Friday, January 30, 2009

Springsteen's New Album

I like Bruce Springsteen. I do. He’s never going to be a member of the Pantheon (Bob Dylan / Neil Young / Van Morrison / Stevie Wonder), nor will any of his records, outside of, say, Born to Run, ever crack the personal top thirty. Much as I might like them, I’ll never evangelize for Darkness on the Edge of Town like I have for the Band’s second album, or listen obsessively to Nebraska like I have to Al Green’s Call Me. I’ll collect the occasional concert recording to get a sense for what people mean when they refer to particularly legendary concerts by him. And I’ll even await new records with some degree of enthusiasm. Not as any kind of superfan, but as someone who is interested.

All this by way of saying that I’ve heard Working on a Dream and I’m not impressed. The songs are ultimately okay, if not necessarily as “worked” as those on Magic, but the production kills the thing. Just kills the thing.

(A sidenote: I’m not a fanatical “loudness is killing everything” prophet o’ doom, but there’s no doubt that a lot of recordings are brickwalled, over-compressed, and hard to listen to).

It’s this friable, high, trebly, bright, mechanical shine that holds us at arm’s length. It becomes not fun as a listening experience. And, for Mr. Springsteen, that must be a sort of nasty irony: you write fun, sunshine radio songs that, thanks to the mastering, no one can enjoy listening to.

And it’s not like I have phenomenal ears. A few years of club shows and too many hours in the basement with loud guitar and drums have, I’m sure, left me with at least a few gaps in my audible tone range, but even I can hear how ridiculous the production is and how poorly it frames the songs. Same thing with Magic, really – and those were better songs, even.

Maybe I have to get over that with Mr. Springsteen. Maybe I have to accept that, with the exception of three, maybe four records, he’s not going to make something with a sound I like as much as the songs.

(Those exceptions: The Wild / Innocent, Born to Run, Nebraska, and, arguably, Darkness, though even that last one has a disappointing drum sound that keeps something like “Badlands” from being the piledriver it could be).

Born in the USA and Tunnel of Love both suffer from dated sound (instrumentation) and awful, dated production (those gated drums and that keyboard-wash over everything). I like those songs, for the most part, but I can’t, just can’t, listen to “Dancing in the Dark” because of how it sounds.

Most problematic about Magic and Dream: the older albums (even USA and Tunnel) have a sense of dynamics. Everything, essentially everything on the two latest – every note, every riff, every cymbal splash – is placed at the same (maximum) volume throughout the records. Any place that a song could get louder, any moment in which a dynamic shift might be natural, winds up distorted instead. And, in almost every case, the instrumentation is the same from the beginning of each song to the end. There’s no build, neither in dynamics nor in arrangement. That accelerating race through “Thunder Road”? Won’t happen. You know that moment when the drums, the guitars, finally crash in on the piano figure in “Backstreets,” how that makes you feel? You won’t (and can’t) find that here.

And I know that an album is an ultimately disposable product, and no one’s asking – or, at least, I’m not asking – for the same song to be written over and over again, but to make entire albums that sound like “Night” (maxed out and crashing all the way through) doesn’t seem like the way to make a product that might last. Songs like Magic’s “Living in the Future” or Dream’s “This Day” deserve better.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Why School?

Or, to put it another way, from school, why school?

(A strange word to look at closely, as it turns out: school).

Or, to put it another way, here's a poem by Thomas Lux:


You go to school to learn to
read and add, to someday
make some money. It – money – makes
sense: you need
a better tractor, an addition
to the gameroom, you prefer
to buy your beancurd by the barrel.
There’s no other way to get the goods
you need. Besides, it keeps people busy
working – for it. It’s sensible and, therefore, you go
to school to learn (and the teacher,
having learned, gets paid to teach you) how
to get it. Fine. But:
you’re taught away from poetry
or, say, dancing (That’s nice, dear,
but there’s no dough in it
). No poem
ever bought a hamburger, or not too many. It’s true,
and so, every morning – it’s still dark! –
you see them, the children, like angels
being marched off to execution,
or banks. Their bodies luminous
in headlights. Going to school.

A few things I like here. I like how the - money - in the third line (making sense) implies that the whole proposition set up prior to that assertion (that money makes sense), in fact, is senseless. And that it does it so quietly, so easily.

