Category: music

New Turntable, New (Old) Vinyl

Spring has sprung and it’s time to write again. The world hasn’t quite ended but but I promise to get back to that before long.

In my last post I mentioned the latest Radiohead album, A Moon Shaped Pool. The more I listened the more it seemed like a recording made for vinyl . Which got me talking out loud about wanting to get back into listening to vinyl albums. Which inspired my wife to get me a turntable for Christmas.

I’m now the owner of an Audio-Technica AT-LP60-USB, which allows one to listen to vinyl through (and, if desired, make recordings from) a computer. So far this unit has exceeded expectations. It’s belt-driven (easy installation) and to my relief the table spins at the correct speed — in high school I had a Craig system that played records a hair too fast, enough to be annoying. The stock stylus yields clear, rich playback. The unit comes with a built-in pre-amp, an advantage over comparable models. It’s popular and a big seller, probably the best budget turntable for the investor in audiophile vinyl who wants assurance the player won’t damage his/her records.

Some reviews of vinyl versions of A Moon Shaped Pool pointed at bad pressings with surface noise and skipping. So I decided to use an Amazon gift card to pick up a couple of very different albums: 180 gram reissues from The Jimi Hendrix Experience and a lesser known English band, Slowdive.

img_20170312_152507455.jpgAre You Experienced? is a record my parents would’ve never bought me when I was six years old. Word was out that “Purple Haze” opened with chords that clearly contained diabolus in musica. By the time I was old enough to buy my own albums I was interested in bands like Kansas, Yes, and Pink Floyd. With 2017 would marking the 50th anniversary of the watershed year in pop music I wanted something to commemorate it. I’d heard the title track to Are You Experienced? enough times on album-oriented radio to decide it was a favorite deep cut.

The iconic bright yellow and purple album arrived, appropriately enough, on the first day of daylight savings time (Amazon made good on its promised shipping date, even though it was a Sunday). The 2014 reissue is among the last projects completed by remastering wiz George Marino. There’s minimal surface noise and clear playback with the depth, resonance, and analog edginess Hendrix deserves.

The whole album is an undisputed masterpiece and game-changer in the annals of electric guitar, so there’s hardly a superlative I can offer here that hasn’t been written thousands of times. Apart from the title track and the obvious hits (this is almost a greatest hits record in itself) I especially like dark finale to side A, “I Don’t Live Today” with its pulsating, strobe-like effect of Hendrix’s whammy bar. This LP is the American version, so another favorite “Highway Chile” isn’t present. But that’s hardly a complaint. I can’t wrap my mind around how great this record sounds.

img_20170314_121045.jpgA couple of days later Slowdive arrived. I ordered Blue Day, a compilation of early EP sides from the band’s first run between 1991-95. I discovered Slowdive while getting into Velour 100, a Michigan band which drew “shoegaze” comparisons. After listening to every recording of Slowdive available on YouTube I concluded their EP’s were stronger than their first two LP’s (they later made an excellent experimental third album as their contract expired).

Blue Day (1992) captures Slowdive at their late teen, pristine, pre-LP creative best. They had no producer in the traditional sense; engineer Chris Hufford allowed the band to “explore the space.” The results were arresting. While following the steps of My Bloody Valentine in terms of arrays of effects pedals (hence, “shoegaze”), Slowdive forged their own slow, sad, and gorgeously ethereal sound. Buried under the swirl of effects and distortion were plaintive pop songs. Chief songwriter Neil Halstead had not been allowed to listen to pop records as a youth; he reached into a classical and orchestral background to create something with density.

“Avalyn 1,” the second track on side A, is simple in construction — a repetitive two-chord progression — but important in documenting the moment when Slowdive found their signature sound. The next tracks, “Morningrise” and “She Calls” are among their very best, displaying an almost cinematic intensity.

Why did they quit? The Britpop rivalry between Blur and Oasis erupted; suddenly “shoegaze” was dreadfully out of fashion — or, as Slowdive drummer Simon Scott put it, people were no longer “willing to admit they liked it. Halstead and Rachel Goswell (Slowdive’s female voice) continued as Mojave 3 while the other members pursued other projects inside and out of music. But Slowdive’s music didn’t die. In fact, in their absence it attained cult status. Such was the demand for a reunion that Slowdive reassembled for tours in 2014 and 2015. Now there’s a new album in the offing, and another tour this spring. I’m going to see them in May during one of just eight North American dates. I hope to get close enough to watch guitarist Christian Savill’s technique.

So I’m happy with the turntable and these first couple of high-quality vinyl acquisitions. Hendrix sounds better through headphones while Slowdive is better through speakers — especially Nick Chaplin’s bass — owing, I suppose, to how their respective albums were engineered.

