Call and Response: Religious Songs

As we come to the high frenzy of this holiday season, I’d like to turn to one of my favorite exchanges from the past year, when my brother and I stopped being silly and got a little serious about, you know, religion and stuff. It seems that this is the season for that sort of thing, right? So, this is a re-post, but updated and just right for the longer nights and the colder days.

In last year’s honest, and soul-baring post, my brother daringly ventured into one of the two subjects verboten at dinner tables and water-coolers throughout the country—religion (we crossed the politics line a few times in the past few months, so why not get this one over with?). I responded with an ambling, sometimes senseless, and mostly unclear comment.

My brother’s moment of clarity and its relation to music, however, deserves more thought. It deserves more time. It deserves a weighted and patient consideration. Yet, I fear, I may not be the right person to do this. As I said in response to my brother, music is the one thing that has made me feel a sense of something greater (unlike writing, music can be powerfully communal). Despite these feelings, I remain skeptical and unsure whether feeling something beyond yourself has anything to do with the divine.

“Down to the River to Pray”, Alison Krause

This beautiful song has been in my head off and on since I first heard it on the soundtrack to O, Brother Where art Thou. The fact that the “Sirens” sing this song in the movie points to an uncomfortable connection between Homer’s seductive and dangerous creatures and religious music…

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Harvest Playlist

It is that time of year, that stretch between Halloween and Thanksgiving before the holiday blitz fades into the winter blues. Here is one I really enjoyed writing that brings me back to where I was a year ago, Enjoy!

It’s the best time of year in the Northern Woods. It’s time to gather up all the late season produce, put the garden to sleep and make sure you know how you are going to heat your home for the winter.

I included my favorite song with the word “harvest” in it to open this post for obvious reasons which is dissimilar to the rest of my choices because they have nothing to do with harvesting anything except for maybe good tunes and mechanical skills.  Anyway, I firmly believe that the warm days/cool nights of fall in the Northeast is the best weather in the world and I think you earn it by dealing with the harshness of the previous winter followed by the erratic conditions of spring and summer.

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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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Case of the Mondays

Peter Gibbons: Let me ask you something. When you come in on Monday and you’re not feeling real well, does anyone ever say to you, “Sounds like someone has a case of the Mondays?”
Lawrence: No. No, man. Shit, no, man. I believe you’d get your ass kicked sayin’ something like that, man.

Office Space (1999)

Working in a school, I hear this phrase at least once a Monday, Ok, I’ll admit, sometimes I say it to people who look like they had too much fun on Sunday

What a rough two Mondays I’ve had. Breaking Bad ended, the Patriots played late and lost a game and I ate nachos with a mixture of two different salsas after eating an entire serving of four-star Pad Thai noodles with fried tofu. Cross-continental ethnic cuisine seems like a great idea, but in this case, things did not settle well and my morning kicked off with some serious gastrointestinal issues. Although I was happy I hadn’t washed it down with a gallon of beer as I would have in my younger and irresponsible years, it still was a sour way to begin my work week.

After the first weekend in about two months that my band didn’t play a show, I had a relaxing weekend filled with monotonous lawn care that served like a Zen mental retreat following so many busy Friday nights and Saturdays. My harmony was in serious jeopardy of being destroyed.

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Sunday Morning Coming Down

Note: This entry was originally written in October of 2011 but I’d like to share it again. My life has changed considerably since then but I still often feel like this Sunday mornings.


There’s something about Sunday morning. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it’s a certain feeling of the weekend being about over while still having a whole day to get done what you need getting done and/or to do absolutely nothing. And I always feel like I need to get something done before I  waste the rest of the day.

I’m in an odd position as of late because I basically work six days a week so Sunday is truly my only day off most weeks. I often have to do things like go to the bank and mow the lawn, two necessary evils but not the top of my leisure time list. This is life.

Let’s look at this particular Sunday morning in early fall: I worked until one last night and am not impressed with the fact that I am now awake at 9:30. My roommate, who doesn’t do shit, is still in bed while her dog pesters me for love and attention, which I of course give because I cannot refuse needy animals or women. I am thinking of multiple reasons to procrastinate on going grocery shopping and to the bank.