And I like the sigh of "It's true" (that no poem ever bought more than too many hamburgers) toward the end and how it leads so naturally into "and so." How the children, like angels, going to school are doing so as a result of that truth. It's true. And so. There's a sigh there, I think.

But it's not only a sigh, and I like that, too. Just prior to "It's true," Lux insists that, "No poem ever bought a hamburger, or not too many." He writes, "or not too many." Not "or not a lot, anyway" or anything like that. "Or not too many." And so, even a fungible poem, even a work of art, a poem, as commodity, while it might ultimately be exchanged for food, would always only be exchanged for enough food. Never too much. Never too many hamburgers. Never more than the poet might need.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Pistons vs. Smallball

And so, yes, the Pistons lost to Charlotte. And Indiana.

And, yes, the team seems lost, particularly during the fourth quarter of any given game (Denver being an exception).

And, yes, now that Hamilton is back, Curry seems relatively determined to pursue this "smallball" thing further than seems healthy.

And, no, the last two losses cannot be blamed entirely on running a three-guard, Tayshaun-at-power-forward (!) offense.

But still.

So, here's something for anyone out there with either (1) a passing interest in the Pistons or (2) a passing interest in literature. And additional kudos (and Kudos, all chocolate + granola goodness) for anyone who already finds those interests intersecting on a daily basis:

It's a post + comment thread on about Curry, smallball, anger, literature, malice, and, with any luck, catharsis.

You'll like it.

I won't claim to have posted.

But I won't claim not to have posted, either.

I figure it's obvious.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Calvin without Hobbes

In last Sunday's New York Times Magazine, there's an article entitled "Who Would Jesus Smack Down?" about Mark Driscoll and an apparently surging movement of neo-Calvinism in the Pacific Northwest.

Yep, Calvinism. As in John Calvin. As in the Puritans. As in predestination. As in every man, woman, boy, and girl, is predestined, preselected for heaven or hell. As in beyond a rather fuzzy notion that those chosen for paradise are likely to engage in the sort of good works we would associate with being heaven-bound, nothing that you do during your relatively short life makes any difference vis-a-vis the eternal results -- not even, presumably, whether you, say, actually believe in God.

Now, that may, in fact, be a endpoint of logical necessity given a few other tenets of traditional Christian theology (namely, God knows everything and nothing that you do could ever, ever, ever make you worthy of such a gift as God's grace), but, you know, come on.

The article, in any case, is fun. As it should be. There's a great quote from Driscoll claiming the modern conception of Jesus to be "a Richard Simmons, hippie, queer Christ... a limp-wristed popular Sky Fairy of pop culture."


But what struck me, really struck me, what made me actually want to write about the thing for a few minutes, to use this online journal to make some thoughts relatively permanent, was this paraphrased claim from a member of Driscoll's church: Reducing God to a projection of our own wishes trivializes divine sovereignty.

Right. And then, of course, you have to make a choice, a choice that any honest person should make: believe wholeheartedly (and, again, honestly) in a God that is truly omnipotent, that truly acts in the world in all things, that truly has a plan-with-a-capital-P, that not only grants you the life that you have but also takes it away, that not only grants some people freedom from pancreatic cancer but also gives it to others, that not only made the acorn but also the Huntington's disease; or wholeheartedly (and, again, honestly) reject the very premise of the existence of such a sovereign being.

No fuzzy middle-ground. Take your beliefs all the way to their logical ends. No subscribing to ultimately contradictory notions like "everyone chooses his own fate" or "everything is a part of a grand plan and I choose to be a part of that plan."

But, then, even the theoretically non-fuzzy Calvinism has, at its heart, fundamental fuzz, as the article's author points out: "God has predestined every human being's actions, yet we are still to blame for our sins; we are totally depraved, yet held to the impossible standard of divine law."

(No need, even, to point out the fuzz in the point at which John Calvin's beliefs and his life meet, the point that allows him to order heretics burned to death).

By chance, we just finished reading The Stranger in AP English.

And, in another pleasant dovetailing, the "Uber-Jesus" article is followed by Steven Pinker thoughtpiece exploring our genes' influence on our behavior.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009


Not the Lyndon, folks.

