Music Essay Published

My first music essay, “Cooley’s Law of Gravity,” appears in the newest issue of Utter Magazine.  The essay examines the songwriting of Drive-By Trucker’s singer and guitarist Mike Cooley to consider whether the mystery of great pop music can be solved with repeated listening.  Here is the hook:

“The singer, legs astride stage left, was all gaunt angle—square chin, bony shoulders, even his white flying V guitar.  But his music, while pointed and direct, tumbled out in a rounded twang to a bumbling beat.  From the moment Mike Cooley began singing, backed by his band the Drive-By Truckers, I strained to catch every word, like his girl waking up ‘sunny side down,’ the narrator ‘too proud to flip her over.’  As the pedal steel swirled among the lyrics, I felt in my limbs that curious blend of calm and energy when a song sounds exactly as it should.”

Read the full essay.


My Five Favorite Albums of 2012

Jack White – Blunderbuss
I have already written about White’s first solo album here.  The music lives up to expectations and constantly surprises the listener with its range of style and sound.  White pairs clarinet, piano, a soulful duet, and a cover of Little Willie John’s “I’m Shakin’” with the insistent drum beat and blistering guitar work for which he is known.  Blunderbuss also tops my three year-old daughter’s list. 

The Lumineers – The Lumineers
The debut album from this Colorado trio is a pleasure from start to finish.  The folk rock sounds provide a sturdy base for simple yet clever lyrics, including one of my favorite rhymes: “I made her laugh / I made a pass” from the charmingly self-deprecating “Classy Girls.” 

River Giant – River Giant
The second folk rock trio to appear on my list, River Giant is a relatively new band whose self-released debut will be re-released on CD and vinyl by Devil Duck Records in April 2013.  I have already written about the powerful sonic alchemy created by the band.  The album is built of freight train folk and sweet melody that promises a bright future for the Seattle trio.

Alabama Shakes –  Boys and Girls
Another debut, this powerhouse album shows that soul music is alive and well.  Brittany Howard’s vocals recall the gritty, sweet sound of Janis Joplin as she belts out lyrics about love and living atop the soul-influenced rock.  And the first track, “Hold On,” is a sure cure for the winter blues.

Macklemore and Ryan Lewis – The Heist
Another self-released Seattle album, The Heist is the debut of rapper Macklemore and producer Ryan Lewis.  The duo tackles a wide range of subjects, including the mundane—shopping for deals at the thrift shop and video games—to heavy hitters like addiction and marriage equality, creating an album that is both fun and emotionally affecting.  And the infectious sax riff of “Thrift Shop” will stick with you well into 2013.

For a more comprehensive list of 2012 music, check out KEXP’s list of top albums as voted on by listeners.

Reasons to be Excited About 2012 Music – #2

River Giant

2012 continues to be a great year for music, including stirring debut albums from Alabama Shakes, Of Monsters and Men, and the Lumineers.  But my favorite is the debut from Seattle trio River Giant, comprised of Liam O’Connor, Kyle Jacobson, and Trent Schriener.  The self-titled album follows their EP, Vernon’s Cast, from 2010.  Music writers and DJs note the band’s folk sound, including their honeyed harmonies, often comparing them to Seattle’s Fleet Foxes.  But River Giant weaves the folk into hard-driven rock, often bolstered by distortion that recalls Pearl Jam and the nineties alternative sound.  And, like those bands, River Giant, draws influence from the classic rock of the seventies.  Evocative of Neil Young’s rich nasal whine, the three members’ voices soar over and then sink into the songs that span the ten-song debut.

River Giant playing at a benefit show for the Ballard Food Bank

River Giant covers a wide range of sonic territory.  Some songs pound the body while others lilt into the ears.  My current favorites represent both ends of the spectrum.  The first song, “Out Here, Outside,” opens the album, “Leave this damn kitchen / Come on outside,” in a sweet plea to ditch the domestic for a dance in the fine night air.  You can almost hear the couple’s dusty shuffle in the lazy waltz, which provides the foundation for soaring harmonies.  But the song that really grabs me is “Fast Heart,” opening with an angry, interruptive guitar riff that breaks into accordion arpeggio, weaving a mystical sound that captures the obvious influence of the natural world on their work.  Watch River Giant play “Fast Heart” in a recent appearance on KEXP.  Alternating these opposing sounds, the song recalls music by Bush, Pink Floyd, and Crazy Horse, creating a strange alchemy that defines River Giant’s sound.  Weaving through every song is the three-part harmony, which comprises the softer songs and fills the intentional gaps of the hard-edged ones, to seam together the ten tracks into an album about love, loss, and the boring bits of life in between.

