Saturday, July 26, 2008

Week 9: "Absinthe Party at the Fly Honey Warehouse" by Minus the Bear

There are all sorts of features that can make a song stand out: lyrical beauty, raw vocal emotion, a captivating rhythm, a perfectly placed solo, or any number of other factors.

In Minus the Bear's "Absinthe Party at the Fly Honey Warehouse" the distinctive feature is the lead guitar part. Played in an unorthodox, finger-picking style, the guitar part is enthralling.

These two videos show amateur musicians playing the guitar part of "Absinthe Party." In the first video, the musician plays the entire song. It seems repetitive towards the beginning because you don't hear all of the other instruments come in as the song develops. The video is also funny as this guy's dog tries to interrupt the video. The second video shows a close up breaking down the technique of the main guitar part.

But, let me back up just a bit. Minus the Bear is a 5-piece alternative rock-band from Seattle. Their style tends to favor jerky rhythms and a quirky style (the finger picking guitar style, for example.) At the same as the sound can tend towards jerkiness, there is often, paradoxically, an expansive and relaxing ambient feeling in many of their songs. Many of their songs conjure up a feeling of drifting on smooth water. One other thing I should mention is that, especially in their earlier records, Minus the Bear enjoyed giving their songs and albums absurd, non-sensical titles. (See the bottom of this post for my top 10 song titles.)

"Absinthe Party at the Fly Honey Warehouse" is the most-popular song by Minus the Bear. When I saw them perform live at The Granada in Lawrence they played it to close out their encore. The song begins with the repetitive finger picking guitar riff that I described above. As the riff develops, varies, and grows faster the other instruments are added in. Finally, the lyrics begin.

Lyrically, "Absinthe Party" manages to be both poignant and cynical. The lyrics describe teenage American tourists taking a trip to Paris. The lyrics begin towards the cynical side:
Hey, let's cross the sea
And get some culture
Red wine with every meal
And absinthe after dinner.
We look good side by side
Walking back to the hotel.

We've got to get something
To eat and to drink
And find a place to stay
That's not far off the main way
We've got to plan our day
Rodin at the Orsay
And find a way to cram it in
Before we drink again.
However, the lyrics soon become sweeter and almost romantic:
This light looks good on you.
Morning came early.
Sitting on a park bench
That's older than our country
Two star hotel, near St. Germain.
Two star hotel, where stars don't mean anything.
Somehow, all together the song just works, capturing these disparate moods of quirkiness and calm, cynicism and sweetness, engagement and detachment. You can watch to Minus the Bear playing a version of "Absinthe Party" here.

By the way, here are my top 10 favorite Minus the Bear song titles:

10) This Ain't a Surfin' Movie
9) Booyah Achieved
8) We Are Not a Football Team
7) Spritz!!! Spritz!!!
6) The Game Needed Me
5) Let's Play Clowns
4) I Lost All My Money at the Cockfights
3) I'm Totally Not Down With Rob's Alien
2) Hey! Is That a Ninja Up There?
1) Monkey!!! Knife!!! Fight!!!

Other songs by Minus the Bear that I enjoy include "Thanks for the Killer Game of Crisco Twister" and "Get Me Naked 2: Electric Boogaloo" off the album Highly Refined Pirates, "Pachuca Sunrise" and "This Ain't a Surfin' Movie" off Menos El Oso, and "I'm Totally Not Down With Rob's Alien" and "Hey! Is that a Ninja Up There" off the They Make Beer Commercials Like This EP. To be frank, I've had a harder time getting into their newest album Planet of Ice.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Love & Death

I began reading Forrest Church's newest book, Love & Death: My Journey Through the Valley of the Shadow, during an unusually intense period in the middle of July when I was called on to write and officiate at two memorial services in the span of four days. One memorial service was for a founding member and patriarch of the congregation I serve. Without the insights of Church's book, my ministry to these families and the congregation I serve would have been diminished.

