Music Monday: Meet the Accessible Daniel Johnston

Daniel Johnston
Is And Always Was
Eternal Yip Eye Music

 
It has been more than a decade since cult figure Daniel Johnston went missing in New York, prompting members of Sonic Youth to troll the streets all night to find him. It's been 29 years since Johnston distributed his first cassette, Songs of Pain (followed by More Songs of Pain), and six years since his last new album. This week marks the release of Is And Always Was, which could end up being one of Johnston's most widely appreciated works. It’s full of solid rock songs the average listener can love without having to fast-forward through awkward moments of extreme honesty, which is maybe Johnston's best-known calling card. Always Was is still honest, but it’s more fun than awkward.

Johnston's hallmark lyricism is in full force on this album as he weaves gruesome tales of lost love, death, and despair. But this time they are backed by a full-bodied sound that's more produced than his legacy of low-fi recordings. A few tracks include faux doo-wop melodies and Jonathan Richman-like plotlines that are told with Johnston’s interminable lisp and involve characters like “Queenie the Doggie.” In one track, in which Johnston goes to the lost and found to retrieve his brain, he identifies it as “a cute little bugger…but warped from the rain.” “Thank you, ma’am,” he sings. “I’m always losing that dang thing.”

Music Monday: Doc Watson's Enduring Appeal in a New World

There were two distinct personalities in attendance at San Francisco’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival this weekend. One was comprised of old bluegrass standards and quick-tempo banjo melodies popular among the older crowd of free spirits. The other, favored by the twentysomething folk enthusiasts in skin-tight jeans, was a hip hybrid of blues riffs, funky instruments, and alternative style. Though noticeably distinct, the two personas were married by the unbeatable combination of light beer and cheap bourbon.

The crowd that came out to hear Doc Watson’s signature old-school flatpicking seemed less energetic than the audiences for the Old 97s, Gillian Welch and Galactic, which all market a watered-down variety of the pure stuff to a younger audience. Although he remains a legendary fixture of bluegrass, a surprising number of onlookers sitting near me at the festival's Banjo stage were surprised to hear Doc was on the schedule, even as he took the stage. But Watson, despite being 86 years old and blind for 85 of those years, knows how to get a festival crowd excited; he's been entertaining people for more than half a century, after all.

For Watson, music is a family affair. He played almost exclusively with his son Merle for 15 years, until Merle's untimely death in 1985. For the past two decades, Doc has played with a number of close friends, notably David Holt, with whom he shared the stage yesterday. Holt is known for his plucky banjo solos and narrative songwriting style. Doc was also joined by his grandson Richard, who announced to rousing and emotional applause that he recently became a grandfather, which makes Doc a great great (!) grandfather. The importance of Doc’s family in his music was most apparent when he crooned the mountain love song "Shady Grove" in honor of Rosa Lee Carlton, his wife of 64 years. And Doc gave his late sister Ethel a callout when he introduced his penultimate tune, "Sitting on Top of the World," a popular 1930s tune about a boy trying to cheer himself up after his girl leaves him.

Vanity Fair's November issue profiles Rupert Murdoch and his war against online news. Toward the end of the piece, Michael Wolff paints a troubling portrait of the man he says is leading the charge for reforming readers' access to online news:

It is not, what’s more, merely that Murdoch objects to people reading his news for free online; it’s that he objects to—or seems truly puzzled by—what newspapers have become online. You get a dreadful harrumph when you talk to Murdoch about user-created content, or even simple linking to other sites. He doesn’t get it. He doesn’t buy it. He doesn’t want it.

This raises the question: Should the primary reformer advocating for paid online content be someone whose musings on the Internet sound more like, "Get off my lawn!"?

Murdoch's problem isn't, as Wolff suggests, that he's "ignoring his industry's biggest problem." But by closing his mind to the Internet and its potential for spreading information and promoting discussion, Murdoch himself has become the industry's biggest problem.

It should no longer be any surprise to anyone that our most exceptional nation spends more on health care per capita (by a huge margin) than other countries. And that the quality of US health care, in spite of—or rather, because of—all our sweet gadgetry, ranks embarassingly low. Didn't see this the first time out, but my dad forwarded me this YouTube video of Huffington Post contributor—and Jonathan Mann imitator?—Paul Hipp rocking out on this issue. Which is kinda funny, since my dad never listens to rock 'n' roll, and rarely forwards me stuff. But he is a health policy expert. So anyway, here's "We're Number 37" (woo-hoo!).

 

 

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Have a thing for ladies of the GOP? Then why not purchase the 2010 "Great American Conservative Women" calendar?

Set for release Friday, it features such right-wing luminaries as Ann Coulter and Bay Buchanan, clad in white shirts and bathed in soft light. The target audience appears to be young women—students get it for free. Apparently, the idea is to encourage the youth of America to speak out against gay rights (like calendar girl Carrie Prejean, above), call feminism evil and embrace the atomic bomb (like Phyllis Schlafly), or just generally act insane (like Michelle Bachmann).

