Thursday, December 27, 2018

What wondrous love is this?

This was an unexpected gift.  Jason Molina's Songs: Ohia album "The Lioness" is perhaps one of the most influential albums in my life.  I happened upon a few songs in 2000, back when Epitonic was one of the major players on the internet, helping people to find previously unknown musicians and bands.  Sometime later, in 2001, I finally bought 'The Lioness' and from thereon out, his music matched every major life transition, every upswing and downswing in my emotional state, every joy and loss.  For years, I could not listen to The Lioness without becoming overwhelmed by memories.  

A couple months ago, 5 years after Jason's death, Secretly Canadian re-released this album, alongside nearly an album's worth of recordings from the same session, the majority of which had never even been played live, let alone released.  Jason was known for being extremely prolific, often writing and recording or performing songs in the same day.  When playing live, he tended to prefer new songs and would rarely perform songs from his extensive catalogue.  It would not surprise me to learn that he had scrapped more songs than he'd recorded, giving us somewhat of a guarantee that we'll continue to have these occasional leaks of old material.

Many words have been spent by others more talented at writing about music than I am, so I won't reiterate at length how the unreleased songs capture Jason's belief in a dichotomy of love songs; whereas the original Lioness release captured the emotional, the longing, these new songs represent the "work" aspect, the effort of keeping the relationship.  I think that's pretty true.

What surprised me most about this album was the recording of the historic hymnal 'Wondrous Love.'  Jason's faith was always somewhat mysterious, but he held an appreciation for appalachian and southern gospel (evidenced by naming an album after Mahalia Jackson's 'Didn't It Rain'), so his recording of this song isn't a surprise; what's a surprise are the subtle changes he's made to it to reflect his own place in the world.  

Below are the lyrics to one of the original versions (via Wiki), from which most lyrics are descended.  Note the skipping over of half the verses, and the change of the tense of the final verse from present to future.  I've blocked out the lyrics he skipped and bolded Jason's changes:

What wondrous love is this
O my soul! O my soul!
What wondrous love is this!
O my soul!
What wondrous love is this!
That caused the Lord of bliss
to send this precious peace,
To my soul, to my soul!
To send this precious peace
To my soul!
To bare the dreadful curse
for my soul, for my soul
To bare the dreadful curse
for my soul.

When I was sinking down,
Sinking down, sinking down;
When I was sinking down
Sinking down
When I was sinking down,
Beneath God's righteous frown,
Christ laid aside his crown
For my soul, for my soul!
Christ laid aside his crown
For my soul!

Ye winged seraphs fly, 
Bear the news, bear the news!
Ye winged seraphs fly
Bear the news!
--Ye winged seraphs fly, 
like comets through the sky,
fill vast eternity!
With the news, with the news!
Fill vast eternity
With the news!

Ye friends of Zion's king,
join his praise, join his praise;
Ye friends of Zion's king,
join his praise;
Ye friends of Zion's king,
with hearts and voices sing,
and strike each tuneful string
in his praise, in his praise!
and strike each tuneful string
in his praise!

To God and to the Lamb,
I will sing, I will sing;
To God and to the Lamb,
I will sing
--To God and to the Lamb,
who is the great I AM,
while millions join the theme,
I will sing, I will sing!
while millions join the theme,
I will sing!
To God and to the Lamb,
I will sing
And while when from death I'm free,
I'll sing on, I'll sing on,
And while when from death I'm free,
I'll sing on.
and while when from death I'm free, 
I'll sing and joyful be,
and throughout eternity
I'll will sing on, I'll will sing on,
and throughout eternity
I'll will sing on.

While certainly he took a reductionist approach to these lyrics to focus the theme a bit less on the joyous celebration and salvation and a bit more on the evocation of mortality and death, I want to most directly address this last verse--look at this does to the meaning.  The original lyrics state 'while from death I'm free,' it evokes a safety in belief, a notion that 'I will never truly die, for my fate is in heaven, and I will therefore sing the praises of God while I am on earth."  Jason's changes were purposeful and bleaker.  "When from death I'm free, I'll sing on."  This life is finite, this life is struggle, but when I die, my spirit will live on.  Both verses, of course, call into mind the afterlife, but there's a particular pain and permanence to life evoked in Jason's lyrics through these slight changes.

Jason routinely touched on mortality.  One of his most striking early songs was 'Nay 'tis not death,' a song likening drinking to a kind of death of the soul for which one needs repentance.  Both these songs make explicit the kind of brackets on life, existence, and our own actions that we tend not to consider often in our daily lives, as keeping such thoughts prominent can drown out the rest of existence, the joyous celebration and salvation we need to survive.

