Watch my Garden Grow

In a post not-too-long ago, my brother compiled a song-list for gardening. I think a lot of us have such informal sound tracks—sometimes we make them on purpose with iTunes playlists, or, in the old days, a mix-tape. Music is so elemental and visceral that it easily cleaves to our daily lives; in addition, our steady modern diet of television and movies all set to finely selected soundtracks conditions us to hear musical accompaniment for everything.

Or something like that.

The reason my brother’s post is worth going back to (other than the fact that it is fascinating and his list is pretty great) is also connected to what music does for us and to us: it makes us remember. But the kind of memory my brother talked about doesn’t come from music alone, it comes from working the land where my father put his hands, from turning the soil my father toiled over, and from tending the plants my father left behind him.

See, my post is about how my brother’s relationship to the land my father left us is a metaphor for his grief and the way he is honoring my father’s memory. My gardening music and my abandonment of the land is equally metaphorical. We have both been set adrift by our grief; our reactions have trapped us in turn. I’ll have a list of gardening music too.

Song 1: Rogue Wave: “Publish My Love”—a song I could not get enough of when I first got my own property. I can still recall pulling weeds in the rain with my headphones tucked under a hooded sweatshirt.

Let’s start with something unnerving. A few months before my father died, he gave a group of books to his only grandchild at the time, my daughter. Among them was a book entitled The Farmer, perhaps selected in remembrance of a book I loved when I was a toddler called Farmer Jones. Inside the book, my father wrote “You come from farmers. And always remember—you sow what you reap. Sow what you reap.”

What my father wrote

I didn’t find this epigraph until my father was a year gone. And when I did, I immediately started weeping. Never mind that we have long been crap farmers or that my father mysteriously  (or mistakenly) reversed the phrase “reap what you sow”. All I could think of was what he was thinking when he wrote that less than two months before he died. Did he have regrets? Did he know more than we did?

Song 2: Feist, “Mushaboom”—another song that I brought with me from NYC. I always loved the simple life evoked by the singer, the small house, children, the quiet. My wife and I bought and gutted a foreclosed house and did everything we could together from painting, to tile, to refinishing cabinets. The outside was mine alone.

My father and mother bought several acres of mixed woods—white pine, some scotch pine, birches in the front, a sprinkling of old apple trees, lilac bushes and some poplars near the road—and spent years taming it and creating a lawn. While he left most of the trees, my father was tireless in clearing scrub and fashioning gardens at my mother’s whims. His creations weren’t perfect, but they absorbed his sweat, his energy, his life.

When I was young, my father and mother grew vegetables in the back yard of our old house.  I still remember picking green beans from the garden and shelling peas. To this day I cannot snap into a fresh green bean without remembering the walk up the hill, the smell of the old Irish setter, and the cold, dark colors of my family’s first home.

Song 3: John Denver’s rendition of “The Garden Song”. I think I learned this song from my mother; I know I sang it in kindergarten and I am pretty sure my father knew the words. I often sing the first few lines for my children now. My eyes never fail to water.

I live in one of those ridiculous suburbs that have green lawn rules and where the local HOA can fine you if your yard is not up to community standards. The threat of fines wasn’t what made me want to make my yard look good, however.  Every time I looked at my lawn, I could hear my father telling me to take pride in what I owned. I knew how to plant, water, weed, prune, build stone walls, care for trees, prepare garden beds from scratch—I knew all these things because I had done them with my father.

Even during the summer my daughter was born, I was out in triple-digit temperatures mowing, edging, weeding and watering my lawn because I knew when my father came to visit he’d tell me where I needed to re-seed, where I needed to aerate, because he’d tell me to take pride in what I own. Now, let me be clear, even if I had let it all go to weeds, my father would merely make a joke of it. But he took yardwork so seriously that I couldn’t imagine not doing so.

Song 4: Bon Iver, “Skinny Love”—in my last year of serious yardwork, I fell in love with this song. It’s haunting falsetto vocals, and distancing, alienating feel, almost made me feel cool under the hot sun.

