Wednesday, March 31, 2010


It's now official: A federal judge ruled today that the wiretapping of the phone conversations of an Islamic charity and two American lawyers without a search warrant was illegal. George W. Bush is now officially a domestic criminal, on top of his already well established war crimes. If he's lucky, perhaps he can share a jail cell with Dick Cheney.

Of course, we all know that that's never going to happen, and for reasons of partisan healing it probably shouldn't happen, but it's fun to dream. On the other hand, who would have thought just three years ago that America would now have health-care reform signed into law by an African-American president?

I know my view here is biased and not very equanimous, but sometimes vindictiveness can be so much fun.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

jj and Nosaj Thing at Variety Playhouse, Atlanta

The woman takes the stage, alone, and sits on a stool with a guitar. She sings a simple, gentle song, but soon the lyrics start to sound surprisingly confessional and uncomfortably frank ("I know that I fucked up, Perhaps you have fucked up, too"). During her song, a young man just sort of wanders onto the stage, looking a little bit like some lost roadie, and pauses behind her. While the woman continues to sing, he places his hands on her shoulders and kisses the back of her head. When the song ends, he takes the guitar from her and accompanies her on the next song. While they perform, a projector shows film clips of a soccer game, a couple on the beach, a businessman in the city, whales, and other assorted scenes. Most of the audience does not see the film clips, as they're projected onto a side of the stage and partially shadowed by the woman's head. Odd ambient sounds fill the spaces between the guitar and her voice, and blend with the noise of the audience.

The woman is Elin Kastlander and her accompanist is Joakim Benon, and together they form the band jj. They performed in Atlanta last Wednesday, opening for the xx. The theme for the evening was apparently double lower-case letters. The young audience, anxious to see the headliners, pretty much ignored jj and talked through most of the performance. I listened and got something from it, but I don't know what that something was.

Virtually all of the music was pre-recorded with Kastlander singing over tapes. Benon often just stood there with the guitar and frequently walked off stage altogether. Here's a video clip of their performance at Knoxville's Big Ears Festival last weekend, a few days after the Atlanta show, to give you an idea of what their performance was like.

Not to everybody's taste, I admit. The performance ended with a sort of symmetry - the last number featured Kastlander on guitar again, playing alone while seated back on the stool before walking off stage. The whole set was like a dream bookended by the two solo performances, or a long phantasmagoric interlude between two songs. Not that anyone else in the audience seemed to notice.

The first act of the evening was Nosaj Thing performing his post-apocalyptic electronica. I have no idea how his name is pronounced - when I say it, it sounds like "No Such Thing." He performed alone, bent over his instruments like a d.j. over a turntable, shooting blippy little bullets and ghostly echoes over the heads of the audience, even though at the time (a little before 9), there were very few people in the audience and I saw able to enjoy his set from the front row (I moved back later as the theater filled to avoid the chatter of the crowd standing in front of the stage).

On a personal note, this will be my last music post for a while, mostly by virtue of the fact that I don't have tickets for any more concerts over the next couple of weeks. Also, I'm aware of the awkwardness of an old man critiquing young people's music, and I'm getting tired of sounding like one of the patrons of Sulimay's Restaurant.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The true value of a human being can be found in the degree to which he has attained liberation from the self.

- Albert Einstein

Sunday, March 28, 2010

I drove up to Chattanooga today, so at least I had some respite from the lack of heat here in my house. Today was a cool and rainy day, and when I got home, the temperature inside the house had dropped down to 61 degrees F. It's actually cooler inside the house than outside, although that sounds thermodynamically impossible.

I have tonight to continue practice of acceptance of things as they are, and tomorrow morning the servicemen are supposed to arrive and install my new furnace and I will write them a big fat check. But this evening, Eliot (who doesn't understand why it's so cold inside the house today) and I will curl up with some hot tea and watch some television and try to take our minds off of the chill.

It's like the weather in Mexico: chili today, hot tamale.

Saturday, March 27, 2010


To be honest, I probably knew that it was a problem Thursday night but I didn't want to deal with it then - I just wanted to go to sleep. When I got up Friday morning, I definitely knew that it was a problem, but I went to work hoping that it would somehow just go away. When I got home, I found that it hadn't gone away, but there was nothing that I felt that I could do about it on a Friday night, so finally, I had to deal with it Saturday morning and called the repairman about my broken furnace.

The furnace kicks on and I can hear it fire up, but the blower generally does not come on to distribute the warm air through my house. Instead, it usually makes an awful mechanical noise for about 60 seconds, interrupting my sleep both Thursday and Friday nights, but then shuts down without blowing warm air around. On occasion, it would kick in, giving me some hope that maybe it was just going through a phase and would snap out of it, but as of Friday evening, it wouldn't come back on at all. My optimistic diagnosis was that it was just an electrical problem, something in the circuitry - "a solenoid" somehow sounded like the right thing to say.

When I finally called the repairman Saturday morning, the thermostat read 65 degrees, which sounds warmer than it felt. It dropped down to 63 before leveling off for most of the day, eventually climbing up to 65, but then dropped back to 63 when the sun went down.

