Frivolity and its Necessities
Some Things I've Been Meaning to Talk About

This is one of two columns I did this week. The other, a look a posthumous albums by Warren Zevon and Elliott Smith, is in the archive, if you’re interested. It didn’t turn out quite as well as I’d hoped, but it’s there.

I’m using this one, though, for all the other random bits and pieces I’ve wanted to discuss over the past few installments, but haven’t. The week’s theme of finality and loss is touched on here and there, but mostly this is just scattered thoughts, arranged in no particular order. And as usual for columns of this sort, I thought I’d start with a brief look ahead at some of the new music scheduled to hit stores in the coming months.

Next week’s a good one, with the new Rufus Wainwright, the (reportedly horrible) new Wilco, and the (apparently terrific) new Megadeth. After that, you have to wait until June 5 for anything truly significant. We’ll get Paul McCartney, Chris Cornell and Dream Theater on that date, and two weeks later, we’ll see the White Stripes, the Polyphonic Spree and the Chemical Brothers.

Batten down the hatches for June 26, because it’s a flood of new releases, including Ryan Adams, the Beastie Boys, the Click Five (with their new singer), Steve Vai (with an orchestra), and a massive live box set from Pearl Jam. Then in July, we have new ones from Spoon, They Might Be Giants, Interpol, Suzanne Vega, and Velvet Revolver.

Also, July is reunion month, and it’ll bring us the first new Crowded House album since 1993, and the first new Smashing Pumpkins disc since 2000. We know who’s in the House – it’s mastermind and resident genius Neil Finn, Nick Seymour, Mark Hart and new drummer Matt Sherrod. As for the Pumpkins, we know it’s Billy Corgan and Jimmy Chamberlain, and… um…

The rest of the summer is clouded in mystery right now, but given how fantabulous this year has been, expect that it won’t remain so for long. The farthest out I can see right now is August 21, which should bring us new discs by the New Pornographers and Minus the Bear. But I should have updates soon enough.

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Anyone watching Lost? Let me say for the record that if the show goes off the rails in the coming seasons, I will point to this week’s episode, specifically the revelation of Jacob, as the moment when it all went wrong. I won’t spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but wow… I don’t know what to make of it.

Regardless, the real news on the Lost front hit on Monday, when ABC announced that it would allow producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse to set an end date for the show. Lost will run three more 16-episode seasons, for a grand total of 48 more episodes after this season, and will wrap up in 2010. This is an extraordinary move for a major network, and the first time I can think of that any of the big four have taken this step. Lost will end the way the producers want it to, without slowly crumbling over several extraneous seasons that only exist to bring in the advertising bucks.

I credit HBO with making it safe for networks to do this. Thanks to shows like The Sopranos and Six Feet Under, viewers are used to smaller, uninterrupted seasons, complex narrative storytelling, and a novelistic structure with an end point. Six Feet Under ended when Alan Ball wanted it to. The Sopranos will shortly wrap up its run with creator David Chase firmly at the wheel.

I remember when DC Comics took a similar plunge. Of course, comics cost less and bring in considerably less revenue than TV shows do, but I recall what a huge deal it was in the early ‘90s when Neil Gaiman announced the end of Sandman. No new writer would take over. When the original creator’s story was over, he would put his pen down and pack up shop, regardless of the fact that DC Comics owned (and still owns) Sandman completely.

I think this is an immensely positive development for lovers of serial narrative, like me. Here’s what happened in the comic book realm: DC took a lesson from smaller publishers and began accepting creator-owned properties with designated end points. Their Vertigo line is famous for it now. Y: The Last Man, one of the finest books currently being published, is set to end its run at 60 issues. 100 Bullets will run 100 issues.

I predict that this will start happening with television shows as well. We’ve already seen it with J. Michael Straczynski’s Babylon 5, pitched as a five-season novel. I think the major networks will start to catch on to this idea, taking pitches from producers who want their shows to run four or five seasons, and then end on a high note, with the conclusion of the story. This is a serious commitment for the network and the producer, of course, and the success or failure of the first couple of these novelistic shows could determine the fate of the paradigm.

And of course, some (if not most) shows will still be based on renewable premises, and will bounce from good idea to bad until the money runs out, just like DC still publishes Superman and Green Lantern and a hundred other ongoing books. But from a creative standpoint, there’s nothing like having a beginning, a middle, and an end to your story, and being able to present it the way you created it. And if Lost does well in its final three seasons, I think we’ll see much more of these finite long-form televisual novels in the future.

