Archive for May, 2012

I have been a Stephen King fan(atic) since way back in the days of ‘Salem’s Lot. (Isn’t it odd that most of King’s Constant Readers, and I am most definitely one, started with the second of his books, and only later went back to discover the pleasures of Carrie’s virgin appeal?)

I read most all of those early ones in sequence, at a time in my life where the written word was almost more real than the world around me. The Shining, and The Dead Zone, It, and – reverent pause here- The Stand (and so many more) are all made up of scenes, and more importantly, of characters, that were almost mundane in their familiarity but who were thrust into otherworldly circumstances. King’s characters speak in a patois that only someone who came from US can interpret, can pass on, can present back to us. The result is an understanding and a way of relating, a literal relationship, among and across King, his readers and his characters that I have yet to experience from anyone else to date.

For me that relationship was never as deep and as rich as it was when I first read The Dark Tower.

“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”

I had no idea what lay ahead of me, or of him, upon reading those words. 25+ years later I’m still not 100% sure, but I know that I liked the trip.

Legend has it, and it may very well be apocryphal but I like it so it’s taken up firm residence in whatever part of my brain catalogs Stephen King minutiae, that he wrote the first Gunslinger story and then threw it in a drawer for nearly 20 years, thinking it too strange (…”even for me…”) to complete.

For whatever reason, whether Tabby once again fished it out of obscurity – and who wouldn’t listen to her after her previous saving grace with Carrie? – or he just came back to it, either the idea or the very manuscript itself, Roland of Gilead calling to him, as if saying, “You, Stephen son of Ruth – I see you very well…”

Thank goodness.

I devoured all of the first Gunslinger stories, which were obviously nailed-together short stories from previous collections; obvious, even when I read them as a teenager.

It wasn’t long, though, before the stories expanded, growing in the same way that Midworld was shrinking, changing, moving on. I distinctly remember running home from the bus stop, homework already done so I could spend a few hours discovering the world that Roland knew so well, and remembered, and lamented.

The Drawing of the Three was a lightning spike, an epiphany, a revelation that – hey, wait! They’re from our world! But… they just went into Roland’s?

This was every dream that every Sci-Fi and fantasy reader had ever had, whether to visit Tolkien’s Middle-earth, Leiber’s Lankhmar, Baum’s Oz or anywhere they’d ever imagined- this was Stephen F-ing King writing about how people not so different from us were drawn into another world. Sign me up.

Blaine the Mono with his perfect riddles, with his Monomaniacal obtuseness. The crossing into worlds, not only from classic fiction, but from King’s own canon? Whoa… pass the dutchy, dude. This was intense.

But then it just stopped.

The faithful among us knew that several (hopefully many) stories were still to come, but a god-awful gap of years followed. King himself said that during this fallow time (at least DT-wise) the questions he most often got from fans was, “When do we get to go back to Gilead?”

Then in 1999 an idiot in a mini-van, of which there is never a short supply, slammed into a man jogging along the side of a road, and threw him into a tree.

And, Bog help me, one of my very first thoughts, after hoping and wishing and all of that, was this:

‘We may not get to find out what happens in the Dark Tower series…’

I’m not proud of that, but it’s the truth.

Later, still in the throes of recovery (how odd- I never associated his recovery from a car accident with mine, and my discovery of his writing when I was in similar straits, until now), he said he may never write again. I, along with the rest of the world, silently screamed.

But for me, it seemed, it was personal. I know I wasn’t the only one thinking this, but it seemed to me like I may never find out what happened to Roland, and Eddie, and Susannah, and Jake. And I needed to know.

So when he recovered and started cranking out the rest of the books in the series it was all I could do to keep up. I loved them all, too- they were perfectly in keeping with the tone of the earlier stories. Not only did they incorporate nearly all of the worlds, stories, and characters from his earlier works, they included him, and even his accident. Forget the dutchy, pass the bong.

