On the Song “Dylan Thomas” and Comments on Ryhme

A few days ago I posted a brief review of the new record from Better Oblivion Community Center in which I wrote a little bit about the song “Dylan Thomas” from their record. In the 50 something hours since then I’ve listened to the song about 100 times, literally, which is a lot. So I thought I might have something more to say about it.

For the uninitiated (which is probably everyone reading this–after I posted my review a friend texted me a funny article from The Onion entitled “Study: No Two People Have Listened To Same Band Since 2003”), Better Oblivion Community Center is Conor Oberst and Phoebe Bridgers. “Dylan Thomas” is the single, or at least the song they just played on Jimmy Kimmel. You still won’t know them.

The reason I want to write a little more about the song is it has a killer structure. The structure is based around a neat rhyme scheme with fabulous use of “near rhymes” and also around a see-saw in the verses between fairly pointed political commentary and apolitical hedonism. As with all interpretation, I can’t be sure that what I hear was intended, but what the hell–communication is what the listener does after all.

Now, a lot of songs, most, rhyme. That’s obvious. But not too many songs really hold up on the page as well, as poetry. I think “Dylan Thomas” does and I’d like to explore why.

Verse I:

It was quite early one morning
Hit me without warning
I went to hear the general speak
I was standing for the anthem
Banners all around him
Confetti made it hard to see

So the first verse clearly alludes to our political moment–it appears politically engaged to some extent. The reference to “the general” is redolent of South American politics (I am reminded of the fabulous Drugstore song “El President”). The rhyme scheme is tricky–it’s AABCC(D), where (d) “see” almost rhymes with “speak” in the delivery although the words don’t actually rhyme, instead being only vaguely alliterative.

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New Albums for January 2019: Better Oblivion Community Center

Well it’s a new year and we already have a nice batch of cool new records. This year I’m going to work on staying on top of new releases each week and listen to more new music than I have since 2003. That’s the goal. I won’t post super long write ups because the point here is just to flag up some good stuff for your consideration.

First up is:

Better Oblivion Community Center, s/t

A two-hander between the young and super talented Phoebe Bridgers (of boygenuis) and Conor Oberst (of Bright Eyes). This is an efficient and across the board excellent set of songs. The duo harmonizes beautifully with Bridgers taking the lead on more than the half the songs. It has Americana tinges and fits nicely in Oberst’s canon, however also at times sounds more like the experimental indie rock on a band like The Walkmen (See “Exception to the Rule”). I miss the Walkmen.

The lyrics are excellent, raw, personal. The band sets the tone on the first song, “Didn’t Know What I Was In For” where we have this tongue in cheek verse:

I didn’t know what I was in for
When I signed up for that run
There’s no way I’m curing cancer
But I’ll sweat it out
I feel so proud now for all the good I’ve done

Followed by a quick retraction:

I didn’t know what I was in for
When I laid out in the sun
We get burned for being honest
I’ve really never done anything, for anyone

On the uptempo “Dylan Thomas” the band seems to nod to the angst-filled zeitgeist like a lot of art these days, but in a refracted, allusive, and clever way:

These cats are scared and feral
The flag pins on their lapels
The truth is anybody’s guess
These talking heads are saying
“The king is only playing a game of four dimensional chess
If it’s advertised, we’ll try it
And buy some peace and quiet
And shut up at the silent retreat
They say you’ve gotta fake it
At least until you make it
That ghost is just a kid in a sheet

It’s every bit as good as it sounds.

This record features plenty drinking, heartache, self-loathing, and snark–in other words all of the great themes of rock ‘n roll and there isn’t a down song in the bunch.

RIYL: Bright Eyes, Phoebe Bridges, Dawes, The Walkmen.
Start With: Didn’t Know What I Was In For, Dylan Thomas, Dominos.

My Favorite Albums of 2018

This is a simple overview of my favorite albums of 2018. Naturally I am only able to comment on those albums that I had the time to listen to and to find my way into. Many lists have albums from Mitski and others on there that I just didn’t totally get into. The list that follows is a mixture of albums that a lot of critics adored and others that just stood out to me. You probably won’t like all of these, but I’m pretty sure you can find something here that turns you on.

