Friday, December 19, 2008

Pretty music

I'm between trips, as usual: having gotten back to snowy Ithaca from rainy California, I've traded one kind of cold for another, at least for a day or two. As I type, the plastic Christmas tree on the dining room table, inches from the computer, is quivering, its small round ornaments and surprisingly sharp little lights suddenly alive. Patti Labelle sings, "Don't rush to give me a present / Your presence is enough for me / Stay at home, I'll be happy." She's reminding her lover that the trappings of the holidays are insignificant in comparison to love, and she's singing these lines over the sinuous strings and crisp percussion of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis (and their collaborators), and there is, right now, no Christmas album I could possibly love more, as these chords modulate and then, with the strings soaring, explode: "It's going to be a Merry Christmas," Patti sings, and how could it not be?

I was listening, about an hour ago, to Mary J. Blige's 2005 album, The Breakthrough, which I don't listen to much, mostly because it's too long and the gems are buried toward the end of the disc. But I encountered the same crackling, shimmering sound on "Can't Get Enough Love," another Jam and Lewis (and Wright and Avila) production, and thought, damn, this is... Pretty. Like, really freaking pretty. The stacked, super-produced harmonies; the vaguely asiatic waterfall-trickle on the keyboard that emerges halfway through the chorus, if you can even call it a chorus: "This is true / I can't get enough of you." It's a seductively gentle arrangement for a statement of such conviction. So much of what's on pop radio right now (and I include R&B radio in this verdict) is extravagantly ugly, showing off the robotic dissonance that a vocoder can produce in lieu of the human voice, and although I'm at pains to say how, for example, Janet Jackson's voice is different when she sings 2007's "Enjoy" (Jam & Lewis again), since Jackson is not exactly getting by without technology, nonetheless there's a warmth, a delight in euphony, that cascades across those plinkety-plinkety piano lines and compressed background vocals: "Just keep on doing it / Until your heart's content." There's even a chorus of giggling children, and I don't care; it's that lovely.

Jam & Lewis are famous. I know only their basic coordinates (time with The Time in the late 1980s, Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation, Blige's knockout "No More Drama," a recent move from Minneapolis to L.A.) but what strikes me as most important, right now, is their audible commitment to everything that glides and glimmers in a love song. It might still be possible--they've been saying for two decades now--to hope for beauty right at the heart of the most stalwart clichés. Right in the thick of them.

Sunday, November 16, 2008


The leaves are mostly gone. Not gone, actually, just somewhere else: they're on the ground now, not on the trees, and, sure, that's obvious, but it's also something I repeatedly forget. What we can't see isn't necessarily absent; it just may be elsewhere, or otherwise, than it was. Rosie Thomas, this Sunday morning, is whispering her version of "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel," with a new, minimalist melody, and--is this even possible?--more melancholy than the original. But, no, melancholy is wrong; melancholy means refusal, resistance, and this is a song about rejoicing, even if that hushed, slightly trembling voice at the beginning of the song--before a whole chorus of Rosies joins in toward the end, with the traditional melody as a counterpoint to the first few verses--seems to doubt, seems a little reluctant to rejoice, or to tell anyone else to do so.

There's something presumptuous, after all, about telling others to have a good time, to be happy. (A community of bloggers I occasionally follow has recently been the site of hot debate around this very question: is affirmation alienating?) But this command--rejoice!--is, nonetheless, at the heart of the advent hymn, and what might save it from falling into the trap of, say, the service professional who tells you to enjoy your meal or your movie--and whose own lack of enjoyment is probably embedded in the command--is its audience: after all, the hymn is set up as an entreaty to the one who's coming, as a kind of summoning spell, and "Rejoice!" marks the turn from Emmanuel to Israel, marks the turn from what (or who) is being waited for to the community doing the waiting. In other words, this is an equivocal rejoicing; it's something that initially seems to be demanded of the very cause for rejoicing (what would it mean to tell Christ to rejoice?) and only subsequently, almost belatedly, opens onto the folks whose waiting will be suspended by joy. It seems less presumptuous to tell someone to rejoice if the cause of joy is also subject to that imperative--if, to be frank, he's got to be at least as happy to see you as you are to see him--and if joy itself is unthinkable without waiting. There is no immediate rejoicing, no rejoicing alone or right now, but neither is it infinitely deferred. Israel mourns; it isn't melancholy. The leaves aren't gone; they're at the base of the trees, as some snow starts to fall--just a stray flurry, or, wait, are those more leaves?--and more will be coming. Always more.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Jesus in New Orleans (and San Francisco, and Saint Louis, and Ithaca)