When it finally, tragically, hopefully (as in “full of hope”) ended, I was ok with it. It made sense, it came full circle, it seemed done, and I was grateful for having been invited along for the ride.

But like Midworld, I, and King, and the story and all of the characters I’d come to love so strongly, had moved on.

That extremely long intro was written as an attempt to convey the gravitas, the heft that came with discovering that another Dark Tower story was coming.

When I was 90% through The Wind in the Keyhole I wrote this as my Goodreads review:

“When I first heard this was coming out I was very excited, having loved each of the Dark Tower novels – singularly and as a whole story- as much or more than anything else in his entire oeuvre. When I started reading this one, I worried for the first few pages that maybe he was forcing it, going back to a well he knew the Constant Readers among us would happily follow him to, but very shortly after that I knew- I just felt it- that we were right back inside The Story, like we’d never left, and it was just as grand and just as moving and just as tragically, masterfully told as all of the other tales of Roland of Gilead.

“The story-within-a-story trope is done brilliantly, as he did in Song of Susannah and other novels, and I found myself not wanting it to end, just as I have with nearly all of his best books.

“Highly recommended. Sorry to be coming up on the end, but maybe this means there could be more “x.5″ novels out there??”

Which brings me to my next (and final, you hope) point about why Gilead and Roland and this whole world seem so believable.

King’s use of colloquialisms has always made his blue-collar, working man and woman dialog utterly believable.

In each of The Dark Tower stories he takes that believability and stretches it many steps further.

What makes it believable to me, what makes the stories that Roland tells more than just the ravings of a distraught, hopelessly confused soul is when their group, their ka-tet, comes across anyone who remembers Gilead in its heyday.

The three taps of the fingers at the throat, the side of the fist raised to the forehead, the leg extended in the courtly bow, the “thankee-sai”s and the “hile!”s and the “cry your pardon”s. The “clearing at the end of the path,” and perhaps most movingly, “remember the face of your father.” The very concepts of ka and ka-tet (which at the time reminded me a bit of Vonnegut’s concepts of karass and duprass. Beautiful, both of them).

An eldritch combination of the knights from King Arthur’s court and the American Wild West, Gilead holds a place both honored and abhorred. Honored by Roland and his friends, the last gunslingers. Despised by many of the denizens of Midworld, for where was Gilead when everything began moving on?

Those small but oh-so-telling details make it real for me, because it feels real for them.

This most recent story continues in the same vein as its predecessors, weaving tales within tales, shedding more light on events that have made Roland the way he is when we first meet him. We root for Tim in the same way we wanted young Jake to find that goddamned door (because WE wanted to find it) and get back to Roland and his ka-tet, and we are not disappointed.

Tim’s tale is the same as those that have been told since time immemorial, from Hansel and Gretel forward: young child alone, facing the dark and the scary alone, having to come through not for himself, but for someone important to him. (I was reminded more than once of The Talisman, and Jack Sawyer’s quest to save his own mother).

But it’s a strong tale, and one that’s well told. It fits into the Dark Tower canon as snugly as one of Roland’s gunslinger burritos that Eddie Dean makes such fond fun of.

I hope there’s more where this came from, so I do. And if it be King’s will that it be so, I say thankee-sai.

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In the first installment of what turned out to be a too-long attempt to recap the month of April I closed by saying, “… I didn’t even get to how Anais Mitchell’s album transformed me one morning while working last week, or how discovering honeyhoney’s Daytrotter session was one of the best surprises ever, and prompted me to buy their album, too (AND contribute to one of the great causes with which they’re affiliated, Feed Them With Music – check them out and give here), so they’ll all have to wait until next time.” It’s next time.

There really aren’t any words powerful enough to describe Anais Mitchell’s Young Man in America, her latest full-length. Singing sometimes as the titular young man, sometimes as a character singing to or about him, and sometimes as someone seemingly unrelated to the storyline, the songs intertwine, weaving a tale at once tragic and beautiful. At several points it reminds me of her masterfully collaborative so-called “folk opera”, Hadestown – stark, simple, aching. The raw strength of these songs is belied by her soft, sometimes almost childlike tone and phrasing, which really only lends even more power to some of the more poignant lyrics. I dare you to listen to “The Shepherd“, for instance, and not be moved.

