Category Archives: Music

Our National Anthem?

As national anthems go, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is strange. It’s hard to sing, it uses antiquated language, and it doesn’t have its nation’s name in it. Though there are several good alternatives (my pick would be “America the Beautiful” sung by the Schuyler Sisters in perpetuity), the Banner is still here, so we must contend with it.

It’s worth reading the lyrics because when you sing a song over and over, the words lose meaning and the ritual becomes rote. Let’s look at the last four lines:

And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Two points can be made out of this. The first is that not only did the flag survive the bombardment, but its survival was made evident by the bombardment itself. Such a metaphor is especially relevant in present times, and it gives me hope that our nation so conceived and so dedicated can endure its great testing. (And I’m not talkin’ about Colin Kaepernick.)

The second is that it ends with a question. In my one year of high school choir, the director pointed out before we began rehearsing the anthem for a performance that this feature is unique among national anthems, and that’s what makes it so important. That it ends with a question doesn’t come through in the musical rendition, which finishes on a triumphantly resolute note. That question symbolizes America: a nation as an unresolved ideal rather than a declarative statement. A nation with the gall to conclude its musical theme song on an ambivalent note.

Because of this, I fully support those who wish to kneel during the anthem. Kneeling is the perfect symbolic gesture given the intent of Kaepernick’s original protest, which was to draw attention to police brutality. It’s peaceful but effective, participatory but not derogatory. Being halfway down could symbolize the historic and ongoing subjugation of African Americans, whether through mass incarceration or disproportionate police brutality. Or, as Kaepernick’s fellow kneeler Eric Reid wrote, “like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy.”

Since NFL teams weren’t even on the field for the anthem until 2009, when the Department of Defense and National Guard began paying the NFL (with taxpayer money) to have ostentatious flag ceremonies before games (!!!), I’m not going to get worked up about coercing displays of patriotism at sporting events, and the traditional “Don’t Tread On Me” crowd should understand why.

Music of the Moment, ctd

It’s been almost 10 years since I last did a “music of the moment” post (then called “soundtrack of the moment”), so I figured it was time for another. There’s no use trying to summarize a whole decade of musical discoveries and interests, so I’ll just try for the last few weeks.

“Hole in Your Soul” by ABBA, ABBA: The Album
Last weekend I was going through our LP collection initially just to clean the vinyls, but I realized there were several albums I hadn’t listened to in a while or at all. It’s so easy to jump to what I have on my phone when I want to hear something, but if I’m gonna have LPs around then I ought to use them, right? So I decided I’d listen to at least one a week, if only to weed out the ones that weren’t worth taking up our limited space. This mission paid off immediately when I pulled out ABBA’s self-titled album, which has some classics like “Take a Chance on Me” and “Thank You for the Music” but also this new-to-me gem:

What an electrifying mix of arena rock and typical ABBA-esque quirkiness. I’d love to play drums on that one. After hearing that I of course set off on an ABBA kick, which led me to “Bang-A-Boomerang”, off of ABBA. (Get more creative album titles, Swedes!) These tracks are why I try to seek out full studio albums, especially from artists I’m just getting into. I still end up with many Greatest Hits albums, but it’s easy to miss these great deep cuts when just sticking with compilations.

“Bye Bye Love” by Ray Charles, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music
A bookstore by my place was going out of business 😢 and everything was $1 😁. I didn’t end up getting books but I did spot this album on vinyl in their small collection. I’d never heard of it, but its price, striking cover, and renowned reputation made it an easy buy. Just listen to the cover of the Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love” that kicks off the album:

“You’re Gonna Live Forever In Me” by John Mayer, The Search for Everything
Perhaps because I knew someone with a strong John Mayer aversion, I’ve always felt the need to apologize for liking him. No more: the dude’s been an incredible songwriter going all the way back to his debut album. I find I prefer when he leans toward melancholic pop or country rather than blues. His latest album isn’t my favorite of his, but its final track shows off Mayer’s talent for delicate melodies and apt arrangements:

“I Just Want to Celebrate” by Rare Earth, One World
Once I found out Rare Earth was the first all-white Motown band, curiosity compelled me to check them out. It’s a scattershot discography, but I love this this groovy sunny-day song and its fist-pounding chorus hook. Sounds very 1971.

“You’re a Special Part of Me” by Diana Ross & Marvin Gaye, Diana & Marvin
Speaking of Motown, this was one of a few discoveries from reading Adam White’s Motown: The Sound of Young America. Obviously I knew of Gaye and Ross, but not of their duet album recorded at the peak of their musical prowess:

“Sugar Dumpling” by Sam Cooke, Twistin’ the Night Away
I had The Best of Sam Cooke for a little while before I realized, Oh right, Sam Cooke is incredible. Maybe I should get more of his music. Having done so, I’m thinking he might be the best singer ever?

