Wednesday, June 22, 2011

An iTunes-created top 15 artists

It's facebook viral survey time again!

Directions: open iTunes and sort your songs by number of plays.  List the top 15 distinct artists that appear in terms of plays and the most-played track by each (along with the number of plays). Eminem and Eminem feat. xyz and variants thereof are not distinct artists, as much as iTunes may think they are.  Write something about each of them.  Tag me in your note.

1. "Greater Than," Vedera, from Stages (38).  Okay, this one is going to take a little explanation.  Two and a half years ago, suggested that I listen to a little EP called Stages from a band called Vedera.  It was awesome.  It's three songs of brilliance; if you want them to, they can tell a cohesive story, and if not, they're perfectly amazing in isolation.  But the best part was that Vedera hyped the EP as a preview of things to come with their second full-length album, also called Stages.  The full-length didn't quite live up to the EP, but I still listened to it far, far too many times back in fall 2009.  "Greater Than" is both the first and best track on the album, explaining its gratuitous number of plays.

2. "Sing Me Spanish Techno," The New Pornographers, from Twin Cinema (30).  In a year that also saw the release of The Everglow, Plans, Illinois, and Picaresque, Twin Cinema still managed to be a standout album.  This was the first song I heard by the New Pornographers--tragically, not until 2010!--and it made me an instant fan.  Energy, imagery, and creative lyrics make this song a worthy addition to the list.  Go listen to it.

3. "Careful," Paramore, from Brand New Eyes (20).  Yep, guilty as charged, I'm into Paramore.  The only surprise here was that my most-played Paramore track wasn't from Riot!, because that album is seriously good, and I will defend it with every ounce of critical credibility that I have.  "Careful" is a fine track too, with enough energy to have been on Riot! and slightly more sophisticated lyrics.

4. "Australia," The Shins, from Wincing the Night Away (17).  Love this song, love this album, love the Shins.  It's so happy--how could you not love it?  Some highlights are grin-inducing lyrics like "faced with the dodo's conundrum," a vague theme of breaking out of the mold and doing what makes you happy, and an absolutely delightful music video.

5. "The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid," The Decemberists, from The Hazards of Love (15).  The Decemberists have a lot of material that's tough to explain to a non-fan, and Hazards takes the cake for furthest out there.  It's also irrationally my favorite Decemberists album--I think the theater/folk/prog experiment paid off.  This song is essentially the end of "Act I" of the implied musical; it's about the shape-shifting protagonist William trying to escape the clutches of his jealous forest-queen mother.  And in the context of Hazards, that not only all makes sense, but is really entertaining, both narratively and musically.

6. "Jewel to Sparkle," The Juliana Theory, from Love (14).  A little surprised this showed up until I remembered how often I listen to the Juliana Theory at the gym.  They might be the most under-appreciated rock band of the 2000s, and if they're known at all, it's for Emotion is Dead.  It's a fine album, but Love is probably better and certainly under-rated.  It contains a lot of harmonic and instrumental explorations not normally associated with circa-2003 emo rock, which it what makes it such good music.

7. "Daniel," Bat for Lashes, from Two Suns (13).  My friend Andrew and I have a fine tradition of listening to the Pitchfork "top ten albums of the year" every January.  2009's was particularly terrible (some trash from Animal Collective was apparently the "best"), but the one bright spot we came across was Bat for Lashes.  And by bright spot, we meant this song and maybe two or three more on Two Suns.  "Daniel" is an out-of-place techno-inspired track on an album that feels like an opiate-induced day-long dream; it's Bat for Lashes at its most accessible and musically sound.

8. "Someone Else's Arms," Mae, from The Everglow (12).  Absolutely a travesty that this track is so far down on the list, it's possibly my favorite song from possibly my favorite album of all time.  My love for The Everglow defies explanation, but it involves some combination of personal significance and musical brilliance.  Of all the songs on it, "Someone Else's Arms" rocks the hardest and leaves the strongest impression.

9. "Desecration Smile," Red Hot Chili Peppers, from Stadium Arcadium (12).  Not being a huge Chili Peppers fan in general, I was pleasantly blown away by Stadium Arcadium. It has a few weak tracks on it; "Desecration Smile" is not one of them.  It might be about a relationship, or drugs, or nothing at all, but it hardly needs lyrics considering its modal, brooding melodies are so intriguing.

