Showing posts from February, 2014

Folk Alleys: Richmond is a Hard Road to Travel

I've been exploring the back alleys of American folk music all morning. There is a subtlety and  true flair for melody in many of these songs. I haven't been able to get "Richmond is a Hard Road" out of my head. The song was originally a Union Army song that had been adapted from "Jordan is a Hard Road to Travel," a song which was written by Dan Emmett, who also composed "Dixie."

The roads these songs lead listners to, the familiar melodies, the catchiness of the tunes all give them a timeless quality. Greil Marcus wrote, "America is a place and a story, made up of exuberance and suspicion, crime and liberation, lynch mobs and escapes, its greatest testaments are made of portents and warnings." These qualities are the backbone of the American songbook. There is hardship and joy, faith and doubt, uncertainty, and great hope wrapped up in these songs. None of these qualities are true binaries -- just gradations of sentiment and feeling. An…

Jerry Reed's The Man with the Golden Thumb

I have a knack for finding records at thrift stores, digging through the dust and crinkled cellophane and finding that one elusive gem. I chalk it up to the persistence of the hunt that finds me going back week after week, month after month, while some would just buy the damn thing on eBay. After digging through the Mantovani, Mitch Miller, interminable copies of Carole King's Tapestry, I had begun to give up hope that I would find something halfway decent. Then, I pulled a Jerry Reed record that I was unfamiliar with, The Man with the Golden Thumb.

I've long been a fan of Reed's humorous songs and his criminally underrated guitar work, but I had no idea how good this record would be. The title track has shown up on Greatest Hits collections, and is just another in a number of good novelty songs about guitar players that stem back to Reed's early hits, such as "Guitar Man," which made it to number 53 on the country charts in 1967 before Elvis Presley took it…

Record Collecting Miscellanies: Liner Note Junkie

Since I've been a kid, I've been obsessed with liner notes -- the details that catalog the minutiae in the grooves. My father used to subscribe to the Time Life Classic Country collection, and I used to categorize and memorize the liner notes, storing them for some unknown future. Even then I was a music historian by default. Later, when my mom got the Sounds of the Seventies cds, I would pore over them.

As I built my own collection, I still read liner notes. You can learn so much about a record, but also about the scene or situation that it has developed from. Each kernel leads to another. The bands in the acknowledgements section, the producer, the additional musicians -- all tell the story of this record, while leading to other important bands and albums. A voracious music junkie will always find another clue to building a collection, while scraping together a narrative of that record's invention.

My continual search through liner notes first became evident when I star…

Bummer in the Winter (With Apologies to Arthur Lee)

The weather is a bummer. Cold and grey, melting snow, traversed by numerous cars, is all there is. The air feels heavy and stolid. So am I. Impassive, lethargic, plodding, I shift along the sidewalk. A robot, increasingly shiftless. A ne'er do well on a quest of nothingness.

Tornadoes and Comics

The clouds started forming at five o'clock pm
The funnel clouds touched down
five miles north of Russellville
Sirens were blowing, clouds spat rain
As the thing came through,
I swear it sounded like a train
-- Drive-By Truckers, "Tornadoes"

A massive F3 tornado came through my hometown of Park Falls, Wisconsin in the summer of 1985. My family and I were spending the night at my grandparent's cabin 20 miles away riding out what we thought was a typical summer storm. Mostly all I remember was reading comics at the cabin and the usual fights I had with my uncle (he is only three years older than me). I kept my comics at the cabin, but after this tornado I got into reading them more. I put them in boxes and I would have to hide them in the basement with each passing summer storm.

In the morning my dad went to survey the damage of the storm. We used to have big, sheltering trees in the front yard and these were gone now. They had been toppled over by the winds. One had fall…

Track This: Jason Isbell's "Shotgun Wedding"

I write about Jason Isbell a lot. And for good reason, he's one of my favorite guitarists and he's a great songwriter and singer, telling hard-edge slice of life stories that anyone can relate to. He made my top ten list for two subsequent records, placing in the number 2 spot for 2011 and 2013. Strangely, and unintentionally, he was beaten out by Ha Ha Tonka both times. This will be my last Isbell post for some time. Probably until his next record comes out, or I go see him live -- I haven't made it to a show since he was touring behind Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit.

