The Hold Steady: Spinners

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“It sounds like Christian rock.”

So this month’s favorite album is quickly disparaged by the middle school music critic who rides shotgun with me on my daily rounds. But what does he know? He likes hip-hop, spends inordinate amounts of time studying the violin, has no frame of reference for the great and hallowed canon of rock ‘n roll music.  But he has an ear, and the crunchy chords, the peppy beat, the anthemic sweep on the top half of Teeth Dreams reminds him of certain Sunday mornings.

It’s tasteful, it’s slick, it’s pro – and there’s nothing particularly wrong with that. Except that The Hold Steady’s not that kind of band. And Craig Finn’s not that kind of singer. The guy from Pitchfork called it “handily the Hold Steady’s worst-sounding album.” (That’s an excellent review, by the way. It really negates the need for anyone to write anything else about this album again, ever.) He’s got a point.

I’d have dialed it in differently. But it’s still The Hold Steady, still the same beat-poet meets E-Street vibe. If you peel back the production, if you give the songs a chance to breathe, the kids come out like they always do. Emerging from chillout tents, the party pits. Hoodrats crawling up from under crumbling bridges, boys and girls wrapped in that American sadness.

Just like my experience with band itself: The Hold Steady found me once I saw through the media-molded Brooklyn-based pose, the hipster affectation, realized that they were mid-west born, great-lakes raised. Priests of the prairie, shouting out loud about this stuck-between-stations life, setting free the souls shackled to another second-string city. These are my people, I tell ya. We’ve knee-scraped the same prayers, clutched at the same cross, hail-mary’ed our last-call hopes on another shot of abandon.

“She’s two years off some prairie town, she goes out most every night, she dresses up and she spins around.”

That’s from “Spinners,” the second track on the album. It catches up with one of these kids somewhere in NYC. She’s trying it all on, figuring out how it works for Carrie Bradshaw and Lena Dunham, defiantly failing. This girl, I’ve seen her before. I’ve watched her graduate year after year, shook hands with her parents at the late-May parties. Wished her well on the internship, the indentured adventure to the big city.

I keep getting older. She stays the same.

And I’ve got a hunch I’ll be growing old with these guys too. That’ll be me on the porch with Craig Finn someday: rocking-chaired with a don’t-mind-if-I-do flask, spinning stories about the same wide-eyed kids. Over and over and over.

So then, here’s my take on the tune:

 

play here: Spinners

download link: mp3 @320

You’ve Never Been, Part 2: People Who Died

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I caught on to Jim Carroll right around the time he shuffled off. Not sure what made me think to give Catholic Boy a listen, but there’s a fair chance that his death had something to do with it, that some obit came into my orbit and made me curious. Maybe I streamed Leo’s Basketball Diaries first, picked up the record second. Whatever it was, “People That Died” immediately sank into my head, left a mark, and I thought “by gosh, that’s truth there, that’s what it is.”

And then I thought: You’re a fucking idiot. You don’t know anyone who’s died. I mean not really. Not your people. WWII’s people, the Great Depression’s people. But not your people. You don’t know what he’s talking about. You’ve never been to Rikers, rumbled with bikers, never scored dope down on St. Mark’s, never really been to the city at all.

Until this year. Until not one but two were lost last winter. One quick one slow, one hospital lingerer another down in one blow. Lucky me, now I know people who died.

We don’t fall as fresh and fast as Carroll’s pals. There’s no blaze of glory, no movie-making magic. It’s not so poignant, so poetic when we go down after fighting on for a few more rounds. We take our time, stiffen the upper lip and wait it out a few more years. Push it back and push on. Make it work, get a job. Find a girl, settle down. Man up and fake it a little longer.

But now I know: When Jim sings about his friends he could be singing about mine. I wasn’t wrong to think it applied. I wasn’t wrong then and now I don’t want to be right. I wish it wasn’t so. I wish I was just another fucking idiot kid nursing an adolescent bent, sniffing out the tragic cracks of life. That our wild-eyed expectations, our declarations of mad intent, were not hid in our hearts like long-bearded prophecies. But that we left our longings lie – laughable larks, follies of life-drunk delusion to be forgotten with the dawn.

That we could burn forever “like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars” without the fizzle-crash of cold morning smokey dissatisfaction with how it turns out. How it always turns out.

I don’t want it to be true. It take it all back. I miss you.

[…]

And I remember when you drove me home that night, another night that went so late we didn’t beat the sun. And I remember when you played me your tapes and told me to shut up and listen. And I remember when you crashed my party. And I remember when I crashed yours. And I remember the times when we forgot to sleep. And I remember the times when we laughed. And we laughed when we were good. And we laughed when we were bad. We laughed the night I saw you last.

