So a lot has happened. And every time I tell myself I’m going to sit down and update the blog to recap life events for my own future reference (which is basically the entire purpose of this blog, one that Facebook Timeline seems bent on demolishing), I find myself actively avoiding writing of any kind. Maybe it’s a passing phase, what with all the activity around here (Girlfriend moving in! Band rehearsals! Losing my job! Getting a new one!), but I find myself documenting my life less with words and more with photos (thanks, Instagram). I also find myself wondering about things less, and that was a primary reason for blogging in the beginning. It’s entirely possible that I’ve just figured most things out, I suppose. Anyway, here are the highlights of the last 10 months:
I lost my job at American Express and got a new one at American Express. So far it seems like easier work, as I’m now managing a small number of large projects rather than a large number of small projects.
No one seems to like jury duty. It interrupts peoples’ work schedules, certainly, but there seems to be more to it than that – the drudgery of dealing with randomly assembled people, the formal and vaguely threatening institutional setting, the paperwork, the bureaucracy. I don’t know if these things don’t bother me much because I’m generally fascinated by novel societal experiences or because my dad was a judge.
I was summoned to the Brooklyn Supreme Court building last Thursday at 8:30 a.m. As I exited the subway station, I was asked for directions by a guy looking for 320 Jay Street, my very same destination, so we walked together toward the courthouse. He was another prospective juror, a sharp-dressed black dude in a thick cream-colored sweater and Timberlands, named David. We exchanged ideas for getting exempted from jury service and generally commiserated as we entered the building and went through security.
We entered a large room on the second floor filled with rows of seats like pews but made of vinyl. We watched a spectacularly low-budget orientation video featuring historical re-enactments of medieval justice: a group of people in robes and rags tie up an accused person and toss him into a river to see if he floats. Then Ed Bradley from 60 Minutes circa 1992 came on and welcomed us to the world of the US justice system. Perry Mason clips were shown, after which Diane Sawyer appeared, explaining that courtrooms are seldom the high-drama arenas that we see in movies and on television.
The combination of the institutional setting and the irresistibly mockable video meant that I naturally reverted by small degrees to my smartass high school self. After the video, David and I joked around with a guy next to us (I didn’t get his name so I’ll just call him DJ Premier because he looked a lot like DJ Premier) about what might disqualify us: language difficulties, backward caps (Premier had his cocked to the side), hoodies, the sincere principles of our Amish-Rastafarian religious beliefs (Premier later remarked that it might be troublesome that his laptop smelled like weed).
The jury room was a terrific cross-section of New York City. Every archetype was present: Old Hasidic Jewish guy? Check. Three-piece suit dude? Check. Confused Asian and Caribbean ladies who didn’t understand much of what was being said? Check. Starbucks laptop guy doing graphic design work? Check. Rotund ladies with impeccable nails and hair of questionable authenticity? Check.
After a Cheese Danish and terrible coffee, I heard my name called, along with David’s, so we both went to the next room for a roll-call before heading up to the 19th floor along with our group of about 30 or so people.
The 19th floor had a nice view, so David and I stood by the window and talked. He’s 39, with a wife and four boys in Brownsville, and he works as a property manager in Queens. Originally from the island of Dominica in the Virgin Islands, he moved to New York when he was 10. We talked about moving from a rural area to the big city, the state of NY public schools, the real estate market, and raising kids in the city. Brownsville, for those who don’t know, is one of the rougher parts of Brooklyn, and David mentioned a local kid was recently shot in a domestic dispute. So he’s looking into moving the family elsewhere.
We were all called into the courtroom for an initial introduction to the attorneys and the case. The defendant was accused of assault and robbery of a livery cab driver at knifepoint. The briefing was short, as it was already 12:45, so we were dismissed for lunch. David and I went to a pizza place, where we talked about music, in particular the decline of popular hip-hop. He spoke a little bit about New York City in 1982 though the crack era of the late 80s/early 90s, and how his father disapproved of rap music, and how much fun hip-hop used to be then compared to today. He’s the disapproving father these days, as the genre has descended into empty materialism. David didn’t get to see many shows in the 80s, but when I mentioned that I had been to Brownsville last summer to see Special Ed play Summerstage, he said that he once went to a car auction with Special Ed back in the day!
