Religion and Morality: A Match Made in Hell?

Sam Harris‘s award-winning 2005 book The End of Faith carefully laid out his arguments about the negative influence of religious belief on society and on prospects for a more peaceable world. Extensively reviewed and discussed, it made Harris a darling of the New Atheist movement. It also established him as that modern rarity, a public intellectual.

Last year Harris followed up his book with a monograph called Letter to a Christian Nation, which received a thoughtful summing-up and review at Blogcritics by Tim Gebhart. This more pointed work narrows the focus to one of the first book’s themes: that, while it is Islamic radicals who are responsible for the mayhem that has thrown the world into what threatens to become a neverending state of war, Christian fundamentalist beliefs are just as morally flawed and just as harmful, though at present less spectacularly so.

Letter takes the form of an epistle to the majority of Americans who (according to polls) believe the Christian Bible to be the actual word of God. The End of Faith, while fiercely argued, was, in form, a standard work of popular scholarship, but Letters is a polemical monograph in the manner of Thomas Paine, with the associated virtues and limitations. It’s short – less than 100 small pages – and even more plainspoken than the longer book. Were we a society of readers, its accessibility would likely have made it the more important of the two.

Unfortunately we are not a society of readers. But the more American Christians who receive the gospel of Sam Harris, the better for our world, and having his perspective available in compact, digestible form is a boon. He shows the enormity of the stakes and argues effectively that we must strive for a world less dominated by irrational beliefs. Faith, he writes,

inspires violence in at least two ways. First, people often kill other human beings because they believe that the creator of the universe wants them to do it. Islamist terrorism is a recent example of this sort of behavior. Second, far greater numbers of people fall into conflict…because they define their moral community on the basis of their religious affiliation. Muslims side with other Muslims, Protestants with Protestants, Catholics with Catholics…[Even] conflicts that seem driven entirely by terrestrial concerns…are often deeply rooted in religion.

A key problem is that believers and nonbelievers hold different conceptions of morality. “Questions of morality,” Harris writes, “are questions about happiness and suffering. This is why you and I do not have moral obligations toward rocks.” That makes sense on the face of it, but a lot of people aren’t thinking about “questions about happiness and suffering” when they talk about morality.

To fundamentalists, morality usually means following (or loudly paying lip service to) scriptural commands. Often the commands are cherry-picked. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is much more palatable to twenty-first century Christians than “Slaves, be obedient to those who are your earthly masters” (Ephesians 6:5). But, whether followed or not, they are taken as dictates from God. Too often it is that, and not any inherent sense or goodness, that leads to the veneration of these laws.

Harris writes that violence is often caused by people defining their “moral community” in terms of their religion, and observes that religion “tends to divorce morality from the reality of human suffering.” I would put it a little differently: for too many people, morality and beliefs become two words for the same thing. Many religious people think that their beliefs, however irrational, are morality.

Scriptural commands such as the Ten Commandments have roots in the evolved biology of the social animals we are. Murder, stealing, and adultery cause suffering and strife in apes as among humans. Increased societal peace (leading to more happiness) and decreased suffering are certainly goals that come into play as morals evolve and harden into scripture. But in complex societies, morals are also honed and shaped by reason. In rejecting reason, fundamentalists subvert morality, with horrifying results.

Before the believers out there start attacking, let me add that irrational beliefs can and do coexist with rational moral thought. Regardless of our religiosity or lack thereof, most of us repeatedly make day-to-day ethical decisions based on common sense and basic human decency. But the small, personal ways in which people create peace and obviate suffering for themselves, their loved ones, their friends and co-workers, stand apart from the larger moral failures that have led to 9/11, unnecessary suffering from AIDS, and the civil war in Iraq. People who believe in 79 virgins or a Rapture – people fixated on an end to history, rather than concerned with actual humanity – have washed their hands of personal responsibility. For them, essential morality has broken down.

Religion allows people to imagine that their concerns are moral when they are highly immoral – that is, when pressing these concerns inflicts unnecessary and appalling suffering on innocent human beings. This explains why Christians like yourself expend more “moral” energy opposing abortion than fighting genocide…[and] why you can preach against condom use in sub-Saharan Africa while millions die from AIDS there each year.

