Predators

How do we keep the fragile ones from doing foolish things,
like blindly trusting predators that stalk the ill and weak?
What can we do to keep them safe beyond our apron strings?
How do we keep the fragile ones from doing foolish things?
Can we make them see the danger that lack of caution brings?
No, we can’t, they’re on their own, with freedom to act and speak.
How do we keep the fragile ones from doing foolish things,
like blindly trusting predators that stalk the ill and weak?

How do we keep the predators from hunting fragile prey,
dragging it down before us while we, helpless, watch them feast?
What can we do to drive them off, to make them go away?
How do we keep the predators from hunting fragile prey?
Can we cage them, change them, build a fence, keeping them at bay?
No, we can’t, they’ve carnivores, that’s the nature of such beasts.
How do we keep the predators from hunting fragile prey,
dragging it down before us while we, helpless, watch them feast?

(Copyright 2004, JES)

New Facts (Finally) Emerge

Depending on how one categorizes their 1981 10″ vinyl Slates (and this apparently matters), New Facts Emerge is The Fall’s 31st or 32nd studio album, and their first full-length release since early 2015’s Sub-Lingual Tablet. In Fall Record Release Time, that’s a dog’s age between albums, and this particular hiatus has been notably defined by the departure of keyboardist Eleni Poulou, who has been the creative and personal partner of stalwart Fall mastermind Mark E. Smith for the past 15 years. Further potential red flags have been recently waved before Fall followers in the form of cancelled gigs and appearances, record release date slippages, a more-ill-looking-than-usual Smith struggling onstage during the occasional shows he has played in 2017, and drummer Keiron Melling suffering a savage and cowardly beating on a British train earlier this year. And that’s before we even mention the fact that The Fall are booked to appear in the United States later this year; their last two American tours each resulted in band-on-band carnage and chaos, so this is something approaching an apocalyptic sign in the venerable Northern English group’s long-running dramatic arc.

Despite the churn and concern, though, there have been stabilizing portents in sight as New Facts Emerge has worked its way toward release, most notably the steadfastness of the mercurial Smith’s current group (Melling, guitarist Peter Greenway and bassist David Spurr have supported their front man for over a decade now), the return of sure-handed engineer (and erstwhile bassist) Simon “Ding” Archer to the studio, and the continued support of Cherry Red Records, removing label uncertainty from the mix. While a new keyboardist has recently appeared onstage with the group, Greenway and Melling were credited with all of the keys (including Mellotron!) in pre-release press regarding New Facts Emerge, and Melling also received triple-duty kudos with a co-production credit (alongside Smith) — meaning that this whole disc was constructed by a compact, all-male (highly unusual for The Fall) crew, perhaps in circling-the-wagons mode, ready to blast through the perimeter at the various negative forces swirling about them, never admitting that they have something to prove, even though they probably do.

Did they get the job done? To these ears, yes: New Facts Emerge is a potent record that likely marks the start of a audibly distinctive new Fall phase, rather than marking the group standing pat as a keyboardless continuation of the Eleni Poulou era. Smith and Company step up the energy significantly here over recent releases, with a unique and defiantly odd blend of power riffage, strange song structures, creative studio trickery, weird production techniques, sounds bleating from disparate corners unexpectedly, tunes descending into chaos only to rebuild themselves as different tunes elsewhere, and a completely nutso sequencing that attaches weird little fragments to some songs, while other elements linger long beyond the point where studio sanity would seemingly dictate “cut.” The Fall have embraced weirdness and repetition and angularity and just being not quite right in pleasing ways over the years, and these new cuts are a part and piece of that tradition, as not a one of them is a straight-up, straight-through rocker with a clean arrangement; they’re all askew and unsettled in one way or another. If Melling’s co-credit as producer is correlated to all of that, then The Fall would be well-served let him fill that role for a long while going forward.

Mark E. Smith remains Mark E. Smith, of course, and if you haven’t liked his voice over the years, well, then this album isn’t the one that’s going to change your mind on that front. Enunciation is no longer his strong suit, and lyrical content (when discernible) isn’t necessarily up to what it once might have been a few million pints ago, but he uses his voice as a weapon of aural destruction here nonetheless, and he sounds enthusiastically engaged here in ways that give the record an over-arching malign warmth lacking in many other modern Fall discs. I suspect there’s a lads alone element to the change; one might feel freer to get all shouty when one’s missus is not about, and the boys have been banging on their kettles and pans all night long. I may not really know what Smith is shouting about anymore, but I’m glad he’s still doing it, at bottom line. He’s the elusive glue that holds the enterprise together, and his presence makes those around him shine more brightly.

