music

Single Stroke Seven

Screen Shot 2016-03-03 at 11.31.21 AMIf gross-out humor has a tragic cousin, then Lavinia Ludlow is a master of the form.

Her new novel, Single Stroke Seven, begins with the protagonist, Lillith, castrating a drug-crazed former coworker in self-defense and then blasts off into a stratospheric series of riffs on trying, failing, and trying again to follow one’s passion in a world dulled in equal measure by the nine-to-five demands of corporate adulthood and the empty nihilism of prolonged adolescence.

At twenty-seven years old, Lillith is staring the future in the face, and her encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture and music history won’t let her forget that all of the musicians she admires had made their marks by the time they were her age. That they died before turning twenty-eight, moreover, is of little consequence to her since she sees little difference between dying and reaching the milestone of her next birthday.

Adding to the drama is the fact that Lillith’s main band, Dissonanz, includes three man-children who can’t get their act together long enough to rehearse so much as a single song, let alone get a gig. That they’ve been together for over a decade only adds to her ennui, and even side gigs — like playing for a post-Riot Grrrl punk band fronted by a psychopath who’s sleeping with the man for whom Lillith secretly pines — complicate her life exponentially.

As Lillith struggles to balance her musical aspiration against the real-world need to hold down a job and pay bills, her life increasingly turns to shit — quite often literally. At one point, for example, a porta-potty explodes on the front lawn of the dilapidated home she rents with her band mates. Throughout the rest of the novel, other forms of excrement, bodily fluids, and organic matter splatter across every surface imaginable, so much so that I’m comfortable reporting that Chuck Palahniuk has nothing on Lavinia Ludlow.

Yet for all of its — grit, for lack of a better word — Single Stroke Seven is a novel with heart. The title refers to a basic drum pattern, but it’s also a metaphor for everything Lillith is searching for. Teaching percussion to earn extra money, she transcribes the pattern onto a sheet of manuscript paper for a young student who responds to the image with pleasure. “I like this one,” he says. “They’re all holding onto each other so no one’s lonely.”

Ultimately, this is what Single Stroke Seven is all about — searching for meaning in a soul-sucking world and hanging onto friends (even if they’re losers) because the alternative is unbearable.

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Tiger Left, Tiger Right: Demo Recordings

Trying something kind of new… I’ve reviewed music on this blog in the past, but I’m thinking it might be nice to share bands that I discover as I explore sites like Bandcamp and SoundCloud and other services that smush two words together to make one. First out of the gate is Tiger Left, Tiger Right. On this album, their Demo Recordings, I’m hearing a chugging proto-punk rhythm guitar and a melodic lead guitar line with some nice harmonies and a suburban drawl reminiscent of Ben Folds. And if you’re wondering, the band’s name may or may not be a reference to an episode of The Fugitive.

Elvis Is King: Costello’s My Aim Is True

Elvis is King CoverWord on the street is that Elvis Costello has a memoir due in October. For those who can’t wait, there’s Richard Crouse’s Elvis Is King: Costello’s My Aim Is True, a meticulously researched account of Costello’s early years and the release of his first LP with independent label Stiff Records. Of particular interest with respect to this volume is Crouse’s attention to the milieu out of which both My Aim Is True and Costello himself emerged. Indeed, the sense one gets is that Costello’s identity congealed around the production and marketing of his first album in ways that few other acts ever did. “Elvis Costello,” the stage name adopted fairly late in the proceedings by singer-songwriter Declan McManus, emerges as somewhat of a construct, an amalgam of various mythical figures of rock’s colorful history — Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly in particular. Crouse also does an excellent job of contextualizing the album in question. Not punk by any stretch of the imagination (Costello’s backing group for this project was an American country-rock band called Clover), My Aim Is True nonetheless appealed to the raw DIY aesthetic as well as the iconoclastic attitudes of the indie and punk movements of its time. Though relatively brief (and appropriately so, given its narrow focus), Elvis Is King presents a tight, thorough portrait of the musician as a young man that will appeal not only to die-hard Costello fans but rock historians in general.

