Hey, friends – it’s been a while, so I’m dusting the cobwebs off this little cyber-nook. While my writing has been focused elsewhere, I’m maintaining this space for material guided by my crooked heart rather than commercial dictates.
I recently revisited John Berger’s essay on the rhythms of listening. (The art critic passed away earlier this week.) He writes that “songs have another dimension, which is uniquely theirs. A song fills the present, while it hopes to reach a listening ear in some future somewhere. It leans forward, farther and farther. Without the persistence of this hope, songs would not exist.”
The persistence of hope. In the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope. As we ready for transition, I selected some lyrics + image pairings from special shows over the past year. I leave the “best of 2016” pronouncements to the establishment, though there’s overlap here. This is the music I reach for when I need a reminder that our ability to create outstrips our tendency to destroy.
The numerology of travelers. Reset the odometer at the beginning of tour and send me a dashboard photo at the end. Put your hand inside an old coat pocket and draw out a crumpled baggage claim stub. Flight numbers, train numbers, numbers on a gas station receipt.
Decode it (or dedicode, to use another Vernon-ism) – does it make blurry memories more comprehensible? The trial of miles, miles of trials – like distance running, coasting on the endorphin rush and pushing the outer limits of exhaustion. It makes you weary. It’s the only thing that sets you free. I may be orphaned by geography and by choice, but it’s shows like these, moving through a lush forest of variegated textures, guided by an eerie falsetto manipulated through samplers-sequencers-synthesizers – where I can be un-alone, re-moored.
2. Rain on a strange roof // Anthony D’Amato: In solo shows, Anthony’s wit and incisive lyricism shines through.
When backed by a full band, the folk-rock tunes are propulsive, textured, and lightning-bright. Song after song, I’m struck by his ability to assimilate raw materials into unique wholes. “Rain On A Strange Roof” has touches of mythology (Sisyphus), of Faulkner (listening to rain on a strange roof), of the postmodern condition (checking your phone for the text that never comes). It’s a standout track on the noteworthy Cold Snap.
3. Ready to crack // Lydia Loveless: There’s a place for pop princesses, but I prefer self-rescuing country-punk heroines.
Lydia Loveless’s “Real” is an album with swagger and smarts, all framed around a commanding voice.
Hers was the first show I caught post-election. Lydia let loose some choice words about the state of affairs and said that it’s good for us to wake up, ‘cos for a lot of people, it’s not gonna be ok. Unfiltered and raw – that’s the medicine we needed. We’re here to stay, if it’s the same to you.
This line pierced straight through my armor: “Spending most of my days reaching for the live wire that I couldn’t hold.” Sometimes we go it alone, but we’re not without friends and signposts. I came to this music not via Cheap Trick (Rick Nielsen is Miles’ dad) but through producer Duane Lundy, the guiding ear behind much of the music that soundtracks my days.
Heavy Metal is one of my favorite albums of 2016. I think of it as a traveler along parallel tracks to Sturgill Simpson’s Sailor’s Guide To Earth (more on that below) – painting something wholly new from a palette of rock, soul, and country colors.
5. Astronauts at the arcade // Vandaveer: The harmonies are protean and silver-bright, the arrangements supercharged with pop acumen. And frontman Mark Charles Heidinger pens lyrics with a control of cadence and assemblage of imagery that has few equals in contemporary songwriting.
The stories in The Wild Mercury are fine-grained yet universally relatable. I love the opening vignette in the title track — astronauts downtown at the arcade, running high scores on Asteroids. It’s apt for a year in which we said goodbye to a Starman, one of the Mercury 7, and a warrior princess from a galaxy far, far away.
6. Don’t want to lose touch // David Wax Museum: This is genre-bending, border-crossing music – joyous and heartfelt. David Wax and Suz Slezak started the band as friends. They’re now married with a toddler in tow and another child on the way. And their latest album, Guesthouse, reflects the changed stakes – it’s both poignant and sonically adventurous. During Josh Ritter’s set at the New England Festy, I glimpsed David and Suz sidestage, dancing with their daughter. Afterward, I caught this moment.
