Monday, December 29, 2008

Theology in the Benedict Era

It’s been a long road, Pope Benedict. I’ve been trying for exactly three years now to finish your book, Truth and Tolerance, in which you discuss (among dozens of other things) the relationship between the Christian faith, other world religions, and the philosophical concept of “truth”. And it’s been intense.

I still haven’t gotten a good answer about how to address the author of this book. When the book was written, the author was Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, the Prefect of the Congregation of the Faith. Since then, he has been elevated and elected to the papacy and is now Pope Benedict XVI. I’m leaning toward referring to the author as Cardinal Ratzinger, merely because that’s the capacity he wrote the book in.

Review, Reaction, and Discussion: Truth and Tolerance

This book is not an easy read. It would be very easy to dedicate an entire semester’s worth of study to this book, discussing how each concept Ratzinger touches on relates to his Catholic theology, the philosophical traditions of the Christian religion, and the beliefs of other historical and contemporary religions. It wouldn’t even be a stretch to base a graduate thesis on this book, and how the philosophical background of European thought has informed Ratzinger’s theology.

That’s one critical point to understanding this book: it’s obvious Ratzinger is writing very much from the European tradition. Hardly a page goes by without reference to a prior work. Those references range from Kant to virtually unknown German theologians. They range from the ancient (Plato and Aquinas) to the contemporary, and from existentialists (Sartre) to Catholic popes. Ratzinger is always very careful to construct each of his points from syllogisms derived from earlier writings and scriptural references.

That can make his writing very difficult to understand, particularly if you’re unfamiliar with the sources referenced. I have a rudimentary understanding of Kant and Plato, and I’ve at least heard of Sartre, but when Ratzinger bases an entire chapter’s worth of argument on Romano Guardini’s work, that’s another story. An hour of Wikipedia about this man later, and I feel like I can at least evaluate what Ratzinger is saying in its philosophical context. Trying to do that with every author that’s referenced would be prohibitively time-consuming… but also absolutely necessary to really grasp what’s being discussed.

Put another way, the reason it’s clear that Ratzinger is writing from the European philosophical tradition is that he won’t ever make a statement like “here’s what I believe.” It’s always “here’s what scripture and logic dictate that it’s reasonable to believe, and here’s how previous authors have described that.” That’s a very, very good thing to have in a religious leader. A papacy marked by “the Church is going to do this because I say so” is a much less effective one than one that says “the Church is going to do this because it follows from scripture, philosophy, and theology.”

There are two particularly salient points from Ratzinger’s work: first, that religious pluralism is dangerous, in part because it leads to the “indifference of the content of what is believed”. He is particularly vocal—and effective—in attacking the pluralism and relativism implied by various Eastern “Dharmic” beliefs such as Hinduism and Buddhism. He says it’s tempting to turn to a religion that doesn’t care for a worldly concept of truth. However, he argues, the more you look into these religions, the more they’re concerned with escaping the worldly concerns of truth (ie, ascending from the eternal cycles of reincarnation), and a religion predicated on escaping the world ultimately leads to an unfulfilling experience in the world.

The second point that shows up over and over again is the connection of God the creator and Supreme Being, God the source of love, and God the source of reason. Ratzinger painstakingly defends the Johannine declaration “God is love.” He explains in even more detail how Christianity, from its roots in Judaism and its translation into Greek, represented the natural union of religion and philosophy into the one system that could bring its adherents both truth and reason.

Based on those two points, this book is more effective as a defense of Christianity as a system of philosophy and a way to approach a quest for “truth” than a guidebook for Christians on how to approach truth or tolerance. Considering Ratzinger’s intellectual background and philosophical traditions, that makes perfect sense. However, the book left several questions that I would very much like to pose, should I ever get the chance to speak with the Pope.

For me, the most grievous omission from the book dealt with the relationship between Christianity and Islam. Most of the book’s material was written in the 1990s, when Islamic extremism was still an emerging threat in international geopolitics. Now that al Qaeda is a household name, many Christians—particularly American Christians—want to know what sort of relationship Christianity and Islam can have. Ratzinger only mentions Islam a handful of times in the book, at the same time acknowledging that the beliefs of Muslims are a topic that probably deserves a treatise of its own. Allah and the Christian God are the same deity in the Abrahmic tradition, but to what extent are Muslim beliefs the same as Christian ones? I’d like to know, in Ratzinger’s opinion, if Muslims hold the same view that God is supreme, God is reason, and God is love that Christians do (or ought to).

Second, to what extent do we, as Christians, have the obligation to spread the religion? We all know the Great Commission. I say the best way to do this is to lead by example: to show love and reason in all your actions. As Christians, we should never be afraid to proclaim our worship of God. And if I notice that someone I’m close to had a lack of purpose, or love, or reason, then I see it as my duty to suggest Christ as a way to get that. However—and this is probably where the Pope’s theology diverges from my own opinion—if I have a friend who’s committed to Judaism, or Hinduism, or whatever other system of belief, I have no intention of trying to dissuade that friend from that belief.

Despite these shortcomings, and Ratzinger’s tendency to argue ultra-abstractions like “what is truth?” and “does truth have a place in religion?”, this book is an invaluable insight into both what the Pope’s beliefs and how those beliefs were formed. Though plenty of critics have portrayed Benedict as far too conservative, his writings indicate that it is a deeply founded and well thought out conservatism, as opposed to a conservatism for the sake of tradition. Finally, he proves to be one of the most well-read, educated, and downright brilliant theologians of our time.

Currently listening: "Hiphopapotamus vs. Rhymenoceros", Flight of the Conchords

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The 2008 Bowl Season

On's bowl selection show, the national audience was polled to see which college had the biggest BCS gripe: Texas, Texas Tech, or Boise State. The winner, in a landslide, was Texas. Now, I like Texas a lot. I'd consider myself at least a tangential Longhorns fan, and come September 2009, I may well be enrolled there. But I respectfully disagree that Texas had the biggest BCS gripe. They were ranked third in the BCS, and they earned a bid to the Fiesta Bowl. Seems fair to me. Whether or not they had a Big XII gripe, especially relating to how Oklahoma got a spot in the Big XII championship, is another matter entirely.

No, it's the Broncos who have the biggest BCS gripe. Their coach put it better than I could have: "we did all we can do." An undefeated season, beating a solid Oregon team and winning the conference handily. Apparently, that's not good enough to earn a BCS bid.

I think the national championship game between Florida and Oklahoma will be a fine one. Whether or not these are the two best teams in the country, they're certainly two of the best in the country, and we'll get one heck of a football game. I'm going to go with Florida for three reasons. First, they beat Georgia, not just this year, but consistently. And I can't help but support a team that does that. Second, Oklahoma's fight song is annoying--not just the song itself, but the frequency at which they play the first eight measures of it. Score, okay. First down, maybe. Missouri does an illegal shift? Sorry guys, that's not "Boomer Sooner" worthy. And third, I think Sam Bradford is a bit of a douchebag. Did you see his ten-degree hat tilt after Oklahoma beat Missouri?

I like Penn State in the Rose Bowl, mostly because I'm no fan of USC, and Texas in the Fiesta, mostly because I'm no fan of Ohio State. Either Alabama or Utah would be fine in the Sugar, and really I couldn't care less about the Orange, since Georgia Tech isn't in it.

The saying is that "my two favorite teams are Georgia Tech and whoever plays Georgia." In that case, color me a Michigan State fan. I don't know much about the team this year, mostly because they've been so thoroughly overshadowed by Penn State and Ohio State. I do know--incidentally, so does ESPN--that Georgia has had a disappointing season: giving up 40 or more points in losing all of their important games. Let's see the Spartans put up 50 in the Capital One Bowl.

Of course, Tech will take care of LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. No doubt about it. Remember the last game each team played? Tech takes care of their perennial rival Georgia... and LSU loses to Arkansas.

Finally, I'd be remiss not to talk about the Playoff Question, which is a sine qua non for debating the intricacies of college football. I think it's a bad idea. Yes, it would more accurately crown a national champion, but that's all it would do. Part of the draw of the bowl season is seeing all these bizarre matchups of teams that would never, ever play each other except under the duress of corporate sponsorship. All a playoff would do is shift the focus to a handful of four or eight or sixteen elite teams for a few weeks. I don't know about anyone else, but watching USC and Oklahoma and Ohio State play three games apiece to end the season is a little anticlimactic.

Currently listening: "Bethlehem", Chicago (from What's it Gonna Be, Santa)

Sunday, December 07, 2008

The Urbanspoon App, For Free

One thing I'll never get tired of is eating at interesting restaurants. We've got a lot of them in Atlanta--no shortage of whatever cuisine you might be desiring. My newfound mobility (in the form of a '99 Subaru Forester) and windfall (in the form of the remnants of a lucrative summer internship at the hands of Big Oil) combined with several good friends having the same have afforded me a lot more opportunity to quest for decent places to eat.

The biggest problem is that I'm horrible at picking restaurants.

I'm bad at making a lot of decisions, but I'm actually really good at important ones. Where to go for grad school? I'll do fine making that choice. How much to spend once you get to the restaurant? I have very good self-control. "Should we go to Target or Best Buy first?" "I don't care." "No, really, which one?" "Um, really, I can't make that decision. It doesn't matter." The lower the stakes for a decision, I think, the worse I am at making it.

Now comes the Urbanspoon app, which is possibly the most hipster phrase I've ever uttered. "Urbanspoon app". It just smacks of people who wear scarves in October but not January, who read a lot of McSweeney's and Dave Eggers, and who scorn corporate culture except for when it happens to be emblazoned with the Apple emblem. But no matter. The Urbanspoon app is pure genius.

Shake your iPhone, and it tells you where to eat dinner. It's not random, either. It's weighted toward where you are right now (via GPS) and what's gotten the best reviews on the website (via an actually legitimate use of Web 2.0). Don't like the idea? Shake it again. This, and this alone, might make me want an iPhone. Then again, $300 and $90 per month for dining advice? Maybe I'll pass.

Or, as several of my friends have suggested, you can do this for free. Write down the name of twenty or thirty restaurants, some of which you know and like, some of which you want to try. Put them in a Ziploc bag. Shake it, and pull one out. Concerned about the directions? Write them on the back!

Here's where you come in. I'm taking suggestions for restaurants to write down on my ghetto "Urbanspoon app", and I'd like to take a quick screen of where everybody thinks is worth eating.

After all, I'm not about to pick a restaurant by myself.

Currently listening: "Disturbia", Rihanna (no, really. It's a good song.)

Saturday, November 29, 2008

New Keane and Snow Patrol; Old Stars

It's been a while since Perfect Symmetry and A Hundred Million Suns came out in the States, but I've been keeping myself busy. A few weeks of impressive success in mock trial, a few days of stuffing myself with far too much food, and an afternoon of stunning Georgia Tech victory (how 'bout them dawgs?).

