Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Music Stuff

Recently, talk on the WXPN bulletin boards turned to summers at the shore (or as we in the Philly/South Jersey area say, “down the shore”). So we compiled some top-ten lists of songs about three of the best states to hit the beach: California, Florida, and New Jersey. Out of loyalty, I selected the New Jersey list to reproduce here (I substituted #6 and 8 for two other tunes):

1. 4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy) – Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
2. Jersey Girl – Tom Waits
3. Hackensack – Fountains of Wayne
4. On the Way to Cape May – Al Alberts
5. Wildwood Days – Bobby Rydell
6. Atlantic City – Bruce Springsteen
7. I’m from New Jersey – John Gorka
8. Garden State Stomp – Dave van Ronk
9. Neptune Ciy – Nicole Atkins
10. No Left Turns in Jersey – Eddie from Ohio

List #2: I know the year isn’t even half over yet, but I already have a top 10 favorite albums list, which of course may look significantly different by the end of the year. So far, these are my ten favorites (some of which I've mentioned before):

1. Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend (they do a very catchy Afro-pop kinda thing)
2. Bell X1 - Flock (released a year or two ago in their native Ireland but just available in the States in 2008)
3. R.E.M. - Accelerate (Their best since Monster, at least)
4. Elbow - The Seldom Seen Kid (grossly underappreciated Brit band that is best described as Radiohead meets Coldplay)
5. Old 97's - Blame it on Gravity (after a power-pop detour, they're back to the alt-country stuff that they do best)
6. Frightened Rabbit - The Midnight Organ Fight (edgy, emotive stuff - an indie sleeper)
7. Marah - Angels of Destruction! (kick-butt alt-country/rock band from Brooklyn by way of Philly)
8. Allison Moorer - Mockingbird (fine covers album from Mrs. Steve Earle)
9. Melody Gardot - Worrisome Heart (Philly chanteuse does original, soulful jazz tunes as well as, maybe even better than, Norah Jones)
10. MGMT - Oracular Spectacular (fun neo-psychedelic band - "Time to Pretend" is a pretty catchy little ditty)

Bubbling under:
Ryan Bingham - Mescalito (it's a 2007 release, but XPN featured it in January, and I didn't hear it till this year - excellent alt-country from a 20-something guy with a voice like an old prospector)
She & Him - Volume One (actress Zooey Deshamel teams up with M. Ward for some frothy, entertaining pop with not a little homage to "girl groups" - the results are surprisingly good - are you listening, Scarlett Johannsen?)
Mike Doughty - Golden Delicious (not the near-classic that his previous CD, Haughty Melodic, was, but still pretty friggin' good)
Bob Mould - District Line (ol' Bob is mellowing out and experimenting with different studio techniques, but he's always interesting)
Cat Power – Jukebox (another album of covers with an original or two thrown in - pretty good stuff)

I also just got Kathleen Edwards’ Asking for Flowers, which has been getting excellent reviews, but I haven’t listened to it yet. I’m betting it will eventually crack my top 10, as will the new Death Cab for Cutie and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds albums, if and when I get them (the title track to “Dig, Lazarus, Dig” by Nick Cave is possibly my favorite song of the year so far). If you have a favorite album or two from this year, leave me a comment and maybe I’ll give it a listen.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Praise for the PWC

I attended the 60th Annual Philadelphia Writers Conference this weekend – I’ve gone for four years straight now, and it seems to get better every year. The theme of the three-day conference, which is celebrating its diamond anniversary, is “Diamonds Are a Quill’s Best Friend” (I know, it’s a wincingly bad pun). Despite that, I had a great time – didn’t see quite as many of my closer poet buddies as usual, but a number of friends and acquaintances, including two who ran sessions there.

As usual, there was a wide variety of workshops and seminars, including juvenile fiction, literary and contemporary fiction, flash fiction, memoir, nonfiction, journaling, creativity and writer’s block, and of course poetry. And there are agents and editors available by appointment. Poets Barbara Daniels (with whom I’m friendly) and Kate Northrop led the two poetry workshops, both of which I took, and though they had contrasting styles, they were both excellent. I also took a flash fiction seminar, and a journaling seminar led by another poet friend, Therese Halscheid – they were excellent as well. But the highlight for me was the creativity workshop run by Bonnie Neubauer, who wrote The Write-Brain Workbook: 366 Exercises to Liberate Your Writing (Writer’s Digest Books). She gave us three one-hour sessions of some of the most productive and fun writing exercises I’ve ever done. While I’m plugging books, let me recommend Barbara Daniels’ Rose Fever and Therese Halscheid’s Uncommon Geography, both excellent books of poetry (both are available on Amazon.com).

The keynote speaker opening the first day’s events was Michael Smerconish, a local radio talk-show host. I thought I’d bristle at his conservative politics throughout the presentation, but I was pleasantly surprised that he’s not a blowhard bully like some of those other guys. He was diplomatic, knowing that a lot of folks in the audience may not share his views, and pointed out that he doesn’t always subscribe to conservative dogma: for instance, he supports stem cell research and says we should get out of Iraq. But he talked more about his writing career than his politics anyway. It seems, though, that sometimes his on-air manner gets the best of him – about halfway through his speech he paused and wondered, “Why am I yelling at all of you?”

The guest speaker for the Saturday banquet was Mark Bowden, longtime Philadelphia Inquirer reporter and author of Black Hawk Down, who gave us interesting insight into his career and how he came to write his bestseller, which of course became a very successful film. Then came the annual awards ceremony, which the presenter, Mad Poets president (also PWC board member and new president) Eileen D’Angelo, described as the “Academy Awards for Philadelphia writers”. That may be a little bit of an overstatement, but it does have a similar feel (though we don’t dress in gowns and tuxes) – the camaraderie of fellow poets, the recognition of your peers, and the element of surprise. I brought home second prize and honorable mention from the poetry contests – not quite as good as 2006 and 2007, when I won first prize, but it’s still a thrill. Will I go back next year? Very likely. Props to all the folks who work hard each year to make the PWC such a fine event.

This is a long entry for me. I’ll post a separate blog in a few days on a music topic. Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with a poem I wrote two years ago at the conference, after coming back from lunch and seeing the annual Gay Pride Parade:

Gay Pride Parade

I am returning from lunch in the city,
when the parade crosses my path.
Led by a row of butch Harleys,
they march down Market Street,
rainbow flags snapping in a stiff June breeze.

Drag majorettes lead a rousing drum corps,
setting the rhythm and the pace.
Following them, a group of alternative families –
two mothers pushing their stroller,
a six-year-old boy riding the shoulders
of one of his dads; then the float
with the bearded beauty queens
waving to a cheering crowd.

I think, good for them,
but the old fart in me finds it hard
to leap from “tolerate” to “celebrate”.
Still, I half-expect to see you marching by,
proud of your new identity.
And if I saw you, I would wave.
So I wave anyway, as if I have.

(First published in Up and Under: The QND Review, 2007.)