I remember the precise moment that I learned of Forrest Church's original diagnosis with esophogeal cancer. I was at a meeting of the UUMA Executive Committee in Essex, MA in the Autumn of 2006. During a break we passed around the pastoral letter he had sent to his congregation. It was a perfect letter. Out of his own catastrophic news he wrote in such a way that ministered to them and instructed them in the ways of life and love. This letter was an example of the kind of ministry to which I've always and will always aspire.

I've always admired Forrest Church. At age 18 and 19 I read everything of his that I could find in print: The Devil & Dr. Church, Entertaining Angels, The Seven Deadly Virtues, as well as, A Chosen Faith and Church's anthology of essential writings by Paul Tillich. Remarkably, all of these were easily found on the shelves of the public library in Wayland, MA.

When I was 20 I became fascinated with Thomas Jefferson and decided that I would write my undergraduate thesis on the Jefferson Bible. This was before I discovered that Forrest Church had already written definitively on this precise subject in his 1974 Harvard Divinity School thesis, "The Gospel of Thomas Jefferson." In the summer of 1998 I visited the HDS library (perhaps in anticipation of the three years of daily visits to the library that would commence a year later) and a helpful librarian was kind enough to grant me access to his thesis. Seeking originality, I switched my topic and wrote about Jefferson's understanding of religious freedom. I was privately delighted when Church's 2007 book, So Help Me God, offered similar conclusions to the ones I had written about almost a decade earlier.

While an interest in the religion of the Founding Fathers is what may have originally drawn me to Forrest Church, it was the depth of his theology that made me admire him.

One of my colleagues told me that he plans to buy 100 copies of Love & Death to give to his parishioners who struggle with mortality, grief, and loss. I will soon place my own order for multiple copies with Beacon Press for exactly this same reason.

In this, presumably his final book, Church leaves us all with an exquisite gift. His instructions on living well and dying well ("to live in such a way that our lives will prove worth dying for") are a challenge that I will probably spend the rest of my life trying to live up to.

Even his pithy aphorisms, such as, "Want what you have. Do what you can. Be who you are," resist becoming trite. It doesn't hurt that this book is absolutely alive with gorgeous imagery and language. Windows are "pellucid." Our souls "become part of the heavenly pleroma." Our love continues as a "luminous catena." Or, marvel at the beauty of a sentence such as this: "We may finally each die alone, but even to the extent that we are islands, which is very slight indeed, we are each part of an archipelago."

After finishing this book I felt as though I had been given a remarkable gift, a gift that I will doubtlessly pass on many times. It has already blessed my ministry. It will continue to bless the lives of many.

If you are interested in other books I have read this year, click here.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Week 8: "Scenic World" by Beirut

The lights go on
the lights go off
when things don't feel right
I lie down like a tired dog
licking his wounds in the shade

When I feel alive
I try to imagine a careless life
a scenic world where the sunsets are all

"Breathtaking" is exactly the word I would choose to describe the 128 seconds of beauty that is the song "Scenic World." With only two simple verses, the beautiful melodies of a violin and brass instruments, and playful percussion, this song manages to transport you to someplace, well, breathtaking.

Beirut is the brain-child of (now) 22 year-old Zach Condon, a transplant to Brooklyn, NY from Santa Fe, NM. Condon is joined by a revolving cast of musicians. Their first release, the 2007 EP Lon Gisland, cites the following instruments played by eight musicians: vocals, ukelele, piano, trumpet, euphonium, flugel horn, percussion, organs, violin, accordion, cello, baritone saxophone, clarinet, glockenspiel, and mandolin.

Beirut's music is heavily influenced by European (especially Eastern-European) folk music. Their world-music sound is deeply enriched by Condon's distinctive vocals which make him sound very unlike an American guy in his early twenties. The band has traveled not only within the United States but all over the world, including throughout Europe, Austrailia, New Zealand, and Asia.

Unfortunately, I have never heard Beirut play live. However, I do have a personal connection with the band. In 2001-2002, when I was the Intern Minister at the Horizon UU Church in Carrollton, Texas, Beirut's violinist Kristin Ferebee was one of the youth in the youth group (and her mother was a member of my intern committee.)