10. "Shady Grove," as performed by Among the Oak and Ash, from Among the Oak and Ash (11).  Very cool.  I've never been shy about admitting that I like a little folk and bluegrass garnish to go along with my steady diet of indie pop, which explains why I took to AtOAA so readily after hearing them on Paste Magazine's podcast a couple of years ago.  "Shady Grove" is an old American folk song, with thousands of renditions out there, and Garrison Starr's simple banjo-accompanied version is as good as any of them.

11. "Bohemian Like You," The Dandy Warhols, from Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia (11).  I claim to be a Dandy Warhols fan on the strength of this album alone; in fact, I've never even heard any of the other albums, I just assume they're a fraction as good.  My friend Nicholas shared this album with me back in 2005, and this track was an instant favorite: "Bohemian Like You" made fun of the hipster culture before it was cool to make fun of hipsters.

12. "Help I'm Alive," Metric, from Fantasies (11).  In the wasteland of music that was 2009, Metric somewhat quietly released by far their best album, managing to incorporate their dance-y unconventionality from previous albums without being nearly as aggressively in our faces about it.  "Help I'm Alive" is far more interesting than it deserves to be for how much it repeats, but Emily Haines and company make me want to hear the insistent, driving chorus each of the dozen or so times it shows up.

13. "We Are What You Say," Sufjan Stevens, from A Sun Came! (10).  Hardly a shock that a Sufjan Stevens song shows up on this list, the only surprise being that it's from A Sun Came! instead of the more recent The Age of Adz or the more brilliant Illinois.  Along with "A Winner Needs A Wand," "We Are What You Say" opens Stevens' debut album with a surprisingly hard-rock take on Middle Eastern folk.  Complete with slightly unconventional instrumentation and structure and vaguely-religious-but-draw-your-own-conclusions lyrics, "We Are What You Say" laid the foundation for more than a decade's worth of experimentation by Sufjan Stevens in the realm of indie folk.

14. "Barrowland Ballroom," Amy MacDonald, from This Is The Life (10).  Every season, Starbucks releases a "Have You Heard" compilation that has historically done a pretty impressive job of picking out the next big thing in indie-land.  I first heard Amy MacDonald on the Fall 08 edition, which also included current indie darling Bon Iver.  I wasn't as impressed with his music as I was apparently supposed to be, but "This Is The Life" convinced me to buy Amy MacDonald's album.  Most of it isn't as good as the title track; "Barrowland Ballroom" is one of the few songs that's probably better.  Once styled as "the UK's answer to Katy Perry, except she can actually sing," MacDonald pilots her spirited contralto through a stride piano-driven track about doing awesome things with people you love.

15. "Close Call," Rilo Kiley, from Under the Blacklight (10).  Even though they're the two most different-sounding Rilo Kiley albums, Blacklight and Take-Offs and Landings go back and forth for the honor of "Matt's favorite Rilo Kiley album".  Blacklight must have won out, at least over the two-year span that this iTunes library has been racking up plays.  Like every good Rilo Kiley song, it's a Jenny Lewis vocal showcase with just a hint of country

Currently listening: "My Lovely," Eisley, from Room Noises (only 3 plays?  what?)

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Game of Thrones, Season 1 (Part 2 of 2)

If you missed yesterday's post where I mention my surprise that Game of Thrones has an audience and talk about my dislike of some of the more egregiously "HBO" scenes, read it first.

One of the reasons it's been such a pleasure watching Game of Thrones (the TV show) is how well it's followed A Game of Thrones (the first book in A Song of Ice and Fire--won't it be nice and confusing next season when we're watching Game of Thrones based on A Clash of Kings?).  I haven't read the first book in a long time (maybe a decade?) so I don't remember its fine details well, but nothing seems jarringly out of place.

While the Unburnt scene is the proper denouement for the first book/season, and probably the one that's going to have the most important consequences for the series as a whole, my favorite scene in A Game of Thrones has to be the King in the North scene.  And it turned out awesome--if the Greatjon taking out his sword and saying "there sits the only king I mean to bend my knee to" doesn't give you chills, you're watching it wrong.  It could have used some broad shots of various castles in the north raising the Direwolf (one part of the book that I definitely do remember, and vividly).  But otherwise, that scene--and virtually all of the first season--is both good television and a good match to the books.