"The road's been my redeemer," Karin Bergquist sings on Over the Rhine's 2004 album Ohio, and I wish I could sing that line a little more confidently, back in suddenly wintry Ithaca after two weeks of travel. (It was 39 degrees when I parked my car half an hour ago.) I love airplanes until I have to sit in one and nervously ascend, praying as hard as I ever pray, surrounded by fellow travelers I can't help hating a little when we're on the ground--everyone in SFO Sunday night looked shady, from the greasy-haired guy in the leather Mickey Mouse jacket who farted in front of me in the security line to the disheveled gentleman who abandoned his luggage for so long they had to make an announcement--but whose vulnerability becomes inseparable from my own once we're suspended in that narrow tube in the sky. If Jesus can be a woman drinking Bloody Marys in a New Orleans bar--as Over the Rhine would have it--he can also be a flatulent passenger on a late night flight; or, two weeks earlier, the impossibly young woman who came over to my table, ten minutes before closing, at the Culver's Custard in Corydon, Indiana, to offer me a sundae that someone had made and had no use for; or the surprisingly calm, tattooed bartender at the City Diner in Saint Louis who thought I'd just moved to town and gently suggested that I return on a weekend, late, to see the scene. Even the pale Portland kids in their peg-leg jeans. Even, tonight, the atheist father of one of my closest friends, as he reached across my legs to adjust the seat in his Porsche after I asked if he'd take me for a ride, touching my knee with a respectful, businesslike tenderness to make sure I wasn't hitting the dashboard; his dark brown eyes, liquid, inquisitive, so much like his daughter's. These are some of the folks I think of when I consider that redemptive road.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

California songs

Rain is making the leaves shudder this morning: they're still mostly green, although a few close to the house have gone yellow at the tips and, beyond the end of the driveway, an entire treetop is orange. It's an early fall, even by these standards, and I'm listening to Peter Bradley Adams sing about leaving Los Angeles, his slightly mannered, breathy voice joined, in the second verse, by Sarah Siskind's lilting harmony line: "And we made our peace with lonely nights / And you healed our broken hearts." Wistful songs about California get me every time. Does any other place inspire so much dreaming and melancholy? I know from my six years of living there that it can be a profoundly disconnected place, profoundly solitary, as folks pursue their happiness in relative isolation from and disregard for others; but it's also a place where blue takes on a thousand new meanings, where no one apologizes for their pleasure, and where a kind of blithely superficial friendliness does (it does, my east coast friends, it really does) go a long way. And coming back east after that feels inevitably, I think, like failure; even if you know it's the right thing, at least for now, to do.

Denison Witmer returns to this sense of opportunity lost or relinquished in at least two songs about California: the first, "Los Angeles," from the 2006 re-issue of his first album, Safe Away, has him singing, in short, slow phrases: "I'm your / Lost happiness / Up in your / Los Angeles / Sky." And, as with Adams' reminiscence of a city he's taking flight from, here too it's all about the sky: compromised and toxic and vast and, in the warm, oblique early-evening light that, even now, can make my throat tighten a little, so full of promise. But that promise--and this is why it's inevitably with wistfulness that folks sing of the place, at least since Joni Mitchell swore, "California / I'm coming home"--that promise comes at the end of the day, not at the beginning. California's is a crepuscular beauty. It's a promise that's already fading. That's why I find it so damn poignant and true.

