Friday, October 19, 2007

In the Vein of Conundrua and Concerts

On the heels of probably the second-best concert I've had the pleasure of seeing come two more that have slight (but non-negligible) chances of surpassing it. Now I have to decide where (if anywhere) best to put my $20. Both are at the Tabernacle, a fine place to see a show, so no hiding behind venue: these two will have to duke it out on strength of musicianship alone.

The first features Mae, Anberlin, and a headlining Motion City Soundtrack. Most concerts I've been to have had a warm-up act or two, lesser bands to get everyone pumped for the big event. Not so with this one: while Motion City Soundtrack might get top billing, Mae and Anberlin stand to bring as much to the concert as Motion City. Personally, I see Mae as a much bigger draw than Motion City Soundtrack anyway. And what of Anberlin?

I have virtually no familiarity with their music. I see them often enough linked to Mae and Motion City Soundtrack and The Academy Is. Post-punk, some might say, or pop-rock; the sort of music that, a hundred bands over, defined my generation's high school years. Now most of them are losing ground, ensuring that one the very best remain. (Mae, interestingly, has become this sort of band; more on that in a bit.) So at first glance, this is the sort of band that I should probably like.

The trick here, as any apostle of social music (be it, Pandora, or another) is loath to admit is that connection does not imply similarity. This Web 2.0 reinterpretation of the statistician's mantra "correlation does not imply causation" holds true across IPv4. This applies whether it's books, other works of art, or even friends. Just because you share 26 friends with someone on Facebook doesn't mean you're going to like the guy at all. And with music? Put the Decemberists, Death Cab, the Shins, and Rilo Kiley into your chosen social music amalgamator, and out pop the Postal Service, Neutral Milk Hotel, and Bright Eyes as sure as night follows the day.

The Postal Service, certainly. Death Cab and the Postal Service are always related, inextricably so, by their same lead singer. Neutral Milk Hotel works too, for sheer power of off-kilter intellectuality. Bright Eyes? By this point, we've gone from a strong base of indie rock with touches of folk sprinkled throughout, to some guy who emos it up, half-enunciating and half-whining in a high pitched voice. (It's almost as bad as Radiohead, but a lot less popular.) Moral of the story regarding Anberlin, they may be in the same vein as other bands I enjoy, or they may be an elaborate musical doppelganger. I won't have time to ascertain which in the next two weeks.

Saving ostensibly-the-best for last, let's talk about Motion City Soundtrack next. Motion City is what I think of as a second-tier band. Perhaps I've gotten a little engineery being at Georgia Tech for so long, but I've got a descriptive and hopefully useful way of quantifying band preference. (This is not my first foray into quantification.)

First tier bands are ones that, for lack of a less cheesy way of saying it, define your aesthetics. For these bands, you hear a song, and immediately identify the artist, the album, the title, and the melody if not all of the words. You call these bands your "favorite bands" when prompts you for favorite music, and your playlist data backs up that claim. You wouldn't miss a concert from these guys for the world. Except for maybe lack of money or opportunity. It's the thought that counts.

Second tier bands are ones that you like and own some of their music, though it's unlikely their playcounts have broken through to triple digits yet. Maybe you put them on for a nice change of pace, maybe you used to be a lot more into them and are keeping some nostalgia around. Either way, you wouldn't be averse to seeing these guys in concert, but are also unwilling to shell out $20 for the privilege.

Then there are things like third tier, which you only tolerate because of convenience. You roommate volunteers to take out the trash more if you play this band, or your cute lab partner is into them and besides, you need some music to "study" by. They're probably way overrated. You would do a concert, only if it were free, or if the cute lab partner dragged you along.

And like I said, Motion City Sountrack is not on that upper tier for me. The biggest reason, I think, is that all of their music sounds the same. It's not a bad all the same, to be sure. Before Even if it Kills Me came out, I couldn't distinguish between their two albums. Now, I can't distinguish between three. And not much has changed. Mae, however, has.

Two years ago, I would have jumped, probably literally, at the chance to see Mae live. "Suspension"? "Anything"? "Someone Else's Arms"? To be fair to Destination: Beautiful, "Sun"? "All Deliberate Speed"? Any and all of that would make for a downright fabulous concert. But it's clear that is not an Everglow concert or a Destination: Beautiful concert. It's a Singularity concert, through and through.

Now Singularity and I have our differences. Some of them are legitimate weaknesses; some of them are my fault for thinking this album could possibly approach The Everglow in sheer brilliance. To review, I didn't dislike Singularity. It's far from an awful CD when judged on its own merit rather than by association with my favorite CD ever. Recall that I even made a comparison to none other than Motion City Soundtrack, a band that I have a generally (if mildly) positive opinion of.