What do you remember? The arena shows, the boozy afterparties? Sure, I love the lights and the spectacle and the adrenaline rush. But this, right here, means everything to me. The life of the traveling musician distilled to these moments, the bonds that grow stronger with the miles and years.
“My life’s a film, but I haven’t seen it,” DWM sings on “Lose Touch With the World.” Whether we think of family as one we are born to or ones we find along the way, we mustn’t take for granted the time we share.
We had just enough light left for a few shots out back at this crazy townhouse run by a candy company. I said something about the songs he played for us the night before – about a book I just finished (Stone Arabia), about memories corrupted by regret, about personal mythologies – about fables.
I’ve come to think of photography as less about documentation and more about co-creation. And I’m grateful for everyone who shares with me their early mornings and dusky evenings – the coffees, the whiskeys, and the unguarded moments.
8. Sinners and saints in a civil war // Don DiLego: I reckon it’s the melding of Americana nostalgia, the pop-inflected melodies, and the warmth of the horn section that reels me in – that, plus the gossamer tone and texture of pedal steel, which is always a bonus.
Rolling Stone calls Don “alt-country’s next poster boy,” and while I’ve bandied about with that genre label, I’ve never been quite sure what it means. All I know is that this year has taught me to follow my ears. Have faith that where you are broken, there you are open. Let the songs and the images they evoke seep through the cracks – a wishful poem, dark and dreamy.
9. Careful fear and dead devotion // The National: What can I say that hasn’t already been said about this band?
Matt Berninger has odd posture and mumbly delivery and we love him despite it / because of it. The Dessner brothers are geniuses (have you listened to the Transpecos film soundtrack?). Watching the Devendorf brothers krautrock-out as part of side project LNZNDRF was as much fun as I’ve ever had watching a rhythm section at work.
But it comes back to this song for me. I need somewhere to be, but I can’t get around the river in front of me.
10. Measure a man by how much he loves // Sturgill Simpson: Sailor’s Guide To Earth is framed as a song cycle from father to newborn son. Saccharine as that premise may sound, the result is anything but, with sonics that owe as much to outlaw country as to Stax-era Elvis, New Orleans funk, and psilocybin visions.
Family comes with unlikely inheritances. These are stories that pivot between tough and tender, in which the grittiness of hard truths serves as sandpaper polish to reveal the gentle love beneath. This is spectacular, groundbreaking work – and now the Grammy committee has anointed it with an album-of-the-year nomination.
11. The more I seek, the more I’m sought // Joe Pug: I have no words adequate to explain what this man’s poetry mean to me. Take these lines, for instance: I say the more I buy the more I’m bought … and the more I’m bought the less I cost.
Listen to Hymn #101 (and then Hymn #76 and Hymn #35) and come back and we’ll talk about Joe’s uncanny ability to tap into both the dark recesses and sweet yearnings that animate the human condition. For all the wry turns of phrase, the tangled meanings that invite repeat listens, there’s a luminous quality to the arrangements – bright piano, harmonica, and the superlative Greg Tuohey on electric guitars.
12. Propelled by some mysterious drive // Rhett Miller (Old 97’s):
A friend introduced me to the Old 97’s on some halcyon high school day driving down Highway 121, the newly-released Fight Songs blaring. We had no fixed destination – we just chased the horizon ’til we could get all the words right. Gas was cheap and we were barely sixteen, singing a song about being only nineteen. The future felt as open as those Texas roads.
That high school self feels like a stranger now. The past increases, the future recedes. But sometimes we remember what it’s like to dare and dream. Years later, I find myself standing on the stairs between the dressing room and the stage, talking to an artist I’ve long admired.
It didn’t feel real. It never does. I walk away with a handful of images. It’s all a lucid dream.
And now it’s 2017. Be kind. Be hopeful. See you out there.