spoon river

it’s almost exam season, so hilary has gone to the poetry anthologies to scrounge up some end-of-semester verse. one of those anthologies i stole from my tenth grade english class, and i still have it on the shelf, with the names of my favorite poets (e. e. cummings, edna st. vincent millay, marianne moore) underlined in red magic marker. i was amoral back then and would have courted any risk to possess some poetry. sorry, mr. byrne, i shoulda turned it back in. if my disdain for capitalization bugs you, you can blame the poets for that too. william carlos williams in particular. he was a jersey guy through and through. he liked to see what fences he could hop.

here’s something i forgot: i forgot how much i liked edgar lee masters. the spoon river anthology is a collection of two hundred short poems, each one narrated by a different dead person in a small town cemetery. the poems are stupendous on their own, but to really understand the anthology, you kind of have to swallow the whole thing. many of the narrators knew each other in life, and refer to each other in their epitaphs — it would have made a great hypertext document. some of the stories are contradictory, and some deliberately undercut others; for instance, the local politician praises his mother for teaching him his strength of character, and then we find out in a different poem that his parents stole him from a german immigrant. now i’m making spoon river anthology sound like a lifetime channel movie, and it isn’t that at all. it’s an attempt to engage with the midwest, and rural america, by examining the struggles of ordinary people and then asking the reader to assemble a folk orchestra from a riot of individual pipes and fiddles.

i wrote (bad) poetry in tenth grade, because of course i did, and i found myself wondering if, someday, i could illuminate my little quadrant of the universe as nicely as edgar lee masters represented his. i put those ambitions on hold in the nineties while i was learning how to play and sing, and i think spoon river got lost behind the kinks and randy newman and other pop miniaturists and social satirists i was eager to imitate. but it now occurs to me that the original draft plan for tris mccall album number two was something so similar to the spoon river anthology that it had to have been a direct influence on it. i made up a street on the border between union city and jersey city heights, and imagined the people who lived there, and then wrote songs from the perspective of each of those characters. i came up with a whole quasitheatrical stage show based around this, and dragged some of the new jack trippers into my fiendish plot. as it happened, the company that promised to back the project pulled out, and that, i thought, put an end to that. but jay braun rescued most of the flotsam and we made it into shootout at the sugar factory, which is way better than what i’d been planning, so all’s well that ended well. several of the characters did survive the crash and found a path to shootout: tim berg, the frightened stockbroker of “the night bus,” hector the code inspector, frank the overeducated toll collector of “scatter my ashes on the new jersey turnpike,” etc.  we buried edgar lee masters in the mix behind david byrne and nick rhodes, but if you listen carefully, you can hear him strumming.

now that i am writing and recording again, i discover to my amazement that i am still trying to do a spoon river anthology. edgar lee masters is ultra-lucid and i am anything but, but i remain committed by the idea of a cycle of individual stories told by separate narrators on a common theme that only becomes apparent when the listener experiences the stories together. these thirty-five songs i’ve written for this project are each single narrations from the mouths of american characters who i’ve conjured up and know much more about than i can fit in a pop song. if i could draw, i’d draw a picture of each one. maybe i could write a story about each one. maybe they should be presented, spoon river style, in sequence somehow. some of the narrations are so general that there’d be no way for a casual listener to pick up on any of the backstory i’ve developed — or even connect the character to the city he’s meant to represent — but maybe that’s my task. maybe i have to frame these stories so that the spoon river nature of the project is always apparent. and even as i type all this i am realizing my unbearable inadequacy to the source material. but it’s a literary grail i’m after, i guess. if i’m ever asked about my influences, and i don’t mention edgar lee masters, please refer me back to this post. and then to my poetry anthology.

Get up everybody and sing

Wednesday was a different thing altogether. Of the ten songs we ran at practice, I’d never played six of them, and I had no approach strategy for five of those six. I’d never seen the drummer before, and one of the guitarists was a guy I’d met briefly at shows but never made any music with — actually, I didn’t even know he was a musician until February. This was a common experience for me ten years ago when I played with a bunch of outfits that were permanently in flux. Back then, I possessed improvisational skills that have now, alas, evaporated. In 2016, just figuring out where my hands go on the keyboard is enough of a challenge for me.

There is a school of thought that says this is the best way to run a band: keep things unpredictable, stay open to possibility, switch up the musicians constantly and see what happens. That school has not been getting much funding lately. Zappa, who was the headmaster, died in ’93, and superintendent Jerry Garcia went two years later; it’s all gotten more and more Common Core since then. Conformity to rock and roll convention is not the sort of thing that Mike has ever cared about, and I am glad he’s committed to making each Mr. Flannery And His Feelings show a discrete experience. At the first show we did, Mike was backed by several musicians from the Chamber Band, a really good, D&D-loving Brooklyn group he was then working with. Show number two was a free-for-all with what felt like thousands of people onstage at Pianos at once; I was at the very crowded stage right and had no line of sight to Mike or Eric Tait, who played the drums that night (I believe). After that, #3 was a total changeup: just me, Mike, and Chris Conley onstage. I think it’s a measure of the strength of Mike’s concept that nobody can decide which of the three shows was the best.

I’m pretty sure show #4 is going to be the best. It’ll certainly be the most audacious and eclectic: reckoning that there are more Mr. Flanneries in the world than one, Mike is turning the stage over to his brother Dan for three songs and then to his dad for another three. Turns out Ron Flannery — that’s Mr. Flannery The Elder — was in a psych/garage rock band in Long Branch in the mid-’60s. They were called the Inmates, and they put out a 45 on Columbia Records in 1966 or 1967; I should’ve asked. The a-side of that disc is a goofy Beatlesque number called “Local Town Drunk” that I really like and which has been stuck in my head for the past 48 hours, but the really fun numbers are the other two: “You Tell Lies,” a pure garage rocker with a “Paperback Writer”-style riff, and “More Than I Have,” a tripped-out psych song that could have made one of those Nuggets collections. This stuff is a blast to play, even though (or maybe because) the organist doesn’t have to do too much. If I make like Daryl Hooper from the Seeds and wheedle away in the upper midrange, I ought to fit in fine. The irony is that, given George the Monkey’s fixation on ’60s pop in general and the Four Seasons’s psychedelic period specifically, the three Inmates songs probably share more with Overlord than they do with Dan’s ukulele-funk project or Mike’s upcoming Try Your Hardest. Hopefully Ron Flannery will stick around for the Overlord set. I already talked it up to him, but if he doesn’t want to wait around in a cramped club on the Lower East Side when he can get back quick to the Jersey Shore, I can’t say I’d blame him.

I rode the elevator up to the fourth floor of Ultrasound with Ron Flannery, and asked him whether the split show was his idea. He told me that Mike had put him up to it, which certainly sounds like Mike. But once we got in the room and started playing — Mike and Ron on guitar, Dan on bass, me on the organ, and a kid I’d never met named Tomo on drums — it was clear to me that he was enjoying himself. Not only did he burn through his own material, but he happily added Stratocaster and good vocal harmonies to his sons’ not-uncomplicated songs.  Which got me wondering about me and my usual musical running-mates: how many of our own dads would ever do the same? My father was a celebrated doo-wop singer in the 1950s, but by the time I was old enough to take piano lessons, he’d left that part of his life far behind. It’s as difficult for me to imagine him with an electric guitar around his neck as it would be to picture him swinging through the jungle on vines. Dads — even former-hooligan dads — are supposed to be, at best, vaguely disapproving of the rocking activity of their children. If they ever do consent to sing together, it’s supposed to be moldy oldies, with the kids playing an earnest support role on a trip down Memory Lane. Certainly dad is not supposed to ratify the boys’ musical ambitions by singing along enthusiastically to unconventional new compositions. But here was Mr. Flannery the Elder doing just that.

Earlier this week, I heard some bad news about the father of somebody I care about. That particular dad can’t be much older than Ron Flannery is, yet it sounds like his body is betraying him. I don’t think he was ever the sort of dad who’d strap on a Strat and make psych-rock with his children, but if he was ever so inclined, he doesn’t have that option anymore. Many of the people who played during the period that we all still strive to imitate aren’t exactly in performance shape anymore. If it wasn’t for ’60s music, we indiepop individuals wouldn’t have anything to rip off but the new wave and the C86 — and that’s just not as good. I’m not a member of the Flannery family, but I’m still glad I’m going to have the opportunity to play these Inmates numbers for the same crowd that’ll be there to hear Overlord and the material from Try Your Hardest. I’m a cornball, I know, but these links to Jersey musical history always excite me. I should just open a museum already.

