Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Oregon Trail, Day 1: May 27, 2011

New to this?  Start with the prologue!

6:01 am, Berkeley CA: My alarm goes off.  This is literally the earliest I have woken up all year.

7:15 am, Hercules CA: The Burger King Croissanwich might be the best $4 I've spent in recent memory.

10:24 am, I-5 north of Sacramento CA: "London Bridge" be Fergie comes on Josh's iPod.  He claims it's not his fault it was on there.

11:36 am, Weed CA: The men's restroom at Weed's Chevron station smells like gasoline; all things considered, there are worse things for a men's restroom to smell like.

12:05 pm, US 97 north of Weed CA:
Mount Shasta

2:17 pm, US 97 north of Klamath Falls, OR: T-Mobile does not have my back.  I'm on something called "UNICEL," which is presumably part of a United Nations plan to bring cell phone service to central Oregon because the coverage here is so poor.

5:20 pm, Bend OR: After a delicious linner of Red Robin, we've made our way inside the venue.  "Daniel" by Bat for Lashes is playing, and I have total indie cred for knowing the song.

5:53 pm: Jenny and Johnny start their set not on time, but early!

6:12 pm: Jenny and Johnny needs more Jenny, but other than that, it's pretty good music.

6:45 pm: Bright Eyes starts their set, and it starts to rain.  I'm not making this up as some sort of emo joke.  As soon as Conor Oberst gets halfway through his first song, the rain starts falling.

7:22 pm: Bright Eyes finishes their set, and it stops raining.  I'm not making this up either--right before the last song, the weather clears, and it's sunny for the rest of the evening.

8:15 pm: Death Cab finally takes the stage!  They open with "I Will Possess Your Heart," and not the watered-down radio version either.

 The set continues with "The New Year," which is off Transatlanticism and therefore good, and "We Laugh Indoors" and "A Movie Script Ending" from The Photo Album, which is an album I don't know nearly as well as I should.  "Some Boys" is the first track they play from Codes and Keys, and it's probably my least favorite track on the album, though it sounds blessedly less over-produced live.

Death Cab winds their way through an impressive array of music, hitting twenty-one (!) songs in in the main set and ranging from their earliest material (1998) to their most recent.  Three or four songs come from the "old" albums, Something About Airplanes and We Have The Facts And We're Voting Yes, which are fine music live but way too lo-fi for me when they were recorded in Ben Gibbard's kitchen the studio.  Most of Death Cab's albums have three or four songs each make an appearance: the Plans contingent is "Soul Meets Body," "I Will Follow You Into the Dark," "Crooked Teeth," and "What Sarah Said".

Both "Grapevine Fires" and "Cath..." show up, and we discuss a bit which is the better song.  I like "Cath..." for the musical structure, and Josh prefers "Grapevine Fires" for the imagery, but both tell awesome stories, and both together are far and away the two best tracks on Narrow Stairs.  The great part about a concert is you get to hear them both!

With the album releasing literally two days later, it's hardly a surprise that Codes and Keys is so well represented. "You Are a Tourist," the title track, "Underneath the Sycamore," and a couple of songs I don't recognize by name yet all show up after "Some Boys".  I liken the new Death Cab album to a Decemberists album (review coming soon!) in that half of it is awesome, a quarter of it is forgettable, and a quarter of it is just sort of bad.  The song where Ben Gibbard sounds like he's singing underwater about "California" and "isolation" is in the "bad" pile, but luckily it's balanced with "You Are a Tourist" and "Underneath the Sycamore," which are both fine songs.

9:25 pm: The set is winding down, and our old friend Transatlanticism has been sorely under-represented since "The New Year".  After my bold prediction of "Soul Meets Body" for the encore was shot down about half an hour ago, I switch to "Title and Registration" and wonder if we could be so lucky as to get "Transatlanticism" on top of it.  "The Sound of Settling" is played, which makes me really happy.  I don't know of a more upbeat song about failed relationships!

9:50 pm: After finishing "Title and Registration," Death Cab finishes their set with "Transatlanticism," and I am thrilled.

10:50 pm, Redmond OR: We arrive at the Super 8, our home-away-from-home for the next few days.  Reflecting on the concert, we're all really happy with the variety and length of the set.  Our consensus Song We Wish Were Played is "Marching Bands of Manhattan" from Plans; "Styrofoam Plates" and "I Was a Kaleidoscope" from The Photo Album and "The 405" from We Have The Facts are honorable mentions.

