John Stump, composer of Faerie’s Aire and Death Waltz

My uncle, John Arthur Stump, who was my father’s youngest brother, died on January 20, 2006.  His memorial service was held at a Vedanta monastery in Hollywood, where my other uncle (known there as “Jnana Chaitanya,” but to me as Uncle Dave) serves as a monk.  I was not at the ceremony, but my family brought back some memorabilia from the service and from Uncle John’s “estate,” including a large piece of paper densely printed with musical notation.

It was a sheet of music for a work entitled “Faerie’s Aire and Death Waltz (from ‘A Tribute to Zdenko G. Fibich’)” that John had put together, obviously as an unplayable and satirical parody.  The notations on the score included absurd directions such as “release the penguins” and “Like a Dirigible” and “Gong duet.”  It was an incredibly creative, erudite and rigorous act of nonsense, which felt completely consistent with other creations I had seen from my uncle.  He was famous in our family for his non-sequiturs (sending a sympathy card from a fictitious professor to me on Christmas), stippling artwork, and his fascination with music.  He had worked in the field of “music engraving” for most of his life, beginning in 1967, and I remember looking with fascination at his “music typewriter” in his office in my grandmother’s garage, so it didn’t surprise me that Uncle John would have created something like this fake musical piece.

What surprised me was the fact that this piece was actually something of a musical legend, but to my knowledge, Uncle John had never mentioned it to anyone in my family before.  When I received the copy of “Faerie’s Aire,” I showed it to one of the college students I worked with who was a music major (who has become a talented composer in his own right!) and he told me he remembered seeing this piece posted on the band room wall when he was a high school student…in Washington!  I asked some other musician friends and they all told me they had seen it as well.  When I searched the internet, I found it rife with references, accolades, imitations, and questions about the mysterious composer, John Stump.  It saddened me to think there was nothing that revealed anything about my Uncle John’s life in the public sphere, so I thought I would provide some facts & anecdotes here that could serve as a source on this brilliant, hilarious, and reclusive man.

  • John was born to Homer & Mildred Stump on March 24, 1944 in Kansas City, Missouri.
  • He grew up in Lakewood, California, studying composition and orchestration at Long Beach City College.
  • John also attended Cal State University Long Beach, where he played French Horn in an orchestra led by Aaron Copeland.
  • He was an obsessive fan of many musical groups (Beach Boys, The Carpenters, Olivia Newton-John, The Go-Go’s), but none more than The Beatles.  He actually sent corrections to the early 1980’s published Beatles song collection “The Compleat Beatles” because he knew the minute details of the songs and scores so well (Uncle John would also test me when I was a kid on who wrote which Beatles song, as well as on which songs Paul played instruments other than the bass, etc.).  Though John loved all the Beatles, the one who shared his name was obviously his favorite…
A letter from Paul McCartney's personal assistant to John
  • The only known composition of John’s to be publicly performed was a three-part work for men’s choir based on the Dylan Thomas poem “And Death Shall Have No Dominion” (of which I have a cassette recording somewhere) which was put on by a choral group at the Vedanta Society in Hollywood.  He also wrote “A Suite for Four Trombones and Four Trumpets” and he mentioned to me that he had written a pop song for Karen Carpenter (he knew a friend of her’s through CSULB) but nothing ever came of it.
  • Finally, John was a large man…by that, I mean profoundly obese, which may have contributed to his public shyness.  I often felt like he actually had something of a disdain for society and didn’t care what people thought about him, but to those who knew him, he was a thoughtful, funny, and brilliant man.  It’s sad that he was never able to see his talents and creativity celebrated while he was alive…perhaps he would have preferred a mysterious posthumous legend to any kind of recognition in his life.  Whatever the case, I applaud you Uncle John and happy 66th birthday on the 24th!

UPDATE:  I have posted more material and images regarding John here.  Enjoy!

Sources:  some background information taken from John’s obituary in “Vedanta Voices” Vol. 8, No. 3, March 2006, along with John’s “A Family History”.

The Stump family circa 1976. John is in the lower left hand corner…

UPDATE:

-Here is a copy of an obituary from page 3 of the Glendale Focus newspaper, Vol. 3, No. 2 (February 13, 2006) written by the publisher, Gary Kemper.

Other compositions by John:

String Quartet No. 556(b) for Strings In A Minor (Motoring Accident) COVER
String Quartet No. 556(b) for Strings In A Minor (Motoring Accident) page 1
String Quartet No. 556(b) for Strings In A Minor (Motoring Accident) page 2
String Quartet No. 556(b) for Strings In A Minor (Motoring Accident) BACK
Prelude and the Last Hope in C and C# minor
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A brief reflection on Salinger

An obituary would be rather unnecessary as there are so many about.  Even if I wanted to write one there is no proper way to explain how the world is any different without J.D. Salinger – the highly secretive author had not published anything since 1965.  I had hoped to meet him at some point, a child-like hope in the face of high improbability, which has now effectively morphed into impossibility.  Salinger now dwells among the likes of William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and John Gardner – the American writers with whom I would love more than nearly anything to have a conversation, but never will.  I’m certain that Greg shares my sentiments.

Salinger was a genius storyteller.  Perhaps this is due to the way in which he so precisely enters into the minds of his exquisitely developed characters (and in doing so makes his way into our minds).  Salinger often employed a special tactic in his writing which keeps it dynamic and captivating: he wrote almost exclusively about or from the perspective of the young.  Part of this approach is reflected in the fact that Salinger’s rhetoric never stoops to exhaust his vocabulary.  While this has been used by critics to reduce Salinger’s audience to those in their teens and early twenties, I believe his writing very deliberately utilises the perspective of the young in order to communicate the constant liminality of life and the tension it brings.  In such a way, when we read Salinger’s works we are not reading mere stories, but we are invited into a tangible and magical world that can make even the most common event beautiful, profound, revelatory and sacred.

