Saturday, December 31, 2022

Small Things - Billy Collins’ “Musical Tables"

Don't ask me to explain it, but Billy Collins has always been a cat guy to me. Imagine my surprise, then, to encounter the following poem, "Morning Walk":

The dog stops often
to sniff the poems of others
before reciting her own.

Be grateful I'm feeling uncharacteristically restrained, I have (many) pictures of Desi & Poppy writing little poems, here's one of them not doing that. 

Not only was I surprised to see Collins celebrating a dog (again, can't explain it, he just reads like a cat guy) I was also surprised by how short the verse was. Collins is hardly a long-winded poem; his speakers are brief. They make their little observation, joke, whatever, and move on. I started reading Musical Tables right after Christmas, probably the fastest I've gotten to a new book I'd been excited about reading (two months! not too shabby!) in years. I continued reading it. Then, like that, it was over.

The new book of poems by is good (not great). Whale Day and Aimless Love felt more complete, but Musical Tables has a singular project: to write small poems. In Collins' words: the fascination for small poems began "with nursery rhymes" and begin exposed to haiku in high school; "I loved the suddenness of small poems. They seemed to arrive and depart at the same time, disappearing in a wink." Take, for example, "Lazy Creator" and "Weekday" and behold the full spread between the two poems:

Collins' goal, to recreate his own methodological approach to reading poetry ("whenever I pick up a new book of poems, I flip through the pages looking for small ones. Just as I might trust an abstract painter more if I knew he or she could draw a credible chicken, I have faith in poets who can go short") suffers from its own success. There's great wisdom in the space between the slight lines of "And on the second day / he retired" of "Lazy Creator" and the "Pure sunlight" shown in "Weekday" but Collins' signature wit, charm, borderline eye-rolly turns of phrase (important note: Collins is my first and forever-favorite poet, that's a compliment not a criticism, I swear) is undone without the well-worn worlds he builds around the punchlines of his poetry.

Still, when Musical Tables works, it works well. "Small poems are drastic examples of poetry's way of squeezing large content into tight spaces" but "unlike haiku, the small poem has no rules expect to be small. Its length, or lack of it, is its only formal requirement." If Collins were more of a formalist (again: a compliment) the liberation of the small poem could really be a revelation, but most of the book - a two-sitting read, half-aloud to the baby, half-to myself while he slept - is forgettable. Nobel in its aims, crafty it is misses. The hits, though, are really something. Another example, a thematic Billy Collins greatest hit, on poetry:

A Small Hotel

When a match touched the edge of the page, my poem filled with smoke,
then a few words were seen to stumble out in nothing but their nightgowns
with no idea which way to run.

For a Billy Collins book, the approach to genre & craft was, at first disarming. The tiny bits of wisdom that do linger, linger just as well as any of Collins' best poetry. I'm looking forward to sitting with this collection, and at the very least, it will be very easy to read again.

Saturday, December 24, 2022

Tony's Top Five* Albums of the Year 2022

I probably consumed more music (and podcasts) this year than any other year in my life. Go figure, most of that time was spent listening to the same handful of artists. Lots of exciting new music came out this year, but unlike 2020 and even 2021 to a lesser extent, I was all in on my favorites taking a break from the road to discovery. For this list, I tried to work a little behind-the-scenes algebra for how much I enjoyed as a pure reaction vs how much I actually listened to these albums vs that intangible. But, if you're reading this, you've already read like a month of year-end music writing from me. You know the deal. Here's my top five* albums of 2022:

5. Reset - Panda Bear & Sonic Boom

A Panda Bear release is always something to celebrate, and in a year where Noah "Panda Bear" Lennox was collaborating with artists on hit after hit (after hit) this year, it seemed inevitable that he and longtime collaborator Pete "Sonic Boom" Kember would try to reignite the long-burning creative flame that's been burning between the two since Tomboy. Kember, "PeteK" on the Animal Collective message boards, had been teasing some exciting work between he and Lennox, but (at least for me) nothing on the scale of a full album - maybe a few loosies? maybe some live tracks Panda Bear had debuted in 2021 getting a studio production? 

Instead, thank god, we're treated to Reset. The album is a pandemic-post-modern rehashing of the storied production of The Postal Service's Give Up: Kember would send Lennox loops built off of samples from golden era pop songs, some obscure, some well-known (there's an Everly Brothers sample on here I cannot imagine Domino enjoyed shelling out for), and Lennox would add vocals and send them back. In interviews (and all over the Collected Animals forum) PeteK would talk about how spending time with these sunny songs was his way of coping with the isolation of quarantine by connecting with the past, with joyful sounds, and adding to them. Panda Bear's voice has always been my favorite instrument in Animal Collective, so I am the perfect listener for the theory that adding Noah Lennox's harmonizing to literally any sound will turn that frown upside down!

And it does. Reset is an absolute joy to listen to. Despite it, at a conceptual and material level, being a small affair, packs a wallop of an emotional punch. This is evident in footage from the few live shows the pair has done over in Europe: just Panda Bear and Sonic Boom, a huge projector blasting psychedelic visuals behind them, and their samplers. The duo trade vocals track for track (Lennox no stranger to trading vocal duties, Reset rarely features both voices on one track though, favoring "Pete songs" and "Noah songs") Boom's low near-growl on "Go On" or Lennox's choir-boy warble in the sublime "In My Body" makes the 9-song album go fast. Almost too fast.

In November, the Reset Songbook Edition was released with instrumentals of all the tracks which adds some depth to the record, though as a Panda Bear purist, those tracks only get me so far. The album itself came in the dog-days of summer, while I was out of town, and while a few of the songs - as well as many playlists of sample sources, demos, and cutting room floors teasers were traded among the Collected Animals forums, the full release (especially) at the onset of an early-August road trip, came as advertised - a sonic rest, a cleanse, a trippy little escape. 

Standout track: "Danger"
Most joyous and unexpected mariachi banger: "Livin' in the After"

4. Nothing Special - Will Sheff

I open with an image of the album cover of the former Okkervil River front man's solo album because it is, to me, essential for understanding why this album is so good. Will Sheff is an indie rock lifer, and following Okkervil River's many lineup and genre permeations closely enough, it became more and more clear he wanted to be freed of the moniker and the expectations that following up 2005's Black Sheep Boy or my personal favorite, 2008's The Stand In's, became a burden. Shit, the opening track of the "band's" penultimate album (2016's Away) the opening track is called "Okkervil River R.I.P.". And to be sure, the later Okkervil River albums were not very good; I remember selling my vinyl copies during The Great Vinyl Purge of 2020 and the buyer at Dearborn Music saying, "breaking up with Okkervil River I see" and to my credit, years later, so has its creative director.

Another story, before I talk about the album. We drove out to Washington D.C. for Thanksgiving and our route took us straight through Maryland, which, I was delighted to see, is a ton of ancient and rolling hills, mountains, trees, and geographic diversity that my beloved home state of Ohio does very much not have. It was so obvious that while my wife and dogs snoozed in the back that Nothing Special was the right album for several hours of that drive. When we got to my brother's house, his wife asked how the drive was and I said "I had no idea how beautiful Maryland was."

We can debate whether or not that's true or if I was just seeing stars after the long, long drive, but one thing I am certain of: Will Sheff's first album under his own name (I'm loath to use the phrase 'solo album,' he was such a commanding force of the revolving door at Okkervil River) is a pastoral masterpiece of music. I had hesitated to dive into it, having been burned by previous Okkervil albums, but man, oh man. In the title track, Sheff sings:

there was treasure we'd claw our way to
and we'd know it by the gleam
we had seen inside some dream
that was beamed through our boyhood bedrooms
when we were nothing special

It seems like obvious praise to heap on an album called what this album is called, but man does it gleam; it is [pause for effect] something special. Despite being a creative writer, I'm not much of a lyrics guy; I never sit down to read the words to songs and liner notes, but Nothing Special is as much a collection of poetry as it is songs. "Like the Last Time" doubles as a transcendental poem ("in the middle of a stream / swimming everyday water fall / on the sunlit trampoline / watching clouds rise in the city fall / how the final light of sunset found you as it went down" and an affective rock song, a tendency Sheff is unafraid to pepper the album with, though for all its mid-sized venue pathology, Nothing Special trends towards quite but never boring. This was the song that fully sold me on the creative vision of the album.

