Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Sunken Condos, Donald Fagen

Fans of the 'Dan should be forgiven if they presumed Donald Fagen's Sunken Condos would expand upon the faux-cheerful post-apocalyptic landscape of 2003's Everything Must Go. There is some of that panographic perspective in this solo outing of his, most explicitly in “Memorabilia.” The singer excitedly catalogs a pedestrian inventory of trash, stowed away in the wake of America's Nuclear Dawn. In the main, however, the global signals of collapse are but a dim shadow of what is taking place inside the hearts and minds of Fagen's tortured male narrators. “They may fix the weather in the world,” claims one such, “but tell me: what's to be done about the weather in my head?”

This is an admittedly self-induced state for these fellas, most of whom seem to be desperately clinging to, or reminiscing about, failed relationships with energetic girls much too young for them — a not-uncommon motif running through the shared ouevre of Steely Dan/Fagen. The experienced listener expects this, along with the locked-down back-beat, the blues-piano progressions and the too-ironically-bright-to-be-comfortable (to my ears, at least) digital production. The experienced listener also tunes in for the subtle surprises, which Sunken Condos delivers in “Good Stuff” — another Cheerful Ode To The Hipster-Goon: a Prohibition-era enforcer in this case, who resolves his romantic troubles using the tactics of his profession.

I gradually fell deeply in love with this album, so my take on it is closer to this guy's (he hears evocations of the criminally underrated Gaucho; “Good Stuff” is definitely in the lineage of “Glamour Profession,” another favourite of mine). But most listeners, I suspect, will probably pitch in with this guy. If you think that might be you, do yourself a favour and download “Good Stuff.” If that grabs you, try “Slinky Thing” and “Miss Marlene.” Sit with those three for a while, and see if you don't go back and hit, “Complete Album.” It's not a bad soundtrack to have, particularly for those of us getting into the habit of bailing out our basements.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Billy Graham's Endorsement Of Romney Gives Morally-Bankrupt Mainstream Christians A Reason To Hope!

I've avoided commenting on the American election because it's become clear to me I simply don't understand what's going on. There were a few pleasant months when that was not the case, when we had a President who worked out a fairly clear agenda voters could expect for another four years — a cautious tweaking of the Bush Doctrine, near as I could tell. And we had a candidate who argued that George W. Bush failed chiefly because he did not go far enough in his dismantling of market controls. Dramatic, unusual spectacle, this: someone whose take on things economic, military and religious was in true — but loyal — opposition to the President.

At this point it looks to me like the contender has altered his economic and military promises to more or less fall in lockstep with the President. The result, if polls are any indication, suggests the coveted “swing” voters want someone who will stay the course, so long as that someone is not the current President.

I don't understand.

I have to wonder: if the contender has undergone such a radical conversion in his economic and interventionist world views, what is to prevent him from kneeling before Billy Graham and reciting the Sinner's Prayer? Would this not net him a landslide win?

Ah, but as his personal Lord and Savior truly spoke: what doth it profit a man to win the election, but lose his soul? Or something to that effect.

Or maybe nothing to that effect. The candidate did, in fact, meet with Billy Graham and his son Franklin. And they prayed.

Although photographed and talked about, little has been revealed of this meeting, except that the 94-year-old “spiritual advisor” to US presidents of either party, came out of the room urging Americans “to vote for candidates who will support the biblical definition of marriage.” No mention was made of the prayer's content, so we must assume Romney remains a professing Mormon. The clear take-away is, hey Evangelicals, do not vote for the (professing Christian) President, please and thank you.

This is only worth commenting on for three reasons: 1) Back in the '70s Graham sat down in Richard Nixon's oval office and engaged in a bit of mutual Jew-baiting, while the tape rolled on. Graham has since confessed remorse, and declared himself determined to steer clear of public political allegiances. 2) The only time Billy broke faith with this fast on political grandstanding was when, in his concern for the legacy he was leaving behind for his grandchildren, he stood before George W. Bush and declared that God was not at all ambivalent about nations who claim his blessing but torture their prisoners of war, and that waterboarding could not be considered anything but torture, so stop, for the love of God and America, please please stop.

Oh, hold on: wrong guy. Godless atheist Christopher Hitchens was the one who stood up and said torture was wrong, that America should stop because it was taking a toll on its very character — its “soul,” if you will.

Regardless, reason 3) is still pertinent, and gives us, just maybe, a little ray of hope: Billy Graham, the “World Evangelist” from North Carolina and the closest thing the Evangelicals of the USA have to a Pope, no longer declares Mormonism a “cult.”

Cult, schmult, you say. Who cares?