Review: Perfect Symmetry, Keane

I could tell you "okay, listen to this album, then go back and listen to 'Spiralling' again" but that would be wholly redundant, because you'd already be doing it. It's tough to give a positive review to an album based on one track alone, but I'm on the verge of being able to do that with Perfect Symmetry. It's the rare track that you can listen to over and over again and not get tired of, because it's so much fun. Excellent production, catchy, and not entirely vapid lyrically, if you're into that sort of thing.

The one problem that stems from this is that Perfect Symmetry might naturally suffer from a bit of In Our Bedroom After the War syndrome: front-loading the album with the best music, so the rest doesn't seem as good by comparison. This album doesn't quite do that to the same level, but it comes close. It does, however, compare favorably to Viva La Vida, in that it is the most interesting thing that Keane has ever done. I thought Hopes and Fears was sort of okay. I wasn't a big fan of Under the Iron Sea, although I didn't per se dislike it. It was just sort of neutral.

Perfect Symmetry is not neutral. It is good music, through and through.

Review: A Hundred Million Suns, Snow Patrol

I love this one too. Snow Patrol has transcended "alternative rock" to make music that actually has some sort of soul to it, almost like Mae's The Everglow. That's not praise I'm going to hand out lightly--and I'm not about to say that A Hundred Million Suns matches Mae's masterpiece. But it's beautiful nonetheless. There's so much heartfelt niceness here that if it comes across as saccharine at times, we're perfectly willing to forgive Snow Patrol. We're willing to forgive them because it's unmistakably sincere.

There's a point at the end of them album where we're treated to "Snow Patrol does Sufjan Stevens", or at least something that sounds remarkably like it. And it works. Most of the album sounds like traditional Snow Patrol, and it works too. But though some will accuse this album of being the same thing Snow Patrol has done five times already, it's not, because of the immense amount of emotion that made its way in. It will make you feel good, albeit in a non-cutting-edge manner.

Review: Heart, Stars

To bring things full circle, and talk about Stars again, I've finally brought myself around to listen to Stars' first album, and I don't think it's that great. Too weird and electronic-y for my tastes. Then again, like I mentioned in that earlier review of In Our Bedroom Under the War, or possibly in my review of the Stars concert from March, how much you like Stars' albums probably has the most to do with the order you listen to them in. And it makes perfect sense that fans of Heart probably wouldn't like the more recent endeavors.

Specifically, that introduction is way too hipster for me. "Elevator Love Letter" is a classic, to be sure. But the album goes downhill from there and really can't hold a candle to Set Yourself on Fire.

Currently listening: "Carry on Wayward Son", Kansas

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The "So" Neologism

(This entry is coming to you from the Grizzled Old Prescriptivist department of Isoceleria.)

The worst sort of neologism is the sort that you're not aware that you're using. When I caught myself sending a sentence with the antecedent-less "so" the other day, I immediately asked myself "isn't this the exact sort of thing that I should hate?" Yes, yes it is.

You know what I'm talking about. "Hey, why didn't you guys go to the game?" "We were planning to, but Dan didn't want to go, so..."

"Aren't you going to do your calc homework?" "I don't know--I've done the rest of it, and we get to drop one, so..."

My biggest problem with "so" is its grammatical nonsensicality. In this context, this seemingly benign conjunction transforms its meaning from "therefore" to something approximating "which explains what I just told you". This is not useful. "Dan didn't want to go, so we didn't" is a fine sentence. So is simply "Dan didn't want to go."

Therefore, it seems like the "so" neologism is nothing more than a rhetorical crutch. It doesn't mean anything. It's not important to elucidating the meaning of the sentence. In fact, it muddles it if anything. This use of "so" is in fact exactly like the French "t" that's stuck in the middle of words so the mortal sin of consecutive vowels isn't committed. But it doesn't even have the French excuse of making the phrase sound better.

Instead, it shows an utter lack of confidence on the speaker's part to simply end the sentence where it ought to. And it's a becoming more and more accepted crutch to lean on.

Currently listening: "Spiralling", from Perfect Symmetry, Keane (review to follow)

Sunday, November 02, 2008

An Exhortation to Voters

Normally, Isoceleria does not touch politics with a ten-foot pole. And indeed, even though this entry is about the election, it still does not offer any views on political discussions or policies.

I'm very, very worried about what the two-party system is doing to our elections in this country. Not since 2000 at the most recent (perhaps earlier than that) has a presidential election actually been about two candidates. Back in 2004, I heard pundits describe the election as a "vote of no confidence in Bush" instead of an election between Bush and Kerry. How many times, for example, did you hear the following?

"Hey, who are you voting for?"
"Definitely Kerry."
"Oh yeah? How come?"
"He's not Bush."
"Well, that's true. But what do you like about Kerry?"
"He wouldn't have gotten us into this war."
"Be that as it may, we're in this war now. How does Kerry plan to handle it?"
"We wouldn't have fought it in the first place."
"Yes, I understand that. Are you saying you're voting for him based on what he would have done, rather than what he will do?"
"I'm just voting for him because he's not Bush."

The 2004 "vote of no confidence" failed. And I firmly believe that that's at best a very weak function of John Kerry and his policy statements. The Democrats could have thrown Howard Dean, or John Edwards, or anyone else, on the ballot. It wouldn't have mattered. Kerry voters didn't like Kerry; they disliked Bush.

Now that it's 2008, that mentality has far from disappeared. Consider what's become a typical conversation now:

"Hey, who are you voting for?"
"McCain, I guess."
"Oh yeah? How come?"
"I'm scared of Obama."
"Okay, but what do you like about McCain?"
"His policies are better than Obama's."
"Yes, but are they good?"
"Well, McCain definitely wasn't my first choice. I'd rather have seen (Giuliani/Huckabee/Romney) on the ballot."
"So why are you voting for him if you disagree with him?"
"I'm just voting for him because he's not Obama."

We haven't made much progress. This time, instead of an election between McCain and Obama, we have a "referendum on Obama". By all accounts, that referendum is about to succeed. And again, even if it had been Giuliani, or Huckabee, or Romney, it wouldn't have mattered, because this election is only about Obama vs. Not-Obama.

One additional factor that's peculiar to this election is race. It's obvious that there are people voting for Obama only because Obama is black. And it's obvious that there are people voting against Obama only because Obama is black. I'm not sure which one is more racist. But there's equally as nonsensical.

Take-home message? If you truly, honestly believe that either Obama or McCain is going to take the country in a good direction, then yes, by all means, vote for one of them. If you don't believe that; if you dislike both of them; if you disagree with both of them so thoroughly that you believe neither one of them is going to take us in the "correct" direction, then don't feel pressured to vote for either of them. Vote for neither. Write yourself in. Go for a third party.

Vote on November 4th. But vote for the candidate you like, not against the one you dislike.

Currently listening: Perfect Symmetry, Keane

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Mock Trial Scoring and Ties

I've developed a strong preference for quoting mock trial scores and results in terms of total ballots (equivalently, total wins) over in terms of win-loss record. A win is worth one win, naturally; a loss is worth zero wins. But the tie ends up adding a ternary complexity to the otherwise binary system, being worth half a win. Some systems (for example, Georgia high school mock trial) address this problem by eliminating the possibility of a tie altogether by means of a "team score" that's specifically designed to break a tie. College mock trial, though, gives a total score that's the sum of the individual performances, and nothing more. This can range from 14 to 140, although scores typically find themselves in the range of 80-120.

The combinatorically savvy will note that out of 127 possible scores, or even 40 or so likely scores, the tie should not happen very often. It does, more than it really has any right to. One Georgia Tech team had three of them in one weekend, out of eight total ballots. Therefore, you get monstrosities like a record of 3-3-2, which is far from self-explanatory at first glance. Decoded, it's three wins, three losses, and two ties, and if you know the tie-win conversion factor, it's easy to see that this team has four win equivalents... but how much better or worse is that than a team with plain old four wins?

Here's the key: in college mock trial, it's not necessarily either. A team that goes 3-3-2 is not necessarily going to be ranked higher or lower than a team that goes 4-4. No, that comes down to a construct called CS, which stands for combined strength, and is actually the least arcane of all the tiebreaker formulae. A quick rundown: CS is like strength of schedule in football; higher CS means you played tougher teams and ranks higher in the tiebreaker.

So consider the following (admittedly contrived, but mathematically possible) scenario. At a particularly tough tournament, the best teams only get six wins or the equivalent. Team A has a record of 6-2, CS 15. Team B has a record of 5-1-2, CS 16. Team C has a record of 4-0-4, CS 14. To someone who knows 1) tie equivalencies, and 2) what CS means, it's obvious that the top three teams in order are B, then A, then C.

Plenty of tournaments would choose to report the standings with win-loss record, so we'd see a convoluted mess of wins and losses and ties that make you do the tie conversions yourself. Why not just report each team as having six wins?

Currently listening: "One By One All Day", the Shins

Saturday, October 11, 2008

What's Good on TV This Fall?

By now we're a few weeks into the season, and it's time to give a few opinions.

House is nominally my favorite show on television, at least during non-Lost season. Anymore, I'm going to have to amend that to "the first three seasons of House" forming my favorite show on television. Okay, it's not really fair to judge a show by its 2007-2008 season, what with the strike and all. I wasn't too crazy about the new band of House's cronies (except in that I think Olivia Wilde is pretty). It's probably more a case of new-different-bad than anything, but if the old trio was working, why bring in a new one? Sure, we still see Chase and Cameron on the show, but not nearly enough of them (and Cameron is looking worse and worse as a blonde).

Compared to what's going on in House this season, though, that's the least of our concerns. So Wilson doesn't want to work at the hospital anymore, ever since Cutthroat Bitch died. Whine, whine, whine. Now House is all emo because his best/only friend is gone. Whine some more. No clinic hours. No blatant flirting between House and Cuddy. Private investigator dude is all right, but the storyline doesn't have the legs to become a permanent part of the show. We've had some good House lines--"Send Foreman. Old people are scared of black people." But instead of the wit that we're used to, we have a a bunch of unnecessary drama.

Oh, and I have lots of trouble watching the show. Fox, crafty bastards that they are, have apparently found a way to prevent my DVR from recording the show. Oh well. Just watch it on the internet, right? Sure... eight days later. It's as if Fox doesn't want me watching this show after all.

The Office hasn't disappointed so far. Making Ryan the new receptionist was a master stroke. "How," we wondered, "can this main character remain part of the show despite his firing and arrest?" And perhaps some of the show's more astute or diehard fans wondered "who will be the new receptionist at Dunder Mifflin?" Two birds with one stone, and excellently done.

I like Holly so far. Definitely an interesting dimension in the Michael love polygon... although you know Jan won't be gone for long, and Michael's going to have some explaining to do regarding his maybe-child. I wonder how this season can survive without seeing Pam around--an occasional phone call per episode to who used to be a major character is too drastic a change. And how will the dynamics of the show change once Jim and Pam are married?

