Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Beat Goes On

Like much of the Midwest, we had snow yesterday.  Not enough to make the snowman I was intending to build, nor to have a snowball fight, but enough so that while I was driving around I was in a Christmas spirit, and out came the Bing Crosby and the Rat Pack, and the ever wonderful Ultra Lounge collection.

Today the snow is gone, and it's raining instead.  When I ran the lake it felt like late February, or a March that came in like a lion, and not the two weeks shy of May that it really is.

Except for the occasional game of Dominion with the Coltons, or an after-hours movie with Todd at the local AMC, I've been mired in the swamps of rewrites, and Script Frenzy, and working, and job hunting.

First the rewrites:  I'm attempting to again bring a draft of The Rider to a close.  Back in March I made a decisively deep cut into the story, losing a group of minor characters and a couple chapters worth of story.  Since then I was rewriting a chapter every couple days, hoping to use the relentlessness of the speed to bring draft 3 of the novel to a quick close.  Maybe get ready to start shopping it.  I've stalled because my attention got taken away with Script Frenzy, but will be hopping back on that here in a couple days.

Script Frenzy is a crazy sprint in the vein of NaNoWriMo.  The goal is to write 100 screenplay pages in the course of 30 days (April).  That's 3.33 pages a day for those slow on math, like myself.  After spending half the month developing a script, I'm working to hammer out most of the script over the course of the last couple weeks.  Head on over to my Script Frenzy profile page for details on it.

A week ago I was at a workshop at Michigan State University for iRODS (Integrated Rule-Oriented Data System), a database system that we're talking about integrating into the electronic library at my job.  Events like that make me realize how out of my element I am with technology, but also how much I've picked up in the six months I've been at my job.  I'll be posting more about it at my professional blog.

And on that note, I'm still deep in the job hunt, with something like 30 active applications, and already 20 rejections this year alone.  Keeping the chin up, but this sort of thing gets wearing on the ego.

I'm going to Chicago this weekend for the Bunny Rock 5k.  I'm hoping to finish a large portion of my Script Frenzy on the train down and back, leaving me open to work on the novel rewrites next week.

Now back to the work grind.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Source Code - A Review

First, a tweet-length review:

Source Code is an achievement of tight filmmaking, inspired acting, gorgeous cinematography, and gripping ideas. (112 characters)

Now the cumbersome review:

I'm leery writing this review because the best part about Source Code, as it was with Duncan Jones's previous masterpiece, Moon, is how we as the viewer walk side by side with Jake Gyllenhaal through the mysteries of the movie.  Learning as he learns.  Being surprised as he is.  Succeeding with him, and celebrating the ending right along with him.  All this without cumbersome 3D glasses and popping special effects to put us right in the moment.  It's what filmmaking should be about.  Real, honest engagement between the viewer and filmmakers.

As it is, the rest of this review is going to be full of spoilers because telling you much beyond what's in the trailer would break the fragile bond that makes this movie special.

Here's the premise:  A commuter train (cleverly CGI'ed to not be the Metra) is bound north to Chicago.  The train blows up and kills everyone on board.  This is apparently a warning shot from a terrorist who has designs to do something even worse (level Chicago).  Using a secret government program, The Source Code, Captain Colter Stevens is sent back to 8 minutes before the disaster into the mind of one of the passengers on the train, and in a way that is Deja Vu meets Groundhog's Day meets Vantage Point meets a point-and-click adventure the captain is supposed to explore the train for 8 minutes and figure out who the terrorist is, and what his motives are.  This is only a simulation of the events, so he can't change the outcome, can only explore and interact(?) with the world, and try to find clues before...BOOM!  Or is there something more? (This is a Duncan Jones movie if you remember).

Between each 8 minute permutation he's whisked back to this Source Code capsule where he's debriefed by Goodwin, an officer played by Vera Farmiga who acts as his handler, and as our guide for introducing us to the mysteries of what the Source Code is, and what Captain Stevens' mission is.  Disoriented and disillusioned (a classic position for Duncan Jones's characters to be in) Stevens begins to wonder if he can break out of the 8-minute cycle.  More importantly he wonders if he can save the people in there, and more than that save the girl, Christina (Michelle Monaghan), who he wakes up talking to every time he's thrust back into the source code.  The girl who he starts to develop an emotional connection with (as Stevens in the body of one of the commuters).  To say more would be a travesty, even to those looking for spoilers.  Suffice it to say, this is a thriller, and there is a happy ending.

