Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Nothing changes

The last several years have been stormy for Lydia Loveless. Bumps in the road have been well documented: her split from her husband and bandmate Ben Lamb; a messy entanglement with and departure from her longtime label Bloodshot over sexual harassment allegations; a move from her native Ohio to North Carolina. It's tempting to call her great new record her "divorce album," the latest attempt in an unhappily long tradition of an artist working out marital woes in song and lyric, but that would be limiting. Daughter does begin with the line "Welcome to my bachelor pad" and closes with "Carolina lost my identity, or it's coming in the mail, either way I'm not the same, and it isn't just a change of place," yet in between, Loveless sings about loss and disappointments, gains and setbacks, in eternal ways, moving from her own private travails to sketch out a persona that morphs into a silhouette of rueful longing, cut with cynicism and humor. As all great artists do, she moves from experience that begins in the dark to a shared understanding of what makes all of us get up in the mornings, uncertain that today's going to be any better than yesterday.

Working with a basic lineup of Todd May and Jay Gasper on guitars and bass and George Hondroulis on drums, Loveless moves between her guitar and keyboards, nudging melancholy lyrics into the shape of melancholy songs. The alt country twang of the earlier records is gone—there's a pedal steel on only two tracks—but if the edges of her sound have been smoothed, the cowpunk propulsion tempered, the stuff she sings about's no less urgent and raw. She occasionally ups the tempo to fight the odds, as in "Never," in which she drolly identifies not as a liberated woman but as a "country bumpkin dilettante" who carries pain around; the song's upbeat against the confession, but doesn't really solve anything. What's she pushing against? Folk whom she's wronged, or been wronged by, navigating between the poles of the one who hurts and who's hurt. Often it sounds as if she's singing to herself, as in the opener "Dead Writer," where she acknowledges "I don't want to disappoint you anymore"—but who's the you? Another, or the bumpkin in the mirror? Daughter is a sad album, spiked with sorrowful imagery, and, as always, Loveless's voice, which is both assertive and vulnerable, sometimes in the same line, gives that sadness dimension and gravity, reminds us that though sadness is an abstract zone, at its most genuine it's earthbound. 

"Dead Writer"'s interest in art and legacy signals one of Daughter's chief concerns: work, the value it brings against the lofty promises it makes. A trio of songs addresses the dilemmas of a singer who's never shied away from singing about her vocation (see among others "Paid" from her debut The Only Man). In the lyrically clever "Wringer," she laments "I want to be a symphony but I'm just a singer, and all that singing ever does is run me through the ringer." In "Can't Think," she asks, "Why can't I just close the door and let the work be the reward," repeating that question later and wondering why her notebook and instruments won't allow her to be "more than yours." In the closing "Don't Bother Mountain," she sings, "I've been patiently taking my time, or I'm just lazy, your guess is as good as mine"—and the whip-lash of that burns every time I listen. The arrangement of "Can't Think" plods and move sideways, frustrated, the phrase the work is the reward repeated like a hopeful mantra.

The title track is the album's standout, and one of the greatest songs Loveless has written. She's singing, again, to a man who's made present by his absence, who's taken off or been chased off, it's unclear, but for whom the singer still has some hope. "I wanna be a part of you," she sings, but it's not enough, there's too much between them still. Then the kicker: "If I gave you a daughter would you open up?" She repeats the question later, adding, "would it be enough?" The question is enormous and also fragile, and the music is tentative, gently searching, the honesty in the proposition so hot that it has to be approached carefully lest it combust. "Daughter" is a frightfully adult song, if an adult can be someone so scared of yet hungry for communion that she stands on the outside of things, wondering. And of course an adult is that someone, whose honest skepticism is as well-worn as anyone else's courage. We have Loveless' five albums to prove it.

