McGraw and dark-gray, impressionistic imagery marked a clear shift from Page France's indie-pop style and subject matter.

Follow-up album Tall Hours in the Glowstream is almost every bit as good and should make Page France feel even more like a distant memory for anyone still pining for that band's return. Nau and McGraw incorporate almost all of the key elements from Paranoid Cocoon without it ever sounding like a rehash: an atmospheric, smoky mix of organ, synths and steel guitar, occasional touches of lo-fi and two disparate voices that blend well together. Songs like "Sail of the Silver Morning" and "Place at the End of the Street" combine a '60s folk-guitar jangle with percussion, reverb and various other layers of instrumentation, working in various genres without sounding exactly like any of them. The dreamy, ethereal quality that shaped much of Paranoid Cocoon can also be heard on "Song in Numbers," "Dream on Columbia Street," the instrumental "Goethe Nayburs" and "Soft Mountains Shake," the last of which sounds like an undiscovered Peco's Blues outtake. All these songs are defined by an emphasis on melody and structure - the various musicians that play on these songs do a superb job - though each track takes a different approach in how that emphasis plays out.

But perhaps the most immediately recognizable and lasting aspect of Glowstream is how Nau and McGraw utilize their voices, both separately and in tandem. Nau sings in an expressive, pseudo-country twang, while McGraw's softer vocals feel like they float over these songs. Nau's vocals tend to be less muddled and more up front than they were on Paranoid Cocoon, most noticeably on "Somehow To Keep It Going," "Glorylight and Christie" and album highlight "Man Climbs Out of the Winter," a woozy steel guitar song whose lines about the passage of time are among the album's finest and most affecting. McGraw's vocals are likewise more prominent than on previous Cotton Jones records; she sometimes sings alone but more frequently underscores Nau's voice, an approach that succeeds best on album closer "No Things I Need (Like Some Time Ago)."

Out of these vocals come repeated references to mountains, sunbeams, water, flowers, rolling rivers, rain and weather systems. Though nearly every song expresses nostalgia for days long gone and also contain plenty of ecological wonder, they are tempered with images of mortality, aging and, thanks to the way the vocals interact, simple, sad regret. For all of its sonic playfulness, Glowstream is frequently introspective and subdued: "I number the years... I number the hours," Nau says at one point, later repeating a similar sentiment with the equally prosaic, if grammatically incorrect line, "We was feeling about twice our age/ Sitting in the pouring rain." Though it's Page France that first put Nau on that tiny indie map, with songs as good as those of both Paranoid Cocoon and Tall Hours in the Glowstream, it's likely that what began as a side project with a strange name will soon be what both Nau and McGraw can hang their reputations on.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Chief: Modern Rituals

Modern Rituals
Rating: 2.0/5.0
Label: Domino

Cynical rule of thumb; the more PR material a critic receives for a band's debut album, the worse said album actually is. Modern Rituals, the debut release from California-by-way-of-NYU band Chief, does nothing to challenge that notion. An extensive bio waxes poetic about melodies packed into the suitcases of the outgoing college boys, obligatory references are made to Neil Young, the Band, Love and the Beach Boys, and an all-for-one, one-for-all sense of band solidarity is emphasized. One would be forgiven for expecting Modern Rituals to be an instrumentally-blazing, genre-busting premier effort from one of indie's most promising young bands.

The actual results are something far different, and something far more disappointing. Over 11 songs, Chief sputters in place, revisiting similar musical turf on nearly every track, never suggesting much more than that its four members have clearly listened to a lot of vintage records from the '60s and '70s. A specific formula is rigidly applied to these mid-tempo rockers: bright, ringing guitars, steady drumming, clean bass lines and California-cool background harmonies. Any real variety can be had only in the album's vocals: primary vocalist Evan Koga sings in a nasal, Tom Petty-lite style, whereas Danny Fujikawa favors a sensitive-folksy voice that recalls Midlake's Tim Smith and a whole army of wounded-heart '70s types.

None of the songs are particularly engrossing, regardless of the vocalist. The arrangements' repetition is just too much to ignore; the opening trio of "The Minute I Saw It," "Nothing's Wrong" and "Wait for You" are one-trick ponies, with "Wait for You" being particularly verbose in its first several lines. In the album's latter half, "Stealing" and "Summer's Day" are likewise leaden and without momentum. The songs Fujikawa sings - "This Land," "You Tell Me" and "Irish Song" - are slower and more acoustic-oriented, but are done in by insipid lyrics ("I'm so tired again/ Can't get out of bed again") and, in the case of "You Tell Me," a saccharine testament to the redemptive power of LOVE. It's of course inevitable that a band will carry its style and similarities from one song to the next, but Modern Rituals most often feels like watching the same movie scene - and a pretty lousy one at that - over and over.

