22 October 2021

Georgia Blah: Jason Isbell’s Cynical Tribute by Jack Christian

            Jason Isbell, former frontman of the Drive By Truckers, who for the last few years has been in the habit of crooning ballads as if he made singer-songwriter his Eagle Scout project, has a new album, Georgia Blue, that consists of covers of Peach State songs meant not as a tribute to the sadness enshrouding all the land, but to Georgia for electing Democrats in 2020. If anything, this development, specifically the notion of Isbell flattening a buffet of soulful singers—from Otis Redding to Michael Stipe—into his nasal tenor has helped me articulate why I don’t truck with Jason Isbell. This is something that even my close acquaintances are sometimes surprised to learn, assuming as they do that I, a disaffected Southerner, known to enjoy country and rock music, and perpetually startled by the twang of my own voice, probably keep Isbell in heavy rotation. And so I tell them: My aversion is all-encompassing, beginning with the “a” that seems absconded from his surname, and ending where his vocal intonation makes me want to drive my CR-V straight through the wall of an upscale, Greater Atlanta biscuit shop that is really just a Cracker Barrel with yuppie trim. But, Georgia Blue makes articulable what I previously could not: Isbell is the Joe Biden of alt country, and, insofar as Biden has never tried to sing to me, his project is more heart-wrecking than Biden’s. With Georgia Blue, Isbell rises from a musician I’ve always found vaguely annoying to a symbol of the hollowness of the current American political moment.

            I make this claim at a time when Isbell is receiving some nice press, including this profile in the New Yorker, for little more than being an Alabaman who acknowledges Covid-19 exists and who thinks it prudent to avoid contracting it. In his interview with Paul Elie, he comes across as affable enough. If he were, say, a deputy town manager for a sunbelt boomtown I’d have no problem with him, and his would-be advocacy that I imagine—issuing bonds for dog parks every quarter mile (or whatever), his singular vision that rescue dogs might rescue us. But, as a person who enjoys “music” even if mostly as the soundtrack to my own workaday mundanity, a person living in my own sunbelt boomtown, I can’t stand the guy!   

To people who want to put him in league with John Prine and Leonard Cohen, may I suggest Isbell’s true songwriting lineage is the creative teams behind the rise of Starbucks and Trader Joes? He seems clandestinely sponsored by a strip mall parking lot designed to keep you from escaping it. The song “Dreamsicle,” probably the best song from his 2019 album Reunions, makes for a cloying example. This is a song that manages to spoil dreamsicles, summer nights, and lawn chairs in a tidy 3:46. The effect is that now if I happen to enjoy a dreamsicle on a summer night I do so with an invisible Isbell over my shoulder reminding me that I am in fact “enjoying a dreamsicle on a summer night” in a way that is wholly similar to how I might glimpse the Michelins on the above-mentioned CR-V and think, despite myself, “because so much is riding on my tires.”

Like Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA,” “Dreamsicle” is a song that sounds bemusing on first listen, but turns out to be depressing as hell if you bother to decipher the narrative. Conceptually, the song occupies Isbell’s dominant motif of replacing Springsteen’s everyman with a repentant but clueless redneck who is the victim of his upbringing. That this mirrors the thesis of JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is an important clue. Under the “Dreamsicle” spell, we join Isbell in a pastime with which I’m familiar but do my best to avoid: that is, displacing the ache of love denied by obsessively devouring the whole box of dreamsicles. Titling a song after a frozen novelty causes a dissonant, almost subconscious realization of how bleak it is. And, it’s bleak as shit--bleaker still because its bleakness is presented as nostalgia for pain. 

The rest of Reunions proceeds similarly but with less charm. The album is necessary to discuss because it seems now like a sad call to which Georgia Blue offers a sadder response. Its first track “What Have I Done to Help?” has an echo of the chanted quality of Lucinda Williams’ “Car Wheels (On a Gravel Road).” But, where Williams’ song revels in late-afternoon and honeysuckle, Isbell offshores whimsy in favor of something that I guess is metonymy for the thought-loop of a guilt-ridden and fragile super ego, asking over and over, “What have I done to help?” and answering idiosyncratically “Somebody save me.” Throughout, he occupies the persona of the atomized man, haunted by his own solipsism. In total, the album sounds as if sung by a tortured mud puddle. Lyrically it’s about as deep as a park bench designed to inhibit sleeping. The storytelling for which Isbell is often extolled amounts to something like detailing one’s mental health history to a stranger at an Applebee's bar.

