Monday, April 23, 2012

And So It Goes - American Community Survey Part 2

I just received my second American Community Survey in the mail on Saturday. Based on what I had read I was expecting it to arrive a week ago and since it had not I had the silly hope that one of the representatives that I had contacted actually did something and took me off the list.

Alas, that was not to pass. One replied with a form letter on a different subject, meaning that I probably selected the incorrect item in the Subject drop-down on their site. My least favorite actually responded with a letter on the subject, referring to a bill that would make the the survey optional. Nice but it won't help me at the present moment. The third did not respond at all.

Next up is the Fed Ex delivery!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Classic Album Review - Phil Keaggy - Find Me In These Fields (1990)

Time for another Classic Album review! There are only nine of these “perfect 11” albums left and since two of these are Phil Keaggy albums, I thought I’d chip one off the list.

My first experience with Phil Keaggy was when my ol’ pal Roger Shuman gave me Keaggy’s Sunday’s Child album. Being a Beatles aficionado it was right up my alley. In my “why, yes, I AM a dork” music database I have that album rated as a 10. Great stuff there, especially for the new Christian, letting me know that there was good Christian music with heartfelt, honest, non-cheesy lyrics out there and not everything was Carman and Degarmo & Key. However it was the follow up, Find Me In These Fields, that really spoke to me. Freed from the confines of having to sound like a 60s album Keaggy let loose with a string of amazing songs, ranging from rockers to soft confessionals. This album was produced by Lynn Nichols and had much of the same “all-star” supporting musicians as Sunday’s Child and their cohesiveness shows. This album is another shining example of the importance of matching the right producer with the artist, someone who knows how to push them in just the right way to get them to reach beyond their usual abilities. Keaggy, while an amazing guitarist and songwriter, needs such a producer. His self-produced albums run the range from bland to very good but his albums where he is produced by someone else are often outstanding.

Listening to the album again I can’t put my finger on exactly why the album is so good. The songs are all solid and amazingly performed with various nods to The Beatles and other influences but nothing so overwhelming as the previous album. I think the main thing that resonated with me were the lyrics in that they are very affirming and comforting, just what I needed at the time. For a new believer who had plenty of hang-ups and garbage and hurts these words were like balm for my soul, echoing my longing to be free from the past. “This Side of Heaven” is a prime example of how Keaggy managed to wrap this longing into a timeless and upbeat song, throwing in some very intoxicating vocal harmonies amid lyrics such as “Why settle for less here at the wrong time? / There are better worlds yet to come.” And when the chorus arrives? Sheer bliss! This song was followed by the vulnerable “Find Me In These Fields”, a gorgeous song featuring acoustic guitars and a cello. The times this song ministered to my aching, lonely heart are legion. Likewise “Calling You” is another song of yearning, feeding kindling to my newly ignited soul to dig deeper for more of God in my life.

With a nice combination of fiery rockers and earnest ballads but lyrics that seemed tailored for my life, Find Me In These Fields was just what I needed. The entire album exudes a confident maturity, both in the music and the lyrics, that is a rare find. Twenty-plus years later I can still put this album on and enjoy every song. What more can you ask?

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Classic Album Review - Galactic Cowboys - Space In Your Face (1993)

When Galactic Cowboys came onto the scene they were touted as the heavier cousins of King’s X. As I was a huge King’s X fan at the time I immediately latched onto them. It took me a while to get into their debut album because it truly was much heavier than anything I’d been listening to and to this day I still find this album sonically sludgy. Their second album, Space In Your Face, cleaned up this sludge and gave the whole mess a nice polish. It retained the heaviness, much to the chagrin of my roommate at the time who couldn’t understand how I could switch from this mass of metal to Keith Green.

This second and finale Cowboys album to be produced by Sam Taylor, the same guy who produced the first four King’s X albums, spent over a year in my CD player. Say what you want about this guy, he can bring out the best in musicians. After this album they, like King’s X, dropped their producer and much of the progressive element from their sound and went more power pop. Good stuff but not the greatness of Space In Your Face.

So what’s so great about this album? I was hoping you would ask.