With all the other media available for music I don’t see myself spending a lot of money to rebuild or replace an old record collection (some are still playable). But my short list includes Led Zeppelin (I would argue their best), King’s X Dogman (to compliment Hendrix), Buffalo Springfield Again,  Boards of Canada’s Geogaddi, and that mysterious bootleg of Pink Floyd Live at Pompeii. 

Oh, and that Radiohead LP if they get the pressing right.




When Beauty Saved the World


                                                 Elena Mukhina, 1978 world champion

If gymnastics is coming from your soul, then you will be an unforgettable gymnast…

~ Natalia Yurchenko

During this past summer’s Rio Olympics there was discussion on Facebook about the women’s gymnastics competition. The stature and physical strength of the gold medalist American women was noted in contrast to the skinny, underaged appearance of their opponents. And their powerful tumbling skills wowed everyone.

While I laud the American victory, I wasn’t wowed. I found the competition aesthetically displeasing. While men’s gymnastics continues to evolve with riskier acrobatic skill, the women’s side of the sport, placing the same emphasis on acrobatics, has lost something. Twitchy, bouncy, bounding, it’s hardly women’s gymnastics anymore. Given the general drift of Western dominated culture this is probably unsurprising. But I don’t like it, and I didn’t withhold my two cents from my teens while watching the events on television. As a kid who watched ABC’s Wide World of Sports religiously, I’ve followed the sport since the mid ‘70s. In my opinion women’s gymnastics reached its efflorescence at the 1989 World Championships when the Soviet Union — two years from disappearing from the map — fielded the greatest team in the sport’s history. From artistic standpoint it’s been mostly downhill from there.

I’ve been listening to the new Radiohead album, A Moon Shaped Pool, and it struck me that ambient bits and pieces of Jonny Greenwood’s incidental arrangements have the tone and texture of old Soviet documentary soundtracks. Some YouTubers have loaded training footage of the classic Soviet gymnasts onto their channels, so I was prompted to take a look.

The Soviet team trained at a secret facility outside Moscow called Ozero Krugloye, “Round Lake” (a moon-shaped lake, if you will). In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s cameras went inside this gym which, like everything in the old Soviet Union, looked well-worn with faded panels and browned, oily ballet bars. The footage is unsparing, hardly the stuff of propaganda. With a training regimen as strict as Marine PT, some of the girls have a look of panic as they repeat attempts at mastering moves. There are fun moments: a toga party, practical jokes, and laughter. But mostly clouds of chalk, wrist tape, t-shirts in English over leotards, disheveled hair held back with ribbons of red and white yarn, and facial expressions serious beyond their years.

Those faces are familiar from Saturdays in front of the TV: Maria Filatova, Natalia Shaposhnikova, Stella Zakharova, Elena Mukhina, Natalia Yurchenko…names as obscure to most Americans as a list of cosmonauts.

Natalia Yurchenko, 1983 world champion

If the name Yurchenko rings a bell it’s because this gal, born above the Arctic circle, reinvented vaulting in the early ‘80s with a round-off back handspring onto the springboard. Three decades later both male and female gymnasts are doing variations of the Yurchenko. The International Gymnastics Hall of Fame described Yurchenko’s performances as, “hypnotic for their unhurried beauty” and “paradoxical.” In the documentaries “Natasha” is captured mentoring younger gymnasts, playing a somber piece on the gym’s old upright piano, and exchanging icey stares across the tumbling floor with her gruff and burly coach Vladislav Rastorotsky, her eyes cold and blue as the Arctic sea.

Like all coaches under the Soviet regime Rastorotsky was under the gun to produce champions. The girls felt the “form and pressure” of the time: between 1952 and 1992 Soviet women won all but one of the Olympic team titles in gymnastics. Medals aside, there was an overarching commitment to doing the sport the right way, and they produced routines through strain and sorrow that solved the problem most worth solving: how to express beauty. Theirs was a synthesis of daring acrobatics and sublime artistry. The toe point, the subtle hand gesture, the extension of the limbs into space, the balletic expression — all exuded what Cathy Rigby called amplitude.

In one of the documentaries, choreographer Emilia Sakalova exhorts Stella Zakharova, “Your hands are your language. You speak about life with them…You protest against death and it won’t overcome you. It won’t!”

Years ago my two oldest girls and I attended minor league hockey games with a pair of Russian-Ukrainian friends, a father and son. One evening after a game Sergei (the son) needed to stop by the hospital where he worked to check his schedule. The kids and I waited outside with his dad, Viktor. At length Viktor stood on the concrete parking stop block and began balancing, leaping, pirouetting — as if he were on the balance beam, laughing and smiling and challenging my girls to give it a try. Maybe balancing the human form on the precipice is a deep-seated Russian thing, as natural to them as picking up a ball and glove to us.

