Sounds Like!(7/13/2016)

Homonym: “Jerusalem Ridge”, performed by Chris Thile and Tim O’Brian & “Jerusalem”, by Black Sabbath

I struggled to choose to start talking about Chris Thile with either “I can’t understand why more people don’t know who Chris Thile is” and “I can understand why more people don’t know who Chris Thile is”. His lack of notoriety will solve itself in October, when he takes over as the host of A Prairie Home Companion, following Garrison Keillor’s retirement, but I think the former is the correct statement, double negative non withstanding. His musical path is at least close enough to Ricky Skaggs’ to have that level of public awareness, but somehow he still doesn’t. Although Thile does the majority of work in groups without his name in the title(Nickel Creek, The Punch Brothers) he is always the standout in whatever ensemble he is a part of. He’s the tall, goofily emotive one here. Take a listen:

The song, “Jerusalem Ridge”, and the superb musician, Tim O’Brian, are the perfect pairing to help explain why Chris Thile isn’t a household name. Tim O’Brian made his fame as a founding member of Hot Rize, a bluegrass band by name but more of a traditional folk/old-timey band by nature. Concerts by Hot Rize were always great but safe; as talented as a group they were(especially O’Brian and banjo player Peter Wernick), their music stayed on the course of tradition, with an occasional odd break as a make-believe cowboy western band. And “safe” is an appropriate way to describe many folk-based musicians, including the ones that consider themselves bluegrass musicians by trade(for the ultimate source knowledge for the division between folk purists and bluegrass musicians, please please read How The Hippies Ruin’t Hillbilly Music by St. “Wish” Wishnevshy. Borrow mine if you can’t find it). Tim O’Brian is universally loved in the bluegrass community, and his musicianship is top notch but noticeably conservative.

“Jerusalem Ridge”, though, was a strictly bluegrass composition, written by Bill Monroe and fleshed out by his fiddle player at the time, Kenny Baker, to be a flashy showpiece and quite the opposite of conservative musicianship. Monroe certainly had tight control over his “brand”, but part of that image was having the best stable of musicians in the industry, and there were always songs in the repertoire that showed off the talents of the current musicians. “Jerusalem Ridge” was showoff music.

Watching Chris Thile play fills me with joy. He obviously loves all music that is well written, from rock to classical to bluegrass. He is the most talented mandolin player alive, and one of America’s true genius musicians, but the bluegrass community wants him to be Ricky Skaggs and he isn’t. Nickel Creek’s modern take on bluegrass started the divisive term “newgrass”, which Thile started when he was eight years old. He won a MacArthur grant, officially given him at least the giant paycheck with the word “genius” scrawled in the memo ledger, and he, joyously, kept doing goofy shit like this, which is awesome(yes, he also made quality recordings of Bach concertos, but look at him having fun):

Chris Thile didn’t do himself any favors by aligning himself with Mark O’Connor and Edgar Meyer, who are elitist snobs when it comes to “modernizing” bluegrass music; they even added Yo Yo Ma to form a quartet of the most gentrified and bland bluegrass music ever done by talented musicians. It’s bad stuff. Chris Thile is the odd man out in that group, though; he’s never been out to “elevate” bluegrass music. That he’s never been out to strictly follow tradition is what gets him in trouble, not with the musical cognoscenti but with the bluegrass community. They think he’s too flashy and somewhat disrespectful. Which is horseshit. Watch him play “Jerusalem Ridge” one more time. His breaks are nearly perfect. Bill Monroe would hire him in a second and rub everyone’s noses in it.


