Tuesday, September 7, 2004

Idle Melancholy

Ike asks the musical question, if they are "angels or if they are whores?..." Yikes Ike!

The far from endless summer of 1986 was the last summer before the end of the academic sector of my career. I was feeling a bit adrift and it was the first time in my life not even music seemed to lessen the feeling of a fog like blues I couldn't quite shake. (And as regular readers of the newsletter can attest I'm usually such an upbeat chipper little bird. Some even have come to refer to me as Cap'n Happy.)

That summer three of the then artists who achieved the status of I buy everything new that they release, released new LP's within a month or two of each other. Yet the news of new releases from Paul McCartney and Paul Simon couldn't even get me off my rump and down to the neighborhood Cheapo. It took the release of the first new Bob Dylan LP since I had become a big time fan, Knocked Out Loaded, to convince me I needed some new music in my life.

Bringing my bag o' new music home I must admit my mood took a decidedly noticeable upswing. On my drive home I tried to decide which of the three new LPs I would listen to first. Since I had the highest anticipation for Dylan's I decided I would save his for last. Since I had the least anticipation for Simon's I decided that I would first listen to McCartney's Press to Play first.

I carefully placed the vinyl on my stereo (a Miida one piece component complete with radio, 8-track player, and turntable) and the first song, "Stranglehold" sounded promising enough. But as I made my way through the song cycle on side one it became quite apparent that the music in a word, sucked. Macca gets in trouble when he decides he has to be an artist with a capital "A" and produce what he considers avant garde art. Songs like "Pretty Little Head" and "Talk More Talk" are not only dreadful, but they drain the soul right out of you mighty quick. The whole thing was overproduced and overwrought with wannabe significance.

Strike one.

One look at him and she seemed to somehow see his soul was broken. They hadn't seen each other in a couple of years and she shows up looking elegant, tan, and rested. He shows up with a there to see for anyone who looked too closely, transparent spiritual state of being.

The night before he had come home and gotten drunk after having spent a hell of a lotta energy making love with the Brazilian beauty from the mountains with the perfect peaks. Their time together was electrically charged and yet he knew things seemed like they were just going through the motions.

Good lawd oll mayte!

Feeling even more sad than ever before I bumped up Dylan in the order of things. I gotta say the LP that made me a lifetime Dylan fan was his previous LP, 1985's Empire Burlesque, much maligned by just about everyone under the sun. Compared to that carefully produced effort, Knocked Out Loaded sounded like a complete throwaway- something that could have been made in a drunken stupor and in a day. The songs don't connect and the 11 minute epic "Brownsville Girl" sounds like a car wreck waiting to happen. At the time it sorta depressed me but since whenever I play that CD in my bluer moments it never fails to produce a smile. "Even the swap meets around here are getting pretty corrupt," Bob sez/sings seemingly without a smirk on his weathered face.

Strike two looking.

Simon's Graceland was a whole other story. The foreign sounding music caught me completely off guard. And the juxtaposition of the overly thoughtful (and ever thought provoking) lyrics with the joyful music was pure musical enchantment. As I sat laying on the furry heat absorbing lime green shag carpet of my bedroom, back up in a beam of sunlight, the music thankfully took me to a far away, cooler, and getaway place.

A tape measure home run that one.

Fast forward 18(!) years later to the summer of 2004. There's been far too little softball playing, and I'm far too busy to appreciate a Minnesota Twins season that will culminate in their fourth World Series appearance (you heard it here first) and music? Who has time to listen?

Thus the list of CDs on my must hear list has been growing rather rapidly. Last Sunday in a far too late return trip to my neighborhood Cheapo I finally added four discs that I knew would eventually make their place into my collection, but hadn't yet for one reason or another. Each of the discs come from an artist whose work I've come to respect and admire for somewhat different reasons.