Finding honeyhoney was one of those very happy accidents that come along all too rarely. I’d gone to the Daytrotter site to grab another artist’s leavings, and scrolled down as I always do, sampling here, dropping in there, and for some reason listened a little longer to some of the honeyhoney tunes. I downloaded the short session and was promptly blown away, even though it was a little more twangy than I generally like. The lead singer reminded me of an even more drawl-ly Grace Potter – that same whiskey-soaked strength and honesty – but with banjo and fiddle behind it. I looked them up, hesitated not at all in buying their complete LP, and found a few really fun-looking videos. One of those was recorded as part of a Project called Feed Them With Music. Many artists are taking part in this effort, so check it out and see if you can help a little, too. Each song, it seems, has at least a few clever lines, like this one from “Don’t Know How“:

“I sold all my clothes to get rid of your smell

Smashed all the clocks that had the right time to tell

Me how long it has been since we parted ways

Don’t know how to leave you when I want to stay.”

One of the other finds I skipped last time has been right under my nose, metaphorically, while in reality being on the other side of the world most of the time. Robin Nievera is my nephew, and usually lives and records in the Philippines, like his famous parents and many other family members. He’s mastered the electric guitar at a relatively young age, and his first full album is a wonder, showcasing his songwriting, singing and performing talents in their best possible light. (I’d say that even if he wasn’t related. And anyway, what’s a little nepotizz among friends?) Check out “In 3’s” below, and then get, and dig, the whole collection, called Overwait. (And try to get that riff outta your head. You’re welcome.) Hopefully that title doesn’t refer to the period between now and his next offerings.

More recently, I’ve downloaded Silversun Pickups’ newest, Neck of the Woods, and while I haven’t rated the whole thing yet, I’ve heard enough to know it’s at least as good as Swoon, or anything else they’ve done. I also know that I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve wished my car stereo went to 11 when one of these new tunes popped up. I’ll probably have more on them next time after I’ve fully digested the entire album, but for now check out “Make Believe”, “Mean Spirits”, “Simmer”, and “Gun-shy Sunshine”.

Also just secured Sara Watkins’ most recent collection, Sun Midnight Sun. I’ve only heard one song: “The Ward Accord” just popped up on shuffle and its instrumental loveliness told me right away that it could only be Sara. She’s long been a favorite of mine, from Nickel Creek days to being able to see her on tour, alone and in the Decemberists’ traveling band, and I’ve been looking forward to this one for a while. She and brother Sean have been podcasting some truly wonderful shows from sunny CA, enlisting a motley and fun-loving (and sounding) crowd of like-minded and uber-talented friends to help (like Fiona Apple, Benmont Tench from Petty’s band, Jackson Browne and others), several of whom appear on the record. More on that one next time, too.

Sara Watkins, The Ward Accord from Sun Midnight Sun

Looking forward to Luka Bloom’s latest, as well, fresh off the mojo wire, and I’m sure I’ll be summing that one up here. (And since this site’s see-saw was been tilted WAY too heavily toward the Sounds section, I’ll have a Visions post up soon – my take on Stephen King’s The Wind Through the Keyhole, a novel set in the Dark Tower universe, somewhere between books 4 & 5. Don’t miss it.)

Until then keep listening, and don’t forget to share the sounds that have been spinning in your heads. Others wanna ride, too!

Here we are on the eve of the first of May, and my April recap starts with two instances that build from singles mentions last time out.

I’d only heard Of Monsters and Men’s track “From Finner” when last I wrote, but it was enough to pry a tweet from me, and to make me delve deeper. I sampled My Head is an Animal, their debut LP, and just a few seconds of a few songs was enough to convince me to buy. I haven’t regretted it since. “Little Talks” is the lone official video from the collection, and as if the music wasn’t charming enough the video totally enchants. I’ve yet to find a song on the album that makes me feel any differently, and it’s been in very heavy rotation of late.