For all its shortcomings, the portrait of self-medicating and suffering that Reunions offers is exactly what won’t be fixed any time soon by Joe Biden and the Democrats and the 12,670 Georgians who chose Biden over Donald Trump. These things obviously won’t be fixed by a covers album either--something the song “Be Afraid,” the loudest single from Reunions, seems actually to foretell. The song is ostensibly about being a dick to stagehands for fear of not being a dick to stagehands. Its chorus is a celebration of dread. The triumphant refrain “Be afraid. Be very afraid. Do it anyway,” sounds to me like a manic, end-times redux of the expression “Fake it ‘til you make it.” Anyway, for my purpose here it’s too coincidental not to note that in the last verse of “Be Afraid,” Isbell sings, “And if your words add up to nothing then you’re making a choice to sing a cover when we need a battle cry,” which of course lays curious groundwork for a subsequent album of covers in which he shape-shifts again into an Act Blue email that recorded an album.

As an album, Georgia Blue is wooden and unremarkable. Isbell ruins REM’s “Nightswimming,” but sings Vic Chestnut’s “I’m Through” well enough. His rendition of Otis Redding’s “Since I’ve been Loving You” would probably allow him to advance through a round of The Voice, were he a contestant. When he enlists Brittany Spencer, former backup singer to Carrie Underwood, to sing “Midnight Train to Georgia,” the result is closer to Muzak than homage, and the backup singers’ refrain “I know you will” becomes something you repeat to a friend hellbent on bad choices as opposed to the righteous support they offer in the original. As a whole, the album is chalky and subdued. It sounds like my beer tastes after I suck a zinc lozenge.

Ultimately, it’s not the sound but the intent that’s at issue here. When Isbell gives The Black Crowes “Sometimes Salvation” the dreamsicle treatment, he’s actually doing something pretty close to what he does on Reunions and throughout his discography going all the way back through his time with the Truckers. In all cases he suggests himself as performing the work of witness—depicting the pathos such as it is of the progressive, but country, white Southerner, minutely enlarging the White Southerner’s concerns and aesthetics. The purpose is ideological. It has been all along.

Georgia Blue reveals this ideology to be a hilarious travesty. According to its own jacket-copy, the album is designed to rope a handful of disparate songs into the suggestion that their existence in time and space laid some invisible groundwork for electing a 77-year old centrist who can’t pass an infrastructure bill, who opposes the Green New Deal and Medicare for All, who is too enfeebled, both morally and politically, to actually forgive student debt or make the child tax credit permanent, and who (thankfully) ended the war in Afghanistan, but did so in a way that makes the election of a more fascist version of Trump (if not Trump himself) more likely in 2024. Oh yes, and on his coattails rode two Georgia senators unlikely to win re-election, whose flipping of the Senate to the Dems has served so far only to further expose the way in which the Democratic party has functioned as the more moderate wing of the Republican party since 1992 at least. So that what Isbell is actually celebrating is a thin victory bacon-wrapped around a filet mignon of defeats.

Georgia Blue’s digital release happened on October 15, the same day it was reported that Joe Manchin had succeeded in having Biden’s climate program cut from the budget bill. Obviously I don’t think it’s worth downloading, but if you want just a taste, listen to Isbell let the blood from REM’s “Driver 8” and see if you don’t know a few moments of despair masquerading as peace.



