How I spent my summer vacation

I wrote a little run down of the late summer’s biggest pop hits for City Pages today, which seemed like a good excuse to post a recent link dump.

The Mall Gaze: When Tiffany’s “I Saw Him Standing There” Looked Back at the Beatles EMP Pop Conference Presentation, April 19, audio here, also published in Maura Magazine, May 19

Morrissey Finally Arrives in MInnesota City Pages, July 14

Miguel Navigates Sexistential Crises City Pages, August 17

Why This Minnesota Transplant Loves the State Fair Star Tribune, August 26

Livin’ right and bein’ free: Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson & Sturgill Simpson

Though age hasn’t quite taken the toll on Merle Haggard’s throat that it has on his posture, his force and accuracy have ebbed enough that his old pal Willie sings him under the table without raising his voice on their newish and OKish duet album, Django and Jimmie (#1 country, how about that?) But last night at the Minnesota State Fair Grandstand, Hag compensated with a wicked sense of phrasing and benefited from the close proximity of Kris Kristofferson who, as ever, couldn’t carry a tune if it was lashed to his back with heavy rope.

At 79, Kristofferson looks about 10 years younger than the 78-year-old Haggard, who in black fedora, shades and dark suit was pretty much a white scarf and 50 pounds away from passing for Van Morrison.* But Kris sounded about 20 years older than Hag, creaking amiably through his classics with the humble poise of a talented guy who’s never stopped being amazed that people consistently pay him to do something he quite literally cannot.

Merle’s choices were solid if unsurprising, with Lefty’s “That’s the Way Love Goes” and a faithful “Folsom Prison Blues” mixed in with the likes of “Mama Tried” and “Sing Me Back Home.” His work on guitar and fiddle was hot, and so was the current incarnation of the Strangers, even if that saxophone was occasionally more Saturday Night Live house band than Texas Playboys.

But no “Working Man Blues” on Labor Day? And both of his classic hippie-bashers? Not even sure what squirrelly guys “Fightin’ Side of Me” targets these days — Glenn Greenwald maybe? When Merle introduced “a song about marijuana,” I was hoping for the recent Willie duet “It’s All Goin’ to Pot.” But nope, ‘twas ye olde “Okie from Muskogee,” which is essentially camp at this point  distaste for short hair, weed and sandals sounds more like a straight-edge punk’s ethos than a country music fan’s.

As for Sturgill Simpson  look, I get it. Virtuoso musicianship and macho nasality never go out of style. For a certain kind of country fan, an outlaw is someone who follows the rules and to be real you’ve got to be an imitator. Yeah, guitarist Laur Joamets smokes and sure, “Turtles All the Way Down” is a helluva trip. But Simpson sang like he had a CD of Honky Tonk Heroes lodged in the back of his throat that he was trying to expel through his nose, and I’m sure he could add a few more hooks and consonants to his repertoire without being accused of aping Luke Bryan.

Simpson doesn’t really interpret When in Rome’s “The Promise”  he just kind of countrifies it  but I’d still like to hear what he can make of someone else’s songs. My own preferred New Waylon, Jamey Johnson, had the good sense to cut an album of Hank Cochran copyrights a couple years ago. You know, Billy Joe Shaver’s still writing a bunch of good songs. And I’m pretty sure Waylon done it that way.

* For those unfamiliar with Hag’s interest in fashion, a recording of Bob Eubanks repeatedly informed us that Merle crop-top baby t’s were available at Hag’s General Store.

Nothing’s too good for the working class

My friend Brad Zellar wrote a terrific Labor Day piece for the Star-Tribune about (among other things) growing up to become the white-collar son of a blue-collar dad, and it got me thinking about my own vexed relationship with labor and family even more than I usually do on Labor Day.

My dad installed siding and remodeled kitchens until he died ten years ago. Scholarships and sacrifices allowed me to be educated among wealthier kids, though the end result of that education was never clear, and so I moved away from one kind of life and work toward some other unspecified destination.

