Archive for the ‘music’ Category


It’s alright, ma, it’s only Christmas

October 31, 2009

It sits right there between Bringing it All Back Home and Desire. On my iPod at least.

Yep. Bob Dylan’s newest album, the sugar-frosted Christmas in the Heart. Not Christmas approximately or revisited, on the tracks or out of mind. In the Heart.

And yeah, kids, it’s all for charity.

Picture 1Whether adopting a stance of disbelief or nonchalant acceptance when first hearing His Bobness would take on Xmas, few of Dylan’s legion followers could have predicted that title. Of course, few fans can predict anything the elder croonster will try, including sputtering the following words in the polka (!) rendition of Must Be Santa:

Who laughs this way, ho ho ho? Santa laughs this way, ho ho ho.

So what’s left? That instrumental album he’s always promised? A children’s album with Dylan infusing the Eensy Weensy Spider with equal parts Glenlivet and Marlboro? How many artistic roads can a man walk down?

Picture 2But back to that lovable chestnut of a Christmas album. From the opening jingle bells to the final, sonorous amen, it’s clear that a) this is all in good fun, b) it’s Dylan’s most explicitly religious album since Shot of Love. It includes standard hymnody material like Hark The Herald Angels Sing, O Come All Ye Faithful (with Dylan croaking in Latin(!)), The First Noel, and O Little Town of Bethlehem.

But that’s not all. Dylan’s rendering of Here Comes Santa, for instance, has religious dimensions I had never fathomed. The message, however, is clearly ecumenical and devoid of the strident warnings of Slow Train Coming:

Santa knows that we’re God’s children, that makes everything right. Fill your hearts with Christmas cheer, ‘cos Santa Claus comes tonight.

Peace on earth would come to all if we just follow the light. Let’s give thanks to the Lord above, ‘cos Santa Claus comes tonight.

Can Dylan save Christmas? The critics are mixed, but stay on the slightly positive side of things. Jim Caroompas says, “for my money the very best Christmas album I have ever heard.” The Onion AV Club gives it a B-, calling Dylan a “fruitcake,” saying he “surely knows just how wrong his mangled liquefying-granite voice is for lots of this material, and there are times when he flaunts just that what-the-hell quality….” Sean Wilentz, the Princeton historian and scholar-in-residence at, has Dylan channeling Bing Crosby. Well, okay.

Myself, I’m partial to Bruce Cockburn’s Christmas, so it’ll take a few more listens for me to put Christmas in the Heart.


Getting the Blues: A Review

October 29, 2009

Stephen J. Nichols, Getting the Blues: What Blues Music Teaches Us About Suffering and Salvation (Brazos, 2008), $22.99 CDN. 192 pages.

Check out my review of Stephen Nichols’ Getting the Blues (Part 1Part 2), published last spring in Crux, Regent College’s quarterly journal. I had almost completely forgotten about the review, which explains why I’m putting it on the site a year after I wrote it. Picture 1

The review was actually in the can long before spring. I had pitched the idea to a receptive editor at a fairly large religion and culture website. When the economic downturn left him on the outside, there was nobody available to read my finished review (despite trying for months!!). Frustrated, I finally sent it to the good folks at Crux, who quickly gave it a home.

Publishers Weekly calls Getting the Blues “a splendid little book,” and I would have to agree. The blues, in all their variegated splendour, have a lot to teach us, and Nichols is an excellent guide to the genre. There are no prerequisites required. Nichols packs his little book with information, a veritable who’s who of the blues.

Like many evangelical academics, Nichols self-consciously reflects on evangelical identity in a pretty honest way, and says the blues has much to teach Wheaton and Colorado Springs.Picture 2

It’s one of the facets of the evangelical subculture that might surprise outside observers. Mark Noll might be right, there’s not much of an evangelical mind, but you can still find some pretty sharp ones if you care to look (for instance, at Noll himself). Nichols has written other books along these lines, including Jesus Made in America, a cultural history of American Jesuses.

For all of that, my review stops short of unqualified endorsement. Any book on the blues might do well to take stock of black theology, which has already tread upon these grounds a quarter century ago. Nichols stops short of really engaging with black theology, admittedly not an easy task. He also has a tendency to push the blues into a systematic theological frame, where it doesn’t quite fit.