The repairman came by mid-afternoon and spent a lot of time up in my attic diagnosing the problem. The trouble, as it turned out, was not something so simple as a solenoid or a circuit breaker, but the blower motor itself had died. A replacement motor would cost me about $850, "but I don't recommend putting a replacement motor into a 20-year-old furnace," he advised. He recommended a whole new, more energy-efficient furnace for about $1,600.

I told him thanks but no thanks, there's no way I'm going to buy a whole new furnace at this time, not in this economy, not when the old one's still working. If the rest of the furnace dies someday, I can still salvage the new motor and just replace what's needed, I reasoned. I drew a line in the sand - there's no way I'm getting a whole new furnace.

A whole new furnace arrives on Monday. Meanwhile, my little house has no heat, so I've been spending as much time elsewhere as possible. Today, I took a walk on the new trail finally constructed through our neighborhood park (but along the compromise route, not through the middle of the meadow - and Civil War battlefield - as originally intended). The trail is officially 0.86 miles long and provides new pedestrian access to parts of Peachtree Street I couldn't easily walk to before. Later, I went to a little coffee shop out in the suburbs to listen to a friend - and Monday night regular - play fiddle with some folkie songwriters, as well as sing a composition of her own ("When Will I Become a Bodhisattva?"). I had intended to go see the English indie-rock band Fanfarlo play at the nearby Loft at Center Stage, but instead went to Fellini's Pizza, got too full to stand through a rock concert, and drove back home to brave the cold. Tomorrow, I'll be in Chattanooga for most of the day on my monthly visit to the sangha up there.

We take our comforts for granted until they're suddenly taken away. We take our wealth for granted until it's spent unexpectedly. Impermanence is swift; life and death is the great matter. Here's to appreciating our lives and not taking being alive for granted, before that too is suddenly taken away.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The xx (Friday Night Videos)

Last Wednesday night, I uncharacteristically spent a school night out; more specifically, I went to Atlanta's Variety Playhouse to see the xx, "an alarmingly young British band that plays meticulous, mesmerizing pop songs influenced, in part, by contemporary R&B and electronic music," as they were described in today's New York Times.

Their style may indeed stem from a variety of mainstream pop influences, but their approach veers toward striking minimalism. Sparse arrangements are built around chilling synthisizers, pulsing rhythms, '80s-style guitar lines and R&B-influenced bass patterns. Their form is indeed emptiness and emptiness is indeed their form, as the Buddhists like to say.

Their self-titled debut cropped up on many of last year's Top 10 lists, although they had to open for other bands like The Big Pink and Micachu on their last tour. Last November, they played Atlanta's 529 club, a small venue and, like last year's Mayer Hawthorne set at the Drunken Unicorn, another wish-I-had-been-there event. This is their first tour as headliners, as bassist Oliver Sim announced during Wednesday's show; in fact, it was only the third night of their first headlining tour. The tour takes them to Webster Hall in New York City next Wednesday night, and on to the Paradise Theater in Boston for a Friday-night gig. I would encourage you to see them either of those nights if you should find yourself in either city.

Playing without a live drummer, the xx use silence and negative space to create an airy atmosphere, but they weren't always a trio. A fourth member, keyboardist-guitarist Baria Qureshi, left the band late last year, citing exhaustion. Here they are on the show Later Live... with Jools Holland last September performing Islands as a quartet, and their sound isn't considerably different.

The xx have a reputation for being aloof and for not moving much during live performances, and some early reviewers claimed that they they were put off by the band's seeming unwillingness to engage the audience in their performance. But at the Variety Playhouse, that didn't seem to be the case. Sure, they aren't a band inclined to throw a guitar up into the air or fall onto their knees as they strike a power chord, but Sims did at least engage in some between-songs banter, at one point announcing, "Congratulations, America, on your new health care" to rousing applause (and a few boos).

Like the Times' description of the band, the crowd was "alarmingly young," especially for a school night. It was an all-ages show, even though the venue sells beer and wine, and the crowd was noisy, not in the enthusiastic way that they cheered for Spoon last weekend, but in the talking-out-loud-with-friends-throughout-the-show kind of way. There's a lot of spare, quiet spaces in the xx's music, and the loud chatter of teenage girls filled nearly every one of those moments. But they did cheer loudly for the band at the end of each song, at least.

The entire concert was all over, including one encore by the band, by about 11:30 pm, and I got home before The Colbert Report had ended. The good thing about shoe-gazing music like the xx's is that you're not all wound up by the end of the night and can easily fall asleep. So despite having to get up early the next morning, I was not too tired on Thursday.

Such things are important to an old man.