In "Love Is Not Enough," she implores someone to tell her how it feels "to always see everything in a major key." I'm not surprised that she has trouble imagining what that feels like. A few years back I wrote, "Every note Lydia Loveless sings sounds as if it's in a minor key."  The final words of Daughter are "everything's changed," and of course I don't believe it. Loveless will keep writing songs that stubbornly, painfully, yet with wry humor make it back to that point before—ever the adult—she has to start all over again.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Jerry Lee turns 85

Jerry Lee Lewis turns 85 today. In recognition, I spoke with Paul Ingles over at PRX about Lewis's tumultuous career, oversized talent, and considerable legacy. Tune in to hear music critics Anthony DeCurtis and Mark Kemp weigh in on The Killer, as well. 

Monday, September 28, 2020

"With that kind of music"

Two paragraphs from two books I'm currently reading:

"Sam tried to imagine Grace Slick bellowing out at the enemy."
With that kind of music, why didn’t the North Vietnamese just lay down their weapons and get stoned? If they had understood English, maybe the music would have won the war. But now, listening to “All You Need Is Love,” she realized how naive the words were. Love didn’t even solve things for two people, much less the whole world, she thought. But it wasn’t only the words. Sometimes the music was full of energy and hope and the words were just the opposite. Emmett had said rock-and-roll was happy music about sad stuff.
"Almost everything of interest in New York City lies in some degree of proximity to music." 
If you are in your teens or twenties—and who isn’t—pretty much everything you do apart from your day job has something to do with music. And it isn’t even just the permanent soundtrack on your stereo and in your head. The music is your spur. You were led to the city by music. You were fourteen or fifteen and wanted to crawl inside the music. The music was immense, an entire world immeasurably different from the sad one you were born into. If you could figure out how to get in, the music would suffuse you. You wouldn’t even need an instrument: you would become one with the music and it would pour from you like light through gauze.
The first passage is from Bobbie Ann Mason's novel In Country, the second from the title essay of Luc Sante's new collection. Mason was writing in the eighties, Sante in the 2010s, yet both were looking back to the early 1970s. Sam, whose father was killed in Vietnam, is eager to learn and know more about the war so she peppers local veterans with questions. Music threads its way through the novel, and here, having learned that soldiers routinely grooved to rock and roll while in country, Sam tries to imagine how songs might've changed things—politically, culturally—before giving in to ruefully to the truth. Sante's writing about the magic mayhem of New York City, pre- and post-Punk, when songs scored everyone's daily lives with urgency and a kind of magic-ball prophecy, flash-lighting dark corners and opening doors that Sante and his buzzing twenty-something friends didn't even know were there, let alone closed. His reckoning—of his, and our, aging, of the perils of excess, and of general cultural obsolesce—comes a bit later in the essays. But it comes.

Sunday, September 27, 2020


Like so many others beleaguered by the pandemic, noxious politics, and stay-at-home guidelines, we've been watching—and rewatching (and rewatching)—The Great British Baking Show as a balm against daily strife. While enjoying the second episode of the series's third season in which vicar's wife Sarah-Jane "freestyles" her plaited bread and suffers for it, I was waiting for something that never came. I'd remembered her embarrassed confession on-camera that she couldn't manage even a simple three-strand plait of her daughter's hair, much to her shame. And I remember her crying as she said this and, later in the episode, reckoning with her self-perceived failures as a Mum. Turns out that I'd invented this bit of narrative; she had mentioned her lame plaiting skills, but never upbraided herself for it in the weepy manner I'd remembered. I'd taken her bit of self-mockery and turned it into a story in which she'd allowed her meager motherly talents to get under her skin and define her as a poor mother. It's interesting to me what grows in the mind. Flannery C'Connor wrote that "A story really isn't any good unless it successfully resists paraphrase, unless it hangs on and expands in the mind," and I guess that was what I was doing with Sarah-Jane: letting her story hang on and expand—except what I wrote was fiction, steering her story into places it hadn't gone (as edited for television, anyway). I took her small confession where I wanted it to go, into melodrama, a mother-daughter dynamic rich with pathos. I was surprised when that scene didn't play out as I watched last night, but then I was struck by where the imagination goes, adding rooms to a story as one adds rooms to a house. This is how fiction works, obviously, but this is also how our day-to-day minds work, thickening memories with sentiment they don't have, building up dramas in our head, adding dimension to our ordinary days by allowing events to lead to stories which expand and hang on, blurring the line between nonfiction and fiction, between fact and desire. What the imagination wants. Anyway, I wish Sarah-Jane and her daughter well, wherever they are.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

