Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Thursday, November 11, 2010


Few songs build, or are built, this well.
Pure bliss.

Tourette's (Parents) Uncovered?

So I watched the Discovery Health show, Tourette's Uncovered, the other day. As the parent of a child with Asperger's Syndrome, Tourette's Syndrome, and ADHD, I have to say, it really steams me sometimes at the pain and suffering some parents will put their children through in the desperate search for a "cure".

These parents were having their child undergo Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS), a surgery in which a "pacemaker" of sorts is implanted in the brain, in an effort to control his admittedly severe Tourette's. Although it has shown benefits for other conditions (Wikipedia: Deep Brain Stimulation), DBS is unproven (and unapproved by the FDA) for Tourette's. It was costing this family upwards of a quarter of a million dollars. The main drawback of the kid's Tourrette's? He was teased in school a lot. This kid, near as I could tell, only had Tourrette's, and seemed well-adjusted, and not developmentally disabled or disabled in any other way. Yet he will now have a brain implant in which the risks are significant and their are no proven benefits for his condition.

My son has Tourette's, too, although that is minor compared to his social deficits via Asperger's. He can't make friends in the way we normally think of people doing so. He is an intellectual genius for his age (10), but socially behaves more like half his age. He literally cannot stand or sit still. He needs a one-on-one assistant with him all day at school. He is prone to fits of rage that he cannot even remember, nor recognize as they escalate.

And he tics. A lot. Sometimes he gulps or grunts. Sometimes he blinks. Sometimes it's almost non-stop, all day. Sometimes he'll go days without doing it. Lately, he's been doing the Pee-Wee Herman "Tequila" dance... you know, hands touching in front, then in back, then in front (he's never seen the movie). I suspected it was a tic, but didn't call attention to it until I asked him today what he was doing. He said "I think I remember doing it but I don't know why. Probably just a tic."

Now, am I going to put my perfectly fine... and perfect for who he is... boy through the torture of brain surgery, AND run the family broke, to fix something he hardly notices? And even if he did, and even if everyone else did, and teased the hell out of him, it would at worst be a life lesson that can make him stronger if we teach him and approach it with care as parents.

I am always amazed and upset at parents who put their kids through a myriad of unproven procedures, diets, and treatments in the name of "curing" their autism, Tourette's, or whatever. My son has issues, yes, but I don't know if I'd ever want to change a thing about him. I certainly don't want to "cure" him. He doesn't need it. He just needs understanding and a little help. As we always tell him, there are good things about your autism and bad. He has fits of rage, is awkward and socially inept, but is also a genius with a near photographic memory and a mind that astounds us constantly (even before he taught us how to count to infinty, when he was about 5).

I wouldn't change him for the world, and I certainly wouldn't put him through risky, unproven brain surgery to do so.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Man... or Astroman? Beyond the Metabolic Cage (Cat's Cradle, Carrboro, NC, 11/6/10)

Space/surf aliens Man or Astroman? have reunited for the first time in a decade (save for a one-off for Touch and Go records awhile back) and are in the midst of a quick tour... only 7 dates... with the enigmatic title "Beyond the Metabolic Cage". I was lucky enough to catch them at the Cat's Cradle in Carrboro, NC, and they put on every bit the smokin' hot, hyper-energetic show I remember. Lights, video, and assorted (possibly dangerous) high-tech equipment were all in full-effect. Star Crunch was as great as ever on geetar, Birdstuff banged the drums, and on bass, Coco was ever the showman (or is that show-monkey, as his alien name is "Coco the Electronic Monkey Wizard"?). Occasional Astroman Victor Vector is handling 2nd guitar on the tour.

I say they put on a show, and it was impressive. Now, I've never placed too much emphasis on the "show" as opposed to the music. My old 'zine was called "It's the Music, Stupid!" for crissakes. But when the show complements already great music, and does so well -- thematically & visually -- it really does take a band over the top. One case in point is Of Montreal, whose psychedelic prop/light/screen show really adds to their performance.

So what can you say about a band of stranded aliens who close their show with a Tesla coil solo? Not much if the music sucked. But when it's the most intense, lightning-fast, spacey surf music ever played, interspersed with well-chosen samples from forgotten sci-fi films, and a great light show to boot (their entrance made me feel as if I was behind Devil's Tower witnessing a Close Encounter), then I say "Take me to your leader!"