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Speaking of end points, the great comic book Strangers in Paradise ends its run this month, and I wanted to give creator Terry Moore a special shout-out to celebrate. He’s finishing the series on his own terms, with his own pen strokes, after 14 years.

Strangers in Paradise is the story of three people in constant orbit around each other, and the satellites they bring with them. It is a violent series, full of intrigue and pain and death, but it is also incredibly touching, a book that gets those small, human moments exactly right. SIP is credited with expanding the ranks of female comic book readers, and it’s easy to see why, with its two strong female leads, but honestly, I believe it brought people of both genders to comics because it’s just a damn good book.

Terry Moore is also reportedly one of the nicest guys you’d ever want to meet. I got the chance to talk with him a few times during my days as a comics writer, and I found him charming and modest about his prodigious talent.

Anyway, Strangers in Paradise #90 comes out later this month – it’s actually the 106th issue of the book, counting the two prior volumes. And that’ll be it. I’ve been reading SIP since college, and I’m proud to say I’ve bought every single issue from the same comic book store: Casablanca Comics in Portland, Maine. Like Cerebus wrapping up three years ago, the end of SIP means another remnant of my younger life is gone for good. But it was a great run, a great book, and here’s hoping for a great final issue.

Thanks, Terry.

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You may scoff at this, but I don’t honestly consider myself a collector of music.

I’m an obsessive fan of music, it’s true, and I do buy somewhere in the neighborhood of three to five CDs a week, on average. But you won’t see me scouring vinyl bins, looking for out-of-print Australian singles from my favorite bands. You won’t see me seeking out original pressings of anything – in fact, I’ve been known to wait for the remaster more often than not. I own exactly one copy of just about everything I have, and have no use for multiple printings with different sleeve art or different bar code numbers. (Seriously. People pay for an album they already have because the numbers on the bar code are different!)

Still, I do have several collections in progress, and I’m always thrilled when I finish one off to my satisfaction. I did so just last week with one I’ve been tracking down for years, and I’m over the moon about finally having everything I’d hoped to own by this group.

The band is the Prayer Chain, a little-known quartet from California that, in the space of five short years, went through one of the most dramatic artistic evolutions I’ve encountered, and in the process kicked against the very idea of mainstream-label Christian music and what it can be. The members of the Prayer Chain (Tim Taber, Andy Prickett, Eric Campuzano and Wayne Everett) have gone on to either start or contribute to some incredible bands, but none have had the impact on me that the Prayer Chain did.

They started off as a U2-inspired alt-rock band with up-front spiritual lyrics. Their first record, The Neverland Sessions, was released independently in 1991. (And it was the one I needed to finish the collection off – I found a copy online. Hooray for the Internet!) Shortly thereafter, they were signed to Reunion Records, home of Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith, among other lightweight gospel-poppers. It’s no understatement to say that they didn’t quite fit on Reunion, and would actually be accurate to call them the heaviest and most artistically driven band on the roster.

The Whirlpool EP was something of a restatement of Neverland, but the band’s second full-length, Shawl, blew the doors off. Produced by Steve Hindalong, drummer of the Choir, Shawl is a tough, massive slab of melodic rock with deep themes – “Fifty-Eight” is about the distance between fathers and sons, and “Never Enough” is one of the most chilling songs about needing grace that I’ve ever heard. Still, Shawl was a rock record, and given that as a starting point, no one could have predicted where they went next.

1995’s Mercury still stands as one of my very favorite records. I don’t own very many like it, honestly. The band teamed up with Hindalong again, but the result this time is a strange, minor miracle of an album that winds around Cure-like guitars, space-age drones, armies of percussion, and slowly unfolding flowers of melody. It’s beautiful and ugly and scary, and it ends with “Sun Stoned,” the greatest end-of-the-world song I know of.

Apparently, the record label messed with Mercury, demanding changes and new songs and an overall less frightening vibe, and I would kill to hear the original version of that album before the suits got their hands on it. The remaining tracks that would have been on Mercury were all released later, on the rarities collection Antarctica and the career-spanning So Close, Yet So Far, but we still don’t know the running order, or how they would have sounded mixed and mastered as a record.

