Thursday, August 23, 2007

Triptych

Review: Singularity be Mae

Inevitably, delays plague "products that I want." Sometimes it's a simple matter of a few days, like a store not having the Game Boy Color in stock yet; sometimes it's an as-yet infinite delay like the case of Mother 3 coming out in America. Singularity had a relatively reasonable delay of a couple of months from the first "announced" release date of June 2007. Truthfully, it's almost good that it was delayed like that, because otherwise I would have had to speculate as to the music's quality while I was in France rather than listen to it as it came out.

If you're not familiar with my feelings toward Mae, let me preface this review by saying that The Everglow is probably my favorite album ever. It's hard to say why. Musically, it's nearly flawless but lacks the sterility that a technically superior performance often sadly carries with it. There are heartfelt emotions, and the total-album organization and presentation is incredible. I don't know of a single other collection of songs, save possibly Green Day's American Idiot, that just works as an album as well as The Everglow does. Even better, Mae isn't politically preachy!

Critically, Mae has done all right. Popular opinion was pretty much uniform for their first album, Destination: Beautiful. A solid indie rock album, though perhaps not brilliant; well-crafted songs even though the production fidelity was a little shaky at times; nothing revolutionary but very positive and enjoyable all the same. The Everglow had more contrast in opinion, ranging from people who feel the same way as I do about it to those who condemn it as "Disney rock." Those people are probably the same ones who think that something that is easy to understand can't possibly have artistic value, that something dark and disturbed is automatically more genuinely emotional than one that dares to be happy or optimistic.

Then what of Singularity? Nobody really seems to know, I don't think. People are ambivalent to the point of not posting reviews of the album. It's no The Everglow, but I wasn't realistically expecting it to be. Nor did it really need to be, because doing that same thing again would be redundant at best and a complete cop-out at worst. The one thing that's sure is that it takes a completely different approach than either of the previous albums. Asking which of the two Singularity is more similar to is sort of like asking if angel food cake is more similar to lasagna or caesar salad. They're all in the vague general category of "food," and there are a lot of good things about all of them, but drawing similarities just doesn't make sense.

I think the most obvious comment to make about the new album is a stylistic one: everything seems harder, faster, louder on Singularity. Instead of comparisons to emo bands, the more apt comparison is to post-punk "alternative"; Motion City Soundtrack immediately springs to mind as a stylistic similarity; Something Corporate and maybe even Guster are audible in parts. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. The downside of this is that everything that Mae delicately, beautifully constructed for The Everlow is pretty much gone. A critique of The Everglow said, probably disparagingly, that Mae won't do anything that a music theory class wouldn't approve of. And you know what? All that music theory made their music sound really good. Now you have chord progressions, transitions, and instrumentations that sound a lot more dissonant in places. It's not inherently bad, but from time to time, I caught myself wincing and wondering what the rationale could possibly be for putting in that minor sixth.

A far more serious flaw is Mae's possible "lack of new ideas." I'm used to lyrical mastery form Mae, willing to forgive them if they slip into mere excellence. Contrast "when the lights first came upon us/and we saw The Everglow./And the moment's magic swept us away/and the young man's dream/was almost seen so plain" with "we'll get through anything/are you, are you falling for me/like I'm oh I'm falling for you" and tell me which one is better. Singularity does have its lyrical bright spots, though. "Telescopes" contains at least a triple entendre, talking about "subjects," "objects," and "predicates" in reference to either grammar or actual telescopes, or a conversation, which is very clever writing.

Bottom line is there's not enough of that. I'm not going to delete Singularity or anything drastic like that. I'll probably keep listening to it every once in a while. But looking at my top 25 played tracks in iTunes, twelve of them are tracks from The Everglow. I don't exactly see Singularity making it into there.


Currently listening: The Four Seasons, Canadian Brass version

Monday, August 20, 2007

J'aime le bifteck

Or: my roommate Hershel's approach to the entirety of the French language. Mine is more along the lines of "j'aime les croissants" but I think either is equally valid.

Now here's an amusing anecdote, drawn from somewhere in the Stygian marsh. Before the trek to the City of Dis (alternately known as the Swann Modern Languages building), the petitioner is confronted with the Placement Test. Now, generally, a placement test when taking a language makes sense. If you had a really slack high school teacher who only taught you how to count to fifty in your first semester of French as opposed to the more standard seventy, then you might not want to jump into the strenuous demands of "count to one thousand" that French II springs at you. If, on the other hand, your most recent French experience consisted of writing a nuanced thesis on the competing influences of Abusrdist versus Existentialist thought in Albert Camus' L'Etranger then French II might not be the best choice either.