Regardless of how hard the Soviet coaches were, the girls wanted to be at Round Lake. They had expressive aspirations as most people do. The system aside, they were hardly hardened communists (not a few of them have since come to the United States). When I watched them on Wide World of Sports years ago I began to apprehend a humanity “over there” capable of things noble, lovely, admirable and praiseworthy. These girls lead me to think about “other” people in terms beyond the geopolitical narrative.

In Moscow, an orphaned girl was taken to the CSKA sports club, “Central Red Army,” known for its soccer and ice hockey teams. The girl wanted to be a figure skater, but jumped at the chance to do gymnastics. Years later, in 1978, Elena Mukhina destroyed a filled-out and less focused Nadia Comaneci at the world championships in Strasbourg, France. If there was one Soviet gymnast who exemplified the ideal, it was Mukhina: tumbling runs on the floor and death-defying moves on the bars and balance beam previously unseen, without compromising a single detail of the graceful line of the studied dancer.

A broken leg kept Mukhina out of the ‘79 championships. In the run-up to the Moscow Games her coaches pushed too hard. At practice, running on a leg not properly healed, she under-rotated a dangerous Thomas salto and snapped her spine.

Lena Mukhina spent the first half her life extending the range of human motion and floating through space; the latter half she spent paralyzed. Bitterness gave way to acceptance and faith. “Everything good in my life comes from God,” she told a magazine. She added that she would do even greater things, and “the world will see.” I can’t be sure, but my guess is that she was referring to resurrection and the age to come. Her body stilled, her large eyes were as alive and contemplative as those of the saints whose icons lined the bookshelves and walls of her apartment.

So as the Rio games fade from view; as the tenth anniversary of Lena’s passing from this present world approaches; as this world seems destined to rekindle a Cold War…here’s to beauty.

The Christ Haunted Queen


                                                  Rapt fans at a Queen concert, 1973

Four decades ago this summer I attended a pool party for our eighth grade class – our last splash together before becoming lowly high school freshmen. We were invited to bring our favorite records to play on the sound system. I brought along Queen’s latest LP, A Night at the Opera, featuring the iconic finale, “Bohemian Rhapsody.” It was a hit. Of the records brought to the party mine got played through a couple of times. My cool factor rose several notches. Cool enough to have an actual girl sit on my shoulders for a round of “chicken fight” with another boy-girl pair.

The first time I heard Queen on the radio (’75) I was drawn to their dense and unique sound. I went to the drug store and bought the single “Killer Queen,” with its scintillating B-side, “Flick of the Wrist” featuring some exotically Middle Eastern guitar leads. A rocking band with some tight female harmonies – or so I thought. Turns out those high-pitched vocals belonged to Freddie Mercury and drummer Roger Taylor.

When “Bohemian Rhapsody” became the definitive rock anthem of the spring of ’76 I scraped together seven bucks to buy A Night at the Opera. After immersing myself in it for weeks I turned to collecting their older albums – a good exercise, because in my evaluation everything Queen did after Opera was marked by steady decline. By the ’80s they would become unlistenable to my ears.

Side 1 of Sheer Heart Attack (’75) is Queen’s high water mark. Book-ended by two sizzling rockers by guitarist Brian May (“Brighton Rock” and “Now I’m Here”), the middle section is comprised of “Killer Queen” and a three-track suite: Taylor’s proto-grunge “Tenement Funster,” featuring a guitar break that nods to David Gilmour on “Time”; the frenetic “Flick of the Wrist,” and the classically infused “Lily of the Valley.”

To say Queen II (’74) is excessive is an understatement. The tracks are so busy and overwrought there’s hardly one I can nowadays listen all the way through, though each has its moments. “Ogre Battle,” for example, opens with shredding, Hendrix-like backwards riff that preludes speed metal.


                                                                                    Freddie Mercury, Roger Taylor, Brian May, and John Deacon

But the self-titled Queen (’73) has some real jewels. Best known for the single “Keep Yourself Alive” and the AOR favorite “Liar,” the album has lyrical depth to match a musical range that keeps the listener guessing. It includes a dark and obscure track buried at the end of side one. The more I hear it the more convinced I am that “Bohemian Rhapsody” is its counterpart, or aftermath.

“A band is a like a sausage factory”

In a 1985 interview with Los Angeles DJ Mary Turner, Freddie Mercury cautioned listeners not to read anything into Queen’s music. There are no hidden messages, no political stances; they were not out to change the world. For Mercury, pop music is a business aimed at satisfying consumers. He categorized Queen’s music as “escapist.” Moreover, the songs were like sausages to be eaten and then, well, you know. He especially didn’t see the need for people go prowling around the band’s old material, or cling to it. They should move on to enjoy new things. For Mercury, exploring other genres and making different kinds of music prevented boredom. Anything and everything was possible, acceptable.