But the evolution and dissolution of the band is fun to trace. Mercury’s engineer, Chris Colbert, once said that you could hear the band break up on that album, and it’s true – they lasted only a few more months before going their separate ways. Still, I’m eternally grateful that I got to hear Mercury, and that now, I have all the stops on the journey that led there.

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Next week, my heart will be in it, I swear. New ones from Rufus Wainwright and Wilco, and maybe another installment of Dear Dave Mustaine.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Write Your Last Paragraph
Posthumous Collections from Warren Zevon and Elliott Smith

Final albums are difficult to review. Posthumous albums are impossible.

The thing is, artists rarely know when they’re making their last statements. Time and tragedy can’t be predicted. Jeff Buckley had started work on his second album when he drowned, leaving only Grace as his legacy. George Harrison likely didn’t know while making Brainwashed that he was working on his swan song. The sense of finality is just not as prevalent in the work.

But posthumous albums, especially those cobbled together by family members and friends, are a different story. They are often, to me, like sifting through a dead man’s garbage, looking for change. I can’t help thinking while listening to these collections that the only reason I’m hearing these songs at all is that the author isn’t alive to stop me. It’s hard to know what someone like Frank Zappa would have wanted for his thousands of unreleased recordings. Would he have foisted rehearsal tapes like Joe’s Domage onto the public? Would John Lennon have okayed the surviving Beatles using his demos to construct “Real Love” and “Free as a Bird”? Who knows?

It’s hard to take these things as they are, and not surround them with emotion and suspicion. They are reminders of what we’ve lost, certainly, but they are also often collections of recordings deemed unfit for public consumption when the artist in question was alive. I can’t stop myself from thinking, should I be listening to this? Should I have this? Am I going against a dead man’s wishes by hearing this?

These are questions that can never be answered. To his credit, though, Jordan Zevon raises them in his eloquent liner notes to Preludes, the just-released collection of demos and unreleased recordings by his dad, Warren. He wonders whether he will receive a hug or an ass-kicking for this album when he sees his father in the afterlife, and concludes that he’ll probably get both. But at least he considered the question, and that makes me feel infinitely better about listening to this great collection.

Few artists faced death with as much grace and acceptance as Warren Zevon. Truth be told, mortality was always a central theme of Zevon’s work, and he treated it with a hard-edged cynicism obviously earned through years of tempting fate. When it finally caught up with him – Zevon was diagnosed with inoperable, asbestos-related lung cancer in 2002 – he didn’t collapse in a heap, but rather set about making one final record, one last chance at setting things in order.

That record was called The Wind, and it hit stores in August of 2003. Just over one week later, Zevon died, but not before he saw the birth of his twin grandsons, and got to experience having a top 20 album for the first time since 1980. It was a terrific, fitting finish to a career that had flown largely under the radar, and I’d have been perfectly happy to have The Wind as the last album in my Zevon stack.

That’s not to begrudge Preludes at all, though, because as posthumous collections go, this one’s fantastic. It was lovingly assembled by Jordan Zevon, and contains 10 early recordings of songs that later appeared on his albums, and six unreleased tunes, all of which are worth having.

More than half of the demos here are from his underrated self-titled album from 1976, and they include a rip-snorting take on “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” and a gorgeous closing piano run-through of “Desperadoes Under the Eaves.” The Zevon trademark of simple yet memorable melodies coupled with lyrics dosed in darkness is in place even this early on, a far cry from “Tule’s Blues,” a semi-sweet version of a ditty from Zevon’s forgotten 1969 debut, Wanted Dead or Alive.

Other highlights include a reggae-inflected, organ-fueled version of “Werewolves of London,” which manages the neat trick of getting me to listen to “Werewolves of London” again. I think it’s nearly criminal that Zevon is best known for this song, when his catalog is deeper and warmer than this knockoff novelty tune would suggest. Just listen to “Hasten Down the Wind,” here performed with little more than Zevon’s voice and piano, or the trio recording of “Accidentally Like a Martyr,” one of the darkest love songs ever written.

But it’s the unreleased songs that really shine. Preludes opens with “Empty Hearted Town,” a piano-based lament that ranks among Zevon’s best work. I’m not sure when this was recorded, or why it never grew into a fully produced album track, but it’s the kind of song that puts lie to the notion that Zevon’s work never had a heart. His catalog is full of songs like this, sad little stories finely drawn, and there are a couple more on Preludes, too, most notably “Stop Rainin’ Lord” and “The Rosarita Beach Café.”