I’m glad he insisted

I wasn’t surprised that it rained last night. It always rains on the night of an Overlord practice. Rain or snow or wind or some combination; whatever it is, I’m prepared to ride my bicycle through it. It never bothers me. I’ve come to see it as a solid metaphor for the adversity that Overlord has always had to face. Practice itself has been swell lately. If I can get through the discomfort of the trip, there’s always something rewarding on the other side. It seems like a small price to pay.

That the band is better than ever isn’t the surprising part to me. What’s most amazing in 2016 is that there’s an Overlord at all. Everybody in the group has other projects and commitments, many of them consuming; still, no matter what else comes up, Overlord outlasts those distractions. Some of the obstacles that the group has had to overcome during the decade or so I’ve been in it: geographical challenges, including the frontman’s relocation to San Francisco, some not-inconsequential lineup shuffles, the defection of a few key allies to other cities, the loss of a permanent practice space, a scrapped European tour, the lucidity crash in NYC indiepop that made everything on the scene sound like the Pains plus a blender for awhile, and our bewildering name, which always makes the uninitiated assume that we’re a metal band.

Overlord is not metal. I doubt very much that a metal band would have me. For many years, I wasn’t sure why Overlord would have me either. Sometimes I’ve joined a band — My Teenage Stride comes to mind — with a clear need for something I know I’m able to provide.¹ Overlord wasn’t like that at all. The lineup I first heard at the old Knitting Factory in Tribeca sounded impressively complete, but George wanted me in anyway, and he can be a persuasive monkey. In retrospect, I’ll bet he asked me to be part of the band because he was under the misapprehension that I was a capable backing singer. I know he appreciated my spazmo enthusiasm during performance, though it must have made quite a contrast with his impassive mid-’00s stage demeanor. I remember long bike rides back from Williamsburg after practice, wondering if I’d contributed anything or if my bleeps and blorps were just messing up the songs. Once after a show in Philly that didn’t go too well, I wrote to George and explained that I’d always be a fan, but I wasn’t fitting in and Overlord would probably work better without me. He wouldn’t accept my resignation.

I’m glad he insisted that I stick around. George didn’t really have any suggestions about how I’d better fit in to what the group was doing, but he must have been envisioning a future Overlord that could accommodate my approach. The guys who were then in the band — Steve Schiltz of Longwave, and Jon Robb, a longtime Overlord collaborator who is in a Philadelphia group called Lo Power Plane that you might not know — played in a tight, resolute, super-locked-down Euro-style that did not beg for ornamentation from me. I love those guys and enjoyed being in the band with them, but I… I can’t really play like that. I don’t need to be in Phish, necessarily, but I’m always going to put intuition ahead of execution, which is a pompous way of saying I need latitude for my many screw-ups. What ended up saving me was the addition of Kerry Kennedy on second guitar, which saturated the top range and gave me a place to hide, and jump out from, like a mugger with a synthesizer.² Although George wasn’t hearing it then and still, I’m sure, wouldn’t want to hear it now, we’d started to resemble Oasis: songs influenced by classic sixties pop and the Smiths, wall o’ guitars, impressive rhythmic discipline, alternately anthemic and cheeky numbers but an atmosphere of seriousness, no small amount of stadium rock grandeur.

Cake Shop is no stadium, thank goodness, and there is limited demand for an Oasis-like band on the cupcake pop circuit. George, I think, understood this, and at some point (and I’m still not 100% sure how this happened) we acquired the Palomar III rhythm section. For me, this felt like coming home. Matt Houser knows the whole pop-punk playbook and his Costello too, and he’d put it to practice in my own band on many occasions. Sarah Brockett is basically a new wave kid.³ Brockett, I understand, played in one of the first versions of Overlord, long before I knew who George was, and thus began a long and fruitful musical partnership that, I hope, will last forever ever. Suddenly the band began to sound less European and more like the Cars. And if a band is going to make like the Cars… well, yeah, it’s pretty obvious where the synthesizer fits.

A wise woman once said that if you look around the practice space and you can’t identify the jerk in the group, it’s probably you. I must be the jerk in Overlordª, because I can’t even imagine three people I’d rather be in a band with than Matt, Sarah, and George. Even if they weren’t as good at what they do as they are, I bet I’d still feel that way. We’ve got a ten-song record coming out called The Well-Tempered Overlord, and every time I hear it, I’m astonished, and inspired, all over again by how beautifully my bandmates played. There’s a lot of love inscribed in this album — which is counterintuitive, since the songs are all about interpersonal disaster and aesthetic frustration. But ain’t that indiepop, something to see, little pink houses for you and me. Trust me, I’m not boasting not because of anything I did. I’m just proud to be in this group and absolutely confident that this is going to be one of your favorite albums of 2016. If I had the ability to do it, I’d link to the songs right now, but that’s not how showbiz works. I take the moral of the Overlord story to be one about patience and perseverance, not to mention the perennial cleverness of monkeys, so perhaps it’s for the best. One way or another, you’ll be hearing from us soon enough — at Pianos° on April 28, if you’re game.


¹The other model, which I always dig, is to join a group in its nascent stage and help shape the sound. That’s how it worked in Sasha Alcott’s first band. What I contributed to her music wasn’t all that hot (sorry, Sasha), but playing in that outfit taught me how to respond to other musicians. Before that, I was strictly plug in and twist knobs and to hell with the rest of you people.

²I don’t know if Kerry ever liked me much, but we played well together. One of my favorite moments in any show I’ve ever done with any band: me and Kerry improvising a lead line over the top of “Keep It From The Baby” at the Bell House. We’d just flown across the country after a show at a Nerd Nite event in Los Angeles, and were on an hour of sleep, max; we got into JFK a few hours before soundcheck. (The Wrens were headlining, which more than justified the trip.) Maybe exhaustion had lowered our mutual empathetic resistance, but we were really listening to each other that night. I miss her.

³One of the first times I ever felt like I was on the right track with Overlord: onstage at Cake Shop, I messed with the semitone knob on the MS2000 until I’d made the beginning of “Evergreen” sound like early OMD. Brockett, who was in the audience, lit up. I thought to myself, hey, if Sarah likes it, I’m going to stick with it.


ºI’m pulling double duty that night. I’m also playing with Mr. Flannery and his Feelings. Mike’s band is on first, then Glenn Morrow of Bar/None plays with his Cry For Help, then Overlord, then Richard Davies, and then Hamish Kilgour of the Clean finishes the night. Steven puts together ambitious bills.

Four new(ish) hip-hop albums

Last year was loaded with epochal, state-of-the-nation hip-hop albums. Natch, this year is off to a somewhat less ambitious start. I won’t say slower necessarily, although I do realize that now that the novelty has worn off, both the new Kanye and Kendrick feel like leftovertures. Really good, entertaining leftovertures, but leftovertures nonetheless; they’re attempts to hoover up all the debris in the blast radius of their last two albums. Throw in just-okay new projects by Future and Young Thug that break no new ground, and you might conclude that hip-hop is spinning its wheels after a ridiculous 2015.

But there’s some swell records out that you might not know about, and I’m gonna be a buddyroo and tell you about them right now. Grades are very very certainly preliminary and based on a scale where A+ equals “Children’s Story” and F- equals Madonna’s verse on “Vogue” (or Kanye’s verse on “Jukebox Joints,” jeez, Kanye.) This is the music that’s currently inspiring me to make some music of my own. Not hip-hop, mind you, because that would be absurd, but music that shares with hip-hop an interest in the intersection of character, urban setting, and topicality. Also, ass jokes.

