Monday, March 24, 2008

Stars Concert (and Various Other Sundries)

At Tech, pursuant to all that I've noticed about the population and related behaviors, there's something fishy about the weekends. Either people shut themselves in their rooms or flee campus like Abaddon himself brought the keys to the Pit of Fire and unleashed it upon the Kessler Campanile. (There is something shady about that place...) In downtown Athens, this is not the case. People are out, walking around, doing things, and not wearing a perpetual "the world is out to screw me" frown.

I was later assured that no, it's not some sort of fantastical paradise, just an extension of the UGA bubble. That's in much the same way, for instance, that Atlantic Station or the Howell Mill Kroger seems like an extension of the Tech bubble at times. (Tangent: that Howell Mill Kroger has been very, very good to me, on at least three occasions. They carry Stewart's Key Lime, for goodness' sake.) Essentially, it's yet another "grass is greener" case. But I do need to go back sometime.

My reason for being in Athens in the first place was to go to a concert by the band Stars. They're a bit on the obscure side, so I'll try to elucidate their music a bit. They're Canadian, and they describe their own music as "indie rock", but if you really want to pick and call it "indie pop" you wouldn't be off-base either. The first description of their music I heard was "like the Postal Service" which isn't incorrect, but I think a more apt description is "like the Postal Service, but a bit less electronic." Or, if you wanted to go further on a limb, "a bit like Rilo Kiley but less folksy." Even "sort of like Metric but a lot more melodic." If you can get those three to converge into a consistent sound, that's Stars. also lists similar bands to be The New Pornographers and the Most Serene Republic, both bands that I have heard of and would probably like but am unfamiliar with.

One thing I feel like I need to bring up even before the concert itself: timing. Given "doors open at 8 pm" and "two opening bands", Matt logic would go something like this. Give people half an hour to straggle in, and for the opening bands to get their crap together. Start playing at 8:30, allot half an hour for each band, stop at 9:30. Allow 30 minutes for a set change (in my opinion, those things never need to take longer than 15 minutes, but I'll be generous here). No reason Stars should start playing any later than 10. Matt logic would have been incorrect. My intrepid band of concertgoers rolls in at 10:40 or so, and we still have to wait a few minutes to hear the main attraction. (That said, our timing was downright impeccable.) Perhaps this is too harsh, but I'd really like it if bands gave a reasonable approximation of their start time, not some wishful thinking to get everyone milling about for the better part of an hour.

The concert itself didn't disappoint. Like every show, it had its strong and weak points. One of the less-than-stellar (ha! pun!) points of the concert was the tendency to turn backs to the audience at otherwise-impressive technical moments. Big guitar solo? Better hide my guitar. Crucial riff on some synthesizer? Can't make eye contact with the people listening to it. That's not unique to Stars--it happens at just about every concert I've been to recently. And it's sort of irritating.

Some Stars fans would add another weak point was "anything that came off the most recent album". I've had that one since it came out (okay, since I got to the US after it came out), and I wrote a largely positive review of it. Yet several people I've talked to that have been Stars fans for a while disliked it. Why the negativity?

First, I believe that Heart and Set Yourself on Fire are sort of similar in character (the two albums before the most recent), and that Set Yourself on Fire and In Our Bedroom After the War are sort of similar too. If you're a Stars fan who's been listening to the early stuff since 2005, and this comes along in mid-2007, it's probably tougher to reconcile than for someone like me.

Second, the album contains a lot of what I've started calling "tofu songs". That is, they're neither remarkably good nor bad on their own. Instead, they take on the flavor of the rest of the album. And the rest of the album is gimmicky in parts. "Genova Heights", "Life 2", "Personal", "Barricade", and the title track all have some amount of gimmick to them. If you don't buy into the gimmick, you're probably going to hate these songs. Then, even give the strength of the truly good songs, the filler "tofu" is going to seem that much worse.

And finally, something I touched on back in August, the track placement is bad. You hear "The Night Starts Here" and "Take Me to the Riot" and think "yes, this is good music." Then, when the rest of the album fails to deliver to that standard, you naturally get disappointed.