I’m mostly happy with where I wound up, which is far from where I started. For nearly two decades, I haven’t been paid to move any part of my body above the wrist (unless you count standing at concerts). And yet, I’ve never quite shaken the working-class misconception that conscientious effort will be recognized and rewarded (partly because I’ve received just enough recognition and reward to keep me afloat financially and emotionally) and I’ve never developed a careerist’s knack for working with a purpose beyond the immediate task at hand.

A life of labor both strengthened and wrecked my father’s body. He struggled to balance a commitment to craftsmanship with the drudgery of a daily routine, to achieve an economic independence that was a source of pride and of isolation. I wonder if he taught me so little of his trade because he wanted a less exhausting life for me or if I learned so little of it because I lacked interest in practical matters.

After my brother and I were too old to play baseball with, my father’s life outside work seemed to shrink. On weekends he took up projects around the house, because that’s what he knew how to do well. This Labor Day morning, as I’m compelled to arrange and rephrase my thoughts, just like I do most other days, I wonder if I’m just following a family tradition of confusing unpaid labor for leisure, and whether that would be such a bad thing anyway.

“I Doubt That Kurt Cobain Ever Did Enough Work to Wear a Hole in His Pants”

An older woman from St. Paul named Barbara sat next to me while I was reading by the lake this evening. She is currently receiving a month of free HBO from Comcast and had some pretty unflattering things to say about Kurt Cobain.

I brought that on myself by telling her I was a music critic. I made sure to tell her that I’m also an immigration attorney, because I like to watch Midwesterners try to use “Mexican” and “welfare” in the same sentence without seeming racist.

Link Roundup ‘Cause Why Not

Two weeks without a post? In olden times, you’d be obligated to follow that sort of hiatus with an apologetic promise to blog more frequently in the future, but that seems a little silly in this content-clogged era. Regardless, to tide you over till my brain chemistry simmers down and my schedule clears up, here are few links to some recent paid work: A listicle written in collaboration with Chuck Eddy and two concert reviews.

Meet the Beatle: A Guide to Ringo Starr’s Solo Career in 20 Songs Rolling Stone, March 25

Stevie Wonder Gives You More Than You Ever Knew You Wanted City Pages, March 30

Father John Misty Preaches to the Converted at First Avenue City Pages, April 6

And here’s a teaser: An abstract of what I’m currently working on for the EMP Pop Conference next week:

“The Mall Gaze: Tiffany’s ‘I Saw Him Standing There’ Looks Back at the Beatles”

I may have some PopCon updates while it’s ongoing, and I definitely will afterward.

Asleep at the Wheel: Down with the King


Loyal subjects rarely offer compelling arguments for why their beloved ruler was so wise and just. So the fact that Asleep at the Wheel’s Still the King: Celebrating the Music of Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys succeeds about two-thirds of the time and soars a good half of that is a testament to good-natured dedication of Roy Benson, who’s been at this since the first Nixon administration. He’s a hell of a bandleader with a hell of a band, and he’s lined up a roster of smart guest vocalists this time out.

Still, the first half of this 22-track collection is often merely solid, burdened with too many young people who like old things: mild folkies like the Avetts, mild cornballs like Pokey LeFarge, Tin Pandering AlleyKat Edmonson. Nor do the grampas quite carry the day. Merle isn’t just being chivalrous when he lets Emily Gimble swipe “Keeper of My Heart” — he finally sounds his full 77 years, and not in the wily way Willie sounds his full 81 on “Navajo Trail.”

Midway through, though, the course is righted by George Strait of all people. Strait hasn’t recorded a song I needed to hear twice in a quarter century, but on “South of the Border (Down Mexico Way)” his warmly unassertive masculinity demonstrates (as he often has) just how uncrazy a good time can be (or vice versa). Next come three performances that live inside the songs rather than paying tribute to them: Elizabeth Cook digs into “I Had Someone Else Before I Met You” like she really is two-stepping away from a broken heart, Brad Paisley shreds his giddy way through “My Window Faces the South,” and Buddy Miller deliver “Time Changes Everything” with an imperturbable cool satisfaction.