Most revealing is “Studebaker,” a song that Jordan performed on the tribute album Enjoy Every Sandwich. Here is Warren Zevon’s only released run-through, and it’s obvious it’s an aborted take, a sketch intended to get an idea down on tape before it evaporates. Zevon plunks the song out, missing beats and obviously working through chord changes, and he abandons it halfway through. He would never finish this song, and the question it raises is this: was he wrong to toss it aside? Should we, as his audience, be granted glimpses at works in progress like this without his permission, and should we be given the choice to, in effect, tell Zevon he made a mistake? Is that our place as the listener?

Philosophical questions aside, Preludes is a fascinating glimpse at the work of an undervalued songwriter. It’s hard to be too sad about it – I miss Zevon and his music, but his work has such a hard, bitter edge to it that it effectively shuts you down before you can let it into your heart. The most touching and emotional thing here is on the second disc, basically an extended interview mixed with songs from Life’ll Kill Ya, including a solo acoustic performance of “Don’t Let Us Get Sick.” That song was written four years before Zevon knew he had cancer, and it’s a cutting and difficult listen now. It’s also lovely.

Should I care about whether Warren Zevon would have wanted me to hear these recordings? I don’t know. I jumped at the chance to hear them, one way or the other, just like I rushed out to buy New Moon, the new two-CD collection of unreleased songs by Elliott Smith. I suppose I consider the morality of these actions too late – whether Zevon and Smith would have given their permission or not, I’ve heard these records now, so all I can do is talk about how they’ve made me feel.

As you may expect, the Elliott Smith has hit me a lot harder. I consider him one of the finest songwriters of my generation, but that’s too simple a description. He was simply Elliott Smith – brilliant, troubled, with an uncanny gift for melody and a knack for expressing his own deepest despair, and making you feel it too. Smith killed himself in 2003, proving once and for all that all of that despair was real, but he left five full-length albums and one half-completed stunner in his wake.

That album, From a Basement on the Hill, was later finished by friends and released in 2004. I love it, but I also understand that it’s probably nothing like the album Smith would have released had he been around to oversee it. The same can be said of New Moon, assembled by his family and former record label, except there’s a difference: there’s nothing half-completed about any of these songs. Most of them are outtakes from the sessions that produced his third album, Either/Or, but any of them could have stood proudly on his early records.

Honestly, I can’t tell you how it feels to experience Elliott Smith songs I’ve never heard before – it’s just too much. My throat all but closed up at the opening strains of acoustic guitar on “Angel in the Snow” – has anyone before or since played guitar quite like Smith? And my God, what a song “Angel” is. Smith, in his brief life, never ran out of haunting, moving melodies, and New Moon’s 24 songs don’t break that streak. It’s like getting two extraordinary lost albums from him, and I can’t even express how grateful I am to have them.

While I question whether Warren Zevon would have wanted me to hear Preludes, my only question about New Moon is how Smith could have let these songs go. These are not outtakes, these are fully formed pieces – you could swap out New Moon’s first disc with Elliott Smith in the official discography with no drop in quality. “Go By” is an atmospheric wonder, “Looking Over My Shoulder” is good old acerbic Smith at his best, and “Going Nowhere” is one of his finest songs ever, a ghostly whisper of a thing that chills to the bone. And the early version of “Miss Misery” here doesn’t yet mention the title character by name, and it illustrates just how hard Smith worked on these songs, how much of a craftsman he was.

Everything here is, in one way or another, unspeakably beautiful, but some moments cut deeper than others. When he mentions suicide in “Georgia, Georgia,” the swell of emotions that surrounded me when I heard of Smith’s own untimely death come rushing back. And I have always loved his spare take on Big Star’s “Thirteen,” this set’s only cover – his voice, so thin and fragile, winding around Alex Chilton’s melody and making it Smith’s own.

But I honestly can’t objectively review New Moon. I can’t even subject it to the same criteria as other posthumous releases – I believe with all my heart, listening to this, that Smith was wrong to cast these songs aside, and that with this collection’s release, the world has been made right once more. These are songs to wrap yourself up in and love with everything you have. These are 24 more reminders of just what the world lost on October 21, 2003.

This is simply Elliott Smith, at his heartbreaking best.

And I miss him terribly.

See you in line Tuesday morning.