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

Gilead, a Novel by Marilynne Robinson

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Much as I hate moving, a new home does bring hope for a new garden. Spade in hand, I survey my new domain, looking for a ripe spot to notch out a new plot. What I seek is fecundity, and then I plan to slice it down.

Where the grass grows the best is where my plants will too. I hate that. I’d rather try to make something work in the rocky no-man’s land behind the fence or along the garage. But the sun shines where the sun can, and the rain pools in places I can’t always control. So, cruel landlord that I am, I do what I must. The native shoots and leaves I’ll soon slay for the greater good of peppers and tomatoes and peas.

I wonder what the first settlers thought when they arrived in places like Kansas. After walking for weeks through Appalachian mountains, under forests thick enough to blot out the sky, then over the still-green hills of Iowa tumbling up from Mississippi and back down to Missouri. They must have thought they’d hit the Californian desert, that they’d gone too far and should put the Conestoga in reverse. This wouldn’t seem a place to plant a garden. Not to me.

Marilynne Robinson disinters these pioneers of the prairie in her novel Gilead.  It’s an interesting work – conceived as a memoir written by a dying Iowan preacher from the first half of the last century, penned to his young son who’ll soon be growing up without a dad. His forefathers first came to Kansas not to build a life, but out of a sense of altruism. A quick wave of migration flooded the western territory before the Civil War broke loose, as antebellum Jayhawks and Freelanders fought to stake claim in the virgin sod, to bring the new state into the Union on the side of the Abolition.

Under the circumstances, nothing was built to last.

Nor was much built with any permanence just up and over in Iowa, where the bulk of the novel takes place. The town, Gilead, is filled with people from somewhere else – New Englanders mostly, with a few Negroes who ran north and recent European immigrants thrown in. And they’re all willing to move again when trouble comes, when the drought arrives and the dirt starts to blow, when the wars cull their young, or when luck simply runs its course.  While here, they toiled at the ancient work of man – they subdued the black earth, bore babies, established a grid of order on the open land.  But when looking back at Gilead, they find that there wasn’t much that they had left behind.

This is the essential sorrow of the Midwest, and Robinson taps into it like the deep root of a prairie thistle. She welcomes us to the in-between country, or fly-over country as you’d call it now. Always an ephemeral place, a great swath of transition, defined by what it has not more than by what it has. You’ll know it as the place without forests, without mountains, without deserts, without coasts.

Yes, the fullness of life can be known in these parts, there is no reason why anything worth doing can’t be done on this land. Our Reverend looks over his sermons and finds he’s written as much as Augustine and Calvin, that he’s contributed to the scholarly conversation as thoughtfully as any man can. He’s experienced extremes of love and loss, of plenty and want, seen great virtue and heard all manner of confessions from his congregation. As he says, “There have been heroes here, saints and martyrs, and I want you to know that. Because that is the truth even if no one remembers it.”

Nothing is unknown to the people of Gilead, though it wouldn’t do to speak of it in polite company. Still, life is spread thin on this patch of the Earth’s flat crust. Even the wooden church where he preaches wasn’t meant to stand:

“They’ll tear it down once I pass away.”

“A stranger might ask why there is a town here at all. Our own children might ask. And who could answer them? It was just a dogged little outpost in the sand hills, within striking distance of Kansas. That’s all it was meant to be. It was a place John Brown and Jim Lance could fall back on when they needed to heal and rest.  There must have been a hundred little towns like it, set up in the heat of an old urgency that is all forgotten now, and their littleness and their shabbiness, which was the measure of the courage and passion that went into the making of them, now just look awkward and provincial and ridiculous, even to the people who have lived here long enough to know better. It looks ridiculous to me, I truly suspect I never left because I was afraid I would not come back.”

“Just look at this place. Every time a tree gets to a decent size, the wind comes along and breaks it.”

This is the great conundrum of the plains: It’s just as good as anywhere else, but never the best. Caught between gratitude and yearning, stuck in a place that meets our needs but can never satisfy our wants, we are thankful for the blessings yet nagged by a sense of a better life somewhere over the next horizon. The very same drive that brought us here pulls us to move on again, to plant new gardens in new fields. We make a proud use of the present, but as for the past, it fades like Grandpa’s Kansan grave. Half-marked with a wooden cross, soon and sadly lost as another generation moves away.

