2 Hours Of 2 Tone

When you work out of the house, streaming a two hour concert in the bottom corner of the monitor is an acceptable use of screen space.  I’ve got no one to annoy if my speakers sneak up to eleven, no one to mock my chair-bound dance routines.

Admittedly, two hours of 2 Tone’s second-wave cockney-ska might be more than most of you can take.  But if you’ve got the inclination, this British live-in-concert film from 1981 is great stuff. It’s even got a charmingly paternal intro:

“It’s an off-beat top-tapping sound, a rhythm for their feet that takes high-spirited youngsters off the streets and into a music that speaks to them. When these bands start swinging, our young people are in total agreement. The only word for it is fun!”

A few bands on here everyone knows (The Beat/Madness/The Specials), a few I only know a little (The Bodysnatchers/The Selector), and there’s one I’ve never noticed:  Bad Manners.  Whoever these Bad Manners are, the big bald guy who leads the sweaty charge is everything a rude boy ought to be.

I can’t help but think how much I’d love to play in one of these acts – no one’s that great, but it all adds up.  Just a half-dozen friends going nuts for a 10-song set.  There’s room for everyone:  Blacks and whites; native sons bouncing to immigrant sounds; boys and girls; punks in leather, nerds with trombones. Racial harmony, world peace. International reconciliation.

Ska looks a lot like Heaven. Give this movie ten minutes, you just might see the light.


h/t to Dangerous Minds


Rock Of Ages

Above is just one slice of “The Timeline”  a rock-n-roll comic floating around the intertubes.  Please view the whole thing here:  http://ouchthatshot.com/the-timeline-the-full-rock-of-ages-comic/

Seemed to sum it up pretty well.

(Sum it up?  Summit up?  Climbing somewhere higher?  Is rock going anywhere?  I doubt it, but I’m ok with that. It’s just the folk music of our times, resonance dissipating with distance, sooner or later yelping a high-lonesome final cry, echoing from down in some holler. As ancient as oaks carved with the healed-over scars of young-lover’s initials. Lost off a forgotten path, brambled and disused.  Waiting to be digitally discovered by the robots of NPR 2500, reminding young tots of the importance of endangered Beatles, Leppards, Byrds and Monkees.)

The Dude Abides: The Gospel According To The Coen Brothers

“Be the Dude”

Now there’s some internet-friendly, tweet-ready advice for ya.  Welcome to a line of laid-back thought claiming many disciples, inspiring Dude-A-Thons and Lebowski Fests around the country, and producing buckets of ephemera to guide you in cultivating your inner Dude.  Say what you will about the tenets of Dudeism, at least it’s an ethos.

While not a devotee myself — a true life of the Dude would be mind-numbingly boring — I’d recommend keeping some Dude on speed-dial to help balance out the constipating effects of modern life.  An hour or two with a Jeff Lebowski can do wonders for your constitution, all while keeping the mind limber.

Cathleen Falsani picks up on this new doctrine and tries to trace its roots back through the entire Coen canon, looking for a spiritual core to an oeuvre often dismissed as adolescently amoral.  She’s an interesting writer, working both sides of a big cultural divide, with stuff picked up by the conservative evangelical press and lefty outlets alike.  As she’s a ’92 Wheaton grad, I can’t help but think that I know something of her world, Wheaton College being one of the other “good” schools where my high school funneled their little achievers.

And as such, I’m pretty sure that this is not the book she meant to write.  Heavy on plot synopsis, too tidy in its lessons-learned conclusions, I get a feeling that the author started off the day with a thousand thoughts, only to have her editors whittle and polish it down to something with careful commercial appeal.  Something palatable to the sort of church-going reader who won’t reference an R-rated film without a disclaimer.  Someone who hasn’t seen enough of the films to frame their reference in the first place.