Jack Christian

19 October 2021

Two Poems by Yuan Changming

Features; for Helen Hengxiang Liao


Not coincidentally, I have met many a person

With a strong appearance of a lower species

For instance, one school mate of mine carries

The features of a rabbit, another close relative

Those of a horse, a colleague of a familiar dog

An acquaintance of a hedgehog, a fifth of a

Snake, a sixth of a pig, a rooster, a rat, a water

Buffalo, a donkey, a goat or chimpanzee &

Each seems fated to fall within or without some

Chinese zodiac year

  While my wife often

Looks like a nasty cat, she says my face oftener

shows all the hideousness of a demon, as if to re-

Mind her like every other fellow human, I was

Born in an extra year of Satan though we were

All created equal in His image

Gift Shoes from Qi Hong


I believe the pair of shoes you sent me as a

Birthday gift is made of genuine leather, but

It needs a pair of socks & even a pair of

Trousers made of natural, not artificial wool

To go with it, which in turn requires an

Equally authentic leather belt to tie my

No less faithful lower body, including my

Penis that has become softened with age

As with my mind & heart, but despite all

My bona fides, my upper body is clothed

With manmade or fake fibres, especially

My face masks, or faces per se, not only to

Protect me against covid-19, 22, or anything

Else like that, but to cover my mouth

& nose in case I should inhale false air

& spit out some hardened spittle of truth

About life, about the real world. Indeed  

I am never sure if that’s your original in-

Tention, but I do like whatever is actually

Genuine, real, true, natural or authentic

While I keep walking along, or alone 

15 October 2021

Four Poems by Mark Young



Define the
habitat. Tri-
angular, rough
isosceles, apex

the workplace
& one corner
the lunchtime
coffee shop. At

the other is the
last bookstore
left in the town.
I seem to be its


only customer.
We're an end-

angered species,

the both of us.



Meanwhile, in the message parlor


The prospectus promises relief from

painful interactions. Doesn't guarantee

it though. Night lights make no sense

during the day. Even if there weren't

tree branches obscuring the walkways

she still couldn't see to read by. It's the

small print that trips you up, every time.





Active in left-wing

politics, she was the

bright star with

the cool surface, a

fantastic liar who

spoke the language

of the gypsies.



the horses are out eating hay / that someone has brought them


"It cost twenty-four dollars to

buy Manhattan," she said,

rolling her eyes. "The convergence

of homelessness & coronavirus

made it seem like a high price

to pay at the time, but, oh, the


royalties that have flowed from

it since." The accompanying GIF

gives details when moused over

but becomes boring after just a

couple of repetitions. & a music

track full of static doesn't help.

11 October 2021

The Hole by Hiroko Oyamada (trans. David Boyd)

The Hole by Hiroko Oyamada
translated by David Boyd
available from New Directions
Our narrator, Asa, moves to the country after her husband accepts a transfer. That means quitting her (unfulfilling) job, living (rent-free) next door to her in-laws, and adjusting to a new life and a new way of being with her (often absent) husband. One day Asa spots a strange animal -- large, black, furry -- and follows it into the tall grasses that flank the river, only to fall into a hole that seems especially made for her. This seems to trigger a new path for Asa, one that may lead to her fate.

This space was a big fan of Oyamada's debut, The Factory, so it should be no surprise that we find The Hole to be excellent. It's a destabilizing read. Throughout this brief novella (it clocks in at a swift 92 pages), Asa's experiences are pretty mundane -- sometimes terribly so -- but also kind of odd. Her days and sparse interactions aren't so strange or surreal as to signal anything specific in flashing lights, they just seem a little...off. The world Asa comes to inhabit is thus recognizable but also menacing. The Hole is confounding, but it perhaps suggests something important about work, life, gender roles, and what is asked of women so routinely by the world that we often don't recognize how great and terrible such sacrifices can be.

The Hole by Hiroko Oyamada (trans. David Boyd) is available from New Directions.

06 October 2021

Two Poems by George Ryan



It is hard to locate someone

to hack into institutions

to find what’s on their secret files. 

One such youth said there’s one sure way. 

Young people with those special skills

do not do well at interviews

and avoid examinations. 

They excel at video games

and enjoy the competition. 

The best ones learn to game the games. 

Offer them cash and they will come.



The package crumpling is intentional. 


By vacuum packaging your fleece blanket

we reduce its cost of postage and make

the package much easier to handle. 


Strip the corner of the plastic wrap and

watch your fleece blanket unfold to full size! 

01 October 2021

Joe Pesci and I: (Scooby Doo voice) “Rap-Rock!!” by Lard Alec

            In an interview with CNN in 2019, Joe Biden’s characteristic eloquence sagged momentarily when he referred to his former boss, Barack Obama, as “Raprock.” Google is suspiciously stingy with the search results for this world-historical event, but it should be preserved and savored for generations to come. Though he didn’t say the full name, Biden did shunt the words Raprock and Obama together in the viewer’s mind, leaving them to think and sing “Raprock Obama!!” to themselves until their boss passed by their cubicle, the phone buzzed, or they deformed privately under the cosmic pressure of sublime juxtaposition. The Colbert Show hackily brought the malapropism to life, posting a quick and dirty meme of the ex prez featuring a salt and pepper goatee (sans mustache) and a backward Fred Durst style red Yankees cap, grimacing fiercely, on a post to the show’s Facebook page.