Well, Graham and his flock of Evangelicals care — or they did for many decades. Billy's website stated up until very recently that, “a cult is any group which teaches doctrines or beliefs that deviate from the biblical message of the Christian faith. It is very important that we recognize cults and avoid any involvement with them. Cults often teach some Christian truth mixed with error, which may be difficult to detect . . . Some of these groups are Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, the Unification Church, Unitarians, Spiritists, Scientologists, and others.” According to this site, “That page went missing sometime between Graham's meeting with Romney last Thursday and the start this week.”

Here is where I see that ray of hope. I may be wrong — I've been confused by Graham's words before — but bear with me. It seems Graham recognizes that some “cults” have “Christian” values which Graham holds exceedingly dear — shared values, if you will.

Does he muse any further on that? If — if — Christian values are fundamentally concerned with the so-called traditional family, with unity of worship, with a vibrant faith community that unites to first address the complete needs of its flock and then the industry of its host nation, I would have to say that, at a superficial glance, the Mormons are doing a much better job of it than are the Evangelicals. Might Graham wonder how this can be, if the Mormons read fraudulant scripture and place their faith in Satanic lies that condemn them to Hell, while Graham's flock is blessed with God's revealed salvivic truth?

Maybe at the advanced age of 94 he's rethinking a lifetime of presuppositions which he has, for the most part, kept silent about. If so, there's still time for him to reconsider what the Bible does not have to say about a democratic state's definition and recognition of marriage — or if it even has any business concerning itself with those issues to begin with.

As for the rest of you Evangelicals now falling in step behind the Mormon, you know what this innocent bit of equivocating on your part means, don't you? That's right: you're the Mainstream now, baby! As a Moderate Christian feeling the heat on the lower slopes, let me be the first to welcome you to the fold.

We might not agree on much — we might not agree on anything. But we've got a catchy anthem everybody can sing along to.

Friday, October 19, 2012


I'll be posting my Menno-centric musings (like the one below) on Whisky Prajer (the page you're looking at), and archiving it here.

That's the plan for now. If it changes, I'll let you know.

Discomfort In The Pew

This particular preacher was quite a character. He liked to preach with the mic off, because he knew he could — and would — project to the back of the balcony without amplification.

And this particular listener was in his early-20s — just old enough to see with absolute clarity through the skein of some 2000 years of received wisdom. A perilous age, especially for men.

The preacher was going on and on about this truck he'd seen in some convention centre somewhere — this big truck, this monster truck, shiny with chrome and powerful beyond all reasonable measure. But it was in the showroom. It wasn't there to do anything, just sit there and look impressive. This truck looked like it could move mountains. But nobody bothered with even starting the engine.

And was this not the perfect metaphor for the Church — even our church — here, today? We look so good, but when are we going to start the engine and demonstrate what we can really do? When are we . . . .

Etc., etc.

The listener had his hands clamped on the pew below him, to keep from standing up and walking out — or worse. All that sap, running through such a green tree. He felt a sudden urge to spring up and ask, “Why? So we can have more suburban churches?”

Suburban churches — no, that wasn't quite what was bugging the listener.

“So we can keep killing art with our 'message'?”

 Here we go, now we're cooking.

“Look at our bookshelves.”

Preach it!

“Look at the movies we make. Look at what we've done to rock 'n'roll. Are we to do that with every vibrant thing on this planet?”

Yeah, well. I stayed seated and kept my mouth shut. Friends had dropped similar neutron-bombs of indignation in their family churches, and it helped to recall the unanticipated fallout zone of embarrassment that followed.

I asked myself different questions. Like, “Why get so worked up? If people want to shower and dress up for this sort of thing, why piss in their punchbowl? Why not, instead, take the hint and stay home?”

So that's what I did. Until I didn't — because every home is haunted . . .  

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Pour une âme souveraine: a dedication to Nina Simone, by Meshell Ndegeocello

There is a scene early in Point Of No Return where the assassin initiate, played by Bridget Fonda, informs her trainer-captor that if he wants her co-operation, he will have to provide her with a stereo and a library of Nina Simone CDs. In a movie riddled with curious ineptitudes (a Hollywood remake of Luc Besson's darkly hilarious La Femme Nikita being the first and foremost), this flat note is particularly memorable. Had the filmmakers indulged the conceit any further, Simone's tortured textures would have completely overpowered the fizzy confection at work.

Reflexive reach for Simone is certainly explicable. That woman had a voice that seemed thrown from a titanic collision of heartbreak and defiance. Her recordings were a tapestry of hurt and inner fortitude, strung with threads of insight, woven from a habit of scathing appraisal without and within. And she possessed a killer wit, but not one so self-protective it ever muted her frank expression. Who could blame Fonda & Co. for wanting to pay homage to the glorious Nina Simone, and possibly inject just a smidgen of such substance into the project at hand?