 

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

No Country For Old Men

There’s a pessimism here that I can’t believe in anymore.  I know it well, as a clean-scrubbed child of the 80s it lurked all around me.  Paranoia was in the air back then:  From what my little eyes could gather from a television rabbit-eared to Cleveland’s stations, it was all going to hell.

Our cities were crumbling, our small towns left derelict, and the cracks were showing in the stuccoed suburban retreats we all flew to by the 70s. Teens were offing themselves to the back-masked squeals of Judas Priest, satanic cults were taking over the preschools, and you could catch aids from a mosquito. Burning rivers, iron curtains and rusty belts. Nothing was as good as it was, and it was all about to get a lot worse.

For certain generations — for those who grew up nipping at the cup of post-war optimism, or chugging at the trough of boomer expectations, who watched things falls apart once they spawned kids of their own — I get it. Those were some bum years. Grimy, polluted, still clad in the sad polyester that refused to wear out. That’s the setting for No Country, 1980, the hostage and gas crisis era. Malaise.

McCarthy doesn’t have high hopes for what’s to come. No Country For Old Men could be a prequel to The Road. The old fella seems sure that the apocalypse is nigh, and all we can do is hunker down and wait for the sound of horsehoofs in the sky.  No country for old men is right.  The damn kids have taken over and they’re screwing it up. Blessed are the barren. Amen.

Cormac speaks to the fear right on page one:

He was nineteen.  And he told me that he had been planning on killing somebody for about as long as he could remember.  Said that if they turned him out he’d do it again.  Said he knew he was going to hell.  Told it to me out of his own mouth. I don’t know what to make of that.  I surely don’t.  I thought I’d never seen a person like that and it got me to wondering if maybe he was some new kind.  I watched them strap him into the seat and shut the door.  He might of looked a bit nervous about it but that was about all.  I really believe that he knew he was going to be in hell in fifteen minutes.  I believe that.  And I’ve thought about that a lot.  He was not hard to talk to.  Called me Sheriff.  But I didn’t know what to say to him.  What do you say to a man that by his own admission has no soul?

Wicked stuff, but I don’t think it holds. Things are looking better these days. Crime is down, longevity is up. Yes, we keep fighting wars, but the death count is dropping like bombs. There are random acts of violence to grab the headlines, but people that I meet are working towards something better, and seeing the good fruits of their labors. To borrow a phrase, the better angels of our nature have come out on top.

I hope McCarthy has a change of heart before he puts down the pen. There’s still time to see things differently, and he’s a fantastic writer. I love his smoosh-words, things like “sockfeet,” “shavingkit,” and “swivelchair,” and the way the dialogue floats between internal ruminations and slow-spoken conversations.

I’m also glad that the Coen Brothers put this to film. The book is almost custom-screenplayed for them: The soulless Anton Chigurh a dead-ringer for the dusty apocalyptic biker of Raising Arizona, the wizened westerner Sheriff Ed Tom Bell voicing over God’s truth like the stranger from The Big Lebowski. The book sounds like the Coen Brothers, when the Coen Brothers decide to take themselves seriously.

I’ll read some more of him eventually, but I’m in no hurry. There are many good days before me, many great opportunities with which to fill them. And of the reading of many books, there shall be no end.

Shelf Life: The Forgotten Well At World’s End

I’ve never worked so hard to finish a book.

After reading William Morris’s The Well At World’s End, I can feel every aching step, every maddening mile of Prince Ralph’s epic quest to drink the magic draught and save the kingdom from the wiles of wicked men. I can feel the chafe of the bridle, the callous from the bit, my chair-bound behind as sore as if I’d been riding on his saddle, spent arms and weary legs wrapped tight around his armoured knighthood.

If this thing were assigned in some college lit class, it would have slid uncracked to the bottom of my backpack, lost before I hit the lunch-rush at the cafeteria. Of course, I’d look up a few things. Make a few notes on theme and imagery, regurgitate critical reception. Something to sound smart enough to slough through an essay on the exam.