There is some promise here, however rare. "In the Valley" is easily the album's most mature and carefully executed track, a slow-burning ballad that may make listeners wish that Modern Rituals had more songs of its caliber. The album's production does also deserve mention, as it's vibrant, clean and uncluttered, almost a bit of an anomaly among the current indie bands that make sonic mazes of their songs. But that one track and a fairly concise set of arrangements are consolation prizes only, and not much of those at that. The songs' content is purely California stuff, man, and some decent observations are made in these lyrics - Pacific coasts, shining suns, beach breezes and broken down relationships - but whatever merits the lyrics might have are overshadowed by a sameness of sound that is simply impossible to look past.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Book Dunce: Crime and Punishment

by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Book Dunce is a series in which one of our writers finally succumbs to the lure of a book that has long been a big part of our culture that they have never read. Seen through fresh eyes, we evaluate, enjoy and sometimes get bored by these titans of mental real estate.

One of our writers here at Spectrum Culture jokes that no one's actually ever read Crime and Punishment in its entirety, but the embarrassment factor prevents anyone from admitting it. It's not true, of course, but for years I preferred to think that it was. At the least it made me feel a little bit less like an uncultured moron and instead like someone whose Jesuit education still managed to respectably include many novels from the Cliff's Notes series, even if I'll never get the image of Sister Rose misquoting The Great Gatsby's "orgastic" future as "orgasmic" out of my mind. Besides, an education under the auspices of the Jesuits carried with it its own unique definition of crime and punishment. Anyone who's ever had to write Campion's Brag by hand in JUG - that's Justice Under God to you - or has taken a shillelagh to the shins knows what I mean. Raskolnikov's inner turmoil and mental anguish paled by comparison. I even managed to make it through college - with a minor in English - without even catching a whiff of the novel.

I eventually bought Crime and Punishment on November 26, 2002. How do I know that? Because when I dug the book out of basement storage for this feature, the receipt was still halfway through chapter 2, which is where I stopped when I tried to read back then. Eight years and a climb into my early 30s later, I actually can't remember now why I abandoned the book in the midst of one of Marmeladov's drunken ramblings. Sure it's long and its prose undoubtedly loses some of its poetic beauty when it's translated to English - and, if it's possible to criticize a heavyweight like Fyodor Freaking Dostoevsky, parts of it are more melodramatic than daytime soaps - but its concerns and characters are as recognizable and relevant to our modern world as they were in the author's 1860s Russia.

A quick recap for those who think Crime and Punishment is one of "Law and Order's" many spinoffs: Raskolnikov is a dirt-poor ex-student living in the slums of St. Petersburg with an unstylish hat and a Napoleon fixation who once wrote an article expounding a theory that murder is justifiable if it will ultimately benefit humanity. He eventually decides to kill a pawnbroker for her money, alleviating his cash flow problem and expunging someone whom he considers a "vile noxious insect." When the pawnbroker's sister unexpectedly arrives after the former student has axed the pawnbroker, he kills her as well. Raskolnikov then spends his days trying to hold his mental shit together while tons of awful, just awful, things happen to various other characters linked to him: town drunk Marmeladov is trampled by a horse-drawn carriage (he dies); his consumptive wife's health rapidly deteriorates (she dies); the shady sex-hound Svidrigaïlov is rejected by Raskolnikov's sister Dounia and puts a bullet through his temple (brain matter everywhere, you know the rest). At the urging of Sonia, Marmeladov's daughter and a true hooker with a heart of gold, Raskolnikov confesses and is eventually incarcerated in beautiful Siberia.

All joking aside, and as I'm sure at least one literary critic has so eloquently said before, Crime and Punishment is fucking awesome. It works on numerous levels: as a psychological study of a mind in an increasingly fragile state, where Raskolnikov tries to reconcile his perception of himself as a superman genius who's beyond good and evil with his murderous actions; as a detective story filled with suspense and tension; as a character study of various types, whether it's the virtuous prostitute Sonia, the selfless Razuminhin or the sly investigator Porfiry; and as a glimpse into the author's opinions of his birth country's political, cultural, religious and social climate. It's a page-turner without any of the cheap thrills and absurd plot twists that define the majority of popular fiction, as well as a prosaic work that raises questions about the human condition and our moral obligations to one another.