"I feel the world's weight on my tongue," mournfully goes "Holy Man," "I say a song is anything that's sung." Man. I say all this to say Will Sheff can take you around a mountain pass and back in your bedroom just as well as above the chugging motor of a Nissan Rogue literally going around mountain passes. I promise this isn't meant to be damning with faint praise: the thrill of Nothing Special are how clam, how mellow, how simple its aims are. Nothing Special isn't the destination: it is the journey. It will take you to the destination. 

Standout track: "Like the Last Time"
Song that was obviously a 2008-era Okkervil River song which explains why I like it so much: "Estrangement Zone" (sneaky little guitar solo in there).

3. VAXIS Act II: A Window of the Waking Mind - Coheed & Cambria

I've written a little bit about this album already, so for the sake of brevity, I'll remind folks that Coheed & Cambria is a concept band, whose recent run of records takes place in the same universe as The Amory Wars (albums Second Stage Turbine Blade through No World For Tomorrow, prequels The Afterman double-album and Year of the Black Rainbow) and is part of the VAXIS pentalogy. Act 1, The Unheavenly Creatures (2017) introduces us to Nia & Nostrand who the parents of Vaxis, whose troubled early life is the narrative subject of A Window of the Waking Mind. This means: in the year and a half leading up to this album's release, Coheed & Cambria were putting out songs about fatherhood, child rearing, and an against-the-odds narrative about a mother and father who would do anything including go fight a fascist space army to take care of and better understand their little one. I know, I know, I said I'd be brief, but you gotta understand that while the album is good, it was specifically designed in a lab to be one of my favorite releases of 2022. And sure enough, it is.

Though, Act 2 did not come without its bumps. Singles began debuting nearly a full year before the release. Then album release was delayed. Then a very low quality leak misrepresented the nuance of several genre-experimenting tracks (like "Blood" or "A Disappearing Act") spoiled the fun. The deluxe edition (that comes with the illustrated novella continuing Nia & Nostrand's tale) got tied up in supply chain inflation and was expensive and took forever to arrive. Ugliness among collectors fighting over vinyl variants drifted Coheed closer to crass materialism and away from good ass music, but, once the album was in hands and ears, that was all just noise because ... in addition to all this ancillary shit ...

Coheed & Cambria is an incredible guitar-rock band. They make incredible guitar rock, that despite my own insistence, is not made in a lab just for me. In the multipart epic closing track "A Window of the Waking Mind" when lead singer Claudio Sanchez sings in the voice of Nos to his son Vaxis: "our pride and joy are you there? / are you in there, safe and sound? / tell us what you need, so we can help you / we don't know what to do / we don't know what to do" he isn't specifically the moments of insecurity I was feeling during Ben's first year about taking care of my little dude. And yet...

And see, this is what I mean about Coheed & Cambria, a band I once foolishly relegated to 'guilty pleasure' I am now mapping major moments of my life into the batshit crazy fiction their albums weave together across albums and concerts and visualizers and novels and comic books. That's the power of music. But another power of music is a good fucking guitar solo, and in moments like "Shoulders" or "Beautiful Losers" A Window of the Waking Mind has plenty of those, too.

If you like progressive or alternative rock, there's really no reason to not be into Coheed & Cambria. Same deal if you like pop rock. They've refined their craft not only as an album band, but have become an elite live band. Something I forgot when I was being a hater of the May-leak edition of this album was that Claudio, Travis Stever (of L.S. Dune's fame!), Zack Cooper, and Josh Eppard are the best lineup of any touring band out there. Don't listen to me. Don't listen to Coheed & Cambria! Just go be in the crowd of initiated the next time they tour your town. 

I'll be there.

Standout track: "Love Murder One"
Song that could somehow fit on any of the 9 other albums Coheed has released or be the name of an old Star Wars EU book: "The Ladders of Supremacy" 

2. Entering Heaven Alive / Fear of the Dawn - Jack White

I remember the first day I listened to Fear of the Dawn (read my live tweet here), I remember the first time I heard lead single and album opener "Taking Me Back" - it was a smoking hot September day and perfect for a belligerently hot rock song. I luckily had brought headphones to University of Detroit Mercy's campus that day, so I listened to it - probably a dozen times - very loudly without disturbing my neighbors. The b-side, "Taking Me Back (Gently)" highlighted the songwriting chops White's always had, though sometimes that gets lost in the guitar virtuosity. I wondered with the hard/soft jam pairing meant for what Jack White's next album (yes, singular tense - a quaint time!). I even, sort of correctly, predicted a double-album hybrid with hard and soft versions of all the songs. Then, on November 7th, my son was born. Then, on November 11th, two new Jack White albums were announced for the coming year. 

It is impossible to not tie these releases to my own life: "Taking Me Back" is the beginning of my one-year visiting instructor position at Detroit Mercy, the album announcement coincided with the week we brought Ben home from the hospital, the tour began in Detroit and accounts for the last two shows I saw in Michigan before moving, Fear of the Dawn, arriving several days in the mail to me early, unofficially came out on my wife's birthday, listening to the previous night's Supply Chain Issues Tour show was a daily ritual when I was home with the baby and dogs, Entering Heaven Alive came out right after we moved to Ohio, and the soft acoustic songs on that record made for nice driving music with Ben strapped in his carseat on nights he couldn't quite fall asleep in his crib. It isn't to say these albums are spectacular on their own merit - they are - but they are also spectacularly tied to the moments of 2021 and 2022 they were born of.

But the albums themselves make good on the much-discussed process White described in his most candid and generous press cycle yet: they were written mostly at the same time, the busybody unable to slow down during the pandemic; White imagined a double-album (I was right!) but realized the two distinct sonic pallets might more interestingly gravitate to their sonic poles; also it would be hard enough to meet the pressing demands of one Jack White album (and its many, many, many variants) let alone two, despite owning his own pressing plant White would cheekily joke about more than once. Fear of the Dawn is a mean 40 minute capital-R rock album. Like Boarding House Reach before it, songs play with genre and technique: "Eosophobia" sounds like Rush plugged into a car battery; "Into The Twilight" is a near-instrumental with glitchy tendencies that echo "Get Into the Mine Shaft". But like Lazaretto, too, White plays with balladry: "Shedding My Velvet" and "The White Raven" are sensual rock storytelling songs. But of course, the guy that wrote the the guitar parts on Elephant can't help shred. The title track, "What's the Trick?", and "That Was Then, This is Now" offer what long-listening Jack White fans came to hear.

Entering Heaven Alive, on the other hand, is somehow exactly what White teased it would be in the near-four months between the two releases and completely unexpected. Sure, it is most akin to Blunderbus's country-leaning tendencies (think: "Love Interruption", a staple on this tour, or "Hypocritical Kiss" which he's maybe played twice, and "Weep Themselves to Sleep" which he has not played since 2015) but the closet analogue in the Jack White universe is The White Stripes' audacious Get Behind Me Satan, both in terms of soundscapes (the marimba in "The Nurse" is not unlike the piano work on "Help Me Along") and brazen disregard for genre.

"Love is Selfish" as a lead single was a good predictor for "All Along the Way" and "If I Die Tomorrow" which are two of the best and prettiest songs White has ever written. There's downright kookiness, like the silly and sweet "Queen of the Bees" or "A Madman From Manhattan", there's the funky and fuzzy "I've Got You Surrounded (With my Love)" that sounds like a rhythm and blues standard ... plugged into a car battery.