Too High To Riot is Bas‘s second album for J. Cole’s Dreamville imprint, and if you liked 2014 Forest Hills Drive, you’ll probably want to get with this, too. Cole he is not — for one thing, he pushes a much more conventional life story, and for another, he’s not that good. But he raps nicely in the introspective style favored by wake-of-Drake emcees who want to make their seriousness manifest, and the production, which is mostly handled by Ron Gilmore, provides moody uniformity. I don’t mind too much when he gets personal-political, as he does on “Black Owned Business” and the title track, and when he kicks himself for his inattentiveness to his sick relatives, I believe him at least as much as I believed Soupy from the Wonder Years. He could be nicer to the women around him; him and every other emcee in America. Anyway, this ought to hold the average J. Cole fan over until the next J. Cole album, and might also appeal to those uncommitted voters who find Cole too corny. Then again, when the boss drops by to do a verse on “Night Job,” predictably, it makes Bas look like a junior partner. That verse contains what might be the most J. Coliest stanza ever: “can’t fuck with Cole either/don’t ask for a feature/we bring a whole liter of ether to eat ya/if these bullets was heat seeking, they wouldn’t even reach ya.” All the way from Fayetteville, you can hear him patting himself on the back. B+.

A project I keep expecting to hear more crossover praise for is Northern Lights by Allan Kingdom, the St. Paul rapper who played the mystery man on “All Day.” A feature on a Kanye track doesn’t get a kid quite as far as it once did. The post-808s production on this mixtape, which is streaming free at Kingdom’s website, is outrageously good: simultaneously glossy and creepy and enveloping, redolent of cold streetcorners, flickering like a neon sign advertising off-brand beer in the window of a scary-looking bar. Kingdom has a good ear for an autotuned tune that, again, is reminiscent of Drake’s, but he’s got his own melodic vocabulary, suite of synthesizer sounds, and home-studio tricks. The obvious reference point here is Kid Cudi –early Cudi, that is — and there are at least ten times on this tape when I expect him to break into “Day ‘N’ Nite.” So, yes, this is stoner rap, and I don’t blame you if you’ve had enough of that, but as much of the music here was handled by Plain Pat himself, you know you’re getting the highest quality strain. I can really see why this appealed to Kanye: it’s one of the few albums I’ve heard that manages to expand on the palette established by 808s without tipping into bombast or sentimentality. With production this good, Allan Kingdom could have rapped any old bullshit and gotten away with it (see Future) and he does indeed coast through some of this. Elsewhere he shows enough promise that I never find myself tuning out, or so engrossed by the sound that I space on his annoying complaints about various broads. A for the production, B- for the lyrics.

“How Does It Feel” (to be rich) was a decent-sized Internet smash for Kamaiyah last autumn. I thought it was surprisingly lucid for an Internet smash — usually those things are all I like to cha cha and other such nonsense. A Good Night In The Ghetto, which is streaming for free on Kamaiyah’s Soundcloud page, is more where that came from: sympathetic realism from a likable young Oakland woman with faith in her friends and a taste for laid-back West Side funk. That said, the reflections of a female hedonist high on drugs and her own sexual power aren’t all that much more illuminating than what you’d get out of a male rapper in a similar position, and the end rhymes aren’t too scintillating, either. As catchy as the music is, there’s something thin about the production. But Good Night reminds me a lot of YG’s My Krazy Life, and not just because YG makes a guest appearance — it’s a slice-of-life album narrated by a young hellraiser who just wants to party/don’t want to hurt nobody, but you get the distinct impression that somebody’s going down nonetheless. I sorta dismissed Krazy Life as derivative when I first got it, but it grew on me ferociously when the coherence of the character and the simplicity of the beats turned out to be a strength. I wouldn’t be surprised if the same thing happened here. B/B+, for now, but that assessment could be revised in a hurry.

Finally, after a few years in the wilderness, Elzhi has returned with a new album, which ought to prompt rejoicing in some quarters, especially those who supported the crowdfunding effort that made Lead Poison possible. Kickstarter fulfillment can be a bear — just ask Eisley, or the guys (allegedly) making Unsung Story. At one point I think some of Elzhi’s backers were considering forming a posse or hiring a private eye. Patience has been rewarded, though, because even by the high standards of the Detroit underground this is one hell of an album. Substantive, thematically detailed verses with genuine emotional and narrative trajectories, including several about Elzhi’s bouts of depression (that’s what delayed the album, he explains) and a total winner about the not-inconsequential cost of a trivial pot bust. He continues to be one of the world’s most acrobatic rappers — “The Healing Process,” a levitation, is the most impressive workout, but there are many others — but he’s such a magnetic storyteller that his skills aren’t even the main attraction here.  This isn’t a “fun” album, per se; consider that the title is a not-so-subtle reference to the junk the kids in nearby Flint have been drinking. But I’ll be damned if Elzhi doesn’t make his internal struggle compelling listening. I can even forgive the Anne Rice bullshit of “She Sucks,” which comes out of nowhere and is probably Elzhi’s idea of comic relief. So give him give him some of that vampire money. It’s early yet, but I’m betting this one is at least an A-, so welcome back, old friend, all is forgiven.

So that’s a pretty good start to the year! I’m not holding my breath until Views From The 6 arrives, if it doesarrive on the 29th, which, given the exercise in extended cruelty that this rollout has been, is no guaranteed thing. Plus I haven’t come close to wearing out the great rap albums of late 2014 into 2015. I continue to find Surf the cream of that bumper crop, but I’ll admit the one I listen to the most recently lately is Pusha T’s Darkest Before Dawn, which I’ve come to understand as a tight concept set about setting hype and bullshit aside and concentrating on what really matters. Not a new subject for hip-hop artists, but with his ruthless writerly precision and distinctive neutral evil outlook on life, it’s one that Pusha is well qualified to speak upon. Also, at thirty minutes, it perfectly suits my ride from home to the NJCU swimming pool. (The Allan Kingdom is another great cycling-after-dark album; try it on Communipaw or Bramhall sometime.) Anyway, if you’ve got anything to add to my playlist, please send me a recommendation and I’ll check it out. You know I don’t listen to nothing but hip-hop, unless I’m listening to something else.

What I got

Lovin’. Lovin’ is what I got. Also I got a bunch of quasicompleted semirecorded tracks. More than I can shake a stick at; then again, I’ve never been one of those wide-arc stick shakers. I’ll leave that sort of thing to the medicine men.

At the moment, the Glyph drive to my immediate left contains nine new songs recorded with Michael Flannery at a studio in rural Pennsylvania, a couple of sessions’ worth of material cut at Water Music in Hoboken with Brett Whitmoyer on drums, Justin Braun on bass, and Jay Braun in the producer’s chair, and about ten other demos of songs that I’m not sure would benefit from a band treatment. The law of indiepop suggests that some of this stuff is no good at all, though as I’ve written elsewhere, I couldn’t tell you right now what’s worth developing further and what isn’t. But unless I’ve completely lost my touch, some of it is also bound to be pretty good, too.

Exactly how half-baked are these pies we are half-baking? Golden brown and flakey with steam piping out a heart-shaped hole in the crust, or still a little wet on the bottom? To be honest, they’re not quite ready for the oven yet: I am still adding some ingredients. I spent the weekend overdubbing synthesizer — Mike was kind enough to set my Korg and the Moog up in his studio on 29th Street and leave me be to go wild. (He hasn’t heard the results yet; when he does, I wonder if he’ll still be so nice.) At home, I’ve been adding synth to the Water Music tracks, in a process that oscillates between methodical and crazed, while watching opening day baseball. Jay has yet to apply his Stratocaster to anything, and we’ll probably want to add horns to a couple of these songs. I haven’t done any of the backing vocals yet, so stand ready to be called, singer. I’m also not sure I’m done with my own lead vocals — some of what I did still makes me cringe, but I’m assured that there are ways to digitally decrockify my performances. Chances are I’ll be back in the vocal booth before long in a desperate, flailing attempt to improve the palatability of some of these numbers, so wish me well, pal.