Listen to the full album on River Giant’s Bandcamp page, where you can also download it for a steal.

Reasons to be Excited About Music in 2012 – #1

2012 is looking like a great year of music.  This is the first in a series of posts about promising albums for this year.

Jack White – Blunderbuss

Jack White has been recording with various bands for fifteen years, but 2012 marks his first solo release.  White claims that Blunderbuss is “an album I couldn’t have released until now.  I’ve put off making records under my own name for a long time but these songs feel like they could only be presented under my own name.”  White’s ensemble work—in the bands The White Stripes, The Raconteurs, and The Dead Weather as well as his production and performance on the Cold Mountain soundtrack and Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose—prove him to be a versatile and talented musician.  Considering the intentional way that he conducts his career and business (note that he also runs his own label, Third Man Records), I am excited to hear music he considers uniquely his.

While the album won’t be released until April 24th, you can sample the flavor of the much anticipated album with the first single, “Love Interruption.”  (You can preview in iTunes or listen to the whole song with Spotify.) The instrumentation seems particularly American in its quirky blend of organ, guitar, and clarinet, a peculiar choice for pop music that just works here.  White sings his spare, intense lyrics, with the support of singer-songwriter Ruby Amanfu, with a crisp enunciation that reinforces his message.  Which, if you’re anything like me, will be knocking around your brain a lot until April 24th.


I’ve known for years that I was missing something.  While I enjoyed their songs on the radio and even owned The Bends and In Rainbows (because every Gen X music fan should have some Radiohead in their collection, right?), I never craved their sound like that of other bands.  Radiohead’s catalog was a lot of work.  The sound, dense and off-kilter, resisted casual listening.  Plus, I thought the instrumentation was electronic rather than guitars and drum kits, and I just couldn’t connect.

Admittedly, I like a more raucous, emotional sound.  Sixties and seventies rock like Zeppelin and the Stones, with blues-inspired riffs and drum beats big enough to fill stadiums.  Alternative country and rock influenced by that sound—bands like The Drive-By Truckers and Pearl Jam.  For that reason, I preferred Radiohead’s early music—more anthemic songs like “Just” (The Bends) and “My Iron Lung” (OK Computer).  Until now.

Last night, I watched Radiohead perform songs from The King of Limbs on The Colbert Report.  I witnessed the band build each song, adding to the silence first a keyboard burble, topped by a drum scatter, texturized by a guitar riff.  And on and on, the band members added layer upon layer before singer Thom Yorke began dancing atop and dropping into that beautifully complex sound. Yorke, set in motion by the music, was a perpetual motion machine—his leg pumping, his head bouncing back and forth atop his neck, eyes closed.

Suddenly, the sound that has seemed so impermeable, so clinical is opening up before me like a world unfurled, inviting me inside its machinations, less the binary toggling of a computer and much more the complex and mysterious synapses of a human mind.

Far Away, So Close

U2: Intense, tight shows with dramatic sets and effects that amplify the sonic experience.  That’s what I’ve come to expect from the 2001 Elevation and 2005 Vertigo tours.  What I love most about U2 concerts is soaring through the arc of the songs while spinning around your own axis.

360 tour in Seattle

The Seattle stop on their 360 tour, however, wasn’t the same ride.  Admittedly, some of the distance I felt was situational.  The concert, which had to be rescheduled due to health issues, occurred 28 months after the release of No Line on the Horizon.  Peering down on the stage from the upper deck of a football stadium, I was literally far away from the band.

But the performance lacked the intensity of previous shows.  Rather than a carefully crafted set, the songs seemed like separate tracks with energy often dissipating between.  A few times, the Edge’s reverberating guitar unlocked from the drums and vocals.  Compound that issue with the challenges of engineering sound in an outdoor sports stadium, and the result was a fuzzy, loose mix unexpected from U2.

