#232: The Writer Dreams of a Debilitating Incompetence

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When I don’t drink
my dreams are more vivid
and sometimes that’s not good.
Last night I dreamt I was
workshopping a piece of fiction
with a large group of super smart
writers. I had the manuscript
in front of me and I was supposed
to read a section of it out loud,
but I couldn’t decide what to read
and the pages were all out of order
and none of it made any sense to me
and I couldn’t even remember what
I had written about or even recognize
the words and sentences and paragraphs
on the page as my own. It was
terrifying and I was struck utterly dumb
while this group of people impatiently
and in painful silence waited for me
to get my shit together enough
to give them a reading while
I pointlessly thumbed through pages.
I continued in this torturous
manner until my alarm went off
and I was jarred awake, feeling
like somebody had hit me over the
head with a rubber mallet,
a hangover after not drinking.

I wondered what it meant.
There’s the obvious interpretation,
just fear of failure sneaking in,
or worse, the fear that some day
the things I love and the skills I most
value will be lost to me.
And then I worry: in my waking
life, have I become more forgetful?
Do I more often find myself searching
for a word I know but can’t place?
Do I forget a student’s name when
I see them in the hall, or when I call
on them in class? How long did I spend
this afternoon searching the room
for my copy of the novel we were
studying until I realized that it was there,
right where I left it, almost under my nose?
Why don’t I write more fiction?
Or maybe these images are not at all about
what I fear I may lose, but rather,
substitutes for a feeling or an experience
recently of being out of control,
not having a handle on things,
being unable to use my wits or skill
to solve a problem. Maybe, just maybe
what I was really dreaming about
was my 7th period freshmen,
most of whom won’t or can’t do school
while I feel powerless to help
or motivate them. It’s a similar
feeling, and after almost an entire
career, when one should feel at the top
of one’s game, it’s scary as hell
to feel like you’ve got nothing up your sleeve
but a demoralized resignation. And on
the eve of this nightmare I had trouble
getting to sleep stewing about this
very group of young people. I seethed
for an hour.

They’ve already called a snow day
for tomorrow even before
the stuff comes down.

I think I’ll drink to that:
To a snow day and more pleasant dreams.

 

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#231: A Poem On My 52nd Birthday (with Glasses)


My eye sight’s all right.
The only glasses I’ve
ever worn were just
for show, you know.
But at the last check up
the doctor gave me a
prescription just in case
I wanted to see “a little
bit better.” I ordered
reading glasses instead
and received them just
in time for my 52nd birthday.
But I sent the wrong
prescription, so instead
of reading glasses I got
glasses glasses. I was all
set to send them back.
But then I put them on.
Suddenly, I could read things
far away. I could see leaves
and twigs and flowers in
serious detail. I watched a
show with my son
and the zombies just leapt
out at me. This morning,
scooping dog crap out of the
yard, I felt empowered. No
poop was safe in that grass.
I drove last night and
could actually see the signs,
which, I found, you know,
helpful. So I’m keeping these things.
I’m wearing ’em. I’m constantly
thinking and saying, hey,
look at that, look at this,
did you see that? I mean,
for now at least, I can’t
read a book for shit, but
I can see the sky, and until
my readers arrive, that will
have to do.

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#230: A Poem of Gratitude

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Happy Thanksgiving, America.

Here’s a skinny but long
list of things
for which I am grateful:
It’s not January.
I could do without
the heavy rain making
a mud bath of the lawn,
but at least, the leaves are
finally out of the yard.
My son is healthy and,
as far as I can tell, happy.
It bears repeating:
It’s not January.
My wife is cancer free.
Our moms and my brother
and sister in-law
will be with us tonight,
and the rest of my siblings
will be with us in spirit,
celebrating in their own homes
with their large families.
Poetry exists, by the way,
and music, and the
gratitude I feel for both
is immeasurable.
I am gainfully employed,
well-housed, well-read and fed.
I want for nothing
and I know these are
privileges that I did little
to earn or deserve
except for some hard
work here and there,
most of which I enjoyed
so that it hardly counts.
My suffering, all of it,
totally explicable,
you know, in that I’ve
never been a victim
of violence, of oppression,
of extreme prejudice,
disaster or of some
inhospitable accident
or disease.
My little suffering:
only the usual loss
that comes with living
and from time to time
being stupid or selfish
and failing. I’m grateful
for all of that, about what
I learned, how I changed,
and how comparatively
easy it was to recover.
When I think of those
who have less and have
suffered more than I
can imagine, for
them, again, I say:
It’s not January.
I am grateful and
hopeful that there
may still be time
to turn this ship around,
if not before 2017,
soon, soon, soon.