While I never listened to MOAM's albums much, I always immensely enjoyed their live shows. But before this show, I had a hard time remembering how I had found them so musically interesting years ago (visuals aside). Surf can get repetitive, and even boring, at times.

Well, it took about 10 seconds of Star Crunch kicking in to refresh my memory. The music was, as I said, intense... to say the least. Bone-jarring guitar raced through the air at lightspeed. Thudding bass, drums, tight as ever, were in perfect sync, as were the sci-fi soundbites (timed just as on the albums). There was even a little rockin' on the theremin. Some live bands just reach right for your gut, grab a hold, and don't let go until they walk off the stage. MOAM are (still) one of those bands. Despite not having played much at all in a decade, they are at the very top of their form. The only downside was that they didn't play an encore (but they did play a good 15-20 songs).

Here's a few photos of the show, and a link to my video of the afore-mentioned Tesla "solo". If you have a chance to catch Man orAstroman? live, I highly recommend you do so. I'm not sure how much they'll tour again. I hear they have to catch the next transit to Sector B-9 or somewhere.

Click to see Coco's TESLA COIL SOLO!

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Never Forget: Hurricane Katrina, Five Years Ago Today

Five years ago today. I'll never forget hearing Jeanne Meserve's emotional report on CNN the night the storm hit, letting many people know for the first time just how bad things were. They were heroes, along with a handful of State Widlife and Fisheries personnel, local police, and firefighters, out there rescuing the few they could while thousands were stranded and hundreds drowned.

I'll never forget listening to my hometown drowned. And I'll never forgive the lack of federal response. These CNN reporters, and me, and anyone who was listening, knew then that many thousands were in immediate need of the most dire kind. They were DROWNING! I knew this. Anyone watching CNN knew this. (

But apparently, Brownie, Chertoff, and yes Bush, were otherwise occupied. Can't blame them, right? They had TIVO. They could catch it later.

Yes, there was incompetence on the state and local level to a degree. Yes, they should have used their grant money and gotten radios that worked. Blah blah blah. But the newly written (after 9-11) National Response Plan explicitly provided for the Dept. of Homeland Security to take over all rescue and relief activity the moment they decided that it was an Incident of National Significance (triggering the Catastrophic Incident Annex to the plan), the moment it was clear that state and local authorities were swamped. I think we can all agree that state and local authorities were swamped. ( (the link to the actual plan as written then no longer exists, as it's been re-written since; I thoroughly read it then and it DID say everything in this post).

So Bush stonewalling and trying to lay it on Blanco, saying she didn't formally request them to take over, trying to get her to sign over control of the LA National Guard: TOTAL BS! And I will go to my grave defending the evacuation (all other incompetence of Ray Nagin aside). It was much more efficient than FEMA predicted it ever could have been in a study done just a year earlier, and was the likely most thorough evacuation of a major city in the history of the United States.

The Republican-controlled congress at the time issued a report entitled "A Failure of Initiative" ( that, as anyone who was paying attention at the time would have, concluded that Chertoff should have declared an Incident of National Significance days before -- the Saturday before the storm hit as a matter of fact. This was the day Katrina ramped up to Cat 3 and the projection shifted to hit NOLA as a Cat 4 or 5. This was the day that National Guard General Russell Honore is on record as saying they were ready to move out and deploy IN New Orleans. This was the morning I called my parents to make sure they were getting outta Dodge.

If those in charge, at the federal level, had been at all competent and paying attention, hundreds who drowned could very possibly have been saved. It would not have been up to a few local officials (who had also lost their homes), and news reporters, and scattered New Orleanians who could get to their boats, to save thousands. Tens of thousands would not have sunk into anarchy and despair as the city flooded throughout the subsequent days.

And I won't even bring in the poorly (and federally) designed levee system.

Along with all of the victims, my brothers home was being deluged, as well as those of many friends and relatives, and my mother was evacuated, never to return, from her beloved New Orleans.

I will never forget this, or forgive this.
But I am so proud of the renewed civic pride in New Orleans, and of the way my hometown is rebuilding. It's not what it was. Of course in some ways, it's worse. But in many ways, it's better. I would urge anyone who can to visit, spend time there, and realize what we as a country almost lost.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons:

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Love Language – Libraries (Merge)

Pedals, the first track from the Love Language’s sophomore effort (and Merge debut), Libraries, wafts in… softly, at first. Shimmering strings and tinkling keys bring to mind watching fireflies from the back porch, on a sweltering summer night. Then the thud of drum and bass kick in, waves of guitar wash over, and frontman Stuart McLamb’s vocals call… seemingly returning from outer space… and you begin to think that maybe you’re dealing more with a swarm of slightly edgy bees. Their sting comes in the form of bittersweet reminiscing, over love lost and lessons learned, often accompanied by a Motown-via-ghosttown wall-of-sound. I say ghosttown because the effect isn’t quite Motown, but some ghostly, distorted, deeply southern version thereof. The effect is at times downright haunting.

