I Like America

Maybe you’d better shake free of America.

Sometimes Steven captures audio of random bands he’s booked at the club and sends it to us at home. We’ll be playing a boardgame or skidding around on the floor in our socks, and there in our mail will be a clip from Pianos. I think it’s just meant to be a representational sampling — dropping the needle on Steven’s life for a moment or two. Usually it’s presented without context and it doesn’t move me one way or another. But a few months ago, Hilary pressed play on a message from Steven, and I heard it from across the room and thought, hmm, this particular group of randos is really intriguing. I like what they’re doing: there’s a Belle & Sebastian-like feel to the rhythm section, a certain hop to it that felt uncommon in New York City pop-rock. I wanted to know more about this fabulous group; maybe they were something I could really get into. There aren’t a lot of bands like this anymore, I thought to myself, especially with Cake Shop gone, and I was happy that somebody was keeping the flame. Imagine my embarrassment when the instrumental break finished and George The Monkey started singing.

Yeah, it was Overlord; some Overlord audio Steve had lifted off the board. Talk about self-absorption: I’d been impressed by a group that I’m in. In fairness to me, I wasn’t really playing much of anything during the segment. I was responding to the bass and drums, and George’s guitar tone. It was just really swell, if I may say so myself, immediately appealing to me even as it surely sounded anachronistic to folks in the audience. There was a time not so long ago when cupcake pop was the coming style in New York and Philly, or one of the emergent styles anyway, and The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart and Sunny Day In Glasgow and even Vampire Weekend were the commercial faces of a pretty wide movement that was a heck of a lot of fun to be affiliated with. Even then, Overlord was a funny fit, at least partially because of an odd name that wrongfooted the previously uncommitted. But we were definitely part of that, along with My Teenage Stride and the Consultants and Palomar and a bunch of other groups I’m proud that I contributed to. I hope it all comes around again.

But let’s be honest: it’s not going to happen in 2017. Nothing about this year augurs a tweepop revival. The Overlord thing — very dark, wrist-slitting lyrics set to bouncy-ass music inspired by Sixties bubblegum pop and early Giorgio Moroder — is too nuanced for a thoroughly unsubtle moment. Most of the albums put out this year by mid-level indiepop bands we all loved in the ’00s are suffering from this same problem, which is part of the reason that it’s been so refreshing to hear blunt talk from Roger Waters and Ray Davies. George isn’t going to change his approach the way some weathervane-y writers do, so I suppose we’ll just have to be out of step for awhile. There are worse fates. I’ve always felt that if you stick to your guns, eventually the world catches up to what you’re doing, and in the meantime, other musicians respect your integrity. We’re probably incapable of pandering, anyway — we’re all too obstinate. Consider: after all of these years, the name of the band is still Overlord.

I admit that I haven’t thought about Overlord very much in 2017. I’ve been preoccupied with the Almanac and absorbed in my weekly short stories, and hey, the Mr. Flannery & His Feelings album is coming out in a few weeks. But The Well-Tempered Overlord is no less excellent now than it was when it was released last year (I can say this because I’m barely responsible for what makes it good), and I kinda wish we’d found the time and the method to promote it properly. Overlord has been a fairly reliable proposition in concert for the past couple of years — we still have our dodgy shows like everybody does, but most of the time the audience is going to appreciate what it gets. There’s still only one way for a band like Overlord to bring its message to the people, or just that small segment of the population that appreciates indiepop more than, say, Comedy Central or political Twitter, and that’s to go out and shake hands and schmooze and rock America in person. Which we didn’t do. But I think we could have, if the stars — and everybody’s schedules — had aligned.

It helps that I really do love making music with those three people. Matt played drums on the very best songs on Let The Night Fall, and he’s done many shows with me, so he’s no stranger to the Tris McCall game. One of my biggest regrets about LTNF is that I never managed to get Sarah’s bass on any of the tracks. Mike Flannery and I handled the bottom end on most of the Almanac songs done at Bass Hit in Manhattan, but neither one of us can make the four strings growl like she can. George’s voice is there in some of the mixes you might have already heard, but I hadn’t yet harnessed the chorused-out power of his electric guitar. So we brought Overlord into the studio on 26th Street and cut a couple of songs — “I Like America,” which hits the site today, and “King Of Pops,” which is scheduled to go live in a couple of weeks. Matt also gave me a couple of hi-hat parts for a song called “O Columbus” that’s taking awhile to get together. But we’ll get it together.