For students of Russian history or modern philosophy the novel is indispensable, but a true masterpiece succeeds based on whether the story it tells can exist outside of the environment in which it was written. Crime and Punishment unarguably still does. Even the epilogue, probably the most criticized aspect of the novel, is integral, as it hints at Raskolnikov's redemption as well as the fidelity that defines us in our best moments. Academia - just not those Jesuits who taught me - worships it for obvious reasons, but this is also a novel worth embracing outside of the halls of higher learning.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Stornoway: Beachcomber's Windowsill

Beachcomber's Windowsill
Rating: 3.0/5.0
Label: 4AD

Beachcomber's Windowsill is an album with a minor identity crisis. The debut release from British band Stornoway adheres mostly to the type of folk-pop being practiced by scores of indie bands that seem to be multiplying like Gremlins, relying on a focused, narrow approach that usually serves the album well. It's when the band moves into less traditional territory that the album falters, creating the impression of a band that can't quite decide which side of the fence to settle on and isn't yet adept enough to straddle it. To no surprise, this lack of focus occasionally makes Beachcomber's Windowsill stuttering, clumsy and a little bit tentative, but there are enough great songs here to partially offset some of its shortcomings.

Stornoway reportedly takes its name from a town in Scotland no one on this side of the Atlantic has heard of, and they've already received some critical attention for their first single, "Zorbing." Named after that idiot's pursuit of rolling down hills in a giant transparent plastic ball - for added fun, cram several people into the ball - it opens the album and establishes the template for many of the songs that follow: gently swaying vocals, controlled background harmonies, a pastoral guitar/bass/drum foundation, well-timed accents like trumpet and violin and a general fixation with the past and various things meteorological. A sense of daydreaming and contentment defines the song; "The storm has broken/ Heaven's open," Brian Briggs sings. Such contentment is often in short supply on Beachcomber's Windowsill, though; "Fuel Up" starts with the image of a young child in the backseat and ends with that child much older, stumbling through his hometown, "Drunk and...sad for the old times;" "On the Rocks" is bookended by cold Februarys and rainy Decembers; "The End of the Movie" utilizes a simple violin line and understated backing vocals to create what might be the album's simplest and saddest song.

Comparisons to Belle and Sebastian are probably inevitable; the horns on both "Zorbing" and closer "Long-Distance Lullaby" as well the vocals of "Boats and Trains" sound indebted to that band, but these similarities are far less egregious than the detours Stornoway take on other songs. "I Saw You Blink" and "Here Comes the Blackout...!" are both hindered by superfluous keyboards that sound like they ripped straight from the '80s; the kinda-droned vocals on "The Coldharbour Road" don't fit in well with the album's usually upfront singing; the grinding guitars of "Watching Birds" provide a jolt to the album but also feel misplaced compared to the album's primarily folksy mindset. Sometimes even that approach veers off course as well: "We Are the Battery Human" is either a total lark or the most earnestly humorless group sing-along this side of A Mighty Wind. Either way, it's dead weight and among the album's slightest tracks.

The common complaint that there's a masterpiece EP lurking somewhere once all the fat is trimmed applies to Beachcomber's Windowsill. Its best songs are filled with descriptive, unshakable imagery - some hard-luck schmuck staggering home under city streetlights and, conversely, someone tumbling carefree across the earth in a giant orb - even if some songs beg for different arrangements. It might be about time for a moratorium on indie bands singing about summers, beaches and bygone days, but Stornoway does enough here to warrant consideration as among that cluttered scene's more promising newcomers.

Monday, August 09, 2010

David Dondero: # Zero With a Bullet

David Dondero
# Zero With a Bullet
Rating: 2.5/5.0
Label: Team Love

The album cover for David Dondero's # Zero With a Bullet is hideous, featuring the type of amateurish layout one would expect from a suburban garage goth band. A background map displays names like Bitter Creek, Badwater and Wamsutter and actually fits the album's subject matter, but the red font used for both the artist name and album title is reminiscent of a cheap slasher flick or something from the hair-metal 1980s (think Skid Row's self-titled debut and you won't be too far off). Slightly off center is the album cover's point of focus and most egregious image: a Mr. Suit type inside a skeleton - it's metaphorical, see? - that appears to be tacked to the map by its clavicle. Taken as a whole, it's a strong frontrunner for worst album cover of the year.

