Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Faith, art, and another book about U2

REVIEW of Timothy Neufeld. U2: Rock 'n' Roll to Change the World. 2017. Tempo: A Rowman & Littlefield Music Series on Rock, Pop, and Culture

When I was in 11th grade, I spent the entire school year reading, researching, and writing a major paper about black American author James Baldwin. From his novels and nonfiction, I discovered that the best literature lived at the intersection of spirituality, sexuality, and social justice. Turns out that an Irish rock band I fell in love with around that time also addressed the theological, sociological, and psychological with a similar inspiring intensity. Over the years, all the best poetry, music, and art that would captivate me seemed to always explore similar convergences.

When I am choosing textbooks for an Introduction to U2 Studies class at the University of Rock And Roll, Timothy Neufeld’s tremendous primer that was released in 2017 would definitely be on the list. Since the school where I teach undergrads is a little more old school, the best I can do is integrate U2 into my World Literature curriculum, which I do. Tim’s perspectives on U2 are some of the ones I most value and would most likely consult at this juncture in my academic fandom.

Granted, there are lots of U2 great books out there, both from a popular and from an academic perspective. It would be dishonest to deny that I would not mind owning them all, each and every one. But Tim’s text is one that I have read twice and keep going back to for regular consultations. He begins with a more-or-less chronological journey through the band’s canon and career. Even in doing this basic review, his take is prescient and profound. Even though it’s a story I have long loved and even lived since my days of teenage obsession, I learned lots while inhaling Tim’s version of the tale.

But it’s the back side of the book that truly catches an unforgettable fire for me, with the chapters “Faith and Art” followed by “Social Engagement.” Here, Tim interprets U2 with a lens similar to one I tried to apply to Baldwin back when. In fact, Tim does all this with near perfection, as great teachers and authors do when they compose an introductory text like this one. It’s also excellent modeling for his students, for all of our students, trying to figure out what academic prose about popular music is supposed to look like. Since Tim is also a seasoned online journalist for one of the great U2 fanzines, he knows not to get bogged down with idiosyncratic jargon or personal pet tangents. He keeps the main thing the main thing.

While those last two chapters are incredible as is, I want to point out something that I greatly appreciate about how he has written them. You see, when it comes to faith, art, and social engagement, U2 has its partisan choir loft and its chorus of haters. Somehow, Tim manages to deal with many of the criticisms and contradictions that turn people against Bono and the boys with bitter passion. Problems are in Christianity that U2 are too evangelical for liberals and too liberal for evangelicals. In politics and economics, they are too capitalist for leftists and too progressive for arch-capitalists. Tim does not water down or walk past some of the good points from either side, and he mostly just tells the true story as best he can, where these kind of issues inevitably come up.

He does all this without overly cheering one side, getting defensive, or even allowing too many fanboy biases to take over. See, we know Tim on Twitter, at the U2 conferences, at the shows, and on his online interactive show the Crystal Ballroom, and Tim is the true fan epitomized. But his writing is scholarly and sympathetic and open-minded in ways that we other fan authors ought to find enviable.
If I ever get around to writing my U2 book, the story will be much more personal, but until then, this will be my favorite U2 book, with some near rivals by Steve Stockman or edited volumes by Scott Calhoun or Beth Maynard. There are already some great U2 fan memoirs, and this is not one of them. But do not let the academic aspect scare you away. This book is just so well-written and accessible, it is a book you could give your non-U2-fan family members and colleagues to help them understand why we in the U2 fan community are the way we are.  

When this book was first released in hardcover, it was priced for libraries, specialists, and completists. Now out in paperback and Kindle, this book is yours for a fee that the regular people can afford.

If I were to summarize one takeaway that makes this text so great overall, it would be this: Tim fills in lots of gaps and aptly describes nuances that have been around all along, but they have never been found in one place, expressed so succinctly and so elegantly. Rock to change the world? Maybe, probably, perhaps. But to paraphrase a lyric, this music changed the world in me. U2 certainly changed Timothy Neufeld’s world, and now, this book also changed mine.  

