New Sounds and New Thoughts from Vampire Weekend

May 27, 2013

Vampire Weekend delivers yet again with the release of their third full-length album, Modern Vampires of the City. The album features heavy use of synthesizer, piano, and overdubbed vocals, in addition to their more familiar style, which in this case appears to have been pushed to the side in favor of experimentation. The result is an album filled with complex lyrics and a wide variety of often chaotic sounds. There is a marked level of maturity in the quality of the music, as well as in the content of the songs lyrically that makes Modern Vampires an excellent continuation of the band’s career.

The first track “Obvious Bicycle” sets the stage for the album, introducing the listening to the new sound with a mix of piano, African-styled drums, and vocals. The album quickly steps up with “Unbelievers,” a foot-tapping, fast-paced track reminiscent of Vampire Weekend’s self-titled pioneer album. The lyrical content of the track explores questions, or perhaps denials, of faith with lines like, “I’m not excited, but should I be,” setting up a theme of faith that reappears throughout the album.

The album picks up speed with “Diane Young,” a bouncy dance-rock jam filled with crashing drums, synth, and crooning vocals that reveal a rebellious spirit willing to “die young.” Soon following this, “Everlasting Arms” continues the ‘questions of faith’ theme from “Unbelievers.” Set to a backdrop of drums, guitar, and synth, Koenig’s lyrics play with the questions of where his own concept of faith lies, and whether a deity should be trusted, opening with the line ‘I trusted your counsel and came to ruin,’ but closing with the title words, ‘hold me in your everlasting arms.’

The questions of faith continue in “Ya Hey,” a track which arguably uses a play on the Hebrew name for God, Yahweh. The song itself is a beautiful high point for the album, despite the chipmunk-esqu voices chanting ‘ya hey’ throughout the song.

Vampire+Weekend-left

By this point in the album it’s clear that Koenig’s opinions of God and faith are as varied as the songs of the album.

The whole album isn’t dedicated entirely to Koenig’s questions of faith.  Other songs deal with familiar topics in music, such as the love story described in “Finger Back,” which bears an implied similarity to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The maturity of the album is revealed in its moments of depth, found in lyrics and in the sound of the music itself.

The songs individually might sound like they shouldn’t fit together, but as a whole they create a very interesting body of work. Modern Vampires of the City is imaginative and a very fitting addition to Vampire Weekend’s career so far. –Jordan B. Frye, Contributing Editor @jordanbfrye

 

Why Is Bono Endorsing Monsanto In Africa?

May 24, 2013

Tomorrow is a day of international protest against Monsanto (http://occupy-monsanto.com/), the American-based multinational agricultural and biotechnology corporation. To mark this occasion, we invited Marenka Cerny, admin for the Facebook page Bono and Monsanto Forum for Conscious Debate and Discovery https://www.facebook.com/BonoMonsanto, to share her work, activism, and thoughts in a guest editorial on U2’s Bono supporting Monsanto in his strategies for fighting poverty in Africa. We at the webzine encourage fans to read, research on their own to reach their own conclusions, and act as they are so moved. –Andrew William Smith, webzine editor

Perhaps years ago the technique of genetically engineered crops was understood by Bono as the miracle Africa needed to produce food in extreme climates. Maybe it actually is. We are calling for Bono to speak explicitly about GE technology and the maligned practices of the chemical-agriculture companies. In the meantime, we are examining the evidence that humanity is being used as a science experiment for profit and without permission.

We created the Facebook page Bono and Monsanto Forum for Conscious Debate and Discovery four months ago in response to the cognitive dissonance that has resulted from the involvement of one of the most politically influential and venerated artists of our time in highly questionable activity with potentially disastrous consequences. Because he has the hearts of millions and the ear of every political leader—and because he is a most beloved, consummate, and sagacious poet of our generation—Bono deserves the respect of accountability.

Wikipedia describes “Bono [as] one of the world’s best-known philanthropic performers and was named the most politically effective celebrity of all time by the National Journal… He has been dubbed, “the face of fusion philanthropy,” both for his success enlisting powerful allies from a diverse spectrum of leaders in government, religious institutions, philanthropic organizations, popular media, and the business world, as well as for spearheading new organizational networks that bind global humanitarian relief with geopolitical activism and corporate commercial enterprise…”

At one time or another, we have all been let down by people we look up to. But in this case, the effects of Bono’s actions are far-reaching in potentially dangerous ways. His tacit alliance with the chemical companies is confusing. We are wondering what his motivations are. With his 25+ years experience lobbying to end extreme poverty in Africa, is this truly the best way he can see to get Africa the food it needs? What does he think about feeding Africa and the world genetically modified food? Bono gives very brief mention in these two links to chem-ag companies and indirectly to the technique of genetic engineering, one in a newscast and one speaking to the pre-G8 symposium a year ago:

For a partial transcription—“Bono Addresses global leaders on hunger, agriculture and transparency at pre-G8 symposium”

https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=202581213221794&set=a.205527179593864.67907.202446536568595&type=1&theater

If you’re not on facebook— http://www.one.org/international/blog/bono-addresses-global-leaders-on-hunger-agriculture-and-transparency-at-pre-g8-symposium/

In this interview, Bono references “whole new methods of agriculture to increase productivity” within the first minutes. “Bono – Well Paid Spokesman for the Elitists” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5CvlQLcyawg

This is the main article that has been reposted many times since the G8 Summit last year.
ActivistPost: “U2, Bono? Celeb partners with Monsanto, G8, to biowreck African farms with GMOs”
http://www.activistpost.com/2012/05/u2-bono-celeb-partners-with-monsanto-g8.html

Bono-drawing

Most comments on the web about Bono and Monsanto are about giving up on him (to put it mildly). We’re looking for the fans who care about what’s in our food and don’t want to give up on him. Of course Bono’s allowed to make mistakes, be a bad-boy rock star, or be misguided, and still be loved. Through our Facebook page, we seek to know whether Bono’s intentions to solve extreme poverty have been compromised from extraordinary altruism to a power-hungry alliance with the chem-ag companies for global domination of the world’s food supply. We hope that’s not true—we want to think Bono can be a venture capitalist and still be cool. We want fans to speak louder—we need him and want him on our side—to say, Bono, please come back. Whatever the results of this conversation, our advocacy and engagement are not about disrespecting Bono. We seek to understand the apparent dissonance between his actions and his words.

Seeking transparency for unconscious and unconscionable capitalism is not just a luxury of an armchair activist, but imperative for humanity’s future and present. The research that is available shows that as well as the apparent dangers to human health, genetically-engineered (GE) crops are known to damage topsoil through monocropping, to require ever-increasing amounts of pesticide, and have not yet proven to reliably produce higher yields. Monsanto has been strong-arming the U.S. government and small farmers around the world, and has spent tens of millions of dollars to withhold labeling of their products. GE science is young, and the long-term effects on humans and the environment are unknown.

   10 Reasons Why We Don’t Need GM Foods

http://gmoinside.org/news/10-reasons-why-we-dont-need-gm-foods/

After 5 months of searching for the backstory of how it is Bono seems so comfortable promoting GE food in Africa, there’s also the larger question of the approach of capitalism as a solution to poverty, which is a fundamental part of Bono’s speeches in the past decade, and which he calls “Entrepreneurial Capitalism.” Is this a viable subset of capitalism, the basic existence of which is not to provide social service agencies, but to make a profit? We’d be curious to hear from everyone who is criticizing Bono’s association with Monsanto what you also think of capitalism and corporate power as a means for ending extreme poverty.

We are gathering energy to add to the momentum of the world’s resistance to the chemical companies’ intention to control food production and distribution on this planet. Many people have alternative solutions to meeting the needs of the world’s food supply. Help us to compose and promote a letter to Bono and others. Tell us what you think of all this and ask any questions. Help us address the question of revering the work of an artist while questioning their integrity elsewhere. What would you say, in your own words, to Bono? –Marenka Cerny, Life-long U2-lover, Admin on Facebook: Bono and Monsanto Forum for Conscious Debate and Discovery https://www.facebook.com/BonoMonsanto

‘Two Shots of Happy, One Shot of Sad’ is a stunning song written for Sinatra. For those who are pro-Bono and anti-GMO, this is surely one of our songs in this moment in time.

Two shots of happy, one shot of sad
You think I’m no good, well I know I’ve been bad
Took you to a place, now you can’t get back
Two shots of happy, one shot of sad

Bono, Two Shots of Happy, One Shot of Sad
Listen: http://www.youtube.com/watch?NR=1&v=wOJAUs4b28U&feature=fvwp
also (poor video quality but beautiful performance) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lzgCPimHu7w
“Frank Sinatra just blew me away. Actually, me and Edge wrote a tune called ‘Two Shots Of Happy, One Shot Of Sad.’ We made a drinks cabinet shrine to Frank that when you open it plays that song! We’ve never released it… I sent it to him for his 80th birthday, full orchestra, the whole thing. Quite an indulgence.” – Bono, NME 1997

 

 

Changing Times for Iron & Wine

May 18, 2013

It’s often hard for well-established musicians to find balance later in their careers. Sam Beam has left his minimalist roots far behind with Ghost on Ghost, his fifth full-length album as Iron & Wine, pulling from many often unexpected influences.