Instead of coming up with a metaphor for all twelve tracks on the album, maybe it is sufficient to say the album is very good. They are strange, but in an interesting way (or interesting in a strange way?). Another talking point White came back to this spring was how the second album would, inevitably, catch less fanfare, a self-described acoustic slow album, at that. It is unfair to top-of-his career songwriting on Enter Heaven Alive that I think White is correct. How do you strum up the same excitement as the sub-two-minute "Fear of the Dawn" with the incredible "A Tree on Fire From Within"?

At this point White is a touring musician. He only really needs to release new music as an occasion to tour, and my sense is if Jack White toured 15 cities every other year he'd sell out those venues every time with our without the excitement of new music. For a workhorse like him, I think that's a gift. He's never been one to compromise creatively, but the legacy-act status means two things: (1) he should probably play "Seven Nation Army" every night and (2) he can release whatever kind of music he wants.

Is one better than the other? Fear of the Dawn is the Jack White album you would have expected in 2022. Entering Heaven Alive is the album Jack White wanted to release in 2022. Luckily for us, we don't have to choose.

Standout tracks: "Taking Me Back" / "Taking Me Back (Gently)"
FOTD Track that I saw the world premiere of the music video following social media breadcrumbs to TMR Cass Corridor: "Fear of the Dawn"
EHA Track to make you mostly likely suffer from incredible Catholic guilt: "If I Die Tomorrow"

Note: five was too neat of a number to pass up, but all things being equal I liked Entering Heaven Alive more than Fear of the Dawn and probably would put Vaxis 2 between the Jack White albums, but as discussed in a previous post, my Jack White albums of the year were recording in a studio.

1. Time Skiffs - Animal Collective

This is another album on this list I wrote a lot about (twice!). Here's the deal with Time Skiffs: it is really, really, really good. It gets all the stuff Animal Collective does really well, and puts it all into a cohesive and highly rewarding single listen. Naturally, I have listened to Time Skiffs a lot more than once.

I think I've ran out of interesting things to say about this album, having been dreaming of it since 2019. When it finally landed, it met - and surpassed - the long-brewing expectations placed upon it. What more can you say about a piece of music than that?

Time Skiffs: album of the year 2019, also 2020, also 2021, and finally, the actual year these songs got a studio release not spotty live bootlegs: 2022.

20+ minute jam Animal Collective has been workshopping since early 2018 that is still different and surprising and amazing every time they play it:

That's it folks, see you next year!

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

5 (Not Quite) Albums of the Year 2022

This is more like my list of albums I think would have been the back half of my top-ten for 2022 if I'd had time to listen to more, or if I'd been more fair to artists not named Jack White/Coheed & Cambria, or, if The Weeknd's Dawn FM had come out deeper into the year than week two that I will probably come to love, eventually. In the case of one of these entries, I have in the first two weeks of December listened to and enjoy conclusively enough to put on the ReAl LiSt, whatever that means, but out of fairness cannot call an album that came out in April (hint!) that I only started listening to on the last pages of the 2022 calendar an aLbUm Of ThE yEaR, whatever that means.

I did listen to a cartoonishly large amount of music this year, it just wasn't a very wide variety of artists (read: just one guy), I also read a fair bit (didja notice I'm sort of reviewing books on this blog? check out some recent poetry and a collection of non-fiction I wrote about). Cut me some slack: I moved, have a kid, started a new job, and so on and so on. It is hard to get into new stuff, and its hard to stay current with old stuff. Some of the records I wrote about last week I didn't remember even getting this year until I sat down to write about them. Hoping for a more normal 2023 to stay more "hip" and have a routine listening ritual, namely, a 4 day a week commute without blessed endless hours of live Jack White to listen to.

So, I present to you something like the 5 - 10 albums of the year, probably, if I would just sit down and enjoy them more than I already have:

The Loneliest Time - Carly Rae Jepsen

I am famously a Carly Rae Jepsen fan. In fact, the worst I ever got grilled by a college student was in early 2020 when I name dropped Jepsen and the class was like, "isn't 'Call Me Maybe' 10,000 years old?" and I told them yeah but Carly is still active in fact she just put out a CD last year and they couldn't decide which was more embarrassing: that I was actively listening to a meme artist like 10 years after the meme song came out or that I bought CDs so, like any good student does, they picked both options and I didn't hear the end of it.

Speaking of being torn between two options, Carly Rae Jepsen and Taylor Swift both released subdued, introspective, mellower pop records on the exact same day this year. Speaking of memes, I made this about it:

My kneejerk reaction was that The Loneliest Time was better than Midnights, so I listened to Taylor first to give it the fairest chance, but the opposite happened. When I got to Jepsen, it was boring. To my (or Carly's or everybody's?) credit, I listened to both of these albums before 6:00 a.m. the day they came out because the dogs decided to be assholes that day and I was maybe not primed for the best most fair listening experience. By the time I was headed to school for the day, I was reaching to replay Midnights.

Hindsight is a funny thing, though, because in the month and a half since those albums dropped I've found The Loneliest Time to be way more interesting. It isn't album of the year material like Dedication was back in 2019, but the more somber tracks offer nice hidden secrets, and the bops are as sunny as ever from Canada's best pop singer.

The Long Way, The Slow Way - Camp Trash

Earlier this year, I bought a copy of Weezer's Make Believe at a used CD store for like 1/100th of what I paid for it when it came out in 2005. I bring this up to say I have been thinking about two things: (1) sympathy for the best-worst Weezer album (in terms of consensus, I think Make Believe is great and not just because it came out when I was 14 years old) and (2) riffs and albums with riffs whip ass and I should listen to more of them.

Enter The Long Way, The Slow Way which is the perfect 2022 version of Make Believe (that's a compliment, and I bet indie rock's best tweeter would take it as such). In the short 12 songs of Camp Trash's debut there are pop punk songs, arena rockers, and emo tunes. There are so, so many riffs. The Long Way is a serious album by a band that doesn't take themselves too seriously, and that joy - even when songs take on heftier subject matter - is contagious. I'm pissed I didn't get around to this when it came out over the summer because it almost doesn't make sense listening to Camp Trash while walking the dogs in semi-frozen mud in the park. If I hadn't listened to ten billion hours of Jack White bootlegs this summer, I bet this album would have cracked my "official" year end list. 

Look at this shit. How can you not love it?

Lost Souls - L.S. Dunes

Two years ago at almost this exact moment I contradicted a long-held belief that I thought was true: the wide universe of hardcore/screamo/post-hardcore/emo was actually really, really good. In 2020, Touché Amore's Lament was my favorite album of the year and in the years since have gotten deeper into their catalogue, and other bands you might find on a tour filer alongside them. I'm still a tentative fan, but what I do like from those genres, I don't just like, if ya catch my meaning (and in fact Touché Amore put out some reissues this year that were in heavy rotation).

However, my real entre into that universe of bands was actually April 2010, catching Circa Survive opening for Coheed & Cambria on their Year of the Black Rainbow tour. The show being out of town and me being 19, I was still very much in the camp of "be there three hours before doors and be at the mercy of the supporting acts so I can rail-ride during "Welcome Home"." The last time I'd seen Coheed, fucking Kylessa was the opener, and my expectations were low. Then Circa came out and played this songHoly shit.

Fast forward a few years to San Francisco, where my roommate, Calvin, put me on to other Anthony Green projects (including his excellent solo album Avalon which I instantly liked, it being more singer-songwritery than hardcore) including The Sound of Animals Fighting (back from the dead and touring next year!!). I can't say I was a huge fan, but there was something about that dude's voice that just worked for me.