But he of the crab dribble. Or, I don't know, maybe it's the Crab Dribble. Either way, though, I figure I don't need a link here; either you already know about it or you don't care. And regardless, the Crab Dribble? Are you serious? And we're still talking about it? Debating whether it's a travel or not?

Come on, as Gob might say.

Meanwhile, Rodney Stuckey is on fire, the Pistons have won seven straight, and they play the Trail Blazers tonight. If I'm still up grading papers by halftime, I'll try to find a feed for the game and see what's happening.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

In the Brewery

It was a busy fall for brewing. From our return from Michigan in late August, here's what happened:

A Strong Golden Ale made with yeast from a Duvel bottle.

A Strong Golden Ale spiced with coriander, ginger, and grains of paradise, and made with yeast from a DT bottle.

An American Barleywine with Chinook, Centennial, and Amarillo hops.

An American Stout bittered with Magnum and flavored with Cascade hops.

An American Brown Ale with Amarillo hops.

An American Pale Ale with a whole mess of wild hops from the Upper Peninsula.

An English Mild.

An Ordinary Bitter.

A Robust Porter.

An Amber Ale with the remainder of the wild UP hops.

Another English Mild.

A Scottish 70 Shilling Ale.

A Dubbel with Wyeast 3787, supposedly sourced from Westmalle.

A Dubbel with Wyeast 1762, supposedly sourced from Rochefort.

A Tripel with Wyeast 3787.

An IPA with a lot of Columbus and Centennial hops.

I think that's all -- and sort of kind of almost in order. Some went into bottles, some into kegs. Three are still in fermenters: the second Dubbel and the Tripel need to be bottled; the IPA needs to go into a keg.

But it's 2009 and that means it's time to make more. Planned for the future, then:

Another English Mild. This is my new favorite style. It's small, but surprisingly rich and flavorful, a little caramelly, a little fruity, and fairly bready. Plus, I don't know of any bottled commercial examples, so not only do I have to make it if I want it, but I also don't have to worry about comparing what I make to anything else.

Another Robust Porter.

A Dry Stout, made small, maybe 3.5% or so.

An English Pale Ale -- maybe something like Fuller's ESB.

A Belgian Dark Strong Ale with the yeast from Rochefort.

Maybe a Double IPA for the early spring, round about the time that the cherry blossoms emerge, we get near spring break, and the HopSlam arrives.

And yet I want to get back into climbing shape, too. These goals may, in fact, be incompatible.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Winter Reading - The Holiday Break

Charles Baxter: The Soul Thief. I didn't care for this. I kept almost putting it down, letting it go, but then I'd hit an ndividual moment, an individual vignette, that was stunning enough to keep reading. In the end, though, I guess I didn't care. The setup is a little contrived, and while, yes, I know, most plots are, ultimately, contrived in some way (see, for example, "Maniacal one-legged captain obsessively hunts single whale while narrator contemplates free will, art, the soul, slavery, the nature of reality and the reality of nature," or "In a post-apocalyptic wasteland, a man and boy try to survive grueling walk toward the sea"), I never got beyond the contrivance of this one.

(Note that Ahab is not pursuing an unmarried whale, but that he's after a particular whale. Sorry about the ambiguity).

Richard Russo: The Bridge of Sighs. I wasn't a huge fan of Empire Falls, but I loved Nobody's Fool, most of Mohawk and The Risk Pool, and Straight Man is a perfectly hilarious excuse for me never to pursue teaching at the university level (that, and, you know, like a doctorate and stuff). This one is good. Real good. I was a little worried that the whole "who were the man and woman outside the box" mystery might drive the plot too much, but that turns out to matter much less than the comparable "mysteries" do in Empire Falls. And Russo can write. Check out this passage:

The line of gray along the horizon is brighter now, and with the coming light I feel a certainty: that there is, despite our wild imaginings, only one life. The ghostly others, no matter how real they seem, no matter how badly we need them, are phantoms. The one life we’re left with is sufficient to fill and refill our imperfect hearts with joy, and then to shatter them. And it never, ever lets up.

Okay, so the "new day is dawning; light is coming; with light comes epiphany" opening is a little tough to take, but after that? C'mon. Those two last sentences? They don't reach you?