Any serious student of the Coen brothers will find this book a little lite, but she does have her insights.  Falsani lives in a tough spot as an author, and I feel for her.  Half of her potential audience would find the idea of receiving spiritual truth through a film to be nigh-blasphemous.  The other half can’t fathom that there’s an issue.  One man’s provocative is another’s pedestrian, and it takes a deft touch to address them all without coming off as either a punk or a prude.

But she’s right, you know.  There is plenty to learn from the Coen brother’s films and their mottled heroes — Jeff, Ulysses, Hi, Llewelyn, Ted, etc. —  all decent men tossed in over their heads, making mistakes, suffering consequences, but generally doing the best they can with what they’ve got.  Slow-growth karma, or as I like to see it, baby steps toward salvation.  Perhaps grace and redemption aren’t far behind.

Who knows, they’ve never shot a sequel.

Top Albums: 2011 Edition, Part 2

As promised.  Here’s my personal top 5 or so that caught the ear in 2011.  I tried to keep most of this confined to 2011 releases, but I’ll be making an exception starting with…


The Clash:  Live In Akron at the Civic Theater

Yes, this is a bootleg.  I mention it for three reasons:  First of all, it’s The Clash, so it’s great. Secondly, it illustrates where a lot of my listening has happened over the last year.  Everyone knows that you can beg/borrow/steal most anything you want from the internet.  While your opinions may vary on the commercial/legal/moral aspects of this topic, on the happy-hippie side of things it’s also birthed an explosion of pro-bono, fan-fueled, bootleg distribution unearthing all manner of gems. Crate-diggers would have died for this stuff a decade ago.  Now it’s easy listening.

Thirdly, when it comes to music, it’s the personal connection that trumps all. When this show was taped, I was probably consulting with the docs on my tonsillectomy just down the street at Children’s Hospital. How Mom & Dad could have missed the show is beyond me, but I do thank them for prioritizing my health.


We All Have Hooks For Hands:  Girls

When I first arrived in Sioux Falls, I set out a-looking for the local scene.  Internet searches came up dry, and alt-weeklies were not to be found.  I was bummed, but I kept my eyes open and eventually started to see things in a new light.  Sure, this town might not be big enough to support a hipster enclave or a proper strip of dive bars and record shops, but who needs that anyway?  There’s more than enough talented people here waiting tables and roasting coffee while staying up all night GarageBand’ing their dreams and making something beautiful.

Exhibit one:  We All Have Hooks For Hands latest EP, Girls.  This is a fine example of what I’ll call team-sport indie rock, a twee-punk shout-along sound somewhere between Wavves and that Battles tune.  (Hopefully, some better examples will come along before I publish this.)  Anyway, you can download it for free.  Give this video a try and tell me that it can’t hang with anything the kids in your town are putting out.  I double-dog dare ya.


The Black Swans: Don’t Blame The Stars

To paraphrase Cinderella, sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got till you’re gone.  I had to move a thousand miles away before I gave The Black Swans a fair shake.  To push the road metaphor a little too far, they met me exactly halfway in Rockford, IL with a Daytrotter Session, tossing off a hasty taste of forgotten sounds and leaving me missing what I had once skipped past.

So I looked up their latest on Amazon and had it shipped over.  It arrived full of surprises and contradictions.  Teardrop tunes, surreal spoken-word setups, rooster calls.  Funny stuff riding shotgun with a fiddler’s ghostDon’t Blame The Stars is a torch song to lost loves, murky old Americana, and some Desire-era Dylan.  Yes, sometimes it’ll make you laugh, but there’s all sorts of blood on those tracks.


Fleet Foxes:  Helplessness Blues

‘Bout time to include something on my list that might be on yours?  Around the age of 21, I’d imbibed so much Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor, and CSN that my body revolted and I couldn’t stomach another drop.  I was off the stuff for years, but when Helplessness Blues hit the middlebrow circuit I fell right off the wagon.  It’s simply gorgeous stuff, fearfully and wonderfully made.  But it’s the lyrics that set the hook when they sang out some of my own post-adolescent, 20-something thoughts.  The kind of growing up and making something of it thoughts that echo through your 30’s (and from what I’ve been told, your 40’s and 50’s too.)  Who knows, maybe next I’ll order up a shot of Sam Beam with an Iron & Wine chaser.


