Altrockchick Review of Max Gowan’s Restless Heaven

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a2197006622_101from altrockchick.com 

Max Gowan is one guy with an acoustic guitar who released a 6-track EP of original compositions called Restless Heaven. The first thing I noticed is how exceptionally well Max keeps the rhythm going, a talent I usually hear only in the old Delta blues singers. Most singer-songwriters have a band to drive the tempo, but Max just has Max—his acoustic guitar and his voice.

Going completely solo is a pretty gutsy thing to do, because there you are, just you and your guitar, and there are no other sounds to distract the listener from your songs. That means your songs had better be damned good.

And these songs are damned good—exceptionally good. Max held my attention completely through three spins and I can’t wait to hear it again. Restless Heaven is a great EP by a young songwriter with unusual self-awareness and a complete lack of pretense. The songs are honest without being obvious, poetic without being artsy and absolutely captivating without any gimmickry.

A perfectly delightful guitar pattern with exceptionally clean and expressive picking opens the song “Half Soul.” Max shifts to a strum for the vocal, and oh my, what a pleasing voice! He’s definitely not an American Idol type or one of those drippy folksingers who have to imbue every syllable with emotion, but a singer with a warm timbre and clear articulation. The melody flows very nicely, with good spread across the staff that encourages you to hum along. And in keeping with the lovely music, Max proves to be a talented lyricist as well. The second verse in particular is remarkable for its insight into how the game is supposed to be played and how we as human beings hide our flaws and mistakes in a charade that helps no one and only extends the game-playing:

I got a breath of fresh ambition, it poured into my lungs
Now I’m stuck with tunnel vision, I’m just like everyone
If you pretend you’re doing better we all stay the same
I’ve never been afraid of confidence but at least I’m not insane, I’m just confused

I work with many people who still have that fresh ambition and the tunnel vision that goes along with it, and I suffer through their pretentiousness every day. What drives that pretense are the twin adult beliefs in the importance of convincing others that you know what life is all about, and that one should never reveal knowledge gaps or vulnerabilities. What Max asks us to accept is that we are all confused, and admitting it would be a big step towards clarifying our confusion. With its pretty music and thought-provoking lyrics, “Half Soul” is the perfect opening track.

“Lookout” opens with high fretboard picking and strumming, settling into a I-IV major/major seventh pattern as the baseline; as the song progresses, Max throws some interesting chord variations thrown into the mix. This song is an ode to his North Carolina home and the power of its natural landscape to bring clarity to the confused soul, and Max sings this with genuine feeling without going overboard à la John Denver. “Lookout” is a song that is very pleasing to the ear, and I would suggest that Tarheels everywhere embrace it and turn it into a hit single to offset the impression that the state legislature has turned North Carolina into something like the dystopian world described in The Handmaid’s Tale.

The title track has a very cool rhythm that Max plays with graceful ease. I’ll talk more about his guitar playing in a minute, but first I want to focus on the lyrics, which deal with the tug of opposites—in this case, the desire to explore the world and the pull to stay with the familiar and comfortable. His ambiguity is reminiscent of Memphis Minnie’s in “Nothing in Rambling,” and I get the impression that he’s as comfortable with that ambiguity as anyone can be. People have this silly idea that you have to choose one path or another: you don’t. It’s okay to feel restless, because when you stop feeling restless, you’re dead! Max makes his case less bluntly and more effectively than I just did:

I’m gonna step into the outside, I’m gonna see what’s real
I kind of like it on the inside, cause I don’t want to feel
It’s just a silhouette the kind I don’t forget
The hanging around outside my head
It’s just a silhouette

Back to Max’s guitar playing. I am always harping about how little touches make all the difference in music, and when he switches to high-fretboard picking on the word “silhouette,” I get goose bumps.

“Tide” has a loping, swaying rhythm accentuated by the picking style and the 3/4 time signature. This is a more reflective song, describing the discovery of one’s self-limitations and the need to allow others inside to help us through the rough patches when those limitations seem terribly confining. Sometimes a song will connect with you in a way that has nothing to do with the songwriter’s intention—a lyrical fragment just hits you at the right time and helps you express the thing that’s been making you feel a bit off-kilter. The couplet in “Tide” that hit me was “I’m living through other perspectives/’Cause right from the start I got tired of mine,” because with all the writing I’ve been doing the last few years and the lack of feedback in comparison to my output, I’m really getting tired of the “sound” of my own voice. Because I’m in a new city where I know very few people, I’m often stuck with my own perspective, which gets very tiring. I need to hear voices and views other than my own, and that’s really been an issue for me with the blog and the move to Europe.

