Disc 1 Track 3

“Trailer Mama” takes a baton handoff from “Gas Girl,” almost sounding like it’s picking up a beat the latter had dropped. An interesting thing happens with the chords between the two songs, too; “Gas Girl” moves between E, D, and A, while the main riff in “Trailer Mama” is an extremely hepped-up guitar moving through D, F, and A. So, similar enough to almost sound like it’s the same song being continued, but different enough to sound kind of wrong if that’s the case. Which is a neat trick, because if “Gas Girl” is a fun and lighthearted song about a crush, “Trailer Mama” is an urgent, throbbing song about we-gotta-act-on-this-RIGHT-NOW lust.

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Disc 1 track 2

And then, after two minutes of quiet rumination with a banjo, the entire band takes the stage and the amps are turned on. The expectation that this was going to be a quiet, folky album gets tossed on its ass. These guys are here to rock.

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Disc 1 Track 1

The Bottle Rockets’ eponymous first album kicks off modestly, almost seeming like a direct continuation of Brian Henneman’s work on Uncle Tupelo’s March 16-20, 1992. Henneman had served as an all-purpose utility string player on that album (which was engineered and mixed by John Keane); he opens up this album (engineered and produced by John Keane) with a quiet song consisting of nothing more than a Tupeloid banjo* part and a solo vocal. It’s a one-man piece fronting a full-band album.

*update: a few weeks after the initial post, I’ve spent a lot of time messing with a resonator guitar, and now I’m not sure if the string part for this song is a banjo or a resonator; they can sound an awful lot alike. Discogs does credit Henneman with banjo on the record though, and I’m not sure where else it’d be. Anyway. It’s definitely Brian Henneman playing something with at least 5 strings.

The tenor of the album will change shortly, but this quiet moment is enjoyable on its own merits and a nice marriage of form and content in a song, musing about how much it sucks to get up early. An ongoing question with Henneman’s first-person songs will be which ones are being voiced by a character and which are direct statements of his own feelings; to me, this one feels straight from the heart (this might be because I *also* hate getting up early, and am looking for kindred spirits). The sensory details are immediate, for one thing. For another, the lines about knowing dark and night and neon lights certainly sound like the lived experience of a touring musician. Anyway, why bother inventing a character just to gripe about.

Several ongoing Bottle Rockets themes present themselves already here at the beginning: coffee, rural signifiers (there’s a rooster crowing before the first line is even over). Henneman’s Missouri accent, which will eventually step directly onstage for discussion in “Idiot’s Revenge,” adds to the country atmosphere; he leans into this with his idiosyncratic rendering of “early” as “err-lie.”

Over the course of We’ve Been Had, Chad and I have marveled consistently at how well Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar sequenced songs on Uncle Tupelo’s albums. Their high-water mark for this came with 1993’s Anodyne, which starts out sounding like a quiet country follow-up to March 16-20, 1992 before morphing into a squalling guitar attack. The similar trick pulled with the first few songs of The Bottle Rockets (also recorded in 1993, and featuring cameos by both Tweedy and Farrar) leads one to think that Henneman was paying a lot of attention to what worked while he was serving as Tupelo’s guitar tech. 

Project Announcement, Scope, General Throat-Clearing

Disc 0 Track 0

WHO ARE THE BOTTLE ROCKETS, AND WHY DO WE CARE?

Stop me if you’ve heard this, but my friend Chad and I do a podcast. Specifically, a podcast that examines the band Uncle Tupelo by taking a close-ish somewhat-researched look at each of their songs. It’s a hoot (you should listen), and it’s led me to reconnect with a band that was once very important to me but I had drifted away from.

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The glass beehive on top of the Reichstag building.

As my wife and I were flying into Berlin, I experienced a small wave of panic. What had I gotten us into? Was this going to be boring? What was there to do here, really? My initial pitch for Berlin as a vacation destination was that I wanted to go because of “all the history.” That sounded great and persuasive, in a vague way, sitting in Minneapolis. But now that we were about to arrive and spend a week in a foreign city where we didn’t speak the language, what did it actually mean? A week of looking at historic-site plaques? Was this going to be boring and dumb?

Happily, my little moment of freakout was entirely misplaced, and my initial instincts were right on point. Berlin isn’t a city with a lot of obvious, high-profile capital-letter Tourist Attractions; but it’s something much better: a fascinating, beautiful place where the weight of history is indeed so present and prevalent that if you’re interested in it at all, you can’t help but feel like you’re swimming in it.

I’ve been obsessed with World War II since I was 7, when I stumbled across a series of Time-Life books about the war, full of arresting, graphic photos, that my parents had left sitting around (my parents did a spectacularly bad job of shielding me from age-inappropriate material when I was a kid). My obsession with the cold war started about a year later, when my 3rd grade teacher rhapsodized proudly to my class about how our city of Blair, Nebraska, being just up the road from Strategic Air Command HQ in Omaha, would be one of the first Soviet targets when the missiles flew.