I'm not writer-enough to end this succinctly, but I will say that it kind of feels like wherever I continue to go, whatever changes occur in my life, I'll still have this continuously updating soundtrack.  It's pretty depressing, honestly, but whenever you align with someone, even just as a fan, it's hard to let them go.  Their perspective can give you pretty important insight, even if it's hard to hear.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Saving words for making sense

Oh man, what a five months.  Defended and delivered a completed dissertation (that's Dr. Topher now, for whatever that's worth), moved to yet another state (third state I've moved to in nine years), and started a new job.  Phew.  Did you know I wrote a book this year?  Honest to goodness.  Me.  I can do words.  

I've known stress in my life, but this was something else altogether.  The biggest challenge since its submission has been returning to a stable mental state.  I love what I do, no question, but the amount of strain that it put on my emotional state is unparalleled. There were major events that I've not been able to process.  I've barely reconciled the fact that I've aged six years in this time and am no longer in my early 30s.  The only thing that served as a reprieve from my work is the news and lord knows how that's going.

Part of graduating is just decompressing, taking a big breath, and letting my brain return to an active stimuli-response functionality.  Slowly, I've been able to return to allowing myself access to some emotional release that I've had to brush aside for a while.  The other day at work, listening to music became an adventure through nostalgia.  Every single song triggered a memory of some event, some person, some setting that I hadn't had room to think about for years.  I started listening to a lot of Jason Molina, but also punk bands from childhood.  Hell, New Order's 'Regret' nearly had me in tears.  I remembered sitting in my childhood bedroom, with my crap-ass stereo, hearing that song on the radio in the early 90s.  Warm room, summer sun beams and lazy weekend days.  Before everything got all complicated.

Thing is, what I would love to do is reclaim the emotionality and innocence apart from all this heightened anxiety I've been battling for years.  Trying to take weekends.  Work on hobbies.  Exercise.  Eat right.  Be a good partner and friend.  Feed the birds.  Take walks.  Get a fishing pole.  Go to restaurants.  Enjoy life.  Go slow.

Again, it's not that my graduate experience was awful.  No, it was fantastic.  It was also emotionally exhausting and mentally devastating.  The point of such programs isn't just to teach you new things, it's to develop you into a different kind of thinker.  That's a massive neurological endeavor.  I've always been sciency, but now every question gets turned into measurement, into distributions and likelihoods, relative to its impact on long-term outcomes, judiciously socially just and epistemologically and ontologically questionable.

It takes a lot out of a brain to put that much into it.  But it's all in there.  Or, at least, the pathways for getting it in there are developed.  The trepanation is completed and now I can bask in the warmth of my brain fluids.

Yeah, see?  Now it's time to think like this again.

I'm going to go and listen to all the music now.

(Oh, and because I didn't make it explicit, this album is one of the few that would help to calm me down during points of stress.  Their music is like sunbeams in the forest.  More on this later.)

Monday, May 28, 2018

You wouldn't remember, but you did.

It's been more than 5 years since Jason Molina died.  In five years, with everything else I've had going on, I never really took the time to grieve--I mean, grieve as much as would be appropriate for the death of an artist who's been influential in your life in some way.  When he died, I was working on a paper, or something of the sort, for some class, and, with respect to my dejection, had to just completely put it out of my head in the most unfortunate way until I could get the paper done.

Jason was pretty much radio-silent (so to speak) for a good 4-6 years prior to his death, with only random notes of recovery being sent out from his label, so I suppose it didn't come as a shock.  We knew he was ill, we knew he was having health issues that were as much mental health as physical, and that he was working on things "even the music can't get to."  For a man with such profoundly sad songs, that's a dark place.  If you understand one of his last songs, "No Hand Was at the Wheel" as one of the most depressing songs ever written, you're on track.

I came across this performance the other day, and it just brought up those old, sad feelings.  Scout sang this song on the last official Songs: Ohia album.  Although written by Molina, her performance on the album is breathtakingly still in this sort of way.  Scout Niblett has a certain childhood exploration-type innocence to her music, particularly within her albums, imaginative with a small set of tools.  When she chooses to capture the stillness, the darkness, she owns all the air in the room and drives at the very heart of existence. 

I was taken by the sadness - clearly still reeling from the loss of a friend.  The way she plays the guitar here, toned to Molina's early 2000s style, makes me wonder if it's not one of his own.

No really end to this, was just startled when I heard this, realizing that I've been pretty numb to these kinds of experiences for many years.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Postdoc phews

I've been avoiding talking about it on social media, since apparently one of the indicators of becoming a scientist is being extremely superstitious during the waning months of your dissertation.  Nevertheless, this song came up and I wanted to post it but didn't want to go through the whole "you're finally graduating??" hullabaloo on Facebook prior to actually finishing my dissertation.  That won't be until August (although I'll be walking at graduation in June), so it seems weird re: carts and horses.