Update (4/1): Review of the Nosaj Thing/jj/xx show at Webster Hall in New York with lots of pictures is at Brooklyn Vegan. The NY Times' review has also been posted.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Deerhunter and Spoon at The Tabernacle, Atlanta

Following the Strange Boys set, guitarist extraordinaire Bradford Cox took the Tabernacle stage and announced "We're Deerhunter from Marietta, Georgia." Cox and company have made a national name for themselves with their experimental noise rock, and it was nice to see them returning home, playing for an appreciative audience, as well as family and friends. Cox dedicated the song Little Kids to his mother ("This one's for you, Mom!"), pointing her out to the crowd up in the balcony, before informing the audience that the song was about a bunch of drunk kids who set an old man on fire.

Cox plays heavily treated guitar, employing many of the same delay, sustain and repeat techniques as Noveller, although in less of an ambient and more of a rock format. At the end of each song, he'd catch the closing sounds from his guitar and loop it over and over until the drummer kicked the next song into gear. The sounds between songs were often as interesting as the songs themselves, and that's taking absolutely nothing away from the songs. He closed the set with an incredible looped feedback wall of sound that built up into an outstanding A-Day-In-The-Life crescendo.

Of course, the top billing was for Spoon, and they lived up to their headliner status. Direct from SXSW 2010 in Austin, they played an incredible set from their extensive catalog (seven albums to date) and made every song sounded like the only one that you came to hear. They mixed older numbers like My Mathematical Mind and I Turned My Camera On from Gimme Fiction (2007) with newer songs like Written In Reverse and Got Nuffin', and every song sounded fresh and urgent. Like the band U2, Spoon have that remarkable ability to keep their audience wanting to hear their latest songs, despite the strength of their older compositions.

My one complaint was the lighting. Their stage set included colorful back lit screens that for some reason often provided the only illumination, and the spotlight was never directed onto the stage. They played most of their set either side-lit or in silhouette or even in relative darkness. The spotlight was on the audience more than the band, frequently and annoyingly in my eyes up in the balcony. Their intention may have been to eschew the rock-star persona and direct the audience's attention away from the band and back onto the experience, and the silhouette effects were occasionally dramatic, but the audience paid their hard-earned money to see the band as well as to listen and dance.

But that's only a minor complaint. The sold-out Tabernacle crowd and your humble narrator were enthusiastic and loud, and several times guitarist and singer Britt Daniel appreciatively noted, "You're a noisy crowd! We like that!" After their set, they came out for a three-song encore, and following that, they performed a second three-song set. And what does it say about the depth of their catalog that they can end the second three-song set with a number as strong as You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb from 2007's Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga?

I understand that the Strange Boys-Deerhunter-Spoon tour plays sold-out shows at Radio City Music Hall tomorrow night and Boston's House of Blues on Saturday (interestingly, Atlanta's Tabernacle was once a House of Blues). Ben Sisario previewed the Radio City Music Hall show in the New York Times as follows: "Led by Britt Daniel, one of the best songwriters ever to be stuck with the meaningless appellation indie, Spoon accomplishes a lot with a little. Its tight, jabby songs, influenced equally by minimalist post-punk and sentimental white soul, end just when you think you’ve figured them out. So you must listen again and again and again, with pleasure." According to The New Yorker, "Spoon emerged from Austin during the halcyon days of the Clinton Administration, with a raw, aggressive sound that combined the best elements of punk and indie rock. The band delivers tight songs with solid hooks that get right to the heart of the matter. Atlanta's Deerhunter opens the show with its compelling mix of ambient soundscapes and discord."

I look forward to seeing what the critics have to say following these shows.

Update (3/27): Creative Loafing ran a good review of the Atlanta show, and judging by the picture accompanying the article, the reviewer must have been sitting right next to me. Other good photos from Atlanta can be found here. The earliest review of the Radio City Music Hall show that I found was posted here. Brooklyn Vegan also ran an excellent review, complete with lots of pictures and videos.

Update (3/30): StereoGum and the Village Voice have posted their reviews of Friday's Radio City Music Hall concert. The Boston Globe has posted its review of Saturday's House of Blues show.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Strange Boys

Saturday night's concert at The Tabernacle opened with Austin, Texas' Strange Boys. The boys in the Strange Boys are young, yet their music is an interesting mixture of 60's garage rock, surf music and psychedelic pop - music that would not have sounded out of place in 1968, 25 years before they were probably born.

For some reason, vocalist/sax player Jenna Thornhill-DeWitt, who quit the now-defunct Mika Miko to join the Strange Boys, was not with the band at the Atlanta show, even though she can be heard on their latest album. Here they are performing Be Brave with her at the Fun Fun Fun Fest in Austin last November.

Regardless, they still put on a good show in Atlanta, opening up for Spoon. They have a new album out and have kindly put in on-line and made available this little gadget with which to hear it. Enjoy.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

This afternoon, while I was at a Brownfields Conference at the Buckhead Grand Hyatt, I got a text message that read as follows:
Today, after almost a century of effort, health insurance reform becomes law. Thank you for your partnership in creating change.

- President Obama
Nice touch. Thanks, man.