Oh, wait.

My biggest criticism of Motion City Soundtrack is that all of their music is basically the same. And if this is a Mae tour showcasing their CD that sounds like Motion City Soundtrack, it's like hearing the same stuff over and over again for an hour.

What it comes down to is this: everything else being essentially neutral, my decision is whether to spend $20 for the possibility (granted, a reasonably good one for most of them) of seeing about five songs.

And the second? This is Mute Math and Eisley. Mute Math for me is like Anberlin: probably reasonably similar to bands I like. Bit of a different niche: Copeland, Lovedrug, etc. But the same issue: I have no idea if they're a Postal Service, or a Bright Eyes. So this concert's merit is sitting entirely on Eisley.

Eisley is, of course, my New Favorite Band. You know the indie kids in high school, how they'd proclaim a New Favorite Band every week? First it was Ben Folds Five, the the Juliana Theory, then Death Cab for Cutie, and so on. (Some people still do this.) I'm in the infatuation stage right now, where seeing them live would mean more to me now than it might ever again. (It also doesn't hurt that I have a crush on the entire female half of the band.) Mmm, Sherri DuPree singing "Invasion" live.

In the end, can I turn toward the over-simple and call it "Someone Else's Arms" versus "Invasion"? Maybe I could get grandiloquent and claim it was the old versus the new, memories from late high school against experiments and discoveries from college? Nah. It's more "who wants to go see Mae with me?" versus "who wants to go see Eisley with me?".

Anyone have any input?

Currently listening: Parachute, Guster

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Believe Me Natalie

I've thought a bit about my recent commentary on Garden State and I realized something pretty important. You know, fair enough: if Natalie Portman told me something would change my life, I'd be paying pretty close attention to it. I don't think, necessarily, that Garden State would be a bad movie. Looking at the Wikipedia summary, it looks sort of interesting.

The biggest issue I have with thinking about motivating myself to watch it, though, is Zach Braff. I can't think of this guy without thinking first of Scrubs. For most fans of Garden State (and even probably lots of fans of the Shins) that's far from a bad thing. However, once you see someone with ridiculous antlers strapped to his head staring into the headlights of an oncoming car, it's hard to exorcise that image.

"But Scrubs is funny!" Well, yeah, half the time it is. Dr. Cox and the janitor and Turk are all wonderful characters. And then, someone gets the idea to take a mallet to anything approaching comedic subtlety and give us "deer in the headlights." Thanks. (And besides, if I wanted a good medical drama, I'd watch House anyway.)

Several years ago, before I really knew who Zach Braff was, and before I had any idea at all who the Shins were, I had a conversation with my friend Patrick where he mentioned having seen Garden State. His assertion? Zach Braff wrote a script, casted, directed, and did all the grunt work that comes with movie making for the sole purpose of being able to kiss Natalie Portman. Patrick may be on to something here. If there's any kernel of truth to Patrick's conspiracy theory about Braff's true motives behind Garden State, then forget Scrubs. I respect this man.

Currently listening: Futures, Jimmy Eat World (for comparison, for the still-upcoming review)

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Dodo's Conundrum

Review: The Shins, live

A lesser band would not have merited this quick a turnaround from concert to review. That expediency generally stays in the purview of Journalists and Radio People; that is, they who get paid to write this sort of thing. I am not one of those lucky few. So the fact that I'm writing with journalist-speed should serve as a testament to how good the show was. And it better have been damn good, for the $40 the ticket cost after wondrous enhancements like "handling."

Actually, let's talk about prices for a moment. This was not the most expensive public performance I've ever been to; that honor goes to seeing The Producers on Broadway. Nor, do I think, is it the most expensive concert I've been to; tickets for the family-traditional Christmas with the ASO are surely at least $40. If that much money was a bit of a sticker shock for me, only my prior concert-going experience is to blame. Take the Decemberists, for instance. That show was every bit as good musically as the Shins concert (and even better from an audience-involvement perspective) but a lot cheaper. Throwdown and Zao weighed in at a measly $12. (Big surprise there.)

And yet, grossly overrated bands like Dave Matthews can pull in ticket prices that have three digits to them. Exactly how they're able to pull that off is far beyond me. But it gives a nice perspective that at least my favorite bands aren't such tall orders compared to some.

You know a show is good when you can positively remark on the lighting, of all things. From the moment LEDs blinked on and off in time to the beginning of "Sleeping Lessons," you could sense portents of amazement. When the veil dropped at exactly the right time later in the song to show the palm tree/amoeba creatures from the cover of Wincing the Night Away, things picked up and never backed down.