Noticeably absent: Sarah Palin.

Watch the behind-the-scenes video below:

The Secret Service is investigating a facebook poll (since taken down) that asked if Obama should be assassinated.

The answer choices: "Yes," "No,” "Maybe," and "Yes if he cuts my health care."

Pretty scary stuff. But what’s scarier is how unsurprising it is.

Really, what's the difference between this and a gun-toting Obama-hater holding a sign that says "It's Time to Water the Tree of Liberty"—a nod to a Jefferson quote about neccessary bloodshed? (The health care angle is particularly predictable, considering the feverish odium it’s evoked).

But gimmicks like these tend to serve as an easy access point for greater social ills. And there’s something about a poll like this—its hatred so distilled and its medium so pedestrian—that forces you to confront the question: Just how bad have things become?

Let's pretend that Monsters of Folk is, true to its tongue-in-cheek name, actually a supergroup. The first rule of supergroup appreciation is that you have to pick your favorite member. Sometimes it's a tricky choice: Nelson, Lefty, or Lucky Wilbury? Willie, Johnny, or Waylon? In Monsters of Folk, you have your pick of four artists who are neither real folkies nor real rock stars: M. Ward, Conor Oberst, Jim James, and Mike Mogis. Before even picking up their self-titled disc, my money was on M. Ward. I still have his Transfiguration of Vincent and Post-War on heavy rotation and even though his recent efforts have gone a bit soft (the inoffensive Hold Time and She & Him, a collaboration with the adorable yet Auto-Tune-worthy Zooey Deschanel), I'm a sucker for his melancholy pop.

Bright Eyes frontman Conor Oberst would be my runner-up, but only because I've never really listened to James' My Morning Jacket because the phrase "jam band" is often in proximity to its name, fairly or not. Bright Eyes' I'm Wide Awake It's Morning was great, but I have a low tolerance for Oberst's earnest warbling. And I must confess I have never heard of Mike Mogis (a member of Bright Eyes, and as the M.O.F.'s pinch hitter-slash-engineer, its Jeff Lynne, to borrow a Wilbury). So doing some quick supergroup mental math, I figured if M.O.F. was half as enjoyable as an M. Ward album, I'd be content.

Warren Hellman, the patron saint of the Best. Festival. In. San Francisco. Ever. is plunking down $5 million to seed the creation of what's being called the Bay Area News Project, a journalism outfit that'll be linked with KQED public radio and television, UC Berkeley's J-School, and it looks like The New York Times.  Alan Mutter has the best summary of the deal, and Dave Cohn just put up a smart post about what he hopes Hellman's project does. Lots of details still to be worked out, so I think it's way too early to say much more than that I'm really hoping this works out.

Okay, that having been said, I've got a couple more things to say.

It's no surprise that Americans are world-champion couch potatoes, but just how bad are we? According to this chart in the Economist, we watch more than twice as much TV than other countries:
 

TV Watching


More than eight hours of TV a day!? That's disturbing. (So is that kid zoning out to nothing but static.) When a friend posted this graphic on Facebook yesterday, it spurred a mild meltdown in the comment thread. But then, the disbelief was coming from statistical outliers such as me. My family's TV set lives in the closet with a "Kill Your Television" sticker on it. I recently discovered that I'd let yet another digital TV converter coupon expire and missed my final chance to get another one, making me the last American under 75 with a now-useless analog-only TV. (Maybe that kid watching static is unlucky enough to have a parent like me. No wait—parents like me don't let our kids watch TV.) Still, the eight hours a day stat seems nuts. But is it?

If you're associated with drug enforcement and moonlight as a drug dealer, this month has not been easy on your kind. Last week authorities in Maryland busted up a $1.5 million cocaine ring. Among the 12 arrested, a former DC cop.

Earlier this month, the DEA arrested Richard Padilla, a high-ranking US official in the war on drugs, for serving "as a secret ally" to the drug lords of Mexican cartels. This from the LA Times:

"The charges underscore the corruptive might of the cartels, which have bought off Mexican politicians, police chiefs and military commandos. Drug lords have corrupted U.S. border inspectors and agents to help smuggle cocaine north. In 2006, the FBI chief in El Paso was convicted of charges related to concealing his friendship with an alleged kingpin."

Ah, the corruptive influence of Mexican drug cartels. That's the same point we made in our July/August cover story. And it doesn't stop in Mexico—but really now, who's surprised?

And finally, in other drug news, two amazing tidbits:

  • It must be hard out there for a narc, because after executing a drug raid, some cops in Tampa got a Wii bit distracted by the suspect's video games.
  • And... We so badly want to claim British blogger Andrew Sullivan as a fellow American that we don't care what he's smoking; he didn't even have to pay his $125 fine after getting caught with pot on National Park Service property. It just goes to show we DO like immigrants, and let them be naughty—or shill for the party, in the case of former GOP operative Michael Kamburowski—as long as they speak English well enough to write for The Atlantic.

Correction: Oops! In the original post, I misidentified Sullivan as Canadian. What was I smoking? Fixed.