Musings, Nits, and Praises: July 2007

Musings, Nits, and Praises

A farrago of all things deemed blog-worthy by a music-loving, poetry-writing, humor-seeking English teacher

Say It Ain't So!

Well, at least the investigators aren't contending that he didn't actually drink his own urine on several occasions.

The Minor Canon - No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

The Minor Canon’s band bio certainly isn’t the first press release to belie a band’s sound, calling their music “gritty.” “Gritty” isn’t the best word to describe a piano/acoustic-based band with a horn section and a singer whose voice is often reminiscent of Matthew Sweet’s. Comparing the band’s sound to “Memphis soul on an indie bender” seems a bit of a stretch as well. But questionable descriptors aside, the Los Angeles-based sextet, led by singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Paul Larson, offer a few twists to indie pop on their debut album, No Good Deed Goes Unpunished.

If every song on the album were as engaging as the opening track, “It Never Was,” then the band could add “one of the finest indie pop albums in years” to its bio and be justified in doing so. A perfect marriage of emotive dynamics and melody, the song is a true pop gem, steadily intensifying through verse/chorus progressions with new instrumentation announcing each shift, whispering through the bridge, and then exploding into a cathartic coda that fades into a somber horn arrangement.

Unfortunately, after the superb opener, Larson and co. quickly steer the album into the mid-tempo doldrums, with a trio of plodding, bass drum-thudding songs. The droning chorus of “A False Start”—“You’re never happy/And you’re never sad” effectively sinks the already monotonous song. On “Bend Like Trees,” the band breaks from conventional verse/chorus structure with a Ben Folds Five-like romp that segues into a horn solo only to return to the song’s lumbering central theme. “The Art of Quick Draw” is livelier than the other two songs, but Larson’s stab at a clever verse falls flat: “I move faster than you can possibly know/And did you want to see it again?”

Just when it seems the album will officially retire into all-out blah, an acoustic ballad of all things energizes the record. Combining a guitar figure Sam Beam would be proud of with Larson’s tender vocals and placid piano backing, “Killing Spiders” is positively beautiful.

With “The Rockets Countdown,” the band resumes the mid-tempo melancholy, but the songs on the second half sound fresher and more focused than those earlier on the album. Moving from shuffle, to waltz, back to shuffle, “Old Long Since” is stronger in its musical detouring than “Bend Like Trees,” but Larson is still a long way from “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” territory. “The Present Time” coasts atop a gloomy piano arpeggio before ascending into the chorus’s lush texture, while “Cave In,” boasting the album’s brightest melody, is an uplifting, sing-along ode to malaise that would’ve been a fitting closing track. Instead, Larson closes with the seemingly unfinished “Upside Down,” which sounds like he recorded it while trapped in a storm drain.

That the Minor Canon began as Larson’s solo project before it grew into a six-man ensemble may account for some of the album’s unevenness. Still, when the band finds solid footing on No Good Deed, the result is sometimes fantastic and at the very least, as Larson sings on “Cave In,” “quite nice.”

Summer Reading Update

With the start of in-service creeping ineluctably closer, I'm doing what I can to squeeze in as much reading as possible before I head back to work. Right now I'm a little over 1/4 of the way through Ulysses. Although at times Joyce's stream-of-consciousness leaves me dumbfounded, the novel, as the folks at Guinness like to say, is "Brilliant!"

I've made it through five novels this summer so far. I reread Winesburg, Ohio and Light in August (my favorite Faulkner novel) and tackled Darkness at Noon, An Appointment in Samarra, and The Adventures of Augie March. Darkness is fantastic, but 1984 is still my anti-totalitarian novel of choice. Appointment is very strong as well. Dorothy Parker called John O'Hara "the real F. Scott Fitzgerald." While that may be a bit of a stretch, the novel is proof that the guy knew how to write a tragic story. As I expected, Augie March is a wonderful mix of the comedy and profundity. My only real complaint is that Bellow could've pared down the novel. I'm all for an epic scope, but the novel meanders at times.

