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August 2017

52 Albums, Week 35: Triplicate (Bob Dylan)

Week35-Bob Dylan Triplicate-Stu_html_5f3ae80987b18121

In popular music, it is quite exciting whenever an important artist re-invents him or herself. Now that I wrote that sentence I am struggling to come up with any besides Bob Dylan and David Bowie (BD and DB?), but I’m sure there are more. Many of us have written about how much Van Morrison’s music has meant to us. Most have also picked out time periods of Van’s vast discography that meant more, possibly due to “coming on board” during the time of those albums. I submit to you the thesis that Mr. Morrison, however wonderful he may be, has never really changed his musical direction very much. Therefore, everyone eventually tends to get a little bored with his output.

Bob Dylan, on the other hand, has a habit of re-inventing himself every now and again, and just when his legion of fans thinks, “this is it”, he’ll go and do it again. Those thoughts come more and more the older he gets, now in his mid-70s. A few years ago to the surprise (I think) of all of us, he released Shadows in the Night. Ten songs from “The Great American Songbook”, all sung by Frank Sinatra during his career. Sinatra is even listed as the co-writer of the first cut on the album, “I’m a Fool to Want You”. I do not think I’m going out on a limb to say that pretty much everyone considered this album an odd anomaly along the lines of the Christmas disc from a few years previous. Then the very next year we got Fallen Angels, with eleven of the twelve tracks sung previously by Sinatra. I dutifully bought both of the CDs as released, as I have done with all of his studio albums since around Empire Burlesque, which probably coincides with the first time I saw him in concert.

Everyone took a breath, and wondered, “What the hell is going on?” Some said it aloud. Unlike most other artists, Dylan gives no feedback (in this way, Van Morrison is just the same). The albums are released, the critics gush, and he tours and sings the songs. He never really makes any statements, does any press, has anything to say about why he might make any sort of move. Years will sometimes pass and he eventually does an interview (famously on 60 Minutes about a decade ago), and he will just circle around the questions in an obstinate manner. Answering them in his own way, which usually boils down to something along the lines of “the music takes me where I go, it’s all about the music, why would anyone want me to comment on any of this when you can just listen to the music?” Amusing and annoying at the same time. I’m not sure Van Morrison has even said that much, but perhaps he throws a bone to the press in Belfast, as Dylan occasionally does here.

But back to the music! I am a big fan of “The Great American Songbook”, and for instance those five (yes, five) Rod Stewart CDs are guilty pleasures of mine. I love to drive in my car listening to these songs, whether it is Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Dean Martin, Bobby Darin, Harry Connick, Jr., Diana Krall, Ella Fitzgerald, and now Rod Stewart and Bob Dylan. So what makes Dylan different from all of those other people? His voice. And what is the first reaction to any sane music fan when confronted with now five (yes, five) discs of GASB music from him? Why? How? Won’t he sound terrible? For those of you less interested in this sort of thing than people like me (and Mac), Triplicate is a three-disc set. Each disc has 10 songs, and runs exactly 32 minutes. So put that together with Shadows in the Night and Fallen Angels, and we have the aforementioned five (yes, five), just like Rod Stewart. Did he want to match Rod? Does he want to make more? Who knows?

I really like all five, and I think his voice is sort of terrific for these songs. Dylan visited Mobile last November, and I was curious what he would do. This was before the release of Triplicate, but nonetheless his previous two albums were standards. Would he dare play an entire concert of them? The two albums together would be 22 songs, your average amount played at a live show. He put on what I thought was a great show; there were three songs from Shadows, two from Fallen, and one other “I Could Have Told You”, that ended up on Triplicate. The rest of the show was heavy on Tempest, and then a scattering of earlier songs.

There is the school of thought that you go to a concert of a classic rock icon in order to hear your favorite songs. Although I understand that thinking, I really prefer my rock n’ roll heroes to continue to be productive and roll out new songs. Especially in the case of someone whose voice has changed so much in the past fifty years, you will inevitably be unhappy with the way your favorite song from the 1960s now sounds. However, I have seen Dylan at least twelve times, so that forms my expectations perhaps a little differently.

The reason I like these albums, and Triplicate is my favorite of the three, is twofold. First, I think Dylan does an amazing job interpreting these songs with his craggy old vocal chords. You can tell he is very familiar with them, he has lived them, and in many cases listening to the lyrics, they are better sung the way he does it. Not all songs are meant to sound bright and chipper. If you remember the famous Frank Sinatra versions of “The September of My Years”, or “Once Upon a Time” he did the same, the context of the verses should be reflected by the singer. When the lyrics are light (and as I look at the 30 songs I don’t see too many of those), the accompanying music speeds up, and Dylan’s voice attempts to reach a higher pitch to match. In reference to the music (and, secondly), all of these songs star Dylan’s travelling band (Charlie Sexton, Tony Garnier, et al), with of course added musicians as needed. I do not think this is a normal thing for big stars to do, but since he has The Never-Ending Tour always going on, it is a little easier to keep the guys together. They are great, they do a fabulous job, and this is most likely not an easy thing for rock musicians to do – slow things down and let the music live with the song and its lyrics.

I have written enough. Here are some YouTube videos of favorites, but they are all good!


“P.S. I Love You”

“Once Upon a Time”

--Stu Moore is a proud member of the alt-left, but he doesn’t like to be in crowds, so his membership is lapsing.

Sunday Night Journal, August 27, 2017

The Sunday Night Journal is now a bit different from its earlier version, the one that appeared for most of the years from 2004 through 2012. Many of those earlier ones (not all by any means) were worked on for much of the week before they appeared. Not necessarily written, but much thought about, and perhaps written in a partial and/or rough draft. By Sunday I generally knew pretty much exactly what I was going to say, and put a good bit of effort into the attempt to say it well.