“Jerusalem”, by Black Sabbath, is so shitty. Listen first, then three contextual elements:

  1. 1990 was a magical time to be a teenager who loved heavy metal: Seasons In The Abyss. Persistence Of Time. Rust In Peace. Hell, even Passion And Warfare counts. I’m not sure Painkiller counts, but it wasn’t that bad, and Judy was in court that year defending their albums against claims of Satanic backmasking, which is super metal. It was a lot to keep up with, and all the publications a young metalhead would read to try and stay informed were all ate up with ads for Tyr. We all bought it. Goddamn, it was super bad.
  2. Black Sabbath had a well-defined relationship with what the singer was supposed to do in the wobbly post-Dio part of their history: sing, and write the lyrics. When Ray Gillen, of yesterday’s birthday band fame, proved to be too shitty a creative partner for even late-80’s Sabbath, Tony Martin came in to pitch hit as singer. He stayed on for the next album, Headless Cross, and, being the first time he had the now-traditional role of writing the words to the songs, proceeded to write the most cartoon-y, melodramatically Satanic lyrics since the backs of my peer group’s Trapper Keepers in 1989. Tony Iomi asked Martin to tone the devil imagery down for the next album, so you get the loose concept of Norse mythology in Tyr. I mean… super loose. If you listen to the whole album(don’t though), the concept never coalesces. Jerusalem was never known for being a hotbed of Norse deities. I don’t even think David Iche thinks that.
  3. Are you wondering if I learned my lesson from this terrible album from a band with an outstanding legacy? The next year I bought Jethro Tull’s Catfish Rising. The day it came out. I am dumb.


Homograph: Smile, by The Beach Boys & Smiley Smile, by The Beach Boys

When I first really understood the brilliance of The Beach Boys I was also at my most polarizing in regards to my music opinions, and I though that Smiley Smile was trash and could fuck off. That’s no longer true.


Back sometime in either 1997 or 1998, listening to tape-traded bootlegs of the Smile sessions with a friend for the first time was kind of like listening to the world’s most secret and beautiful prayer. And, to feed the power of the mystique and my new-found championing of Brian Wilson’s place on the American Musician Mount Rushmore, I wouldn’t accept any substitutes or slights to his genius. I still feel like Smiley Smile is that, but only in a historical sense. Much like how it’s difficult for me, still, to listen to Second’s Out and feel the unnecessary weight of Peter Gabriel’s absence, when I hear the songs that the two records have in common I still reference the Smile versions and track orders first.

But now I enjoy hearing Smiley Smile because of how it fits into my and their history, not in spite of it. The songs have a drugged flippancy to them compared to the careful arranging of the Smile sessions. I can’t listen to “Little Pad” without thinking of my friends, of how many “Little Pad”s there might be with us all goofing along on some lost recorded mini disc we used to record our band rehearsals. Discussing discovering Smile is almost too personal to me, too specific of a time and a place in my life that was terrible and wonderful, maybe the most terrible and most wonderful so far. Smiley Smile I learned to love separate from my friends but still connected to them.

The mystery of Smile is gone now, too, even though the brilliance remains, and that’s a part of my maturing attitude about both albums now, too. Thinking about getting mixtapes now is quaint, almost romantic. Smile resonates with that romanticism still, but there is an excitement, if no real intimacy, about pretty much all music being available to everyone everywhere. Smile will stand up for those who didn’t have to work hard for it.

For me the ghost of nostalgia still haunts Smile, where Smiley Smile makes me think of who I am now. When’s the last time you listened to both?


Near Cognate: The Beach Boys’ “The Warmth Of The Sun”, by Chris Thile with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings

Earnest, beautiful, not necessary perfect. I’m excited for what A Prairie Home Companion will become. Especially after reading the comments on this video where people claim that The Beach Boys needed “studio magic” to sound good. I’m asuming by “studio magic” they meant “near suicidal, drug-overdosing levels of parental abuse”, which was what they were getting.

Anyhoo, Gillian Welch is the perfect company for Thile to keep: a talented outsider that won the respect of her peers just being true to herself. That’s all Thile has ever done. Hopefully the respect rolls in.



Letters Of Note: 7/12/2016

Birthday Power Quartet Of The Day

Ray Gillen(1960, Black Sabbath?) on vocals, Eric Carr(1950, KISS?)on drums, John Petrucci(1967, Dream Theater) on guitar, and Philip Kramer(1952, Iron Butterfly & various attempts to discredit Einstein) on bass.