So, what am I listening to?

1.“Sunday Morning Coming Down”- written by Kris Kristofferson, performed by Johnny Cash:

This is kind of a no brainer really and the first song I thought of for two reasons. The first the very obvious reference to the day in question and how I feel this particular morning after working a nine hour shift last night.

The song depicts a junkie waking up “without a way to hold his head that doesn’t hurt”. My fucking feet hurt after bartending at a wedding where the attendees drank literally over a thousand Bud Lights and a solid dozen bottles of Captain Morgan’s, among many other things like Jack and Malibu mixed with Diet Coke. They were country people, my people, and, generally, I had zero issues except for the massive clean-up because they were all so shit faced. Hence the hurt feet and aching back.

The second reason is I took a trip up the coast last Sunday and got to spend some time with an authentic Maine country legend by the name of Everard. He played in Nashville and toured for much of his adult life so when I got the chance to sit down in his living room while telling stories and picking tunes, I was pretty stoked. It being Sunday and he being on the wagon for at least two decades, he very naturally played this song while quizzing me on my old country knowledge. I guess I passed and I cherish the experience. I also saw Sheryl Crow walking around that night, but barely noticed as I was still singing those old country songs in my head. “Everyday is a winding road” doesn’t have shit on “Sunday Morning Coming down”.

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Call and Response: Religious Songs

In a recent, honest, and soul-baring post, my brother daringly ventured into one of the two subjects verboten at dinner tables and water-coolers throughout the country—religion (we crossed the politics line a few times in the past few months, so why not get this one over with?). I responded with an ambling, sometimes senseless, and mostly unclear comment.

My brother’s moment of clarity and its relation to music, however, deserves more thought. It deserves more time. It deserves a weighted and patient consideration. Yet, I fear, I may not be the right person to do this. As I said in response to my brother, music is the one thing that has made me feel a sense of something greater (unlike writing, music can be powerfully communal). Despite these feelings, I remain skeptical and unsure whether feeling something beyond yourself has anything to do with the divine.

“Down to the River to Pray”, Alison Krause

This beautiful song has been in my head off and on since I first heard it on the soundtrack to O, Brother Where art Thou. The fact that the “Sirens” sing this song in the movie points to an uncomfortable connection between Homer’s seductive and dangerous creatures and religious music…

Continue reading

The Best Defense is a Good Offense? To Emo or Not-Emo

This is a post of uncertainty. It is about a genre I think I know nothing about. Ignore it, if it seems senseless; set me right, if you know more.

Earlier I mentioned suffering reproach at the hands of a man with tattoos in his mouth for liking Wilco; during the same party I was also accused of liking Emo, as if this accusation alone could strip someone of any pretensions and aspirations of ‘coolness’. Years later, I still occasionally hear students mocking others for being ‘Emo’. At times I mock the Younger J for excoriating a girl for liking, nay, for being, Emo. Here’s the problem with these experiences: I have no clue what Emo is.

Aside 1: To the Younger J, your post is a fine illustration of why your success with the fairer sex has been rocky—your irascibility! One must sublimate the baser aspects of oneself for romantic accomplishment. Yes, I know you’ll claim that such an act is disingenuous, but I have a further claim: affiliations with social constructs like Emo, or in your case, not-Emo, are only skin-deep. Maybe the Emo girl was something more than her musical tastes; her avoidance of you certainly speaks of some integrity.

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Wilco

I don’t really know new Wilco. I don’t really know old Wilco actually as I only listened to their first album with any regularity. I know they’re kind of a hip band for collegians and slightly older folks as well as for alt-rock afficiandos of all ages. I like the alternative country stuff from their earlier albums, reminiscent of the earlier band Uncle Tupleo.