So yes: this is Tris McCall plus Overlord. I like to think it’s akin to those times when Glenn Mercer stepped to the side and let Dave Weckerman pilot the ship; same Feelies sound, but they called it Yung Wu. (Also, in this scenario, I get to be Dave Weckerman, which sure pleases me.)  No doubt you will notice that on this song I sing “eschatological”. I’m not sure that’s even a word, but whatever. I do feel a little bad dragging my pals in Overlord into my ongoing battles with the English lexicon, but hey, after ten years+ of my act, they knew the risks.

Nowhere To Go But Down

The water table rises.

You said that you were born here/but you haven’t found it yet: Graham Parker sang it in 2007 on a song called “I Discovered America.” He was describing the confusion of millions of people whose encounters with national identity have always been vexed and incomplete. Everybody must discover America, Parker (an Englishman who now lives in Upstate New York) told us; it’s a great big powerful thing, and you’re going to run into it one way or another, so you’d better keep your eyes open and take notes. Ray Davies is up to something similar on “Americana”, his new participant-observer album: his narrators wander around the States and look for poetry in the convenience stores and fast-food restaurants. It’s got to be there somewhere, right? We wouldn’t have designed an apparatus this big and left it without a soul, would we?

Today’s song is set in Orlando, but I was on the National Mall when I came up with the line “got to discover America/before America discovers me” and decided I ought to build a song around it. There was a protest outside the Capitol and a modern art show in the Hirshhorn and a little kid crying on the merry-go-round. I recall I thought I’d hit on something concise and epigrammatic, maybe a neat little signature for the whole Almanac project. I was thinking a bit about artistic discovery, and the stories of so many of the artists I’d seen in the museum exhibit who’d grappled with the nation for years before public perception of their work caused them to become self-conscious about their styles. And that seemed like the ideal way to do it: scour the land incognito, cook something up, and then let the country in on it once you’d figured out a way to present what you’d learned.

But I’m not sure that happens anymore, if it ever did. And since my own preoccupations are anxious ones — if not outright paranoid — I was really thinking about the kind of discovery that occurs when the cops bust in on a hideout. Because there are forces in America that are trying very hard to discover the vast territory that is you: law enforcement, for instance; the government and its partners in the private sector who are drawing up a map of your tastes and proclivities and target marketing their products and services based on what they’ve found.

Which brings us back to the central question that has motivated all the writing in this Almanac: what happens when the mechanisms of surveillance and forecasting get so sophisticated and encompassing that the authorities know you better than you know yourself? What happens when the algorithm leaves you with no place to hide?  Is it even possible to have a country under those conditions? Or is citizenship now simply submission to the wagging finger that tells you not merely what to do and where to be, but who to be as well?

According to the old songs, the search for America was an analogue to the quest to understand the self: hence Paul Simon hitchhiking to Saginaw, etc.  That dream of the 1960s hasn’t survived the encounter with the Internet. Today, wherever you go, America is right there on your heels. Search ye may, but know that you’ve probably already been found (caught). It must have been nice to imagine that America was a vast plain open to exploration by a subject only partially governed by its rules. In 2017 we know better. The tables have turned. You can’t get lost here. You can’t even wander. Turns out you’re the discovery, and nobody’s letting you in on it.

Paul Simon, I Had To Ask

C’mon, talk me through this.

Probably you know I wrote a book called The Trespassers.  I like it a lot, but it’s nobody’s idea of a crowd-pleaser. What you don’t know, though, is that I’ve got another finished novel on this computer, and, alas, it makes The Trespassers seem like Michael Crichton by comparison. It’s pretty brutal. All writers have necessary fictions that help them through the task of writing: mine is that people will enjoy what I’ve written once I’m done with it. In retrospect, it’s pretty crazy that I was ever able to sustain that illusion about Uncle Orry, which is, on the very face of it, about as unpublishable as a book can be in 2017. It’s basically the first-person reflections of a 50 year old ex-political operative on a bus ride. I don’t know what on earth I was thinking.