For the obvious reasons, and because I weirdly want these guys to have fun, I’m gonna have them play “Wild One” from the silly/shitty Dio album, Lock Up The Wolves. The obvious reasons are Ronnie James Dio’s and Simon Wright’s(yes, he drummed on this album) history as second fiddles. Gillen and Carr know that feeling too well. Also, Dio got some hotshot 18-year-old kid named Rowan Robertson to play guitar on that album, who I bet Petrucci absolutely hates. I mean, look at the way Petrucci plays…

… compared to the slutty-commando-jeaned slopfest of Robertson:


I’d listen to their version for sure. Then fire everyone from the fake band I just put them in.


Temple Of The Dog

My dog, Dixie, has been very sick, so I took some time off. Also, I haven’t been able to sleep in six weeks. Medically. Good times. We are both much better now. Look at that sweet girl:



Let’s All Die In 2016: Ralph Stanley

Beyond Ralph Stanley’s influence and brilliance, the best story about him is a Bill Monroe story, namely how much Monroe hated the Stanley Brothers. His good reason to have hated Ralph Stanley was that the Stanley Brothers just played amped-up versions of Monroe’s songs in their early career. His bad reason was that Bill Monroe was notoriously bitter towards anyone not loyal to him or his claim as the inventor of “bluegrass”. Not that Monroe didn’t hold that claim rightly. The Stanley Brothers’ technical prowess was a constant challenge to the stable of musicians he kept, Frank Zappa-wise, to corner the market on the bluegrass sound. Monroe hated them enough that when Colombia signed them he left and signed with Decca.

That move to Decca was without Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, though, and Monroe hired Ralph’s brother, Carter, to play guitar while Ralph was in the military, swapping out his long-held vitriol towards The Stanley Brothers for the newly-formed Foggy Mountain Boys, a feud that lasted even longer. Get a load of this catty business here:

Carter Stanley died young, but Ralph Stanley carried on.  Carter had the better voice, but that’s never stopped any good bluegrass player from singing, and Ralph Stanley’s voice came to become the standard for his peers and contemporaries. All the arrangements and harmonies from groups like the Del McCorey Band, and the authenticity of the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack, are all because of this voice. RIP.


Also Dead: Elvis Presley

Worth re-mentioning here: Bill Monroe gave his blessing to Elvis’ version of “Blue Moon Of Kentucky” for mainly financial reasons, but it didn’t hurt that it stole the thunder from The Stanley Brother’s version, also a hot-stepping 4/4 rendition. Catty as fuck.

Letters Of Note: 6/7/2016

Birthday Power Quartet Of The Day:

Eric Kretz(1966, Stone Temple Pilots) on drums, Leopold Auer(1845, classical musician) on violin, Prince(1958, various funky scenarios) on guitar/bass guitar, and Tom Jones(1940, Used Panty Wholesale Warehouse) on vocals.

This will work, but not without its kinks. Prince is no stranger to overdubbing parts, but for the song I’ve chosen, Frank Zappa’s “Willie The Pimp”, I’m not sure how he’s gonna handle it; it would make much more sense as an ensemble if he played the bass live and added his guitar parts later, but Maestro Auer is, even though he won’t be able to keep up with Prince and Tom Jones in the puss-hound storytelling downtimes, gonna fucking murder his extended violin solo so much that Jean-Luc Ponty would immediately surrender(ok, maybe not such a great feat among the French). Prince is gonna either want to feed off that energy or be there live with his ax to cram his talent in Auer’s Hungarian mug. I only hope Tom Jones can pull off the sleaziness, it’ll kick ass.


Happy Birthday, Iggy Azalea:



We Hate The Music You Like, Small Town America Edition:

It was announced today that “country” “superstar” Luke Bryan would be playing a concert this year in the little town of Prairie Grove, AR, not too far from where I live, as part of his “Farm Tour” of small country towns across America. I note or two: one, his current album has fifteen different writers on it, down from twenty on the previous album. I don’t care for Beyonce either, but that’s not a good look for a country boy. Two, I live roughly 20 miles from the “small town America” venue he’s playing at, and I’ve been listening to the Sodom catalog today:



Letters Of Note: 6/6/2016

Birthday Power Quartet Of The Day:

Jeremy Gara(1978, Arcade Fire) on drums, Tom Araya(1961, Slayer) on bass guitar and vocals, and Steve Vai(1960, various spankings and guitar stunts) and Clarence White(1944, mainly The Byrds but tons of important studio work) on guitar.

