Tuesday, August 16, 2011

So Long, See You Tomorrow

Published in the Providence Journal on August 13, 2011


I recently met up with an old friend, and we reminisced about our high-school days 40 years ago. It was fun to share those memories with him, but I was also filled with a sense of regret about some of the things we did.

All high schools have their pariahs, whose function it is to protect the honor of those who cannot achieve status by any other means. When all else fails, denigrating the lowest of the low separates you from them. Looking back, two cases stand out for me.

One was a willowy girl prone to long dresses and distant gazes. She had straight brown hair that ran down to the middle of her back, and she was naturally taciturn. Apparently friendless, she was often seen dancing in the park at lunch. In those days we were allowed to go outside during the lunch hour, though we were not supposed to leave the school grounds. Some kids never returned, but school officials were willing to accept a small loss of inventory in the afternoon.

Across from school there was a small park, and in nice weather this girl could be seen swaying and bending alone in a manner that combined ballet movements with modern dance. She often appeared to be initiating a kind of communion with the trees, who, despite her invitations, did not join in.

During adolescence everyone is so worried about how their own behavior will be judged that anything unusual in others is quickly labeled aberrant. It is an age when the codes of social conduct are remarkably strict. Seen from a distance, this young girl’s dances looked very strange to us, and she was immediately assigned to the school’s unofficial loony bin.

Although we thought she was crazy, perhaps because she was a girl and most of my friends were boys who retained a shred of chivalry or who, like me, were afraid of the opposite sex, we did not subject her to overt teasing. We made fun of her behind her back, but we left her alone. The same could not be said of one boy I remember.

This young man was the unchallenged winner of the loser contest. He was a general law of social science: the one kid you could deride with impunity. It was safe to make fun of him at any time, even if he was standing right next to you. Why? Because he would take it. Despite being bigger than a number of us, he was so desperate to be included that he was willing to accept the job of verbal punching bag just to have a role.

Physical fights were rare at my high school, but there are different ways to get beaten up. This boy could take any number of verbal punches and keep coming back. Today this would be called bullying, but in those days it was called high school.

Looking back, I am convinced that the young dancer’s only problem was being smarter and more creative than the rest of us. She probably felt somewhat alien in our world and responded by creating a different one in her imagination.

Today the victimized boy would have a label. He might be called cognitively disabled, or perhaps he would be diagnosed with one of the less severe forms of autism. I am not sure it would have made a difference to us. Had he been anointed with a condition — a syndrome with a textbook name — I suspect we might have acted the same way. Or worse.

Sometimes a sense of regret comes with age. The main character of William Maxwell’s autobiographical novel, “So Long, See You Tomorrow,” is a man who, as a child, withheld a simple act of kindness from a friend whose family had been shattered by tragedy and scandal. It was a moment in time when a small gesture might have been very important. A missed opportunity that remained a psychological burden long into adulthood.

Nothing can be taken back. Once done, an action cannot be undone. Often we do or say something without thinking, or in the heat of emotion, and we regret it almost immediately. But sometimes the longing for a different reality comes much later. Time passes; we gain a new appreciation of events; and we discover pieces of our past that we wish had gone differently.

Children act without the benefit of a wisdom that — if we are fortunate — comes later in life. Looking back, it seems fair to forgive our younger selves their youth. We were just kids. We didn’t know what we were doing. It would be easy enough to let it pass. Yet some decisions — particularly those that touched other people — can gnaw at you years later.

I wish I had reached out a bit more to these two fellow students. High school was not a great time for me. I have few happy memories of that period, and when senior year came around, I chose not to buy a copy of the yearbook. But I probably got through my high-school career in better shape than they did, and as a result, I had something I could have given them.

The saddest part is knowing — as I do now — that it might not have taken much effort. Sometimes just a simple thing, like turning to someone at the end of the day to say, “So long, see you tomorrow,” can make all the difference in the world.