“Clearly,” Harris concludes, “it is time we learned to meet our emotional needs without embracing the preposterous… Only then will we stand a chance of healing the deepest and most dangerous fractures in our world.”

He may be wrong in believing that, in the philosophical conflict between rational thinkers and superstitious believers, “in the fullness of time, one side is really going to win this argument, and the other side is really going to lose.” Unchecked religious fundamentalism may yet result in the end of civilization, but we live in unprecedented times and can make no such assumption.

What is certain, and what the gospel of Sam Harris is helping to make clear, is that our world is awash in religious wars, and we had better learn to think of them that way. As the writer, documentarian, and humanist Ann Druyan, widow of Carl Sagan, pointed out at last Fall’s Beyond Belief conference, there is room to hope “that we are on the eve of a swing in the pendulum, that tomorrow we’ll wake up and we’ll realize that our fellow citizens have been aroused from their stupor, from their fear-based religion and their fear-based politics, to see what we have to do to make this tiny pale blue dot a place of peace and true goodness.”

Blogcritic of the Month

Yours truly has been named Blogcritic of the Month for March. My bloggy monthiness notwithstanding, over two weeks went by before I posted the news here. Which is what I am doing now. As I mentioned in the interview, I was raised not to toot my own horn. Man, that is so twentieth century.

Promoting oneself is a hard skill to learn.

Hey, did I mention my band Whisperado is going to be featured on NPR’s “open mic” website? It’s true.

And stay tuned for some exciting blogging news having to do with my theater criticism.

Theater Review: Desire in the Suburbs

Frederic Glover’s new play takes place in the present day, but hangs, not on the modern hooks of irony or experiment, but on the old-fashioned dramatic values of – wait for it – wait for it –


Also wit. And – whaddyacallem – oh yeah. Characters.

Ed (Timothy Scott Harris) is a 39-year-old unemployed lawyer and smoldering misanthrope who’s moved back in with his philandering, law-professor father (Baz Snider) and the latter’s alluring, fortyish new wife (Dee Dee Friedman). What’s the secret in Jenny’s past, and does she have hidden motives? Will Ed and Jenny’s flirtation turn into something more? Should Jenny believe the father, or the son, about her new family’s possibly dark history?

And will the play obey Chekhov’s rule that if you hang a rifle on the wall in the first act, it must be fired later?

Most of all, the suspense lies in the psychology of the bitter, sarcastic Ed. Balding and round-shouldered but physically intimidating, furiously lifting weights like the prison inmate he feels like, this deliciously creepy bolt of jealousy lopes about his father’s suburban kingdom like a modern Richard III. He wants his father’s big Westchester house, the girl, and the successful, settled life. But is his tragic flaw his jealousy, or is it the putative mental illness he may or may not have inherited from his mysteriously vanished mother? (Did she run off years ago, as Ed’s father, Mike, insists? Or is she in the urn on the mantelpiece?)

Desire in the Suburbs
Photo by Gerry Goodstein

In the relatively straight role of the father, Snider conveys the fragility of modern enlightened manhood – cool cucumber outside, jalapeno of rage inside. The stolid academic with the radical past worries about his unstable son and is – at least academically – in touch with his feelings, but in the face of Oedipal confrontation his self-awareness devolves to primitive anger and tyranny. In perhaps the most challenging role as Jenny, the fulcrum of the conflict, Friedman is subtly brilliant even – or especially – during her near-silent scenes while the boys squabble over her loyalties. She does more with a tight nod, or a sudden, leering smile, than some might accomplish with extravagant speechifying.

In an inventive variation on in-the-round staging, director Kathleen Brant and scenic designer Tim Gobeliewski seat the audience on two opposite sides of a single wide set which efficiently represents the kitchen and living room. In this way they are able to suggest a spacious, comfortable house in a small off-off-Broadway space. As the actors enter and exit through and around the audience, the perspective shifts and the fourth wall is thinned but not eliminated. The resulting feeling of intimacy enhances the tension.

Harris’s Ed is a rich, fascinating invention, a character that could become a classic. I even thought of John Malkovich as Pale in Burn This. With their more than able cast and crew, Glover and Brant have bred a big winner.