Follow @timneufeld on Twitter. A playlist based on the chapter "Faith and Art." Photo -- Teacher on the Radio with Tim's book.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Infinite Entropy: The Collection brings more heartfelt music to your “Beautiful Life”

Sacred symphonic pop meets the heart-pounding and fist-waving folk rock, these revivals of the aughts have faded from fashion into formula. It’s a predictable passion, or an unsung underground, or worse, and lately, the trendsetters have turned to other genres. This fan still finds his heart in folk music, but unless you are at the stature of Musgraves or an Isbell, it seems the tastemakers are passing you by. Just look at how the Mumfords have fallen off the radar as they went more rock or how the enormous success of the Avetts seems more as a niche act now. Or at least these are my impressions.  

Enter a songwriting voice from North Carolina named David Wimbish. His voice soars like a Paul Simon, Paul McCartney, or Chris Martin, and his lyrical vision is as large or larger as these giants, even though Wimbish’s audience is smaller. When I first encountered this ramshackle troupe called The Collection, barefoot and bold at a steamy summer festival, they were on the unwashed leftish perimeter of the contemporary Christian scene. But the honest words on Entropy have traveled far enough away from religious rock to no longer settle even awkwardly into that box, if the canon of Wimbish works ever really did.

Entropy is not without its Biblical allusions, but have no illusions, there’s enough doubt, drink, dust, and divorce behind us to ever deem this worthy of the pop playlists of praise band hymnody. The Collection’s career spans three albums and an epic EP since 2011, and it’s all incredible, every record and every song. There have been lineup changes, personal injuries, and more than one broken-down van on a highway shoulder somewhere, with fans rallying with donations to get them back on the road.

I did not rank my best albums of 2018, but this is as good as anything I heard this year. Of course as a long-time traveler with the Collection, I am far from an unbiased critic. I just love this group, but I would not set aside time to scribble an album review if I were not over-the-top in my support. See, my loose criteria for a great album are fairly easy to follow, yet hard to achieve completely, and yet this set succeeds on all fronts. The lyrics are profound and provocative poetry without fail. The sound is stunning on every track, as all the songs stick to the insides of the listener's soul and linger long after several spins. The emotional resonance is an endearing ache but also a cathartic release.

For a band with a style that’s consistent across a career, there’s none of that stagnant sameness that sometimes sinks in. Each track stands out, not just the hopeful anthems, like the contagious motivational melodies of an opening love bomb called “Beautiful Life.”  

Other standout songs like “Left Of Your Joy,” “Carolina Coast,” “Becoming My Own Home,” and “Bandages Of Time” have the concurrent power to break your heart and get stuck in your head. “Wedding Party” is a haunting confessional track that triggers thoughts for me about my struggles with faith, fidelity, and addiction. “The Silence” sticks us with this slippery tricky moral quandary: “If you don’t make your bed, you don’t have to lie in it.” Part of me wants to scream, “no, you know it doesn’t work that way,” but that makes the track no less stunning.

If I had to guess, every David Wimbish record is at root about finding himself as a singer, writer, producer, and person. While soul-searching-as-sound can misfire as both predictable and depressing, it’s not like that here, not at all. This record, while far from sappy and sentimental, remains strikingly sincere in those ways that invoke awe and wonder. So I am extremely grateful that The Collection did not head down the religious road to get pigeonholed as a praise band, but this does not make their sound now any less sacred and holy.  

One definition for Entropy is “gradual decline into disorder,” but with this album bearing that word as its title, I also intuit an increasing incline into infinity. It’s just so much good, so much food for your soul. - Andrew William Smith

Sunday, December 30, 2018

The new day: music & media as self-care (& the best of 2018)

2018 felt like a big year. Commemorating fifty years since the world lost Martin Luther King Jr. and Thomas Merton were important milestones (for me and many others, to say the least), since their transformative peace and justice work, began decades ago, remains so pertinent and painfully unfinished.

Joining the 50-somethings in the middle of middle-age has been all about abiding mindfulness and choosing self-care. In that, I have often joked to myself that Netflix binges and consumer therapy are not self-care per se, that the real deal can be found in long walks, prayer, yoga practice, 12-step meetings, appointments with my spiritual director, and the like.

But if I am past joking and approaching honesty: nurturing my multi-media habits forms a huge part of my self-maintenance, from books to movies, and of course, all aspects of music fandom. For me music madness includes vinyl collecting and the underlying joys of around-the-clock listening, with my headphones almost always plugged into my Spotify account. And then of course and especially, there’s countless concerts--with U2, Jason Isbell, and Dead & Company being some of the prominent acts that I saw more than once this year, adding to a list that also included Dawes, Decemberists, Dr. Dog, and so much more. My Morning Jacket took the year off touring, but we were grateful to see Jim James in Nashville.