Stuart Vyse is a professor of psychology at Connecticut College.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Charles Baxter on Love

The main character of the novel owns a coffee shop.

"Bradley, I don't think you should talk about these things."
"Why not?"
"Some matters you shouldn't verbalize. I mean really, Bradley" ―and here she raised her hand and caressed my cheek―"all this love business is just nature's way of getting more babies into the world. The rest of it is just all this romance nonsense." She struggled for the word. "The rest of it is just superstructure."
"Well, maybe. But what if," I said, still gazing at her, with her sly sexy smile like a little dawn on her face, "what if the love we feel, what if it's central, what if it's what makes the world's soul possible, what if it's what made the world and keeps it running, and the babies are also a product of that, our soul-making, not the only product, but..."
 "That's what I mean," she said. "You're so weird and metaphysical. For a coffee guy."   
The Feast of Love, pp. 172-173.             

Saturday, August 06, 2011

2011 Album of the Summer Announcement

Dear Music Lover:

Continuing a tradition that began eight years ago, I am happy to announce the 2011 Album of the Summer. This was the easiest summer so far to put this letter together. All year, great albums seemed to come my way without much effort, and as a result, there is much more here than in any previous AOTS epistle.

Several of the 2010 selections had a hip-hop/reggae flavor, and, somewhat surprisingly, this year the theme is distinctly country (or alternative country) and contemporary Irish.

I’ve added a few new features this year. There can be only one Album of the Summer, but this year’s selection is accompanied by no fewer than four Honorable Mentions and, for the first time ever, a Local Artist Award. To round out the list even further—and because I had trouble paring it down—I have added a new category of “Other Albums I Enjoyed This Year,” which includes five additional titles. Finally, since much of this music was brought to my attention by friends, I have identified the recommender or recommenders for every album mentioned. NPR still tops the list.

Now on to the award…..

But first, the disclaimers and criteria:


1. I have no authority to make this announcement. I majored in English. I played cornet in high school, sometimes sitting in the first chair, but that was a long time ago. I only buy a few albums a year (more as summer approaches), and I do not consider myself particularly musical.

2. This selection is not the result of an exhaustive scientific process. I listen to reviews of albums on NPR; I listen to things being played in the local coffee shop; and I try to take note of any good songs I hear in movies. People tell me about albums they like. Despite a rather casual approach to this project, I have discovered music that I and others have enjoyed for the last few summers.

The Demanding (if Somewhat Idiosyncratic and Not Rigidly Adhered To) Criteria for the Album of the Summer

1. I have to like it. Enough so that I am fairly confident I will not get tired of it before the summer is over.

2. It has to be happy. It helps if you feel like dancing. Over the years this has been the most troubling criterion. The first ever Album of the Summer (WELCOME INTERSTATE MANAGERS by FOUNTAINS OF WAYNE) was quite happy, and happy seems appropriate for music played in the car with the windows rolled down. But I have come to realize that most of what I listen to throughout the year is quite sad—desperately so, in some cases—or at least a little angry. So, this is where the “Not Rigidly Adhered To” loophole has most often been applied.

3. It has to be new to me, but it may or may not be new to you.

For further background visit the Album of the Summer Blog ( http://albumofthesummer.blogspot.com/ ) which includes YouTube videos of all current and past winners (and some Honorable Mentions). The blog also provides an account of the origins of the award.

And now the winner. The 2011 Album of the Summer is......…


This choice was hard to resist. As mentioned a couple of paragraphs ago, Fountains of Wayne won the very first Album of the Summer in 2003 for WELCOME INTERSTATE MANAGERS, which included the hit single “Stacy’s Mom.” Furthermore, SKY FULL OF HOLES is being released in the U.S. today, so the timing is perfect. Repeat winners are not an ideal circumstance, but there is precedent: Regina Spektor is a two-time winner. Although this album is a mild departure from their earlier efforts, Williams College alums Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingswood continue to pump out clever, punchy songs appropriate to this award. Rolling Stone recently called FOW “rock's sharpest storytellers.”