The tension and complications of that relationship have been one of the driving forces for the past four seasons of the show. From day one of me seeing the show, I thought the show had to end with two things happening concurrently: the Scranton branch finally closing due to Michael's mismanagement, and Jim and Pam finally getting married. It's obvious by now that's not going to happen. That's okay, as long as there's some equal motivation introduced pretty quickly. And that motivation better not be Jim and Pam not getting married after all, because those two deserve a happy ending.

I've liked what I've seen of The Big Bang Theory, but that hasn't been much. My computer TV tuner seems to know whenever I'm trying to record the show, and conspiratorially restart my computer. exacerbates the situation by refusing to post any full episodes of the show. No idea why.

For my trashy reality TV fix, both Survivor and The Amazing Race are doing just fine. And the good part of those shows is that you don't really feel bad if you miss an episode. It's fun assigning a douchebag score to each of the contestants on these shows (similar to the same process one can go through with certain professors). Everybody plays to their stereotypes perfectly, which wouldn't be a valid source of humor except in the situation where they want to "show the world who they really are" and "break a few misconceptions". Right.

Criminal Minds and both the New York and Las Vegas editions of CSI are good, unfortunately having been relegated mostly to background as lab reports are written, or something equally miserable. I do want to pick an ideological bone with Criminal Minds, however, in their depiction of "libertarians". About the only accurate thing said about libertarians in the entire episode is that libertarians believe individuals should be free to do as they please as long as they don't interfere with anyone else's rights. That does not make them crazy cultists.

Finally, how long before I no longer have to alter my entire television-watching plans to watch politicians yell at each other for a while? This is not influencing how I'm planning on voting.

Currently listening: "The Island" from The Crane Wife, the Decemberists

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Tails Between Their Legs

A brief history of the vaunted black jerseys:

November 10, 2007: UGA debuts the black jerseys against Auburn, one of its many archrivals. UGA wins a decisive and convincing victory in the '07 installment of the "Deep South's Oldest Rivalry". Superstitious and almost ritualistic belief in the mystical power of the black jerseys begins to grow.

January 1, 2008: UGA meets a terribly outmatched Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl of the same season. The game is never, ever close. Plenty of fans credit not the lopsided matchup, but the color of the jerseys. This is beginning to sound like Andrew's "lucky Georgia Tech shirt", which he has never failed a test while wearing. "Well, to be honest, I did preselect the tests a bit."

September 28, 2008: Roll Tide. A 41-30 game was never really that close, and Georgia's national championship dreams suffer a serious blow. All this despite the mysticism.

Poll: how many times will WSB be replaying this one? My money's on zero.

Currently listening: "Taking Control", Eisley

Saturday, September 06, 2008

The Dark Knight, Better Late than Never

Review: The Dark Knight

Finally time to get around to this one. Even if I had absolutely no desire to see this movie (which I did, at least a little), the Pop Culture Powers that Be would have had my head if I didn't. Now, I'm not a comic book person, really. My extent of Batman knowledge can be summed up pretty much in one paragraph:

Bruce Wayne is a billionaire by day, but by night he's the conflicted vigilante Batman. Batman lives in Gotham City, which is deliberately contrived to be the very worst place possible so that he never runs out of greater and greater evils to combat. Some of these villains include the Joker, Mr. Freeze, the Riddler, and Two-Face. In the vein of Iron Man, rather than Superman and Spiderman, he's a technological superhero. One critical piece of technology in most renditions of the Batman mythos is the Batmobile.

The remarkable thing about this is that for not being a comic-book person, I know a respectable amount about the setting and the characters. And this is a part of the superhero movies' massive success in the past eight or so years. Most of the people in a given X-Men, Spiderman, or Batman movie have never read the comics in question. Maybe they've been exposed to a movie or a cartoon in an earlier incarnation of the setting, maybe it's just a trickle-down cultural effect that's brought them the touch of knowledge that's necessary to get them excited about the new film.

Give some credit to the superhero movies here, too. All of them, The Dark Knight being no exception, walk a specificity tightrope beautifully. By that, I mean they're tuned so precisely between regurgitating the earlier interpretation of the setting, and setting off into some abstraction of it, that non-comic-book people feel like they're not hopelessly lost and that diehard fans of the setting feel like they're seeing something new and worth their time.

In my limited knowledge of Batman history, I sort of knew who the Joker and Two-Face were, and I'd heard the names Rachel Dawes and Harvey Dent in some vague connection with Batman, but that was about it. And like in most superhero movies, you didn't have to know even that much to get something out the the story, but if you knew that and a whole lot more, it was still a fresh take on those characters and their place in the setting. This is something that gets the movie major points right away.

That's of course not the reason that anyone pitches to see the movie. They talk about the special effects, which have long since ceased being a reason to see a movie for me. They laud Heath Ledger's portrayal of the Joker, which is a performance I can't help but liken to a Schoenberg composition: unsettling and not at all pleasant, but technically masterful, in a way that you're forced to appreciate intellectually even if you can't say you liked it. But Ledger executes it impressively, disturbingly well. In truth, of course, there's nobody who's as 1) evil, 2) deranged, and 3) successful as the Joker. (Okay, maybe Joseph Stalin.) But it makes sense that a true "superhero" needs something that thoroughly vile to battle against.

A less compelling reason, at least for me, to see the movie, was Heath Ledger himself. But then I've never been the sort of person to care about who's starring in the movie as much as, say, how good the movie is. To me, the hype surrounding Ledger's death is just another reflection of the deification we grant to movie stars in modern culture. Had that been anyone but a celebrity who met the end that Ledger did, it wouldn't have been "tragic", it would have been stupid. So forgive me if the mere fact that this guy showed up in a movie was far from a driving force to motivate me to watch it. Fortunately, his performance lived up to all its hype, which is really the only thing that matters when assessing a movie's worth.

I wouldn't even say that his acting was the strongest in the movie, actually. That would go to Maggie Gyllenhaal, who does something remarkable. She plays her role as if Rachel is a real person. It's the same sort of thing that I praised in Iron Man, especially the interactions between Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow. Very, very well done, because it doesn't seem like these people are going off a script. There's no overly dramatic lines, nothing that would make you roll your eyes, just watching characters that seem like anything but characters.

It's an enormous problem in movies. We, as real people, get tired of watching actors deliver lines that are impossibly witty, seeing the perspicacious come from what ought to be the mundane. Maybe it's good script writing, maybe good acting, but it's long been a mantra of Isoceleria that you must have both to get good cinema. Here, only Gyllenhaal actually pulls it off. Aaron Eckhart almost gets there as Hervey Dent. Christian Bale doesn't even come close as Bruce Wayne.

The only other major flaw in the movie is its pacing of the Two-Face story. One minute, the shining white knight is burned in an explosion, the next minute the Joker shows up, and hey! It's time for Two-Face! This is the sort of internal conflict that's almost impossibly difficult to portray in a movie, but at the same time, it's one that's integral to this particular character. I would have much rather seen Dent slowly transform into Two-Face over the second half of the movie, and have him stick around into the inevitable third installment. The version we got felt horribly rushed, and it's a story that deserves more development.

So what worked? Commissioner Gordon felt appropriately pulp and hard-boiled. (The parade commemorating the previous commissioner's death was one of the most excellent scenes in the movie, too.) Richard freaking Alpert (Nestor Carbonell, for non-Lost fans) showing up as the mayor was great. I liked the Joker's psychological experiment with the boats at the very end, despite the fact that if it should have had some sort of philosophy behind it, I clearly missed it. (And no, political commentary enthusiasts, this movie is not commenting in either direction about the war on terror, no matter how much you'd like it to be.)

Yes, this was a good movie. No, it was not "AMAZING" [sic on the caps], as some friends of mine would have had me believe. And as good as it was in places, I found myself longing a couple of times for the good old days of May, when Mr. Downey Jr. was screening what turned out to be the superior superhero movie.

Currently listening: "Saving My Face", KT Tunstall

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

The Wikipedia Band Name Game

This is absolutely fascinating. It turns out that there is so much random junk in Wikipedia that there are hidden hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of gems that would all make excellent things to name your new band. How do you play? Easy.

Step 1: Open Firefox, or any other browser that features tabbed browsing.
Step 2: Go to (or replace the "en" with letters corresponding to a language that you'd like to see).
Step 3: Holding the control button, click "Random article" ten times.
Step 4: Pick the name that sounds like the best band name, and try and assign a genre to it.

This is particularly recommended... er, sharply discouraged, for those slow days at work when you aren't doing anything better. In fact, it may or may not have been invented under those exact circumstances.

Some of my best results:
Lagrange Point Colonization (ambient techno-trance)
Spring-Loaded Cat (humor rock, in the vein of Flight of the Conchords)
Lystrosaurus (thrash metal)
Leaf-Warbler (girl singer-songwriter)
Keadby Railway (Brit indie rock)

Currently listening: Raising Sand, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Olympics, Most of the Way Home (or: Earth to Bela)

Only now do I realize that I didn't make a post about Torino two years ago. That, come to think of it, is because I barely watched the Torino games at all. Probably I thought that "paying attention to schoolwork" was somehow a more worthwhile pursuit than paying attention to what was going on in the world. Or because the television belonged to my roommate, and his girlfriend was in a perpetual state of Dynasty Warriors addiction.

Of course, no blog would be complete without at least some nod toward current events, even if I usually stray from the arena, and I don't touch politics with a ten-foot pole. My first question, is there anyone who is not watching, or at least interested in the Olympics? If the answer is yes--and I imagine that it probably is--my next question becomes why not? Are there people who are so absorbed in counterculture that they can't stomach the thought of accepting anything associated with the mainstream, regardless of the fact that in this case "mainstream" applies to most of the rest of the world? Is there anyone so filled with boorishness that they can't find the uneven bars beautiful, a pinnacle of artistry? Anyone so filled with torpor that they can't get a thrill out of the last few meters of a freestyle swimming race?

Sadly, yes, those people are out there. But for the rest of us, the Olympics represent something very special indeed. Exposure to sports most Americans can't honestly claim to know anything about. Sure, you may have heard of water polo and handball, but who actually knows the rules for those games, much less strategies or nuances or personalities? (Tangent: handball is actually pretty cool, though you know what side of the Atlantic something is from when penalties are assessed at a seven meter line.) Even the huge marquee events of the games, the gymnastics and swimming and track, are sports that suddenly gain lots and lots of fans once per four years.

