You’re No Good To Anyone


Even clocks one day wind down.

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

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

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

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

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

On Indian School

Down in the dirt with the snakes and the heat.

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

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

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

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

You Can Meet Me There


Tulip petal bright, taffy wrapper tight.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Unbeliever, Respect The Veil


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You Needn’t Be So Mean, Baby


Would they even recognize you if they saw you in the shop?

Because you’re a J. D. Salinger fanatic like me, a completist and obsessor who photocopies stories out of eighty-year-old issues of the New Yorker, you recognize the title: “You Needn’t Be So Mean, Baby” is the song that Les and Bessie Glass made semi-famous in their vaudeville act. Neither Franny nor Zooey nor anybody else gives the reader a really good description of the song, but from context clues, it’s a safe bet that it’s witty, and urbane, and light-handed, and something of a lark. All of which is pretty much the opposite of this, its namesake, one of the spazziest and most desperate/restless songs in the Tris McCall catalog. Now why would I do that to Salinger, the artist to whom I owe more than any other artist? Beats me. I’m a jerk, really.

In fairness to us, we’re calling this the Starlite version of “You Needn’t Be So Mean, Baby,” which means it’s not at all what you’ll be getting when the album is ready. When we listened back to the basic tracks, we discovered that I’d pushed like crazy on the piano, and tipped the whole thing into a frantic, higgledy-piggledy mess. But I like that kind of thing, and I wanted to work on it anyway. Our compromise: we’re going to cut a groovier, more restrained version — one that Les and Bessie wouldn’t want to disown us over — that’ll eventually replace, or supplement, this one on the site. In the meantime, we put together a mix of this to accommodate the Los Angeles page, and we’re sharing it right now.

Since this is the Starlite version, we felt authorized to glitz it up as much as possible: synth solos, guitar solos, a clavinet, horn samples, backing vocals, a Moog part that somehow reminds me of a machine injecting jelly into doughnuts, whatever else we could fit. The L.A. song, I felt, required a maximalist approach anyway, so if it sounds overstuffed to you, well, that’s not entirely an accident. It’s not entirely by design, either, since in my mind at least, all the instruments are as meticulously arranged as a Bacharach production, or at least Prefab Sprout. I’ll try again sometime, probably on the Nashville song. But I promise: this is about as overwhelming as it’s ever going to get. Thank you for hanging with me.

All disclaimers aside, I’ve been wanting to name a song, or an album, or something, after “You Needn’t Be So Mean, Baby” for many years. There aren’t too many loose ends in Salinger’s stories — even when he’s racing around at greyhound speed, he’s usually careful to satisfy whatever emotional curiosity his narratives engender. The Glass family parents are an exception to that. They’re mysterious figures hovering above the stories, and their motivations are left for the reader to supply. How do they feel about It’s A Wise Child after the fact, for instance, once they’ve seen that their children haven’t exactly survived their encounter with the world with all their  f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s  intact?

Every Day Is Children’s Day

Are you gonna snap right back?

Much as I love early-’80s Genesis and Phil Collins in general, I can’t really defend “Illegal Alien.” I’ve tried. Genesis was then a tight little art-rock machine with its eyes on the mainstream, and Collins and Tony Banks were in the right midst of their deep fascination with criminal activity (“Robbery, Assault & Battery,” “Who Dunnit,” “Home By The Sea,” etc.) “Illegal Alien” was just the one where Collins could really indulge his penchant for offensive caricature and grandstanding theatrical stereotype; in this case, a drunk Mexican willing to pimp his sister to get him to America. I still think that now is the time for somebody to do a cover version, and sure, I’d like that somebody to be me, but I’ve never found musicians crazy enough to accompany me. Something about their public reputations, I think.

So, yes, I acknowledge it’s a nasty song, an unconscionable song — even if it isn’t exactly a bad song; it’s got Collins, Banks, and Mike Rutherford on it, applying their considerable musical talents to problematic material. (The video is even worse, or, if you the kind of person who likes to collect racist artifacts for kitsch value, way better.) Randy Newman used to do this kind of thing all the time, although his touch was much lighter and he’s never exactly been a corporate rocker, so we let him get away with it. If you take the long view, you can see “Illegal Alien” as the most extreme version of a practice popular with many of our Seventies heroes: phony Latin numbers, often sung in crummy South Of The Border accents. All the Rock and Roll Hall of Famers did it — Jackson Browne with “Linda Paloma”, Billy Joel on “Rosalita’s Eyes” and “All You Wanna Do Is Dance”, Carole King on “Corazon” and the Fantasy album, many, many others. Hell, Paul Simon was down by the schoolyard with Julio and ripping off “El Condor Pasa” long before he pirated anything from Africa. Lou Reed, Donald Fagen, Dylan, all the legendary Jewish-American urban storytellers; none of them could resist a little pinch of Latin appropriation.