The actual content of Dondero's latest effort is better. Though it doesn't stray too far from the folk-country of previous records like Shooting at the Sun With a Water Gun or Simple Love, Dondero's ability to mix tried-and-true Americana with slightly off-kilter characters and the occasional lyrical diamond usually offsets the album's lack of originality. Geography is once again the dominant figure in Dondero's songs; Oregon, Austin, the Cape Fear River, downtown Laramie, Wyoming and numerous points in every direction are all referenced, as the album literally crisscrosses the country from one song to the next. Other songs offer a veritable checklist of images from roughhouse America, whether it's the American West of the the man in a cowboy hat who sells beer and looks like Wyatt Earp in "It's Peaceful Here," the freight trains of "Carolina Moon" or the trucker's life of the struggling musician recounted in the down-and-out title song.

Bullet has its share of nice instrumental moments, most noticeably in the steel guitar and keyboards of "It's Peaceful Here" and the rapid-fire rhythm of "Wherever You Go." The unabashedly classic rock tones of "Jesus From 12 to 6" give a sharp edge to Dondero's sneering vocals ("I don't trust a goddamn thing that you say"), while by design or coincidence, the arrangement on "Job Boss" recalls Neil Young country songs like "Old King" and "Homegrown." Each song's production is solid and there is little in the way of studio over-embellishments, giving these songs a feel of authenticity that allows the listener to focus on the content.

Most of the album follows a similar pattern, an approach that eventually feels vacuous. It's a safe, middle-of-the-road release, reminiscent of everyone from Townes Van Zandt to Uncle Tupelo, and too frequently little more than just another entry in an already-crowded field. There's no questioning Dondero's skill as a lyricist. Nearly each song includes at least one phrase or image that makes these songs come to life, snippets like, "dice games in the neon lights" or "three sheets to the stagnant air." Coupled with a dose of levity - "Don't Be Eyeballin' My Po'Boy, Boy" exalts that famous Louisiana culinary invention - Dondero brings plenty of wit to # Zero With a Bullet. Still, a lot of wit and a little bit of country twang aren't enough to compensate for an album that plays to its creator's strengths but also sounds like someone simply treading musical water.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Careful: Oh, Light

Oh, Light
Rating: 3.5/5.0
Label: Sounds Super Recordings

Some albums are meant to be listened to alone, as if the quietness of solitude heightens their emotional impact. For me, albums like The Trinity Sessions, The Ghost of Tom Joad or I See a Darkness have always been best enjoyed on a set of headphones or playing at a low volume apart from the crowd. It feels inappropriate - and cheap - to listen to albums like these in front of other people, to say nothing of the fact that doing so would depress the shit out of everyone. Nothing can clear a crowded room of all levity quite like "Mining for Gold," "Sinaloa Cowboys" or "A Minor Place."

Oh, Light, writer/poet/musician Eric Lindley's newest effort under the Careful moniker, carries a similar vibe. It isn't consistently strong enough to be compared to these aforementioned albums, but it is reminiscent of them in terms of tone and, occasionally, style. The album is fairly sparse, its instrumentation usually consisting of guitar and perhaps too-frequent brushes of electronic glitches and other noises, with Lindley's vocals straining and sometimes breaking just barely above a whisper. The album moves deliberately and requires a certain amount of patience and attention from the listener, especially in the languid pacing and vocal phrasing of songs like "I Shot An Apple Off Her Head," "Carnival" and "I Loved a Girl but She Loved Me." Other tracks uniquely blend the acoustic with the experimental, most strikingly on the prolonged tension of "Turns Out" and in the static interference of "New Life." These little accents are enough to distinguish Lindley from the current crop of indie artists working from a similar aesthetic, even if his electronic tendencies are laid on a too thickly in "Every Epiphany," "We Give Up" and "Oi, Etc."

Oh, Light's imagery and lyrics tend to be somewhat oblique and non-linear. There is a heavy emphasis on physiology, as references to fists, eyes, splintered knuckles, breath, hair, body organs sold for money and fingers touching ribs form a sketchy but consistent narrative. Though Lindley is by no means unintelligible, it's sometimes difficult to fully understand what he's saying, an effect that actually adds some mystery to these songs and forces the listener to zero in on a precise phrase like, "There is a lever I can crank/ To pull my skin back tighter/ There is a powerful machine to fill the holes/ Inside my bones and teeth" or something more prosaic like "let's build a monument to memory."

