You Can’t Stop Progress

1. Another week, another need to make a couple of “in memoriam” observations. I guess that comes with getting older, huh? First, I note with deep respect and awe the passing of author and artist Brian Catling, who emerged late in his life as an incredible and prolific novelist, creating a strange and wondrous canon that I devoured in its entirety. His official website (which has not been updated to note his passing as I am typing this) is a treasure trove of weirdness, touching on the host of creative and transgressive activities in which he has engaged for many decades; I recommend giving it a look-see. Closer to home, on this website, I’ve twice written essays about his works, and I link to those pages below, encouraging you to explore his work, if you can, and if you dare:

2. I also note the passing of the amazing jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders this week, at the age of 81. After struggling to find an audience for his work in the early 1960s, Sanders joined John Coltrane’s live group in 1964, and played with that legend until Trane’s death in 1967, crafting an extraordinarily influential and powerful body of work together. Sanders then emerged as a band-leader in his own right, and also as a key collaborator with Alice Coltrane (John’s widow) on a series of albums that shaped the form of what’s come to be known as spiritual jazz. After a long quiet phase, Sanders re-emerged last year with a beautiful, haunting, and critically-acclaimed new album called Promises, which was a collaborative effort featuring electronic artist Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra. It will prove to be a most worthy musical epitaph, for sure. My own personal favorite from Pharoah’s catalog sits at the heart of his long collaboration with vocalist Leon Thomas, the 1969 album Karma, and its cornerstone cut, “The Creator Has A Master Plan.” I consider that (long) song to be one of the most incredible works in the history of jazz, an epic suite with a beautiful and accessible melody that’s torn to shreds and rebuilt multiple times over the work’s run, creating senses of tension and relief that feel like life itself feels, glorious and harrowing in equal measure. At its sweetest points, it can move you like the most gracious gospel music ever recorded, then in its hardest breakdowns, it feels as intense and atonal and chaotic as the most abrasive things in my industrial and death metal catalogs. But it all works and flows flawlessly, a piece so much larger than the sum of its parts, truly. In the LP’s original format, “Creator” was split across two sides of the record, so I do appreciate that in our modern digital era, we can get the whole thing as a single track. Do yourself a solid sometime this week: carve out a half-hour of time and crank this jam in your fave listening zone, and feel the world change a little bit, just because you did:

3. We spent three days last week in Prescott, Arizona (our county seat) where Marcia had been selected to serve jury duty. Fortunately, her case was not as long and painful as the one that I got pulled into last year, which ran for nearly three weeks. As I wrote about in item #2 here, Arizona has a very small number of very large counties, meaning that getting to our local seat of power is a long drive. We elected to stay over in Prescott accordingly, and I figured I could get some good hikes in while Marcia was doing her civic duty. Alas, the weather did not cooperate and it rained almost the entire time we were there, meaning I spent a lot of time reading in our hotel room. But I was able to get one decent schlep up onto Thumb Butte during a brief sunny window one day, for a nice view back down over Prescott:

I had another brief window of opportunity to be out and about the next day, so decided (as one does)(when one is weird) to check out a little cemetery nearby that I’d spotted on the map. There’s almost always something interesting to see in any out-of-the-way burial site. This one proved to quite weird indeed, a semi-abandoned (I think) Independent Order of Odd Fellows graveyard that seemed to have peaked in terms of burials between the 1930s and 1970s, but is largely overgrown and disheveled looking now. But, oddly enough (no pun intended) there were interesting clusters of graves that were clearly receiving regular love, attention and visitation, even though none of them were anything close to current or recent burials. The odd vibe was enhanced by the presence of various vehicles tucked away in various corners with various people sitting in them for no obvious reasons, which tends to imply that this location is either a good place to score drugs or a good place for sexual adventuring. Or both. And neither of those propositions were the least bit appealing to me, so I made my rounds, snapped some snaps, and beat a discreet retreat, keeping a cautious eye out as I worked my way back down the muddy trail toward town. Here’s a peek at what it looked like, minus the creepers in their cars:

4. Between the Anno Virum and our moves from the cultural hub of Chicago to the less culturally endowed Des Moines and Sedona, getting to see good live music has mostly become a memory for us, not a current-day regular activity. But we did catch a nice al fresco show this weekend at a block party thrown by one of the regulars in the group with which I hike each Monday. The featured group was called Black Forest Society, and they offered a really engaging collection of original songs from within an interesting voice, guitar, cello, and percussion line-up. Their music is ostensibly folk-based, but it features a lot of open tunings and drones and wordless ululations that give it an interesting cross-cultural vibe evoking both traditional (Asian) Indian and Celtic motifs and moods. I particularly enjoyed their songs that featured 12-string guitar work, some of which reminded me of the late, great Robbie Basho and his yeoman efforts to bring steel-stringed guitars into the classical traditions of Indian music, establishing a western raga system in the process. Toss in the fact that we were sitting outdoors with friends, noshing tasty snacks, surrounded by our wondrous red rocks, and it made for a really lovely Sunday outing; you can click on the photo below to visit Black Forest Society’s website and hear some samples of their music:

5. Speaking of my Monday hiking group, we did another fantastic backwoods trek yesterday, (way) up to four native ruins, two with impressive rock art formations, all of them located on precipitous overhangs with challenging approaches. Click the pic below, at the first ruin we visited, to see the mini-photo-album for this trek:

6. And to close on another happy note, we wished Katelin and John a most happy first anniversary this week, all of us noting that it seems hard to believe that it’s been a year since we traveled to their home in Las Vegas for their wedding. We’re heading out for a little road trip tomorrow up to Arches National Park in Moab, Utah, then over to Zion National Park in the southwestern part of the Beehive State. Katelin and John will be driving over from Vegas to join us while we are in Zion, so we’ll celebrate their anniversary properly in person then. We love them dearly, and are proud of them always.