Through March 31 at the Workshop Theater in New York City. Call 212-695-4173 for reservations, or buy tickets online.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Lights, Heavies, Seymour, Spanic Boys, Cunniff

We’re all over the place this week, musically speaking. So to avoid getting us all dizzy with mood swings, I’ve put these selections in order starting with the darkest and progressing to the most upbeat. It works out nicely, because if you only have time to read one of this week’s reviews, let it be that of…

The National Lights, The Dead Will Walk, Dear

Looking at the song titles on the debut CD from this Virginia trio – like a song called “O, Ohio,” and the traditional “The Water Is Wide” – I expected folk music.

But no. It wasn’t the old “The Water Is Wide” that everyone in the world seems to have covered. And, although the CD has a hushed, subdued sound, plenty of acoustic guitar, and no drums, it’s not folk music.

Then again, maybe it is. Certainly in the “it’s all folk music” sense. Or if you look at the whole ten-song, 28-minute opus as one long American Gothic murder ballad. Because every song is about hurting and dying. Beautiful women or children are killed with shotguns, or drowned – one way or another enholed. Often there’s water. Sometimes the singer is alone, sometimes not. Sometimes he sees the victim as deserving of her fate:

We’ll wait ’til dark to dig that hole outside
Big enough for you to fit inside
All those hearts you broke are still beating
This is helping, honey this is healing

Other times she seems innocent:

There’s a hole in the river
Where they put your body down…
I’ll hold in my bones
That sweet little heart of yours
It’s not big enough to beat for two anymore
I’ll grow for us both

The creepy thing is the way these doomy lyrics are set, not to death-metal grinding sounds, but quite the opposite – in gently rolling little songs, miniatures really, sung in grey, half-whispered tones by songwriter/mastermind Jacob Thomas Berns. Shades of Sufjan Stevens, ghosts of Nick Cave.

Berns’s sparse guitars are padded by multi-instrumentalist Ernest Christian Kiehne, Jr. (Ernest Christian, get it? Oh wait, that’s his real name…), who adds more guitars, some bass, and lots of keyboards, including weighty organ parts on several songs. And the icing on this devil’s food cake: smooth, eerie harmony vocals by Sonya Cotton. Descended, I imagine, from Cotton Mather.

There’s no need to mention which songs have what, though. This CD plays as a single sad, strangely pretty, discreetly paranoid, glittery-eyed work. Of which you can get a good taste at their Myspace page. Go. But watch your back. For “look at what we’ve become/A black heart and a loaded gun.”

Black Diamond Heavies, Every Damn Time

This duo of self-described “vagrants/citizens of the world” makes gruff, scratchy, lo-fi blues and soul music like there was nothing else they ever wanted to do. It ain’t pretty, but it’s got balls. Like Hillstomp, they make a big sound for two people, but it’s dark and electrified and loud.

While his left hand covers the bass parts on a bass keyboard, singer John Wesley Myers pounds a distorted sound out of his Fender Rhodes electric piano with his right, which provides the hoarseness that hard music normally gets from guitars. On vocals he sounds as much like Howlin’ Wolf as any white man I’ve ever heard, particularly on “Might Be Right” and the frenzied opener “Fever In My Blood.” The Doors – another keyboard-heavy band that (live, anyway) relied on keyboard bass – come to mind when listening to “Leave It In The Road,” and there’s an element of punk fury in song titles like “White Bitch” and “Guess You Gone And Fucked It All Up.”

Myers’s growling might get a little monotonous, but its combination of anger and humor keeps the CD fun. Meanwhile, Van Campbell’s half-crazed drums and splashing cymbals fill out the rest of the sonic color-by-number.

An exception in several ways, the eight-minute opus “All To Hell” adds a bass player, a Hammond B3 player, and horns. Its severe, gritty soulfulness makes it a standout. But the more modest “Stitched In Sin” proves the duo can also put across an affecting ballad without reinforcements. Maybe there’s something dense and scary in the water of Port Arthur, TX – Myers’s hometown, and Janis Joplin‘s.

Hear a couple of tracks at their Myspace page or their band website.

