Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A Touch of David Gray

As much as I love metal and pretty much all rhythmic, guitar-driven music, sometimes I need to summon my inner bunny and retreat into more soothing, thoughtful, and melodic pastures. Lately I just can't stop listening to David Gray.

I have long been enamored of the music from this pasty, scratchy voiced folkie from the UK. I just am. Like haggis and Lars von Trier films, he's not for everybody. I'd say he falls somewhere between "indie" and "cult-like," which simply means only a small percentage of music lovers recognize his brilliance. So I'll call him "indie-like."

I first got turned on to him by a girl who spent the better part of a year treating my black little heart like a squirrel treats a walnut. I was whipped worse than Dred Scott at his homecoming party. If she had wanted me to punch out a pre-schooler, I would have gladly beaten him up and made his little pre-school girlfriend hold his lunchbox while I did it. It was not good. But, it was she who introduced me to the song "Babylon," which lit my fire as very few songs ever have.

It began when she popped by my apartment and said that she'd just come out of a spinning class, during which the instructor played this song called "Babylon," which she really liked. That, in and of itself, captured my attention because as a "little thing guy" (a guy who attempts to disarm girls with a series of small, thoughtful gestures to showcase how keenly he pays attention to them), I needed to know what turned her on.

As a side note to the parenthetical tangent, the whole goal of a "little thing guy" is for the girl to experience a perfectly orchestrated epiphany, wherein the guy she actually likes is revealed to be a total dick, while at the same moment she looks around the room and sees some little trinket the "little thing guy" got her, causing her to suddenly realize that "little thing guy," is in fact the man of her dreams, and spurring her to then hop in the car in the pouring rain, and race to "little thing guy's" apartment to profess both her love of "little thing guy" and her foolishness for ever liking the guy who's really a dick. This scenario has never ever happened in real life, to any "little thing guy." Yet we plod on...

Back to my apartment, post-spinning class. Said girl suggested to me, "You should play ["Babylon"] on guitar." Bingo. In my mind, I whipped up this fantasy of us sitting in some Turkish-themed den, sitting on big pillows and gazing at each other across the light of a candle, with me breaking out my Taylor and shattering her world with my rendition of that song. I think in my fantasy my voice probably sounded a lot better than it actually was. In fact, I would not be surprised if the Joe in my fantasy sounded more like Robbie Williams than Joe.

Anyhoo, my BFF Steve Poltz eventually walked me through a couple of the nuances of the song during one of my visits to San Diego. I learned the ever loving shit out of the song, but of course, chickened out on ever playing it for her, citing guitar problems, head colds, and a long stream of excuses. Honestly, I don't think she really cared. At all.

However, I did score two David Gray tickets for us when he played Chicago's Vic Theater. It was awesome. We stood off to the side of the stage were astounded by his live show. His music, quiet and thoughtful, took on a larger than life, explosive vibe that had the Vic shaking. The crowd sang, David Gray's skin was typically pasty, and his drummer was sublime, rattling off complex poly rhythms that sent the entire house off into space. David was ridiculously cool. He was everything that his album covers suggest- quiet, self-deprecating, sincere, and just a bit pissy.

He sang the up tempo songs (like "Babylon") at slowed down paces and turned his slower numbers into long, towering jams. I never thought I would see five thousand people dancing to David Gray, but that's what happened.

And in one of those lifelong awkward moments (those harmless little awkward decisions you make that cause you to physically crumple a bit when you recall them for the rest of your life), I invited her to slow dance during "Say Hello Wave Goodbye." Immediately upon sliding my arms around her waist, I realized that the little argument that we had before the show, that I thought had been resolved, was in fact, still alive and well. Her distaste was palpable in the way she stared off and looked at the wall while we danced. So halfway through the song we pulled apart awkwardly and I stared at the drummer, hoping that if he hit the drums fast enough, we could all time travel back to the point where I could rethink my decision to slow dance with an angry woman.

What? Sorry.

So yeah, the whole "White Ladder" album (on which "Babylon" appears), is spectacular. His voice is um... "distinct." Look, he's no Pavarotti. Hell, he's no Susan Boyle. In fact, I'd wager that back in the day, when he'd stand up for his turn at a pub sing along, you'd see a lot of people heading up to the bar for a fresh pint and a bag of crisps.

But like so many other musicians with equally ordinary voices, he has created a musical style that suits him. From his intellectual lyrical patterns to the seamless mix of folk and electronica, he has created a vehicle that many inhabit, but few truly own. In fact, I'll bet trained singers would sound like crap if they tried one of his tunes on for size. He looks, dresses, and sings like the Everyman, and his voice is its perfect expression. His limitations are his charm. I relate to his cracked confessional style far more deeply than anything from some golden throated warbler like Frank Sinatra.