P.S. For you cynics out there, the message was from the White House's phone number, the same one that I had dialed to pledge my contribution back in 08. It's nice to be remembered.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The awakened and all sentient beings are nothing but expressions of the one mind. There is nothing else. (Huang Po)

Sunday, March 21, 2010


A weekend to remember, and enough new material to fill this blog for at least a week or more: the vernal equinox, a financial setback, the Spoon concert, a new commitment to the Atlanta Zen Center, and a final resolution to the Emily Experiment. But first, a wedding.

Not mine (obviously), but some friends. I wrote a post here last year about not having very many friends, and I set out to do something about it (other than just blog about my complaints). As it turns out, this was a big weekend for a couple of those new friends I've made - their special day, his second, her first.

Friday night, I went to their after-shower party in Vinings Village. Vinings is a residential neighborhood on the Chattahoochee River just barely in Atlanta, and a neighborhood I had lived in for much of the '90s and early '00s, before deciding to move further in town. The Unsellable Condo is in Vinings. The party was in the commercial district of Vinings in a new mixed-use development that didn't exist when I had lived there, and the nostalgia I initially felt driving on the old familiar roads was suddenly dashed at the sight of the huge new complex. Impermanence is indeed everywhere. The restaurant was packed and a live band played reasonably well in a variety of styles. The musicians were all my age or older, and some wore t-shirts reading "Old Dudes Rock" and were loud enough to render meaningful conversation impossible. So instead we just danced and took pictures of each other (see top photo, and notice the woman mugging for some other camera in the background).

Sunday's wedding was an early afternoon affair. It was my turn to do the newcomers instruction at the Zen Center, and even without staying for a special ceremony we were having today, I just barely had enough time to go home, change, and make it to the wedding. They had rented an antebellum mansion off of Marietta Square for one hour for the occasion. The bride, however, attempted to set a new standard for wedding-day drama, not showing up at the mansion until the hour was practically over. However, the proprietors kindly allowed us to stay long enough to complete the ceremony and for a brief celebration before showing us the door, just as the next wedding party was arriving.

Anyway, congratulations and best wishes to Rob and Emmy.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Why is this thus? What is the reason for this thusness?
Artemus Ward
US humorist (1834 - 1867)

Thursday, March 18, 2010

100-Foot Pole

Students today cling to their own discriminating minds. Their thinking is based on their own personal views that buddha must be such and such; if it goes against their ideas, they say that buddha cannot be that way. Having such an attitude and wandering here and there in delusion, searching after what conforms to their preconceptions, few of them ever make any progress in the Buddha-Way.

Suppose that you have climbed to the top of a hundred-foot pole, and are told to let go and advance one step further without holding bodily life dear. In such a situation if you say that you can practice the Buddha-Way only when you are alive, you are not really following your teacher. Consider this carefully (from Shobogenzo Zuimonki, Book 1, Chapter 13).

Chinese Zen Master Chosa Keishin (854–935) once wrote:
The immovable person at the top of the hundred-foot pole,
Although he has entered the Way, he has not reached the Truth.
He should advance one step further from the top of the hundred-foot pole,
Then the world in the ten directions is the complete body.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Come Out To Show Them

Atlanta's Brittany Bosco (now performing simply as Bosco) was the warm-up act last Saturday for Mayer Hawthorne, and she truly did warm the crowd up with an energetic mix of rock, soul and hip-hop, including a terrific cover of the classic Summertime. She overcame my initial resistance (the resistance being solely due to the fact that she was on stage and wasn't Mayer Hawthorne), and by the end of her set I was applauding loudly and calling for an encore (which she contractually wasn't allowed to do).

I appreciated that her band included both a sax and a trumpet, rather than relying on synthesized horns. She's a Savannah transplant, ironically having come to Atlanta to attend Savannah College of Art and Design (it has an Atlanta campus), and her art-school training can be seen in her video, which interestingly opens with a sample from Steve Reich's 1966 composition, Come Out. Come Out was one of the first musical pieces to be composed solely of a single looped tape sample. Along with It's Gonna Rain, Reich arguably invented the art of sampling. Is it too much of a stretch to call him the god-father of hip-hop?

The fine jazz stylings that follow the Reich introduction don't even hint at her on-stage intensity Saturday night. Her recordings are great, and if you're so inclined, you can (legally) download her album Spectrum 2.0 for free here, but on stage, she's a force of nature. I'll gladly spread the word about anyone who samples Steve Reich, but Atlanta's Bosco is going to be a star someday without or without a shout out on some old Buddhist's blog.

Philadelphia's lovely Nikki Jean, the second act of the night, is another obvious rising star. While she didn't have the ferocious intensity of Bosco before her, she's a great singer in her own right and has collaborated with rapper Lupe Fiasco, appearing in his video Hip Hop Saved My Life. She's currently touring with Mayer Hawthorne and has appeared in a least one motion picture. She's been signed by Columbia Records and the label's been sending her across the country to record collaborations with veteran songwriters like Carly Simon, Burt Bacharach and others, a move usually reserved for established stars in the later years of their career. I'm sure I'll be seeing her album in a Starbucks soon.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Dogen also said,

Is the Way attained through mind or body? In the teaching-schools it is said that since body and mind are not separate, the Way is attained through the body. Yet it is not clear that we attain the Way through the body, because they say “since” body and mind are not separate. In Zen the Way is attained through both body and mind.