Back at the courthouse, we sat around listening to the dude with the loud earbuds (check!) leaking out tunes by Sade and Journey before we were all called back into the courtroom. Twenty folks were chosen for the initial round of inquiry; David was chosen but I was not. Each one was asked their name, job, living arrangement, neighborhood, criminal history (“have you or anyone close to you been the victim of a crime?”), and whether or not they could be impartial to the case, irrespective of any personal connections to crimes, livery cab drivers, or the neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant where the alleged crime took place. It felt something like an AA meeting – getting to know strangers and their personal lives.
The rest of us were dismissed and later told that we would not be needed. We returned to the main jury room on the second floor. The time was around 4 p.m., so everyone in the room was told they could leave. Our obligation was over, and we would not be eligible for summons for another 6 years.
While most folks were all but celebrating their dismissal, I have to say I was kind of looking forward to the job. I was also bummed out by the fact that I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to David (and he doesn’t seem to be on Facebook). Looks like I’ll never know how it turned out for the knife-wielding suspect from Bed-Stuy. It’s probably just as well. Dude looked so guilty.
Dalton Trumbo, the screenwriter of such varied films as Roman Holiday, Spartacus, and Johnny Got His Gun, was one of the Hollywood Ten, a group of writers and directors blacklisted in 1947 for refusing to testify at the McCarthy hearings. I recently watched a documentary about him, Trumbo, which is available on Netflix streaming. When I heard the following passage on why he refused to name names in McCarthy’s witch hunt, I knew I had to track down a transcript:
I’ve delivered newspapers, reported for newspapers, peddled vegetables, clerked in stores, waited on tables, washed automobiles, picked fruit, hosed down infected cadavers, shoveled sugar beets, iced refrigerator cars, laid rails with a section gang, and served an eight-year hitch on the night shift of a large industrial plant.
I’ve looked at many American faces. I’ve seen them as flak burst around them nine thousand feet over Japan; in a slit trench on Okinawa watching the night sky to see where the next bomb would fall; in an assault boat as they moved toward a beach that tossed more violently than the surf through which they rode.
I’ve counseled with a paroled prostitute on how she might escape the clutches of a policeman who had caught her and was stealing half her earnings and sending his friends to her with courtesy cards that entitled them to take her without pay. I’ve also counseled with Secretary of the Air Force Tom Finletter on how the secretary of state might better explain his policies to a perplexed people. I’ve been asked by Louis B. Mayer why I had no religion, and by a ranking member of the State Department how I could bring myself to work with “all those Hollywood Jews.”
I’ve seen American faces in a miners’ union hall in Duluth on a night when the wind off the lake blew the snow so killingly and so deep that cars couldn’t be used and everybody walked to the meeting. I’ve seen their faces in the banquet room of a New York hotel when the American Booksellers’ Association gave me a National Book Award; and I’ve seen them again in a jury box as each of them twice said, “Guilty as charged,” and one of them wept as she said it.
I’ve been stripped by Americans and paraded naked with them and before them and obediently bent over on command to present my anus for contraband clearance. I’ve lived with and trusted and been trusted by car thieves and abortionists and moonshiners and embezzlers and burglars and Jehovah’s Witnesses and Quakers.
I’ve stood on a gray day in the Fifth Marine Division Cemetery on Iwo Jima and looked off at the graves of 2,198 Americans. In the center of all those graves on a slim white pole on a concrete pedestal flew the American flag. And I swear it was not the flag of informers. And if I could take a census of all the American faces I have seen and of all the dead whose graves I have looked on, if I could ask them one simple question: “Would you like a man who told on his friend?” – there would not be one among them who would answer, “Yes.”