Lately, I've been hearing that many people don't like the first two albums. While I think Here We Rest is the best, the first two have a number of great tracks. Sure, there is some dross, but no record is perfect. While he has definitely grown as a songwriter deserving the acclaim he has been receiving, some of his earliest tracks still rank among his best. Drive by Truckers tracks, like "Outfit,…

"It Ain't Coca-Cola, it's Rice": The Clash's Combat Rock

Combat Rock, released on May 14, 1982, was the record that monetarily put the Clash on the top of the punk heap. Even so, it has never been seen as a particularly good album, especially compared to their first self-titled album (both British and American versions) and London Calling. Even Give 'Em Enough Rope has more proponents. After the Clash released the double album London Calling, they released Sandinista to little fanfare. The triple LP felt bloated. Its predecessor had included experimentation and attempts to expand the band's repertoire, mostly as homage to the American roots forms that the band had consciously (or not) avoided on their first two albums. Sandinista was another beast entirely -- the band took an everything but the kitchen sink approach, experimenting with dub, hip hop, children choirs, and even took a hit on royalties so they could release it in this fashion.

Combat Rock continued some of this experimentation, also flirting with world music and purer po…

Dreaming with Jean Rollin: An Appreciation

Jean Rollin is my current director of choice. I've been enamored with his beautifully shot, dreamy movies about vampires and existential death. The lovely and horrific images that flit with little apparent reason through his films with zero regard for consequence have me hooked. Of course, I need to watch more of his films to develop an appreciation for the breadth of his work. Most of his films fall into the French genre, Fantastique, which combines elements of horror, science fiction, and fantasy, and can easily hook any horror fan with an addiction to Foreign films.

As an avid horror movie buff, with a deep appreciation for foreign horror, I'm surprised that I have never seriously considered Rollin. His bizarre plots are reminiscent of Michelle Soavi's Cemetery Man (a long time favorite) or more straightforward Luis Buñuel. The cinematography is beautiful and the landscapes are easily as remarkable as early Argento, or the Gothic forest scenes of the best Paul Naschy f…

Solemn Saturday Morning

Aches in the bones, moving slowly, my body refuses to cooperate
Sick and sad over the cold weather; it's frigid out there waiting
White winds blow white snow over white roads -- white
The grey skies sit against heavy trees, laden with yesterday's batch.
Twisted slivers of air, cold shards of temperature, ever dropping

Except when it warms to snow. The supermarkets are full
of shoppers trying to miss the weather, bundled up like
yesterday's babies, blocking the aisles, hogging the warmth.
I stand looking at boxes of fabric softener.

Later, at home,
I count my books and avert my gaze from the windows.
Snow on the window ledge only strengthens the ache.

Trapped Under the Weight of Studying

My mind floats between images on the screen, pure and pristine, and flickering print in books, studying, fretting, thoughtfully coursing through tons of material -- materiel? The list is long and twisting: Dead Elvis by Greil Marcus, The Foundations of Screenwriting by good ol' Syd Field, a horror movie podcast, (complete with cheesy trailers), Robert Bloch's Psycho, Don DeLilo's White Noise  the twisted golden age comics of Fletcher Hanks. This is all part of the process in studying for PhD exams. Throw it in a blender and hit frappe.

The Peculiarities of Place

"At night, the murmur of traffic sounds just like the wind rushing through the pines up in the Sierra. As white noise goes, it's not bad." -- Timothy Ereneta on living in Oakland Ca., Oatmeal 1, 1992.

Place is an important element in shaping lives. The sound of a freight train traveling through night air, the awkward hesitancy of a taxi cab horn in the darkening twilight, a child crying in the corner of the room at recess. All of these instances can shape and define us. The glimmering hope from behind the wall of all too slippery time.

Growing up in Northern Wisconsin gave me a particular perspective about place. Shaped by smoke stacks and pine trees, the hum of snowmobiles in the winter months riding past our orange house on 6th avenue, the buzz and creak of bullfrogs of burgeoning summer days, the quiet of the woods and the suggestive sound of cooing mourning doves.

All of these altered my thoughts and ideas. I grew up disliking my hometown for all the wrong reasons --…