DRINKIN’ CHAMPAGNE | DEAN MARTIN | THE ESSENTIAL DEAN MARTIN

In A Song A Day, I’ll hit shuffle on my full Spotify collection of songs and write an immediate reaction to the first thing that comes up.

A few years ago, I read DINO, Nick Tosches’ book about Dean Martin, and honestly, it affected me more than just about any other music book I’ve read (and I read a lot of music books). In Tosches’ portrayal, Dean Martin came across as the most terrifyingly empty nihilist I’ve ever come across. No ambition to speak of, no thoughts, really, just appetites to be filled and a happenstance career that allowed it all to happen. Any narrative where you come out thinking that Frank Sinatra looks like a principled stand-up guy by comparison is a dire one.

But in that stretch, I did listen to a bunch of Dean Martin, and I can’t say that I don’t like some of it. I don’t think he was a guy who put any effort into his art, but sometimes Martin’s natural abilities couldn’t help but make great things.

“Drinkin’ Champagne” is not one of those cases. This song is a dog. The production manages to be both antiseptic and saccharine, with perfectly-balanced awful, bloodless instruments making a bead for terrible strings and the lamest possible background singers to lay in. Maybe I’m not being fair, maybe I’m allowing my own musical baggage to carry too much weight, but the sound of the instrumentation here is just a series of signifiers pointing to a file in my head labelled “THE TYPE OF MUSIC I HATE.” And central to it all is Dino’s voice, which just isn’t good here. He slurs and stumbles and sounds like he doesn’t give a shit. Nihilism aside, he made some great songs before he decided to just coast and crank some shit out here and there. This song is pretty clearly afterwards.

INVITATION | NELS CLINE | LOVERS
In A Song A Day, I’ll hit shuffle on my full Spotify collection of songs and write an immediate reaction to the first thing that comes up.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x9nUbBeNE_Y
I popped this album into my Spotify collection at the urging of my most guitarphiliac friend; I’ve said at great lengths that Wilco stopped being a band that had any interest for me when their dominant sound started being Nels Cline‘s flawless but bloodless guitar noodling. “I get that,” my friend said, “but try Cline’s solo albums! They’re great guitar jazz!”
So I tried, and, I dunno, man. I like jazz, but in terms of actual appreciation, with Jazz I’m about where I was with rock when I was in the 10th grade. I like some things, I don’t like some other things, and I don’t really have the systematic understanding or vocabulary to really lay out exactly why. On one level, that’s a good place to be with a type of music–it means you’re reactng with your heart more than your head, and sometimes I feel like my head-reactions have taken some of the fun out of rock for me–but on the other hand, it makes it tough to articulate why you don’t like something.
All I can say is this: Cline’s “Invitation” here, all meandering and slow and light, sounds like incidental music from a period-piece movie. It’s not awful, but as Mari Kondo would say, it sparks no joy. Nels Cline is a much better guitarist than I’ll ever be, but I think I prefer people with less skill and more propensity to get into a life-or-death fight with their instrument.
POWDERFINGER (Live) | NEIL YOUNG | LIVE RUST

In A Song A Day, I’ll hit shuffle on my full Spotify collection of songs and write an immediate reaction to the first thing that comes up.

Oh boy. Lots here.

1. MUSICAL

I love Neil Young, and this is one of my favorite of his songs. The way his voice floats over the dustcloud of distorted guitar. The way that dustcloud periodically resolves from big rusty sheets of noise into clear, discrete lines and then dissolves again. The way the live version swings (in a leaden, Neil Young-y sort of way) much better than the studio version. The way the lyrics tell a story that’s kind of ridiculous (when I played this song a lot on my undergrad radio show, my friend and cohost Megan once just said flatly, “you know, this isn’t really a song that speaks to my experience or lifestyle.”) but still makes it sound urgent and compelling. Those lines “red means run, son / numbers add up to nothing.” If you’re buying what Neil Young’s selling, this is the primo shit.