Andrew Keen's The Cult of the Amateur

I wrote this review for the August issue of the Main Street Journal.

It may not sound all that catchy, but millions upon millions have taken up the battle cry of the Web 2.0 revolution: “All things user-generated and participatory!” According to the search engine company Technorati, as of April 2007, the blogosphere boasted nearly 70 million blogs, with 120,000 added daily, while MySpace held over 182 million profiles. And those figures don’t include the ever-increasing numbers of Wikipedia entries, Facebook profiles, message board postings, file sharing sites, or YouTube videos. For Web 2.0 visionaries, the rapid proliferation of user-generated/participatory sites pushes the world toward the dream of democratized media. For Andrew Keen, it harbingers a dystopia.

In his self-described “polemic,” The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture (Doubleday, 205 pages) Keen, a Silicon entrepreneur turned cultural critic, asserts that “democratization, despite its lofty idealization, is undermining truth, souring civil discourse, and belittling expertise, experience, and talent.” Although Keen’s general concerns possess merit—the difficulty of determining the validity of internet content, the saturation of the net with drivel, the need to protect the work of musicians and writers—his propensity for one-sided analysis, exaggeration and disparaging caviling undermine his arguments.

Keen makes his most cogent point when addressing the reliability of user-generated information. Wikipedia, the popular user-edited encyclopedia, draws repeated criticism from Keen. “By empowering the amateur,” he writes, “we are undermining the experts who contribute to a traditional resource like the Encyclopedia Britannica.” (He is in error to an extent—there are some experts among the site’s contributors). Keen is troubled not only by the site’s “democratic” editing system but also by the anonymity of the contributors, which allowed for a writer known as “Essjay” to pose as a college professor when he was, in fact, a twenty-four-year-old man from Kentucky with no post-high school degrees. Keen’s wariness of Wikipedia is justified, but rather than providing compelling evidence for the inferiority/unreliability of a typical entry compared to one from a traditional encyclopedia, he resorts to barbs and overstatements: “. . . while Dr. William Connolley may be able to discern the misinformed ravings of moonbats (a term Eric Raymond, a respected open-source pioneer, used to describe the Wikipedia community) from the wisdom of experts, the average Internet user cannot. Most of us assume that the information we take in can be trusted. But when the information is created by amateurs, it rarely can be.”

Keen further suggests that the participatory nature of Web 2.0 taints users’ understanding of “authorship” and leads to plagiarism. He cites an Education Weekly survey in which 54% of the students admitted to plagiarizing from the internet and a 2005 study conducted by the Center for Academic Integrity in which 77% of the 50,000 undergrads polled didn’t think internet plagiarism was a “serious” issue. Of course, Keen is right to abhor plagiarism, but he doesn’t delve deeply enough in his analysis. The “blurring, obfuscation, and even disappearance of truth” stems from a relativistic world view that began pervading our culture long before the inception of the internet.

Keen then turns his attention to the amateurs he already blasted in the introduction, where he likened them to the monkeys in T.H. Huxley’s infinite monkeys/infinite typewriters scenario: “And instead of creating masterpieces, these millions and millions of exuberant monkeys—many with no more talent in the creative arts than our primate cousins—are creating endless digital forests of mediocrity. For today’s amateur monkeys can use their networked computers to publish everything from uninformed political commentary, to unseemly home videos, to embarrassingly amateurish music, to unreadable poems, reviews, essays, and novels.”

Keen is certainly not alone in bemoaning the woeful, and sometimes deplorable, content that permeates many user-based cites. But while glorying in his pompous denouncement of amateur work, he disregards the fact that the “experts” and “cultural gatekeepers” he extols throughout the book began as amateurs and that Web 2.0 houses the work of plenty of gifted and intelligent amateurs.