TV Girl:  Benny And The Jetts

Back to the internet-fueled topic at the top, I do a fair amount of blog-spotting, scanning hipster posts from tertiary towns that gotta dig up their own good times.  The enthusiasm runs higher when you’ve got skin in the game.  I mean really, Brooklynites and Silver Lakers – don’t you just choke on the choices?   My head would swim, my distracted heart lying lonely and loveless, left cold every morning after last night’s next big thing.

So who’s TV Girl?  I don’t know, but this little EP was floating around for free on some blog somewhere.  It’s a second-rate recording, a bedroom labor of love.  But I’m thankful for it.  It’s good for driving around town.  It makes me smile every time.  So go for it, all y’all:  Make a record.  Put it on BandCamp.  Give it away or charge me 5 bucks.  You might not make it big, but somebody out there will dig it.  Somebody like me.


Top Albums: 2011 Edition, Part 1

As a younger man, I flirted with the thought that I might make it as a rock ‘n roll reviewer.  A few school paper write-ups to the contrary, I chased that dream about as realistically as a 5-year hoping to be an astronaut.  While I still kick myself for not pursuing the pen with purpose during those middle years when time was abundant, sleep arbitrary, and the brain constantly buzzed with the shiny newness of all things, I now know that Professional Pop Critic would never have been my beat.

See, I just can’t keep up.  I always think I’ve got a pretty good handle on things until sometime around December 2nd when I first catch a Best Of The Year podcast or three.  And then it dawns on me that I never did get around to hearing all of the recommendations shot my way.  Good stuff too.  Stuff I should like, and probably will in a year or two.   But right now I’m still stuck in the past, living life like it’s 2010.

I know that the Black Keys’ El Camino should be on the top of my list, but to be honest I didn’t really delve into Brothers until a few months back.  I love my lady Feist, but I’ve yet to hear anything but a single or two off the new one.  (Her live set Look At What The Light Did Now has been keeping me content.)

David Bazan’s Strange Negotiations is way up on the must-listen list, but after the gut-punch of his last one, I’m taking my time until I have a few hours to recover from the expected trauma to my little soul. And I’m sure I’ll love all of the new Wild Flag, Deer Tick, Yuck, M83, Girls, and even Ezra Furman.  Just ask me next year, m’kay?

This not to say that I didn’t find some great stuff this year.  So mañana I’ll post a few things that came along, that I might treat to more thoughts more fully when the moment strikes.  Stay tuned!

Kick Butt!

kick butt grant wentzel

Why do I read the books I read?  Got my reasons.  Three of ’em:

There’s the stuff I read because I should (another turn through The Great Gatsby before that new film comes out), the stuff I pick up to keep up (Freak-o-nomics, Gladwell, et al.), and the stuff that makes its way to the back of the john due to some sort of personal connection.

I’ll never champion one category over another.  Gems can be found glittering in all, and it’s a mystic thing how the right book can find the right reader at the right time.  Oft heaven sent, me thinks.

Kick Butt touched down in category three.  I had the good luck to spend a little time with the author while my special lady was “on the market”, that bizarre combination of auction block and poker tournament that awaits as a final right of passage for grad students done good.  More than a few people I ran into mentioned that he’d recently published a novel, and a pretty good one at that.

I’d have to agree.  And I don’t even understand football.  At all.

Kick Butt, which follows a helluva season with the fictional Morgan University Knights, is sheared from Tom Wolfe’s starched-white cloth.  Think a less ambitious Man In Full with a little splash of Charlotte Simmons, tossed into the deep end of southern-style collegiate sports.

Yes, it’s kind of a big deal down there, where the culture-clash still simmers between antebellum royalty and carpet-bagging Yankees, between black and white, rich and poor.  ‘Tis football that blessedly binds them all.