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#229: Sore Loser Angry White Guy

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I am
a sore loser
angry white guy.
I’m sore, yeah,
not because my candidate
lost, but because THIS guy
won. And I’m angry, not
because the guy that won
was not my candidate,
but because THIS particular guy
is an inarticulate, stupid,
immoral, ignorant, sexist,
racist, homophobic, bullying
man-baby.
And never before
in my adult lifetime,
in all the other elections in which
my candidate didn’t win,
could the winning guy
be accurately described this way,
as an inarticulate, stupid,
immoral, ignorant, sexist,
racist, homophobic, bullying
man-baby. Not even George W.
fits the entirety of this description,
before now, likely the worst president
our nation has ever seen.
Yeah, I’m sore and I’m angry
because this guys scares the shit
out of me and I can’t believe we live
under a system in which a guy like this
is a possible president, let alone
the Elect, let alone the real deal
come January 2017, despite the fact
that his opponent won the popular vote
by about 2 million citizens. Apparently,
President of the United States of America
is a job you can do with zero qualification,
because he has zero qualification, unless
being an inarticulate, stupid,
immoral, ignorant, sexist,
racist, homophobic, bullying
man-baby is now the job description
of the leader of the free world.
This is how democracy “works”?
I fear that this is how democracy
eats itself. No, he’s not my president.
Even after he’s officially inaugurated,
anyone of good conscience must be able
to say, no, he’s not my president, again, not
because our candidate lost, but because this guy is,
as I have said, an inarticulate, stupid,
immoral, ignorant, sexist,
racist, homophobic, bullying
man-baby. Sure, call me a sore loser
angry white guy. I’ll own that one
for now, until I can figure out how
to channel this pain and anger into
something that might mitigate or
even possibly help reverse what I can’t help
but feel is my country’s impending doom.

 

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#228: On the Day After the Election

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Having wept myself to sleep the night before,
I got up and went to work in the school house
where we met in small teams in the library
to plan or do curriculum work or talk about
assessments, where instead I chose to color
with crayons at the table our new librarian
set up for art. It was the only thing I could do.
I colored inside the lines with several different
shades of blue and some pink here and there
while I tried to keep myself together.
Talking to anyone, to any friendly face,
I had to work hard not to break down.

I was thankful when students arrived inside
my room. They gave me a focus, a place to
channel my energies, an opportunity to make
some kind of difference. My 9th graders,
unusually subdued and cooperative, dove with
some enthusiasm into a Sherman Alexie novel,
a novel about race, culture, and class divide,
but a novel, too, about hope. Arnold Spirit Jr.
realizes it feels good to help others, and I could
feel that thought resonating inside the room.
Later, my seniors came in for a study of
A Room of One’s Own, and rather than talk and
have to face the reality of this particular irony
head on, I asked my students to make art,
to talk about what was going on in Virginia
Woolf’s head by drawing it on the page.
Students must have paused for a long time
at the passage about the cat without a tail,
the cat pausing, “as if it too questioned the
universe,” as Woolf realizes that, suddenly,

“Everything was
different”
and
“Nothing was changed”
and yet, “the change was there”
not in substance but in sound.
What did men hum before the election?
What did women hum before the election?
And now what, after?
We carry on. We cling to hope.
We agitate and advocate for what we know is good.
We color, and we do what I found today
to be most healthful, finding comfort in
kindness from others and the kind attention
I could give, a hug I received from my son,
and solace in the words on the page.

