Literary Excerpt
Across the zinc water the tall walls, the birchlike cluster of downtown buildings shimmered up the rosy morning like a sound of horns through a chocolatebrown haze. As the boat drew near the buildings densened to a granite mountain split with knifecut canyons. The ferry passed close to a tubby steamer that rode at anchor listing towards Stan so that he could see all the decks. An Ellis Island tug was alongside. A stale smell came from the decks packed with upturned faces like a load of melons. Three gulls wheeled complaining. A gull soared in a spiral, white wings caught the sun, the gull skimmed motionless in whitegold light. The rim of the sun had risen above the plumcolored band of clouds behind East New York. A million windows flashed with light. A rasp and humming came from the city.

-- John Dos Passos, Manhattan Transfer

Sebadoh: Bubble and Scrape
(Buy it at Insound)
Bakesale may be more start-to-finish solid and Harmacy more polished, but the indie rock greats Sebadoh were never more thoroughly interesting than on this 1993 album. This was due in large part to the stylistic tuggings of three distinct songwriters: Lou Barlow's midtempo laments, Eric Gaffney's borderline-mad bluesy romps, and Jason Loewenstein's noisy tunes which draw evenly from his bandmates' influences.

Barlow gets most of the attention in Sebadoh, and deservedly so. He's both one of rock's great songwriters of the 1990's and a pioneer of the lo-fi, bedroom-recorded-confessional movement. Most of his songs here simply ooze sadness, casting him as a lovelorn loser who sees his relationships crashing to a halt but stoically accepts the inevitability of it all. Fortunately, his slower songs are amped up just enough with distorted guitar backing to keep the lyrical sentiments from becoming too precious. And when he rocks out, on "Sacred Attention" (mesmerizing dual vocals) or "Homemade" (as epic a song about self-pleasuring you're ever likely to hear), the impact is stunning.

Loewenstein is only slightly less effective on his handful of songs, from the tense acoustic strum of "Happily Divided" to the driving jangle of "Sixteen." And as for Gaffney, let's just say he's an acquired taste. The co-founder of the band (with Barlow) who left shortly after this album, his often-baffling efforts capture Sebadoh's try-anything, damn-the-torpedoes spirit. All of Sebadoh's post-Gaffney albums were considerably more mannered with his absence, and sadly so. After Bubble and Scrape, the band lost just enough spark to keep them from attaining pure greatness.

This is almost the prototype indie rock album, with a nearly perfect combination of under-production, distorted guitars, general weirdness (thank you, Eric), lyrics which veer from poignancy to inscrutability, and the requisite cut-and-paste cover art. An underappreciated gem.


Literary Excerpt
Who was he and where did he come from? The family trees of the poor don't grow to any height. I know nothing real about my father; I don't even know if his name was real. There was never a Granda Smart, or a Grandma, no brothers or cousins. He made his life up as he went along. Where was his leg? South Africa, Glasnevin, under the sea. She heard enough stories to bury ten legs. War, an infection, the fairies, a train. He invented himself, and reinvented. He left a trail of Henry Smarts before he finally disappeared. A soldier, a sailor, a butler - the first one-legged butler to serve the Queen. He'd killed sixteen Zulus with the freshly severed limb.

Was he just a liar? No, I don't think so. He was a survivor; his stories kept him going. Stories were the only things the poor owned. A poor man, he gave himself a life. He filled the hole with many lives. He was the son of a Sligo peasant who'd been eaten by his neighbours; they'd started on my father before he got away. He hopped down the boreen, the life gushing out of his stump, hurling rocks back at the hungry neighbours, and kept hopping till he reached Dublin. He was a pedlar, a gambler, a hoor's bully. He sat on the ditch beside my mother and invented himself.

-- Roddy Doyle, A Star Called Henry

Morphine: The Night
(Buy it at Insound)
It's very difficult for me to think objectively about this record. "Bittersweet" is probably the most accurate description of my feelings on the subject. Morphine's second record, Cure For Pain, hit me like a ton of bricks back in 1993, with its noir-ish minimalism and understatement being such an enormous departure from the heavy-handed grunge of that era. But the next two albums were disappointing, despite a few great moments, and the death of mastermind Mark Sandman to a heart attack onstage in Italy in 1999 was shocking in its dramatic suddenness.

After the creative ruts implied by both Good and Like Swimming, Sandman's death could easily have just been another sad footnote in musical history, the departure of a once-promising talent from the scene. Which is why this record is so transcendently revelatory, and ultimately bittersweet. The Night is Sandman branching out in new directions, creating music that is undeniably Morphine in flavor but which breaks away from formula.

The leadoff title track is a prime example. Sandman's trademark slide bass is barely heard, with its chords being provided more prominently by a simple piano figure. Dana Colley's sax part is full-bodied and smoky, as always, and the lyrics are particularly somber ("You're a folk tale, the unexplainable" is about as good a summation as could be written about the band) and seem to foreshadow Sandman's death.

"The Way We Met" forsakes the bass entirely, and consists only of Billy Conway and Jerome Deupree's intertwined drums and Sandman's bleary, woozy voice. "Rope on Fire" also minimizes the bass, featuring cello, viola and oud from guest players and an unmistakeable exotic Moroccan vibe. The list of departures goes on and on. Only one or two songs even begin to hint at the previous Morphine formula.