As long as we only think about the buddha-dharma with our minds we will never grasp the Way, even in a thousand lifetimes or a myriad of eons. When we let go of our minds and cast aside our views and understandings the Way will be actualized. One sage clarified True Mind (Reality) when he saw peach blossoms and another realized the Way when he heard the sound of tile hitting a bamboo. They attained the Way through their bodies. Therefore, when we completely cast aside our thoughts and views and practice shikantaza, we will become intimate with the Way. For this reason the Way is doubtlessly attained through the body. This is why I encourage you to practice zazen wholeheartedly. (Shobogenzo Zuimonki, Book 2, Chapter 26)

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Mayer Hawthorne at The Loft, Atlanta; March 13, 2010

Last night's Mayer Hawthorne concert was everything that I had hoped it would be. The crowd was enthusiastic, Hawthorne and his band were more energetic than their recordings suggest, and a good time was had by all.

Blue-eyed soul at its best, and the music sounded good despite The Loft's questionable acoustics. The audience, the band, and Hawthorne himself all seemed to be having a lot of fun. In the middle of Green-Eyed Love, Hawthorne led the band into a reggae cover of the song. He reminisced about the last time he played Atlanta, a gig at the Drunken Unicorn, the tiny club where I saw Xiu Xiu last weekend (I would have loved to have been there at Hawthorne's show).

Sometimes, though, he was just plain goofy, but in a fun way, like leading the audience in a demonstration of falling rain by wiggling fingers on outstretched arms during I Wish That It Would Rain (see fourth picture from the bottom) and leading a sing-along to a recording of Biz Markie's Just A Friend (you know, "You, you got what I need, but you say he's just a friend, you say he's just a friend" from that beer commercial on TV). But for sheer goofiness, it's hard to top his encore, which he opened with Mahna Mahna, you know, that song from the old Muppets Show.

I didn't get any good pictures, except for the cheesy cell-phone picture up on top, but here's some pics of his recent performance in New York that capture the Atlanta show pretty well (except that he wore a vest over his tie in Atlanta rather than a jacket).

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Sound of Bamboo, The Sight of Peach Blossoms

One time, while Zen Master Kyōgen Chikan was training at Mount Dai-i in the community of Zen Master Isan Reiyū, Isan said to him, “You are sharp and bright, and you have wide understanding. So, without quoting from any text or commentary, speak a phrase for me in the state you had before your parents were born.”

However many times he tried, Kyōgen was unable to do so. Deeply ashamed of himself, he consulted all the books and their commentaries that he had amassed over the years, but he was still left at wit’s end. Finally, he took a torch and burned the writings he had previously collected, saying, “A rice cake in a painting will never satisfy one’s hunger! I swear that I will no longer crave after the Buddha-Dharma in this lifetime. I will just be a kitchen monk who serves up the rice and gruel.” And so he served up the rice and gruel as the months and years went by.

After having worked in this way for many years, he said to Isan, “I am dull in body-and-mind and cannot express the truth. Would the Master say something for me?" Isan responded, “It is not that I refuse to say anything for your sake, but I fear that later on you would come to resent me for it.”

And so, several more years passed, and Kyōgen went to visit the site where the National Teacher Nan-yo Echū had lived. Arriving at Mount Butō, he collected grass and built himself a hermit’s hut on the spot where the National Teacher’s hermitage had stood. He planted some bamboo, which served as his sole companion. One day, while intent on sweeping his walkway clean, he accidentally sent a piece of tile flying, which hit the bamboo. Upon hearing the knocking sound it made, he suddenly had a great awakening. He bathed himself and turned in the direction of Mount Dai-i to offer incense and reverently bow. Then, as though facing Isan himself, he said, “Great Master Isan, if you had explained it to me before, how would this thing have been possible? The depth of your kindness surpasses even that of a parent."

He composing a song about the experience:

At a single stroke, I have forgotten all that I learned.
No longer need I practice self-discipline.
I make my way along the Old Path,
Never looking down in despair.

There is no trace anywhere:
The state is dignified action beyond sound and form.
Those everywhere who have realized the Way,
As one, praise this supreme moment.

When he heard this song, Isan said, “This disciple is complete.”

Zen Master Reiun Shigon had trained and practiced for thirty years. Then one day, while on a ramble in the mountains, he took a rest at the foot of a hill and viewed a village in the distance. It was spring at the time, and, glimpsing the peach blossoms in bloom there, he suddenly awoke to the Way. He, too, composed a song, and presented it to Master Isan:

For thirty years, I sought for a sword of wisdom:
How many times have leaves fallen and the buds sprouted?
But at one glance at those peach blossoms,
I have arrived directly at the present and have no further doubts.