Most importantly, the thirteen tracks of SKY FULL OF HOLES  include some great music. This is FOW’s first full studio release since 2007, and the topics show a bit more maturity. For example, there are slightly fewer songs involving people who are drunk. As usual, FOW have no problem meeting the happiness criteria. Well over half of the songs are upbeat driving pop numbers typical of the band. There is plenty of humor, but Schlesinger and Collingswood are also starting to probe deeper, more melancholy subjects. Indeed, the last song on the album, and one of my favorites, “Cemetery Guns,” is about a military funeral. Similarly, "Hate to See You Like This” is a beautiful ringing ballad about someone trying to help a friend out of a depression. But there are also great alt-pop numbers that could easily be radio singles, including “Someone’s Gonna Break Your Heart,” “Cold Comfort Flowers,“ and “Dip in the Ocean.“ The best story pieces are “Action Hero,” about a Walter Mitty-ish middle-aged father of three who is beginning to buckle under the stress, ”Richie and Rubin,” about two failed entrepreneurs who solicit investments from friends, and “Acela,” about a guy trying to get home to Boston. Finally, “A Road Song,” is an innocent country number about a touring band member calling home to tell his girl he’s written a song for her. America, the aging casino-circuit rock band recorded a cover of “A Road Song” before SKY FULL OF HOLES was released.

You may ask, “If SKY FULL OF HOLES is being released today, how can you make this announcement so quickly?” Two reasons. First, due to the long gap between albums, several of these songs have been part of FOW’s concert repertoire for some time. Emily and I heard ”Cemetery Guns” and “A Road Song” two years ago at the Tarrytown Music Hall in Tarrytown, NY, and a number of the new songs have been on YouTube for a while. More importantly, however, FOW released a streaming version of the entire album on their Facebook page ( http://www.facebook.com/fountainsofwayne?sk=app_182222305144028 ) a week prior to the official release date.


I AND LOVE AND YOU by THE AVETT BROTHERS [Recommended by Amazon.com (“Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought….”) and by an anonymous commenter (an apparent Tampa Bay Rays baseball fan. RR?) on the Album of the Summer Blog]

Some of you already know about this alternate country / folk rock group from Concord, North Carolina, but they were new to me. This album was released back in September of 2009 and has received considerable acclaim. Once I got ahold of it, I played it compulsively for a couple of months. The music is beautifully rendered, and the lyrics are frequently thoughtful and moving. Many of the songs deal with issues of loss and disappointment, but others like “January Wedding” and “Laundry Room” are blushingly innocent love songs. Several of the happy songs feature banjos. The infectious, uptempo “Heart Like a Kick Drum” includes the sweet lyric “It’s not the chase that I love / It’s me following you.”

The heavier songs on I AND LOVE AND YOU tackle philosophical themes, and they are often quite successful. The best of these are “Head Full of Doubt / Road Full of Promise” and “A Perfect Space.” The latter is a beautiful ballad about getting older and discovering what you want out of life:

I wanna have pride like my mother has,
And not like the kind in the Bible that turns you bad.
And I wanna have friends that I can trust,
that love me for the man I’ve become and not the man that I was.

The vocals are frequently infused with the brother harmonies of Scott and Seth Avett, and the results are consistently rewarding. I AND LOVE AND YOU is an ambitious album that succeeds on every track. Thank you to the Avett Brothers. They produced my Album of the Autumn and Winter and gave me many hours of pleasure. If you have not already come across them, you should give them a listen.

MYNA BIRDS by GAVIN GLASS [Recommended by Rick Berkemeier via Lynn Callahan]

Ireland continues to be fertile ground for contemporary music. Damien Rice and The Swell Season have received AOTS Honorable Mentions in previous years, and this Irish entry is equally wonderful. Gavin Glass, while a star in Ireland, is not yet well-known in the U.S., and MYNA BIRDS is only available as a download here (iTunes, Amazon, etc). Glass plays in Lisa Hannigan’s band (more about Hannigan below) and has produced two albums on his own. He combines country, folk rock, and big band sounds (there are horns) to produce some wonderful songs on this album.