Thanks for sharing, JDS.

Nine Stories (1953) – For years it’s been a dream of mine to write a screenplay for a feature film version of ‘The Laughing Man’.

– Elijah

+++++

Thank you Elijah for noting with such tenderness the passing of Salinger.  I hope it’s not presumptuous to add some memories.  J.D. Salinger was quite a significant figure in my development as a human being.  The scarlet and yellow-covered Catcher in the Rye holds a magical fascination in my memory – it was a sacred text to my best friend Wade and I.  We even wrote a play together that was performed at my high school called ‘The Whole Aquarium’ as an exercise in adoring emulation of CITR.  My first year in college, I remember wandering through the bookstore at CSULB and finding a copy of Franny & Zooey.  I can clearly see myself reading it on the slope of lawn below the science buildings and thinking, “I don’t care about college–this is all that I want to understand.” His Nine Stories was an endless source of wonder and contemplation for my pensive post-adolescent musings – particularly ‘Just Before the War with the Eskimos,’ ‘The Laughing Man,” and ‘For Esme – With Love & Squalor’.

I wrote a number of papers exploring Salinger’s stories as an undergrad; I just found one in my files which analyzes the story ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’ as a narrative version of the Zen Buddhist koan, “designed to activate spiritual insight in the mind of an ideal reader.”  In my analysis, I saw the little girl Sharon Lipshutz, whom Seymour claims to “like…so much” as the ideal reader, being that she is “never mean or unkind” – unlike the critics and lit. profs who took apart & psychoanalyzed Salinger’s stories to death – and I posited that her name may represent a reader who simply keeps their “lips shut,” personifying quiet reflection.

Salinger wondered in the dedication of his novella Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters “if there was an amateur reader still left in the world” and if so, he gave them his “untellable affection and gratitude.”  I hope I never become too sophisticated of a reader to deserve these blessings, but I know that I will always remain deeply grateful for the power and influence of Salinger’s works on sensitizing my soul to the small delights, oblique insights and deep longing, never to be fulfilled in this broken world, found in his stories.

Salinger pieces by two of my favorites:  David Lodge & Dave Eggars.

– Greg

+++++

J.D. Salinger (1919 – 2010)

An article from The Onion.

Nihilo sanctum estne?

I recall when the first iPod came out in 2001.  It was revolutionary – 1000 songs on a portable and extremely attractive hard drive!   Less than two years after the release of the iPod, Apple launched the iTunes Store.   It was one thing to fit [a portion of] your CD collection onto an iPod, it was another to be faced with the reality that said CDs were no longer useful; one can simply purchase and download digital files which would be synced up with your iPod in minutes.  One need not drive to the record store only to find out that the record they intended to buy was no longer in stock (and would, say, Best Buy even carry a Danielson record?!).  Soon the iPod (or any MP3 player for that matter) would be easily adaptable to all settings: one’s car or one’s living room, through a portable stereo in the park or strapped to one’s arm during a workout.  The sale of CDs has steadily dropped since the introduction of the iPod and similar devices and CDs are quickly becoming a thing of the past.

Although I often despise the association, I am of the CD generation.  My family made excessive use of cassette tapes (especially my father’s Van Halen and Eric Clapton and my mother’s Fleetwood Mac and The Beach Boys), but CDs were around for four years before I was even born.  I remember my first two CDs: Weezer’s first self-titled record (aka The Blue Album) and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness by The Smashing Pumpkins.   Since then, my collection has grown considerably.  Still, even with the hundreds of CDs I’ve collected over the last fifteen years, I can fit four times as many on my 120 GB iPod.  With services like iTunes, eMusic, Lala, Amazon, etc., complete MP3 albums can be downloaded for a fraction of the price of a new CD, and unless one has some high-end headphones or a high-end stereo system (a lot of $, £, €, ¥,…) the difference between a standard MPEG audio file (160 kbps) and a standard CD (1200 kbps) is rather unnoticeable.

With all of this technological allure some people are still unsettled by the change.   I myself prefer to have the album in my hands because I appreciate creative packaging design to a near-obsessive degree.  Any look inside a [post Pablo Honey] Radiohead album booklet would quickly convince one of the inferiority of an exclusively digital musical experience (even such an experience with a picture of an album cover on a computer screen).   And while we already have the platform for digital music (computers and MP3 players) couldn’t we save on so much physical consumption by switching exclusively to digital music?   Even when considering environmental issues like the possibility reducing the production of plastics and paper, I find this option difficult to stomach for the same reason that I find digital books difficult to stomach.   There’s something to having a physical CD/package and a physical book in one’s hand…or is there?

Mass production of recorded music didn’t exist until about a quarter of the way into the 20th century.   At that time the vinyl phonograph record was the standard and it could only play from two-to-three minutes of music per side.  By 1949, vinyl records were in 12-inch LP (45-minute long play) form.  This became the standard length of a record.  Eventually this was followed by the use of magnetic tape: the 8-track cassette in the late sixties and early seventies followed by the compact cassette, which could generally play up to 45 minutes of music.

In a recent interview with Paste, Sufjan Stevens expressed his own crisis with regard to this whole shift in the way we can experience music:

I’m wondering, why do people make albums anymore when we just download?  Why are songs like three or four minutes, and why are records 40 minutes long?  They’re based on the record, vinyl, the CD, and these forms are antiquated now.  So can’t an album be eternity, or can’t it be five minutes? … I no longer really have faith in the album anymore.  I no longer have faith in the song.