Erin Sax Seymour, Good Girl

Erin Sax Seymour’s new seven-song set is a mix of old-time country and modern country-rock. Three tracks were recorded live with her band, the rest with producer Stephen Joseph and other studio musicians. Her voice has a little-girl side that suggests the Dolly Parton school of country singing; she also unloads stronger timbres when needed, like in the waltz ballad “What You See In Me.”

The songwriting is a little maddening. The CD sounds gorgeous, but the dry syntax of Seymour’s lyrics tend to distract attention from her gutsy melodies and vividly emotional music. It makes me think of some other artists, also with female vocals, whom I’ve written about recently – such as Laura Vecchione and the sadly dormant Great Unknowns – artists who make music in a roughly similar style, but who are more in touch with the raw side of language. Now and then, Seymour’s tricky lyrics come across as sharp and clever: “Was the letting go worth the getting over?” But more often, her catchy up-country numbers like “Peace Tonight” as well as her pretty, sensitive singer-songwriter fare (like the title track, which sounds like something off of Dire Straits’s Making Movies) suffer from a scarcity of strong words. The musically soulful “Substitute” declares rather meaninglessly, “Ain’t no substitute for a broken heart/And drawing that line is so damn hard,” and culminates weakly with “Somewhere between your heart and mine/Lies the answers [sp] that we’ve been denying.”

This doesn’t prevent me from respecting Seymour’s talent, or liking the music. It’s just that following the lyrics cuts down on that enjoyment.

The band on the three Dixielandish live tracks is so energetic and fun, and Seymour’s singing so sprightly, that after three listens they’ve emerged as my favorite tracks. “Signs How This Ends” and “The Gift” are especially good.

Hear MP3s at Erin Sax Seymour’s Myspace page.

Spanic Boys, Sunshine

On the heels of the new Bill Kirchen CD comes another Telecaster blast, this one from the father-and-son team known as the Spanic Boys. Their new, heavily Beatles-influenced set focusses as much on the duo’s close vocal harmonies as on their dueling Fender guitars. Like many family singers, their melded voices can sound almost supernaturally in synch, rather like the Everly Brothers, but they do more sliding around, which makes for slightly weird effects.

Many of the songs – all written by the Spanics – seem expressly written to feature their vocal harmonizing, sometimes at the expense of other important aspects of songwriting, like dramatic effect and hookiness. Songs that transcend that limitation include the slow waltz “What Will You Do,” whose harmonies suggest both the early Eagles and the Byrds’ version of “Satisfied Mind.”

“Secret” sounds like a lost, slow Beatles track if Robbie Kreiger had been invited to play a guest guitar solo. There’s not much to the song itself, but the sound is like a slow burn from the underworld. The title track is essentially a tribute to specific Beatles sounds and songs, especially “Rain,” to which it might be construed as an answer. As we reviewers can get tired of saying, you could do a lot worse than to use the Beatles as a touchstone, if you can get away with it. The Spanic Boys aren’t remotely the songwriters the Beatles were, but their expression of the deeply layered mid-period Beatles guitar sound is sure.

Our heroes can’t entirely avoid coming across a bit academic. But at least it’s the Ivy League. And it’s not all Beatles all the time. My favorite tracks are “Bigger Fool Than Me,” a two-minute snarl of 1960s rock and roll power, and the raw garage-rocker “Broken Wheel.”

“Didn’t Love You Anyway” is hard-edged country rock of the sort those pesky Beatles coopted decades ago for songs like “Dr. Robert,” and the CD closes with the jittery, bass-and-drums-driven “You Don’t Worry Me,” which effectively grafts the Spanics’ trademark, lazily moving harmonies onto a fast, insistent beat.

MP3 clips here.

Jill Cunniff, City Beach

The sunny side of New York City life peeks through the froth in this, the solo debut of Luscious Jackson’s Jill Cunniff. Described by Cunniff as a “mood record made to bring the beach to caged up city dwellers,” the CD lives up to that in several early songs and two at the end. The light, bright, sophisticated arrangements are like bubblegum with beats. But I enjoyed the CD a lot more at a modest volume at home while concentrating on something else, than I did in the car, where I want my music loud and ear-important. Want edgy? Go elsewhere. Want nice? This is nice. Maybe, for some Luscious Jackson fans, a little too nice.