But read this book for yourself.


Dragonflies and Screws

June 26, 2009

Another week goes by, Michael Jackson dies, yada yada yada.

My abbreviated week at the Edmonton Journal included my first back-to-back A1 stories, astonishing since I thought Jacko’s death would surely trump anything else. It goes to show how papers are now purveyors of local content rather than international breaking news. How else could a giant dragonfly statue trump the biggest pop music death since Kurt Cobain?

Strangely enough, my site has been receiving thousands of hits since my post, “What Happened?: Paul Williams’s take on Bob Dylan’s ‘born-again’ period” wound up as a link on (not expectin’ grain, but expecting rain, by the way), a premier Bob Dylan fansite. Strange thing that interweb, I wrote the post last September!

Friday, June 26: Dragonfly designed to get tourists buzzing, A1. (Calgary Herald, July 1, B7)

Thursday, June 25: Stolen laptops a ‘warning,’ A1 (Calgary Herald, A9).

Wednesday, June 24: Lock it or lose it, police warn, B2.


Sugar my Tea?: My sister on Roger Whittaker’s putridity

May 30, 2009

I was searching through newspaper archives today when I found a hidden gem written by my sister Carmen in 1996. I thought it should be resurrected, and what better place than my website?

A little background: my sister was responding to a letter to the Calgary Herald editor about Nine Inch Nails, aka Trent Reznor. The letter, entitled “Alternative Filth,” was penned by a concerned mother of impressionable youths, who inadvertently read the lyrics from the CD collection of her children. My sister rather liked our friend Trent.

Young and sarcastic (with time on her hands), Carmen wrote a brilliant, scathing parody suggesting that there is much more to Roger Whittaker’s lyrics than his avuncular whistles and whimsy suggests (e.g. youtube video below).

Mom was appalled. Confused elderly people called our house, explaining to Carmen that they always thought Roger Whittaker was above reproach.

Re “Alternative filth,” Herald Letters, March 22.

Recently, my 49-year-old father purchased his first cassette tape called Songs of Love and Life by Roger Whittaker. After listening to the first track, Flip Flap, I was compelled to read the horrific lyrics cryptically enclosed. I had no choice but to immediately smash and burn my father’s entire collection of cassettes, not to mention his eight-track cassette player.

Why are adults permitted to purchase such filth? How can a father, whose ideals and morals shape those of his malleable children, have access to music — and I use the term loosely — that transcends the boundaries of musical taste in its nauseating sentimentality. The song Sugar My Tea, for example, has shocking implications when taken out of context, and the blasphemous song “Swaggy” needs no further explanation.

I delivered the charred remains of this abomination to the music store’s manager, who shook his head in disgust and pity, then wept. My mother tells me that there are others who listen to this detestable putridity. I cannot understand what our society has come to.

Carmen Wittmeier , Calgary.


ABC Spells “Trouble” for Ignatieff

December 7, 2008

While last weekend’s ABC (anything but conservative) Coalition talks were, well, coalescing, I told my wife, “I don’t think it’s going to happen.”

I can’t really claim to have had any sort of prescient foresight, any brilliant interpretation of the constitutional role of the Governor General, or anything of the sort. It was more of a gut feeling.

My thought? There’s no way Michael Ignatieff will go along with it.

Ignatieff in happier times

Ignatieff in happier times

As the Liberal leadership candidate with majority MP backing (50 of 77), not to mention the coolest CV, Iggy had to back this thing or else it was a non-starter. Why would he cede his possible honeymoon period to a nice-but-clearly-a-liability-interim-leader like Stephane Dion? There was just too much to lose, especially with the type of legislation the coalition would be bringing to the table. As one of my profs once said, there’s an inelegance in spending large quantities of money. And with Jack and Gilles up on the hill, there’d be inelegance-a-plenty.

But suppose it worked. Maybe Dion would perform tremendously (and on Monday, it looked like he might). The May 2 Liberal leadership race might begin to look like a mistake. Even in the best case scenario, Ignatieff would inherit the PMO at the convention. But if Ignatieff was living in Canada for the past 25 years, he’d know that Canadian politics aren’t very nice to Prime Ministers who inherit the job (Mr. Ignatieff, since you were away, please check the Wikipedia entries for Paul Martin, Kim Campbell, and John Turner).