As usual, passionate music fandom always allows us opportunities to travel, but the big bonus this year was the U2 Pop conference in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where I got to present a paper, meet Andy Rowen about whom the song “Bad” was written, see many friends in the U2 family, and discover the band December, a group from Scotland who was like the conference house band.

My Monday night radio show on WTTU, which has aired on-again and off-again for more than 11 years, is just an extension of this overall life commitment to music and media communion (and consumption). This blog is a part of that bigger picture, too. Truth is, music and books do compliment the more “pure” forms of self-care, like exercise, prayer, and contemplation.  

The big payoff for this post is a massive 51-song (one song for every year I have been on the planet), 3.5 hour playlist of music released in 2018, songs that capture my spirit and sustain my soul.

This playlisst started out as a best 25 tracks, and then, kept growing. When I realized how carried away I was, how it had all gotten out-of-hand, I added live albums, special remixes, soundtracks, and even a dabble of CCM. After much culling and sampling, stopping at 51 songs was only a matter of time, in hopes that I could share this before the clock strikes midnight on the dawn of 2019. One genre not included in this set is the experimental EDM sub-genre of “psybient,” which is one of my favorite hiking and workout standbys.  

My dear friend and collaborator Rick contributed six of the 51 songs from his favorite albums of the year. His modest choice of six songs versus my 45 may say something about the contrast of our personalities, but we are both ENFPs, perhaps me in much more extreme form, as corroborated by my Enneagram 7.  

Movies have been profoundly important to me this year. We went to the Belcourt to see a premiere of director Ethan Hawke’s underground music biopic Blaze, met Ethan Hawke afterward, and ran home to rewatch Dead Poets Society, then stream actor Ethan Hawke in First Reformed.

The prophetic uprising in black cinema brought us the stunning likes of Black Panther, Sorry To Bother You, and BlacKKKlansmen. I have always loved music movies, and this fall had us being blown away by A Star Is Born, Bohemian Rhapsody, and the Green Book. Additionally, the profound and cleansing importance of the Mr. Rogers biopic cannot be understated.  

As a preacher and performance-poet, I have always had an abiding admiration for (and felt an artistic proximity to) stand-up comics, and late this year, I have been digging recent sets by Pete Holmes, Russell Brand, and Ellen Degeneres. (Worth noting: the recent Rob Bell and Peter Rollins speaking tour which we caught in Nashville is actually a new-old genre of ‘stand-up preaching.’)

As a person always obsessed with poetry and nonfiction, let’s count 2018 as the year when I rediscovered the joys of novels, of fiction. I listened The Overstory by Richard Powers on Audible, all 23 hours of it; the audio narrator’s style occasionally got on my nerves, which I can only say solidified how much I loved the content, as I stuck with the text until the end. I also added it to my Kindle collection and have already found myself going back to study snippets again and again.

The topic of The Overstory is (more or less) simply trees and their human friends and defenders. Learning how trees actually talk to each other was one of many life-shifting revelations I encountered this past year. I am currently reading three older novels simultaneously, where trees are a big part of the story; I expect deeper explorations into eco-fiction to continue. This year, I also stepped up my hiking game, discovering or rediscovering trails all over Tennessee, and I hope that this preoccupation with walking up mountains, down valleys, and among trees will continue in 2019.

More books: I am really grateful that Anne Lamott keeps cranking them out. She is always inspiring, disarming, funny, and prophetic. A former student of mine released her first collection of poetry, and a dear friend from the U2 fan-scholar community had his book about U2 updated and released in paperback.

That aforementioned buddy Rick and I started an old-school print yes paper fanzine and have already released two issues of Ordinary Space this year. Only after the hard copies are circulated, will we slowly release things online at http://www.ordinaryspace.org/ -- Please hit us up if you want to see a copy.  