Honestly, Araya might not be up for this, and Gara might not be able to keep up, but I’m going to have them play “Country Boy” by Heads Hands and Feet. If you took Steve Vai’s virtuosity and add Clarence White’s clean picking and b-bender propensities, you’d get Albert Lee. And, actually, if you offered the band the same amount of drugs that the band in this video were on, Gara might have to keep up just to burn off that German amphetamine energy, and Araya will find it a tad more ammissible:



Let’s All Die In 2016: Muhammad Ali

There’s a few ways you could talk about Muhammad Ali in a music blog and remain germane, but after all the tributes I’ve read this weekend, addressing his ties to “hip hop” are the most important. Eldridge Cleaver, in his “Lazarus, Come Forth” portion of Soul On Ice, and the musings of Nelson George and other writers about hip hop’s history, paint a picture of race relations and racial self-identity that separate the birth of Muhammad Ali from the chrysalis of Cassius Clay and the birth of hip hop. Too many of the essays I read tried to merge the two.

Their are lots of geographical plot points for hip hop’s influence, but its birth was undoubtedly in The Bronx, in discos that shared, like the scofflaw ares were jazz was born in New Orleans, a racial harmony. Hip hop would certainly become a media outlet for under-served African-Americans, but those early DJ’s shouting out people in the clubs were frequented by white people and black people alike. Yes, Debbie Harry is a horrible rapper, but she was honestly rapping in Blondie’s “Rapture”. She didn’t just pull Fab Five Freddie’s name out of a magazine; they hung out. The white producers, like Rick Rubin, were not taking advantage of the black performers but were championing them and their musical ideas, giving musicians the freedom to make music that no other A&R people, including black A&R people, would risk. Racial harmony was important to the birth of hip hop.

There wasn’t much in the way of racial harmony for Cassius Clay, and the birth of Muhammad Ali wasn’t an attempt at being more harmonious, instead taking the absolute value of the inherent racism of the Antebellum ideas of having a a black boxer fight for white men and redirecting it towards whites. Ali would denounce The Nation Of Islam in 1975, but in 1964, after his famous fight with Sonny Liston, Ali embraced The Nation’s polarizing ideas so much to the point that before he was Muhammad Ali he was briefly calling himself “Cassius X”. Someone in your Twitter feed this weekend either said or retweeted someone that said that Ali was a Muslim racist. It’s partly true. Ali shouldn’t be demonized for it, though, and not just because he changed his ways later in life. Muhammad Ali’s “racism” didn’t really manifest in the misogyny and anti-Semitism of The Nation Of Islam. Ali wasn’t born in the melting pot of New York, like hip hop was; he was from Louisville, Kentucky, a place where people are still plenty racist and were overtly so in 1964. His demands for being treated like a human were still radical enough then, but his direct confrontations with white people about being white made him dangerous. Be sure to comment on those tweets with one word: “good.” 1964 sure could have used more outspoken African-Americans in 1964.


Also Dead: Elvis Presley

Late in his life, Elvis became friendly with Muhammad Ali. His ties to Vegas got themelvis_presley_muhammed_ali_robe introduced, but they remained friendly for years. Not too much is known about their friendship; Ali was outspoken about keeping Elvis’ privacy. Elvis did make Ali a custom robe, not too gaudy, with “PEOPLE’S CHOICE” on the back, a necessary slogan after Ali lost his title for refusing military service. It’s an odd pairing, those two; I can’t imagine Ali was doing much drugs or white women then, and, by the look of his weight in this picture, Elvis was doing enough for the two of them combined. Ali had said of Elvis, “I don’t admire nobody, but Elvis Presley was the sweetest, most humble and nicest man you’d want to know.” This Ali, still getting in a jab about how Elvis might not be admirable but still giving praise about another, is the Ali we should be remembering. It’s certainly the one he would want you to.


