Monday, June 30, 2008

Anatomy of a Mix Tape: Introduction

It's a goal ever elusive in the world of music: the album with no filler. Where every song is equally enjoyable to listen to, yet different enough that you actually want to listen to all of them, one after another. Mae did it with The Everglow. The Shins followed suit with Wincing the Night Away. The Beatles came close a few times, and several bands have efforts that are almost there, but not quite. So, an idea dawned on me as I was listening to Coldplay's Viva la Vida again and really wanting to hurry up and get to "Violet Hill". What if I just made a CD like that for myself? Throw it in the drive, maybe randomize it so I wouldn't get tired of the same sequence of music, and never have a track I wanted to skip over.

Opening up iTunes, I made a new playlist then started dragging in good songs as I thought of them. I decided to add another restriction: not only did I not want two songs from the same album, I didn't want two songs from the same artist. I figure that I like enough different bands that that would be a feasible goal. I got to about fifteen songs, realized that CD-Rs can hold about twenty, and threw in a few more for good measure. Now, this is supposed to be a CD that contains exactly zero filler, but I did put in songs as I thought of them—that might lead to an unintentional bias toward wanting to listen to the first few songs. So for the sake of fairness, I hit shuffle a few times to randomize the order. Only after I hit burn, watched it for a few minutes, and saw it get halfway through "Jacksonville" by Sufjan Stevens did I realize what this project had turned into.

Holy Mother of God, I'd created a mix tape.

Granted, the intention was more "hall of fame" than "mix", and nobody's actually made tapes for the past decade. Between that and the attempt at guitar playing, Samantha's right—I'm getting too hipster for my own good. Tangential update on the guitar: I know eight chords now, and after learning a few more (notably B major and a minor), I'll be able to play the entire collective works of Neutral Milk Hotel. That prospect delights me to no end.

One definite omission from this CD is anything classical—it would just be too weird to come out of the Shins and into Vivaldi. I could do (and may well end up doing) something similar with classical, and it would probably involve lots of baroque, some Dvorak, something from Carmina Burana, and a bit of Copland and Gershwin to round it off. But that's a project for another day. Oh, classical music side note: the reason I mention Dvorak and Gershwin specifically (besides the fact that I like them) is that there's going to be an ASO show featuring those composers in November. The program is Gershwin's Cuban Overture and Dvorak's Ninth Symphony (one of my favorite classical pieces ever), and I'm definitely interested in going to that.

So in the end, how did my come-to-find-out-it's-a-mix-tape turn out? Actually pretty well, I think. I'm going to post a quick rundown of each of the songs in the coming days, and an analysis of a few interesting trends I noticed at the very end. If nothing else, it'll give a good insight into at least the popular side of my musical taste.

Currently listening: "Winning A Battle, Losing The War", Kings of Convenience

Sunday, June 29, 2008

My favorite character from The Office the topic of a fun new user experience! To all the dozen or so people who recommended the show to me, I've already commended you on your fine choice of program. Now, let's see how well you really know me. Having just watched the entirety of The Office in the last few weeks, who's my favorite character?

I'll once again express my opinion that this show is one of the best on television, and that I don't know how I got along this many years without watching it. The satire is dead-on--and it's something that you can truly appreciate once you've actually worked in an office setting. Another thing this show does well is the issue of the fourth wall. For me, breaking the fourth wall is a comedic disaster. The instant a character in a movie starts acting like he's in a movie is the instant the movie stops being funny.

"Wait, doesn't The Office do just that?" Well, yes and no. True, the characters do act like they're participating in a documentary. The Office creatively skirts this issue by having the characters acknowledge the fact that they're on a documentary from day one. The fact that people are watching this is accepted by all the characters; the layer of suspended disbelief inherent to the documentary process becomes a second layer of verisimilitude. That way, the fourth wall no longer separates the office from the "documentary".

But there is still a notion of fourth wall present, separating the production of the "documentary" from the viewers. The character Jim, for instance, always acts like Jim--as he would act in a documentary. It's a subtle distinction, but it's one that adds an incredible comedic element to the show. In essence, we get two levels to each character: the characters as they interact with each other as they passively acknowledge the cameras, and the interviews as each actively talks to the camera. And all the actors do it so well that they never break character--either level of character.