2. AUTOBIO (a)

I spent my 20s playing bass in a country-punk band, and I insisted that we learn Powderfinger and play it as often as possible. I’m not sure, but there’s a good chance this was our most-played cover. This is one of the handfuls of songs from those days that, if needed, I could grab a bass and go onstage and play now with zero fear about not remembering the chords (the song also was front and center for me as I switched from bass to guitar, and was one of the songs I learned guitar on; so I could probably step up and cover the guitar part, although I might want to run through some of the lead sections backstage). I insisted on singing it, too, which was kind of a bold choice given that my vocal range has no overlap with Young’s and my attempt to get there made me sound like Wayne Coyne huffing helium while being fed through a meat grinder.

3. AUTOBIO (b)

But this was also one of my father’s favorite songs; that’s how I learned about it. We’d gotten a tape deck for one of our cars, and my mother got my father a copy of Live Rust on tape, and we were driving around listening to it, and when “Powderfinger” came up, my mother turned around and said, “this is your dad’s favorite song.” She later told me that he particularly related to the line, “just think of me as one you’d never figure.” My father’s life was a slow-build exercise in deferred choices leading to frustration, leading to rage, leading to the white-hot destruction of most of his personal relationships, including the one with me; our last communication was an email from him offering to pay for me to change my last name to anything but “Pille.” For the sake of my own mental health, I try not to think about him much. But if I do, I generally think of him as one you’d never figure.

When that thinking does happen, it’s usually when I’m playing that song on guitar. And if I’m playing it, it’s usually on the telecaster that my parents got me when I finished undergrad, the guitar I used to write my chunk of the songs for that country-punk band. I recently thought about getting rid of that Telecaster and trading it in for a better guitar that better suited the way I play now. But I couldn’t pull the trigger on doing that, since this guitar’s my last physical link to my parents.. I kept running a cost-benefit analysis on it, but the numbers added up to nothing.

GUESS WHO | THE ALABAMA SHAKES | SOUND & COLOR

The thing that jumps out at me about this song is the weirdness of its production. Not in a bad way! But it’s unusual! This doesn’t start out sounding like a song that’s going to chirp along over a drum machine all the way through, but that’s absolutely what it does, clicking and chirping its merry way along.

It’s full of other weird production decisions- some strings pop in! The vocals pop in and out of distortion! The entire thing seems kind of jammed into a pretty narrow sonic range. I don’t mean this in any way as an attack on the song, but the strong feeling I get is a bunch of people just idly farting around with a groove in a studio and seeing what happens as they fuss with it; and then, liking what they’d come up with, laying down a vocal over it that evokes Marvin Gaye. No clue if that’s actually how this song came to be; maybe it was actually written and carefully fussed over. But it sounds effortless and light, and that’s pleasant.

Probably because of the drum machine and the farting-around feel, this song also weirdly reminds me of the Replacements’ “Within Your Reach,” which was just Paul Westerberg and a drum machine. In that case, that song is the way it is because he was worried the other Replacements would make fun of the “sensitive” song. I don’t know too much about the internal dynamics of the Alabama Shakes, but I really doubt that’s what’s going on here.

THE GENERAL LEE | JOHNNY CASH | THE DUKES OF HAZZARD

In A Song A Day, I’ll hit shuffle on my full Spotify collection of songs and write an immediate reaction to the first thing that comes up.

When I decided to start this project, I don’t think I could have hoped for an easier layup to start things off.

I’ve loved this song since the late 90s, since my peak of Johnny Cash superfandom. This song is the kind of ridiculous shit that only Johnny Cash could make cool- from a cash-in album put together to capitalize on the success of The Dukes of Hazzard, this song is written from the point of view of a muscle car, describing its thirst for fun and adventure in tones that make it sound like a kid’s loyal dog. The arrangement’s nuts in a very early-80s way, with way too many backup singers oohing and ahhing and a piano part that sounds like it came out of an old-west saloon.

