Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Whatever happened to the greatest guy you never heard of?

Steve Ward returns with a new band after a ten-year hiatus – A review in three parts

To save time and effort for anyone who recognizes the names "Cherry Twister" or "Steve Ward":
Run - don't walk, RUN - out and buy the new album by a band called Fauna Flora.

For the rest of humanity:

Thirteen months ago, a new band out of southeastern Pennsylvania, Fauna Flora, released its debut album with little fanfare. Even pop-music lovers who might recognize the names from paragraph one were most likely unaware that the best-kept secret in singer-songwriters since Sixto Rodriguez had released his first new music in over ten years. Released in April 2014, Fauna Flora features 11 new songs written and produced by Ward and featuring a group of supporting players whose names will be familiar to those happy few in possession of his solo albums and earlier work as Cherry Twister. With Paul Murr (drums & percussion) and Matt Thomas (keyboards), who appeared on the solo albums in 2000 & 2003, as well as Joe Pisapia (bass & pedal steel guitars, backing vocals - his work with Steve goes back to the first Cherry Twister record in 1993), Fauna Flora doesn't sound or feel like a debut album - but the work of a maturing artist supported by a rock-solid team.

Fauna Flora is infectious pop music with memorable melodies and delicious harmonies tinged with just enough sweet melancholy to give the whole package some emotional heft.  Ward’s guitar work remains top notch, never flashy but always serving the song, and his voice, though retaining a beautifully delicate quality, has grown stronger and more assured over time.  After repeated listening, the vocals reminded me more and more of one of pop music’s finest tenors – Art Garfunkel.  Run – don’t walk, RUN – out and buy Fauna Flora’s debut album.

For that portion of humanity that would like to read more about Fauna Flora before buying the album:

Although the temptation is strong to speculate on the life behind the work when a musician disappears from the scene for such an extended period, Fauna Flora seems a very natural progression from Ward's most recent solo work, See and Be Seen, in 2003. Perhaps the phrase "disappears from the scene" isn't appropriate for a musician that has not yet penetrated the popular consciousness - but this is music deserving of greater attention. The guy who had to deal with a duplicitous paramour in "Kid Yourself", the devastating closer from that fine album, has seemingly taken up residence with the object of his affections - but the course of true love remains uneven. "The Mansard Roof and the Maple Tree" opens the new album with a lovely acoustic guitar figure and Ward's high tenor setting the scene and foretelling the future all at once: "I made my home west of Lancaster / on the road that took me far from her."   “The Belle of Blue Road” seems to again reference this lost lover (“Everything that’s beautiful, she understands” harkens back to the line from “Kid Yourself” – “She only wants her beautiful”).

Ward’s songwriting has a quality indispensable to pop music – he seems unable to write a song without something interesting going on, either musically or lyrically – and usually both.  “Happy Hour” is a mournful look at Miller Time, with Our Hero seemingly back in circulation on the dating scene – with both mixed emotions and results.  “I contend that tonight could end in a terrible mess”, sings Ward during the song’s bridge and the concluding “We’re so happy now” is delivered like a man who knows how to find the blue lining in every silver cloud.

In the digital age, albums don’t have two sides anymore – but I imagine Fauna Flora’s first 6 tracks as the Partly Cloudy side and the final 5 as the Partly Sunny side.  “The Arms of Winter” describes the ups and downs of a romance which seems to be growing colder along with the temperatures.  Chris Carmichael’s string arrangements here and throughout the record add a lushness and oftentimes drama into the mix.  And Ward adds a new chill to the relationship struggle in the word play of the song’s closing line:  “But we’re confident as killers, when we bear the arms of winter.”  I guess all IS fair in love and war.

“As the Story Goes” finally delivers the goods on what’s really bothering Our Hero.  Over a bed of dirge-like organ, growling synthesizer and martial drumming, the opening lines pretty much tell the whole story:  “I’ve been thinking about the evening’s Christmas cheer / and your useless souvenirs / and the fact you’ve disappeared.”  There’s nothing quite like getting dumped over the holidays.  The drummer stops, the chord is held – as a listener, you almost hold your breath.  Then the chord changes and the song can proceed. 

Head of Fern is just your average great pop song concerning violent revolution on the part of vegetation.   Imagine that George Orwell had composed lyrics for Stevie Wonder's Secret Life of Plants and come up with the theme song for David Lynch's vision of the Apocalypse. Now imagine you can sing-along. “God rest the great pines.”  Such is Head of Fern.