The deft handling of the fourth wall is only part of the brilliance of this show. Another part is that it portrays a love story that I actually find myself caring about. When you look at all the shows that I espouse as my "favorites", I rarely if ever buy into the love story elements. I don't care about Cameron and Chase, or Wilson and Cutthroat Bitch on House. (And honestly, I wasn't all that sad when Cutthroat Bitch kicked the bucket.) I've never cared about Jack Bauer and whatever floozy he was with at the moment. I sure as hell don't care about the Sawyer-Kate-Jack-Juliet quadrangle on Lost. I find it perplexing that, given all the intriguing things that a fan could dig into with this show, people are such diehard "Jaters" or "Skaters" (proponents of Jack-Kate and Sawyer-Kate, respectively).

Then the Desmond-Penny arc was introduced, and I became a believer. Prior to the season 4 finale, we kept hearing about a spectacular kiss that was going to "stop time". People naturally assumed this was going to be a Sawyer-Kate kiss. Perhaps the producers intended the time-stopper to be that Sawyer-Kate kiss we got. I respectfully disagree. Desmond and Penny's reunion aboard her boat was the single most poignant and emotionally rewarding moment of the show to date. And at that point, I realized that I actually could care about love stories in television shows.

Nothing is a better example of that than Jim and Pam on The Office. You're supposed to like Jim, because he's sort of the protagonist, and he's undergone a lot of character development in the four seasons we've seen so far. And there's something about him that you can't help but like: the easygoing, mischievous nature, the rapport that he naturally develops with most people he interacts with. The only thing missing from that is, of course, Getting the Girl. The end result? I honestly do care about this love story, and one of the points of interest in this show is seeing how it progresses.

On a completely unrelated note, I was wrong about the American version of Iron Chef. I used to denounce it as a less creative version of the Japanese original, where ludicrous ingredients like eel and shark fin gave way to... chicken? After watching a few episodes, yeah, it is rather less creative in its choices of secret ingredients. But after getting into the Food Network culture a bit, knowing who guys like Flay and Batale are, the show really is good. And it helps tremendously that Alton Brown does the commentary. The man is a genius, delicately balancing culinary intellect with eccentricity, and coming off as incredibly informed, throwing a generous helping of biochemistry along the way. My friend Samantha compared me favorably to Alton Brown a few times, and only recently have I begun to fully appreciate how big a compliment that is. He's awesome.

Currently listening: "Summersong", the Decemberists

Summer Reading Season, First Round

Here's a concept: reading books. I lament that it's not something I have a whole lot of time for during the school year. What better time, then, to go on a literary spree than summer? Last summer I hit such highlights as Ken Jennings' Brainiac, and the seventh Harry Potter book (many, many times over). And that's not even to mention the wonderful Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World among others.

This summer, exiled as I am to Alton, Illinois, I decided to continue that fine tradition a step further by packing a backpack full of books and busting them out whenever I had nothing to do. That turned out, and continues to turn out, to be quite frequently. I began actually a bit before the migration started, and now that I'm about halfway through, it's time to discuss the first batch.

John Sanford's Rules of Prey occupied some time in car rides out to Athens (two of them in one week! The horror!) for my cousin's wedding. Definitely an enjoyable book, and highly recommended to fans of the mystery/suspense genres. There wasn't anything hugely literarily significant about it. But like a good episode of CSI, the plot is so cleverly wrought, and the characters are at least interesting enough to string it along, that it's enjoyable the whole way through. Sanford is far from the first author to write about quirky detective-types, and he'll by no means be the last. That said, few if any authors writing today do it better, and I'll make an effort to read more of these books when college affords me the chance.

The Count of Monte Cristo is one of those books you hear an awful lot about, think "yeah, maybe I should read this" and never really work up the motivation. Or perhaps you're forcibly exposed to it through some Honors English teacher. The reason that you're forcibly exposed to it, or that people won't stop talking about it? This book is truly excellent. From the outset, what's not to love about a bunch of French guys getting revenge on each other? The degree of forethought and subtlety in all of the plots, as wrought by both Dumas and his characters, is spectacular.

Some of the side stories are less interesting than the main plot--this is both necessary to keep us wanting to come back to the main plot, and a sign that Dumas is indeed human--and some of the character relationships become a little confusing as the book snowballs on. I might have appreciated a few family trees, a la George R. R. Martin. that told me the given name, the title, and the family name of any given character. (As is common with nobility, at some point, people stop going by their given names and just take on their titular identities.) And I find Dumas' continuous restatement of his thesis, that you must experience sorrow to experience true happiness, toward the end of the book a little heavy-handed. Perhaps I find it heavy-handed because I disagree with it.