Well, perhaps that aesthetic had been at play all along. So much so that Mercury left space for rather looming figure to make three appearances on Queen.

“Great King Rat” (side 1, track 3) is about a “dirty old man” who leads people into destruction. After a tempo change the voice become first person; he beckons people not to believe their Bibles, and reminds them that when “the great Lord when he died, sinners knelt at his side.”

“Jesus” (side 2, track 5) is highly visual, depicting crowds “going down to see the Lord Jesus,” in search of healing. It’s impossible to determine the slant of this song: curious historical sketch or mocking satire: an “unclean” leper kneeling at Jesus’ feet “rang his bell.”

But the innermost track — the one an impatient listener might skip while flipping the vinyl to get to “Liar” — is no joke.

Bismillah, no! We will not let you go…

“My Fairy King” is Queen at their theatrical best, encapsulating the ground they would cover over their first four albums in four minutes and four seconds. Lyrically, it depicts a land brimming with childhood imagination. Its king “can see things that are not there for you and me.” Lions lie down down with deer; dragons fly like sparrows through the air. In this world the king “can do right and nothing wrong.”


Then came men to savage in the night
To run like thieves and to kill like knives
To take away the power from the magic hand
To bring about the ruin to the promised land

The scene turns to “burning hell with screaming pain,” and a voice calls out in the cacophony, “Son of heaven set me free and let me go.”  

A plaintive section follows with a piano line and lyric that anticipate the theme of “Bohemian Rhapsody”:

Someone, someone…has drained the colour from my wings
Broken my fairy circle ring
And shamed the king in all his pride
Changed the winds and wronged the tides
O Mother Mercury
Look what they’ve done to me (yeah)
I cannot run I cannot hide

The denouement of guitar and piano builds in intensity before subsiding in a pool of dying notes, like the light fading from a Maxfield Parrish painting.

As if to say, nothing really matters.


The Rolling Stones: My Recipe for Goat Head Soup

I had every intention of writing about the new Monkees album, Good Times!, currently sailing up the summer pop chart fueled by songs penned by Rivers Cuomo (Weezer), Noel Gallagher (Oasis)/Paul Weller (The Jam), Andy Partridge (XTC), and Ben Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie). Perfect for the earbuds while watching the kids at the splashpad. But so much is being said and written about it that adding my own two cents seems pointless.

Rolling+Stones (1)

      Classic Stones: Charlie Watts, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Bill Wyman, Brian Jones

Moreover, I got side-tracked. While very much in a ’60s frame of mind I noticed that Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts recently celebrated his 75th birthday. I mentioned this on Facebook, noting how I admired Watts for eschewing the hedonistic rock n’ roll lifestyle while adding, “I can count on one hand the number of Rolling Stones songs I really like.” Which got me wondering: is that really the case?

So for fun I got on Spotify and scoured the billions of tracks the Stones recorded over a 43 year span to see if I could find enough material to comprise a playlist — an album’s worth of “greatest hits” for a band I really don’t like. I wanted a baker’s dozen, 13 seeming an appropriate number for the Stones. I couldn’t even find 12. But throwing in a couple for purely sentimental reasons I came up with eleven. Nigel Tufnel’s cardinal number.

Here they are in the order I would listen to them:

  1. “Mother’s Little Helper.” I gave this song to my youngest daughter as a guitar exercise for working on chord changes — and to watch her expression when she heard Keith Richards’ cackling crow call slide on the electric 12-string. She was unfazed. “I like it. But unless I capo it I won’t be able to sing it.” You go, girl.
  2. “Honky Tonk Women.” This one reminds me of a tall blonde babysitter my brother and I had over the summer of 1969. My bro and I were four and eight, respectively, and she was 14, but very much grown-up to me. When she came over to watch us she would play football with me in the vacant lot next to our property. I remember tackling her once — actually, she ran over me. My face collided with her collar bone and, after a flash of light, the sensation of her frame raking over me: hip, knee, ankle. I opened my eyes to a bouquet of mown grass, perfume, and girl-sweat. Toward the end of that summer our families met at a lakeside park for an outing. She and her sisters sat around me at the picnic table in their swimsuits like sea nymphs, and “Honky Tonk Women” came bursting over the park’s PA speakers. Not that she was ever that kind of girl, mind you. But these memories from summers ago are summoned whenever I hear that cowbell and drum intro.
  3. “Factory Girl.” Tracks from side two of Beggars Banquet (1968) make up over a third of my list. Both waggish and wistful, this acoustic work finds the band handling the old-time country idiom with a reverence that would win Ralph Peer’s approval. It ranks with Zeppelin’s “Going to California” among tracks you’d least expect from a British rock band. Mumford can’t touch this.
  4. “Lady Jane.” Keeping it acoustic we go flipside of “Mother’s Little Helper,” from a song redolent of Appalachia to one featuring Brian Jones on Appalachian dulcimer. I read somewhere of Mick Jagger (I think) saying this instrument was used in the olden days of England. But the lap dulcimer is actually German in origin. Regardless, this stately yet fragile piece, done in a modal Renaissance form, stirs like dawn light through stained glass.
  5. “Stray Cat Blues.” This is an instance where Richards’ maxim on “weaving” guitars actually works. Later in the ’70s some of his and Ronnie Woods’ live duos sounded to my ears like cats fighting; here, the coordination, the energy between the guitars and piano is scintillating. The extended, hi hat-driven outro anticipates Led Zeppelin II.
  6. “Dandelion.” No apologies to Stones purists here. As a Syd Barrett fan I’m a sucker for a musical childhood frolic with hints of darkness crouching in the willows. The Stones could never write like Barrett, but this comes close. I remember hearing this song as a youth late at night on an AOR station and thinking, “Hmm. So the Stones did some spacey, psychedelic stuff? I need to check out more of them sometime…”
  7. “Street Fighting Man.” This. Not only is this unequivocally the best Rolling Stones song, it’s one of the greatest rock songs of all time. Period. It came out the summer of ’68 on the heels of the MLK and RFK assassinations and the donnybrook of a riot at the Democratic National Convention. What amazes in this song is that the only electric instrument present is the bass. The rest is a tour de force of compressed acoustic guitar thrashing, Watts pounding on a toy drum kit, Jones’ sitar hanging over the mayhem like clouds of detonated white phosphorous, and Nicky Hopkins’ reverb-drenched piano galloping off in the left channel. Add to this Jagger’s best vocals of his career: “Heeeeeyyyyyy! Said my name is called Disturrrrbaaance…”
  8. “Ruby Tuesday.” A song so lovely even Jagger liked it. “Who could hang a name on you?” Well, a Maryville, TN-based restaurant chain liked it enough to hang its name above their doors. As on “Dandelion,” this features Watts’ jack-hammer drumming blasting its way through one side of a dream pop soundscape framed by Jones’ classically-inspired recorder.
  9. “Under My Thumb.” The most conventional pop song of this lot, it sounds like the sort of thing Major Nelson’s square friends would get up twisting and contorting to during an after-dinner shindig on I Dream of Jeannie. I’m not a Brian Jones groupie, but something I like in common with these other tracks is his incorporation of unconventional rock instruments — in this case, the marimba. I’m convinced that after his tragic departure the group could only move in a garage band direction.
  10. “Gimme Shelter.” This is the song that launched my search through the Stones catalog. I was familiar Richards’ minacious intro — that spooky, foreboding 40-second annunciation of the end of the ’60s era — but I couldn’t remember the name of the dang song. Apocalyptic is an apt description. This song points not only to the violence that marred the Altamont Free Concert (Dec ’69) but to our age of neoconservative and “humanitarian” interventionism and perpetual war.
  11. “Prodigal Son.” The final track finds the Stones paying homage to their blues roots. Jagger sounds remarkably like a wayfaring Charley Patton — who always ended his sets with a gospel number — with the ill-starred Jones slashing on slide guitar (he wouldn’t live a year past this recording). Listening to this familiar biblical story we hope that by the end these boys have found their way back home.

So that’s my Stones playlist. It seems to touch all the stylistic bases they covered between ’65-69 — the years I regard as their true golden period. The more I listen to these tracks the more I discover and appreciate about the band. And that’s something coming from a hater.




Dogs of Peace Still Guide You Home

DogsOfPeace_Heel_cover (1)The cool thing growing up the son of a disc jockey was connecting with him through the radio as he spun the great tunes from the seminal period 1967-76. By the time I came of age my musical sensibilities were set in stone — hence, the ’80s were a downer for me while the ’90s marked something of a return to form.

In the summer of ’96 I bought a copy of Speak by Dogs of Peace, what was thought to be a one-off from a foursome of Nashville session players: Gordon Kennedy (guitar, vocals), Jimmie Lee Sloas (bass, vocals), Blair Masters (keyboards, bgv’s), and John Hammond on drums. I won’t take the space here list the luminaries these guys have played with or for, or produced. They’re musicians’ musicians, so unsurprisingly Speak was easily among the highlights of the decade.

