High Water Everywhere

Charley Patton, father of the delta blues, was born in Mississippi in 1891. He only lived until 1934, when he died of heart failure, but in that short 40-odd years, he transformed American music. According to this site, he recorded 57 tracks between 1929 and 1934, including the great “High Water Everywhere.”

Charley’s influence spread far beyond the Mississippi delta, reaching up into Minnesota and grabbing hold of a young Robert Zimmerman. Many, many years later, an older, more grizzled Bob Dylan would record a song that’s a bit of an ode to Charley Patton, “High Water (for Charley Patton)” off his album Love and Theft. The name and basic conceit came from “High Water Everywhere,” written about the great Mississippi River flood of 1927.

So high the water was risin’ our men sinkin’ down
Man, the water was risin’ at places all around
Boy, they’s all around
It was fifty men and children come to sink and drown

Oh, Lordy, women and grown men drown
Oh, women and children sinkin’ down
Lord, have mercy
I couldn’t see nobody’s home and wasn’t no one to be found

Charley Patton experienced the flood firsthand, and his original song is a harrowing exploration of that experience. Dylan’s own lyrical re-imagining takes that experience and renders it in a more expressionist way.

High water risin’, the shacks are slidin’ down
Folks lose their possessions and folks are leaving town
Bertha Mason shook, it broke it
Then she hung it on a wall
Says, “You’re dancin’ with whom they tell you to
Or you don’t dance at all”
It’s tough out there
High water everywhere

Dylan’s words are no less impactful for their more esoteric tone. He cracks a few jokes, throws in a few asides to the audience, and generally keeps things humming along. But there’s one particular pair of lines in the song, a moment that sticks out in my mind or maybe stabs into it like an ice pick of thought. I can’t shake it. It’s:

“Don’t reach out for me, ” she said
“Can’t you see I’m drownin’ too?”

It gives me chills, that couplet. It feels like such a universal sentiment. With my anxiety and depression, it sometimes feels difficult to keep my own head above water, let alone help those around me. “Don’t reach out for me, can’t you see I’m drownin’ too?” It’s overwhelming sometimes. Does that stop me from reaching to help others, or reaching out for help myself? No. We’re all drowning. If I happen to drown but help you survive, isn’t that a worthy sacrifice?

2019 (Music) In Review

Hey, I’m only a couple of weeks into 2020, so this isn’t too late, right? Right.

Anyway, here’s my favorite ten albums from 2019, in no particular order…

Gary Clark, Jr. – This Land

This guy just shreds, man. Plenty of chunky distortion and great guitar riffs, and his lyrics are pretty great, too.

The Mountain Goats – In League with Dragons

A concept album built loosely around Dungeons and Dragons? By the Mountain Goats? Sign me up for that gaming session!

The National – I Am Easy to Find

If this album only gave us “Rylan,” it would still be one of the best albums of the year. That the whole album is fantastic, start to finish, is just gravy.

The Highwomen – The Highwomen

My god, these harmonies! An update on the Highwaymen concept from back in the ’80s (that of Johnny Cash, Kris Kristopherson, Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings fame) with a scad of kickass women grabbing music by the horns and it like it. I want more of this.

The New Pornographers – In the Morse Code of Break Lights

Is there such a thing as a bad New Pornographers album? I’ve yet to hear one. Weird that it didn’t have a Dan Bejar-led song on it, though.

Andrew Bird – My Finest Work Yet

Bird continues to put out challenging, engaging music consistently with each release, and this one is no exception to that. “Bloodless” was one of my favorite songs of the year.

Wilco – Ode to Joy

A mostly-acoustic affair, but it finds the Chicago band writing some of their best songs in years. It’s cozy, comfy, rainy Sunday afternoon music. And Jeff Tweedy still keeps my dream of chunky guitar hero alive.

Lizzo – Cuz I Love You

Didn’t expect this one, did you? Well, I just took a DNA test, turns out I’m 100% that guy who really likes to listen to Lizzo play the flute like a badass.

J.S. Ondara – Tales of America

Sometimes, you say it best with just an acoustic guitar and minimal backing. That’s Ondara’s debut, Tales of America, which I found through NPR. The previous sentence is the whitest sentence I have ever written, and I used to write term papers about English religion and society during the theatrical reformation period.

The Black Keys – Let’s Rock

What? Sometimes, I just like straight-ahead bluesy rock. This is not an interrogation. Go away.

Favorites: The Wallflowers’ Breach

On a whim over the weekend, I decided to listen to the Wallflowers’ Breach. In the process, I rediscovered something that I already knew: it’s a damn fine album; probably their best. Sure, there are folks who prefer Bringing Down the Horse, what with “One Headlight” and “6th Avenue Heartache,” but song for song, nothing beats Breach.