Well, that’s not true; yes I was. I was, like I always am, caught up in the lives of the characters and burning to share their stories with imaginary readers who might find them simpatico. And apparently I still am, because I returned to Uncle Orry and his family on this week’s Almanac page. Orry himself gets a brief mention, but he’s not the focus. The main character of this story, which is long and involved, and written, like the novel, from a place of pain, is Orry’s nephew Elliott. The year is 1980, it’s April, and the action takes place in… well, if you’ve got some familiarity with New Jersey, you’ll probably recognize the towns and cities.

I’m pairing this, the most personal story on the site, with the only autobiographical song in the Almanac. (We had to visit Jersey sometime, right?) “Paul Simon, I Had To Ask” is a song about a panic attack I had on the night we’d learned from the vet that our good old cat didn’t have long to live. That was 2007, and I didn’t handle it well. I didn’t have any pets growing up, and I had no idea how to care for a physically sick animal, or a human (me) who had gotten psychologically sick because he loved the animal so much and couldn’t bear to say goodbye. I ended up on my back in bed, and then in the shower, convinced I was about to have a massive heart attack. Steven and Brad were over that night, I recall. I think they thought I was just being a prima donna. But it was real: I was actually dizzy, and numb, and having trouble walking from one end of the room to the other.

A person as anxious and frazzled as I am is always going to be prone to panic attacks. Check it out, I’m probably having one right now. But 2007 was the great year for panic for me, the year of head pressure and ringing ears and numb fingers and no sleep, and the more distance I get from it, the clearer it is that the loss of our cat was the main reason for my breakdown. That probably sounds ridiculous to you if you’ve never had a little pet, but if you have, you probably understand what I’m talking about. She was family. She used to sleep on my lap when I was typing. She taught me about animals — a subject about which, as a city kid, I knew practically nothing — and showed my why I ought to treat them with respect and try not to run them over or eat them for dinner and whatnot.  I’m told that there’s a Native American tradition that believes that after death, companion animals wait at the riverside for their people to arrive. I hope they’re right. Wouldn’t want to have an afterlife without her.

Since this page is the most me of any of them, I gave the cartoonist permission to make the picture look a little bit like me if she wanted to. Do you think she did? You tell me.

The Sybarite

 

I’m as guilty as I seem.

Don’t look now, but today is Election Day. Yes it is. I’m assuming you live in New Jersey, now. And if you don’t, why don’t you? You could make your stand in the shifting sands of New York City, giving ground, receding farther out into Long Island as the rest of the city is turned into a black-helicopter-supervised hellscape. You could flee to California and put yourself right in the crosshairs of climate change and a potential megadrought (counterpoint: they may be getting single-payer out there). The correct answer is probably Baltimore, or Richmond, or Providence, Rhode Island. But I’m sticking it out here in the Jerz, as I always do, and that means today I get to do something that most of the rest of the country only dreams of doing. I can go into the ballot box and take electoral action against a regime and an executive I don’t like one bit.

Indirectly, I mean. This is a primary election, which means I’ll be deciding between a guy who has been endorsed by national Democratic Party figures, has a ludicrous amount of money, and who gives me a not-insubstantial case of the heebie-jeebies, or three challengers who position themselves as underdogs but who actually represent various flavors of Jersey institutional politics. Those challengers aren’t going to win, so in a real sense it’s not an election at all. But there’s nothing new about that around here, and a good lever-pulling can cheer up even the most inveterate sourpuss. I’m probably going to vote for Jim Johnson because Amy Jacob from Prosolar Mechanics wants me to, and I like Amy a lot more than I like Raymond Lesniak or the Wiz. No matter who wins, though (ha ha, like  there’s any chance it’s not going to be Phil Murphy), that’ll be my guy in the fall. Yours too, unless you’re completely insane.

See, here in Jersey, there’s no place to go but up. Even if Joe Piscopo had run and won, that still would have been a massive improvement over what we’ve been saddled with here. The Christie Administration was a dry run for what’s been happening on the national level — I mean autocratic governance by the biggest, loudest, most irrationally petty jerkface imaginable — so we’ve gotten a sneak preview of the movie that has transfixed the nation. We know how it ends: in eight nasty years, with government departments broke and public services run into the ground, a huge slime trail of bully-boy corruption, and everybody angry at everybody else. It’s not pretty, America, what you’ve got in store for you. I hope you’re not counting on former chiefs of the FBI, of all people, to get you free from this bind. No, the only way out is to get organized and vote for people who will stand up for our regional autonomy. Which in practice means electing leaders who’ll tell the White House that their absurd policies don’t play here.

