ALBUM OF THE MONTH

THE WILDHEARTS

Renaissance Men                                                                                             

Who knows why more people on this side of the pond are not familiar with the Wildhearts? The on-again, off-again British band of punk rock brigands have a congregational following on their home sod, and, as the old rock and roll cliché goes, they are big in Japan— Arigato.

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If anything, the Wildhearts’ relative anonymity on U.S. soil is likely a pulse-taking of the general state of melodic-based heavy guitar rock. Still, there are plenty of American devil-horn hoisters who should quickly familiarize themselves with the Wildhearts’ singular whiplash mash-up of Motörhead riffage and Ramones ragged pop-punk glory.

Founded in 1989, in Newcastle upon Tyne, England, the Wildhearts have a voluminous back-catalog with an impossibly cohesive musical multiple personality disorder: Panzer tank guitar riffs, time changes galore, call and response punk anthems, power-pop melodies, B sides that compete in the ring with A sides, three-part harmonies, even an occasional, subtle, proggy show of technical prowess, an affectation of three decades of touring together. This band is tight and totally arena worthy.

The line-up has changed over the years, always fronted by Ginger Wildheart, but this is the line-up the loyalists deem the “classic,” featuring Ginger on guitar and vocals; CJ on guitar and vocals; the power and precision drum work of Ritch Battersby and, for the first time since a 2005 one-off show, the return of punk stalwart Danny McCormack on bass (the heavy bass tone on this album, incidentally, sounds on occasion like it ascended like an oceanic belch from the depths of the Mariana Trench).

It’s been ten years since the band’s madly eclectic Chutzpah! During the absence, front man Ginger released enough solo albums to fill a veritable Public Storage unit, albums hopscotching from blast-beat grindcore to country folk. Wildhearts pop-jester, CJ, felled three massively infectious solo disks of his own during the hiatus, each a melodic driven guitar rock album growing louder, angstier, more metallic, foreshadowing the build-up to the Wildhearts’ first album in a decade.

Renaissance Men does not disappoint. 39 minutes, containing ten unrelenting tracks, eschewing the bloated excess of 1990’s 70-minute compact disks in favor of short and sweet 70s rock vinyl yearning for more.

Opening track, “Dislocated,” opens with a squelch of distortion and quickly catapults into a contagious guitar riff that proclaims the Wildhearts are standing by to fill the massive black hole left by the untimely death of Motörhead’s Lemmy Kilmister in 2015. The verse/chorus coupling is vintage Wildhearts: 40 grit sandpaper juxtaposed by an instantly memorable powerpop singalong. The opening track is a harbinger of the album to come—angry, loud, distorted, warts and all, up against surf-worthy waves of glass melody. Grading to melodious, often in ten-second hairpin turns, the album is the punk defiance anti-Brexiteers and the pussy hat American resistance have needed from punk music. This is pure anti-establishment, new referendum, dammit, orange blowhard fightin’ music for the modern age.

The disk moves into track two with nary a moment of in-between respite, instead a squelch of guitar-jack banshee and it’s off into the anthemic “Let Em Go,” a Drop Kick Murphys stomp-along featuring a vocal cameo by folk-punk favorite Frank Turner.

Let em go

Let em go

Let the shit filled rivers flow

The song is a hoisting of the middle finger to the world we live in, the “wankers” around us, but also, more broadly, the near-dystopian, squalorous political landscape we presently fester in. Like all of the lyrics on the record, there’s the perfect marriage of specificity to Ginger’s daily struggles (and he details them regularly on his social media feeds) and a wider metaphor to be interpreted by the listener. This is an angry, cacophonous rock album, for angry, cacophonous times.

“My Kind of Movie” showcases a blistering riff, coupled with one of the band’s trademarks—the irresistible PB and J, gin and tonic, name-your-favorite-combo, of Ginger and CJ harmonizing on lead vocal as they opine about crack cocaine, VHS tapes and Ingmar Bergman films, amongst other topics.

The title track is a defiant pop declaration of the Wildhearts return, a proclamation of self-belief and self-reliance. This band is back.