But his belittling of the amateur seems to stem as much from nostalgia as it does from his detesting of atrocious work. He devotes nine pages to an elegiac account of Tower Records, lamenting that “Tower’s remarkably diverse selection cannot be replicated.” For anyone whose immediate response would be “Amazon,” he later writes, “But what these online stores don’t have is the deeply knowledgeable Tower clerk to act as cultural tastemaker. Instead, our buying choices depend upon the anonymous reviewer—a very poor substitute for the bodily encounters that Tower once offered.” While there’s something to be said for personal interaction, how does he know that an Amazon reviewer cannot be as musically knowledgeable as his beloved Tower clerk? Not to mention,, a website that culls reviews from dozens of respected print and online publications, would prove more informative than one person.

As he notes, illegal downloading and piracy have impacted the music industry. But Keen is loose with his statistics in several places. For example, regarding the music industry he says, “Thanks to the rampant digital piracy spawned by file-sharing technology, sales of recorded music dropped over 20 percent between 2000 and 2006.” The source he cites, “No Suit Required” by Jeff Howe, merely notes the decline in sales; Keen attributes it all to piracy.

Piracy has impacted the movie industry as well, with the Motion Picture Association of America estimating the American movie industry lost $6.1 billion in worldwide revenue to all types of digital piracy, with 32% of the lost revenue coming from illegal internet downloads. Keen laments legal enterprises, though, such as ClickStar, Netflix, and Amazon that have cut into box office sales. He even discusses the disappointing returns for Snakes on a Plane despite an extensive internet marketing campaign and seems oblivious to how his relying on such a throwaway film to make his point raises questions about just how qualified he is to be a tastemaker.

According to Keen, Web 2.0 is to be blamed for the troubles across all traditional media, saying, “Every defunct record label, or laid-off newspaper reporter, or bankrupt independent bookstore is a consequence of “free” user-generated Internet content—from Craiglist’s free advertising, to YouTube’s free music videos, to Wikipedia’s free information.” Ridiculous exaggeration aside, Keen later expounds on the declining revenue and lost jobs for traditional media, particularly metropolitan newspapers, decrying Craigslist for taking away advertising dollars from them. The simple fact is that if a service is free (Craigslist) or cheaper (iTunes, discount retailers), then consumers will opt for low/no-cost efficiency.

Keen veers away from his thesis in the last third of the book, discussing the moral and cultural decay demonstrated by sexual predators, internet pornography, online gambling addictions, and identify theft. Few readers would quibble with Keen that these are serious problems, but the internet is but the latest way to feed such vices and evils, and those conniving enough to use them to harm others are hardly amateurs.

In the last chapter Keen examines some ways in which illegal uses of Web 2.0 are being curtailed and how traditional media industries are beginning to successfully adjust their business models to expand to the internet while retaining their traditional forms as well— all of which makes Keen’s fear that professional media is facing impending doom seem, yes, exaggerated.

Ultimately, Keen’s jeremiad is too broad. Upholding truth and decency is indeed imperative to preserving our culture, but superciliously stifling the “noble amateur” isn’t. Talent isn’t limited to the tastemakers; and though the din of Web 2.0 grows with each new jejune blog, navel-gazing song, or asinine video, true talent, be it professional or amateur, rings distinctly.

Mando Diao - Ode to Ochrasy

Sporting Mod culture looks and embracing their garage rock, British invasion, and punk influences, Mando Diao are hardly musical trailblazers. But when they're at their best, the cocksure rockers from Borlange, Sweden, meld gritty exuberance with infectious hooks better than many of their retro-inspired contemporaries. On their latest album, Ode to Ochrasy, Mando Diao temper their rowdy roots a bit in favor of broadening their sound.

Ochrasy (a word coined by co-singer Bjorn Dixgard) is a concept album of sorts. The songs' narratives stem from the band's experiences while touring and the farrago of characters they met, ranging from drug addicts ("Josephine"), to homeless buskers ("Good Morning, Herr Horst"), to would-be bombers ("Killer Kaczynski"). And, as you might expect, there are plenty of songs about girls.