But that's not enough to prevent enjoyment of the book, by any means. This book literally "has it all"--intrigue, action, romance, and the religious commentary that's practically required of the Romantic era. Redemption, vindication, treachery, and of course vengeance. Dumas works wonders with character development, both in terms of perceived character development as plots come to light, and in the characters' real development in response to events in the story. The highest praise I can give, though is this: for its daunting volume, most of it clips by at a surprisingly quick speed. Definitely recommended.

Next up on the list was that book-club staple The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, written as a memoir of her childhood. Plenty of peoples' gut reaction to this book is a negative one: "I smell a rat." Maybe it's naivety on my part, but I can't believe someone would make this all up. Why incriminate one's own family so harshly for the purposes of authorship? If she wanted to go through the trouble of writing fiction, then Walls merely could have written fiction. And because she's obviously a proficient storyteller, the resulting tale would have been just as good.

I don't know what reaction Walls was hoping to elicit to the characters in the book. It seems unlikely that she meant to vilify her own family as thoroughly as she does, but I walked away from this book with a sharp dislike for both of Jeannette's parents. Alcoholism is a beast I haven't had to deal with anyone close to me having had, so I'm the least qualified person imaginable to comment on it. But it's very difficult for me to believe that Rex couldn't at least scrape up an ounce of restraint so that he could buy food for his children rather than getting drunk. How Jeannette managed to hold out any respect for the man after that happened--not just once, but time and time again--is beyond me. Not to mention his constant disputes with viable sources of income for the family; getting shunned from jobs just because of an ideological conflict with the boss.

Her mother isn't free from blame either. If you're, say, 26 years old and living by yourself, do whatever you want. Go ahead and say "I know I have experience teaching, but screw it, I want to be an artist. I don't care if that means I only get one meal a day." More power to you. But again, if you're in a situation where people are depending on you for that food, don't condemn them to one meal a day just because you're too obstinate to teach school.

Take home message from this book? Where any number of allegories or propagandas try and convince you that you should appreciate what you have, this book actually succeeds. Reading about some of the absolute destitution that Walls and family end up in, whether it actually happened or not, truly helps you to value that roof over your head and that running water in the sink.

I also hit a book called None So Blind by Joe Haldeman, a collection of science fiction short stories. Most of them are quite good, not going full blown Star Wars level of sci-fi, just altering one aspect of a story to make it paranormal. Perhaps one character has advanced technology. Perhaps there's an alien. Maybe technology has advanced from where we are now, but only significantly in one area, and that's the area Haldeman explores. Most of the time, this turns into very, very good reading. Haldeman's biggest weakness is that he insists on tying his Vietnam experiences into each and every story. There were maybe two stories in the entire book that didn't mention Vietnam at all--there was almost always a character that makes an offhand mention of having been in Nam. Ignoring that, or just taking each story for itself individually, it's a fine collection, and a good choice for sci-fi fans. (Yes, Nick, this is your book that you lent me about four years ago. Yes, you will be getting it back in the fall.)

Finally, we come to a literary giant, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. Heretically, I really didn't like it much. That goes against everything I've heard from people who've read it, and everything I'm supposed to believe as an American reading American literature, but oh well. One of the biggest reasons is Steinbeck's dialog. He insists on so closely attempting to match the Oklahoma dialect that he puts an apostrophe in every time a character drops a consonant in every speech. Hell, any given person might say "you and I" and sort of slide off on the d in "and". Or the f in any given "of". Those are understood speech patterns. But every "and" that shows up in the dialog in that book, without fail, is "an' ".

The other huge problem is that Steinbeck loves to have his characters tell stories, and that's fine. But these characters that he's written are not intelligent enough to be able to respond in a coherent conversation to each other beyond a few lines. So you might get one character express some thought, have another character tell a paragraph long tale about some chicken, and then have the first character, who just listened to the story, express the same thought he did before the story started. That's another irritating thing, the characters repeat themselves incessantly. Not repeating thoughts. Repeating what they just said, word for word.

We also see the book turning from simple expose narrative, showcasing the plight of the migrant worker, to a paean to organized labor and socialism at the end of the book. Showing that conditions were really awful for these people is one thing. If Steinbeck were trying to accomplish a social change by affecting people's attitudes toward poor workers, fine by me. That's a good enough cause. I can support him wanting to elicit a reaction akin to "wow, I never realized it, but people really do starve in America. We as a culture ought to do something about that." And this would have had a tremendous impact.