The Body Electric: Head


As organisms evolved and developed nerves, through possibly one-hundred trillion trials and errors, the most sensible condition seemed to be a bundle of nerves near the top(the anterior end, as opposed to the organisms that have their brains at the posterior end, easily recognized by their reluctance to speed up to match the flow of traffic on interstate on-ramps) with all of the major sensory organs, usually including the mouth, in as close proximity as possible. As space was created for specialized sense organs, larger brains, and protective bones, the head was born. Having a “head” is usually associated with having bilateral symmetry, but honestly Billy Squire is tired of talking about that and would rather talk about his music.



Just ask Bobby Peru; the word “head” has a ton of meanings. Maritime bathrooms were located at the bow, or the “head”, of the ship, which knowing does not make referring to the place where you’re about to shit as the same word I use to describe where I applied moisturizer to any less creepy. “Head” refers to the top of a lot of things, like beer, classes, and peer group leaders. It’s technically a “head” of lettuce, but that seems like broad usage there; we would probably eat less wedge salads if we had to decapitate a vaguely human-shaped plant(note: this would not stop me in particular, because any excuse to eat bleu cheese dressing on something is a good one, even if your excuse is “murder”).


Music, The Worst: “Suedehead”, Morrissey

Morrissey’s coming out album(no, not that “coming out”), Viva Hate, makes me roll my eyes faster than the butter tigers in Little Black Sambo, only with the racism replaced with exhaustion over Morrissey’s fey loneliness. Any of the balm Johnny Marr might have brought to The Smiths to apply to the cold burn of Morrissey’s languishing vocal delivery and angsty lyrics is removed, and instead you get the raw Morrissey-ness of  the word “why” being pronounced with eleven syllables and the phrase “it was a good lay” being repeated until you might think its repetition is clever or provocative. It never is.


Music, The Best: Head, The Monkees

The word “head” is also slang for oral sex. “Head” is traditionally reserved for describing fellatio, but in my opinion it has more to do with attitude and power position than with physiology; surely Juliette Lewis, before murdering the poor sap for being “too eager”, was getting “head” on the hood of that car in Natural Born Killers.

This won’t be the last time I bring up the sexual definition, but first and foremost in the sexual etymology of “head” is that act of using the word to title your album/movie for the sole purpose of being able to use the tagline “from the people that gave you Head” in the press for the sequal. Yes, The Monkees did that.

They also made a brilliand albumfull of rockers, psych ballads, and 5/4 folk songs. The album even came with a brush-up of the Davy Jones feature(RIP and all, but for real he was the forth of four) with Mike Nesmith on vocals. You should definitely give this album a listen if you haven’t already, but watching the movie might just be for the hardcore and the curious; did listening to the album make you want to kiss Kanye on the lips for killing off the trend of having “skits” in rap albums, because all of the snippets from the movie interlaced in the album, Head, make you lunge for the track advance button? Skip the movie then.


Music, The Rest:


“Sweet Head”, David Bowie

Hey, speaking of K. West…

Listen again, even if you know how rockin’ it is, just to hear “I’m the kind of man she warned me of” today.


“Helpless”, Diamond Head

Don’t be ashamed, we all know it’s better than Metallica. Somehow.


“When You Wake Up In The Morning”, Murry Head

When I get into that Bert Jancsch/Tim Buckley/Roy Harper mood (aka “when I get into that bottle of rye whiskey at 2:45 PM on a Thursday”), this track does me good. I can’t vouch for the whole album, but hey, y’all like concept albums, right? Give it a go!


“Bartender”, Hed (Planet Earth)

Ok, maybe I was a little hard on Morrissey. Sorry guy. The banchan plates on the table are 100% vegan.


A Brief Note Pertaining To The New Monkees Album

I can’t decide how to process this one-hundred-percent true statement: “Me & Magdalena”, the best track from Good Times!, the new album from The Monkees, which is ill fitting in a sonic sense but still superior to all the other songs on the album, was written by Ben-Ass Gibbard. I gotta just walk around a bit. It’s bad when all you can smell is burnt toast, right?

Letters Of Note: 5/30/2016

Birthday Power Quintet Of The Day:

Nicky Headon(1955, The Clash) on drums, Geoffery Lyall(1949, aka Klaus Flouride of The Dead Kennedys) on bass, Jen Carney(ageless/timeless, The Mod, Mod Music Hour, The Vinyl District) on piano, Stephen Malkmus(1966, Pavement) on guitar and lead vocals, and Wynonna Judd(1964, The Judds) on backing vocals.

