Wednesday, January 18, 2006

What Can You Say?!

Since all morning news shows seem to be built around offering you a group of friends to wake up with, I suppose I shouldn't be too embarrassed that it works on me too. For me, it's Robin Meade's crew on CNN. Meade anchors the show with a straightforward humanity that I respond to, and the fact that this is one show I've watched since before 9/11/2001 without ever seeing the kind of jingoistic crowing I’ve seen elsewhere says something about the dignity Meade maintains on the show.

All of this is to say, this morning, when I woke up to a profile of the parents of Norris Gaynor, the man beaten to death by three white youth in Fort Lauderdale last week, it felt real to me when Meade went off script to comment on the story. When the video cut back to her, she said, first, almost under her breath, "What can you say to those parents?" And, then, in this sort of out of body, almost stentorian, voice that seemed to take her over, she looked into the camera and repeated, "What can you say?" Her tone was at once desperate and angry and real.

What can you say? That is the question that’s been haunting me all day long. What can you say in a country where human life has grown so cheap that Robert Davis can be beaten within an inch of his life by police in front of CNN's New Orleans offices and Christmas day TV loops featured footage of another New Orleans man shot to death for holding a knife in the face of a battalion of police? What can you say when Pakistani women and children can be blown up by a stinger missile, and it'll all be okay if we can find the DNA of the guy we're looking for? What can you say to the parents of journalists Jill Carroll in this kind of world?

But to the parents of Norris Gaynor, what can you say? What can you say when the only discussion going on about Katrina is whether or not "chocolate city" is a good metaphor? What can you say when Nagin's truly offensive comment, that God sent Katrina because he was angry at how black people are living, has been all but ignored? What do you say in a country where, as Iris DeMent once put it, "the poor have become the enemy"? After all, what's the Federal government's solution to poverty--send poor people off to war?

What can you say when our solution to everything is to blame those who can't fight back and then to accuse them of whining right before we target their throats?

Monday, January 16, 2006

Take Em As They Come

Best of 2005

When I’ve lived with it a little longer, Mary J. Blige’s gorgeous “The Breakthrough” will certainly contend for my favorite album of 2005, but having just finished my year end mix tape, I’m struck by just how much strong competition it has—from Kanye West’s much needed “Late Registration” to the Game’s “Documentary” and Stevie Wonder’s “A Time To Love.” My personal favorites would also include the most recent releases by Marah, Cindy Bullens, Lil Kim, Audioslave, Faith Evans and Bruce Springsteen, all formidable albums wrestling with big themes that touch close to home. But , right now, my favorite of them all is a CD made by my hometown rock hero Kristie Stremel. It’s called “Ignoring the Obvious.”

This isn’t the first time one of Stremel’s releases would top my list—the full length debut of her band Exit 159 and her first full solo album, “All I Really Want” come to mind—but this is undoubtedly the most significant for a number of reasons. First, probably because Stremel is an omnivorous pop music lover like myself, it is no stretch for me to hear this album in a dialogue with all of the others. Despite sonic rough edges born of absolute necessity (aside from three drum parts she got out of original Exit member Rob VanBiber, she played all the instruments and produced the album herself), the hooks are infectious and each song finds its way somewhere sublime. So, it sounds good next to these other albums, but what’s more it’s lyrically committed to the same common denominators, the qualities I most need--unflinching (even vulgar) honesty to balance undying romanticism.

One of the most heartbreaking and beautiful live music experiences I ever had was watching Kristie one night years ago when (at least in part) her own reckless behavior led to her playing a gig solo after her band walked out on her. She hadn’t played acoustic much in years, and she found herself forced to play a sort of elliptical but spirited set with all of her phantom limbs aching for the world to see. At particularly raucous moments she’d turn to the ghosts of her band and beg them to take it away, only to remind herself and a full-to-the-brim house of her plight. Now, six years down the road, sober and reflective, she’s made a solo album packed with the wisdom gained by such public and personal humiliations and the road she’s traveled to overcome them.

Told with the most succinct poetry she’s ever crafted, “Ignoring the Obvious” is her story that may as well serve as the listener’s (at least this listener’s). Never is this more clear than on the passionate rocker “Big Dreams,” a song where she projects herself 10 years or so down the road (about where I am), asking “What if 20 years go by/In the blink of an eye/And I’m doing the same thing/When 20 years before/I was opening doors/I could do anything…?” She doesn’t find the answer there, but over the course of the album, she finds the keys that help to reveal why that piece of the blues sounds so defiant and, in that, triumphant.

The back cover of the album shows her eyes cast down on her living room couch while an elephant sounds off behind her. The first two songs identify the unmoored romanticism of her failed intimate relationships (“Paper Heart”) and her career aspirations (“Big Dreams”), making sure those twin elephants are clearly described before she tries to learn what she can from them.

What she puts together involves reconnecting with those who genuinely care (“4 South East”) and letting them show her how to mend that “broken record soul/spinnin’ broken all the time” (“Happy Girls Don’t Cry”). They help her see, in the bass driven reflection, “Reason to Believe,” the hope in actions as simple as her “hands on the strings” and futile as “a pool stick through a color TV.” On songs like “Piece of Shit Car” and “Telephone,” she still finds herself feeling foolish, alone and disconnected, but she knows “the distance is killing me.”
In a climactic reworking of one of her old love songs, “It’s Mean,” she defines just how hard it is to tell the difference in the dreams that tear us apart and those that keep us going. But on the rocker “Leap of Faith,” she allows herself to trust someone else enough to follow rather than lead. What she finds in the album’s final cuts is a little help has allowed her to begin to forgive herself and extend her own voice as a lifeline for others.

It’s no accident that the final song, “Protest,” may be the most jaunty and unassuming sounding thing she has ever put on record. But it’s also one of the bravest things I’ve ever heard. In a love letter to the human race, she even manages to tell the murderously homophobic Topeka minister Fred Phelps, “I think I’m gonna love you till you love yourself.” What Stevie Wonder seems to suggest on “What the Fuss?” Stremel makes the heart of “Protest”—there are three steps to raising her voice. She has to “rise up and confess,” then she can manage a protest.

What Stremel and all the other artists I most love seem to know in their bones, even if they may not cop to it, is that we are bound together by our demons. To shake them off, we have to confront them in some fashion. Denying that necessity is not only the American tragedy but the human tragedy. The potential for another course of action closes this album with the nearly whispered reverence of a most universal prayer, just like one that’s gotten me through some of my hardest nights when everything I felt in my bones told me it wasn’t true—

“It’s okay
Everything’s gonna be ok
Keep on breathing, it’s ok
Keep on believing it’s ok.”

When the malevolent power of the obvious is so strong you have no hope, then ignoring the obvious can be a kind of instinct for survival. Someone once said dancing is throwing the finger at death. Kristie Stremel’s “Ignoring the Obvious” plows straight into that darkness and earns its leap of faith.