Murphy gets a lot of grief because he’s from Goldman Sachs; Wisniewski, in particular, has been laying pretty hard on that buzzer. Honestly, I think he’s been right to. That’s not because I think the banksters, as Springsteen likes to call them in his weaker moments, are any more evil than any other corporate decisionmakers, because they really aren’t. It’s because I believe that as a quintessential Wall Street gazillionare, Murphy is wide open to the same populist line of attack that hobbled Hillary Clinton in the general election. The counterargument is that Hillary Clinton was and is pretty popular in the Garden State: she crushed Bernie in the primary and won the general by something like fifteen percentage points. I don’t think affiliation with the financial services industry is the same kiss of death here that it is in Wisconsin, I guess.

I further believe that Chris Christie has discredited himself so thoroughly that Kim Guadagno, attached to the governor’s slimy self like Kuato in Total Recall as she is, won’t be able to exploit the opening provided by Murphy’s problematic resume. But wait a sec, there’s no guarantee that Guadagno will get the Republican nomination, and again I’ll be frank — the other guy worries me. Ciattarelli has, in case you haven’t noticed, made Hudson County his personal punching bag. It is his position, and I believe it’ll be a popular one out in the sticks, that the Abbott money for our school districts is an unfair allocation of state tax dollars. In other words, now that we’re all wealthy motherfuckers over here and we’ve got our own Barcade, it is, according to Mr. Ciattarelli, time for dad to cut off our allowance.

I’d find his attitude revoltingly condescending even if it wasn’t true that the city belt has been carrying the burbs for at least as long as I’ve been alive, and it’s my humble opinion that they might express a little g-d gratitude for this. But it is true, and even though I really don’t like to bring it up, he started it, so I’m going to finish it. We’re not the ones who chucked so much sprawl at the map that the state is presently choking on it. We’re not the ones sticking strip malls and condo subdivisions atop some of the best farmland in the world. We didn’t design our communities so they fall apart every time there’s a gasoline shortage. We’re not the ones who treat art and culture like a bizarre indulgence, rather than the human necessity that it is, and then wonder why our lives feel empty and directionless. Sure, we’ve come up, and it’s nicer here than it used to be, and some people have more money and opportunity than they used to (there’s also plenty of hardship, and many of our people still need assistance). But every inch we’ve gained has been in the teeth of constant opposition from resentful suburbanites who are leading some of the most irresponsible, unhelpful, unsustainable lives imaginable. It’s been exhausting, and we’re sick of it. We won’t be lectured to by you people. Go on, clean up your own Hillsborough.

Okay, go vote, and then enjoy today’s song. The lyrics are a bit elliptical, but the attached story (Mario) ought to make it clear what’s going on: it’s the daydream of a corrupt politician. You can always count on me to have sympathy for the Devil, as long as the Devil in question is a nice fellow and not, as certain Devils are, a roaring ass.

A Girl With A Bicycle

I speak to be overheard.

A special Memorial Day message from your friends at Tris McCall (namely, Tris McCall).

To our great dismay, we have learned that you have been paying attention to the President. We don’t understand this. The President is a tremendously uninteresting person. His psychology is shallow enough to be fully legible to a fifth grader. The President is deeply unworthy of your attention. Please transfer it elsewhere.

One possible target: me.  I am more interesting than the President.   Admittedly this is a low bar to clear. But I have been preparing songs and stories for you at www.mccallsalmanac.com, and these are designed to reward close engagement.
I will be performing songs from this Almanac tonight at the Sidewalk Cafe (94 Avenue A) at 8 pm.  I’ll be opening the set with an acoustic rendition of the song most recently added to the site: A Girl With A Bicycle. I swear this will be more interesting than the news programs, most of which, I have noticed, proceed as if only thing noteworthy in the entire world is the American President.
Performing right before me at 7: Ben Krieger.  Ben is a complex character with songs and stories of his own.  He is much, much more interesting than the President and the gang of wealthy dullards that surrounds him.  Or the social networks, which are presently suffocated by president-related content.
Or you could do any number of other things. For selfish reasons I’d like you to come out to the Sidewalk.  That’d be great. But as long as what you’re doing has nothing to do with the President, I’m happy.  It was undeserved attention that got him there, and it’ll be undeserved attention that keeps him there if we’re not careful.
Change the channel with me,
Tris

All The Money In The World

Golden nugget in the shaft.