Where the TV show has really excelled, though, has been in the characters.  Sean Bean expectedly nails Ned Stark, and the rest of the Stark family is pretty spot-on too.  The Lannisters are comparably well done: Cersei and Jaime are great, Tywin is better, and no discussion of the first season would be complete without praising Peter Dinklage's Emmy-worthy Tyrion Lannister.  Because I read the first few Song of Ice and Fire books at around the same time that the Lord of the Rings movies came out, I couldn't deconvolute the two series' "dwarves," and I've had this ridiculous mental image of Tyrion as looking like Gimli for the past decade.  Credit to Mr. Dinklage for showing me exactly how Tyrion is supposed to look, act, and behave.

That's been the best part of the television adaptation: getting reasonable depictions of all of the characters.  Some characters are relatively important to the plot, yet if you asked me based on the books to describe them, I'd be at a loss.  In particular, Syrio Forel and Littlefinger are shown much more vividly in the TV show than I could have envisioned them.

Only a few characters were portrayed significantly differently than in the books.  The biggest misstep was probably Renly Baratheon; where the Renly of the books is a charismatic, influential adviser to the king, the Renly of the TV series is reduced to Loras Tyrell's gay lover.  Robert Baratheon's drunkenness and misogyny are emphasized at the expense of his former diplomatic ability and skills as a warrior, which is not as much a mis-portrayal as a difference of opinion.  And both Cersei (in emphasizing Robert's lechery) and Tywin (in showing that he has a sense of honor, albeit a self-serving one) are portrayed much more sympathetically than in the books, an interesting and not unwelcome take.

Next season, I'm looking forward to seeing Stannis, Mance Rayder, Jaqen H'ghar, and Roose Bolton.  But I'm most interested in seeing Melisandre; a good decision in casting her could lead to the most evocative TV villain since the smoke monster from Lost.

Currently listening: "Is Patience Still Waiting?", the Juliana Theory

Monday, June 20, 2011

Game of Thrones, Season 1 (Part 1 of 2)

There's something I can't figure out about Game of Thrones.  It's not what the relationship between Houses A, B, and C is.  It has nothing to do with whether Character X's motivation to betray Character Y had something to do with Character Z.  And it's not even the true parentage of that bastard, or the true allegiance of that eunuch.

It's why the show has any mainstream appeal at all.

I say that as a huge fan of George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, the epic fantasy book series that Game of Thrones is based on.  It is awesome.  It's probably the best fantasy fiction being written today.  But it also has plenty going against it, especially from the standpoint of being a successful TV show.

First, it's complicated.  Martin has described his books as having a "cast of thousands".  You don't have to keep close tabs on all those thousands to understand the story, and not all of them are around in the first book (i.e., the first season of the TV series).  But A Game of Thrones does have a dozen or so characters who could rightly be considered "main characters" and another dozen or so supporting characters with complex personalities and enough relevance to the story that you do need to keep track of them.

Similarly, while you don't need to have the membership of all eight or nine Great Houses committed to memory, you do need to understand the interrelationships among four of them to follow A Game of Thrones, and the series only becomes more demanding as it progresses.  And you don't need to be a scholar of all seven millennia of Westeros's history, but knowing the last fifty years or so provides some very necessary background.

Second, it's a "genre show" if ever there was one.  Find two people who are familiar with Battlestar Galactica.  Ask one of them "is BSG a drama?" and the answer will most likely be "yes."  Ask the other "what sort of show is BSG?" and the answer will most likely be "sci-fi."  If a TV show (or book series, movie, etc.) can be classified as fantasy (or sci-fi, or Western, etc.), it's overwhelmingly likely that it will be.

TV series like this are often referred to as "genre shows"; despite really only being dramas dressed up slightly differently, there's a propensity among critics to over-classify.  And it can be to the series' detriment.  Some people aren't "sci-fi people" or "don't do Westerns," but they're actually closing themselves off to good entertainment just because of the setting.  If anything, the stigma is worst with fantasy.

Finally, the story isn't told yet.  After a six-year wait following A Feast for Crows, we're finally getting the fifth book next month.  Nobody (save George RR Martin) has any idea how this is going to shake out, and at the current rate, we probably won't know this decade.  But even for fans of the TV show who haven't read the books, there are still plenty of stories untold.