But, show me the man who informs on friends who have harmed no one, and who thereafter earns money he could not have earned before, and I will show you not a decent citizen, not a patriot, but a miserable scoundrel who will, if new pressures arise and the price is right, betray not just his friends but his country itself.
My birthday falls on St. Patrick’s Day. This would be fantastic if I were the sort of person who enjoys the many drunken activities that police officers file under the category of “disorderly conduct.” Maybe I’m just getting old, but St. Patrick’s Day seems to get less fun each year as more and more people have taken it as an excuse for binge drinking. It feels like one big frat party now. Ordinarily I’m insulated from the holiday by my annual trips to South by Southwest, where everyone is too busy listening to bands to get mercilessly hammered, or even notice that March 17th is a holiday.
So it was with some reluctance that I went downtown to Little Rock’s River Market (epicenter of public drinking) on St. Patrick’s Day to see my old college chum Hayes Carll play a show at Rev Room. It was a good show as usual, but I was really tired after a long day (friend’s wedding at which I was an usher/golf cart driver and then cousin’s BBQ afterward) so I left a little early. Walking back toward the Clinton Library where I had parked my rental car, I came up behind a girl having some trouble walking. She would veer into the wall of the Courtyard Hotel and rebound. I passed her, and I was about to round the last corner to the Clinton Library when I looked back and saw her attempting to get into her car. Fortunately she had become temporarily trapped in the game of drop keys-pick up-keys-drop-phone-pick-up-phone-drop keys, which gave me the time to ask myself if I was going to let this happen. Was I going to walk away? My instincts said to let her fate play itself out by her actions, but after 36 years on this Earth, I’ve discovered that my first instincts are generally wrong.
So I talked to her. I asked her if she needed help or if she had anyone she could call for a ride. She said she had tried to call people but no one was picking up, and her brother had abandoned her about an hour before; she had no idea where he was and it was likely that he was even further gone than she was. Neither of us knew any cab phone numbers or anything, so I offered her a ride home.
Naturally, she lived in Conway (a half-hour drive for you non-Arkansans). To make her feel better about being driven home by a total stranger, I told her I was staying with my sister in Vilonia, so it wouldn’t be too far out of my way (my sister lives Jacksonville). I also said not to worry about the degree of the favor – I told her about my birthday and how I was accustomed to the services that St. Patrick’s Day often requires. So I helped her to my car and off we went.
I’ll leave out her name, but she was a 27-year-old single mother of a 5-year-old with a “douchebag” ex living in Mayflower. She had been working at a local healthcare facility but couldn’t continue there because she’d have had to work some night shifts. This would be impossible for her, as her uncooperative ex would not take his child for any longer than the agreed-upon two weekends per month (he was at least, it should be noted, a dutiful payer of child support). She was considering going back to school for nursing, but the single-parent-with-douchey-ex lifestyle made that tricky. She couldn’t rely on her parents’ assistance, as both of them had died within the last two years (father from alcoholism, mother from a heart attack). Also making her employment difficult was her 6-year probation sentence for “possession of an instrument of crime” (specifically, rolling papers – one of the most egregiously nebulous charges available to law enforcement). So at this point I realized that not only did I prevent the disastrous consequences of her having an accident, but I also prevented her from getting a DUI which would have further complicated her already unnecessarily complex life. Perhaps the most likely outcome for her situation, though, would have been her sitting alone, in the dark parking lot, underneath the freeway – also a scenario best avoided.
She insisted she had not been this drunk in a very long time, as she only drank “once in a blue moon.” She seemed quite shamed by the situation. Her brother, a legitimate criminal miscreant on probation for terroristic threatening, had vanished during the evening’s festivities and eventually did call her; we were already as far as Morgan by then so he was SOL on getting home. Lesson learned: don’t go drinking in Little Rock if you live in Conway and haven’t planned for someone reasonably sober to get you home.
