why is this ok? a review of band of horses’ 2016 lp

Why Are You OK, 2016, Interscope

I’m admittedly a sucker for Band of Horses. I say this while also saying that they haven’t released a single record I can listen to from beginning to end.

The closest, 2007’s Cease to Begin, is about 70% enjoyable, with a few cuts that were completely redeemed in 2013’s sublime Acoustic at the Ryman bootleg. On the other hand, Infinite Arms, their 2010 LP on Columbia, was easily one of the worst record buys I’ve made in my adult life. Even after a trusted, close friend insisted it rewards repeated listens, I couldn’t do it.

I discovered Acoustic at the Ryman this past fall and it rekindled my love for Ben Bridwell and company, so much so that I decided to give their recent records more consideration. And here we are, with what might be the most mixed feelings I’ve ever had about a record.

First, let’s get the obvious out of the way. Several reviews out there have noted how much of an artistic risk or expansion OK is, and they’re right. After some time in Columbia’s wilderness, Bridwell’s new overlords were Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle and Rick Rubin. The latter makes sense; Rubin has a proven resume of catapulting, reinventing, rejuvenating or otherwise resurrecting artists and acts.

When you put OK on, you think you’re listening to the former. To me, that’s a problem. Lytle’s aesthetic is all over this record, and heavily so. Grandaddy, a cynical, coarse alt-synth social commentary on modern life often got so wrapped up in its own distorted, sardonic vision of .com America that it parodied itself. Band of Horses is nothing if not a straight-ahead indie rock with a twist of Dixie thrown in for good measure. The result here is what amounts to a split LP that leaves the listener wondering if the sum of Bridwell’s career is merely that he’s an avatar through which his producers have their way.

The opening track, ‘Dull Times/The Moon’, is a droning seven-minute fraternal, conjoined twins track that encapsulates everything that is to come: the front end is an ephemeral electronic lull against hollow, strummed guitars; the back a country-fried genuine rock and roll cut. How the two decided to become one are a complete mystery.

‘Solemn Oath’ is a bright, jangly sound paired against what might or might not be the existential tension between the freedom of bachelordom and a contemplation of what vows like ‘for better or worse’ can mean. A song with such catchy hooks (Bridwell and company ought not be burdened with such dark and cynical lyrics. Such is Lytle’s hallmark, subtle melody with decidedly unsubtle wordplay.

‘Hag’ is what I consider to be the first real Band of Horses cut on the record. Even with the synth work acting as a foundation, the song is an aching, four-minute ballad to love and doubt that would/could/should be handed off to an artist like Damian Jurado to make my eyes drown my face in tears. The live cut performed at WFUV and posted to YouTube should be considered definitive, but the album cut is respectable and carries its own weight.

I publicly decided that, hereafter, ‘Casual Party’ is my anthem for every social engagement I will ever attend. A taut, playful and perfectly crafted pop-rock song, it represents the best of the Lytle-Bridwell collaboration, lyrics that don’t act as a wet blanket against arrangement that invites the listener into the song. Then there’s the video. Ummm, yeah. The video. Video notwithstanding, ‘Casual Party’ mercilessly assaults cocktail hour conversation, and I can’t love it enough.

Then, GOOD GOD ALMIGHTY! THAT’S J MASCIS’ MUSIC! Lytle strikes again with a synth beat and the one song on the record that truly rewards repeated listens. And J Mascis inexplicably sings the chorus. It took probably 27 listens before I realized I really liked ‘In a Drawer’.

After a halftime interlude that might as well be a throwaway cut from Grandaddy’s Sumday, we approach the first really unapproachable song on the record. There’s nothing inherently wrong with ‘Lying Under Oak’, beyond that it just doesn’t connect with the listener.

We then get south of the Mason-Dixon with ‘Throw My Mess’, a rollicking fun three-minute cut that is way more enjoyable than it ever should be on a record where it absolutely doesn’t belong. I refer you back to the WFUV session for the definitive version of ‘Whatever, Wherever’, a gorgeous, contemplative little tune devoted to devotion that plays to the band’s strengths while Lytle’s light hand at the controls makes for a solid contribution to the record.

‘Country Teen’ takes us back south, with a little countrypolitan thrown in for good measure; a track that could probably be dropped on a Nash-Vegas FM radio station right now and be in heavy rotation by Tuesday. Another tune that has no business being on this record, but shines in the homestretch. Everything ‘Country Teen’ is, ‘Barrel House’ isn’t: the penultimate track just rings hollow and seems like a cut that might or might not have been on cusp of B-side status.

Then there’s the record’s pensive final cut, ‘Even Still’. Band of Horses has done this before, sneaking a gem in at the end of the record (‘St. Augustine’, on their 2006 debut record.) Rich with religious imagery–on its face unfazed by its confrontation with the divine, yet for those with ears to hear, brutally soul-baring; ‘let this cup pass from me’ comes to mind–and evocative vignettes of the unflinching upshots of failing companionship, ‘Even Still’ is a devastating closing cut that embraces the Lytle-Bridwell hybrid but hints that this might be where the group heads from here. This is not an avatar, as odd as that seems. While it would be just as at home on a Grandaddy record as it is here, it’s decidedly Bridwell’s work.