That said, the "multiple choice" format for said placement test may well be the worst idea I've heard in a long time. First off, a multiple choice test examines only one skill (reading) when in fact there are four that go toward determining fluency. This test format utterly ignores the ability to write French, or to speak or comprehend spoken French. Reading is the easiest one of these skills to develop because you get things like context clues. Take a test question I ran into. The question presented me with several paragraphs of French, which to me seemed like "word word word-with-funny-accents, 'he is going to,' word word more funny accents." The question asked me "What did the boys do with the watch?" and it's funny, because except for that question I wouldn't have known a watch was involved at all. So I started to do a little creative guessing: I recognized the words for "earth" and "gardener," and one of the answer choices involved "soil." The thing is, I'm pretty darn sure I got that question right. And so it went.

A question asks "what verb means the same thing as 'to make the paintings'?" I didn't think "peinter" sounded good, so I went with "peindre." A quick Babelfish query after the test was over confirmed that one. I've never had a formal education of what food names were, but damned if I didn't go to Cora every week and learn "pomme" and "artichaut" and "chou" for "apple," "artichoke," and "cabbage" by some sort of advertisement-osmosis.

Apparently that osmosis worked better than I'd ever imagined. Or my good Qi chose a strange time to manifest itself. Possibly both; I'll never know. What I do know is that based on no evidence of ability to write, speak, comprehend, or interpret French, I'm apparently good enough to skip French II.


Currently listening: "Hold On," KT Tunstall (via our friends at YouTube)

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Discussion of Europe, Part 3: Where to Go

If you're going to be abroad for two and a half months, like I was, you probably don't need a great deal of direction regarding where to go. Chances are you won't be spending upwards of half your time in Metz, France in that case either--and you're better off for it. Nothing against Metz, really. It's a fine town: plenty of history, one of the best cities to experience Lorraine culture, and all in all a decent place to spend a few hours in a train layover. The Moselle's Obligatory River Shot compares to some of the finest in Europe, like the Rhone or the Saone. That said, Metz falls short in two key areas.

The first is "having anything to do after 8 pm." This includes getting anything to eat anywhere except for maybe the kebab shop. (Of course, even if that restaurant is still open, you'll pay eighteen Euros for the pleasure of eating there.) Apparently there's a couple of clubs hidden somewhere if you're into that sort of thing, but some of my classmates who are into that sort of thing didn't seem too impressed with the local nightlife in any case. You can always see whatever big American movies are out with varying degrees of success in their French dubbing. Word of caution: it's better to see a movie that you don't really have to think about what's going on. Pirates 3 was not a good choice in this regard. The bus schedule even ceases running normally after 9 pm, when you'll have to rely on the once per hour "Route tardif" to get anywhere at all.

Metz's only other shortcoming is "having anything to do at all in the Technopole." You hear "college campus" and you think it's going to be like Tech's. Spread out and too much car traffic, an unacceptable amount of construction most of the time--but otherwise peaceful and attractive. Green space, places to buy food and necessities in walking distance, amenities and at least some sort of solidarity-building locations, traditions, etc. There's really none of that. College campus here means you're in a dorm (which is actually a little nicer than Tech dorms) in walking distance to your one academic/administrative/student services building. And in between? Road. Offices. Urban bus service. More offices. You can go to the grocery store, certainly, but it'll take 20 minutes to walk there, then you have to walk back with your junk.

Where to, then, if not Metz? First off, you know I'm no big fan of France. Overrated in almost every regard, you can get just about everything that you can get in France elsewhere in Europe except 1) cheaper and 2) with better service. A major concern when going to Europe, of course, is willingness either to speak English or to navigate their way through your broken attempts at the local language. Now you might be conversational in German, or approaching fluency in Spanish, and that's really impressive. If you're going to say that you have the same level of mastery of Dutch or Catalan, I'm going to go ahead and call BS on that. People use English as a sort of mutually agreed upon mediation language. Take the Viennese tower I visited. The German-speaking man who was handing out information on the tower and the Korean man who'd brought his son finally settled on an informational flyer in English. Or the Italian train conductor who was trying to negotiate with the Russian man about his passport? English again.