And about those huge events? I could gush over Michael Phelps for several paragraphs, just like thousands of other third-rate bloggers, plus a handful of real journalists. He absolutely does deserve gushing over, but the job has been done for me. Instead, I'll take the opportunity to gush over Nastia Liukin. If you've seen my Facebook page lately, then you've seen it: I have an enormous crush on Nastia Liukin. And why not? She's gorgeous: graceful, blond, elegant, incredibly feminine. Taller than five feet. Eyebrows that are the same height (that one's directed at you, Ms. Shawn Johnson). Extremely skilled and talented. Bilingual. Not content to rest on Olympic laurels, but headed to college after all this business is done. (Is there a new contender for my grad school application?) Even my friends support me on this one: "she's way better than Emma Watson." The one downside is that she has a sketchy Russian gymnast for a father.

While we're on gymnastics, one of the reporters identified an interesting meta-Olympic sport to observe: watching Bela Karolyi watch the Olympics. It's remarkable how into it this man gets, and it's equally remarkable that despite his generally good English proficiency, he hasn't quite gotten the hang of those articles yet. Karolyi identified the 4th-place finish of Alicia Sacramone as "ripoff", which was absolutely correct. (All of that gushing over Nastia would be remiss if I didn't mention that Alicia Sacramone was the second-most beautiful women's gymnast in the games.)

Sure, we've had our share of shady Chinese moments. The fireworks in the opening ceremony. The "not cute enough to perform" girl. The fact that the Chinese gymnasts are probably no older than fourteen. Less than consistent judging. But absolutely wondrous feats all around.

One question that my family has debated over the Olympiad was the issue of the "gayest sport" for both men and women. To make it a touch more politically correct, I'll rephrase it here to the "least manly" or "least womanly" Olympic sport. On the men's side, a lot of people immediately gravitate toward gymnastics, which with one major exception is completely unfair. I'll direct you first to the rings, and second to the pommel horse. Incredibly intense. The exception is of course the floor exercise--I can't think of anything less masculine than traipsing across a padded floor, pointing your toes, and doing it all in short shorts. Some people have said men's synchronized swimming, which would win automatically if it were real. When informed that it's not, a common response is to default to synchronized diving, which is a fine answer as well. Trampoline rounds out the common responses.

The women's sport that made me consider this curious question in the first place was beach volleyball. Scantily-clad women--not particularly feminine ones either--who go about smacking each other on the butt. Add to that all the talk of "partners" and "breaking up" with old ones to "hook up" with new ones. Tiny bit suspicious? Surprisingly, no. Most of these women are married, and a few have families. Actual contenders include water polo (especially that scary-looking Russian team).

Coming soon: the Wikipedia Band Name Game, plus a couple summer movie reviews.

Currently listening: "Marching Bands of Manhattan", Death Cab for Cutie

Monday, July 28, 2008

Pierogi and More Hipster Music

If you've never heard of a pierogi, then I'm very sorry, because they're absolutely delicious. Recently, I had the good fortune to attend the Pierogi Fest in Whiting, Indiana, where I ate a whole pile of them (not to mention some Polish sausage and potato pancakes). Wonderful experience, particularly because I could look around and think "these are my people." American descendants of Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, and others of that ambiguously Slavic central European heritage descended on the town my dad was born to delight in the world's best stuffed dough food. Pictures are available. Note the pierogi-shaped foam hat.

I've been writing again. This installment is called The Hustler, and it's entirely dialog. I mentioned before how I'd taken to having dialog speak for itself, and didn't like to include a lot of "he remarked" or "She answered,". This is the extreme end of that, with the dialog not only speaking for itself but telling the entire story. The format was inspired by an excellent story my dad wrote, "Your Own Personal Jesus". The setting is mostly drawn from personal experiences. And the characters are very loosely based on real people.

I promised a discussion of some decidedly non-mainstream indie music. The first is a band that I've become quite the advocate of lately, This is Ivy League. A bit of background: two guys from Cobra Starship (of Snakes on a Plane fame) decided to get together and play some indie folk/pop. Mellow, but not in a boring Jack Johnson style. More like catchy yet relaxing. The duo describe themselves as "tropical" sounding too, and I see where they're coming from there. I immediately thought of Kings of Convenience, with their relaxing close harmonies, but their music has just a bit more tempo to it than the Norwegians'. The album might lose a little of its interest, but certainly none of its quality, toward the end; personal favorite tracks are "The Richest Kids" and "London Bridges", which non-coincidentally are the first two I heard. Ah, primacy.

Now, I'm not necessarily a Cobra Starship fan--I don't dislike them, but I'm not into them the same way I might sing the praises of Rilo Kiley. More like I'm just not familiar enough to give an informed opinion. I came to like the band after hearing them on the Paste Magazine Culture Club podcast. They were alongside similarly bafflingly obscure bands that if you said you'd heard of, you'd be lying. Such hyper-indie bands are a mixed bag at best: in many cases, there's a reason the bands are so unknown, and that reason is they're not distinctive, or not interesting, or just not that good.

But every once in a while, there's a hidden gem there that makes the whole podcast worth listening to. And This is Ivy League is one of them. Check out their self-titled CD. (If you were thinking of bootlegging it off some sweet torrent, don't bother. Nobody has it. You're better off just shelling out the ten bucks, and it's worth every dollar.)

The other band came from a very different source: MTV. I was relaxing and preparing to suffer through the commercial break between episodes of Next when I was shocked to hear... music that didn't suck! In fact, it was so good that I rushed to my computer to download the rest of it. Shocked as I was to hear something on MTV that was not "Bat Guano and Lime", I wanted to make sure this wasn't a musical mirage, and that this "Carolina Liar" band was actually worth listening to.

It was. As far as I can tell, this guy might be from South Carolina or from Sweden. The internet has been uncharacteristically spotty with its information about the band. You can tell it's a young band; there are vocal miscues, one per song on average, but they don't make the music on a whole unlistenable. And I'm not sure if there are two singers, an overlay of two vocal tracks, or just some really well faked harmony, but there's some second dimension there. They have a pleasantly creative use of unconventional instruments: synthesizers and otherwise electronic effects and chimes recall Mae in both The Everglow and Singularity modes.

The song on MTV turned out to be the first track off the CD, "I'm Not Over", and after I bought into its peppy and just slightly emo rock, I wondered if that track's appearance on MTV wouldn't turn the band into a one-hit wonder. The rest of the album is sufficiently strong that they shouldn't be; hopefully MTV recognizes that as much as I do. That strength really hits its stride toward the middle of the album. From "Simple Life" on we get baroque pop sensibilities of multiple tracks of multiple instruments doing different things at the same time, and that works very well.

There's nothing special in their lyrics, except for a couple humorous bits about Myspace, and choruses are repeated a little too much. Despite the handful of weaknesses, the strengths are much more pronounced. Comparisons, especially vocally, to Keane and the Killers is apt, but the band has a sound unique and separate from either of them. Rather, their alternative-ish sound proves (along with Kings of Convenience, just to bring things full-circle) that Scandinavian influence in music is a good thing.

Oh, and does Pineapple Express look funny? I can't really decide. I'm pushed toward "yes", because the last collaboration between Seth Rogen and James Franco was Freaks and Geeks, which was absolute genius.

Currently listening: "Close Call", Rilo Kiley

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Trash on TV and Annoyances in Alton

I didn't even realize how well that alliteration would line up until after I typed it.

I was about to remark a couple of weeks ago that I turned on MTV and couldn't find any trash. Forget one world government or the conversion of Israel into a giant garden, there would be no surer sign of the apocalypse. Now, I'm not saying there wasn't anything trashy on MTV at all. There was plenty of the Real World, which you could argue was in fact the original "trash on MTV" show. And "America's Best Dance Crew" is less trashy than just irritating, maybe a dumbed-down version of American Idol. (I really don't understand "dance" as a culture at all. It would never occur to me to want to watch people dancing in the same way that I might want to watch people acting or playing music. And I have to confess to having no idea what a "master mix" is.)

I wanted to find something entertainingly trashy, though, something along the lines of "A Shot at Love", which is Tila Tequila's bisexual dating show. Or "The X Effect". So I was pleasantly surprised to find "Parental Control" and "Next" shown right after one another. The former is a show where two parents hate the guy or girl that their child is dating, and fix her or him up on two blind dates in an attempt to rectify that. And the latter is the sleaziest speed-dating situation ever devised: when a guy or girl doesn't like a potential suitor for whatever reason, he or she can yell "next" and another douchebag emerges from the bus without fail.

"Douchebag" is the operative word here too. I have a theory that you can tell exactly how much of a douche a guy is by the angle of his hat. Forward is not inherently douche--it might be baseball player or white trash or old-school rapper. Backwards is not inherently douche either--maybe frat boy (which indirectly might imply douche) or gangster-era rapper. Even sideways might or might not be. When you can spot a clear sign is when the hat is slightly oversized, slightly cocked to either the right or the left, maybe plus or minus fifteen or twenty degrees. I'd estimate that a third of all the males on these two shows have this douche giveaway. (The rest of them have other tells.)

As always, when I'm watching trashy shows, two things amaze me. The first is the contestants'/actors' vocabularies. Every time I hear a white kid saying something is "real" or "tight", I shake my head--and I end up shaking my head a lot. Every time a guy describes a girl as "totally hot", you'd think there was no other adjective in the English language to describe attractiveness. The second is the fact that these people are evidently doing nothing with their lives. These people are my age, give or take maybe three years, and I swear the most ambitious thing I've heard is "I'm going to college for TV marketing." I'm not expecting everyone to be a doctor or architect or businessman, but honestly? "I work at an In-n-Out Burger"?

And MTV... it doesn't matter how many times you play that "Corona and Lime" song by Shwayze. It does not make it any more listenable.

One thing that I really miss about Atlanta is Publix. It's no secret that I kind of like grocery shopping, and I've gotten comfortable doing it at Publix. They're always clean. Well-lit (heck, the Spring Street location even has windows, one of the only grocery stores I know to include such amenities). High-quality produce and store brands. Fine selection of anything from wine to deli. And the local stores just don't compare. I've grown to prefer Shop-n-Save over Schnuck's, for no good reason other than the layout is better and the volume is more impressive. But the environment is just not as accommodating in either store as I've grown to expect.

Another thing is the roads. "You have to be crazy. You miss driving in Atlanta?" Well, no, not really. But the roads here have their own special character to them. There are way too many motorcycles, like packs of a dozen of them that just show up on your street every Saturday and Sunday, making it impossible go go faster than 30. Worse, stop signs predominate. I'm not talking, there's the occasional stop sign that you might inadvertently miss. I mean practically every intersection, from the seemingly inconsequential one of two residential streets, to what actually turns out to be a major one of multi-lane commercial highways, are regulated by stop signs. And it serves as a reminder about why the stop light is superior. Specifically, people do not know how to navigate stop signs. They don't like to take turns, and they sure as hell don't find it necessary to stop for pedestrians.

