Tuesday, June 25, 2013

June 24, 2013, a night Downingtown won't soon forget

A wind storm ripped through my Downingtown neighborhood last night, right after 6 p.m. It felt like being in the middle of a hurricane for about five minutes. (I lived in Louisiana for eight years, and I can honestly tell you the comparison stands up, except that no hurricane I've ever been in only lasts five minutes).

Six or seven peels of thunder and nearly as many visible lightning strikes called my attention to the front porch of the house. When I poked my head out of the door, rain was slashing down in long diagonal sheets and the yaw and cracks of wood splintering augmented the sounds of the lightning. It was hard to know which sound was which.

I bolted upstairs to close my bedroom windows and the rungs on my floor were already soaked. I went through the house as fast as possible, closing all windows. Everywhere I turned, water was coming in through my screens. I felt like a deckhand on Noah's ark. I wished I had remembered to record it with the Flipcam. The footage would have been hard to believe. You had to see it for yourself.
I secured the window locks and ventured a peek outside my front door. A huge limb from the maple in my neighbor's year had been ripped from the trunk and was now covering most of his front lawn and some of his front porch roof. I felt relieved that it had done no  structural damage to his house...and I was glad the limb had not crushed my Ford Taurus, which was parked on the other side of the tree.

The thought occurred to me the car might be in some jeopardy, what with limbs being severed and (a glance across the street told me) tress being ripped from the Earth by their roots. The lightning flashed and the sonic booms they made kept me inside for a few more minutes.

Finally, I made a break for the car, determined to move it down the street, away from the tree. I was drenched within two seconds. When I started the car, I couldn't see. It felt as if I was trying to glance through a waterfall. The wipers were useless. I knew I had to drive around a fallen electrical wire to get the car to a safer spot.  I wondered if this plan to save a 2003 Taurus with 140,000 miles on the odometer was such a good idea. I did it anyway and ran back into the house soaked to the skin. By the time I had toweled off and changed my clothes, the sun was out. The entire environmental catastrophe took about 10 minutes.

I ventured out into the street with my camera to record the mess. Neighbors were already congregating and shaking their heads in collective wonder. The sentiment du jour was "Wow! What was that!??" Except the language was considerably more colorful and F-bombs flowed freely from nearly every mouth. "Did a tornado just come through here?" No one saw any funnels, so that seemed unlikely. We were all awestruck. My block lost two great old trees, including one about 20 yards from my front porch that barely missed landing on the roof of neighbor's house. I knew instinctively I was sitting on a story and I needed to alert the local newspaper about it.

My friend, the editor of the Daily Local, Andy Hachidorian, was already gone for the day but the city desk had not heard anything about the storm when I called. I told them to please get a reporter down to my block but that I would also take some pictures on my digital camera and bring them to the paper within an hour..

Taking dramatic pictures of nature wreaking havoc on a neighborhood was never so easy. I reeled off about 30 pictures in 30 minutes, some of them recorded here on the blog.

The electric was out, of course. The limb that tore off my neighbor's tree also brought down the electrical and telephone wires. I knew it would be impossible to email the pics to the Daily Local. But I decided it was worth a seven mile drive up Route 322 to West Chester. The guys in the newsroom were happy to have them, although there was some glitches with the SIM card download.

It had been many years since I had a front page photo credit so I was happy to see my work on t he DLN front page this morning when I went to the local Wawa to grab a coffee and paper.

Last night, sitting in the midst of the darkened neighborhood, I slowly sipped and emptied two Weyerbacher beers and smoked a Nicaraguan cigar on my front porch. The night was cool and calm. The neighborhood had taken a beating but everyone was adjusting to life without the maples on our street and some folks were out surveying the damage with flashlights and whispering amazements. 

No one was killed. That was best part. But we all went to bed without the benefit of air conditioners or ceiling fans, knowing that Mother Nature had handed us a friendly reminder that you can't ever take anything for granted. Even suburban, sleepy Downingtown had occasional moments of sheer panic and provocation.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

mid-year pop music report: the best of 2013 so far

Eleven pop music compact discs worth finding:

Daft Punk – “Random Access Memories -- “Random Access Memories” sounds like a big, meticulous studio statement and it showcases a painstaking attention to sonic detail that bands like Steely Dan, Genesis and Pink Floyd brought to their recordings in the 1970s. If it sounds tad too tricked up for your ears, give it time to grow on you. “Get Lucky,” the CD’s hit single (you may be a little sick of this one already and I wouldn't blame you!), owns an irresistibly danceable beat taken straight out of the Nile Rodgers playbook, (no big surprise as Rodgers is listed as a collaborator on the liner notes). But “Get Lucky” is just the gleaming icing on the disco layer cake. The rest of the disc requires repeated listening to appreciate the ambitious reach of this great band and their most original and daring recording to date.

Sallie Ford and the Sound Outside – “Untamed Beast” -- This Portland band sounds like punks who grew up listening to rockabilly and Charles Mingus. And Sallie sings with a swagger that’s sexy, sultry and natural. The All Music Guide described her vocal performances like this: “With a voice that can belt, soothe, caress, and flat-out spit sass, attitude and raw street emotion, she sounds like a dream cross between Ella Fitzgerald and Janis Joplin.” Songs to download: “They Told Me”, “Bad Boys” and “Do Me Right”. But be sure the house doesn’t burn down while you’re listening.