Fast forward ten years and before Coheed & Cambria guitarist Travis Stever could catch his breath after touring one of my top albums of this year, L.S. Dunes was announced. A post-hardcore super group including Stever, a guy from My Chemical Romance (who I went all-in on in 2021) and this Anthony Green character. The Coheed co-sign was all I needed to check this record out.

And its awesome. It sounds like the component sum of the super group's parts (that I'm familiar with). Stever gets to shred, the MXC dude gets to shred (but less metal-y) and Green does what Green does, and at this point, I would probably listen to him sing the phonebook. Though, it is probably more exciting to listen to him sing songs:

I'm looking forward to spending more time with this album next year.

Boat Songs - MJ Lenderman

This album probably could be on my year end list, it is quite simply, the shit. Lenderman's unassuming collection of songs are funny; he's a storyteller in the same vein as Craig Finn of The Hold Steady or Bruce Springsteen, both apt comparisons for the bar band dudes-rock ethos of Boat Songs. What does Lenderman have going for him? His voice is incredible, it sounds like Dr. Pepper tastes. He can play the guitar like a whiz, but knows how to tone it back (though he can, and does, shred - stop reading and go listen to "Tastes Just Like it Costs" right now) weaving genre all the way around country, to Americana, to garage rock, to arena-ready big bangers, and back again. Shit, there's even a lo-fi bedroom recording (possibly the closest thing on the CD to a dud - the what I'm sure will grow on me late-album slow jam "Dan Marino").

Choogle entered the music writing discourse earlier this year, and while I can't define it for you, I can tell you MJ Lenderman choogles. In "You Have Bought Yourself a Boat," there's an impossibly good drum fill that will make you set down your Miller High Life bottle to pantomime every time. "Toon Town" drops some effervescent lovesickness: "did you find my Disney World? / did it make you dizzy, girl? / When it fell apart / did it break your heart?" You're too busy reeling over the Disney World/dizzy girl rhyme to get knocked over by the lyrics. "Still trying to be funny," he later sings, yeah dude, we know.

I'm inclined to underwrite this one: Boat Songs is so good, especially when so many others have written better pieces about it than I could. I'm pissed at myself for waiting nearly 8 months to check out this album. Though, I couldn't help but notice that the CD is exactly as long as my commute to work and a half, which means for a few weeks here I was shotgunning three Boat Songs a day. And it did not get old even once.

Cruel Country/Yankee Hotel Foxtrot Super Duper Mega Deluxe Dad Rock Essentials Edition* - Wilco

There's a famous line in Rob Mitchum's scathing Pitchfork review of Wilco's Sky Blue Sky from 2007. He calls it "an album that exposes the dad-rock genre the band has always carried but attempted to disguise - the stylistic equivalent of a wardrobe change into sweatpants and a tank top." Rob, if you had really wanted to get their asses, you should have said "an all-grey outfit of sweatpants and a pit-stained t-shirt working way too hard in the chest," but don't let me write a review for an album that came out when I was sixteen that, from my vantage point at the dishwasher, seemed to be enjoyed by the catering chef who was going through a messy divorce. To hear her tell it, Wilco was the truth, man, and "Sky Blue Sky" was the second best thing she'd ever heard outside of her attorney's wild speculations about a cash prize at the end of the hellish tunnel she was wandering towards the light in.

How's that for an overshare? Look, to me, Wilco is a band that always was and always will be, an alpha, and omega, if you will. It is hard to imagine that with their seminal text, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, indie darlings with no promises of the legacy act they would come to be twenty-one years later. 

And in that 21st year after YHT, Wilco releases Cruel Country which is itself a rhyming echo of Sky Blue Sky: a more sparse, "back to basics" (which is a stupid thing to say about a band in its 3rd decade) double-album of no-bullshit country tunes. As advertised, Cruel Country showcases some thinly veiled barbs at these United States, but really, sounds like an immensely dialed in band writing and performing solid songs. I would share my favorite tracks, but its just the first three songs and then "Many Worlds," which I think is the opening track on the second CD. 

Cruel Country is an album that's better because it is too long. Its a good car album and even just for fun, hit shuffle. The 21 tracks do and don't blend into each other and it is clear that the band was more interested in jamming out some songs; you can tell these are live-studio cuts as opposed to the meticulous studio-computer tinkering of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

To that point: one of the (many, many, many) treats in the YHT Super Deluxe Edition** are four alternate mixes of the entire album. Songwriter and frontman - Wilco's Willy Wonka - Jeff Tweedy is a tinkerer in addition to a very good singer and songwriter, and listening to deeeeeeeeep cuts on the Super Deluxe, and then having a palette cleanse on Cruel Country made for a really nice full picture on Tweedy and Wilco as a process band. And to that point, I don't want to dwell on extra-textual material: the demos are cool, the live album is cool, the radio interview discussing 9/11 the literal week after it happened is cool, but the songs on both these albums are very good.

And I'm a dad, so with respect to Mr. Mitchum, thank you for seeing me in what I wear. You gotta cut Wilco some slack, the sweatsuit album they put out this year is just as listenable as the tortured masterpiece. There's room for both in the music fan's wardrobe.

*that might not be the exact name of the edition, don't quote me on it.
** that is what the edition is called, quote me.

Jack White Released 2 Studio Albums This Year and Went on a Cartoonishly Large World Tour, What Am I Supposed to Do Other Than Write 1,882 Words About It?

I read this really good book awhile ago. It was called Federer and Me, by William Skidelsky, and it was sort of a biography about the tennis player, Roger Federer, but it was mostly about Skidelsky's obsession with the tennis player, and more than that, it was a reflection on obsession itself. What does it mean to be a super-fan? What did it mean, for Skidelsky to go watch Federer play while his wife was in the hospital delivering their first child? What does it mean that she not only anticipated that, but encouraged it?

I don't think obsession is something only one person can hold. For example, back in October when news broke that 1996 cinema masterpiece Twister would be getting a sequel - tentatively titled Twisters (lol) people popped up out of the woodwork to share that news with me. People I hadn't talked to in years remembered that I was obsessed, that obsession in some way effected them, and here we are, years later, talking about a blockbuster movie about an unlikely storm cell and how it rekindled a love gone cold. Another, perhaps more pertinent example, would be that Jack White released two new studio albums and went on a cartoonishly large world tour this year. The first handful of times I left Ben at home to go do something that wasn't work or getting him diapers or us food, was to wait in line outside of Third Man Records Cass Corridor for some Jack White vinyl, or, twice in one weekend, to see Jack White open the Supply Chain Issues Tour at the Masonic Temple. There wasn't really much conversation about it; Rachel knew I was going, I knew I was going, so I went. I like to think I made it up to her staying up a little extra in the nights leading up to, and after, those shows. But I also like to think she was happy to see me happy. Even after we left Detroit, friends in the orbit of my obsession were running down to the record store to get exclusive copies of singles, of albums, of printed lyric hymnals (thank you Aunt Nicole, Ayah, and others!). Shit, my local record store dude even staged some pictures of me and a very special Jack White fan at Spoonful.

This is all to say, I'm glad my obsession isn't a secret, I'm glad everybody I know who knows me is in on it, because I really, really am obsessed with Jack White, but I'm also obsessed with the love of my friends and family. Its nice to live with both.