To hear a live version of Beirut performing "Scenic World" click here.

Other Beirut songs that I particularly enjoy are "Postcards from Italy" and "Mount Wroclai (Idle Days)" from the Gulag Orkestar album and "Guyamos Sonora" and "Forks and Knives (la fete)" from The Flying Club Cup album.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Week 7: "Re-arrange Us" by Mates of the State

Like the band I wrote about last week, I first heard Mates of the State by accident. It was just about exactly two years ago on the hottest day of the entire Kansas summer when I went to spend 9 hours at an outdoors music festival in Lawrence. I went primarily to hear Death Cab for Cutie, but caught the set by Mates earlier in the afternoon.

Mates of the State consists of just two musicians, the husband and wife duo of Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel. The pair met in Lawrence, Kansas and then moved to California. They’ve released five albums in eight years, their latest being the just released Re-arrange Us. Kori plays a variety of key-boards (synth, organ, etc.) while Jason plays the drums. They both sing. While this may sound like a recipe for monotony, it is not. The duo keeps you on your toes with a variety of abrupt tempo changes. Often their songs do not seem like unified wholes, but rather a pastiche of different songs wildly sutured together. On top of this, on many of their songs they sing different lyrics to different melodies at the same time. The results are wonderful pop songs that are intricately complex.

At the festival in Lawrence I happened to bump into Kori as she was hanging out in the crowd after their set. I’ve had the opportunity to converse with many members of nationally touring bands and I’ve never met anyone as gracious as her. My general rule of thumb is to say something kind and then shrink back so as not to monopolize their time or intrude. I was delighted that she engaged me in conversation and answered questions about how the tour was going and what it was like to tour with Death Cab. I don't mean to make too much out of this, but only to say that her desire to connect with her listeners seemed sincere.

I knew when I put together this list that I had to include a song by Mates of the State. The question was which one to include. The song “10 Years Later” off Our Constant Concern was a candidate. So were three tracks (“Ha Ha”; “Whiner’s Bio”; and, “An Experiment”) off their third album, Team Boo. Also, the song “For the Actor” from their album Bring It Back may be their strongest song of all, however it gains several demerits for appearing in an annoying AT&T commercial.

(Let me clarify that comment a little. First, it is always a little jarring to hear one of your favorite songs used to advertise a product or service. I will just have to deal with the fact that the brilliant power chord from my favorite song – “Stars” by Hum – is used in Cadillac commercials. While some might accuse Mates of the State of selling out, I don’t have a problem with this. Bands like Mates of the State and Hum toil in obscurity for years, play to empty houses, and work to cultivate devoted listeners and fans. They deserve to cash in. They’ve earned it. But, the AT&T commercial is horrid. It shows a crowd of fans using their cell phones during the show. That is annoying. Cell phones do have their purposes. If you lose your friend in the crowd, you can text them and tell them where you are. If you find yourself invited backstage, you can send your buddy a text that says, “Backstage w/ band. Goin 2 StL 2nite. Take a taxi home. Sorry.” Not that this has ever happened to me. So, just put the cell phones away, OK?)

However, instead of all of those worthy and excellent songs, I decided to choose the first single, “The Re-arranger” off Mates of the State’s new album as the song of the week. The song is brilliant, catchy and dark. It also marks the band’s intention to add more musicians to their line-up, both on the album and on tour. “The Re-arranger” begins with some lines of poetry: “Red colonial houses lining all the snow-white streets / Working out all our problems there in the back of the house where the ghosts all sleep.” For all the songs energy and pop-catchiness, the song’s lyrics slowly disclose that the song is about the end of a relationship, literally a re-arrangement. You can hear them play "The Re-arranger" live here.