Bob Wills was a pioneer who greedily assimilated popular tastes into a singular yet elastic style. Benson is merely an accomplished revivalist-turned-preservationist. But if there’s something a bit ritualistic about this music’s frisky elegance — it’s the good suit you wear into town on a weekend night — its repeated demonstration that a danceable, straightforward beat needn’t limit a witty virtuoso’s range of invention suggests that rituals are more flexible than they appear. So let them have the obligatory closer, “Bob Wills Is Still the King,” which is sharp enough conceptually, if a little flat rhythmically. Not their fault Waylon couldn’t (and Shooter can’t) swing.

Drake: A Setup for a Punchline about a Setup for a Punchline


Drake is currently (and usually) everywhere, his ubiquity making him feel less like a superstar and more like that dude who showed up at every club meeting on yearbook photo day. There’s no point in denying his gifts. Over the course of If You’re Reading This It’s Already Too Late, he continually wrings remarkable nuance from his unremarkable bleat, extracts limitless microtones from a severely limited palette, displays an innate sense for adapting flow to beat until voice and track are melodically and rhythmically inextricable.

But there’s no point in celebrating his gifts either. He completes his tasks with the dull self-satisfaction of a project manager who’s made it to inbox zero. His sole achievement is that he achieves. I get why young up-and-comers see themselves in Drake’s elastic self-assertion if not why they’re flattered by the reflection. If the compulsively productive digital class of 21st century America needs a motto, “I ain’t gotta do it, but fuck it somebody gotta do it / Hate if someone else did it, fuck, I may as well do it” is less pithy but far more fitting than YOLO. It’s an existential leap into action as a brand-conscious blurt of egotism, Samuel Beckett as Nike swoosh.

Chart for Charts’ Sake: Hot Rock Songs

“Pop” is now, more or less, a genre unto itself  — radio-friendly big-budget non-R&B (pseudo-)Swedish electronic dance music. (More or less.) But there’s still all this regular old popular music that middle-aged white folks with moderate pulse rates consume, and we need to call it something. Fortunately, we’ve got a familiar if unfashionable genre tag not doing too much regular work these days, and Hozier fans will be nothing but flattered to learn they are listening to “rock.”

Though few of the singles in the top ten of Billboard’s Hot Rock Songs chart do, in fact, rock, they’re surprisingly “rhythmic,” if you’ll indulge the euphemism. Even ukuleunuch Vance Joy’s “Riptide” shuffles along capably. (Oh, where is that elusive third Michelle Pfeiffer-referencing lyric that will launch a thousand trend pieces?) And if somebody told me Milky Chance’s “Stolen Dance,” to which I respond with a sensation that is possibly not unpleasure, was a forgotten b-side from some second-tier ‘70s soft rock combo — well, I wouldn’t believe them, but I’d believe they maybe read that somewhere online.

Walk the Moon’s “Shut Up and Dance” sounds like a talented Gleek playing the piano intro to Springsteen’s “Growin’ Up” on guitar using the Edge’s delay pedal. Apparently those guys went to my alma mater, a school where a capella warblers were BMOCs, and all I can say is ofgoddamcourse. George Ezra’s “Budapest” sounds like how it must feel to lose your virginity in a Prius. As for “Cigarette Daydreams,” well like Dylan said, when Cage the Elephant gets here, everybody’s gonna wanna doze. (Yeah, nobody laughed when I made that joke on Twitter either.)

Imagine Dragons made their name as the Stone Temple Pilots to AwolNation’s Pearl Jam with “Radioactive,” but on “I Bet My Life” (a title that just begs for a dismissive J.D. Considine quip), it’s like a jockish fourth Lumineer has gathered his 5,000 closest friends together to collectively drain all irony from the chorus to “We Are Young.” The lack of principle that allows this band to flourish without a stable musical identity might be a godsend to greater talents.  Instead a nuisance evolves into a menace before our very ears.

And yet, ID (somebody must call ‘em that, right?) are not the current biggest rock band, or at least not the only current biggest rock band. Fall Out Boy’s American Beauty/ American Psycho spat a trio of hits into the rock top ten, each stuffed with multi-pronged hooks and bludgeoning electrofrills that’s overstimulating and enervating in a very 2015 way. It’s as though they deliberately set out to recreate that experience we all dread of having two different songs and a car insurance commercial playing simultaneously from different unseen tabs on your laptop.