While a lot of Stars' unique sound comes from the female vocalist Amy Millan, it's clear that the real showmanship comes from the male frontman Torquil Campbell (hey, he's Canadian). He was the one behind all the audience interaction, the one really getting us into the act. Even more impressively, he showed talent in both tenor and falsetto ranges, in addition to key harmonica, the mini Korg that so plagued Stars all night, and even the trumpet. I'd always assumed that the trumpet licks were studio jobs, and maybe on the CDs they were. But when Campbell pulled out a trumpet and did a surprisingly credible job, that pretty much made the concert for me.

Add that to a chance to break the Tech bubble (albeit entering the UGA one) and some excellent company, and it ended up being a great time. And as always after a concert, I have some awful amalgamation of the collective works of Stars stuck in my head.

Another concert alert: Eisley is headlining a tour, and they're coming to Atlanta. I'm not missing this one. But exactly one of three hundred-something people whom I'm friends with on Facebook proclaims to like them.... it's going to be a tough sell to get people to come along.

Currently listening: "What I'm Trying to Say," Stars, and "Listen," Chicago

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Ecce gratum!

The spring break post has turned into a fortunate tradition... I finally have the time to collect a few thoughts, sit down, and shape them into something hopefully readable. This one is brought on by my third-favorite Wikipedia article as of late.

My favorite article is the one about A Dance with Dragons, the fifth installment in George R.R. Martin's brilliant epic fantasy series. (I've already commented and theorized on this brilliant series, in a reaction to the fourth book.) It reports progress in slow, measured trickles, taunting fans with its promises of some far-off release date. (September 30?)

The second-favorite honors at this point go to the article about Death Cab's upcoming album. It's safe to say that I'm... skeptical about this release. Combine Death Cab with words and phrases like "lunar" and "dissonant" and "sludgy slow metal" and I can't help but get a really unpleasant picture. Isn't Death Cab suppose to be sensitive, genuine, and, yes, emo? If we get something that ends up sounding like 1960s band music, I don't care how wonderful the art-music community thinks it is, I'm not going to enjoy it.

But the third-favorite, the one this post owes its inspiration to, details the saga of the end of the Wheel of Time, Robert Jordan's seminal work in the same epic fantasy genre that Martin has become the current master of. The Wheel of Time used to be really, really good. It was, up until the third book. I've said before that edit a few details of the end of The Dragon Reborn (and perhaps beef up the already-exciting climax of The Great Hunt a bit) and you have the best fantasy trilogy ever written, solidly beating even Lord of the Rings. But Jordan didn't stop there.

The series continued to be excellent through the sixth, perhaps seventh, book. By that time, though, Jordan was in over his head. It was clear that there wouldn't be any nice ending--it would take twelve, maybe thirteen books before this could wrap itself up. That would be just fine, provided that the second half of the series was any good. That provision didn't necessarily carry through.

By book ten, the series was so bogged down in itself that we got things like pages upon pages dedicated to buying fabric. Really, Robert Jordan? (If you're into this sort of thing, look up the Wikipedia plot summary for Crossroads of Twilight, book number 10. It's literally a few paragraphs long.) But I was willing to stick with it, along with probably thousands upon thousands of other fans. I've been at this since 2000 (and some, the ones who have been with it since the very beginning, have been at this since 1990), and damned if I'm going to let crappy books 7-11 get in the way of knowing how all this business eventually resolves.

Then Mr. Jordan got amyloidosis.

I have a tough time bashing Jordan's series, given that the man has since passed away. One of his final resolves with respect to the monster of a series that he created was that the series absolutely would end with book number 12. No more stretching things out, no more books-long political intrigue, no more "signs that really, the last battle is totally upon us this time!" Instead, we were promised answers and resolutions and nice things like that that generally go along with ending a series.

Is all that in jeopardy now that that series no longer has an author? Happily, no. For as my third-favorite Wikipedia article reports, one Brandon Sanderson has been chosen by Tor Books (The Wheel of Time's publisher) to finish the series. He's going to use Jordan's notes, dispatches from Jordan's communications with his wife, and his own fantasy author's intuition to craft A Memory of Light into a coherent novel that's supposed to wrap up two decades.