Nail on the Head

1. My prior post noted the anniversary of a moment of great private mourning for my family, just as the very public mourning for Queen Elizabeth II was beginning. That was a lot of heavy matter spilling out of the Interweb Pipes all at once here, as I don’t enjoy feeling like a ghoul picking over the remains of the dearly departed. That said, I do want to note two other recent passings of personal import to me, then will move on to some less death-centric material.

Firstly, astrophysicist Frank Drake passed away earlier in September. He spent much of his career engaged in the Search for Extraterrestrial Life (SETI) from a macro hard science standpoint, not from the fringes of the micro bug-eyed men with anal probes standpoint. He was involved in Project Ozma in 1960, which was one of the first technologically sophisticated attempts to discern communications signals from the stars. Dr. Drake later went on to play key roles in developing the Pioneer Plaque, the Voyager Golden Record and the Arecibo Message. But his achievement that resonates most closely for me was his Drake Equation, developed in 1961. Marcia, Katelin and I all have that equation tattooed on our right forearms. Here’s two-thirds of the family collection, freshly inked:

The Drake Equation is a probabilistic calculation designed to estimate the number of active, communicative extraterrestrial civilizations in the Milky Way. Here’s an explainer of its various elements. We know a lot more about some of its variables today than we did when Dr. Drake postulated his argument, but for most of the variables related to potential intelligent life forms, we’re obviously still operating with an observable set of but one species on one planet with the ability to cast electromagnetic signals outward to the stars, and we haven’t been doing it for very long, at all. The equation resonates with us as a family in a variety of ways, and has framed a variety of discussions and digressions among us over the years. But at bottom line, I think Marcia summed up what we love about it best, when she noted: “It reminds me that we are small, but special.” Amen. Thanks for that, Dr. Drake.

A second memorial nod must be tipped toward the late great jazz-man Ramsey Lewis, who died this week after an incredibly long career as a composer, performer, radio host, educator, and philanthropist. His best known works were recorded around the time that I was born, yet they still sound vibrant and joyful to modern ears, or at least my modern ears anyway. Lewis’ trio was also where the equally late and equally lamented Maurice White cut his performing teeth, before departing to launch Earth, Wind and Fire to massive creative, commercial, and critical acclaim. While we were living in Chicago, we got to catch a special performance by Ramsey as part of the Chicago Jazz Festival, a gig billed as his retirement performance, which turned out to be a passionate, warm, emotional experience of great heft to the creative community in the city where Ramsey spent the vast majority of his life. Here are a pair of Ramsey Lewis’ most beloved performances, offered with immense respect for his life and work:

2. A couple of posts ago, I wrote about respectfully visiting a variety of hard-to-find, hard-to-see native historic sites in and around our area. The group I hike with have since done two more excursions up into the highlands at the northern edge of our local red rocks region, and we did find some interesting ruins, if not any dramatic rock art. For these hikes, for me, the highlights were actually the views from on high. While archaeological assessments of native sites obviously focus on the practical reasons why people would have lived there (e.g. access to food and water, shelter from the elements, safety from other humans, etc.), I do deeply believe that our ancestors also must have shared some version of our own appreciation for “location, location, location,” especially for locations with utterly exquisite views. Here are a pair of snaps from each of those past two hikes. Wouldn’t you have loved to live here too? (Note: at the tip of the central promontory on which I am standing in the second photo, you may just be able to see one of the ruins we visited; I’d wager it was a sentry or guard post, based on the panoramic views of all approach routes from within its confines; you can click either photo to see a larger version).

3. Closer to home, and while I’m sorting photos, we have fine views from our windows and yard, though not quite as grand as the ones above. We also have an incredible variety of visitors who make their homes in our yard, or at least pass through on a regular basis. I’ve posted a lot of photos of various yard critters here over the past two years, but here are three guests who came to see us since last I posted. Note that the mule deer is reacting to one of the very few yard guests that I don’t like: the mosquitoes that swarm here after the monsoon leaves plentiful pools of water for them to breed in, ugh.

4. I’ve long used arcane titling conventions for posts like this one, which offer a variety of short pieces rather than a single conceptual article. Back in 2017, I tried to recreate the roster of those conventions in a post called So Many Ways To Say Some Stuff. For a variety of reasons, it seemed that after I compiled that list, I didn’t find myself writing many such posts anymore, favoring instead a variety of more series-based articles like Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists, or 10,000 Words, or Best of the Archives, or With Which I Am Well Pleased. By early 2022, I was feeling a bit burnt-out by all of those various series, and by the pace that I’d kept up here throughout the Anno Virum, and by the time being consumed by a not-yet-ready-for-public-announcement writing project away from the web. I whithered a bit on what to do, and have cut back the frequency of posting here since then, but that seemed to open up the window to more compendium posts again, like this one. I only state that publicly here to note that my naming convention for such posts through 2022 has been based on song titles by the great Uriah Heep, and that after fourteen such posts, I think it’s time to move on to a new rubric. I know that virtually no one reading this piffle and tripe will note such arcane conventions, nor necessarily pick up on the new paradigm, but it pleases me to have structure, and to have little tricks and hooks that help me sort the immense volume of stuff here, even if nobody notices but me.

