Musings, Nits, and Praises: November 2008

Musings, Nits, and Praises

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

Consumerism at Its Ugliest

Even more troubling, here's a quote from an article on about the incident:

Kimberly Cribbs, who witnessed the stampede, said shoppers were acting like "savages."

"When they were saying they had to leave, that an employee got killed, people were yelling `I've been on line since yesterday morning,'" she said. "They kept shopping."

Ryan Adams and the Cardinals: Cardinology

For the first decade of Ryan Adams’ career, his infamous petulance, starlet dating, and self-destructive behavior garnered nearly as much press as his often-arresting talent and prodigious output. Of the three, the self-destructive behavior, driven by dissolution into drugs and alcohol, not only impaired his ability to perform (or even finish) a coherent show but also threatened to render Adams the latest entry in the annuls of rock’n’roll tragedies.

But Adams has turned a corner over the past few years. A notoriously erratic and cantankerous band mate (see his days with Whiskeytown), he’s chummy with his cohorts the Cardinals, and he’s clean—sober now for two years. And though substance abuse never seemed to squelch his prolificacy, Adams, focused and mellowed a bit, seems to be bristling with perhaps a greater degree creative energy since kicking his habits as he’s set to unveil a book in the spring on top of the two full-length albums and an EP he’s released since June of last year.

Like last year’s Easy Tiger, his new album, Cardinology, offers a more even listening experience than most of his previous records. With the exception of the abysmal “Natural Ghost,” a track even the most ardent Ryan Adams fan might struggle to listen to for more than thirty seconds, the album is free of certifiable duds. But in attaining this level of consistency, Adams has sacrificed some of the raw emotion and reckless energy that, yes, resulted in some spotty track lists but also made for a lot of brilliant, poignant songs.

“Born Into a Light,” a country-imbued number in Adams’ musical wheelhouse, gets the album off to a strong start. A deft acoustic riff and stomping percussion usher in each verse, giving way to a gentle melody accentuated by Jon Graboff’s plaintive pedal steel and Neal Casal’s feathery harmonies that dovetail perfectly with Adams’ tenor. As good as the song is, though, Adams’ litany of clichéd self-help phrases like “Be your own best friend/ Have confidence and keep the faith” shows he has some work to do if he wants to be as penetrating lyrically when singing of hope and perseverance as when he mines the depths of heartache and loneliness.

The trio of rock tunes that follow are solid, too, though none of them boast the looseness or spontaneity Adams and company have displayed before on songs like “Cold Roses” and “Magnolia Mountain.” Kick-started with ringing electric guitars, “Go Easy” follows a fairly straight-ahead adult-alternative template before swelling into an uplifting coda that channels latter-day U2. “Fix It,” the album’s first single, showcases Adams’ affinity for classic rock, combining a gritty, bluesy verse with a deceptively restrained chorus that bares its teeth by song’s end while the power-chord feast “Magick” proves an infectiously catchy bit of swaggering garage-rock.

Adams slows things down with “Cobwebs,” which aims to be a slow-building anthem of sorts but never really erupts. Instead it grows rather tiresome, with Adams repeating “confuse my love for the cobwebs” as if incessantly singing the line will breathe profundity into it. But he regains his footing on the terrific, country gospel-flavored “Let Us Down Easy,” delivering an arresting vocal that captures every bit of pain and impassioned pleading entailed in the lyrics.

The back end of the album offers fewer highlights. Carried by little more than acoustic guitar and piano, “Crossed Out Name” is the one song on the album that displays Adams’ talent for creating beautiful melancholy with pared down arrangements, but it’s followed by the aforementioned musical turd, “Natural Ghost,” and the stale “Sink Ships,” which belabors a lover as job applicant metaphor and is made worse by the verse’s melodic similarity to Level 42’s “Something About You.”

As the album draws to a close, it settles into an increasingly relaxed vibe that makes the fervor of songs like “Fix It” seem like a distant memory. The ethereal, finger-picked folk “Evergreen” is a highlight, but “Like Yesterday, despite Casal’s tasteful country-rock solo, feels like a somnolent reprisal of the far superior “Let Us Down Easy.” On the closing track “Stop,” a piano ballad reminiscent of the haunting “Shadowlands” from Love Is Hell, Adams lays bare his experience in gaining a hard-won victory over addiction, singing in a fractured voice, “I know a sickness ancient and cross/ No crucifix could ever fix enough/ But in the basement of a church these people talk/ And there is a line that must be walked/ If you wanna make it stop/ Then stop.”

Ultimately, there’s little to pan about Cardinology, but its consistency isn’t tantamount to greatness. The album is the sound of Adams at peace with himself and at ease and in sync with his band, making music at times as beautiful, moving, and invigorating as anything he’s written, but often sounding a bit too easy and measured.

A Book That Steps on Toes, Mine Included

Here's a link to Ron Sider's review of a book I feel compelled to check out: Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Don't Give Away More Money.

