Sunday, June 19, 2011

Bittersweet Fathers Day

Happy Fathers Day to all of you readers who are dads. It's an old cliche, but one that still holds a ton of truth. Being a father is the most important job in the world.

Few of us ever read a book about parenting. That's a shame, because it is not a job that comes instinctively. I know this from experience (contact my children for confirmation) and if you are a father, I bet you do too. It's a job you learn from experience and the older you get, the more holes you find in your game.

Sometimes, the template we use is the one our own fathers used. Sometimes, the template we use is the very opposite one our fathers used. We learn from their mistakes.

Then we make our own mistakes; mistakes so egregious they make our fathers recoil in embarrassment at the psychological and emotional damage we caused their grandchildren. That's life. I mean, that's how it all works. They screwed us up and we screw our kids up. What a neat little package it all is! Everyone has someone to blame for their lives of woe and regrets: our dads.

Thank God for fathers! Without them we'd all have to look in the mirror and be accountable for our own actions. Who wants to do THAT??!! The blame game is easier.

My father is far from perfect. He commands a room as if he is the only person with a tongue in his mouth; the only one capable of an original thought. If you try to hold a two-way conversation with him, he ignores you and plows right past you. I like to think this has made me a better listener than my dad ever was, but I am fairly certain this genetic tic has been incorporated into my own DNA and my kids feel as I won't ever shut up in public either.

My Dad is the original Pigpen. His car looks like the bottom of a dumpster the day after the circus has left town. Tiny clouds of flotsam and debris seem to follow him around like fleas clinging to the back of a coon dog. When I get into my school office, or the small room at home where I do my writing, I see the blueprint of my father's chaos all around me. Piles of compact discs stacked on piles of books, stacked on compact disc containers. I could find you "Kind of Blue" by Miles Davis in 15 seconds if you asked, but don't ask me how. My life is a mess.

This is a disease I inherited from my father. God damn him. God bless him. Which is it? I cannot say for sure. Am I blessed or cursed with a lifetime of his "ability" to be inherently disorganized and organized at the same time? I never asked for this twisted personality trait. Surely it is all his fault.

I envy friends whose homes are free of clutter. They seem to reside in a state of perpetual grace and godly neatness. Their residences are testimony to a higher realm of consciousness. Why can't my home look like their's? It must be my father's fault.

Dad was admitted to Chester County Hospital on Friday. He had been complaining to me for at least 10 days about stomach pains and loose stools. After a week of his complaining, and taking some over-the-counter medicine that didn't solve the issue, I told him to see a doctor. He finally made an appointment to see a doctor last week and was scheduled to get a CAT scan of his troublesome stomach tomorrow.

When the stomach pains persisted all day Friday and seemed to grow worse, my father thought he must be having an appendicitis. If only the prognosis were that simple. After waiting around the hospital for four or five hours, the CAT scan and a physical exam of his abdomen revealed a tumor the size of a baseball.

My dad has cancer of the large intestines and the CAT scan revealed it may have spread to other organs in his body.

Doctors will take the tumor tomorrow at noon. But in the meantime, this Fathers Day has been bittersweet to say the least. He's had a steady stream of family members and friends come visit him in Chester County Hospital most of the day. I saw flowers there from my sister and at least four or five Fathers Day cards on the serving tray next to his bed.

For someone having a lethal tumor removed from his belly at noon tomorrow, my father was in high spirits. He'd been given a pain killer that had taken away the abdominal stress. He was teasing the nurses and commanding the room as usual. But it was hard to think about the long-term prognosis or to imagine all the suffering his 84 year old body faces for the next month if he opts to fight the spreading cancer for the sake of seeing his wife and children and grandchildren for another six or nine months.

Thanks, Dad. You really know how to take the fun out of a day dedicated to celebrating all you did for us.

None of us would be here to enjoy it without you. And none of us are ready to admit this might be the last one we get to spend with you.

So we'll try to soak up every minute we can, feeling the knots in our stomachs that we might not get to have time with you next year on Fathers Day.

And so, dear reader, should you. If your fathers are still alive, be sure they know how much you appreciate all they did to screw you up.

That's what fathers do best. God bless 'em. Especially mine. Kick that tumor's ass, Dad. We'd all like to have something to complain about next year, too.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Mid year pop music report

It's that time of the year again. Time to make some mid-year recommendations to friends and readers of music worth hearing. If you remain curious to know new music, these are some CDs that have been getting repeated play in my CD changer at home.

