Monday, June 28, 2010

June Mailbag!

Hello and good morning, Blogworld and Diddyites!

And thanks for your Mailbag emails this month--they were many, varied, and even crazier than usual.  I got emails about everything from the World Cup to Jimmy McNulty, from Bush (the band) to bush (the burning, Biblical one), from mis-timed album releases to my own private songwriting Idaho, and everything in between.

I salute you and your work by jumping right into it.

(And if you'd like to be in a future Mailbag, just drop me a line at  I promise every email is read and much appreciated.)

Hey Chris Milam, you handsome devil.  I heard you'll be blogging regularly from the road during the big summer tour in July.  Tell me it's true!  
--Chris Milam, Out In America
Apologies for the planted question and the lame plug, but I needed to do some quick housekeeping.

I'm touring this summer, starting in Little Rock this Saturday.  From July 3-July 28, I'll be updating the blog regularly with pictures/videos/news/notes/musings/myths from the road.  The good news is that there will be even more blog-posts than usual; the bad news is that the Song of the Week will be suspended until August.

Of course, you can expect the regular Mailbag and Fan of the Month posts.  Plus, "On the Road" entries are always my favorite to write, so check back early and often.  Better yet, subscribe to the feed to get all the updates from the road.

And if I'm coming to a city near you, come out and say hello!  I'd love to meet you and yours.

Now, on to your regularly scheduled programming...

Is it just me, or did Band of Horses just release a late fall/winter album in the middle of the summer?  
--Michael in Buffalo

(Then, five minutes later...)

"I used to see the night so anxious, but now I know
The only thing it ever taught me was a grand illusion
That comes and goes, the city blanketed of snow."

I don't think I can like this album until November or maybe December.
--Michael, still in Buffalo
First, I like this album (Infinite Arms, released May 14) now.  I'm a Band of Horses fan, because I thought their second album improved on the first in the ways I expected (haunting, anthemic, reverb-soaked guitar rock), and ways I didn't (the Americana-infused "General Specific" and "Marry Song").  They sounded like a good band getting better with every outing.  So, I was excited for Infinite Arms' release.

Infinite Arms is filled to the brim with gorgeous melodies, heartening lyrical vignettes, and the thoughtful musicianship we expect from BOH.  I liked the album immediately, and like it even more after several listens.  But something feels off about it.  I've had trouble placing it, but thanks to some friends and blog-readers' suggestions, I think I know what feels off-kilter.  Two explanations:

1) It's a weird-sounding album, especially for Band of Horses, who definitely had "a sound" on their first two records: heavily-arranged, loud, pristine, arena-rock production with a keen ear for the way a soaring, reverb-ed vocal can fit in that mix.  For an example, click here

For Infinite Arms, they tried a different sound: the band's bottom (drums and bass) are more roomy, more reverbed, and less prominent in the mix, and the vocals became drier and more dominant (for an example, click here).  For anyone used to hearing BOH, the kickstart of "Factory" is jarring: the band doesn't have the same heavy-hitting percussive punch they used to.  Also, the harmonies (mostly sung by the lead singer) are usually given the same treatment as the lead vocal.  The result sounds occasionally like auto-tune.  Against a washed-out background, it's hard to find your footing in the first few listens.

This isn't to say you can't get used to its sound, or that I haven't.  When the production works, it's stunning: take the infectious, melody-drenched "Older," or the quiet, inspired performance of "Evening Kitchen."  The production serves these songs and enhances their strengths.

2) "Michael, still in Buffalo" is absolutely right: it's a November album with a May release.  The record's visual and aural imagery typify late autumn: homecomings, cold landscapes, hushed conversations, familiar scenes revisited, etc.  Between its golden up-tempo songs and its slower, chilly, haunting tunes, Infinite Arms sounds like the transition of late fall into early winter, that last contented sun setting in the twilight of the year.

I like Infinite Arms now, but I'll love it in November.

Would Razorblade Suitcase have been a better band name than album title? Why or why not?
--RJ in Nashville
Razorblade Suitcase, of course, was the title to Bush's 1996 follow-up to megahit Sixteen Stone.  I remember being in middle school, loving Bush, loving every hit and filler track from Sixteen Stone, and still thinking to myself, "what the heck is Gavin Rossdale singing about?"

Turns out I wasn't alone: Bush's, um, opaque lyrics became a running joke to me, my friends, and evidently Rolling Stone.  Keep in mind: we were in middle school--and ardent Bush fans--and still made fun of Rossdale's fridge-magnet poetry.  For one stretch in 1996, "Machinehead" was my favorite song, but if you asked me what a "Machinehead" was, or why it was "better than the rest," I would've laughed in your face.

When Bush released their follow-up, Razorblade Suitcase, it was as if my friends and I had won a contest to "Name the Next Bush Record."  The title was perfect: it was Rossdale to the highest power.  What did it mean?  Nothing?  Or...everything?  Rossdale!  You and your machinehead have done it again!

We laughed, and we laughed, and we laughed all the way to Cat's Music, where we bought our copies and rocked hard on the bikeride home, Discmen spinning "Greedy Fly" on infinite repeat.

For this reason, I can only conceive of Razorblade Suitcase as an album title.  Specifically, the title to a Bush album.  Specifically, the perfect title for any Bush album.

Still, if a band in 2010 were named Razorblade Suitcase, I would go see them immediately.

I just started The Wire and I know you are a fan. I've noticed that Detective McNulty is a scoundrel and a mess. I also know your love of Mad Men. Bigger scoundrel, McNulty or Don Draper? Bigger mess: McNulty or Don Draper?
--Becky in NYC
First, I'd like to say that I envy you, Becky in NYC.  Whenever someone tells me they've just started The Wire, I think, "oh, the joys that lie ahead..."