But Ignatieff went ahead and signed the coalition papers. And now the wheels have fallen off the wagon, Dion is looking more like Stockwell Day than the future Prime Minister.

Presuming Ignatieff is the next Liberal leader (really, who else?), I can’t see how he isn’t going to be severely wounded in the next federal election. By lending his signature to the coalition, however reluctant he may have been, Ignatieff won’t be able to amble up the rhetorical high road.

Harper is already there, turning his own blunder into a prospective majority (and shoring up his lagging western support to boot). I’m still not quite sure how he managed it. Maybe it’s because the majority of Canadians hate at least one of the coalition’s triumvirate (plus the suddenly silent Senator Elizabeth May). If Canadian elections are about the least of five evils, then maybe the evils add up!

No prescience needed for my last thought either: Ignatieff will need to execute some skillful Harperesque maneuvering to get out of this one. A speedy leadership convention won’t make it any easier.


Bob Dylan: Can a White Man Sing the Blues?

October 17, 2008

In 2007, I wrote an article on Bob Dylan’s use of the Blues in the Oxford arts magazine, Veritasse. The article was a little difficult for some people to access since it wasn’t online. But now you can read it right here on my site, thanks to the very generous permission of Veritasse.

“Can a White Man Sing the Blues?” was partly inspired by my love of blues music and partly by my reading of the great Black Liberation theologian, James Cone.

Bob Dylan’s work has long relied on the blues (from his 1962 cover of “See that My Grave is Swept Clean” to his 2007 near-copyright-infringement, “Rollin’ and Tumblin'”). A white Minnesotan using the music of an oppressed people, however, might seem to some more like Theft than Love.

I argue that the jury may still be out on whether Dylan’s use of the blues is ethical or not. But the language of the blues, in Dylan’s hands, is undeniably powerful. For an artist who prizes his privacy so dearly, the blues allows him to speak freely about God, death, and apocalypse. And in doing so, Dylan keeps the blues alive.

Veritasse magazine is currently on a bit of a hiatus due to printing costs, and might re-emerge in online form. But the magazine is only one aspect of Veritasse’s overall mission of promoting and celebrating Christian artists. Check out their website.


Grand Weepers and Grim Reapers: Tom Waits and Vancouver

October 16, 2008

“All weather is strange when you’re strange.” So observes Tom Waits while introducing Strange Weather for his album, VH1 Storytellers.

Vancouver can be a dreary place of strange weather.

Someone once described the city to me as claustrophobic. There’s the rain. The clouds hang low in the sky. Hedges shoot up and out. The mountains and hills clog the horizon. In recent days, grey, green, and glassy condos are popping up everywhere. Everything conspires to enclose you, to suffocate you.

Today was a typical Vancouver day. But I stood tall and refused to get bogged down. My reason: Tom Waits VH1 Storytellers album.

“Songs have to be anatomically correct,” Waits tells his audience while introducing his gorgeous Picture in a Frame. “You’ve gotta put a change of clothes in there. You have to put the names of towns and it’s good to put something to eat in there as well. And some weather.”

With all of its weather, Waits is a perfect companion in Vancouver. His repertoire is full of rain, and not just in Strange Weather or A Little Rain. His songs are full of sonic humidity, breezes, and precipitation.

While I crossed the Granville bridge into downtown Vancouver, I couldn’t help thinking that there was something especially fitting about the moment. The gravelly torch ballads, minor keys, and the sheer randomness of Waits’ world seem congruent with this one. I love Waits’ “Grand Weepers and Grim Reapers,” as his wife calls them; or as one of my friends once commented, they’re “awfully good.”

As I listened to this album on the bus, the crackling, nonsensical yarns in between songs cracked me up more than once (hopefully, no one noticed). “There are 35 million digestive glands in the human stomach,” he points out in his introduction to I Can’t Wait to Get Off Work. “I’ve used each one of them.”

The world’s a little stranger when you’re listening to Tom Waits. But it’s a whole lot better.