From north to south, sea to measured sea, Bangor to mighty Maine, I really do love all of these American cities. I hope my affection has come through in the stories and songs. As an East Coast loyalist (and a Giants fan) I’m supposed to be suspicious of Southern California, but in my opinion, Los Angeles is very much like Jersey, and therefore lovably dysfunctional. I’m also supposed to cultivate some Yankee disregard for the Deep South, but forget it; I dig it down there. Atlanta, Savannah, Charleston, Wilmington, New Orleans — these are some of my favorite spots to visit, and I might even consider moving there, for a little while at least, if it wasn’t for the stifling heat.

But there’s always an exception, and I fear we’ve arrived at it. I’ll just come out and admit it: I don’t like Las Vegas. I find it to be an ugly, misleading caricature of America — a place where the things about the country that bug me all find their fullest expression. Worship of money and success, casino capitalism, gaudiness, grotesque consumption, rootlessness and ahistoricity, rampant overbuilding in an area that’s not exactly suited for human habitation, let alone widespread development, all of this stuff hits me over the head the minute I land at McCarran. None of this is America as I understand it, but I know it’s the image of the country that haunts the nightmares of anti-Americans abroad. It bothers me that there’s an American city I don’t really care for, because as a dumb patriotic fucker I want to believe that the American project can flourish in all circumstances and ennoble all who fly with the eagle, so I’d love to be proven wrong or just shortsighted about Las Vegas. Because in May 2017, Vegas is in my doghouse. And I’m pretty confident that comes through in the song and the story.

The story is the single most depraved thing I’ve ever written, including the filthy stuff I ad-lib in the shower. (Ask my poor neighbors.) I began with the vile image that closed the story and the pair of newcomers who are in over their heads in Vegas and worked backward from there. Should I ever be indicted, which could happen any day, I fully expect the prosecution to use this piece of writing against me. Goes to character. I’m like 50 Cent on “Heat”; the D.A. can play this motherfucking tape in court. Remember that song? No? It was a good one. Given the grotesque elements of this story and the Miami Beach one, I feel it necessary to reassure readers that I do not have an eating disorder of any kind. Last week I learned that my mommy reads this site. Seriously, mommy, I am fine. Mentally sound and all. Mama I’m so sorry I’m so obnoxious/my only accomplice my conscience/Yecch.

As for the song, it’s possible to hear it as a straightforward narrative about a man who wakes up to find he has all the money in the world in his bank account. To me at least, it’s more complicated than that, but I’ll leave it to you to puzzle out the deeper meaning if you care to. Aw, shucks, I’ll just go ahead and say it: “All The Money In The World” is about the U.S. dollar as the world’s reserve currency. I was attempting to personalize the global predicament and draw a character who is somewhat bewildered by his stroke of good fortune and who is blind to its implications. Sort of a clumsy guy, blundering around, having trouble conceptualizing his relationships to others and growing increasingly paranoid. I don’t know how much of that comes through; probably not a lot. As long as you get the Brandon Belt joke in the last stanza, we can be friends.

I wasn’t present for the mix. That was my own fault. I cut it very close this week. Mike Flannery now lives in Atlantic Highlands in Monmouth County, which is best accessed by ferry: you can pick it up on East 35th Street and motorboat south for an hour, under the Verrazano Bridge and out into New York Bay to Sandy Hook and beyond. But getting from the 33rd St. PATH station to the ferry slip in the rain isn’t a fun thing to do, and even in the best weather I’m scared of sinking. It’s not my hide I’m worried about, it’s this laptop. It’s been such a good pal, and I’d hate to get it waterlogged. Anyway, I chose not to go to Atlantic Highlands today, and Mike was kind enough to do the mix for me anyway. There were practical consequences to my decision — a piano part that I really liked got excised, or maybe just de-emphasized. But Mike’s real care here is evident, and I am pleased to say that he Flannerized the entire track and made it sound as good as the songs on Try Your Hardest, his soon-to-be-released solo album. Without me whispering in his ear and making jokes, he was free to shoot the works. Which he did. If the final product is a little baroque, a little flashy, well, it wouldn’t have been appropriate to represent my Vegas experience in any other manner.

You’re No Good To Anyone

 

Even clocks one day wind down.