Thanks, for clearing that up for me, Max!

“Bricks and Cobblestones” starts with a snappy little rhythm, again played extraordinarily well. The song is about the conflict between appearance and reality, and how our obsession with appearance makes it easy to avoid dealing with the things inside that really need fixing. Max’s insight into this age-old problem is to remind us that a flaw is not the end of the world and taking the time for a little bit of self-reflection goes a long way towards curing our need for magic tricks to distract others from our imperfections:

Bricks and cobblestones, your eyes are open and there’s no one home
Looks inviting on the surface but it’s fallin’ down
But I’m alive and well
As far as I can tell
And it’s paradise and hell
That we create for ourselves
I found a crack inside of my foundation but I’ll fix it soon
Work in progress it’s this constant process and it’s never through
You survive somehow
The light that won’t burn out.

The light-hearted rhythm reinforces the sentiment that we are not going to solve our problems by worrying ourselves to the point where adrenaline is squirting from our ears. Take your time, says Max. The light won’t burn out.

“Whistle in the Dark” seems to describe the looming going-away-to-college experience (or for those less fortunate, the going-away-to-boot-camp experience) that breaks up a lifetime of patterns and assumptions. While the song definitely has a sorrowful air, the lyrics remain firmly rooted in Max’s ambiguity and unusual ability to see both sides of the question. The final couplet is a perfect ending to a song about transitions, and a great motto for anyone wondering what life is all about:

There’s no promise, nothing’s promised, there’s no guarantee
That’s what makes it worth the time to me

This song has more musical variation than the others, suggesting that Max has a world of possibilities to choose from as he continues to develop.

I have to say I am thoroughly amazed by Restless Heaven . . . and very relieved. Max is one of many who have approached me on Twitter and requested a review, requests that always lead to a certain discomfort. I love exploring new music, but the truth is that because of the proliferation of recording software and the consequent increase in independent records, the quality of the music produced today has become iffy at best—and that applies to both the indies and the slaves of the record companies. While I support the democratization of music production, it has made things a bit awkward for the independent music critic who cannot hide behind the shield of the corporate façade. I’ve had to decline several requests based on incompatibility with my general tastes, and have had to refuse to consider several others because the music just wasn’t that good. I hate telling new artists that are just breaking in that their music didn’t grab me, and after agreeing to Max’s request, I had that uh-oh feeling that this could turn out to be yet another awkward moment in the life of a music blogger.

So, it is with great joy and palpable relief that I can say, “Hey, Max! You don’t suck!” To my readers, I will say that Max Gowan is an amazing talent, and if he chooses music as one of what will likely be many creative paths he chooses to follow in life, I want to hear what he comes up with every step of the way.

You can purchase this must-have collection on Bandcamp.

 

Music Review: St. Vincent

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An exceptional review of an exceptional artist! I’m going to see her tomorrow night!

altrockchick

b3b2ca91 Love the new do, honey, and love the new album! Click to buy a one-of-a-kind experience from a true original.

As part of my research for a contemporary review, I’ll occasionally check out what other reviewers have written and skim through any interviews the artist has done to promote the work. I view both with great skepticism. Today’s music critics are predictably boring, arrogant and full of themselves: the reviews are often more about the reviewer than the artist. As far as artist interviews are concerned, I’m always aware that the relationship between artist and journalist is often problematic. Some artists think journalists are really thick, so they just make up shit to drive the journalist crazy. Others try to manipulate and charm them; some will make outrageous statements that they know will turn into publicity, based on the common wisdom that there is no such thing as bad publicity…

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Book Review: Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard

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Click on the book cover to go to Amazon to buy a first-rate history by a first-rate storyteller.

Click on the book cover to go to Amazon to buy a first-rate history by a first-rate storyteller.

I’m a very healthy person. I exercise regularly, watch my weight and diet, and while I’ll indulge in wine, spirits, cigars and cigarettes on occasion, I am the model of moderation. I have been sick exactly twice in the last ten years and I have never spent a second in a hospital as a patient. Most people guess I’m ten to fifteen years younger than I am.

My good fortune with health has nothing to do with genes and I don’t have a picture of Dorian Gray in my closet. I attribute my condition to being constantly creative, constantly horny and avoiding doctors like the plague.