Caving to Streaming

In October 2018, I wrote an article here called A Lifetime of Listening, which explored all the ways that I had physically experienced music since my earliest sentient days. The article ended by explaining my then-current listening paradigm, as follows:

[This is] the status quo as of autumn 2018: I have an iTunes account on my computer with about 14,000 songs available to me, all backed up on an external 1.0 terabyte hard drive. I manage six iPods for myself and Marcia, making new mixes as new things come in for all of the various players. Apple recently ended their own “gadget era” (e.g. no more standalone music players, since you are supposed to get music on your phone or tablet), so these great little players are on their way out, and I have acquired a stockpile of Nanos and Shuffles to rage against the dying of this paradigm as long as I can. Yeah, I could play stuff on my phone, but I don’t like carrying it around, since I have a big phone, while a Shuffle fits nicely in my pants pocket.

I still purchase all of my music online, album by album and song by song, though more often than not I actually pay for it with points that I can get from my credit cards (rather than getting airplane miles or whatever). I have not yet made the leap to Spotify or any of the other similar subscription streaming music services as I still like “owning” and not “renting” my music — even though the physical embodiment of my ownership is just a bunch of data in a little little six-inch by six-inch by two-inch black box, not the glorious milk crates of musty smelling cardboard and plastic of yesteryear.

At some point, yeah, I know I will have to jump forward again, and Marcia will probably deploy the cattle prod to make it happen at some point. But for now, I’m fighting it, knowing that I will ultimately lose this battle, as I always do.

I continued to fight the good fight after that point in time, working stubbornly to not update my listening paradigms just for the sake of updating them. But as of yesterday, I must confess with chagrin that I have thrown in the towel, and have formally resigned myself to the fact that we live in a streaming era now, and that I have to play along, if I want to play.

It’s been a slow erosion arriving at this point, and Marcia, being less change averse, led the charge as she usually does in such matters. In 2019, when she was taking a yoga instructor class, she needed to create class playlists using Spotify (her instructors’ choice), so she set up an account and got a little Bluetooth speaker so that she could play her mixes from her phone. Then we found that, as we were traveling, hotels and rental homes and rental cars stopped offering music playing devices that could be connected to the iPods that I traveled with, so we started using Marcia’s Spotify account and travel speaker to make trip-specific playlists.

Within the past year, I beefed up our main home television with a really good sound system. Since the TV was a smart one, we could also play Spotify playlists through it, and the quality of the sound experienced there was certainly greater than what we were getting from my 12+ year old iPod docking stereo. So we began listening to various playlists that way, and I began actively curating Spotify playlists in real time, to add new release albums, typically mirroring whatever I was downloading on my computer to play with iTunes. (My catalog of songs hosted on my computer is now at 17,522 tracks, totally about 48 days of total listening time).

While we were in California last week, I went to a local coffee shop one morning, and was most pleasantly surprised to hear Fairport Convention’s sublime take on the traditional tune “Matty Groves” playing over the shop’s stereo. When I got back to our rental house, I made a really, really good (if I say so myself) 100+ song Folk-Rock mix on the Spotify account, and it pretty much soundtracked the remainder of our time on vacation. When I got home, I sat down at my computer and considered recreating it on iTunes, but I found that a lot of the songs I had selected were not available, and it seemed wasteful to spend money on downloading things that I’d already gotten on the Spotify account. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and I caved, folded, collapsed and surrendered to the inevitable. Meet the new paradigm. Better (?) late than never.

I formalized this transition yesterday, when I bought a new Bose smart speaker for our house and set it up with an Echo Dot that we’d been given some years ago and never used, so now we can just to talk to She Who Will Not Be Named Out Loud Lest She Order Us Twenty Pounds of Cat Litter (hint: Exa-Alay) and She will play our music for us. I must admit, it sounds good, and it’s easy. Well, it got easy after I renamed all of our playlists to make them simpler to remember and call up, anyway.  And now we don’t have to have the television on to play our Spotify music. Here’s what our home jukebox set up looks like now:

I must admit I found it a bit giggle-inducing to realize how much it evokes my home jukebox from nearly half-a-century ago:

With that new system set up and running, I had to unplug my trusty old Tivoli Audio iPod player that I’ve been using daily since we lived in Latham, New York, well over a decade ago. We certainly got more than our money’s worth out of that modest tech investment, and it’s certainly had a good and productive run. It’s still working fine, actually, though its speakers sound thin compared to more modern ones, and it obviously doesn’t work with contemporary streaming technology. But still . . . I feel inordinately sad seeing it sitting here on my office floor like this, its service complete, ready to be relegated to the big box of wires and cables and adaptors and old tech that sits in my closet, gathering dust:

Poor Old Music Box. You were good to us, and I will miss you, while humming this excellently weird favorite song to myself in your honor and memory, wistfully:

I do note that I am not totally giving up on iTunes/iPod technology, as we still use it in our car, and I’m disinclined to have to be connecting and disconnecting various accounts and phones when we get in and out the Mazda every time. So my 17,522 purchased song library will still have some value, though I don’t expect I’ll add much to it anymore, so that means that car driving time will eventually become more of a nostalgia listening experience that a what’s new and fresh experience. Oh well. I’ll endure, I suppose. And I know that sometime in the future, something new will come along, and everybody will adopt it, and I will cling to my Bose and Spotify and Lexa-Alay system, raging, raging against the dying of that paradigm. Here’s hoping that time is in the long distant future though. I’m just not sure how many more beloved inanimate objects I can euthanize while remaining emotionally healthy and functional . . .

A Songwriter Special

If asked to name my very favorite songwriters ever, my response list might vary a bit over time depending on what I’ve been listening to, or not listening to, of late, but I can guarantee that two names will always appear quickly and emphatically in my replies: Jed Davis and Andy Prieboy.

