Essay / Blog

Three Records and Three Books

record noun \ˈre-kərd also –ˌkȯrd\  something on which sound or visual images have been recorded; specifically :  a disc with a spiral groove carrying recorded sound for phonograph reproduction

You know, those big black circles with the hole in the middle? I had a baby blue and white plastic Fisher Price record player when I was a kid. I would fall asleep listening to records, over and over. Was it the soundtrack to Mary Poppins that I memorized on the cusp of sleep? Thing was, you had to get up when the record ended to lift the needle; otherwise a soft thwup–thwup–thwup followed you through the night.

People still sometimes refer to a discrete collection of produced music available for purchase as a “record,” even though the technology itself is (with apologies to the hippest of the hip) obsolete. In our age of digital media, discrete collections are themselves increasingly rare. We buy single songs; we make and share playlists. The concept of an album makes no sense to us, and the shuffle feature on our phones renders it meaningless.

Still, God bless the internet. It has allowed a thousand cultural flowers to bloom. And if some stink, plenty of others smell real good. Take these three records, each of them serendipitous e-finds.

I first heard Lord Huron on an extreme skiing video, of all things. What a lush short film of Zack Giffin in Alaska–the lighting, the slow-motion action scenes, and this perfect chilled out soundtrack in Lord Huron’s “She Lit a Fire.” Lord Huron is a myth-making band. The video to “She Lit a Fire” says the short film is “based on the novel by George Ranger Johnson.” The fictional George Ranger Johnson has his own website. Born in 1946, he has written a series of pulp adventure novels, the titles of which Lord Huron borrowed for the songs on its most recent “Lonesome Dreams” album.

Lake Street Dive was another random internet discovery. I’d like to thank Rainn Wilson–yes, that Rainn Wilson, Dwight from The Office. Turns out Dwight in real life is pretty sharp. Wilson is Baha’i and started something called “Soul Pancake.” Here’s their pitch: “Our brain batter of art, culture, science, philosophy, spirituality and humor is designed to open your mind, challenge your friends, and feel d**n good.” They did a sidewalk session with Lake Street Drive: one mic, one vocalist, an upright bassist, drummer with snare-cymbal-and-brushes, and a trumpeter. They covered George Michael’s “Faith.” More sass, more jazz, just more. I couldn’t stop listening. Check out their mostly covers EP “Fun Machine” (especially the slowed down Jackson 5 cover and the original “Clear a Space”) and their new release “Bad Self-Portraits” (start with “Better Than” and “Rental Love”) here. And for a teaser

I found out about The War on Drugs from my friend Brett. He called their album “Lost in the Dream” “the first truly great album of 2014.” Think Dire Straits (especially some of those guitar hooks in “Sultans of Swing”) meets Dylan (with those scooping vocals). Is “atmospheric” the right word? I have no idea what the lyrics are to these songs, but they lay down a groove, create a mood. Oh—and they use drum machines. (They’ll be at the Fonda in LA in October.)

And the books. Oh, the books. I’m on sabbatical, and you’d think I’d tire of reading. But all I want to do is read more. Professionally, I read theology. For fun, I read theology, too. But also novels. I’ve found it good for the soul to read things just because they sound like fun. I’m glad Alan Jacobs wrote a book making it official—we can, and often should, read for pleasure. Let me add to that: we can, and often should, read things that bring little benefit but pleasure. That’s somewhat artificial, as most books that bring pleasure worth its salt bring other things, too—moral instruction, comfort, reorientation, insight into the lives of others, a variety promptings and stirrings. But by all means, do some reading just for fun.

I did that last summer, while staying with some Seattle friends and in the midst of doing work stuff related to Jonathan Edwards (the theologian, not the singer-songwriter). In quick succession, I read three of the better books I’ve read in recent years. What a rollicking good time!

Again, the theme of serendipity ran through the books. I read The Things They Carrieda book of short stories about Vietnam by Tim O’Brien, because my friend Joel gave it to me. Joel gave me the book, and he reads good books; so I read it. Turns out, this is a book that many high schoolers have to read for English class. I hope they get it. O’Brien has a remarkable eye for detail. To wit, the opening lines of the titular story:

First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey. They were not love letters, but Lieutenant Cross was hoping, so he kept them folded in plastic in the bottom of his rucksack. In the late afternoon, after a day’s march, he would dig his foxhole, wash his hands under a canteen, unwrap the letters, hold them with the tips of his fingers, and spend the last hour of light pretending.

O’Brien hates the Vietnam War. He hates what it did to people. But his rage doesn’t blind him; it gives him a second sight. His prose is simple, even spare, pathetic (in the formal sense), emotionally precise—all without being maudlin or self-indulgent.

I also read Mary Karr’s LitI had read her first memoir (Lit is the third) years ago and got a bit of the way through this one a few years back visiting friends in D.C. I dipped back in back in August and reencountered the most audacious, hilarious, heartbreaking, potty-mouthed, pious voice. Yes, pious, too. She’d probably hate that description, but Mary Karr’s recounting of love, marriage, motherhood, alcoholism, rock bottom, and God reveals a woman who knows what it is to be lost-and-found and, thank God, knows how to talk about it, too. Her first real prayer, a venemous cry of “uncle!” to God, is a remarkable moment.

Here’s Karr in an interview in the Paris Review explaining why she writes memoirs:

Plus I needed the cake. Like Samuel Johnson said, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” I was newly divorced, a single mom feeling around for change in pocket lint. I didn’t have a car, which meant taking my kid to the grocery store in his red wagon, and two hours of bus time to pick him up after school on days I taught. In some ways I was resourceful. My students would move out of town and I’d scavenge their old furniture to sell at a garage sale. My son, Dev, and I used to sneak into the pool at the Sheraton. We’d park illegally in the snowy lot with our bathing suits on under our winter clothes. We’d call it “going to the Bahamas.” That was our vacation.

Later in the interview, she speaks of her mother’s “exquisite sensibility” and “that suckhole of a town” she grew up in. Karr smashes high-falutin’ and down home speak together like no one else. Did I mention she’s a poet?

And then there was Peace Like A RiverLeif Enger’s book is one of those that your friends have read but you haven’t. I had heard about it for years. Finally, I picked it up. I read and read and read. I told my mom about it. She inhaled it, called me on the brink of tears when she finished, and started back in for a second go-through. Immediately, I knew this was one of my top 3 books. Ever. (The others? David James Duncan’s The Brothers K and Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.) A dad who doesn’t always make a lot of sense, but who loves his kids. Who reads his KJV and walks on the air. A big, bad event that splits the world open. Love in the nick of time. Heaven. Melissa Schubert and I have a running debate about this book. (See the conversation starting at 1:00:00 here.) I find it a deeply hopeful story; she wonders. Here’s a bit of Enger:

My sister, Swede, who often sees to the nub, offered this: People fear miracles because they fear being changed–though ignoring them will change you also. Swede said another thing, too, and it rang in me like a bell: No miracle happens without a witness. Someone to declare, Here’s what I saw. Here’s how it went. Make of it what you will.

I won’t be so absurd as to call any of these albums or books a miracle, but boy, are they something.

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