And’s got me too?  There’s a great quote before Chapter 15 that points to the fact that the sports metaphor is now not only the indispensable crutch of daily conversation, it has metastasized into the central conceit of our American existence.  It is our shared cultural touchstone: what Homer was to the Ancients, the Church to the Middle Ages.  Sports are the shorthand for our noble quests, our battles between good and evil, between the self and a sacrifice to a higher call.  Go team!

Perhaps that’s why I found the whole thing so relatable, despite the opaque scoring mechanisms and inscrutable tactics employed on the field.   Did I mention I don’t have a scrap of smarts about football?

I only wish that it ran another hundred pages long.  There are plenty of  interesting second-string characters begging to get back on the field, and a lot of loose ends which I’d enjoy seeing tied up, or maybe just strung out a little more.

Perhaps there’s a sequel in the works?  A Kick Butter?

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


This Is Your Brain On Music

brain on music grant wentzel

My favorite drug got the full-length treatment in Daniel Levitin’s science-lite best seller. I’d heard the guy interviewed a long time back, methinks on a podcast of Sound Opinions, but it was a pine-scented Christmas morning surprise to find his book in my hands.

A prog-rocker turned record-producer turned academic-researcher, Dr. Levitin isn’t one of small ambitions.  Not surprisingly his book takes on quite a bit too, with three topics spinning in heavy rotation:  music theory, scientific memoir, and ruminations on music and evolution.

The first cut would fascinate anyone who loves them tunes. For that alone, I’d short-list this book for everybody who picks up a mic, straps on a guitar, or sits behind a mixer. He spends a lot time at the intersection of music theory and perception, harmonizing what you remember from high school band with what you’ve absorbed from years of radio-listening experience.  If you ever wondered why a “G” on a telecaster sounds different from a “G” on a strat, this book’s for you.

The needle skips a bit on the biographical stuff, but if you worked with Watson & Crick you’d probably want to talk about it too.

Finally, he attempts to explain why music evolved as it has, and why it is so universal and so universally loved.  In doing so, he offers a rational, scientific explanation for oddities such as the lovely Liv Tyler:

Dr. Levitin asserts that the ability to master the complex mental and physical feats of coordination necessary to perform music may indicate a high level of reproductive fitness to a potential mate. And, as he puts it, “for the top rock stars, such as Mick Jagger, physical appearance doesn’t seem to be much of an issue.”

So there’s a little handy motivation for the next time your kid complains about practicing — making this an enjoyable and ultimately useful book.

Silence Gagged and Golden

You can thank me for keeping your RSS feed whistle-clean, but my oughtta-write-that list is about to burst.  There’s been a lot of nifty shiz that I’ve been up to over the last year or so that hasn’t made its way up to the blog.  And like trees falling in the woods, if no one’s there to hear, it’s like it never really happened.

So hear me now or hear me later.  I keep my lips zipped too much these days — and such silence is not spun of gold.

However, for Exhibit One, I’ll throw out a nicely-countered counter-example.  Lou Reed & Metallica’s exposition of what not to do when the mic’s been passed to you:

Lulu Grant Wentzel

The music doesn’t really bug me. Great art is hard to come by, and just because you throw some world-class talents (if you ask the fans) together doesn’t mean that the Godz will descend and mightily bless the frets. But it was worth a shot.

The budget’s what gets me.  Months before this came out, there were websites built and photos printed and talk-shows booked.  Did someone think they had a hit?  Strange to think about how much went into putting this on the shelf, to carefully craft the image, to have it all undone by some clerk with a well-witted sharpie and a little free time.

Oh well, I’ll jam with ya Lou. Give me a ring. It’ll be golden.

September Gurls

Most every September 1st I pour myself a little Big Star.  Yesterday it slipped my mind.  It was 90 sweaty degrees, the most August of days that we’ve had in weeks.

But today is all different.  A wet 60-something, with a chill blowing from the north.  A September day for this December boy.

One really shouldn’t rush into things like this anyway.