That's no longer the case, as regular readers (all two dozen of you) may remember: when I decided to revive the journal this year I meant for it to be a more casual thing, in great part an outlet for my unstompable urge to comment on this or that thing that has nothing directly to do with the book project that's getting whatever attention I can manage for writing during the week. I actually do sit down Sunday afternoon or evening with no more than a mental list of one or two or three or four things I want to mention. And so much of what comes out is more or less off the top of my head. I may just be thinking out loud. 

Such was the case last week, when I wrote what amounted to a prolonged grumble about various parties who have been trying to bully everyone who is remotely associated with the political right into denouncing Nazis and Klansmen. I really had only intended to write a paragraph or so, but I kept banging on. I am naturally, and no doubt too cynically, a little suspicious of public expressions of deep emotion about events that the expresser is not personally involved in, and much more so about the species of it for which the useful phrase"virtue signaling" has been coined. I think there's been a whole lot of virtue signaling going on. And the demand had pushed my contrariness button. 

Anyway: that's all by way of saying that there's a provisional quality about what I write  here now, and I may have second thoughts, which I may or may not voice later on. Last week someone privately brought up a more substantial reason--more substantial than virtue signaling--for making the denunciation loud and clear. Among other things, this person pointed out that Trump's presidency has from the beginning had the potential to destroy the conservative movement, and that this has been the reason why so many principled and thoughtful conservatives appropriated the label NeverTrump for themselves (yes, that's supposed to have a Twitter "hashtag" but I refuse to cooperate, as Twitter seems to be an important vehicle for fulfilling the worst possibilities of the Internet). 

I more or less agreed with their basic position although I never claimed the label (like I said, I'm contrary). But the reason was more straightforward: I couldn't see Trump as a competent president. I really didn't give a whole lot of thought to the farther-reaching implications and possibilities. 

From the period in the late '70s and early '80s when I began the process of admitting that I was in fact some sort of conservative, I've tended to keep the movement at arm's length. That was mainly because I always had significant disagreements with it and am anyway not much of a movement-joiner. Worse, the vehicle for the expression of more-or-less-conservative ideas in practical politics was and is the Republican Party, and a pretty poor vehicle it is. I've more than once said that I don't care at all about the fortunes of the Republican Party, and I haven't really changed my mind. But more than one person on both sides of the Democrat-Republican divide have speculated that Trump's ascendancy could destroy the Republican party.

A lot of Trump's supporters would say that would be a good thing. But that would depend entirely on what replaced it. Being a pessimist, I am always ready to point out the folly of thinking that things can't get worse. What might replace the Republican Party? Trumpism? Well, what is that? I honestly don't know. I've mocked those who call him a fascist, because fascism is an ideology, and if there is anything that Trump is not, it's an ideologue. If he can be compared to any dictatorial type, it's to what we used to call tin-pot dictators: the ones who have tended to rise to the top in some countries where the balance between authoritarianism and anarchy is difficult to find. These men are typically motivated mainly by wealth and power, not the desire to impose an abstract system, which is the essence of both fascism and communism. 

At any rate I have never seen any evidence that Trump is a conservative in any meaningful sense of the word. I've often made a distinction between "conservative" and "right-wing," and I think it applies to him. He may (or may not, depending on his mood) be right-wing, but he's not conservative. That doesn't mean that he won't do things that conservatives applaud, and if he gets to nominate one more conservative Supreme Court justice his presidency could turn out to be more good than bad for conservatism. But because he is more or less on the right, his association with nasty forces could produce such animosity that it would cripple anything resembling conservatism as a political force. (I started to say "taint", but that's not strong enough; liberals have believed that conservatives are racist fascist etc for fifty years and nothing is going to change that.)

A lot of conservative Christians, mainly evangelicals but a fair number of Catholics as well, see Trump as a sort of warrior who will stop and maybe turn back the revolution of militant secular progressivism that seems determined to force Christians into a choice between capitulating to anti-Christian doctrine (error has no rights!) or being expelled from legitimate society. But any victories for Christians in this situation could well turn out to be Pyrrhic. 

Seems to me there are two possible outcomes. One: Trump and Trumpism turn out to be flukes, and after one term (or perhaps an uncompleted term), national politics returns to the old Democrats-vs.-Republicans pattern more or less as if nothing had happened. Two: Trumpism splits the right, broadly construed, into the factions that I've called conservative and right-wing, with conservatism a minority. It's not far-fetched to imagine that progressivism would be both the cultural and political beneficiary of that.

And why should we care? What does it matter whether conservatism is conserved? The whole question of what conservatism can mean in a fundamentally liberal order has also bothered me from the beginning, and of course conservative thinkers have chewed away on it for a long time. The question of what is left to preserve seems more challenging every year. Still: the liberal order had Christian roots and respected Christian belief and institutions, and it produced a pretty decent society, all the obvious evils notwithstanding. What is likely to replace it is the intolerant and totalizing progressive religion that is currently flourishing all over the place. 

There was a striking comment on one of Rod Dreher's posts a few days ago. As I write this I don't have the link handy but will try to find it and post it in a comment. The topic was, well, all this stuff. As you know I find Dreher's high level of agitation a bit much and don't read him that often, but have been doing so recently, and he has been saying some useful and interesting (if sometimes overwrought) things about the current controversies. Anyway, this commenter observed that some Christians see Trump as a Constantine figure, one who will (re-)establish Christian faith as the dominant political force in the U.S. (Impossible by that means, I think.) But he suggested that they might have it wrong: perhaps the actual Constantine was Obama, and Trump is Julian the Apostate.


A whole lot of pixels over the past week or two have been generated by arguments over whether the fascists or the anti-fascists are worse. It seems a moot point to me. What strikes me as more important, and more worrisome, is the thought of two very nasty factions battling in our streets. That, more than Trump himself, seems to me to conjure 1920s Germany. 

