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Peer Reviews

A review of Stay from Don Smith, longtime JBE fan

I wanted to write to tell you how much I enjoy "Stay".  It's been constantly in my car stereo since I got it, and I jump around the track list as the mood strikes me.

"In My Cult" evokes strong and ambivalent feelings.  I love love love the song.  The wordplay is some of your best yet.  I love the Lovecraftian allusions, like the furtive dancing, but there's so much richness of allusion and delusion in the song; it's a riot.  I keep trying to match the aspects of your cult to real ones, and I certainly got the obvious ones (Heaven’s Gate and the comet, Jim Jones and the kool-aid, Mormons and the writing on gold underground), but I wonder how many you just made up.  The tune is catchy.  I find myself singing snatches of it all the time.  Who else would use "pelagic" in a song? How can I get some sacred socks?  My socks are just hole-y.  Some are wholly hole-y.  On the negative side, I really hate autotuning.  I can see why you did it, for this song, but when I first started playing it, I had this sinking feeling of horror.  I have, however, after many hearings, come to terms with it.  It does fit the theme.  The cult of autotuning.  I was very relieved not to hear it on the other songs.

Probably my favorite song is the last one.  The strings are so beautiful, and the themes of the lyrics remind me of a less explicit (and less silly) Cut Off Your Head.  The music makes me think of standing on a high ridge over a moor (nothing to do with the lyrics; just the sounds); a little melancholy.  It sums up so well the struggle in making sense of identity and consciousness in a transient world.  Knowing, as an astronomer, that the whole solar system is going to dust in a few billion years, that nothing can be permanent, no matter what we do, that makes the imperative to live in the moment that much more vital.  Granted, the time scale is a little different, but I think the theme is the same.

I confess, given the recent election here in North Carolina, that I hadn't been able to listen to Hate Street much at first, as it seems to hit too close to home.  I feel like I live in Hate State.  However, the song has actually been therapeutic, as I’ve been listening to it more often, so thanks for that.  We absolutely need to find a kinder way.

But I also really love the 404 blues.  Who else would put the file not found error into a song?  Should I be embarrassed to say that I knew what the capital of Uzbekistan was?  Actually, when I heard the coordinates you recite (something like 41.803 and -87.806, if memory serves), I thought, "that sounds like Chicago" and then you sing "baby don't you want to go" from "Sweet Home Chicago", so I suspect it is Chicago, but with three digits after the decimal point, that corresponds to an area something like... let's see... one-thousandth of a degree is about 10^-6 radians, and the radius of the earth is about 6.4 million meters, times the cosine of 41.8... about 80 meters on a side, so that's a pretty specific part of chicago.  I should look up exactly where that is, but it’s too much information.  :-)  I also thought about trying to draw a circle around New Orleans with a radius of 29 days’ (etc.) walking distance, but thought that would be pushing it.  One thing I do have to say about that song is that the last verse just doesn't seem to fit with the rest of the song.  The rest of the song is about having an overload of information available instantly, but that's got nothing to do with the last verse.  Still, I need to share this song with my college buddy Craig Shaynak -- he has a travelling one-man play called "I Am Google" that would mesh well with this song.  http://www.iamgoogle.co.uk/

Great to hear Napkin Poetry on an album.  Out of curiosity, why did you change the name from Napkin Poetry?  Name aside, this is a great collection of sayings.  I love the way the energy of the song builds, despite there being no linear structure to what you're actually saying.  One of these days I'm going to just post "Where's My Yeti?" as a status update on Facebook; see if I don't!

I also really liked the song that starts with the line about meditating your hair away.  I don't mind being quiet for a while, either.  :-)  Thematically, it reminds me a little of Ric Hordinski's "Middle Way", although of course the music is completely different.  I really enjoy the rhythmic use of the *sounds* of words in the spoken section toward the end ("if you give yourself permission...").  It has a bit of the flavor of "Angry White Guy", but the patter of it is more flowing.

Earworm is a hoot, particularly the Kahn references.  I don't see how you can call that worm "sentient", though; I think it just excretes a substance that renders people susceptible to suggestion.  It’s been a long time since I’ve seen it, but I always wondered why infected people were only susceptible to Kahn’s suggestions, and not suggestions from just anyone.  Maybe it’s like ducklings, imprinting on whomever they see first.

You're Delicious is a masterpiece of insinuation.  I love how the tropes of the zombie genre have become so well-known that you can just allude to them and everyone gets what's going on in the song without you having to say so.  I also love the way you take romantic clichés and twist them.  Like, it’s not “stars in my eyes”, it’s “throwing stars in my eyes.”  Actually, often you make the listener twist them, which is even better, like being showered with gifts or there being a hole in your heart.  I need to share this song with my colleague Heather Hayton, who has studied zombies from an academic point of view.  She taught her senior English capstone seminar last fall on zombies.  It was really fun to hear the students’ final presentations, analyzing the zombie fad in terms of literary and sociological theory. Check out https://guilford.digication.com/zombies/Welcome/published (I took the front picture).

Interesting to hear Big Old Dark Green Car done a different way.  I keep expecting to hear "It's 5:30 in the morning..." after it's over, though.  :-)  I like the energy of it.  I'm not convinced that "I think there's been some kind of mistake" works better than "I think I'm making some kind of mistake".  The change from active to passive disturbs me somehow, although of course the cry for someone to get me out of here is rather passive, too.  I'm curious why you changed it? It's interesting to hear such an old song in the middle of all the new ones.  I love the song, but you've definitely gotten more sophisticated.

Another Thousand Years.  I appreciate how this song captures the seductiveness of the eschatology-dominated theology. If it's all over, then we won't have to keep slogging away at this.  I particularly liked your line about not needing to clean up the mess.  I remember some evangelical friends (small f) I had when I was in High School who were very big on the whole "The Bible is life's instruction manual" thing.  They seriously said "You buy a refrigerator, and it comes with an instruction manual.  You think God wouldn't give *life* an instruction manual?"  Sigh.  If only it were that easy.  We can abdicate our responsibility to engage, if we choose to, but I can’t believe that’s what we’re supposed to do.

Can't Stop Fooling Around hasn't quite grabbed me yet.  I'm sure it will.  Where The Money Is is sad but very true.

Overall, I really enjoy it, and it deserves to join in the Big Ego canon.  :-)  I can't believe it's been 12 years since I've been to one of your shows.  I hope it won't be another 12 before I get to see you play again!