Isan said, “The person who enters the Way by relying on external conditions will never retreat from it nor lose it.” This is his affirmation. Is there anyone who has not entered by way of some external condition? Is there anyone who, once having entered, would retreat from this place, or lose it? This is not something that applies to Reiun and Reiun alone. Ultimately he inherited the Dharma from Isan. If the form of the mountains were not the Pure Body of Buddha, how could a thing like this be possible? (from Shobogenzo Keisei-Sanshiki by Zen Master Dogen, 1240)

Friday, March 12, 2010

Friday Night Video - Mayer Hawthorne

I'm not sure exactly when Water Dissolves Water became a music blog, but in any event, for Friday Night Videos I give you a preview of tomorrow night's performance by Mayer Hawthorne. He plays at The Loft, just around the corner from my little house.

What amazes me about Hawthorne is how he manges to channel the sound of Curtis Mayfield and Smoky Robinson. The first time you hear a song of his, you immediately think it's some long-forgotten cut by Isaac Hayes or Barry White, but he writes all original songs - they just sound like classic Motown or Philadelphia soul. The falsetto doesn't hurt any, either.

In addition to it's retro sound, Just Ain't Gonna Work Out has to be one of the sweetest, gentlest break-up songs ever written:

One last one below, covering Electric Light Orchestra (of all things). If you're in the mood for another, I posted a different vid by him a month or so ago back here.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Xiu Xiu at Drunken Unicorn, Atlanta; March 6, 2010

You know that guy I mentioned at last Saturday night's concert, the one with the 1980s new-wave haircut? After Girl In A Coma got off stage, he went on. Turns out he was Jamie Stewart of the band Xiu Xiu.

Xiu Xiu is pronounced "shoe-shoe," but pronunciation's the least difficult thing about Xiu Xiu. Their goal is not to be likable or easily digested. Their lyrics are about themselves, their friends, and family, and range from tales of suicide and child abuse to bulimia and the war in Iraq. Their latest album is titled, not untypically, Dear God, I Hate Myself (they performed the title track Saturday night). Difficult stuff to listen to. I think the opening song of their set was about incest, but I couldn't make out the lyrics that well. Their typical song structure consists of a soft opening section with words about some painfully sensitive subject, interspersed with odd percussion and sound effects, culminating in a loud atonal freak-out of machine glitches and pops, as if in emotional reaction to the pain in their lyrics. It's hard to describe, so here's their cover of Bjork's Isobel for a taste:

I've heard their music described as "nightmare pop," but my question is who besides myself would go to a concert like this?

A lot of people, apparently, as the Drunken Unicorn filled up by the time they took the stage (which frankly isn't very hard for that tiny venue). I overheard someone say to another "I see you at every Xiu Xiu show in Atlanta," so they must have some sort of regular following. I can't say that I liked their music and wasn't sorry to see their set end (they didn't play an encore). But for some reason, I found myself on line the next morning searching for their music, and I'll probably go see them again the next time they're in town.

At this point, Xiu Xiu are just two musicians, Stewart on guitar and vocals, and Angela Seo on keyboards and assorted percussion, replacing former member Caralee McElroy, who left to join dark electro-rockers Cold Cave. Like Morrissey and Robert Smith of the Cure, Stewart can project the impression that he and his audience share a deep, dark emotional secret, but Seo is impassive on the stage, expressionless, gamely adding effects to the music and doing whatever the song requires. If you search for their videos on line, you'll find that the song Grey Death requires Seo to emerge naked from a bathtub full of green water, while Dear God, I Hate Myself requires her to gag herself with her fingers for the duration of the song until she finally vomits on Stewart, standing next to her eating a candy bar.

No wonder McElroy left. According to The New Yorker, Cold Cave "employs vintage synthesizers to play glooomy post-rock. Though there are brief moments of pop accessibility in the music (largely thanks to the ethereal vocals of Caralee McElroy), the overall posture of the band remains pointedly grim, often to the point of (possibly intentional) self-parody."

So naturally, Cold Cave decided to let McElroy and her pop accessibility go, and instead hired Jennifer Clavin, formely of the now-defunct Mika Miko. Two other Mika Miko members, Jenna Thornhill-DeWitt and Seth Densham, have joined The Strange Boys, whom I'll see next weekend opening for Spoon. There's got to be six degrees of separation in there somewhere. To cheer things up from the relative bleakness of Xiu Xiu, here's a video of Cold Cave from back in the McElroy days.

By the way, that's not McElroy in the video; it's avant-garde drag artist Marti Domination.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Girl In A Coma at Drunken Unicorn, Atlanta; March 6, 2010

The same night that I saw Noveller, I also saw Girl In A Coma at the Drunken Unicorn.

Girl In a Coma are a three-girl band from San Antonio. Musically, they are about as far from Noveller as San Antonio is from Brooklyn, but part of the fun of going to a club like Drunken Unicorn is the diversity, not the conformity.