Bringing back Deupree, the band's original drummer, to play alongside his replacement, Conway, was a particularly nice touch. It was almost as if Sandman knew this would be his last chance to play with Deupree, a noted avant-jazz Boston artist, while not snubbing his longtime friend Conway. This gesture and the eerie lyrical content on several of the songs seem to hint that Sandman knew what awaited him on that Italian stage in July 1999. This album sometimes hurts in that it offers fascinating glimpses of what Morphine might have gone on to become, but all in all it's a powerful and uplifting celebration of life. This is Morphine's final and finest hour.



Ten Best Books Personally Read In 2002

1) John Steinbeck: The Grapes of Wrath
2) Richard Rayner: Drake's Fortune
3) Calvin Trillin: Tepper Isn't Going Out
4) Kate Jennings: Moral Hazard
5) Aleksandar Hemon: Nowhere Man
6) Studs Terkel: Will the Circle Be Unbroken? Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith
7) Ben Katchor: Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer
8) Ian Frazier: The Fish's Eye: Essays About Angling and the Outdoors
9) Kenn Harper: Give Me My Father's Body: The Life of Minik, the New York Eskimo
10) Simon Winchester: The Map That Changed the World


Literary Excerpt
Dr. John Barrett, surgeon:
You do things that live on after you...You leave behind you a legacy of things you did and the people you influenced...I've taught lots of people, hundreds, perhaps even a thousand people that I have influenced in a very fundamental way. Many of them are now surgeons themselves. There's little pieces of me that exist in all of that. So even though you're dead, you're not gone.

Tammy Snider, Hiroshima atomic bombing survivor:
Know that death and life are so tied together and so precious. And with life you can love, you can be loved; you can respect, you can honor; you can speak, you can sing, and you can celebrate until your last breath. Not the hideous life and the hideous death that the hibakusha (survivors) had to bear.

Haskell Wexler, cinematographer:
I had been at Irish wakes where the stiff is lying there and people are walking around eating hors d'ouevres and drinking whiskey. That whole attitude toward death that I've seen in the old Irish way, I like that. I would like people to say at my wake: "He lived a hell of a life and he's not here anymore--let's get drunk and eat and appreciate each other."

-- quoted from Will the Circle Be Unbroken? by Studs Terkel

Literary Excerpt
The light was sifting rapidly over the land. And the movement of the family stopped. They stood about, reluctant to make the first active move to go. They were afraid, now that the time had come--afraid in the same way Grampa was afraid. They saw the shed take shape against the light, and they saw the lanterns pale until they no longer cast their circles of yellow light. The stars went out, few by few, toward the west. And still the family stood about like dream walkers, their eyes focused panoramically, seeing no detail, but the whole dawn, the whole land, the whole texture of the country at once.

-- John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

Joel R.L. Phelps: Warm Springs Night
This is Phelps' first solo record upon his departure from indie rock mainstays Silkworm, a band he co-founded in Missoula, Montana in 1987. Warm Springs Night, released in 1995, is a slow-paced, deeply emotional record that requires patience and repeated listenings before its beauty and power can fully take effect.

Most of the required patience involves Phelps' uncoventional voice, which can veer quickly from a nearly inaudible whisper to a caterwauling yowl. His focus is entirely on pouring out his feelings, rather than technical proficiency. He occasionally hits a "wrong" note, or draws out phrases beyond advisable lengths, or tries singing beyond his range, all of which make his singing seem much more immediate and real than more polished, studied singers. There's not an ounce of pretension in his vocals.

The instrumentation on Warm Springs Night is sparse yet full-sounding, and absolutely first-rate. Phelps' guitar strums buoyantly at times, and at other times drips rich chords, particularly on the title track, in which at one point all the other instrumentation falls away and it's just Phelps patiently massaging gorgeous tones from his Fender. One can picture a darkened studio, with just a bit of ambient light reflected in Phelps' horn-rimmed glasses as he hunches over his guitar, feeling the notes flowing through him.

The rest of the band (referred to as The Downer Trio on later records), primarily guitarist Rob Mercer and drummer Bill Herzog, provides restrained and sympathetic backing. Herzog, who is actually a bass player by trade, clearly realizes that a drummer can be expressive without hammering away and drawing attention to one's self, a lesson unlearned by most rock drummers. Keyboards and saxophone provide additional nuances.

Warm Springs Night has such limited availability, being even more obscure than Phelps himself, that sometimes I feel that I have the album all to myself. Phelps's singing, in all its unpolished glory, cuts straight to my heart, while the beautiful, languid notes of his guitar immerse me. I never cease to be amazed by the beauty of this record.


Observation
I think I finally must be the same age as TV's hip producers. On last season's episodes of "Scrubs" and "Ed" I've heard Sebadoh's "On Fire", the Buzzcocks "Have You Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn't Have)?", Rockpile's "Teacher Teacher" and the Feelies' "Waiting." Only one of these songs postdates 1990, so maybe TV's hip producers are as bewildered by the new music scene as I am.
 

 

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