The evil of the "fascists" is obvious. (I put the word in quotes because I have the impression that they haven't fully adopted (or maybe even understood) the ideology, but are acting out some bit of theater.) I hear people saying that it's more important to condemn them than to condemn their violent opponents. I don't know about that. I know that the only two people I've ever heard explicitly state their intention to kill their political enemies were on the left. One was a young man who had been part of the protests in Seattle in 1999. This was at my parents' house at Christmas, probably of the same year. He was an in-law of an in-law who was only there the one time, and I don't remember his name. He sat across from me in a comfortable chair and calmly spoke of the necessity for the revolution to kill all the Christians. I didn't take him all that seriously, but still, it was disturbing. 

The other is a guy whose bloodthirsty hopes I've seen on Facebook via his comments on other people's posts. I don't know how seriously to take him, either. But on my personal scorecard of threats, that's anti-fascists 2, fascists 0. 

Oh yeah, and there was the guy I knew in the '60s, whose ex-wife I discovered lived down the street from us in the 1980s. I asked about him and she said he had gone far into hard leftism (she herself was still an unreconstructed hippie), and that the last time she'd seen him he'd been talking about the necessity of killing not only the bourgeoisie, but their children, so that there wouldn't be anyone left to seek vengeance.

At any rate I don't see why we should have to declare ourselves less unfavorably disposed toward the one than the other.


Changing the subject (at last!): I noticed a week or two ago that there are new episodes of the British mystery series Hinterland on Netflix. I liked the previous episodes pretty well, though not as much as some similar productions. I like this series better than the others. I'm not altogether sure why. Partly it was the plot (or plots--there are per-episode stories and a continuing one). Also, it seems to me that the cinematography is exceptional. And the sound track, a subdued minimalist combination of piano and electronica, is very good. 

Fans of the previous series will be relieved to know that the red parka is still there.

There are also new episodes of Shetland. I don't know how long they'd been there. Here, again, I liked this series even better than the earlier ones. 

And there is a new series of Endeavour in progress. Which I also think is better. Maybe I just always think the most recent one is the best. But no, that's not true. I could give instances that went the other way. House of Cards, for one.

[A Monday morning addendum: I had only seen the first episode of Endeavour when I wrote the paragraph above. Later last night I watched the second one. It was fairly terrible. Aside from the fact that it featured a walking cliche of a nasty Christian as a major character, seeing to it that she was humiliated even though she really didn't have that much to do with the main plot, the main plot was a mess that almost became nonsensical. The only thing good about it was a pretty good portrayal of a rock band of the time (ca. 1967), though even there I think it got some things wrong: an English rock band in the late '60s afraid of taking LSD?]

52 Albums, Week 34: Tranceport (Paul Okenfold)


While I like this sort of music a good deal I don’t know much of the technical stuff about it – the lingo escapes me, as do the monikers for the various subgenres. What I do know is that among all the varieties I gravitate towards the material with the recognizable musicality of chord progressions and melodies, or at least semblances of them (not all techno/trance has these qualities).

This particular album came out in 1998 and is considered an early classic of the genre, but I didn’t know that when a friend gave me a copy six or seven years ago. As it turns out it comes in at #23 on Rolling Stones Top 30 all-time list of EDM albums. (EDM stands for “electronic dance music,” now the current term for all music of this general type, including everything from Kraftwerk to Moby to Skrillex.)

You have to listen to this music somewhat differently than other styles, as it doesn’t develop like most Western music. Instead it has more in common with minimalist music, and some threads of its origins can be traced back to musicians experimenting with combinations of minimalism and electronic music.

Not sure how accurate this is but I’ve come to think about it this way: Most music we hear develops from a starting point to an end point: it’s going somewhere, and the various voices, instruments, etc., are arranged in such a way as to get the listener from point A to point B. Trance doesn’t really work that way. The songs are constructed primarily for continuous dancing, and thus are arranged to flow directly from one into another without stopping. Hence, the musical development all happens vertically above the basic axis and not along it, so to speak. Sounds, instruments, and voices are added and subtracted in such a way as to propel the song to the next one, rather than to bring closure. For the casual listener this gives the illusion that the songs are repetitive and “don’t go anywhere,” but if you listen attentively this really isn’t true. It is this for me that makes it listenable and keeps it interesting: how will things be added and subtracted in order to maintain the ongoing motion without the whole thing becoming just an exercise in repetition? This is especially important when most of the songs run six to eight minutes in length, and sometimes longer.

One thing that becomes very noticeable the more one listens is that since the music is generally all in a very strong 4/4 time signature, the changes almost always occur on beats with multiples of four with eights or sixteens being very prominent. Count in your head either two or four measures of four beats and something usually happens, whether very noticeable, like a full stop and restart, or very subtle, like a change in the tone of a keyboard or the addition or subtraction of a percussive sound.

The song “Gamemaster” is a great example of this type of arrangement, in that it is both a very musical piece, and one in which the adds and drops occur regularly and noticeably. The song is at the tempo of eight beats in seven seconds, so it’s slightly faster than 120 bpm, and everything happens in even-numbered multiples of seven. To show how this works here’s a partial list of the adds and drops for the song “Gamemaster” so you can follow along while listening. I’ll say upfront that the spoken voiceover that comes in about half way through is rather silly, but it doesn’t really detract from the song itself. It’s notable that even though the audible beat drops out during this section, the metronome is kept running, and the spoken bit lasts 42 seconds (6 x 7 seconds, or 12 measures).

After the song starts things remain basically static for the first 42 seconds, then:

:42 – a double time (16th note) synth starts

:56 – another different synth comes in

1:10 – beat drops out

1:24 – synth comes in without drum beat

1:38 – high-hat cymbal is added

1:52 – drum beat returns, which leads to first chord change at

1:59 21 seconds later to

2:20 – first appearance of an arpeggiated synth

2:48 some dropouts occur, then more at 3:02.

3:16 – second keychange

3:30 – spoken voiceover begins, lasts 42 (6 x 7) seconds, then full beat kicks back in exactly 8 beats (7 seconds) later.