But the basics are all there. The drums on the songs I’m doing with Mike Flannery were done by a guy named Eric Tait at a studio called The Farm. It’s Eric’s own place: a big barn converted into a recording studio. I’d only met Eric once — he was behind the kit at the second Mr. Flannery & His Feelings show — but he learned my goofy songs very quickly, and we motored through a bunch of them with very little trouble. Mike did most of the bass himself, and I, god help us all, contributed some acoustic and electric guitar, too. Brett and Justin played as beautifully, and empathetically, as they always do, and I tried my best to keep up with their inventiveness on the Water Music grand piano. My one regret so far is that I haven’t roped Matt Houser or Sarah Brockett into playing at any of these sessions, but they’re pretty busy with Overlord and other projects, and there’s still lots of time.

None of this is very interesting yet, and won’t be until I’m ready to release some of this music. But I’m leaving it here as a signpost to myself, and maybe to my collaborators, on the long and wide Llano Estacado of record-making. I’ve got some radical but vague ideas about how I want to begin making these songs public, but I’m trying as hard as I can not to get ahead of myself. If the crucial task of the moment is to get a synthesizer sound that suits the tenor of a song, I don’t want to start daydreaming about bigger plans. Recording original music is one of the most humbling things that a poor clod like me can do, but even at its worst, it’s also a lot of fun. Very little puts me in a better mood, so if I seem giddy at the moment, I apologize for that. It’ll all become clear soon enough.

MS2000 is the tool

Some people like fancy sportscars and slick telephony devices. I like my synthesizer. And while I have had many synths over the years — including a brand spanking new Moog Sub 37 that you’ll be hearing from — there’s only one I could possibly call my true love. That’s the Korg MS2000 that I got seventeen years ago when I first outfitted myself to be a real performing musician, and the instrument that has been with me ever since. I have modified and switched up the sounds so many times and for so many different projects over the years that the stored patches are an archaeological history of my development as a synth player. All the sounds I made for “Scatter My Ashes” and “The Night Bus” and Let The Night Fall are still right there in the patch suite, plus others a listener might recognize from Consultants and Palomar recordings or My Teenage Stride shows or the lost Kapow! album or a bunch of less permanent projects, too. It’s fair to say that my MS2000¹ is now more Tris McCall than Tris McCall is. I don’t know where the machinery ends and the rest of my artistry begins, and yes, I do think I have a song about that.

The MS2000 was the most affordable analog modeling synthesizer on the market around the turn of the millennium. It was meant to emulate (sort of) the MS20, an instrument I’d fiddled around with in college but didn’t make that much of an impression on me. I opted for the MS2000 because of the price — a cool thousand bucks cheaper than the Waldorf Q, which was then state-of-the-art — and because of its physical resemblance to the Korg Mono/Poly, a really good analog synth I owned briefly in the early ’90s. I bought a beat-up Mono/Poly that was on its last transistors from Rogue Music on 30th Street, and though I didn’t know anything about synthesis at the time, I knew how to crank dials and press buttons and marvel at the changes in the sound. As it turned out, the MS2000 was much more like the Mono/Poly than it was like the MS20 — not only did it offer partial polyphony, but its internal signal chain was similar to what I knew, or thought I knew. The MS2000 didn’t get the greatest reviews upon its release, but I have since had the opportunity to play around with the competition, and I think I lucked/cheaped into the best decision of my musical life. I notice I almost never see those more expensive analog modeling synthesizers² onstage anymore; the only band I ever saw with a Waldorf Q was My Favorite. Indiepop bands do still use the MS2000 or the MicroKorg, which is just the MS2000 in a smaller body. Sarah Martin of Belle & Sebastian played a MS2000 at Radio City last summer. I felt validated.

I’m aware of the problems. For instance, the synthesist is limited to four notes at a time (this was true for the Mono/Poly, too.) There are other synths that allow you to make grand polychords, though, and the MS2000 isn’t really about that anyway. The built-in memory is awful; you’re required to erase a patch if you want to design and save a new one, which has led to a great deal of frustration and a few disasters. It is somewhat cheaply built, too — the knobs are plastic and puny and have a habit of coming off and rolling around the stage. It’s hard to do one of those great Moog-style filter sweeps when you’ve only got a few millimeters of diameter on the dial to work with. That said, I come from the Keith Emerson tough-love school of synth-handlers, and in sixteen years of rough play, I’ve only sent the MS2000 to the shop a couple of times. This unit is sturdier than it looks. Korg might be Moog’s pale step-sister, but the company doesn’t make junk. The clock on the arpeggiator won’t sync reliably to or through MIDI, which would give me fits if I ever wanted to create jacktastic electronic dance music. Fortunately, nobody expects the screwy music I make to be played in time anyway. I have never ever used MIDI onstage and probably never will.

So if you don’t care about getting the arpeggiator perfect, or jacktastic industrial dance music, or RAM, or making nine hundred keys sound at once, I encourage you to give this instrument a shot. Or just respect. Because if you’re the sort of synth player who just wants to treat your instrument like a guitar — quarter-inch cable into willing amplifier and maybe even a stompbox or two — there’s very little like it. The trip from the initial signal through the filters to a radical outcome is the quickest I’ve ever experienced in nearly two decades of playing analog modeling synthesizers. My MS2000 affords me the kind of expressive latitude that would, on comparable instruments, require me to page through screens of parameters to achieve. In order to get the same immediacy, you’d probably need to get a real analog device, and those come with their own distinctive suite of drawbacks, including an irritating propensity to drift out of tune. It could be that I’m just used to the MS2000, and I’d have the same identification with a different analog modeling synthesizer if I’d gotten it around the same time. Somehow I doubt it, though. Everything about the MS2000 interface is intuitive, and everything about it calls you to, ahem, express yourself with your organ. I don’t even really mind erasing old saved patches when I make a new one: it forces me to economize, and treat each experiment as a meaningful one, and shed old ideas that have gotten stale.

I’m using the Sub 37 on my new recordings, and boy, has it ever been a thrill. I don’t feel worthy of it³. One of its ten million cool features: MIDI actually records the data of every knob-turn. I expect to spend the rest of my life unlocking the secrets of this amazing new instrument. But at least in the short run, the synthesizer you’re most likely to encounter on my new recordings will be the MS2000. After sixteen years, I know just how to get what I want from it; if there’s a sound in my head, I can usually realize it in an hour or so of fiddling with the oscillators. When Mr. Flannery’s Try Your Hardest comes out (any day now), and when The Well Tempered Overlord comes out (any day now), the instrument you’ll hear me play on those albums is the MS2000. I could play it on your record, too. All you’ve got to do is ask.


¹Since I’m a cutesy character, all of my instruments have proper names. The MS2000 is named after Miwako Fujitani, a Japanese actress. I’m calling the Moog Yolanda Watts, which is a cross between Yolanda Adams (the gospel singer), Rolonda Watts (the anchorwoman), the color yellow, and wattage. I give this stuff serious thought.

²My guess is that synth players don’t like to bring really expensive pieces of equipment out on the road with them, so they keep those upmarket analog modeling synthesizers safe in home studios, sample the sounds or use MIDI or whatever. Which is understandable. I’m just glad I was never precious about the MS2000, because it’s nice to have a blue friend with you when you’re far from home. Possibly unwise, but always fun.

³Then again, now that Keith is gone, we’ve all got to pick up the slack. I promise to reach beyond my grasp if you will, ok?


So I wrote some more songs. I didn’t stop with the bunch I came up with in 2015; I’ve continued on in 2016. More cities, more narrators, more observations about America. For instance, we went to spring training in Arizona and caught the Giants at Scottsdale Stadium, and a few days later I woke up with a chorus. Then I came up with another Valley of the Sun song, and Phoenix reminded me a bit of Las Vegas, so I got song number three out of the trip. Last week I fitted an old tag line to a new poem about Columbus, Ohio. It goes on: on Easter morning, I stumbled into a hook about a chocolate rabbit that inflated rapidly, as these things sometimes do, to the size of a song. A terrible song, probably; apologies to the bunny.

And that is the problem, to be frank: I don’t know which of these ideas are worth pursuing and which are just bad leads. Some of my songwriting inspirations — Tennant and Lowe, for instance, or Van the Man — were able to release song after song and maintain a high level of quality. I’m… pretty sure that’s not me. In retrospect, it’s easy to see which of my compositions were mediocre (too many) and which were good enough to make public. Unfortunately for me, it’s always a long ride to Retrospect. When I’m coming up with a new one — these Arizona songs, for instance — I always imagine that they’re the best, most exciting songs ever written, and that I’m going to perform them and the crowd at the rock club will go wild. This is as true for the stinkers as it is for the ones that actually deserve to go into the repertoire, so by now, I should rule myself out as a decent arbiter of the quality of my own work.