Nick Hornby, to whom I owe the inspiration for this 52 Songs in 52 Weeks enterprise, talks about listening to a song until you “solve it”, that is, until you figure out what makes the song so compelling. I finally solved “The Re-arranger.” The song features each of them singing over the other. During the first verse, while Jason sings his poetic verse, Kori sings over him with gibberish. In the second verse, it gets “worse” as they each sing different words over one another. And yet, at the end of the song, their voices synchronize. What a clever play: to have them come together in their separation. Tension dissipates. The resolution is bittersweet, but it resolves. But it resolves.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

A Different "High Fidelity"

There is a memorable scene in the film adaptation of Nick Hornby's book High Fidelity in which the main character, played by John Cusack, is asked by a reporter to list his three favorite albums of all time. It pains him to answer. Over the next several days he calls the reporter incessantly, constantly updating his "top 3."

When Helen Gray, the religion editor for the Kansas City Star called me to ask for me to list three recommended "spiritual" books, I did not find the request nearly as agonizing. I was instructed that my suggestions should be "summer reading material" and not overly academic. I guess this was my "high fidelity" moment, especially understanding that the word "fidelity" means "faithfulness."

If you caught today's Kansas City Star faith section, you will see my picture there (in color!) as well as the three books I recommended:

Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lammott
Jamesland a novel by Michelle Huneven
Breakfast at the Victory: The Mysticism of Ordinary Experience by James P. Carse

Seven other religious leaders, including a Baptist pastor, a retired Catholic Bishop, an Imam, a Rabbi, and a religious studies professor, offered their suggestions. A few observations:

1) Only one other religious leader (Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn) recommended a novel.
2) None of the 8 of us recommended a book of poetry.
3) By my count, only 7 of the 24 recommended books were written by women. The Baptist pastor and I each recommended 2 books by women.
4) 7 of the 24 titles seem to carry a strong social justice message. If I were a little bit more like the character played by John Cusack in High Fidelity, I might have called the editor and changed my list.
5) I really NEED a new picture of myself. I am still using a photo of me that was taken during my first year in Kansas City, 5 years ago.

In case you were wondering, here are some other books I considered recommending:

Love & Death: My Journey Through the Shadow by Forrest Church
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
Here If You Need Me by Kate Braestrup
Practical Gods by Carl Dennis
Waking Up the Karma Fairy by Meg Barnhouse
Instructions in Joy by Nancy Shaffer
A Generous Orthodoxy by Brian McClaren

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Week 6: "The Darkside" & "Suburban Sprawl & Alcohol" by L.P.

I first heard the Brooklyn-based rock band L.P. by accident. I went to hear Kansas City’s own punk-rock band The Architects at The Record Bar, one of KC’s best venues, and L.P. was on the bill.

The front-woman for L.P. is something to behold. Completely androgynous, I would estimate that she is probably a little bit less than 5 feet tall and weighs around 90 pounds. She looks exactly like a 12 year old boy. Loose fitting jeans, a band T-shirt, and boots only disguise her gender further. In addition her hair is a nest of curly red strands. Appearances deceive. I was doubtful about the potential of this band until she strapped on an electric guitar and belted out song after song with impressive rock & roll bravado. The performance was electrifying and sincere and impassioned.

Suburban Sprawl & Alcohol is L.P.’s second album. It features a number of goods songs, including the opening track “Wasted” as well as the catchy number “Heartless.” But I want to focus on two songs that bookend her range as an artist. “The Darkside” is an up-beat rock song with bright guitars and syncopated rhythms. The lyrics are an in-your-face manifesto about choosing another direction in life.

The song is slightly ambiguous about whether it is a break-up song or a song describing another kind of leaving. The lyrics to the chorus go, “I hope you’re happy with your ordinary life / It’s the wrong place, the wrong time / The Darkside.” Is the voice in the song singing about leaving “The Darkside” to seek out a life less ordinary? Or, is she unfulfilled with the (false) promises of ordinariness and has chosen a more dangerous and adventurous path? Either way, the song is perfectly paced so as to give the impression of movement, departure, and seeking. Whether journeying into the light or embracing the mystery of the darkside, this song is tinged with wonderful sentiments of liberation and self-actualization.