The remainder of the song roughly follows this same pattern, eventually bringing everything back in and adding a couple new things, including loud piano chords and a high choral female voice, until at the 6:36 mark the “breakdown” begins, gradually stripping away almost everything except the bass drum line, which allows the dj to use this “outro” to blend the song seamlessly into the intro of the next one.

When it’s done well I find this stuff to be very exhilarating, and it’s one of my favorite kinds of music to listen to while driving. I recognize I’m probably in quite the minority hear so your mileage may vary. I often wonder what a guy my age is doing listening to this stuff but I take some comfort in knowing that Paul Oakenfold’s still at it, and that he himself is only a couple years younger than me!

So here’s another one just for the heck of it.

(For more info see the Wikipedia article on “trance music.”)

—Rob Grano has a degree in religious studies which he's put to good use working on the insurance side of the healthcare industry for the past 20 years.  He's published a number of book and music reviews, mostly in the small press, and sometimes has even gotten paid for it. He lives outside of Pittsburgh, Pa.

Sunday Night Journal, August 20, 2017

After the disturbance and the murder in Charlottesville, I saw more than one demand that anyone who considers himself a conservative or in any way on the political right make a public denunciation of the Klan, the Nazis, and all others of their ilk. I have not done this, although I do detest their views and was shocked by the murder. There is something in me that resists making such public announcements, and I've been asking myself what it is. It would cost me nothing, really, so why not do it?I think my reluctance has two components.

The first, and strongest, is that it is a bullying accusation, saying, in effect, "You resemble certain people whom I consider to be monsters, and so I suspect that you may be a monster, too. I'm generously giving you an opportunity to prove to me that you are not." (Not very generously at all, actually, because the demand tends to come from those who already consider conservatism to be next door to fascism. I know someone who seems to believe very sincerely that the Republican Party is the political arm of the Ku Klux Klan.) The demand for a public statement of correct opinion is not made of those who are not already suspect. It's a variant on the ancient rhetorical trap of the loaded question: when did you stop beating your wife? Most people who recognize the game refuse to play it. I do.

Not very long ago at all a progressive activist took a rifle and a pistol and plenty of ammunition to a softball field where a group of Republicans were practicing for a game. It seems that he would have killed them all if he had not been himself killed by police. As it was, he only managed to injure gravely one congressman, and give a police woman, Crystal Granger, an ankle wound. It didn't occur to me to demand that my friends or anyone else on the left prove their good faith by formally denouncing the shooting. I assumed that at the very least they did not approve of it, even though this fellow apparently is generally of the same mind as they on politics, which is not the case with me and the Charlottesville demonstrators. Probably I could with a few minutes' searching turn up some leftists who did approve, but I would not take those as evidence that all did.

I expect the same courtesy to be extended to me. And if that's naive, there's not much point in my trying to demonstrate my good faith; it's already presumed bad, and the burden on me to prove otherwise, and what argument will succeed in that? I deny that my political views bear any resemblance at all to those of Nazis and Klansmen, and do not deign even to argue the point because arguing with a loaded question is a losing game, and meant to be.

But there's another and more fundamental reason that I tend not to make public statements of grief or outrage about events like the Charlotte mess. This is mainly a matter of personal temperament, but I generally find such statements a little unconvincing when made by other people, and in making one would feel whatever I said to be unconvincing. The reason is that any words I might come up with would be so vastly inadequate to the thing. What, for instance, can I say to what happened a few days ago in Barcelona, which as of right now has killed fourteen times as many people as the Charlottesville attack? To write a few words expressing shock and horror, perhaps to add, on Facebook, a few emojis signifying weeping and/or prayers, would feel absurd, almost offensive in its triviality as compared to the horror. 

I don't mean to mock or belittle anyone who is in the habit of making such statements. If you do, I assume that you are expressing what you actually feel, and that you are not merely engaging in pro forma gestures. But it feels that way to me when I do it. And so I generally don't. If that makes me seem indifferent or callous, I regret it, but don't intend to do differently. Person to person, in the face of someone's grief, I'll say words that I know are inadequate, because I know that as a rule in those situations any gesture of sympathy is worth something; it is truly the gesture that matters. But publicly, in a matter that has nothing directly to do with me, and addressed to the world at large rather than to those who are actually suffering, it feels insincere. It feels like cant. 

Samuel Johnson's "Clear your mind of cant" was said in a somewhat different context, but it's relevant:

BOSWELL: “Perhaps, sir, I should be the less happy for being in Parliament. I never would sell my vote, and I should be vexed if things went wrong.”—JOHNSON: “That’s cant, sir. It would not vex you more in the House than in the gallery: public affairs vex no man.”—BOSWELL: “Have not they vexed yourself a little, sir? Have not you been vexed by all the turbulence of this reign, and by that absurd vote of the House of Commons, ‘That the influence of the Crown has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished’?”—JOHNSON: “Sir, I have never slept an hour less, nor ate an ounce less meat. I would have knocked the factious dog on the head, to be sure; but I was not vexed.”—BOSWELL: “Sir, upon my honour, I did imagine I was vexed, and took a pride in it; but it was, perhaps, cant; for I own I neither ate less, nor slept less.”—JOHNSON: “My dear friend, clear your mind of cant. You may talk as other people do: you may say to a man, ‘Sir, I am your most humble servant.’ You are not his most humble servant. You may say, ‘These are bad times; it is a melancholy thing to be reserved to such times.’ You don’t mind the times. You tell a man, ‘I am sorry you had such bad weather the last day of your journey, and were so much wet.’ You don’t care sixpence whether he is wet or dry. You may talk in this manner; it is a mode of talking in society: but don’t think foolishly.”