Last week I was way too specific. So this week, I’m overcompensating. Not intentionally, though — the calendar just happened to fall that way. “You’re No Good To Anyone” is the most open-ended song in the Almanac, and I hope it will mollify those who’ve said in the past that a listener needs a search engine to appreciate my music. I hope my  performance lends these threadbare lyrics some resonance. The story of my life basically goes like this: I wanted to sing like Bob Seger, but I couldn’t do it, so I tried to sing like Green Gartside instead. The rest is just supplementary detail.

When I wrote this number, I was thinking about Brett Whitmoyer specifically; he’s a U2 fan, and I wanted to give him something that he could rattle and hum with. The original demo featured a drum part that sounded like what Larry Mullen, Jr. might play if he was hopped up on Cap’n Crunch and 24 straight hours of C-SPAN. To his credit, Brett ignored all of that and just played it as if it was a proper rock song. We did it at Pianos last weekend with Ronni Reich on backing vocals, and I don’t think it was half bad.

But what does any of this have to do with Nashville?, I hear you cry. After last week, when I was hitting us over the head with street names and particular places in metro Phoenix, the elliptical quality of “You’re No Good To Anyone” probably does seem un-Tris McCall-ish. I don’t even make up for it in the story, which is about the intersection of politics and prophecy and could really be set anywhere in the South. But Nashville, as Tim McGraw reminded us on the Two Lanes Of Freedom album that you almost certainly didn’t listen to, owes much of its identity to country music, and this is my attempt to reproduce that peculiar shiver I get from country songs. Did I do it? You’ll have to tell me.

It’s been a very good year already for country music — real country music, I mean — though not all of the great stuff has been made widely available. Natalie Hemby, who has collaborated a bunch with Miranda Lambert, put out a nine-song album called Puxico that is impeccably written in an understated manner; maybe not what you’d expect from the co-author of “Brews And Boobs On The Pontoon” or whatever it was called, but these hitmakers sometimes save their most reflective stuff for their own sets. I just wish it would get a proper release. Right now it’s only downloadable, and c’mon, there are no digital cows on the farm (yet.)  Angaleena Presley, who proved to be the nation’s most reliable futurist on American Middle Class, has a new one out, too, and so does John Moreland, who sings like Springsteen circa Nebraska, and Chris Stapleton, who sings like the state of Kentucky on Derby Day. Also, the only protest song I need at the moment is Brad Paisley’s “The Devil Is Alive And Well.” Brad, I got the cleverly encoded message.

And on the subject of people with acoustic guitars and something to say: you make have picked this up from my writing, but I might like Laura Marling a tiny bit. There may be some good music on her latest.  Seriously, when I see something like this Mahogany session, I do wonder why I, or anybody else for that matter, even bothers. Lately I feel like the entire corpus of British folk-rock — from Fairport and the Pentangle and ISB and North Star Grassman through Annie Haslam and Nick Drake to Beth Orton and Kate St. John — was all just there to set up 2:59 through 3:10 of “Nothing, Not Nearly.” Knocks me cold, every time.

On Indian School

Down in the dirt with the snakes and the heat.

I’ve tried my best never to be too too hokey about any of this stuff.  Just as I’d hate to have an out-of-stater come here and write a bunch of junk about the Jersey Devil and Taylor ham, I don’t want anybody to think that the only thing I’ve taken away from the cities I’ve visited is the schticky superficials. These songs and stories are inspired by places I’ve gone and narrated by characters I’ve imagined there.  I don’t think they necessarily have to namecheck specific landmarks.  The exception that demonstrates my scruples (hopefully) is “That’s What I Like About Baltimore”, which is a song about the way in which a fixation on kitsch culture associated with a city can make engagement with that impossible: the actual culture of a place as rich as Baltimore occluded by Berger cookies and pink flamingos.  Which, come to think of it, is the sort of thing that happens in New Jersey a bunch.  Even Jersey people do it.

But I goofed with Phoenix, and I know it — but I don’t want to take it back or scrap the song.  Here’s what happened: I found the names of the East-West streets that run straight through the Valley of the Sun so evocative that I felt the need to build a song around them.  Once I started, I couldn’t stop, and it became a kind of game.  If we crossed a major road, I had to find someplace in the lyric of “On Indian School” (Indian School is an East-West road) to tuck it in. Thunderbird, Baseline, Bethany Home, Greenway, Bell, Camelback; Phoenix knows how to name its streets. 