But turning kitsch into gold was always a Cash long suit, and he does it here (it helps that the tick-tocky guitar parts on this thing chug along righteously; and note that, despite the video above, I’m pretty sure that’s not Waylon Jennings playing guitar). Goddamned if this thing doesn’t sound like an anthem of some kind. It’s the magic of Johnny Cash’s voice that he can make lines like “I’m the best pal the Duke Boys ever had / I’m thunder on the highway lookin’ bad, bad, bad” sound, well, if not cool at least vaguely serious and fun.

There’s a vague reference to the flag waving proudly, and that’s a little squicky given that the roof of the car has a Confederate battle flag, but I think this is the kind of thing you have to just shrug and consign to being from the past. Having read a bunch about Johnny Cash, I actually think there’s a decent chance he’d be on the right side of the Confederate monuments debate. That’s unknowable, of course, but that’s my read. Anyway, this is a really fun song that revels in its own dumbness, despite that weird little extra contextual thing. The ending is more of the same: cheesy bad car engine sound effects, and a problematic-but-atavistically-fun sounding of the General Lee’s “Dixie” horn.

You should go check out my new podcast project, Artpal!

And what’s Artpal!, you ask, and why should I check it out? Season 1 of Artpal! is a DIY audioguide to a bunch of works on display at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. I try to provide a different point of view than what the institutional voice of the museum can provide, talking about stuff like Chuck Close’s gross side or why the gender ratio of the museum’s art collection is so skewed. I also try to keep it fun and accessible. The entire first season is available for download, if you want to put it all on your phone and go to the museum in full audioguide fashion. Or the episodes are written so that you could just listen to them anywhere and do image searches if you need to.

The show’s also on itunes and Google Play if you want to skip the website (which does have full show transcripts) and go straight to the podcast experience.

Oh yeah, and remember that I have that other podcast about Uncle Tupelo…

I’ve been working on a new art-focused podcast project. The whole thing should drop in the end of September or in October of 2018.. Here’s a demo version of the second episode (the first episode is kind of an atypical introduction to the whole thing). If you hear this and have thoughts, I’d love to hear them as I work on producing the actual full first season!

I’d like to start out by laying out a few background statements to take for granted in the interest of time. First, that Serena Williams is a remarkable figure in terms of dominance, significance, and public profile in the sport of tennis. Second, that Williams’ outsized public profile has largely been mediated by photography. And that these photographs have existed within an environment of toxic discourse on Williams’ appearance, in a pattern mirroring that of such other prominent black women as Michelle Obama and Leslie Jones.

The discourse.

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Suppose you’re a painter, and you want capture a realistic scene of two men playing chess in a parlor. How would you do it? Most people, I think, would sit in the room and paint what they saw. Or, depending on their era, maybe they’d work from a photograph. A very meticulous artist might pencil out  couple of single-point perspective lines to guide the recession of the room’s furniture. Vanishingly few artists would use a separate sheet of paper to create a 3-dimensional gridded space where everything in the room was geometrically plotted out with each object considered as its own individual study. But this is exactly what Thomas Eakins did.

Eakins’ perspective workup for The Chess Players

The Chess Players, Thomas Eakins

There’s a decent chance your reaction is: Thomas Who? Eakins is an odd case, a man considered one of the leading American painters of the back half of the 19th century who has slowly slid into something that isn’t quite obscurity but is pretty far from household-name status. You’ve probably heard of the people considered his peers at the time: Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, James McNeil Whistler, (kinda) Mary Cassatt. A combination of scandals (Eakins was heavily involved in art education, and was involved in scandals revolving around nude models and students, and it’s a dense thicket that’s almost impossible to judge from 130 years out without getting lost in the gap between then-contemporary and current social mores; last time I looked, his wikipedia page was dominated by speculation about his sexual preference), changing tastes, and the random drift of history have shunted him off to the side. But in his day, Eakins was a big deal, renowned as a new kind of big-brained artist.