Now, lots of indie bands have been incorporating the Phil Spector thing of late, and it’s impossible not to notice this in Love Language guitarist BJ Burton’s production. But few bands (save the occasional Spoon song) have ever melded it and other elements of 1960s pop so effectively with a 21st century indie ethos as the Love Language does on Libraries. Instead of just aping other eras, they incorporate and build on them.

But a simple melody is timeless, and production aside, this album is full of melodic gems. If you picked up the third track, This Blood Is Our Own, on iTunes yesterday, or on an FM station 25 years ago, or even a crackling AM station 50 years ago, it wouldn’t seem too out of place. The gospel-like verse sings of chasing lightning and being burned (“You chase the storm / and then I follow”), accompanied by soaring strings, which drop into the background as a chorus of “WHOOOO ooh oooh OOOOH” kicks in. The twangy bridge is followed by a moral: “All we've reaped is all that we've known, and now we're buried together". Preach, brother!

Songs like Blue Angel and Anthophobia echo the melodies of 60s acts like the Beach Boys, Mamas and Papas, and Donovan (even without the Hurdy Gurdy Man reference in Anthophobia)… or perhaps more accurately, they echo those acts’ take on 1920s pop. Nothing new is ever really new, is it? But always, always, with the deep, dark, atmospheric vibe. In Blue Angel, waves -- and what sounds like passing cars recorded through a high school gym window -- wash between a sad, waltzing melody and lyrics of dancing upon the tide, and sinking into the sand.

McLamb’s voice soars throughout… it and the timeless-yet-new melodies are surely the strengths the Love Language. But he often smartly drops it way into the background, to great effect, as in the chorus of Pedals (“loud whispers / are the hardest to… hear”). Other lyrics reveal a heart that’s becoming wisened with experience, as in Pedals (“blown wishes, off the dandelion / the truth is, all these changes take… time”) and Wilmont (“and you want me to haunt you / but you ‘ve started sprouting your wings”).

But Libraries isn’t all pensive and dark. Heart to Tell is a pure pop gem, driven by a jumpy guitar strum and rollicking clapping, stomping and drumming. Feedback, guitar solo, it’s got it all, yet clocks in at less than 2:30. It’s also perhaps the most unabashed love song, pleading for the object of affection to “walk all over me, just don’t you walk away”. Brittany’s Back and Horophones are also upbeat numbers, though upbeat in the way a good Van Morrison number is (still a bit of melancholy there). Still, while Heart to Tell could top any pop chart, the strength of Libraries is when it’s more introspective… which is, thankfully, most of the time.

Libraries was apparently recorded in mid-winter. But it is simply drenched in summer. Not just the lyrics of songs like Blue Angel, Summer Dust, or Wilmont, but the entire FEEL of it. Libraries is, simply, a GREAT summer album. Not one for a day at the beach, or riding around with the car top down. No, as alluded to above, this album is more for sitting on a porch, in stifling heat after dark, having a drink, and doing just about nothing else at all. After all, there are plenty of gorgeous melodies, thoughtful lyrics, and luscious swells on Libraries to keep your languishing brain occupied.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Collective Change

I've been listening to the band Animal Collective quite a lot lately. Oh, I've dabbled. They've always displayed an indie-weird vibe I enjoyed. But with last year's Merriweather Post Pavilion and the follow-up EP, Fall Be Kind, they're really coming into their own. I can't argue with Spin (and apparently a host of others) picking Merriweather as album of the year in 2009.

Which brings me to the point. And that point is, simply, change. Not the change that Animal Collective went through, but the change that I realize I must have gone through to say that an Animal Collective album is the year's best. And by extension, the change I see everyone goes through as their life progresses.