Additional important tip for this sort of thing: get your passenger’s address into your smart phone and map to it beforehand, just in case your passenger passes out. My fear early on was that I would be saddled with a sleeper. But she stayed coherent all the way back to her apartment in Conway, conveniently located close to the Hendrix campus so I didn’t have to worry about navigating any unfamiliar streets at night. I helped her to the door and she gave me a hug. She was probably as bewildered as I was that somebody would lend such a big hand to a total stranger.
Another St. Patrick’s Day, another year older, but for once I feel like I’ve actually grown a little. I’m generally a “no” person, so overcoming my instinct to leave things alone was a big step for me. I’m fairly certain I helped someone avoid a terrible fate, and an hourlong drive at 12 a.m. after a long day is a small price to pay for doing The Right Thing. Thanks, Saint Patrick, wherever you are.
Like so many songs of my early childhood in the late 1970s, “Slip Slidin’ Away” became part of my pre-linguistic sensory experience. Instrumentally spare even for a Paul Simon recording, it nevertheless has the distinction of being a song I experience in my chest as some form of synaesthesia, of sound made into sensation. To a two-year old, lyrics are obviously irrelevant, so it’s a testament to the magic of Paul Simon’s voice and the distinctive “and three” percussion that the song makes an impression at all on someone whose cognitive abilities are limited.
It’s tempting to interpret the tune as a lullaby, but even then I knew the song was not telling me that everything would be alright. I understood the words in the title at least, and I knew it meant loss of control, of being slowly moved in some unintended direction.
Released in late 1977 as a bonus track for Simon’s Greatest Hits, Etc., the song went to #5 on the Billboard charts. It’s one of the few situations I can think of where an unreleased song was appended to a hits collection and actually became a hit itself. It didn’t make the cut onto Still Crazy After All These Years, so it seems as though Simon is saying “here’s this thing I didn’t want to tell you about.” Maybe he wasn’t sure it was good enough, or maybe he thought we wouldn’t understand or be prepared for the message.
Because the song was encoded in my memory as a sensation rather than a song, I never took the time later in life to comprehend the lyrics. I absorbed it as I do most songs – music first, lyrics last, if at all. Only within the last few years did I get around to comprehending the verses. A lot of Paul Simon’s tunes have a certain sadness laced with hope, but this one doesn’t offer much in the way of consolation. It simply presents the world as it is – a man too much in love, a woman with lowered (realistic?) expectations from life, a father who doesn’t explain himself, and then the final verse, the knock-down blow:
God only knows
God makes his plan
The information’s unavailable
To the mortal man
We’re working our jobs
Collect our pay
Believe we’re gliding down the highway
When in fact we’re slip slidin’ away
It’s a dark truth that we are, for the most part, not in control, much as we may think we are. Maybe it’s just the timbre of The Paul Simon Voice that softens the punch, but the song manages not to be completely depressing; instead it transmits a feeling of being at peace with an uncertain universe. As children, our lullabies are either unreasonably rosy (“you make me happy when skies are grey”) or strangely horrid (“the cradle will fall?” WTF, mom?), so “Slip Slidin’ Away” might make a good middle ground. It’s the kind of message children would benefit from hearing more often. Somehow I think it was beneficial for me.
UPDATE: I realized recently that the most likely definition of “Slip Slidin’ Away” is death. I was reminded of a talk given by Thich Nhat Hanh (and adapted by Chroma Key into a piece called “When You Drive“) wherein Han says, “we have the habit energy of wanting to arrive. That is why we want to go as quickly as possible…but we arrive at every moment…If we abandon the present moment, our final destination may be our death. You don’t want to arrive there.” So with that in mind, we really do think we’re gliding down the highway when in fact we’re just getting closer to death.
Recently I was informed that an old acquaintance of mine had died. Fred was a salesguy at the now-defunct Sigler Music Center in Little Rock who made me a great deal on my trusty Fender Eric Johnson strat. I bought it at their going-out-of-business sale, which reminded me of all the great guitar shops in Central Arkansas that are no more: Boyd Pro Sound, Atomic Guitars, Stonehenge (I & II), Starr’s Guitars, Music City, Maumelle Music. I thought it might be good if I wrote down a little about each of them while the memories are still relatively fresh.