I’ve been to doctors now and then over the years and I can honestly say I have only found one who was helpful: the guy who did my vasectomy. As for the rest, I’ve found them to be arrogant, impersonal, dogmatic, judgmental and, in some cases, flat-out dangerous. They spend a few seconds with you not listening to a thing you’re saying, write you a prescription whether or not you need one and hurry off to the next patient to keep that revenue stream going.

Candice Millard’s well-written and surprisingly exciting book provides me with historical evidence to support my view that physicians are to be shunned at all cost. The victim of non-lethal gunshot wounds, President Garfield was systematically murdered by his physicians by their insistence on established medical dogma and an unwavering commitment to preserving the hierarchy of experience. Younger physicians who had more promising ideas about how to heal the president were dismissed, as was Lister’s already proven theory of antiseptic medicine. You may argue that modern medicine is more advanced and that Garfield wouldn’t have died had the same thing happened today. While that is almost certainly true, I point you to the estimates that 50,000 to 300,000 people a year are killed by medical errors (the wide variation in numbers has to do with the inability of the health care industry to keep track of anything). After five years experience working in health care and with physicians, I can confirm they are as arrogant, greedy and self-satisfied as they were in Garfield’s time.

Ms. Millard does a superb job bringing Garfield to life, a poor boy who through hard work and commitment turned himself into something of a Renaissance man, highly educated and self-aware. He had a passionate commitment to the African-American community, and was determined that they achieve full equality during his term. The what-ifs of Garfield may not be as tantalizing as those of JFK, but taking a moment to imagine the improvement in race relations that could have occurred eighty years before the civil rights movement demonstrates what kind of historical impact Garfield might have had if he had lived to complete his term.

Guiteau, the assassin, was truly insane. The jury that convicted him couldn’t have cared less. The assassination represented a shocking injustice to the nation, and Guiteau never would have survived in a mental institution, not with skilled and experienced lynching mobs at the ready. Guiteau was one in a long line of nobodies who wreaked havoc on history, and as Ms. Millard demonstrates with her beautifully detached writing style, there was no helping him.

The author weaves the threads of American politics with the 19th century mania for new inventions right from the start of the book, because Alexander Graham Bell plays a key role in the story. With superhuman dedication, he invents a device that could have found the bullet in the president’s body—had the doctors not interfered with his examination. The character of Roscoe Conkling, political boss, is so vivid that you can easy visualize him in imperial motion in the halls of Congress or on the streets of New York.

Destiny of the Republic is an exceptionally well-written and extremely readable history that warns of the dangers we all face if we enslave ourselves to the wisdom of the experts. Candice Millard is a fine writer with an exceptional gift for structuring a narrative and I look forward to reading more of her work in the future.

Book Review: JFK’s Last Hundred Days by Thurston Clarke

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I’ve read every major biography written about John F. Kennedy and a couple of minor bios as well. I also went on a jag a while back when I read all of the books on the assassination. Recently several new books on JFK have been published, including Thurston Clarke’s JFK’s Last Hundred Days. The book is a daily chronicle of the life of the president during that last period of his life, but rather than reading like a dull diary, Clarke weaves a compelling and interesting narrative that actually adds something of value to the historical record of this remarkable man.

Thurston Clarke’s unique contribution to this well-explored sub-genre is the exposition of the impact Kennedy had on people the world over, both in life and in death. The post-November 22 chapter, where the author recounts the world-wide reaction to the assassination, is moving and meaningful. For millions (perhaps billions), John F. Kennedy stood for progress and hope. No leader since JFK has even come close to capturing the hearts and minds of so many people all over the world.

The question Kennedy scholars struggle with is whether or not the spark he kindled was real or wishful thinking. The fact that he spent only three years in office places an unbreakable limit on the number of tangible achievements. Unlike FDR, he was elected by a razor-thin margin and faced a Congress controlled by a coalition of Republicans and conservative southern Democrats. I think the achievement argument is a dead-end either way, because sometimes a president can achieve too much. Lyndon Johnson probably passed more legislation than anyone, but a good chunk of it was wasteful legislation.

The reason why people remember and even long for JFK today has nothing to do with his tangible achievements. What people truly miss are two qualities we haven’t seen in a leader since his death.

First, John F. Kennedy was at heart an exceptionally rational human being. Clarke and others have stressed this point, but it is a quality that is often overlooked. His problem-solving style was to look at a problem from as many angles as possible to find the solution that made the most sense. I haven’t heard anything coming out of Washington that has been close to rational lately, and none of his successors had his special combination of a curious intelligence and a rational world-view. Clarke gives repeated examples of Kennedy’s insistence on the use of rational thought in making policy.