The album is brief, barely cracking 30 minutes, but this brevity works; anything longer might have felt too oppressive or willfully obtuse. There is of course no shortage of solo artists making intimate, home-recorded albums along the lines of Oh, Light, but there is a quality in Lindley's vocals and unobtrusive instrumentals that many of other musicians lack. As clichéd as it sounds, Oh, Light is an album of fragility and beauty that invites reflection and contemplation, foregoing big riffs and bigger vocals for something far more refined, restrained and moving.

(Some copies of the album include demo versions of Oh, Light songs "Carnival," "Scrappy," "Fox and His Friends" and "We Give Up," as well as a few tracks that don't appear on the record. Most of these are even more skeletal than their album counterparts and are well worth seeking out).

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

The Triffids: Wide Open Road: The Best of the Triffids

The Triffids
Wide Open Road: The Best of the Triffids
Rating: 4.0/5.0
Label: Domino

In 1999, David McComb was 10 years removed from the Triffids' final studio album, The Black Swan. By most accounts, those years had been difficult for the band's lyricist and vocalist. His recorded output was minimal, as the modest 1994 album Love of Will was released to little fanfare. He continued to struggle with drug and alcohol abuse, even after a heart transplant in 1996 that most likely was necessitated by a medical condition brought on by excessive drinking. By February of 1999, he was dead just short of his 37th birthday, the cause of death attributed to a heroin overdose and complications from the transplant. Though his passing received coverage in his homeland of Australia and in parts of Europe, it went largely unreported in the United States, ultimately resulting in one of the 1980s most inventive groups being largely overlooked for far too long.

Domino's reissue campaign of the Triffids' catalog has done wonders for the band's legacy. These began in 2006 with the band's masterpiece, the epic, sweeping hymn to distance and desolation, Born Sandy Devotional. Each of the Triffids' proper studio LPs would eventually receive similar deluxe treatment with liner notes, bonus tracks and enhanced packaging. Unarguably these re-releases have also raised the band's profile in the States; prior to 2006, it would have been difficult to imagine a "greatest hits" collection like Wide Open Road: The Best of the Triffids ever seeing the light of day on these shores.

Among critics there has long been a tendency to downplay the other band members' contributions and focus solely on McComb as some sort of doomed romantic-poet archetype and the Triffids' singular driving force. Wide Open Road proves this depiction is shortsighted. Along with McComb, the band's core lineup of Alsy MacDonald (drums/vocals), Jill Birt (keyboards/vocals), Robert McComb (guitars/violin/vocals), Martyn Casey (bass and later a Bad Seed) and "Evil" Graham Lee (pedal and lap steel/guitars/vocals) was adept enough to play in a variety of styles; the Triffids are one of the few bands who never made two albums that sounded the same. Some of the band's premier ensemble performances are included here: steel guitar, strings and keyboards mesh together perfectly on suicide song "The Seabirds" and enhance the grandeur of "Stolen Property;" the shimmering pop instrumentals of "A Trick of the Light" contrast with the song's underlying longing for the past; "Too Hot to Move" floats by with a breezy country-inflected rhythm; the keyboards on "Save What You Can" still sound majestic and urgent. The band's post-punk abilities are also well represented, as tracks like "Property Is Condemned," "Kathy Knows" and "Lonely Stretch" are built on moments of unrestrained tension, absolutely crackling with a waste-no-notes precision.

Lines like, "Alcohol, heroin/ It's all water under the bridge" and "I was frozen out in the lean winter years/ When the dollars were few and the faces were mean" and frequent references to Australian landmarks and locations are particularly telling and make it all too easy to interpret McComb's lyrics as veiled autobiography set to music. It's an overly simplistic way of viewing these songs however, as they never come remotely close to being inaccessibly personal. "Wide Open Road" fittingly opens this compilation; it's usually cited as McComb's finest song, though a case could be made for any number of others. Regardless, McComb's stamp as a brilliant writer can be found in nearly every track on this release. His flair for the dramatically poetic ("The rim of her mouth was golden/ Her eyes were just desert sands") was matched by a brutal directness ("The very next minute your bowels went slack/ Now it hurts so bad you can't even piss"), under which marched a sordid parade of cheaters, drunkards, bastards, wounded souls and occasionally someone damn close to redemption. In these narratives McComb knew how to express those tiny things to which our memories cling: a yellowed photograph, the sounds of the street and a radio on a hot day, headlights and hallucinations in the dead of night.