With its sour ironies and Suzanne Vega fistpump, “Centuries” isn’t rousing enough for even Dave Marsh to mistake it for fascism, while “Immortals” mildly restates the same teenage dream of eternal persistence. “Uma Thurman” at least raises important questions. Do 16-year-olds really still watch Pulp Fiction and/or Kill Bill? Has any 16-year-old ever seen The Munsters? With all the online porn and first-person shooters out there, haven’t 16-year-olds found more thrilling ways to sublimate their hormonal froth than contemporary “rock” music?

Some, at least, have not. Fallout Boy were the only rock band to play the last Jingle Ball I attended. Round the turn of the millennium, when I was reviewing those pop-radio promo-bashes on the regular, Smash Mouth filled that slot. Make of that what you will.

Charles Baxter: A Minneapolis Writer of Minneapolis Things In Minneapolis

When I was little, my parents bought me a book about myself. Some publisher had cooked up a sweet gimmick: It would insert personalized details — the name of your kid, your kid’s friends, your street, your hometown — into a Christmas adventure-story template. I know I met Santa and I think I was accompanied by a friendly alligator and I read this flimsy little illustrated pamphlet uninterruptedly for months. Some enterprising huckster must be sucking money away from parents with a similar concept these days.

Charles Baxter’s There’s Something I Want You to Do reminds me of that book, and I wish what I meant is that there are talking alligators in it. These collected stories don’t so much take place in Minneapolis as take place in a city that is relentlessly referred to as “Minneapolis.” The Mississippi River is never just “the river.” Lake Calhoun is never just “the lake.” And the Stone Arch Bridge is most certainly never just “the bridge.” But Baxter, though born here and for years a fixture in the University of Minnesota, rarely captures the feel of the city or its residents — these tales could be taking place in any mid-sized metro with rivers, lakes and bridges if not for the author determinedly reminding us otherwise.

In each of these ten stories — half named for virtues, half for vices — lives are upended by events great and small, and characters attempt to regain their balance with varying degrees of surefootedness. I preferred the first two stories here (a husband’s monumental decency subtly wears at his wife’s sense of herself; an estranged wife returns to entrance her former husband with her disheveled helplessness) which makes me wonder if I’d have preferred whichever two stories I read first, if I was gradually disengaged from the others by how persistently Baxter’s men and women are stuck between stations, neither naturalistic enough to suggest the complexity of an actual human life nor quite stylized enough to seem at home in his fable-like narratives. As with Baxter’s insistent place-naming, the actions he describes come to feel like a kind of shorthand, a demand for recognition and identification that’s unearned by the storytelling.

The “Blurred Lines” Decision: Juke Box Jury

Thanks to yesterday’s “Blurred Lines” verdict, I spent today in the unfamiliar role of Most Optimistic Person on the Internet:

And yet, in a strictly legal sense, yesterday’s verdict set no precedent. US copyright law is fundamentally unchanged; the jury’s decision is an interpretation of existing law.* If Thicke and Williams challenge the verdict, a court of appeals ruling could possibly refine aspects of that law. Still, there seems no cause to fear we’re on the verge of anything as drastic and destructive to creative possibility as the landmark infringement rulings against rappers Biz Markie and NWA in the early 90s, which effectively banned all unlicensed sampling and forever limited how hip-hop could develop.

Well, maybe Least Pessimistic is more accurate. Everything that might be wrong today with the 9th Circuit’s standard for establishing copyright infringement was wrong last week, and one reason I don’t fear an onslaught of new copyright suits, as many of my friends do, is because I suspect that such an onslaught began years ago, and settling such suits is already a routine, if spendy, business practice. (Which, of course, makes it only more puzzling that Thicke and Pharrell risked a jury decision here.)

If infringement claims do spike, most will settle quietly out of court. The good thing about “Blurred Lines” case is that it dragged the knotty question of what it means to infringe a music copyright into the open. The bad thing is that if this decision does change how the music industry functions, we may never even know.

* This sentence has been bugging me all day. Judges interpret the law; juries determine facts. Oof. But I’m proud that I wrote a whole news story about copyright infringement without once mentioning “plagiarism.”


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