“Honey and Smoke” by case/lang/veirs, case/lang/veirs
One of the few modern albums I have on vinyl because of how much I love it. “Honey and Smoke” precisely describes the sound of this Neko Case, K.D. Lang, and Laura Veirs supergroup together trading tracks: a smooth, sexy, smoky blend of alt-rock and pop and lounge music. I don’t listen to any of them individually, but with their musical powers combined I am hooked:

“Big Iron” by Marty Robbins, Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs
Though I’d heard Robbins before (most notably “El Paso” in the Breaking Bad series finale), it wasn’t until seeing this album on someone’s favorite music list a few years ago that I pursued his oeuvre. Perfect for road trips and daydreaming about the Wild West:

In the Mood for a Melody

The other day I came upon Brian Eno’s article about singing with other people:

There are physiological benefits, obviously: You use your lungs in a way that you probably don’t for the rest of your day, breathing deeply and openly. And there are psychological benefits, too: Singing aloud leaves you with a sense of levity and contentedness. And then there are what I would call “civilizational benefits.” When you sing with a group of people, you learn how to subsume yourself into a group consciousness because a capella singing is all about the immersion of the self into the community. That’s one of the great feelings — to stop being me for a little while and to become us. That way lies empathy, the great social virtue.

The next evening, as if to accidentally confirm this thesis, I went with my sister to see Billy Joel perform at Wrigley Field. And boy was there group singing, 40,000 strong. Not only that, but several times Billy gave the crowd a “fielder’s choice”: he’d name two of his songs and played whichever one got more cheers and applause.

One song he had no choice but to play was “Piano Man”. Because everyone knows it so well, he let the crowd take one chorus a cappella:

Sing us a song, you’re the piano man
Sing us a song tonight
Well, we’re all in the mood for a melody
And you’ve got us feelin’ alright

Civilizational benefits indeed. That cliche about gathering around a fire to sing “Kumbaya” came from somewhere.

Sgt. Pepper’s Magical Mystery Tour

This article comparing The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, both released in 1967, got me thinking about what one hypothetical album that combined the best of both albums would look like. So as part of my Better The Beatles project, I’ve determined a track listing for Sgt. Pepper’s Magical Mystery Tour. Thirteen tracks from both albums, shuffled into an ideal song order for your listening pleasure.

  1. Magical Mystery Tour
  2. Hello, Goodbye
  3. With a Little Help from My Friends
  4. Lovely Rita
  5. She’s Leaving Home
  6. Getting Better
  7. Strawberry Fields Forever
  8. Penny Lane
  9. When I’m Sixty-Four
  10. Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds
  11. Baby You’re a Rich Man
  12. All You Need Is Love
  13. A Day in the Life

The cuts from Magical were pretty easy: “Flying,” “Blue Jay Way,” “I Am the Walrus,” and “The Fool on the Hill” are either too weird or too instrumental. Sgt. Pepper’s was a bit more difficult; I won’t miss “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” and “Good Morning Good Morning”, but ditching “Within You Without You” eliminated the remaining George Harrison song, and “Fixing a Hole” is interesting but not interesting enough.

I pondered what to do about the two title tracks that bookend the album. Theoretically they provide the framework for both albums, but I figured “Magical Mystery Tour” performs the same upbeat and psychedelic invitation that the first “Sgt. Pepper’s” track does, so that allowed me to ditch both songs and let the album name do the storytelling.

You’re welcome.

Make ‘The White Album’ Great Again

The White Album is too long. Everyone knows this. As a public service I have trimmed down the bloated double album into one cohesive record, leaving the order unchanged  but the musical integrity restored:

  1. Back in the U.S.S.R
  2. Dear Prudence
  3. Glass Onion
  4. Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
  5. Happiness Is A Warm Gun
  6. Martha My Dear
  7. Blackbird
  8. Piggies
  9. I Will
  10. Birthday
  11. Mother Nature’s Son
  12. Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey
  13. Sexy Sadie
  14. Good Night

This means no “Helter Skelter” or “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (sorry George). No “Julia” or “I’m So Tired” because those should be on a Lennon solo album. I kept “Everybody’s Got Something” over “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road” in the Long Title category because of the former’s exuberance and the latter’s being a mere half-song.

“Revolution 1” and “Revolution 9” were easy nixes because the B-side version of “Revolution” is the best and #9 isn’t music. The hardest cut was “Rocky Raccoon”, but there are still 3 other animal-themed songs, which is plenty.

I went for “Good Night” over “Don’t Pass Me By” for the Ringo tune because it’s prettier. And I ditched “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” along with most of the album’s second half because they aren’t good.

You’re welcome.

Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion

Not sure what drew me initially to Robert Gordon’s Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion, but it quickly hooked me. The vibrant cover maybe. I’ve been a casual soul fan for a while and had vague notions about Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, and Motown, but I didn’t know anything about Stax or its incredibly American zero-to-hero rise and fall in the 1960s and ’70s.