Some moments of intentional disintegration awed me.  Hanging a hundred feet above the band was a circular video screen.  Halfway through the show, the screen, comprised of small video monitors, began to separate, and sink into a checkerboard cone.  Just as the screen landed on the stage, surrounding the four musicians like the wall that they must, as mega-stars, have to erect around themselves psychologically, they started playing “Discotheque,” its Doppler effect swirling around the stage.  Images whirled in time with the beat.  Then “Discotheque” melted into another song, and the wall receded upward, revealing the band.

The 360 show did provide the most intimate moment of the three concerts.  Standing side by side without the usual rock star stances and choreographed moves, Bono and The Edge performed an acoustic version of “Far Away, So Close,” their voices locking into transcendent harmonies.  The performance offered a glimpse at U2’s origins, at the friendships and creative synchronicities that launched and have sustained the band for over thirty years.  While the song’s title conveys my mixed feelings about the most recent show, I take the long view when it comes to U2, recognizing the breadth and depth of their catalog and trusting that the sight and sound will align for the next show.


Summer 1992.  I had just climbed into the back of my friend Marc’s car with my best friend April when our friend Johnny slid into the front seat with a cassette tape and said, “I’ve got something you’re going to like.”  An electric guitar rang out an anthemic melody, repeating as the drums and rhythm guitar joined to fill out the sound.  After a drum break, the song quieted briefly before a baritone as warm as the Texas summer night stretched out the word, “Son,” into two syllables, followed by the mysterious line, “Have I got a little a little story for you.”  As Marc pulled onto the road, the song crescendoed and crashed repeatedly in his tiny CRX, that ardent voice leading us deeper into the sound.

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of Pearl Jam’s iconic first release, Ten.  It’s been nineteen years since I first heard the songs that summer night when I was barely sixteen, barely aware of a world beyond the Dallas suburbs in which we lived.  During my first year of high school, I had joined a new group that included April, Marc, and Johnny, listening to alternative music by groups like Erasure and New Order.  I was just breaking my mainstream country habit, tiring of those syrupy voices singing only about love, songs that reinforced my narrow adolescent worldview.

But those Pearl Jam songs cracked open my shell.  I strained to hear the words and felt each distinct instrument stoke my interest.  My body hummed and roared with the music’s power, its sonic indignation.   I wanted the car and the cassette to keep rolling into the night.

Sure, the feeling was partially due to context.  Riding around town with friends, watching the sky darken above us, the soft night air drifting through the windows generated a magical feeling.  I was also tapping the energy of innocent flirtation with my new male friends.  But it was the unique sound and, to me, new subject matter that hooked me.

The schlocky pop lyrics of mainstream music had not prepared my mind for Eddie Vedder’s dense, cryptic lines and dark stories.  Violence, injustice, introspection.  While I missed a lot of meaning at the time, the absence of love impressed me.  But what compelled me most was the careening sound—the wailing voice and guitars that veered from fuzz to focus, from near silence into sonic ascent that led up and out and up until I experienced the sound both inside and swirling around me.  Without speaking to my friends, I drew closer to them as we rode the wave of the songs together.  And when we arrived at our destination, and the music stopped with the engine, I climbed out of the car buzzing with a new energy, feeling a few minutes older, a few inches taller and just a little closer to the inky night sky arching above me.

Online Music

Why am I clinging to the compact disc?  A disc lacks the character and well-worn quality of vinyl.  Compact discs require energy for pressing, packaging, and transport to record stores.  Most labels refuse to pony up the extra money for cardboard packaging, proliferating the infuriating jewel box and its inevitable shards of broken plastic.  (And those f@$&ing stickers along the top!)

Despite all of this, I’m still buying my music on disc.  I’ve written before about how much I love selecting an album from the stacks, the anticipation as the disc slides into the player.  But I also have my rituals for buying music: listing potential albums in my notebook, the monthly pilgrimage to the music store, and the intermittent reading of liner notes at the stoplights on the drive home.

Since moving to a new house, I have kept my music boxed up in the basement.  I listen, instead, to the virtual versions on iTunes.  I also stream radio (KEXP and KPLU) through the computer.  Transmitted through the amplifier to speakers, the music sounds great and is, literally, at my fingertips.  While I have embraced this virtual play, I still struggle with buying music online.