Currently listening: Coming to Terms, Carolina Liar

"An Historian": Bad English

Generally, I have pronounced prescriptivist leanings when it comes to language. For instance, I don't care how thoroughly "ten items or less" has entered common usage. I still believe that "less" is inherently continuous, and "fewer" is discrete, for a reason. There's sufficient linguistic justification for keeping these words separate and distinct. I still observe the distinction between "who" and "whom", at least in writing. And I don't believe that "effort" should ever be a verb, or that "thusly" is a word at all.

However, there seems to be some idea that "historian" (as well as "historical" and occasionally other related words as well) needs to have the article "an" attached to it. That is ludicrous. It defies all the conventions of modern English. Say you were talking about one mathematician. How would you say that? Clearly, it would be "a mathematician". Now, your pronunciation of that might change depending on your intention. If you're talking about any old guy (or girl) who professes math for a living, then you might schwa the "a", as in "uh mathematician". You might do the same thing, if you want to emphasize the fact that you're talking about a mathematician as opposed to a biologist or a chemist. Or, you might use a long "a", as in "ay mathematician", to emphasize one of them, as opposed to two or three or five or eight.

Would you ever use "an mathematician"? Of course not. That's because "mathematician" starts with "m", and "m" is a consonant. In English, we use "a" as the indefinite article for words that begin with consonants. Another example: do describe one surgeon, you would say "a surgeon", again pronouncing the "a" differently depending on your intention. And finally, you'd say "an economist", because "e" is a vowel.

Any kindergarten teacher would agree with me that there are five vowels in English: a, e, i, o, u. Sometimes "y" us added to the vowel list, or more accurately, it's always added to the "sometimes a vowel list". In some languages, the "w" sound is also a semivowel. But you know what's never a vowel? The letter "h". Therefore, it never makes sense to use "an" for any word beginning with "h".

Now, before anyone says "but there's a reason for that!", I know the linguistic justification. I don't believe it's a very good one. The word comes from French, from "histoire" or "historien". French has this lazy habit of not pronouncing their leading "h" on words, probably because they don't like how it sounds. In English, we do pronounce the leading "h". All the time. It's not "otel", it's "hotel". It's not "air", it's "hair". We would say "an air", true. And if "istorian" were a word, then "an istorian" would make perfect sense. But it's not. The word is "historian", with a pronounced leading consonant. That means it's completely incorrect to use "an": a false analogy from a language we do not speak.

Currently listening: "Colors", Kira Willey (you know that Dell commercial, "I am green today," etc.? That song)

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Chicago's "lost album" and something about the Arctic Monkeys

Review: Chicago XXXII: Stone of Sisyphus

Chicago fans will note that the title track sounds awfully familiar. It's been "out" for about fifteen years, in stages of dubiously varying legality. It was actually released about five years ago, on Chicago's "The Box", which contains five CDs of their very best and well-known music. Apparently there was an album attached to the orphaned Stone of Sisyphus, one that had been hanging around since 1993, and only now is it getting released. Drama with record companies ensues.

It, along with Chicago XXX, mark a weird fourth era in Chicago's music. First, we had the brilliance of Chicago's first two or three albums, characterized by some sort of brassy edge and influenced by the Windy City itself. Sometime in the 70s, you could almost hear the band saying "okay, let's take the edge off, and start playing power ballads." ("After all, it's the 70s, and that's what all the cool kids are doing. It's either that, or we subject you to a decade of disco." Whatever they think of the power ballad era, the fans thank you for picking the former.)

Inevitably, the musical graveyard of the 80s had to roll around, and bring us Poison and Whitesnake. (Tangent: if you're this guy, how are you supposed to take yourself seriously? It's two thousand freaking seven, and you're joining Whitesnake. You're their seventh drummer.) By that time, Chicago moved to stage 3, when Chicago changed their tune (so to speak) to "all right, now we play adult contemporary." That label's vague enough, but like alternative rock and pornography, you know it when you see it.

XXX and now Stone of Sisyphus are the fourth era, which basically translates into some weird amalgamation of the first three. Power ballad... power ballad... brass chorus! Or brass intro, giving way to some soft rock later in the song. Or any combination of the three. As I always say when I'm talking about this band, I'm inherently biased toward the more brass-heavy songs, mostly because I'm a trumpet player. "Stone of Sisyphus" is probably the band's strongest track because of that. I also like "Plaid", which has a sort of "Kalimba Story"-era Earth Wind and Fire inspiration to it. That makes sense, given the bands' collaboration over the past several years.

Ironically, or perhaps completely expectedly, the album is at its strongest when it does draw from its past three eras of music. And it's at its weakest when it starts screwing around. The funk of "Mah-Jong" is interesting, but I have no idea what the song is talking about. And the chorus is repeated far too much. As for "Sleeping in the Middle of the Bed"... let's just say that Chicago should never, ever, ever rap. On a whole, "Middle of the Bed" seems an apt metaphor for this album. It's far from Chicago's best work, but then they've been far from their best work since 1973. And it's by no means the worst. For a Chicago fan who's been starved for new material for the last who-knows-how-many years, it's better than nothing. But, on the other hand, a Chicago fan who's been waiting that long has probably been spoiled off the first five or six albums.

General discussion and semi-review: Arctic Monkeys
My friend Melody recommended the Arctic Monkeys to me when I had the good fortune to hear "Phantom Limb" by the Shins when we were having lunch. "Wait a second!" you're saying. "What does a Shins song have to do with the Arctic Monkeys?" Nothing, except for the fact that it got us talking about good music. Blindly, I downloaded Your Favourite Worst Nightmare [sic on the "u" in "favourite"--they're British] and gave it a listen. I'm not sure if I like it yet. I don't know what I expected, but it was a lot faster and louder and more dissonant than I thought it might be. Very Franz Ferdinand, and that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Again on Melody's advice, I downloaded their less recent Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not. I listened to it, and I'm not sure it's necessarily any better. The most salient quality the band has is that all its music sounds approximately the same. Sure, it has some variation to it. At best, the music is energetic and driven. At worst, it's frenetic and jumbled, disorganized. Of course, I think that fans of the band would probably find that another strength, a reason to listen. The dissonance is not local to Your Favourite Worst Nightmare, there are perplexing and inexplicable changes of key and mode more or less without warning.

The influences on this band are unambiguous and uncompromising: unlike the American indie and alternative scenes, Arctic Monkeys take more than a few pages from British punk. One disturbing trend that's shown up from across the pond, though, is the practice of muffling and muddying vocals, seemingly intentionally. It almost seems in vogue to sing too close to a bad microphone, then feed the result through some manner of filter that degrades the sound quality even further. I don't ever think it's a good thing to make your music sound worse deliberately, but then again I like my classical music tonal too.

Bottom line, Arctic Monkeys aren't a bad band, I don't think. But I don't see me suddenly renouncing Shinsism and converting. If you don't need all of your songs to sound any different from each other, then you're not going to have a problem with the Arctic Monkeys. If you like your songs fast and loud and under three minutes on average, then you'll like them a lot. And if you wish the early-2000s "pop-punk" movement did more to honor the "1980s London" half of its roots, then you might just have a new favorite band.

Coming up, a couple of indie reviews that aren't at all "mainstream indie".

Currently listening: "Hungarian Dance No. 5 in D minor", Brahms

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Anatomy of a Mix Tape: The Aftermath

New to the Accidental Mix Tape discussion? Start with the introduction and go from there.

Finally, all 20 songs are out in the open, and I promised looking at some trends. The most obvious one is genre. Ten of the songs--fully half of the CD--are what I'd classify as "indie". That's music by Rilo Kiley, the Decemberists, the Postal Service, the Shins, Death Cab for Cutie, the Dandy Warhols, Sufjan Stevens, Eisley, Stars, and Neutral Milk Hotel. I don't care for the label, mostly because of it's ambiguity, but I think I'm about to use it correctly: I'd call five of the bands represented "alternative". Specifically, that's Something Corporate, Mae, Guster, Weezer, and Snow Patrol. Two are going to be "pop rock", KT Tunstall and Coldplay. Two are classics, Chicago and the Beatles. And Rammstein? Call it industrial, or tanz-metall, or "Neue Deutsche Hart", it's miles away from anything else on the CD.

That's not to say those boundaries are rigid though. Rilo Kiley is now signed to a major, as are the Decemberists and Death Cab, so who's to say they're still "indie"? Often, that particular label more closely refers to a band's heritage, or its sound, than what label it's currently on. That's a confusing practice to say the least, but after a while in dealing with the culture, it begins to make sense. And Coldplay and Snow Patrol have a whole lot in common, but I've chosen to put Coldplay into a completely separate category mostly because of their huge exposure and popularity.

Plotting this into a theoretical visual representation, it shows that my musical tastes are somewhere in the intersection of indie pop, indie rock, and alternative rock, if those things truly intersect at all. Perhaps they're all subsets of some greater "music that Matt likes" group. Because, naturally, the entirety of musical organization is based on my tastes. An important point, though, regarding this "indie" music: it's what I refer to as "mainstream indie". That might sound like a hideous contradiction, so allow me to explain.

I tend to listen to music that's just obscure enough that the mainstream won't touch it. Sure, I came to KT Tunstall through the radio, and you hear Coldplay and Weezer and even Guster and Death Cab sometimes. But when was the last time you ever heard the Shins or Eisley on any Top 40 anything? Sadly, it just doesn't happen. The other side of the coin, however, is that the music I listen to isn't something that real indie kids haven't bothered with for the past four years. Sure, Oh, Inverted World was cool, back when it was first released and nobody knew about it. Once they got popular, well, time to move on to another band that nobody's heard of.

Six or seven tracks--that is, a whole third--of the CD were by bands that my friend Nick introduced me to, so he's a clear influence on my musical tastes. Two came from my parents, and the rest were either products of personal musical searching, recommendations from other friends, or some combination of the two.

The release dates span more than 40 years, from November 1967 to June 2008. One is from the 60s, one from the 70s, three from the 1990s, and the lion's share of fifteen from the 2000s. Half of the tracks, ten in total, come from 2005 or later, which makes sense--that's when I started to develop a musical aesthetic of my own and finally decided what I actually liked.

Perhaps the weirdest trend comes in track placement on the original CDs. Half of the songs are either the first track or the second track--five of each--on the album they came from, plus a third, a fourth, and two fifth tracks. That could be any one, or possibly a few, of three things: a primacy effect, in that the first thing I heard off any given album subconsciously becomes my favorite. It could be a reflection of front-loading, in that the bands deliberately put their best material at the beginning of the album. Or it could be total coincidence.

There were a few notable omissions from the CD. As I already mentioned, anything classical; that might be coming up later. I might have liked to have added something by the Killers, particularly something off their first album Hot Fuss. I'm a huge fan of "Foux de Fafa" by Flight of the Conchords, because I've taken exactly enough French to understand it all.