Perhaps we find ourselves in this crisis with Sufjan, but while he remains skeptical, I remain hopeful.  From 2006 to 2007, vinyl record sales jumped more than 85%, and from 2007 to 2008 vinyl record sales jumped another 89%.  Yes, collecting vinyl records is extremely trendy and hip at the moment, and yes, when these hipsters accidentally become parents or are forced into real life via some other circumstance they might realise that investing their money in vinyl records solely for the propagation of their hipster image is not very hip after all.  But I still believe that these market figures are indicative of a basic human need for ritual and tradition of some sort.

It is true that there is nothing particularly sacred about the length of an LP or a cassette or a CD, but does the freedom of the age of digital music distribution and consumption require that we abandon the [recent] traditions we’ve grown up with?   Just because the technology moves along and just because we move along with it doesn’t mean that we can’t slow down and savour the beauty and simplicity of the traditional way we experience recorded music, packaging included.  After all, music is art and art is aesthetic and aesthetic is beauty and beauty, as Kant has defined for us in the Third Moment of his Critique of the Power of Judgment, “is the form of the purposiveness of an object, insofar as it is perceived in it without representation of an end.”

I see great correlations between this issue, ritual, and Church tradition, but that’s for another post.

[Elijah adds: Pet Sounds added to Listening]

We invite you to get lost in the cloud

Welcome to Lost in the Cloud.  In 2008 we (Greg & Elijah) started a blog with some colleagues called Criticism As Inspiration.  We have enjoyed  contributing to CAI and recently decided to branch out in our own direction with this sister blog.  We’ve transferred our more relevant posts from CAI – please feel free to browse around our archives.

On the right-hand sidebar we have pages where you can read about the inspiration behind this blog and who we are, see what we’ve been watching, listening to and reading and browse our film, music, and literature lists.  We also have sections with links to other blogs and websites that we recommend, shortcuts to recent posts, categories and comments, as well as dated archives of our posts.

We hope you enjoy/interact with what we share.

G & E

21 Artifacts from the 21st Century

The end of the decade has resulted in a number of best of the decade lists.  We’ve kind of OD’d on best of lists here already, but Elijah and I wanted to throw in our votes for those works of culture from the 2000’s WE think will/should stand the test of time.

I feel somewhat presumptuous putting this out there, as if my vote actually mattered, but what I have found is that my friends, acquaintances, and YOU dear reader, often find your interest piqued by something that has been declared “the best.”  I know that some of Elijah’s musical selections caused me to listen to albums I had not heeded before…so perhaps you may find something here that causes you to want to experience, reconsider or even maybe avoid (?) the following creative endeavors.  Hope you enjoy…see you next decade!

– Greg

Albums (Greg | Elijah)

  1. Illinois/The Avalanche (2005/2006) Sufjan Stevens | Kid A/Amnesiac (2000/2001) Radiohead
  2. The Texas Jerusalem Crossroads (2001) Lift to Experience | Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lakes State (2003) Sufjan Stevens
  3. In Rainbows/Bonus Disc (2007) Radiohead | Figure 8 (2000) Elliott Smith
  4. The Midnight Organ Fight (2008) Frightened Rabbit | The Sophtware Slump (2000) Grandaddy
  5. Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lakes State (2003) Sufjan Stevens | Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant (2000) Belle & Sebastian
  6. Figure 8 (2000) Elliott Smith | Songs in A & E (2008) Spiritualized
  7. Kid A/Amnesiac (2000/2001) Radiohead | Jane Doe (2001) Converge
  8. Lifted, Or The Story Is In The Soil, Keep Your Ear To The Ground (2002) Bright Eyes | Turn On the Bright Lights (2002) Interpol
  9. Feels (2005) Animal Collective | Illinois/The Avalanche (2005/2006) Sufjan Stevens
  10. Funeral (2004) The Arcade Fire | Blood Money (2002) Tom Waits
  11. Takk (2005) Sigur Rós | Control (2002) Pedro the Lion
  12. Boxer (2007) The National | Veckatimest (2009) Grizzly Bear
  13. Asleep in the Back (2001) Elbow | We Are the Only Friends We Have (2002) Piebald
  14. A Rush of Blood to the Head (2002) Coldplay | The Midnight Organ Fight (2008) Frightened Rabbit
  15. Merriweather Post Pavilion (2009) Animal Collective | Hot Shots II (2001) The Beta Band
  16. Gang of Losers (2006) The Dears | The Life Pursuit (2006) Belle & Sebastian
  17. Control (2002) Pedro the Lion | Tyrannosaurus Hives (2004) The Hives
  18. The Last Broadcast (2002) Doves | The Argument (2000) Fugazi
  19. The Invisible Band (2001) Travis | Hail to the Thief (2003) Radiohead
  20. Oh, Inverted World (2001) The Shins | Sea Change (2002) Beck
  21. Retreiver (2004) Ron Sexsmith | How It Ends (2004) DeVotchKa

Books (there were so many that we didn’t read [Elijah read only a handful of novels from the 2000s], so this list is incredibly subjective and limited in scope)

Novels:

  • Cloud Atlas (2004) David Mitchell
  • House of Leaves (2000) Mark Z. Danielewski
  • 2666 (2004) Roberto Bolaño
  • Atonement (2001) Ian McEwan
  • The Book of Illusions (2002) Paul Auster
  • Black Swan Green (2007) David Mitchell
  • American Gods (2001) Neil Gaiman
  • Thinks (2001) David Lodge
  • The City & The City (2009) China Mieville

Misc:

  • Blankets (2003) Craig Thompson, graphic novel
  • A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000) Dave Eggers, memoir
  • The Book of Other People (2007) ed. Zadie Smith, story collection
  • The Perry Bible Fellowship: The Trial of Colonel Sweeto and Other Stories (2007) Nicholas Gurewitch, comic collection
  • Box Office Poison (2001) Alex Robinson, graphic novel
  • The Rough Guide to Cult Fiction (2005) literary survey
  • Wall and Piece (2005) Banksy, art collection