Business called me to hustle your new town. Another swing at life, faking a fling of good fortune. Look at me! I’m a self-made man on a tie-wearing trip to your city, spreading some money around. I done good – let me prove it to ya. And you’re doing fine too.  I’m so sure of it, you’ve kicked the habit right? It’s just drinking now, right? That’s no biggie. Sure sure, that’s fine. Wait, a new dealer? How’d you manage…how do you meet these people? You’re such a crazy nut! How ’bout another round, on me!

And you drove through my town a year or so ago. To start a new life with a girl in tow. And I didn’t call you to stop you to tell you to stay. I was too sad for you to see me this way. Puffy-eyed and pasty-faced and paxil-ed out. But you were happy right? You must have been happy! We’re always happy when nailing down shiny-fresh stakes in virgin turf and dreaming of the newness to be known. How could you not have been happy?  You’re supposed to be happy, dammit. We’re all supposed to be happy. Lord Almighty, we’ve seen the light! Right? No more sorrow no more…?

The bullet and the blood and the brains on the street and the baby wailing from the womb.

The IV drips and the mad rush of life slips to a yawning end.

[…]

These are people who died. Yes,
These are people who died.
And they deserve their own song;
They deserve their own stage.
Just as true.
Every bit as real.
And don’t you fucking tell me that it’s not.

 

 

play here: my take on People Who Died

download link: mp3 @320

You’ve Never Been, Part 1: Alphabet City

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Now it’s getting to the point where I could only listen to music released by old friends, path crossers, and fellow travelers and have a fully-loaded iPod. With more than enough quality and variety to fit any occasion.

The latest addition to that list is the solo record by Todd May. Todd’s a guy that I spent a few good hours with back in Columbus, a guy who’s first band, The Lillybandits, were big on the scene when I was new to town. He’s been getting out a lot since then, playing guitar for Lydia Lovelace all over the place. I didn’t know that he was still writing – or working so hard – but I guess he’s one of those guys who can never quite kick the habit of making music.

It was a nice surprise, full of good songs, but the one that I can’t shake is “Alphabet City.” He calls it a “postcard from NYC”, but I still had to look up what he was talking about. Turns out that Alphabet City is the east-side of the East Village, around Avenues A, B, & C. Underground velvet territory back in the day.

I’ve mentioned before how New York looms large on the far right coast of my imagination. Towering 100,000 concrete stories into the sky, casting its daybreak shadows over every town east of the Mississippi, with a bull’s eye staring down on the rust belt.

For a 17-year-old kid in Akron, driving around with a sun-warped cassette of Walk On The Wild Side, watching a late-night VHS of Taxi Driver, there was something ominous, unassailable about that town. Wildman plans would be hatched every night, to rocket there and back before daybreak and dawn. But no matter how fast and far you drove the family car, or how hard you licked up midnight’s teenage kicks, you still woke up knowing that you’d “never really been to the city at all.”

By the time I made it to The City, things were already getting tidied up and Giulianied. And by then I didn’t care. My new summer town was broad-shouldered Chicago, and college weekends in Pittsburgh satiated my crumbling-concrete curiosity.

But I still go back and think about it. Some of those old NYC records are new to me, and whenever I hear another one, I wonder. I wonder if I could have kept up or if I would have been crushed. I wonder if I could have lasted a week around CBGBs, made it a day writing my own Basketball Diaries. Seemed equal parts playground and nightmare, and sometimes I don’t think I would have survived the game.

As Todd sings, “You and I weren’t built for that speed, or that level of temptation… and that’s just as well.” That might be the truth. At this point, it’s alright that I’ll never know.

 

 

play here: Alphabet City

download link: mp3 @320

Thirteen On The Quick

big star

For the last few Septembers, the persnickety music snob in me has felt the need to post a social media announcement to the effect that this would be a good time to listen to Big Star. While that might be true, I have to admit that I had nothing to add to the conversation.  I was just fishing for “likes” to make life a little less lonely as the sun set sooner and those hoary blues began to loom.

This time around, let’s change that by doing some proper contributing.

I’ve been trying to find a quick-and-dirty way of recording covers and demoing original tunes to pass around to y’all.  Big Star’s “Thirteen” seemed like some good material to practice on. The song’s been stuck in my head for weeks now.  Not sure when and where I heard it again, but what a tune.  It’s my kind of show-don’t-tell writing: simplicity through specificity, an uncluttered canvas to reflect all your imaginings and lost-longings and misty-minded recollections.

Either that, or I just never got over junior high.