Boyd Pro Sound. The oldest, the best. This was Little Rock’s hometown music store for decades. In addition to guitars and band instruments it was the main repair shop and PA store. My history with the store is limited; I don’t think I ever bought any guitars there, but I know that it was the hub for all the gigging musicians, church groups, and audio production people. I fondly recall impressing Mr. Boyd once with my guitar rendition of Aaron Copland’s “Hoe Down.” He was a traditional pianist of some renown and I got the feeling he had an uneasy relationship with the young guitar monkeys in his store.
The circumstances of the store’s demise still seem strange to me – Mr. Boyd closed up shop to sell the space to a nearby church, then opened up a branch of Sigler Music Center a year or so later. Alas, the store opened at nearly the precise moment Guitar Center arrived, so it only lasted a few years.
Stonehenge. The place your metalhead cousin learned to shred. Or play “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” There were two Stonehenges, one in North Little Rock and one in Little Rock down on Geyer Springs Road. Finding the latter location was initially a process of trial and error for me – I could never remember how to get there. But this was the store with the Ibanez and Jackson guitars. This was the Guitar Monkey Store. This was where I bought my first seven-string, a white Ibanez Universe that languished in the store apparently for years. I bought it around 1995 I think, and it was a 1990 model. Nobody knew what to do with a seven-string back then; Korn hadn’t hit it big yet. A year later their rise to prominence unleashed a tidal wave of seven- and now eight-string guitars onto the market.
Atomic Guitars. My neighborhood shop. I can’t tell you the many joys of a sunny day’s walk of a few blocks from my apartment to Atomic Guitars. Johnny Adams always had the coolest retro/vintage gear, and not just the expensive stuff – he had weird cheap gear as well. I bought a red 70s Kay strat from him for something like $80 once. Good guitar. I gave it to a friend a few years later. I think I also got my Fender Deluxe amp there. Atomic was really the only store that had a funky vibe to it, and that’s a tribute to Johnny’s style and interests – it was his store. It took a few years before I realized how rare that is in this world. Here are some pics from my old photoblog from way back when. Atomic lives on virtually, so visit the website.
Starr’s Guitars. The Money Store. David Starr moved his operation up to Colorado after a few years in Little Rock’s River Market. It was the place to go if you wanted high-end, off-the-beaten path guitars like Godin, Brian Moore, or PRS. If you wanted a limited edition Turner Lindsay Buckingham model, he had one. Starr’s was new when I moved to town around 1999, and David ran ads on KARN Newsradio, where I had my first “real” job, post-college. I remember some mornings the late great Bob Harrison would be on the air with his Hofner Beatle bass in hand, reading ad copy for Starr’s during the morning show. Starr’s also hosted guitar repair legend Tim Quatermous (I’m probably spelling that wrong), who probably worked on every one of my guitars at some point. After Starr’s left, Tim moved over to Romco Drums before he passed away. And for awhile David ran a small music venue next door to the shop – I remember seeing some great shows there by folks like Ed Nicholson’s Outside the Lines and Chapman Stick player Greg Howard.
Music Makers. The suburbs store. They had some good guitars but I don’t have any real strong memories from here. I remember they had a cool Robin guitar for years that was always in the store but always beyond my price range or anyone else’s interest.
Music City. The Pawn Shop. There was a Music City back behind the Brandon House building on 12th at University and I think it eventually became the Music City out in Sherwood, which was really just a pawn shop with a lot of guitars. A lot of awesome guitars; in fact this was probably my favorite store to venture out to because all their inventory was used gear, and used gear is just consistently more interesting to me than new gear. Lots of great 80s relics – I remember almost buying a Steve Stevens Washburn there once. I did buy a $300 Epiphone Joe Pass from them. They’re in a new building in Sherwood by the freeway but every time I go by there, they’re never open. I wonder what the deal is.