As the album comes to a close, Ward’s lyrics begin to shake off regret and look ahead.  “The Ides of Spring” speaks of tempting fate, daring to fall in love again, in spite of the potential dangers (“A fable laid to waste” – what a lovely phrase).  The album’s closing track, “We’ve Got to Find The Light”, looks beyond the Christmas breakup to what lies ahead:  “Wounds to scars as the holiday dissolves / Greet the change with open arms and no alarm.”

For a guy who hadn’t released a new record in over ten years, it seems that Steve Ward hasn’t missed a beat.  Fauna Flora distills the pain of lost romance into sweet and mellow elixir.  Have a taste and I bet you will want to hear this artist’s earlier work.  And just in case you missed it the first two times…
Run - don't walk, RUN - out and buy the new album by a band called Fauna Flora. 

[You can make that purchase at   or]

Take care.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Things have a way of resolving themselves

One of the best friends I ever had - or expect to have - died early last Sunday morning.  He had not been sick for a long time - but long enough that his death was no surprise.  And still a shock.

One of the penalties of getting older (and there are several - though offset, I hope, by other benefits) is that people that you have known for a long time will pass away.  When my uncle died this past August, I realized that part of what I was losing with his death - apart from a loving uncle that would do ANYTHING for me - was one of the few people remaining on the planet who knew me before I knew myself.

With Len's death this week, I've lost another person in my life that I could count on - whatever the circumstance.  I've lost a man old enough to be my father - who treated me like a brother.  I will miss his wit, his eloquence, his precision, his warmth - his voice.

I will miss helping him get into the church on Sunday morning.  I will miss checking on him when a worship service ends.  His death is not real to me yet.  I  don't know when that moment will come.  Maybe it won't come all at once.  Maybe it will take a long time.  But - as Len often said to me - "These things have a way of resolving themselves."  Whenever I hear those words in my mind, it will be Len's voice that I hear.

I take comfort in memories of my friend.  Len was a man who knew that it took more effort and preparation to speak with brevity - and when he said "I will be brief," it was a promise you could count on.  I remember singing beside him for so many years - and with Gene Thompson and the late Phil Haddrill.  I learned how to sing beside these great men.  And I remember how Len would let his mischievous side show - making a comment in a stage whisper during rehearsal - perhaps one of the other sections stumbled or sang off-key - and when asked to repeat the comment, Len would cough and say "I was just clearing my throat".

Beyond my memories, the Lord has comforted me with these thoughts:  Knowing that Len and Maggie have been reunited after so long apart; That the pain and fear which Len experienced during his time in the hospital are over; That my good friend has now been able to hear his Lord speak to him those words that I still hope to hear someday - "Well done, my good and faithful servant".

I only hope that I can live out the remainder of my days in a way that would make Len proud.  And I hope that everyone who knew Len will find comfort in memories of him - having faith that the same God who allowed Len to be a part of their lives has not abandoned them in this time of sorrow.  Let us live as people who have hope of reunion with our father, brother and friend.

Take care.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Wind Direction

Some days the wind is at your back.  But if you turn around, it will be in your face.

It is the same wind.

How it affects you, the way that you perceive it, depends on the direction you are heading.

That doesn't necessarily mean you should change direction based on how the wind is blowing.  But don't assume that you are heading in the right direction, just because the wind is at your back.

Likewise, if you are confident in your direction, don't be turned around when the wind is in your face.  Because the wind will change direction.  That is the nature of the wind.

But if you feel that the wind is always in your face, perhaps it is time to examine your own nature.  You may be changing direction at the wrong time, for the wrong reasons.

Anyway, it's something to think about.

Take care.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Ghosts of Christmas Past

I've never really understood the whole holiday decorating thing.  I have dutifully assisted my brother-in-law in putting up his Christmas lights on more than one occasion - but I have been out of the holiday decorating mix in my own home for so long that I've lost touch.  There are a few factors involved, in my estimation.  My disposition is not suited to decorating, for one.  Since there seems no practical basis for the activity, a part of me just doesn't get it.  There are aspects of decorating that also don't work for me philosophically.  I know this sounds stupid - but part of me feels like it's just a way to fake yourself into the holiday spirit.  The especially "Protestant" part of me (those of you who have known me long and hard know what I'm talking about - the rest of you will just have to try and catch my drift) feels that - hey, if you can't get excited about the birth of the Savior for its own sake - you've missed the point.

