Brave Exhibitions

1. In New York, we could only buy wine and spirits at liquor stores. In Iowa, we can buy it pretty much anywhere: grocery stores, drug stores, convenience stores, wine stores, wherever. Quality varies widely, needless to say. We rank the wine shopping hierarchy in Des Moines as follows:

Ingersoll Wine & Spirits > Hy-Vee > Dahl’s > Wahlgreens > Quik Trip > Casey’s > Kum & Go

2. Heresy alert: Critics around the world are falling all over themselves to praise Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ new disc, Push the Sky Away, as a moody, atmospheric masterpiece. But me? I think it’s slow, boring, and proves just how important ex-member Mick Harvey was to the Bad Seeds.

3. My other biggest musical disappointment in 2013 is Frightened Rabbit’s Pedestrian Verse. I adored their last two albums, and their 2012 EP State Hospital boded well as a preview for the new disc, but it really fell flat for me upon arrival. I read one review that compared the new record to Coldplay. I wouldn’t argue with that assessment, though I consider it a terrible insult.

4. Grand Mal’s Binge/Purge is one of my favorite records from the time I spent in mid-1980s Washington, DC’s musical underground. You can nab a copy here. Don’t be put off by the heinous album cover, a poster of which used to adorn my bulletin board at the Naval Academy, much to our visitors’ horror.

5. Still the best children’s book ever: Jerome.

6. Still the most terrifying version of the tired Charles Dickens classic: Richard Williams’ A Christmas Carol (1971). See especially 5:58 and 16:40.

7. As a native South Carolinian, I am very good at cracking pecans by hand. There’s some brute force involved, but also some finesse, and it is deeply satisfying to end up with two perfect pecan halves in hand without any mechanical assistance. I bought some pecans at our indoor Winter Farmer’s Market a couple of months ago, and one afternoon was particularly pleased by the perfect pecan I extracted. I went to the living room to show Marcia and share my accomplishment, hand held out in front of me. Before I could say a word, she grabbed one of the pecan halves, popped it in her mouth, and walked away. Show Off FAIL.

8. How much money do state and federal governments spend on signs that are essentially universal, such as “No Littering” or “Bridge Freezes Before Road” or “Keep Right Except to Pass.” How about we save a ton of tax dollars and eliminate all of these and other stupid signs by just having acceptance of a driver’s license include a signed attestation the the recipient understands that all bridges freeze before all roads, that littering is a no-no, that the left lane is reserved for passing, etc.

9. This post cleared about half of my office whiteboard.

“The Definition of Stupidity is Doing the Same Thing 34 Times and Expecting Different Results”

K. Sonin is a prolific singer-songwriter-guitarist based in Albany, New York. In addition to serving as a member of Complicated Shirt, Che Guevara T-Shirt and other bands, he has issued a mind-boggling 34 solo albums over the past two decades, including his most recent disc, the fatalistically titled The Definition of Stupidity is Doing the Same Thing 34 Times and Expecting Different Results. While I can’t claim to have heard all of Sonin’s records, I have listened to a solid couple of dozen of them over the years, and I consider this latest album to be the best of the bunch. Maybe practice makes (more) perfect, after all.

Sonin is a technically proficient guitarist, bassist, programmer and vocalist, capable of busting a move or rocking a riff when he wants to, on pretty much any instrument he lays hands on. But he’s also a skilled sound technician and math rock afficianado, so oftentimes his prodigious chops may be hard for the casual listener to perceive or appreciate, deployed as they are in knotty, sonically-challenging songs. On Same Thing 34 Times, though, he strikes a great balance between his noisy and melodic sides, and arranges most of the album’s eight songs in sparse, acoustic settings that really give these outstanding compositions the breathing room they deserve.

Sonin’s lyrics on this disc are dynamite as well, with the first 15 seconds of “Foralison” featuring one of those instantly classic lines that expresses so many complex feelings with so few words: “When I tell you I’d move the Earth for you, you say: ‘Go ahead, let’s see’.” This opening track features an engaging acoustic guitar foundation with a great bridge, in which electric guitar and barking dogs duel, followed by another haunting and wanting final line: “When I swear I’m going crazy, you say ‘Go ahead, go crazy for me,’ Alison, it’s killing me.”

“Feels Like” merges an over-amped guitar figure with a spacious choral vocal intoning “Drink all day / feels like getting by.” It’s followed by “Thousand Guitars,” an instrumental that ably showcases Sonin’s skill on that particular instrument; some of his sustained lead lines end up sounding and soaring like Robert Fripp soundscapes.

“Formel” initially presents itself as a relatively simple voice-and-guitar number, but it beats the pants off anything you’re ever likely to hear from most people singing with acoustic six-stringed instruments. “In your eyes, sometimes I see them coming from us,” Sonin sings, and the (justified?) paranoia of the number is striking and palpable. “NOR049” moves deeper into the noisy zone, with a gentle acoustic guitar figure that’s pillaged and eventually subsumed by highly-distored, reverb-drenched electric blurts.

The next track, “10 Years,” is the album highlight, a heartbreaking acoustic number about growing older in the working world, and not being exactly sure how you feel about doing so. “It takes ten years to dig your own grave,” Sonin sings, plaintively, in a double-tracked vocal over a sparse finger-picked guitar figure. “It takes ten years to convince yourself that’s safe. This is the safe way, this is the best way, this is the only way, to die alone in Albany,” he continues, before really sticking the stake in the hearts of thousands of cubicle-dwellers with these lines: “Ambition will only leave you wanting. Ambition will never get you any further. Ambition will only leave you waiting . . . another ten years.” This is a devastatingly powerful song, bleak in its words, but yet somehow hopeful, or at least wistful, in its music. Haunting, either way.

“Jordan By Way of 16 Horsepower and Papa M” is Same Thing 34 Times‘ longest and noisiest track, a sprawling construction whose inspirations are laid clear in its title, which references Slint guitarist David Pajo and post-No Depression noisy-country howlers 16 Horsepower. The albums closes with another melodic-acoustic number, “Long Day,” featuring Sonin singing sweet words of sorrow at the higher end of his vocal range atop a pretty finger-picked guitar figure. The song’s sole lyrics: “It’s been a long day, without you.” Can you boil loneliness and longing down into any fewer words? I don’t think you can.

All in all, this eight song set is simply magnificent, and deserves to widely heard. Nicely enough, the entire disc is available for free download or streaming, here. (An assortment of his other albums can also be downloaded on this page. My favorites of the earlier discs are We Take the Dead and the Snow and Make Soup and Jelly Legs/Bed Sores).  I’m tremendously glad to have had the chance to get to know K. Sonin’s music while I lived in Albany, and hope he continues to make records as fine as this one. I suspect that he will.