 (I copied and pasted that directly from As often with Johnson, you have to remember that he delighted in verbal combat, and not take everything he says as the last word on the subject. I believe we all these days sometimes experience real anxiety caused by the times, and may in fact sleep less, or eat less. But for the most part it is our private joys and sorrows that really affect us, for better and for worse. As Johnson also said:

How small, of all that human hearts endure,
That part which laws or kings can cause or cure.


In Barcelona, a heartening rejection of Islamophobia : that's a Washington Post headline. It's a pretty disheartening contrast to the wild cries of "This is Trump's America!" that have been the progressive reaction to Charlottesville. Guilt by association is forbidden where Islam is concerned, but required toward Trump-supporting Americans.


Something else that I've seen more than once since the election: anti-Trumpers declaring their intention to cut Trump supporters entirely out of their lives. This really rather shocks me. Political differences, and even more so religious differences, can certainly, and in fact have, come between me and people I know, to the point that we don't much enjoy each other's company, and so have little to do with each other. But it's certainly not, on my side and I hope not on theirs, a deliberate act of rejection or excommunication, just a sad consequence of having too little in common to sustain the relationship. But to those for whom politics has taken the place of religion, Trump is a blasphemy, a sacrilege, the abomination of desolation standing where it ought not. I suppose the effect is especially brutal since he succeeds a man who was a sort of saint to them, the philosopher-king Barack the Good. 

I was at a gathering of my wife's family on Friday night. There were twenty or thirty people there, and I never heard a single word about politics. I know there was at least one avid Trump supporter there, and at least a couple who oppose him, though maybe not passionately. I think this is more typical of Americans as a whole than the obsession with politics that results in the sort of animosity I described.


Yesterday afternoon I was browsing the news and, naturally, found myself thinking "How can people be so stupid?" Then I went outside and mowed the lawn in flip-flops.


I don't understand the coloring of this picture. It's the late afternoon sun a few weeks ago, but where are the colors? It does have some hints of color, so I didn't just change it to black-and-white. I use the now-obsolete photo editing tool Picasa to fiddle around with pictures, but it saves a history all modifications, and there's no record of any change to this one. Some quirk of the no doubt overwhelmed iPhone camera, I guess.



52 Albums, Week 33: The Harrow and The Harvest (Gillian Welch)

Slightly revised from an October 2011 post.


I liked Gillian Welch's Time the Revelator a lot (you can read my 2008 review of it here), though there were a couple of songs on it that I wasn’t very enthusiastic about—not that I disliked them, but I found them somewhat less interesting than the rest. On that score, The Harrow and The Harvest is better. In fact it comes pretty close to being perfect, in that every song is extremely fine and extremely well performed. To my taste, the only one that seems to lower the standard a bit is the lively banjo-based “Six White Horses.” But as it’s the only song on the album which could be described as anywhere near bright in sound, it provides a little needed contrast to the dark colors of the others. And of course the lyrics are not exactly cheerful, "six white horses" being a traditional motif signifying a funeral.

Six white horses coming after me
Six white horses coming after me
Pretty as a picture, certain as a scripture
Six white horses coming after me

Time the Revelator is ten years older that Harrow, and yet the latter sounds as if it might have been recorded the following year: similar songs performed in similar ways. I can imagine a critic complaining that there has been too little development, that the duo of Welch and her collaborator David Rawlings are not progressing, not discovering new things. That would be misleading on two counts. First, there is an album between the two, Soul Journey, which I have not heard, but which is said to be rather different in mood and style: more upbeat, and having more elaborate instrumentation, including drums. Second, and more importantly, though they may be doing the same sort of thing here, they’re doing it better. Yes, it’s a relatively small and subtle improvement, but it’s an improvement: not that every song here is better than every song on Time, but they’re even more consistently rich, and I think the new album is more unified. I’m used to musicians who do brilliant things early in their careers, and continue in the same vein but with less inspiration and conviction. Those few who continue to be brilliant usually change substantially, exhausting one style and moving on to something else: Tom Waits is the best example. It’s unusual to find a high level of achievement continued in a similar way at an equally high or higher level.

I supposed, on first exposure to Welch’s country-based voice and songs, that she had grown up in the south and that its musical culture had been part of her life, and was pretty surprised to learn that she was born in New York and grew up in Los Angeles, in the midst of the entertainment industry. Well, I thought, that just goes to show you how strong the music is, and how gifted she is, to have absorbed that whole way of expression. But I learned just now that there’s more to the story. Yes, according to the Wikipedia biography, she was born in New York City (on my birthday, which pleases me absurdly), and when she was three her parents moved to Los Angeles and became writers for The Carol Burnett Show. But she was adopted, and there is some reason to think that her biological mother may have been from North Carolina—which provides a starting place for an interesting train of thought about heredity.

This music is commonly referred to nowadays as Americana or American roots music: folk-based, but not directly imitative, comprised mostly of original songs with an obvious debt to either the country or blues traditions or both. In Welch’s case, it’s sometimes hard to tell what’s traditional and what’s original. Some songs that make extensive use of folk terms and phrases are obviously original, too sophisticated (lyrically or musically or both), to be folk songs. But I am really not sure about a few of them—the above-mentioned “Six White Horses,” or “Red Clay Halo” on Time, for instance. The latter doesn’t sound really sound like a folk song, but it could be an old Nashville tune from the ‘40s or ‘50s. In other words, the blending of traditional and original elements is pretty nearly seamless, which is high praise.