Me neither. We’re supposed to be in a more sensitive era where we’re all far beyond finding something like “Illegal Alien” permissible, but seriously, have you looked at the news lately? Most musicians only appropriate stuff they respect, and want to be like, and that goes double for Phil Collins, who, in 1982, was a guy in a prog rock band desperately searching for some cool. I’ve been doing Latin fakes even since I started writing music: there’s “Go Back To West New York”, and “WFMU”, and “Robert Menendez Basta Ya”, and many others that haven’t ever been a regular part of the repertoire. Are these my best songs? Well, no, but they’re sure fun to play live. Latin rhythms don’t come naturally to me, but neither do any others. If I’m going to play music at all, I’ve got to swipe from somewhere, so it may as well be a tradition that excites me.

“Every Day Is Children’s Day” is 100% Latin fake. The programmed drums  are copied into the track from a MIDI folder called, I kid you not, “Cuba”; there are great conga sounds in there. That’s me on bass, too, attempting the sort of line I remember from the Gloria Estefan records I used to dance wildly to at people’s Bar Mitzvahs before getting escorted off the floor by concerned adults. The “Oh, Miami” chant — much like the TripStar concept in the accompanying story — is a tip of the cap to Fagen, who isn’t Latin-American, but he sure is from Jersey. Somehow it all works for me: I really do love this one, just like (and probably because) I really do love Latin music. If Dierks Bentley can invent an entire Southern outlaw mythology for his listeners based on vague recollections of The Dukes Of Hazzard, I feel I’m allowed to conjure Miami Beach via Ricky Ricardo. Once or twice, only, I promise. If by chance you’re not offended by this, trust me, there’s worse to come. Wait until we get to the San Juan song — that’s about as far down the road toward “Illegal Alien” as any North American ever ought to go.

The Unmapped Man

There are still places an American can hide.

Several years ago, I wrote a book called The Trespassers. I like it a bunch; if you haven’t read it, I wish you would. It’s what I have to say to you. It’s not really an adventure story — what action there is mostly involves a bunch of kids breaking into abandoned buildings and photographing them. The narrator is a sixteen-year-old aspiring troublemaker from North Carolina at large in Jersey during the summer of 2004. Recent historical fiction, in other words. Just like most fiction is, I guess.

I was compelled to write the story because of certain sad conclusions I’d drawn about America, and Americans, and how we view the landscape. I don’t necessarily want to give anything away about the story in case you do decide to read it sometime, but I did feel like I was writing against techno-conformity, and I hope that people who did read The Trespassers understood my intent. Since I put everything I care about in that book, I can’t help but return to those themes in the short stories I’ve been writing for the Almanac. Maybe obsessively. I can’t tell yet. I’ve been trying to vary the style and tone as a safeguard against redundancy.

The latest is the longest at eight thousand words, which is too many words for the Internet, but there it is. I like it best of the stories, and that’s probably because it’s the one that reminds me the most of The Trespassers: there’s a gently anti-social and wholly unreliable protagonist who is looking desperately for connections with others without compromising a skewed set of personal ethics. I’ve paired the story with my favorite song in the entire Almanac, at least for now — and when I ask myself why it’s my favorite song, I’m forced to conclude that’s because it, too, reminds me of The Trespassers. There’s something I’m trying to get at; I’ve been trying for twenty-five years, at least. I may never get there, but when I feel like I’ve been able to render some of it in a book or on an album, that’s the stuff I’ve done that’s meaningful to me.