Songs like “The Desert Babbler” exhibit a melodic quality reminiscent of many long-gone musical styles, creating a pseudo 70’s funk-inspired sound that’s almost a little difficult to identify. It’s Iron & Wine, there’s no doubt about that, but the variety of the album poses a problem.

Artists at the point Iron & Wine reach are often accused of ‘betraying’ fans by skipping gears and moving on to a sound drastically different from what they are used to. It’s difficult to argue that Beam’s musical direction hasn’t taken a very drastic leap. The junkyard-rock of The Shepherd’s Dog was a wonderful break from his usual style, and Kiss Each Other Clean expanded the sound further.

iron-wine

At this point, the question is whether Iron & Wine should have stopped the expansion there.

Instead of the simple sounds of acoustic guitar from The Creek Drank the Cradle, Iron & Wine fills the space of Ghost on Ghost with a jazzy collision of horns, violin, keyboard, heavy drum use, and an occasional Doors-esque organ sound.  One of the only songs on the album that is easily recognizable as Iron & Wine, “Winter Prayers,” still features very little of the original guitar sound at all, relying on Sam’s voice almost entirely.

The album lacks a clear destination, like the radio-weary lite-rock it harkens back to, but there exists a saving grace in the end. “Lover’s Revolution,” the second-to-last track, begins slowly, plodding along, but eventually picks up tempo and flies headlong into a burst of jazz horn and drums. Unfortunately, this fades into “Baby Center Stage,” a slow dance ballad of piano and slide guitar that quickly becomes simple background music to the listener.

Ghost on Ghost is not a bad album, that’s not the point. It’s simply confusing and hard to get a real grasp of. There’s so much happening in and between songs that it’s easy to lose interest. It’s an easy listen, but not one that’s easy to pay attention to. The sound quality is great and the songs are all beautiful, but they unfortunately lack a necessary hook. –Jordan B. Frye, Contributing Editor

http://www.ironandwine.com/

Flamethrower Holiness: Bono, Brueggemann, & the Psalms (Headphone Devotionals, part two)

May 18, 2013

Psalms present us with cultural linguistic poem-experiences of passion and pleading, praise and pain, love and loss, anticipation and anger, worship and wonder. Rock music also offers religiously relevant encounters in an electronic correlation of guitars and lyrics—a new kind of text for a different context—yet songs similarly saturate us in sonic blasts of poetic pop culture and spirited counterculture to water our souls with a wager that there’s a way out of teenage boredom and middle-aged malaise. We can scream, shout, singalong. We can defy, dance, and devote. Linking the Psalms to U2 songs means all of the above and much more, keeping God in the conversation as we open the door.

The fan-band experience could seem unequal or it could be conversational. The great teacher Walter Brueggemann encourages us to read the Psalms in prayer and thus in dialogue with God, and the fan’s relationship to the U2 catalog could follow a similar tack, not just listening, but talking back. If courageous enough to converse with the Creator in prayer, Brueggemann suggests we could thusly speak truth to earthly power in protest. Naming this subversive, the theologian arms us not only with thorns to poke the sides of empire but to “stand up to rock stars” and embrace a critical fandom that engages U2 without reducing fandom to idolatry.

devotion-cover-1

The Psalter’s “boldness and passion” take us “out beyond our conventional liturgical and devotional practices.” Headphone devotions take the same trip through the wires past traditional worship towards transformation, to “nothing less than resurrection,” as Brueggemann puts it, “the gift of new life that the God praised and summoned intends us to have.”

Rock music as a daily devotional tool surely gets practiced by runners, walkers, weight-lifters, and coffee-sipping hipsters on the daily, but to theorize such in a theological-liturgical manner means new terrain. Like with the songs “Bad” or “Drowning Man,” like “Vertigo” or “Wake Up Dead Man,” the psalms have an aching rock-bottom blues disposition that’s not pretty or pious. Even ever popular and too readily categorized U2, rock music itself remains a renegade force in culture, still largely undomesticated in its musicological meme. Brueggemann begs us to see past what he calls “equilibrium” to that queasy and uneasy place that the Psalter takes us, liminal “experiences of dislocation and relocation” because it “is experiences of being overwhelmed, nearly destroyed, and surprisingly given life that empower us to pray and sing.”

walter

Brueggemann names the valleys and plateaus as “the edge of humanness” or as limit-experiences and peak experiences. U2’s career-spanning sonic song catalog relishes in the underbelly: sparring with war and addiction; flirting with celebrity cults and trashcan messiahs; tempting our ears and eyes with sparkly technological-meets-existential dread and drama.

