Thursday, October 06, 2005

Things That Make Life Worth Living, Part IV

Since I included My Morning Jacket in yesterday's group, I'll post some kneejerk reactions to their brand new album Z before I get to today's list:

-I live for the first listen to a new album. There's nothing like hitting play, waiting for the first note to ring, and having no clue where it's going next. It's rewarding when it goes where you expect, and sometimes even more rewarding when it doesn't. In the case of Z, the first note (a droning, electric bass line) gives the album a false front. The first song ("Wordless Chorus") is unchartered musical territory for a classic rock band, all dance rhythms and sonic weirdness. A few more songs follow its lead, and give off an "I'll grow on you" vibe (side note: eight hours after I first wrote this, they already have). But don't be misled: at the heart of Z is a great pop rock record. The stretch from the Who-inspired "What a Wonderful Man" to the immaculate "Lay Low" cannot be listened to enough, excluding the unrelenting weirdness of "Into the Woods," which may take more than eight hours to get used to. The basic issue here is how much of a pop song Jim James wants to write. With this album, he commits about half the time. "Off the Record" and "Lay Low," for example, are so good within their own framework I wonder why the hooks give way to a few minutes of jammy outtro. Basically, buy it (because it's easily worth the $12) and tell me what you think, because this album is currently treating me like an abused spouse: I love it, am confused by some of its erratic behavior, act frightened of it, and keep coming back for more.

Onto the list...

The Shelby Farms stretch of Walnut Grove Road, Memphis, Tennessee:
Travelling west, Shelby Farms sprawls to the right and its outlying lands to the left, making this stretch one of the most scenic and (somehow) least congested roads in Memphis. Visible to the southwest is Memphis's bastard skyline, the Clark and Union Planters towers, the only concrete indication that yes, you're still in a city. And, in a true display of Memphian quirkiness, actual bison roam the farm's southern border. Regardless of my daily routine or routes, I only find myself here at day's end, when a streaking, setting sun looms ahead, the road is otherwise empty, the lights are coming on in the towers, the sky glows flourescent, and all of Memphis appears on fire.

Outdoor showers:
If you find that an acquaintance's family has a beach house or condo, and that the beach house or condo is actually on the beach, and that said beachside house or condo has an outdoor shower, do what it takes to make this acquaintance your greatest friend, because even if you don't actually enjoy his or her company, you can spend all your time in the outdoor shower. Trust me: after a long day of beachside sitting, sweating, and swimming, there is no better place to be than inside a cedar box with cold water and impossibly strong water pressure. And when you're done, an hour or two later, you'll experience the "beach-look," which occurs when you're at the beach and cleaned up, well-dressed, dark-skinned, light-haired, looking great, and feeling better.

Cory Branan's "Love Song 8":
Fearless songwriting by the best lyricist of his generation. Though, to read the lyrics without having heard the song is to miss something integral--the duet he sings with a girl during the refrains. What we have here is the simultaneous narrative personas of Cory, the girl who loves him, and the voices in his head. I have yet to see another song come close to capturing the complexities of an abusive relationship, or to being as unashamedly honest about the nature of those abuses and manipulations. In just the second stanza, "And I hit back once/open-handed, no-excuses, loved that girl like she was mine," Branan says more than most strong lyricists could say in a song: she fights him regularly, he fought back once (unapologetically), still professes to love the girl, even though she's not his. And when she harmonizes on "I was thinking to myself/might as well be you," it's clear that both parties would rather be unhappy than alone. Ultimately, the song illustrates an extreme version of an ugliness we all have--selfishness. When he closes, "just not a very nice guy/can't seem to say goodbye/God knows I try," it's hard not to relate.