Mr. Sanderson's first order of business is to re-read the first eleven books. Sounds like a fine idea. But it's making we wary, or at least his blog-posted reactions to the books are making me wary. I would assert that in his position as quasi-ghostwriter, Sanderson's primary responsibility is to be true to what Jordan would have wanted. Maintain his plot, his characterizations, and also his style. Sanderson's research appears to be pointing him in this direction. But his second responsibility is impartiality. He ought to be evaluating the first eleven books objectively, seeing what devices and settings worked, and what didn't. Taking Jordan's mistakes and triumphs in the same breath, and synthesizing them all into a book that reflects all of it.

Instead, Sanderson comes across as nothing more than a Jordan apologist at best and a sycophant at worst. Where a disappointed fan would say "Book 8 was bad because..." an unbiased critic would say "Book 8 was paced differently from the rest of the series, which literarily would have worked better if..." Mr. Sanderson, on the other hand, makes comments like "Well, I really don't think book 8 was bad at all! Here, you see Jordan's masterful handling of..."

As a caveat, I haven't read any of Sanderson's other books. Maybe I should. Maybe I will this summer, when I have little else to do. But from an author who doesn't realize that there were problems with books 7-11, I'm not sure whether or not to be excited by book 12.

Currently listening: "Fortune plango vulnera" from Carmina Burana

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Georgia Tech in Two Microcosms

Recently, I had the pleasure of judging some high schoolers at a Science Olympiad competition. Luckily, I got an interesting event, in which the kids made robots and used remote controls to pick up things and drop them in boxes. It was very OM, very reminiscent of weirdly creative problem solving and contraptions, and an entire years' work dissolved in a left wheel's detachment at just the wrong time. (OM never had competitors yell obscenities when that happened, though, at least not my elementary school teams.)

And seeing this from the other side now, it's also a remarkable microcosm of kids that are destined for Georgia Tech. A sort of Yellow Jacket funnel, if you will. All of the dramatis personae were there. You had the cocky Asian kid, the one who six days out of the week resents his overbearing parents for making him keep at his studies so hard, but come Science Olympiad time on the seventh day, he comes to accept his burden to boss around all the lesser competitors.

The uber-geek, who can give you a ten minute thesis about how his robot works, or launch into a nuanced debate about how to beat the expert levels on Guitar Hero. But at the same time, he is so withdrawn from conventional social interaction that he finds it difficult to ask you when the competition starts.

The Abercrombie-wearing white kid, who seems just a little apathetic, a little jaded, and far out of place in this world of obsessive love for physics. Perhaps it's a secret passion of his, having to hide his scientific excursions from his beer-guzzling friends and provide an excuse why this weekend is a bad one to go to the lake house and chill. Far more likely, he's here just for the extra credit.

Two girls.

All of these people will probably get accepted into Georgia Tech. "Wow!" says some admissions officer. "A 700 SAT math! And he was involved in Science Olympiad back in high school. He will make a fantastic aerospace engineer." Probably he will. But what this admissions person fails to see (surprising, in the day of student body diversity) is that this only encourages the homogeneity that already pervades this campus. The very fact that an average Tech student can enter this subculture and see not just hints but strong streaks of his own community in them... Tech's stereotypes are self-perpetuating.

The other situation, merely a day after the Olympiad, was an event called Connect with Tech came through. CWT is officially the program that you can be invited to if you're reasonably good at high school, so you can see Tech and Tech in turn can recruit you. More significantly, CWT is known throughout housing staff as the one day besides holidays when the dining hall serves edible food. (Lately, that's been more of a myth than an actual truth, but at least it's something to get excited about.) This group of people was completely different than the Science Olympiad kids.

The cute and now sort of average girl, who's into theater and maybe a couple of generic service clubs in her high school. Little does she know (or maybe well does she know) that by virtue of being female and at all extroverted, she's about to become ridiculously sororitied up.

The apathetic dude without a shred of charisma or conversational ability who's used to getting good grades because high school is so damn easy. But when he gets to Tech, he'll suddenly find that school can indeed be tough. The only question that remains for him is whether he'll notice he's failing under all the pot he'll smoke.

The guy who's actually a decent human being, who you'd feel comfortable hanging out with and becoming friends with, but who takes one look at Tech, and decides against it. The rigor, the reputations... and all the odd people.

With no foreseeable end to any of it.

Currently listening: Billy the Kid, Aaron Copland