Play the game tonight ’17

Last year at this time, I ran down a list of the ten boardgames I’d played most frequently in 2016.  It was not, to put it bluntly, the most well-read piece in the history of this site.  But a few of my pals with similar affections for cardboard bits and wooden pawns did write in with some enthusiasm, and a few strangers with their own lists of boardgaming favorites sent recommendations.  A few of those are now where the Christmas tree used to be.  It’s a small hobby, at least in America, but those of us who are involved in it tend to be passionate about it.  So because I like traditions, and year-end recaps, and making much ado about meeples, I’ve decided to do it again.

In 2017 we made a commitment to try games we’d never played before.  Half of the titles on this list are new arrivals, and two others are games that landed in our collection sometime in 2016.  We refashioned our living room in a manner that gives our boardgames pride of place along with the books; sit on the sofa, and our forty or so boxes are what you’re going to see.  As home entertainment centers go, it’s prettier than a flat panel screen, more interactive than your grandma’s curio cabinet, and it functions perfectly well in a brownout.  The particular games we play are called as Euros (boardgames are broken down into more subclassifications than heavy metal) which means they tend to be peaceful affairs without many random elements and virtually no chance of player elimination.  American games are heavy on theme and simulation and often come with tiny, meticulously sculpted replicas of tanks, or money, or star-cruisers.  Euros are more abstract and mathematical, and turn on mastery of intricately calibrated gaming mechanics.  You may be encouraged to think of a colored cube as cattle, or currency, or a civilization of thousands.

In ’16, Hilary and I were enchanted by a fast-paced card-swapping and chip-grabbing game — heavily recommended by the baseball columnist Keith Law — called Jaipur.  Part of the reason we played it so much: it fits in a box not all that much bigger than a portable speaker.  We could, and did, throw it in travel bags and play in airports and hotel lobbies.  None of this year’s games, alas, are small enough to travel with.  To play these, you’ll need a table, and time, and some dedicated players.  Desire to build a farm, or a cloister, or a city, and see in flourish in spite of obstacles — that helps, too.

#10. At The Gates Of Loyang  This is an early game made by a favorite designer named Uwe Rosenberg who, it has to be said, is obsessed with crop growth.  Sheep, too; Loyang is the rare Rosenberg game that’s sheepless.  Uwe Rosenberg has made many games, but he’s still probably best known for Agricola, a punishing medieval farm simulation that is tons of fun if you can handle the constant threat of famine.  At The Gates Of Loyang is sometimes considered the weak sister in Rosenberg’s so-called Harvest Trilogy, which also includes the shipping empire-builder Le Havre.  I understand why some gamers call this one unspectacular, but we don’t agree with their assessment: it may not share Agricola’s devilish complexity or multiplicity of outcomes, but it’s pretty quick, it’s beautiful, and it’s the rare Euro designed to accommodate two players.  In Loyang, you’re a Chinese vegetable farmer whose objective is satisfy the demands of a procession of customers with various produce desires.  On your turn, you’ll be scrambling for ways to obtain different vegetables and fields on which to plant them, and, if all goes right, sending the customers home happy.   Sometimes that’ll happen by the skin of a lima bean — you’ll manage to activate the right farm laborer to procure you the right vegetable to swap for another right vegetable to prevent your clients from expressing dissatisfaction and losing you money — and when it does, it’s extremely satisfying to pull off.  There’s a card playing and bluffing element in the game where you’ll be making certain resources available to your opponent, and a certain amount of gambling necessary: it will sometimes be advantageous to draw cards blind from a deck, but woe betide the farmer who draws a customer who demands a hard-to-acquire leek at the wrong time. But mostly the joy here comes from plopping the little wooden vegetables down on the fields as they bloom, and then harvesting them and delivering them to the customers.  Like all Uwe Rosenberg games, the immersive quality is augmented by twee cartoons with a touch of Herge (in this case, Lotus Bleu) and maybe a bit of Richard Scarry, too.  That might not fire your tank engine if you believe it’s beneath your dignity to be a humble turnip salesman. But my local grocers are my personal heroes, so this is right up my alley.  I only wish I could acquire clementines and pomegranates with the grace and skill of the crew at P&K Fruit Market on Newark Avenue.  Some people like to make believe they’re generals or quarterbacks. I like to pretend I can get it for you wholesale.

#9. Puerto Rico  A classic of the Euro genre — one we used to play all the time in the mid-’00s.  We’d put it in drydock a few years ago after it began to bug me that the third player to go had a small but noticeable advantage over the first two, and I was unable to devise a house rule that might rebalance the scales. It was Hurricane Maria, sad to say, that prompted me to pull it back out: I thought of the Morro and Viejo San Juan, and the long history of Caribbean storms, and the next thing I knew, I was lining up the plantation commodities and loading the, um, “colonists” on to the “colonist” ship (more on that in a moment.)  Our 2017 games of Puerto Rico were, again, disproportionately won by the third player, but that didn’t stop it from being fun.   Puerto Rico is notable for its unsurpassed implementation of the role-selection mechanic that isn’t uncommon in Euros — one player picks an office, say, the mayor, or the trader, and then all players must carry out the action associated with that role.  This makes Puerto Rico an exercise in mind reading.  Not only must you time it so you are in the best position to take advantage of the role available to you, you also must anticipate the roles the other players are likely to take, thereby making hay on their turn as well as your own.  In practice, it’s impossible to anticipate everything that’s going to happen — especially when the player count reaches five — so you’ll constantly be revising your tactics, improvising on the fly, and rueing the day you chose to sit next to a friend who keeps wrong-footing you with counterintuitive role selections.  The theme of the game is farming and shipping in the colonial era, and you’ll often have the option to acquire new plantations and buildings that improve your position and score, and manufacture commodities like corn and coffee for resale in the Old World.  These can be stockpiled until somebody calls Captain — at which point there’ll be a mad scramble for limited space on the Spanish galleys, and anything that doesn’t fit will need to be stored or it’ll rot in the tropical heat.  Now, in order for any of your buildings or plantations to function, they need to be staffed, and the person who cuts the sugar and processes the tobacco is represented by a little brown disc. Also, he comes from overseas in a crowded boat, and once you can’t get these “workers” anymore, the game is over.  If you know anything about American history, you also know what’s being depicted here, and it might make you more than a little uncomfortable. Euro designers: not always in tune with legitimate New World sensitivities.