But this wasn’t for school, wasn’t for something as silly as credit. No, this was for something sacred: This was for Book Club.  And the first rule of Book Club is that you read the book for Book Club. (Except when you don’t, but I’m too new to beg a free pass.)

Still, not my cup of tea.

In honesty, I don’t really know how to judge the book. I’ve never been a fantasy guy. Like hip hop, I don’t have a frame of reference to sift the good from the bad, the inventive from the ripped-off. Occasionally, I’ll dip my toe into some Sci-Fi.  That I get, Star Trek and the like, blasting modern conundrums a galaxy away, to better see the self at arm’s length, and with lasers. Phew! Phew!

Fantasy, well that’s a whole ‘nother leap of the imagination. Creating one’s own world from scratch, populating it with creatures, peoples, morals and social structures as you see fit. That’s a trick.

The author was suggested due to his influence on a few other writers: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. You may have heard of those guys. Morris palled around with them, a father-figure of a sort. A mentor perhaps.  The jury’s out as to how much influence he had on the next generation, but his words are still out there, wafting on the public domain. His name will likely pop up in the 3rd-pint round of a geekly discussion, sometime after debating Gandalf vs. Dumbledore.

So who am I to judge? William Morris was ahead of his time, and like young Prince Ralph, he blazed a trail to parts unknown.  Sadly he’ll go down as the Friendster of the Fantasy world, but at least he had the courage to get up and ride, to pen-up dreams of things unseen. A worthy quest indeed.

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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How Belinda Got Her Beat Back

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“Hey, buy this for me for Christmas.”

So my wife and I have this unspoken arrangement. We spend so much time trying to get Christmas together every year, finding nice things for distant relatives, putting together an impressive yet non-gluttonous pile of surprises for the kids, that we pretty much forget about each other until the blessed day is thrust upon us.  While running our last-minute errands we’ll see something and say, “buy this for me for Christmas” and toss it in the cart, knowing we’ll find it again miraculously gift-wrapped under the tree on Christmas morning.

A pair of jeans on the clearance rack at Target. Office supplies. A bottle of champagne. Whatever. You name it. And yes, it might even be the auto-biography of Belinda Carlisle, whom I found languishing and lonely at the grocery store in a close-out bin. She was wedged between Ricky Martin’s tell-all and Chicken Soup for the CEO’s Soul. Only $2.50 for the hard-covered inside scoop on the Go-Go’s?  Deal!

As you know, I like most anything about people making music (yes, even Gwyneth’s objectively awful Country Strong.) And while Carlisle was reliving the wild early-80’s LA punk scene it was a good read.  Those days were all about the music, the art, the fun of going to shows and being in the know about the latest greatest coolest rock ‘n roll music.  From Devo to David Lee, this girl partied with a lot of interesting kids, all trying to make it on the Sunset Strip.

Her life, way cooler than mine.

But then success hits ya and the wheels come off.  They always do in these things.  At which point it’s hard not to mock her relentlessly for the #richwhitegirlproblems.  Lines like “we were bourgeois on the outside, bohemian on the inside” (spoke as she wrestles with a possible move to southern France) are hard to get behind.

Oh dear, what to do, what to do.

But as the 12-steppers say, you’ve got to “identify and not compare.” Belinda’s just a sweet California girl with a mile-wide, coke-fed wild streak that never went away. I guess if you strip ‘er story of the success and the millions and the home in Provence and the international drug trafficking, there’s a lot there that rings true for any of us. Maybe. Who’s to know what a little fortune and fame would do. I’m just glad that she got it together. Eventually.

And that yes, once again, she’s got the beat.

Running With The Devil: Goethe’s Faust

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So I joined a book club.  Like most good things in life, what we want and what we find we need are different things. Had I the chance to chose a book club from a menu of gatherings, I never would have jumped into one that likes to bite into the classics.  I would have kept it pop, kept it current. Maybe something focused on the confused mutterings of 30-something American boys who write to purge their own lonely maladjustment.  The sort of navel-gazers who wallow indefatigably in their inability to live up to the expectations of the 20th/21st century. You know, guys like me.