People would flat-out ask me, 'Don't you have any happy love songs?' Well, as a matter of fact, I don't. I've got songs about orphans and morphine addicts.
--Welch, quoted in the Wikipedia article, from a New York Times interview

The album is also pretty dark, in a way that is certainly supported by the tradition but is also undoubtedly Welch’s own predilection. The speaker in her first-person lyrics is sometimes clearly someone else, but “Dark Turn of Mind” seems to be about herself:

I see the bones in the river
I feel the wind through the pine
And I hear the shadows a-callin’
To a girl with a dark turn of mind

But though almost everything here is dark, melancholy, and more resigned than hopeful, it isn’t hopeless. There’s a light out there somewhere. The girl with the dark turn of mind is happy at night. And in “Hard Times,” though the “Camptown man” who sang “Hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind” as he plowed his fields seems defeated at the end of the song, the story isn’t over:

But the Camptown man he doesn’t plow no more
I seen him walking down to the cigarette store
Guess he lost that knack and he forgot that song
Woke up one morning and the mule was gone
So come all you ragtime kings
And come on you dogs (dolls?) and sing
Pick up your dusty old horn and give it a blow
Playing “hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind”

It’s clear that Welch and Rawlings are pretty much equals in this collaboration: certainly in performance, and by their account, and by the crediting of the songs to both, in writing as well. So I don’t know why the duo is persistently known only by the name of one of them. She recognizes the inaccuracy: in an interview I read some time ago she said that "'Gillian Welch' is the name of a two-person band." So perhaps at this point it’s just for consistent branding.

At any rate, Rawlings’s contribution has to be recognized. He is an extremely fine guitarist. He doesn’t sound anything like Richard Thompson, but like Thompson he applies a very far-ranging vocabulary and a lot of invention to fairly straightforward folk-based chord progressions, and the result has a lot to do with the fact that although most of the material here is similar not only in basic sound but in tempo and mood, I don’t get bored with it. And I really should: an album of consistently slow, somewhat lengthy songs, all very similar in musical texture, sounds on the face of it like something that I wouldn’t be able to sit through all at once. But within those limits there’s a lot of invention: beautiful melody lines, consistently rich and skillful lyrics, and of course Rawlings’s guitar.

As excellent as Rawlings’s playing is, I’ve always wished his tone were bigger and fuller. It’s very tight and trebly, really sort of flat, and I sometimes wish I were hearing the same notes played in a tone like, for instance, that heard on the old Ian and Sylvia albums. I have to admit, though, that the very bright tone fits well with Welch’s broad, soft strumming. She uses the sort of guitar I wish he did: a big Gibson. His, I just learned, is in fact a rather odd instrument, a 1935 Epiphone archtop, a smaller-than-average guitar and apparently not a particularly high-quality one in its day. Well, it’s certainly distinctive. It sounds almost like a resonator guitar.

I haven't said anything about Welch's singing, thinking somehow that it goes without saying that she is really, really good. But then I'm not assuming that everyone who reads this has heard her, so I should say it. She has a low, rich voice, not the sharp sort of sound one associates with country singers: more like a torch singer than, say, a Dolly Parton. And it suits the material perfectly. The fact that she has recorded with Emmylou Harris and Allison Kraus should tell you how she's regarded by her fellow artists.

By the way, in case you were wondering, it’s “Gillian” as in “gill”, as in how fish breath, not “jill.” as in jack-and. I’m not sure which is standard. I thought I remembered Gillian Anderson’s name (The X-Files) being pronounced as “jillian.”




--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.

Sunday Night Journal, August 13, 2017

Some time back, maybe two years or so, I saw a "meme" on Facebook which contrasted the educational backgrounds of left-wing and right-wing TV-radio controversialists, much to the disadvantage of the right-wingers, at least in the eyes of whoever constructed the "meme."  (I'm sorry, I cannot resign myself to the unqualified acceptance of that silly term.) For the left, it was people like Jon Stewart and Rachel Maddow, who have degrees from prestigious schools (the only one I remember now was William and Mary). For the right, it was people like Rush Limbaugh, who have little or no education past high school. (This required some cherry-picking, excluding, for instance, George Will, Ph.D, Princeton, but then he is more a print than a television presence. If the comparison were made entirely within the realm of print, conservatives would certainly hold their own, though they would be outnumbered.)

I reposted the "meme" with some sort of derisive comment about people who place excessive value on educational credentials. I don't remember exactly what I said, and although it's presumably still available on Facebook it would take a while to find it. In any case I apparently did not express my meaning very clearly, because I immediately got several responses from people making remarks along the lines of "If you needed a lawyer, wouldn't you want one who went to a good law school?" and, if I remember correctly, at least suggesting that I might be anti-intellectual.

The episode distressed me, because I hate being misconstrued. I don't mind disagreement at all, but I want the disagreement to be about what I said--or, if I said it badly, what I meant to say--not about something I did not intend to say. (The most unpleasant interchange I've ever had on Facebook involved someone misinterpreting my assertion that white people cannot fix what is wrong in poor black communities as meaning that the condition of those communities is unrelated to white racism. Or something like that. Not sure it ever got cleared up.)

In the remark about education I meant to be saying two things: first, that formal education in itself is hardly a requirement for engaging in combat journalism on television and radio, which is essentially a branch of the entertainment industry. Any reasonably intelligent person can gather up rocks to throw at his political enemies. But very few can mount their attacks convincingly and entertainingly on television or radio. That takes a good deal of natural talent and no doubt a good deal of practice. It's not a skill I much admire, but it is both rare and lucrative, and those few people who do it really well make a great deal of money.

It does not, however, require any specific type of formal education, or very much of it. Nor does it make much use of the breadth and depth of mind which are supposed to be acquired through higher education. Excessive care for the disinterested pursuit of truth would in fact be a handicap for it.

Second, I meant that in general to make formal education a primary indicator of the respect due to the person is a serious mistake. I meant that first in relation to wisdom and virtue; I have known a great many educated and uneducated people and have never seen any indication that either is generally superior to the other in those qualities. Moreover, in our time (maybe in all times) there are special forms of foolishness that are far more likely to be found in those who have had a great deal of schooling, and therefore are pervasive today in our educated class. Much of it falls broadly under the condemnation of the adage: "It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you do know that ain't so." (See this for attribution of the remark.)