#8. Scythe This was a Kickstarter-funded game, and like many Kickstarter projects, Scythe is distinguished by the detail and high quality of its components. Inside the mammoth box, along with dozens of cubes and meeples and beautifully illustrated cards in a style that borrows from steampunk, are statuettes of warriors riding battle beasts and inch-tall plastic mechs with fearsome toy weaponry.  So this is a wargame, you might reasonably think.  Only it isn’t, not really.  Battles do occur on this alternate-history map of Europe, but they’re ancillary to the real action, and they are, by far, the least effective part of Scythe.  Most of what you’ll be doing on your turn may be familiar to you from other Eurogames: methodical exploration to find new resources and conversion of those resources to buildings and upgrades that will let you process those resources more efficiently.  Eventually the empire you build and the secret goals you hold will cause you to bump up against your neighbors’ designs, and when it does, the conflict that ensues will be resolved through a wholly unsatisfying system driven by a scale on the board and a deck of cards with a limited range of values.  This means that outcomes are almost never a surprise, and while that may be true to the experience of Cold War commanders, it doesn’t make for an exciting component of a game that leads with its teeth.  The shame is that the rest of Scythe is really fun if you like slow-moving Euros (we do).  A lot of what works here mimics Terra Mystica, one of my absolute favorites.  Each playable nationality has unique powers, and each major upgrade unlocks new abilities specific to your faction.  Some of these are, again, the sort of thing that might get you in trouble with your local anti-defamation league, i.e., the Germans win points for aggressive play, the Crimeans, who are sort of Arabic, are shifty, sharp-eyed traders, Poles are friendly, Norwegians love to swim, etc. None of this stuff was necessary to make Scythe run, and since this is an alternative history, the designers can and do take all sorts of liberties with the background anyway.  It’s there, I think, because the Kickstarter audience values worldbuilding; in fact, it’s possible to go on to the Scythe website and learn more about the postapocalyptic (I think?) scenarios and the characters depicted by the statuettes.  Only nothing about the gameplay compels me to do this. What’s engrossing about Scythe, like all Euros, is the turn-by-turn puzzle-solving element that motors the mechanics, not the characters in the game.  I can admire the intricacy of the art on the token, but I’m really no more curious about the Russian woman with the pet tiger than I am about the backstory of the hat in Monopoly.  I’m overemphasizing the problems; Scythe is an engaging game and I expect to keep on playing it.  But when I do, it’ll be for the features common across Euros.  I don’t think that those features were novel enough to sell the game on Kickstarter, so it probably became necessary to add some window-dressing redolent of American deep-theme boardgames, wargames, and RPGs.  If you’re looking for any of that, you’re not going to be satisfied.  Don’t believe what the box and the pieces promise.

#7. Fields Of Arle This is another Uwe Rosenberg game, and you’d be forgiven if you thought that it had been stamped out of the Uwe Rosenberg factory.  Many of the elements familiar from the Agricola series of games are here: wheat to plant, sheep to herd, a blank green space to develop into a farm, buildings to add to a grid and workers to send out to the fields to bring home resources, a complicated array of resource conversions, etcetera.  Even the box looks nondescript.  Yet Fields Of Arle is more properly understood as a Rosenberg boss battle — the game to play if you think you’ve got Rosenberg’s prior farm simulations mastered and you’re looking for a field-plowing, swamp-draining, church-raising upgrade. Unlike most Euros — even Loyang has special rules for four players — Arle can only be run as a duel. It’s also the rare worker-placement game that doesn’t give you an opportunity to expand your family of pawns: you begin and end the game with four pieces under your control. At first, it feels like there are a bewildering array of places to assign your workers, and a lovely assortment of animals to gather, things to grow, resources to convert, polders to dry, and handsome wagons (you get a garage to store them in!) to assemble to take your products to town. That board fills up in a hurry, though, and your opponent often has designs on the same scarce resources that you do. In practice, Fields Of Arle plays like a tense wrestling match where the upper hand is awfully elusive and your hold, such as it is, constantly threatens to slip.  Chances are, no matter what farm-building strategy you opt for, you’ll be racing that wagon down to the finish line neck-and-neck with your competitor. This might be the best calibrated board game I’ve ever played: every mechanic, and there are many of them, feels perfectly balanced; no strategy feels overpowered, and every worker you place, or fail to place, sets off reverberations in perfect proportion to the move you’ve made. Fields Of Arle was published in 2014, and I don’t know where Uwe Rosenberg goes from here — this one seems like the ideal realization of all of the game development ideas he’s ever had, and his geographical and biological obsessions, too. Though apparently there’s a new one out where you’re a Norwegian shipbuilder in the fjords.  An Arctic Circle farming simulation cannot be far away.

#6.  Tsuro My little sister picked this one up for us in a mall while Christmas shopping.  Like most of what you’d get at a games kiosk, this is a simple game most suitable for big parties.  On your turn, you place a random tile on a grid-like board and advance your token to the end of the line depicted on it. Other players will be choosing tiles and advancing their own tokens, and the lines they place may interfere with your progress or force you off the board and out of the game.  With eight players this becomes an exercise in tile-laying chaos, but since it’s all over in ten minutes max, you probably won’t mind the hair-raising qualities of Tsuro — or the near absence of strategy.  Just get your token going and see where it takes you; the fun is the ride, and the twists and curves of the paths as they’re collectively assembled. It could be argued, I suppose, that a game like this could be presented more elegantly as an iPhone app — especially since line-drawing and line-following is at the heart of so many iOS games. But then you’d miss out on the pleasing heft of the curved plastic pieces, and the glossy tiles, and the rice-paper covering that goes along with the Far East theme.  I also like that Tsuro gives you the option of a grey or a brown pawn.  More unusual colors in boardgames, please; I can’t be red all the time. (Just most of the time.)

#5. Ora Et Labora The third of the three Uwe Rosenberg titles on this list.  I wrote about this one last year: it’s similar to Rosenberg’s other games, only it’s a bit longer and more relaxing (which isn’t to say it’s forgiving of mistakes) and instead of farming, you’re a medieval monk creating a diocese on your map.  Our version of Ora Et Labora shipped with a pair of scenarios: last year we mostly played the French variant, and this year, we built our principalities in Ireland.  There are different buildings in the two scenarios, but the main distinction is the way that the monks get drunk.  The French version allows you to grow grapes for winemaking; the Irish game gives you the option between milling grain for beer or distilling malt for whiskey.  I never quite got the hang of the resources necessary for a strong whiskey game, and it seems to me like a dead-end strategy.  Then again, there’s something realistic about that.