They’re both brilliant lyricists and masters of melody, and (even better) they’re also both astute arrangers, tremendous singers and keyboardists, and aces at recruiting and working with just the right musicians to bring their music to life. Prieboy and Davis have done fine work with various bands (Wall of Voodoo and Eye Protection in the former’s case; Collider, Skyscape, The Hanslick Rebellion, Jeebus and others in the latter’s), but they are also wildly accomplished as solo artists under their own banners. And while both of them craft fine stand-along songs, both have also composed long-form theatrical works: Prieboy having penned and performed in White Trash Wins Lotto (which does not exist as a complete studio recording), while Davis’ Rise and Shine stands thus far as a truly great New York song cycle with its first “two days” (of five) having seen studio release to date. When all ~40 songs are complete and released, I’m hopeful to see the full-scale staging it most emphatically deserves. (If you’re an angel investor looking for a winning pick, I can certainly put you in touch with Jed to spend your money wisely).

Why do I write about these two favorite songwriters today? Because both of them have released excellent new albums this month, both of which bring fresh interpretations to songs from their deep catalogs. Prieboy’s One and One Make Three features a dozen songs written between 1979 and 2020, “re-recorded and arranged as I originally conceived them,” he explains in the record’s liner notes, adding that “my first duty, after all, is to the music and the lyrics.” Davis’ Failing Upwards includes his own dozen numbers composed between 1997 and 2021, organized thematically into six linked pairs of songs, where (per Jed) “the first song in each pair is about doing something because you have to do it; the second is about doing that same thing because you want to.” The songs presented on these records play to both artists’ storytelling strengths, with cohesive, real-world narratives delivered with just the right mixes of pathos and passion, horror and humor, keen observations into the beauty of the human experiences, and occasional visits to the ugly places where the best stories often lurk.

Prieboy’s collaborators on One and One Make Three include all of the surviving members of the outstanding Wall of Voodoo line-up he fronted over three albums (that would be Chas T. Grey, Bruce Moreland, and Ned Leukhardt; Marc Moreland died in 2002), superb blues guitarist (and former Eye Protection member) John Maxwell, drummer David Kendrick (Sparks, Devo, Gleaming Spires) and the late, great cow-punk pioneer Tony Kendrick (The Dils, Rank and File), among others. Stalwart Davis collaborators Mike Keaney and Alex Dubovoy both appear on Failing Upwards, alongside an incredible assortment of stellar players, including (but not limited to) the also late and also great Ralph Carney, Brian Dewan, Anton Fig, Reeves Gabrels, Juliana Hatfield, Tony Levin, Earl Slick, Dweezil Zappa and three erstwhile Ramones: Tommy (RIP), C.J. and Marky. Both records are exceptionally well recorded, with their featured songs deployed in rich and varied settings, covering various styles, idioms, and moods. Both records feature numerous ear-worm melodies that will stick in your brain box, while the deft wordplay in which both artists excel is in full flower throughout these records’ runs.

While there are many commonalities and similarities in the structures of these two albums, and in my affection for and appreciation of their creators’ work, and in the consistently high quality of the songwriting and performances that Prieboy and Davis offer, there are also, of course, notable differences between the pair.

Davis is a Long Island native whose personal and professional lives have generally orbited around New York City, occasionally being sucked into its bowels by its formidable gravitational attraction, including several years living in and working from “The Ramones Loft,” where he collaborated with that great group’s brilliant artistic director, Arturo Vega (another RIP entry). Jed’s songs, stories, and styles are often evocative of the punk and post-punk scenes of the Lower East Side (he’s super-skilled at recognizing and pulling the beating pop hearts from those idioms’ twitchy carcasses), and of the theatricality of Tin Pan Alley and Broadway (its bright lights casting long shadows, within which its ugly, unseen, and more interesting roots are anchored), and of the vast cultural and musical sprawls of the outer boroughs and the suburban and exurban stretches surrounding the great megalopolis at the mouths of Hudson’s River. Beyond his musical chops, he’s also a brilliant graphic designer and artist (his videos and album covers provide proof on that point), and his keen observational skills and ability to transmit information and intention quickly and with lasting power serve his songs and lyrics just as well as they serve his visual works.

Prieboy, for his part, was raised in Indiana before decamping to California as a young man to become a rock star (as one does, when one lives in Indiana, and one does not wish to become a steel-worker, or a farmer, or a right-wing politician), falling into various seedy and tawdry scenes in both the Bay Area and Los Angeles, from which he emerged with far better stories than most anybody who you and I are ever likely to know. He is the long-time life partner of Emmy and Writers Guild Award-winning writer Merrill Markoe, who earns an “Editor” credit on his new album. (The pair’s 2004 collaborative novel The Psycho-Ex Game is a highly recommended hoot, if you need a good book to chew on). Prieboy’s work often evokes Hollywood (Babylon Division), including the great cinematic musicals (and their Vaudeville by way of Gilbert and Sullivan roots) that stand as artifacts of Tinseltown’s gloriously garish past, and the Spaghetti Western scores that once made so many bad actors seem good when their gunfights were properly sound-tracked. He spins big stories from small scenes, and he’s a master at finding grace and poignancy in tales about the people who most other people miss, misunderstand, or malign.