I meant it in more down-to-earth terms as well. Many occupations--law, medicine, plumbing--require specialized "KSAs", as personnel managers call them: Knowledge, Skills, and Ability. In some cases the K and S are best acquired through formal training. But in the end it is the A that matters most, and in many occupations a combination of natural aptitude and hands-on work in the field can be as likely as formal training to impart it. I would think performing on television and radio would be among those. 


Why is this old conversation on my mind? It was a train of thought that began with this, a "tweet" (another term I can't bring myself to use as if it were a real word except in the context of birdsong):

Difference between Nazi and Communist is when you say how horrible Nazis have been, they don’t say “Well, real Nazism has never been tried.”

I saw it at Neo-neocon's blog, and thought it was pretty funny. Reading the comments, I came across a reference to the Nazi's "Einsatzgruppen." Consulting Wikipedia, I learned that these were essentially death squads charged with carrying out massacres of certain categories of civilians considered to be enemies of the Reich. And I found this:

Many Einsatzgruppe leaders were highly educated; for example, nine of seventeen leaders of Einsatzgruppe A held doctorate degrees. Three Einsatzgruppen were commanded by holders of doctorates, one of whom (SS-Gruppenführer Otto Rasch) held a double doctorate.

Franz Jägerstätter, on the other hand, was a farmer with "little formal education."


Maybe technology has too much of a hold on me. No, not "maybe", "definitely." A little earlier today I was looking for a magazine that I have mislaid. I found myself thinking for an instant that I could just call it on my phone, as many of us have done using someone else's phone to locate ours.


Regarding the incident in Charlottesville, Virginia, this weekend: haven't I been saying that many in this country have been sowing the wind, and can expect to reap the whirlwind?


Although it's only mid-August, summer is in a sense over for me. As I've mentioned before, two of my grandsons, ages five and seven, have been spending three or four days a week with us, and since it's now my wife who goes out to work every day, and I who stay at home, more than half of that time is spent with me. But school starts tomorrow, and Friday was their last day here. It's bittersweet. I've gotten almost no work done on my book, and I want to get back to it, and for that matter I've done little work of any kind at all that wasn't directly related to caring for them. But it's been good in many ways. We settled into a comfortable routine and I think it has not been an unpleasant experience for them.

One thing we've done every day unless the weather prevents us is spend a while splashing around in the bay. Happily, Friday morning was sunny and almost windless. After they'd gotten tired of playing in the water, I suggested that we walk up to the public beach and park, a quarter-mile or so away, just for a change. There are ponds there with ducks and geese and we hadn't taken that walk for a while. Depending on the water level, it can involve a lot of clambering over fallen trees or wading around stumps.

A few days before we had been playing with a tennis ball that had washed up on shore (they float and are fun to throw around in the water). But we'd forgotten to take it back to the house with us, and apparently it had washed back out with the tide. We had not gotten very far toward the park, just a few hundred feet, when they found what appeared to be the same bright green tennis ball. The boys were a bit ahead of me, as usual, and Lucas, the five-year-old, ran back and gave me the ball, in that funny way that children have: "Here"--and they hand you the pizza crust or the apple core that they don't want, or the ball that they do want but do not want to bother with at this moment. 

Well, I wanted to have my hands free to deal with obstacles, and a tennis ball is too big for the pockets of the old cut-off pants I was wearing. So I said I would walk back to "our" beach and put it with our things--the bag containing towels and sun-screen and fruit juice and pretzels. "Okay," said Lucas, and he started to go and catch up with his brother. But then he stopped, apparently a little uneasy about going too far without me, hesitated for a moment, and said "But you'll be right behind us, right?"

"Yes, I will."

Yes, God willing, now and always.


52 Albums, Week 32: A Glorious Lethal Euphoria (The Mermen)

This was my Music of the Week post on August 10, 2008--exactly nine years ago today. I didn't pick it for that reason. Without working too hard at considering alternatives, I'd say this is my favorite instrumental rock album. But that's a very narrow field.

The Mermen are an instrumental trio roughly classified as neo-surf, but the relationship between their music and that of, say, Dick Dale (“Misirlou”) or The Chantays (“Pipeline”) is about like that between Beethoven’s symphonies and Haydn’s. This album might be described succinctly as Dick Dale meets Jimi Hendrix. The reverb and the minor-key melodies—that general early ‘60s vibe—are here, but they’re only the starting point for a pretty wild ride, sweetly beautiful or hard-rocking passages spiced with howling and shrieking distorted guitar, a combination of melody and noise that I love.

I’ve forgotten how I first heard of the group, but it was a good ten years ago that I bought this album (it was released in 1995). I was very taken with it, and in fact I put it on a desert-island list here a year or two ago. But I hadn’t listened to it for some years until I got a yen for it last week. It doesn’t seem quite as good as I remember, but it’s still really fine. My favorite tracks are the long ones, especially the nine-minute-plus “Between I and Thou” and “And the Flowers They’ll Bloom,” which are basically fairly simple, pretty figures that serve as a basis for variations exhibiting a wide, wild range of guitar colors and dynamics.

This was the first time I’d ever listened to the album on my home stereo—I had previously heard it only in the car, where there is almost no bass detectable. I was a little surprised to discover that the group has a real thunder-lizard low end. And the bass player is really good. 

Here are a slow one, a fast one, and a long one.

 --Mac is the proprietor of this blog.

Sunday Night Journal, August 6, 2017

I've been out of town for a week and only got home late today, so this will be hasty, just a few notes on things I've read here and there over the past couple of weeks.

I've managed to avoid reading most of the reaction to that weird "ecumenism of hate" piece by Fr. Antonio Spadaro and Marcelo Figueroa. But I did see a rather telling remark from him reacting to the reaction:

The reaction of the "haters" seems a clear sign that our article is telling the truth about the "ecumenism of hate".