#4. Istanbul This splashy little race game incorporates my single favorite Eurogame element: it’s got a modular board.  The playing area is assembled from sixteen rectangular cards representing different buildings, and unless you’re running one of the specific layout scenarios in the game booklet — which you won’t do after a very short while — you’ll shuffle them each game and play on a permutation that’s unique to your experience.  You’ll hop around these spaces in order to gather resources that can be converted into rubies, and the first player with five rubies wins.  Restrictions on movement force the players to calculate clever trade routes, but it’s not always apparent what the most efficient route between buildings might be.  The action takes place in a fantasy version of Istanbul in which all resources are provided to you by swarthy male Turks and there isn’t a woman anywhere to interfere with your homosocial romance. Strange city!, but I’ve never been there. Istanbul plays quick and dirty, and once you’ve cracked the code to the board you’ve assembled randomly, play tends to accelerate toward an ending that you’ll probably see coming within the first ten minutes.  American games usually allow trailing players to gang up and thrash the front-runner, but the narrow mechanics of Euros tend to discourage that kind of play.  In Istanbul, it’s virtually impossible to stop the leader.  Since this entire game is a mad sprint with the finish line perpetually in view, this is a real problem — at least for me.  In general, Americans seem to like comebacks more than Europeans do; I don’t think we believe narrative tension is possible without the possibility of reversals of fortune.  We like social mobility and uncertain outcomes. The Yankees notwithstanding, we find dynasties monotonous.  Do you realize that only six different clubs have won the Premiere League championship?  It’s true.  No way would American sports fans put up with that.  We need to believe in the possibility of going from worst to first.  Otherwise the game feels rigged for the incumbents, and we lose interest.

#3. Dominant Species Scythe is a standard Euro dressed up like a wargame.  Dominant Species is just the opposite.  Everything about it looks like it belongs to the geometric, dispassionate, abstract world of Eurogames: playing pieces are little wooden blocks and colored cones, the board has the antiseptic feel of a classroom aid, there are tiny cardboard chits representing resources on a terrain map, etcetera.  Yet this is an actual, bonafide, ball-breaking wargame, albeit one that imports many of its game mechanics from Euros. There’s a worker placement phase, an area control element, a modular playing board, an exploration option, all stuff you’d expect to find in a cube-pusher, as they’re sometimes disparagingly called.  The object of the game, however, is to take control of territory and blast your opponents off the board, as mercilessly as possible — and since you take the role of an entire phylum of animals in the perilous days before an Ice Age, there’s a feeling of raised stakes that a cardboard recreation of the Battle of Agincourt simply cannot supply.   What’s both thrilling and horrifying about Dominant Species is the sheer number of obliteration mechanisms that the game provides.  For instance, you can just go ahead and eat your competitors, or, if that’s not flashy enough for you, you can force them to regress on the evolutionary scale, or you can deplete their habitat of the resources they need to supply, or you can take control of the glacier (yes, there’s a glacier in this game) and ram it through the heart of their biome, or you can select a (literally) world-shattering event from a deck of cataclysms. After awhile of this — and Dominant Species does take a good long while — it begins to make ordinary army-driven wargames feel like hopscotch. The asymmetrical powers of the factions seem tiny at first, but the game systems are so well balanced that even minor variations are consequential in practice, and they do add Voyage Of The Beagle spice to the game: the bugs swarm and birds fly fast and spiders get aggressive and mammals sit smugly atop the food chain.  More than anything else, it’s this immersive quality, rare in any game, that makes Dominant Species one of the very very best titles on our shelves.  When I’m playing, I really do feel like I’m battling for survival on an inhospitable earth; I feel the advance of the ice and the dwindling resources in my habitat, and if, say, I develop a giant predator lizard that eats all the mammals, I can hear the flap of the wings of the birds as they scatter for safety to faraway hexes.  The beautiful part is that the deep evolutionary theme is not drawn up cheesily with models or artwork (although the artwork here is, in general, good) — it’s generated by the same intricate, abstract game systems that power most of the best Euros.  There’s no other game I’ve ever played that I can say that about.  If you’ve got the time, and if you’ve ever enjoyed reading Darwin, this is highly recommended.

#2. Trajan Uwe Rosenberg might be Hilary’s favorite game-maker, but the designer of her single favorite game — Castles Of Burgundy — is Stefan Feld.  Feld, like Rosenberg, has a particular authorial stamp that’s difficult to miss; over the years, he’s refined his chosen mechanics to the point where it’s no overstatement to say that he’s mastered them.  If you’re playing a Stefan Feld game, you can count on chain reactions: doing one thing that allows you to do something else, which in turn opens up the possibility of performing another action, and so on. Trajan may or may not be Feld’s best game, but it definitely is the one where the chain reactions are the most consequential, and since the designer loves tipping over dominoes, this could be the best peek we have into his boardgaming soul.  Nothing about Trajan looks very impressive: the action on the main board is broken down into a handful of minigames that are not, by themselves, very interesting. There’s one that’s straightforward area-control on a small map of Europe, and another that’s about collecting sets of cards, and another that’s a simple race up a track.  In order to participate in those mini-games and score victory points, however, the player needs to move little colored pebbles around a series of pits on her player mat — and this is where Trajan gets subtly fantastic. Pit and pebble, or mancala, games have been around forever and nearly always provide brain-burning diversions. Shrewdly, Feld yokes this ancient engine to his series of minigames, and in so doing, he makes the whole board interlock like clockwork gears.  It is fiendishly difficult to work the mancala, and you will spend most of the ninety minutes it takes to play Trajan in deep concentration, staring at your mat, fussing with the colored pebbles in a desperate attempt to hit upon the right combinations of colors that correspond to the optimal set of effects on the big board.  It is a puzzle that never rests, and it will frustrate you. That said, when you drop the right pebble in the right pit and take the right action that allows you to make the move that triggers another action that opens up another scoring opportunity… well, let’s just say that electricity jolts through the circuit you’ve made, and lights up all your neurons at once. Although we didn’t start playing it until 2017, Trajan has been around for awhile, and it’s acquired a polarizing reputation.  Some gamers call it a masterpiece, and others consider it a good example of everything that makes Euros feel like math homework.  I understand some of the criticisms, and I can even sympathize with a few.  The theme here, which has something or other to do with the Roman Empire, is absolutely tacked on and adds next to nothing to the experience.  You, or more painfully, your friends, will occasionally be paralyzed before your mancala on your turn; there’s no way around this short of a chess clock. But I reject the notion that Trajan, and games like it, are multiplayer solitaire.  All the mechanisms here are taut and well integrated and mutually dependent, and every decision you make affects the fortunes of all other players, powerfully.  The surest way to lose Trajan is to keep your head down in your mancala and ignore what’s happening around you.  Regardless of how you play it, your brain will be lit for the time it takes to run a game.  That, alone, seems to me a good reason to give it a go.