The summer after my father died was the driest in generations. It cost more to water the lawn than it did to pay HOA fines. But this is not why I stopped working on the yard. I couldn’t handle it. When the lawnmower wouldn’t work, I fixed it the way my father would; when the soil needed aeration, I tried to do it myself and failed, unlike my father. Every time I put on the gardening shoes and looked at the dry dirt edged with green and browns that only comes from long afternoons in the garden, I thought of those afternoons I spent as a child watching my father in the yard and then, later, helping him.

And I couldn’t handle it. I selfishly thought of all the hours he spent in the yard and not with his children. Then, I thought of all the energy he expelled for something that suddenly seemed to superficial and silly. I told my wife that I had too much work to do; I told my neighbors that it was unethical to water in a drought; I told myself I had to spend more time with my daughter before a new child arrived.

But the truth was, I think I only worked on my yard because I wanted my father to be proud of me.

And now? My brother lightly (and not so lightly) mocks me because I have hired someone to do it for me. We live in a different house in another community with an evil HOA and I refuse even to buy a lawnmower. Unlike my father, I don’t get any pleasure from working this land.It is dry, it is barren, and the work seems a performance for others, not a search for a deeper understanding of self. Even though I own it, I feel like a temporary visitor. I know I will sell this property; I will never leave it to my children.

This place, and this world, I am just passing through. I cannot bear to garden here, because every plant that dies and every one that blooms reminds me of what is coming and what has gone. I cannot garden anymore, for now, because my father’s voice still echoes.

Sow what you reap?

Song 5: Micah P. Hinson “Yard of Blonde Girls”—imagine if people grew like flowers? This song has one of the best ‘builds’ of any song I have heard in a while. Hinson knows his crescendo.

My brother tends the land my father works and it is both a statement of his love for my parents and a metaphor for how we tend the memory of those we lose. He tries to keep everything my father planted, but time changes it—what he can, he makes better; what he cannot improve, he casts aside.

I ignore the land I own because my father never touched it. I tend his memories elsewhere, trying like my brother to cast aside what is of no use, and to bring to health whatever my father planted—my brother, myself, my sister, my children.

Inch by inch, row by row. My father made his garden grow.

New Music: Saintseneca, “Happy Alone”

“He who can talk to himself, will have no need of another’s conversation”
qui secum loqui poterit, sermonem alterius non requiret
Marcus Tullius Cicero

 

A few days ago, my phone pinged, I looked down and I received the following tweet from my old college friend and our sometime contributor, Another J.

 

 

Another J has known me just slightly longer than my wife has and since we were in a band together and have shared music for over a decade, he knows my tastes pretty well.  He nailed it with this one. I hear some Rogue Wave in the vocals, some Typhoon in the song structure, and some wild vowels that remind me of Frightened Rabbit.  There are male and female vocals. They use acoustic guitars in angry ways. There are backing vocals that go ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ and they use a banjo in a non-abusive way (unlike, say, Mumford and Sons).

 

Here’s the lead single from the album:

 

 

The only problem is that the album comes out April 1st. I want it now! I listened to the whole album through NPR’s First Listen and I don’t think that this is the best track. It is actually a little conventional–in the way the Decemberists are in the song “July, July”, which is a great song, but rather poppy in comparison to the rest of their ouvre.  Here’s another Saintseneca track with an acoustic bass and some strangeness that reminds me again of some odd combination of the Decemberists and the early days of Arcade Fire (if they unplugged).

 

“Uppercutter”

The facial hair kind of kills me. I don’t feel hip enough to pre-order this album, but screw it. I’ll do it anyway.

 

Also coming in April: some new and fresh posts. I promise.

Albums of (My) year 2013

Last year I made a ranked list of the albums I bought during 2012. Since I enjoyed doing it and find pleasure now (and, as often, surprise) when I turn back to it, I am returning to this again. Though I distrust lists and the distorting aesthetic of list-making, I nevertheless find it to be useful to look back on the year to put it into perspective.

This year, I have decided to make things a little more interesting (or maybe just topical and snarky) by ordering the numbered list into roughly associated groups. Enjoy.