English proficiency is generally very good in Germanic countries, or in countries where Germanic languages are spoken. Maybe that's due to linguistic similarity, maybe to straight-up cultural differences; I'm not sure. But it's very easy to communicate in English in Germany and Austria, and not too bad in Switzerland and the Netherlands (or Dutch-speaking Belgium). Spain and Italy fall a little behind, but communication is still generally possible. Even people who don't speak a word of English (like the owners of those wonderful "little granny hotels") really try to get across what they're trying to say.

Now that you're able to talk to the locals, what's worth visiting? A country-by-country guide:

In Spain, one of my travel guides said trying to choose between Madrid and Barcelona is like trying to choose between London and Paris. This is apparently a more difficult choice for the author of this book than for me. I'd compare it more to trying to choose either New York or Chicago. Both are wonderful cities, both are worth a visit, and honestly I think it's better to shortchange them both by spending half your time in each than to miss either. Madrid is Spain. Bullfights, sangria, and flamenco, and everything else you could think Don Quixote missed out on while he was jousting against windmills. Barcelona is something completely different: artistic, independent, and modern. Apparently it has a great club/bar scene too. Both are culturally phenomenal.

On any trip to Europe, London is not to be missed. I was in London for longer than any other single city (except Metz, of course), and here is a list of things I didn't get to do that I'd still like to.
  • Go inside the Tower
  • National Gallery
  • Harrod's
  • Afternoon tea
  • Other half of the British Museum
  • London Eye
  • Some boat thing down the Thames
  • Globe Theater
  • See a play (the theater district rivals or maybe even surpasses New York's)
  • Go into Westminster Abbey
  • Observe Parliament

and even here, I'm probably forgetting things. London is a remarkable city, with especially easy public transportation, and English generally spoken. Even though it has a funny accent.

In Germany, I think Munich is essential. Bavaria in general is great--and that's not just the inherent Catholic bias I have. Pretzels, check. Sausage, check. Cuckoo clocks, check. Dirndls, check. Magnificent palaces, check. Depressing concentration camp sites and other World War II memorabilia, check. Beer... you've got no idea. And unlike most other countries' beer (especially America's), it's actually worth putting in your mouth.

I've already discoursed on Rome. Go there. The only danger in visiting Rome is that Roman ruins across the rest of the world seem a lot less impressive. Naples is sort of dirty and obnoxious, too urban for my tastes. Two huge saving graces: the best pizza you will ever taste, and Pompeii, which is the quintessential Roman ruin. Switzerland is really pretty, though too Protestant for my tastes. I mean, 20 foot statue of John Calvin in the middle of town square in Geneva? That's a little much.

Finally, towns that I would have really liked to go to, and would very much like to visit on a later European excursion: Dublin, Edinburgh, Amsterdam, Prague, Florence, Venice, Berlin, Budapest. We'll see if that ever materializes.


Currently listening: Singularity, Mae. Review soon to follow.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Interlude

Review: In Our Bedroom After the War

Taking a break from the discussion of Europe for the time being--don't worry, it'll be back in full force discussing things like why London is better than Paris, and some specific commentary on the GTL program--I'd like to review the new Stars CD. If you don't know Stars (not "The Stars" interestingly enough, given the preponderance of similar bands whose names start with "The") you really ought to. Think a little Postal Service but less electronic, a little Rilo Kiley but less folksy, perhaps a dash of the Arcade Fire or Sufjan Stevens? Now move it north across the border, and you've got the best thing to come out of Canada since... well... it's good music.

Upon listening to this album for the first time, I committed a cardinal sin of music review: doing something else besides listening to the music. That's right: I reduced In Our Bedroom to background noise while I was conducting room inventories. (Most of the towel racks were actually there!) And it's not deserving of such a fate, really. So I resolved to change things the second time I listened to it. And what ended up happening? Door decorations and welcome letters, that's what. Frustrated, I vowed to set aside time to listen to this music and do nothing else. Then I started humming "Take Me to the Riot" and "The Night Starts Here" without even realizing it.

This is one of those albums that starts too strong for its own good. The aforementioned songs are excellent, certainly the two highest quality here, and a couple of the best I've heard since Wincing the Night Away came out. After that, the rest of the songs seem to fall a little flat, when they certainly don't deserve that. Final Fantasy fans will be interested to hear that one of the more creative songs on the album is called "The Ghost of Genova Heights"... a reference to Sephiroth's mom? "Personal" is lyrically brilliant, then we get to some songs whose names I can't remember, then the title track ends the album better than any last track I think I have ever heard.

