Saturday, November 19, 2005

Bye Bye Restraint

This post is about politics. It’s about lying, murderous sons of bitches and blinding stupidity. It’s about anger, a full pot of anger that can’t hold another drop and keeps boiling over. It’s about corruption deep enough to embarrass even the arch enemies of the power mongers. It’s about right and wrong and how deeply they’ve been obscured through a campaign of lies. It’s about unnecessarily dead soldiers by the hundreds. It’s about wanting a fucking change so bad a pacifist unknowingly clenches his fists.

George W. Bush has led this country into a crusade the last thousand years should have ensured wasn’t possible. He’s subjugated every single notion of American democracy for a holy war. He’s raided the treasury as if he were a king. His arrogant and unrealistic worldview has reinstituted sadness and hatred as American ways of life.

Dick Cheney is so slimy it’s hard to believe there’s a human heart beating inside. His sneer is only fitting as a symbol of Evil. His lies are among the biggest and the boldest of all time. Dick Cheney’s existence alone is enough to disprove God – or to prove the Almighty has lost big time.

The Republican Congress is a crack whore that repeatedly drops its baby right on its head. “There’s cock to suck,” it tells the whining, malnourished brat at suppertime. “Fend for yourself. I didn’t want you.” Congress’ management of the country has done nothing but create losses for the least deserving. And the rich get richer, the corporations get tax breaks, policy breaks and pretty much the run of the place.

And this goddamn war… Mr. Bush, here’s the truth, since you’re so disinclined to tell it:

We torture. That’s right, America is a goddamned torture machine. And we don’t care. You’re brown. We’re ordained by God as rightful owners of your oil. And we like it. The “loose cannon” soldier is perhaps the ugliest myth of this whole damn Iraq conflict. Torture climbs the chain of command like a limber monkey up a tree.

We have no business in Iraq in the first place. You lied. The justifications that won you congressional approval to use the threat of force were horseshit. There’s not even a debate on that topic, except for what you keep insisting. This new war against critics is surely to backfire, unfortunately it will almost certainly be far too late.

Your closest advisors conspired to illegal uncover a CIA agent, just to attack her husband, who had the audacity to be factually correct, on the opposite side of your assertions.

This war is lost already. This war could never be won because it never had an objective. Iraq will never be a democracy because there’s no historic basis to even make it a singular nation. Removing Saddam Hussein from power accomplished nothing more than paving the way for his successor, who in all likelihood will be equally awful.

This war has killed American interests worldwide and is accomplishing little else than to enflame tensions throughout the Middle East, making the U.S. look like the bad guy to any number of disillusioned teens who are just waiting for a target for their anger.

So, Mr. Bush, why do you keep lying to your country? Do you think that little of us? Are we even worth the truth? Can I please have a tax break? I promise I’ll pray to your unnecessarily vengeful, racist God. I’ll shut up. I’ll look the other way. I’ll hate, as much as you do, every piece of shit liberal who has the fucking gall to step in front of your imperial march, or challenge your monarchical birthright to “lead” this country (to ruin).

This post is about politics; it’s about being fed up. It’s about the inefficacy of turning your head because it seems “easier.” It’s about boiling over every once in a while. It’s about fuming and churning inside because the crooks and the warmongers have lied their way into control again. It’s about trying not to lose all hope for the future. It’s also about the easy way out, about writing instead of marching, about engaging in a liberal roundtable rather than getting in anybody’s face. It’s about fear and hesitancy, the unfortunate trademarks of the comfortable.

Appendix: Necessary

Okkervil River’s Black Sheep Boy is the first record I’ve ever heard that was followed by its own appendix.

The cynic’s first thought might be that appendix is a cutesy clever title for a follow-up EP, but I swear it’s the absolute best description of the record.

Black Sheep Boy is a stunning record, full of harsh imagery and chaotic, crashing sounds that all fit together to create the feeling of a lost outsider, hurt and strange and longing for solid ground. It’s like the swirling TV static dizziness of a head rush, but with emotions and more dimensions than you know what to do with. The songs build together, each taking little detours into its own little world of abandonment and the identity-questioning of a born outsider.