Group 1: I don’t know why I bought these albums

19. The Dunwells, Blind Sighted Faith

I believe now that I was experiencing some temporal rift or suffering some sort of mind/body crisis when I heard this song on the TV and liked it. In honesty, I think that the cooking fan was on, the kids were screaming, and I had a cold. I’ve said all that before. This song is overproduced. The album is not very good. I won’t be listening to it again.

18. City and Colour, Bring Me Your Love

I was in a similar state of distraction when I first heard this song at the gym. When I wrote about it, I really thought I liked it. And then I listened to it when I wasn’t oxygen deprived and trapped on a treadmill. I don’t like it. The album is slightly better than the last entry, but not great.

17. Biffy Clyro, The Vertigo of Bliss

This band was suggested to me by iTunes. I don’t know why I keep falling for that, but I actually think this crew has some potential. The sound is a little too polished–another indie band that’s a bit overproduced–but it does seem creative enough that I will actually listen to this album a few times. There is some Superdrag and Eels-lite aura to the sound that makes me think I may end up liking it.

 Group 2: Disappointing Albums by Bands I like

16. They Might Be Giants, Nanobots

Oh, TMBG, I can’t stop loving you. The songs on this album, when they don’t seem formulaic, are small and uninteresting. I think that the band needs a long break or some type of epiphany. Again, I will probably buy albums by this band every opportunity I get, always hoping that they’ll surprise me again. But, then again, maybe the problem is me. Maybe I have moved too far away. 

15. Arcade FireReflektor

I really liked Arcade Fire’s first album. Neon Bible was pretty good. The subsequent two albums are musically bloated and lyrically stale. I keep listening to the earlier ones. I have tried to see if this album would grow on me, but it really hasn’t. It just seems, well, unfocused and forced.

14. PhoenixBankrupt

Lately I have been listening to “Lisztomania” a lot because my  son loves it and my wife just discovered Wolfgang Amadaeus Mozart was a great rock album. Bankrupt is part of a trend I have noticed in indie-rock bands, some sort of a strange rush to dance and synth-music (See Tegan and Sara’s Closer or Arcade Fire’s latest). I still find this album annoying after a few months. I wish they’d strap their guitars back on and make some recordings with a four-track. These guys have a good sense for music–it is just getting blotted out by all their toys.

Group 3: Good Albums by bands I like

13. Tegan and Sara’s The Heartthrob

Hearthrob, the title track from this album, has a rhythm but not always a beat. That’s an example of a sentence that sounds nice but is essentially meaningless. The title track is fun, but the collection as a whole doesn’t have the spit and vigor of the first few albums. I will not lie about my disappointment in this album. I know I keep announcing how much I love this band. The overlapping harmonies are still there, but the sisters’ voices just seem too small for the magnitude of the sounds thrown together on this album. Like Phoenix and Arcade Fire, I wish I could pay them to record an album with just a few instruments.

12. JunipJunip

So, Junip made a big splash lately when its song was used in promos for the Breaking Bad finaleI have loved the music of Jose Gonzalez for a long time. Junip is pretty good music–the extra production in comparison to Gonzalez’s seminal solo work is a little muddy and distracting; in addition, the composition of the songs is a bit unfocused as well. And, yet, this is a fine band with a fine sound. If you’re screaming because Phoenix’s new album is aurally victimizing you, listen to this as an antidote.

11. Why?Mumps, etc.

Why? is one of my favorite bands. If I can get my crap together, I will review the wonderful album Elephant Eyelash in the new year. No band I know of combines different genres and topics so honestly and inventively. This band is one of the top 10 most unique and interesting bands performing today. But, for some dumbass reason, I hadn’t bought this album. So I did. And I don’t regret it. It doesn’t get to be higher on the list because this is my damn list and I want to be arbitrary

Group 4: Albums that Deserve another Listen

10. Little Green Cars, Absolute Zero

I geeked out last year over the advanced single from this album, “The John Wayne”e. I loved it almost immediately. The full album fails to replicate the sound and success of that single, but I can’t quite agree that I am disappointed.

This is another album I think might grow on me if I give it the time. This song (“My Love took me down to the River”), for instance, makes me think of something gospel-influenced lodged between Rogue Wave and The Red House Painters. Not a bad place to be.