“The Unmapped Man” was directly inspired by a different book — The Moviegoer by Walker Percy. If you haven’t read it, it’s sort of a Louisianan version of The Catcher In The Rye: Binx Bolling, the main character, has come unmoored from the society he keeps and maybe even from himself. He wanders around a spectral version of New Orleans, periodically attempting to jump free from his quotidian existence but mostly just going with the flow. If you’ve read the book, some of the references in the song might make sense, and this was initially subtitled Binx Bolling’s Blues, but the narrator isn’t Binx, it’s Bo, who is an entirely different can of worms, or drawer of knives. So yeah, Walker Percy can’t be held responsible for any of this. A small tip of the cap goes to my wise friend Sarah, who, just a few days ago, told me, with all sincerity, that Utopia begins with U. I popped it right in the story. It needed to go someplace.

Houston Calls The Space Cadet

There’s an awful lot of hunger to go around.

Long song, long story. Something about Texas makes me stretch out. Might be the wide-open spaces, or the big rivers, or the Miranda Lambert double albums. “Houston Calls The Space Cadet” is my idea of country music, which in practice means Jackson Browne plus thick Wakeman-inspired synthesizer. Most farmers use plenty of synthetic products these days. Think of the Moog on the verses as pesticide and fungicide stacks, and the MS2000 on the refrain as a genetically modified organism.

The Almanac has now been up for a month. Hope you’ve been enjoying our game. It’s a noisy world and it can be difficult for the peeping of a little otter like me to be heard over the din. From the outset, I figured it would be a good way to give people a regular reminder of the existence of my music and my writing without being too too annoying about it. See, I’m only a loudmouth on the Internet; in person, I’m shy. But like other introspective megalomaniacs throughout history, I like to be drawn out of my shell by the enthusiastic applause of others. I welcome this. In an effort to get some, I’m getting out of the house and back into showbiz.

Yes, shows; American Almanac shows. I will be playing some Almanac songs at a Blowup Radio-sponsored guitar pull — basically three songwriters trading numbers — at Espresso Joe’s in Keyport on April 8. That’ll just be me and my ole acoustic guitar; no synthesizers in sight. Before you decide conclusively not to go, I’m actually not a terrible acoustic guitar player. I can kindasorta do it, and I’ve been practicing. It’s true, I can exist without an electric current!, right this moment, I’m not plugged into anything. Later I’ll need to be connected via USB to the grid in order to recharge.

Six nights later, Maxwell’s Tavern will be celebrating the 35th anniversary of Jersey Beat.  This’ll be something of a music marathon with mini-sets from lots of friends, including the Negatones, Richard Barone, Prosolar Mechanics, Glenn Morrow and his Cry For Help, the Cucumbers, and Jerseybeat Jim himself, who was nice enough to ask me to do a few songs. I’ll be playing with Marc Maurizi, who you might remember as the frontman and principal songwriter in Cropduster. (‘Duster drummer Scott Kopitskie might join us, too.) We’re doing a couple of his songs and a couple of mine, and a timely cover that I think you’ll be able to sing along to. Just hope I don’t mess it up too bad.

Finally, we’re planning an official Almanac kickoff party at Pianos on May 12. This’ll be a real full band show, which means a battery of synthesizers I can hide behind as I sing. It won’t be all Almanac songs: we’ll do some old favorites, too. By then, the site will be two months old, and the world ought to know all about it. Or at least my mommy and my little sister. They both checked it out last week and they liked it, or so they told me at my father’s birthday party. Always got to keep your mommy happy.

P.S. If you’re an aging emo kid and wondering, the title of today’s song is indeed a shout to a North Jersey band that I liked a lot: Houston Calls. No references to Hidden In Plain View or Armor For Sleep, alas. (Early November references are general across all these songs.)


(That’s What I Like About) Baltimore

They all play like no one’s keeping score.

You might recognize this one. Unlike most of the rest of the songs in this Almanac, it wasn’t written in 2015 or 2016. “(That’s What I Like About) Baltimore” dates back to late 2008, and it’s been performed a few times by a couple of different combos.It’s possible you heard it at a show and, given its simplicity, you might even be able to sing along to it. I posted the original bedroom demo of this song to this website years ago, and I think that recording was downloaded by a bunch of my pals. Maybe even you, reader.