Midnight: I fall asleep, visions of Portland dancing in my head.

The Oregon Trail, Prologue

March 26, 2011, 10 am: Tickets for Death Cab for Cutie's San Francisco concert go on sale.

March 26, 2011, 8 pm: I log on to Ticketmaster and am surprised to find that I can't buy a ticket to the concert.  "This is odd," I think.  "Surely this concert hasn't sold out in less than a day."

Late March-Early April 2011:  I stalk Ticketmaster (and Stubhub and Craigslist) several times a day... and no luck.  I come to find out that the concert had sold out not only in less than a day, but in less than an hour.  Ticketmaster isn't doing it for me because there are literally no tickets left, and the resale markets are essentially useless because the tickets are will-call, photo-ID only.

But I'm not about to give up on this concert.  I've been a fan of Death Cab for six or seven years, having never seen them live, and they've easily worked their way to the top of my Bands I Need To See In Concert list.  On a whim, I look at the rest of their tour dates, curious if they'd be playing a show elsewhere in northern California.  They're not... but they are playing at this sweet-looking venue called the Les Schwab Amphitheater in some town called Bend, Oregon.  That's "only" eight to nine hours away... and The Decemberists are playing the exact same venue only two days later.  Better yet, all of this happens over Memorial Day weekend, so I could easily make a weekend of it: drive up Friday, stay through Sunday, and come home Monday, only missing one day of work.

Late April 2011: I convince my friend Josh and his girlfriend (now fiancee!) Sonia to come along.  The Oregon Trail is going to happen.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

3-Sentence Reviews: End of the 2010-2011 Television Season

To bookend the season properly...

I can’t give a proper three-sentence review to The  Event because I stopped watching it mid-season.  What began as a promising political thriller a la 24 with a touch of Lost-like supernatural intrigue turned into a bland mess of aliens over the course of about three episodes.  The acting performance turned in by Zeljko Ivanek was a much-needed bright spot, but sadly the writing was so uninspired that I can’t even remember his character’s name.

Against all odds, Michael Scott leaving The Office just might have breathed new life into the show.  The last few episodes of this season, beginning with a surprisingly touching farewell to Michael, were the strongest the show has been in years, and the B plots (like Angela marrying a gay state senator) are firing on all cylinders.  As long as new boss (and I’m thrilled that it’s not going to be Will Ferrell’s DeAngelo) creates the same inane dynamic that Michael carried through seven seasons, The Office has at least a few more years of life in it.

The number of people who wrote off Outsourced without giving it a chance (“oh, it’s set in India, so it must be racially offensive”) continues to astound me.  After performing reasonably well in the fall despite that negativity, NBC shipped the show off to the death slot of 10:30 pm, where it had expectedly miserable ratings leading to its cancellation.  That’s a pity, because Outsourced’s Vaudevillian-meets-absurdist comedy was like very little on television, but at least fans got the relative satisfaction of a reasonable season-turned-series finale.

This season of Survivor only went to prove the point that a cast filled with less-interesting-than-average people leads to a season that’s less interesting than average.  I didn’t hate the redemption island mechanic as much as a vocal contingent of fans apparently did, though I agree that its impact was lost when it crammed in four people (erroneously calling it a duel) and having everyone but the guy who came in dead last “win”.  And CBS, if you subject me to the Rob Mariano or Russell Hantz season one more time, there’s a good chance I stop watching your show; the novelty of bringing back old players has long worn off, and I’m already skeptical of next season because of it.

After a mostly solid season, The Mentalist shocked with a season finale that might have been the best-ever episode of the show.  The constant one-upmanship between Jane and Red John took some seriously inspired writing and acting, but everyone pulled it off.  The only question now is where does the series go from here?

House burdened us with some real clunkers (see the horrible attempt at a Pulp Fiction tribute episode where House decides to spend a few days hanging out at an elementary school), and storylines like Taub’s ongoing marital issues aren’t nearly as interesting as the show thinks they are.  Worse, we had to endure an entire season of “Huddy” detracting from the snarky medical drama just to hear a restatement of the show’s main theme that everybody lies and nobody changes.  Now that the show has it out of its system, and especially with Lisa Edelstein’s much-publicized departure, maybe House will hearken back to its brilliant first three seasons as inspiration for its last.