There are no bad tunes on "White Ladder." Not one. The arrangements are sparse and delicate, and to listen to the album on ass-kickingly good speakers is to fully appreciate its brilliance. I want to point out two or three that I really like, but I dig the whole thing. OK, fine: "Nightblindness," "Say Hello Wave Goodbye," "Silver Lining," and "Babylon" all stand out as personal favorites. I feel like Meryl Streep in "Sophie's Choice"...

After "White Ladder" broke, the money boys at the labels greedily returned to the three albums he had previously released (and which they had previously ignored), and thus began the Parade of Repackaging. It was gross. You couldn't swing a dead cat without hitting some "demo" of "Babylon" or some "alternate version" of "Sail Away." They dusted off and re-released songs best left where they were, and for awhile, we all wondered if maybe "White Ladder" should have been more appropriately called "Black Swan."

Then in 2005, he released "Life in Slow Motion," which reminded me why I kept listening to him. "Life" was his first collection of new tunes in a number of years, and the production leaned more heavily towards... well, more production. But not too much. Surprisingly, while the guitar was not as prominently featured as it was on "White Ladder," I loved the album even more. Now, before you folkie snobs sigh loudly and head back over to your Richard Thompson discussion boards, there's still ass-loads of good guitar on "Life." It's just got a little more keyboard. Geez, get over yourselves...

In December of 2005, when I got this album, I was on my last legs. Everything in my world was crashing down around me, and as my first Christmas in San Diego approached, my world was surreal in its desperation. I was deep in isolation, watching my relationship fall apart, my health fade away, and my job situation reaching critical mass. Were it not for the constant presence, love, and sincerity of my three dogs, I might have imploded under the weight of it all.

My then-girlfriend had absconded to Mexico for a family wedding, to which I was not invited. Later reflection has led me to the conclusion that there was a direct correlation between my lack of invitation to this wedding and my rather pugnacious conduct at another wedding some months before. And so I found myself alone in the days approaching Christmas, driving around the paradise of La Jolla, with its paradoxical warm sunny weather and snow-themed ornaments.

The only thing I was listening to that month was "Life in Motion." The first hit, "The One I Love," w is a powerful, jumpy, beautiful love song. I listened to it with a mixture of excitement at how great the song was, and regret, as I wished that I myself felt that way about someone. It made me wish I were back in those throes of early love, when reckless abandon was the only rule worth observing. I loved my girlfriend, but the days of hope had long snuck out the backdoor.

"Hospital Food" was the other song that really shook me into rapt attention. It really showcases how he takes his flat, unremarkable voice and uses different phrasings to make it shine. The bridge still kills me and back then, it hit me like a NASCAR driver going through the fence at 200 mph.

"Seeing it all so beautiful
The way it oughta be
Seeing it all so beautiful
And turning away
Turning away
Turning away"

The rest of the album is solid, although in this effort, there are a couple that don't resonate with me as much as the others. Still, I can and do listen to it beginning to end, nonstop. It never gets old. In fact, I find something new everytime I hear it. It's like the Benjamin Button of folk albums. Yes, I know I just called it "folk." Shut up.

His lyrics evoke poetry rather than irony, which is a pretty neat trick these days. Irony has become a cheap, tired, and overused safety net for lyricists who are incapable of saying who they are and what they feel. So they tell you what they're not and then paint the picture with overdone metaphors that come off like twinkies- sweet and forgettable.

But irony makes people feel smart because they see through to the underlying (and always obvious) meaning, so it appeals to the jaded, the disenfranchised, and the under 16. When used by guys like Neil Young, irony cuts like a sabre. When used by the guys in Blink-182, it sounds like a video game commercial.

This diatribe has been brought to you by Eastern Airlines and Turtle Wax.

My point is that David Gray does not go for the easy lyrical play. He doesn't just rattle off half-baked metaphors and he's not interested in sounding clever. He chooses his words like great cooks choose their tomatoes.

David Gray sings about his feelings without indulgence. His songs are wistful, yet not morose. He does not dumb anything down for the listener, and his lyrics they serve his style with unflinching deference. He's one of the few artists I listen to where I still sit down and read the lyrics and liner notes.

This year he released "Draw the Line," to mixed reviews. I tend to agree that more is less when it comes to David Gray. When I first heard the single "Fugitive," I thought that perhaps his shark had been jumped, and like I've done with so many albums, I turned it off after one absent-minded listen, assuming I'd never return to it.