#1.  Five Tribes  The game we played the most in 2017 uses an adapted version of the mancala, too.  But there are no pits in Five Tribes: just colored meeples on a modular board that you will pick up, one handful at a time, and drop one by one on adjacent tiles.  Sets of different colored meeples trigger different effects and score points, and once they’ve all been played and retired to their drawstring bag — there are about a hundred meeples on the board — Five Tribes is over.  Straightforward?, well, it is and it isn’t.  Five Tribes is published by Days Of Wonder, a games company that puts a great deal of effort into crafting pretty components.  The aesthetic over there skews young and glossy, but Five Tribes is meant to be a slightly more grown-up game than the usual Days Of Wonder title, so the art is over the top in a more adolescent-fantasy fashion than usual.  Most of the playing pieces are carved out of wood and are pleasant to handle, including a clutch of replica palm trees and camel tokens in various colors and “palace” archways painted gold.  Minaret pieces come in fuchsia and aqua and hot orange, and there’s a deck of large black-backed cards with images of different genies, each of which looks not unlike something you’d find on the cover of a Mercedes Lackey book.  All of this fires my juvenile imagination, and helps me forget that Five Tribes is basically just a big open math problem.  The point value of any given play on the board is easy for everybody to calculate — so there’s always an optimal move to make, and you may be gripped with the fear that you’re missing something obvious.  This makes Five Tribes the rare game that slows down the more players know what they’re doing: novices will race through it gleefully, picking up meeples oblivious to consequences, but more experienced players will probably agonize over their turn, calculating and re-calculating their scores, worried that Miss Crabtree is about to give them a D.  That hasn’t stopped us from playing it, a lot. But even after more than twenty games, I’m still not sure how good it is.  Guess I’ll just have to keep on putting it to the test.  Wanna play?

A prayer for 2018

George Washington called the American political idea a grand experiment, and for three hundred years, we’ve run with that self-concept. America tries things that other countries won’t — and it’s worth remembering that our willingness to take chances has served us pretty well. Last January, our latest and most dangerous experiment began. Though we’d been governed by some shady characters in the past, never before had we handed over supreme executive authority to a lowlife. We did this at a precarious moment in our history: through means popular and underhanded, an unprecedented amount of power has been drained from the other branches of government and concentrated in the Oval Office. The aggressively unscrupulous individual who was sworn in has more latitude for consequential action than any of his predecessors did — and given America’s might and weight, quite possibly more than anybody in the history of the planet.

Because you’re not a complete nihilist, this troubles you. Of all the millions of human beings on the globe, you would not have chosen to hand that supreme power to a reality television star whose narcissism bankrupted several casinos and landed him into hot water in a place as ethically compromised as Atlantic City. Others did. Sixty-three million Americans surveyed their choices and came to the conclusion that Donald Trump was the correct answer to the American riddle. Today, it’s not your responsibility to ratify, or rationalize, or even humor that decision — in fact, I think it’s pretty important that you don’t. You’re probably grasping for some silver linings: Trump’s secret connection with the Russians will get him impeached, Robert Mueller will ride to your rescue, a bombshell pee tape revelation is bound to destroy his presidency, his administration will collapse under the weight of his ignorance of world affairs, there’s going to be great punk rock, etcetera. You’re looking for comfort during days when comfort is scarce.

Buddy, I can’t help you there. I don’t think any of that stuff is going to happen. (Well, maybe the punk rock, but that would have been true regardless of the outcome of the 2016 election.) Alas, I believe we’re stuck with Donald Trump for the next three years at least. In order to get through the rest of this term, we’re going to need to understand how the monster was made, and, more importantly, how not to make another after the beast is done with its rampage.

There are complicated things in this world: rocket science, international diplomacy, the most recent Kendrick album. Election ’16 wasn’t one of them. The Trump ascendancy was the logical outcome of several American trends that have been right out in the open for years. I didn’t think Trump would be able to ride that wave of junk all the way to the White House — I figured that sanity and a sense of self-preservation would intervene. 2016, the Year of Hard Lessons, taught me that we’re farther gone than I realized. We’re not irretrievable, though, and if we have it within us to plot a course correction, now is the time. So as much as I hate to shovel more words atop the mountain of discourse that this most undeserving of presidencies has prompted writers to generate, I’d like to take this occasion to point out a few things that seem pretty obvious to me — though I guess they aren’t, because they aren’t getting discussed enough.

Think back, if you’re old enough, to the media environment of the 1970s. Your family probably got a newspaper or three; maybe a local one plus another with an international bureau like the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Post. A copy came every day. Maybe you read it, maybe you didn’t, but it was there for you like running water. That newspaper was divided into discrete, easy-to-understand sections: if you didn’t want to bother with the stories about Iran and you were just interested in what Charlie Brown was up to, you could pull out the funnies and disregard the rest. Your television was limited to seven or eight channels, and most of the programming was devoted to entertainment. At designated times during the evening, the networks would break for a news show; after that, it was back to Fantasy Island. During major events like a debate or an election, the regularly-scheduled programming would be pre-empted — otherwise, the network chiefs figured, perhaps erroneously, that you’d rather get a sitcom than a bulletin. Above all, there was a bright line drawn between Happy Days and Walter Cronkite; you were meant to laugh at one and take the other one seriously, and never the twain were meant to meet.

But there were always individuals obsessed with the news — surely many more than the network chiefs in Los Angeles ever realized. Somewhere on your block, there was probably a guy awake at 2 in the morning, staring at the ceiling, angry about Jimmy Carter’s sweater. When he turned on his TV, he was confronted by a vast wasteland of static, white noise, and throwaway programming. The newspaper, which belonged to the day gone by, had grown stale. What on earth was happening now? This very instant? The advent of cable TV meant that this itch could, theoretically, be scratched: soon there were channels that promised viewers a 24-hour current events focus with no sitcoms in sight. At the time, my social studies teachers thought this was a wonderful thing. We finally had the option to engage with political affairs around the clock. We were sprung free of our captivity to cheap entertainment and were on the road to becoming an informed electorate.