This will work! They’re gonna play my fave rave song from Exile on Main Street, “Loving Cup”, and it’s gonna be sloppy and great. I do wonder how long it will take for Wynonna to loosen up, but I have no doubt that she would eventually.

{Note: my caveat to this daily Romper-Room writing conceit is that I go with my gut on the first instinct I have for the band/song and not put too much thought in it. Admittingly, my first choice was to replace Malkmus with Tom Morello, Wynonna with Cee-Lo Green, and have the band do a “modern” cover of Clash’s “Rock The Casbah.” I know and love Jen Carney though and couldn’t subject her to Cee-Lo in a confined rehearsal space, even though it exists as a complete fantasy. Anyhoo, the choice I went with would be fucking bangin’. Happy birthday, lady.}


Memorial Day Remembrances Of Three People That Didn’t Ditch Out On Service Like Chickenshit Ted Nugent:

Howlin’ Wolf(d. 1976)

Jimi Hendrix(d. 1970)

John Coltrane(d. 1967)


Also Served, Also Dead: Elvis Presley

I wanted to post The Fakest Moment From An Elvis Presley Movie, and even though it’s an exhausting contest to have to judge, I think this is our winner: “Bossa Nova Baby”, from Fun In Acapulco.

FAKE! – The sound of dancing feet!

FAKER! – The King’s lame attempt of pretending to play the organ fill!

FAKEST! – Elvis never left Hollywood while the entirety of the rest of the cast was actually in the titular city, to keep sure he wasn’t killed my Mexican Mafia members for 1) not accepting a blank check to play at a Quinceañera and 2)inciting a national riot when a fake bit of gossip ran in a Mexican paper, claiming that Elvis said he would rather kiss black women than Mexican women.


The First Cut: Fulfillingness’ First Finale

1.”Smile Please”

The doldrums lasted five months this time, the longest I can remember, from somewhere roughly in November to right around the top of April. Its nature keeps me from remembering exact times, but normally it just feels like a valley; this time it felt like being under the earth. Somewhere in that space nothing tried to keep me alive, not even God, especially not God, but nothing killed me either. I would probably just call it depression if I was suicidal, as if that was the defining symptom. It’s “the doldrums” for me, and it’s bad enough.

People that know me know that I have a tremendous memory, but being in the doldrums makes everything fuzzy around the edges for me. It’s a romantic idea to begin with: that out consciousness is like a string tied to our umbilical cords at birth, the terminal end tied off somewhere in the ether a zillion miles away that we can follow along and reminisce over. In truth our lives are remembered in the roughly linear manner of a flip book; some moments inked broader than others, some actions more clearly sketched, but mainly incomplete. That’s not the norm for me; I can remember even minute details of mundane happenings when I’m leveled out. That detail attention has always been a part of how I listen to music, how I appreciate it, which may be part of why I’m just now getting these thoughts out in the open, the pages that still resonate.

Somewhere in the doldrums my foot ulcerated again, giving me a small glimpse of my corpse to tend to. Flip to me smiling through a panic attack at a seafood restaurant bathroom during a Christmas shopping outing. Flip, and I’m thinking of the raw aggression of Jamaica again, thinking of the cormorants riding thermals over Montego Bay. It’s Thanksgiving and I’ve gone manic about whether the food I had made was any good, blabbering about ingredients. I’m taking a drink of bourbon; flip, and I’m taking another. I’m losing friendships. Losing relationships. My car dies on the side of a country highway in the middle of the night. Flip.

I turned 40 years old on New Year’s Day, and I bought a new turntable. I planned to listen to Fulfillingness’ First Finale right off the bat and publish this review about it the next day, but the doldrums wouldn’t let me, and the next flip was God shrugging His shoulders and going back to work.