I would have been wrong and I would have been shortsighted. There’s a reason you should read what your professors once proposed on those forgotten reading lists. Of course, that list of books you should have read is longer than the day is long, the shadow cast by great writers darker than the night.  But if you take them one at a time, it’s not so bad. And the secret is that most writers are pretty modern after all.  The trappings of technology march on, but human nature slithers slowly.

Goethe’s Faust is based on the age-old tale of a man who hears that rhetorical question of Christ (“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”) and decides to find out for himself. So he makes a deal with the Devil and then things go rolling inexorably down hill.

So consider me surprised to find that such a black-and-white plot should set the stage for a tale layered thick with moral ambiguity. Although wrapped in Christian trappings, Goethe claimed no fealty to the cross. (Or, in his youth, to much of anything.) While it’s tempting to read the scholarly Faust as the hero, or even as Goethe himself, our protagonist might be just as much Mephistopheles.  When you put your words in the mouth of the devil — a devil who’s job it is to deceive — it’s tricky to untangle what the reader ought to believe.

The only clear moral principle is this: Never rest! Never be satisfied! Always act, and always do! That’s not something you’d find in the Bible. It’s opposite of Paul’s “content in all things” and the Our Father’s humble “give us this day our daily bread.” But it is what Goethe has God decree, what Faust strives for, what the Devil tries to trick him to forget.

I expected a fairy tale, but instead I found a work of poetry about appetite, ambition, love/lust/loss, and the proud-pawn state of a thoroughly modern man. There’s nothing dusty about that. Just ask David Lee Roth:

I found the simple life ain’t so simple
When i jumped out, on that road
I got no love, no love you’d call real
Ain’t got nobody, waitin’ at home.

I live my life like there’s no tomorrow
And all I’ve got, I had to steal
Least I don’t need to beg or borrow
Yes i’m livin’ at a pace that kills

I’m running with the Devil…

 

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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I Love It When The Band Keeps Getting Better: House Of Heroes

House Of Heroes 01 Grant WentzelHouse Of Heroes 02 Grant WentzelHouse Of Heroes 03 Grant Wentzel

Because how often does that happen?

All of my favorites have had their moments, and sometimes I’ve been lucky enough to catch the right show at the right time to add some live proof to the mix. But there’s rarely a need to repeat the experience.  You’re rolling the dice, and the odds are not in your favor. Whatever it was that captured your heart on that first magic night is likely be over.  Maybe the show got too big and your love’s lost beneath the bright lights. Maybe the venue’s too small, and golly it’s just so sad to see them now.

Not that I always mind. Rock shows are like pizza: even when they’re bad they’re still pretty good. You know I’ll always be up for catching another Jane’s tour, and if Against Me and The Hold Steady swing through town again, I’ll be there in a heartbeat.  You can even go tell Tegan & Sara that I’ll be back.  I’m very forgiving.  Except for you, Mr. Matisyahu, but that’s another story.

But I digress.  This post is about House Of Heroes, that rare band that keeps getting better. I used to catch them around Columbus a bit, and they were surprisingly solid for some local kids. They bent ears by adding a few tricks to the tunes – a vamp, a breakdown, switching up the ol’ I-IV-V rock ‘n roll formula with some harmonic imagination.

That was all well and good, but somewhere along the line they really learned how to play.  I hate to use the term metal – it’s charged like lighting – but the chops are getting so sharp, it’s getting hard to avoid the word.  But don’t worry, these are pop guys with a knack for a good riff, which makes them the exact opposite of the Def Leppards of the world (riffers with an ear for a good tune – not that there’s anything wrong with that either!)

As the fates would have it, they play Sioux Falls every Labor Day at the LifeLight fest — just 10 miles of dirt road from my abode — so I’ve seen ’em here more than I ever used to see them there.  I’m really glad they make the trip, and that they spend the rest of the year tightening up new tunes for the tour.

‘Til next year, boys.  Keep up the good work!

(Photos by Grant Wentzel, kindly used by permission.)