The first and biggest challenge that the news-specific networks faced was a simple budgetary one. Real journalism — especially international story-gathering — is expensive. Not only does a responsible news network need to pay for the upkeep and security of reporters working on active stories in dangerous countries, it also must maintain operational bureaus in places where news isn’t being made, just in case that changes quickly, as it’s sure been known to do. Today’s quiet backwater is tomorrow’s hotspot, and the only way for a news organization to stay on top of a confusing planet as it changes is to shell out for a worldwide staff of on-the-scene correspondents and editors. Taping a segment from the field is costly, too — there are production expenses and transmission costs, and for every five minutes of video that gets aired, there are at least five hundred that never see airtime.

A network news show had a half hour to make compelling; the 24 hour networks needed to fill the entire day. If they presented nothing but real journalism, they’d go broke. They began to supplement and replace the news shows with panels of employees — experts, in theory, but really television personalities like any other — whose job it was to sit behind a desk and pop off about the news. Cable news networks certainly didn’t invent punditry, but they had every financial incentive to elevate and glorify the pundit at the expense of the field reporter. Certainly it was cheaper and easier to hire a discussion panel than it was to maintain a team of reporters and film crew in a difficult place, and never mind that this practice contradicted the journalistic orthodoxy that insisted, correctly, that a single eyewitness is infinitely more valuable than somebody’s loudmouth opinion.

Along the way, the networks discovered something significant. The news obsessor didn’t mind the transition from field reporting to behind-the-desk punditry. He actually liked it. He may well have known that it represented deterioration of journalistic standards, but it didn’t matter: what he was looking for, as it turned out, was not news itself but the constant discussion of news. He wanted to hear the strong opinions of people who he broadly agreed with, but who might be more articulate about issues than he was. There was a debate raging in his head, and he had a pathological need to be on the right side of that debate. Here we see that the casual, periodical news reader or news viewer was actually saner than the obsessor, which should have been obvious from the beginning, but gets glossed over by people who valorize inquisitiveness and staying plugged in at all costs. Nobody ever stopped to ask: do we really need 24-hour news coverage? Is there really enough variance in reporting or even opinion-having to justify constant engagement with current events? At what point are we simply throwing fuel on a bonfire that would otherwise burn out naturally?

As competition between round-the-clock news networks and other news sources intensified, these organizations started beating the bushes for strategies to keep viewers tuned in — and, just as crucially, methods of converting casual news readers into news obsessors. One timeworn tactic: blurring the lines between those discrete sections of the paper. But celebrity-worship only gets a news agency so far. After awhile, reports of Bruce Springsteen’s exploits get just as tiresome as those of the President, who, to millions of half-committed political observers, is essentially a celebrity. Exhaustive coverage of the Boss might please rock and roll maniacs who can’t get enough Springsteen, but it does nothing for those outside the cult. Eventually editors embraced the awful human truth that the generalist audience for a story about a triumphant Springsteen concert was far smaller than the audience would be for a story about Springsteen falling down and wetting his pants. And if Springsteen, or someone with a similarly large following, could ever be persuaded to fall down and wet his pants every day in a slightly different way, well, then there’d really be something cooking.

You might have a weakness for celebrity trainwreck stories yourself; if they’re a guilty pleasure for you, you’re hardly alone. For the educated employees of round-the-clock news operations struggling to justify their existences, celebrity trainwrecks are a godsend. Every day there’s a new peg: what crazy thing did Celebrity X just do or say? What fresh madness has motivated Michael Jackson to act as he does? Where did Britney Spears deposit her baby last night? All journalists handling this stuff know that it’s toxic sludge, but they’ll muck around it it anyway because they can’t resist drawing a crowd. Of course, celebrities can’t always be counted on to demean themselves in public. Hence the need to manufacture figures who actively court humiliation and are impervious to ridicule. Throughout the ’80s, the media began to cooperate with the ambitions of attention-hungry human cartoons — people whose personalities fit the broad strokes of some actual activity — whose entire purpose was to be pilloried.

Or so we thought. It was right around this time that Donald Trump first started banging his own poorly-tuned drum in the town square. From the very outset, it should have been apparent to anybody who was paying attention that he was a celebrity trainwreck version of a businessman, a talent-free media-generated hallucination, and that his publicized fluctuations in fortune were the financial equivalent of Oprah’s various weight gains and losses. The ’80s were years of financial insecurity and populist fist-shaking at the Masters of the Universe; Trump was never one of those, but his lavish overspending, gauche tastes, and blatant overcompensation via gross womanizing made him a Symbol, and symbols are crucial to storytelling. Nothing about Trump was particularly entertaining, so the press instead made believe he was newsworthy — and kept the trainwreck rumbling along on the front pages and lead stories. In order to justify his prominent position in what was starting to be called the news cycle (stop and think about that term for a minute), journalists had to pretend that he was some kind of brilliant tycoon. He was nothing of the sort; not then, not ever. He’d already started racking up astronomical debts and stiffing creditors, putting his name wherever he could, running his businesses into the ground and making an ass of himself in public.

Certainly there were more than enough wicked businesspeople to go around in the 1980s; why was this clown getting all the attention? Well, an actual brilliant businessman wouldn’t have been helpful to the networks at all. His life looks outwardly dull; by this sign ye shall know him, or shall not know him, as is usually the case. Nobody would watch a segment about that guy. This brings us to the real crux of the problem we face — the ugly, central, irreducible fact about our society that needs to be understood to make sense of the outcome of last year’s elections, but which reporters out searching for the true feelings of Joe Sixpack are swerving around: we’re bored. America is bored. Not idle, cloud-watching kind of ennui, either, but the sort of frustrated, annoyed, ants-in-your-pants boredom that makes people start fires in the garage. Alleviation of that feeling of boredom, one that has descended on the continent like an old moth-eaten blanket, has become our major preoccupation.

If there is one characteristic common to 21st century Americans, young and old, rich and poor, it’s just this: the American demands constant stimulation. Because he cannot endure silence, he needs to be provoked. His value system revolves around impact — things are worthwhile to the extent that they create waves on a line that otherwise stretches out toward a blank horizon. He is desperate for happenstance. Industries that exist to cater to his appetites misrecognized this at first. They thought that he demanded amusement by those more talented than he was. Once they figured out that a sharp stick or an irritant would do just as well, the game was up. Fashioning simple, low-wattage provocations — enough to give the nervous system a shudder — became the objective. This is, by and large, how people use the Internet anyway: habitual checking-in, refreshing feeds, scratching an itch at the base of the mind, desperate for novelty, or mild levity, or fresh outrage, a hand-slap on the engine, little jolts to idle craniums.