Although the narrative concept creates a loose lyrical cohesion, the band seems undecided where to venture musically. Raucous stomps like "Killer Kaczynski," "Good Morning, Herr Horst," (which sounds like a revved up version of The Libertines' "The Man Who Would Be King") and the album's first single, "Long Before Rock'n'Roll" recall the sound of their previous albums, particularly Bring 'em In, but are a bit stale by comparison. On the smooth "Josephine" and the Lennon-esque "The New Boy," Dixgard and fellow singer Gustaf Noren prove their adept at penning delicate melodies, although placing the songs back-to-back stalls the album. Dixgard's finest moment may be the closing track, "Ochrasy." The acoustic ode to a fantasy world highlights the soulful dimension of Dixgard's voice seldom heard elsewhere on the album.

On the album's best songs the duo crafts engaging, pop-drenched melodies while retaining just the right measure of garage rock roughness. On the relentlessly driving "You Don't Understand Me," Dixgard's lament of lost love, heartbreak sounds downright dance-inducing. Noren's hyperactive "Morning Paper Dirt" provides a punch of power pop, while his verve-filled "Song for Aberdeen" sounds a bit like "Sister Golden Hair" on speed. "The Wildfire (If It Was True)"-the best song on the album and quite possibly Mando Diao's best song period-churns along on a train car-clatter rhythm before bursting into an ebullient, irresistible chorus.

The band isn't lacking for confidence. Noren has said he believes the band's work surpasses anything by the Who, the Small Faces, or the Kinks-even that they're better than the Beatles. Sure, everyone besides the band themselves and some diehard fans would beg to differ, but his confidence seems to stem more from the band's tireless efforts to be something special than from an Oasis-like braggadocio. And, it generates more buzz, of course. But if Mando Diao hopes to find a seat among the rock pantheon, they have to stretch themselves, to test their limits, to discover new musical territory. Ode to Ochrasy marks the band's first--sometimes awkward, sometimes brilliant--steps in that direction.

Ryan Adams' show at the GPAC (Germantown Performing Arts Center)

Until last night I'd never gone to a Ryan Adams' concert. As much as I love his music, I never had the desire to gamble my $30 ($60 with my wife) to see if I'd experience Ryan Adams, the vastly talented songwriter and captivating performer, or Ryan Adams, the petulant SOB who'd lumber drunk through a set or storm off the stage in a tantrum twenty minutes into the show. But with the positive reviews for his current tour and the fact that he's sober now, I decided to take the risk this time around.

Adams and his band, the Cardinals, took the stage around 8:30 (the show was scheduled to begin at 8:00). Wasting no more time, Adams offered a "good evening" to the crowd as he and the band settled onto their stools, and they struck into "Please Do Not Let Me Go," one of his finest bittersweet ballads, that showcased Adams' clear, impassioned tenor (all the more impressive given the theater's wonderful acoustics) and the Cardinals' impeccable musicianship.

Being an acoustic show, the set list favored slower material, mostly from his three 2005 releases and his new album, Easy Tiger, but Adams and the band performed each song with tireless precision and intensity. From the raw emotion of "The Sun Also Sets" to the tender melody of "Wildflowers," nearly every song from the evening was stunning. Even the five songs culled from 2005's spare and meandering 29 sounded fresh and compelling in their concise, reworked versions. The highlight of the evening was Adams' fiery rendition of "Peaceful Valley" on which the Cardinals nailed the multi-part a capella harmonies during the chorus.

For what would be the final song, Adams came to the front of the stage to sing "Goodnight Hollywood Boulevard," offering one last powerful performance. Adams gave a wave to the crowd after he finished the song and left the stage along with the band to the crowd's enthusiastic applause.

The houselights stayed down for over five minutes, and the audience continued cheering, anxious for an encore. There wasn't one, though, and the reaction of fans sitting in my vicinity ranged from satisfaction, to anger, to disbelief. As my wife and I made our way out of the theater, one college-age girl told us, "Don't go yet. He played 24 songs last night in Louisville. He's got to play an encore!" As much as we wanted to hear an encore ourselves, with the houselights up and "Rock the Casbah" playing, it was clear Adams was calling it a night. That girl may still be standing in the balcony as I type this.