Track highlights on New Facts Emerge include “Fol de Rol” (the straight-up best strutting Fall monster-riff rocker since 2005’s epic “Blindness”), “Couples vs Jobless Mid 30s” (a long carnival freak show frappe of styles and textures and noises and grooves), “Gibbus Gibson” (which could almost be a little pop gem, except that it falls apart in a wash of flutter and wow near its end), and “Second House Now” (which opens with an amusing honky-tonk feel before stripping its clutch in an awkward upshift to a great, propulsive guitar-strong groove). Notable oddities include the 30-second opening “Segue” (huh?), “O! ZZTRRK Man” (which might be a paean to legendary footballer George Best), and closer “Nine Out of Ten” (a very long Greenway-Smith guitar-voice duet, that ends with nearly five minutes of the string-bender strumming us into oblivion; of notable perversion is the fact that the song is solely credited to Smith).

All in all, New Facts Emerge is a pleasing new studio album from The Fall group, be it number 31 or number 32, be it packaged with the usual laughably crap cover art, be it a product of turmoil and/or lads’ nights out, be it the final Fall album (always a growing possibility) or yet another link hot-welded onto a long and clanking musical chain that stretches behind and before us. There’s American shows coming, kids, and if they’re going to result in disorder and disarray, then these are strong songs to soundtrack the conflagration.

(Click on the cover art below to purchase this and other recent Fall records via the group’s official website)

Dance of the Cobras

1. One of my favorite things to do while traveling abroad is to visit non-chain record stores and ask the clerks for recent music by local artists that I would not likely be able to find back in the States. I’ve had wonderful success in finding amazing music from the 12 Tonar store in Reykjavik (twice) and at Discos Revolver in Barcelona, to cite two examples, bringing home great music from those trips that still earns regular spins around our apartment. So while we were in Amsterdam last month, I blocked out an afternoon and identified four record stores that seemed promising based on the online reviews I had found. Unfortunately, here’s what I found in each store, with varying degrees of disarray in evidence:

The re-emergence of a vintage vinyl obsession among aging record nerds and wannabe hipsters seems to have forced up-and-coming artists to peddle their wares online and at shows, while moldering crap and arcana from decades ago fills up the available retail space in brick-and-mortar outlets. I saw the same thing in Florence, Italy last year . . . and it’s also endemic among most of the record stores in my home city of Chicago. That’s a real pity, I think. There’s value to a music scene in having your local record store serve as a point of focus for your music community, with knowledgeable clerks standing as great arbiters and champions for the regional specialties. While I suppose I could go to the Google Box and search for “best new music from Florence or Amsterdam,” that’s just going to return results based on how good the local musicians are at search engine optimization, not how good their actual music is.

2. We visited about a dozen museums and ancillary attractions in the Netherlands and Belgium, seeing some really great exhibitions there. One of the nice things about living in Chicago is knowing that the opportunity to do does not end with the last day of vacation, and Marcia and I enjoyed getting to see Takashi Murakami’s The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg at the wonderful Museum of Contemporary Art a mile or so from our apartment last week. It’s a big show in every sense of that word: a major artist, showing a lot of works, many of them physically massive, including breath-taking new pieces commissioned specifically for MCA Chicago as part of the exhibition. Well worth a peek if you’re in the City. Holla if you do, as I’ll be happy to go see it again. For a sense of scale, here’s a snap of Marcia with one of the featured works:

3. Two weeks from tomorrow, I will be headed to Washington, DC for my third (and the 25th Anniversary) STIHL Tour des Trees, joining ~70 other riders and support volunteers over seven days and 500+ miles on our bicycles, raising funds and awareness for arboriculture and urban forestry research and education. For those unfamiliar with the Tour, here are some action shots (courtesy Jeannette Martin) from last year’s event to give you a sense of what it’s all about:

We don’t just ride for the sake of riding, but also make numerous stops en route to spread the good word to audiences of all ages about the importance of research to sustaining our communities’ tree canopies around the country, while also ensuring that the dedicated professionals who work in the field have the best and most current information at their disposal. (And, yes, that’s me cutting the ribbon with a chainsaw!)

The fundraising deadline for Tour riders is July 24, and I would be honored and humbled if you’d be willing to support my campaign before then, by clicking here. 100% of funds pledged/paid to Tour riders go to research, either in the form of grants made in the following year, or (if donors so designate) by adding to our endowment to support research in perpetuity. As CEO of TREE Fund, I’ve made significant structural, operational, and fundraising changes over the past two years, resulting in record-setting levels of grants awarded in 2016 . . . but that, of course, means we also need record-setting levels of revenue to sustain that growth in the years ahead.