If that sounds to you like the recipe for an incoherent lyric, one full of annoying wordplay, well, you can decide for yourself. I acknowledge that this one isn’t as tightly written as the last few were. The scenario is too complicated for a three minute indiepop song: there are a couple of different characters in dialogue, although that’s hard to pick out unless you’re listening closely.  The main character might be a recovering junkie, or a justifiably resentful Native American, or a musician without a band.  His interlocutor is definitely a social worker.  Mentioning Kokopelli in a song about Arizona is sort of like putting a reference to orange juice in a South Florida number or wind in a verse about Chicago.  Yet I did find that the cult of Kokopelli in the shops of Phoenix and Scottsdale was so weirdly compelling that the old trickster had to wriggle his way into the song.  We almost bought an insanely expensive seed pot in a store in Scottsdale that was covered with hundreds of marching Kokopelli figures in a spiral.  It was mesmerizing.  I couldn’t stop looking at it.  After that I started noticing Kokopelli everywhere, which in Arizona isn’t exactly like riddling out the locations of the Tristero Post Horn.  There’s a big Kokopelli waiting to greet you on the way to the airport.  They drew him right on the ground.  He’s everywhere.

So yes, in a thirty plus song project, some of the numbers are going to be a little more scrambled than others, and I was resigned to relegating this one to digital b-side status.  Imagine my surprise, then, when “On Indian School” came together like a popcorn caramel ball during the mix.  I now sort of love it, and I have to think that the same listeners who enjoyed “Route 52” will also dig this song, too.  I believe it went from off-putting to magnetically confusing in a single afternoon of hard work by Mike Flannery, and I thank him for that.  It also features the only triangle part I’ve ever put in any of my songs, played here by the mysterious Mr. Irving Sosceles.  He rocks in a geometry outfit with Joe Scalene.  No two of his sides are equal.

You Can Meet Me There

 

Tulip petal bright, taffy wrapper tight.

I was first introduced to Sara Hallie Richardson‘s music in 2009.  She was based in Portland, Maine, which is a pretty cute city; you oughta visit. Michael Flannery had opened a studio in downtown Bangor. He produced an album called A Curious Paradox for Sarah and sent me a copy when they were done with it. Mike figured that I’d like it, and he was right.

Most of the time, when I get an album in the mail, the sender wants me to write about it. That wasn’t Mike’s intention. Although he’s essentially a pop-funk guy who looks at Prince as his primary role model, Mike is good at matching up people who are, if you’ll pardon my loaded and dated term, a little bit twee. (For instance, Mike introduced me to Ula Bloom, who did the first nine illustrations on this site; this week’s picture comes courtesy of Kyle McRuer.) Now, this is probably not fair to say about Sara, who has, as I’ve learned, many musical modes. But when I heard her sing, all I wanted to do was start a tweepop band and plunk her down right in the middle of it.

We were making Let The Night Fall at the time. Most of my lead vocals were already done, and we’d already added two of my favorite singers — Amy Jacob from Prosolar Mechanics and Angela Lane Hamilton — to the tracks. But I knew, immediately, that I needed to make room for Sara. She’d moved to New York City to support A Curious Paradox, so we brought her into Melody Lanes to sing on some of our songs. To say that she sprinkled a little sugar on the album would be an understatement. Suddenly it wasn’t just my voice coming at the listener like a rusted bicycle with a creaky chain — there was also this very warm and smart and empathetic character underscoring the words I’d written. Sara bestowed legitimacy and depth on my storytelling. Her performances are part of the reason I’m proud of Let The Night Fall.

If it had been 1999 and I’d been thinking of nothing but music, I would have insisted that we start that band. Archie Moore and Sarah Shannon, Robert Wratten and Beth Arzy, Sarah Martin and Stuart Murdoch — every great cupcake-pop act I’ve ever wanted to emulate had that boy-girl dynamic upfront with the girl doing her best to redeem the boy for the unforgivable sin of being a boy. But as you probably know, we never did right by Let The Night Fall, and that was entirely my fault. I got preoccupied with other things, and I do hope you enjoyed those other things at least half as much as I did. Sara made a couple more excellent records and relocated to Los Angeles; Phoenix, her most recent album, is much too sophisticated to be twee. She’s definitely outgrown the role I would have cast her in, so good on her for escaping my clutches.