Anyway, I DID get a job.  I won't mention details, as there's still a lot of planning to do, but I have signed the paperwork and all this is now moving forward.  It's a postdoctoral scholar (e.g. researcher) position at a research institute in my field at a R1 (aka "very high research activity") university.  I'm excited - it's a great opportunity to do good work with very good people.

I'm also terrified, because I'll no longer be a student - now it's time to know things!  I mean, I do indeed know things, but getting a PhD, crazy as it may seem, is actually the start of development as a scholar.  The PhD indicates that I have learned the requisite skills to create science, but being an "expert" will take a much longer time.  Need to create many, many more sciences before I feel like I have the mental wherewithal to enter into grand debates.

This is an exciting time - I've gotten to do interesting things and meet interesting people, and now I get to do more!  It's certainly a place of privilege to get to learn, and get to share that learning, with others.  For money, no less.

So, I share this song - because of my love of Samson and also because - hey - how many songs about postdocs are there?  Really?  But mostly because of this last bit, which sums up the need for positivity and centering in the face of crushing academic fear:

So take that laminate out of your wallet and read it
And recommit yourself to the healing of the world
And to the welfare of all creatures upon it
Pursue of practice that will strengthen your heart

Monday, April 23, 2018

Tonight I will avoid writing my dissertation

I've been working on my dissertation, an experience I'm excited about, aiming to base my career on, and loathe to ever repeat.  Funny how that works.

Anyhow, I've been listening to Damien Jurado's oeuvre, since it sets a good background tone for writing.  I know his songs well, so I can fill the empty room while not being fully distracted by the music.  It's always a struggle for me to find that perfect balance of intrusive enough to tune out all my errant non-dissertation thoughts, but not so intrusive that I'm distracted.  The last couple days, that's been Damien Jurado.

But, motherfucker, this song again.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Hear her voice as it's rolling and ringing through me

What a weird album.  It's kind of hard to believe that an album that mentions semen so many times could be doing so out of necessity.  It's kind of hard to believe that a nasal voice, jangly guitar, and trumpets could produce something so inherently sad.  It's really hard to believe that an album proclaimed to be the spiritual and artistic response of Jeff Mangum's reading "The Diary of a Young Girl" actually feels spiritual and artistic.  It's certainly hard to believe that something that feels so sloppy on the surface could be so incredibly fucking precise.

This album turns 20 this year and I'm still not quite sure what it is.  Take this stanza from "Oh Comely":
Oh comely, all of your friends are letting you blow
Bristling and ugly, bursting with fruits falling out from the holes
Of some pretty, bright, and bubbly friend
You could need to say comforting things in your ear
But oh comely, there isn't such one friend that you could find here
Standing next to me, he's only my enemy
I'll crush him with everything I own.
The stanza, like the song itself, starts off somewhere in the intersection of sexuality and innocence, but keeps tiptoeing through haunting imagery, ultimately drawing back on the Anne Frank imagery.  There's not a clarity of purpose to the lyrics, but there's certainly an emotional confusion, almost a battle of perspectives, occurring throughout.  It's hard from reading to see how such lyrics could be sung with emotion, but here we get Magnum's vocal duality - not a traditionally strong voice, but a superb tonality.  His battle, I perceive, is between the need to maintain a monotone matter-of-factness and the insuppressible meaning that ultimately forces its way out at the end of each sentence.  It's as if his voice is the light, the truth, the innocence trying to break from his knowledge of mortal realities.  The lyrics, the music, and the vocals are all portraying a child's perception of a dark world.

Age, maturity, and time have perhaps diminished the album's impact on me, but they've also given me some degree of appreciation, if for no other reason than that in the past 20 years, no other band has ever recreated all its parts.  Sure, you get your watered down fantasy bands - your Okkervil Rivers, for example.  A few bands have captured the sound, but not the lyrics.  Or the lyrics, but not the depth.  Given the complexity of the sound, we could maybe make a comparison to Brian Wilson, but that feels a somewhat hollow comparison.

I don't know how to end this.  I've just been listening to this a lot again and have been reading the lyrics and their interpretations on  I subsequently found myself in this hole.  What's with all the flowers?  "Semen stains the mountaintops"?  Are Jeff's words his own or those of an interpreter character?  Is Jeff the two-headed boy?  Why do these songs have multiple parts?  Are they even different songs then??

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Good songs on bad albums

Because I'm of a certain era, I fucking love Jets to Brazil.  It's Blake Schwarzenbach's (Jawbreaker) grown-up indie band.  It's also his dad's classic rock band, his Neil Diamond band, his spacey drug-fueled afternoon band.  It's a lot of things.

When they first came together, it was all about Blake's new band, man.  A bunch of people got pissed because it wasn't Unfun pt. 2, but like most bands with cult followings, we can understand if the new band's target demographic is a little different.  Artists like to art in new and exciting ways.