The title track introduces the album, 1:38 of twisting molten metal that effortlessly and playfully mangles the meter before jumping into a jazzy mid-section sure to puzzle all die-hard metalheads. Then comes “You Make Me Smile” with more non-conformity to 4/4 time signatures and an extremely aggressive speed-metal-like riff. But when the song gets to the chorus it’s all four-part vocal harmony candy. It’s also the first exhibition of their melodic prowess… this stuff is stick-in-your-head-for-weeks catchy! And not just in the vocals… the bass and guitars each lay down lines that refuse to leave your head. “I Do What I Do” is another vocal masterpiece, this time contrasting even stickier, sweeter vocal harmonies against an edgy, spooky verse. And let’s not forget the vocally intricate lead up to the chorus…. WOW! Pick a part and sing alone, will ya? And then, like in “Smile” there’s the lengthy instrumental passage at the end full of crazy chicanery. “Circles In The Fields” is a smiling poke at the then oft-reported incident of crop circles, complete with jack hammer sound effects and call/answer vocals. “If I Were A Killer” takes unique aim at abortion and abortionists. “Blind” is packed with gorgeous vocal harmonies so rich and lush that you want to eat them, contrasting softer passages with heavy crushing guitars. But ya know, I don’t think the harmonies stop once. Lyrically the song is a modern version of “I once was blind but now I see,” one of many Christian themes that run through the album.

Typical of CDs at the time, the band hid a couple of tracks. I’d read that their label only wanted nine songs and they had eleven so these were tucked away, one after ten tracks of silence and one in the negative space before track 32. It is to this final track, “Still Life of Peace,” to which I now draw your attention. Simply put, this song is astounding! It’s like nothing else I’ve ever heard and I love it, which means that most everyone else probably hates it and likes that it’s easy to skip. But where else can you hear a sitar and tabula battle against a cello? NOWHERE! Yes, sitar and tabula open the song while the boys do their vocal magic in the verse and then the song smashes into a prog-metal romp with six tons of low end. A brief instrumental passage occurs after verse two where the cello and the sitar lay down melodic solos and the song takes a brief divergence into ¾ territory before returning to the metal riff, this time with the cello joining in. They jump back and forth between ¾ land and the metal riff, sometimes only for half a measure just to keep you on your toes, and then introduce a speed metal riff into the mix. The cellos are front and center for verse three, sliding and gutsy in a manner that is not befitting a proper orchestral member.

I should mention that while I use the terms "progressive" and "prog" that's not really the focus. Yeah, the flip the beat around and have longer songs and somewhat complicated song structures, but they're no more progressive than early Metallica albums. That is, the songs and melodies are the focus and the technical flourishes are extras thrown in at no extra charge.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Easter "Service"

In our ongoing quest to find a church that fits the esoteric members of our extensive family we decided to skip the usual Easter morning service. Christmas and Easter services are rarely indicative of the true character of a local body and since it just seemed like a whole lot of work to get everyone up early and ready (so that we could struggle to find parking and then squeeze into a pew surrounded by people who probably wouldn’t be there the following week) we decided to take a different route: The Passion Play.

There is a large church near our house that holds a drama each Easter. I’ve been to this church a few times in the past to see concerts (Rich Mullins twice, Phil Keaggy and Steve Curtis Chapman once each) and once for a service during college where a few people spoke in tongues and no one interpreted. Since that lone service the church body moved to a different location and sold the building off to another body of believers. With little or no research the Mrs. and I thought it would be good to take the kids to this play, a kind of immersive dramatic telling of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection that might help us see things in a fresh light.

The ticket said doors opened at six and the show started at 7:30. Having experience with showing up in the nick of time only to search and search for seats for my entire brood, I went by myself a bit after six to save seats. Entering into the church I was immediately impressed. The hallways were made up like the streets of Jerusalem and every member of the cast was in costume, populating the streets in character. You could eat figs or pomegranate juice, pet a camel or a baby sheep, even give alms to a blind beggar. I found seats for us all and immediately called Melynda so that they could arrive early and experience “Jerusalem.”

Eventually the show started with a crowded, noisy, chaotic stage full of (nearly) the entire cast. The scene told of how the census was ordered, complete with a Roman soldier on a horse going up and down the aisles. The lights dimmed and opened again on Mary, Joseph, and a real live almost-newborn. As a joke I leaned over to Melynda and sang “Mary did you know?” And then the music started up... and it was “Mary Did You Know” sung in full-out hot dogging American Idol (or Starsearch for us old timers) style. That was our first warning. It was also about the only song we heard that night whose words we could fully understand. It continued in this way, a scene or two and then a funky loud gospel song sung full of squeals and vocal tricks, often with three or more singers taking the spot light. It was a nice distraction from the “scenes” which were often very large crowd scenes full of people shouting over each other, stretching things out waaaaay too long because the instrumental music needed another minute to complete.