The people who listen to "People Who Died," cont'd

Periodically, I check in at 3 Chord Philosophy to scan the comments on The Jim Carroll Band's "People Who Died." (1,526 viewers have weighed in since I uploaded the song; my visits in 2018 and last year are here and here.) I'm fascinated by the community that forms out of, and as, YouTube comments, a gathering place akin, at times, to an intimate party or a group of strangers around a merch table at a club: commiserations, sighs, shy one-off responses or testimonials. Amidst the typical show-offy, tone-deaf, and/or "[whatever show or movie] brought me here" comments are unusually candid replies from grieving folk who've recently lost a loved or or who've been laboring with loss for years, and who hear, and rock out to, Carroll's frank litany of senseless or otherwise confounding deaths, and find release, or at least something to identify with. And with the Covid pandemic, a new tragic voice has entered the room. As long as this song's heard, it'll speak.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Angell turns 100

Happy Birthday to Roger Angell, who turns 100 today. Do yourself a favor and read some of his work, and savor the peerless ways he writes and thinks not only about baseball, but about the larger subjects in the game he loves that have always captivated him: belonging, community, the vagaries of luck, and family connections. We're fortunate to have such an elegant writer (and editor), observer, and thinker among us, and I'm so grateful to have been able to write about him and his career and to get to know him, which has been an at-bat of a lifetime for me.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Nothin' left to do at night

Nancy and Ann Wilson

What a run of singles Heart released between 1975 and 1977. "Magic Man" and "Crazy On You" (from the band's debut, Dreamboat Annie) and "Barracuda," the lead single from Little Queen, run fearlessly from desire, curiosity, and risk to betrayal, rage, and catharsis—with a night of straight-up joyful fucking in between, though even that pleasure's made complicated. Ann and Nancy Wilson wrote each track (guitarist Roger Fisher and drummer Michael Derosier pitched in on "Barracuda") and have down the years discussed the songs' origins: "Magic Man" concerned, in part, Ann Wilson's relationship with Heart's manager Michael Fisher, who was older; "Barracuda" stemmed from the Wilson sisters' outrage after their label Mushroom Records concocted an obnoxious publicity stunt hinting at an incestuous affair between the two, and a male radio promoter's gross "follow-up" with Ann; the sex in "Crazy On You" is an effort to block out the messy world, specifically the Vietnam War and attendant social upheaval. So: rocking songs about relationships, sex, sexism, hurt, outrage, and denial. That's a pretty broad spectrum the band traverses in under fifteen minutes. Ann Wilson's fearless, feral singing—Joni Mitchell and Robert Plant busy in bed—Nancy Wilson's and the band's propulsive playing, the moody keyboard flourishes, and the transcendent harmonies, shaped by producer Mike Flicker, whose arrangements were striking (dig the disco hi-hat in "Crazy On You"): all of this soundtracked drama and yearning, and anyone who was around in the mid-1970s when these songs were all over the radio remembers their sexiness and mystery, the irresistible, sinuous melodies and rocking pleas-cum-assertions. Like the best pop music, this clutch of singles is very much of its era, an evocative time capsule of Top 40 positioned between singer-songwriters and New Wave, yet paradoxically also timeless and eternal. Great stuff.