Comments on the set list: starting out with "Sleeping Lessons" was the right move. Ending with "Phantom Limb" was also a good choice, and really ending with "So Says I" ensured the the energy stayed through the entire show. Hershel's commentary on "Phantom Limb" still holds true: "I don't understand 'Pam Berry.' Why can't I just get to 'Phantom Limb' 57 seconds sooner?" Interestingly, it's as if Mercer is aware of this criticism; I doubt tonight's version of "Pam Berry" took more than 40 seconds of my "Phantom Limb" anticipatory time. From the new album, it would have been impossible to get away with not playing "Australia" and "Turn on Me" and "Sea Legs," and thankfully they did, as those plus "Phantom Limb" are probably the best to come out of Wincing the Night Away. Add "Girl Sailor" and the ever-depressing "A Comet Appears" and you've covered most of the recent album. I could have done with "Split Needles" too but I won't complain.

Aside from "So Says I," a lot of old stuff was covered too. "Gone for Good" and "Kissing the Lipless" and "Saint Simon" were excellent. We also got various other tracks from both Chutes too Narrow and Oh, Inverted World, none of which I have an issue with. Through this, I've realized that there really isn't a Shins song that I don't like.

That said, something needs to be done about "New Slang."

It's not a bad song; like I said, I don't think there's such a thing as a bad Shins song. Compared to most of the rest, though, and certainly to the better half of Wincing the Night Away, I really don't see what the big deal about it is. But, of course, Natalie Portman's character in Garden State thinks it'll "change your life" so of course it must be the best thing in the Shins' collective portfolio. I'm just not indie enough to have come to the Shins through Garden State. In fact, I haven't even seen the movie. A saving grace: the Shins don't seem to have that problem of Garden State groupies leaving the fandom en masse because too many other people started liking the band.

And let's hope that means the Shins will continue to give concerts of this magnitude for a long time.

Currently listening: Chase this Light, Jimmy Eat World (review coming soon?)

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Words that I Hate

You know how buzzwords insinuate themselves throughout society? In science: biocompatibility; in technology: convergence; in current events: whatever talking point Congress has today. Most of these are tolerable. A few are inexcusable.

My biggest gripe lately is "sustainability". 39,500,000 Google results. For comparison, that classic computer entertainment "solitaire" brings in a mere 22,600,000 results. Wikipedia gives a definition telling me that "Sustainability is a characteristic of a process or state that can be maintained at a certain level indefinitely." Thanks! In chemical engineering land, we call that "steady-state." Then we get into the "environmental" implications of this invented term, having to do with maintaining climate levels and the rest. Without delving into ecopolitics, do we really need a term for that? "Oh, look, we want the environment to keep going." "I'd rather have a source of energy than not." It's sort of like the Darfur example I'm so fond of: just as there really isn't anyone who likes genocide, there's nobody who actually wants the system they're buying into to break down suddenly. Nobody wants their environment to be non-sustainable. And yet? "Sustainability" has become a sine qua non for researchers and industrialists.

It's time we realized that nothing is the new anything. "(blank) is the new black" originated from the mystifying world of fashion, which might be why I'm biased against it in the first place. As long as it was confined to catwalks and flamboyant Parisians, I could ignore whichever permutation of old color-new color correlation was being promoted at the time. It's not that I necessarily liked it, but I could write it off as a vagary of that particular scene. Things are different when it goes into mainstream culture. I just saw--get this--a car product TV commercial that proclaimed "orange is the new fast." That doesn't even make any sense.

Tantamount to heresy in Web 2.0 is the notion that "tagging" is anything but messianic social revolution. Feel free to brand me a heretic, in that case. I use and really, really like the music library network It gives me an idea of what I listen to, it lets me know what concerts are coming up for bands that I like, and it recommends artists that I may never have heard of. That said, I do not care which bands you have seen live. I do not care if you think some music is "female vocalist" as opposed to "singer-songwriter." And I sure as hell will never understand the difference between "indie," "indie rock," "indie pop," "rock," and "pop." I will never understand this difference on the basis of legitimate authority... so why do you assume I will care what some random fan categorizes music as?

Finally, and sort of linked to the notion of "sustainability" is "footprint". Back in my day, a footprint was something you left when you walked in he mud. As I learned more about architecture and how cities worked (mostly through strategy games, to tell the truth), I learned that this word is also properly applied to how much physical space a structure is going to take up. It is not, however, proper as a metaphor to describe your effect on the environment. Carbon does not leave a footprint. It diffuses.

Currently listening: "Invasion," Eisley