That may also be why I'm thinking of it now, in our crepuscular mid-atlantic season, a fall that seems to be arriving at least a week or two early, and with an uncharacteristic burst of bright color, maples blushing all along these hills.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Damaged anyway

This is a familiar feeling: the first morning back in town after another cross-country excursion, less awake than I should be at this hour, the drone of bugs in the trees louder--the leaves closer, the air thicker--than I'd remembered. Mindy Smith is singing, in those clear, almost shrill tones of hers, about how she needs a hurricane to straighten out this place, but I'm not really looking for devastation and renewal right now, unless it's the kind of sudden shift that takes place in the song just before this one, on 2004's One Moment More, where the "little things that seem to be getting me today" suddenly become the "little things that seem to be saving me today." Things get to me all the time, but this also means that I am gotten by these things, and to be gotten proves, linguistically at least, that I'm made and unmade partly in relation to what's around me. And this is, possibly, how to be gotten and to be saved are of a piece: the fractures that open up when I'm annoyed, say, or hitting my head against the same old walls--or having it jostled by the woman behind me on the plane yesterday who was keeping, I swear, her entire life's possessions in the grubby seatback pocket--can, if I don't get in the way, heal into something slightly new. I was shocked to find, as I walked to my car late last night, that the world I was returning to, a world I'm deeply ambivalent about, felt as if it could save me a little. As if it had been trying, and I'd been--chalk it up to narcissism, the ease of resentment, habit--steadily saying no. And it took a few weeks away, lots of highways and airports, to make the fractures momentarily visible and, like these slender trees, a little closer than before.

I've just finished reading Sara Miles' account of her sacramental experience of distributing food to the poor in San Francisco, Take This Bread. I bought it at Women and Children First, an exceptional bookstore in Andersonville, on the north side of Chicago, and took it with me on my trip out west. The book contains several scenes in which annoyance shifts into gratitude, when the narrator looks out at the occasionally psychotic or more ordinarily damaged folks around her, and before she knows it she's not, momentarily at least, pissed off anymore but instead, or in addition, blessed by these strange lives that surround hers. Those scenes also echo this passage from one of Dorianne Laux's poems, "It Must Have Been Summer" (in her latest collection, Facts About the Moon), where the speaker talks about the afternoons when, as a child, a teenaged girl would invite her to suck at her breast: "She meant me no harm, her long hair / sweeping my sun-bruised face, / and all of us damaged anyway." In each of these cases--Mindy Smith's hurricane, Sara Miles' church full of the poor, Dorianne Laux's suburban living room--damaged is what we are "anyway" but also what allows us to be remade. Or, in other words, as much as it makes me cringe to write it, to be saved.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Secular and inconsolable?

It's been nearly a month since my last post. In the meantime, I've been to Mount Rainier, Portland, San Francisco, and now, nearly a week after touching down on the east coast, I'm starting to settle back into Ithaca again. I've got coffee here in front of me, and on the stereo a mix I made last night for a woman I work with. In one of my first posts I wrote, however briefly, about the exquisite contrast between what Chris Pureka sings and how she sings it; there's something similar going on, I find, in Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins' "Born Secular," where Lewis sings, "I was born secular and inconsolable," and no one believes her, not for a second, at least not me. Maybe it's the way the twins come in with their carefully stacked harmonies--somewhere between 1960s pop radio and the kind of evangelical singing I expected, and missed, in the churches of my youth--and maybe it's the way Lewis sounds just like a Christian visionary when she says that God gives, then "takes away / from me." That feeling of destitution, of being abandoned, is as old--and as questionably secular--as the Song of Songs.