It should be a surprise to exactly nobody that I really, really liked April's Fear of the Dawn and July's Entering Heaven Alive, but that wasn't what I spent most of 2022 listening to. Here's the part where I sound like I'm doing a sponsored post, and I wish I was! because I'd love to get some free shit just for writing about the music I am obsessed with! but I'm not, I promise this is genuine. A few years ago Jack White got into the universe of high quality concert "bootlegs" available to stream or purchase. At first, Nugs was a good place for obscure White Stripes shows (many of which I wrote about a few months ago) and digital version of otherwise vinyl-only Vault releases. Now, the platform itself sucks: the app is slow, the website is prehistoric, but on April 8th, when I was leaving the Masonic Temple having seen Jack White debut new songs, propose to Olivia Jean during "Hotel Yorba" and then come back to marry her during the show's encore, I was handed a postcard with a code on it making the bold claim that all of the Supply Chain Issues World Tour would be archived on Nugs for your listening pleasure. Holy shit. Obviously I couldn't chase the tour like I did in 2018, but now I could listen to every single Jack White live show in the comfort of my home, my car, or my headphones? Holy shit, yes. And sure enough, my old ritual of checking what crazy deep cuts Jack would pull out in setlists each morning-after became sending Rachel off to work and listening to the newest show's bootleg with Ben throughout the day. I was ignoring new music, old music, skipping podcasts. Listening to one 100 minute concert isn't that much of a tax on your music time, but, a whole tour? Dozens and dozens of 100 minute concerts? Suddenly the summer was gone and I hadn't listened to anything but Jack White live!

Of the one hundred and four shows this year, I have listened to sixty-nine* of them (as of this writing). To put that into (or out of? hard to say) perspective, if you compile every live Jack White song I have listened to this year (as of this writing!) that's 1506 songs totally in 98 hours, 13 minutes, and 12 seconds of blistering guitar solos, wailing screams, and tender acoustic ballads. 

Is this excessive? Yes. Is it obsessive? Also yes. Do I regret it? No, not really. Jack White, and all of his bands, have been all about the live experience. (Approximately) 100 hours and (approximately) 1500 songs (most of which are the same songs, but often in some wildly different ways) later I'm not really bored of it, but I am more inclined to put on a concert bootleg than I am either of the studio albums. I know I for sure over-listened to Fear of the Dawn, despite my rapturous praise at first listen. 

The CD arrived one entire week early. Ben and Rachel were having a nice nap together when it arrived, so, under the cover of headphones, blasted my brains and fired off the following:

I had a less potent reaction of Entering Heaven Alive (though I think time will reveal that to the one I prefer of the two - and don't get me started on tinkering over a double-album sequence re-connecting these two projects!). Part of that was I did not have a record player to play it on when it came out, part of that was White was in the middle of burning the earth underneath him in Europe around the release and those shows were incredible, so I was more inclined to listen to those. Then, as summer wound down into the school year, it somehow made more sense, and was more satisfying, to listen to half a show on the way to work, and the rest on the way home.

In my mind, Jack White released six albums this year. They are:
  1. Fear of the Dawn
  2. Entering Heaven Alive
  3. The Supply Chain Issues Tour / Masonic Temple, April 8, 2022
  4. The Supply Chain Issues Tour / Masonic Temple, April 9, 2022
  5. Live from Marshall Street
  6. The Supply Chain Issues Tour
I'm conflicted about the last two (and really 3 & 4 as well) because while I don't mind subscription services both digital and physical, its hard for me to "count" or "include" (semi)limited releases on a year end list. If I could, five of the above six "albums" would be on my year end list (which is why I'm writing about them here instead). Marshall Street is a vinyl-only Rough Trade exclusive that comes housed in a lovely box set with the 7th variant of FOTD and 5th variant of EOH. The show, captured on Third Man London's grand opening (September 25, 2021) played from a rooftop overlooking Carnaby and Marshall Streets to a rapturous crowd. The LP catches "Dead Leaves", "Lazaretto", "Steady, As She Goes", "We're Going to Be Friends", and of course "Seven Nation Army" played by the Saturday Night Live trio: Jack, Daru on drums, and Dominic on bass. Its a solid recording, but the songs White played in the TMR London basement offers a more exciting setlist. 

Live from The Supply Chain Issues Tour is a Vault-exclusive, so its (ostensibly) even harder to get than the Rough Trade box set. LP one are live cuts from Fear of the Dawn (minus "Into the Twilight" which debuted riiiiiight after they started pressing), the Union Chapel London live debut of all of Entering Heaven Alive, and the third LP is a compilation of all the improvisational jams and covers Jack, Daru, Dominic, and Qunicy McCrary played on keys. A revelation of raw rock and roll, but maybe a little less exciting if you'd listened to the entire tour up to the pressing date for this admittedly awesome collection. I imagine I'll play the shit out of this once my Nugs account expires and we're a few years removed from this prolific Jack White era.

That leaves, truthfully, the two most sacred musical texts of 2022: Jack White's tour-openers on - literally - "The Jack White Stage" at the Masonic Temple in Detroit, Michigan. There's a lot I could say about these shows: about chewing up all of the VIP early entry time watching for the incredible Matthew Jacobson time capsule posters on both nights (listen to this interview he did with the Third Men Podcast recently it is incredible)

I could talk about the tremendous and impressive opening sets done by Sugar Tradition and Olivia Jean and her band, or I could talk about the electric feeling in my body as Jack's silhouette ripped the opening licks of "Taking Me Back" from behind a blue curtain, the vibrant thrill as it flew up and the stage thrust forward, about the first-time-ever live debut of his cover of U2's "Love is Blindness", or the ultra-rare "I'm Shakin'" or being able to see Jack White with the guy who got me into Jack White - my Uncle Bill, or the cathartic joy of being back in a concert venue after the pandemic paused live music, or the pure joy of "My Doorbell" and other favorite White Stirpes songs. It is, truly, impossible to recount every thrill from those two nights, but if I could narrow down one exactly moment, it would be that I was at Jack White's wedding.

And this is where I return to love and obsession. Jack White once said "music is sacred," and if you see his live shows (or listen to a hundred hours of them) you'll know he means that. You'll know he is obsessed with music and with sharing it with his fans. On April 8th, Jack connected (by love, ha, that's a song title) his love of Olivia, his love of music, and his love of showmanship, in a sort of pre-Easter trinity of his own. And I was there.

Because that's the real thing about obsession: whether its a tennis player, or a band, or performing your music and the people you love, it isn't about keeping that obsession for yourself. It is about sharing it, as widely, generously, and brilliantly as you can. Listen to any of these shows and you'll hear it.

Luckily for me, I'll have those shows to listen to and remember forever, not just my two favorite "albums" of the year, but two of my favorites of all time. 

*71, but I'm not doing the math.

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Shot, Chaser: Isaac Fitzgerald's "Dirtbag, Massachusetts"

I've been a fan of Isaac Fitzgerald for a long time. This isn't a brag, but since so much of his memoir, a collection of inter-woven essays, is concerned with storytelling I feel like I have to start somewhere. I met Fitzgerald at the Association for Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Conference in Washington D.C. in 2011 the same weekend The White Stripes broke up. Issac was working the table for The Rumpus, which back then was an edgy anti-literary online publication; think The New Yorker if it were born in Kerouac's San Francisco (for "the mad ones" as Fitzgerald describes in "The Armory"): not yet fully bulldozed by tech money, the San Francisco I fell in love with ... got the bay boats, the late nights, the food and nightlife clustered with the hills of Chinatown and North Beach. The docks down by the water and, merely a bridge away, all the wilderness you could ever want. 

They sold mugs that said WRITE LIKE A MOTHER FUCKER on them, which I would later learn was a soundbite by Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild and former Rumpus columnist. I was hooked, not just by the brash don't-give-a-fuck-ness of it all, but because The Rumpus had the world's best front man in the universe cheering them on: Isaac Fitzgerald. I wanted to be a part of a literary world where that guy was the face of your publication, and that publication was in San Francisco.   

So, I moved to San Francisco. Here's me approximately one week after arriving in California, asking a passerby to take my picture like a fucking dork.


Dirtbag, Massachusetts came out this summer and I was immensely excited. Finishing my dissertation butting up against starting a new job and a continued long-term job search and buying a house and moving and having a baby and moving and so on and so on really interrupted my time to read for leisure. I'd even said at the onset of the pandemic I'd at least have time to read (which I instead spent playing the DOOM video game franchise - more on that, eventually). Grad school more or less killed me as a reader. I thought for sure this book would bring be back; it landed on our door step in the high heat of a dogshit hot summer, what better way to relax during baby's nap time than a cold beer and this book.