I had heard Stax songs, though, even if I didn’t know it: “Green Onions” by Booker T. and the MG’s, “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” and “Respect” by Otis Redding (didn’t realize Aretha’s version was a cover), and “In the Midnight Hour” by Wilson Pickett among others. With this basic awareness, I don’t think I’d be able to tell the difference between the Motown and Stax sounds, but they existed:

The sign at Motown read, HITSVILLE USA. The marquee at Stax answered, SOULSVILLE USA. “That whole Memphis-soul feeling—outside of the southern nightclubs, nobody had ever heard that laid-back, barely-make-it-to-the-next-measure bluesy soul feel,” says Mar-Key Terry Johnson. “It was different from Motown with the strings and the background voices and trying to pop up black music so white people would buy it. What came out of Stax was really not a very commercial music. It’s amazing the commercial success it had.” Motown songs made you want to sing along. Stax music—you were the singer.

That surprising commercial success early on was due in large part to Stax co-founder Estelle Axton, who had set up a record shop next to the studio and basically turned it into an R&D unit:

Her store wasn’t only for moving product; it was also for developing it. “I could also test the records they made in the back. If I had one that several customers said, ‘Give me one of those too,’ I could tell them in the back, ‘Go ahead and press that one, it’ll sell.’ That’s why we were successful with nearly everything we put out for a few years—we tested them at home before we let them go.”

As Stax songs grew in popularity, so did the company. Competing with big corporations with national reach like Columbia and Atlantic meant connecting independently with distributors and radio stations all over the country and convincing them to play Stax music. That convincing often came in the illegal form of payola, which some people were brought in by Stax to do:

“I was the payola king of New York,” Weiss later bragged. “Payola was the greatest thing in the world. You didn’t have to go out to dinner with someone and kiss their ass. Just pay them, here’s the money, play the record, fuck you.” One of his Stax associates remembered Weiss as the guy who could buy a million records for a million bucks. The distribution of them might not have been clean, the sales may not all be accounted for, but the money spent, the generator whirred, and the cash register went ka-ching.

Gordon places the story of Stax firmly within the story of Memphis, a regional hotspot for blues and country music but also an ardently segregationist town and hotbed of race-related civil strife. It’s the city that spawned Sun Records and Elvis, but also a years-long labor dispute between Public Works and majority-black sanitation workers that would bring Martin Luther King Jr. to his death. Stax became an urban oasis in its early years, forging a family-like atmosphere where black and white musicians could play and record together, even if they couldn’t drink out of the same water fountain when they left.

Ecstatic studio creativity and bitter infighting. Chart-topping hits and bankruptcy. Pool parties and plane crashes. Gordon catalogs it all with verve in this aural history, using interviews with the people involved with Stax over the years, many of which are still alive. I could barely put this down, and ended up with a mile-long list of songs to check out. (An audiobook with clips of mentioned songs would have been the ideal reading experience.)

Stax, I recently learned, is still alive, surviving buyout after buyout to land as a label of Concord Music Group. The self-titled album of Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats was a recent release, and it contains a mix of spunk and soul that’s fitting for a Stax release. Here’s to many more from a legendary American institution.

Just a Moment

Sometimes it’s not the whole song but just a moment.

Like the verses in “Grease is the Word” from Grease. The chords alternate between Bm and E before hitting F#m7 at the end of the couplet. Then the bass steps up to Em7 at “There ain’t no danger” and walks down to D and C. That Em7 (at :23 in the video below) hits me like honey:

Or the beginning of the chorus to “The Mixed Tape” by Jack’s Mannequin, which is preceded by an electric guitar sliding up to the climax of the chorus. The piano arpeggiates, tickling the ivories as it tickles my spine, McMahon crooning “Where are you now? / As I’m swimming through the stereo / I’m writing you a symphony of sound” beneath a fulsome ahh-chorus, starting at :29 here:

I didn’t choose these moments; they chose me. They burrowed into whatever deep part of the psyche finds transcendence important, however fleeting. “The Mixed Tape” is from a very specific memory, and I listen to it to evoke that time. “Grease is the Word” doesn’t fit in with the rest of the songs from Grease (which isn’t even close to my favorite musical), but for some reason I like it the best.

There is no explaining it.

One Wild Life’s Too Short

I have a new piece at ThinkChristian on how a book and an album were telling me the same thing at basically the same time:

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”  You’ve probably seen this quote, the final couplet in Mary Oliver’s poem The Summer Day, on pictures of sunsets or accompanying “Adventure” boards on Pinterest. I encountered it elsewhere. First, it’s the inspiration for Gungor’s One Wild Life, a trilogy of albums entitled Soul (2015), Spirit (2016) and Body (forthcoming). I had Soul on heavy rotation when on a whim I picked up David Dark’s new book, Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious, simply because of the provocative title. Together, these distinct works of art share more than just the Oliver quote, which Dark also directly references. They preach a similar message in a way that’s accessible to a wide audience of readers and listeners who crave a richer understanding of religion.

Check out the full piece here.