The acting was mostly decent. Except for the lead pharisee. This guy must have gone to the William Shatner school of acting. I... kid... you NOT! It was agonizing to where we were both saying, “Speed it up, man!” Between the music and the spots of bad acting it was impossible to get into the drama.

The worst part, however, was near the end. Jesus was being beaten while a crowd had (it seemed) everyone reaching for something (“What’s my motivation for reaching?”). It was about as close to touching as the play got. And then someone must have pushed the wrong button or something because loud and funky dance music started up. Except it was no mistake. The choir, with a few hot trotting lead singers, went through a jumpin’ ramped up number with a man portraying our beaten Savior laying in a heap before our eyes. It was one of the most disrespectful and irreverent spectacles I’ve ever witnessed.

Shortly after this, with the play having gone on for over two hours and they still hadn’t put Jesus in the tomb, we decided that we knew how the story ended and left. Hopefully we didn't miss a gangsta rap number as Jesus Ascended into Heaven.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

My Neighbor

For some reason my next door neighbor appears to hate us. We don't throw raucous parties or have a dog that leaves messes on their lawn. Sure, we have kids who leave their riding toys outside but mostly these are in the back. And no, our lawn is not perfectly manicured like theirs is but I've never been a lawn buff and am certainly no fan of the amount of chemicals it would take to get it "perfect."

So we're flummoxed.

We have a detached garage but it's way in the back. To get there we have to drive up a long, narrow driveway and backing up on this would be even worse. So we park halfway up the drive where it's not as steep, just like many of our neighbors on this street. It's a condition of old neighborhoods. Also our driveway is right up against their property line so when we exit our van on the passenger side we have to step on their lawn. In the past I've asked the husband if this was okay and he seemed perfectly fine with it as we were stepping on the lawn (not getting it muddy) or on a part of the landscaping that was mulch.

But last fall a plant suddenly showed up right where the kids exit the van. Even worse, it was a crimson barberry. You know, those extremely prickly shrubs? For a lawn as perfect and perfectly coordinated this small bush is an anomaly. And yet there it sits, insidiously growing it's thorns.

Today our Easter surprise was a political sign planted smack dab on our property line. Seriously! I half laughed and half got angry. In a world where the barberry was a subtle hint the political sign is a megaphone. Take a look at the pictures below. I mean, you can't see the sign coming down one side of the street because it is blocked by our van and from the other direction it is way back on their property behind a small rise in their yard. They usually put their signs up by the light post.

Is this the "class act" behavior I am to expect from a cultured New Yorker?

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Going To Jail - American Community Survey Part 1

Early last week I received a threat from our Federal Gov., a little postcard to let me know that I would soon be receiving the American Community Survey. That survey arrived late last week.

For those of you unfamiliar with the American Community Survey, it's a very intrusive and mandatory survey asking things such as "how many times have you been married" and "what time do you leave for work in the morning." Yes, it's all supposed to help the fed. gov do, well, I guess they want to know what time I leave so they can break in and plant microphones. But seeing as how I'm one of those people who cherish their privacy and just want the gubbermint to be left alone, well, it just seems to Big Brother.

I'm also one of those people who followed the requirements of our U.S. Constitution in 2010 and just completed the census with how many people live at this address. Yes, we were stalked by census takers (who earlier that spring walked right up to our door and took GPS coordinates) but eventually they went away.

So now I'm going to be one of those people who don't respond. My research has found that about 3% of people do not respond to these unConstitutional and no one, to date, has been fined (between $100 and $100 per uncompleted question - the jury is out) or jailed. Yet. You see, the government wants to be friendly because they take this information you provide and sell it to Target and other corporations.

My research has also indicated that I should expect to be hounded by phone calls at all hours as well has multiple personal visits and possible threats of the fines and jail time for failing to complete the form. However if I complete the form I should still expect someone to stop by to verify the information in case I'm lying about having running water, the year my house was built, and what I pay each month for my mortgage. All questions on the census.

It's been less than one week since the census was received and just yesterday I received a post card reminding me to complete the survey. I should expect one further regular mailing of this meaty survey (I have no idea what it costs the gubbermint to print this, probably $50 thought it would cost a regular business about $2) and then one more survey, this time sent by FedEx. Why not USPS where you sign for it? Anyway, then come the phone calls and personal visits for 30 days and then they move on to the next goobers.

I've written my Congressman and both Senators stating my position and then asking if there is anything they can do to spare me the 30 days of harassment but so far none of them have responded.

I shall keep you updated, possibly with video of the personal visits!