You have to understand... I've always been into music. Very much into music. I've published a music magazine, written a regular music column, DJ'd on college radio, and been to a zillion live shows. But while I was always open-minded, liking everything from jazz to Bollywood to punk to (some) rap, and (some) country, I've always leaned towards indie rock. Indie GUITAR rock. From jumpy, edgy, punk-influenced stuff like Five Eight and Superchunk, to moodier stuff like David Garza or Neutral Milk Hotel. Sure, I could appreciate the creative bombast of Beastie Boys' Hello Nasty, or the genre-bending of Moby's Play. But they never ranked near the top. They were just, well, fun. Indie rock was where it's at.

But as I sit here listening to Fall Be Kind, realizing there's not a guitar in sight, but an awful lot of slow-building -- dare I say, ambient? -- weirdness and sound effects, I wonder: how did it come to this?

One thing that comes to mind is how people change you. Not in a negative kind of way, taking you from yourself, but it the positive way that new people add to your life in ways you could never expect. When I met my wife, I thought "Man, we have so much in common! Even though we were in completely different places 10 years before (she a teenage punk and me a 20-something grad student), we were listening to all the exact same widely varied music, interested in the exact same subjects, and had the exact same off-key approach to life. Yet as I grew to know her better, I realized that she did have all of these exact same interests... but in very different ways. She could hear the same song -- a song that we each had listened to a thousand times before, before we knew each other -- and hear something completely different. She would be focused almost completely upon the vocals, whereas I would hear nothing but the guitar, the melody; lyrics were strictly optional. So, in essence, we were listening to the same thing, but hearing something completely different.

Because we were listening completeley differently.

And that's where the change comes in.

We change, and we grow, when we learn how to see, hear, and feel, things -- through other eyes. from other viewpoints. I think that's what Kristi has taught me. First, through music, and then, through the myriad facets of life. Going back to the music review analogy, I've always preferred bands that took chances, took in what they saw, heard, and learned, and then changed their sounds.

So I don't see why it should be any different from the listener's perspective. I don't see why it should be any different with people. Beyond just music.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

More than a Game

So the New Orleans Saints are finally in the Super Bowl, after 43 long years of mostly heartbreaking, laughable seasons. Being a New Orleans native (now living in North Carolina), I am walking on air. I am still stunned. I truly felt like I entered an alternate universe the moment Garrett Hartley’s kick went through the uprights. I’m not sure, but I think I’m still there.

When I write, which hasn’t been very often in recent years, it isn’t usually about sports. Yet here I find myself taking pen in hand for the first time in quite a while to write about the Saints in the Super Bowl.

But really, this is not about sports. It's not. And it’s not even just about Katrina, either… at least not as depicted in the maudlin “Oooh, they went through so much, so isn’t it great to see their team win?” storyline.

Maybe you could only understand what it’s really about if you're from New Orleans. But I'll try to explain anyway.

Put aside Katrina for the moment.

Growing up in New Orleans, you grew up separate from the nation. Growing up in the ‘70s as I did, you grew up in a surreal version of "The Wonder Years", where instead of the local fair, your parents took you to the bar on the parade route to while away the day waiting for the parade. But it was wholesome. Really.

New Orleans was a wonderful place to grow up. It is one of the most unique and culturally significant cities in the country, if not on the planet. Browsing around the French Quarter on a lazy Sunday, as my family often did during my childhood, didn’t mean taking your kids to Bourbon Street for a little "early education". It meant checking out the latest products at the farmers' and flea markets, having some of the best food known to humankind, and soaking in more art, music and culture in one day… by mere osmosis… than most families exposed their kids to in a year.

But New Orleans has always been under-appreciated, unrecognized... that uncouth but fun friend you try to avoid when inconvenient. To the rest of the country, New Orleans was always good for a party, but seldom acceptable in mixed company.

New Orleans, of course, is SO much more than Bourbon Street, and SO much more than Mardi Gras. New Orleans is Life. New Orleans is Death. New Orleans is Light. New Orleans is Depth. New Orleans is Music. New Orleans has a depth of character that few places in a young country such as the United States can equal. New Orleanians are scarred and emboldened by the influenza pandemic of 1918 every bit as much as by Katrina. Every New Orleanian has a connection to jazz, funk, soul, and rock and roll, that no one else in the world can feel because… as we all know… it all started in NOLA. New Orleanians today have centuries of cotton and sugar and slavery and floods and voodoo and poverty and elegance and decadence running through their bloodstreams. These things have all added up to what makes New Orleans, and New Orleanians, so special.

Admittedly, we have a history of under-achievement by many socio-economic standards. "The City That Care Forgot" is perhaps not an undeserved title (although that has changed with Katrina). But when most of the country thinks New Orleans, they still think: Bourbon Street and corruption and, backdoor deals and Mardi Gras.