The temporal breadth of both of these albums stands as ample evidence of the consistent excellence in which both of these master songwriters have traded, for decades and decades. It also provides testimony affirming their judicious curation and control of their catalogs, as these albums were not just rush-released, half-baked upon conception, but instead were given the time to ripen, or to be re-evaluated, or to be reclaimed when the time was right, and the right players had the time, to make them everything that they needed to be. I know I will be considering both of these discs near the top of the heap when I do my 31st Annual Albums of the Year Report in December 2022. I most emphatically encourage you to score and enjoy them now, as a perfect pair of long-players from an equally perfect pair of performers, who are writing, singing and playing at the top of their most formidable games.

I’ll embed a pair of videos that, I think, provide great introductory peeks into these albums’ guts, if you need some sonic proof to back up my laudatory words, or if your curiosity’s piqued and it needs a good scratching:

You can also click on the images of these two album covers below to nab your own copies, which are available via most of the usual streaming, download, and sales services. And if you’d like to learn more about these artists, feel free to use the search block in the top right sidebar on this website, as I’ve written boodles about both of them over the years. And hope that I will get to do so again, and again, and again . . .

Playing for Time

1. Marcia and I recently took a little weekend getaway trip to Albuquerque, New Mexico (a city we had most seriously considered as a residence before we settled on Sedona) to catch three nights of the 35th Annual Festival Flamenco Albuquerque. The event’s organizers describe it thusly:

Every summer, the National Institute of Flamenco and the University of New Mexico host Festival Flamenco Albuquerque, bringing the finest flamenco artists in the world to Albuquerque. For eight days, the city is filled with the pulse of flamenco, and is transformed into a cultural epicenter for the art form. This tradition celebrates flamenco, the incredible art form that UNESCO declared an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The lure of flamenco is its ability to explore the full range of human emotion with an intense, vibrant quality that leaves audiences and students alike, captivated.

We have really enjoyed seeing flamenco live in Spain, most especially when it is presented in the tablaos where Spaniards actually go to see shows, rather than in the more theatrical venues that cater to tourists. The virtuosity of the form when performed by masters is truly breathtaking, and it provides a fascinating insight into the cultural history of Spain, with rhythms and vocal styles that incorporate the breadth of traditions and peoples who have built the modern incarnation of that storied nation. The ABQ Festival features such masters, all singing, dancing, playing guitar and offering the distinctive body-based percussion that define the form. Truly wonderful, even if the Spanish late-night traditions had us staying up until 2am most nights, well past our normal bedtimes. We highly recommend this event to you should you be able to find your way to Albuquerque some summer!

Click the image to see some videos of performances we caught in ABQ this year.

2. When we returned from Albuquerque, our home air conditioning was, thankfully, fixed after nearly three weeks of stifling interior heat. We also finally got our car back from the shop just in time to make the road trip, though we are still waiting for a couple of trim pieces to arrive from the apparently endless back order log impacting the auto industry of late. It’s very discomforting and dismaying to not be able to enjoy such basic everyday necessities as home and auto, so we feel much better not having those constant reminders of our remote home location in our faces every day. First world problems, yeah, but that’s the world we live in, so we do feel them.

3. I’ve been hiking every Monday morning for the past couple of months with a group of folks who share my own personal proclivities when it comes to back country exploration and adventure. I’d define those proclivities as a desire to get an intense workout, to climb things that not many people climb, to explore trails that not many people explore, to be bold in letting the lay of the land dictate the route more than the path on the map, and to do advance research to ensure that each hike has some tangible payoff along its route. This past week, we did a fairly strenuous route that took us up to one of the finest pictograph sites that I’ve yet seen, outside of National Park Service protected areas. Here are some images of what we saw in a cave recess high up on a butte above the forest:

This region’s human and natural histories are both deep and extraordinary. I’m more than willing to put in the work to experience them, even if I come home with regular scrapes, scratches, bruises, strains and contusions from doing so!

4. Our son-in-law, John, is an exceptional artist, in both traditional and digital idioms. On one of our visits to see him and Katelin in the past year or so, he shared some work he was doing using an Artificial Intelligence (AI) art processor called Night Cafe. I found it fascinating, in the same ways that I was fascinated by Holly Herndon‘s 2019 album PROTO, which deployed an AI named Spawn that was trained with a traditional folk/gospel chorus to interpret and process vocal and musical sounds. It also reminded me of some of the fun I had in the primordial days of the Web, when emergent (yet still deeply flawed) technologies like the earliest language translation engines produced freakish, poetic magic that would never emerge from the minds of humans. Here’s a piece I wrote about that, with a sample of “translator poetry,” all the way back from 2000.

For my birthday this year, John got me a subscription to Night Cafe and I have been having a good time exploring its capabilities and outputs. Be clear up front: I’m no visual artist, beyond perhaps an ability to capture and process interesting photographic scenes. So whatever “art” emerges from my dabbling with Night Cafe is not my work, but the AI’s. When I first started using the program, I was uploading some favorite photos that I have taken, and then using the AI to process them. That produced some interesting images, but I then decided to give up on visual inputs altogether, instead submitting fragments from poems I’ve written over the years, giving the AI a list of styles or artists I like, and then letting it rip on its own. Here are some of the outputs from that approach that I’ve enjoyed the most (you can click the images to see them in full size formats):

I find it fascinating to see what an AI “thinks” that my words mean, and how it “chooses” to interpret them visually. (As I typed those qualifying quotes around those key words, I found myself thinking: “Hmmm . . . am I being unfairly meat-sack-centric here?”) But even as much as I enjoy these and other similar images as interesting and pleasurable things to look at, I also find myself wondering: Are these my images? And are they art, in any way, or just pictures? Lots of interesting questions there about intention and creativity and skill and attribution and intellectual property, for sure. As it turns out, around the time that I was first fiddling with Night Cafe and thinking about these things, an artist and critic who I quite respect, named Eric Wayne, wrote and posted what I consider to be the best essay on this topic I’ve yet encountered. I encourage you to read it at the following link: Will AI Replace Human Artists?

