Oh, The Places We’ll Go
On Barack Obama and Kid, You'll Move Mountains (Among Other Things)

Whose House?

When I initially wrote this column a few days ago, I kicked it off with a snarling diatribe about George W. Bush. We bid goodbye to King Bush II this week, and I originally was going to use this opportunity to point out, in exhaustive detail, just why I consider him the worst president of my lifetime.

But then I saw Barack Obama’s inauguration speech, and that all seems pointless and churlish now.

I spent much of Tuesday talking with local people who trekked to Washington, hoping to join in the national celebration. And I can tell you, many of them were taken aback a little by the speech itself. For them, it was three days of euphoria followed by 20 minutes of sobering, yet hopeful reality. Rather than use his inaugural address as a capstone to his historic election, Obama chose to talk about just how difficult the next four years are going to be, and how he expects each of us to dig in and do our part to remake America.

As one man I talked to put it, he talked about the state of the country, not the mood of the crowd. It was a bold and difficult choice, and I applaud it.

Obama’s right, America’s in a terrible state right now. Our economy’s in shambles, jobs are evaporating, foreign oil suppliers have us by the throat, and we’re arguably less safe now than we were on September 11, 2001. I don’t know why Obama wants this job, but he has it now, and he’s going to need all the help he can get to turn this ship around. And he knows it.

It would have been easy for him to do what I did initially, and point fingers of blame. Much of the mess we’re in is George Bush’s fault, but I think Obama tried to tell the nation that we’re well past that now. This isn’t the time for recriminations, or for keeping people out. It’s a time for extending a hand, for building the future together. I hope the strong yet welcoming way Obama chose his words Tuesday is a sign of things to come.

Here’s to the next four years.

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Broken Home

Well, it’s been an eventful week here. In addition to scrambling around trying to cover the inauguration of a former senator from my adopted home state, I’ve had to deal with a burst water pipe in my basement. Luckily, the explosion and subsequent rush of water was loud enough that it was caught pretty early, but there’s still damage to the ceiling and north wall of the basement, and a lot of it is going to have to come down.

The plumber thought he had a quick fix for the problem. You see, the burst pipe is one that never gets used – it leads to an outside spigot for a hose. So we figured we could just install a cutoff valve into that pipe, close it off, and not worry about it for a while. It was only after the plumber had finished up with the valve and turned the water on to test it that we discovered he’d cut off the wrong pipe. It was an honest mistake, and I still don’t see how the pipe he needed could have been any other than the one he chose, but unfortunately, once he’d started testing it, water cascaded through the burst pipe once again, sopping the insulation and running down the wall.

In the end, I watched helplessly as the plumber cut a hole in the ceiling to find and fix the leak. The drywall was soaked, as was the carpet. You probably know me well enough to know I own a lot of easily damaged stuff, so I was furtively boxing things up and carting them out of the basement. Nothing was destroyed, thankfully, even when water started pouring out of the smoke detector, dangerously close to my DVD shelf.

The crisis is over, but now I’m left with the cleanup. My father is suggesting the two of us could fix this ourselves, an idea I am so far rejecting. (He actually said one of those “famous last words” phrases: “It will be easy.” That’s almost as bad as, “What could possibly go wrong?”) I’ll keep you posted.

All of this reminds me of a story that I’m sure I’ve told everyone I know, but have never related in this column. About five years ago, I lived in Maryland, just outside Baltimore. In two years there, I was totally unable to find work as a writer, so I was stuck taking temporary (and then, permanent) menial labor jobs to make money. I signed up through Manpower, the temp service, and one of the first people they put me in touch with was a guy who owned a drywalling business. I helped him for exactly one day, holding up heavy sheets of drywall while he stapled them in, and I hated every second of it.

About two hours into our task, this guy, apparently noticing that I have no affinity for hands-on work, asked me what I normally do. I told him I was a writer, looking for work at a newspaper. A strange smile crept over his face, and he walked up to me and said this:

“Son, I’m going to teach you how to hang drywall today. And when I’m done, you’ll never have to write for a living again.”

I’ve laughed about that for years, but now, as the journalism industry crashes around my ears and my sopping basement needs a full overhaul, I kind of wish I’d paid more attention.

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So Many Doogie Howser Jokes

While I was away, the BBC cast the eleventh Doctor.

(Yes, it’s my first Doctor Who reference of 2009, but don’t worry, it’ll be a quick one. Although I do have a full-length column on the tenure of Colin Baker brewing, just to warn you. You know what? Hell with that. I’m not even going to warn you. I’m just going to drop it on you when you least expect it.)

Anyway, the new guy is Matt Smith. He’s 26 years old, he’s been in a grand total of 15 hours of television, and he looks kind of like the Frankenstein Monster’s emo grandson. Okay, that’s mean, but he is much less traditionally handsome than David Tennant, who will bid goodbye to the role at the end of 2009. And in the clips I’ve seen of Smith in action, he doesn’t exactly leap off the screen. But apparently Smith’s unique interpretation of the Doctor impressed new producer Steven Moffatt.