Some of these -- Okkervil River, the Decemberists, the Antlers and tUnE-yArD -- all are likely to be ranked somewhere on my "best of the year" list come mid-December. All of these discs are worth hearing if you love music as much as my geeky friends do.

I've listed them alphabetically, to avoid inducing prejudices. Seek them out and give them a spin! Summer is a great time of the year to hear live music and for listening to songs cranked up in the car.

Burst Apart, the Antlers. What are they putting in the drinking water in Brooklyn? This is the first of two bands who claim Brooklyn as home on the mid-year list. The Antlers drew critical raves for their thematically linked song-cycle Hospice back in 2009, a death bed narrative about an abravive cancer patient who falls in love with her nurse. Burst Apart, mercifully, is not as maudlin as that effort but still keeps the lo-fi home-made aesthetics in place. Songwriter Peter Silberman has a lighter touch this time around on songs like "I Don't Want Love" and "French Exit." Well worth finding.

Birds & Drums, the Bewitched Hands. This 6-piece band from Reims, France wowed audiences at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin back in March. Because they sing their lyrics in English, they seem intent on cracking the U.S. indie rock scene. They cover a gamut of styles on Birds & Drums, their initial full-length release on Sony, a sign that they haven't found a signature sound yet. Don't let that stop you from checking them out. The title track is a saccarine pop tune that seems to emulate the Cowsills. "Work" has elements of anthemic rock. "Hard to Cry", the first single, is a swirling pop tune with Feist-worthy vocals. Something for everyone!

The King is Dead, the Decemberists. Colin Meloy says he's hanging up his band director's shoes after this final CD with the Decemberists. I guess that remains to be seen. One can hope not, because this one might be their best effort yet. The band is playing the Academy of Music on June 15th and the show has been sold out for months. If they showcase this terrific collection of radio-friendly folk-rock tunes, they'll make lots of locals very happy. On the back of the new CD, the band is pictured with an array of acoustic mountain music instruments: accordian, banjo, autoharp and two guitars, one with just four strings. If this is a sly reference to The Band, it's appropriate. "Calamity Song" is one tune that will bring the house down all summer, a knowing apocalyptic smile at Harold Camping's End Timers.

Helplessness Blues, the Fleet Foxes. I haven't warmed up to this one as much as my 25 year old son has. But I am confident it will grow on me as the year goes on. The critics have been kinder than kind to the Fleet Foxes. This latest effort seems, on first listen, to be plowing the same fertile ground as the band's eponymous first full-length album. It sounds like a mix of the lush orchestral pop of the Beach Boys with a dash of British folk like the Strawbs and Fairport Convention tossed in. I don't hear anything as arresting as "White Winter Hymnal" on this new CD, but the band's hallmark fingerprints -- those lush four-part vocal harmonies -- are all over this record too. Tracks to download include "Bedouin Dress" and "Lorelie."

Eye Contact, Gang Gang Dance. Brooklyn's Gang Gang Dance specializes in experimental rock that takes its cues from Brian Eno. If you like electronica or Eno's ambient and atmospheric music, you'll dig this effort. Most of the tracts are jams that go on for six to eight minutes and create soundscapes that work as well on the dancefloor as they do on your headphones. "Glass Jar", the CD's 11 minute opening opus, and "Romance Layers" are tunes for the Ipod. Adventurous souls can catch their act at Johnny Brenda's on Wednesday, July 20th.

Smart Flesh, the Low Anthem. When I caught their gig at a WXPN Free At Noon show four or five weeks ago, it became immediately obvious the Low Anthem are not your average banjo-stumming folk band. They are drawn to instruments that give their sound an old time gospel flavor: a pump organ, hammer dulcimer, acoustic guitars and fiddles were all on stage. One of the musicians used a fiddle bow to elicit eerie sounds from both a wood saw and a banjo. They recorded Smart Flesh in an abandoned pasta sauce factory in Rhode Island and the album has a ambling openness that feels drawn from the building. The Low Anthem makes folk music feel fresh.

Middle Brother, Middle Brother. On paper, it sounds like an idea that's guaranteed to create problems. Take three guys who front their own indie rock bands and mash them together to form their own group. That's exactly what John McCauley (Deertick), Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes) and Matt Vasquez (Delta Spirit) were asked to consider. Middle Brother, an uproarious mash-up of alt-country and punk rock, is the end result. With sonic tips of the hat to Neil Young, Robbie Robertson and Bob Dylan, this CD will appeal to your inner hippie. The best cuts include "Blue Eyes", "Portland" and a two rollicking back to back rave-ups "Me, Me, Me" and "Someday".