And the appendix takes a few more detours, from the “you never earned your soul” chorus of “No Key, No Plan” to the familiar refrain and melody of “Black Sheep Boy #4.”

Will Sheff has written one of the most intricately meditative records in all of rock, spinning the notion of the black sheep over and over and over and over, digging songs out of every crack he can find. There’s hopelessness, anger, abandonment, listfullness, optimism, confusion, paranoia, love and hate and it’s all just stacked together and molded just right, more of a long windows-down drive than a roller coaster ride. Running through it all is a sense of solitude, for good and bad, out of choice and out of necessity. Sheff has bred his black sheep into dozens of different varieties, each its own creature, few even sharing in resemblance anything but that black sheep DNA.

At two recent live shows, I saw the band – Will especially – perform with more confidence and assuredness than ever before. They’re in command, from the softest chord strumming to the wildest drum pounding. It’s a performance, but it’s unstaged. No two set lists are the same. No patter is pre-written. It’s just a band whose members appear to feel most comfortable and alive when they’re playing music for people. And those are the best.

The Tucson show was just the second back in the states, after two days off following a 22-show, 22-day Europe tour. The band was wiped, Will’s voice in sharp decline, and it was the first show back for keyboardist Jonathan Meiburg. Will busted strings and damn near killed his voice, but it all seemed to enrich the performance. Okkervil River isn’t the fucking Sound of Music. It’s chaotic tumbling music, full of unbridled energy and fueled by some of the strangest, most poetic lyrics ever screamed out at the top of the lungs. The crowd wouldn’t let them end, with a forceful contingent to my right lobbying heavily for Kansas City, one of the screamiest songs in the catalog. And Will complied. I snagged a set list after the show: it wasn’t even on their list, but they brought the house down.

I later learned the next day’s show in San Diego was cancelled so Will could visit a doctor, who diagnosed him with strep throat and told him not to talk for a week. Will said the tour must go on, and it did, with steroids for his throat and plenty of tea.

I caught up with them in San Francisco a few days later for a show that couldn’t have been more different except for its quality. There must’ve been only two or three songs that were the same in both sets. It was remarkably high energy, and in talking with band members afterwards they only looked rejuvenated, thrilled to have just finished having that much damn fun.

Some long overdue music writing

The Calexico and Iron and Wine collaboration In the Reins is a near perfect marriage, rich intricate music, subtle lyrics and all sorts of harmonies across the board.

Think of it as a grapefruit-cactus record, players from the sunny, bright lands of spring training finally getting together.

I’m an Iron and Wine novice, but close to a Calexico expert, so what I hear most is Calexico breathing a new life into Sam Beam’s tunes, taking the skeletal chord arrangements and melodies and dressing it all up. No other band could back Beam like this, melting themselves nearly away to fit perfectly with the front man. It’s a Calexico record like you can tell Richard Buckner’s Devotion + Doubt or Neko Case’s Blacklisted is.

Calexico’s “Southwestern” sound is played up too much in national articles or record reviews. They’re almost written off as a novelty in that respect and while in some senses the label is accurate, it misses what the band does best: embrace versatility. The horns and mariachi are just a small part of the band, which keeps drifting further from the hyphenised descriptions they’ve been given before, and even from the “desert noir” tag. Calexico has grown from a Giant Sand side project, through all the easy descriptions, to emerge as one of the most talented, unique bands around today, indie or not.

Perhaps the most apt comparison now for Calexico would be to the Band. They’re a group of incredibly talented musicians, feeding off older sounds and spinning and weaving it all together into an unmistakably singular sound. They can back anyone, with incredible skill and selflessness. Of course, Calexico is a much looser arrangement than the Band, and nearly entirely lacking the crazy personalities, but musically they’re cousins beyond a doubt.

