Jason Isbell’s “Elephant” is the Best Song of 2013

“She said, ‘Andy, you’re better than your past’ / Winked at me and drained her glass / Cross-legged on the barstool like nobody sits anymore.”

In these opening lines, Jason Isbell culls his listener with the vivid imagery, authentic voice, and sexual tension that spills from the edges of “Elephant.”  The words reach out of the speakers and clutch your throat, threatening to crush your layrnx.  So you listen as if your life depends upon it.

“Elephant” is honest songwriting that isn’t handed out often these days, or any days for that matter — a prescription to medicate the narcissistic anthems that abound.

SoutheasternIsbell continues, “She said, ‘Andy, you’re taking me home’ / But I knew she planned to sleep alone / I’d carry her to bed and sweep up the hair from the floor.”  God, the tenderness of sweeping up the hair of the cancer patient Andy wishes to sleep along side.  I feel the song give a sharp squeeze to my throat.  What’s beautiful about these lines is that Isbell doesn’t fall into the melodramatic; rather, he lets his details show us the complex emotions Andy is feeling.  All songwriters take note of the nuance.

Here’s the kicker: “If I had fucked her before she got sick / I’d never hear the end of it / She don’t have the spirit for that now.”  It’s the aching desire of all great writing wrapped up into twenty-four words — it’s the human condition, the wanting of what we can’t have.  The use of the pejorative here adds to the raw energy of this song.  It’s not a song about the easy emotions of love; it’s a song about death and loss and fucking.  It’s an open wound.

“Elephant” also doesn’t commit the sin of being an earnest song about someone dying of cancer.  The song contains humor.  The dying woman gets drunk and makes cancer jokes with her “sharecropper eyes and her hair almost gone.”  Isbell hits all the emotional notes available to him in this story.  We laugh despite our tears.

As the song continues, Andy and this woman sing country songs and smoke dope.  Isbell writes, “We’d burn these joints in effigy / Cry about what used to be / And try to ignore the elephant somehow.”  Isbell elevates the act of smoking to a grand gesture of protest against their impending injustice.

In the narrator’s final epiphany, he wails, “There’s one thing that’s real clear to me / No one dies with dignity / We just try to ignore the elephant somehow.”  Those lines are chilling and appropriate for this narrator.  He goes through this experience and understands that life will fuck you up and won’t even allow you a proper goodbye.

“Elephant” is a song about cancer and drinking and smoking and singing country songs, but Isbell hoists it to greatness.  It’s a song about being human, with all the pain and ecstasy that entails.  It holds you by the throat with a whisper.  It’s a song too honest for the Grammy’s, but for my money, it’s the best song written in 2013.

(Now listen.)


Wolf Among Weeds IPA Keeps the Great Hopocolypse Rolling

Can we make a pact right now?  If any one of us in the US of A catches another beer drinker complaining that he can’t find a good IPA in his local beer store that we slap some sense into said beer drinker.  Literally.

If said beer drinker persists, can we please stare at him with the acrid glare of Wayne Brady in season 2 of The Chappelle Show, and ask, “Am I going to have to choke a bitch?”

(The threat alone should right the situation.  Don’t worry, you shouldn’t have to choke a bitch.)

It’s a bold pact, but I believe that no matter where you find yourself drinking in this country — with maybe a few exceptions — you will be able to find a top-notch IPA to soothe your hoppy soul.

When it comes to IPA’s, we live in the land of abundance.  So much so, that I could write two blog posts a week for a year on high quality IPA’s produced in these United States and barely scratch the surface of hop goodness.

Case in point.  A few months ago I gave a friend a bottle of Zombie Dust that had been sent to me from Indiana.  To return the favor, he sent me a can of Golden Road’s Wolf Among Weeds IPA out of L.A.

WolfAmongWeedsIIAs an East Coaster who’s heard only of L.A.’s smoggy past, traffic-damned present, and water-troubled future, a beer from La-La Land doesn’t exactly smack of refreshing overtones.  Yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s brewed in California, the birth place of the true American West Coast-style IPA, but it’s L.A.

This, however, is the great beer renaissance where anything is possible.  And Matt sent it to me, and the boy has a great palate.

I gladly cracked the 16 oz. can and the citrusy aroma that barreled from within dissipated all my East Coast naivete.

WolfAmongWeedsIIIWolf Among Weeds is a symphony of citrus from beginning to end.  Immediately what hits the drinker is a rush of pinneaple and mango aroma most likely from the bounty of dry-hops Golden Road infuses into the brew.  When poured into a glass, the beer even has an orange, tropical-fruit-juice hue, along with the sinister haze that tells you this beer is gushing with flavor.  From first gulp, it’s clear that the brewers at Golden Road set out to make the biggest, most hop-jolting brew they could muster.  The flavor of this beer runs the citrusy spectrum from pinneaple to pear to, dare I say, starfruit.  It’s big, people.  The finish is smooth with a good amount of bitter left on the back of the tongue.

Chalk up another colossal IPA on the already bountiful list of hoppy American beers.  And remember, if you hear someone complain, “There are just no great IPA’s out there,” give them the Wayne Brady eyes and demand, “Am I going to have to choke a bitch.”