There are some standouts. Cunniff goes deep in “Warm Sound,” copping the tune from “Horse With No Name” and layering it on top of a thick atmosphere and syrupy beat drawn from Tori Amos’s “Cornflake Girl.” The baubles “Eye Candy” and “Exclusive” are tangy, catchy melodic pop – if you can ignore the lame lyrics.

“Love Is A Luxury” has a big build that Cunniff’s modest vocal chops don’t quite measure up to. But “Future Call,” an intense little ska-tinged rocker, gets the blood going some; if Mr. Roboto-era Styx got together with Martha & the Muffins and had a baby band, it might sound like this.

can you hear the future call
valley boy, repo girl?
We’re tearing down the shopping mall…
can you hear the future call
wild boys and west end girls?
read the writing on the wall

A portion of the proceeds from the CD are going to benefit the Surfrider Foundation, a non-profit that works to fight ocean pollution and preserve beach access.

Hear clips here.

Theater Review: Hotel Oracle by Bixby Elliot

Bixby Elliot‘s new play Hotel Oracle starts with the standard fictional convention of putting a group of seemingly ordinary strangers into an extraordinary situation. Here, though, it’s not a disaster or a crime, but a fantastical grafting of ancient myth onto modern life. A group of travelers, hoping for answers to their Big Questions from a mysterious modern sibyl, reveal their troubles and motivations as they get to know each other.

The play has a number of well-written and powerfully staged scenes, some of which are very funny. Interesting dramatic ideas, wonderful set design by Nick Vaughan, and a good cast conspired to make me really want to like the play. But it’s a jumble. Elliot has tried to cram in so many ideas and inspirations that the play loses focus and leaves us with unanswered questions – not the ineffable kind, but the plot-related kind that we normally expect to have answered.

At one moment we seem to be in the “real” world of modern science and The New York Times, and the next there seems to be a fascist dystopia out there. Modern medical explanations for religious visions, as exemplified by the brilliant but mentally unstable Lucy (Tessa Gibbons), are fascinating, but what do they have to do with the half-absurd, half-mysterious Oracle that actually figures in the play? The hotel clerk (the charming Paul Keany) has an interesting hobby, but is it supposed to map in some way to the story of Orpheus and Eurydice? Unclear.

Hotel Oracle
Katie Honaker and Tessa Gibbons. Photo by Rebecca Holladay.

The playwright’s potential, the actors’ abilities, and director Stephen Brackett’s careful sensitivity are evident in a number of places, such as the masterfully comic early scene between the nosy, pregnant Angie (the fabulous Katie Honaker) and the lonely reporter Madeline (Deb Martin); the truly scary ending of Act I; and the powerful and tricky piece of stagecraft in which Mack, the con man (Jim Kane), bares his difficult, angry soul. Angie’s monologue about why she’s afraid of the water is a brilliant showcase of both Elliot’s sharp ear for the rhythms of speech and Honaker’s magnetic and elastic talent. And the whole thing with the Post-It notes is, let’s just say, highly original.

This is the work of a playwright with a quiver full of penetrating arrows who – in this case, at least – just needs better aim.

Through March 31 at Walkerspace in New York City. For tickets call (212) 352-3101 or order online.

Theater Review: Kander and Ebb’s The Happy Time

Octogenarian Tony winner George S. Irving is anchoring a sprightly cast in a revival of Kander and Ebb’s neglected musical The Happy Time at the McGinn-Casale Theater in New York City. Like the larger-scale Encores! series at City Center (something! about this type of production! seems to demand! exclamation points!), Musicals Tonight! presents neglected and forgotten musicals in “staged concert” format. I have some comments on the format, in which the cast holds their scripts while performing, but first, to the matter at hand: The Happy Time.

First produced in 1968, the show was Kander and Ebb’s follow-up to their breakout hit Cabaret. The score is quite pleasing and includes some really lovely tunes, including “I Don’t Remember You” and “Please Stay.” Irving, who now plays Grandpère, was a member of the original cast. Here he has a blast playing the gruff but lovable dirty old paterfamilias of a bickering Québécois family that’s sent into a tizzy by the return of prodigal son Jacques (Timothy Warmen).