But as this 50th Christmas approaches, and I drove home from dinner alone tonight, down a street I haven't traveled on in a long time (even though it's within walking distance from my home), I encountered part of the heart of true suburban Christmas excess.  Homes with so many Christmas lights and silhouette reindeer and plastic Santas, plastic choristers, plastic elves - lights, lights and more lights - that you know more than a small element of neighborly competition is involved.  "I love Christmas more than you!"  Displays of such conspicuous electrical consumption that the owners must have some twinge of regret when the December electric bill comes due.  Then I realized that the last time I had traveled down this street, I would have been going to visit my mother and father-in-law, both ghosts of Christmas Past now - and they reminded me that, administered in a proper dose, those Christmas lights can be beautiful in a place and a season where nights come early and stay late.  If you're lucky, you reach that point in your life where the ghosts that haunt you aren't frightening anymore; in fact, they can feel like old friends reminding you of things you hadn't quite forgotten - but almost.

I went to get a donut right after that.  Luckily for me, they didn't have any raised sugar so I came home and wrote this down.  It's fifty-fifty whether I go looking for donuts later.  Lord knows I don't need a donut - but the idea has its appeal.

That's the news from where I am.  "It's not a sad song, though you may feel it that way..."  Hope you have a safe and blessed Christmas and a Happy New Year wherever you are.

Take care.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

I'm 50

Yesterday was my 50th birthday. I had a great day.

 While I spent the day kayaking across Round Lake and watching the sunset over little Traverse Bay, the rest of the world was either melting down or drowning. Las Vegas is too hot, New York's too wet, and Detroit is both hot and wet - which seems to leave Petoskey as the garden spot of the known universe.

 Leslie and Larry, with whom we're spending another delightful July 4th holiday week, are doing their best to subdue nature - as usual. Larry's self-appointed role is to tidy up after Ole Mother Nature and Leslie is killing every weed in her path. On Friday, Larry and I worked to get his brand new used boat into the water at Round Lake. Everything went according to plan and I have the photos to prove it. Yesterday, we took it easy with some shopping at the Habitat for Humanity Restore and a stroll to the beach at Petoskey State Park after dinner.

 But today, Leslie and Larry are back at their posts fighting against nature's relentless entropy And adding a little beauty to the world through their garden. I, on the other hand, am looking for a way to extend the condo association's free Internet service into their unit. It's a tough job - but somebody's got to do it. I've met with little success so far but happen to have a wireless range extender in my back pocket, so I may yet succeed.

 I'd like to say that I've formulated some special words of wisdom to share on my 50th birthday but I haven't. James Taylor wrote "the secret of life is enjoying the passage of time" - and I think that's true. Enjoying the passage of time is very easy in Petoskey this week. But anybody who's lived for 50 years knows that it's not always so easy.  Larry McMurtry wrote "it's a fine world though rich in hardships of times." I believe that too. Maintaining your equilibrium through the hardships is the key.

Paul (yeah, the one from the Bible) wrote: "I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances." Now THAT'S what I'm shooting for.

 Or as Elwood P. Dowd put it:
"I have a wonderful time wherever I am, whoever I'm with."
 That's how I roll.

 Take care.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Taking my best shot

Hi.  Long time, no write.  (Yeah, that's my entire segue...)

Anybody out there still angry about the massacre of first-graders in Connecticut?  Because I am.  I have left "shocked", "stunned", "devastated", "heart-broken" and "appalled" behind.  I'm pissed - and hoping to stay that way long enough to try doing something that will help to satisfy my conscience, if not actually prevent another tragedy.

Before I get too far along in my rant, I feel I should offer a disclaimer - in the interest of not wasting the reader's time.  In the next paragraph (or two), I'm going to start talking about how to try and prevent people from getting guns.  Not a speculation on whether or not that's the right way to prevent slaughters like the one that occurred in Newtown; not a discussion of what the Second Amendment means to me; not soul-searching on whether people, guns or bullets are most to blame for mass murder.  I'm way beyond that - so if you're not interested in some thoughts on how to get serious about restricting access to firearms, you should click the mouse and move on.  In any case, I wouldn't expect to change the minds of individuals who believe that they have a right to bear arms which must not be infringed.

But let me speculate boldly for a moment - that there are some who would agree that rational restrictions could be placed on the manufacture and sale of firearms.  That those restrictions need not prevent access to guns for persons who use them for sport or hunting.  That a person can protect him or herself without an automatic weapon.  Have these become radical ideas?  Listening to the political debate regarding gun control (fade up the chirping crickets), you would think so.  Now, why is that?