#13: Deafheaven, Ordinary Corrupt Human Love. On ANTI-.

Deafheaven’s first record since 2015 sees the band moving into more melodic territory, sort of. Deafheaven is basically black metal mixed with a little Slowdive and a little Sigur Ros. The songs are often long–the opener “You Without End” runs 7 and a half minutes and the showstopper “Glint” runs over 10. The album is said to be based on Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair and you can certainly hear ordinary corrupt human love in the lyrics, or you can just sit back and bask in the sound. Basically, cool people like Deafheaven. Do you want to be cool? I thought so.

I’m by no means a black metal completist so the comparisons won’t be perfect but…

RIYL: Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Jesu, Pelican, Sigur Ros
Start With: You Without End, Glint, Honeycomb

#12: Metric, The Art of Doubt. On MMI/ Crystal Math Music.

I just love Metric and Emily Haines, so this is an easy one. Fantasies is a top 30 record of the millennium. The Art of Doubt doesn’t quite rise to that level, but it’s a kick-ass rocker through and through and “The Risk,” holy lord:

Was the risk I sent to you received?
All the words we say to be believed?
I’m already over the thrill of pursuit
Where can I take this risk I took with you?
Send this kiss to someone new?

Metric is historical high-level. I’m a Gemini sun with Mars in Leo in my 10th house. I am, basically speaking, not afraid of people. What you got? Yeah, color me impressed. However…there are three women I would be a bit daunted to meet. In order:

#1: Brit Marling, actress and creator of The OA.

#2: Emily Haines, lead singer of Metric.

#3: Kristin Stewart, actress in Personal Shopper.

RIYL: Chvrches, Broken Social Scene, Emily Haines, Lower Dens
Start With: The Risk, Dark Saturday

#11: Bad Moves, Tell No One. On Don Giovanni Records.

I wrote about Bad Moves extensively here: https://thekyotokibbitzer.com/2018/12/16/crushes-and-crushing-with-bad-moves-and-swearin/. Bad ass power pop with attitude, class, and sweetness. That’s quite a combination. And Emily Park is stunning. That’s my opinion, and I am correct.

RIYL: Dirty on Purpose, Daddy Issues, Swearin’
Start With: Crushed Out, Missing You

#10: Janelle Monae, Dirty Computer. On Bad Boy Records and Atlantic Records.

I really liked her last record, and her new one is a huge step forward. Janelle is a star, no question about it. This is a rollicking record with breadth and depth and takes multiple listens to plumb. Janelle is living in public with no apologies. The record is long and dense and encompass a range of moods. The best places to jump in are the fist-pumping tracks like “Django Jane,” which sees Monae spitting fire:

Yeah, yeah this is my palace, champagne in my chalice
I got is all covered like a wedding band
Wonderland, so my alias is Alice
We gon’ start a motherfuckin’ pussy riot
Or we gon’ have to put them on a pussy diet
Look at that, I guarantee I got ’em quiet
Look at that, I guarantee they all inspired

I can’t wait to see her live as soon as possible.

RIYL: Lykke Li, Funkadelic, Sly and the Family Stone, Lady Gaga
Start With: Crazy Classic Life, Django Jane

#9: The Hold Steady, Confusion in the Marketplace/ The Stove and the Toaster b/w Star 18/ Eureka b/w Esther.

This one is a bit of a cheat as it is not actually an album. These are the three two-song releases from The Hold Steady in 2018. If you aren’t a hardcore fan you these might have slipped beneath your radar. That’s a shame because there are some classic Hold Steady songs and some killer Craig Finn lines in these songs.

“The Stove and the Toaster” details yet another bad deal gone down, a classic Finn theme.

Got some new information from the chef and the chauffeur
The put the stash in the stove they keep the cash in the toaster
Down in Las Cruces they don’t play with jokers
I hope I still know you when this is all over.

Needless to say, the narrator and crew get burned by the chef and the chauffeur in the end. Yeah, it’s sort of Finn-by-numbers, so, basically the kind of lines other songwriters would kill for.