You Must Get This Book: Steve Pringle On The Fall

Back when I wrote and posted my original Favorite Songs By Favorite Bands series, one of the longest pieces in that sequence of articles was about the always-remarkable British post-punk group, The Fall. The length of that piece was necessary because The Fall group themselves had an exceptionally rich and complex personnel history, their body of work was immense and wildly varied, my own relationships with and reactions to the group’s work are deep and broad, and because I also have a long involvement (since about 2004) with one of the key virtual communities of Fall fans, namely the Fall Online Forum. Which is populated by a truly incredible assortment of smart and interesting folks whose passion for the Fall and for its late chief, Mark E. Smith, can border upon, or often blow completely beyond, the levels of musical, lyrical, historical, and cultural obsession that most creative artists can ever dream of inspiring.

Around early 2017, a relatively new member of the “FOF” (as Fall Online Forum regulars typically cite it) going by the handle of “Steve69” began to be highly active on the message boards there. We clicked and connected fairly early on during his time there, in the ways that online friendships blossom around shared interests, or shared worldviews, or shared approaches to virtual communities, or shared experiences. I later learned his real-world surname was “Pringle,” which prompted long discussions online (because of course it did) about what that name evokes in the UK (i.e. a type of “jumper” — which we know as a “sweater” here in the States — once favored by Mark E. Smith himself) and in the USA (i.e. a pre-formed potato chip sold in tubes).

Both Steve and I have had periods of absence from the FOF, which can be truly wonderful for its over-the-top passions and enthusiasms continually expressed there on the most incredibly wide array of topics, but which can also occasionally become exhausting precisely because of those passions and enthusiasms. At some point in early 2018, Steve and I were both on FOF Sabbaticals, but were still keeping in touch via email. He posited an interesting idea for a deeply ambitious writing project called “The Fall in Fives,” within which he would evaluate every song the Fall had ever released (there were over 500 of them) in randomly generated groups of five titles.

It was a crazy undertaking, on some plane, but as someone who has routinely launched crazy undertakings on my own website (including this little Fall-inspired adventure), I was supportive and encouraging of his idea, and offered some small tips and pointers on how to roll it out on WordPress, and to promote it via social media. As is the case with most online projects like that, things started slowly, but the quality and depth of Steve’s posts quickly caught the attention of the Greater Fall Community, including numerous former group members, who weighed in or offered perspective on his project. Many other FOF members (both Steve and I returned to the Forum as his project was taking off) also chimed in to provide pointers, express enthusiasms, and offer occasional outrage, with fellow obsessive Fall-site creators bzfgt (The Annotated Fall) and dannyno (The Flickering Lexicon) playing particularly important roles in the Forum’s meta-analysis of Steve’s own analyses.

As Steve got deeper and deeper into the thing, and as it became clear that, Dear God, he was actually going to finish it, The Fall in Fives emerged as a truly interesting, engaging, and borderline encyclopedic online resource for all things Fall. But given the purposeful “mix-master” approach to hearing and evaluating songs from all over the group’s catalog in no discernible order, and also not content to rest on his laurels, Steve then expanded and adapted content from The Fall in Fives to document and consider the Fall’s recorded output on a more intuitive album-by-album basis, dubbing that second project “You Must Get Them All” (more on that title below). And as if that weren’t enough, he then also launched a fun and well-produced series of podcasts to supplement the whole, huge thing.

As wonderful as that online body of work became, anybody who has created large and complex web projects knows that keeping such projects from quickly succumbing to the entropy of the Internet is a constant struggle, and many of the very best online resources at any point in time soon become unusable as image and video files are removed, links break, comment bots and human trolls swarm, browser and content management technologies change, etc. So, having been barking mad enough to create The Fall in Fives and You Must Get Them All in the first place, Steve boldly set off to re-format the whole thing for print. He pitched it to Route (a “terraced publishing house in the north of England with a principle commitment to authentic stories and good books”), who bit on the project, and have brought it to market this month in the form of a truly magnificent book:

Click on the cover image to order your own copy of YMGTA.

The title of the book (and the website that preceded it) comes from a quote by legendary English DJ John Peel, who was deeply committed to the Fall and their music, hosting the group for live “Peel Sessions” 24 times between 1978 and 2004. That quote appears on the back cover of Steve’s book:

People write to me and say, “I heard The Fall, which record should I get?” And I never have any hesitation in telling them: you must get them all, because it’s impossible to pick one . . . and in fact, I’ll go further. I say: anybody who can tell you the five best Fall LPs, or the five best Fall tracks, has missed the point, really. It’s the whole body of the work that is to be applauded.

 

And now, it is also Steve Pringle’s detailed and delightful analysis of that whole body of work which is also to be applauded. Running to 656 pages, You Must Get Them All organizes, explains, and evaluates the Fall’s entire tangled history, with each and every release, and each and every song, and each and every group member being documented, discussed, and appreciated.

The book’s main text is formatted chronologically around the Fall’s 33 studio albums. (Which seems a simple, non-controversial sentence for me to write, but numerous Music Nerd Wars have been fought on the FOF and elsewhere over whether that “33” number is real, accurate, or meaningful, with key arguments hinging on whether the Fall’s brilliant 1981 release, Slates, is an album, or a mini-album, or an EP, or something else). Within each chapter, Steve discusses the personnel and personal forces at work within the Fall, cultural and political happenings surrounding the group for context, the recording processes, locations, and key collaborators for each album, Steve’s own critical reviews and musical analyses of each and every song, summaries of contemporary reviews and reactions, and an overall critical evaluation of each record as an entity within the spectrum of Fall sounds.