I wouldn't call myself a Red Hot Chili Peppers fan per se, but Stadium Arcadium is really good, and I think "Dani California" and "Desecration Smile" are particularly strong tracks. And I'm really not at all a Goo Good Dolls fan, but every time I listen to Dizzy Up the Girl I'm pleasantly surprised at how good it is. Same with Augustana and Can't Love, Can't Hurt (which is exactly as emo as it sounds). Perhaps tracks by Jimmy Eat World, Incubus, or the Juliana Theory might be in order, and I've recently become quite a fan of This is Ivy League, too.

It's been a fun project, and any further Accidental Mix Tapes, while probably less accidental, will get a full documentation here.

Currently listening: "Shining Star", Earth Wind and Fire

Friday, July 04, 2008

Anatomy of a Mix Tape: Part IV

Continued from part III.

Track 16: "King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. One" by Neutral Milk Hotel, track 1 from In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, February 1998

The last track on the CD I came to directly though Nick, "King of Carrot Flowers Part I" is the beginning to Neutral Milk Hotel's maybe-masterpiece. I say "maybe" because it's some of the densest, most obtuse music you'll ever listen to. The quote I like the best about this album is "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is undoubtedly a major statement, but just what it's saying is anyone's guess." Even today, I still don't know what I think about this album. I'll listen to it, not know whether I'm sincerely enjoying it, or merely making fun of it. So I'll listen to it again to try and figure that out. I might listen again immediately, or wait a few days or weeks or months, but the outcome is always the same: I still don't know what I thought of it. And if someone chances to mention Neutral Milk Hotel, I can't help but grinning and proclaiming "yeah! I love Neutral Milk Hotel!" But whether I love them, or love knowing who they are, is, well... anyone's guess.

The fact remains that, no matter how tongue-in-cheek the admiration for this band may be, hearing (or hearing about) a track on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea always makes me smile. Andrew has a hypothesis that the entire album is about incest; I don't know about incest necessarily, but the sexual innuendos are rife throughout. And no track gives more smiles or innuendos than "King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. One". In case you're wondering, there is in fact a Pt. 2, and a Pt. 3, and for whatever reason, they're the same track. If that's not obtuse, I don't know what is.

Honorable mentions: open to pretty much anything here. This was pretty much a last-minute addition to fill a few minutes.

Track 17: "My Name is Jonas" by Weezer, track 1 from the Blue Album, May 1994.

My recent review of Weezer's Red Album was so thorough and comprehensive as to cover pretty much all of my sentiments toward and history with the band. So I'll keep this one short. The Blue Album just slightly edges out Green for "best Weezer album in my book", but that's probably out of a nod to its historical significance rather than it necessarily being better music.

And what better song than "My Name is Jonas" to represent the album, and the band as a whole? It has insistent guitar riffs and a singably simple structure that assures it'll remain a concert staple and fan favorite as long as the band continues to play. And that's not even to mention impromptu concerts in the form of Weezer Sing-Alongs that are undoubtedly going on in someone's car even as you read this.

Honorable mentions: "No One Else" and "In the Garage" from the Blue Album, "Photograph" from the Green Album, "Keep Fishin'" from Maladroit

Track 18: "Strawberry Swing" by Coldplay, track 9 from Viva la Vida, June 2008

I've also delved into Coldplay, and specifically Viva la Vida recently. It's tough to recall how I first came to Coldplay, but the first friend I can remember who actually vouched for their goodness was a guy named Chris. Chris and I were pretty good friends in late elementary and early middle school, eventually going our separate ways when we went to different high schools. But in that turn-of-the-century time, he was a pretty effective in his avocation of Parachutes and his anticipation of A Rush of Blood to the Head. Now that the band's taken on a different--and in my opinion much better--sound, I wonder if he still listens?

"Strawberry Swing" is one of the band's most relaxing, though managing not to be boring, songs they've ever written. "Strawberry" evokes a certain flavor right away, that sweet pinkish-red inexorably associated with relaxing during the summer. Plus, the song features an intriguing pentatonic countermelody that doesn't necessarily add anything to the song's meaning, but at least makes it really pleasant to listen to.

Honorable mentions: "Talk" from X&Y, "Cemeteries of London" and "Violet Hill" from Viva la Vida

Track 19: "Hands Open" by Snow Patrol, track 2 from Eyes Open, May 2006

Personal history with Snow Patrol dates back to an indeterminate time in high school, more likely than not senior year. And it was in one of my friend's cars, but exactly whose I can't honestly recall. The band is nominally indie, though certainly not in the Decemberists-Shins mode of the genre. I'd put them a lot closer to the "alternative" of Coldplay and Keane and the Fray. That is, the sort of music that can either be immensely entertaining, but has to face the constant danger of falling into lullaby-falsetto mode.

Fortunately, Snow Patrol avoids that trap more often than not. As has become sort of a trend in the Mix CD, "Hands Open" is by far the hardest, most energetic track off a CD that's not exactly known for its hard rock. The song contains a few surprisingly insightful aphorisms, like "it's hard to argue when/ you won't stop making sense." And it of course features what's possibly the most wonderful allusion to an indie song ever: "Put Sufjan Stevens on, and we'll sing your favorite song./ 'Chicago' bursts to life, and your sweet smile remembers you." If "Chicago" is Snow Patrol's favorite song, or Snow Patrol's girlfriend's favorite song, that's good enough for me.

Honorable mentions: Relationally, something from Dizzy Up the Girl by the Goo Goo Dolls, perhaps "Broadway". Granted, that's a stretch, but you can make it work.

Track 20: "Penny Lane" by the Beatles, track 3 from side 2 of Magical Mystery Tour, November 1967

Of course, "roll up" in the title track has nothing at all to do with marijuana. It's a tour bus. Honestly. If Revolver is recognized as the Beatles' most triumphant album stylistically and technically, then Magical Mystery Tour is the most salient example of their psychedelic influences. The Beatles on a whole need no introduction, except for me to reaffirm the mantra that anything good we seen in popular music today is in some way, directly or obliquely, thanks to the Beatles.

This is a startlingly impressive album. "I Am the Walrus", "Strawberry Fields Forever", "The Fool on the Hill", and of course "Penny Lane", plus several more very strong tracks, all in one release? Only the Beatles could pull that off. "Penny Lane itself" has anything you could want. Personal, expressive lyrics that don't necessarily need to be about anything or proving a point. A piccolo trumpet solo, which was an incredibly innovative touch for the time. Imagery to rich as to make us believe we're actually in an English suburb, and sound effects to help us get there too. A work of brilliance by the greatest band of the 20th century to close off the CD.

Honorable mentions: "Yellow Submarine" from Revolver, "Strawberry Fields Forever" from Magical Mystery Tour, "Let it Be" from Let it Be

Tomorrow, we take a look back at these twenty songs and see what interesting patterns emerge.

Currently listening: "In the Chess Court", soundtrack to Hero

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Anatomy of a Mix Tape: Part III

Continued from part II...

Track 11: "Many Funerals" by Eisley, track 1 from Combinations, August 2007

If KT Tunstall was the radio's greatest success, then Eisley is certainly's. If you're unfamiliar with the concept, here's a quick rundown. As you listen to music, a small and non-intrusive program collects data on what you're listening to. It sends this data ("scrobbles" it) to a server. Then, based on that information, you can get recommendations of what else you might like. Conveniently, there's even a recommendation radio station, where you can sit and listen to exactly what the server thinks you might be interested in.

Some of these recommendations are so obvious as to be frustrating: just because I'm listening to Miles Davis doesn't necessarily mean I want every jazz musician ever to show up in my recommendations. Some of them are so prescient as to be useless: after listening to Hot Fuss by the Killers, got really excited in encouraging me to check out Franz Ferdinand. I already know of Franz Ferdinand and already have some of their music, but I hadn't listened to it in a while, so naturally assumed that I had no idea who they were. And some are based more on common listenership than any stylistic similarity: I fail to see the resemblance between Bright Eyes and the Decemberists, no matter how much insists they're connected.

But happily, some of the recommendations work beautifully. After listening to a bit of Rilo Kiley and some Beatles, I noticed this "Eisley" pop up more than once, both in the list and the radio station. So I listened to what the radio station had to offer (namely "Memories" and "Telescope Eyes" if I remember correctly), and I was pretty much blown away. Turns out Rilo Kiley and the Beatles described a perfect Venn diagram to generate Eisley, too. Eisley lists the Beatles as one of their influences (as should every band dating from 1970 or later, as far as I'm concerned). And Eisley and Rilo Kiley sound a lot alike, at least superficially. Both bands feature girl singers with incredible voices, both have an indie-ish sound despite being signed to Warner Brothers, and both are unafraid to take a page from unconventional genres like blues or country.

The similarity stops there, mostly. Rilo Kiley prefers to sing about any manner of situation gone horribly askew, from bitter rejoinders against ex-lovers in their earlier music to the more recent tales about dangerous sexual practices. Eisley has this tendency to sing about happy things, like love that actually does work out, and people that genuinely miss each other. Some critic might complain that this "isn't addressing the entire range of human emotion" or something similar, but Eisley departs from that when they feel the need. "Invasion", the first single off Combinations, is about aliens. And "Many Funerals" is about someone's parents who died at sea. The subject matter isn't as uplifting as in most of the rest of the songs I've put on the CD, but the music more than makes up for that: energetic, spirited, and lively. Plus, lead singer Sherri DuPree's incredible soprano is contrasted with sister and backup singer Stacy's alto to create the best form-fits-function for a sea tale since Vaughan Williams.

Honorable mentions: "Memories" and "Marvelous Things" from Room Noises; "Invasion", "Taking Control", and "Combinations" from Combinations

Track 12: "Someone Else's Arms" by Mae, track 3 from The Everglow, March 2005

This one comes as no surprise. I came to Mae through Nick, when he burned their first CD (Destination: Beautiful) for me. "This music is really happy," he told me. "It puts you in a good mood." And so it did, and still does. Independently, we purchased The Everglow, and agreed that it's one hell of an album. I'm not sure where it ranks on Nick's top ever, but I'd guess that it's at least somewhere. It sits at the top of mine, no questions about it. I even hold the possibly slightly presumptuous opinion that if you don't like The Everglow, you probably don't have a soul. Of course I don't mean that literally, but this is one of those albums that really should mean something when you listen to it.

Mae takes a cue from some of the later prep rock bands, like Motion City Soundtrack, but that doesn't define their sound. They definitely elicit an emotional response, but they're by no means an emo band. And the music is deeply spiritual in many places, but they don't resort to preachiness or becoming overtly a "Christian" band. A big criticism of Mae, and especially The Everglow, is that they use too perfect structure—I forget the exact quote, but it had something to do with resenting their inability to go beyond what a music theory class would tell them to do. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: all that music theory makes their music sound really, really good. It's not modern, it's not edgy—and it doesn't need to be, and they're not trying to be. It's sincere and genuine.