Where I have to stop supporting Steinbeck is when he finally crosses the line and suggests that the government can provide for the citizens much better than the citizens themselves can. And after that point, he entirely denounces the ability of the individual to combat injustice, and throws that responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the collective. "If we are to get anywhere, we must abandon our individualism, and once we have done that, attempt to get the government to fix our problems for us."

Political leanings aside, I thought it left a lot to be desired as a narrative, too. Constantly, every chapter in fact, we go from following the actual plot, to some generalized account of the same thing the story is about. Steinbeck might spend an entire chapter talking vaguely about someone going to pick cotton, somewhere, and communicate a the point that there's really not enough work to go around. Then, the very next chapter, we see the actual story describe the exact same conditions--except in specifics this time, featuring the characters the reader actually cares about. Steinbeck could have omitted essentially every other chapter and told the same story. Between that and the fact that the characters are seemingly unable to talk to each other for longer than a few lines and insist on saying everything they say at least twice (if not three times), it would almost be a good choice of book for an ADD patient--except for the fact that it lasts nearly 600 pages.

Structurally, the story didn't really have a climax and lacked a cohesive resolution altogether. Towards the end, a girl who'd been pregnant the entire book miscarries her baby. Then at the very end, she breast-feeds some dying man she comes across in a barn. Seriously. We've been following this destitute Oklahoma family for going on six hundred pages, and we've finally reached the point where they literally have no money or job, and now a flood has destroyed most of their possessions. The very last scene is this girl breast-feeding some random dude. Then, fin. Infuriatingly unresolved, as if Steinbeck said "ah, to hell with it. Time to go write Cannery Row." I understand the symbolism behind this; that she represents rebirth in the face of adversity, and the fact that even in desperate times, there is some kernel of compassion in humanity. That doesn't make it an entertaining way to end a book. And anytime you let your narrative suffer for the purpose of making a statement, you reduce the quality of your writing.

One of the foremost standards I learned from my high school AP Literature teacher, Mr. Norton, was "keep it f'real". Jokey slang aside, his point is a valid one. Don't claim to like a book simply because it's attained the label of "classic". And The Grapes of Wrath is just one that I can't bring myself to like.

Coming up: Canterbury Tales, Catch-22, The Stranger by Albert Camus, my second go with Pope Benedict's book, and probably some Palahniuk and Koontz to round it out.

Currently listening: "London Bridges" from This is Ivy League's self-titled album

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Life's Better With a Giant Turkey Leg

Among my hit parade of getting other people to cook/buy me food was home-cooked dinner courtesy of my mentor and his wife. (Pretty good pasta, too.) Now, before dinner, the afternoon's festivities were a trip out to the renaissance festival, that staple of elementary school field-trippers and counter-culture high schoolers.

There are lots of things at the renaissance festival that anyone can appreciate. For instance, when the falconer is so good that he can attract a bird of prey just by holding out his arm, and then doesn't get taloned in the process... that's impressive Various acts of juggling and swallowing fire. And of course no real day is complete without watching a joust, whether you happen to be nine or ninety.

Of course, a nine-year-old isn't going to have as developed a sense of subtext, observation, and historical relevance as an older viewer. That's why it took my second visit to a renaissance fair to notice something interesting about it. The fair is, necessarily, presented as an artifice. Nobody rides horses at each other with lances for honor anymore. (Well, perhaps that does exist; enthusiasts seem to exist for every conceivable hobby.) There are belly-dancer shows today, but long gone is the notion that a wealthy patron can go up to the show runner with a couple of silver pieces and take one of the dancers home for the night. In other words, though the performers try and maintain a respectable sense of verisimilitude, all the attendees know what a facade they're getting into.

And despite this, I don't think the experience for the average fairgoer is fundamentally different now as it was for a real fair six hundred years ago. In either time, it's not a common event to see a leatherworker or a blacksmith in action. Of course, the reason why is completely different: in the real renaissance, you were probably too poor to afford transportation to the industrial center where those things were being made, instead merely buying them when the traveling merchant decided to show up. Now, it's uncommon because of globalization and industrialization.

At both fairs, you're likely to see wondrous sights that only a few people in the world can perform. Maybe the methods of sword swallowing are more accessible now than they were, thanks to the internet, but that doesn't immediately imply that more people know how to do them. It's still a spectacle. And the entertainers now are no less eager to make a living than they ever were. Whichever ploy they use to try and gain the audience's favor, whether it be flattery, self-deprecation, or merely impressing us with their talent, they're not about to give a free show.