Just like a decade and a half(!) before, I found myself driving home trying to figure out the listening order because I desperately needed something/anything to lift my soul and spirits if only for a fleeting moment. Upon racing my this is now cat Diego-san up the flight of stairs to the recently completed Upper Wing of my house I decided the first disc to be played was Brian Wilson's Gettin' In Over My Head simply because the day before I made the pricy decision that I would buy a ticket to Wilson's Orpheum show where he is giving a live performance of the phantom greatest LP of all time (the one that's never quite been finished) the Beach Boys' long lost, and much written about Smile.

As sunny and surfin' as most of the most famous Beach Boy catalog is, Wilson has always endeared himself personally to me due mostly to his sad songs. Brian Wilson's sad songs are the saddest songs ever written. They are heart and gut wrenching personified, and thankfully forever inspiring in demonstrating how a wounded soul still has a remarkable capacity of self healing.

And that is why upon first listen the new CD revealed the no need to peel back the absolute, undiluted drivel. If this was music written by a teenager it would still sound juvenile. Coming from a sixty-year-old mentally abused, drug zonked out, and psychologically damaged survivor (and who would have ever thought that was possible?) the more stupid than stupefying songs aren't the least bit intriguing like I expected them to be. Wilson's has pulled off the trick of sounding like a crazed "does this guy really have functioning brain- I gotta listen to find out" before with his contributions to the Beach Boys' great 1974 LP The Beach Boys Love You where the songs are full of such childlike and childish lyrics that one can't help but think it's all a wonderful little joke and his first solo effort, 1988's Brian Wilson where Brian was (it was later revealed) under the cult like influence of his psychiatrist, Eugene Landy, cutoff from family and friends.

But the new CD isn't merely an effort to sound childlike and stupid. It is stupid. And insipid. And the effort put in goes far beyond the end result. Ick.

After they were done they lie together in bed, naked and she told him of the house she bought in Brazil and how she wanted to sell it but that any potential buyer was likely too poor to afford it. She came to the United States to help her ailing grandmother who broke her arm and thus couldn't keep her job as a cleaning woman. Her grandmother believed in the ethic of hard work and getting to where you want to get by your own efforts so to be out of work was killing her and depressing her at the same time.

He looked deeply into the overwhelming beauty of the nude young woman's eyes. It was a moment of true connection though he somehow sensed they were never going to see each other ever again.

Going to the wedding as a couple on a "date" was all her idea but he was thrilled that she had asked. He told his co-workers of his weekend plans and asked if dancing was to be expected and how she might feel if he declined. (He wanted his hands nowhere near her). They told him he better dance even if she held a blue belt in kickboxing.

So I adjusted the order of the discs I was going to listen to. Originally I thought I would play Los Lobos' The Ride next because of how the band over the years has been so dependable, workmanlike, and how their music never fails to be worth listening to. Instead I decided I would play the CD I most wanted to hear from the stack I bought, Wilco's A Ghost is Born.

Now I must admit I've never been an adoring Wilco fan like others I know. Yes, my copy of Being There has been worn out and I'd put it on my short list of greatest double discs ever released. But the follow-up, way too arty for its own good Summerteeth hardly ever finds its way in my CD player and their last major label won't release it because it's not commercial enough, so we'll do the admirable thing and do it all ourselves and make a great story out of it all, it's so great it will make a movie, Yankee Foxtrot Hotel, took many listens before I finally warmed up to it. (What is with all the production tricks when the songs could have spoke for themselves?)

And my first listen to A Ghost is Born made me fall asleep in the long lost sunny light beaming in from the skylight of the new addition to the place I call home these days yet I haven't been home enough to truly enjoy it, in blissful sadness if such a thing exists (and doesn't exist every night, night after night). The third song, a ten minute opus called "Spiders (Kidsmoke)" lives up to its title with its sinewy web like and hypnotic if not way too precious we know we are artists groove. The eight song later fifteen minute opus "Less Than You Think" doesn't fare as well. Not even close (not a cigar for the lads here). The electronic drone that makes up for most of the time occupied by the "song" is beyond annoying. It's Tweedy and gang thumbing their upturned noses in an effort to let us know they are a step or two ahead of us (and quite willing to remind us of that). But noise made isn't art just because the noise producer tells us it is (just go ask Lou Reed if he still thinks Metal Machine Music is his shining misunderstood moment of if it is just someone under the influence of something thinking he/she knows something we others can't possibly know and thus must prove it by doing something far too easy but in its easiness it creates an inherent uneasiness that by being what it is, it is art).