My best buddy and former workmate is himself a guitarist with gigging and recording experience. I would bring my cassette copy of Speak and we would blast it in the car while working. We analyzed it. We argued its technical details. We caught its reference points: Wings, Pink Floyd, James Gang, Hendrix, among others. He was able to break down Kennedy’s guitar leads and explain how he achieved certain tones, as on “Do You Know,” whose twin solos match the aching grandeur of Gilmour on “Comfortably Numb.”

Unwinding from the day I’d go down to the basement and play it again, having sent my daughters (13 and 11 at the time) to bed. I didn’t know it at the time, but they were listening, too. Especially to “Thrown Away” — they loved that track. It spoke to them at those transitional ages. Proud of those gals for their good musical tastes. Chips off the old block.


                                     Can’t sleep without the light on…

But things change over twenty years. I confess I’m lost when it comes to today’s hipster music. No offense, but I don’t get what’s so enthralling about ukuleles, glockenspiels, dead-pan lead vocals and wordless choruses that go,

oohhhh-wayyy-oohhh, oh-oh way-ay, oh-oh-whoah….

[probably the generation that grew up watching Arthur and caught that episode about the Finnish hologram band, BINKY]

Anyway, it’s a relief that Dogs of Peace weren’t an one-off after all. After twenty years of doing myriad other things the group reformed and released Heel in April of this year. The cover art and title allude to the proto-evangel in Genesis 3:15: God curses the serpent for his deceit and promises that the “seed of the woman,” i.e. the virgin-born son, would crush the serpent’s head (check out the bonus track, “Crush”) — though the serpent would manage to inflict a deadly wound to his heel.

The title also plays on the “dog” metaphor.

Heel is arranged in three sets of three songs, with a closing medley/postlude. The opening tracks come out of the blocks big and bold: detonating drums, swirling strings, muscular riffs. They combine a snarling guitar tone a la Jimmy Page with an expanding, boiling thunderhead of a sound reminiscent of Kerry Livgren’s arrangements. While the most bombastic of the album, these songs establish a more chiseled, classic rock sound than the alt edge of the first record. They also introduce recurring themes: intercession (“One Flight Away”), interposition (“Sacrifice”), and light/darkness:

Looking at the painting of Van Gogh’s Starry Night / with a brush he paints a riddle / a church in the middle, but somebody’s turned out the light… (“Dark Without”)

The second trio of songs finds the band broadening the scope, shifting between moods while infusing the music with their characteristic humor. “All This For a Piece of Fruit” winsomely plays on the fall of human nature — with more than a enough cowbell to fill Bruce Dickinson’s prescription. And a few of those previously unnamed luminaries begin to show up: Ricky Skaggs showcases his mandolin on “Only the Gold,” but this isn’t a salute to Dr. Ralph Stanley (deserving as he is). Rather, Steely Dan-tight harmonies punch through an Alan Parsons “I Robot” soundscape at breakneck pace. Skagg’s mandolin solo is sublime beyond words.

Speaking of Steely Dan, piano ace Michael Omartian makes his cameo as the album transitions into the third section, opening with one of the its best tracks, “Friend of the Groom.” A jocose nod to John 3:29, this is straight-up Southern rock more stout than a pot of black coffee. Fat guitar, funky bass, and Omartian’s boogie piano create conditions for a heavy foot on the gas pedal. You can tell the band is into it: at the intro to the second verse one voice says “Yep” while another answers “Right.”

Shifting gears, the elegant “Healed” is graced with a poignant guitar solo from guest Peter Frampton. It’s a meditation on what mortality has been transformed into for believers: we might not leave this present cosmos cured, but we can assuredly leave it healed. More on that in a moment.

Meanwhile, another confession: I’m not into praise and worship music. Visiting churches that use this style I’m the guy hands-in-pockets staring at the screen while everyone else is enraptured, eyes closed, singing the lines from memory. But if the songs were more like “He’s the Light of the Word” I might get into it. No congregation could sing at this level, but I could envision a tastefully scaled-down version making the rounds in churches. Whiteheart’s Rick Florian, PFR’s Joel Hanson, and the McCrary Sisters join in to create a gospel choir for a rousing outro. Following a change of key one of the McCrary’s begins to sing and Sloas hits a booming note on his bass that makes the hair on the back of my neck tingle.

The final verse declares:

Jesus, he is matchless / see the wounds of God’s wrath / Brilliant in the chaos / illuminating my path…

A deeply held evangelical conviction is that Christ’s death deflects God’s wrath for sin away from those who believe in him, i.e. substitutionary atonement. This idea, based on passages like Isaiah 53:4-8 and the reflections of St. Anselm and John Calvin, has in more recent times fallen out of favor, giving way to Christus Victor and other plausible theories of the efficacy of his death. But we’re talking about Christ’s death, a matter of cosmic weight. I agree with most of these models — including the sinner’s substitute idea.