If you have made it this far in this blog, thank you and happy new year. Here is to wishing you hope, peace, joy, and love in 2019, living each day bravely, boldly, and with gratitude, with bookshelves, record collections, and video queues brimming with beauty and truth. The playlist: (to listen go here: best of 2018)
Artist - Song (album, release date)

Arthur Buck - I Am The Moment (Arthur Buck, 6/15/18)
Dawes - Living In The Future (Passwords, 6/22/18)
The Decemberists - Sucker’s Prayer (I’ll Be Your Girl, 3/16/18)
A Perfect Circle - So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish (Eat The Elephant, 4/20/18)
Greta Van Fleet - The New Day (Anthem Of The Peaceful Army, 10/19/18)
Jack White - Connected By Love (Boarding House Reach, 3/23/18)
Rainbow Kitten Surprise - Hide (How to: Friend, Love, Freefall, 4/6/18)
Snow Patrol - Don’t Give In (Wildness, 5/25/18)
Moon Taxi - Two High (Let The Record Play 1/19/18)
Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats - Hey Mama (Tearing At The Seams, 3/9/18)
Dr. Dog - Buzzing in the Light (Critical Equation, 4/27/18)
Lord Huron - Ancient Names, part I (Vide Noir, 4/20/18)
Dead Can Dance - Act II: The Forest (Dionysus, 11/23/18)
Amen Dunes - Believe (Freedom, 3/30/18)
Hiss Golden Messenger - Rock Holy (Virgo Fool, 11/2/18)
Beta Radio - All at Once I Saw It All (Ancient Transition, 9/14/18)
The Collection - Bandages of Time (Entropy, 10/5/18)
Mount Eerie - Real Death (After (Live), 9/28/18)
Camp Cope - The Opener (How To Socialise & Make Friends, 3/2/18)
Casey Neill & the Norway Rats - Siphoners (Subterrene, 3/23/18)
Frank Turner - Make America Great Again (Be More Kind, 5/4/18)
Shemekia Copeland - Americans (America’s Child, 8/3/18)
Liz Vice - Brick by Brick (Save Me, 6/1/18)
The War and Treaty - Are You Ready To Love Me (Healing Tide, 8/3/18)
Erin Rae - Wild Blue Wind (Putting On Airs, 6/8/18)
Brandi Carlile - Every Time I Hear That Song (By the Way, I Forgive You, 2/16/18)
Amanda Shires - White Feather (To The Sunset, 8/3/18)  
Amy Ray - Fine With The Dark (Holler, 9/28/18)
Kacey Musgraves - Oh, What A World (3/30/18)
Mountain Man - AGT (Magic Ship, 9/21/18)
Father John Misty - The Songwriter (God’s Favorite Customer, 6/1/18)
Israel Nash - Rolling On (Lifted, 7/28/18)
Phosphorescent - C’est La Vie No. 2 (C’est La Vie, 10/5/18)
Ray LaMontagne - Paper Man (Part Of The Light, 5/18/18)
Cat Power - Stay (Wanderer, 10/5/18)
The Lone Bellow - Pink Rabbits (The Restless, 10/19/18)
Amos Lee - What’s Going On (My New Moon (Deluxe), 8/31/18)
Hozier & Mavis Staples - Nina Cried Power (Nina Cried Power EP, 9/6/18)
Jim James & Resistance Revival Chorus - Over and Over (originally released on Uniform Distortion, 6/29/18)
Mumford & Sons - Beloved (Delta, 11/16/18)
John Prine - Boundless Love (The Tree of Forgiveness, 4/13/18)
Bradley Cooper - Maybe It’s Time by Jason Isbell (A Star Is Born Soundtrack, 10/5/18)
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit - Last of My Kind (live) (Live from the Ryman, 10/19/18)
John Mellencamp - Stones In My Passway (Other People’s Stuff, 12/7/18)
Lauren Daigle - Still Rolling Stones (Look Up Child, 9/7/18)
Snoop Dogg & Sly Pyper - Sunrise (Snoop Dogg Presents Bible Of Love, 3/16/18)
Ensemble of Jesus Christ Superstar Live In Concert - Simon Zealotes/Poor Jerusalem (Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert - Original Soundtrack of the NBC Television Event, 4/6/18)
December - Elijah on a Hill (Sisters and Brothers, 4/21/18)
U2 with HP Hoeger & Rusty Egan - Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way (7/20/18)
R.E.M. - It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine) (live) (R.E.M. at the BBC, 10/19/18)
Queen - We Are The Champions (live) (Bohemian Rhapsody: The Original Soundtrack, 10/19/18)