I’m in a Mood

My review of I’m in a Mood, the latest CD release from Scot Sax, is now up at The First Day.

Here’s an excerpt:

Musically, the opening tracks of I’m in a Mood call to mind a handful of my favorite Bob Dylan albums. The slide-guitar infused “Hate to Love” harkens back to Nashville Skyline, while bluesy numbers like “Sweaty Get Ready” and “Reflection in the Glass,” bounce playfully between Dylan’s 1975 classic Blood on the Tracks and his Blonde on Blonde from nearly a decade earlier. As with all of Dylan’s best work, the relatively spare production throughout Sax’s latest CD lends itself to a sense of candor and sincerity. To put it another way, listening to the CD is like catching Sax playing guitar on his back porch when he thinks no one is looking.

Read more at The First Day.

In a Mood Cover

Commenting on the Times: An Interview with Steven Mohr

The+Listless+coverTell us a little bit about your book. What inspired it? Who’s your ideal reader?
I’m a fan of so many types of literature, but when I started writing The Listless, I wasn’t looking to just write some action adventure that can make a person jump but hardly think. And I didn’t want to just write some romance that plays on a person’s emotions but not on their sense of cultural ethics. I wanted to write a piece that had elements of both these while commenting on the times we live in and the situation it presents for those in the young adult (or should I say youngish adult?) age group who have been most affected by it. Really, The Listless was my attempt to combine the freedom of Kerouac’s On The Road and the introspection of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises… I’m not saying I succeeded, I’m just saying I tried! There’s no doubt that’s a hefty goal for a first novel.

I had fun writing it, though, and I enjoyed putting together somewhat realistic dialog you might hear from the indie music lovers, which are probably the ideal readers of the book. I hope, though, I added elements that nearly all can relate to.

It’s a YA novel, yet your protagonist, Conor Batey, is a college grad. Do YA heroes tend to be so old? (Granted, “old” is a relative term!)
Ha, that’s a good question and one that I somewhat wrestled over as I was thinking about where this book really did fit in. To me, the YA (young adult) fiction definition is getting wider than just the age range it was originally designed for. I mean, isn’t Edward Cullen from Twilight over 100 years old? Haha, a little different case… But I look at the YA fiction designation as talking more about the topic than the age of characters or readers (though they both play a big part). The topic of this book is about indie rock and regressing from a business life back into (at least a summer of) road trips and concerts. I think that topic is more in the field of YA than anything else.

Along similar lines, have you observed that YA readers are getting older? How “Y” is “Y” these days?
It certainly seems like the readership of YA fiction has been the biggest change in its overall designation. It went from adolescents right out of juvenile fiction in the 90’s to adolescents, young adults, older adults… the whole gamut today. Creative minds like J. K. Rowling, Suzanne Collins, and many others have really opened this genre up to a larger spectrum in the past fifteen years.

 What do you see as the difference between YA fiction and more traditional “adult” fiction?
Well, in full disclaimer, my definitions for these phrases are probably very different from the standard ones. When I see something that is cataloged as fiction without being further explained as romance, mystery, sci fi, fantasy, urban fiction, classic literature, or one of the many other sometimes helpful sometimes not helpful at all descriptions, I assume it’s going to be either a Nicholas Sparks book about some guy/girl who lost his/her memory or some Amish town where a recent visitor causes worlds to collide… Not so much a rock group of childish young adults. To take that even one step further, I don’t really like seeing books like Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk called “Contemporary Fiction.” Until there is a good genre title that describes books that vie for a younger sentiment, YA seems to best fill the void.

Part of your novel is set in Detroit. Why that setting?
It starts off in Detroit for a few reasons. This Rustbelt metropolis was and is the source of a lot of great art in America. From Motown and other classic pop music genres to urban farming and decorative city block art projects, this town continues to endow the world with that outsider’s perspective. Between these artistic surroundings and the roughness of the inner city, Detroit is the perfect setting for a band on the run from everyday life.