I laugh, on average, about three times per episode of The Big Bang Theory.  It's become oddly romantic comedy-y, with even Sheldon, the caricature of social ineptitude, settling into his approximation of a relationship.  Bernadette and Priya add basically nothing to the show, there's been virtually zero character development over the course of the show's sixty-plus episodes... yet each of those three jokes is genuinely hilarious enough for me to keep watching the show.

Currently listening: "Underneath the Sycamore,"  Death Cab for Cutie

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Kathryn Calder: Album and Concert

The great thing about being a fan of a band that's billed as a "supergroup" is that you instantly get five or six more bands and solo acts to delve into.  Neko Case, of course, has an amazing voice (she and Jenny Lewis are almost certainly the best female vocalists in the business today), but her disregard for the "song" when she's singing by herself makes it a little tough to get excited about her solo work.  A.C. Newman's own solo work has enough of the energy and creativity of his contributions to the New Pornographers that I'd pretty much just rather listen to the New Pornographers.  And Dan Bejar is a talented guy too, but his slightly off-kilter vocals on his slightly self-satisfied tracks usually end up as my least favorite on any given New Pornographers album.

Now Kathryn Calder is launching a solo career of her own, which I sort of knew about but didn't pay a lot of attention to until Stephanie (of "whitest day of my life" fame) touted her album as "really really good".  Calder seems determined to show the world that she's a whole lot more than "that other girl singer that the New Pornographers have who's not Neko Case".  Because she was originally part of the band as a touring replacement for Neko Case, and now sings a lot of harmony with her, it can be tough to disentangle what vocal parts are Neko Case's or Kathryn Calder's (or, for that matter, A. C. Newman's falsetto's).

That's why it's such a pleasant surprise to listen to her 2010 album Are You My Mother? and hear that Calder has a lovely mezzo-soprano that weaves effortlessly among Pornographers-style power pop, "conventional" acoustic singer-songwriter, stripped-down piano ballads, and jangly indie folk.  The entirely "ooh"ed chorus of the first track, "Slip Away," is a statement of Calder's vocal register, and "Low" is a fine song if you're a connoisseur of the deliberately lo-fi keyboard-driven, but it's with the energy of "Castor and Pollux" that the album really hits its stride, and it doesn't let up until somewhere around track eight or nine.

The standout track (if I really have to pick just one from the outstanding middle chunk of this album) is "If You Only Knew," and since I'm such a sucker for both indie folk and unabashedly happy music (not to mention songs that mention places I've lived), that's probably not a huge surprise.  But "Follow Me Into the Hills" is pretty excellent too, and so is "Day Long Past Its Prime," and so is just about everything on the album.  Only one criticism lingers for more than a few seconds, and that's how slightly underproduced many of the tracks feel.  There's actually a really touching story behind that, so maybe we can cut Kathryn Calder some slack here.

The silver lining to wanting a better production value from her album tracks is that when you see Kathryn Calder live, you get it!  In true Canadian indie musician fashion, "Kathryn Calder live" is actually Kathryn Calder plus four or five people playing various instruments and harmonizing all the "ooh"s and "la"s that make her music so delightful.  She proves to be an remarkably talented musician, delivering an outstanding vocal performance on top of deftly switching between guitar and keyboard.

After better fidelity (coupled with convincing live musicianship), the second-best reason that Kathryn Calder in concert is actually better than Kathryn Calder on your iPod is that there's more to listen to.  Three songs showed up that aren't part of Are You My Mother ("One Two Three," something to the effect of "Turn the Light On," and another that I don't think she named), and they were all really really good.  Given that these were described as "new," it seems likely that Calder has a follow-up album in the works, which is nothing but good news.

As can be expected from an artist embarking on the first tour of her solo career, Calder's vocals wavered a bit for the first song or two.  And the band members aren't talented enough stage artists yet that they're comfortable vamping or chatting with the audience for the minute it took Calder to get some tuning issues worked out--or maybe they're awkward indie kids, just like their audience.  But they made up for it by being entertainingly Canadian (confirmed: people from Vancouver actually do say "aboat" instead of "about"!) and having genuine fun on stage.

Going to the show was genuine fun.  Buying a ticket was a genuine deal--not since I was convinced to see Zao and Throwdown back in 2006 have I paid twelve dollars to see a live show.  And between the album, the concert, and the promise of more good solo material, I am now a genuine Kathryn Calder fan.

Currently listening: "Blindness," Metric