Noel Gallagher (there’s that guy again) once said something to this effect: if you come up with a song at night, sleep on it, and if you don’t remember how it goes in the morning, by this sign you’ll know that it wasn’t so hot. This is sensible advice, even if it does feel overly solicitous of the radio gods. Yet there’s a big part of me that rejects it outright. Many of the best songs on any album aren’t immediately recognizable as such. They don’t come up with a smile and shake your hand; they tap your shoulder and wait, coyly, to be noticed. One of my favorites of the new bunch is a song that I wrote when I was sick, and for a week afterward, I was pretty sure it was a throwaway piece of junk. If I hadn’t demoed it, I would have forgotten it. But I did, coughing and sneezing and cursing my need to always have a new one to send to my friends, and about a month later I realized that it was indispensable to the project. In fact, a line from that song is now prominently displayed on this page. That song is now so deeply embedded in my consciousness that it’s hard to imagine my musical life before I wrote it. If I’d followed Noel Gallagher’s guidance, it would have been vaporware.

An old bandmate who doubled as an astute critic of Tris McCall once told me that the longer I work on something, the more trouble I get into. It was this bandmate’s position that I did my best work when I was excited and confused and unsure about what I wanted to say, and once I figured it out, I’d start writing to serve the concept rather than the other way around. I’d get where I was going and then settle into a formula, and instead of discovery, I’d become a musical journalist, stamping out new tunes based on theoretical arguments I’d already settled with myself. This critique fit very well into this bandmate’s worldview. To be honest, it also fits well into mine. I took it to heart, and in the past, I’ve tried to be careful about it, and to switch things up and confuse myself once I feel like I’m getting complacent. But if this were true, these additional American Almanac songs would be crummy, or tired, or deadly formulaic, and I don’t believe they are. Maybe it’s the size of the subject that’s helping, or maybe America just makes me feel unsettled. Either way, I’m going to keep them coming until I run out of cities or my collaborators cry uncle. If I look back with total embarrassment on some of this stuff in five years, that won’t be a new experience for me. It’s unlikely that I’m now reaching the stage where every musical idea I come up with is worth following, but who knows?, maybe I’ve turned a corner. A fellow can hope. Maybe I’ve attained a baseline level of quality control, and they’re all pretty good now. Except for the one about the bunny. That one sucks.

The cleanup hitter

Me ‘n’ Steven differ on many subjects, including cycling, otters, and the proper condimento to heap on top of a plate of linguine. Yet there is one thing on which we always agree, and that thing is: power ballads. We love them. Many are the mediocre albums we’ve sifted through just to locate the big, cheesy fist-pumper to play and replay. I thought I knew everything I could possibly know about the tight relationship between Steven and ballads.

So I was recently surprised to learn — straight from the horse’s mouth, or text messenger — that Steven doesn’t think that a power ballad should be placed fourth on a standard pop-rock album. He believes that a band jeopardizes its forward momentum by downshifting early in a set. This not-uncommon sequencing phenomenon reminds him of the miserable days when the ’83 Mets batted the lead-footed George Foster cleanup. Foster had plenty of power, but no speed. Everything got clogged on the basepaths, innings died, and Frank Cashen spent late nights crying on the phone.

Now, if you’d ever asked me where the power ballad ought to go on a pop-rock album, without hesitation I would have said fourth, and I would have been deadly resolute about that. Yet it occurs to me that I have no clear idea why that is. When I have no clear idea, I get nervous, and when I get nervous, the bad vibes I produce are harmful to my house plant (a jade). Certainly I have listened to a buttload of albums, but Steven, in his capacity as the major domo of Piano’s Blooze Bar & Grill, has experienced a buttload of his own. Could he be right? Was I jumping the gun on the big ballad? A few days after writing an essay about, among other things, the new possibilities of record sequencing in our zany digital era, here was an example of a music listener to whom the order of songs matters deeply. I, alas, cannot and do not write power ballads; I write disempowerment chants, protest songs, uptempo synthesizer freakouts. But if I did (and perhaps you do), I’d want to know how to sequence it in order to achieve maximum vainglory. Where should the power ballad go? Where, historically, has it gone?

Well… Aerosmith stuck “Dream On” third on their debut album. KISS buried “Beth” on the second side of Destroyer, and Poison put “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” in the same position. “November Rain” was somewhere in the bowels of Use Your Illusion I, while “Total Eclipse Of The Heart” and “Stairway To Heaven” were both in that magic number four slot. So was the less-epic “Sister Christian,” and “The Search Is Over,” and “Love Bites” and Bryan Adams’ classic “Heaven”; all of those were cleanup hitters. Heart was a little bolder about frontloading the balladry: both “What About Love” and “Alone” were placed second on their sets. “Always,” the gooiest power ballad in Bon Jovi’s boardwalk-caramel repertoire, slotted in at number four on Cross Road; “Wanted Dead Or Alive” closed side one of Slippery When Wet in the fifth spot. “Faithfully” did the same honors in the same position on Frontiers, but Journey fans had to wait for the very end of Escape to hear “Open Arms.” “Home Sweet Home”? That was another number five, right before you flipped the cassette (or didn’t) on Theatre Of Pain.

But wait a second: while some of these are awesome records, I can’t say I care for many of the albums that they’re from. I learned most of these songs straight from MTV. Even if it was a hair metal convention to put the power ballad fourth or fifth, I couldn’t possibly have acquired my ideas about pop-rock sequencing from Survivor. I don’t think I’ve ever listened to a Survivor album in my life. I must have gotten my funny ideas somewhere else. Maybe I just take the essentialist position that after twelve minutes of rock crunch and howling abandon, the stage is set for a slow-burning, heartrending, grotesque showstopper, and maybe Mutt Lange arrived at the same conclusion years earlier than I did.

More likely, I learned power ballad sequencing from the pop-rock albums I do listen to. Our favorite artists don’t usually talk about power ballads, since they don’t want to be associated with the worst excesses of the 1980s. But they certainly make them. Their power ballads may be more lyrically and harmonically sophisticated than “When I See You Smile” (or maybe not), but they’re stamped out from a similar template. Game Theory and the Loud Family, for instance, wrote many songs that were essentially power ballads — usually one per album, but sometimes more. Scott Miller used those ballads just as Steven Tyler might have: they came after a series of songs that attempted to make an impression on the listener by flashing hooks and choruses at a breakneck pace, signifying ‘tude, insouciance, musical ideas to burn. “Amelia, Have You Lost” took the cleanup spot on 2 Steps From the Middle Ages; “If And When It Falls Apart” closed the first side of Real Nighttime (fifth position, if you don’t count the eight second opening track), “Blackness Blackness” marked the end of the front half of Attractive Nuisance, and Days For Days had a medium-wattage ballad fourth and then a total slow-building powerhouse — “Sister Sleep,” the band’s version of “Stairway To Heaven”¹ — at the tail end of the set. My two favorites, though — “Some Grand Vision Of Motives And Irony” from Plants And Birds And Rocks And Things and Lolita Nation‘s sublime “Nothing New” — were strategically placed at the climax points of narrative/emotional arcs on long albums.

Paramore arrived at the mutually assured destruction stage of band development quicker than many, but I hope we can all agree that at their non-litigious best, these kids made first-rate pop-rock. They, too, tend to slot the power ballad deeper in the album than the lite metal bands generally did. “When It Rains,” the first ballad on Riot! , comes fifth, but “We Are Broken,” the real showstopper, is saved for the back half of the album. Brand New Eyes features five tracks of sturm und drang in various flavors before Hayley Williams hits you with “The Only Exception”²; “Misguided Ghosts,” a gentler number, sets up the proggy, sludgy conclusion. I count “Last Hope”, which is probably what they used to call a midtempo ballad, among the lighter-wavers, but the real tender track on Paramore, “Hate To See Your Heart Break,” is saved for the home stretch. The turn away from the power ballad, which is a Warped Tour circuit staple, was probably part of the band’s strategy to shed the emo tag once and for all. I’m not sure they did that. Once they’re through suing each other, that’s something they should work out.