As you watch, you'll follow McNulty through many trials, tribulations, twists, turns, ups, and downs--his character goes through a lot.  But, even a few episodes in, your basic assessment is right: McNulty is a scoundrel and a mess.

He's the black sheep of the Baltimore PD.  He's an incredibly talented detective (called "natural PO-lice" by his peers) and actually cares about his work.  He's also a self-destructive narcissist with sociopathic tendencies.  He connects as easily with the corner kids he's chasing as the cops he helps chase them.  He's an unfaithful husband and boyfriend, and a largely absent father.  Police work is perhaps his only source of joy, but also his greatest source of frustration, anger, and despair.  He drinks oceans of Jameson, reads crime scenes like the rest of us read Sunday cartoons, philanders, speaks four-lettered truth to power, and practically begs his bosses to fire him for daily scoundrel behavior, which they can't, because he's also great police.  Naturally, I love him. 

Don Draper--Mad Men's protagonist--is a philandering, superstar ad exec with a mysterious past.  His natural expression lies somewhere between "kind of angry" and "bored with you."  He's the smartest guy in the room, and knows it.  He's unspeakably great at his job--so great that he comes and goes when he wants, works without a contract, and blows off assignments/clients/meetings/co-workers regularly.  To call him self-destructive is to call Yao Ming "tall."  He reinvents himself constantly, depending on present company, the situation, and what's at stake.  No matter the situation, he's an outsider looking in.  He seems to like strangers more than his friends.  He reduces complex people to a simplistic tag line, and smirks when they prove him right.  He has everything but happiness.  He distrusts his past, runs from his future, and never seems content in the present.  Like Shaft, he's a complicated man; unlike Shaft, his women do not understand him.  Naturally, I love him.

McNulty is certainly the bigger mess, because part of what makes Don Draper "Don Draper" is that he isn't messy at all.  Even as it unravels, Don's life maintains the veneer or perfection--everything, on the surface, looks okay.  Don is a scoundrel, and problematic, and his life is full of crises and complications, but it's not messy, because Don's not messy.  He's a full-time liar, and he's great at it.  McNulty, however, relishes the title of "ne'er do well."  He is a mess, makes messes, appears messy, and hides nothing (or hides nothing successfully). 

"Bigger scoundrel" is a much tougher call.  Both men are unfaithful husbands and largely absent fathers.  Both are terminally self-destructive.  Both lie constantly, and seemingly without shame.  Both are manipulative, self-obsessed narcissists.  I think the question is whether Don Draper is a potentially dangerous sociopath, because McNulty definitely is.

Just last night, I argued with my friend Jay about Don Draper's psychological profile.  Jay described Don's behavior towards women as "sociopathic" because he doesn't believe Don cares about them; his dalliances are just an outlet for his own impulses and narcissistic desires.  I disagreed.  I think there's a fine line between the women Don cares about (his wife Betty, a few long-term mistresses) and the women Don's slept with (a stewardess in Baltimore we never see again, etc.).

Ultimately, I think McNulty's the bigger scoundrel, because I think McNulty is actually a criminal-in-waiting.  Don Draper harms others, but he usually intends to just harm himself.  McNulty seems to harm everyone in his life indiscriminately, and with lessening remorse.  Now, why?  What accounts for the difference?

I'd be interested to hear your opinions.  For one, Don wants to win.  He's seen upward mobility in his life; he's reinvented himself, climbed the ladder, sought competition, fought competition, won, reaped his rewards, and is hungry for more.  Don's world is one of pratfalls and crises, but it's also one of hope.  Jimmy McNulty occupies a world where nobody wins or loses.  Over the course of The Wire, he internalizes this, and it fills him with despair.  He stops tempering his behavior because real-life accountability and consequences either 1) don't exist in his world or 2) don't matter to him in a tangible way.  Don Draper always has the next thing to conquer, some un-achieved goal pushing him forward; on the contrary, Jimmy McNulty without a quality case doesn't have much to live for. 

Of course, we had six seasons of McNulty, and we've only seen three of Draper.  Ask me again in 2012: there's plenty more room for Don to fall.

What do you think?  Who's the bigger scoundrel?  Am I wrong?  Is Don Draper a sociopath?  Am I being too hard on Jimmy McNulty?  

You tweeted a pic of your "favorite songwriting HQ."  Where is that, and why's it your favorite?
--Lisa in Ardmore
That picture was taken in Conway, Arkansas.  Conway's a college town just north of Little Rock.  My parents moved here in 2002, and it's a place I've come to know and appreciate.  It's a cool, quirky little town.

For some reason, I do all my best writing here.  Maybe it's the quiet, the lack of distraction.  Maybe it's the distance it gives me from the people/places I'm writing about (both figurative and literal).  Maybe the Muses have camped out in in this specific room since antiquity, waiting for a lone singer/songwriter to come along, drink too much coffee, and strum the guitar.

It's a mystery of the creative process, but some places just get those juices flowing better than others.  This particular room in this particular town has always been my favorite place to write.  It's where I wrote about 40 songs in the winter of 2009; eight of them became Up.  It's where I'm camped out today, getting ready for the Summer Tour.

And, late at night and early in the morning, it's where I find myself popping up out of bed and writing something new.  I've got this ever-growing stack of new songs I'm really excited about; I hope to play some of them on the road this summer.  I also hope to get back here and keep writing.  Before you know it, I'll have enough for another album.

Maybe even two. 

Just can't wait to get on the road again,

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