Not that I would want Lewis to tell me how religious she was, or how much consolation she found in God, no matter how much I really do think that "What a Friend We Have In Jesus" is a breathtaking song. Lewis's song is hopeful in spite of itself, and this irony is no small thing, especially given the hopelessly unironic alternatives: the self-congratulating crap that passes for Christian music on evangelical radio stations like KLOVE, for example, or the no less earnest atheisms of Tori Amos's "God" or, forgive me, Allison Moorer's "The Duel." These last two are, to be sure, complicated songs; I'm not doing them justice. And of course I believe in a God present at the heart of every atheism, a God who, in more traditional language, is even present in the heart of hell, whatever hell is. (This is what I take away from Dante and the Apostles' Creed.) But the gaps that inhere within what we sing are more forceful than any attempt at seamlessness, at staying on-message. As I write this paragraph, I realize that I'm as guilty of trying to say just one thing (instead of two or three or an indeterminate number of things) as any of these other folks.

Last fall I found myself walking away from a concert with a woman I know, and she started talking about Emmylou Harris, about how much she loved her music, despite how "Jesusy" it was. ("Jesusy" is an orthographic challenge: writing it, I can't help thinking of the Argosy Casino, on the Ohio River near my folks' house, and how someone maybe once thought that it should resemble, but not too closely, the ship Jason and the Argonauts sailed away on: it wouldn't be another Argos; it would just be Argos-like, "Argosy.") To me, the trace of Christianity in Emmylou is in the grain of her voice, not the lyrics of her songs, and I'd almost say the same thing about Julie Miller, even though her lyrics tend to be more overtly religious. (Both voices hover on the brink of despair and exasperation, only to come swooping back up--or down--when you least expect them to.) But I am a sucker for the Jesusy, if not always for Jesus. To the extent that I can speak of my faith these days, it's not happening in church, where I tend to pop in about thirty minutes late, grab communion and leave. Part of that might have to do with where I am: even as a fake southerner (born in, of all places, Illinois), I don't quite know what to make of sober Yankee religion; even as a fake Californian (but is there anything else?), I can't quite accept how little room there seems to be, in this liberal little town, for folks without families in front of the pulpit, and for women behind it. Part of it, too, might have to do with the ironies of Lewis's song, and how they speak more truthfully of the ambivalence that haunts every hope worth its name. The closest thing to a religious experience I've had in recent memory was watching Karin Bergquist bang on a cookie sheet in Louisville, Kentucky, as my little sister sat beside me and I chewed on a bourbon-glazed ice cube.

What, then, would it mean to be something other than secular and inconsolable? The best I can hope for these days is that somehow, in the midst of my occasional fits of despair (oh, you know, about the usual things: whether this is the right place, the right job, the right life), the Watson Twins, or Julie Miller, or Emmylou, will suddenly swoop down to harmonize with me as I gripe and wallow; and that their sudden burst of song will open up some crucial distance between what I'm saying and how, in spite of myself, it's being said.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008


In preparation for the third part of a seemingly endless root canal that has, I hope, finally come to an end, I bought one of those little miniature IPods--the ones that sell for fifty bucks--and tried, the following day, to drown out as far as possible what was happening to me in the dentist's chair. Three and a half hours later, I had learned a few things: my patience for dental ordeals is exhausted by the end of the second hour of tugging and scraping; Rosie Thomas's sad, exquisite "Bicycle Tricycle," with its ambivalence about the past ("I won't look back / I've been here before"), is just too maudlin for someone whose hopes of chewing with both sides of his mouth have just been drastically--if, with luck, temporarily--reduced.

I never thought I was someone for whom music could be too maudlin. I've never loved Morrissey, it's true, but I found the Joy Division movie (Control) haunting. Give me Emmylou Harris's live rendition of 'Songbird' or even one of the spare piano ballads from Tori Amos's Boys For Pele and I'm as happy--to quote my friend D.'s mother--as a pig in shit. Likewise, I love Rosie Thomas for the tension between her usually melancholy songs and her comic alter ego, Sheila Saputo. But she couldn't console me in that dentist's chair.