Let me tell you about the Drunken Unicorn: first of all, it's next to impossible to find. There's no sign, advertising or other indication on the outside; somehow, you're just supposed to know that the random two doors at the bottom of a staircase at the ass end of a run-down strip mall is the club. But if I figured out that particular koan, you probably can as well.

Other than the stage, there's not too much more on the inside either. The closest things they have to chairs are a couple of benches built in to the walls, and a few barstool at the small bar in an adjacent room. Since I got to the club right at opening (I didn't want to miss the opening act, Noveller, like I had the Silversun Pickups), and nothing much was happening, I went to the bar to get a PBR, the club's beer of choice.

There wasn't anyone at the bar except three women - who I quickly recognized from the video below as the members of Girl In A Coma. So I spent the half-hour before Noveller took the stage having a beer at a little dive bar with the band. They were incredibly cool and didn't seem to mind at all that their audience included some old, bald-headed, Zen Buddhist. Drunken Unicorn is that kind of place.

After Noveller's set, GIAC took the stage and rocked harder than their video would suggest. During their first number, however, something went wrong with Nina's guitar and she had to fix some wires and jacks while the drummer and bassist tried their best to cover for her. It turned out the problem was complicated enough that they had to end the number, and before the second song Nina apologized and asked if anyone else ever had the sick-to-the-stomach feeling that something's gone very wrong in a very public place.

Yes, I know that feeling, and I was totally sympatico with the band from there on in. Nina is a great performer - she rocks hard and has incredibly expressive eyes that pop, bulge and even roll back into her head as she sings. I was almost hypnotized watching them. She can really sell a song with her eyes alone, not to mention her voice and guitar.

So the evening turned out to be all about suspending judgement - on the mixing of musical genres, on having a beer with three heavily tattooed, tough-looking latinas, any one of whom could probably have kicked my ass, and with the audience (even that tall dude with the 1980s new-wave haircut). And with myself. It's far better to just relax and enjoy the music.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Noveller at Drunken Unicorn, Atlanta; March 6, 2010

Commenting on the recent Muse show, I said that I preferred seeing some cutting-edge indie band playing to the faithful few rather than arena rock played in a stadium. Last Saturday night, I got exactly what I preferred at Atlanta's minuscule Drunken Unicorn club.

Noveller is a one-woman band consisting of Sarah Lipstate on heavily treated guitar. Her basic approach is to create a loop based on a sample of her guitar, and then to play over that loop with long sustained notes, additional loops, and other effects. Occasionally, she bows the guitar strings like a violin, once even laying the guitar down on a barstool and bowing across the neck. The effect, as you can hear below, is a sort of meditative, ambient soundscape.

The immediate comparison, at least for me, was to Robert Fripp (King Crimson) during the Fripp-and-Eno era. I was lucky enough to see Fripp perform during this period at The Kitchen in New York City on February 5th, 1978. The date marked Fripp’s debut as a solo performer and the first public unveiling of Frippertronics, his approach to looped and sustained guitar playing similar to that now employed by Lipstate. At the time, lines spread around the block in freezing cold weather for Fripp's Kitchen performance, requiring an impromptu second performance to try and accommodate the number of fans. For me, it was one of those unforgettable performances, a chance to see an artist put aside his rock-star persona and just disappear into an virtual soundscape of his own device (although Fripp never really did fit the stereotype rock-star image anyway).

However, no lines spread around the Drunken Unicorn last Saturday night, and on her MySpace page, Lipstate identifies neither Fripp nor Eno among her influences, but instead lists No Wave noise bands like Nurse With Wound and Sonic Youth among her influences (along with several other bands I've never heard of). Which, of course, is fine, artist's prerogative, and both Nurse With Wound and Sonic Youth were themselves influenced by Brian Eno, if not by both Fripp and Eno.

Lipstate plays the pedals and electronic devices spread across the stage in front of her as much as she plays the guitar. She can usually select the effect she wants with her art-school boots and skinny jeans, although occasionally she is required to kneel down on the floor and manually manipulate her devices. If you allow that there's such a thing as a zen of music, it must surely sound something like this: creative and original, quiet yet forceful, both serene and agitated, and with absolutely no trace of ego. Her music is both exceptional and outstanding. There are far too few artists today striving for the plateaus she seems to so effortlessly achieve.

Lipstate is indeed a unique artist: on her personal website, in addition to her Noveller videos and blog, she hosts some of her experimental films as well as her photography. It's worth checking out, and here's a sample below in case you need any more motivation.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Consider the mind to be like an ox, and the body to be like a cart being pulled by the ox. The mind provides the intention, but the body actually does the work. In our spiritual practice, the mind provides the intention for enlightenment, and the body performs the sitting meditation. So when the cart is not moving, do you beat the ox or do you beat the cart?

"Beating the ox" means, in terms of the mind, providing some sort of goal, aim, or aspiration to motivate oneself to practice harder. This is how we inspire ourselves to succeed at our assigned tasks in the ordinary world, but when it comes to spiritual practice, expectations of a reward create their own sets of problems. "Beating the ox" might work in terms if the mundane world, but it defeats its own purpose in the realm of spiritual practice.