The Everglow is, on a high level, about a young man's journey to find out what's actually out there, and what it means to love. That sounds incredibly cheesy unless you've heard the music. But the progress of the story is almost Shakespearean, from the first act of "love makes you feel happy" through the climax of "love is needing someone" and finally to the resolution of "love overwhelms any selfish thought." And there's a story, and a reflection, and a good chance at finding something very personal at every turn. "Someone Else's Arms" is from the very beginning of the story, when out hero is still in the "I want to feel good" mode. It's very straightforward, about feeling sort of desperate and wanting to wake up lying next to someone. And by the end of the album, the definition of love has progressed far beyond that notion. But it remains one of the most fun songs to listen to, with the youthful exuberance appropriate to such subject matter.

Honorable mentions: "Embers and Envelopes", "All Deliberate Speed", and "Sun" from Destination: Beautiful, and literally any other song from The Everglow

Track 13: "Barrel of a Gun" by Guster, track 2 from Lost and Gone Forever, September 1999

One afternoon, back in late high school, a friend and I faced a long drive. So she grabbed a CD, telling me that it was "really good" and that I'd like it. It was something by Guster—I don't remember what album exactly, but it did turn out to be really good. And it provided quite the pleasant soundtrack to a trek out to Stone Mountain Village and Norcross, for various acquisitions. I'm thankful for that, because I don't know that I would have come across Guster any other way. Possibly may have thrown a heroic effort my way, but it's doubtful, once it figured out that I like the Shins and Death Cab.

This band is less indie and more college band/garage band that just sort of took off. The sound is very acoustic and features lots of creative uses of percussion, including the trademark bongos. Vocally, Guster uses lots of harmonies; not just conventional harmonies, but interesting counterpoint too. Instead of just singing the same words at a specified interval apart, Guster is known for changing up those intervals on the fly, and even singing completely different lyrics from each other. The entire repertoire over Guster's almost fifteen years as a band is remarkably consistent, with excellent quality taking hold on the second release, Goldfly, and not letting go since. Choosing "Barrel of a Gun" was more or less random, except that it was probably influenced by its presence at the legendary Wasch Studios the same way "Jacksonville" was. It tracks a fanboy's obsession with a movie star whose love for him is so perfect, it's as if "she already knows me." That sort of tongue-in-cheek pastiche is yet another reason to love the band.

Honorable mention: "Red Oyster Cult" from Keep it Together; "Satellite" from Ganging Up on the Sun

Track 14: "Your Ex-Lover is Dead" by Stars, track 1 from Set Yourself on Fire, March 2005

Recall for a moment the legendary Graduation Night iTunes Gift Card Debacle, in which I managed to lose two graduation cards handed to me, containing $30 worth of iTunes gift cards. These gifts were generously replaced, leading me to purchase some Decemberists, plus Your Ex-Lover is Dead on Jenny's advice. She promised me they were sort of like the Postal Service, which is reasonably accurate, though I've refined my personal description of the band since then. Stars are generally lumped into what might be referred to as "indie pop", though where exactly the line is between that and indie rock is beyond me to try and pinpoint.

What I can say for sure is that they have a pleasantly peppy sound in most of their music, whether the subject of the song is indeed peppy or something far more sinister. Frontman Torquil Campbell is a talented multi-instrumentalist, and any doubts I may have had about the band (brought on mostly by their over-expressed political leanings) were more or less mollified when Campbell busted out a trumpet and played all the solos at the band's concert.

I went with Set Yourself on Fire because it's on a whole a better CD than its successor In Our Bedroom After the War. Now, I have my opinions on In Our Bedroom After the War, and succinctly, that opinion is it's not by any means a bad album. It just suffers from too much filler that can swing from "excellent" to "awful" depending on your perception of the rest of the album. And its songs aren't structured correctly to provide enough support to the less strong tracks. Set Yourself on Fire doesn't have that problem; it's solid throughout despite a bad song here and there. Like In Our Bedroom After the War, though, it starts off with one of its best; in this case, that's "Your Ex-Lover is Dead", filled with winds and strings and nostalgia.

Honorable mentions: "What I'm Trying to Say" from Set Yourself on Fire, "The Night Starts Here" and "Take Me to the Riot" from In Our Bedroom After the War

Track 15: "Feuer Frei!" by Rammstein, track 5 from Mutter, April 2001

Just as Leaving Through the Window became a soundtrack to sophomore year of high school, Mutter was every bit as much to freshman year. It was marching band camp in August 2001 when I was first acquainted with Rammstein, thanks entirely to my man Andrew van Devender. He played this curious CD for me called Live Aus Berlin, which featured German men singing angrily in baritone registers and the hardest rock music that I'd ever actually enjoyed. I went out and bought Live Aus Berlin myself, and Mutter not long after that.

To put it in a genre, Rammstein is most generally "industrial", though I sort of like the German appellation "tanz-metall" ("dance-metal") better. And what an odd dance party it would be, featuring songs about air base tragedies and hermaphrodites and gasoline. Mutter is maybe a little softer than the rest of their music—it's not the "music to invade Poland to" that I've heard the first album described as. But it's distinctly Rammstein, no doubt about it.

I decided to go with "Feuer Frei!" out of sentimentality as much as anything. It recalls the good old days of spending countless afternoons and evenings and weekends at Andrew's place, playing Perfect Dark on the Nintendo 64. (All you thirteen year old kids out there that think your precious Halo 3 is revolutionary? You'd have nothing if it weren't for Goldeneye and Perfect Dark.) Of course we needed music for our matches. More often than not, that was Rammstein; when it was Rammstein, it was usually Mutter; and every time we played Mutter, we were always sure to hit "Feuer Frei!". It's a perfect fit to a shooter, of course, translating as "fire freely!" or "fire at will!", and having the angry industrial metal to back it up.

Honorable mentions: "Links 2 3 4" from Mutter, "Moskau" from Reise, Reise

Tomorrow, the last five tracks, and the analysis and conclusion comes over the weekend.

Currently listening: "The Final Countdown", Europe

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Anatomy of a Mix Tape: Part II

Continued from part I...

Track 6: "Cath..." by Death Cab for Cutie, track 4 from Narrow Stairs, May 2008

Death Cab needs no introduction to many people. They're probably the most successful and well-known exemplar of the contemporary "indie" tradition, even though they, like the Decemberists, have now made the lemming-jump to a major label. Or so the most hardcore fans thought would happen, and a few probably still insist did happen. Death Cab's style is emo first and foremost, but an honest and genuine emo, never turning to whining. Their instrumentation is especially solid, doing well to avoid the screaming and intentional, misplaced dissonance that some of their peers rely on.

Narrow Stairs promised some drastic changes from Death Cab's earlier music, and while it is a lot different, we still have the same band. Death Cab's songs have never been particularly optimistic on a whole. Perhaps they weren't as clearly melancholy as Narrow Stairs turned out to throw at us, maybe they didn't come right out and say there was "No Sunshine", but objectively it was more a refinement than a departure. "Cath...", like the review of the album mentioned is widely agreed to be the best song on it, and I agree with public opinion here. "Cath..." is absolutely classic Death Cab, a pleasant little story of a girl who unwisely ends up with a man who doesn't love her.

Honorable mentions: "The Sound of Settling" and "We Looked Like Giants", Transatlanticism, "Marching Bands of Manhattan" and "Soul Meets Body" from Plans

Track 7: "Get Off" by the Dandy Warhols, track 7 from Thirteen Tales form Urban Bohemia, August 2000

I proclaim myself to be a Dandy Warhols fan on the strength of this album alone--without having heard any of the band's other music. I've been assured that the rest of their music is way different from this one anyway, and honestly, if this album were the band's only one ever, that would be more than enough for me to consider them masters of the craft. I suppose you could call it "psychedelic" rock, if for no other reason than the multitude of drug references and the insistent dreaminess of many of their songs.

The lyrics on this album range from introspective to satirical, from self-satisfying to insightful, from boorish to sublime. And they do some remarkably creative things with structure and instrumentation, ranging from totally conventional 4/4 guitar-driven rock to ethereal, drifting experiments. "Get Off" is about exactly what it sounds like it's about. And it's wonderfully fun to listen to.

Honorable mentions: Practically anything from Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia, particularly "Godless", "Bohemian Like You", and "Big Indian"

Track 8: "Make Me Smile" by Chicago, track 2 from side 2 of Chicago II, January 1970

Along with the Beatles, Chicago is one of two bands on the CD that I first came to through my parents. Musical originality is a big thing with me, and Chicago exemplifies that brilliantly. I can't think of another band that so completely integrates a horn section into their music. Cake tries, and puts up a good show. But one trumpet, while it is the cornerstone of any good horn section, just doesn't compare to the Loughnane-Pankow-Parazaider triad that's given Chicago its unique sound for four decades. Perhaps not until Norah Jones did we have an artist that was so completely accepted in the pop scene but also gave jazz bands something interesting to play too.

I'm partial to Chicago's earlier stuff for just that reason: it features the horn section the best and the most creatively. Another reason is that I really like the city Chicago, an influence on the band and particularly the earliest few albums. The reason I like "Make Me Smile" in particular is that I have personal experience with it; a few weeks back in middle school jazz band. Even though it was sort of a hokey arrangement, that was the first song I ever played that I'd heard of before I played it.

"Make Me Smile" is actually the first part of a seven-song cycle, "Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon", that also includes the slow-dance staple "Color My World. The version I have actually includes the first three or four parts of the cycle on the same track, which is all the better. But "Make Me Smile", which showcases Chicago's mastery of dynamics and of course has a memorable trumpet solo, steals the show.

Honorable mentions: "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is" from Chicago Transit Authority, "25 Or 6 To 4" from Chicago II

Track 9: "Suddenly I See" by KT Tunstall, track 9 from Eye to the Telescope, February 2006 (US)

Where most of the artists featured on the CD are either products of direct recommendation or a bit of self-directed musical digging, KT Tunstall comes from the radio. The Atlanta radio station, which is usually pretty decent, provided it's not on a weird 80s kick, or a streak of several overly mellow songs in a row, in the vein of Jack Johnson. In fact, browsing their recent playlist, "Suddenly I See" was played not half an hour ago, along with "Sweet and Low" by Augustana, "Californication" by Red Hot Chili Peppers, and "Imagine" by John Lennon, all in the past few hours. (Though they do have a penchant for that irritating "Mercy" song that seems to be in vogue lately.)

I listened to the radio a lot in the summer of 2006, a time of teaching Koreans to speak English and staying at Andrew Hood's old house until the wee hours of the morning at least a few times a week. And whenever I turned on the radio, whether it be leaving for work at 8:30 am, or leaving work at 2 pm, or even coming home at 3 am, I had a better chance than not of hearing "Suddenly I See". And it really grew on me. I like the driving, energetic guitar, and Tunstall has a great voice (if maybe not as good as Jenny Lewis's). The song, of course, is a feminist one, but that doesn't make it any less musically sound. Plus, Tunstall looks really, really cute on the cover for the iTunes version of the single.