Eakins was a creature of his time. He worked during a period of unprecedented exuberance about the progress of science. He brought that spirit into his artistic practice, pursuing representational realism through a combination of techniques derived from science and mathematics. His approach was powerful but flawed, with inconsistencies that led to visual paradoxes; similar paradoxes lurked around the edges of the very science world that inspired him.

Eakins’ belief that perfect representation of reality could be attained in painting through advanced science-based technique was a manifestation of a mode of thought pervasive in late 19th-century American and European intellectual circles, an idea that science and knowledge had reached a summit. His social position in the academic elite of Philadelphia put him in contact with scientists, artists, and thinkers whose output presents a similarly teleological outlook. He basically soaked up their hubris. And this isn’t something I can claim to prove, but I’d guess that the passing of that particular scientific worldview has something to do with the slow drift of Eakins into semi-obscurity.

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Wherein I rail against a specific podcast in order to make some bigger points about music, criticism, gatekeeping, and cultural bullying.
  1. A TALE OF TWO PODCASTS

I am an enthusiastic person. I get excited about cultural objects (books, musicians, painters, movies, you name it) and then go on recommendation sprees. If you are even casually acquainted with me, I have probably breathlessly tried to convince you to watch or read something at some point (if I breathlessly recommended Norman Mailer’s The Castle in the Forest to you, I am sorry; it started out a lot better than it ended).

In late 2017, I went on a recommendation spree for Tyler Mahan Coe’s podcast about the history of country music, Cocaine and Rhinestones. It had sprung up out of nowhere as this fully-formed, beautiful thing. At the moment I became aware of the show, the most current episode was a close read of Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee” wherein Coe went deep on both the lyrical content and Haggard’s wider biography and public statements to determine just how literally the song was intended to be taken (a subject near and dear to me, since the a fight over the sincerity level of Hag’s culture-war songs once nearly broke up a band I was in). I love (older) country music and well-researched cultural history; the whole thing could have been cooked up in a lab by scientists working from extensive notes on how to craft the most enticing possible podcast for me.

There are several specific things about Coe’s approach to Cocaine and Rhinestones that I admire and enjoy. One of them is his methodology; every episode features direct engagement with primary sources (the music itself, public statements by the artists and their families, police records, and so on), along with an admirably up-front assessment of the reliability of given sources (not all of Charlie Louvin’s stories hang together).

More than that, though, the show is built around a fantastic generosity of spirit. When the country music industry has been shitty to people on gender or ethnic lines, Coe calls the industry out. When a received story about a person has unfairly gained currency, Coe pushes back- for instance, his careful arguments against the idea that Buck Owens habitually screwed people over in business dealings, or that Wynnona Judd was a talentless puppet of producers. The podcast succeeds because, over and over, Coe meets artists where they are, taking their work in the spirit it was offered up. One of the defining features of country music is gatekeeping over the issue of authenticity, which Coe dynamites as a bullshit excuse to marginalize artists for no real reason. The very agreeable impression one gets from the show is of a very knowledgeable, passionate guy who loves music with an open mind and wants to tell you about it; when Coe announced a Patreon program to support the show because he wanted to make it his life’s work, it was a pretty easy sell. What music lover wouldn’t want to support this work?

I want to make this plain: in light of everything I’m about to say, I remain an all-in fan of Cocaine and Rhinestones. But it turns out that Coe has another podcast. The other one is a joint project with a guy named Mark Mosley; the show is called Your Favorite Band Sucks. The format is pretty much what you’d expect: each episode, the two of them pick a band and rail for 45 minutes or so about how and why the band sucks. Episode one was the Beatles. Episode two was the Rolling Stones. At this writing, they’ve just dropped one attacking the Beastie Boys. Previous targets have included U2, the Police, Sublime, Nirvana, Steely Dan, and Radiohead.

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