 

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#227: What We Did Today

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Today we were supposed to
administer the PSAT to all
sophomores and some juniors,
but something went terribly
wrong with the test booklets
and the college board
rescinded the exam.
Suddenly, we had a half school day to kill.
Our students, most of whom were
expecting a day off,
were “invited” by our administrators
to attend school, moving through
an 8 period day in 23-minute sessions.
It’s possible that 20% of our students
attended classes today.
This is what we achieved:

In second period the eight students
who arrived held a spontaneous dance party
at nine o’clock in the morning. During
third period we played beach ball hot potato.
The three students who came to fourth period
talked about Mexican food, bagels, and Canadians.
No one showed up for my sixth period and
during seventh period the ten students who came
played with their phones incessantly. In eighth
period three kids sang songs about Pokemon,
one girl read a book, and one boy worked
on getting a late assignment completed
and there was a conversation about Dungeons
and Dragons but one student accidentally
called it Dungeons and Dungeons.

I wrote this poem, composed an assignment
sheet for a new unit, sent email messages to
a couple of parents, harassed a few kids about
late work and finally learned about a different
test, a reading test, that I had neglected to
give to my freshmen this fall and all the
wonderfully useful things the results might
have told me about the reading abilities of my
9th graders and I’m thinking to myself, holy crap,
on a day on which nearly nothing happened, I still need a nap.

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Notes Toward a Musical Autobiography: Volume XII, Letter G

Forgive me, music blogosphere, for I have sinned. It’s been three months since my last music blog, the continuing saga and silly self-challenge of listening to and writing about every single artist represented in my languishing cd collection. I got stuck in the F’s. There were a lot of them, first of all, two blog entries worth, and some of these F artists were my favorites. I got especially stuck on The Flaming Lips, brought those records into the car and listened to them over and over. Those guys even got their own blog entry, currently unpublished and unfinished; I hope to post it soon. So finally, several days ago, I arrived at the G spot in the collection and picked up with Peter Gabriel during a spontaneous father and son basement dance party. We do this, he and I, from time to time, have a dance party for two in the basement. There’s actually some dancing, but mostly he sits, listens to daddy’s music while playing video games on his tablet while I sit with him and listen and sip something. If we feel moved to get up and dance together, that’s what we do.  This week has been a good dancing week. Here’s what we’ve spun, not all of it together, over several evenings, actually, truth be told, over several weeks in this month of August, 2016:

Peter Gabriel, “So,” “Us,” and “Up.” Peter Gabriel left the Genesis band and released a number of brilliant solo records: “Peter Gabriel,” “Peter Gabriel,” “Peter Gabriel,” and “Peter Gabriel.” Of these four, my favorite, of course, was “Peter Gabriel,” the “Shock the Monkey” record, the album sometimes referred to as “Security,” but which nevertheless only says “Peter Gabriel” on the cover.  Later in his career, his album titles got significantly more sophisticated by two letters. I find this hilarious because his titles (or lack thereof) belie the sophistication and genius of these albums. Here’s an artist for which I could have been happy to spin almost every record. I started with “So,” 1986, because that was the year, 30 years ago, I got married, and subsequently experienced my first foray into adulthood and self-sufficiency, and because “Sledgehammer” became an anthem to mark out a year almost unlike any other song before it. Both Kate Bush and Laurie Anderson, two other heroes from this era, make appearances, and, generally speaking, there’s not a bad song on the album and the drumming is fantastic. I must have listened to this record a billion times. Everything is familiar and comfortable and still moving. “Us,” however, a different story. It was as if I was hearing it almost for the first time. The album’s hit, “Digging in the Dirt” and the sledgehammery “Steam,” I remembered, but everything else seemed brand new.  I tried to figure this out. Gabriel has not been known to crank out albums. “So” hit me in 1986 and I think I almost immediately bought every record before that one, but by the time “Us” hit the streets nearly 6 years later I had moved away from this kind of grandiose, lush, sophisticated and smart pop music into the depths of grunge.  At this time of interest in mostly aggressive rock music, I perhaps lost some of the tastebuds I once had for more nuanced songwriting. But listening to “Us” now, I feel I have rediscovered a beautiful lost gem and I am thankful to have recovered those tastebuds. “Up,” his most recent record of new original material is weird and wonderful and that first tune, appropriately called “Darkness,” is perhaps the most frightening and beautiful song I’ve ever heard.