I was recently queried about this by some hipsters.

“Why, yes,” I responded. “I do happen to believe in it.”

Their smiles faded. I could see the look in their eyes: Old guy holding to a 15th century heresy. Everybody keep cool, keep smiling, and wave your hands…

oohhhh-wayyy-oohhh, oh-oh way-ay, oh-oh-whoah….

Yeah, whatever. Like I said, some things change over twenty years.

In the time that’s passed since 1996 I’ve added three more children to my quiver. A job change in 2012 separated me from my guitar-playing sidekick and the daily camaraderie we enjoyed. My dad developed Alzheimer’s. Two winters ago his condition took a decisive turn for the worse. Around that time one of my daughters — the one who was 11 when Speak came out — gave birth to a second grandchild, a baby girl, via c-section. A couple of days later my gal started hemorrhaging. The bleeding was out of control; she faded in and out as doctor’s struggled to stabilize her condition.

It’s a drama played out thousands of times a day in hospitals, nursing homes, accident scenes, battlefields and other scenes across the globe. We who stand by and watch and pray ask ourselves: Did I say and do all the right things?

Helplessness isn’t the right word. Irrelevance is probably closer. Because whether loved ones pass through the dark valley or come back out of it, only the Shepherd can go with them, lighting the way.

Against all instinct and understanding, this is the point where the dog must heel. And stay. And wait as the Master does his inscrutable work.


                                                                                                  Shine. Let it shine. Keep it on…….

Turns out my daughter was raised up from her sickbed. Dad we later laid to rest — until the resurrection. One cured, the other healed. But the same Shepherd over both…

So how do the Dogs bring this gem of an album home? The finale is a dramatic, Abbey Road-like medley expanding the “light of the world” motif.

“Light into the Darkness,” which Kennedy and Masters built around a Sloas bass line, reminds us that having engaged his seemingly chaotic creation the Artist will not abandon it. This, incidentally, is at the very heart of God’s righteousness. “He can work with this,” we are assured.

Our response, our vocation is to shine (“Shine Dog”), not hiding this light under our bowls. But lest we get carried away in our endeavors, we’re drawn back to a be still moment: “3:16,” from John’s gospel, the most recognized and quoted verse in the Bible, brought to remembrance.

Heel closes with a slide guitar instrumental of “Amazing Grace.”

Hmm. Nothing I can add to that besides, “listen to the record.” Maybe they’ll do another — maybe Fetch, or something like that (though, at this rate of output I’m not sure I’ll be around for it). Either way, Dogs of Peace have left us with a pair of brilliantly conceived and finely crafted artifacts that point restive hearts toward home.






In A Beautiful (and Scary) Place With Boards of Canada

Scottish brothers Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin have made music that fits their public image: mysterious, introverted, forlorn and nostalgic (NPR)

In the ‘60s when I was a youngster my family lived out in the country, in a development called the Plott Farm, halfway between Canton, NC and the Bethel Community. It’s near Cold Mountain, namesake of Charles Frazier’s celebrated novel. I played with army figures in the ditch in front of our house, watching archeology students from UNC Chapel Hill walk by in their cut-offs and sandals, en route to a dig at a Native American mound at the end of our road.

bocIn those days my dad was a disc jockey at the local radio station, WPTL. I listened to him spin wax while playing outside, the crackling music coming through a single earpiece from a transistor radio.

The days before I reached double digits were both exuberantly carefree and numblingly anxiety-ridden. The summertide bliss of “Green Tambourine” by the Lemon Pipers was jarred to a halt by the words, THIS IS A TEST OF THE EMERGENCY BROADCAST SYSTEM, and the blaring signal that followed. Every hair on my body stood on end. This beautiful place could be drastically altered in a moment.

Fast-forward to 1995. For personal interest I enrolled in a couple of evening courses at UNC Charlotte taught by James Tabor, a Dead Sea Scrolls expert and scholar of the biblical apocalyptic idiom. Tabor took time from lecturing to elaborate on his experience as a negotiator with David Koresh during the siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco in April, 1993.

Five years later the dot com bubble burst…then 9/11, then domestic spying, then the real estate meltdown…wars and rumors of wars…and more spying…

Being the son of a deejay brought me to love all kinds of music, ranging from old-time and bluegrass to prog rock, bebop, and classical (especially the totalitarian paranoia seeping through Shostakovich). But I’ve never been much of a “beats” guy. I did get into “Crossover” by EPMD, and the spell-binding “6 Underground” by Sneaker Pimps remains a guilty pleasure; but scratches and cross-fading were never my thing. I didn’t go looking for what came to be called “intelligent dance music” (IDM).