Admittedly, the ending of the show was a bit peculiar. If the houselights had come up right after the band left the stage or if Adams had verbally bid a "goodnight," we still would've been disappointed there wasn't an encore--everyone wants more terrific music after all--but I think fewer people would've been annoyed.

With Ryan Adams' infamous erraticism, there's no telling why he didn't come back for an encore. Although he didn't say much during the show--well, nearly anything--he seemed in a good mood and he certainly poured himself into the performance. Several times during the show, he motioned to his sound guy to adjust the monitors, so maybe he had gotten perturbed about that and didn't figure the problem would ever be fixed to his satisfaction. Who knows? It could be he simply had decided ahead of time he wasn't playing an encore.

Still, even though I'm disappointed we missed out on an encore (I envy anyone who attended the Louisville show), the 18 songs Adams did play were incredible, so I suspect I'll be willing to roll the dice again if he comes around on a tour in the fall.

Set List

Please Do Not Let Me Go
Dear John
Let It Ride
The Sun Also Sets
Goodnight Rose
Night Birds
Blue Hotel
Starlight Diner
Oh My God, Whatever, Etc.
Blue Sky Blues
I Taught Myself How to Grow Old
Elizabeth, You Were Born to Play the Part
Carolina Rain
Peaceful Valley
Magnolia Mountain
Goodnight Hollywood Boulevard

Lit Bit #4

I'm slowly making my way through Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March--slowly because it's a long novel and the language is dense, not because it's dull. Some critics have asserted it's the greatest post-WWII novel in American literature--some even suggest it's the greatest American novel of all time. Wherever it ranks in the American canon, it's unquestionably a remarkable work. Here's one of my favorite passages I've read to this point (I'm only about 1/4 of the way into the book):

"If you want to pick your own ideal creature in the mirror coastal air and sharp leaves of ancient perfections and be at home where a great mankind was at home, I've never seen any reason why not. Though unable to go along one hundred percent with a man like Reverend Beecher telling his congregation, "Ye are Gods, you are crystalline, your faces are radiant!" I'm not an optimist of that degree, from the actual faces, congregated or separate, that I've seen; always admitting that the true vision of things is a gift, particularly in times of disfigurement and world-wide Babylonishness, when plug-ugly macadam and volcanic peperino look commoner than crystal--to eyes with an ordinary amount of grace, anyhow--and when it appears like a good sensible policy to settle for medium-grade quartz."

Catch Up

Yeah, if maintaining this blog were my job, I'd have been fired a long time ago. I'd intended to provide some updates while we were in Austin, but I never got around to it. So, in lieu, of the thorough, undeniably entertaining narratives I'd hoped to write over the course of the past three weeks, I give you, dear readers, a synopsis.

Our only travels of the summer took us back to the Lone Star State. On the 9th we made our way to Houston to attend the wedding reception (the wedding was a family-only ceremony in March) for Andy and Jen Dunham. That night Andy and I mustered up a bit of the sleep-deprivation stamina of our college days, staying up into the wee hours of the morning burning CD's and cracking ourselves up. On Sunday, we went to church with Andy and Jen (late service) and then we headed on to Austin.

After living in Austin for six years, it feels like home when we go back for a visit. We squeezed a month's worth of activity into the nine days we were there--hung out with our friends, celebrated our second anniversary, celebrated my birthday, attended a wedding, and celebrated our youngest niece's birthday. See what I mean by not having much time to blog? For my birthday, Janet and Matt threw me a surprise party. I had no idea they'd been planning anything. Janet tells the story of the planning and near slip-ups much better than I do:

Two days after we returned to Memphis, my folks came into town for a six-day visit. We didn't do as much sightseeing as the last time they came down--Janet and my mom did take a Riverboat tour--but we managed to eat at a few of our favorite spots (Oh, blessed Blues City pork ribs!) and enjoyed just hanging out.