While it would be fun to try to pinpoint an album, song, or trilogy where Bono was lyrically at his most junkyard sacred, he allows us no such epiphany, for there is no such line on the horizon. The Psalms get mashed-up in a clever and almost sinister blender with American modernist writers like Ginsberg and Bukowski to fuel Hewson’s lyrics with flourishing hooks, flamboyant hope, and flamethrower holiness.

Like the elusive but enigmatic “Holy One” of the psalter and the gospels, U2 songs give us what Brueggemann describes as the “powerful, dangerous, and joyful rawness of human reality.” Like the Bible, U2 songs take unlikely and unsavory protagonists and turn them into saints. But to render rawness rightly in a late 20th century and early 21st century context, sometimes the poet needs backup, preferably a backing band of ex-surrealist pranksters from the Streets of Dublin. Sometimes we forget that the bloke blithely blessing popes and politicians was once the lark from Lypton Village. It’s no accident on my ledger that when Bono showed up in the Beatles-inspired Across the Universe, he ended up “on the bus” as a west coast hippy priest in suede fringe, a Neal Cassady/Ken Kesey-inspired psychedelic trickster.

The likes of Brueggemann would warn us not to domesticate divinity into irrelevance or sanitize the Psalms into sugary sweetness. We best not do this with the U2 catalog, which in part influenced why the songs I first chose to “pray” include tracks that can sometimes be “abrasive, revolutionary, and dangerous.”

Brueggemann tells us, “The Psalms are an assurance to us that when we pray and worship, we are not expected to censure or deny the deepness of our own human pilgrimage.” In light of this, I have chosen to pray first with a lot B-sides and non-album tracks, because sadly, as sacred as “Sunday Bloody Sunday” or “Where The Streets Have No Name,” their jukebox familiarity can breed contempt with curtained seasoned listeners. When I put on the headphones for U2, I take off my scholar’s hat, put down my preacher’s pen, and get as vulnerable and prostrate for their message as the fanboy who first discovered them three decades ago. To pray these songs in private is to rediscover them. They are wild horses to ride, cash to steal, a deep blue sea in which to drown, and lies to transform into truth. – Andrew William Smith, Editor

Check out the Headphone Devotionals project blog where we can pray the U2 songs together: http://headphonedevotionals.blogspot.com/

Quotes from Walter Brueggemann come from the book Praying the Psalms – support his prophetic voice by checking out his work. Photo of Walter Brueggemann from the 2013 Festival of Homiletics in Nashville, TN by Andrew W. Smith.

http://www.amazon.com/Praying-Psalms-Engaging-Scripture-Spirit/dp/1556352832/ref=sr_1_8?ie=UTF8&qid=1368870296&sr=8-8&keywords=walter+brueggemann

 

Hugging Bono, Engaging Marsh, and Wishing The Frontman a Happy Birthday

May 10, 2013

Back in December 1984, I went to my first U2 show at Detroit’s Fox Theater. The first leg of the Unforgettable Fire tour, it was the band’s last set of “intimate” shows before graduating to arenas and stadiums. After the gig, I was that 17-year-old hardcore fan who waited dutifully in the Detroit winter weather by the backstage door. Eventually our patience paid off, and we met everyone in the band except for Larry.

The most memorable moment from that night aside from the concert itself was asking Bono for a hug and Bono generously sharing it. Today, I wish I could give Bono another hug. Today, the man born Paul Hewson turns 53.

Another U2 album finally appears eventual or inevitable, perhaps by the end of this year. At this late stage in their career, each record could be the last. And each record could tarnish with dismissal or disdain or varnish with more adulation and praise their creative reputation. But see, this fan kind of needs a new U2 record just about now to distract me from the rest of the U2 newsfeed.

Bono is all over the interwebs today. Even as the Twitter and Facebook feeds are filled with birthday blessings from fans and charitable groups like (Red) or the African Well Fund, other sources like Google news alerts just blew-up with the latest phase in Bono backlash. Because Dave Marsh reviews Harry Browne’s forthcoming book The Frontman. As we know this leftish Springsteen scholar Marsh has devoted decades of an entire career tangent to tagging Bono with the online rhetorical graffiti of gritty shame and righteous blame.

bono outside

But Marsh’s latest screed on Counterpunch counters the viciousness of his previous attacks with a tone of pity. Bono is no longer an object of scathing leftwing critique but an object for a softer but no less mean-spirited ridicule. Marsh feigns feeling sorry for Bono and calls him pathetic. For not knowing any better. For being a tool and a fool. We’ll have to see how this new lesser-evil Bono-hate all fits with Browne’s book when it is actually released soon. Besides Marsh, also cluttering my newsfeeds was yet another article articulating the band’s problematic tax practices and a blog responding to Marsh, neither agreeing with him or taking him on.