It was never recorded for real, by a band, though — and, given its subject matter, it seemed like it was a good fit for this Almanac. A person who appreciated the original demo (or at least the silly doo-wop backing vocals) said to me, cleverly, that she felt it had more to do with Jersey City than it did with Baltimore. In 2008, my writing wastrending toward autobiography — this was the time of Let The Night Fall— so I guess it was only natural to assume that the criticism of what went on in “my town” was actual criticism of my town. But this isn’t supposed to be my voice. “Baltimore” was always meant to be a character song: one narrated by a guy whose perspective is, to say the least, problematic. I was thinking of Randy Newman’s “I Love L.A.” and stuff from Good Old Boys like “Birmingham” — songs where the narrator’s superficial engagement with a place hints at some of the deep troubles beneath the sunny-day exterior. So “my town” could really be anywhere: just a place that the main character deems inauthentic by comparison with Baltimore as he imagines it.

Still, I entertained writing a different song about Baltimore and leaving this one out of the Almanac. Richmond comes close, and San Francisco is great for baseball (sometimes), but Baltimore is my favorite American city that isn’t in New Jersey. It’s already taken a beating in the popular imagination — which is kinda what motivated this song in the first place — and I didn’t want to pile on. I’ve never seen The Wire or Homicide, but whenever I’d go to Baltimore, people felt the need to bring them up and mention the desolation that inspired them. Songs about Baltimore do tend to be bleak: not just Randy Newman’s, but Lyle Lovett’s, and Gram Parsons via Bobby Bare, and “Hungry Heart” and etcetera throughout the pop catalog. On the other hand, I wouldn’t want a casual listener to think that I thought that Baltimore was just crab cakes and Berger cookies; a kitchy pit stop on I-95 where I can grab some stuff to eat and enjoy some local color as I joyride home. That would make me cry.

Ultimately, I decided that this song belonged in the Almanac — or belonged somewhere, so why not here? “Baltimore” is the rare Tris McCall number that I have good reason to believe that people like, and that I’ve actually market-tested a little before I tried to foist it on anybody. It’s about two minutes long, and I still think that’s the optimal length for a pop song. As for the accompanying story, it’s a sad one, and it trades in the same complex, ambivalent emotions that (I hope) peek through the spaces between the big, bouncy major chords. Liberal guilt is one of the debilitatingforces in American life at the moment, but risible as it is, I don’t think it’s all that pernicious. We’re dealing with worse. While I question Philip’s motivations and some of his methods, too, the poor schmuck certainly has my sympathy.

Kate Beaton

Back to the wall, nowhere to run.

The decision to do the Almanac was mainly driven by webcomic envy. It feels like the ideal way to tell a story: episodically, a page a day, on a regular update schedule. The Pittsburgh song I’m posting today doesn’t have anything to do with Kate Beaton, but I’m dropping her name here in tribute, and as an acknowledgment of one of my biggest inspirations for the project. You might know Kate Beaton — she’s such an amazing caricaturist and storyteller that her fame has spread far past the still-small world of webcomics. There’s an archive ofher history and literature cartoons at Hark, A Vagrant (that’s her site); it’s about as lively as visual art gets.

My favorites, though, are a couple of artists who you probably wouldn’t know unless you know webcomics. Meredith Gran draws Octopus Pie, which has been running for ten years now — and is coming in for a landing — has evolved from a goofy slice-of-life comic about a couple of young women in New York City to a work of sublime narrative poetry. It’s simultaneously the best reporting on life in Brooklyn and the finest epic novel I’ve ever read a page at a time. I’m going to be so sad to see it go, but it’s going out on top. Unsounded, a wild ride created by a Floridian named Ashley Cope, features a fully realized fantasy world (and magic system loosely based on computer programming) of her own invention. She’s great at drawing action scenes and trippy, otherworldly landscapes. But what she really excels at is the character stuff. The comic is, at base, an on-the-road buddy story starring a young girl with a tail and a compromised set of morals and a deeply religious zombie wizard (she says wright) whose prose is even more purple than mine. At times it reminds me of Fritz Leiber, and other times of Dr. Seuss, but mostly it’s just Ashley Cope, the great fantasist of the moment.

Anyway, there’s nothing comic about today’s song, which is my attempt to rock a little (as Stevie Nicks once said) — with plenty of bass synthesizers, of course. The riff is lifted from a thousand different new wave numbers, but the tale is my own invention. Here’s one time when the short story on the city page is a retelling — actually an elaboration — of the song lyric. It’s all pretty coherent. Next week, I’ll be more mysterious.