These obsessions were the initial impetus for wanting to see Berlin. My last-minute panic was based on a fear that neither the cold war or World War II lent themselves to spaces that made for fun vacation visits. My salvation was that this didn’t matter when the fabric of the entire city is visibly and irreparably altered by events. I can’t say that it’s fun to stand in the Tiergarten and read a plaque about how the trees surrounding you were all completely deforested by air bombardment and by Soviet troops advancing over the ground you’re standing on, or to stand in front of your hotel and look at the memorial cobbles commemorating Holocaust victims who once lived there; but it’s affecting and awe-inspiring in a way that transcends fun. It hits you on a different, deeper frequency. It drives home the way in which you are part of a larger continuum of human experience.

The Tiergarten in May 1945; lovely place for a stroll. Note the ruined Reichstag building in the background.

It’s one thing to walk into a museum and look at art and artifacts. It’s another thing entirely to see bullet holes in the interior wall of that museum and realize that what you’re looking at is evidence that there was a firefight in this building between people trying to take the building’s contents and people trying futilely to defend them. Again, that’s not fun, but it’s profound and affecting on an entirely different emotional spectrum.

(And about that fight: the scene I’m describing here is in the Neues Museum, which is largely full of Egyptian artifacts looted from Egypt by Prussian archaeologists in the 19th century; the top few floors, though, are European objects. Several gallery labels and signs on those floors pointedly mention that objects formerly on display here were looted by Soviet soldiers, taken to Moscow, and never returned. The irony of this kind of complaint in this kind of building is exactly what makes the historical experience of Berlin so mesmerizing.)

Consider this: in central Berlin, on land that was once part of the Berlin Wall and its “death strip,” is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, an immersive, block-wide labyrinth of pillars that is one of the most viscerally affecting memorials I’ve ever experienced. On a block adjacent to this memorial is the nondescript parking lot that is the former site of the bunker where Hitler killed himself and was cremated. Running between these two blocks is a street named after Hannah Arendt. The historical resonances of Berlin come in a very strong, undiluted form.

History is a river. Things happen, and subsequent things downstream are driven by what happened previously. Hitler hijacked the German political system, started a war and conducted genocide, and Berlin was occupied and nearly leveled as a result; and then, downstream from that, the occupying forces eventually split the city in half, traumatizing the city with an unnatural internal boundary for half a century. That trauma, and the subsequent jubilation and rebirth, are as plain to see in Berlin as the immediate effects of the war. In place names (Rosa Luxemberg Platz, Marx-Engels Platz), architectural styles, and even traffic signage, the old separation between west and east is still plain to see if you bother to look for it. And that’s ignoring the hunks of the wall itself that have been left up as commemorations or memorials or just plain tourist attractions.

I can’t think of any American cities that have left me this strongly with the sense of standing amid the structure of history. The closest I’ve come is the southern end of Manhattan. New Orleans probably can provide the same effect if you walk around with your eyes open in the right way. I haven’t been to Boston, but I’m sure it has some amount of resonance. But overall, American cities operate under a couple of different conditions: no American city has undergone repeated traumas as massive as Berlin, and the American mode of operation is to march stridently away from the past, not to acknowledge it. You’ll find precious few memorial cobbles scattered around American cities to commemorate the victims of slavery or the Native American genocide. And as far as that goes, I’m painfully aware of my own white middle-class nature here; when I say that “no American city has undergone repeated traumas as massive as Berlin,” I recognize that, say, Dakota people currently living in Minneapolis no doubt have an extremely different viewpoint on that matter.

To my perception, at least, the everyday culture of 2019 Berlin had a laid-back, free-spirited vibe that I found immensely refreshing. In all kinds of little ways, from casualness with dogs to willingness to abruptly repurpose old buildings to surprisingly low levels of fussiness (and disclaimer paperwork). In the aggregate, this seems to me to add up to a much greater tolerance for uncertainty and risk in Berlin than one finds in litigious, fear-dominated America. Maybe that’s just the German national character now, or at least the Berlin civic character. But maybe it has something to do with living in a city that’s been through several different flavors of hell within living memory, much of it self-inflicted, and then undergone a rebirth. After all you’ve been through, all of which you still viscerally feel just walking down the street, why worry about whether people on a bike tour are wearing helmets? What’s the worst that could happen?

In 1933, a fire gutted the Reichstag building, giving Hitler the political opportunity to consolidate power and bring the Weimar Republic era to a formal close. In 1945, the shell of the Reichstag building served as one of the final redoubts for German soldiers defending the city, and the central objective for Soviet soldiers fighting through the Tiergarten and across the river Spree. After Germany reunified, the building was rehabilitated to serve as the seat of the new German parliament. To symbolize the new era of governmental transparency, the Reichstag’s original 19th-century dome was replaced with a large glass beehive lined with spiraling walkways, from which one can climb up and look out at the city, or down at the legislative chamber directly below. The vagaries of trip scheduling dictated that we could only get in to climb the beehive at 9:45 on the last night of our time in Berlin, so we visited it on a clear, slightly chilly spring night. It is by far the most beautiful and aesthetically powerful governmental building I’ve ever been in, so emotionally affective that even the presence of an enormous group of rowdy Italian teens wasn’t enough to stop it from being wonderful, standing there at a focal point where history happened and where the future is created, staring out at the rest of the city. It turns out that Berlin does indeed have some world-class tourist attractions.

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.