Now I'm on the other side of the country, having put the little music player to use on my flight from Chicago to San Francisco, and I'm wondering how to account for the ways we console ourselves, as well as the ways we open ourselves to consolation from others. Of course I prayed pretty frequently at the dentist's and in the airplane, but the only times it seemed to do the trick--to open the window onto something else, something that would resolve or suspend my fear--were when I turned away from myself and, briefly, toward the folks I know who are having a tough time right now, a tougher time than a sore jaw and a sudden taste for soft foods. One of my grandfathers went under the knife yesterday, as did the close friend of a close friend of mine. I have no access to what they may have been feeling--God knows, they could have approached their medical ordeals much more blithely than I approached mine--but what I do know is that thinking about them, for a fraction of a second, was what drew me out of my own narcissistic trepidation. Is fearing for others the only way out of fearing for ourselves? Or--to put it more charitably--is hoping for others one way of rediscovering hope for ourselves?

Rosie Thomas's recent collaboration with Denison Witmer and Sufjan Stevens, These Friends of Mine, seems to support this: there is something that happens chorally--when voices lend themselves to other voices--that can't happen when we're left to ourselves. What brings me hope right now (but this could just be the Advil kicking in) isn't the reckoning with an individual past (even my own recent individual past) so much as the affirmation of a community where we can momentarily forget ourselves by being present, even at a distance, to others.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

When I fall

We're in the middle of a heat wave, and all the windows in the apartment are open, even though it's nearly 11pm. The music needs to match the density of this unseasonable air: so I'm listening to Lizz Wright equivocate beautifully, after telling her lover she wants to stay, "What if the water's cold / when I fall?" She's enmeshed in this textured Craig Street production that makes me think of the first modern jazz cd I ever bought, Cassandra Wilson's Blue Light 'Til Dawn, also produced by Street. I came across it in a mall in Columbus, Indiana, after my first year of college. I had no idea who Cassandra Wilson was, and it was impossible back then to listen to cds in the store before buying them; was it the cover photo of Wilson in rapture that did the trick? Lizz Wright's voice is warmer, a little less mannered than Wilson's, if also a little less supple. And I'm fifteen years older, thinking about the first lyric on Blue Light 'Til Dawn--"You don't know what love is / Until you learn the meaning of the blues"--and how I had no idea what love was then.

Thursday, June 5, 2008


I grew up in a part of the country that revels in comfort food. Several parts of the country, actually, but all of them united by a love of sweet tea; or was that a familial love more than a cultural one? (A friend's eyes lit up this morning as she talked about the tea she grew up drinking, the sediment of sugar in the bottom of gallon jugs.) Likewise, there's a kind of music that does the kind of soul-sustaining, basic work of sweet tea--or, for that matter, bacon--and tonight I found myself craving it. Musical comfort food isn't bubblegum; it has nutritional value; it's the kind of stuff that goes down easy while nonetheless putting you profoundly, not just superficially, at ease. Tonight it's Over the Rhine's 2005 album, Drunkard's Prayer, with Karin Bergquist's lilting, boozy voice assuring someone, "Put your elbows on the table / I will listen long as I am able." The song is overwritten by now--Karin and Linford, this is your fault, I'm afraid--with the history of a marriage's near dissolution and miraculous recovery. I can't not hear that narrative when I listen, but I also hear something else: the idea that when we talk, we're likely to be doing it at a table, in private or in public, with something caffeinated or alcoholic or more substantial (say, food) to keep us going; and that this--the coincidence of our bodies across the most elementary kinds of needs--happens whether or not our relationships are thriving, whether or not love is even the main thing on our minds.