Joey Burns holds court, a versatile guitarist and the band’s essential visionary. John Convertino is the most distinctive drummer I’ve ever heard. He gives the snare a “pop” that nobody else can come up with. And the rest of the players fill it all in perfectly.

“He Lays in the Reins” is a perfect opener, perhaps the most “Calexico” of the seven-song EP. It has the same kick and urgency of “Alone Again Or” from Convict Pool and “Sunken Waltz” from Feast of Wire. And then Salvador Duran breaks in, the first signal that the album is full of surprises, things that at first glance might seem out of place, but in the end give the album its texture, its uniqueness.

“Prison on Route 41” is a straight-forward folk stomp, mid-tempo. The narrator has let his family more or less rot in prison for the sake of a woman. It’s a sad tale, rendered with banjo and harmonica, with the strongest country undercurrent of the record.

“A History of Lovers” is harmony like they used to do it, peppy, bright and given great bounce by head-nodding horns. The darkness of the lyrics juxtaposed only lend the song a more interesting aura. Beam’s writing is near it’s strongest here, taking a love-triangle story song nearly into Dylan territory.

The blues-boogie of “Red Dust” was the toughest act to settle into on the album, seemingly out of place, a dusty Southern track that might fill the “rowdy” slot on a Lucinda Williams record. But it sinks in. The sound is the furthest from either band, yet more evidence of the enriching nature of the entire project.

“Sixteen, Maybe Less” returns to more of an Iron and Wine style tune, lyrics turning heartbreaking, far more whispered than sung.

“Burn that Broken Bed” is where the trumpets rule. Muted and haunting, I’m never quite certain when they’re going to come in or fade out. It’s that uncertainty, that suspense, that really drives the song. Again, it’s a touch that only Calexico could add.

“Dead Man’s Will” closes the album and just may be the strongest track. The poignant, simple lyrics are haunting. It’s timeless and heartfelt, something Woody Guthrie could’ve written. And the high praise is warranted. It’s the most stripped song, but again it’s so much more than simply Beam’s fingerpicked guitar that defines his other records.

Time runs as a theme through the album, with Beam musing on losses and regrets, with soft, slow tunes and minor keys rounding it out. But the difference from his Iron and Wine records is the fullness of the sound. Quiet doesn’t mean sparse, or singular, as anyone who’s spent any time sitting in a lawn chair in the sunshine in the middle of a forest can tell you. It’s that quiet that opens the ears up to all the different little sounds, and lets each one reach its full potential, making the whole mix better.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that the record probably wouldn’t have been anywhere near as strong if it wasn’t recorded in Tucson. It has that mystery in sound that so many of this town’s records have. There’s always an instrument in the mix that you wouldn’t expect, always a turn seemingly out of character for the performers.

When the bands got together in concert, it was a nearly five-hour event, a full set from each, then a set together, with the EP played in its entirety, plus a few covers including: “All Tomorrow’s Parties” and “Wild Horses.” At one point I think there were 12 people on stage. Incredible.

I’d like to see another collaboration, but not for a while. Let each band grow and evolve and change and then get back together. I could guarantee the sound wouldn’t be anywhere near the same. And that’s the strength of all the players.

In the Reins ranks among the best albums of the year, and is probably in a class by its own as far as indie collaborations go.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Another Stab at the Rolling Stone Contest

The one that hit my mailbox yesterday has Bono gracing (defacing?) the cover. Who is going to be on the next one?

Place your bets in comments and the winner can assert dominance over the mere mortals.

San Francisco highlights:

Go karting

Fish, fish ‘n’ chips, clam chowder, Thai, Indian, burgers, burritos, bangers, pizza and on and on

Spending $130 at Amoeba records

Watching hippies twirl

Aerobe in the park

VFW ale

Freaktown and Scotter

Okkervil River at the Café du Nord

Halloween combo of a keg and a zombie nurse

Robert Anthony Peters on stage

Talking football with cabbies

Mild synchronicity

The Zeitgeist