Honorable mentions: "Other Side of the World" and "Another Place to Fall" from Eye to the Telescope

Track 10: "Jacksonville" by Sufjan Stevens, track 5 from Illinoise, July 2005

Back in the grand old days of Folk Hall, quite the music community flourished on the local iTunes network. And an enterprising individual could take advantage of this with the OurTunes client to appropriate any sort of shared music onto his own computer, to the tune of possibly several gigabytes. I'd actually read about Illinoise in the Atlanta Fish Wrapper of all places, when it was first released, and thought "hey, that sounds cool." When I did appropriate it, it was more than cool. This album earned laudatory remarks like "best album of 2005" by many critics, and who am I to argue with that?

Those same critics will also probably say that "Chicago" is the album's standout track. It is good, no doubt. But the song that caught me when I first listened to it was "Jacksonville", which is actually quite a moving song about sympathy toward abolitionists. It, like many of Stevens' other songs, features folk melody and vocals against a symphonic background, and crams in allusions to the great Land of Lincoln. And even more than his other songs, there's something fundamentally uplifting, positive about it. Besides, I heard it at the legendary Kate Wasch Studios, which means it has to be of the highest quality.

Honorable mentions: "Come On! Feel the Illinoise!", "Decatur", and "Chicago" from Illinoise

Tune in tomorrow for part III.

Currently listening: "Lost Underworld" from Mother 2 - Giygas' Counterattack

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Anatomy of a Mix Tape: Part I

To read the introduction to the Accidental Mix Tape project, click here.

I'll now delve into each of the tracks that made it onto the CD, giving possibly-relevant facts like album and date of release. I also aim to give a one-paragraph synopsis of the band—it might stretch into two—and a quick chat about why I chose the particular song that I did. I'll finish off with a few "honorable mention" tracks that also could have been good choices for the CD, and might well make it onto Mix Tape Part 2.

Track 1: "Close Call" by Rilo Kiley, track 2 from Under the Blacklight, August 2007

Rilo Kiley is one in a proud line of bands that I was first exposed to thanks to my friend Nick. For a while back in high school, it seemed that every time I saw Nick, he had a new CD packed to the brim with his latest favorite bands. Some of these bands I just couldn't get into, and sort of let fall by the wayside; some of them, I keep coming back to even now. Rilo Kiley is definitely in the second group, I want to say introduced to me in June 2005. Their lyrics are creative and clever, lead singer Jenny Lewis has a gorgeous voice, and the instrumentation takes cues not only from rock and pop, but also from folk and country.

I would put Under the Blacklight in my personal top five albums of 2007, ranking behind Wincing the Night Away (which is also represented on the CD), but maybe not much else. We’ve seen incredible development since the days of Take-Offs and Landings. The band's sound has progressed from lo-fi and indie to refined and produced, and Lewis's voice has transformed from girly and almost coquettish to mature and approaching sultry in places. The thing that's striking, though, is that both CDs are remarkably good. In the end, I went with the recency of Under the Blacklight over the primacy of Take-Offs and Landings. "Close Call" is one of three or four excellent tracks on the album; in the end, I thought it had a little more energy than "Silver Lining", and I wanted to give something besides the title track a try after it had been my ringtone for several months.

Honorable mentions: "Plane Crash in C" from Take-Offs and Landings, "Paint's Peeling" from The Execution of All Things, "Silver Lining" and "Under the Blacklight" from Under the Blacklight

Track 2: "Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect" by the Decemberists, track 2 from Castaways and Cutouts, May 2002

The Decemberists, even after their dreaded Migration to a Major Label, remain as indie-workhorse as ever. A massive vocabulary, songs about Japanese geishas and crooked French-Canadian bootleggers, and immensely entertaining live shows have given them a well-deserved place near the top of the indie heap. It's tough to remember the exact first time I heard of the Decemberists, but the references just kept piling up in April and May of 2005. By the time I finally broke down and listened to one of their songs, I had just eaten dinner at Dante's Down the Hatch, a wonderful Buckhead fondue place with an 18th century naval theme. And I had just finished reading Neal Stephenson's The System of the World, the final volume in the Baroque Cycle, a delightfully epic historical fiction trilogy. The first Decemberists song I heard was "The Infanta", which tied into both of those cultural experiences and made me instantly appreciate the band.

I first heard Picaresque in its entirety, then Castaways and Cutouts and Her Majesty at the same time, later acquiring The Crane Wife when it was released. I think I made a mistake in not "cleansing my palette" in between listening to the two earlier albums, because they're not immensely stylistically distinct, and even now I have a hard time telling them apart. Both albums have about half mediocre filler and half sheer brilliance, such that if you combined the best half from each, you'd probably have one of the greatest collections of music ever. Alas, even the Decemberists can't pull together utter genius every waking moment. But the thing that distinguishes the Decemberists despite a handful of less-than-exciting songs (not bad, per se, just uninteresting) per album is that the "good half" is incredible. I said "sheer brilliance" and I don’t think that's an overstatement. "Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect" is in this half.

I liked the song already, but I began to truly appreciate it last summer in Europe. There's something indescribably wonderful about seeing the Mediterranean coast for the first time ever, passing over the Spanish border at sunrise, and hearing the lyric "and here in Spain I am a Spaniard" not half an hour later. The song features three evocative, imagistic vignettes about attempts at getting love to work out in fantastic circumstances. And it showcases the Decemberists' lyrical brilliance possibly better than any of their songs.

Honorable mentions: "July, July!" and "California One" from Castaways and Cutouts, "Billy Liar" and "Song for Myla Goldberg" from Her Majesty, "The Infanta" from Picaresque, "The Island" from The Crane Wife (though its scope and length might not make it quite right for the "mix tape" environment)

Track 3: "I Want to Save You" by Something Corporate, track 1 from Leaving Through the Window, May 2002

Unlike Castaways and Cutouts, which I first heard three years after its release, I've been listening to Leaving Through the Window since the day it came out. That's more than six years now, which is nigh unfathomable. The album became a soundtrack to my sophomore year in high school, a time that turned out to be huge in terms of maturation, all that wonderful "coming out of puberty" business. Appropriately, Something Corporate belongs to that genre that I've talked about before as having defined my high school musical experience, sometimes called "pop-punk" or "post-punk" or a label that I've taken a liking to, "prep rock". You know the sorts of band. New Found Glory, Good Charlotte, number bands like Blink-182 and Sum 41.

I didn't realize it at the time, but for a type of music to dominate the high school popular scene, that wasn't necessarily a bad trend. It came on the heels of insipid pop along the lines of Christina Aguilera, N'Sync, and Ricky Martin. And it was followed by the ascendancy of mainstream hip-hop: Kanye West, Usher, Nelly, Jeezy, and all the rest. Something Corporate wasn't the best-known exemplar of that trend in music, but I think they're among the most distinctive. They knew when to cool off and play at slower than 180 beats per minute. And they also made the most of unconventional orchestration, adding strings and piano to enhance their sound nicely. "I Want to Save You" doesn’t have any particular significance over the rest of the album, but I like its pacing and tempo.

Honorable mentions: "I Woke Up in a Car" from Leaving Through the Window, "Bleed American" and "Splash, Turn, Twist" by Jimmy Eat World from Bleed American. Usually I'll try to preserve the same artist in an "honorable mention"... this is more of a "relational" connection.

Track 4: "Such Great Heights" by The Postal Service, track 2 from Give Up, February 2003

The Postal Service is another one of those bands that's tricky to nail down an exact time I first heard them, or heard of them. I'm pretty sure Nick had something to do with it, but whether that "something" was introducing me, or merely burning the music for me, I don't remember. The band is relatively well known by this point as a collaborative project between Death Cab for Cutie's lead singer Ben Gibbard and some dude who does electronica that nobody can really remember. It's emo, sure, but intelligent emo, and a darn catchy beat in the background. This band is one of the most universally accepted among my friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. Nearly everyone who's heard of the Postal Service likes them, views them favorably, and reacts well to their music being played in a long car ride. Of course, there are people who don’t know anything about them at all, and whose personal spheres of music appreciation probably don't come close to including indie pop. But you don't have to be a green amoeba shirt-wearing Shins fan to think good things about the Postal Service.

They have but one full album, sadly, and I've gone with what's undoubtedly the most well known song from it. You can hear "Such Great Heights" in UPS commercials, Target commercials, and M&Ms commercials. It was even covered by another indie staple, Iron & Wine, prompting a huge and still-raging debate over which version is the superior one. (Of course, by its inclusion on this CD, I come down on the side of the Postal Service). Apparently it's "the only positive song" Ben Gibbard has ever written about love, and positive it is, and happy too, which is why I've chosen it for the CD.

Honorable mention: "The District Sleeps Alone Tonight" and "Brand New Colony" from Give Up

Track 5: "Turn on Me" by the Shins, track 7 from Wincing the Night Away, January 2007

This is a direct Nick contribution, in the form of an actual CD, and it's his single greatest act of genius and philanthropy. What a fantastic collection of music. Perfectly paced and balanced, dramatically introductioned, gracefully concluded. No filler, except for the 54 seconds of "Pam Berry", which is just as easily overlooked—you want to listen to every song. Interesting instrumentation and outreaches to various genres. Witty and unconventional throughout, but nowhere near the point of becoming novelty—these guys are making music meant to be taken seriously but manage to have a lot a fun doing it. I got Wincing the Night Away for my birthday, February 2007, and almost instantly, it became one of my favorites. I was actually hesitant to listen to the band's earlier albums, because there wasn't any way they could be as good as Wincing the Night Away. Eventually I caved in. I was right, they weren't quite as good, but still excellent.

If I said that Rilo Kiley's sound has matured since their first album, then the Shins have accomplished a metamorphosis worthy of Ovid or Kafka. Oh, Inverted World, a darling of the indie community, was so lo-fi and poorly produced by comparison that lead singer James Mercer's vocals seem muffled and unintelligible. And Wincing the Night Away is so much more varied and original that after listening to it, all the songs on Oh, Inverted World sound the same—to a synesthete, it's almost like they take on the same weirdly drab blue of the album's cover. This isn't an indictment of Oh, Inverted World at all; merely an observation that next to Wincing the Night Away, even an earlier success pales in comparison. I don't know if I'm alone in the belief that Wincing the Night Away completely eclipsed Oh, Inverted World as the Shins' masterwork, but I'll stick by that belief as fervently as I need to. Picking a song was tougher, but "Turn on Me" has everything you'd want from the Shins: catchiness, imaginative similes, and the good old apathy that's become their trademark.

Honorable mentions: "So Says I" and "Saint Simon" from Chutes Too Narrow, "Australia" and "Phantom Limb" from Wincing the Night Away

Check back tomorrow for part II!

Currently listening: "Turkish March", Mozart