Well, it turns out I didn't have the infinite time off that I'd hoped for (looking for a house, I somehow forgot, is time consuming; course prep, I somehow forgot, is time consuming; playing DOOM 3, I forgot, is time consuming). But I also had a little reservation with the book: a quick glance at the table of contents revealed to me that I had already read previously published essays in the book! What a rip off!
This put me off, at first, so the book sat. Then school started. Then I got covid, then ... you know how it goes. Fast forward to winter break, the beautiful dust jacket gunning me down. Dirtbag, Massachusetts giving me puppy dog eyes from my bookshelf. I scoop it up and dive in and, suddenly, the weekend - and book - are over.

What hadn't been previously published are essays that talk about family, depression, Boston, rural New England, lots of pained reflection on Catholicism and ways to scrounge some personal spirituality from the mess the church made of itself; drinking, friendship, taking risks, vulnerability, storytelling. The book also does a wonderful job addressing "guy issues," which feels really stupid to type, but was a core theme in the book. Sexuality, body image, antiracism, are all presented from a thoughtful perspective that all-too-often is bullied into not being thoughtful at all. For a Dirtbag, Fitzgerald checks his privilege, reflects on his cis-het perspective, and white male readers are better for it, I think.

But, the best 'pitch' on a book so generous it doesn't need a pitch: its a series of stories that are all about, or honor, storytelling, shared eagerly by a guy who so badly wants to tell you his tales. 

Fitzgerald will tell you stories about wonderful and odd people ("the mad ones") at Zeitgeist Bar in San Francisco's Mission District (yes, I drank many beers there), he'll tell you about his time doing secret agent shit (for good! not evil!) in Burma. He'll tell you about climbing a mountain and somehow the mountain is the smallest character in the essay!

It is funny, and charming, direct and poignant. I won't spoil the ending, but Fitzgerald fixates on the perfect opening to a story (which he opens the book with) and the closing essay, "My Story" so beautifully rhymes with the beginning and this fixation. It sucked all the air out of the room I was reading in, but not in a suffocating way. 

Make the mistake I did: read those four essays. If you like 'em, grab Dirtbag. If you like it, let me know and we can get some beers and talk about it. If you don't like it, let me know and we can get some beers and talk about it. Either way, let's try to tell each other more stories more often.

Friday, December 16, 2022

Kaveh Akbar's "Pilgrim Bell" - Delayed Gratification and Cotton Candy

 I was a big fan of Kaveh Akbar, though I am not sure how that came about. It was as if he emerged as an established and essential contemporary writer. His debut chapbook, Portrait of the Alcoholic absolutely floored me when it came out in early 2017. Akbar had (deservedly so) real literary bona fides, he was getting buzz in all the "right" journals, and in what seemed like fifteen seconds, his first full-length (Calling a Wolf a Wolf) was out (later in 2017) on Alice James Books. I even got to see Akbar give a reading in Detroit the morning of Jay Z's 4:44 tour stop at Little Caesar's Arena, which I only mention to say the poet in a humble arthouse living room was the better of the two performances I saw that day (not a slight on Jay Z, mind you).

But, 2017 was also the year I fell out of love with poetry stopped writing poetry. Something happened that both was and wasn't grad school, which I started in August of that very same year. I want to say I was "too busy" for poetry, but I wasn't. I want to say I was "too focused" and writing from another perspective, but I wasn't. Allow me a digression:

In early 2014 I applied to PhD programs as a solution to a problem that a PhD program wouldn't solve. I needed something to do, and in February of that year, I was still six months away from announcing to the Pacific Ocean that "I didn't get an M.F.A. to teach" (still one of the all-time dumbest things I ever said) and thus began my long, miserable slog to listless service industry life in San Francisco, then Oakland, then extradited back to Ohio. Sometimes I try to indulge in self-pitying reminiscence, but when I finally got a job teaching freshman composition at University of Michigan Dearborn, it felt earned through the self-destructive oblivion I had wrought for myself.

Not to be melodramatic, but when Akbar writes about his alcoholism, though I am not an alcoholic myself, I can relate - in the most Catholic sense - to the guilt he writes from. In Pilgrim Bell's titular poem, he writes:

"I demand.

To be forgiven. 

I demand.

A sturdier soul."

I needed "a sturdier soul" to rediscover poetry, maybe I felt like I needed forgiveness for the stupid shit I had done to myself and to my loved ones. I thought of poetry, between 2017 and 2022, as a vector for teaching. I wrote a little, published a few poems, but was mostly focused on poetry as a means for exciting young writers into, well, writing. Any means necessary.

I distinctly remember being excited at the beginning of the pandemic (hold on this will make sense) for two reasons: first, I had finished coursework and with a lightened teaching load at my two campuses would have more time to focus on my own dissertation writing and, second, a bunch of good poetry was coming out and I would finally have time to get back in the habit of reading poems and writing poems of my own.

Turns out writing a dissertation is hugely difficult and all-consuming. Pilgrim Bell came out in August 2021, two weeks before my defense. One week after my defense I started a new job. Two weeks after that we bought a house and moved into it. Two weeks after that I began looking for a permanent job to replace my one-year visiting appointment at Detroit Mercy. Two months after that Ben was born. Turns out having an infant is hugely difficult and all-consuming.

In another of the sequence of titular poems in the book, Akbar writes: "The self I am today. / Involves me. / As a lake. / Involves. / Its cattails. / It bears me."

Early in my M.F.A., I had been so concerned with what poets were instead of what poets did (write poems, dumbass). I wish I'd approached my craft back then with the same no-bullshit I approach teaching, which was to lean into the many selves I could be while being Writing Teacher. That made it effortless, enjoyable, natural, rewarding. It's why I know my students like me, it's why I can leave every morning happy, it's why while I might come home depleted, my spirit is still full.

The self I have been since Ben was born involves me as a father, which itself involves many, many things. Recently, I have been reading him books to sleep, but since Ben hasn't acquired language yet I can kind of read him anything I want. Star Wars fiction, card game rule books, and lots of poetry. Turns out "the sturdier soul" I needed, to rediscover that love of poetry, wasn't my own. It was his.

And to him, while finally digging into this book that I had been so excited about by a poet who excites me so greatly, I found tremendous delayed gratification in the work. Pilgrim Bell crosses the impossible threshold that Portrait set, it floored me almost on every single page. The work is humble, and sweeping, and generous, and selfish. It is confessional, and honest; it is what my poems aspire to be. Its hilarious.

Take, for example, "Cotton Candy" which opens with a John Donne quote: "To go to heaven, we make heaven come to us" and begins with the line: "yes John I tried that the results were / underwhelming my liver practically / leapt out of my body." That's bleak, sure, but its also very funny. This poem, fixating on Akbar's mother as many of the poems in the book do, ends with such a tremendous image that I hope sits with you as long as it has sat with me:

        my mother hated rides

she was happy to buy me cotton candy and

        sit on a bench


                she'd watch me eat the whole bag

I think of fear, and guilt, obsession. I watch Ben doze. Reading him these poems while he is too small to understand them is a bag of cotton candy I will watch him eat every night. Smiling. Forgiving myself. Fortifying that sturdier soul - one which is lightened - as new loves (sons, fatherhood, poetry) flood back into me, familiar again. 

Thursday, December 15, 2022

A Round-Up (In No Particular Order) of Albums I Liked Enough to Buy on Vinyl* But Not to Rank on a Year End List This Year

Asphalt Meadows - Death Cab for Cutie

This album got dealt an unfair hand, it came out (1) the week I had COVID and (2) during the first week of the semester. This being my first ever semester at Ohio Dominican, while I couldn't resist the urge to keep a record player at work, I could resist the urge to blast all of my LPs at full bore. You guys hired me? Time for some mother f**king Coheed guitar solos! This, fortunately, did not happen.