Two things I do wonder about. First, was the S&M pretext as strong at the fairs hundreds of years ago as it is now? Costumes. Leather as far as the eye can see. And more cats o' nine tails than at the "Johnny Vegas Adult Boutique" down the street from my apartment. That's sure as heck something that a nine year old isn't ever going to notice... hopefully.

Second, did it cost the equivalent in florins to eight dollars to get a turkey leg back then? No matter. I'm sure it was every bit as delicious. And no real man would come to a joust without one.

Currently listening: "Cemeteries of London", Coldplay

Sunday, June 15, 2008

This makes the Ark of the Covenant killing Nazis look plausible

Review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

And boy, that sure is a mouthful. I'll return again to one of my slogans: that I'm not really a movie person, but that I might appear to be one when I go on a movie-reviewing spree. That usually happens thanks to my legitimate movie person friends at two times of the year: the end of the year pre-Oscar season, and the summer blockbuster season. (Count this as the summer blockbuster installment of 2008.) Just to prove how much of a movie person I'm not, let's talk about the Indiana Jones movies. I've only seen the first one once, about five years ago, and I don't really remember what happened in it. I've never even seen the second or third ones. If that's not shirking my duty as a cinema-obsessed American, I don't know what is.

On the bright side, I've been told that if I'm only going to have seen two of the movies, the first and fourth aren't a bad two. And if I pretended to be a little apprehensive about having missed "some critical plot detail" in the second or third ones before I saw the fourth, the Indiana Jones series proves that it's on the other end of the "serial scale" from, say, Lost. I do have at least some modicum of education on the series; enough, for instance, to understand why Dr. Jones has a picture of Sean Connery on his desk.

And if I say that I don't really remember the first movie at all, I at least remember the iconic scene, perhaps one of the defining in American moviemaking, where Indiana shoots the scimitar-wielding Arabic fellow. That, and I remember lightning shooting out from the Arc of the Covenant and killing Nazis. And I remember thinking, up until this point in the movie, it almost seemed plausible. Maybe there really is some hidden Pharaonic staff buried in a tomb that, when placed in the right part of the model of the city, lights up with the rays of the sun, etc. etc. The lightning part was a jump into the idea of "yep, you're going to have some supernatural/paranormal events in this movie." Okay, fine.

The events of the fourth movie idea put that to shame, whether for better or worse. The ending of the movie is so awash in the paranormal that you can't decide whether to be confused or entertained, or merely to start lathering on the Mystery Science Theater. I mean, aliens, all right. The Mayan ruins are actually a spaceship, whatever. But not just a normal spaceship, no, an interdimensional one, that transports matter to other versions of space by sucking them through some hole in the ceiling?

I'm obviously not expecting the most subtly worked, nuanced plot from an action movie, but there's a massive hole in the plot that opens right when Dr. Jones and friends walk into the "bunch of aliens with crystal skeletons" room. So there's this legend that whoever returns the skull to the city gets control over its powers. Cool. Here's the difficulty with that: conquistador guy takes the skull from that chamber in, what, 1500-something? If all it took for the spaceship to get booted up again was for all the parts of all the aliens to be present, shouldn't the chamber already have been sucking stuff into another dimension? And how did that legend get started anyway?

So in terms of "movie that makes you think" you're in the wrong place--unless you want to try and puzzle through that plot hole. As an Indiana Jones movie, I'm not the best person to ask about that, given my relative lack of experience with the rest of the series. But as an action movie, and as an inspiration for adventure stories, it's a lot of fun.

One thing I really don't understand (aside from the entire backstory to the film) is Shia LaBeouf. My dad had seen that this person called Shia LaBeouf was hosting Saturday Night Live, and he asked me if I had any idea who that was. This was before I'd seen the movie, of course. "Nope," I responded. "In fact, I have no idea if that's a male or female." Turns out, of course, it's the guy who plays Jones' sidekick-slash-long lost son, an actor who's shown up in a handful of earlier movies, and someone who's apparently slated to become a huge movie star this year. Good to know.

Currently listening: "Either Way", Wilco

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Weezer: A Retrospective

Review: The Red Album

I'm a bad Weezer fan, I admit it. I didn't even know that there was a new Weezer album until I saw some scrappy looking guys on an MTV commercial and thought, "hey, those guys sound sort of like Weezer." Turns out, I was right. They were hyping their third self-titled album in six tries with their oddly named single "Pork and Beans". The first two self-titleds were their greatest successes, spaced roughly seven years apart; why not try it again, seven years later?