Sheridan's Frozen Custard, Memphis, Tennessee:
I thought Shakey's was good. Then this place opened up across from my brother's apartment and changed everything. If you've never had custard, it's a thicker, creamier, more consistent version of ice cream, supposedly sold by Dairy Queen, but don't believe that for a second. Whatever comes in a Blizzard in no way resembles the three-tiered perfection of a Sheridan's concrete. This place is so good that my roommate sent $10 and a cooler full of ice with me last time I went to Memphis, wanting me to transport a cup of custard back to Nashville for him. Which I did. Though my friend JMH2K5 orders the "Buckaroo" (a custard sundae) because he's colorful and enjoys cherries, I prefer the Chris Classic (cookie dough and peanut butter). And if you step up to the window and order a "Chris Classic," and they act like they don't know what you're talking about, play along--it's part of the game.

Tony Earley's "Somehow Form a Family":
It's possible I'm biased because Professor Earley taught me creative writing in my impressionable youth and his instruction influenced the way I read and write literature. Or it's possible that the title work from Somehow Form a Family, his book of nonfiction stories, is really that good. "Somehow..." is a 20-page autobiography that uses television to tell our protagonist's personal history, opening with "In July 1969, I looked like Opie in the second or third season of The Andy Griffith Show." He tells us that he grew up was a split-level ranch-style house, just like the Brady kids (hence the title) and that he watched the Pope's Christmas mass the night his sister died, because "there was nothing else on." And as it's increasingly clear that television is this kid's only escape from his home, and as the prose become spare, even urgent, it's hard not to feel the emotion and inspiration of the work, if not relate to it. A brilliant premise, flawless execution, and a wonderfully sad conclusion.

If honeysuckle is the smell of summer, fireflies are its vision. In nearly every summer scene--pool parties, group dinners, or any place and time where the adults are standing on the concrete, the kids are running in the grass, the pool is glowing green, the moon is pale, the sky low, and the company good--fireflies are the perfect lighting.

Bob Dylan's "Desolation Row," (8:41-11:20):
The entire song is a lyrical monument, but, just as "Day in the Life" justifies everything before it on Sgt. Pepper, the last verse of "Desolation Row" justifies everything that proceeds it. Of course, there's plenty in this song that's immediately great: rejecting the flower-child mentaliy with "everybody's making love or else expecting rain," and putting the famously ungrounded T.S. Eliot in a "captain's tower...where nobody has to think too much about Desolation Row." Meanwhile, the rest of the song depends largely upon Dylan's increasingly surrealistic lyrics. Though revolutionary, they were often self-admittedly cryptic, causing the listener to say, "well it sounds good, Bob, but what're you really getting at?" Dylan answers them here, after nine verses of fictitious characters doing symbolic things in surreal situations and his finest harmonica performance (8:41-9:33). By the time the harmonica quiets and Dylan begins his final verse, he's audibly exhausted. But he presses on, his job to make clear what he's spent so much time obscuring, and does it in response to his ex-lover's letter. And while "when you asked how I was doing/was that some kind of joke" says everything about their failed relationship, Dylan does not limit his criticism to her: "all these people that you mention, yes I know them, they're quite lame/I had to rearrange their faces, and give them all another name." A-ha...suddenly Cinderella, Cain and Abel, Ophelia, Cassanova, et al, have a real name, a real persona, and a real context from which to read their actions. When Dylan ultimately tells her not to write, unless she's writing from "Desolation Row," we know that he's drawn a clear and definitive line in the artistic sand, and only wants those unlike her on his side.

Going to the carnival tonight,


Jr. Doc said...

Nothing says custard like a surly, semi-starved Indian man. Chris- you're jerkin your merkin if you think that you invented the firefly idea. I actually want to devise a way to have fireflies light my bedroom (when I have a mansion of course). Try not to be creeped out by the idea of an insect colony living in your ceiling and think how awesome that would be for a second.

Chris Milam said...

Actually, the Girl Next Door gets royalties on the fireflies, although she called them "lightning bugs," which might not hold up in court.

Mikey Dubs. said...

I love walnut grove. Memphis one week baby. I'm gonna make a special trip out there.

Sanjeet said...

Two Words: Mango Dango.

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