Let’s get this out of the way first: “Sleepwalker” is probably their best song. Like, in their entire catalog. Yeah, they’ve got plenty of other great songs (the aforementioned “One Headlight” and “6th Avenue Heartache,” for instance), but nothing that really reaches the level of “Sleepwalker.” If we look at the continuum of Wallflowers albums — from their trying too hard to sound like Bob Dylan debut to their trying too hard to sound like the Clash Glad All OverBreach is the album where Jakob Dylan finally becomes comfortable in his own skin and with his status as the son of one of the most famous singer/songwriters in music history. Everything about the album just clicks in a way they hadn’t before (and really haven’t since). Rami Jaffee’s keyboards are perfect, guitarist Michael Ward plays some of the best work of his career, and Dylan’s lyrics are both reminiscent of his father’s work and wholly his own.

Song by song, this is the strongest writing in the band’s catalog. Opener “Letters from the Wasteland” sets the tone: the keyboards are foreboding, as are Dylan’s lyrics. He sings of abandonment and isolation, of “Slow danc[ing] to this romance on [his] own.” From there, the band transitions into “Hand Me Down,” which could’ve been vintage Bob Dylan.

Then comes “Sleepwalker.” The minor-key, up-tempo number feels foreboding, right up until the song enters the chorus and Dylan’s vocals are accentuated with poppy hand claps. Then everything takes a turn for the worst in the bridge: “I’m in your movie and everyone looks sad/But I can hear you, your voice, the laughtrack/But you never saw my best scene/The one where I sleep/Sleepwalk into your dreams.” It’s a killer bit of lyrical genius, the sort of thing most musicians would kill to have written. And it’s not even the best bit of that particular song. Dylan is firing on all cylinders here, and the band rises to meet him.

From there, the album tracks are just as solid. “I’ve Been Delivered” is full of clever wordplay and jaunty, keyboard-driven instrumentation. “Witness” is a slow, dirge-like song that sounds — again — like vintage Bob Dylan, with the addition of excellent horns. “Some Flowers Bloom Dead” is probably the best album track the Wallflowers have ever released, with pitch-perfect guitar, keyboards, and rhythm section combining with Dylan’s vocals to carry the song forward and make you want to immediately restart the song and hear it again.

Following “Some Flowers Bloom Dead” are a pair of slower, more stripped down songs: “Mourning Train” and “Up From Under.” Both are atypical of the album, featuring pared down instrumentation (especially “Up From Under,” which is almost entirely acoustic guitar and strings) and thoughtful, introspective lyrics. From there, things pick up a bit once more for “Murder 101,” a bouncy tune about learning how to kill people.

The final two songs share some thematic elements. “Birdcage” features some of the best guitar work of the album, and it’s a damn shame the song fades out just as Michael Ward really gets going. It’s a slow, thoughtful song, meditative and deliberate. And it’s followed by “Baby Bird,” a hidden track that features plinky toy piano and a plea for the baby bird to “come back home.” It’s a beautiful, poignant way to end the album, and a perfect final track.

The Wallflowers are one of my favorite bands. I wish they’d put out music more often (their last album came out in 2012. Two thousand twelve! That’s too damn long for more music from these guys). They’re put out decent albums since then (aside from the clunker that was Red Letter Days), but nothing has come close to reaching the heights of Breach.

Favorites: Wilco’s Summerteeth

Wilco has become, over the past twenty or so years, one of my absolute favorite bands. I first heard about them in a weird way: Glen Phillips (of Toad the Wet Sprocket fame) name dropped them in a song, which got me wondering about them. Long story short, I started with Summerteeth and never looked back.

Summerteeth was the third Wilco album. It came out originally in 1999, following the double album Being There. It’s a more refined album than Being There or their debut, A.M., with more organs, pianos, and odd little blips and quirks that presaged what was to come on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost is Born.

The album kicks off with “Can’t Stand It,” which features keyboards, bells, and chugging guitars. “It’s all beginning/To feel like it’s ending,” Jeff Tweedy sings. At one point, he essentially howls, leading into a great instrumental break. From there, things slow down with “She’s a Jar,” a meditative, melodic tune which features a beautiful harmonica solo. “A Shot in the Arm” picks up the pace, starting off with a squall of static and noise and featuring heavily-strummed acoustic guitar.