Religion/Christianity:

  • Free of Charge (2006) Miroslav Volf
  • Jesus of Nazareth (2008) Pope Benedict XVI
  • The Sacredness of Questioning Everything (2009) David Dark
  • Renewing the Center (2000) Stanley Grenz
  • Across the Spectrum (2002) Gregory Boyd & Paul Eddy
  • The Mosaic of Christian Belief (2002) Roger Olson
  • The Shaping of Things to Come (2003) Michael Frost & Alan Hirsch
  • These last three Tom Wright books are included for their effective introductory appeal rather than any necessary anticipation of ‘classic’ status.
  • Paul: In Fresh Perspective (2005) N. T. (Tom) Wright
  • Simply Christian (2006) N. T. (Tom) Wright
  • Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision (2009) N. T. (Tom) Wright

Film (G | E)

  1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) Michel Gondry | ditto
  2. Amelie (2001) Jean-Pierre Jeunet | Lord of the Rings (2001-03)  Peter Jackson
  3. Children of Men (2006) Alfonso Cuarón | There Will Be Blood (2007) P. T. Anderson
  4. Lord of the Rings (2001-03)  Peter Jackson | The Pianist (2002) Roman Polanski
  5. The New World (2005) Terrance Malick | Dancer in the Dark (2000) Lars von Trier
  6. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) Wes Anderson | The Royal Tennenbaums (2001) Wes Anderson
  7. All the Real Girls (2002) David Gordon Green | Memento (2000) Christopher Nolan
  8. Waltz with Bashir (2008) Ari Folman | Adaptation (2002) Spike Jonze
  9. In the Mood For Love (2000) Kar Wai Wong | Big Fish (2003) Tim Burton
  10. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2001) Ang Lee | ditto
  11. The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford (2007) Andrew Dominik | Zodiac (2007) David Fincher
  12. WALL-E (2008) Andrew Stanton | The Proposition (2005) John Hillcoat
  13. There Will Be Blood (2007) P. T. Anderson | Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) Wes Anderson
  14. Memento (2000) Christopher Nolan | The Prestige (2006) Christopher Nolan
  15. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) Guillermo del Toro | Elephant (2003) Gus Van Sant
  16. The Royal Tennenbaums (2001) Wes Anderson | A Beautiful Mind (2001) Ron Howard
  17. The Proposition (2005) John Hillcoat | Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) Guillermo del Toro
  18. The Prestige (2006) Christopher Nolan | About Schmidt (2002) Alexander Payne
  19. The Lives of Others (2007) Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck | Capote (2005) Bennett Miller
  20. Moulin Rouge (2001) Baz Luhrmann | Lost in Translation (2003) Sofia Coppola
  21. Donnie Darko (2001) Richard Kelly | American Splendor (2003) Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini

The Top (Two Thousand and) Ten Films

Dear reader,

I give you these 10 suggestions (from the 35 films I saw this year) to consider as eminently watchable and deeply worthwhile cultural experiences…

10.  The Road:  It was bleak and heart-wrenching and so difficult to watch…but it was unflinchingly truthful and often had a kind of tarnished beauty.  An amazing film that I never want to see again.

9.  (500) Days of Summer:  I think I was dead center in the sights of this film’s demographic appeal.  Indie soundtrack (& Smiths shout out to boot!), check.  Ernestly romantic guy, check.  Lack of ambition as virtue, check.  Creative, non-linear, brain-teasing narrative structure, check.  By all accounts, a non-conformist, iconoclastic, incredulous contrarian such as myself should have seen right through this.  But I ate it up.

8.  District 9:  The Office with aliens.  Original and touching beyond all expectation.

7.  Avatar:  Utterly predictable storytelling, but I was almost literally transported into the world of Pandora (course, I DID see it in IMAX 3-D, which made this almost a given).  The mythic instinct come to life…

6.  Adventureland:  This film tapped into something pretty nostalgic for me, but it also is an amazingly honest portrait of summertime post-teenage angst in low-pay limbo.  Performances from main & minor actors hit me in the melancholy bone…and the songs made me shudder with recollection of an adolescence lived to that soundtrack (ROCK ME, AMADEUS!).

5.  Up in the Air:  My only criticism of this very fine and relevant dramatic comedy is in the casting of non-leads:  actual unemployed people as the victims of redundancy came off as schlocky & the hip actors (Zach Galifianakis, Danny McBride, Jason Bateman) in minor roles felt distracting (see The Invention of Lying for the most egregious use of this type of “pack casting”—i.e. “if I show up in your movie, that lets everyone know I’m in your crew”)

4.  Up:  I did not want to like this in order to resist the Pixarification of my soul, but alas my brain is fully washed and my heart is clay in the hands of these masters.  I saw it once with my wife & once with my kids.  So great & unforeseeably ingenious.

3.  Inglourious Basterds:   I really did love this movie, though my reservations of whether I SHOULD have loved it still haunt me.

2.  Where the Wild Things Are:   Never was a fan of the book…creeped me out.  Didn’t particularly want to like the movie, though I am a fan of Jonze & Eggars.  But after viewing, I could not get it out of my thoughts for days.  I feel like I lived that film somehow.  Moved me in profound ways on many different levels.  It will gain the recognition it deserved someday…

And in FIRST PLACE:

The furthest thing from the cluster cuss this could have been.

1.  Fantastic Mr. Fox:  The dialogue, the look, the details, the heart, the growling, the outfits, the voices, the humor, the pacing, the panache, the feel, the stillness, the child-likeness, the tears, the speeches, the GENIUS.  I will see this film many times more before I die…

Note: It’s fascinating to me to see THREE (ostensibly) children’s films at the top of this list.  Regression?  Longing for a care free world?  Return to innocence?  My only response is to ask what the cross is between an elephant and a rhino.