Remember that time when Ned Stark told Beric Dondarrion to take a hundred dudes and track down Gregor Clegane?  How about when Barristan Selmy stormed out of the Red Keep after Cersei forced him into an early retirement?  Is Walder Frey serious about his demand for Robb to marry a Frey daughter, and will Robb keep the promise?  And who's this Stannis Baratheon character everyone keeps talking about?

Having read the books, I know the answers to all of those questions, and most of them turn out to be relatively important points.  But to someone who doesn't already know the answers, they seem like gaping plot holes.

Yet, despite all of those reasons why it shouldn't, Game of Thrones has succeeded, commercially, critically, and artistically. The one area where it's been less than stellar is its over-"HBO-ification".  Yes, Martin's world is a gritty one, with sex, violence, death, and vulgarity in every corner.  And no, I'm not the sort of prudish viewer who immediately dismisses a show with the first sex scene.  But there are scenes that advance the plot and/or the characters, and then there are HBO scenes.  One particular scene (with two random girls in Littlefinger's room) was actually hard to watch--I had to plug in earphones lest my roommates start asking questions.

Aside from the one scene per episode where you can't help but wonder "did we really need to see that?", Game of Thrones is a rousing success, following at least the first book perfectly.  In the next post, I'll talk more specifics about the series and the books: what matched, what didn't, and where either the books or the show were better.

Currently listening: "So What," Miles Davis

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Resurrection of a Laptop's Audio

Spring has not, in recent years, been the kindest season to my electronics.  About a month ago, I had several simultaneous maladies visit my computers.  First, my desktop, barely two years old, decided it no longer needed to turn on for no apparent reason.  A new motherboard ordered and RMA'ed later, whatever was ailing it was still utterly undiagnosable, so I bode my time until I could pounce on a stellar deal at Woot!.

The second problem was that my laptop decided it no longer needed to play audio out of the right channel.  It only refused to work with headphones or external speakers plugged in, of course.  I was reduced to the choice between one channel of audio and three: my laptop's internal speakers feature the conventional "left" and "right" plus the extra added bonus of "static".

Obviously, it was a much less disastrous problem than what befell my desktop, but man, it was irritating.  And if my laptop was to become (at least temporarily) my actual computer, it was a problem that I wanted to get fixed.  (How else was I supposed to enjoy Indie Pop Bonanza during my lunch hour-and-a-half?)  I tried all the usual steps: disable and re-enable the device, uninstall and re-install the device, update the driver, roll back the driver... all to no avail.

Skeptically, I give Sony tech support a call to see if they had any ideas, fixes, or straight-up magic to cure my machine, but I was pretty much resigned to it being a hardware issue.  I speak with "Hugo," and of course I can't get the idea out of my mind that I'm getting tech support from Hurley.  (I console myself by remembering that his name probably is not really Hugo.)  He leads me down the exact same path I've already trodden, and eventually he concludes that it's a hardware issue.  Thanks, Hugo.

Hugo gives me a link to the Sony service site, where I'm sure I can send in my laptop (currently my only computer) and probably pay $89 for the privilege of having someone pop out my old card and put a new one in.  Or, I can take the grad-student approach and fix it myself for $9.  Doing an Amazon search for "sound card," I discover a product I never knew existed: the external sound card.

This is a brilliant inch-and-a-half piece of plastic that plugs into a free USB slot and makes your computer play sound again.  I didn't notice a significant drop in quality, though it's possible that a serious audiophile comparing it with a dedicated sound card would.  If you can stand the slight inconvenience of another part to keep track of and a permanently occupied USB port, this thing really is straight-up magic to cure your machine.

Currently listening: "Tell Your Mama," Vespers

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Death Cab: Codes and Keys

Back in 2001, when all the cool kids were listening to The Photo Album, there are plenty of ways you could have described Death Cab.  "Overproduced" would not have been one of them; frankly, it would have been laughable.  Something About Airplanes (1998) and We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes (2000) seriously sound like they were recorded in Chris Walla's linen closet, and The Photo Album isn't much cleaner.  Even Transatlanticism (2003), an album that I adore, has its less-than-crystal-clear moments.