They came out with an album Orange Rhyming Dictionary, and that title says a lot about it.  Not in some pretentious way, but in that way where a high school band has a real shit name but somehow put together one great song.  That's this album, but it's maybe 4 songs.  Some songs were just so blandly rock fueled in a way that was nearly an admonishment of Jawbreaker.  Other songs were so fucking Jawbreaker people wondered if they were written for that never-recorded final album.  It's hard to imagine I Typed for Miles being for anything other than a Jawbreaker album.  Generally, the album is inconsistent, with some pointed, angular rock songs and some rolling dark rock, capped by a folk song.

Their second album came out some years later and it just sucks.  People are open to their opinions, sure, but guh.  What a bland writing-a-school-report-on-a-Sunday-afternoon album this album is.  It starts off with a song called You're Having the Time of My Life and I'm already asleep.  Don't get me wrong, there's a massive aesthetic appeal to this album - it's technically proficient, a very grown-up album.  It's just that it sounds like the album Blake felt like he should be doing, rather than the album he should have been making.  It doesn't sound forced, it just sounds languid with really cliche pop moments.  Lyrically, sure, Blake's always had that down, but even his words just sound boring.  The album ends with a slow-build song called, what, Orange Rhyming Dictionary?  What?  Like the first album?  A holdover?  Title song didn't make the cut?  It's a decent song, but whatever.  Funny thing is, as fucking boring as this album is, it's nice to have on in the background.  It's a lazy afternoon.  It's a writing-a-school-report-on-a-Sunday-afternoon album, right, so it comes with all that entails.  It's fall and I'm 12 and it's cool outside and other kids are playing football but I'm at my warm desk sitting in a sunbeam.  It's boring, but familiar, like a hug from your racist grandmother.  I won't ask for it, but it's kind of nice when you're there.

Third album comes around and people seem to hate it.  I'm indifferent.  Having been innoculated to lazy Blake, this album slipped away like a one-hit wonder's third album.  I mean, yeah, it's fine.  A little more solidly built, a little exploratory in a way Blake's projects had never done.  Wish List is pretty catchy and Rocket Boy was the first thing that came to mind when 45 started talking shit on North Korea.  As a whole, though, this album?  Muh.

I was working on an article about child abuse and realized I'd been listening to Jets to Brazil on repeat most of the day.  It was perfect for writing.  That doesn't make them a great band, or their albums great albums, because they were good as writing-about-child-abuse music and that's not often a great sign.  Generally, a good writing album is inoffensive, familiar, bland, and a little upbeat.  That's these albums, hooboy.

In case it's not clear (heh), I fucking love Jets to Brazil because I'm 36, started listening to them half my life ago, first saw them when I was 21 and all mushy and shit, have heard Chinatown 10,000 times and love Jawbreaker more than you loved your first dog.  I think Sweet Avenue is one of the single best songs ever written in the history of music.  I've let out more rage to I Typed for Miles than an otherwise mentally healthy person should have.

I just dislike about 70% of their songs.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

You want me to read TWO things?

I got this on my Google Music feed.  It's suggesting albums, since I like the band Glossary and have listened to them a bunch on Music and Youtube.  I know a few of these - Cory Branan, Two Cow Garage, Joey Kneiser, but am not familiar with the others.  These are country-ish bands, ones that I would certainly put in the realm of modern Americana.  If you've experienced a lazy summer day in the States, you could probably get down with any of these.

What I was surprised about were the themes present here in these album covers.  Cory Branan's 80s clothed-in-the-tub album cover aside, two feature dilapidated rural housing (and one run down motel), three have children in some sort of rustic American dress (I'd argue shirtless and jeans is the most American childhood dress ever, even more than the kid literally draped in the American flag) and a solid 80% are in either black or white or some sepia shade.  From a marketing perspective, if I was targeting the run-down America backwater old-timey memory of childhood, it'd look like this, too.

Well, good for them, because it worked.  This Lauderdale album sounds like the Drive-by Truckers and it's great.  It'll wear out its welcome, certainly, but at least I have some other sepia albums to wander into.  Thanks, Google, for finding me bands I like that sound like other bands I like and yet wouldn't have heard of, if not for your crazy algorithm of truth.

I'm now wondering if Google can do some sort of social engineering and filter some of this good stuff into people's Kenny Chesney-or-whoever-the-fuck-is-on-the-radio stations playing that version of country that's really just sloppy pop with twang and stereotypes.  I just heard this band and song for the very first time, but tell me this isn't ten times better than any song on the 'country' radio stations:


On another note, it's been 14 years since Hot Snakes put out an album?  Is that right?  As with most of Hot Snakes, I'm not sure I'm digging this, but I love it in principle.  Other new releases from bands I'd forgotten about, like Yo La Tengo, The Decemberists, The Go Team, Calexico, the Shins.  Think there's an Okkervil River in there, too.  What is this, 2003?