 

I also wrote a line or two about the weirdly prolific and carefully eccentric Jack White last time, citing “Sixteen Candles” as being everything I’ve always liked about his quirky brand of unpolished rock. Once I heard Blunderbuss in its entirety I found much more to like, and for almost completely different reasons in every instance. As expected, I didn’t love every outing; by my rough calculation about two thirds of the tracks hit me with that inimitable blend of “Holy shit…” and “Haven’t I heard that somewhere before?” that always astounds and amazes me, and his warbling Tiny Tim-like croon pulled more than one appreciative laugh outta me on first listen. Standout tracks for me include “Weep Themselves to Sleep”, “On and On and On”, “Hypocritical Kiss” and the title track, which may be my favorite. Jack gets it, and whether he’s displaying his effortless prowess and understanding or being purposefully obtuse or goofy he’s one of the truly genuine artistes making relevant and unique sounds these days.

But thankfully not the only one, or this would be a much shorter entry.

April represented a high water mark for the number of shows I had scheduled – and included two more that I hadn’t planned – so Spring in Atlanta (and elsewhere) continues its string of such cornucopian seasons.

Early in the month I drove to The Melting Point in nearby Athens to see Abigail Washburn and Kai Welch, sans Village, and was once again amply rewarded for the effort. New two-person arrangements of songs I was familiar with, along with some new stuff and some novelties (like Abigail playing a kick drum while standing at the mic with her banjo, and Kai drenching the very air with aural torrents that pulsed and wove a lush backdrop for the two to play on), not to mention the Sweetwater Exodus on tap, made the drive totally worth it.

Kai & Abigail at The Melting Point in Athens, GA (4/06/12)

The Boxer Rebellion did some sound-drenching of their own at Center Stage in the middle of the month, and did not disappoint. The most pleasant surprise of the night for me, though, was how much I enjoyed their opener, Grouplove. I liked the only thing I’d heard from them prior to this, but had little expectation and no idea how energetic and just plain happy their music is. I caught myself laughing more than once at their onstage antics – they are obviously having the time of their lives, and it shows in every move they make.

The following week welcomed the Punch Brothers to the Variety Playhouse on what was a very busy day in Little Five Points. The Sweetwater 420 festival was happening just a few blocks away, and it was Independent Record Store day to boot, so hippies and hipsters abounded, and car traffic had to take a back seat to all of it. (Snagged some wicked cool vinyl, btw, at Criminal Records before the show: Sara Watkins’ single with Fiona Apple, pressed on sweet green vinyl; Bowerbirds; Grouplove; and Good Old War’s full length).

The Bros were, as I’d hoped, completely amazing. Consummate showmen and individually virtuosic on their respective instruments, playing as a unit they were near faultless. Exhibiting the same sense of fun and lightheartedness as Grouplove had the week prior, when they got serious we all felt it immediately, and they virtually smoked from the stage. Some choice covers, including a moving version of “The Weight” to close in honor of Levon, and a healthy representation from their latest album, Who’s Feeling Young Now? made it easily one of the best shows, start to finish, I’ve seen this year.

Opener Jesca Hoop was equally inspring, at least for me. Surprisingly, given the abundance of the hippie ideal in sight earlier, her brand of ethereal imagery and unusual (but achingly beautiful) delivery seemed lost on much of the audience. It was doubly surprising to me given that everyone was there to see Punch Brothers, the very representation of unorthodox, non-traditional approaches to traditional instruments and sounds. I was baffled, but I didn’t let it keep me from being transported to whatever space it is that Jesca calls home, or at least inspiration. Playing a white Les Paul with no other accompaniment (with the exception of Mr. Thile joining her on mandolin for one of hers – they sounded amazing together vocally and instrumentally) the songs I’d come to love from her fully fleshed-out album sound were made new, and were no less moving for it.