Patty Griffin – “American Kid”  -- I’ve been a sucker for this Maine singer-songwriter since first hearing “Living With Ghosts”, a stripped down 1996 acoustic set of poignant vignettes that plumb the depth of love, loss of love and family life. Her latest collection is reminiscent of that initial effort, songs that detail her relationship with her father. They were written shortly after learning of her father’s impending death and explore his impending absence in her life. Her new beau, Robert Plant, sings background on several of the songs, most notably “Ohio” and “Faithful Son.” Americana’s finest recorded moments of 2013.  

Iron & Wine – “Ghost On Ghost” -- It can be hard to handle the earnest yearning of Sam Beam’s  warm as oatmeal vocals on occasion. But this year’s Iron & Wine effort sounds like a nod to Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks/Moondance” era. Beam’s baritone is backed by a blend of soulful horns and augmented by the thrum of acoustic bass, violins and tasty female background vocalists. His singing feels lighter and more carefree this time around. Standout cuts include “New Mexico’s No Breeze” and “Grace for Saints and Ramblers.” 

Laura Mvula – “Sing to the Moon” – On her first full length CD,  newcomer Laura Mvula channels Nina Simone’s special brand of soulfulness.  From the first notes of this marvelous debut, the UK singer uses deft, velvety vocal textures as counterpoint to jazzy arrangements that create the intimate vibe of a late night club scene in Harlem, circa 1950. Keep an eye on this rising R&B/soul singer.  Stardom feels inevitable.

The National – “Trouble Will Find Me” -- The National is a band that found a winning formula on 2010’s “High Violet” and they follow the same sonic formula on this year’s disc. Nothing wrong with that, because “Violet” was one of the year’s crowning achievements in pop music. If it feels a little bit like they’re treading water, it’s hard to imagine their fans will mind. Matt Berninger’s  baritone always  adds buckets of gravitas to lyrical revelations that can be knotty and labyrinthian. The songs that work best this time around are “Humiliation” and “Pink Rabbits” (a drink he invented).

Parquet Courts – “Light Up Gold” – Fifteen kick ass songs in just 33 minutes. Not one of them feels like filler. This Brooklyn rock quartet (they originally hail from Texas) take the lo-fi aesthetic of Pavement, the Feelies and Guided By Voices to new heights and turn that 1990s template into something that sounds fresh and original. Songwriter Andrew Savage’s wry observational takes on politics, pop culture and personal relationships suggest he spent more than a few months of his teenage years listening to Jonathon Richman.  Start with “Stoned and Starving” and “Borrowed Time.” Let the slacker angst wash over you. Revel in the innocent glory of a garage rock band finding their voice.

Red Baraat – “Shruggy Ji” --  Red Baraat takes its name from the Indian wedding ceremony in which the groom, joined by his friends and family, walk to the bride's family's dwelling to pick her up – all the while accompanied by a rollicking brass band following behind. If this sounds faintly like a rejiggered New Orleans street tradition, well so does Red Baraat. Led by Sonny Jain on dhol (a large drum that Jain wears on a strap over his shoulder), the Brooklyn collective is a fusion of brass-heavy New Orleans jazz, bhangra funk and Indian wedding music. If there is any “fault” at all it’s that the studio album does not measure up to the band’s live performance. Don’t miss them if they’re playing within a 50 mile radius. You’ll smile for days afterwards. Irresistible and imminently danceable.

Frank Turner – “Tape Deck Heart” – Former front man for the British punk band Million Dead, Turner turned to a more tradition band of Brit folk rock later in his career and has released a string of near great CDs that mine the same territory as Billy Bragg, whose liberal politics provide a nifty template for Turner’s own voice on “Tape Deck Heart.” “There Is No God” stakes a riotous claim for atheism and the celebratory “Recovery” makes addiction sound like a necessary part of living a full life. This vastly underrated artist deserves attention and this CD is one of the hidden gems of the year. 

Satellite Hearts – “Imperial Green” – This power pop trio from the Philly area released "Imperial Green" at the end of 2012, but I had to include in the mid-year rock report. Inventive and brash, the Hearts sound like a mash-up of Brit ‘70s rockers Thin Lizzy, T-Rex and the Clash. For a band comprised of guys in their teens/early 20s, they play with surprising assurance.  Their wall of sound approach has been used by many bands, but few make it work this well. “Dumb Down Daisy” and “Substitute” sound like the stand-out tracks to me, but the whole shebang works so well it’s hard to find the best of the best. 

The Will Callers – “What Else Is Left?” – If you like your alt-country ballsy, loud and with a slathered side of greasy greatness, you’ll dig the Will Callers, Fort Worth’s finest. Produced by Ray Wylie Hubbard (the bespectacled Texas hippie whose “Grifter’s Hymnal” topped my best of the year list last December), this just released CD is shot through with gunslinger attitude.  The band earned a statewide Texas rep by winning the Shiner’s Rising Star contest in 2010. This is their first full length studio CD and marks them as a band to watch carefully in the near future. “One Single Tear”, “Weight of the World”, “Heart Like Mine” and “87 Miles” will rock the house.