I’ve never gotten the same satisfaction from iTunes.  Yes, it’s convenient and possibly cheaper if I just buy the songs I like.  But what about the undiscovered gems that aren’t played on the radio?  And I have nothing to show for online purchase—no liner notes or titled spine to jog my memory as I’m perusing the stacks.  The songs just appear in my list with just the click of a button and an online credit card transaction.  It’s just too easy.  But beyond that is the lack of texture and context.  I do actually consult liner notes for curiosity, research, and album dating.  I appreciate the placement of one album within a band’s catalog.  I’m not just listener but a curator.

Which brings me to Bandcamp, an online music retailer I discovered when searching for information about the band Yellow Ostrich.  What I like is that each band has its own site, featuring the most recent album with artwork, playable track list, and liner notes.  Check out the site for Yellow Ostrich.  You can listen to the entire album before purchase (which beats the ninety-second clips through temperamental headphones in the music store).  Plus, the other albums tile down the right side of the page, and you can click to a page for each.  A virtual card catalog/jukebox—it’s enough to make me change my ways.  To get started, check out the Yellow Ostrich track, “Whale,” my favorite.   In the words of the lead singer, “Never look back / never look back.”

Off Key, On Target

The popular television show “Glee” dramatizes high school through the less familiar medium of show choir.  The main characters are outsiders who form a community based on shared appreciation for music and performance.  These are kids who express their emotions through song because they can’t do it any other way.

The creators have struck a great balance between humor and drama, exaggeration and true feelings.  Like Joss Whedon’s musical episode of “Buffy,” Glee employs the naturally dramatic palette of dance and music—in this case show tunes and power ballads—to express the amplified nature of teenage emotions.  “Glee” is campy and emotionally manipulative, but those qualities work in this context.

Pitch correction, used to some degree in the first season, is suddenly center stage in the second.  Every song, despite the character or the scene, sounds smooth, shiny, and even.  It is a simple fact that high school students are naturally imperfect singers—they are still developing their voices, physically and metaphorically.  But the larger problem is that extreme pitch correction runs counter to the integrity of the show.

“Glee” succeeds based on modulation, careening from heart break to Sue Sylvester’s off-key insults or breaking a moment of silence with song.  These contrasts make the show, creating rhythm and momentum and eliciting real emotion from the audience.  Smoothing out the rough edges compresses not only the sound but also the soul of the show.   Perfect is what the characters show us each week they are not.


Anticipating a move, I boxed up my CD’s and have been living without them for over two months.  While I can play the music through I-Tunes, I miss the physical ritual: walking to the stacks, running my finger along the spines, placing the disc in the player.  Instead of relying on recent purchases or favorite bands, I’m more likely to play older music when the actual album is at my fingertips.  Without this access, I forget about a lot of great music.

Like “Gravity” by Terri Hendrix.  For its introspection amplified by jamming acoustic guitar, “Gravity” is one of my favorite walking songs.  Having not listened to it in months, I credit a review of Hendrix’s new album for the rediscovery.  Terri Hendrix is a Texas singer-songwriter who mixes folk with country, blues, and jazz; since 1996, she has released twelve genre-defying albums on her own label. “Gravity” appears on her 1998 release Wilory Farm, but the version I own is a live recording from Broadcasts Volume 7 (produced by Austin radio station KGSR).

A guitar strum, opening like a fan, launches the song.  After a brief pause, the guitar kicks into rhythm gear, establishing a strong beat while achieving texture with upbeat flourishes.  Then Hendrix, her voice breathy but strong, sings about a “freefall” from a mountain, a “freefall into space,” getting quickly into the chorus with the question, “Why do we crash …? / Why does a high never last …?”  She’s talking about the existential issue of life’s ups and downs.  But not satisfied with mere metaphysics, Hendrix grasps for a tangible explanation, claiming, “All you have to blame it on is gravity.”  It’s a great choice, and an unexpected one, ascribing the emotional lows in life to the physical force of gravity.

The studio version, featuring sitar and percussion, sounds smooth and perfected.  Too moderated for my taste, it lacks the raw power of the live recording on which Hendrix achieves the same texture with only her guitar.  The rhythm riff lends itself to increasing complexity, and with it the song expands, dipping and rising, swirling back on itself like an eddy.  You picture Hendrix strumming with her whole arm, thumping the wood for emphasis.  The lyrics linger in the mind, but it’s the way the music energizes the body that makes “Gravity” a force to be reckoned with.

Listen to a clip of “Gravity” from Hendrix’s 1999 Live album.