Photo by Michael Marks/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Monday, September 7, 2020

The monster he built

I occasionally pull George R. White's 1995 biography of Bo Diddley off the shelf to marvel at passages like these, in which in the capable hands of The Innovator, junkyard automobile parts, the guts of an industrial wind-up clock, and toilet-chain copper weights create the sound of a freight train:
I never actually built an amplifier, but I would take the guts out an’ put ’em in larger boxes, an’ stuff like that. I also spent years tryin’ to develop a clean speaker that I could use. What I did was, I’d take two Fender Bassmans—which has ten-inch speakers inside—I’d take ’em out an’ build ’em into one big cabinet, because I needed eight or ten or twelve speakers to handle all that stuff I was puttin’ through ’em. Ten-inch speakers are very clean an’ clear. They take a whuppin’, you know.‘ This was before monitors, so I also put two speakers in the back of each cabinet, so the drummer could hear what was goin’ on. I spent twelve years tryin’ to develop a good, clean sound because I hate distortion. You know what happened? Some guy built a fuzz-pedal! [laughs] Busted my bubble! That was the beginnin’ of a new sound.
I was lookin’ to get a bigger sound, an’ I came up with that “freight train drive”—that’s what I call it. There were three of us, an’ I developed a style that would make us sound like six people at least. That’s the monster I built!’ [laughs] If you listen to the stuff I’m playin’, you won’t find any gaps in there: I play first an’ second guitar at the same time, an’ the minute I start playin’, you know it! It’s power-packed all the way. Pure energy."

Chess Studio, Chicago
Then, I came up with the idea of breakin' up the sound. I went an' got me a great big ol' wind-up clock that had a good, strong spring, an' I attached separators an’ stuff. I got me some automobile parts, an’ made it so it would break this circuit an’ connect this circuit, break this one, connect this one. Then, I wired it in-between my guitar an' amplifier, so that everythin'. that came from the guitar had to go through this bullshit that I had hooked up on the floor. It was noisy as hell, but it worked
About six or eight months later, Diamature came out with a tremolo with some kinda crap in a lil’ ol' bottle that shook around an’ broke the circuit. This was exactly what I was lookin’ for, so somebody else was on the same wavelength, but they knew what they were doin’. It was on the market, but I didn’t have enough money to buy one, so I kept on usin’ mine. 
Later on, Jody Williams bought one, but he didn’t like it an’ I bought his offa him. He couldn’t use it, but it was just right for what I wanted. It was a trip tryin’ to play with the sound disappearin’ an’ comin’ back—you get all out of step—but I learned to play with it, an’ when I learned that, that was the greatest thing in the world, an’ I made that sucker work for what I needed it for.
Bo with Jerome Green

Now, I needed more rhythm for what I was tryin’ to do but couldn’t carry a set of drums up an’ down the street with us—there's too many of ’em—so I got me some maracas. I got this idea from listenin’ at Sandman [a street performer who carried "a bag of sand, a plank of wood and a broom. He’d set up on the corner, cover the board with sand and dance, letting the sand–which sounded like a maraca – accentuate the rhythms of his feet. Then he’d sweep it back into the sack and move on to the next corner"] sandin’ on a piece of board. I’d sit up in the house an’ shake ’em an’ create rhythm patterns with ’em. I changed the whole thing that calypso dudes do, because that didn’t fit in with what I was doin’. I needed somethin’ that sounded like a cat playin’ with brushes, an’ I finally struck upon that pattern. 
“The first maracas I had, I took two of those copper weights off a bathroom—you know those pull-chains they used to have, with copper weights in there to let the water go down? I took one an’ cut me a hole in it, right at the top, an’ filled it up full of black-eyed peas. I had no money, man, to buy nothin’, so I’d go round junkyards an’ find old water tanks an’ stuff, an’ screw things out of ’em.  
After I’d figured out about as many rhythms as I could on ’em an’ taught myself, I hit Jerome [Green] with it. I bought him a brand new bag of maracas an', surprisingly, I picked the right dude. That cat could shake the hell outa them things! He was better than “great”; Jerome was fantastic!

Top photo via Pinterest, middle photo via Crain's Chicago Business, bottom photo via Pinterest