Wide Open Road isn't without its flaws. Though most of these songs have held up well over time, at least one track - "Goodbye Little Boy" - sounds dated. There are also some notable exclusions; only one song from In the Pines makes the cut, while favorites like "Keep Your Eyes on the Hole," "Kelly's Blues" and "Tender is the Night (The Long Fidelity)" aren't included. For the uninitiated, Wide Open Road is well worth the time and money, but it doesn't replace Born Sandy Devotional or Calenture. It may not include all the band's best songs - how could it? - but if this collection doesn't convince a listener of the Triffids' genius, nothing will.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Letters to Emma Bowlcut: by Bill Callahan

Letters to Emma Bowlcut
by Bill Callahan
Rating: 3.0/5.0
Publisher: Drag City

Letters to Emma Bowlcut is one of the few works of musician-penned fiction that is not appallingly abysmal or vainly self-indulgent. There's a stigma attached to works of "literature" penned by a lyricist, and with good reason. Even heavyweights like Bob Dylan and Nick Cave haven't dodged this particular landmine. With its Beat Generation-aping stream of consciousness style and nonsensical wordplay, Tarantula is still mostly unreadable, whether you're sober or stoned. Cave's And the Ass Saw the Angel is no better - hell, it's actually much worse - as its tale of Euchrid Eucrow over-imbibes in the gothic excesses that somehow still work on Cave's 1980s albums. A reader could be forgiven for hearing echoes of Cave's albums in that text; Christ, the rain even pissed down in the book too. Some wits favorably compared Angel to both Faulkner and O'Connor - surely an insult to both of those writers (to be fair though, Cave's more recent The Death of Bunny Munro is a little better).

It's therefore a minor miracle that Bill Callahan's Letters to Emma Bowlcut is actually worth reading and would likely garner attention even if Callahan didn't already have indie music name recognition to give this publication a little PR push. Alternately described as an epic poem and an epistolary novel, it consists of 62 letters over which a relationship between an unnamed man and a woman, possibly a librarian he meets at a party, develops. If the whole concept sounds too quaint for this email and text age and just a little bit precious, at least it's well-written enough to make it easy for the reader to forgive its somewhat rustic premise.

Usually writing in short, declarative sentences, Callahan gradually reveals details about each character, always through the voice of the male. The man's job remains nebulous; he works with micrometers, studies the "Vortex" and makes one trip to company headquarters, but otherwise, Callahan offers glimpses into the man's past and present in the subtlest of ways. The man is a boxing enthusiast - "god I wanted the uppercuts to connect," he says in an early letter - as well as something of an emotional live wire. He vacillates between extremes: sobriety and intoxication, insecurity and bravado, dissatisfaction and contentment, chivalry and crudity. The character is meant to be viewed sympathetically despite his flaws, as many of the events he recalls - especially phone calls with a grandmother whose memory is failing - seem designed to evoke compassion from the reader. Though the woman remains a little more sketchy, primarily because everything we know about her comes from the letter writer's perception of her, Callahan similarly provides enough back story to make her more than the man's idealized muse.

Some traits of Callahan's lyrical style find their way into Letters to Emma Bowlcut (indeed, the title of Callahan's latest studio album Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle can be found in letter 20). The letters are frequently poetic; in letter 3 the man says that "at the heel end of day, I need my glass of wine. Christmas lights for the brain. In lulls we assess the gulls." It could be gibberish but, damn, it sounds good. Other letters feature Callahan's sardonic and borderline cruel sense of humor; in letter 44 the man describes how he reacts when someone falls down: "I have an inability to help anyone who has fallen. To witness injects me with a paralytic joy. If someone falls in front of me, you've never seen such a smile in your life." But the book is not simply Callahan's lyrics set to paper, and is better for it.

Sometimes Callahan's inner monologue ponderings on so much of life's mundane daily acts of repetition smack of pseudo-psychological babble. But Letters to Emma Bowlcut is usually pretty damn good and shows all the traits that make Callahan's music so worthwhile. It also doesn't embarrass its author, something a few big-name lyricists who've released some serious drivel can't claim.