There's a word for the music on A Ghost is Born and it isn't art, it's crap. Yes the title insinuates something haunting and the group tries hard to produce. But Wilco needs a serious shot of humor somewhere and sometime. Seriously. What, after all, is musically asked, would we be without wishful thinking?

He arrived at the fort's chapel way too early and feeling way too hungover from many a thing from the previous night. He saw her in the distance as he was talking to someone else he really wanted to talk to. Entering the chapel together, he strolled behind her, as she was escorted to an empty pew by an usher. They caught up. She'd been through a hurricane. He'd been through some troubling winds of his own (making).

The wedding ceremony was touching and brief. At the reception that followed the two truly caught up and she asked him where his faith now was at these days.

The not expected downward spiral continued with the new Los Lobos disc. The Ride features guest appearances by notable musicians like Tom Waits, Richard Thompson, Elvis Costello, and Bobby Womack but I don't need to hear collaborations with the group. They are good enough themselves. It's all very professional, it's all very well produced, but nothing changed nothing inside. As I tried my best to understand I simply couldn't stop asking why Cesar or David couldn't sing the songs contained on the pressed disc?

This wasn't exactly what I expected (or needed). Thus I moved to the disc I knew couldn't disappoint because despite his inherent quirkiness, he doesn't seem to be doing it to impress, it's just the way he is, Devandra Banhart.

Why does the nonsensical deliberate stream of consciousness work for Banhart but not Wilco? Self consciousness I suppose. One tries the other just does.

This is as close to polished as I suspect Banhart will ever get. It's all recorded in a studio (rather than at home like his other CDs) and there is even an orchestral backing on a couple of the tracks.

The lyrics seem impenetrable yet that's their charm. I love the Elvis references sprinkled throughout something called "Poughkeepsie." My favorite track, "The Body Breaks" describes the aging process (something I'm keenly aware of these days) with such surgical precision that it cuts to the bone. My second favorite track, "This Beard is for Siobhan" with it's refrain of having a "real good time" is sung with such strength and conviction that one absolutely believes it can be true even if one is lying in the stifling summer air not believing a word of it.

The false start and giggling stop of "Todo Los Dolores" is made up for the seemingly perfect Spanish annunciation that follows I don't know a word of it but I believe everything Banhart sings.

He tried to explain how lost he felt, how his religion had so weirdly (and probably inappropriately been summed up by season six of the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer where Buffy comes back from the dead, brought back by well meaning friends, but torn from a heavenly peace, only to feel completely dead inside). She asked if his lost of faith (just kinda like Buffy's) was related to the death of his mother.

Yes, he said, that might have been part of it. He just didn't know how to feel anymore and didn't know if he really wanted to. She told him to read the Bible and promised to email significant passages to him. He ate a shrimp or two (you are what you eat), tried to act like it could make a difference and then on his drive home paid particular attention to how he felt when he shifted into a new gear in his breaking down car.

Is it somehow wrong to want, no expect music to save my dying soul? When I'm sitting in a throng of people listening intently to one of my favorite artists (Lucinda Williams or Liz Phair say) is it too much to expect it to be a life defining moment? Did I not once have those at least a couple of times a year?

Buying CDs these days isn't on the list of top priorities yet every time I do I want to be changed at the very least, elevated to another place in a perfect world. I just have to keep reminding myself that has always been a lifelong expectation whether the carpet is green and shaggy, or looped and fully of cat hair.

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