Honorable mentionsI Love You Man, Watchmen (the credit sequence alone was among the best looking cinema this year), Star TrekADDITION:  Zombieland !

Wish I could have seenThe Hurt Locker, Bright Star, Moon, A Serious Man, In the Loop, It Might Get Loud, The Informant!, The White Ribbon, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Thirst.

Biggest disappointments (and my respective “microview”—aka review with minimal words involving some sort of pun on the title):

  • The Brothers Bloom – The Brothers Wilt
  • Away We Go – Eww, Go Away
  • The Invention of Lying – The Venting of Denying
  • Ponyo – Panyo

Not as bad as everyone said it was: The Box (from Richard Kelly, writer/director of Donnie Darko):  which had some genuinely creepy, intriguing and touching moments, solid performances, lovely sense of time/place, before it crapped out.  And a score from (pretty much) The Arcade Fire!

Best Albums of 2009 Revisited

Since Greg shared his more finalised version of the ‘Best Albums of 2009’ I figured it was as good a time as any to revisit my list.  I would have simply updated the original post, but there have been some significant changes to my ‘Best Albums of 2009 (thus far)‘ list due to the release of several amazing records since I left America.  I have therefore removed the following from my previous list:

  • Cass McCombsCatacombs
  • Andrew BirdNoble Beast
  • Sunset RubdownDragonslayer
  • The Pains of Being Pure at HeartThe Pains of Being Pure at Heart

I must say that the four records above are worth buying, but in narrowing my list down to ten with the inclusion of a larger canon of new albums in 2009 (my previous list was posted nearly three months ago) I needed to revise my list.  Therefore I give you my more official and updated ‘Best Albums of 2009‘.

07 - These Four Walls

10.  We Were Promised Jetpacks—These Four Walls
I still stand by the excellence of this record, but it has slipped three slots (from seven to ten).  Enjoy the incredible Scottish sincerity and steady flow of energy.

9.  Atlas Sound—Logos
Bradford Cox (of Deerhunter) really did an excellent job on this record (released 19 October in the UK) with a little help from Noah Lennox (aka ‘Panda Bear’) and Lætitia Sadier (of Stereolab).   Cox demonstrates his exceptional and deeply personal writing abilities and leaves room for many more excellent Atlas Sound records to come.

8.  Times New Viking—Born Again Revisited
I first heard Times New Viking last year when they released Rip it Off.  That album proved to be a great surprise (which was enhanced by the energy and precision of their live shows).  This next record (released 21 September in the UK) proves to employ the same techniques – simple pop songs performed by a three piece band (drums, guitar, keys) and production that is intentionally downgraded for an extremely primitive and lo-fi sound.  But the songwriting on this album represents a broader stylistic spectrum than their previous work which makes this record more accessible and even more listenable (for someone who usually enjoys what others have sometimes deemed ‘unlistenable’).

08 - Mythomania

7.  Cryptacize—Mythomania
As I mentioned previously, this album was very surprising, and it has proven more surprising as I’ve listened on, securing it a rank of number seven (previously eight).  At this point one might ask, “Wait, with this subjective switch aren’t your reviews worth the computer screens they are illuminated on?”  Correct, the albums I deem worthy of listen are based upon my dynamic personal preferences.  But in the end, we must wait for NME’s ‘Top Albums of the Decade’ instead of taking their top album from each year of the decade because of developing musical trends and tastes, so I don’t feel so guilty.  This album deserves this spot and maybe even a higher one.  This album possesses a near-perfect amount of creativity, innovation, skills and utter fun!  A great improvement from Chris Cohen’s previous work on Asthmatic Kitty (Curtains).

6.  Girls—Album
I first heard the track “Hellhole Ratrace” back in August.  It was raved about by Pitchfork and Stereogum and I found the track very enjoyable, but not as incredible as the reviews were claiming.  I bought the record soon after its release on 22 September and gave it a listen.  By the second listen I was hooked.  Think of a more nihilistic and energetic Elvis Costello circa 1977, with a hint of Buddy Holly.

04 - My Maudlin Career

5.  Camera Obscura—My Maudlin Career
This record (along with Cursive’s new record) slipped a slot entirely due to the release of my new number three record of the year.  As I’ve mentioned previously, this is probably my favorite release from Camera Obscura.  The more I’ve listened the more I appreciate the record and also the more sure I am that I didn’t simply “love it so much because Belle & Sebastian hasn’t released an LP since 2006.”  Well orchestrated and executed indie-pop, with plenty of Scottish wit.  Even if there is a hint of my love for B & S in this pick, the album (and the band) stands on its own through musical precision and artistic maturity.

03 - Mama

4.  Cursive—Mama, I’m Swollen
Mama, I’m Swollen probably seems to be an odd pick for this number [four] slot, but I will always have a soft spot for Cursive.  This is not to say that this album is undeserving of praise.  Cursive is not interested in being another experimental freak-folk-electro-post-rock-cross-genre-remixed piece of overproduced crap like so many other groups are becoming (namely Dirty Projectors).  They are faithful to their expressive indie roots, this album being far less poppy than Happy Hollow.  It reminds me of Domestica even.  Tim Kasher is still obsessed with refuting a theistic/morally superior worldview, but he does it with so much passion and angst I can’t help but be stirred.  Cursive encourages us to realize the failure of our Enlightenment/modern ideals and to accept our animalistic/primitive nature.  I don’t buy it (but not because it’s not packaged well).  I say we drop the Enlightenment and read more Kierkegaard and Barth.