You mention that your protagonist is in a rock group called Listless. What do they sound like, and who are some of your own favorite bands?
I guess I can answer both of these questions together because I imagine their style being a blend of some of my favorite pop bands from the past. I imagine them with the sounds of soulful minor chord breakdowns like the Beatles, awesome choral harmonies like the Beach Boys, a punkish disregard for the norm like the Pixies, and a dorky grunge look like Weezer in the 90’s.
 
Do you play music yourself? Are you in a band?
I do play a few instruments; though, not necessarily well. I’m mainly a fan of stringed instruments that can be used to play silly love songs. My favorite instruments to serenade my wife are the guitar and ukulele.

What’s next for you?
I’ve always been a pretty eclectic reader. And I definitely have no desire to be pinned down to writing in one genre, either, so I’ve started a couple of projects that are pretty distant from The Listless. Growing up, one of my favorite authors was Isaac Asimov. I loved his series sci fi. I’m certainly no Isaac Asimov but I thought why not give it a shot? I’ve started writing my own series of sci fi short stories that I might at some point put together into one novel. I’ve also started a new novel that I’m writing in a very very slow fashion set in the Asheville, North Carolina region that includes a journalist, a death, a town in turmoil, and an unexpected twist. If that sounds to you like just about every other contemporary title written in the past twenty years, I’ll let your imagination fill in the rest!

The Buzzard

The Buzzard book coverI have to admit that I was a little skeptical when I picked up John Gorman’s The Buzzard: Inside the Glory Days of WMMS and Cleveland Rock Radio. After all, I’ve lived my entire life in Philadelphia, so to me, rock radio has always meant WMMR. (Well, at least it used to, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.) A few pages into The Buzzard, however, I started to get a sense that Gorman’s memoir isn’t just about a radio station in Cleveland; it’s about the precarious place of rock radio in American culture.

The basic issue Gorman sets out to explore in the book is how best to compete in a commercial market without selling out. Working his way from Music Director to Program Director and eventually to Operations Manager of WMMS FM as the narrative progresses, Gorman examines the full potential of FM radio while constantly pushing the medium’s limits. Confounding easy labels like Top 40, Album Oriented Rock, and Contemporary Hits Radio, Gorman and his motley crew of radio professionals reinvent a flagging radio station and eventually turn it into a ratings monster by (who’d’a thunk it?) playing music that people want to hear. But their quest is more than just a quest for ratings, and this, it becomes clear throughout the memoir, was the “secret” of WMMS: Gorman and company wanted to create a radio station for the people of Cleveland–a full service, one-stop-shopping outlet for all of the city’s pop culture needs. In other words, they weren’t merely trying to shove a corporate product down the throats of anyone who might happen to tune in. Instead, they were working hard to become a central part of a community.

WMMS found success by–if you’ll excuse a cliche that Gorman has the good sense never to employ–keepin’ it real. They kept track of what their listeners requested. They played music by local acts (and not just in the low-rated time slots normally reserved for such fare). They helped to break national acts like Bruce Springsteen, and they offered their listeners a wide variety of musical programming with music from multiple genres like jazz, oldies, classic rock (before such a label existed), hard rock, and soul.

Reading Gorman’s account made me yearn for a station as relevant and wide-reaching as WMMS apparently was–emphasis on was, for as the station evolved into a ratings monster, the powers that be were sowing the seeds of its undoing. In the case of WMMS the powers that be turned out to be the corporate parents whose efforts to ensure the continued success of the station involved trying to distill everything that made it unique and relevant into a simple, static formula. The trouble with this strategy, however, was that it failed to take into account the fluid nature of the WMMS “formula.” In his various roles at the station, Gorman was much like the leader of a jazz band, always gauging his audience, keeping abreast of current trends in popular culture, and playing by ear when necessary.

Overall, The Buzzard is a must-read for anyone who recalls the days when FM rock radio was relevant. Clevelanders may be a little more familiar with a lot of the names that Gorman drops throughout the book, but for the rest of us, he’s provided a handy cast of characters in the appendix so we can keep score. More important, his love for the station he helped to create is apparent on every page. In fact, Gorman’s tale is so engaging that it’s hard not to become a fan of WMMS even for those of us who never had the chance to tune in.