Other standout tracks include “How to Fight Loneliness,” a song that encourages the listener to “Just smile all the time,” but the admonition feels rather hollow, as if the singer doesn’t quite believe that’s really the best way to fight loneliness. “When You Wake Up Feeling Old” is a lovely tune reminiscent of the Beatles’ “When I’m 64” in theme and general tone.

The title track is one of the best songs on the album. “It’s just a dream he keeps having/And it doesn’t seem to mean anything,” Tweedy sings over an upbeat tune, and the bird chirping and chorused “Oohs” and “Aahs” really make the song for me, as does the jangly, Byrdsy guitar figure played throughout.

The album closes with “In a Future Age,” a song that meditates on things ending and all falling to entropy. “Some trees with bend/And some will fall/But then again/So will us all.” The lyrics are simple, but very evocative and moving. Tweedy’s vocals are pitch-perfect for the song, and it rounds out the album in the best way possible.

Following “In a Future Age,” there are two songs that act as something of a coda: “Candyfloss,” a sugary ditty that features keyboards quite heavily, and an alternate version of “A Shot in the Arm.” Both are excellent and a wonderful way to actually finish out the album.

Ultimately, Summerteeth reflects Wilco growing in confidence and trying new things. The band shows growth and the album predicts the strange left turn their next couple of albums would take. I highly recommend it as a starting point for exploring Wilco’s discography. You could do far worse than this particular album.

The band has actually posted the entire album on Youtube. You can find it here.

Reconsidering the Strokes

Back in the day (2003), I purchased the Strokes’ second album, Room on Fire.

And I absolutely hated it. Despised it with every fiber of my being. I ranted and raved about it, ripped it to shreds to anyone who would listen, and refused to listen to their stuff for the next, oh, almost 16 years. The vocals were buried in the mix, the bass was weak, and I thought the lyrics were insipid. If this was the future of guitar rock, I reasoned, it was time for guitar rock to die.

Earlier this month, I downloaded their first album, Is This It?, on a whim. I listened to it a few times, and something has happened to me since those early days of 2003: I kinda liked it.

Don’t get me wrong, I still think the whole “saviors of rock’n’roll” nonsense is just that: nonsense. But maybe an older, wiser me recognizes what they were trying to accomplish now, and can appreciate it for what it is: damn fine garage rock. The guitars are chugging, the vocals (while definitely buried in the mix) are evocative and fitting, and the songs are tight and almost hyperactive (their first two, 11-song albums clock in at around 30 minutes each).

Are these albums going to become my go-to for rock’n’roll? No. But they’re damn fine examples of the early-aughts garage rock revival aesthetic, one that I like more now than I did at the time.

Tom Petty, “Built to Last”

I’ve been on a Tom Petty kick lately. Not that it takes much to start one of those: usually, just thinking about or listening to a single Tom Petty song leads to a reconsideration of his catalog, or at least a couple of favorite albums. This time around, I’ve been listening and relistening to Into the Great Wide Open, his Heartbreaker-backed follow up to Full Moon Fever. If I’m being honest, I think Into the Great Wide Open is the stronger of the two albums, but I’m not here for that debate today (though ask me again tomorrow, I might be up for it then).

No, today I’m here for the album closer, “Built to Last,” which I believe is one of the single greatest songs Petty ever wrote.

On the surface, “Built to Last” is a simple, simple song. It only uses, like, three chords. It’s a straightforward “I will love you forever” song.

Somewhere out my doorway

Somewhere down my block

I can feel her heartbeat

In rhythm with my clock

The song is filled, though, with everything that makes a Tom Petty song great: the soaring vocals in the bridge, the sparkling guitar work from Heartbreaker Mike Campbell (still one of the all-time greatest guitar players ever, by the way), and the heartfelt lyrics delivered so effortlessly by Petty.

We were built to last

On until forever

The world is changing fast

Oh, but our love was built to last

It’s the chorus that always gets me. Those couple of mournful guitar notes after the first line just kills me. “No matter what happens, we will continue to love each other,” Petty says. It’s put forward simply and earnestly, as only Petty can do it, and the song just leaves me a soppy puddle every time I listen to it.

Tom Petty wrote a lot of amazing songs, all with an eye for the working stiff just trying to get by to the weekend and survive. He was never as cynical as Bruce Springsteen or as esoteric as Bob Dylan. He was always just himself, and you could always just about hear his grin when he was playing and singing. “Built to Last,” with its simple rhythm and guileless lyrics, is the epitome of the Petty writing style, and one of my all-time favorite songs.

Open Mike Eagle, Brick Body Kids Still Daydream

For years, I’ve tried to listen to rap. It’s been a challenge, honestly. I want to like it, I want to get into it the way I’m into Dylan or the Beatles, but it’s been impenetrable. It felt like it wasn’t for me.