Two of the most salient excerpts from the review follow:

Chapter 1 hits the reader like a ton of bricks, spelling out in detail what American Christians could accomplish if they would tithe. If just the "committed Christians" (defined as those who attend church at least a few times a month or profess to be "strong" or "very strong" Christians) would tithe, there would be an extra 46 billion dollars a year available for kingdom work. To make that figure more concrete, the authors suggest dozens of different things that $46 billion would fund each year: for example, 150,000 new indigenous missionaries; 50,000 additional theological students in the developing world; 5 million more micro loans to poor entrepreneurs; the food, clothing and shelter for all 6,500,000 current refugees in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East; all the money for a global campaign to prevent and treat malaria; resources to sponsor 20 million needy children worldwide. Their conclusion is surely right: "Reasonably generous financial giving of ordinary American Christians would generate staggering amounts of money that could literally change the world."

In their concluding chapter, the authors summarize their findings. They think there are five primary reasons for the fact that "the wealthiest national body of Christian believers at any time in all of church history end up spending most of their money on themselves." The most important is our society's "institutionalized mass consumerism." The second is the failure of pastors to deal with the issue. The third is that many Christians seem to be confused about the meanings, expectations, and purposes of faithful Christian giving. Fourth, some have distrust about whether their donations will be used wisely. Finally, the near total privatization of the topic means that almost no American Christians discuss their giving with anyone else.

Some Brief Post-Election Thoughts

Whether your candidate won or lost, be thankful we live in a country where we can elect our leaders.

Whether your candidate won or lost, appreciate the genuinely momentous event in our nation's history we witnessed last night.

Obama supporters (of which I am one), enjoy his victory but don't gloat. When he takes office, don't expect perfection--we voted for an inspiring, gifted, and intelligent but nonetheless flawed man. But hold Obama to the pledges and ideas that compelled you to vote for him in the first place and do your own small part in helping fulfill those initiatives. No president is beyond reproach. For Christian Obama supporters (again, of which I am one), remember that we elect leaders, not a savior. Government can't begin to fix every problem we face nor can it change people's hearts.

McCain supporters, be rightfully disappointed but follow McCain's lead in accepting the disappointment with class and hope that Obama can provide strong, intelligent leadership for the country. I've never understood when supporters of the losing candidate in any election root for the failure of the President Elect. This isn't a heated sports rivalry where you embrace schadenfreude, delighting in your rival's missteps. This is our nation. To hope for the failure of a president so you can have an "I told you so" moment is to value petty personal vindication over the well-being of the country. Once Obama takes office, offer civil criticism when you disagree with him, but don't stoop to slander and baseless fear-mongering. Stay informed. And by informed, I don't mean listening to people like Limbaugh and Hannity and then feeling as if you've in any way objectively considered the issues (the same holds true for their counterparts on the left).

I posted this on my Facebook notes as well. Kester's response there was a salient one, so I'm including it here:

"For those whose guy didn't win, it is best to remember that our citizenship is in the Kingdom of God and that we don't panic or even sit the sidelines because of a Presidential victory or defeat. Our mission remains constant whether a Democrat is President, a Republican is President, or no one is President and chaos ensues. Our mission is the same if we live in the U.S. or Canada or Kenya or China. Our mission remains the same whether the world is a better place tomorrow or a worse one: To do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. To love the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love our neighbor as ourself."

Political Evolution

A tip of the hat to Jeff for posting a link to Donald Miller's post on the transformation of his political views: From Reagan to Obama.

My own shifting of political views in many ways mirrors that of Miller. Here are some excerpts that resonated with me:

"Having met the enemy, I discovered the enemy wasn’t who I thought they were. They were flawed, even as we were flawed, but they were no less patriotic, and no less good. And what’s more, they weren’t out to get us like my conservative friends had told me. I began to see, honestly, the far conservative right, the radical right (not the balanced, objective right) as being paranoid. The advertisements on conservative radio talk shows were about guns and alarm systems.

I wondered how I could be made to feel so prejudiced against Democrats. And then I took a hard look at the culture I was raised in. I realized every church I’d ever attended had been an insular community. Every church had been far off in the suburbs, off a bus line, protected from the poor and marginalized and, quite honestly, racial minorities. It’s not that these churches did this intentionally. I don’t believe that. The decisions to reside in the suburbs had to do with property value and opportunity. But the end result was an insulated existence."

Unlike Miller, I was raised in a rather apolitical household. My parents seldom mentioned politics and didn't subscribe to any particular political persuasion. I haven't a clue who my parents ever voted for. However, I did grow up around people--first at church and then in college--who staunchly supported right-wing politics. For some of these people it seemed that being a beet-red Republican was imperative to calling yourself a Christian.

As I've come to care more about politics (though I feel safe in saying I'll never be a political junkie), I've developed a strong distaste for such views and the insular, divisive, and un-Christ-like behavior they foster. Of course, the far-left's labeling of conservatives as greedy, racist, anti-intellectuals is no more productive or reflective of a Christian attitude than the right's demonizing of the left.

I'll add more to these thoughts in a follow-up post. It's lunchtime.

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