2. “Too Shy To Say”

Fulfillingness’ First Finale is an album about God, but God was different in 1974, a time before the Moral Majority decided that Jesus was a Republican. You can split the songs in this album into three groups: songs about love and relationships, songs about politics, and songs about God. The nearly didactic, almost self-righteous heft of the “God” songs tint the lyrical content of the other two groups, though, to the point that a song like “Too Shy To Say” almost takes on a “You Light Up My Life” vibe; if it wasn’t for the demurring female giggle at the beginning, “Too Shy To Say” could easily be Stevie Wonder singing directly to Jesus. “You Haven’t Done Nothin'” is obtusely about Nixon, but there’s still a feel of a spiritual airing og greviances to the lyrics. Only “Boogie On Reggae Woman” sounds 100-percent secular, and even then Wonder can’t bring himself to fully enunciate the word “naked”, in fear that Jesus is still listening to the final mix in the room next door.

At this point in his career, Stevie Wonder had near complete control of every aspect of his music, so you can rely on the spiritual intent. Musically, Stevie Wonder had become proficient enough to play nearly every instrument himself, and if he wanted it better he only got top-shelf talent; the steel guitar player from The Flying Burrito Brothers, the top Moog technicians not named Robert Moog, and the well-known backup singers The Jackson Five. Contractually, and more importantly, he had the ballsiest, biggest contract Motown had ever seen, giving him all the freedom he wanted, nearly the singular cause of the switch from the popularity of the “singles on one album” format to the near “concept” albums in the R&B world to come. For sure this album has its devotional moments, but it doesn’t sound like a gospel album. There’s plenty of pop sensibility to be found. But, down to the keyboards ascending to heaven on the cover, the spiritual center of the album is intentional.

To be fair, the cover of Innervisions has The bust of Stevie Wonder shooting the Bat Signal straight to heaven with his eyes and even has a song with “Jesus” in the title. But the themes in Innervisions seem to come together as a pastiche of scenes, from the church to the streets to the ghetto to the White House(and Nixon, again). Fulfillingness’ First Finale seem to filter all of its songs through the prism of God. God gets his shoutout in Songs In The Key Of Life, too, but there doesn’t seem to be much of a religious thread to follow, down to Wonder’s place at the center of the album cover’s incongruent and widening suns.

I wonder if the spiritual angle was as heavy handed as it was because of his near-death carmaxresdefault wreck that took place before he produced this album. Was this an exaltation for an answered prayer? An offering of humility before his masterwork, Songs In The Key Of Life, capped off his “classical period” of outstanding music? Is Fullfillingness’ First Finale his three days in the tomb? Nothing earlier in his catalog, and nothing since, ever was so heavy handed when it came to God. For me it became cloying, the more I would listen and try to kickstart my efforts to write. There were three songs in my vocal range, especially in the morning before I’d stretched out my vocal cords, and each time I’d sing them the lyrics would hit harder and harder, to the point that I would sing “Let God’s love shine within to save our evil souls/for those who don’t believe will never see the light” and even hearing my own voice muffled through the headphones I would think of God dying in the doldrums, think about how my old prayers stopped working.


3.”They Won’t Go When I Go”

Craig Strickland died in the doldrums, too, as bold of a page as any. He was, in as many ways as you could care to list, the exact opposite of Stevie Wonder. The band he was in, Backroad Anthem, is what the minds behind radio call country music these days, with the words “country” and “music” in the largest scare quotes imaginable. Not just compared to Wonder’s music in particular but to country music(even the music in Backroad  Anthem’s “bro-country” peer group) in general, the music Strickland made was pop and insubstantial to the point of it being vapid, partly relying on Strickland’s colloquial success as a TV personality to promote their brand, partly relying on trend and the band’s good looks. Oddly lucky and privileged, low on talent, and a child of a God as different from the God of Fulfillingness’ First Finale as Wonder was to him.

Strickland made a strange hunting trip during the largest winter storm of a hundred years, a trip he made with his close friend, and the reason that his story was a breath of breeze in the listness of my depression was it immediately appeared to me his hunting trip was with a lover, straight out of the pages of Annie Prouix. I’ve made these secret trips before during the holidays. Most likely it was just ill-timed platonic bonding, and I’ve made those trips, too, ill timing included. In the doldrums I made them, looking for proof that land was near, looking for olive branches. My worst problem is doubt about my worth, doubt that leads to panic, living the flip book life through a land mine. I didn’t die, but Craig Strickland did.