Second, Kennedy spoke to people in a way that served to lift their sights, to see the potential in themselves and in the nation. Reagan tried to do that, but his message was contaminated with partisanship and simplistic moralizing. Kennedy was serious about raising America’s game, and this was not all about competitive fire. He believed in excellence and considered it irrational that anyone would want to settle for less. This is a key theme that Clarke writes about with balanced admiration.

There has been a great deal of speculation lately about “What would Kennedy have done had he lived?” Jeff Greenberg has shared his perceptions, but I think Clarke makes a more credible case due to a combination of good research and his ability to connect the dots.

To answer the most common “what if” question, there is no way on earth John F. Kennedy would have escalated the war in Vietnam. To do so would have violated his most sacred precept: it would have been an irrational thing to do. There is ample evidence that he was looking for a way out, and it is likely he would have found one that made sense after the 1964 election. Lyndon Johnson never viewed Vietnam with dispassionate logic—he wanted to show those damned Republicans that he was tough and he wasn’t going to let any picayune country push the USA around. His insecure machismo and refusal to believe that the tricks that worked when he was leading the senate wouldn’t work with Ho Chi Minh led to irrational decisions and a tragic outcome. Clarke makes it clear that during the period immediately preceding his death, JFK consistently resisted pressure from the majority of his advisors to increase American commitment. All of his decisions pointed in the direction of an exit strategy.

The evidence also indicates that there would have likely been an earlier détente with the Soviet Union, and possibly some kind of reconciliation with Castro. Kennedy saw war as the ultimate expression of human irrationality, and he would have continued his push for peace throughout a second term. It is also likely he would have had a vibrant economy going for him in the second term, as the economic boon from his tax cut would have had the intended impact of expanding prosperity instead of being pissed away by the billions in the jungles of Southeast Asia and in poorly thought-out Great Society legislation.

Beyond those issues, it’s impossible to make even an educated guess as to how JFK would have done with five more years. I doubt that it would have all been sunshine and light, because history tells us that most second terms are largely disappointments. We would have avoided an unnecessary war and runaway inflation, but challenges we can’t even imagine might have come to the fore to derail his agenda. Assuming that society had developed along the same lines, I can easily imagine trouble on one front: his native sexism would have found the women’s liberation movement incomprehensible. I have little doubt that he would have continued to experience difficulty with a recalcitrant South in the area of civil rights: Selma would still have taken place; racist governors like Wallaces and Maddox would still have been elected; and Reagan’s thinly disguised racist message would still have found favor with whites in Southern California.

Clarke’s appraisal of JFK’s likely outcome is both fair and limited. Unfortunately he also makes the decision to bring in Kennedy’s sex life into his evaluation of the man’s worth and potential. His argument is that his multiple affairs—especially the one with the alleged East German agent—represented reckless foolhardiness. Perhaps. I find it incredibly distasteful that we strip public figures of any right to privacy, and I couldn’t care less about their sex lives. The expectation of a president to be a moral leader should apply only to the job requirements, not what he or she does in what should be private moments. We can’t ask our leaders to stop being human.

On the flip side, I was elated that Clarke chose not to dip his toe in the dark waters of the assassination and the related conspiracy theories. The only possible reasons for their continued existence are that the American people are stupid, bored or both. There is no question in my mind that Oswald did it because it’s the only explanation that fits the narrative of American history. All of the assassinations and massacres since Kennedy’s date have been perpetrated by mentally imbalanced losers, from James Earl Ray to the Sandy Hook killer to the sick bastard who wreaked havoc at the Washington Navy Yard. Oswald certainly qualified as a mentally imbalanced loser. Conspiracy theories involving the government have to be dismissed out of hand because you’re talking about an organization riddled with incompetence that is unable to keep anything secret. Conspiracy theories involving the Mafia are equally ridiculous because either somebody would have spilled the beans for personal advantage or another mob leader would have used the information against the alleged mastermind.

Our obsession with these theories cheapens the memory of a man who deserves better. Despite his flaws and early stumbles, Clarke clearly demonstrates that John F. Kennedy made a difference in his short time on earth. He should be remembered for his gift of reason and his ability to inspire people to reach for something better than the status quo.

Americans would be much better off if they celebrated his birthday rather than wallow in conspiracy theories every November 22.