Though Jacques hesitantly reconnects with his old flame Laurie (the graceful, angel-voiced Sarah Solie), the story’s main relationship is the one between him and his pubescent nephew Bibi (David Geinosky), who yearns to escape his teasing schoolmates and strict father into something like Jacques’s glamorous photographer’s life. As a substitute for a central love story, this relationship works a little weirdly. Warmen, despite some stagey awkwardness early on (and an excessive vibrato), eventually invests Jacques with depth, and Geinosky gives a touching and generous performance as the boy, but the bawdy humor that hops up much of Act I also bestows some unwanted creepiness on the two male leads’ mutual affection. Jacques also suffers an identity crisis that, at least to twenty-first century eyes, suggests a possibly unintended double meaning.

Since Bibi is only thirteen or so, we don’t quite know how to take some of these cues. Fortunately Geinosky (a grown actor) is good at portraying the confusions of adolescence. And the story is fundamentally about how people grow up, and what happens when some people don’t.

There’s plenty of drama in growing up – it’s probably the second most common theme of the stories we tell. But this particular telling lacks the crisp pace and transparent narrative flow that make a great Broadway musical. In the second act, when the father-son-uncle conflict becomes explicit, the drama draws neatly towards completion, but because of the early ambiguity and the show’s length, we look back quizzically on the opening scenes, which is not an intended effect.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a story that follows an arc from lightness and humor to darkness and complexity, but our journey from Jacques’s homey introduction to the bittersweet closing set-piece is too long and meandering. Our expectations, and, to a degree, our interest in the characters get dispersed. Five songs cut from the Broadway show were restored for this production, hence the length of the evening. Some songs, as my companion pointed out, didn’t serve to further the action. (Probably those are the ones that had been originally cut.)

However, it’s nice to hear Kander and Ebb’s entire score, and I’m not sorry I did. In fact, for the music alone I can recommend this production. Winning performances from a well-rounded cast, and the presence of the aged but still sharp and hilarious George S. Irving, help bring the delicious music – flawed story in tow – to life. Larry Daggett as the drunken brother is especially droll. Charly Seamon displays brassy power in the vaudeville number, which is only one of the vehicles for director Thomas Mills’s limber choreography.

But the choreography is also where the format’s weakness is most evident. The actors carry around script binders and refer to them for lines, sometimes even lyrics. This, despite their valiant efforts to work around it, interferes with the flow of the action. I know that in this format the actors aren’t expected to have entirely memorized their parts. But I don’t quite understand how, if there’s enough rehearsal time to learn Kander and Ebb’s tunes with their playful melodies and time changes, and to get down all the cues and blocking and movement and dancing, there isn’t time to learn the lines too. It’s not halfway between a staged reading and a full-on production – it’s much closer to the latter. Hence the strangeness. Admittedly, it’s the first time I’ve seen this sort of production, and I’d welcome any enlightenment.

Through March 18. Call (212) 868-4444 or order tickets online.

I’ll Outlast You, Mystery Caller

Getting a lot of sales calls is a side effect of my job running a small IT department. In fact, most times when my phone rings it’s a vendor, wanting to sell me anything from toner cartridges to consulting services to satellite Internet. If I wanted the latter I’d ask friends for recommendations – I think one got something set up with recently? In any case, some are follow-ups from people I’ve talked to, but a lot are cold calls. I can see the number, and based on that I decide whether to pick up. Saves me a lot of time talking to salespeople I don’t want to talk to.

And then there’s 603. Someone with that area code calls me several times a day. I never pick up. He never leaves a message.

(Super-persistent sales callers are always male.)

His number ends in a bunch of zeros so I know he’s calling from an office, and he calls so often, he has to be a salesman, more than likely with training from somewhere similar to this company. He has my direct line, so I must have given it to him at some point. Maybe at one time I was interested in what he was selling. Maybe I even told him to get back to me “next quarter,” say. Just to get him off my back. Or maybe I sincerely wanted him to follow up. It happens.