            Obama, as an ex-president, has emerged as one of the world’s blandest men. Rather than using his cachet to fight for programs and policies either left incomplete by his administration or dismantled by McConnell and Trump, he has opted to trade politics for an unremarkable if high-profile media career and elitist social calendar.  Gladhanding and wan podcasting aside, no small part of his post-presidential image derives from public declarations of personal tastes. He clearly aspires to influence millions while, weirdly, demonstrating total fealty to conventional sensibilities[1]. His year-end reading and Spotify lists hover and sparkle above a centrist uncanny valley—even the surprises (he likes Parasite, for example) are unsurprising[2]; they simply reveal what normie machine learning takes to be the border-texts of edifying arts and entertainment. 

            Despite Obama’s perversely middlebrow social media persona, it’s still just barely possible to imagine him enjoying a little rap-rock during leg day or before a pickup game with a clutch of mercenary body men. He likes Jay Z, and probably occasionally flicks on “99 Problems,” the grimy Rick Rubin production with PROBLEMATIC LANGUAGE and grunting guitars, when Michelle’s not around. So maybe Biden wasn’t completely wrong. While we don’t associate Obama with Durst-lidded ruffians, Raprock Obama is in there, no matter how many historical novels litter his nightstand. Of course, the fact that Raprock really exists makes Biden’s slip that much funnier; he wasn’t flubbing a line but revealing a ghastly, tacky truth. 

            When it comes to Obama’s image, clearly normal is winning but, in historical terms, it is just slowly and ineluctably replacing its erstwhile competitor: cool. If you shake your head kind of hard for a second, you’ll remember that Obama used to be cool, or, as Chris Rock said, in a preview of even blue America’s declining infatuation, at least “cooler than most politicians, [if not] not as cool as actual cool people.” He goes on: “[Obama’s] not cool like Jay Z's cool. He's not Eddie Murphy. But in a world of politicians ..." It’s funny that Rock cites other formerly cool guys, Jay Z and Eddie Murphy, for comparison. Jay Z is basically a hip-hip multinational corporation at this point and Eddie Murphy is as much Norbit as Dolemite. Both men are just slightly cooler than, say, Dan Ackroyd.

            Rock was grading on the gentlest of curves, but his tempering reminds us of Obama’s latent but persistent ambition: to be normal in the coolest possible way, or vice vera. Why does he yacht around with a mega wealthy aggrieved mannequin like Richard Branson, which sane and decent people would obviously consider hell on earth? Because he thinks it’s cool. Why does his invite Bill Simmons’ insipid muse Eddy Vedder to his pandemic birthday party while cutting career-building confidants like David Axlerod from the invite list? Because he thinks having Eddy Vedder mumble and meander through his sprawling Martha’s Vineyard estate, catching him for a passing elbow bump over a plate of canapes or a tray of cocktails, is cool.

Rap-rock, like Obama, is the normal thinking it’s cool. The genre that wasn’t quite dead on arrival but was maybe wan on arrival is also weirdly unkillable in small doses. Aside from inspired moments here and there, from Run DMC to Suicidal Tendencies, rap-rock now looks, in retrospect, more like a shabby marketing gambit than an organic synthesis of tastes and demographics. 90s-to-early-00s practitioners lifted stock masculine musical techniques and tropes from rap and corny post-grunge alt-rock to make Solo cup party music. It’s early promise, as Christopher Weingarten puts it, gave way to “macho and mooky muscles.” True, there was Rage Against the Machine, but they were evidently a hard fucking act to follow[3], and their flashy but persuasive politics, flowing up from the global south of the Zapatistas to peak crime-wave, segregated urban America, were, I’m just guessing here, scarcely comprehensible to your run of the mill Linkin Park fanboy douche.