My two favorites here are #2 “Esther,” and #1 “Star 18.” Esther is a great song about a week long romance. It remains totally remarkable how much detail and color Finn can get across in a 4 minute song.

The party ended suddenly, suddenly it’s over
That left me and Esther all along and getting older
All alone and getting older and smoking in the street
Now everything is Esther and it’s been that way all week

Esther follows the transcendent “Tangletown” from 2017’s We All Want the Same Things as a precisely executed x-ray of a complex adult relationship. I like it a lot.

Best of all is “Star 18,” a top 10 all time Hold Steady track. It’s an upbeat rocker that would fit on Stay Positive (still my favorite record by this great band.). A tongue-in-cheek commentary on the music scene and a come on song at the same time, Star 18 features lines that help make the case for Finn as the greatest living lyricist under 70.

Sorry I’m late, I got caught in the mosh
With this dude that said he used to play with Peter Tosh
But he never brought it up again once I said, man, I don’t believe you

And

Hold Steady at the Comfort Inn
Mick Jagger’s at the Mandarin
Once you get good, you can get it wherever you are.

The Hold Steady gets it wherever they are, believe me.

RIYL: Rock ‘n Roll
Start With: Star 18

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Breakdown: The Stage Banter of Matthew Houck and Dean Wareham

After the rousing success of our first breakdown here on the kibbitzer, we have doubled down on the form.  Here we will be exploring two incidences of stage banter by musicians captured on live albums.  We will look at Matthew Houck from Phosphorescent introducing his band, and Dean Wareham from Luna riffing with a French audience.  Phosphorescent and Luna are two of our most beloved bands, and the proto-thesis of this piece is that through their stage banter we can see into the core of what makes Matthew and Dean who they are as artists and entertainers, and in so doing discover anew what makes them great.  Stage banter, in short, may be the royal road to stylistic explication.

That all sounds pretty good, though we aren’t actually going to start with stage banter. Instead, we will take a quick stroll through the archives, back to 2009 when we published a little piece on our first blog, Classical Sympathies called “Curtis John Tucker Had a Lot to Do With It.”  Around this time, I was interested in artistic communities, artistic communes really, I guess.  My Dinner with Andre was a huge influence.

Around that time I was also listening to a bit of Giant Sand.  Giant Sand is an ever-evolving group of musicians around the enigmatic Howe Gelb, a shape-shifting Southwest troubadour who makes a lot of music, some of which is really good.  On the record Cover Magazine, the Sand covers a Kris Kristofferson song called “The Pilgrim (Chapter 33)“.  It is this song that the Curtis John Tucker piece took up.

The themes that occupy a Gemini through life, though certainly never stable, do have a certain macro-coherence.  Such is it with stage banter—our current focus calls back to this little piece on Giant Sand.  What follows then is a re-write of the original piece as an introduction to our main topic.


Re-write of “Curtis John Tucker Had a Lot to Do With It;” original version July, 2009.

On Nothing Left to Lose, a Kris Kristofferson tribute album, and later collected on Giant Sand’s Cover Magazine Howe Gelb covers the song “The Pilgrim (Chapter 33).”  You may know the song; it goes:

he’s a poet/ he’s a picker/ he’s a prophet/ he’s a pusher/ he’s a pilgrim and a preacher and a problem when he’s stoned/ he’s a walking contradiction/ partly fact and partly fiction/ taking every wrong direction on his lonely way back home.

Yeah, you know the one.

It’s a good song, and Gelb turns in a sound version.  But it’s his spoken introduction that really peaks my interest.  On Kristofferson’s original he name-checks a number of folks who “had something to do with” the genesis of the song.  Gelb repeats the original name-checks, slightly out of order, before listing a set of artists that he, Gelb, learned the song for:

Well, I guess when Kris wrote this song he wrote it for Chris Gantry–he started out doing it though by–ended up writing it for Dennis Hopper, Johnny Cash, Norman Norbert, Funky Donny Fritts, Billy Swan, Paul Seibel, Bobby Neuwirth, Jerry Jeff Walker.  Ramblin’ Jack Eliot had a lot to do with it.