 

The first of the unplanned gigs presented itself while I was in Toronto for business. I always check Songkick and a few other sites like that when traveling, and every so often I get lucky – like finding the Girlyman gig while in Denver a few weeks ago, and finding out Death Cab was playing at Massey Hall while I’d be in Toronto.

This one is kind of tough to write about for a couple of reasons.

I loved the idea of seeing them at Massey – I have a decent live Neil Young album from the 70’s that was recorded there – and this would be the third time seeing them in the last two years. Both of the other shows (one at The Fox, one at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater with my girls) were stellar.

This one wasn’t, and I so wanted it to be.

They’ve changed up the setlist pretty drastically, presumably to accommodate their touring with the Magik Magik Orchestra, a 7-piece ensemble who played beautifully, and who opened the show with a nice long piece of stringed heaven.

I’m usually more than into it when bands dig deep into their backlog and play some of the more obscure, fan-friendly stuff, but that night it seemed like that’s all they were playing. I finally heard “Cath…”, one of my favorites, about 8 or 10 songs in, and I remember thinking, ‘OK, now we’re getting there…’ And we promptly went right back where we were before. I normally love Ben Gibbard’s writing and performing, and all of the band’s playing, but not long after that I did what I very rarely do – I can’t remember doing it in years.

I left.

I had a briefly magical moment on the walk back to the hotel, though, that redeemed the evening.

The show was on the same Thursday that brother Levon was called back home. As I was strolling along through a very nice Toronto evening I passed the local Hard Rock and figured I’d have a drink and pickup some swag for the crowd back in Atlanta. As I was checking out in the merch area I asked the very nice sales girl if she’d heard about Mr. Helms’ passing. “No!” she said, seeming to be genuinely taken aback. “Oh, man. You know Dylan first met the band here, right?”

“In Toronto?” I asked.

“No. In this building.”

Sure enough the first window of memorabilia on the way to the bar was a full case of albums, instruments and photos celebrating The Band, opposite a similar display of Bob Dylan pieces.

So I had a whiskey or two, toasted the man and the memories with a couple at the bar, and made my way back to the hotel.

The other unexpected show was a much more pleasant surprise.

Just last week I went to The Masquerade to see a band I knew nothing about, opening for a band I’d heard of but never from. Why? Because one of my daughter’s best friends in Atlanta is seeing the drummer for the opening band. Duh.

I’d met John from Concord America weeks before, and didn’t know he was a drummer, or in a band, or even Kate’s boyfriend. He seemed cool and we always made polite small talk. So to find all of that out about him, all at once, meant that I HAD to go to the show.

And, man, am I glad that I did.

They rocked. Hard. Borderline punk, but much more deep, fast hard guitar rock that at times reminded me of Zeppelin after a heavy session at Starbucks – I heard some Sabbath references in there, too, oddly enough – with some jaw dropping time changes that belied their years and experience.

But John himself was the biggest revelation. He was a beast on the drums, and I told him so afterwards. Pure energy – I was a little surprised his body could hold all of it without imploding. All of it was channeled into his kit, though, and pounded out the rhythm of the night for us, sometimes in a machine-gun staccato, sometimes painting softly with the brushes (but usually gunning…), always providing a solid backbone for the other guys to build on, which they did in high style. Check this one out – it’s more towards the punk end of the spectrum but represents their sound well, I think.

Another thing I told John that night: I will see them whenever and wherever they play again. Any time at all. You should, too.

That’s way too much for one entry, and I didn’t even get to how Anais Mitchell’s album transformed me one morning while working last week, or how discovering honeyhoney’s Daytrotter session was one of the best surprises ever, and prompted me to buy their album, too (AND contribute to one of the great causes with which they’re affiliated, Feed Them With Music – check them out and give here), so they’ll all have to wait until next time.

Keep your ears and eyes open til then, and let me know what’s been turning you on lately, too.