The news biz, to its credit, resisted this model of demand for a long time. During the early days of the Internet, serious journalists treated readers as prodigal sons who’d soon come back to mother newspaper, and his senses, once his reserve of wild oats were expended on websites and forums. In retrospect it was adorable that they did, since the writing on the wall was legible the moment the first social network launched. Yet it was not until this decade that the whole house came down in a heap. Spooked by fears of irrelevance, editors throughout the industry abandoned their pretenses in a panicked rush. They erased the line between Walter Cronkite and Happy Days, and began to cover every story as if it was entertainment journalism. The lure of a celebrity trainwreck presidential candidate — a true embarrassment in a position of immense power and influence, with all the concomitant disasters that that implies — was too attractive not to bite at, and by the time they realized what they’d done, the hook was already through the jawbone.

In order to understand how this happened, and why storytelling on the Internet has degenerated as far and fast as it has, it’s crucial to understand the mechanisms that editors, publishers, and producers believed would save them from the haymaker they expected the new media to deliver. The first and worst technique goes by the fancy name of search engine optimization, which makes it sound like a much more scientific practice than it is. In practice, SEO, as it’s called, means larding down headlines and opening paragraphs with popular proper nouns and trending topics that a visitor might plunk into the rectangle on the Google main page. If you ever wondered why every news article seems to lead with the President’s name — even when the topic doesn’t seem like it has all that much to do with the President — there’s your answer. The search engine algorithm has become the true editor in chief of the Internet, and he’s an uncompromising bastard. One with a brutal aesthetic, too.

That editor has become inseparable from his ugly assistant: SMO, or social-media optimization. Designing news stories to be shared on network platforms has taken a hammer to the kneecaps of journalism, and that is because social networks aren’t news services. They’re games, fundamentally, and the object of the game is for the user to gather more public approval and popularity than his peers. Posting on a social network is a kind of small-stakes performance: people are looking to share content that will earn them impressive heaps of likes and retweets. Editors know this, but they’ve been powerless to stop themselves from chasing trends, and they’ve outsourced their critical faculties to the crowd. What plays best on the social networks is outrage pieces — opinions, and other re-heated hot air — and behind-the-scenes exposes about celebrities, and celebrity trainwrecks, that require cozy access with powerful people to tell. Stories like these need a heavy, and Trump fit the bill like a dream. (His opponent did, and does, too.) This is why the occasional Republican alarmism about the President’s awful approval rating is misleading: it underestimates the practical value of having a President we can safely disapprove of.

So that’s where we’re at: an endless procession of stories about the biggest celebrity trainwreck around, adorned with unreadable headlines and ledes meant to jig up the post’s Google websearch position, authored (in theory) by celebrity journalists obsessed with follower count, and crafted to meet the needs of those playing the popularity game on social media. This is how candidate Trump was able to get billions of dollars worth of free airtime and publicity during the election, and it’s how he continues to consolidate his power and authority even as networks and newspapers assure you that his administration is in a shambles and a dramatic comeuppance is right around the corner. There are major broadcast news organizations that do nothing all day but run panels about Trump, and tell every story, no matter how remote it may seem from the White House, as if Trump is its protagonist. Snowfall in the capitol: how will this affect the President?

The United States is a wealthy superpower that maintains the world’s reserve currency, military control of the oceanic commons, and cultural hegemony. Other countries are, justifiably, afraid of us. Coca-Cola, Goldman Sachs, and Taylor Swift still make the world spin. We can absorb a great deal of tomfoolery and hold our position at the top of the pyramid. Nevertheless, we’re really pushing it, and if we’re as dissatisfied as we should be with misrule by clowns, we citizens of this alleged republic do have some recourse to take. Every electronic device we own can still be powered down. We need to start availing ourselves of that off switch. If journalism has become a constant chase after trending topics, we don’t need to abet that chase. When you see an article with the President’s name in the headline, you don’t have to click on it. Because when you do, no matter how negative the headline reads, you’re voting for that guy all over again. When you see a piece designed to provoke a sensation among your followers on a social network, you don’t have to share it or give it your approval. This includes broadsides from subcelebrities who have rebuilt personal brands on the backs of mass disdain for the President, and comedians who’ve made cheap Presidential satire the heart of their acts. Whether they know it or not, they’ve fallen into the black hole. Trump has become their lives. Their identities have been absorbed into his. It’s disgusting. Avert your eyes.

Most of all, you can reconstruct your relationship to the news industry. You do not have to be tuned in all day to be an informed and responsible citizen. I’d wager you’re as informed as you need to be, and you know all you ought to know to render an accurate judgement on this administration. On most days, a news hour is perfectly acceptable: once you’ve gotten what you need, which is not a lot, you can shut it off and turn to healthier pursuits. That may or may not include actual consequential activism. One of the most painful ironies of the past two years has been how news obsession has taken the place of local political engagement.

We access news differently than we did ten years ago, but the basics of worthwhile journalism haven’t changed: they still involve a reporter going somewhere, talking to people, and telling you what she’s discovered there. If it doesn’t look like that — if it is, for example, a bunch of guys in a studio sitting behind a panel and blabbing — it’s not journalism, and it won’t be salutary to watch. Those panel-sitters have gotten awfully good at laying snares: they will constantly tease a big event that never comes. They will imply that your political enemies are about to be led off in handcuffs; they’ll appeal to your schadenfreude, your appetite for disgrace. It won’t happen, and you shouldn’t want to see that anyway. You’re not a cop or a fascist bullyboy. A government that comes to power in the wake of a sting operation will never be legitimate — for better or worse, legitimacy in America is bestowed by popular consent and nothing but. If you don’t like these guys, you must beat them at the ballot box. Anything else is going to exacerbate the problem.

Friends, you cannot help but have noticed: this President is not worthy of your attention. He’s not worthy of your outrage; he’s barely worthy of your eye-rolls. He certainly does not deserve your analysis, or your deep thoughts, or your best jokes. It is my ardent wish that he take up as little of your time as possible in 2018. Alas, we’re not going to get through this year unmolested — policies that he’s put in place are going to have an awful effect on your life, if they haven’t already. When they do, remember that we wouldn’t be in this spot were it not for the total conversion of the news biz into an operation calibrated to saturate your life with the likes of the President. If we ever want a better class of leader than the kind you might find in Atlantic County bankruptcy court, we need to wise up and tune out. It only sounds impossible until you start; once you do, I promise you you’ll wonder why you didn’t do it earlier.