Diamanda Galas, “The Singer.” Talk about frightening and beautiful. I don’t have a lot to say about Diamanda’s record because I did not listen to it a lot. I did not listen to it a lot because, for the most part, her records are difficult to listen to. Difficult listening. Classically trained on the piano and with a vocal range that is truly unearthly, coupled with her gothic style of dress and make up, Galas plays on this album what could only be described as spirituals from Hell. She covers tunes like “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord,” “Balm in Gilead,” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” in a way that makes them truly terrifying and disturbing. My one significant memory of this record is that, after a nighttime gig on the Oregon Coast and a decision to drive back home to Portland late at night, I played this record all the way home as loud as I could stand it because I knew it would keep me awake, afraid, and alive.

Galactic Cowboys, Self-Titled. Grungy, grungy, grunge, grunge, grunge, except for the prog leanings, except for the lovely harmonies in the background vocals, and, generally speaking, a thing called melody, a thing jettisoned by many of the grunge bands of the era. In places, too much like Faith No More, in other places, too much like Bon Jovi. I saw these guys live once open for one of my grunge heroes, I forget now which, and I was impressed enough to snag their album. I’m sure I listened to it a bunch then. Listening now, it’s pleasantly familiar, but I haven’t spun this one in eons. Cheers. Did they ever make another record? I don’t know.

Gang of Four, “History of the 20th Century.” “Cheeseburger,” I think, is the one of the best post-punk new wave songs of the early eighties. It’s aggressive, funny, odd, rhythmically explosive, a brilliant commentary by an English pop band of American sterility, commercialism and cheapness. These guys were such an odd group–fine musicians, the guitar player clearly exceptional, but deciding, especially on earlier records, to eschew melody and rhythm in favor of angular, choppy, discordant, sometimes improvisatory riffing. By the time these guys get to the “Cheeseburger” album, the one called “Solid Gold,” they were still aggressive and weird and political but easy on the palate, groovy, danceable, and significantly more accomplished. Somehow, after the single “I Love A Man In A Uniform,” they had become pretty safe, more like other eighties new wave commercial pop bands, and kind of boring. This greatest hits compilation takes us up to that move. Recently, though, the band has reemerged and sound truly amazing and astonishingly contemporary. I only had one Gang of Four record as a kid and “Cheeseburger” was, to me, the best thing on the record–the rest not quite compelling enough to make me hard core. This disc I bought some years ago to replace my lost vinyl and to educate myself about the rest of the early catalogue.  I am now once again schooled by “The History of the 20th Century.”

Marvin Gaye, “What’s Going On?” I did not come to this album until recently. I can’t remember what year exactly, within the last decade certainly, so, even though the tunes “What’s Going On?” and “Mercy Mercy” were firmly planted in my childhood radio brain, the experience of this record from start to finish is new. And it’s flipping amazing. It’s a chill festival, a love-fest of the highest degree, the ultimate expression of tastefulness and groovy musicianship and soulful uplift. Even as I find the more overtly religious overtones a bit off-putting, all is forgiven through the sheer meditative, trance-like, celebratory and loving vibe of the music and the lyrics and the singing.

Geggy Tah, “Sacred Cow.” My favorite record of 1996 and possibly one of my favorite albums from the decade. Wacky. Progressive. Inventive. Clever. Surprising. Melodic. Funny. Decidedly un-grunge. These are words that describe all the things that most often turn me on to a band these days and always. They’re all descriptors of Geggy Tah. The keyboardist of this band would go on to form the pop duo The Bird and the Bee with Inara George. I don’t know what happened to the other two guys. Geggy Tah only made three albums, this one and the last one five years later were both exceptional pop rock records worth repeated listenings. Close your eyes in the title track and tell me you don’t  see Kermit the Frog fronting an amazing and crazy pop band. Here’s a lyric that sticks from the title track, question and answer: “What side of the tracks are you on? Both sides–because the world is round.” A dear friend, no longer in my life, turned me on to this band. A bittersweet remembrance. Talk about carpool karaoke: here’s the video for the big hit.