That was back in September, just after the album was released. Then a couple weeks ago, I remembered that I had downloaded "Draw the Line" and that I hadn't really given it the attention that perhaps it deserved. And so I sat down and pressed play. I was ecstatic to realize that like a bottle of California red, the album just needed a little time. Ok, I needed just a little time to settle myself and come around for the album.

"Nemesis" was what did it for me. The simple, childlike melody that begins the song quite literally made me stop what I was doing and look at the stereo, as if David Gray might pop out and say, "See what you've been missing, jackass?" It is simply beautiful.

I won't do a track by track review. I've already written far too much (and if you're still with me here, thanks!). But like "Life in Slow Motion," it's got its weak spots, although they are far outweighed by the high points: "Nemesis," "Jackdaw," "Fugitive" (yes, it's grown on me), and "Stella the Artist" all stand out for me.

The nice surprise with the new album is that it comes in a Deluxe Edition, which includes a bunch of live tracks that are stellar reminders of how exciting his live performances are. It was nice to enjoy the music without the morbid embarrassment of an ill-advised slow dance. It was just nice to hear him reinterpret his classics. The album kicks ass, the music will not let you down, and at the end of the day, when you buy a record, that's all that matters.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Garage Sales, God and KISS

"When I want for you what you want for you, then I truly love you. When I want for you what I want for me, then I am loving Me through you.

So, too, by the same measure, can you determine whether others love you, and whether you truly love others. For love chooses naught for itself, but only seeks to make possible the choices of the beloved other."

-Neale Donald Walsch

I came across this in my morning meditation today. And yes, I meditate in the morning, so suck it, spiritual haters! Wait- I think I just invalidated something there. Oh well.

Anyway, every morning I get up and walk the girls (my dogs) down to the park. Then I come home, feed them, make a big mug of coffee, and retire to my office, where I sit in a big comfy red chair next to a book case. I grab a book and read until what I need to think about that day hits me between the eyes. Sometimes I read a book end to end; sometimes I the book is only a fling; and sometimes I grab a book, open it randomly, and read until I stop. There is only madness to my madness.

I read the above quote this morning from "Conversations With God," Book 3. I started this book well over a year ago, and stopped after... well, not long I guess. This morning I decided to restart it, and it immediately made sense to me. So I guess this is what I'm supposed to be reading right now. The above quote is on Carl Yazstremski (Page 8), and as soon as I read it, I felt God punch me in the arm, like we were sitting next to each other in an Old Timey Western Saloon. I immediately realized that the impulse to write, that I haven't had in well over a year, had just returned, thrown it's duffel bag on the floor of my head, and was somewhere in my mental kitchen, making coffee. I simultaneously realized it wanted me to write about something I hadn't thought about in 30 years.

My mother grew up in a pretty modest area of Worcester, Massachusetts in an area of the city called Main South. It was populated by immigrants from all over, but mainly Irish. Her parents were both off the boat Irish who started a big family here in the States. My grandfather was a laborer and my grandmother took care of my five aunts and one uncle, which uncle had Down's Syndrome. Their upbringing was of the strictest flavor of Irish Catholic- mass every day; no meat on Fridays- ever; confession every week; and unshakeable guilt and reward notions about God.

For example, if you used God's name in vain, you were quite literally slapping Jesus across the face. In Heaven. It took me years to begin to conceive that if Heaven existed, people probably don't get slapped there. But if anyone were to get slapped, I'd guess it would be someone other than Jesus. Still, God was always watching, making a list, and checking it twice, so get your shit together.

Anyway, my sister and I were raised in a similar fashion. My father, who is 93 years old as I write this blog, still goes to mass almost every day. But while my mother's flavor of Catholicism was decidedly fear chip with guilt sprinkles, my father's has always been more of a compassion sundae with marshmallow love sauce and extra whipped cream (no metaphor for whipped cream- just dig it, baby!).

I bring this up to explain that while my mother's love for my sister and me was never, ever in doubt, she was a very strict parent. I get so many of my passions and emotions from her, which is something I've come to see more and more clearly as I get older. A good grade would earn me a profound celebration of a favorite food or maybe extra play time with my buddies. A good grade, by the way, was an A. A bad grade (a non-A), would usher in a mist of disappointment in the house that would cloud all other events. The badder the grade, the more colorful the disappointment I would inspire, leading to groundings and removal of things that pleased me-mainly music or electronic games.

She meted punishment out ruthlessly, at times dusting off a wooden yard stick to administer our version of caning. Now, the yardstick was thin, papery wood, so the caning was not all that effective a deterrent. I often giggled while receiving the yard stick. Suffice to say though, I grew up in fear of punishment. I wanted peace all the time and when I screwed up, I was eager to take the bullet train back to Fineville, usually with limited success. My friends and cousins feared her, which I think says something, because for a kid to fear a parent other than his or her own, said parent must mean business in a decidedly colorful way. Yanno?