The main text is then followed by a series of really valuable reference appendices, discussing The Fall’s Peel Sessions, Fall Compilation Albums, Fall Live Albums, and a “Who’s Who” wrap-up of the countless players, producers, engineers, label chiefs, disc jockeys, promoters and more who played important roles in the Fall’s long history. There’s also a fantastic introduction from Paul Hanley, drummer-keyboardist from what many would consider to be The Fall’s finest era; many former Fall figures have written books over the years, and having read most all of them, I would say with no hesitation that the finest and most insightful writer among that crew is Paul.

And I would also now label Steve Pringle as another most fine and insightful writer. As a person who reads a lot of books about music and music-making, I can tell you that there are generally two types of tomes within that genre. First, there are vast and sprawling books that detail every single nuance or factoid about artists and their bodies of work. Such books are generally very useful as reference, but consuming them can often be about as exciting as reading a phone book or a TV Guide, with little-to-no actual good writing framing the details. Then at the other end of the spectrum, you often get super-artful, beautifully-written books filled with rich, florid text and arching long-form narratives, but often at the expense of detail, or even accuracy, when an author feels the need to bend the story to fit the desired plot points and denouements.

It is exceptionally rare to find books of music journalism where authors demonstrate equal skills as diligent researchers, accurate archivists, exceptional educators, and evocative story-tellers, but Steve Pringle has most definitely achieved that exquisite balance with You Must Get Them All. The Fall’s story is a marvelous one, told by Steve with taste and style, funny and fun in parts, tragic and awful in others. There’s no force-fitting or glossing-over of elements to support a pre-planned creative progression, and even the Epilogue (describing the group’s final days and Mark E. Smith’s untimely death) avoids the types of false sentimentality and over-generalization and myth-making that many similar books succumb to in trying to package nearly a half-century’s worth of happenings into one neat and tidy, well-wrapped bundle.

And on the flip-side, the depth of detail presented herein is just as powerful, and just as effective, and just as well-organized as one could ever expect from such a complicated career retrospective analysis. The structure of the books is solid and sound, and I love the ways that Steve uses foot-noting and asides to add bits that are fun, or helpful, but not necessarily essential to the main narrative, should a reader wish to not go yet another layer deep into the group’s creative architecture and approaches. Because of this balance, You Must Get Them All also becomes that rare volume that can conceivably be of equal value to the most ferocious Fall Fans, to those readers who may be dipping their toes for the first time in the Fall’s sea of riches, or even for those curious souls who may just want to read a fascinating story about an eclectic and important collection of artists and personalities.

It’s a winner, at bottom line, and I highly commend it to your attention accordingly. And I also commend Steve Pringle for his persistence of vision in bringing this work to completion. It was a fun privilege to sort of see the whole thing coming together over the past several years, and there were so many points along the path where most people would have said “enough” and congratulated themselves on their achievements to date. But not Steve, who took a passing idea and turned it into a massive reality, to the benefit of so many fans, listeners, and readers. Bravo!

Best Albums of 2022 (First Half)

As long-time readers of this site are no doubt aware, I’ve been posting year-end “Best Albums” reports here or in various print outlets for 30 consecutive years. The most recent report is here, with a roster of my “Albums of the Year” going back to 1992. I typically post my annual lists in early December, since I figure that I need to spend at least 30ish days with a record before deeming it the best of anything; I then do a mop-up addendum each January if something impressive tumbles in at the wire.

I also normally do an interim report half-way through each listening year, which falls in early June on my calendar. Which is now, so it’s time to identify my current contenders for the year-end title. I’m not going to review any of them in full at this point, but I do provide links below if you’d like to investigate and explore them further. My macro sense is that early 2022 has been a rich listening season, compared and contrasted to early 2021, when COVID impacts definitely seem to have impaired bands’ and artists’ abilities to perform and record new material, beyond a lot of navel-gazing “woodshed” projects that were, of necessity, a big part of the Anno Virum listening landscape.

With that as preamble, here are the albums that have moved me the most thus far this year, arranged in alphabetical order by artist name. Do you have some personal favorites that I need to explore in the months ahead? If so, do share in the comment section, please and thanks!

As a bonus tease, here are five of my very favorite songs culled from these albums, to give you a sense of what’s rocking my world right now. I suppose you can take this as the latest installment of my “Five Songs You Need to Hear” series. As above, these are presented in alphabetical order by artist name. Happy listening!

An Appalachian Adventure

Marcia and I spent the last week in the Southeastern high country on a little adventure that included a lot of unusual highlights, along with a deep appreciation for how very lovely and green the southern reaches of the Appalachian Range are. We love where we live on the shoulders of Arizona’s Mogollon Rim, but it was sort of “wow” to be reminded of how grand old mixed and deciduous mountain forests look and feel after a long time away from them. It was also refreshing to visit a part of the country where every plant isn’t aggressively trying to poke, stick, scratch, bite or kill you.