I know nobody is trying to hear this, and I completely understand why. But before they turned the songwriting over to Deep Blue, Maroon 5 was an exemplary pop-rock band (yes, band!) with exemplary showstoppers. “Never Going To Leave This Bed” and “Won’t Go Home Without You,” which are similar songs, held down the fifth position on Hands All Over and It Won’t Be Soon Before Long. “She Will Be Loved,” the sopping-wet power ballad that made them a Thing, hit cleanup on Songs About Jane. Adam Levine kinda abandoned the power ballad once he capitulated utterly to contemporary Top 40 logic, rather than try to bend it to his will, which was the group’s initial strategy. Not coincidentally, the same thing has happened with the modern master of crowd-pleasing traditionalist songwriting: Taylor Swift. In days of yore, a fan could set his watch by her sequencing — a big, yearning mid-tempo number would come third, followed by a coy genre piece, followed by the devastated, torchy, confessional ballad designed to bring down the house for the star and opprobrium on the rake who’d wronged her (“Dear John,” “White Horse,” “All Too Well”). On 1989, there aren’t any ballads until the second side, and the one we got was mostly an attempt to nose a fender into Lana Del Rey’s lane. Power ballads and electropop are incompatible: process the analog signals to hell and back if you must, if you don’t have a real drummer and a real guitarist, you end up with a pile of digital mush.³

Which is probably why they dig them in Nashville. Pop-country outfits love power ballads. Some music-mill artists — including some very good ones — attempt to freight every album with multiple power ballads, which does get grueling even for Mayor McCheese over here. Male country singers have taken to frontloading their ballads: Blake Shelton ran “Lonely Tonight” third on Bringing Back The Sunshine; Brad Paisley put “Perfect Storm” in the same position on Moonshine In The TrunkMiranda Lambert, my favorite practitioner, is a little more judicious about it: since she’s got her tough-guy reputation to maintain, she tends to lead with barnburners. “Love Letters,” the first ballad (and fifth track) from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, is more of a Western saloon song than an arena rocker, for instance, and “More Like Her,” the real showstopper, doesn’t arrive until two songs later. “Dead Flowers” does bat third on Revolution, but the most traditional power ballad in the Lambert repertoire — “Over You,” from Four The Record — waits in the grass until number nine. “Smokin’ And Drinkin’,” the cleanup hitter on Platinum, is a ballad of sorts, but it’s more mid-period Mac than musclebound masher, if you know what I mean.

Anyway, I didn’t get into Miranda Lambert, or any other mainstream country album, until 2010. By that point, I’d already been making records with various pop-rock outfits for a million years. I must have gotten my ideas about sequencing from somewhere else — likely something I was spinning when I made my first serious decisions about the order of a songs on an album. Back in 1995, I helped sequence the first Favorite Color album, and as it was my first time stringing together real studio tracks, I wanted to get the order right. The biggest proximate influence on that Favorite Color album was Blur, which was just about the only group in the world that everybody involved in the group could agree was good. The Great Escape, Blur’s ’95 album, does indeed contain a power ballad, even if Damon Albarn would never, ever call it that: “The Universal,” my favorite song of theirs by a wide margin, and the seventh track on the set. Not coincidentally, we ran “Mergers & Acquisitions,” the closest thing the Favorite Color had to a power ballad, seventh on our album.ª

Blur wasn’t the only Britpop band we were paying attention to, though, and they weren’t my act of choice. In the hyped-up battle of the U.K. then occurring, my sympathies were with Oasis, since their big goony-bird sound suited my big goony-bird personality. Oasis also had an album out in 1995: What’s The Story (Morning Glory). Might there have been a huge, fish ‘n’ chip greasy, beer-swinging power ballad on that set? Let’s check the tracklist and see….

…well, yes. Yes there was. “Don’t Look Back In Anger” contains pretty much everything I want from a power ballad. It’s played at top volume, its lyrics contain a long skein of fist-pumping slogans, the band wrings every ounce of drama out of each step in the chord progression, there’s a woman’s name in the chorus, there’s a prominent major-to-minor change in the chorus, there’s a guitar solo that transcends cliche through pure conviction and nothing but, the drummer hits the skins like he’s trying to break them, and the singer takes it to the outer limit of his modest vocal ability (Liam Gallagher, you’ll remember, was on the bench for this one, and Noel sang lead himself.) Sure enough, Oasis batted that one cleanup, and clean up it totally did. Heavy metal album pacing aside, I believe that the entire reason I expect the power ballad to be sequenced fourth because of my fond memories of the “Don’t Look Back In Anger” experience. Noel Gallagher was such a committed formalist that it’s likely he put his power ballad fourth because John Lennon or Marc Bolan did.  He slotted “Stand By Me,” another power ballad, fourth on Be Here Now; “Stop Crying Your Heart Out,” a “Don’t Look Back” redux, ran #4 on Heathen Chemistry. Worth noting: the British rock star most respectful of classic rock precedent (if never any of his peers or bandmates) firmly believed that the showstopper went in the number four position, which suggests, if anything does, that there’s something to the notion that it’s the proper home for a power ballad.

I’ve mentioned forty-seven songs in this post. Even if you’d like to quibble about the power they pack, they’re certainly all ballads, and they sure are dramatic ones. The average tracklist position of those ballads is 4.936. Just about every song I chose to list came off the top of my head, so confirmation bias inclined me toward cleanup-hitters. Steven, I conclude, may well have a point — but it’s probably not a fine a point as the one on the needle of his favorite deejay’s turntable. Most sabermetricians now argue that it doesn’t really matter that much where players bat in the lineup — as consequential as the decision to hit Speedy Johnny ahead of Slugger Pete feels, it’s worth, at the very most, a handful of runs over the course of a single season. I wonder if something similar could be said about album sequences. Everything I believe I know about music tells me otherwise, and probably you feel the same way too, but if My Aim Is True or More Adventurous had been presented to you with tracks shuffled, how much quality would they have lost for you? Imagine the most suboptimal running order you can, and then ask yourself: after a couple of plays, would this begin to feel natural to me? After a time or two through a set, the first couple of tracks are no longer a handshake to the uninitiated: they’re just part of series of songs that’s best apprehended as a body of work. Many great albums do tell a linear story, but with a few notable exceptions, I’ve come to believe that line could be radically redrawn without losing the conceptual essence of the whole. That’s not to say I’d ever want to; like Noel Gallagher, I cherish classic rock conventions and take no small satisfaction when they’re reinforced. If brilliant sequencing makes 1% of difference in the quality of an album, I still believe it’s worth sweating that 1%, because everything about an album is worth considering carefully. But whether you want to run your power ballad fourth, or fifth, or last, or as a hidden track available at Wal-Mart only, chances are, you’re in good company.°


¹”Stairway” and “Sister Sleep” aren’t exactly built like lite the metal power ballads are — they’re much longer and more intricate, for one thing. You might insist that songs that begin slowly and snap midway to an uptempo section require a different category. I don’t; I think they’re power ballads, or at the very least, kissing cousins of power ballads. The power ballad in sequence is, at heart, an attempt to extend the intensity of a pop-rock album by means other than speed and effrontery, and an attempt to intervene in the monotony of the single-tempo album. That’s why they’re so wonderfully bombastic. They pour the thermoactive liquid compound into a wider and clearer vessel.

²Likewise, I’ve heard it said (by cretins) that a true power ballad can’t be in 6/8. To me, the hallmarks of a power ballad are a pleasantly hamfisted approach by the drummer and rhythm guitarist, an overwrought performance by the frontperson that demonstrates technical and emotional range, and maybe a screaming solo. That can happen in any old time signature.

³Just now, in the car, Hilary explained the appeal of the power ballad like this: “You need real drums, hitting hard, to get your heart pumping, and the blood coursing through your veins to remind you you’re alive.” We were listening to “Change,” the last number on Fearless. Blood was coursing.

ªCome to think of it, I badly wanted “Mergers & Acquisitions” to sound like “Hand In My Pocket,” which was the quasi-ballad in the magic number four spot on Jagged Little Pill. The rest of the band plus the producers much preferred Blur to Alanis Morissette, so I probably talked up “The Universal” in the control room as a reference point. It was a long time ago and I didn’t know what I was doing.