Parish Brewing Co.’s Canebrake Turns Summer Up to Eleven

I’m not a wheat ale guy.  Usually, that is.  Wheat ales generally don’t have the hoppy bite or right malt character for this guy’s palate.  However, I am a firm believer that every beer has its time and place.  Since we live multi-faceted lives, there should be a beer for each facet we find ourselves in.

When a six pack of Parish Brewing Company’s Canebrake arrived at my door in a package post-marked from Louisiana I thought, Well, this beer has traveled so far to get to my Maine doorstep, drink it without predisposition.  Let’s see it for what it is.

The package was from my brother and his girlfriend.  A week before the sixer of Canebrake arrived, my brother told me, “I’m sending you a beer that everyone down here is talking about.  It’s made with local sugarcane syrup.”

“Send it to me,” I urged him, ever intrigued by a new brew.  “I’ll toss it down my beer hole and see what I see.”

A week later, I was unwrapping handsomely labeled Canebrake bottles.  The label itself is indicative of the taste of the refreshing beer inside.

parish-canebakeHere’s a breakdown of the Canebrake drinking experience.

This beer pours with a honey-colored, clear appearance.  The head retention is solid for a wheat ale.  The aroma is light.  You can smell the sweat sugars — mostly honey and cane — as you pour the beer.  The taste is where this wheat ale comes alive.  The best way to describe the taste of Canebrake is to highlight the interplay between the sugars, the wheat grains, and the sharp yeast they use in this brew.  The first thought that came to my mind: On a summer day on a boat, disc golfing, or sitting on a beach, this is the beer.  The sugar/wheat/yeast combination gives the beer just enough bite to keep big beer drinkers interested, and lighter beer swillers satiated.

It’s a difficult balance to find, but the Parish Brewing Company’s brewmasters have found the recipe that walks that razor’s edge.

As the deep freeze of winter sets in in my New England, Canebrake is a reminder of the summer that awaits us.  Since Canebrake finds its home in balmy Louisiana, I can imagine that this beer offers refuge from the heat year round from Baton Rouge, to Bourbon Street, right on down to the gator-filled bayous.  If you can find this beer near your home — on whichever side of the Mason-Dixon line you live — pick up a six pack on a sweltering day and let the sugar/wheat/yeast balance turn your summer experience up to 11.


Binge-Watching Made Me a Plot Slut

Right now it’s Dexter.  A month ago it was Walking Dead.  Before that Trailer Park Boys.  Before that…well, let’s just say I’ve been with a lot of shows.

The list of shows I’ve binge-watched is so long I almost want to lie to people about my number.  I feel like the girl who went hog-wild in college with her bedtime liaisons, then tells her fiance that she’s only been with a couple of men.  We all know that ain’t true, sister.

Twin Peaks ImageMy number’s high.  Like, real high.  I never questioned my hours spent devouring a season of Twin Peaks in a weekend until I saw that the word ‘binge-watch’ made the shortlist for Oxford Dictionary’s word of 2013.  ‘Binge-watch’ was runner up to ‘selfie.’  Now, I know taking excessive selfies must be bad for one’s soul, so I asked myself, ‘Is my binge-watching habit bad for me?’

The answer?  Kind of.

Here’s the biggest downfall I can see to binge-watching.  I have become a plot slut.  A huge one.  I need to know what happens next, everything else be damned.

If people knew about my habit, they’d point at me and say, ‘That guy’s a gargantuan story whore.’  And they’d be right.

The issue with needing a plot fix is that I’m so willing to watch three episodes of Dexter, for example, that I’m not really digesting the nuance of what the writers and directors are trying to communicate to me.  I’m allowing much of the aesthetics of lighting and film making and dialogue and backstory to be cast aside so I can find out what happens next.  Instead of ingesting an episode of a show and letting it reverberate through my mind for a few days, I’m force-feeding plot into my orifices like an obese man eating fist-fulls of Crisco wrapped in bacon.

Some shows have less subtleties than others.  For example, Walking Dead is plot-driven. Plot’s about all it has going for it.  Most of the characters are flat.  The dialogue is trite.  It’s a show about what happens in a post-apocalyptic world.  I don’t have any regrets about over-dosing on a few seasons of zombies and a stale depiction of humanity.

the-sopranos-hboIt’s shows like Twin Peaks and Six Feet Under and The Sopranos and House of Cards that I wish I would have taken a bit more time on.  As a writer, those shows can teach me about character development, world building, dialogue, irony, what drives a character, etc.  Binge-watching those shows is like shoveling a filet mignon from a three star Michelin restaurant down your grocery hole in one bite.  What’s the point?

I’m thankful that I’ve watched Mad Men as the episodes have appeared on AMC.  I love the week of discussing Don Draper’s latest moves towards self-effacement and the clues Matthew Weiner and co. give the viewer to keep us on our toes.  I’ve gotten so much more out of that show because I haven’t binge-watched seasons at a time.

six feet under copyAm I likely to change my ways?  Was Madonna able to close her legs in the ’80’s?

The best I can hope for is to find the self-control so that when the next Six Feet Under shows up, I don’t binge-watch myself out of experiencing the show’s truest nuanced beauty.