As U2 fans, we have a choice whether or not to engage with criticism like this. Some choose to ignore it; others take a defensive stance. My perspective has always been one taken from Bono’s lyrical playbook: “stand up to rock stars.” Or put another way, practice critical fandom. Despite what others say, he’s neither saint nor messiah and is worthy of constructive pushback, especially if it comes from a good place. I definitely don’t see Bono as an uber-capitalist “lapdog for neoliberals” as he’s been called, and at the same time, I don’t think we need to be lapdogs or sycophants for Bono or U2.

At the recent U2 conference, Laurie Britt-Smith and I and some of our co-presenters engaged in a critical dialogue about some of the queasy reservations we have about digital activism, capitalist charity, and how these apply to the ONE campaign and product (RED). We hardly reached conclusions or consensus, but in light of those conversations and these recent attacks on Bono’s political and economic perspectives, I have some tentative shots into the ongoing online conversation I’d like to launch.

Bono is not and has never been a leftist in the sense that Marsh, Browne, or the editors of Counterpunch are. Moreover he’s not and probably will never be a rightist as some critics have complained. Is he an intellectually weak, foolish, and hypocritical liberal as is also proposed?

I don’t know how I feel about liberalism or capitalism beyond the degree to which I participate in both by necessity. But I do know what I perceive as the source of my activism and Bono’s: Jesus and the Bible; spirituality and scripture; the new commandments of radical love and service taught by the carpenter from Nazareth. What’s been called the preferential option for the poor. Bono’s lack of economic literacy, or worse, allegiance to wrong-headed economic mentors, may make me and others uncomfortable and may play into the hands of the problem-creators rather than the problem-solvers, yet Bono’s biblical, musical, and poetic literacy remain on target in my eyes and heart.

In 2005 just after How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, as much as I loved that record and the subsequent Vertigo tour, part of me wanted to give up on Bono for his self-imposed public silence on the Iraq War, for hanging so intimately with people like George Bush and my then least favorite Tennessean Bill Frist. That year, I picked up Bono: In Conversation with Michka Assayas. Not only does the frontman answer all his critics in a nuanced manner, he diminishes and self-deprecates his own significance. The alleged egomaniac also has a streak of deep and deferential humility.

But more than that, he speaks ever so elegantly and evangelically about his faith in Jesus and how Christian religious perspective, spiritual practice, and central gospel narrative inform everything he does. Like Bono, I am no economist, but also like Bono, I take seriously the Biblical teachings about poverty and justice.

Sometimes it’s hard for me to see Jesus in the (RED) campaign, but Bono’s willingness to work with Bush, Clinton, Obama, Gates, Sachs, and others comes from statements like this, that he attributes to lessons he learned from Martin King: “Don’t respond to caricature—the Left, the Right, the Progressives, the Reactionary. Don’t take people on rumor. Find the light in them . . .”

It’s hard to understate the light that Bono and U2 have given us with songs and albums and concert tours. But Bono also reminds us that there’s some of that God light in people as different as Bill Frist is from Dave Marsh and in people from other faith traditions, as his COEXIST bit on the Vertigo tour so strongly stated.

The odd rivalry between Marsh and Bono, according to the critic, began with a mediocre review of The Unforgettable Fire. Marsh claims to have given Bono a book about Elvis because Marsh didn’t get “Elvis Presley and America.” As I listen to that deep track off Unforgettable Fire for the umpteenth time, I don’t know that I get it either, but I get what it does to me: how it gets me, how it’s music that takes me outside the music, that gives me knowledge more than ideas, connection more than critique, grace more than karma.

I don’t mind standing up to rock stars. But I don’t mind standing up to grumpy rock critics with an axe to grind either. But I’d rather not stand up to anybody and instead look for the light within, for the Christ within all. And I’d like to give Bono this virtual hug on his birthday. Fact is I’d like to give Dave Marsh one, too. They both probably need a hug more than either would admit. –Andrew William Smith, Editor

Photos are by Andrew Smith from outside the Vertigo tour show in St. Louis in late 2005.