Oh, I remember - the National Rifle Association.  An organization with the money and influence to essentially prevent any real govenmental "interference" with weapons manufacture and sale.  An organization which (since 2005) has received 74% of its corporate donations from the firearms industry, totaling somewhere between $14.7 and $38.9 million (per the non-profit Violence Policy Center).

Why can't gun control organizations like the Brady Campaign compete?  Well, how many corporate sponsors do you think they have?  I know its shocking that the knife, axe and slingshot manufacturers haven't anted up in the hope that stricter gun laws might have the populace swarming to their life-threatening alternatives - but I think the situation speaks for itself.  There is clearly more cash to be generated in scaring people and manufacturing weapons, than there is in trying to convince people that they could do without automatic weaponry.

You're shocked - I can tell.  But maybe the question we should really be asking ourselves is this:  How can I help give gun control advocates the funding they need to compete with the NRA - and show my representatives in the Congress and Senate that the pro-gun lobby isn't the only side with political clout?

My answer:  Take the amount of money some people are spending on guns ($200-2000) and give it to an organization or politician that is dedicated to passing stricter gun laws.

To be most effective, that money should be channeled to a single gun control organization so they can go toe-to-toe with the NRA - and win.  But to move beyond anger and get something done, the people who want to see the sale of automatic weapons banned are going to need to spend some money - because you KNOW the people who want to buy those weapons are going to lay their money down.

Now I have to figure out who can make the most of my anti-gun dollars.  Once I do, you will be the first to know.

Take care.

Friday, March 9, 2012

0 for 2011

Just when you thought it was safe to open your Google Reader, I'm back.

It seems so wrong to me to have a blog and not write anything in it.  And yet I was able to do just that (i.e. nothing) for nearly two years.

I have missed writing, though it's not clear to me that I miss it enough to set aside time to do it consistently.  That's a concern for another day.  For right now, let's talk about what's happened since I last posted...

Part One:  January 1, 2011   (I wrote the section below two New Year's Days ago.  And I hate to waste anything.)

Having a few days off work allows me the time to think about things that I think are actually important, rather than the things I convince myself are important so that some one will direct deposit my paycheck every two weeks.  I know I can't speak for everyone (though that idea is clearly an appealing one - to me anyway, if not to all of you) but it seems that human beings need to break up existence into manageable bites in order to cope, to help make sense of and give order to things.  Why else would we approach December 31st and January 1st so differently?  Surely there isn't anything intrinsically different about these two days.  It's just that we have decided that one day is the end of something, the other the beginning of something new.

We construct the year like a container in which to place experiences, to measure our progress through life, perhaps to motivate ourselves toward a goal, or just to keep things neat and tidy in our own minds.  Having done this, I can look back and compare last year to the year before it (2010 was a definite improvement over 2009 which, using the contemporary vernacular, "sucked").  I also reflect on the milestones passed during 2010, some things I had done for the first time (appearing in a play with a leading role, having my daughter move out of the house) and other noteworthy endeavors like winning our annual golf tournament for a second time (I plan to win once every 20 years), being The Boss for a couple of months while my supervisor was recovering from heart surgery, and finishing the editing of some Wing Chun Do instructional videos.

Part Two:  2011 in Review

I think we'll just go to bullet points here.  If I don't, no one will ever get to the end of this post.
  • Our family celebrated my grandmother's 100th Birthday party at her home.  And three weeks later, she died.
  • UnmitigatedMe and I had lots of fun vacationing with our close friends, Leslie and Larry.
  • I hurt my back.
  • Our Music Night Federation celebrated it's 20th Anniversary in June and our 100th collection of songs in October.  [Have I never posted about Music Night?  Oh yes I have!]
  • And, most important of all, our daughter, Ms. Partly Cloudy, got married in November.  The two of us got a lot of positive feedback by doing our father/daughter dance to Ray Charles' Hallelujah I Love Her So.
Photographic evidence:

Part Three: The Present

2012 is shaping up to be another action-packed year.  I've already sold my car, created two T-shirt designs at Zazzle, saw all 9 Best Picture nominees, and will be embarking on vacation next week to see both the Gulf of Mexico (Captiva, FL) and "The Mouse" (Orlando, FL).

With any luck, I'll share some of that with you right here.  I'm gonna try to post once a week.  If I can't do that, I may as well close up this pop stand.  Hopefully, I can make it worth your while to stop by every now and again.  Leave a comment if you're still out there.

Take care.