With so many tracks that either don’t work, are better elsewhere or otherwise seem like an impersonation of the guy in the booth, it’s hard to say I like Why Are You OK. I like songs on it, but I can’t say I like it. I also can’t say I can put it down and put it away like other Band of Horses records. The artistic risks for the most part don’t work: the best songs are the ones where it’s clearly Bridwell at the helm. A tantalizing, frustrating release, with moments that shine and others where reach exceeds grasp.

That said, if ‘Even Still’ is a bellwether for future releases, then OK acts as a dark night of the soul for Band of Horses, with hope for future output to take on more artistic, expansive themes and rescuing them from potential middle-aged mediocrity. Also knowing that the boys are adept at reworking these tunes–and earlier cuts, as well–to be more at home in their Carolina neck of the woods gives one reason to believe that there is an emerging artistic versatility that will only benefit the group moving forward.

briefly, pen on paper

A pen on paper cannot write.

It will not pen words that will help a child to read. That pen will not inspire thousands to action. It will not move millions to tears. It will not inspire on screen re-imagining, nor will it string together words to which crowds will sing along in joyous unison.

A pen on paper will not earn awards or accolades. It will not write Paradise Lost. It won’t even write Fifty Shades of Grey. It will not incite horror or laughter, joy or sorrow, pain, pleasure, political statement, psalm.

A pen on paper will not break your heart. It will not seek forgiveness. It will not incite war. It will not wage peace. It will not plead for justice or declare independence. It will not help explain the universe, challenge convention or articulate new ideas. It will not spur innovation, unveil corruption or defend the marginalized.

A pen on paper will not persuade you to vote for one candidate or another. Or neither.

That pen on paper will not help a young family buy a house, an athlete sign a contract, an executive hire or fire an employee, an employee accept a promotion. It will not sign the check that will make the last payment on debt. It will not twist words to deceive. It will not speak truth to power.

It will not encourage a student to study harder and live up to potential. It will not call another student to task for cheating. It will not do any of that for teachers, either. It is neither good nor evil; it is both reflection and extension of whoever wields it. Wielded like a weapon, for attack or defense, use or abuse.

A pen on paper cannot do anything.

The same may be said for a gun.

briefly, on getting used to very long commutes

For the past ten months, my day job has gotten me up at roughly 5 AM, on the road somewhere between 6.15 and 6.30 (or, umm, not, see also: morning, this) and in the office’s door before an 8 AM start.

At first, this was great! I love driving (when gas prices aren’t as prohibitive as they have been for the past ten years) and traveling and figured this would slay the avian wanderlust and provide opportunity to clear my head going in and coming back.

It was a lie–noble, but a lie nonetheless. And it worked for a while; it was great to be back amongst the gainfully-employed and I did indeed come to work focused and the drive home was cathartic.

When summer gave way to fall, and fall to winter, that eager approach gave way to prolonged yawns, frustrated stumbles out of bed, and that 70-mile drive from point A to point B became familiar, boring and countered any sense that it could be a good thing.

I hate the drive to work now. I like what I do–moreover, I very much like the team I work with, and I very much like getting paid–but I’m up too early, here too long, go home too late and get to bed later than I should.

Then there are the beans. Those wild, weed-esque beans. I’ve missed so much in missing three hours a day to the road. They grow faster, miss me more, get that much more hyper when I get home and just want to breathe for a moment (and wife-mama needs to .)

Well, our circumstances are changing. We just had an offer accepted on our first home and in a few weeks, I’ll be roughly two-thirding my commute.

I spent a long lunch today signing roughly 1038945790183470985 pages of paperwork with our lender and celebrated the fact my hand didn’t fall off with one of those deliciously generic cheesesteak sandwiches at the nearby mall. Behind me, in between sizable bites of chicken teriyaki sandwich and malt vinegar-laden fresh fries, was a toddler and her mama. I overheard one of those sentences virginal to all save the parents of littles, something along the lines of, ‘Don’t eat that off the floor! That’s icky!’

I could hear wife-mama saying it. I could hear myself saying it. And I smiled, in the way only bittersweet parents who sacrifice far too much of their time for their families know how. I’ve missed so much of this, the insanity of child-rearing, the naive madness of children. Days of the month lost to the road.

I turned, and saw mother and child, seated at a tiny table, turned back to the doors and made my way back to my car, to the road, to work.

The sacrifice is worth it. For many reasons–for three, for one, for all of the above.

Even so, I miss my kids.

briefly, hall of fail and ken griffey, jr.

Yesterday, I published a critical reevaluation of Ken Griffey, Jr’s career at Outside Pitch. You can read that here.

When pressed to provide the case for Griffey, after they’ve finished scoffing and guffawing, nearly everyone I’ve seen online says the same thing in no particular order: 1) 630 home runs, 2) sweet swing, 3) defense, 4) sartorial choice in headwear during a home run exhibition, 5) baseball cards, particularly his 1989 Upper Deck rookie card and the 1992 horizontal stop-motion of said swing.