3.  Converge—Axe to Fall
After all these years Converge is still bringing ‘it.’  What is ‘it?’  ‘It’ is unrelenting energy.  Of all of the bands on this top ten album list, Converge is by far my favorite.  This album (released 20 October) is both extremely heavy and true to Converge’s metal roots while remaining very accessible (like 2001’s Jane Doe).  Axe to Fall has also made its way into my top three all-time Converge records.

02 - Merriweather

2. Animal Collective—Merriweather Post Pavilion
Retaining its number two slot, Merriweather Post Pavilion – though it is more accessible (think Pet Sounds) than their entire repertoire (a bad start in my odd musical sense) – is very unique, big (to the point of breathtaking at times), and yet more cohesive with itself than any other Animal Collective album.  The songs don’t leave you asking, “When is this going to end/how does that even fit?”

01 - Veckatimest

1.  Grizzly BearVeckatimest
I raved about their performance in Glasgow earlier this month and I stand by this pick as the ‘Best Album of 2009.’  My first listen of this record was a positive, but not profound experience.  Only two tracks really stuck out to me: “Two Weeks,” and “While You Wait for the Others.”  I was even a little disappointed with the album version of “While You Wait for the Others,” at first (compared to their incredible live performance I saw on Morning Becomes Eclectic last year).  I sat with the album for another month and at that point it hit me.  This is by far (maybe I’ll get harassed for saying that) Grizzly Bear’s best record.  By best I mean that they demonstrate great maturity and excellence both in writing and execution, two points that have always seemed to miss one another by an ever-so-slight degree.  This record is certain to remain among my favorites unless I fully give myself over to jazz-fusion or something.

Best Albums (and more) of 2009 (thus farther)

Our own brilliant Elijah Wade Smith posted his favorite new albums of the year a bit early this year (August) [ELIJAH ADDS: and with a stated reason for doing so…], but I’d like to pick up where he left off and share some favorite albums from this year, along with my definitive songs of 2009 and one marvelous musical discovery…

Since Elijah already listed 4 of the albums I would have chosen (We Were Promised Jetpacks, Cass McCombs, Grizzly Bear and Animal Collective), I will use this space to highlight 10 other albums (3 of which earned an honorable mention from my esteemed colleague).  Between my regular CD purchases and my beloved eMusic account (which I was not paid in any way to mention), I was able to purchase around 50 albums this year, but I still feel like I have certainly neglected many more releases that should have been heard (e.g. I have not heard one note of the new Muse album).

Sadly, this year some of my favorite artists only turned out middling efforts at best (Andrew Bird, Jeremy Enigk, Imogen Heap, Patrick Watson) and deeply disappointing at worst (Doves, Pete Yorn, Morrissey).  The jury is still out on the new Swell Season album (feelings are ambivalent–is it too derivative or a purposeful homage?) and I intentionally neglected to include U2‘s album, as I am unable to evaluate their work in isolation from their status/body of work.  A final note:  though Sufjan Stevens‘ “The BQE” was released this October, it feels like it belongs to another year (2007, when it was initially performed)…I will say that I LOVED his “You Are the Blood” on the Dark Was the Night compilation, and of course, I admire his work in general more than anything else I’ve ever heard, so I’m sure any appraisal of it would be unfairly elevated as well.

Without further caveat, I give you (alphabetically listed) the best, with my best…

TOP TEN ALBUMS (not on Elijah’s list):

Counter-offensive? Um, what counter-off...oh, that.

• Lou Barlow—Goodnight Unknown: I would include Barlow amongst the best living American songwriters.  His stylistic range is somewhat limited (he’s practically copyrighted a particular kind of staccato down strum), but if it isn’t broke…(I couldn’t force the “ain’t” in there).  He’s lyrically sentimental on some songs, but it’s the tender truthful sort, and then in other places he’s brutally insightful.  A beautiful, rich album:  see “Gravitate,” “Too Much Freedom,” and “Modesty.”

• David Bazan—Curse Your Branches: To quote from the Barsuk Records press release:

“…Curse your branches is his masterpiece — a beautiful, passionate, profoundly courageous work of art that deserves and will reward your close attention. It is a deeply personal, frankly autobiographical dispatch from the front lines of a crisis of faith. Song after song peers deep into the abyss of insoluble mysteries and comes up with something far more useful than answers.”

Do I agree?  Maybe.  Still, it’s light years better than any of the shite that makes millions these days.

• Neko Case—Middle Cyclone: One day, I drove my sister-in-law Megan’s truck up to LAX to pick her up and this CD was in the player.  Love at first listen.  I knew her voice from The New Pornographers (lovely, fierce, voluptuous), but her singing her own melodies and lyrics = twisted longing & lovely loss.  The experience was so intensely moving I ended up listening to all 30 minutes of the last song–which is only the sound of crickets in the field outside her studio.

• Hayden—The Place Where We Lived: He was on my top 10 last year…how in the heck did he put another little gem together so quickly.  I will say that he may be an acquired taste, so do give this album a test run before you trust my quirk-happy palate.

• Lightning Dust—Infinite Light: I have no recollection of where I came across this album, but it’s a rare flower:  timeless (and therefore similar to what has come before) and unique (the quaver of the singer’s vibrato–again, may not be to all tastes–and her wry, experienced, and [creepy to say it] sexy delivery…kind of a Chick Jagger if you get my meaning).

• Passion Pit—Manners: The sound of this album is like eating a substantial meal of sweets.  I’m not sure if people can keep from loving this band…it is my kid’s number one choice off my iPod.  Unbelievable hooks, propulsive beats & a mystifying falsetto…

• The Low Anthem—Oh My God, Charlie Darwin: I’m just going to admit that before two weeks ago, I knew only the name of this band.  I am so seriously excited about looking more into this band, past & future…go to iTunes and listen to the first three songs (then skip the next two) and tell me you can’t hear the talent.  I’m anxious to figure out the evolution (if you will) of the lyrical themes, but it’s work I look forward to.