It wasn't until Plans in 2005 that Death Cab produced an album that sounded fully put-together (not coincidentally, Plans was their major-label debut).  Narrow Stairs (2008) definitely represented a leap forward in production value, but (after some getting used to) it still sounded like Death Cab.

That's why so much of Codes and Keys is so surprising.  It's not that it doesn't sound like Death Cab--it does, even though you might have to take a careful look to find it, especially with the conspicuous absence of Mr. Walla's guitar.  Instead, it's surprising because there's production at every turn, sometimes to the album's detriment.  At times, Ben Gibbard's voice sounds muffled ("Home is a Fire"), scratchy ("Some Boys"), underwater ("Doors Unlocked and Open"), or echo-y ("Unobstructed Views," "Portable Television," and about half of the album).

The natural question is why?  Ben Gibbard has a fine voice--and that doesn't do him justice; he has an excellent voice--so just let him sing!  You mix a questionable whiskey with coke to make it drinkable; mixing a 21-year single-malt with anything is a disastrous waste.  Maybe the argument is "we've had the same single-malt for the last fifteen years, and we wanted a new flavor this time around."  And Death Cab is at the point in their musical career where experimentation for the sake of experimentation is totally acceptable.  But they're also sufficiently accomplished musicians that they ought to know when an experiment has failed.  Intentionally obscuring Ben Gibbard's voice fails more often than not, and for that matter, so does removing virtually all of the guitar hooks.

But the change in musical style is only one of two tonal shifts that differentiate Codes and Keys from Death Cab's earlier work.  The other, equally important one is a change in subject matter.  For the first time, the driving emotion behind Death Cab's music is "happy".  Back when Ben Gibbard was still making music with The Postal Service, he once described "Such Great Heights" as the only positive song about love he'd ever written.  If he didn't change his tune after the if-not-joyous-then-at-least-longingly-hopeful Transatlanticism and Plans, then he sure has some explaining to do now.

Even the song titles reflect the album's sunnier mood: half the songs on here suggest removed obstacles ("Doors Unlocked And Open," "Unobstructed Views") or unbridled enthusiasm ("Stay Young, Go Dancing").  These sentiments would have been jarringly out of place on Death Cab's earlier albums, and they're not without their detractors here.  One particularly skeptical commenter on NPR's review of the album said it was like "a Death Cab album with the soul sucked out."

In reality, Codes and Keys plays out more like a Death Cab album with an extra piece of soul added in, one that Ben Gibbard didn't know he had until he married Zooey Deschanel.  While Death Cab had has success with happy-sounding sad songs ("The Sound of Settling"), it's played out by now.  They had their flirtation with angry-sounding angry songs ("I Will Possess Your Heart"), and that worked fine for a while.  Now that Ben Gibbard finally has a reason to expand his emotional spectrum to include happy songs, we as fans should be equally happy for him.

Currently listening: "Dawn of Time," Christie DuPree

Friday, June 03, 2011

The Oregon Trail, Day 4: May 30, 2011

New to this? Start with the prologue, Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3!

10:30 am, OR 126, between Redmond OR and Sisters OR: Having long since departed the Super 8 for the last time, we pass a farm featuring something called "Operation Santa Claus live reindeer". It occurs to me that I've never actually seen a reindeer until now.

10:52 am, Sisters OR: This town was either part of the Oregon Trail, or it really wants unsuspecting passersby on Highways 20 and 126 to think it was.  We're disappointed not to witness a buffalo stampede.

12:02 pm, OR 126 west of Sisters OR: We stop at the McKenzie River to see some nature.

Look how clear this water is!

1:37 pm, Eugene OR: Eugene seems to be closed.  The whole town.  Granted, it's a college town on a federal holiday during the summer, but you'd think there would be something more interesting than a Wendy's open for lunch.

4:21 pm, Coos Bay OR: These "sour nightcrawlers" I bought in that Eugene drugstore aren't sour at all.

5:46 pm, US 101 south of Port Orford OR: The Pacific Northwest's version of the West Coast is gloomy, almost like you're living a black-and-white photograph.  Artsy people with tricked-out cameras, take note.

7:32 pm, Redwoods National Park: Thanks to Josh, I've learned something about redwoods.  Since they're so massive, redwoods are really bad at using their vasculature to transport water to their extremities.  That's why coastal redwoods only grow in foggy regions: they need to be in saturated moist air and absorb water through their limbs.