By contrast, the album’s title track is equally well-conceived, but is the Darkside’s opposite in a number of ways. Instead of a pulsing bass and blaring guitars, “Suburban Sprawl” begins with some noodling on an acoustic guitar and an exposed voice singing the verse practically a capella followed by a chorus with diminutive instrumentation. The song then slowly builds straightforwardly into a true rock ballad. By the final chorus, L.P. is belting out the lyrics with sheer force. This song, like “The Darkside,” expresses a profound longing.

Make sure you go to L.P.’s web-site and check out photos of the band and their music player where you can (at least right now) listen to the entire SS&A album.

Some Information About Me

At the suggestion of a frequent reader of this Blog, I have decided to add an “About Me” section, mostly so I can add a link in the side-bar:

Shawnee Mission UU Church, Overland Park, KS (2003-present) Parish Minister
First Parish in Needham, MA (2002-2003) Student Minister and Youth Advisor, Rev. John Buehrens, supervisor
Horizon UU Church, Carrollton, TX (2001-2002) Intern Minister, Rev. Dennis Hamilton, supervisor
First & Second Church in Boston, MA (2000-2001) Student Minister, Rev. David Horst, supervisor

In addition, I have guest preached at an additional 19 UU congregations, including:
First Unitarian Church, Dallas, Texas
Unity Church-Unitarian, St. Paul, Minnesota
Eno River UU Fellowship, Durham, North Carolina
First Unitarian Universalist Church, Houston, Texas
All Souls UU Church, Kansas City, Missouri
First Unitarian Church, Des Moines, Iowa
First Jefferson UU Church, Fort Worth, Texas
First Religious Society, Carlisle, Massachusetts
Ordained: October 25, 2003 by the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church.
Final Fellowship: Received Fall of 2006; recognized at the Service of the Living Tradition, June 2007 in Portland, Oregon.
Preliminary Fellowship: Received Fall of 2002; recognized at the Service of the Living Tradition, June 2003 in Boston, Massachusetts.

I am a life long Unitarian Universalist who grew up attending First Parish in Wayland, MA. I have also been an active lay-person at First Unitarian Church in Portland, Oregon, Wy’East UU Congregation in Portland, Oregon, Octagon Unitarian Chapel in Norwich, England, and First Parish in Cambridge, Massachusetts. As a lay person I was involved in pastoral visiting in Wayland, was a member of the Mass Bay District YRUU Steering Committee, and was a Young Adult conference planner in the Pacific North West District.

• Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association Executive Committee (2006-2009)
• Participant in the UUA Growth Summit held in Louisville, Kentucky (11/2007)
• Midwest Leadership Institute, Lecturer in History and Theology (2009-2010)

MAINstream Coalition, Kansas City Metro Area – MAINstream operates is a non-partisan organization committed to the Separation of Church and State and Public Education. It operates as an educational foundation and as a PAC. In my 3+ years with MAINstream I have served on the Board, the Executive Committee, as well as on its “Voices of Faith” steering committee.
ChoiceUSA / Gloria Steinem Leadership Institute – I have spoken twice about the “theology of reproductive justice” at Midwest leadership conferences. In 2006, ChoiceUSA flew me to Washington D.C. to speak at a national leadership conference.
Planned Parenthood – Planned Parenthood frequently asks me to testify in Topeka about various issues related to reproductive health, including sexuality education in schools and in opposition to legislation that makes it more difficult for women to receive health care and/or to exercise their right to choose.

Listening to Experience: 12 Visionary Ministers Discuss Growth (DVD, 2008)
“Listening to Experience: 10 Lessons from 12 Ministers” (General Assembly Workshop with Rev. Harlan Limpert, June 2008)
• "Leadership Keys for Congregational Growth" (10/4/08) at a leadership conference hosted by the UU Congregation at Shelter Rock in Manhasset, New York
“Other Impediments to Growth: A Personal and Institutional Essay”
“Thomas Jefferson” for the Dictionary of UU Biography
"The Primitive and Not-so-Primitive Church" Remarks at the 2006 UU Christian Fellowship Dinner, Hymn Sing, and Annual Meeting
• Charge to the Congregation, Installation of Eva Cameron in Cedar Falls, Iowa
• Charge to the Congregation, Ordination of Meghan Conrad, All Souls UU Church, Kansas City, Missouri