Now music has always been my greatest passion. When I was little I found Glen Campbell's "Wichita Lineman" album in a stack of records, and from that moment, it was on. I played the ever loving shit out of that record, on a tiny little turntable my parents bought me when I was maybe 8 or 9. I would lay on the bed in my little room and stare out the window listening to the his gorgeous, honey-soaked vocals on that classic Jimmy Webb title track. Or scour the liner notes while grooving to his shit-smooth rendition of Otis Redding's "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay." I was only a potential music snob back then, so I had yet to learn how to apply judgment to the fact that he himself apparently did not write his best songs. Yes, I am a douche.

In 1978, KISS released "Double Platinum." The track list was a blueprint for rocking and rolling all night, and then partying not just on the weekends, but every day. Years later I would adopt this philosophy in a frightfully literal manner and it would nearly kill me, but as a 10 year old kid, I embraced the swagger of the lyrics with blissful ignorance. My neighbors had introduced me to KISS (via the "Destroyer" album), and I had long since abandoned Glen Campbell for these made up millionaires and their unstoppable capitalistic urges (KISS lunch boxes, KISS television specials, multiple releases of the same album, etc.). It was my first attempt at metal.

My friends were KISS fans too, and back then, it was just super cool to be able to say the word "hell" and not get slapped (by the way, if I ever used that word around my mother, I would most certainly get slapped). KISS were so rad, they actually used that word in the title of a song ("Hotter Than Hell"). I was an unapologetic KISS freak, and I played the albums with a ferocity that required changing the needle on my record player with some regularity.

So we had KISS loving Joe living in the same house with God-fearing Joe's mom. She did not ever pretend to understand my music, and egregious conduct on my part was almost always met with the removal of whatever my favorite album was at that time (almost always KISS). She was a devout Catholic and not at all too jazzed by me lip synching "Makin' Love" in the mirror of my bedroom (it was my favorite KISS song, ever, even though I had no idea what it meant at the time I so wildly embraced it). And so there was a natural tension in my day to day life between my love of Paul Stanley and her love of the Son of Man. In those moments of tension, my interests rarely prevailed.

But I remember one afternoon, sitting in the tv room, doing something other than listening to KISS, but equally unproductive. My mother pulled into the driveway after an afternoon of hitting garage sales. She LOVED garage sales. She loved bargains almost as much as she loved the time-honored process of haggling ("Two dollars? For these juice glasses? There's a guy who's got a yard sale around the block who's selling them for a buck fifty!")

In any case, I heard her enter the house and she then called me into the kitchen, where she stood holding a magazine with the cover facing her. She was smiling- it was the smile of true inner happiness. It was one of those smiles that hinted at something good for not just the smiler, but for you too. Then she turned the magazine around and presented it to me- it was a KISS magazine. It had an embarrassingly lurid cover of the band members in their meat suits, with Gene Simmons coughing up blood, and sensational story lines plastered in giant block letters (one of which alleged that KISS had recently been cloned). It was about as far from Jesus as one could get at the time. And there stood my mother, holding it like the Hope Diamond, smiling ear to ear as she explained how someone else almost got it, but she knew how much I would enjoy it.

She handed it to me, and like a relay runner grabbing the baton for the final lap, I squealed thanks, clutched the magazine, and disappeared to my room in a nanosecond.

I read that magazine cover to cover hundreds of times. To this day I remember some of the "stories" therein. For a young music fan, to expand my musical world beyond vinyl was a staggering advancement. I have since read thousands of music magazines and rock biographies, and now spend untold monthly sums to read my new gospels (MOJO, UNCUT, Revolver, Q, and embarrassingly, Rolling Stone). I have freelanced for SPIN magazine, written artist biographies for labels, sent myriad playlists and recommendations to friends, and even submitted academic papers on the importance of music in my life. But that KISS fanzine- that was the painted up face that launched a thousand ships.

When I read that Neale Donald Walsch quote above, that magazine popped into my head as clearly as the coffee in front of me. From whence it came, I could only speculate. But when he wrote about how love is wanting for someone what they want for themselves, I was reminded of just how much my mother loved me. And on that day long ago, the Pope would have to just fucking deal, because her little boy liked some music group that sang about Hell, and for reasons unknown to her, it made him really happy and when she saw that magazine, love took over and there was no stopping it.

My mother passed away from breast cancer in 1989. As time moves on, I don't always remember her as often or as clearly as I'd like, but I'm so grateful that on this November morning, her memory visited me and reminded me that love really is in the little things. Like a hug, a smile, or a magazine about KISS.