And God followed suit. My social media was filled with moments challenging me to remain compassionate about Strickland’s death, with each message of how miracles were possible in regard to finding him alive, prayers and exaltation for his safe return, seeming more ridiculous as the days passed. This storm was Goliath in name and in stature, and all the stones laid still under a thick coat of blizzard and ice. The Facebook prayers became imprecatory towards doubters. When they finally did recover Craig Strickland’s body, days after the body of his friend Chase Moreland was found, the people of what God had become noted not that he was dead but that his body was found with his arms outstretched, just like Christ. The bigot Ronnie Floyd gave his funeral eulogy in the gaudiest church of the Ozarks. It wasn’t the house of Stevie Wonder’s God, and I would rather God be dead than to belong to Ronnie Floyd and the Facebook Jesus police. I’ll wait for his return, but for now that stone has rolled shut.

I turned 40 in the week during Craig Strickland’s disappearance, and my plan was to listen to the Stevie Wonder album and start collecting my thoughts. I got forty-five seconds in before I heard the record skip and jump. Somehow it had warped to the point of being unplayable. I can’t remember how it could have happened but it was a time for jumping from thought to thought, where music, as good of a God to me as any, caught an arrhythmia in still waters. Flip to a Canadian Indian on 45. Flip to Terry Riley, flip to the plantar wound. You’re in your dead car with no streetlights, unplugging the aux cord and letting Katey Red finish. Flip again and you’re covered in an amber grass fire smoke, 70 miles per hour on the Tulsa turnpike, realizing that music has always saved your life but this time you’re not so sure.

Letters Of Note: 5/26/2016

Birthday Power Sextet Of The Day:

Jackie Liebesit(1939, Can) and Levon Helm(1940, The Band) on drums, Mick Ronson(1946, most of the successful British talents with highly questionable sexuality) on guitar, Verden Allen(1944, Mott The Hopple) on keyboards, Vernon Allen(1915, various jazz ensembles) on bass, and Lauryn Hill(1975, The Fugees) on vocals.

As long as Lauryn Hill shows up on time(or at all?), this would be a pretty good working group. Unfortunately for Liebesit, he’ll have to play it somewhat straight; I’m picking a typically-long version of The Allman Brothers Band’s “Please Call Home”. Other than Liebesit and Vernon Allen egging each other one to jazz it up a bit, this is the perfect group to let Lauryn Hill shine with the vocals.

(Note: the first ever .mp3s I ever, um, acquired, in the early days of WinAmp, were songs from The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill. So good, miss U gurl.)


Belated Birthday Notes: Hal David

You would think, as a kid starved of pop culture in Eighties, Bible Belt, small-town Arkansas, that every music video offered up on TBS’ Night Tracks would be precious to me. Not so, and I can remember one of the major offenders being the too-adult and not-adult-content-enough-for-perpetually-horny-youths video for “On My Own”, with Patti Labelle and Michael McDonald.

The video is poorly aged cheese, but the actual song is… good? Am I old? God damn, I’m old, aren’t I? The music could be dismissed as double divas over vaporwave fodder synths, but listen to Big Jim Ross holler out, “Good God, that’s Burt Bacharach’s music!”

In the most important era of my musical, and social, growth, I learned to love Burt Bacharach, and by extension the lyrics of Hal David. I am old, but there’s too many great tracks to mention. I watched this particular performance live, and cried like a big liberal baby before he even picked up the harmonica:


I Know You Don’t Believe Me But This A True Story Of The Day:

There was a older couple in the row of chairs facing me at the doctor’s office today. When I say “older”, I mean “hearing impaired to the point that they have grown accustomed to yelling at each other to communicate”. They were talking, at a wincing volume, about all manner of both benign and personal information.

Every once in a while the office door would open, and you could hear the noise of the inner workings of your average medical office, complete with telephone rings, computer clicks, the global FM radio, and the copy machine. The copy machine was the most noticeable, but I didn’t imagine the couple were capable of hearing any of it. I was wrong.

“What in the world is that noise,” the man said, referring to the whirring of the copier.

The woman leaned right into his ear and bellowed, “It’s Journey.”