A very wise woman once told me that hegemony was never as total as we might think it is in our darkest hours. These are dark hours indeed, but those words hold truer today than they ever have. The gatekeepers have gone home, and the crude dynamics of the present media environment are frighteningly simple. Whatever you click on, you’re going to get more of. You’ll pump hot air into the balloon of whatever you share. Donald Trump became the President because we couldn’t stop rubbernecking. If we haven’t learned our lesson by this time next year, another electoral disaster will surely proceed from our addictions, and we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves.

Catching my breath

I’ve been writing and mixing nonstop since February. No complaints — it’s been nothing but fun. But I have to take a moment here to reload: come up with a few new stories, finish a couple more songs and rebuild the buffer, get some new art, all of that. So: tiny July break while we stockpile some more stuff for you.

If you’ve been enjoying the Almanac so far, tip your cap to Chris Littler, whose art design brought the website to life. It’s Chris who took the idea of the map and made it real for me and who created the basic template of the city pages. I owe him a bunch. Chris has been up to another project that updates periodically, but this one has a much higher profile: he’s written the music to a podcast musical that’s currently available for download on iTunes. The project is called 36 Questions, and Chris composed the music with Ellen Winter, his partner in the Chamber Band. Although it’s somewhat experimental — this is the only podcast musical I can think of — the production company has been able to enlist some real-ass Broadway performers to take the lead roles, including Jonathan Groff, recently seen in Hamilton. To be totally honest, I like Chris Littler’s singing better than Jonathan Groff’s, but I’m not the biggest modern Broadway guy and you might think I’m nuts (Chris and Ellen probably do.) The musical, which is getting released in three installments, concerns a couple trying to save a relationship on the rocks, but it’s really about deception and that weird thing in human nature that, for reasons we don’t understand, recoils from intimacy. I encourage you to check it out. Chris and Ellen are extraordinary writers.

What else is going on? Well, as you probably know, Mike’s album is now out and available on Rhyme + Reason Records, and he’s been supporting Try Your Hardest on radio stations around the Jer-Z area. I believe Mike did a performance on WSOU this weekend, and Pete Creekmore came by the station to play sax; it’s probably archived on their site, but I haven’t looked yet. We’re currently working on a Jersey City show later in the summer, but not too much later — I’ll let you know when that gets booked. Meanwhile, George The Monkey is presently making a video for “My Absence Will Go Unnoticed,” one of the most depressing songs (and therefore one of my favorites) on The Well-Tempered Overlord. Apparently he shot the whole thing at a soon-to-be-abandoned K-Mart somewhere in the heart of Pennsylvanian suburban desolation. Jay Braun, too, is hard at work on a top-secret project that may or may not be salient to his Dungeons & Dragons campaign.

So, yeah, everybody is up to some loopy stuff in this, the summer of Tropicalia. (It’s the Summer of Tropicalia, btw, because of the amazing Lygia Pape show that’s about to close at the Breuer and the stupendously fun Helio Oiticica exhibition that just opened at the Whitney. I went Brazil nuts.) As for me, I’m almost at the point where I can start banging the works-in-progress on the Almanac into the general shape of a couple of albums. I’ve got about three songs to get right with Mike and about four to finish with Jay. I’m not completely sure which album is going to come together first, but I trust things will fall into place. It’s time for a quick step back to see where I’ve come from and how much road I’ve got left to travel. Then it’ll be right back on the road. Thanks for your attention so far; I’ll continue to try to justify it.

Gurleez

Gingko biloba and the conqueror root.

When I first met Michael Flannery, he was a local rock star, and that’s no hyperbole. In 2000, he was one half of an act that was, albeit briefly, about as popular an attraction as a band on the Jersey club circuit ever could be. I’ve seen the Feelies at Maxwell’s many times, Bob Mould to ring in the new year, Yo La Tengo, the Bongos, all the state heroes. The most crowded I ever saw that room was for Little T & One-Track Mike. There were kids on top of kids on top of kids on those risers for those shows. Many of them had just graduated from Rutgers. Little T & One-Track Mike — Tim Sullivan and Michael Flannery — had, too.

I was very lucky to be on some of those bills. I have no idea what those crowds thought of me or my combo, and a part of me doesn’t want to know. They were there for the headliner, and I was happy to be along for the ride; those were, to cop a phrase from Craig Finn, some massive nights. What was important, at least to me, was that Little T & One-Track Mike themselves appreciated what we were doing, and were always supportive. For those who were too young or who just don’t recall, the duo (who usually performed with a band) did something not unlike what Macklemore and Ryan Lewis have been up to for the past decade and a half. Tim was the very earnest, very witty, mostly-PG rapper, and Mike was the producer/multi-instrumentalist who pulled from all sorts of music and generally kept things sunny. The live show was an absolute blast, and anybody who claims otherwise wasn’t in the room.

Before anybody really knew what was happening, the label scouts were out, and Little T & One Track Mike were snapped up by Atlantic Records and sent to conquer America. There was a tour with OutKast, a guest verse from Slick Rick, a video on MTV; I wasn’t really conscious of any of that, as I was busy playing Planescape: Torment or miniature golfing or something. Somebody involved in that scene — it might have been Andy Gesner, now that I think of it — called me to say that Little T & One-Track Mike might ask me to join their crew on synthesizer. This terrified me. My dirty little secret then, which was not widely known around town, was that I didn’t want to be a rock star. I wanted to cling to Hudson County, and Maxwell’s, and the moment, like a drowning man with a life preserver.

Shortly after that — and I remember this like it was yesterday — I got a call from Mike. I decided to take the initiative and demur. I believe I made up some garbage about pressing things I had to attend to. He laughed and cut me off.

“Man,” he said, “we’re not calling because we want you to join our band. We’re calling because we want you to be our friend.”

This was straightforward. I respected it. I’m sure I felt pretty stupid, but that was nothing new. Anyway, Little T & One-Track Mike went the way most major label acts do, and everybody returned to the New Jersey metropolitan area, as I like to call it. Little T changed his name to Tim Fite, signed on with ANTI-, and cut a series of really good folk/rap records; my favorite is Over The Counter Culture, which came out in 2007 and still makes me laugh when I think about it ten years later. Mike continued producing music for other acts and made a bunch of acclaimed children’s records with his brother. But he never put out an album of his own. Until now.