But just like a tractor beam that can’t be disabled by Obi Kenobi, I have a funny way of drawing unwary space travelers back to the Death Star. Or Jay Braun does, anyway — it was Jay who tracked down Sara in Los Angeles via a strange modern miracle called social networking. Don’t ask me; I know nothing about it. Jay, who has been listening to 2112 and Appetite For Destruction lately, has no appetite for cupcake pop and tends to give me the side-eye when I bring up Belle & Sebastian in the studio, which happens every five minutes or so. But he knows what I want, and more to the point, he loves Sara’s music as much as I do. When Jay decided that my attempts to sing “You Can Meet Me There” weren’t cutting it by my own twee standards, he prevailed on Sara Hallie Richardson to give it a try.

Long story short: you’re never going to get to hear the version with my voice on it, because Sara transformed the song, liberated it really, and made it into what I always wanted it to be. If you don’t like it, it’s still my fault and not hers, because I was the arrested adolescent who encouraged her to take it over to the cupcake bakery. But if you don’t like it, you probably don’t like Trembling Blue Stars, either, so you’ve got a different idea of romance from mine: more grown-up, less frosting. In keeping with the perversity that runs through the TBS catalog like a black ribbon, I’ve paired this coy valentine of a song with the most brutal story on the site so far. They just go together, like Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan.

 

Unbeliever, Respect The Veil

 

Bombs in the desert — that’s the world we’ve made.

Like everything else in this Almanac, “Unbeliever, Respect The Veil” is a character song. The narrator is a professor of religious studies — and freelance monotheist, to use Karen Armstrong’s neat term — at a university in metropolitan Detroit. He has come to see fundamentalists as profoundly irreligious people, and he’s also lost his patience with secular critics who dismiss the faithful outright. Every time he hears a denunciation of Islam by a man (and it’s always a man) on the news who has neither read the Quran nor studied Muslim philosophy, he loses a little more hair.

So, yeah, maybe he’s a bit more like me than some of the prior characters. His protest is not exactly mine. This isn’t the way I’d put it. But I’m happy to sing his lament.

The Detroit page was originally slated for late May. Events in Syria, and in Washington, prompted me to move it up. Depending on who you read, the Shayrat airbase struck by American Tomahawk missiles was either a provisional military success or an empty symbolic gesture. The one thing that isn’t in dispute: the twenty or so civilians killed in the raid — including at least four children — are still very much dead. Their stories weren’t widely told, and that’s because they were weighed in the click balance and found wanting, and the editors decided to run more United Airlines brawl footage instead. I’d wager the dead placed some value on their scalps, though. I’d bet their reaction to Tomahawk missiles in their living rooms was less than enthusiastic. That my tax money was used to kill those people — in my name, and in the name of American interest — makes me want to become insolvent. I don’t fancy being an accomplice to murder.

The Shayrat attack was the latest refrain of an ugly American anthem that we’ve been singing for twenty-five years at least. Every administration in my memory has authorized airstrikes in the Middle East. Some of the more harebrained supporters of the current President believed that the nasty “America First” rhetoric he used while campaigning meant that he’d govern as a non-interventionist. I don’t want to make excuses for these people, but I’ll say this: they couldn’t have been from Jersey. If you grew up anywhere near Atlantic City, you recognized, thirty years ago at least, that the lowlife who is now President is one of the most bellicose guys around. If you gave him a bomb — which is what we’ve done, many times over — he was never going to refrain from dropping it on somebody. That’s not who he is.

But this isn’t about this particular President, who is extending a policy (perhaps more sadistically, given his disposition) that has been around, with lethal consequences for folks in the way of the eagle, for decades. Even the justifications used for the bombing — chemical weapons, crossing red lines, a dictator who is worse than Hitler, etc. — all felt like 2002 warmed over. That intelligence turned out to be a sham, and the ensuing intervention dispensed pain all over the world. We can’t possibly be getting ready to do it again, can we? Say it isn’t so.

Note: today’s drawing was done by Kyle McRuer. This is the first time anybody other than Ula Bloom has contributed a cartoon. There’ll be more from Ula soon, but next week’s trip to Cambridge will also be illustrated by Kyle. Gosh, I am appreciative of all the artists who’ve contributed to this project. I hope they’ll post me some nice pictures when I’m in Guantanamo.