Me I ended up learning this song for Vic Chesnutt, Jason Lytle, Evan Dando, Polly Jean, Paula Jean, Patsy Jean, Juliana, Victoria, Bobby Neuwirth, Bobby Plant.  Curtis John Tucker had a lot to do with it.

The alliterative Bobbys and the matching of Ramblin’ Jack Eliot and Curtis John Tucker make this speech into a mini-poem of sorts, and we know many of the protagonists.  Hopper and Cash of course; Jerry Jeff Walker and Ramblin’ Jack Eliot are folk singers, older than Kristofferson; Bobby Neuwirth is a folk singer, multimedia artist, and Dylan confidant in Don’t Look Back,  Funky Donny Fritts is a session keyboardist, and I believe Norman Norbert and Billy Swan were session musicians as well.  Paul Seibel was also a folksinger–I don’t know him; maybe you do.  Kris’ meaning is pretty clear—a song like The Pilgrim doesn’t come from nowhere, and the folksingers he learned from are portals back in time to an earlier tradition to which he generously pays tribute.

Not being myself a 70’s session musician completist I did have to look up a few of the names.  The Gelb names are more familiar, expect one.  Vic Chesnutt, Jason Lytle and Victoria (Williams) are folk singers (or were, as sadly Chesnutt has passed).  Evan Dando, Juliana Hatfield, and P.J. Harvey are/were alt-rock superstars.  Bobby Plant would be Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin fame, Bobby Neuwirth is Bobby Neuwirth.

But here’s the point, after listening to Kristofferson and Gelb name-check Funky Donny and Curtis John, I feel an affinity for them–were I to bump into Funky Donny in an airport bar or lounge his presence would resonate with an essential familiarity.  Even if I didn’t know precisely that it was he, I would recognize immediately that he was indeed funky, not to mention a serious problem when he’s stoned.  And Curtis John Tucker, well, his role is still opaque to me, but he clearly had a lot to do with it.

What both singers hint at in their evocation of the circumstances surrounding the creation of a song is the presence of community behind the music.  Behind or beside every Kristofferson is a Norman Norbert, behind every Dylan a Bobby Neuwirth, every Gelb a Curtis John Tucker.  In 2009 I wrote that “this thought fills me with a little jealously and a little sadness; I’m not at all sure that such communities of practice are as common as they once were; (there is) something about the atomisation of human affairs in the first world in the 21st century means that the idea of an artistic community where minor but still vital players such as Norman Norbert is no longer viable.” Today, although this statement still rings somewhat true, things appear rather different to me.  It seems that at least two things are occurring: first the internet has evolved such that any artistically minded person can find a niche community(s) that fits their style, and live with a foot in this community.  The second is that an apparently opposite, and actually concomitant, vitalisation of local community is underway all over the world, and a vitalised local community by necessity contains a vitalised local artistic scene.

Whatever the case, the humanity and camaraderie inherent in the spoken introductions to The Pilgrim remind us that artistic communities are vital in the creation of lasting artistic production–Neuwirth may not have been essential to Dylan’s art in the mid-60’s, but he was instrumental to its vitality; Kristofferson wrote “The Pilgrim” but it wouldn’t have been as good without Paul Seibel.  And as for Curtis John Tucker, well he had a lot to do with it.


On the spoken introduction of the band Phosphorescent by Matthew Houck between the songs “Joe Tex, These Taming Blues” and  “Los Angeles,” from Live at the Music Hall.

On side two of Phosphorescent’s majestic 2015 live album Live from the Music Hall, the band plays a song from their 2005 album Aw Come Aw Wry, called “Joe Tex, These Taming Blues.”  Houck’s early Phosphorescent albums are interesting–they are more ambient and keening than his mature work and some of the songs are really long.  Joe Tex is one of the better early songs, and Houck puts a little something special into the first couple lines on the live version: 

Is it ever gonna not be so hard to see you around/ or am I really really really really gonna have to really gonna have to really have to leave town

Houck is a master at harnessing the power of repetition—here each “really” takes on its own character and valance.  The band gives an excellent performance, which goes for about 4 minutes.  It is apparently the second last song of the night, because at the end of the song Houck moves to introduce the band.  Here he goes, as the band chugs on behind him:

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