So it was by pure accident that I stumbled upon a YouTube video of Air Force Captain Joe Kittinger’s 102,800 foot jump from the edge of space (1960), set to the song “Dayvan Cowboy” by Boards of Canada. A little while later I found a fan video for “Everything You Do is a Balloon,” paired with a scared and grainy bicycle safety classroom film from them ‘60s. I didn’t know exactly what I was hearing, but it had a distinct texture and feel that was both whimsical and ominous.

I was hooked.  The more I looked the more I discovered remarkably creative fan videos, grabbing old documentaries from the ‘50s and ‘60s (public service announcements, nuclear test footage), or avant-garde art, synced up with the beats and soundscapes. I had unearthed a mysterious community with its own rhetoric and rituals.


The Boards (Bards?): Mike and Marcus, under a hexagon sun

Their knit hats aside, Boards of Canada  — Scottish brothers Mike Sandison and Marcus Eoin, whose band handle was inspired by documentaries from the Film Board of Canada they watched as school kids — aren’t DJ’s in the standard scratch and spin mode (though there’s a bit of that in places). From their Hexagon Sun studio in rural Scotland come whistles, flutes, guitars, organs, drums, and analog synths, blended and mashed through old reel-to-reel decks, with hailstorms of static and hiss and (deliberate) warps and wobbles in tape speed.

With a recurring theme of childhood innocence interrupted by adult-size contingencies, augmented by eerie loops and samples – particularly of children’s voices – BOC’s music creates a time-elastic soundtrack for a kid raised in the unrealized Age of Aquarius.

In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country (2000) is a four-track EP inspired by the Branch Davidian tragedy. The title track features a doleful organ, jazzy synth, children laughing, and the distorted voice of Davidian member Amo Bishop Roden repeating, “Come out, and live with a religious community in a beautiful place out in the country.” Marcus Eoin told URB Magazine,

The Davidians thing was about the shock of seeing the way the U.S. authorities handled it all.

The pathos intensifies on the 2002 follow-up LP, Geogaddi. The track “Sunshine Recorder” includes a disembodied child’s solemn voice repeating, “…a beautiful place…” like an answer to Roden from heaven.  A sunshine recorder is a glass sphere that measures sunlight by focusing the light and burning a pattern across an inserted card. The dark irony of the government’s assault on the Davidians’ Mount Carmel Center (named for the place where the prophet Elijah called down fire on his sopping-wet sacrifice) is that the facility went up in flames with 20 children inside. In the classroom back in ’96, professor Tabor maintained that the government was ultimately responsible for the inferno — a view held by many today. “Sunshine Recorder” ends with children’s voices saying, “Bye…”


Last year (2013), the Boards released Tomorrow’s Harvest, a stylistic detour punctuated by arpeggio synths and string arrangements reminiscent of ‘80s horror and sci-fi films. “White Cyclosa” features the rumbling rotors of search helicopters; “Telepath” has an electronically-altered counting voice that appears to be under hypnotic suggestion or mind control (“Gyroscope” from Geogaddi also features a counting voice, transmitted from a short-wave “numbers station”).  “Palace Posy,” with its jerking time signature, is an anagram for “apocalypse.”

“Split Your Infinities” (grammar geeks, take note) includes this highly-distorted monologue:

The FEMA plans to imprison American citizens have generated a lot of interest around the country, in locating the potential prison camps throughout the country. These may be facilities currently being used as prisons such as those you saw earlier, or prisons that are being built supposedly in the name of the war on drugs. Or, facilities that have other uses but could quickly be used to detain large numbers of people…

“Semena Mertvykh” (seeds for the dead) is the parting coda, rumbling like a distant, approaching storm. BOC denies the album is “apocalyptic” per se, but rather looks ahead to a world after a major correction — or collapse; a time when society is reduced to “many small camps.” It’s music about childhood lost and unsustainable progress in the hands of mortally flawed adults animated by unseen spirits.

That’s not to ignore the more carefree and buoyant moments in the BOC catalog; they exist on every recording. They furthermore suggest that innocence, goodness, and beauty will outlive the downfall of edifices. Even Tomorrow’s Harvest features “Nothing is Real,” the most popular track on the album as voted by visitors to the BOCPages wiki site.

When I was a kid I listened to numbers stations on my dad’s short-wave. In grade school I watched scratched up Coronet films with snap, crackle, and pop soundtracks. That world was magical, mysterious, and sometimes scary.

This music would have fit as well then as now – as it no doubt will in a future out of our hands.