My trouble these days is that I can kill a lot of time trying to get everything balanced out when building a bigger production with drums and keys and all that nonsense. And I don’t have the time to do it all the time.  I gotta find a way to get it done in an hour. Close the gap between inspiration and presentation. Real life (and real practice!) demands my attention.

Another thing: Some of my favorite albums are the little ones, like Springsteen’s “Nebraska”, or Pedro The Lion’s “Hard To Find a Friend.” That’s where I want to be. Capture some lightning in my bottle move on to the next adventure.

I recorded this in two takes – a straight vocal/guitar pass and then another acoustic guitar overdub.  I ran some of the stuff through my Fender Deluxe Reverb for an authentic (if non-traditional) echo, and trimmed it up with the normal eq/comp-type plugins.

I’m trying to find a process.  And I’m trying to find a sound.  I’m trying to use what I have to get together a no-excuses go-to setup to suit my songs and flatter my pipes. Gotta put it out there. ‘Cause when I don’t, I die a little inside.

Wish me luck.

 

play here: Thirteen

download link: mp3 @320

Mia Sings About Your Boyfriend

It seemed like a good idea at the time, the time being three years ago when Best Coast released their debut album with the fantastic single Boyfriend. Every summer’s better with a new splash of that let’s-go-surfing sound, and Best Coast have done it twice in a row.

At the time she was only 5, and her little girl voice singing “she’s got a college degree and I am only 5 years old” was an inspiration. The disconnect between that cute kid and the song’s “she’s prettier and skinnier” lament was great enough to be charming, even silly. But they grow up so fast, don’t they? Now, performing it again at 8 and about to enter into the 3rd grade, the distance between innocence and experience is shrinking fast. She’s got an intuitive grasp on the ‘tween dramas. Feels all the Marcia Marcia Marcia pain on the Brady Bunch. There’s only so much a dad can do, but I’d do anything to keep her heart from breaking before it’s had a chance to grow a lot bigger.

As you can guess from the above, this song (like all of my recording experiments) took longer than I thought. A new deadline – grandma hoped for a new tune for her birthday – gave us the boot in the butt to finish it up in time for the celebration. I’m glad we did, but I fear that someday her therapist will use it against me.

 

play here: Mia Sings Boyfriend

download link: mp3 @320

Death In His Grave

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Ninety percent of my playing out these days happens on a Sunday morning. And even though I’ve been doing it for years, I’m still learning how it’s done. Up-and-at-’em early on a well-appointed stage, it’s a strange gig filled with its own expectations and frustrations, triumphs and trainwrecks, blessings and curses. In other words, just like any other scene. But a lot more sober-er.

Last year I was asked to do this song for Tenebrae, easily the gothiest night of the Christian calender. You might know it as Good Friday, the night of Christ’s crucifixion.  Our service starts in a near-silent sanctuary, lit only be a few candles, blown out one by one as our meditations merge with the recounted Stations of the Cross. A little macabre, and much more effective than that Mel Gibson flick.

At the time, I recorded some scratch tracks to feel out the tune and practice it up. A year later, the same request arose again, so I found the old files to remind myself of my first take on the music. Not able to leave well enough alone, I started adding a few more things: sampled Feist for the drums, put a little Xmas in the bridge, and came up with a smeary organ sound by layering a warbly tape-delay on the old guitars.

In the end, I found it worth a second listen. I hope you do too.

 

 

play here: my take on Death In His Grave

download link: mp3 @320

Jack White’s Blunderbuss Rock

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I love his stuff, but I fear it won’t last.

Despite what the KLF say about it, the tune is the thing. It’s the musical gold that withstands the refining flames of fad, the fickle whims of aural fashion. When the next hip-hopped asteroid hits, great songs will be the only thing makes it through the apocalypse.  It’s the only snatch of DNA nimble enough to adapt, to evolve when the pop world as we know it blows up once again. The song, it’s eternal. The instrumentation, the production, the format — but dust wrapped around the soul.

So the tunes? Jack’s not so big on them. Sure, he’s had his songwritery moments (“We’re Gonna Be Friends” comes to mind. “You’re Pretty Good Looking, For a Girl”  — now that’s a fantastic line.) But what he does best is to blast out two minute garage-rock jams.

When he does that, he always sounds great, fantastic. The hooks and the cues are all there. You know the parts, the guitar bits, the keys, the squeals — even Meg’s drums were hooky. But we’ll have to wait and see what our grandkids remember of this guy. Wait and see what floats up through all of his nonsense. To the man’s credit, he cranks out enough music that something is bound to live on. Something will survive awhile longer. (For the record, my money’s on Van Lear Rose.)