I Am Very Far, Okkervil River. Will Sheff's best songs plumb the depths of human loss and depravity. He is the Edgar Allen Poe of indie rock. No one makes more compelling modern American music. Sheff's songs, so full of the flinty flash of sharp knives dipping into ripped and torn flesh, can haunt you for days. The new record skirts beneath the surface into a dreamscape of revelations and nighmares. Mysterious, austere and powerful. Check out the YouTube performance of "The Rider" from David Letterman's May 13th show and you'll see a band primed to grab the audience by the throat and never let go. If you don't know them yet, you soon will. Okkervil River's The Stage Names was my favorite CD of the last decade. This new one may be as good.

So Beautiful, or So What, Paul Simon. Just as Bob Dylan made Time Out of Mind when he was contemplating the end, Simon has made this great album, So Beautiful. Heralded by the critics as his best since Graceland, this new album of songs has Graceland's gospel/world music vibe. Lyrically the songs investigate the fertile themes of religious faith, death and the afterlife, love gained and love lost. From the jaunty joyfulness of the opening tract, "Getting Ready for Christmas Day", to the shimmering afro-pop of the disc's finale, the title tune, this is a welcome return to form for Simon.

Whokill, tUnE-yArDs. How does something like tUnE-yArDs (yes, the misplaced uppercase letters are purposeful) happen? Merril Garbus is a name to remember. Garbus makes noise-pop with a worldbeat bent. She tosses jazz, hip-hop, R&B and folk into the mix in what the All-Music Guide calls "fascinating collisions that are as melodic as they are abrasive, and as globally minded as they are distinctly urban." Songs to here include “Gangsta”, a brassy tune topped of with sirens and “Bizness” a nod to the Afro-pop of Fela Kuti and Congotronics. Whokill is the soul record of the year so far, sung and written by an American white girl who sounds like she was raised on the streets of Kinshasha. Check out this live performance of the band's "Bizness" here, recording in the studios of FM station KEXP in Seattle.

Yuck, Yuck. Yuck is no joke. This one is pure pop for now people. Feel the power of the 3-chord guitar riff backed by distortion. Listen to that nasty snarl! Makes you glad AC/DC left their hard rock formula around for these young Londoners to emulate. The perfect graduation present to that whipsmart prepster who thinks his dad's taste in music got stuck in 1985. Crank up the second cut, "The Wall" and watch his graduation party turn into a suburban exodus. Isn't that what makes memories!? Garage rock for muscle cars.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Pop culture alert: Okkervil River is about to conquer the world

I'll admit, the subject title of my blog today is far too subjective; entirely open to accusations of hyperbole. Unless you know the band. Then you just shrug your shoulders and say, "yeah, so what else is new?"

Fronted by one of the best songwriters working today, Will Sheff, Okkervil River is playing two gigs in Philadelphia tomorrow, June 3rd. They will be performing at WXPN's weekly "Free at Noon" show on at the station's World Cafe studios down on Walnut Street. Later that evening they'll perform at the Trocodero on Arch Street with Titus Andronicus, an up and coming rock band from Glen Rock, N.J. whose album, "The Moniter" made a lot of critics' best of the year lists in 2010.

Sheff's vocal style of singing puts some listeners off. Some folks don't like his over-the-top delivery or the way his most emotional songs seem to climb into the mind of homicidal psychopaths, intent on getting blood on their hands. Too creepy. Others don't like the way he seems to imitate the worst traits of 1950s crooners like Perry Como and Bobby Darin. Too lame, too retro.

I can't help myself. The guy fronts one of the best bands in the country and he commits himself to his performances like very few other front men will. His on-stage persona is enthralling: a tall, a loose-limbed imitation of Ray Davies in his heyday with the Kinks. Ray Davies is a great songwriter. Will Sheff may be regarded as his equal before his career is done.

If you don't know Okkervil River, this is an opportunity to discover one of the nation's best indy rock bands. Tickets are still available. The link below will give you a taste, his performace of his latest single, "Rider" that closed David Letterman's show on Friday, May 13th.

I Am Very Far, the band's new CD, is getting critical raves and is sure to be near the top of a lot of critics "best of the year" lists, including my own. The new single from the CD, "Rider" is my favorite song of the year so far. You can catch a glimpse of Sheff performing the song on Letterman's show from Friday the 13th at the link below.

If this doesn't impress you, you've probably been listening to Lady Gago too much this month.