I guess I get ahead of myself as I haven’t really explained that I have been a devout honky-tonk fan from the very first time I heard Hank Sr. in the seventh grade.This has to do with Wilco only because of the fact that I really only like their country sounding stuff. Two songs seem to stick out and they were both on my iTunes. (Oddly enough, I have itunes but have never owned an iPod…..but that’s a story for another day.) I like Wilco mostly because of the song “Passenger Side”: and this is due to my memory of hearing it for the first time and what it’s about.

To illustrate my ignorance about the band, I will give a short recitation of what I do know. I know they came from the break-up of Uncle Tupleo, allegedly due to Tweedy’s growing role as singer and songwriter and his possible proposition of Jay Farrar’s girlfriend. (I saw Jay last year at Mountain Jam, accompanied by himself on a guitar and a pedal-steel player. He was really good, a perfect Sunday afternoon gig.)

Anyway, whatever the reason for the break-up, Jay went on his own and formed Son Volt and the rest of them became Wilco with added members along the way. I know Tweedy is supposed to be kind of an arrogant prick, although I can’t say since I’ve never met him.

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Song Studies: “Passenger Side” A. M. (1995)

Hey, wake up, your eyes weren’t open wide
For the last couple of miles you’ve been swerving from side to side
You’re gonna make me spill my beer,
If you don’t learn how to steer
Passenger side, passenger side,
I don’t like riding on the passenger side

Years back at a party in my apartment I received several compliments on a playlist I had put together (called the Phoenix List in honor of the burned out apartment whose rebirth was being celebrated). This was not too surprising—if a list has significant variety and some rare tracks over four hours of drinking it is bound to seem good to someone.

There were, however, some exceptions taken to certain choices. After Wilco’s “Heavy Metal Drummer” came on, one of my guests (who, incidentally, had tattoos on the inside of his mouth and made a point of mentioning that he didn’t drink but would do cocaine) began to interrogate and mock. Of course, I would like Wilco, he said. I probably like Death Cab for Cutie too. (The answer to that question in a later post.)

Now, as then, I wouldn’t describe myself as a Wilco Fan. Some of their music is good, but I prefer Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt. (Jeff Tweedy is, also, a little more than annoying.) The early Wilco albums are pretty good; the recent stuff is fairly mediocre.
But, I guess the question I pose to myself, is: why do I buy Wilco records when I don’t really listen to them all that much? The answer: one song. What draws me to that song, I think, tells me more about me (as usual) and about what makes pop songs work (if not art in general).

The first time I heard “Passenger Side” I was hooked. The song is pretty simple: one vocalist, a basic rhythm guitar with some countrified electric licks, backed by an organ in the background, some strings peppered in effectively and a simple but clear drum line. Tweedy’s voice is raw and breaks at just the right moments. The verses transition well into the chorus; a bridge appears ¾ of the way through the song before the final verse.

This musical description can’t possibly explain the attraction of the song—too many rock and country songs fit the same description. What makes this song effective is its narrative. The singer asks for a ride from a friend (someone who could have been a lover) because his license has been revoked.

The story is simple, but its details strike up just enough verisimilitude to evoke memories from my world growing up—the friend offering a “few dollars to put in the tank” to go on mundane errands because he or she is somehow barred from driving; someone worrying about spilling a beer in a car; “rolling another number” for the road; court dates to get driver’s licenses back.

The story is also a simple one. This is not an overtly political song. This is not obviously engaged in broad universal themes, but there is something in its simplicity that is deceptive. Regret suffuses the lyrics and nearly drips from the chords and guitar licks. When Tweedy’s voice breaks it seems worn by both the weight of nostalgia and the knowing self-deprecation of remorse. The narrator seems to know that he is, like most of us, a self-saboteur.

The chorus, the complaint of being relegated to the passenger side, helps to expand the focus of the song from the specific to the general. The ‘passenger side’ becomes a metaphor for being sidelined, for being compromised, for being, in some way or another, disabled. By engaging with the mundane, by evoking a simple believable life where the narrator is incapable of running simple errands but still drinking and smoking and making grand deals over minor gestures, the song achieves a sublime effect. It makes the able bodied listener feel disabled. It puts drivers in the passenger seat.

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