This politeness kind of sucked for Asphalt Meadows because it is an album that starts really loudly. "i don't know how i survive" and "roman candles" which are as good as any of the best Death Cab songs are punchy, noisy, Narrow Stairs meets Kintsugi studio fuzz. They rule, especially "roman candles" which I think is my favorite new Death Cab song since the title track of 2011's Codes & Keys. As the needle moves inward on side a, though, the album gets softer. This is to say, at least on vinyl, I basically did not listen to Asphalt Meadows.

Which is too bad. Album #10 for the Cab-crew shows signs of growth, not signs of age. Not weary ones, anyway. The band, including new members Dave Depper and Zac Rae, sent files back and forth using Dropbox during the pandemic to lay down demos for these songs and that distance doesn't show in the tracks. You can really hear nice synergy between Depper, Rae, Gibbard, Hammer, and McGrerr on bops like "here to forever" which is also a bitchin' track. I will not, however, talk about "foxglove through the clearcut." I think a semi-spoken word track is cool, but if this was a CD I'd skip the track almost every time. It isn't bad, and its possible live this might be a neat song, but its kind of boring. Gibbard's voice is this band's greatest weapon and he shouldn't put a silencer on it! 

Not to dwell on it, but flip the record (which is an adorable shade of pink) and you get "pepper" that showcases no cracks in Gibbard's perfect affectation. God he sounds good! This song rules. "Kiss me just this one last time / show me that your love was mine." Are you kidding me? Vintage DCFC! "i miss strangers" also rocks. I'm kind of selling myself on this LP lol.

At some point, Death Cab for Cutie became more of a touring band than a studio band. More and more I find myself listening to favorite songs instead of albums, and I'll see them live any time they're at a venue in my state (except this year - fucking covid). The worst case scenario for an album from Gibbard and crew at this stage in their career is songs I don't mind displacing other songs at the shows and the best slow jams on Asphalt Meadows (which, by the way, is the almost-sublime "fragments of the decade") probably fit nicely mid-set. "Roman Candles" I would expect to be an arena-sized jam and anything else is just a fond reminder of how good these guys are at making music, and that's good enough.

Luckily, Asphalt Meadows isn't a worst-case-scenario album.


As is the case for a high-profile release on the magnitude of a new Beyoncé album, much digital ink has been spilled that goes far, far beyond what I can (or should) say about it. Read Craig Jenkins' essential review.

This was another album that, for me, suffered by circumstances. Let me lead off with the obvious: I very much like this album and it is very, very good. I'll cancel class next semester to fight for tickets for the inevitable tour next summer and it will, surely, be the highlight of our year (if Rachel and I can even go). "BREAK MY SOUL," "CUFF IT", "MOVE" are all essential Beyoncé songs. 

But, boring in my predictability as I am, RENAISSANCE came out one week after the second of two Jack White albums, and one week before the closest Coheed tour date to me. This is to say, headphone time was contentious. I say headphone time because, though this is a list for albums I liked this year that I listen to on vinyl, the massive double 180 gram LPs that collect this incredible hour of music burned the motor on my spinnerette turntable at home, and being a full-time dad this summer, I couldn't exactly leave my baby to go listen to this on a proper turntable with proper speakers when it first arrived at my doorstep.

Still, RENAISSANCE came out on a Friday I was going - by myself - to Youngstown, which meant I could hear these songs they way I believe they are best served: very loudly, and in one continuous listen. As soon as "SUMMER RENAISSANCE" ended I immediately tapped play on "I'M THAT GIRL", totally floored (as I am right now, listening to it loud in my empty academic building while students shuffle around campus from exam to exam). 

I like how low-stakes it feels (that's a compliment) and I like how much it plays like a DJ set, or a playlist. As usual, Beyoncé rewards you for bringing a syllabus to the album, but like LEMONADE before it, the extra-textual readings are enhancements, not requirements. Even more so with the deep music and cultural references all over these songs. Like EVERYTHING IS LOVE there is a lightness not always found in Beyoncé's later work. That's also a good thing. I anticipate continuing to uncover the layers of this record, and I pray for the opportunity to shake my ass like an idiot while she performs these songs soon.

Note: Rachel likes singing this to Ben, which I think is excellent. 

The Will to Live - Titus Andronicus

I maybe should have sequenced these better. Like RENAISSANCE, Titus Andronicus's latest is too a sprawling narrative soundscape with a rich history. The Will to Live tells a more personal story: grieving the death of +@' front man Patrick Stickles' cousin and former bandmate Matt "Money" Miller. The album, in Stickels' own words:
Certain recent challenges, some unique to myself and some we have all shared, but particularly the passing of my dearest friend, have forced me to recognize not only the precious and fragile nature of life, but also the interconnectivity of all life. Loved ones we have lost are really not lost at all, as they, and we still living, are all component pieces of a far larger continuous organism, which both precedes and succeeds our illusory individual selves, united through time by (you guessed it) the will to live.

Recognition of this self-evident truth demands that we extend the same empathy and compassion we would wish for ourselves outward to every living creature, even to those we would label our enemies, for we are all cells in the same body, sprung from a common womb, devoted to the common cause of survival.

Naturally, though, our long-suffering narrator can only arrive at this conclusion through a painful and arduous odyssey through Hell itself—this is a Titus Andronicus record, after all.

The guitar solo on "An Anomaly" is as good a thesis statement for this album as anything I can write, so, go seek that out. If you like it, give the other hour of music on this album a shot.

Let's Never Leave This Filthy World - Craig Brown Band*

The cassette-tape-only follow up to Craig Brown Band's excellent bar-band take on country-rock on Painters Tape records is just about as good as The Lucky Ones Forget. I'd say a critical difference is that Filthy World is that the only place I can listen to it is in the tape deck in my office boom box, which is, technically speaking, a limiting factor. This isn't Craig Brown Band's fault, but my inability to nurse three to seven beers while humming along is kind of a strike against.

But still, like Brown's debut, Let's Never Leave This Filthy World rules. It's such a good collection of songs that play on the various sensibilities that motivate the CBB: country, Tom Petty-style balladry, foot-stomping bar jams: its all here. You just can't really listen to it. Hoping for a wider release, but until then I'll enjoy the hand written X/50 cassette edition. Supposedly its coming on vinyl "later this year," but this year is almost over. I'm 10000000% positive this would have been my third most listened album of the year if I could have, ya know, listened to it more. C'mon Craig, we need tunes!

*this is a cassette tape not a vinyl

Once, Twice Melody - Beach House

Indulge me in hearing a brief story. Sometime this past February, maybe even early March, it was a crisp day, as winter days are oft to be in Southeastern Michigan. I left Detroit Mercy's campus, as I often did, after a nice day of teaching. Ben had started daycare, so I wasn't in as much of a rush to get home, so I found my way to Ferndale to browse the stacks. I found myself eye-level with this:

Now, being into indie music used to be my whole personality, so I was familiar with Beach House, and I was a fan of their big hit record from 2012 but they aren't a band I follow. And yet, the milk and honey color of Once, Twice Melody literally took my breath away. You can sort of tell in the picture that its textured; it feels like an old leather bound book, which I might just be saying because the four sides of the double LP are labeled as "chapters." 

I wasn't swept up enough to get the deluxe, but the standard edition came home with me that day. Rachel was at work, the dog was snoozing, Ben was still at daycare, so I laid down and closed my eyes to listen to my spur of the moment purchase.

Sometimes you should judge a book by its cover. Once, Twice Melody is a haunting, beautiful, spacious piece of music. I appreciate the purity of the vinyl release in its stubborn dis-inclusion of a download code, which means that any of the many times I've listened to this album this year, its been by patiently unfolding each track, each side, each disc. Just great, vibey stuff. If iTunes had a wishlist I'd earmark the mp3s, but I'm just as happy to space out, grey sky in the window beside me, and let Beach House take me away.