We’re not talking about Mays or Aaron. (Seriously, go look up how many hits Mays, and especially the Hammer, had!) This was a very good player who only peaked–and what a peak!–for maybe five of 22 years and then spent the back nine of his career injury-prone and a shadow of past greatness.

For most of his career, peak notwithstanding, he was above-average and excellent in CF. So was Jim Edmonds. So was Kenny Lofton. So was Bernie Williams. So was Tim Raines. So was Jeffrey Hammonds. He also played in three very friendly hitters parks, which would also play well to his defensive prowess. Still, outs are outs, assists are assists. Those defensive numbers amaze me. He was likely a better OF than Mays was, save for the arm.

And now that those who haven’t actively covered the game are being culled from the herd, we’re discovering that the electorate is star-struck by highlight reels and fancy-pants baseball cards to the point that the guy who just set a new election record was essentially Larry Doby, the extended edition. Doby’s in the Hall, but he’s never in the conversation for GOAT, nor should he be.

Perhaps those old battle axes knew a thing or two after all. I have even less faith in the HOF process than I did before. Even in something as trivial as baseball, style now matters more than substance.

role reversal

how the church isn’t what it shouldn’t be, how the world is what it shouldn’t

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

Of course, this is painting with a broad brush: it’s not like life away from ecclesiastical trappings or vocation has been all daisies and tulips, and it’s not like church was a complete and total wasteland. However, the trends are at the very least disturbing for the sustainability and even basic recognition of the Christian movement and mission.

The church isn’t merely content with shooting the wounded; Evangelicals are now openly practicing a form of religious eugenics, drawing out those who fail to adapt to the hegemony, isolating them, eliminating them. In the process of creating a movement of themselves, by themselves and for themselves, Christians have only further alienated themselves from the very world they were tasked to serve and redeem. Those who do not comply are not excommunicated–that would be too direct, and conflict is a sign of dissension and weakness. Rather, the idea is even more injurious: marginalize, isolate, ignore. Abuse not of commission, but omission.

Move the herd one way, move the black sheep toward an already-open gate. When they leave, they leave freely. And Uriah was killed in valiant service to his king.

This complex exists in both ‘progressive’ (progressing toward what, exactly?) and ‘conservative’ (conserving what, exactly?) Evangelical circles, both of whom at their core share fundamentalist moorings derived from a political vantage rather than any sort of theological conviction.

Guess what, heathens? It’s not a good time to be looking at American Christianity. Not exactly a buyer’s market, and nobody wants what they’re selling.

I wanted to be a part of that world; to serve in ministry and build bridges of redemption into a community. Yet, though I was raised as one of them, though I shared a common commitment to the cause and did everything they asked me to do, at considerable cost and personal sacrifice, I was rooted out. Those who supported me turned their backs, or betrayed me in favor of the denomination, or to cover their own backsides.

When you’ve been blackballed by Christians, it’s not just you they’re after: they go after you and anyone you’ve ever known. Think Terry Benedict, but with even less class or tact.

That was over ten years of my life: amounting to not much of much, driven out of ministry, forced to improvise, forced to deal. Thankfully, I have dealt. And I say what I have said above not out of spite, but out of cold, detached truth. That was my experience, it was very hurtful, and it came at that hands of those who are supposed to sow Christ-likeness into others. Some can never cope with a fraction of those experiences, some have baggage from a lot worse. Many I know who were placed in that crucible emerged as anti-theists, or ran as far from Christianity as they could. This is the legacy they’re leaving. And they couldn’t care less.

Again, the world hasn’t exactly been a paradise: I found myself in two very toxic work environments where I was eminently overqualified and undermined by superiors. But it’s a new day.

What is ‘the world’, anyway?

Since there’s no official definition in this case, we can rely on experience and context. For the typical Evangelical, it’s little more than a bogeyman; an othering term to classify that which is acceptable and that which is not. The world is supposed to be a hostile place, a place deprived of Christian virtue or otherwise profaned by the absence of redemption.

All of that is lunacy.

If anything, life disembarked from the good old gospel ship has shown me what the church is supposed to be, and decidedly isn’t. I found more support out here than I ever did in pursuit of ministry. I wasn’t a gadfly to be suffered until I flew out the cracked car window; I’m a person with significant skills and abilities to be invested in, harnessed and utilized. I’ve encountered amazing people, some of whom were outcast themselves or otherwise thoroughly disillusioned with religion. Even some of those I’ve met who couldn’t give a crap about religion have been profoundly decent people: generous, thoughtful, gracious and kind.

What my experience in the last six months has underscored to me is that the church is so far detached from reality, and so self-insulated, that its inhabitants fundamentally lack the ability to connect with anyone who isn’t one of them on even a remotely-human level. Their efforts to connect with the community are alien to the community they with which they try to connect. The only way they know how to share their concern is through ham-handed cliches and tired gambits. If my time in the world has taught me anything, it’s that I’d frankly rather be with them than with a church with one foot in the sky and the other in a grave, not knowing and not caring which will be taken first.

This is precisely opposite of the incarnation. This is the great apostasy: not that American Christians have backslid from faith, but worse, from reality. More frightening yet, they may not be alone in the effort.

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js