Zen Master Dogen would instead beat the cart. He once said:
When staying at Tendo Monastery in China, while the old master Nyojo was abbot there, we sat zazen until about eleven o’clock at night and got up at about half-past two to sit zazen. The abbot sat with the assembly in the sodo, never taking even one night off.

While sitting, many monks fell asleep. The abbot walked around hitting them with his fist or his slipper, scolding them and encouraging them to wake up. If they continued to sleep, he went to the shodo, rang the bell, and called his attendants to light the candles. On the spur of the moment he would say such things as; “What is the use of sleeping? Why do you gather in a sodo? Why did you become a monk and enter this monastery?”

"Consider the emperor and officials of the government. Who among them leads an easy life? The emperor governs with justice. The ministers serve with loyalty on down to the commoners. Who leads an easy life without laboring? You have avoided these labors and entered a monastery, but now spend your time wastefully. What on earth for? Life-and-death is the Great Matter. Everything is impermanent and changes swiftly. The teaching-schools and the Zen-schools both emphasize this. This evening or tomorrow morning you may become sick or die. Still you have no idea how your death may come or what kind of sickness you may contract. It is utterly foolish to pass the time you are alive meaninglessly sleeping or lying down while you fail to practice the buddha dharma. Since you are like this, the buddha-dharma is dying. When people devotedly practiced zazen, the buddha-dharma flourished throughout the country. As of late, the buddha-dharma is falling into decay because no one promotes zazen.”

I personally saw him encourage the monks in his assembly in this way, and I saw him make them sit zazen.

One time, his immediate attendant said, “The monks in the sodo are tired and sleepy. They may fall ill or lose their aspiration because of the long hours of sitting. Please shorten the time of zazen.”

Angrily the abbot replied, “We must never do that. People without bodhi-mind who temporarily stay in the sodo would sleep even if we sat for only half an hour or less. Practitioners with bodhi-mind who aspire to practice are happier the longer they are able to sit and therefore, practice much harder. When I was young, I visited various teachers in different regions. I was encouraged by an old master among them who said to me, 'In the past I used to hit the monks so hard that I almost broke my fist. But since I am now old and weak I cannot beat them so hard. Consequently no good monks develop. Since few teachers encourage sitting, the buddha-dharma is dying. I’ll beat them even harder!'” (Shobogenzo Zuimonki, 2-25)

Sunday, March 07, 2010

RIP Mark Linkous

Strange coincidences: after posting my last Friday Night Videos, two of the artists mentioned have made the news, albeit for two very different reasons. I had mentioned indie-rock recluse Sparklehorse in passing while writing about the new Danger Mouse/James Mercer collaboration, Broken Bells. Tragically, Sparklehorse (Mark Linkous), committed suicide yesterday (Saturday, March 6). A principal collaborator on the much-delayed but finally-released project Dark Night of the Soul, Linkous' dramatic, lush music often came from a place of pain. According to Rolling Stone:
"In 1996, Linkous actually died for two minutes after ingesting a dangerous mix of Valium and antidepressants while on tour in the U.K. behind Sparklehorse's 1995 debut Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot. He recovered, but the incident left him crippled -- he laid unconscious for 14 hours, cutting off circulation to his legs. He suffered a heart attack when medics attempted to straighten his legs, and underwent seven surgeries to save his damaged limbs. But after the incident, he recorded 1999's Good Morning Spider, 2001's It's A Wonderful Life and 2006's Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain.
"For a while there, I was really scared that when I technically died -- which I guess I did for a few minutes -- that the part of my brain that allowed me my ability to write songs would be damaged," he told Rolling Stone in 1999. Here's a remarkable video collaboration Linkous did with Thom Yorke of Radiohead, transforming Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here into a moving meditation on impermanence and the First Noble Truth, the existence of dukha (suffering). The video deftly balances the pain and suffering in this world with simple acts of loving kindness that transcends all of that pain and suffering, if only for a moment.

On a much happier note, Josh Rouse, of whom I wrote, "I often feel that I'm in the presence of quiet genius when I listen to his music," has announced the release of his new record, El Turista. According to his record label, "Unexpected and utterly sublime, El Turista's sultry song cycle shuffles seamlessly in tandem with Getz/Gilberto and Paul Simon's Graceland, albums as boldly surprising in their eras as El Turista is in this one. The record marks a new direction for the critically acclaimed artist, while offering the musical sophistication and emotional depth Rouse's devoted constituents have come to expect. His new songs continue the consistently enthralling body of work highlighted by the modern-day landmark albums 1972 and Nashville. Throughout El Turista, simple, Spanish-influenced street rhythms unfurl into epic versions of Guaraldi-like jazz numbers, resulting in yet another career defining touchstone and a genre-blending album that is as sophisticated as it is infectious." You can hear some of these new songs on the widget below. Rouse will also be touring the U.S. this spring, although the current dates don't bring him anywhere near Atlanta. I may have to go to Portland to see him perform at the Doug Fir.