AbsolutePunk.Net loved this album too, maybe even a bit more than I did. The reviewer there said not since Sufjan Stevens' Illinoise had he heard something to magnificent. While the comparison to that great bastion of indie music might be a little unwarranted, the point is made: In Our Bedroom After the War is an excellent collection of music, and not to be missed.


Currently listening (additionally): The Official Lost Podcast, ComicCon edition

Monday, August 06, 2007

Discussion of Europe, Part 2: Food

Being something of a culinary adventurer, of course one of the biggest things about Europe was being able to taste various local cuisines in their natural habitat. From fried squid sandwiches on Madrid to a good old pile of sausage in Austria, I certainly got to run a delightful gamut of meals over the last few months. Of course, in all that, one can't discount the prominence of the French hypermarket in the equation. Described by one of our American program coordinators as "Super Wal-Mart multiplied by three," the term "grocery store" doesn't begin to do Cora justice. A few further observations:

Restaurant food is really expensive. I mean, I guess it sort of is in America, too? Not nearly that bad. Let's look at, say, McDonalds. Admittedly, I don't know how much things cost at McDonalds. I don't eat there. That's not a reactionary Morgan Spurlock-eqsue movement, more of a "there isn't one on campus" combined with "I like Burger King better anyway." But there's no way that a Big Mac, medium fries, and medium Coke costs $6.15. That's how much said food cost, in Euros. So if there's no way it costs that many dollars to begin with, factor in the exchange rate to get $8.49? How they get off making me spend an Atlantic Station movie ticket to eat a hamburger, I don't know.

When we're not talking about MacDo (as the French are fond of calling it), stuff gets really pricey, really quickly. Take my lunch in Paris: a sandwich. Eight Euro. And it wasn't anywhere near as good as say a Quizno's sub, which would have cost me the same thing but in dollars.

French food is overrated. "Okay, guys, let's take a hunk of meat, slice it really fancy, and pour some sauce over it. Sweet. That's gonna run you thirteen Euro." And yet, people the world over have the impression that if it's French, it has to be marvelous. When I'm 1) abroad and 2) in a country that does not contain the Eiffel Tower, I don't need to eat at a French restaurant. Look in a travel guide for the best places to eat in most given cities, though, and what do you see? Something that starts with "Le." (Or any of the imaginative variations on "le" such as "la" or "les" or the dreaded "l-apostrophe.")

And what the hell is a Michelin star anyway? If it were up to me, I wouldn't have DeAndray and Bubba Wayne who just changed my tires cooking me food. I pretty much see it as "okay, now we can serve you less food and charge you more money for it, provided we serve it creatively." To quote the Wikipedia article on the subject, "the inspectors use secret criteria, unknown to even the most experienced chefs" and "As the Michelin Guide is published by a French company, some international food critics have denounced the rating system as inherently biased toward French cuisine." Shocking.

As with many things in Europe, the Germans have it right. Plate of sausages and sauerkraut for seven Euro? Wiener Schnitzel and weird potato ball things for nine? Good choices all around. Austrian cooking is basically the same level of deliciousness and cheapness. Bavarian is a slight variation on the theme, with the addition of the "gro├čebretzel" or "giant pretzel." This is about a foot in diameter, and you won't spend more than three Euros for it.

A trip to Europe turns out to be a great time to drink some alcohol. Now I'm not exactly a partier. I don't think I've ever been per se "drunk." But unlike anything else you might want to ingest, the booze in Europe is surprisingly cheap. And it's really, really good. I never had an American beer that I liked. And I only had one or two European beers that I didn't like. The Hofbrauhaus is amazing. French wine is amazing. Belgian beer, Spanish sangria, the list goes on and on.

And finally, the grocery store is totally bizarre. You think you've seen weird things at your friendly neighborhood Publix? You haven't seen anything until you've browsed a French store. Walking down the meat section, you see the familiar labels of "porc" and "boeuf" and "poulet" (chicken). Then... wait a second, surely you can't buy horse here? But there it was, "cheval." The juice selection was incredible, but there wasn't a jar of peanut butter in sight. Baguettes? As far as the eye can see.


Currently listening: "Rocknroll," Lovedrug