Then I found Open Mike Eagle, and something clicked.

His most recent album, Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, is filled with clever wordplay, introspective ruminations, and snappy beats. The album deal with the aftermath of the project building where he spent many of his formative years being torn down. In between verses about the building itself and his years growing up there, he slips in mentions to the X-Men, the Infinity Gems, and Clearly Canadian (remember Clearly Canadian? I drank that stuff every day in middle school).

Open Mike Eagle’s rapping is slow but filled with wonderful rhymes. His flow is impeccable; he slides words and syllables right where they need to be in every bar. “My big dumb brain’s an electrical ocean/Started walking, now my legs in perpetual motion,” he raps in “Legendary iron Hood.” Eagle drops couplets like that almost casually, filling the songs with hidden gems it takes repeated listenings to unearth.

Brick Body Kids Still Daydream is a hell of an album from start to finish. It’s all killer, no filler. Open Mike Eagle is by turns clever, introspective, and thoughtful, presenting an entire album that’s perfect from the very first note.

The Worst Christmas Song Ever

It’s popular across the internet to bag on Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” as the worst Christmas song ever. It sounds like it was written in ten minutes on a dare with a Casio keyboard as the only instrument allowed. And it is, objectively, a terrible song. I myself have used it on multiple occasions to torture students.

But there are worse holiday songs out there. Oh, so much worse. I’d personally like to nominate “Little Drummer Boy” as the worst of the worst. It’s got it all: ridiculous repetition of the “pa-rum-pa-pum-pum” nonsense, a kid who thinks a woman who just gave birth needs to listen to a drum solo, and a slow, plodding tempo that leaves me wanting to pa-rum-pa-pum-punt the songwriter right into the Magi.

In fact, there’s only one version of the song I can stand: one done by Jars of Clay, the Contemporary Christian band famous for the song “Flood,” did as a charity single back in 1997.

The band sped things up a bit, turned the drums into a beat loop, and added some lovely folky acoustic instrumentation to the song. It’s still crap, but it’s listenable crap.

The July Project

While I’m entering the home stretch with the rewrite of Book 4, I’ve decided I want to spend the month of July doing something a little different. So, every day for the month of July, I’m going to write a song or a poem. I’ll probably share a few of them here as we go along.

Oh No, I’m Listening To Huey Lewis Again

I’ve spoken before about my unironic, unabashed love of Huey Lewis and the News, haven’t I? Spoiler: yes, I have, at that post from my comic blog I just linked.

As I said there, Huey Lewis and the News are the epitome of dad rock. As a kid, I had the cassette tapes for Sports, Fore, and Small World. That is at least two more Huey Lewis cassettes that anyone who wasn’t directly related to Huey Lewis (or some other member of the band) owned. But, thanks to the power of Apple Music and the nigh-endless catalog of available albums on iTunes, I’ve gone back and started listening to other Huey Lewis records.

And let me tell you, sticking to Sports and Fore is…maybe not the worst idea.

Huey_Lewis_&_the_News_-_Huey_Lewis_&_the_NewsTheir self-titled debut almost doesn’t sound like the same band. Most of the elements of a Huey Lewis and the News album are already present from the very beginning–Lewis’s voice, spiky guitar, the occasional harmonica solo, and even a bit of that organ sound–but it feels considerably less polished than later albums. That’s no surprise, really, as debut albums often still find the band searching for its footing. None of the songs are particularly memorable, none of the hooks are as catchy or insistent as what you’d find on their later albums.

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Their second album, 1982’s Picture This, feels more like Huey Lewis and the News. There are a couple of songs–especially “Workin’ for a Livin'” and “Do You Believe in Love” that sound more like them. The organ’s become more prominent, the harmonies are stronger, and they don’t just sound like a competent bar band anymore. Lewis has constructed the rough scaffold for his Everyman lyrical character. His insights are sharper, his vocals more assured, than anything on the self-titled.

Of course, from there it goes on to Sports, and we all know about that one.

Fore.jpgFore is stronger than I remember. I like a lot of the songs on this one, and remembered them from my childhood as I listened through them. It suffers from a weak second half like Sports does, but the songs aren’t bad so much as just a bit forgettable.

I haven’t moved past Fore yet. Small World is up next, and I’ll admit I’m kind of afraid. I remember liking the album when I was a kid, but I also liked New Kids on the Block when I was a kid. The point is that Childhood Charlie was kinda dumb sometimes and liked bad things. I haven’t ever heard anything past Small World, ’cause I kinda lost interest in the band by the ’90s, so I guess I’ll probably have to give those a try as well.