Glass’ dominant genre is the tragic love song, well-exemplified by the opening track “Just Like Rome.” He is often plaintively tragic in songs like “Just Like Rome,” Wake Up,” “State of Emergency,” and the wonderful but somewhat inscrutable “Minor Miseries.” He moves into the angry tragic mode on “Bleed” and especially on the deliciously belligerent “Awake on the Weekend,” which includes some great Keith Richards-like whining guitar work.

Finally, the title track, “Myna Birds” is a lovely ditty written about a friend’s young child. There is a high quality video of a live performance of this and another outstanding song “Slight of Hand” (I have spent some time pondering that spelling) here ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2WBrhZoUHEM ) and also on the Album of the Summer Blog (  http://albumofthesummer.blogspot.com/ ) Both songs feature backup vocals by Lisa Hannigan, and “Myna Birds” has some nice honky-tonk piano work. Despite his European origins, Glass’ music has many country overtones. He wears a western tie and vest. Of course, American country music has European roots that extend to Ireland, so he’s entitled.

This album does not meet the Album of the Summer happy criterion, but it is wonderfully evocative and creative. Highly recommended. Glass’ previous album, GAVIN GLASS & THE HOLY SHAKERS is also great.

THE UNFAZED by DOLOREAN [Recommended by NPR]

This time it’s country music from Portland, Oregon (Larry Wheeler & John Battle, take note). This is the kind of mournful music you would expect to hear at a roadside juke joint where Budweiser is the house drink and nobody is dancing—except perhaps for one couple who just met tonight and are now asleep on each other’s shoulders. Hard-luck, pissed-off, breakup songs that are fairly unremittingly hopeless, but so, so wonderful. Once in a while Dolorean slips up and writes a song with an upbeat message, as in the title track “Unfazed,” as well as “Sweet Boy” and “These Slopes Give Me Hope,” but the music is reliably doleful throughout. The wistful “If I Find Love” fluctuates between hope and despair. The line “If I find love I’m gonna make it mine” later morphs into “I have a habit of getting in too deep / If I find love it’ll be the end of me.” A crawling tempo and a sweetly crying fiddle at the breaks give this song great drama and substance. If you’re in that kind of mood, THE UNFAZED is a great album.

ALPOCALYPSE by WEIRD AL YANKOVIC [Recommended by Mike Dreimiller]

I am going to go out on a limb here and say I think Weird Al Yankovic is a genius. A national treasure, even. He has been at it for thirty years, and when he releases a new album it is an event. ALPOCALYPSE does not disappoint. High musical production values combined with Yankovic’s amazingly clever lyrics and clear enunciation make this another great collection. ALPOCALYPSE includes classic Weird Al parodies of Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” (“Perform This Way”), Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me” (“TMZ”), Miley Cirus’ “Party in the USA” (“Party in the CIA”), and the B.o.B./Bruno Mars number “Nothin’ on You” (“Another Tattoo”). The video of the Lady Gaga song (also posted on the Album of the Summer Blog) is creepily hilarious.

As much as Weird Al is known for his parodies, some of his most impressive songs are original compositions. I love “Hardware Store” from POODLE HAT, which features some amazing speed singing. ALPOCALYPSE introduces several clever originals including “Skipper Dan,” about a failed actor working at an amusement park, “Craigslist,” which is both a sequel to the earlier “eBay” and a generic Doors parody, and “Ringtone,” about a guy with a remarkably annoying one. But without question, my favorite song on the album is the enormously funny “Stop Forwarding That Crap to Me,” which is best experienced by watching the official video here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KCSA7kKNu2Y or on the Album of the Summer Blog ( http://albumofthesummer.blogspot.com/ ). This is one of the happiest albums I came across this year. You will laugh.