“Diagnosis,” one of many album highlights, opens with enough three-chord arena bravado to make Angus Young soil his school-boy knickers. The track addresses Ginger’s own very public melee with depression and the mental health crisis on both sides of the Atlantic.

“You are not your diagnosis,” the Wildhearts command, sounding like a band of brothers and grizzly throated pirates—and they are, navigating beyond mental hospital residencies, epic drug addictions, in-band melees, break-ups, record label feuds, broken hearts and all the other tropes of Behind the Music formulae. Returning bassist Danny McCormick lost part of his lower leg, for chrissakes. This is not the self-congratulatory, romance heroin poseurdom of Mötley Crüe, this is real fucking life.  Renaissance Men is a bold, brash, authentic, pissed off, hook-laden return for a band whose time for widespread global recognition is long past due.

 

 

 

 

THE VANISHING SCHOOL LIBRARIAN

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While visiting high schools across the country in recent months to speak about author Ray Bradbury and his work, I have become aware of a troubling trend that greatly disadvantages young readers, particularly those in lower-income communities.

Earlier this fall, I spoke with a group of kids in poverty-stricken, rural Shawnee, Okla., and learned that their library had received zero dollars for book acquisitions in 2016. The librarian in this tiny athenaeum was unable to purchase a single book for her students.

I recently spoke in Wichita, Kan., at three public schools and discovered that all high school-certified librarians had been let go, replaced by clerks. Budgets were simply too tight, and trained librarians, it would appear, were deemed nonessential to the learning outcomes of Wichita students.

Never mind the fact that librarians are schooled to guide students to credible resources, train them on database usage, steer them to reputable peer-reviewed journals, and they teach young people a range of technological skills. And the staff cuts aren't happening only in Wichita. According to the Kansas Department of Education, in the last 15 years the number of certified library media specialists dropped to 688 from more than 1,000 — a startling and steep reduction of nearly 31 percent.

Chicago Public Schools is facing an equally dire situation. In 2015, Sara Sayigh, a beloved, 13-year librarian, was cut at the predominantly African-American multischool DuSable High School campus on Chicago's South Side. Students protested the decision, taking their impassioned outcry into the hallways and onto social media. After their protest gained national attention, an anonymous donor came to the rescue and the librarian was retained — for the time being. According to WBEZ News, there were 454 librarians budgeted at CPS schools in 2012. This year? A shocking decline to 160 in the fall of 2016.

Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 envisions a society where books are burned and mass media reign supreme. The people in this near-future dystopia are comfortably numb in their state of uneducated existence, screens serving as opiates from thinking any kind of big and important thoughts.

So here we are in 2017, 64 years after the book's publication. Who needs to douse kerosene on a stack of books and light a match when it's so much easier to devalue our school libraries and lay off our librarians?

District superintendents, senior administrators and bean counters with the ability to slash jobs apparently don't get it. School librarians are an essential component to a full education. Trained librarians are media specialists with master's degrees who can teach school-age kids the skills necessary to quickly access accurate information from sources beyond Google and Wikipedia.

Equally important, a great school librarian, through individualized instruction, can guide a young reader to a book or a story that has the potential to resonate deeply. Studies show conclusively that independent readers have greater success in school and, as a result, greatly emboldened career options for their future.

Librarians, because they are trained in the science of information, can help young students learn to use technology to achieve more than simply using Snapchat, Pokemon Go or the next app du jour.

School librarians are the ushers who light the path for our children. They guide students toward knowledge, understanding and empathy. They foster a sense of curiosity and teach young people the tools necessary to research effectively and think critically. Make no mistake — librarians are teachers.

In Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, we see what happens to a society that no longer reads, that no longer yearns to be educated. In cutting trained librarians in our schools, we are stepping ever closer to Bradbury's fictional dystopia.

As Bradbury famously stated: "You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”

This essay first appeared in the Chicago Tribune

 

POP MUSINGS

I started my career as a writer for alternative weeklies, earning my stripes at the Houston Press and later as a staff writer for Newcity in Chicago. I wrote constantly about music, film, books, politics and beyond. I honed my interviewing chops and wrote features and cover stories. This is where I learned to write. And all of this is still very much in my blood. The need is still in me. In this space, I will muse on things all things pop. Interviews. Reviews. Essays and more.