My experience with Weezer is an extensive one ranging over that second seven-year period, dating back to when I first figured out what sorts of music I liked. My very first forays into musical taste were Weird Al and baroque. The Weird Al period was fun, and everybody should have one, but I think I sort of outgrew the shtick. And I still like baroque and prefer it to any other classical, but my musical tastes have expanded considerably. Besides, baroque isn't per se a band. Coming into 8th, 9th grade, the first three bands I could consider myself a fan of were Creed, Rammstein, and Weezer. These are entirely different bands—generic rock, bordering on Christian; German "dance-metal"; and geek-rock meets emo—a diversity of taste that I try and still maintain today.

I don’t listen to much Creed anymore, except for when my iPod decides I need to hear "My Sacrifice" or "Faceless Man" on shuffle (the former happened as recently as last week). Then again, with the band's demise a few years ago, it's not like there's terribly much Creed to listen to these days anyway. I still keep up with Rammstein—there's nothing like it if I want some ridiculous driving industrial. Over the years, though, I've found there's less and less keeping me coming back to Rammstein—where I'm usually content with a band doing the same thing over several albums (as long as it stays good), Rammstein has been doing the same thing for so long that they might benefit from a drastic change. Or maybe it's just that I listened to Mutter so many times in the year 2002 that I finally reached some sort of saturation years down the road.

I discovered Weezer in a Newsweek article that was about the band's resurgence in producing the Green Album, the second self-titled (the first was the Blue). The article described what sorts of things the band sang about: the X-Men, playing roleplaying games in their basement, going on vacation, wishing they could drop everything to go surfing, and most importantly what they'd love to, but can't, find in a girl. Clearly, these are all things that a somewhat geeky fifteen year old can relate to. So in 2001 I decided to buy both the Blue and Green albums. (The article also touched on Pinkerton, Weezer's second album, which vanished into obscurity between the Blue and Green. But it didn't have very nice things to say about either the album itself or fan reactions to it, so I decided to pass on that one.)

And they were really, really good. Blue was a bit grittier, a nice helping of angst along with distorted guitar riffs, and it was where Weezer first established its unabashed geek-rock base. Green was peppy, on the verge of pop, and it couldn't help but make you think of nice, warm things like summer and the beach (especially when they started talking about Islands in the Sun). Despite those distinctions, they very much sounded like the products of the same band, so much so that I began to associate the two in my mind into one aggregate idea of "what Weezer sounds like". And over the next several years, I couldn't get enough of it.

A couple years later, 2003 saw the release of Maladroit, a heavier, louder take on the concept established in the first couple CDs. I didn't like it at first. I had that idea of what the band was supposed to sound like, and Maladroit conflicted with it. However, sometime since then, maybe around 2005, that album grew on me. Though I don't hold it in as high esteem as the Blue or Green, I recognize it today as a good CD. I say "maybe 2005" because that's when we got Make Believe, undoubtedly the worst in the discography. Upon figuring out how bad it was, I think I decided to re-evaluate my stance on Maladroit. As for Make Believe, between the strained efforts of the radio-overplayed "Beverly Hills" and the proclamation that "We Are All on Drugs", I started to wonder if Weezer might be too.

Despite their stances on whether Blue or Green was better, or if Pinkerton was any good at all, a huge majority of listeners held the opinion that Make Believe wasn't worth the CD it was burned onto. After a couple-year hiatus, Weezer returned to the strategy that had already paid dividends seven years earlier: return to a colored self-titled album. And so in 2008 we get the Red Album.

A lot has changed for this band since their would-be Buddy Holly days. Sleeve-worn hearts, black-rimmed glasses, and four guys standing around against a monochromatic background have given way to lyrics about being old, weird trucker hats, and… four guys standing around against a monochromatic background. "We're a whole lot different now," the band seems to say, "but hey, we're still just four guys playing some rock music. And you like us for that."

The important question, though, is what sort of rock music? From the onset of the album, it's clear that Weezer isn't out to please anyone. It's obliquely hinted to when the first track is called "Troublemaker". It's thematically obvious when you hear the second, "The Greatest Man That Ever Lived". And it's finally explicitly stated in the third, "Pork and Beans", when Weezer says outright that they're not out to please us.

It's become a rock band cliché to release a "this is an album that we wrote for us" album after they've reached a certain veteran status. In fact, it's become such a cliché that I can't think of any examples of them. But you know what I'm talking about. A band is known for doing one thing, and doing it well. Suddenly, it takes a complete change of course on the latest album. When confronted with criticism from fans or the media, the band casually replies "we just decided to make this a project that we wanted to do, and we hoped our fans would like it too." This raises a question: has the band been doing something it didn't really want to do for all these years?