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Bob Geldof, “Deep in the Heart of Nowhere.” As sad as I was to learn that The Boomtown Rats had broken up, I was a truly happy rock and roll camper when Geldof’s first solo record came out.  I’ve been super loyal to Bob over the years, have every single one of his solo records, and it’s been a mixed bag. He’s unpredictable. That can be a good thing, in fact, I’d argue that it’s almost always a good thing, but you have to be willing to go with the flow, to learn along with your favorite musicians as they experiment and try not the make the same record over and over. I loved this first solo record, and listening back to it now, I understand why. It was the most Boomtown Rat-like of any record Bob ever made. It’s thunderous and rocking, it’s hooky, it’s mostly sober and serious, but not without elements of fun.  I mean, compare “the whole world dies, so we die slowly” to “love you like a rocket on fire” and you get the picture. It was 1986, so along with Peter Gabriel’s “So,” this record was the soundtrack to my first year of marriage, my first year of being able to drink legally. I appreciate the lyric to “When I Was Young” now a thousand fold more than I did then, but still it was one of my favorite tunes on the record. It’s so bombastic and loud and anthemic.  Damn, the fun. guys have nothing on Bob Geldof, my hero; he continues to be an inspiration to me, this guy. He’s been dealt so many shitty cards in his life, but has done more than maybe any rock star on the planet to make the world a better place. He’s been knighted. I think he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. If not, he should have been.

Lisa Germano, “Lullaby for Liquid Pig.” Haunting, quiet, and weird, the hushed, shy, whispering voice front and center, hardly any drums, mostly synths, strings, guitars and bells and whistles, I got turned on to Lisa Germano through Neil Finn, I think, but a little research yields the fact that she’s been a session musician and/or collaborator with a bunch of famous people. I think this album, as cool as it is, was too much of a downer for me in 2003, so I didn’t listen to it much. Hearing it now, I’m glad I have it. It’s lovely and scary and a good companion for contemplation and solitude. A keeper, for sure. “Someday, someone is gonna need you, too.” What a great line.

Kevin Gilbert, “Thud.” Here’s a gem from 1995 that had nothing to do with the grunge movement. A masterpiece of pop craftsmanship married to a perfect mix of weirdness, Kevin Gilbert’s “Thud” is a beautiful, funny, smart, quirky, emotionally moving, expertly performed collection of songs. This guy co-wrote with Sheryl Crow on her groundbreaking “Tuesday Night Music Club” album, but this solo record shows a songwriter doing his own thing entirely–it was really a surprise to me about how many mainstream songwriters he worked with. He’s anything but a mainstream songwriter on this album. I guess, the true pros, guys and gals who make a living doing this music thing, have to be chameleon-like in their moves from genre to genre, from one stylistic extreme to another. At any rate, this is a beautiful record introduced to me by a beautiful friend of mine from this most positive and creatively inspired time in my life when everything was swimming along and profoundly interesting and exciting. Tragedy not too far away from any of us at any time, just as I got super excited about this guy, the year after the release of this brilliant record, his FIRST solo record, he died accidentally from autoerotic asphyxiation. Damn. On a side note, but not terribly tangential from the G spot, Bob Geldof insists that Michael Hutchinson of INXS did not commit suicide. Another brilliant and talented artist who went out the same strange way.  Happy I was not blessed with this particular kink.

Grandaddy, “The Sophtware Slump.” The first time I heard Grandaddy, I bought a record, the next record after this one, I believe, called “Sumday,” and I bought it as a result of spending some time at a listening station in a record store, listening to the first 30 or 60 seconds of each tune and deciding almost immediately that it was irresistible and that I must have it. It was a friend’s recommendation that initially got me to listen, but it was this record, the band’s second, most excellently titled album, whose praises he was singing. Outside of The Flaming Lips, this was some of the strangest and most intoxicating pop music at the top of the 21st century I had yet discovered. Part of the charm was, as it was with The Lips, the science-fiction bent absurdity of the lyrics and the strange production, but also, the disarming vocal style of the lead singer, Jason Lytle’s gentle coo, almost childlike, the inescapable hook of the melodies, the somewhat subtle because imbedded in humor environmental advocacy (see “Broken Household Appliance National Forest”), and the spacy, dreamlike enchantment of some of the band’s more psychedelic movements. I understand these guys have reunited to make a new record. I’m all in.