°Just for the hell of it, and because I’m shooting the breeze and having fun here, I thought I’d look at the sequencing decisions of some of my favorite pop-rock albums of the last couple of years. “Aluminum Crown,” the cleanup hitter from Aureate Gloom, starts out slow and dramatic and then speeds up. But Kevin Barnes throws so many variations into his songs that it’s probably more accurate to treat him like a prog-rocker with a penchant for formal experimentation than the power pop champ he could be if he ever wanted to be. After a frantic start, Ezra Furman takes down the tempo on track number four of Perpetual Motion People, and then gets slower yet for number five, but waits until seven for the statement ballad. Natalia Lafourcade’s Hasta La Raiz is another pop-rock album that gets slower and more serious as it goes along. “No Mas Llorar,” an American- style power ballad, closes the set, right after “Estoy Lista,” a long-and-winding-road power ballad. She probably didn’t need both of them, but she’s such a great singer and songwriter that I don’t mind a bit; really, people, I can’t recommend Natalia Lafourcade highly enough. Kevin Parker of Tame Impala is another classicist who likes to put the first slow song fourth — but the real power ballad on Currents, “Cause I’m A Man,” doesn’t come until the album’s second side. Short Movie also downshifts after a couple of electric guitar numbers — “Walk Alone,” track number four, is an acoustic ballad, but for my money, it’s more intense than all the ’80s hair metal showstoppers put together. Laura Stevenson made the unusual decision to kick off Cocksure with the power ballad “Out With A Whimper.” She probably thought it was too good to be buried, and if she did, she was right. Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness doesn’t really have a ballad on it — it takes off easy, cruises at a steady altitude without much chop, and lands smoothly without circling the airport. Okkervil River got mid-tempo-ish on “Down Down The Deep River,” slowed down to a psychedelic stroll two tracks later with “Lido Pier Suicide Car,” but saved the power ballad “All The Time Every Day” for the penultimate track on Poll winner The Silver Gymnasium. Finally, Carl Newman actually has a designated cleanup hitter in the New Pornographers: Dan Bejar, who has contributed song number four to the last three albums. On the three albums before that, he handled song number five. Get enough hits, and the manager will move you up in the order.

a.k.a. Pablo

As you probably know by now, Kanye West has a new project called The Life Of Pablo. Chances are good that you also know that the publication of The Life Of Pablo has been unorthodox. After months of delays, an initial version of Pablo was either leaked or released — it’s hard to tell — right around Valentine’s Day. After many people thought they’d gotten their hands on the new Kanye West album, he withdrew Pablo, remixed some of the songs, and added several cuts (he blamed the switcheroo on junior partner Chance The Rapper, who’d argued for the inclusion of a song that hadn’t been on the first release.) There was also a Madison Square Garden performance that may or may not have been an album release party, some high-profile Twitter battles with other musicians, and angry, early-P.E.-style notes from the artist asking white critics not to review music made by black musicians anymore. When West restricted the release of Pablo to the Tidal streaming service, thousands of fans chose to rip the album rather than buy a subscription. West has refused to report the official Tidal streams to Billboard, so we’ll never know how much money his decision cost him¹. The Daily Mail estimated that he left ten million dollars on the table. I think they’re full of it, since many fans would have swiped the album anyway, but the point remains: Pablo didn’t make the money it could have if Kanye West had released it conventionally.

To add to the confusion: even though The Life Of Pablo has been out for two months and many fans have already paid for it, it’s now clear that West isn’t finished with the album. He’s been tinkering with the tracks, and he reserves the right to continue working on Pablo until he’s satisfied with it. So are you willing to purchase a Tidal subscription to get a Kanye West album that may not be the same as the Kanye West album you’ll get the next time you check in? Or are you going to rip today’s Pablo, call that the album, and hope that tomorrow’s Pablo isn’t substantially improved?

This may sound like a mess to you, and if so, you’re not alone. In the public discussion of The Life Of Pablo, West has been pilloried for the disastrous quality of the album’s rollout. This is supposed to go to character — Kanye is a loose cannon, a screw-up, and a mixed signal-sender who does and says crazy things and gets out of line and hurts Ms. T. Swift’s feelings, and is therefore deserving of a public comeuppance. But wait a second: why the heck am I supposed to care about Kanye West’s finances anyway? What difference does it make to me if his marketing strategy is faulty or weird? I’m not his business manager², I’m just a music fan. As a collector and occasional completist, it annoys me that West won’t release The Life Of Pablo on CD; there’s a shelf in our living room with the rest of his records on it, and it would be nice to add another. As a fussbudget critic who writes essays for fun, I would like Kanye West to finish The Life Of Pablo so I can bloviate about it to friends and compare and contrast it with his prior projects. In other words, the pleasures he’s denying me here are kind of silly, stunted ones. And when I look at the publication of Pablo objectively, I begin to suspect that West, who never encounters an apple cart without trying to upset it or a henhouse without foxing around in it, might be on to something.

By releasing Pablo before it’s done, West isn’t just calling into question whether an album needs to be finished by its publication date. He’s questioning whether an album needs to be finished ever. A collection of songs called The Life Of Pablo now exists in the world, and it always will: once music is released, it can’t be unreleased. But given the flexibility of digital technology, there’s no real reason why an artist can’t keep fussing with — or maybe even radically reinterpreting — an album to his heart’s content. It’s possible that doing so will alienate or bewilder or frustrate more listeners than it attracts. But it’s equally plausible to me that fans of the artist will find the alterations fascinating and want to follow them all in the same obsessive way they might follow his tweets and posts³.

I don’t think it’s going too far out on a limb to predict that mutability is going to be a major and widely accepted characteristic of art in the 21st century. Nothing is going to stand still for long, and that’s because nothing has to. The hard-and-fast release date was a product of an era that fetishized the physical object: an album had to be released by a certain date because it was contained on a piece of plastic that needed to be manufactured at a plant and distributed to a retail outlet. This isn’t true anymore. I think we haven’t even begun the transformation in artistic forms that are likely to follow the de-coupling of works of art from artifacts. I’m going to guess at the implications — for the world, and for me — in a separate post.



¹Maybe it’s the San Francisco Giants fan in me (or maybe it’s just the song “Barry Bonds”) but I’ve always strongly associated West with Barry Bonds. Their similarities are so plentiful that they kinda demand their own Critics Poll essay; for now, I’ll just say that West’s self-imposed disappearance from the Billboard charts feels very much like Bonds’s decision to withhold his image from baseball cards and videogames. They both believe that their talent entitles them to a different set of rules than the ones that everybody else follows. And if there weren’t a few people around who felt and acted that way, the world would be a duller place with fewer balls in McCovey Cove, and slower croissant service.

²I believe that’s Pusha T’s problem now. I love Pusha T, so maybe I ought to be mad at Kanye on his behalf.

³I can’t help but notice that aficionados love to go behind the scenes, too; if you make music, you’re probably acquainted with people who play around with the stems of Beatles recordings, and the like, in their home studios.

a.k.a. Pablo, continued

In the early days of the Internet, nobody knew exactly how to write on these digital walls, so by and large we scribbled graffiti up here — sometimes of monstrous dimensions — and hoped for the best. This was wonderful, in my opinion: early Internet was wild, and irresponsible, and full of overwriting and formal experimentation and seeing what might stick. What made the Internet a rewarding place to write was that if you happened to change your mind about what you wanted to say, you could just hop back online and amend your piece as often as you wanted. This was an marvelous, revelatory thing for those of us who were accustomed to the brutal finality of print, and its liberating power had much to do with the first efflorescence of ‘net literary creativity. The web promised no limitations. A post was something alive and permeable. Pieces of writing were never totally finished, because they never had to be. Print seemed barbaric by comparison.

That changed. Money poured in, and investors sought credibility by mimicking the conventions of offline publications. Websites started to look and feel like the established newspapers and magazines many of us hoped they’d obviate. The early ‘net writers, who weren’t too professional (bless them) about what they were doing, were replaced by actual journalists who led with their integrity. Once they published a post, it almost never changed. It was as if they were still writing in ink, and the screen was an endless scroll of paper, and once words were written, they were seared into the mainframe processors and couldn’t be budged.