Monday, December 3, 2018

Come Christmas (TOTR 347)

Street Lights - Homeward Bound
Salvador Buttersworth - Christmas Comes Four Days After Winter Solstice
Alec Duffy - Every Day Is Christmas
The Cave Singers - Evergreens
Ryan Adams & the Cardinals - Evergreen
Linda Ronstadt & Stone Poneys - Evergreen Part One
Mipso - A Couple Acres Greener
Calexico - Green Grows The Holly
Peter Mayer - Green
Jim James - Oh My Christmas Tree
Darren Vincent et. al. - O Christmas Tree
Rodney Crowell - Come Christmas
Wilder Adkins - Come Thou Long Expected Jesus
Muse - Dig Down
Phosphorescent - Christmas Down Under
Sufjan Stevens - X-mas Spirit Catcher
Michael McDonald & Twinkie Clark - Children Go Where I Send Thee
The McCrary Sisters - Go Tell It On The Mountain
Wendell Kimbrough - Christmas Eve
Kevin Briody - ‘tis Christmas
Eric Clapton - Silent Night
The Avett Brothers - I Thank God
Beta Radio - Coventry Carol / King Without A Mountain
Winterbloom - Of The Magi
The Roches - Hallelujah Chorus
MaMuse - Hallelujah
Melissa Etheridge - Glorious
[You can listen to the low-fi audio archive of this show here: https://soundcloud.com/teacherontheradio/totr-347]
[Mixed from my Lenovo Flex laptop to the WTTU board through an aux cord, ripped in Mono with Audacity on the studio Dell, exported as Mp3]

Monday, November 26, 2018

Holding Together (TOTR 346)

Planet Earth Rock And Roll Orchestra
All Songs by Paul Kantner and Grace Slick, et al

Blows Against The Empire (released November 1970)
The Baby Tree
Let’s Go Together
A Child Is Coming
Have You Seen The Stars Tonite

Sunfighter (released November 1971)
Diana - part 1
Look At The Wood
When I Was A Boy I Watched the Wolves
Earth Mother
Diana - part 2
Holding Together

Baron von Tollbooth & the Chrome Nun (released May 1973)
Ballad Of The Chrome Nun
Flowers Of The Night
Your Mind Has Left Your Body
Harp Tree Lament
Sketches Of China

Mickey Hart - Deep, Wide and Frequent
David Crosby - Tamalpais High (At About 3)

Readings from Got A Revolution: The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane by Jeff Tamarkin [You can listen to the low-fi audio archive of this show here: https://soundcloud.com/teacherontheradio/totr-346]
[Mixed from my Lenovo Flex laptop to the WTTU board through an aux cord, ripped in Mono with Audacity on the studio Dell, exported as Mp3]

Monday, November 19, 2018

Sing To The Mountain (TOTR 345)

Mercury Rev & Margo Price - Sermon
Billy Brag & Wilco - California Stars
Woody Guthrie - This Land Is Your Land
Arlo Guthrie - I’m Going Home
Strange Creek Singers - Will The Circle Be Unbroken
Old & In The Way - Working On A Building
Jerry Garcia Band - Deep Elem Blues
Blue Sky Boys - Turn Your Radio On
The Skillet-Lickers - Molly Put The Kettle On
The Foothills - Nothing Lasts Forever
Dead Testaments - Washed Up
Hiss Golden Messenger - Back To The River Again
Sam Bush - Same Ol’ River
Railroad Earth - Mighty River
Iron & Wine - Autumn Town Leaves
Tall Heights - Back To Autumn
Greensky Bluegrass - Living Over
Elephant Revival - Sing To The Mountain
Trout Steak Revival - Brighter Every Day
Jim James - All In Your Head
Jim James - All Things Must Pass
The Avett Brothers - Roses And Sacrifice
Mumford & Sons - Beloved
Rayland Baxter - Let It All Go, Man
AHI - Just Pray [You can listen to the low-fi audio archive of this show here: https://soundcloud.com/teacherontheradio/totr-345]
[Mixed from my Lenovo Flex laptop to the WTTU board through an aux cord, ripped in Mono with Audacity on the studio Dell, exported as Mp3]