Maumelle Music & More. My store. I taught guitar here for a few years between 2000 & 2004. When I moved to Little Rock in 1999, I’d heard a music store had opened up in the bedroom suburb of Maumelle. I went to check it out – it had a big selection of CDs, some t-shirts and they were a dealer for Ibanez, Alvarez and Crate. After picking around on a guitar for a bit, I was asked by the manager, Mike, if I’d be interested in teaching lessons. It worked out really well for me, because my radio gig was part-time. I’d work at KARN from 9 to noon, then teach from 4 to 7. When I left radio, I was part time at Epoch Online before I eventually moved up to fulltime. I still keep up with some of those kids.
Romco Drums. The drum shop with some acoustic guitars. The fact that this store is able to stay open dealing mainly in percussion is impressive. I took jazz guitar lessons there briefly with Perry Israel.
Saied Music. The high school band store. Some decent guitars, but mainly this is the store for the brass and woodwinds.
There was a store up in Sherwood in the early 2000s run by Randy Boyd – anybody remember the name? I used to go up there every so often.
I suppose I should say a few words about what killed these shops. It would be easy to just say “Guitar Center,” but the Internet and eBay are major factors as well. When any kid can try out a guitar at a store and then go buy it online for a lower price, that really hurts a store. It’s not digital-music-killing-record-stores damage, but it’s the 1 of a 1-2 punch. Punch 2 is Guitar Center, the Walmart of music stores. Any exclusive dealership contract a mom and pop store might have is effectively negated by Guitar Center’s special arrangements with every company. Their corporate pyramid also contains the website/catalog behemoth Musician’s Friend and several instrument companies like Fender (at the top of the pyramid? Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital), so financially it’s the Death Star of retail musical instrument stores. Only the small-town stores will survive (which is why I haven’t mentioned Jacksonville Guitar, still going strong), at least until Guitar Center decides to go everywhere that Walmart goes, or Walmart decides to carry a wider array of musical instruments. Or Walmart eats Guitar Center.
It should be said, though, that music stores are only as good as the people who run them. It’s really about people. A lot of sales guys in Little Rock had no place else to go but Guitar Center, so if I have a buddy at a Guitar Center, I’ll still buy from him if he’s got what I’m looking for (of course, given the choice, I will first order from GuitarSmiths in Harrison, not that I buy much gear brand new). I remember Little Rock’s Guitar Center being fun in the early days – I’ll never forget that time some kid was wailing on “Eruption” and Cody Short picked up the intercom and said “hey kid, can you play ’Eruption’”? Classic.
I’ll miss the Saturdays I used to spend in Little Rock going from guitar store to guitar store, talking to guys like Fred, seeing what’s new and what’s on sale. It’s something our culture will never get back, like retail record stores or cathedrals made by stonemasons. We gain convenience and low, low prices, but for everything we gain, we always lose something.
I decided to do this year’s list by album rather than by song. I had a surprisingly good year for albums in 2011.
Junip – Fields
By far my favorite album of the year. Junip is a new band from Sweden featuring José González, previously known for his several solo CDs of chilled-out semi-bossa-nova songsmithing. Transferred to a full band, González’s songs feel like they’ve moved from black & white to color. The colors are still muted browns and greens, but that’s as it should be. His songs have a sense of suspension to them, so the whole record makes for an immersive experience, great for long drives in the country or long walks in the city. I’ve found it to be one of those rare discs that even my mom likes, so I bought copies for the whole family for Christmas.
Those Dancing Days – Daydreams and Nightmares
The hits keep coming from Sweden. I was sent the video for “Fuckarias” (terrible title given that the song contains no swearing), and as soon as the drums started, I was in love. The drummer is phenomenal. This is the first time an all-girl bland completely floored me. They have two full-length albums, and the songs have a good variety of style – 80s synth pop, post-punk/new-wave, R&B, heavy rock. One minute they’re the Go-Go’s, the next they’re Sleater-Kinney, then OK Go. Yes, I have a crush on them. Shut up.