The New Orleans Saints, in their long and (un)storied history, have always held the promise of being our “foot in the door”. They were, perhaps misguidedly so, a path to respectability… to joining the fraternity of American cities, and becoming a fully functioning member of society. However, throughout most of the past 4 decades, our teams haven't exactly competed with the Pittsburghs and Chicagos of the world. It took 20 years to have our first winning season, and longer to win even one game in the playoffs. Those years were full of record comebacks and stellar performances... by the other teams. Our team… and by proxy, our city… has been laughed at and derided. We even took to wearing bags over our heads, to hide our pride in shame (New Orleans is full of contradictions).

But those bags made a point. Despite being so bad that their play inspired covering one’s face, those who did so... and thousands of others... never gave up. New Orleans fans, New Orleanians in general, are the most loyal and stubborn people on the planet. They never give up, no matter what they are made to endure. They take it all in stride. "Laissez les bons temps rouler" is not just a slogan for good times, but for bad times as well. It's all about your perspective on life. Being from New Orleans gives you a healthy perspective. Thus, long-suffering New Orleanians have dealt with the insults… to the city and the team… admirably. They have always known they were so much more than the popular perception.

So as the woes grew, so did the derision from outside. But more importantly, so did the loyalty inside, and so did the relationship of the city with the team. More than a sports team, the Saints have become akin to a common cultural or ethnic group that ties all of us all together. In a city that is more a melting pot than any other in this melting pot of a nation, the New Orleans Saints have become our unifying identity. Winning the Super Bowl would be much more than getting a monkey off our backs. It would be a statement that “we are here!” It would be a sign that we, as a people, matter.

And all that is, as I said, Katrina aside.

Katrina, of course, affected everything. But this is not a simple story of a team lightening the loads of a downtrodden people. In the wake of K, the city and the team have pulled each other up by the bootstraps, and the success of one is a mirror of the other. In seeing the Saints succeed, the world is seeing New Orleans succeed… in spite of all odds, in the face of criticism that the locals are lazy, corrupt, deserve what they got, and even the ridiculous heresy that the city shouldn’t be rebuilt, or should never have been built at all.

Just as Katrina affected the citizens of New Orleans, it affected the Saints as well, and deeply. It affected the team in so many more ways than just kicking them out of town for a year, and lifting them to the over-achieving emotional high of the NFC Championship Game in 2006. As with so much else that happens in New Orleans, Katrina gave the Saints perspective… not just to the players who were there when it happened, but to any who have come aboard since.
The best players in any sport usually achieve the most when they have their heads on straight, when they have the proper perspective. But in this case, the day to day reality of what happened to New Orleans, and more to the point, what her people are doing day in and day out to recover, has forced everyone involved with the Saints to put their lives into perspective. I would venture to say that there has seldom been a sports team, or perhaps an organization of any kind, where everyone has had their heads so firmly planted on their shoulders. Not like this. In that light, the success of the New Orleans Saints is not just the success of a sports team, but a direct reflection of has happened to, and more importantly, what is happening now in the city. This is a Saints team revitalized because this is a city revitalized. This is a city revitalized because this is a Saints team revitalized. They have, all of them, seen the truth and know what is important, and know what must be done. And it is not to “win a Super Bowl”. It is to work, to do your job, to do unto others, and to make things better.

The people of New Orleans are simply going about the day to day business of rebuilding their tattered, nearly decimated, home into something better than it ever was before. The New Orleans Saints, for their part, have taken it upon themselves to show the world that this city is so much more than the popular perception. It is more than a party. It is more than a city of foolhardy inhabitants begging for sympathy, and not in fact that at all. The Saints are out to win the Super Bowl, yes. But they are also out to show everyone that New Orleans is deserving of the nation’s consideration and honor.

Before Katrina, the Saints winning the Super Bowl would still have been more than a game. It would have served as a symbol that we matter, that New Orleans is more than just a party, that we can succeed. Of course, it would also have served as a reward to long-suffering fans, and a message that if you’re faithful and stick with something, good things can happen.

After Katrina, the Saints winning the Super Bowl would, of course, serve as a strong sign of recovery. But more than that, it would be a signal to the rest of the world that New Orleans is a place worthy of recovery, and indeed, a place worthy of national pride. There are few stages in the world bigger than the Super Bowl to send that message.