So whether us fans like it or not—literally—we're stuck with this album that Weezer clearly intended for Weezer. It might work for Weezer, but does it work for a fan or listener? As an album, not really. The songs are disjointed, and there's really no common stylistic theme that unites them all. I'm not asking for "Weezer does concept album" here, merely for "Weezer writes eleven songs that sound good together." They've done that before, several times. One of the oddest parts of the album is when other members of the band besides Rivers Cuomo insist on singing—I'd remind them only that the Beatles fell apart after Ringo started to sing.

Of course, no discussion of the Red Album is complete without more talk about "The Greatest Man Who Ever Lived". This is Weezer's shot at theme and variation, and it's a doozy. It starts with Rivers trying some white boy rap, features several generic-rock sections and a few overly-dramatic snare drum sections, and even includes a contrapuntal vocal thing about halfway through. When writing theme and variation, the most important consideration is "are out variations distinct and interesting enough that you want to listen to all of them?" In this song, the answer isn't always yes. But I at least have to give major points for creativity.

Elsewhere in the album, it seems like Weezer has chosen to do a retrospective of themselves. There's Blue Album grit, Green Album pop, and Maladroit distortion. They pay tribute to some of their favorite rock songs (and presumptive influences) in "Heart Songs", and with that comes an irony I can't help but pounce on. That Newsweek article I read, the one that introduced me to Weezer in the first place, praised the band for "looking like Buddy Holly when everyone else wanted to look like Kurt Cobain" and being okay with that conception of themselves. "Heart Songs" has a prominent section dedicated to none other than 1991's seminal grunge album In Utero. No way Weezer did that on purpose; doubtful that any of the band remembers that statement in the article anyway. I'll again give some credit to Weezer, this time for unabashedly acknowledging their influences, whether they be from seventeen or thirty-seven years ago.

The Red Album has songs that would have felt in place on any of Weezer's previous albums. It has some that are right at home on the Red Album. And it has a few that are simply out of place, no matter where you put them. That's especially true when the album gets way too dark and fatalistic in the last few tracks and starts talking about death. While it's definitely not an instant hit, a la the Blue and Green Albums, it's not an instant failure a la Make Believe either. I can see it growing on me like Maladroit or fading like Pinkerton. And it should be interesting to see how I remember the Red Album next time the occasion comes around to do a Weezer retrospective.

Currently listening: "Canzon A 12", Giovanni Gabrieli

2008: A fine year to go Experimental

Review: Viva la Vida

A few weeks ago, my mom asked me what I thought of Coldplay. Now, my mom is definitely a product of the 60s and 70s, but certainly a product who lived through those decades and has musical taste. At the very least, she completed the greatest musical task set forth to baby boomer parents: impress upon the youth the immense significance of the Beatles. It was through my mom that I first came across the thesis that everything good about any music after 1970 is in some way attributable to the Beatles. It sounds radical, but I'm more or less inclined to agree with it.

So when she asked me what I thought of Coldplay, I was naturally a bit surprised. "How come?" I asked. She had seen the iTunes commercial with the new Coldplay song, and she said she never knew she actually liked that band. "Coldplay's all right," I told her. "Some of their stuff is boring. But there's a lot of music that, given a choice between Coldplay and it, I'm picking Coldplay." Now, at this point, I had not seen the iTunes commercial in question—credit to my mom for picking up something technological and musical before I got there.

Several days later, I saw the iTunes commercial for myself. This is the one featuring the title track from Viva la Vida. Yes, I thought, mom's right, this is good. Perhaps I should check out the new Coldplay CD for myself. I did. If I thought the newest Death Cab CD was going in some strange directions… let's just say I wasn't prepared for Viva la Vida. This is some sort of odd "Coldplay does experimental rock". We're talking pentatonics, mixed meter, innovative orchestration. And the baffling thing is, on almost every level, it works.

I'll go farther than that, in fact. This album has done something remarkable. Something that Parachutes seemed dead-set against, that A Rush of Blood to the Head wanted nothing to do with either, and that X&Y flirted with and almost broke through to in a few spots. This album has made Coldplay interesting. And it's easily my favorite Coldplay CD.

Now, as a disclaimer, this is coming from the guy who liked X&Y, quite a bit. I wouldn't go so far as to call X&Y one of my favorite CDs, but it's definitely something that I listen to on purpose. I've been told from people who know far more than I do about songwriting and popular music appreciation that I'm really not supposed to like it that much. The lyrics are flat, they complain. There's almost no trace of creativity. Yeah, maybe that's true, I admit. But it's good to listen to.