You might argue that this is the Internet grown-up; that the Wild West days couldn’t last because that’s not what people want. I look at it a little differently. I see the current state of the Internet as a predictable overreaction to the frightening openness of the first iteration of the web. The present conservatism and conformity of the ‘net strikes me as unsustainable — not because people are craving innovation, but because the sheer volume of possibilities will eventually overwhelm our reservations and force a course correction. The ugly truth is that we’re acting neurotic, and like all neuroses, ours can be cured if we confront it with courage. If a document can be amended, and changed, and pushed around and stretched, and reinterpreted, and multiplied, and blasted into rainbow-colored shards by users, why the hell wouldn’t we do all that, every time?  We’re clinging to vestigial forms because we’re comfortable with them, and for no other reason. The pendulum will swing back in the direction of mutability, and it’s going to have consequences for all forms of expression. Writing, and recording, and all the rest of it — sooner or later, it’s all going to get jailbroken.

I have always believed that the people who don’t see a future for the album are confusing the physical artifact, which is doomed, with the essence of the form, which is totally imaginary and therefore immune to technological shifts. Songs just sound too good in sequence and make too many statements when placed next to each other for the album to budge from its place as one of the basic units of consumption for music listeners. The aesthetic and popular success of records like To Pimp A Butterfly and the Donnie Trumpet project and Short Movie, just to name a few examples — all sets made by young musicians — proves to me that artists still believe very much in the album as an optimal carrier of  musical and lyrical ideas. That’s probably never going to change. Nevertheless, I believe we’re all still treating the album like something etched into the grooves of a piece of plastic, and therefore fixed forever like a snapshot. I sure could be wrong, but I think this is vestigial, and bound to change soon.

One thing that may disappear, quick, is the release date. As long as there are musicians willing to celebrate their accomplishments, the release party isn’t going anywhere, but it might soon announce the inauguration of a period of changes done in public, Pablo style, instead of a finishing point. A comma, in other words, rather than a period. If an album exists, primarily, on a computer server, there’s no good reason why it wouldn’t be open to reinterpretation by its authors. Suppose, for instance, an album was left intentionally open-ended — the artist makes it public with eight songs, and then continues adding tracks, updating a website regularly, like a webcomic might. That’s not so different from what Kanye just did with The Life Of Pablo — he introduced it with a bunch of tracks, some of which had already leaked, and then pulled it back and added a bunch more. He was ridiculed for this, and the way he did it made the project look sloppy and incomplete. But what if he’d said from the start that he reserved the right to release Pablo slowly, over time, and make alterations while his fans watched? Some of those fans might have lost interest, but I think others would’ve be intrigued by the experiment.

Our popular model of an artist who can’t leave well enough alone is George Lucas, who keeps screwing with Star Wars movies that were fixed in the public imagination decades ago. We don’t like what Lucas is doing with his own creation; his autoapostasy has engendered a whole industry of second-second-guessers who believe they know better what’s appropriate to the Star Wars universe. But regardless of my feelings about whether Han Shot First, I have come to believe that Lucas, too, is ahead of the curve here. And now I’m giving you nightmares about a senescent Roger Waters adding a Netanyahu beef track to an album as seamless as The Dark Side Of The Moon. But what about the thousands and thousands of albums that aren’t The Dark Side Of The Moon? It’s the very rare set that wouldn’t benefit from an after-the-fact editorial revision or tracklist shuffle. In days of yore, if Andy Partridge wanted to add “Dear God” to Skylarking (not that he necessarily should have), that required an additional pressing and shipping and all the associated record company expenditures and accompanying guilt trips. When it’s as easy as clicking a mouse, why the heck wouldn’t you click that mouse? Convention is the only thing staying the artist’s hand.

There is probably a point at which even the most resolute tinkerer would cease monkeying with a project, because he’d moved on to different themes and concerns, and the time had come for a new conceptual frame for his work. Part of the reason we don’t accept the Lucas revisions of Star Wars is because he feels like a totally different man now than the space hellion he was in 1977, and how could he not be?, that was forty damn years ago. But that’s a call for the critics to make. Artists can go ahead and kickstart the process by bending some rules. For instance, what’s to stop an established musician from announcing that everything she intends to post on her website in the year 2016 constitutes a single album? She’d introduce some songs to general circulation in January, and maybe she’d amend them in February, add a few in March, remix it all in April, upload videos in May, and etcetera? Or add or amend a song every week for fifty-two weeks? Come December, she could put a bow on it, call it a completed work, and begin afresh with a new album in 2017. I think her fans would find that very exciting. Wouldn’t you tune in for regular updates to Superpablo? I know I would.

Likewise, I think there’s a very good chance that album sequencing is going to open up, too. The single-sequence album is, once again, prisoner to physical realities that don’t really apply anymore: every song had a specific position on a reel of tape, and that position had to be determined by the artist and producer and the tracks couldn’t budge once they were dedicated. Many musicians put a tremendous amount of time and thought into the sequencing of their tracks, and that’s understandable — the order in which songs are presented to the listener is a non-negligible part of the experience of the album. But there’s nothing that says the musicians couldn’t present fans with two sequences, or twenty-two, or, for that matter, they could give them none at all and encourage them to choose their own adventure. Some progressive rock sets are so linear that the song order can’t really be fudged — I’m thinking of Scarlet’s Walk now, but there are a few others. But the vast majority of albums — even concept albums — are linked by theme and tone and don’t necessarily follow a straight narrative. King Of America is an extremely coherent album, but I bet Elvis Costello could shuffle that deck and deal all kinds of winning hands. A future release could have an artist-sanctioned, “official” sequence supplemented by alternate sequences, or different sequences meant to suit different moods. Albums could be designed to accommodate various sequencing: a set of twenty tracks could be broken down into two sequences with separate titles, and those might contain subsequences, like Russian nesting dolls. All this seems inevitable to me. Artists love the ambiguity of forking paths.

Most radically of all, I think the new digital conditions of musical production are bound to prompt a redrawing of the dividing line between the artist and her listener. I can imagine an album in the not-so-distant future released unfinished and incomplete, along with a set of instructions left for you to fill in the blanks. Wouldn’t you be compelled by that? Say Paul McCartney put out an album of stems and vocal tracks, and provided you with the tools and codes to do the rest. Remixers have been working like this for many, many years, but they’ve usually taken tracks that are already complete and they’ve turned them inside out. An officially authorized incomplete release — a coloring book — would make every listener into a potential remixer. Now that nearly everybody has an audio suite on their computer, it’s only a matter of time before an enterprising artist figures out how to release music directly to the software, and also how to allow fans to upload their versions to a central clearinghouse. Q: are the original stems the album, or is that collaborative website the album, or is the album something in between? A: Yes, and yes, and yes; it’s all the album. The album was and is bigger than anybody realized. We’ve only begun to probe its parameters.

All of this is contingent on the continued migration of the album to the Internet. Which is something that’s not going to make everybody happy, I realize; independent artists lost a very valuable tool for self-promotion  when the CD became obsolete. Barring a technological meltdown that isn’t going to happen, those days aren’t coming back, so I figure it’s better to light a single computer screen than curse the darkness. I will save my feelings about Spotify and other streaming services for another post, but it’s safe to assume that if Taylor Swift and Joanna Newsom agree about something, I’m going to agree about it, too. But I don’t think that just because record companies are allowing a bunch of Swedes to royally screw their artists means that technological change and the decoupling of the album from its physical form spells doom for professional musicians. That’s how the cookie is crumbling at the moment, but there’s no reason we can’t turn it around if we’re willing to get creative, stand up for our rights, and maybe tell some of these parasites to take a hike. It would really grease the gears of change if artists embrace the creative commons license and release their music for free, but I am aware man cannot live on barre chords alone. I just hope we all realize that there’s no contradiction between experimentation and enterprise. Reality may or may not be silly putty, but the album definitely is — so let’s stretch it, and pull it, and press it into strange shapes, and roll it up and mash it down, and use it to copy the funnies.

More soon.