Elise, 10th Anniversary Reissue - The Horrible Crowes

At this point, I would listen to Brian Fallon read the phone book. His voice is so good, a nice blend of the (sorry) Bruce Springsteen grit and balladry with the New Jersey punk scene The Gaslight Anthem came up in. Speaking of The Gaslight Anthem, did you know they reunited for a tour this year? It somehow does not show up on YouTube, but one of the highlights of their Detroit tour stop was their cover of INXS's "Never Tear Us Apart" in a medley with "Have Mercy." From the cheap seats I sat and wondered where I'd heard that song before and then it hit me:

The Horrible Crowes covered this during their elite one studio album and one live album (based on one live show). Man, all hits, no misses, that's how you do it. I gotta circle back for a second: when Elise first dropped, The Gaslight Anthem was still touring, was still regularly releasing albums, so I sort of shelved the project which is, admittedly, a little more "adult" than the punky vibe of Fallon's main band. When the Elise reissue shipped early this year it was on constant replay in my office, at home, in headphones, anywhere.

"Nothing gold can stay," says S.E. Hinton? Phewy, says me, admiring the marbled gold LPs of a decade old album I've come to love for its patience, its tunefulness, its bluesy ballad, and shit, even its cover that I knew but didn't know (until Gaslight Anthem played it in October). Sometimes you gotta play the long game with this music stuff, and that's fine by me. I don't mean to make a blurb on The Horrible Crowes all about another band, but after they broke up, after Fallon's run of solo records (Sleepwalkers was my 2018 album of the year), Brian Fallon is both a rare and a hot commodity for me; this year The Horrible Crowes got venerable status from me. And to wit: as "Ladykiller" plays it doesn't sound like a side project. It sounds like an old friend. 

Live @ Studio 4/Farm to Table - Bartees Strange

2020's Live Forever might be my favorite debut album, at least of the last ten years. The raw and eclectic power of Bartees Strange has that "you gotta hear it live" quality so imagine my (and many, many, many other listeners') delight when Strange announced a live album to bridge the gap between the debut and his second album. 

prettiest albums of the year anyway

For these both, Strange rolled out these albums in a way that I'm sure is going to be an industry norm for a while: digital releases with physical copies shipping way later. I think this is a good release strategy: you in effect get two release dates for your albums. The Studio 4 session got a lot of headphone play when it first came out (in October 2021, shut up, I make the list, I make the rules lol the vinyl didn't ship until this year) and added nice texture to Live Forever's songs. "Boomer" sounds like he's playing in an arena, "Kelly Rowland" has a nice instrumental rearrangement but keeps its cooler vibes, albeit hotter and louder. The real gem on Studio 4 is the impossible to find (on vinyl) cover of The National's "Lemon World" which is where Bartees Strange's very good few years in indie music started. This LP makes good on all the promises the debut makes ...

... which makes Farm to Table maybe a bummer? Its a good album! "Wretched" is good. "Mulholland Dr." is really good, and I won't accuse Farm to Table of doing the same shit Live Forever does, but it didn't catch me as much. Maybe it was timing? The album dropped right after we moved, which was right after new Coheed dropped. Maybe I'm bitter because I missed Strange's stop in Columbus later this fall? I know this is a record I'll keep coming back to, Strange is too good, too unique of a voice to shelf. I am impossibly excited for what comes next.

Hard to say for sure, but when he's in town again, I know two things: first, he'll be playing a way bigger room and deservedly so, and two, I'll get to hear the new songs in the best way possible, as evidenced by Studio 4: live.

A Light for Attracting Attention - The Smile

I very much used to love Radiohead. I still really like Radiohead, and at time, still love Radiohead. In 2020, one of the highlights of that year was reading Steven Hyden's excellent book This Isn't Happening: Radiohead's Kid A and the Beginning of the 21st Century, albeit a little on the nose to do a deep dive on a band's pivot away from the humane into digital noise on the alienation of virtual life. But otherwise, in the 15 years since I first heard In Rainbows and subsequently went all in on Radiohead, have cooled. 

To my credit, they cooled too. 2016's A Moon Shaped Pool is (generously) a softer, more contemplative album (honestly: its fucking boring). And what's worse (for me I guess) is that tickets to that tour were Taylor Swift-levels of hard to get, so I didn't have the opportunity to piece those new (and boring!) songs in the broader context of Radiohead's work. They are, if anything else, an excellent live band (and always have been - track down some of the bootlegs Hyden mentions in his book and you'll be sold!). I missed riff-rocking-Radiohead, is I guess what I am trying to say.

Enter, then, The Smile. In May 2021 some mysterious social media posting from Thom Yorke led way to The Smile: a band made up of the Radiohead front man, Jonny Greenwood (Radiohead's guitarist), and Tom Skinner. Their debut performance came packaged with their reveal: a live-streamed set "at" Glastonbury that was 8 new songs long. It was raw, it was frantic, it was unpolished in ways Radiohead hasn't sounded in nearly ten years. It was sudden, it was free of the burden of the legacy band's long career, and most importantly (to me): it had riffs that fucking rip. Yorke's voice bent and wailed in ways that were a breath of fresh, nasty, grueling air. It was like Radiohead had gone punk. I listened to my shitty Zoom recording of that show dozens of times, and when a more technically savvy fan circulated a higher quality bootleg I listened to that hundreds of times. I was so fucking excited for The Smile, a band named after a Ted Hughes poem that, as Yorke puts it, evokes "not the smile as in 'ahh,' the smile as in the guy who lies to you every day." This was the skittish, post-punk, mid-pandemic kind of nastiness I wanted from members of a band who, to my ear, got complacent.

They opened 2022 with a series of shows in London, one of the many livestream concerts I "went to." It was good, very, very good, but it lacked that sudden immediacy of the Glasto surprise. I guess with the cat out of the bag there was less to be excited about? Is Radiohead breaking up discourse soured The Smile's rollout, which while writing this, surprised me for being less than a year long. It felt like forever from May 2021 to the April 2022 release of A Light for Attracting Attention. This is another one that suffered from too-close-to-new-Jack-White-itis, I think, because as I listen to the excellent Rough Trade aLtErNaTe ArT vArIaNt (which I got solely for the included CD of live cuts from the London shows) I'm really, really loving this record. It would be a lie to include this as a favorite of the year - I barely listened to it! But I'm excited to spend more time with The Smile, and that's as in 'ahh,' not as in a guy who is lying to you right now.

God's Country - Chat Pile

This is sort of a speculative post. Thanks to the supply chain issues that has dramatically effected vinyl production, Oklahoma City's Chat Pile's debut might have released on July 29 this year, but I won't be hearing it (the way I suspect it will sound the most potently) on vinyl until the end of January at the earliest. 

I bought the hype around Chat Pile who wore the "only metal band indie guys listen to" crown with grace this summer. The album is excellent, in a terrifying way. Or terrifying, in an excellent way. From its opening notes, which upset my friend Antonio's pets, to the sort-of-funny sort-of-too-earnest social justice orientation in the ham-fisted lyrics of "Why" (Raygun Busch evokes post-punk in a sing talky scree that includes the provocative rhetorical question: "Why do people live outside?"). To be honest, what sold me on this album even more than an Ian Cohen co-sign is the album description on Bandcamp, which says a lot but ends with "this is what the end of the world sounds like." Sign me up!

I'm still dipping my toes into sludge metal, but it isn't a totally new genre - Third Man finally pummeled me into becoming a fan of Sleep. With no other bands occupying this lane on my iPod, Chat Pile took up a good chunk of my ears this summer. I'm excited to let the record wail in my office (when nobody else is in the building).