Tonight I saw a friend (another friend, one with no relation, geographical or otherwise, to sweet tea) looking more exhausted than I've ever seen her--a long story--and I kept wondering how she even had the strength to raise her pint glass up to her mouth. But there we were, at a bar, buffeted by wave after wave of women--entire softball teams, I'm not kidding--and she kept managing to raise the glass. And there was some slim comfort in the mechanics of the gesture, in the rhythms of our bodies as they did nothing special but just kept on effectively keeping on, almost in spite of the substance of our conversation. It's that kind of bodily comfort that resonates for me, right now, with the comfort I take in Karin Bergquist's voice, as she sings "I'm looking forward to looking back / On this day," because it's not really the meaning of the words that matters--although clearly it does, clearly my friend must be looking forward to looking back--as much as Karin's voice, scooping and wheezing and opening those vowels out just when you thought they could only snap shut. Those vowels are addressed in a way that can't be reduced to the words they add up to: they are physically directed, present, sustained toward the listener. Sort of like a friend's body when, in the absence of consolation, all it can do is show up, keep company, raise the glass.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

The mix cd as art form, token of friendship, and all around good thing

I'm listening to the third track on a CD my friend K. made for me a couple of weeks ago. It's Rilo Kiley's "The Good That Won't Come Out," with Jenny Lewis's world-weary delivery set against an ironically buoyant arrangement that becomes, toward the end, incredibly lush and loud. And what's beautiful, besides the song's abiding optimism (the good, after all, is there, even if it usually refuses to come out), is that this same friend did, not long ago, "fall down drunk in the street," just like Lewis sings. (It was, actually, more like stumbling onto a sidewalk while tipsy.) So it's a handy mnemonic device, even as the song also, I think, suggests that these embarrassments are redeemable and, in fact, that remembering them collectively--which is also to say, reminding ourselves that we've all been there, or will be soon--might be our best means of redemption.

Another friend, J., in town for the summer, made me another mix CD yesterday. Five songs, all of them by singer-songwriters, and one in particular is haunting me, Chris Pureka's "31 and Falling," which manages to sound a lot less cynical than the lyrics would have you believe: "God damn my wasted time," she sings, but what the words don't tell you is that her voice, at this precise moment, starts to soar.

These two songs are as different as the friends who gave them to me and the coasts they come from. Still, both songs revived my sense that the mix CD is more than just a nostalgic gesture; it's a vital way of connecting folks we care about to songs that capture some important part of us: guilty or embarrassed, melancholic or hopeful. Better yet, it's a way of taking the contradictions and compromises in our own lives and opening them to those in our friends' lives: when J. put a song about a ten-year anniversary on the CD she made for me, it was a window into my relationship as well as her own. In these kinds of ways, it's possible to hear other voices singing within or alongside those voices that are literally on the record.

So it's a reasonably lonely night in my isolated little town, and I'm taking some consolation from the company that these voices provide: the reminder that the world is bigger, and thankfully smaller, than it may sometimes seem.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Broken things, mended things

This blog, even if it lasts only a month or so, is meant to be a gesture of gratitude. Specifically, it's about the songs I'm grateful for. It's also meant to be, in its clumsily bloggy way, about the folks whose own writing about music has touched me over the years: everyone from Thom Jurek on allmusic to Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist's tour diaries; and, of course, those poets and prose writers whose sense of where language stops and music takes over tends to leave me feeling overtaken as well. Right now I'm listening to The New Frontiers' album from last year, Mending, which is where the title comes from; or half the title, anyway, since the other half comes from Julie Miller's "Broken Things," a song that says, "You can have my heart / if you don't mind broken things." As the ice crystals from this glass of rosé finally melt--I accidentally left the bottle in the freezer while I went for a bike ride--Nathan Pettijohn is singing, somewhere between petulance and conviction, about a similar kind of provisional possibility: "If we learn to pray like Jesus / will he come?" And that's the place I want this blog to occupy: the place where we, whoever we are, learn to take the broken things and the mended ones, where we hold them in and as the songs we sing (and listen to, and sing along with), and where our radical hope never gets beyond radical uncertainty: where Jesus stays behind the question mark. That's a tall order, I admit, for a few paragraphs on a computer screen.