I appreciate your consideration of this request . . . and if you’re able and willing to share it with your own social networks, that would be wonderful! Feel free to shoot me a note if you have any questions about the Tour, my work with TREE Fund, or anything else on your mind! It’s always good to connect, even if via a blog post like this one.

Adventure Family in The Netherlands and Belgium

Katelin, Marcia and I returned Sunday after a week in the (European) Low Countries of The Netherlands and Belgium. Marcia and I had visited Amsterdam and Brussels as part of an earlier trip, but this was Katelin’s first time in that part of the world. We decided to overnight in Amsterdam for the duration of our time there, then to day-trip by train a couple of times to get some additional destinations on the agenda. One day, we used the domestic train lines to visit Den Haag (fave new city), Gouda, and Utrecht. Another day, we took the high speed Thalys line to Antwerp in Belgium. It was a great mix of new and familiar for Marcia and I, and it was wonderful to have a week abroad with Katelin since we haven’t been able to do that often in recent years. Click the picture below to see our photo album for the trip. It was a good one, filled with lots of walks (71.1 miles in six days according to my Fitbit), plentiful museums (ten over the course of the week), and a special bonus moment when Katelin got to meet her favorite/spirit animal up close and personal at Artis, the Royal Zoo in Amsterdam.

(My) Best Book of the 21st Century

Having written about the best films and albums of our nascent century, it seems apt to turn my attention to literature, which is ostensibly the third leg beneath my personal stool of modern culture, which would tip precariously without each of its two fellows.

My 21st Century Film List contained 25 entries. My 21st Century Albums List contained 64 entries. And my 21st Century Books List? At the moment, it contains one entry that stands head and shoulders above all others in terms of my enjoyment and engagement . . . and that entry is A Book With No Title.

Allow me to explain my choice, please. Almost two years ago this month, I posted a blog item about how much I was enjoying Thoughts On The Dead. It was a funny website, for sure, written by a very good writer, cleverly exploring cultural themes I enjoyed exploring, with laughs to be had, for those willing to laugh about arcana of the most arcane variety. Good stuff! Ha ha ha!

But some time between then and now, a standalone story line emerged on ToTD about a Neighborhood in America called Little Aleppo. That story line was anchored upon a truly robust substrate of universe building . . . where the place in which the story was framed emerged almost as a character in its own right, as rich as the human/physical characters with which it was populated. Think Gormenghast. Think Middle Earth. Think Upstate Wasted/Ether. Place matters, right? Right!

This week, that very sublime and well-crafted Little Aleppo story wound to its narrative close after 70 chapters, and I am saddened and pleased in equal measure by this turn of events. Saddened, because I loved getting new stories every couple of days, usually reading them during my morning train rides between Chicago and Naperville. Pleased (on behalf of the author), because I know, as a writer, how satisfying it is to reach a point of closure on a long-term writing project like this one, be it for commercial purposes, or just because it feels good to write, by God, purpose be damned.

I have truly enjoyed reading The Book With No Title episodically, in real time, classic 19th Century Dickens-style. And you can read it that way, too, if you want, as all 70 chapters are independently referenced and linked for now on a single reference page. Once you start, or when you finish, or somewhere in between those points, I hope you will acknowledge the author’s awesome undertaking by hitting the “Donate” button on his site.

Because writing this good deserves to be paid for and purchased. It has both intellectual and emotional value, and we, all of us, should acknowledge and honor that fact by paying for it, when and where we can. I can certainly tell you, straight up, that Little Aleppo provided me with far more enjoyment than the vast majority of traditional/digital books I’ve purchased in recent years, so making a donation to support the work was good value for money from where I sit.

Lest you think I’m shilling for any nefarious personal/nepotistic benefit here, I want to note for the record that I have absolutely no clue who the author of Thoughts on the Dead is, in the  real world, despite the fact that I interact with him regularly in the social media world, and relish his blog postings, daily.  As a “longtime online” guy, I accept the fact that I often have digital friends and collaborative colleagues with whom I rarely/never cross paths in a real/physical world. See here for an intense personal example of that.

Marcia affectionately refers to these online relationships as my “imaginary internet friends,” and I have to admit that I probably have more of those than I do real world friends at this point in my life. So, yeah, that’s real, but not real. And that’s imaginary, but not imaginary. See also: it’s complicated. But at bottom line, genius is genius, whether we know who creates it or not in our real day-to-day lives. I’m happy to interact with such creative folks in the ways that they choose to make themselves available to me. They fuel my own creative energy as they entertain me, and I am very grateful for that.