There are twelve songs on Try Your Hardest, the Mr. Flannery & His Feelings album; I’m on most of them. On Thursday night, we’re going to attempt to play the album in its entirety, which’ll be a stretch for me, as I’m going to try to cover piano parts that I have no business attempting to play. But like a tabby cat, I enjoy stretching. I’m grateful to Mike for letting me scribble MS2000 parts all over his songs, I’m pleased he asked me and my combo to warm up the crowd at Pianos for him (I’m on at 8, and then the main event happens at 9; Maia from Kid In The Attic is doing a solo thing at 10.) Practices for this show have sounded really good, and Mike has been able to call on people he’s met during a life in showbiz to give him a hand, including — and I am dead serious here — the former singer of Chic, who’s going to be duetting with him on a song called “Full Grown And Ready.” No kidding. She sounds great!, and yeah, you didn’t need me to tell you that. If you ever want to feel really self-conscious about your playing, here’s a surefire way to do it: get a member of Chic in the room. That ought to confirm your suspicion that you’re no Omar Hakim.

But no, I’m never surprised by the people Mike pulls through the practice door, because making personal connections happen between artists is what he’s always been about. If he wants to be your friend, there’s nothing cagy about it — he’ll come out and say so. And while that’s served him well over the years and earned him a deep reservoir of good will, I’m not ashamed to say that it’s served me even better. Every single person I’ve met through Mike has been creative, sweet, humble, intelligent, and altogether worth knowing; I’m not sure where I fit into all of that, but heck, there’s got to be a black sheep in every bunch. Mike introduced me to the designer of the Almanac site (that’s Chris Littler, who sings for the Chamber Band), the woman who drew most of the cartoons on the city pages (that’s Ula Bloom, whose images continue to inspire me), the drummer who cut the basic tracks for many of these new songs, including the goofy kinda-hair-metal number we uploaded yesterday (that’s Eric Tait, whose studio, The Farm, is a wonderful place to hang out and make music); his wife Katherine, who has rapidly become one of my favorite people, and even his mom and dad, who are Jersey artists, too. (Mike’s mother painted the album cover; his father is a psych-rocker and guitar-builder.) I’ve got a tendency to withdraw and write and play games and spin Tropicalia records at home all day; it’s a pleasant way to spend time, but ultimately, it isn’t very good for me or the world around me. I thank Mike for dusting me off and airing me out.

Much of the recording for Try Your Hardest was done in a little room at Bass Hit Studios on 26th Street in Manhattan. That’s the same place where I wrote the songs that became the Almanac project, many of them on the same red guitar that Mike is going to play at Pianos tomorrow night. I’d rented time in that room from Mike after running into him at the Grove Street PATH Station; I’d told him then and there about an ill-defined musical project I wanted to do that was better left undone. But Mike was willing to take it seriously, and he helped me re-focus and discipline my thinking so that it could take the shape of songs again. That was a fortunate meeting for me: I’m pretty confident I wouldn’t have gone on a writing streak without the encouragement and the studio resources. In fact I’ve grown so accustomed to coming away from an encounter with Mike with an opportunity in my bag that I fear I might start taking it for granted. I doubt I’m the only one. Tomorrow night, everybody gets in on the action. It ought to be something to see.

 

American Flag

 

Wave it around in an infinity sign.

While an armistice was signed at Appomattox in April 1865, the Civil War never really ended. The shooting stopped, mostly, but fighting continued by other means, and on other battlefields: in the courts, in newspapers, in popular culture, in flag controversies and statue-erections and statue-removals, and and, most of all, within the institutions of electoral democracy. America continues, and will probably always continue, to pay the price for the monstrous acts of violence — slavery, genocide, labor exploitation, ecological devastation — that accompanied the march of the flag on this continent. For four years in the mid-nineteenth century, Americans stood in neat ranks on battlefields and attempted to blow each others’ heads off. Since then, the aggression has been expressed less evenly, but not, when you get right down to it, much less lethally.

Some journalists have lately suggested that civil war — shooting war, I mean — is about to break out again. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you why: public discourse, or what is left of it, has deteriorated to the point that it no longer has any practical political application. When words become useless, people who seek power turn to other tools. I don’t know for sure if those who crawl around in the nastiest corners of the Internet are just trolling us, or puffing themselves up, or if they really do mean business when they write they’re taking up arms and coming for those who don’t share their outlook. But that it’s even conceivable that they could be serious — and that they could be getting aid and comfort and reinforcement from people in positions of great power — tells us how far along the road toward actual violent confrontation we’ve come.

So on this ominous Independence Day, I’d like to remind everybody of an important lesson of American history that has, lately, been lost amidst the anxiety and noise. Sooner or later, the Confederates lose. Always. Oh, they make a heck of a rebel yell while they’re in mid-charge, and they fight vigorously, and they shed gallons of blood and scorch acres of earth. But the war always ends the same way: the Confederates downed after a hard struggle, bruised and grumbling, in retreat, swearing that they’ll rise and fight again. And then they do. And then they lose again.

We can kid ourselves, if we want to, about our moral and technological superiority. If that’s reassuring to you, Yankee, in 2017, go ahead and believe it; I’m not in the mood to strip anybody of her security blanket today. But the real reason the Confederates always lose is because defeat is the very foundation of Confederate ideology. Even as he marches, the Confederate, and his many modern analogues, understands that he has already lost: history has passed him by, he has been weighed against the standards of modernity and found wanting, he is prohibited from participation in the society to come. This is why he fights so ferociously. He is looking to inflict pain on you, who he imagines, is the beneficiary of the same processes that he feels have dispossessed him. If he can’t have it, he doesn’t want you to have it, either. The turning of the world is, for him, a grave accusation, and he is looking to avenge that insult.

This is a powerful motivation. But, I hope, you see that it’s also a dead end. No society will ever be refashioned or even realigned according to these principles. To put it crudely, too many people have far too much invested in the American experiment to let it crash to the earth. The Confederate threat will always, in the long run, be answered. Those who have to do the answering are often caught flatfooted by the force of the indignation; they aren’t mobilized, they look slow and out of touch. But don’t mistake lack of initiative for irrelevance, or senescence. Confederates and their heirs have been making that error for centuries. I can see them making it right now.

Leaders come and go; some are acceptable, some are awful. America has, in its long history, weathered plenty of misrule. We’re going to get through this crisis, too: not without a terrible cost, I’m sure, but when has it ever been easy? I think most of us realize we’ve got some sins to pay for, and that national atonement takes strange shapes. As novel as the present moment feels, just about everything that is troubling the country right now has deviled us before, in one form or another; go on and ask a historian and she’ll tell you so. She’ll also probably tell you that its going to get worse before it calms down — so be careful out there, and choose your side wisely.

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