8:08 pm, US 101 south of Redwoods NP: Elk!  Aside from in burger form at lunch yesterday, I'm not sure if I've ever seen one of these.  Add that to my list of new animals for this trip.

9:00 pm, Eureka OR: We stumble upon Lost Coast Brewery, almost by accident.  Driving through Eureka, we're all getting pretty hungry, when Josh notices a Lost Coast sign on a building to our right.  It's our third brewpub experience in as many days, and we're not complaining.  Their Downtown Brown is one of my favorite beers in the world; the Raspberry Brown somehow manages to surpass it.

11:17 pm, somewhere down US 101: In an effort to stay awake, the evening's entertainment has become another over/under game.  We're guessing the population of various Northern California towns, which is fun because none of us has any idea what to guess.  I offer the over/under of 3800 on McKinleyville; Josh takes the under and is clearly defeated.  While I don't remember what the bet on Garberville was, whoever took the under was probably the winner.

1:06 am, further down US 101: I realize I've failed at my passengerly duties, having been asleep for about the last half hour.

2:42 am, Berkeley CA: Back home at last.  Through detours, pit stops, and side trips, we've managed to more than double the length of time it took to get to Oregon on Friday, but it was totally worth it.  I return to Berkeley a few hundred dollars poorer but don't much care because this has been the most fun I've had in months.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

The Oregon Trail, Day 3: May 29, 2011

New to this? Start with the prologue, Day 1, and Day 2!

10:20 am, Redmond OR: Slow start today.  After Sonia and I fail to find a Catholic church in central Oregon with an 11 am Mass, we're forced to abandon Plan Go To Church.  We enact Plan Investigate the Check Engine Light instead.

10:32 am, US 97 between Redmond OR and Bend OR: Josh's iPod, as is customary for it, plays some Tupac.  Mr. Shakur raps the lyric "crack cocaine rocked us," which is probably the cleverest rap lyric I've heard in quite a while.

11:01 am, Bend OR: There is nothing wrong with Josh's car.

11:38 am: Driving aimlessly through downtown Bend, we come to an outdoor market selling items by local artists.  A man who calls himself the "Nutmaster" is selling various delicious nuts; I order some cinnamon pecans with the accent on the first syllable.

12:05 pm: Beer tasting at Deschutes Brewery.  It's slightly pretentious in a winery sort of way, where the beers are described with flavor notes.  They're pretty tasty, and the Twilight Ale is a fine drink, but I still can't stand IPAs.

12:30 pm: Time for the brewery tour.  There's chemical engineering here!

1-2 pm: Bend is no Portland, but it holds its own in terms of local Oregon flavor.
The Cyclepub

Bend Haiku Weekend--one week too early!

Vintage and local.

1:34 pm: "Thaiphoon" might be the best restaurant name ever.

1:43 pm: Ranch Records.  Oh yes.  These guys have Dr. Dre's The Chronic on vinyl.  They also have a poster for tonight's Decemberists show in the window.  I ask the grungy guy behind the counter if they have any more.  "No, the promoters come and put that stuff up, so that's all we have.  If you come back later, when we're closing, we can probably let them go." (He looks at his phone.)  "I mean... if you just want to take it off the wall now, I don't care.  I can just look the other way."  I do, and he does.

2:46 pm: Linner at Deschutes Brewery's brewpub affords us a chance to taste yet more beer.

4:48 pm: While in line for the Decemberists concert, there's some concern about the blanket we just bought.  We got it from Wal-Mart, which is the single least hipster place we might have bought it.  If we were locals, we obviously would have taken a trip to the Goodwill.  Josh turns the bag around so nobody can see the Wal-Mart logo.

5:35 pm: The pre-show music is decidedly twangier here than it was at the Death Cab show.  It's true that The King is Dead has a lot of folk inspiration, but people expecting a straight-up bluegrass concert will end up sorely disappointed.

5:37 pm: The age distribution here is a lot wider than at Friday's concert.  More forty-year-olds, and strangely, more four-year-olds.

5:38 pm: Parenting of the Year Award: baby in one hand, cup of beer in the other.

5:55 pm: Of all the foods the hipsters to our right could have sneaked in, they have chosen raw carrots.