That strikes me, first, as astonishingly juvenile, and, secondly, pretty much of a piece with the original article in its clarity of thought. If someone accuses Fr. Spadaro of being a bad priest, and he reacts angrily, does that prove the accusation? I read somewhere that he has written about Flannery O'Connor. I wonder what he said. I suppose he may have gotten the theology right but it's hard to believe that he understood the culture. Did he take Francis Tarwater to be a typical evangelical? 

One reaction that I did read was from Matthew Schmitz in The Catholic Herald, and he says something that struck me as possibly being the key not only to this little teapot-tempest but to an important aspect of what Pope Francis is doing and hopes to achieve. These two remarks, distant from each other in the article, are the nub of it:

[The article] is an attempt to defend the liberal order against what is perceived, rightly or wrongly, as an existential threat.

Pope Francis and his advisers believe the Church must defend the system of open borders and celebratory diversity exemplified by liberal Europe. 

You need to read the whole piece--it's not very long--to establish the context and flesh out what Schmitz means. It is at least in part a conjecture about a new Catholic order. Since sometime in the 19th century (at least), the Vatican and the Church at large have been trying to figure out what the place of the Church in the modern world can and should be. In a nutshell (if I'm not misreading him), Schmitz proposes that Francis and his allies are attempting to establish a relationship between the Church and the secular liberal state similar to the one it once had with the old order in Europe. It's a fascinating thesis, and if true would explain a lot.

I just skimmed the original piece again. What a dog's breakfast it is. It's not completely wrong, nor its concerns unwarranted, by any means. It's just a mess. 


It's not all that often that I read George Will. I saw a link to this piece somewhere and followed the link purely because the title was intriguing: "Trump Is Something the Nation Did Not Know It Needed."

Furthermore, today’s president is doing invaluable damage to Americans’ infantilizing assumption that the presidency magically envelops its occupant with a nimbus of seriousness....

Fastidious people who worry that the president’s West Virginia and Ohio performances — the alpha male as crybaby — diminished the presidency are missing the point, which is: For now, worse is better. Diminution drains this office of the sacerdotal pomposities that have encrusted it.

We very badly need to rein in the power, pomp, and circumstance of the presidency. He is not a king (nor will she be a queen, when that finally happens). Part of the reason that our factions consider it a matter of life and death to get one of their own in the office is the unconscious belief that he is. I often think that some form of monarchy really is most natural to mankind. Many Americans seem to want to revert to it. 


In a comment on a recent album of the week, Don linked to NPR's list of The 150 Greatest Albums Made by Women. It's an interesting list, if you find that sort of thing interesting, though it seemed to me that in a few cases "made by women" was a bit of a stretch (Fleetwood Mac?). But as I was reading along I was astonished to find the assertion that in 1992 Tori Amos was writing about "typically taboo topics including but not limited to sex, religion and sexism. " What?!?  How can anyone seriously assert that in 1992 any of those topics were "taboo"? I guess some people still get a thrill out of thinking that there's something courageous about saying things that might have been shocking in 1960 but have long since ceased to be so. It's a pretty cheap thrill, though.


Slightly related: in The Atlantic, James Parker has an account of visiting a San Francisco museum exhibit called "The Summer of Love Experience." He notes a striking omission:

...Where are the drugs? Their symptoms and sequelae are everywhere, of course, splattered wall-to-wall and chiming from the overhead speakers. But where, in this “Summer of Love Experience,” is LSD itself? Because—not to be too drearily materialistic about it—without that, none of this. Without the willing deliverance of an entire generation to artificially induced mental blowout, to swiftly sacramentalized psychic disruption/expansion, no Jefferson Airplane posters. Indeed, no Jefferson Airplane. A 50-year retrospective might have been a good moment to confront this a little more squarely: The pop culture of the ’60s, with all its ideological ramifications and projections, was a by-product of the drugs.

 I don't think that last sentence is quite accurate. Some sort of culturally revolutionary youth movement would have happened without the drugs. I'd put it this way: the movement as it actually happened was inseparable from the drugs. 


The view from behind a rest stop somewhere on Interstate 81 in central or western Virginia. I could stand to live among those big rolling hills and their vast green fields and pastures.


I could stand to live in a great many places that I've visited, actually, and probably a great many that I haven't. What a great variety of rich beauty the world offers us!


52 Albums, Week 31: Heaven or Las Vegas (Cocteau Twins)

Once again I'm in a hurry and obliged to recycle an old post, and a very minimal one. I had thought from the beginning of this series that I would include a Cocteau Twins album, and that it would probably be Treasure. But I don't have time to write a new post and I already had this one, such as it is. I think I actually like Treasure a little better. It's a little stranger and maybe a little darker. But Heaven or Las Vegas is very good, and if you like one you'd probably like the other.


We all know about the alienation and inauthenticity of technological civilization, we all wonder if it’s sustainable, etc. But I couldn’t help feeling fortunate to live in this time and place a couple of weeks ago when I found myself driving east across the bay at twilight, with the full moon directly in front of me, listening to Heaven Or Las Vegas. If you know and like the otherworldly, sometimes ecstatic, sometimes wistful sound of the Cocteau Twins, you have an idea of what I mean. Someone once described Treasure, an album considered a masterpiece by most Twins lovers, as sounding like a roomful of angels. I don’t know how accurate that is but it serves well enough as an indicator of the sort of magic the group can work.

I only recently heard this album, having let it slip by for a long time, partly because of the mistaken idea that it came after the group moved from 4AD to Capitol and became more mainstream and, to my taste, less inspired. But it was in fact their last 4AD release, and if Heaven is at all inferior to Treasure, it’s by very little. I’d say at least half the songs here are as good as anything they ever did. And for someone who likes them that’s very, very good. There are a couple of songs where Elisabeth Fraser’s cascading melodies (I’ve always assumed she writes them, as they seem so inseparable from her voice) attain the uncanny ability to make you feel as if your spirit is literally being lifted. 


The very best Twins album might be one combining the best tracks from their many EPs. "Aikea-Guinea", for instance.

--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.