9. The Last Bison, Inheritance

“Inheritance”, the opening and title track is exciting and dynamic, but it only lasts a minute or so. This is another band I got really excited about when I first heard the EP from this band (from when they were just called Bison). This album has some forgettable songs. In fact, most of the memorable songs were on the EP.. Since the album was a bit of a rushed re-release of earlier work, I have hopes (perhaps unfounded) that the next album could be something special.

8. Okkervil River, Silver Gymnasium

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Okkervil river is musically interesting and lyrically almost too honest. I can’t say that I love this album, but I think I might. I bought their album The Stand Ins years back and listened to it twice. So, if prior performance is an indication of future performance, this is not a good sign. But my friend Another J keeps asking me about this, so I am going to give it the ol’ school try.

7. The Dodos, Visiter

What the hell is wrong with me? I know that this is a decent and interesting album, but I never listen to it. The lyrical and musical combination strikes me as something somewhere between the best stuff of Of Monsters and Men and the least emo Ben Gibbard solo material with some Grizzly and Bon Iver thrown in for good measure. There might even be some less-than-lyrical Belle and Sebastien stuff going on here.

Group 5: The Contenders

6. Macklemore, The Heist                

This is not the best album of the year. This is just an album we posted four times about and which I listened to way too many times. Macklemore’s style is, I think, quite forgettable and he’ll probably just be a footnote in later years. But I may be wrong about that. If you want to know far too much about what we think about Macklemore, read one of the multiple conversations.

 

5. Caribou, Up In Flames

I wrote about finding this music late on the radio when returning from the airport. This is great music to get lost to and there really isn’t that much else out there that is the same. Thank you, Caribou. Thank you. It doesn’t get to be higher on the list because It is too old and I can’t persuade anyone else to listen to it.

 

4. Jaimeo Brown, Transcendence

To be honest, I haven’t listened to this nearly as much as it deserves.  Whatever the case, I was really excited when I downloaded it. I recognize abstractly that it is a great album and musically impressive. I just don’t find it compelling. But it is good. Just not good enough.

 

3. Palma Violets, 180

This band made me think of Rancid and Fugazi with some more melodic and inventive rock thrown in there. I love the lead song from the album. And I think I listened to the full album three times in two days. Palma Violets won my attention for the whole week.Over the past week or so, my obsession has waned. So, for that reason the album rates a bit lower than the others.

2. Frightened Rabbit, Pedestrian Verse

All year I have been listening to Frightened Rabbit. Any one on the albums could have served on this list. I use this one because it came out this year and I have really grown to love this album despite some initial reservations.

1. Typhoon, White Lighter

Typhoon’s White Lighter brilliant and manic. It is one of the better albums I have bought in a long time.The hard part is that it makes me want to die, Of course, I have listened to this record almost every day since I acquired it.

For the creativity, the gift of the few albums I have listened to by Typhoon, and the certainty that I will be listening to this album for a very, very long time, I am happy to say that this is my favorite album of the year.

 

Songs of the Year–2004

In honor of the return of the Red Sox to the World Series, here are the songs I was listening to when they finally broke the ‘curse’ in 2004.

Songs of the Year: “Colours,” Donovan;  “The Good Times are Killing Me,” Modest Mouse
Runners Up: “Hey Ya,” Outkast; “Cinder and Smoke,” Iron & Wine; “Every Moment”, Rogue Wave
Honorable Mentions: “Take Me Out”, Franz Ferdinand; “Handshake Drugs,” Wilco

2004 was a year that in retrospect was one of transitions. The world of media was in the throes of cyclical change in musical tastes intensified by uncertainty with the rise of the iPod and internet music. The world was still at war with a US presidential election in the works. And I was moving along in graduate school only to have the entire process stalled and then accelerated by a fire.

In early 2004, there was a fire in my apartment in NYC that basically destroyed everything. Now, I could offer this as a narrative of the challenges I faced and the loss I suffered. But even at the time I realized that the event was cleansing and liberating. I was already somewhat nomadic (staying at my future wife’s place in Washington Heights or crashing on friends’ couches) and I spent most of my days in the library, a classroom, or the gym.