6:09 pm: The first opener, Dan Mangan, totally obeys the Canadian Indie Band Rule by bringing six people to the stage.

7:04 pm: Gabriela Quintero of Rodrigo y Gabriela is pretty crazy, in the way that she's jumping up and down while playing acoustic guitar for a bunch of indie kids.  In the context of metal, she's beyond tame; here, she's rocking hard.

8:07 pm: The hipster couple to my left is discussing their favorite things to buy at Trader Joe's.

8:23 pm: The Decemberists open with "The Infanta"!  It's one of my favorite Decemberists songs, and the very first one of theirs that I heard.  They hadn't played it at either of the other two concerts I'd seen them at, so it was a really nice surprise to hear it here.

It's followed by three tracks from the new album, "Down By the Water," "Calamity Song," and "Rise to Me".  Given that Decemberists albums are usually two-thirds hit and one-third miss, it's pretty much on par. "Water" and "Calamity" are both excellent; "Rise" is okay but doesn't do much for me.

8:42 pm: Yes, that is Jenny Conlee on the accordion/keyboard/auxiliary percussion!  She's undergoing treatment for cancer, and she was scheduled to miss all of the Decemberists' summer tour dates, but she's made a surprise appearance here.  It's awesome to see her, and I've never heard so much heartfelt applause for an accordion player.

Like Death Cab, the Decemberists have done a really good job of sampling music from all over their discography.  Older material (from Castaways and Cutouts and Her Majesty, two albums that I can never keep straight) includes "Leslie Anne Levine" and "Billy Liar," the latter with some fun audience participation.  Picaresque has a nice showing after "The Infanta" with "The Bagman's Gambit" and "16 Military Wives," the latter also featuring some audience input.

The only song from The Crane Wife turns out to be "The Crane Wife Part 3," but that's as good a choice as any from that album.  I'm still irrationally attached to The Hazards of Love, though explaining the album makes me realize how inscrutable it can be on a first (or fifth) listen.  I got to jam to "Won't Want for Love's" prog rock-y intro for half a minute before I realized I should probably explain what in the world was going on to Josh, who isn't nearly as into the Decemberists as I am.

"Okay, this song is from the Decemberists' prog-rock opera The Hazards of Love.  It's sung by the female protagonist, Margaret.  She's commanding forest plants to do various things.  She can do that because she's pregnant with the male protagonist William's child, and William and the forest are tight.  Well, at least until the Forest Queen gets involved, but that hasn't happened yet.  Oh, and William shapechanges into a fawn sometimes."

Later: "This one is called 'The Rake's Song'."  "As in the cut the house takes in gambling?" (Josh plays a lot of poker.)  "No, as in the immoral pleasure seeker.  He's the antagonist in the rock opera.  This song is about him killing his children in especially brutal ways."

And The King is Dead gets some more love (four and a half months out, this is still the King is Dead tour, after all) in "Rox in the Box" and "This is Why We Fight," "Rox" still being my favorite track on the album.  The main set ends with "This is Why We Fight," but I've seen the Decemberists enough to know that their set isn't close to finished.  On the Crane Wife tour, these guys played a seven-song encore, so I'd be surprised if we didn't see at least fifteen minutes more music.

The encore starts with "January Hymn," also from the new album.  I like "January Hymn."  It's quiet and simple, yet evocative; and it gets in, does what it needs to, and gets out.  Afterward, Colin Meloy starts talking like it's actually the end of the show.  They'd better play something big if my "fifteen more minutes" prediction is going to hold up.  He tells us the next song will "fall apart" without our help.  When Chris Funk (hearty round of applause) gives the signal, we're all to scream as if we're being eaten by a whale!  It's "The Mariner's Revenge Song".

I have a schizophrenic love-hate relationship with this song.  On one hand, it's totally awesome.  It's not the sort of song I choose to listen to frequently, because it requires such a big time and emotional commitment.  But as a creative piece of music that's well-performed and tells as engaging story, it's one of the Decemberists' most interesting songs.

On the other hand, I'm puzzled and a little dismayed that the song is so intimately connected to the Decemberists, particularly by non-fans.  Upon mentioning that I like the Decemberists, I've had multiple people independently ask me "aren't the band that does that belly of the whale song?"  Yes, they're the band that does "that belly of the whale song".  And if all you're expecting to find from the Decemberists is nine-minute-long sea shanties, that's all you're going to find.  But I promise, this band does a lot more than that.