David Gray, “White Ladder.” I don’t know what I was thinking. I don’t know who turned me on to this guy. All I know is that this 1998 album found its way into my mitts in 2001 while my band Here Comes Everybody was on a fall tour down to Los Angeles and back to promote our newest cd, “Astronauts.” I don’t dislike this music. There’s something about it, emotionally evocative, lyrically lively, Dylanesque in its Englishness, folksy and yet suffused with modern electronic drum machine and synthesizer textures, that is beyond reproach. And yet, it’s also pedestrian. Straight forward. Commercial. I guess it fits that bill that Coldplay fulfilled: it’s sincere, groovy, sensitive, underplayed, straight forward to the extent that it seems radical somehow. Anyway. I liked it. I still like it, hearing it now for the first time in perhaps a decade. It’s a very nice record.

The Grays, “Ro Sham Bo.” Holy crap. One of the best power pop records ever. That’s a bold statement, I know. Maybe of the decade, at least. Here’s a super group formed, primarily, between Jon Brion and Jason Falkner, both of whom have incredible rock resumes as writers and producers. They only made one record, this masterpiece, released in 1994. My pet name for them would be The Heavy Beatles, and that name would go a long way to describing their music. Perfect melodies sung with rock and roll choirboy precision, complex arrangements, smart lyrics, great grooves, and crunchy, sometimes acoustic but always tuneful guitar playing. Not a single clunker on this record. And this music is timeless. It doesn’t date itself at all. Close your eyes, imagine inferior sound quality, and they’re a great 70’s band. Or imagine them sharing a stage with XTC in the 80’s. For me, released in the same year as Kevin Gilbert’s “Thud,” those two records were the antidote to grunge–with Seatle’s The Posies, which, I’m sorry to say, I won’t be getting to any time soon–even though they’ve been in regular rotation all through the F’s and the G’s. Back to this: “Ro Sham Bo”–an all-time favorite, desert island disc.

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Phew. This has been a long-ass entry.  I made a commitment to myself to get through the letter G in a single blog entry, and so, here it is. It’s been a good letter, the letter G. Almost everything I spun I found immensely enjoyable. And last but not least, another 90’s era super group in the world of INDY: Guided By Voices, “Do the Collapse” and “Isolation Drills.” I had been reading about the genius of this group and its lead singing mastermind Robert Pollard for years before I finally took the plunge and bought an album. I guess it was that I kept reading about their lo-fi aesthetics and that kept me away. I’ve never been a fan of shitty sounding records, no matter how great the songs were. There were exceptions, of course, like rock records that were made in the genre’s infancy, when studio gear was limited and super expensive, before the time of the marvel of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album, records that couldn’t help sounding shitty. They are forgiven. As cheap as it has become for almost any joe to make a “good sounding recording” at home, it seemed almost stupid to me to purposefully create something that sounded bad. “Do the Collapse” was my first Guided by Voices records. Produced by Ric Ocasek from The Cars, it boasted crafty and short pop masterpieces and high fidelity stereo sound. Man, does it deliver. It’s a brilliant record. So brilliant I recently bought a vinyl version of it, just because. I don’t know what influence Ric Ocasek had on this music; it certainly doesn’t sound like a Car’s record. Or does it? Holy crap, it kind of does. It’s wackier, for sure, the lyrics more obscure and strange, the arrangements a little bit nuttier, but I can almost hear Benjamin Orr’s voice in Robert Pollard’s voice. Almost. Yes, I can. “Isolation Drills,” in many ways, feels like “Do The Collapse” part two; not that there’s anything wrong with that. Sonically, they’re similar. Great power pop rock songs in small little packages. Odd little turns and quirky, surrealistic lyrics. These two records are sort of inverse bookends, “Collapse” closed the 20th century and “Drills” opened up the 21st.  For me, both personally and historically, a happy ending followed by a tragic beginning. Perhaps that’s why I don’t know and love this second record as well as the first.

Here’s an interesting fact: Robert Pollard has 2,000 + songs registered to him through BMI. It appears that the dude simply breathes out this stuff. And while some of his songs are slight, clocking in sometimes under a minute, I can’t tell you that I’ve ever heard a bad one. I cannot say as much for myself, having written hundreds of songs since 2004 alone, a handful of which were truly successful. Pollard is an inspiration and a “guiding voice,” and with that stupid little pun, I bring the G section of the alphabet, the G spot, to a close!

Cheers !

 

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