We left a week ago Thursday and spent a night in Phoenix, where we visited with Marcia’s nephew and his lovely family, who took us out for an outstanding dinner at Dick’s Hideaway, where we had some absolutely superb Mexican food, in most generous portions. We then flew on non-stop to Atlanta, rented a car, and drove up to Asheville, North Carolina, where my sister and her own lovely family were marking their 20th anniversary of residence. That makes them old school mountain denizens in a city that’s seen huge immigration and growth since the time they arrived. We hung out at their place for a few days, watching the Memorial Day fireworks at the nearby Grove Park Inn from their deck, eating many pounds of boiled peanuts, appreciating brother-in-law Dana’s excellent bonsai collection, and getting an ongoing Wild Kingdom show as the local bears hung around their yard, and dragged their trashcans around their neighborhood. We had to go shoot bottle rockets at them one night to make them go away. That’s some fine redneckery there, yessir.

We had a great dinner on Saturday night at Ukiah, a “Japanese Smokehouse,” which offered a wonderful combination of Carolina and Asian foods and flavors, served small plate style, so you could sample a lot of different things. Which we did. We also visited the outstanding North Carolina Arboretum (more crazy good bonsai there) and the quirky little town of Marshall, on the banks of the French Broad River. We had a great brunch at Star Diner, and then walked over to the little historic island at the heart of the town, which features an abandoned community center decorated with what I would guess are WPA/CCC-era murals, that have aged wonderfully weirdly.

On Tuesday, we drove over to Knoxville, Tennessee, and I was pleased to realize that we were there exactly 40 years after my first visit to that city, when my high school senior class trip took us to the 1982 World’s Fair. Here’s a photo from that long-ago trip, taken on the very long bus ride back from Knoxville. (If the shirt logo seems incongruous, it was a uniform item from my summer job at White Sulphur Springs in Pennsylvania). I suspect it was intentional that whatever was in my hand was cropped out in this view. Also, note one of my chums sleeping in the luggage rack at top right. It was that kind of trip . . .

Most of the structures and buildings from that Worlds Fair are long gone, except for the iconic Sunsphere (it seemed so tall to me in 1982, but now it seems modest and quaint, a Jetsons view of the future) and the Tennessee Amphitheater (nicknamed “Dolly Parton’s Bra” at the time of its unveiling, for somewhat obvious reasons when you see it). As can probably be divined by the previous photo, my high school crew’s behavior at that World’s Fair was, shall we say, problematic, to the point where our high school stopped offering senior class trips for some time after ours. Oops. Sorry, future seniors. If it’s any consolation, I don’t really remember much of what happened, but I know we had fun.

But the real reason we went to Knoxville was not for me to walk down blurry memory lane, but actually to see one of the most iconic artists in my own personal musical development, along with the musical development of countless millions of other people: Sir Paul McCartney. I’ve been on Team Paul in the “Fave Fab” sweepstakes since my earliest days, always a staunch believer in and defender of his brilliance, even through those years/decades when it was hip in critical circles to denigrate him for not being edgy enough, or for featuring his wife in his band, or for not being John, or for whatever contrarian idiocy critics were peddling at the time. But despite that lifetime of love from me, I’d never seen Paul live in concert, until this week. Marcia is also a big fan (I think Paul’s at the top of her “Hall Pass” freebie crush list at this point), so she also got her first experience of basking in the light of his awesomeness.

The show was incredible: 36 songs ranging from the Quarrymen’s first demo up to recent solo works, with loads of Wings and Beatles and even a Hendrix tribute in the mix, running to nearly three hours worth of music. Paul’s live band (he’s been playing with most of these guys for longer than he played with the Beatles and Wings, combined!) is cracker-jack tight and talented, and it’s jaw-dropping to see how hard Paul plays, and how well he sings, and how much energy he exudes, at his or, frankly, anybody else’s age. He’s a true force of nature, and I was thrilled to be at this show. Poignant moments in the set list included Paul playing George Harrison’s “Something” on a ukulele that George had given him, and Paul performing a duet with John Lennon on “I’ve Got a Feeling,” via an isolated vocal and video recording from the legendary Get Back rooftop concert; Paul turned his back to crowd for that one, watching John as he sang. It was powerful.

We headed south the next morning and spent some time exploring Chattanooga, which has done a great job of making the formidable Tennessee River accessible and enjoyable in the heart of its urban core. After another nice meal (are you detecting a theme here?) at Tony’s Pasta Shop, we headed back to Atlanta, checked into our hotel, and set an early morning alarm for our planned nonstop flight back to Phoenix on Thursday morning.

Unfortunately, American Airlines had some other ideas about that. We woke to discover that our flight had been cancelled during the night, and that the only way for us to get home was via a Charlotte connecting flight . . . the next day. Ugh. We made the best of the situation, and took the MARTA train into Atlanta’s Midtown area, where we walked around the spacious and tree-rich Piedmont Park, visited The High Museum of Art (their Howard Finster collection is a highlight), had another exceptional meal at Tabla (saag paneer is one of my go-to dishes at Indian restaurants, so I’ve eaten it all over the world, and I think I’d pick this destination as the source for the best version of it I’ve ever had), and caught what turned out to be a private matinee showing of Alex Garland’s new film, Men. Which was something, shall we say. I’m not quite sure what, but certainly something. (I like weird/ambiguous films, and I like Alex Garland, but after thinking about it for a couple of days, I have to judge this one as a well-made film, but not a particularly good film, in large part for scripting reasons, though the core cast of Jessie Buckley and Rory Kinnear did do most formidable work with flawed material).

So then, back to the hotel, another early morning wake up, an unplanned and unexpected flight back to North Carolina (both the ATL and CLT airports were utter mob scenes), then onward by air to Phoenix, then the 100-mile drive back to home again, home again, jiggety jig. A nice little adventure, all things considered, and despite the American Airlines annoyances. And, of course, I took my usual photos throughout the week, and you can see my usual album by clicking on the usual sample image below, this one of Paul’s “duet” with John at the concert.