Caution, however, is called for. Simone made herself a study of contrasts. Anyone who willingly strikes a pose beneath Simone's large shadow runs the risk of drawing unintended contrasts of their own, and standing out as what Simone was not: a pretender, looking ridiculous. Most tributes to Nina Simone, however earnest and well-intentioned, contain traces of vanilla — or Fonda-ness.

No such worries for Meshell Ndegeocello, who is no small study in contrasts herself. Her many releases chart a vast domain of heartbreak, defiance and insight all her own. For the past five years, Ndegeocello has cultivated a particularly fertile field, with Devil's Halo and the Joe Henry-produced Weather standing as outstanding sonic and lyrical achievements. Now, with Pour une âme souveraine, Ndegeocello's tribute to Nina Simone, she invites a cast of other singers (including Sinéad O'Connor, Cody Chesnutt and Valerie June) to join her in a shared exploration of what drew Simone to particular material. The combined strength of character and smarts, teamed to Ndegeocello's restless depth of perception brings new light, not just to the current performers, but to the work of Simone as well.

Pour une âme souveraine is the first tribute to Nina Simone I recommend without reservation.

Meshell Ndegeocello.

Friday, October 05, 2012

The Monks' Suspended Animation Best Left In Suspension

I really want to give the Monks' Suspended Animation a passing grade, because, like so many Canadians who came of age in the early '80s I am a drooling fan of their truly five-star first album Bad Habits. But honestly: Suspended Animation hits its marks too rarely for me to recommend it.

As I understand it, in their native England the Monks never surpassed one-hit wonder status (“Nice Legs, Shame About The Face”), so John Ford and Richard Hudson returned to their paying gig in the Strawbs and moved on. Across the pond in Canada, however, it was another story. Bad Habits attained a high cult status with its infectious hooks and sly lyrics that kept the artful balance of ironic observation without falling into easy parody. When the album went multi-platinum in 1981, management corralled Ford and Hudson back into the studio for another go as The Monks, exclusive to the rabid Canadian fans.

Suspended Animation is proof that sometimes you can only bottle lightning once. With the sole exception of the album opener, “Don't Want No Reds,” the album's song titles pretty much give away the game at first pitch. “James Bondage” “Don't Bother Me — I'm A Christian” and “King Dong” don't leave much room for the artist to surprise a listener with ironic insight, never mind clever turns of phrase. As for easy parody, the Monks often fail here, too, with subject matter that was never funny to begin with (“Ann Orexia” is a bad idea made worse by preachy finger-wagging).

There are flashes in the production that suggest these otherwise accomplished rockers were fishing for something meatier than what they were landing. “Space Fruit” is a nice reprisal of what “Skylab” first laid down. “Beasts In Cages” and “Lost In Romance” contain traces of the subtlty we heard in Bad Habits. But fans of the first album who haven't yet given this album a spin are best advised to resist the urge, and re-cue Bad Habits instead. Suspended Animation is for completists only.

Or maybe, as Van Morrison insists, "It's ALL spurr-chal!"

The other morning Beth asked me what I thought the interaction between spirituality, religion, and disability was. I was surprised. Most of our dialogs start with, “Remind me again: am I going to pick her up at 5:00, or are you?” But E___ at work was asking this question, so Beth brought it home.

I initially responded with my knee-jerk, “I don't like 'spirituality.' Spirituality = emotional state. Big deal.”

She responded that she disliked “Religion.” “Religion = dogma, piety, stiflement. Who needs it?”

By evening I had reconsidered the question. I said that “spirituality” as a concept didn't make much sense to me, until I read Erik Davis' meditation on Led Zeppelin's fourth album, which prompted me to reflect on my lifelong love of Star Trek: The Original Series. Here are my original thoughts on that, but the summary is: TOS engendered a longing for something that seemed almost attainable, yet remained always just short of actual reach. Perhaps spirituality was another word for that longing, that sense of a platonic ideal making a silent appeal to our imaginations.

“Religion,” on the other hand, strikes me as an organized group response to those urges and feelings. So many pious observations — the Eucharist, reciting the Lord's Prayer, tithing, prayer and thanksgiving (to cite the more obvious Christian examples) — have a rhythmic, ritual similarity to musical exercises that, when explored with sensitivity, turn out to be the foundation of our musical understanding and expression. Scales, chords, arpeggios: rearrange them a certain way and you get Beethoven's “Moonlight Sonata” or Howlin' Wolf's “Chocolate Drop.”

If you, as the average privileged First World resident, follow some combination of these two impulses while working in concert with the disabled, I think what you enable is the leisure — the space — for the disabled and their families and communities to attend to their own yearnings and to articulate their own responses in turn. Stretching the music metaphor, I think what we're after is a concert effect. You learn to play a few new notes, while dropping others. It is all, one hopes (as I hope in my own such attempts at response) a good thing.