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Watch my Garden Grow

In a post not-too-long ago, my brother compiled a song-list for gardening. I think a lot of us have such informal sound tracks—sometimes we make them on purpose with iTunes playlists, or, in the old days, a mix-tape. Music is so elemental and visceral that it easily cleaves to our daily lives; in addition, our steady modern diet of television and movies all set to finely selected soundtracks conditions us to hear musical accompaniment for everything.

Or something like that.

The reason my brother’s post is worth going back to (other than the fact that it is fascinating and his list is pretty great) is also connected to what music does for us and to us: it makes us remember. But the kind of memory my brother talked about doesn’t come from music alone, it comes from working the land where my father put his hands, from turning the soil my father toiled over, and from tending the plants my father left behind him.

See, my post is about how my brother’s relationship to the land my father left us is a metaphor for his grief and the way he is honoring my father’s memory. My gardening music and my abandonment of the land is equally metaphorical. We have both been set adrift by our grief; our reactions have trapped us in turn. I’ll have a list of gardening music too.

Song 1: Rogue Wave: “Publish My Love”—a song I could not get enough of when I first got my own property. I can still recall pulling weeds in the rain with my headphones tucked under a hooded sweatshirt.

Let’s start with something unnerving. A few months before my father died, he gave a group of books to his only grandchild at the time, my daughter. Among them was a book entitled The Farmer, perhaps selected in remembrance of a book I loved when I was a toddler called Farmer Jones. Inside the book, my father wrote “You come from farmers. And always remember—you sow what you reap. Sow what you reap.”

What my father wrote

I didn’t find this epigraph until my father was a year gone. And when I did, I immediately started weeping. Never mind that we have long been crap farmers or that my father mysteriously  (or mistakenly) reversed the phrase “reap what you sow”. All I could think of was what he was thinking when he wrote that less than two months before he died. Did he have regrets? Did he know more than we did?

Song 2: Feist, “Mushaboom”—another song that I brought with me from NYC. I always loved the simple life evoked by the singer, the small house, children, the quiet. My wife and I bought and gutted a foreclosed house and did everything we could together from painting, to tile, to refinishing cabinets. The outside was mine alone.

My father and mother bought several acres of mixed woods—white pine, some scotch pine, birches in the front, a sprinkling of old apple trees, lilac bushes and some poplars near the road—and spent years taming it and creating a lawn. While he left most of the trees, my father was tireless in clearing scrub and fashioning gardens at my mother’s whims. His creations weren’t perfect, but they absorbed his sweat, his energy, his life.

When I was young, my father and mother grew vegetables in the back yard of our old house.  I still remember picking green beans from the garden and shelling peas. To this day I cannot snap into a fresh green bean without remembering the walk up the hill, the smell of the old Irish setter, and the cold, dark colors of my family’s first home.

Song 3: John Denver’s rendition of “The Garden Song”. I think I learned this song from my mother; I know I sang it in kindergarten and I am pretty sure my father knew the words. I often sing the first few lines for my children now. My eyes never fail to water.

I live in one of those ridiculous suburbs that have green lawn rules and where the local HOA can fine you if your yard is not up to community standards. The threat of fines wasn’t what made me want to make my yard look good, however.  Every time I looked at my lawn, I could hear my father telling me to take pride in what I owned. I knew how to plant, water, weed, prune, build stone walls, care for trees, prepare garden beds from scratch—I knew all these things because I had done them with my father.

Even during the summer my daughter was born, I was out in triple-digit temperatures mowing, edging, weeding and watering my lawn because I knew when my father came to visit he’d tell me where I needed to re-seed, where I needed to aerate, because he’d tell me to take pride in what I own. Now, let me be clear, even if I had let it all go to weeds, my father would merely make a joke of it. But he took yardwork so seriously that I couldn’t imagine not doing so.

Song 4: Bon Iver, “Skinny Love”—in my last year of serious yardwork, I fell in love with this song. It’s haunting falsetto vocals, and distancing, alienating feel, almost made me feel cool under the hot sun.