One early rap-rock lab experiment, the Judgement Night soundtrack, offered a glimpse of synergy and dream-team hypotheticals come to life—some inspired soul rammed bands like Anthrax and Biohazard together with the likes of Cypress Hill and House of Pain. I used to listen to it while smoking weed and playing Mortal Combat with a buddy of mine who, let’s call him Joe Pesci[4], eventually crashed a car at 15, shortly before moving to Florida and, about a minute later, dropping out of high school. I was a C- junior-high malcontent, recovering from a sporty, culture-less latency period, utterly lost in the wastelands of suburban adolescence save for hedonic reprieves such as these. We were, Joe Pesci and I, I dare say, the Judgement Night soundtrack’s core demo. We saw the movie too and thought it was "pretty cool."

Nothing legendary was spawned on that album, but it survives as a kind of better-than-expected mix tape from a long-expired zeitgeist. I tried listening to it recently, but I wasn’t getting psyched up for a big deadlift or anything, so I didn’t give it my full and enthusiastic attention, with one exception: “Fallin” by Teenage Fan Club and hip-hop legends De La Soul. The song is shockingly good if maybe incomplete. It drops just two wistful, self-deprecating verses about the pitfalls of fads and fame before hitting cruise control for a protracted but mega-chill, and, I think it’s safe to say, uplifting outro. I cannot believe how sweet, cool, and alive it sounds each time I play it. Pos is presciently mournful, his sentiments so altogether apropos for the genre’s imminent shelf date that I can’t quite believe it made the album. Then again, I can’t imagine anyone was paying close enough attention to object. Behold:

Hey yo kids, (whats up?)
Remember when I used to be dope, (yeah!)
I owned a pocket full of fame
(But look what you're doing now), I know, Well I know
I lost touch with reality, now my personality
Is an unwanted commodity (believe it)
Can't believe I used to be Mr Steve Austin on the mic
(Six millions ways) I used to run it

            Briefly continuing the 6-Million Dollar Man theme, he name-drops Oscar Goldman, then Mother Goose, before he’s out a of there, the dream of a fictional flash-in-the-pan career following him into silence as the chorus soars and laments his descent, which is not just a once-in-a-lifetime collapse but, I think, a way of being, a steady, spiraling maple key flutter feeling that will last for a long time to come. Dave’s ensuing verse piles bluesy dada and psychedelic leaps onto Pos’s confessional exposition, ending with these inspired lines, too good, I say, for the mercenary endeavor at hand—a combo-genre novelty album for an Emilio Estevez movie—but whatever:

I bring it to the blues, I pay all my dues
So what's gone's dead, let me use my forehead
Easy pack it up man, let me stop stalling
Cause everything I do is like falling.

My God.

            There’s moment in Raise High the Roofbeam Carpenters, when the Vaudevillian paterfamilias of the eccentric Glass family, Les, asks his son, the saintly Seymour, if he remembers riding around on the handlebars of performer Joe Jackson’s “nickel-plated trick bicycle” during a run of shows in Brisbane, when Seymour was very young. And Seymour says, in the presence of Buddy, his brother and Goldsmithian admirer and chronicler, that “he wasn’t sure he had ever got off Joe Jackson’s beautiful bicycle” (106). That’s how I feel about this song. It’s not just something I heard, but something I rode on, something that carried me long ago, and from which I never entirely dismounted. I used to badger Joe Pesci into playing it, as often as he might tolerate, while he was clearly hungry for heavier fair. Emotionally, Joe Pesci was usually just pissed at his stepmom (Susan) or looking to have a good time. Me, I had a precocious sense of lost opportunities, for some reason, and so the song spoke to me. I also liked the idea, and I still do, that someone could be cool and sad at the same time.

            Neither rap-rock nor Raprock Obama seem very cool these days. But still, they have immense generative power as meme fodder. Is there any funnier combination of words than Raprock Obama? Who knows? Neither word means very much on its own, aside from evoking a catalogue of disappointments so fleeting it takes a fairly muscular effort to recall them. Together, though, they are a kind of magical bicycle you can ride on forever, or, at least, for as much of forever as you’re allowed to see.


[1] He is, it would appear, an influenceable person par excellence.

[2] Parasite won an Oscar after all.

[3] I remember seeing them perform “Bulls on Parade” on SNL and thinking that the rest of the show was pretty much pointless after that.

[4] My brother said he was reminded of Joe Pesci whenever this diminutive Italian-American friend of mine opened his motormouth.