• Matt & Kim—Grand: Another admission–I only discovered this band because of the placement of their insanely catchy song “Daylight” in a Bacardi ad.  BUT these two performers give me hope for the next generation of bands…and they DIY’d it without the help of a guitar, fueled only by raw passion and teen spirit.

• The Mountain Goats—The Life of the World to Come: Every song is named after a passage from the Bible, but just listen to the lyrics and you’ll know you’re not in Jesusland:  “I became a crystal healer and my ministry was to the sick / Creeping vines would send out runners and seek me in their numbers / I sold self-help tapes.”  I would strongly recommend “Hebrews 11:40,” “1 John 4:16,” and “Deuteronomy 2:10.”  I haven’t yet looked up any of the scripture references, but I think that the passages will probably function in a way similar to the inspiration of the 10 commandments in Krysztof Kieślowski’s Decalogue.  Perhaps this could be a topic for some student of theology & culture…in Scotland?

• Regina Spektor—Far: This album almost didn’t make this list due to the dolphin noises she makes at exactly 2 minutes into “Folding Chair”–she needs a naysayer in her entourage.  But she can write a pop song or melancholy ballad with her piano and lovely, funny voice like nobody’s business (see “Laughing With,” “Human of the Year,” and “Genius Next Door” along with most of the other cuts…though “Machine” is a bit awkward as well).  She’s really amazing…

BEST SONGS OF THE YEAR:

I made an iMix of these which can be found by pasting the words “Sgt Grumbles Best Songs 2009” into the iTunes iMix search box…570 seconds of goodness at least.

  1. “Charlie Darwin”: The Low Anthem/Oh My God, Charlie Darwin
  2. “Hard To Be”:  David Bazan/Curse Your Branches
  3. “Dear God (Sincerely M.O.F.)”:  Monsters Of Folk/Monsters Of Folk
  4. “Ten Thousand Words”:  The Avett Brothers/I And Love And You
  5. “Laughing With”:  Regina Spektor/Far
  6. “Too Much Time”:  John Vanderslice/Romanian Names
  7. “Two Weeks”:  Grizzly Bear/Veckatimest
  8. “Little Secrets”:  Passion Pit/Manners
  9. “My Girls”:  Animal Collective/Merriweather Post Pavilion
  10. “Wondering What Everyone Knows”:  Lightning Dust/Infinite Light
  11. “Daylight”:  Matt and Kim/Grand
  12. “Modesty”:  Lou Barlow/Goodnight Unknown
  13. “The Pharoahs”:  Neko Case/Middle Cyclone
  14. “Deuteronomy 2:10”:  The Mountain Goats/The Life Of The World To Come
  15. “The Executioner’s Song”:  Cass McCombs/Catacombs
  16. “An Almighty Thud”:  We Were Promised Jetpacks/These Four Walls
  17. “I Want You Back”:  Discovery/LP
  18. “Let It Last”:  Hayden/The Place Where We Lived
  19. “Lille”:  Lisa Hannigan/Sea Sew

BEST DISCOVERY:

• The album The Texas/Jerusalem Crossroads by the band Lift to Experience.  I don’t completely know how to describe how important this album has become to me.  It is simply one of the most fascinating ALBUMS ever recorded, as in a musical composition where everything is working together towards one purpose/theme on EVERY LEVEL IMAGINABLE.  You listen to it, and you must listen to in IN ITS ENTIRETY & you feel like you are in some run down warehouse listening to them play, no CREATE–right there and then–this mad, apocalyptic masterpiece of beauty and fierce passion that is flowing in some profane mixture of Ahab-esque monomania and true divine inspiration.  I don’t have the inclination to ruin the bizarre experience of discerning the “tale” of this one-of-a-kind concept album, but here is a formula that may help give a sense of what we’re talking about here:

Jeff Buckley + Explosions in the Sky + My Bloody Valentine (the book of Revelation/ fundamentalist preacher’s kid) + Texan pride/outsider art (messiah complex) – worst album cover art ever (it looks like it was designed on Microsoft Word!) = one of the greatest albums ever

Hard to believe, but it is a damn MAGNUM .357 OPUS

I was going to include some books, but I’ve asked enough of your time.  I will be back with more later…

I became President and all I got was this Nobel Prize

Not even a year into his presidency and Barack Obama has won the Nobel Peace Prize.  He didn’t even need to make a documentary.  And it will look good between his two Grammys.

There will most certainly be both many praises and many criticisms floating about regarding the bestowal of this honor upon the young American President, but I really must say that my first reaction was overwhelming joy.  Why?  I simply believe that while standing up for what he believes America needs, President Obama still retains a considerable amount of respect from the rest of the world (or at least from those who vote for the Nobel Prize).

Once again, I am working from the assumption that two-way communication with the rest of the world is a positive thing.  From my view I would say that President Obama is not bowing down to the demands of the ‘enemies‘ of America (part of the reason for his winning of the Nobel Prize is the fact that he has really amped up calls for nuclear disarmament and human rights).

Still, while I am filled with joy, I wonder how the President of the United States could have won this award after only being President for roughly eight months (let me also add that the nomination proceedings for the Nobel Prize took place before he had even been in office for one full month).  [But let’s not also forget that one need not be a President to be awarded a Nobel Prize, i.e. he could have received it (in theory) even if he had not won the election.]  And in the back of my head is the thought that perhaps President Obama simply looks so much more attractive to the rest of the world in contrast to the administration that he followed…

Either way, I hope that people won’t get nasty about this award: Obama didn’t ask for it.  This is meant to be a gift from the Norwegian Nobel Committee to someone who has contributed significantly to the cause of peace.  I think it would be difficult to defend the belief that President Obama has yet to actually impact the global political climate/landscape.  Even North Korea is changing its tune (for now).