The summer after my father died was the driest in generations. It cost more to water the lawn than it did to pay HOA fines. But this is not why I stopped working on the yard. I couldn’t handle it. When the lawnmower wouldn’t work, I fixed it the way my father would; when the soil needed aeration, I tried to do it myself and failed, unlike my father. Every time I put on the gardening shoes and looked at the dry dirt edged with green and browns that only comes from long afternoons in the garden, I thought of those afternoons I spent as a child watching my father in the yard and then, later, helping him.

And I couldn’t handle it. I selfishly thought of all the hours he spent in the yard and not with his children. Then, I thought of all the energy he expelled for something that suddenly seemed to superficial and silly. I told my wife that I had too much work to do; I told my neighbors that it was unethical to water in a drought; I told myself I had to spend more time with my daughter before a new child arrived.

But the truth was, I think I only worked on my yard because I wanted my father to be proud of me.

And now? My brother lightly (and not so lightly) mocks me because I have hired someone to do it for me. We live in a different house in another community with an evil HOA and I refuse even to buy a lawnmower. Unlike my father, I don’t get any pleasure from working this land.It is dry, it is barren, and the work seems a performance for others, not a search for a deeper understanding of self. Even though I own it, I feel like a temporary visitor. I know I will sell this property; I will never leave it to my children.

This place, and this world, I am just passing through. I cannot bear to garden here, because every plant that dies and every one that blooms reminds me of what is coming and what has gone. I cannot garden anymore, for now, because my father’s voice still echoes.

Sow what you reap?

Song 5: Micah P. Hinson “Yard of Blonde Girls”—imagine if people grew like flowers? This song has one of the best ‘builds’ of any song I have heard in a while. Hinson knows his crescendo.

My brother tends the land my father works and it is both a statement of his love for my parents and a metaphor for how we tend the memory of those we lose. He tries to keep everything my father planted, but time changes it—what he can, he makes better; what he cannot improve, he casts aside.

I ignore the land I own because my father never touched it. I tend his memories elsewhere, trying like my brother to cast aside what is of no use, and to bring to health whatever my father planted—my brother, myself, my sister, my children.

Inch by inch, row by row. My father made his garden grow.

Cover Songs, Redux

In an earlier post, I wrote about cover songs abstractly, taking the time to discuss only one of my favorite covers in detail. In re-reading and re-thinking that post, I have more to say about one of my favorite topics (big surprise).

First, the cover song plays important but often different roles for artist and audiences. For developing musicians, covering a song is a bit like a painter copying the brush strokes of a master. In performance contexts like the dive bar or a street corner, however, a cover is an important way to grab a distracted (or hostile) audience’s attention either through the fidelity of the imitation or the originality of the interpretation.

Covered by every bar singer in Boston 1999-2001

Indeed, it is in the transition between these two polarities that we often mark the difference between a musician and an artist. When we go to live performances (especially of artists’ we don’t know) we may be impressed by the ability of a performer to imitate David Gray or Dave Matthews (most typical for singer/songwriters in bars) but we remember performers who deliver familiar songs in slightly different or even surprising ways. In fact, less-than-talented musicians can still provide exciting takes on songs.

I was in more than one heated argument in my band days over the issue of fidelity vs. interpretation. (For my part, it was the inability to imitate sufficiently that drove my desire to innovate.) As I argue in the earlier post, the ability of a song to be translated into a different form by a different artist is a testament to the beauty, even transcendence, of that song. Imitating slavishly is good for wedding bands, but not for original artists (as the judges from American Idol should be explaining).

But interpretation can also fall flat—the genre of lounge singing, for example, levels out the edges of music and channels even the most powerful songs into flaccid, saccharine schmaltz.  And, falling in between the two can be disastrous. Back in the day, I attended a Bush concert that ended with a wretched cover of R. E. M.’s “Radio Song”. I didn’t love Bush beforehand; I certainly had no greater respect after that.

In order to think through what happens with cover songs and why they work, I have tried to come up with some categories. Hopefully these will get the Younger J either (1) up in arms or (2) adding/correcting my lists ad infinitum.

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