For your listening and reading pleasure

Today, I offer you some podcasts and blogs you should check out.

  1. This one is shameless self-promotion: I was recently a guest on my colleague Clifford Stumme’s pop music podcast.  In this episode, we discuss the story arc of Mumford & Sons’s first album, Sigh No More.  In other episodes, Cliff discusses the meanings of songs by a dizzying array of artists, not all of whose music you might have thought worth taking seriously.  He shows you that pop music (a term he defines broadly) is a lot more than just a great beat you can dance to.
  2. I mentioned the podcast Does Anyone Really Need to Hear This? on my blog years ago, and I think it’s time to give it another shout-out.  Mark Stockslager (who, if you couldn’t guess by the name, is my brother) gives his often strong opinions on movies, books, TV, music, sports, and more.  His most recent episode, is a good one to start with, because in it he introduces some regular segments on some of the above-mentioned topics.  In another recent episode, he and his guests analyze–a more appropriate word would be “dismember”–the season 6 finale of The
    Walking Dead
  3. Another colleague recently sent me two articles from the religion, arts, and culture blog Mockingbird, based out of Christ Episcopal Church in Charlottesville, VA.  The two articles he sent me (this really long but worthwhile one and this shorter one) are both about Harry Potter (people are always sending me Harry Potter stuff, which is fine by me!), but I’m looking forward to reading what these thoughtful bloggers have to say on other topics as well.
  4. If you work at a desk on a computer all day and aren’t using Spotify Free to provide a soundtrack to your day, why aren’t you?  I mostly listen to post rock (Spotify has a good playlist for this genre) and movie scores because they don’t have lyrics to distract me, but they also aren’t boring.  As I write this, I’m listening to John Powell’s exciting scores to the How to Train Your Dragon movies.

Now you have your assignments; go read and listen!

Ghosts by Gaslight

Last night my brother Mark and I went to our second Gaslight Anthem concert, this one in downtown Raleigh’s tiny Lincoln Theater, a perfect venue for getting up close and personal with rock and roll.  On the way home, I remarked that I’ve noticed that The Gaslight Anthem’s songs are constantly referring to ghosts.  Mark added that they tend to write about radios a lot as well.  I’ll let Mark treat the symbolic valences of radios (maybe he could do that on his podcast, Does Anyone Really Need to Hear This?), but let me give you a few of my thoughts on the ghost imagery in the Gaslight canon.

First of all, it’s everywhere.  Here are just a few samples from last year’s album Handwritten:

  • “I danced with your ghost” (“45”)
  • “All of our heroes were failures or ghosts” (“Biloxi Parish”)
  • “I already live with too many ghosts” (“National Anthem”)

I’m sure a thorough or even a cursory listen through the catalog would turn up many more examples.

Invariably, these ghosts aren’t spirits of dead people returned to complete unfinished business.  In the Gaslight Anthem universe, which looks a lot like a Christian universe much of the time, the dead go On (to echo Albus Dumbledore).  This is very clear in the masterful requiem “The ’59 Sound” (“when we float out into the ether/into the everlasting arms”) and in “Biloxi Parish,” one of the few almost cheerful songs on the new album (“when you pass through from this world/I hope you ask to take me with you/or that I don’t have to wait too long”).

No, the ghosts in The Gaslight Anthem’s repertoire are memories–not mere memories, for as the songs heart-wrenchingly demonstrate, memories are powerful and, far too often, malevolent.  I can think of only one example in which ghost imagery is positive, and it’s “Biloxi Parish” again.  In that song, which I think is highly romantic, I don’t think the line “I will eventually haunt you” is meant to be sinister.  But that’s the exception.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the main theme of all of TGA’s music is figuring out how to go on living in the shadows of a devastating past–the shadow of a failure of a father, the shadow of a burned-out New Jersey factory, the shadows of girls named Virginia and Maria.

The ghost references go all the way back to the first album (“like I was a ghost in your dreams” in “Red in the Morning”) and are used to convey a number of different ideas.  For example, “Old Haunts” (which I always thing of as The Gaslight Anthem’s more depressing answer to Bruce Springsteen’s already-sad “Glory Days”) is about people who voluntarily become ghosts by refusing to move forward, always falling back on “if you’d have known me when.”  Even when they’re not using the word “ghost,” The Gaslight Anthem are singing about ghosts: “Keepsake,” the saddest song on the latest album, is about exorcising those angry memories–or, to use the song’s own metaphor, burying them deep at the bottom of a river.  Another theme addressed without explicitly employing the ghost imagery, though the allusion is certainly there, is the determination to avoid creating haunting memories for others.  This is why the speaker in “The Spirit of Jazz” asks so earnestly, “Was I good to you/the wife of my youth?”

If all these ghost lyrics were accompanied by minor keys and funereal tempos, they would be maudlin.  But many of The Gaslight Anthem’s most haunted songs are among their loudest, fastest, and most danceable.  Part of this, I think, is defiance: Hey ghosts, you can’t stop me from playing rock and roll.  But also, maybe–I don’t want to presume to read something that isn’t there–maybe there’s also some hope for what we’ll find after we hear our “favorite song one last time.”

podcast plug

A great podcast you should be listening to if you aren’t already: Does Anyone Really Need to Hear This? The Official Mark Stockslager Podcast. Despite the unpromising title, Mark really does say a lot that’s worth listening to. There’s really no main topic, but a number of themes have emerged over the course of about ten episodes; comedy, movies, The Walking Dead, the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Bruce Springsteen are a few of the dominant ones. Even if you’re not into all of that, you’ll enjoy Mark’s self-deprecating humor, random vocal impressions, and refreshingly unorthodox point of view on a few of those topics.

You can subscribe or listen to individual episodes for free at the iTunes store. I recommend that you subscribe, but if you don’t have time to listen to them all right now, listen to tonight’s episode. Yes, this is shameless self-promotion–I guest-starred on tonight’s show. Mark and I reveal our top ten movie scores and top five main movie themes (musical themes, that is), plus a lot of honorable mentions.