But the jams, oh they’re tasty. The bursts of ear-slice guitar. The swagger of Jerry Lee, the mystery of Elvis.  Jack’s the keeper of the flame, the holy templar who guards the secret of the sound. He’s the pope, the high priest, the prophet of the rockers, installed with a pointy hat and a scepter upon a backwoods throne somewhere outside of Nashville, where he rules from the court of Third Man Records, receiving pilgrims great and small.

About a year ago, I fooled around with covering Sixteen Saltines off of his latest, Blunderbuss. My goal was to see if I could record some big guitars to match his track. I liked where it was going and decided to do the rest of the parts, saving vocals for last.  That was a mistake. The key of Jack of makes me sound like a screechy cat, so I trashed most of what I had and called it quits for a bit.

When I came back to it later, I realized that I didn’t care about raging guitars, so I picked out an acoustic & keyboard thing to re-tool the whole vibe. But some habits being hard to break, the guitars started creeping back track by track. I shall make no apologies for that; I like how it all worked out.

 

 

play here: my take on Sixteen Saltines

download link: mp3 @320

Last Christmas

The annual family Christmas album came together almost on time this year.

I’m always pushing it, no matter when I start, but deadlines produce results, no doubt about it. If there wasn’t a time limit, I’d just keep tweaking until next year, trying different things, making marginal improvements only audible to myself and the neighbor’s dog.

My deadline for posting some selections on the blog is January 31st, so I figure I’m right on time there as well. (Now, if I can just figure out my long-awaited “Top Albums Of 2012 List” before it’s completely moot.)

So here’s two tunes for you:

The first is “Last Christmas,” the Wham! song, as sung by Miss Mia.  The second is “Two Little Girls,” an all-original composition by the same little lady. Have a listen and let a little Christmas melt your heart these chilly last days of January.

mia sings Last Christmas

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mia sings Two Little Girls

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Don’t Change: David Bazan’s Strange Negotiations

david bazan strange negotiations grant wentzel

So I finished up another of my semi-annual record review/recording projects. Below is “Don’t Change,” a track from last year’s Strange Negotiations by David Bazan. I’d love to crank out one of these every couple of weeks, but it’s always trickier than it sounds.  Nonetheless, I can’t seem to quit it. I’m already thinking about what’s next.  Maybe Father John Misty or Jack White? We’ll see how it goes.

You wouldn’t think a David Bazan song would be that hard to sing until you try. The trouble is that he’s good. He’s not one for vague vocal affectations pretending at a melody.  Instead he writes real notes, and the kind of notes that jump around more than the usual step or two.  Singing this was more like performing a show tune than something folky.  “Don’t Change” wouldn’t let me get away with doing my own thing, swinging through the pitch, hoping to that it was all close enough to get around the bases.  I could either sing it right or I could sing it wrong.

But I did make one change:  I flipped the gender of the first verse.  Songs about girls are always more interesting than songs about boys.  When a guy’s messing up, you might try to offer a little help, but there’s always some default element of “Dude, deal with it.”  It’s not right, but we expect males to have a deep well of self-reliance. If they don’t tap into that manly reservoir, that’s their lazy-ass fault.  When a girl’s in trouble, everything is a little more tragic. The damsel’s in distress, as the story goes.

I’d like to think that everyone can relate to this song, but maybe we all haven’t strayed so far off the path. Although David Bazan’s struggles with the bottles are well self-documented, it doesn’t have to be the drink that trips you up. We’ve all got our issues. We all think we’ll magically get it all together tomorrow. But when nothing different was done yesterday, nothing’s changed today, and on it goes. Habits, they’re hard to break.

Strange Negotiations isn’t as good as the last one, but it’s still really good.  The guitars are crunchier — a little more rock ‘n roll — which is never a bad thing. There’s plenty of Bazan at his best here: The imagery worthy of William Carlos Williams, the sad-eyed delivery, the hooky guitar lines and every-hit-counts drumming. His losing-my-religion theme is getting a touch preachy, but I get it.  I’ve hit my head on that floor a few times too, but Something always bounced me back.

So don’t change, David Bazan. You’re doing still doing the work, still chasing down your vocation.

my take on don’t change

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Feliz! Navidad!

Jose Feliciano. His mellifluous name always brings two things to mind:  Steve Buscemi in Fargo and David Sedaris taking guitar lessons.

Good stuff, both.  But this next gem is better.

Every December, the family gets together to record something for the Grandpas and the Grandmas that they might enjoy revisiting when the ghost of Christmas Next calls up the ghost of Christmas Past.  There’s always a few tracks that come together nicely.  Someday, I’ll Bandcamp the hits à la Sufjan and see what comes of it.

In the meantime, even though it’s the new year, here’s a little Christmas cheer:

mia sings feliz navidad

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