But if 603 really wants to follow up on whatever he’s following up on, he’d best leave me a message. You hear me, 603? Leave. A. Message.

Otherwise this game will go on indefinitely. Oh, I thought you’d give up, but it’s been months, maybe a year now, and you still call at least twice a day. This is truly no good for a relationship. How can I decide once and for all how I feel about you if you won’t give me my space?

I can see you, you know, in my mind’s eye. Thinking and scheming. Trying different times of day. Calling early in the morning, after hours, at lunchtime, trying to trip me up. I know you come in extra early some days, stay late other days, vary your own lunch breaks, just to try and nail me. Catch me unawares. Or break my will, make me get so tired of your incessant ringing that I’ll pick up just to get you off my back at least for a little while.

But I ain’t picking up, 603.

No sir. You ain’t gonna break me, 603. You want an easy mark, 603? Forget about it. You’re messing with the wrong IT guy.

I’m not in right now. Leave a message.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Pete Levin, Bloody Hollies, Stepanian

Pete Levin, Deacon Blues

The new CD by Pete Levin, the venerable New York synthesizer and Hammond organ specialist (and brother of bass and Chapman stick legend Tony Levin), is a set of pleasant, energetic Adult Contemporary jazz with occasional bursts of fusion energy. It’s all very classy, but clean and unthreatening, which isn’t how I generally like my jazz. Some situations do call for this kind of music, though, and there’s certainly plenty of talent on display here.

Levin’s solid, tasty touch on the Hammond organ is the constant, but longtime collaborator Danny Gottleib’s pastel-colorful drumming – listen to his inspired, in-time solo on “Icarus” – anchors the group on most tracks. Tony Levin’s rubbery bass leads the Jimmy Giuffre mood ballad “Sad Truth,” which also features a deep, delicate organ solo by Pete.

“Eclipse,” composed by the feathery-fingered guitarist Mike DeMicco, is probably my favorite track – it goes just a bit further out, and is the more satisfying for it. “Dragonfly” (another Giuffre tune) brings the fusion, with even a little touch of prog-rock. There’s a selection of classic songs too, adroitly given the smooth-jazz treatment. The Steely Dan hit “Deacon Blues” and the Beach Boys’ beautiful “Sail On Sailor” both come out well, as does the standard “Mean To Me.” I could have lived without the overdone Satie piece – jazzing that one up only makes it even more overplayed than it already is. But on the whole, if you’re in the mood for this kind of music, this CD could be just the thing to soothe your spirit without putting your mind to sleep.

The Bloody Hollies, Who to Trust Who to Kill Who to Love

I’m not going to dredge up any comparisons for the Bloody Hollies. The trio’s hybrid of punk rock and hard blues really, really works. High-energy rock with good songs is pretty rare these days. With stratospheric vocals, take-no-prisoners guitar work and a rhythm section that won’t quit, this crunchingly produced CD is one of the best hard rock albums I’ve heard in a while. Also they have an awesome name. Bloody Hollies – get it? Works on so many levels. Bloody… Effin’… Hollies. Kick-ass.

You can hear some full tracks at their Myspace page. Then buy the CD and listen to it loud in your car. Don’t have a car? Rent one and then listen to the Bloody Hollies loud in it. The Power of Rock commands you.

Stepanian, Wait Out the Rain

Then, when you need a break from the harder stuff, Stepanian’s smooth pop-rock could be the ticket. Easygoing vocals and bright saxophone lines couch some fairly pessimistic lyrics, but cheery arrangements and solid, if not spectacular, songwriting give the first four songs of the EP an upbeat feel. Only the closer, “Caroline,” feels truly sad, but it has a strong hook and is in fact one of the highlights. My other favorite is “Falling.” Starting off in a soft, innocuous bed of eighth notes, it subtly builds pop momentum, supported by a sharp, loping guitar riff over the choruses.

“Everything” jumps between funky, sparse verses and strong, power-pop choruses with a little heartland harmonica added. “Beautiful,” the opener, is sweet but a little too clichéd for my taste.

Agreeable and unthreatening without being boring, Stepanian is a band you could take home to your mother.

Available with extended clips at CD Baby.