All of this has made me realize something about my personal criteria for good music. Forced to make a choice, I'm going to pick the thing that sounds nice over the thing that has meaningful words behind it almost every time. If you can do both, a la the Shins, then you're (finally) golden (boy). Other bands can do it too, like the Decemberists, Eisley, Rilo Kiley, and Sufjan Stevens; these are artists I would legitimately call my "favorites". There are exceptions, like Neutral Milk Hotel, which has a certain indelible intellectual charm about it despite the fact that Neutral Milk Hotel wouldn't know "in tune" if it hit them in the proverbial jug. But this is precisely why I don't listen to Bright Eyes, Radiohead, and Modest Mouse—regardless of how good the words are, it just doesn't sound very pleasant.

Most of X&Y did. Again, not that Parachutes and A Rush of Blood to the Head didn't. They were just bland in their not-unpleasantness. Maybe they were a plate piled high with white rice. There's nothing wrong with rice, and given the choice between rice and starvation (or the Brussels sprouts of most modern popular music), I'm taking the rice. Maybe X&Y was rice subtly flavored with saffron. It doesn't change the fact that it's still rice, and plenty of people are going to criticize it for trying to pretty itself up and mask its shortcomings.

That makes Viva la Vida gumbo. There's still rice there, and it’s not that you even have to look very hard to find it. But this time there's much more going on: more flavors, more colors, and more to keep you coming back even after you've had a plate. Now, suppose you like your rice plain. Saffron would be a little off-putting, and chicken, sausage, and okra are going to turn you away completely. And suppose you were sort of expecting something drastically different, but you would have preferred a helping of cashew chicken mixed into that rice. Then Viva la Vida might be very disappointing indeed.

The fact remains that, for better or worse, it's different. I think it's good different. And I can see this experimental album being one of those that creates a schism in Coldplay's listener base: some fraction swearing off the band as sellouts and another fraction embracing the experiment. I'm very much in the latter.

Currently listening: "Harry Truman", Chicago

Sunday, June 08, 2008

What Matt has been doing in suburban St. Louis

Among other things, getting taken out to dinner by co-workers trying to make a good impression on the Intern. Reading, a bit. Finally getting the internet! (Yesterday marked that momentous occasion.) Watching all sorts of trash on MTV--I'm so up to date on A Shot at Love that it pains me. I've also "acquired" the first two seasons of The Office, which everyone tells me that I'm supposed to love. I'm just scratching the second season now, and yeah, I see where the hype comes from. This is probably the driest comedy that the American market can tolerate, but that's entirely a good thing so far. That also means that it's downright slapstick compared to the British version that inspired the American one, which is also a good thing. Some Britcom is funny, but I get the idea that The Office was probably the driest thing to hit English television in some time. This means most American fans--myself included--are going to be turned off from it. Bottom line: if you're among the perhaps dozen or so people who have told me that I needed to watch this show, good call, and I'll update more as I get further into it.

This week also marked the return of The Mole, which is certainly my favorite reality/competition show of all time, and probably breaks into the top ten or fifteen overall. The premise, in case you're unfamiliar: a group of people is shipped off to an exotic locale and made to do ridiculous things in the name of money. Every time someone wins a challenge, money is added to the pot, and whoever wins the show gets the pot. Now, the catch: one of this group is trying to sabotage the rest of it. This can't be blatant abuse, like knocking down a tower if the challenge is to build a tower; then, people would catch on. It's subtleties, like "oh, goodness, I missed that clue buried in the sand. Oops." It's intelligent in a way that nearly no other reality show comes close to, and it's engaging to the viewer, as you yourself try and figure out who the Mole is.

Also, writing. I'm about to embark on a Super Secret Writing Mission at the request of a friend who shall remain nameless. As a warm-up exercise, I wrote the last half of a short story I'd had in the works for some time called "Ashlanders". I described this to my friend Samantha as "half trivial satirical social commentary and half weird Lost-inspired love story". The premise is based off a story one of my favorite high school teachers once told me about a game he and his college buddies used to play: go to the library on a Friday night, and find the white kid. This is really nowhere as racist as it sounds, I promise. You can read "Ashlanders" here.

Coming up next: reviews of the new Indiana Jones movie, the new Coldplay and Weezer CDs, and a discussion of the renaissance festival.

Currently listening: "Strawberry Swing," Coldplay