Now that things have slowed down considerably I'm trying to tackle my summer reading. I've finished three books to this point--Light in August (read for the second time), (ditto)Winesburg, Ohio, and Darkness at Noon--but I have five to go including Ulysses, which may have to wait until next summer.

To Be Older (Is to Be Sober, Is To Be Focused)

Whatever Ryan Adams' stylistic whim over the past seven years--alt-country, AOR, country, dour Brit pop, folk, garage rock--nearly every album held two things in common: more than a few staggeringly brilliant songs that would make any songwriter envious (Rock'n'Roll and 29 perhaps being the exceptions) and enough certifiable to leave a listener wondering how someone with Adams' remarkable talent could display such spotty quality control.

Easy Tiger, Adams' first release in over a year (an epic drought by his standards) isn't his best album, but it his most consistent, offering some moments of splendid songcraft without the weight of a lot of filler. Backed by the latest lineup of The Cardinals (they're not billed on the album cover), Adams concentrates on straightforward, acoustic-based songs and various flavors of country. The album opens with "Goodnight Rose," a staggered, twangy rocker reminiscent of Cold Roses but downshifts into a subdued, melancholy tone with the first single, "Two." Complimented by Sheryl Crow's harmonies, Adams' ache-tinged tenor buoys even the most pedestrian of lines: "'Cause it's cold in here/And I wish it was hot/The sink's broke, it's leaking from the faucet."

Not surprisingly, Adams' trademark elegiac tales of broken relationships, crushed ambition, and transient youth permeate the album. He fails, though, when he tries too emphatically to convey heartbreak. With a tinny acoustic guitar doubling the vocal melody, "Off Broadway," a reworked tune originally recorded during the Suicide Handbook sessions, suffers from an insipid and painfully repetitive chorus as Adams loses his way home after spotting an ex-lover: "I don't know where that is anymore/I don't know where that is anymore/I don't know where that is anymore/Used to be off Broadway." Someone help the man home already! And, on "The Sun Also Sets," he mars an otherwise solid song with a strained, overwrought vocal delivery, which culminates with him channeling what sounds like the voice of Grover right before the final chorus.

More often, however, Adams strikes the right balance of sadness and subtlety. On the breezy "Two Hearts" he foresees the inevitable collapse of a relationship ("Two hearts/One of them will break/Like bad ideas on a beautiful day/Two figures moving through the dark/ Three words is all it takes to break your heart in two") while on the beautiful "Oh My God, Whatever, Etc.," he wearily surrenders to listlessness: "But the light of the moon leads the way/Towards the morning, and the sun/The sun's well on it's way too soon/But oh, oh my God, whatever, etc."

That sort of self-reflection lies at the heart of quite a few tracks. To be sure, there are some "young gal did me bad" moments, but they're tempered by Adams' acknowledgment of his own failings, whether he's admitting the difficulty of commitment--"I make these promises/But all these promises hurt/It's like they never get a lift off" ("Rip Off")--or confessing his weakness for anxious "late night girls" on "These Girls"--"It's so sad but when they smile/God, I've been had"--arriving at the conclusion that "These girls are better off in my head."

Adams achieves mixed results when he veers from sullen musings. "Halloweenhead," the album's lone musical departure, boasts a catchy melody and offers some self-deprecating humor, but the near Spinal Tap homage, replete with bells, storm noises, and the shout of "Guitar solo!," sounds decidedly out of place. The sunny bluegrass number "Pearls on a String" fares much better, providing a fun, top-tapping tune while retaining the instrumental textures common to the album.

Easy Tiger shows Ryan Adams can be focused and accessible, but it's fair to say that at times it sounds a bit too tame, too easy. With the album's heavy dose of balladry, there are few traces of his customary reckless energy or swagger. Maybe next time around he'll manage to infuse those elements into his maturing sound--chances are we won't have to wait long to find out. Still, Adams' talent as a songwriter is undeniable--"Oh My God, Whatever, Etc." "Goodnight Rose," and "These Girls" stand with the best in his extensive catalog--and not having to lunge for the skip button too often while listening to the album is a welcome change.

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