Dennis Olivieri – Come to the Party
This is a discovery from 1968 I made via DJ Shadow and the good people at www.whosampled.com (his song “I Cry in the Morning” is the backing track for Shadow’s “Six Days”). Dennis sits somewhere between Harry Nilsson and Tom Waits at the table of half-crazy songwriters (a table I imagine full of wine goblets, loose women, fine cheese and dead mice) and vocally he sounds like the younger brother of Blood Sweat & Tears’ David Clayton-Thomas. His songs have moments of brilliance but they resist being tied down into one convenient song. Just when you think he’s got a great pop tune, he takes some discursive left turn and you’re in the weeds of weirdness. He’s probably too sane for Captain Beefheart fans and too rambling to be enjoyed by pop fans. I need to find more of his stuff.
MAMA – Get Later
What can I say about Lenny Bryan? The Ho-Hum frontman still lives in a musical world of his own creation, and it’s not a world I entirely understand – I can’t trace the roots, I don’t know where the borders are, or which direction is up. But when on “We Became Untouchable” he sings “I just realized I’m never gonna be a star,” I’m plugged in, because every musician in their 30s needs to realize this at some point, so that’s not only familiar ground but Important Stuff. This is music that can’t be made by famous people; it’s a perspective that cannot be represented by the music industry as we used to know it. And it is a message that is Necessary to so many. It might even beg for a sequel song that tells ambitious twentysomething rockers “99.9% of you will fail to become rock stars.” And so the chorus of “You’re a friend of mine / And you’re the best kind / You’re a drink of wine / You’re a Valentine” serves as a nice tonic to that sad realization. Maybe it’s a consolation prize to all the would-be rock stars to know that, despite their failure to become famous, they still have a lot of friends.
Keith Horn – Rock Scissors
I met Keith at Dweezilla camp last year, and had no idea at the time that he was a Mad Scientist Genius. He knows all the Steely Dan chords. Combine that with all the Frank Zappa rhythm changes and tortured melodies, and you’ve got a unique hybrid that satisfies the needs of a wide variety of music nerds. He’s also a monster guitarist, not that I recall him revealing that to anyone at camp. So the guy is humble, too. Bastard.
David Mead – Dudes
The title track makes a nice companion piece to Lenny’s “We Became Untouchable.” The opening line is “You’ve got bills and bouncing checks / Nothing’s right and nothing’s left to lose / But you got Dudes.” It’s a lesson from a guy who had two major-label albums and is still struggling to make a living with music, but who finds himself with the consolation of having a lot of friends. It should be noted that this album was financed by a Kickstarter campaign to which I was a hefty contributor (I got to visit the studio!), so it’s good to have Dudes.
Parov Stelar – The Paris Swing Box EP
Finally someone is doing for old swing records what Moby did for old blues tunes. This is the first of two albums on this list that I found via a television commercial (Cosmopolitan Hotel of Las Vegas – by the way, why is one hotel in one city running national ads? Is that a first? How many guests can one hotel really take with nationwide exposure?), which I guess is the new MTV. Parov is really an Austrian DJ named Marcus Füreder, and not all of his stuff is as great as “Booty Swing” so kudos to the Madison Avenue wizard who put that tune in the commercial.
The Asteroids Galaxy Tour – The Golden Age
Here’s our other TV commercial song (for Heineken – thanks, Shazam app!) that harkens back to an earlier time and genre. A product of Denmark, TAGT may have one of the more unwieldy and confusing band names I’ve ever heard – how do they name their tours, The Asteroids Galaxy Tour American Tour? Great tunes, though.
T-Ride – Unreleased
This summer I came across several tunes from T-Ride’s unreleased second album, via their guitarist Geoff Tyson. T-Ride was a Bay Area trio with devastating musical skills – three-part vocal harmonies and instrumental technique beyond belief. Geoff’s guitar playing on “Serial Killer” is as close as I’ve heard metal come to jazz and still be a song without any real soloing. Like much T-Ride’s material, the virtuosity came not in the form of guitar solos, just maddeningly difficult riffs and fills. How they sang and played that stuff I have no idea. Drop me a line if you want to hear the other tunes.