Whether or not the world is unanimous in approval of President Obama’s receipt of this award, we can all agree that a world where peace flourishes is a good goal; may we hope and pray that President Obama would continually make decisions that point the way (in as much as one man can) to that goal.

"Damn."
Another disappointing day.

Elliott Smith, Intercessory Psalmist

This post, in partial attempt to push my last post under the radar, is more in my line of pseudo-expertise and at least non-inflammatory interest…

On 6 August 2009 Elliott Smith would have turned 40 years old.  Instead, on 21 October 2009 we grieve six years without him.  Readers may or may not know who Elliott Smith was (or is), but if you’ve heard the film soundtracks for either Good Will Hunting, Hurricane Streets, American Beauty, Keeping the Faith, Antitrust (sadly), The Royal Tenenbaums, Thumbsucker, Georgia Rule (unfortunately), The Go-Getter, or Paranoid Park, or if you’ve played through Guitar Hero 5, you’ve been exposed to at least a portion of his work.  If you’ve not heard any of that, maybe you saw the 70th Academy Awards (1998) and caught his performance “Miss Misery,” which was nominated for best original song (losing to James Horner and Will Jennings for “My Heart Will Go On,” from the film Titanic).  Though he never experienced a great degree of commercial success, Elliott Smith has left a legacy of what I believe are some of the best pop/folk songs ever written.

Elliott Smith’s singing voice can be characterized as a tenor-whisper (which is also doubled in most tracks – Elliott is among the finest/if not the finest doubling singers I’ve ever heard).  When I first heard his unique voice I didn’t know what to expect regarding his looks.  The first time you see a picture of Elliott after hearing his voice you might ask yourself, “Really?”  Yet when you see a live performance (something now only possible through video recordings) the deep honesty of his voice is a perfect complement to the deep honesty of his weathered face.

Lyrically Elliott is typically rather dark, which typically leaves his listeners ultimately unsurprised (though devastated) when they learn of his suicide.  His lyrics often feature the themes of existential despair, love (or the absence of such) and the looming prospect of taking one’s own life (“Instruments shine on a silver tray | Don’t let me get carried away | Don’t let me get carried away | Don’t let me be carried away” – last lines on From a Basement on the Hill‘s ‘King’s Crossing’, one of the last songs he ever wrote).

But contrary to accusations I’ve often heard against it, Elliott’s music is not a tool for thrusting oneself into despair.  I cannot precisely explain the emotional quality that draws me into Elliott Smith’s music, but it is not one that is dismal so much as it is honest.  When I listen to Elliott Smith I find an advocate, a counselor, one not above the darkness, but in its midst.  Like the Psalmist, Elliott cries out for me when I have no words.  And that is what gives Elliott the edge in my musical library: he is so substantive and of this earth.  His passions, his pains, his loves, his hates, his strengths, and his weaknesses are all laid out with the utmost artistic integrity.  I truly believe every word that comes from his mouth, or at least I believe that he believes what he is singing.

If you’re looking for shallow comfort listen to The Beach Boys’ ‘Wouldn’t it Be Nice’, one of my favourite pop songs of all time.  But if you want to experience someone’s heart laid out before you and if you want to taste both the sweetness and bitterness of a true artist, give Elliott Smith a listen, a long intentional listen.

Elliott Smith Full-Length Releases

Let me first say that I consider every Elliott Smith album an excellent album, and I don’t award such praise lightly (at least I don’t think I do…).

01 Roman Candle

From 1991 to 1996 Elliott sang/played guitar in the alternative rock band Heatmiser.  While in the band he began his solo career, resulting in 1994’s Roman Candle, nine tracks (the last one instrumental) that Elliott had not actually intended on releasing in album form.  With this in mind, Roman Candle is much less cohesive than Elliott’s later releases, but still showcases his exceptional musical/writing ability, as well as the signature lo-fi production that characterizes most of his music.

02 Elliott Smith

Elliott released his self-titled album in 1995, like Roman Candle, while still in Heatmiser.  This album includes the track, “Needle in the Hay,” featured in the film The Royal Tenenbaums.

03 Either-Or

Either/Or, released in 1997, follows in the same vein as Elliott’s first two releases.  The title comes from Søren Kierkegaard’s book, Enten ‒ Eller. Several songs from this album were used in the film Good Will Hunting (though “Miss Misery,” the song for which Elliott was nominated for an Academy Award, was written specifically for the film and saw no studio album release).

04 XO

Elliott followed Either/Or with 1998’s XO, his first release through DreamWorks and thus his first release on a major label.  Elliott’s earlier philosphical/aesthetic sentiments are present, but begin to manifest themselves differently through this album, which features more instruments and better production.

05 Figure 8

Following in the same musical/productive trajectory of XO, Elliott released Figure 8 in 2000.  This album is simply incredible.  The cover photo was taken in front of the A/V repair shop Solutions in Los Angeles by photographer Autumn de Wilde.  If you’re in Los Angeles you can visit and leave a message on the wall (located at 4334 W. Sunset Blvd.), which has become an unofficial Elliott Smith memorial.

06 From a Basement on the Hill

At the time of his death, Elliott was still working on this album, which was released posthumously in 2004.  Though we don’t have Elliott’s final product here, his former producer along with his girlfriend compiled this album from the material he had been working on in the studio.  They did a good job.

07 New Moon

This album is actually a compilation of B-sides, outtakes and rarities generally from the self-titled and Either/Or sessions, and the style/production is predominantly reflective of that period.  It was released in 2007.

For more information on Elliott Smith visit Sweet Adeline, his official website.