• "UUA Internship Supervisor Training" - In 2007 I attended a half-day training for prospective intern supervisors. The training was led by UUA Staff and ministers with considerable experience with interns. In 2008-2009 SMUUCh will be a teaching congregation as we welcome an intern minister.
• “The Executive Experience” – In 2004 I completed this week-long (40 hour) course by This course in management is designed for managers who are being groomed for executive level positions by their companies. (I was given a full-scholarship to attend, which is fortunate because the standard cost for a week is $6,000 per participant.)
• “All Options Clergy Counseling Training” – In 2003 I attended this one-day workshop sponsored by the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.

Harvard Divinity School (1999-2003) M.Div degree.
Courses in UU History, UU Polity, UU Theories of Religious Education, Preaching as Ministry, Black Preaching, Introduction to Counseling, Counseling with Adolescents, American Religious History, Hebrew Bible, New Testament, Adult Developmental Psychology, Comparative Mysticism, Biblical Theology, etc.
Reed College (1995-1999) B.A. in Religion. Phi Beta Kappa.
Courses in Early Christianity, Judaism, Chinese Religion, Eastern Religious traditions, Religious Theory, American History, American Literature, Poetry, Literary Theory & Semiotics, Spanish, Drama, etc.

Spanish – Completed 7 years of coursework; have traveled twice to Spain and once to Puerto Rico; I meet with a native Spanish speaker twice each month for an hour of practice.
French – I took “French for Reading” to fulfill my Divinity School language requirement. (No longer in use.)
Coptic – At age 19 I completed an independent study in Sahidic Coptic which culminated in an original translation of a part of an unedited Coptic manuscript. I then traveled to London where I was granted full access to the special collections of the British Museum and Library. I had a chance to handle and work with many of the key manuscripts in the Nag Hammadi Library. (No longer in use.)

Movies – especially independent films and documentaries**
Live Music – all kinds but especially alternative rock
Social Justice – especially Reproductive Justice, Immigrant rights, Civil rights, Labor issues, and Financial well-being
Creative Writing
Public Speaking
Juggling – I have been a juggler for over 13 years and studied with a pair of professional jugglers for 4 years. I can juggle five balls, pass clubs, juggle torches and machetes, and manipulate cigar boxes. I also tight-rope walk, use a walking globe, and balance on a rolo-bolo. I’ve juggled at church picnics, at the local Head-Start, and at schools and day-care centers.
Ultimate Frisbee & Frisbee Golf
Playing the Electric Guitar
Playing the Didjeridoo
Stand Up Comedy
Spanish Conversation and Travel to Spanish speaking countries
Rooting for the Boston Red Sox, Boston Celtics, and New England Patriots (you can take the boy out of Boston…)
I am a voracious reader. I am particularly fond of the experimental modern writing put out by McSweeney’s Press. I am also a fan of poets such as Jane Hirschfield, Tony Hoagland, Sarah Lindsay, and Carl Dennis. My favorite authors include Dave Eggers, Marilynne Robinson, A.M. Homes, David Foster Wallace, Nick Hornby, Sarah Vowell, Chris Bachelder and Chris Adrian.

I especially enjoy the experimental films that can be found on the Wholphin DVDs. I am a fan of films directed by Wes Anderson (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic, The Darjeeling Limited) and Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Science of Sleep.) Documentary films are another genre that I enjoy. (I also have a little-known weakness for Zombie movies.)

Some places I regard as sacred:
Ecola State Park on the Oregon coast
Walden Pond, Concord, MA
Chimayo, New Mexico
The beaches of Nerja, Spain
The Harvard Divinity School chapel, Cambridge, MA
El Centro de Arte Reina Sofia (Madrid, Spain) which houses Picasso’s “Guernica.”