And that’s a big part of why I confidently assert that the The Book With No Title is the best work of narrative fiction I’ve read in a long, long time. I think all of my readers here, friends real and imaginary, need to get on it too, and read it, and share it, and pay for it, soon. Or now. If you take my advice, then once The Book With No Title becomes the popular print hit it deserves to be in the years ahead, you can get mad props with your peeps by telling them all that you read it way back when, before it was cool.

And who doesn’t appreciate being in the know before the know was known, right?

(My) Best Albums of the 21st Century

Having done a Best Movies of the 21st Century list last week, my brain immediately began pondering my other great creative passion: music. I play a lot more songs than I watch films, so crunching sixteen years worth of music down into 25 albums (as I did with the movies) seemed a bit overly reductive, so after cutting and parsing and pasting, I ended up with 64 records, about four per year. That seemed about right. (And it means that if I decide I want to make a tournament out of this at some point, I’ve got the right opening pool).

As noted in the movies post, I’m a calendar pedant, so I note that the 21st Century began on January 1, 2001, not a year earlier. So there are no albums from the year 2000 here. That preamble noted, here’s what I consider the best of the best from my collection, of the pool of albums released from 2001 to 2017, in something approaching alphabetical order. What’s on your own list?

. . . And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, Source Tags & Codes (2002)

Alice Donut, 10 Glorious Animals (2009)

The Black Angels, Phosphene Dream (2010)

Chance The Rapper, Coloring Book (2016)

The Chap, Mega Breakfast (2008)

The Clean, Mister Pop (2009)

Clutch, Robot Hive/Exodus (2005)

COIL, Moon’s Milk (In Four Phases) (2002)

COIL, The Ape of Naples (2005)

Dälek, Absence (2005)

Dälek, Gutter Tactics (2009)

David Bowie, Blackstar (2016)

David Bowie, The Next Day (2013)

Death Grips, Government Plates (2013)

Department of Eagles, The Cold Nose (2007)

Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment, Surf (2015)

Edan, Beauty and the Beat (2005)

Ezra Furman, Perpetual Motion People (2015)

The Fall, The Real New Fall LP (Formerly “Country on the Click”) (2004)

The Fall, Imperial Wax Solvent (2008)

First Aid Kit, Stay Gold (2014)

Frightened Rabbit, The Winter of Mixed Drinks (2010)

Gangrene, Vodka and Ayahuasca (2012)

Gay Tastee, Songs for the Sodomites (2009)

Goat, World Music (2012)

Golden Suits, Kubla Khan (2016)

The Hanslick Rebellion, the rebellion is here (2005)

Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)

Here We Go Magic, A Different Ship (2012)

Ian Anderson, Homo Erraticus (2014)

Japanther, Eat Like Lisa Act Like Bart (2013)

Jed Davis, Small Sacrifices Must Be Made (2012)

Jesu/Sun Kil Moon, Jesu/Sun Kil Moon (2016)

Jonathan Richman, Ishkode! Ishkode! (2016)

Jowe Head and the Demi-Monde, Diabolical Liberties (2010)

The Kamikaze Hearts, Oneida Road (2006)

Korn, The Paradigm Shift (2013)

Max Eider, Hotel Figueroa (2002)

Melvins, (A) Senile Animal (2006)

Melvins, Hold It In (2014)

Mindless Self Indulgence, You’ll Rebel to Anything (2005)

The Monkees, Good Times! (2016)

Mos Def, The Ecstatic (2009)

Moses Hightower, Onnur Mosebok (2012)

Napalm Death, Apex Predator – Easy Meat (2015)

Napalm Death, Time Waits for No Slave (2009)

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Dig Lazarus Dig!!! (2008)

Pas/Cal, I Was Raised on Matthew, Mark, Luke and Laura (2008)

Paul McCartney, Memory Almost Full (2007)

Pere Ubu, Why I Hate Women (2006)

Planningtorock, W (2012)

The Residents, Demons Dance Alone (2002)

The Residents, Animal Lover (2005)

Snog, Last Of The Great Romantics (2010)

System of a Down, Toxicity (2001)

Teho Teardo and Blixa Bargeld, Nerissimo (2016)

Terry Hall and Mushtaq, The Hour of Two Lights (2003)

Thighpaulsandra, The Golden Communion (2015)

Tom Vek, Luck (2014)

The Wasted, We Are Already in Hell (2006)

Ween, Quebec (2003)

Wire, Send (2003)

Wire, Silver/Lead (2017)

Xiu Xiu, Angel Guts: Red Classroom (2014)