As I haven’t seen that interpretation yet, I’ll reserve judgment. But I liked the idea of an older Doctor, and this young’un has me a little concerned. Funny fact – he’s the first Doctor younger than the show itself. (The original series ran for 26 seasons, and the new series for four so far – put ‘em together and you get 30 years.) I do trust Moffatt – he hasn’t let me down yet, and his most recent two-parter, Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead, is his strongest, so with him at the helm, I have high hopes for Season 31. As for Smith, we’ll see…

Part of my concern is that Season 30 was the best since the show returned in 2005. Departing producer/head writer Russell T. Davies penned three superb episodes and one smash-bang two-part season finale, and then got out of the way as his team came up trumps again and again. In particular, Gareth Roberts impressed with his Agatha Christie comedy The Unicorn and the Wasp, and James Moran made a splashy Who debut with The Fires of Pompeii. (Okay, I teared up a bit at the end of that one. Leave me alone.) I also enjoyed this year’s Christmas special, The Next Doctor. If Davies can keep this up through the remaining four specials this year, he’ll go out on a high note.

And then he’ll hand the keys over to the boy genius and his scruffy kid Doctor. Should be interesting, to say the least.

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People I Know

If you don’t have a local record store, you really should get one.

In addition to getting, like, every CD you could ever want all in one place, you also get a music-friendly atmosphere. You get the opportunity to meet fascinating people with different musical tastes, and they will turn you on to things you’ve never heard before.

Case in point: Andrew Lanthrum. I met this soft-spoken, wild-bearded chap while he worked behind the counter at my local record store, and he would indulge me endlessly with conversations and arguments about new (and old) music. Andrew and his brother Nate were in a popular semi-punk band called Troubled Hubble – Andrew plays bass, Nate plays drums – and though I wasn’t a huge fan of that particular outfit, they’re both terrific players.

If you want a sense of just how good they are, check out their new band. First off, they’ve picked one of the five or six best band names I’ve ever heard: Kid, You’ll Move Mountains, referencing my hero and yours, Dr. Seuss. And second, this new group’s sound is wider, more expansive, more gosh-darn epic than anything Hubble did. Their debut album, Loomings, is pretty great, an atmospheric rock record with a genuine sense of drama about it, and some top-notch production.

That last is the most impressive to me, since this disc wasn’t recorded in a studio. Andrew and Radiohead-loving guitarist Corey Wills put it together at home, but you’d never know it – Loomings sounds like the band spent thousands of dollars on it. The drums are crisp, the instruments are all clean and clear, and there’s a real sense of space between them – quite often, the rhythm section is pounding away while Wills and guitarist/singer Jim Hanke are weaving gorgeous yet unrelated lines on top, and pianist/singer Nina Lanthrum is adding glistening accents, and you can hear every note. Nothing is muddy, nothing sounds recorded on the cheap.

You can hear what they’re aiming for in the first moments of “Inside Voice.” It crashes to life with a genuinely anthemic set of chords and a piano melody, before everything goes away except a strummed guitar and Hanke’s voice. Seconds later, that voice intertwines with Nina Lanthrum’s, and when the whole band comes back in, the effect is somehow fuller and more majestic. This is a big sound, but the band is never afraid to take you behind the curtain and show you how it’s constructed. And it’s often jarring when they choose to simply rock, as they do at the beginning of “Volts.”

My favorite here also has my favorite title: “I’m a Song From the Sixties.” It opens with a neat syncopated section, with some elastic bass work, and then evolves quickly into a memorable anthem with some Jonny Greenwood-style guitar and impassioned vocals from Hanke. But it keeps building from there, through an awesome stop-time section, a floor-dropping-away breakdown, and a brief but massive finale. This one’s terrific.

Few songs on Loomings can match up – the band seems more about the sound they make than the songs they write, which is a slight problem for a melody addict like me. “West,” for example, reminds me of Natalie Merchant’s three-chord compositions, and “No Applause” doesn’t really kick in until the riveting finale. But for every songwriting moment that fails to capture me, there’s a sonic one that does the trick. And I dare you not to sing along with the piano-fueled finale of “An Open Letter to Wherever You’re From”: “Midnight, my house, last one out of the city burn it down…”

Yeah, some of these Kids are acquaintances of mine, but I’d like this record just as much if I’d stumbled on it randomly. Loomings is the first new album I bought in 2009, and hopefully it will set the tone for the 12 months to follow. Hear and buy Kid, You’ll Move Mountains here. And for another, more effusive take on Loomings, check out another acquaintance of mine, Derek Wright. His writing and podcasts can be found here.

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Next week, the first flood begins. We’ll talk about Animal Collective, Coconut Records, Bon Iver and Fiction Family, most likely. Or, I might hit you with a Doctor Who column. You’ll never know!

See you in line Tuesday morning.