Tori Amos – Night of Hunters
Finally a curveball from Tori, who hasn’t really thrown the world a curveball since 1998’s From the Choirgirl Hotel. This album not only features a more classical/chamber music sound, but also an instrumental (see below)! Her daughter sings with her on several cuts, which would count as nepotistic self-indulgence from anyone but the citizen-queen of Planet Tori.
Animals as Leaders – Weightless
Math rock, prog, jazz fusion and metal have finally converged. This trio led by guitarist Tosin Abasi is one of the only groups out there still pushing the boundaries of genre and technique. They are making the impossible possible with music that is as heavy as it is brainy. It would be easy to dismiss them as shred nerds if their rhythms weren’t so relentlessly brutal and their compositions so statistically dense.
Megadeth – Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying? 25th Anniversary
I don’t think any band in the genre of metal has ever combined ferocious intensity with such precision and madness as is exhibited on the live album that accompanies this special edition of Megadeth’s classic. Guitarist Chris Poland and drummer Gar Samuelson were hopeless heroin addicts and Daves Mustaine and Ellefson were their usual messed up selves, but the band manages to be tight and loose at the same time. This is as close as the raw energy of punk ever made it to its magnetic opposite of rock guitar wizardry. Metallica might have been faster, Slayer might have been scarier, but Megadeth were the craziest. They were the mad ones.
Dream Theater – A Dramatic Turn of Events
They’re back with a new drummer and an increased willingness to just go batshit crazy on guitar/keyboard unison lines. Welcome back, guys.
DJ Shadow – The Less You Know, The Better
I haven’t yet warmed up to all of Shadow’s new disc, but “Stay the Course” featuring Posdnuos and Talib Kweli is definitely the standout, along with “I Gotta Rokk” featuring a few samples from none other than Yngwie Malmsteen. Finally a convergence of hip-hop and metal I can get excited about.
This year I also discovered this really nice little George Harrison demo, a bonus cut from “Gone Troppo”.
On a sad note, one of my all-time favorite bands pretty much called it quits this year, The Softlightes. Please go buy everything they ever did as The Softlightes and as The Incredible Moses Leroy.
There are any number of reasons why King’s X were never as huge as the bands they influenced (Pearl Jam, Soundgarden) went on to become: Christian themes, a mohawked black guy for a lead singer, a sound too heavy for pop and too poppy for metal (Vocal harmonies and stratocaster crunch? Who wants that in their metal?). So their appeal was left primarily to the only groups of people who really care deeply about pure music: nerds and musicians. Unlike hair metal, King’s X weren’t selling a lifestyle to the bored; unlike thrash or death metal, they weren’t selling a sense of strength to the powerless; unlike punk or alternative rock, they weren’t reactionaries against a mainstream. They were just another band from Texas, that vast crossroads where musical outlaws run roughshod across the borderlines of genres. Perhaps the primary thing, though, that made them so unmarketable was the simple fact that there has never been anything cool about sincerity.
Their painful sincerity is in full flower on “Goldilox,” the second cut on their debut album. It’s immediately recognizable to every nerdy boy who can’t talk to girls as their Theme Song. “I can’t believe summer’s
almost here / I made it through another year even if alone” is, in some shape or form, written in the diary of every socially awkward teenager. Couched in different timbres, it would be twee indie rock. But sung by a soul singer (did I mention the mohawk?) fronting a heavy rock trio on an album named after a C.S. Lewis book, it has some barriers to entry for normal folks. But that’s who they were: three misfit Christian kids (who met each other in Springfield, Missouri!) who liked the Beatles and hard rock.
The King’s X Marketing Predicament continues to the present day. They are forever the best kind of cult band, though: still making records, still accessible to their fans (Doug signed my bass!), still writing honest songs. It should also be noted that “Goldilox” is the closest thing to a conventional love song the band has ever written. After 15 albums, they’ve managed never to write anything resembling a ballad. They got it out of the way early on side 1 of their first album.