Regardless of my conflicted emotions toward the song, "The Mariner's Revenge Song" was a lot of fun live, and it seemed the perfect note to end the show on.  After a few minutes' absence, though, the band retakes the stage yet again for the rare double-encore.  They play "June Hymn," another selection from The King is Dead that I like a lot, but it seems sort of a strange follow-up to the intensity of "Mariner".  This time, the Decemberists leave the stage for real, having played sixteen songs--not as many as the twenty-four-song behemoth of a set that Death Cab gave us, but a healthy bit of music nonetheless.

The Decemberists are the only band that I've seen in concert three times, and it's a testament to how great their live shows are that I haven't gotten tired of them yet.  Sure, they're playing new music every time, but Colin Meloy engages the audience so well, and the entire band is so accomplished at showmanship that I would gladly see them three more times.

11:06 pm, Redmond OR: Back to the Super 8 for our last night in the great state of Oregon.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

The Oregon Trail, Day 2: May 28, 2011

New to this? Start with the prologue and Day 1!

Roughly 10 am, Redmond OR: On the road again.  After a break to grab some Livewire, of course.

11:24 am, US 26 north of Madras OR: I'm not sure I'd stay at something called "Bear Springs Campground".

11:41 am, US 26 near Mount Hood: It's snowing.  I know we're up some elevation and some latitude, but it's May 28, and there's snow.

1:52 pm, Portland OR: In a region of the country renowned for fresh fish, sushi seems an obvious choice for lunch.  Josh has his first sushi experience, and Sonia doesn't miss the opportunity to act the Asian tourist.

2:34 pm: Walking near the Wilammette River, we run into our buddy Tony Ferrese!  It's an unexpected stop-and-chat with one of our colleagues from Berkeley. 

Also, this guy is blowing bubbles.

3:30-5:00 pm: Portland doesn't disappoint.

4:17 pm: Somehow, we get on the topic of what "beer house" translates to in German.  Josh took a lot of German back in high school, and he tells us it's just "bierhaus," pronounced the exact same way.  Sonia thinks it may have been "bierhosen," and we agree that pretty much all hosen are bierhosen.

4:29 pm: Sonia wants to go into a Sanrio store in a downtown mall.  Josh offers a side bet to the day's "spot that hipster" main action: clearly the Sanrio is going to be full of Asians, but will they be hipster Asians or fobby Asians?  In any other city in America, the choice is an easy one; in Portland, I still opt for "fobby".  Josh is perfectly happy to take "hipster".  The rules: every Asian in the store must be assigned to exactly one of the two categories.  Some discussion and/or observation time is permitted, but we must come to a consensus.

4:35 pm: There are no Asians in the Sanrio store!  Instant death rules: the next Asian to walk in the store settles it.

4:38 pm: Green flannel shirt and thick-rimmed black glasses.  I admit defeat.

5:15 pm: Dinner is at Rock Bottom, a brewpub in downtown Portland.  In what will become a theme over the next two days, we sample some of the Pacific Northwest's various beer offerings.  The red ale is not quite as good as Jupiter's Red Spot but tasty nonetheless.

7:22 pm: In our effort to find the Most Hipster Coffeehouse in Portland, Stumptown Coffee Roasters has lived up to our expectations.  Note 1) the wall of pretentious magazines and 2) the actual hipster.  What you don't see is 3) the girl on her Macbook writing poetry, 4) printed on the cup: "These cups are 100% compostable because we care," and 5) the incredibly vulgar rap, presumably played ironically, that all the baristas danced to.

7:52 pm: I didn't know there was such a thing as a hipster donut shop, but man, Voodoo Doughnut gets there.  We get the "Voodoo Dozen," which is slightly cheaper than ordering a dozen doughnuts of your choosing, but (in an especially hipster twist) you get no say in what you order.  The line is out the door and halfway around the building, but these are doughnuts we're talking about.

8:55 pm, I-84 east of Portland, OR: There are a whole, whole lot of Subarus at this part in the country.

9:30 pm, US 26 east of Portland, OR: Absolutely amazing sunset in the rear view mirror.

11:41 pm, Redmond OR: These doughnuts are incredible.