TWO SIDES by ABOVE/BELOW [Recommended by Gabriel Chandler]

Conflict of interest statement: Among the members of this phenomenal funk-jazz-hiphop-fusion group are faculty colleagues and friends David Dorfman (baritone sax) and Gabe Chandler (vocals). No matter. In my unbiased (wink) opinion A/B is the best thing to come out of New London, Connecticut since The Reducers. Great horns, soaring guitar work, and the amazing rhymes of MC Stat (AKA Professor Chandler). Plus, I really like their politics. The album is very appropriate for summer. The songs are upbeat and danceable. I particularly like “J Street,” “Socialist Todd,” and “The People’s Bailout.” Earlier this summer TWO SIDES won a New London Whalie Award for Album of the Year, and now A/B can add an Album of the Summer Local Artist Award to their accomplishments.

TWO SIDES is available through the band’s website as a “name your price” digital download, or for $10 you can order the hardcopy CD. On the website, you will also find the band’s two-song album featuring “Things Get Better” and “Alchemy.”


Rumor has it, now that Gabe Chandler has returned to California, Above/Below may be defunct. Let me add my voice to all those who cry, “Say it ain’t so!”


ADELE 21 by ADELE [Recommended by Bruce Snider and others]

What can I say. Adele is one of the great new artists of our time. I was a little late to this party. Adele won a Best New Artist Grammy in 2009 and is now a huge star. I did not bond with ADELE 19, but I haven’t had that problem with 21. (Can she really be that young?) A great album from an artist who describes her musical style as “heartbroken soul.” If you are in the mood for some great breakup songs sung by a wonderfully expressive crooner, ADELE 21has what you are looking for.

SEA SAW by LISA HANNIGAN [Recommended by Rick Berkemeier via Lynn Callahan]

Lisa Hannigan first gained attention as an important part of Damien Rice’s band, and since going out on her own, she has become one the best-known young stars in Ireland. SEA SAW is her first solo album, and her second effort is expected momentarily. There are a few soft spots on this album, but most of it is infectious and upbeat. I am particularly fond of the innocent love song “I Don’t Know.”

LUNGS by FLORENCE + THE MACHINE [Recommended by Lori Blinderman]

A great voice and some fabulous songs, many of them propelled by a throbbing drum line. There is much more to this album than “Dog Days are Over.” If you like music that will get you shouting and pounding the steering wheel, you will like LUNGS.

BARTON HOLLOW by THE CIVIL WARS [Recommended by Bonnie “Pez” Pezzolesi]

This is a wonderful collection of synchronized boy-girl duets, sung over the quiet background of finger-picking guitar. BARTON HOLLOW is full of romance. “Poison & Wine” will give you goosebumps. There are a few louder tracks, including the title song, but most of the album has a folk / blue grass sound in support of gorgeous vocals. The duo of Joy Williams and John Paul White just appeared at the Newport Folk Festival and earlier this year were chosen by Adele to be the opening act for her American tour. The album has sold very well, so it looks like The Civil Wars will be around for a while. I hope so.

THE ERRANT CHARM by VETIVER [Recommended by Michael Snediker]

San Francisco-based folk rock Vetiver has an upbeat summery sound. Major mellow. Almost too cool for the room. There is a bit of a dance beat here and hints of The Kinks in some of the guitar entrances. Good happy listening. The vocals can get a bit breathy in spots, but this is an album that will lift your mood. I really like it.

That’s it for this year.

Previous Albums of the Summer

2003   WELCOME INTERSTATE MANAGERS by FOUNTAINS OF WAYNE (I picked it before "Stacy's Mom" became a hit.)


Last October the kids and I saw Fountains of Wayne (Winner in 2003 and 2011), and last month we saw Matisyahu (Honorable Mention, 2010). VERY different shows. Graham and I are off to see FOW in Boston later this month. (Emily will be away at camp).

Thanks to all who nominated albums this year. I received many great suggestions. I apologize if your favorite was not selected.

See you next summer.