What the Source Code is, is a thinking movie.  Not a mindfuck film.  Not in the same way that Fight Club is a mindfuck, or the Usual Suspects, or anything by Shyamalan for that matter.  The twist, when it comes is surprising, but what is refreshing, and what keeps the movie working as well as it does is that the hero basically says "I don't care," and wrests control of his destiny back into his own hands.  This is what makes Duncan Jones movies so fantastic.  His heroes stare down the crush of the inevitable, the bonds of fate, the insurmountable odds of a deck stacked against them, and say "I don't care," and barrel on with the reckless joy and urgent need to succeed.

Duncan Jones is a master filmmaker who straddles the line between the intricacy and nuance of the "indie" film, and the breathless engagement of the blockbuster.  He can do in an hour and a half what would take Christopher Nolan, David Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson, or any other cinema craftsman two or more hours to achieve.  His films are tight, and bursting at the seams with ideas.  What he can bring out of his cast and crew are inspiring performances.

This is exactly why I fell in love with movies.  This is exactly what I keep coming back and hoping to see.  This is exactly why you should go see it.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

From The Archives - A Love Letter

While transferring files from a flash drive to my external hard drive I stumbled across a journal I wrote while at Columbia that made me giggle.  A letter of breakup to Chicago after my first trip out to Los Angeles.  It's funny how completely opposite I feel about it now.  Flip the cities, and I think it would be more appropriate.  Anyways, here it is:


Dear Chicago,

I've found love.  And before you get too excited I want you to know that it's not you.  I know.  I'm sorry.  I've been deceiving you these past seven months, and another year before that with phone calls, brief visits, and eventually my undivided attention.  It seems pretty cheap of me to make such a firm and excited decision to be with you and then, after only a week of real commitment grow bored.

I know that you've got a lot to offer, and that many who have been with you tell me that you're exciting and unpredictable, dedicated, but you're not for me.  You'll tell me that I haven't tried.  That I came tainted from my last relationship.  That this is my first real commitment that doesn't have my parents fingerprints all over it, and I'm sure you're right, but I also know that this unsettling burning ember in my heart is real, and it hurts.

It's funny, but the more I think about this, about what I want to say to you, about how to say it so that it hurts but only so much, I keep falling back on the over-used cliches, and I'm sorry about that.  It's not you, it's me.  There, I've said it, and now I'll attempt to back it up by some futile means.

You are a very strong and solid person.  You give so much to those who know how to ask, and you take care of your own.  I know that when I'm gone I may be missed, but you also know that you have to go on, and that you will carry on.  Stoic is the word that comes to mind.  I on the other hand am realizing that I am a lot less than that.  Having been so fresh out of a relationship I was on the rebound, and you were the easiest and most visible target.  I took you, used you, and now here I am getting rid of you.  I told myself from the get go that this was going to happen, but being the weak person that I am I just barreled on without really caring, figuring that when the time came that I would be strong enough to just give you the proverbial fuck you and storm out, all debonair and class.  It isn't going the way I imagined.  Wow.  Shit.  I'm doing exactly what I told myself that I wasn't going to do.  Here's me, breaking your heart, or am I breaking mine?  And I'm trying to get pity out of you.  It makes me feel like a loser.  But this is something that I have to do.

I know that your only thought right now is "who is she?" and "what does she have that I don't?"  It's a fair and just question, and I'll tell you, but I'm going to be frank and honest when I say that this one feels more real.  I'm kind of stressing right now, about how to say it all.  How to be honest, while being gentle.  So I'll just start at the beginning and tell you it all.

I heard about her through some friends who went out west.  They told me that she's really ambitious, a little cruel if you don't know how to stand on your own, but that when she gives she gives a lot.  Some of them said that I would really dig her, while others were convinced that she wasn't my type.  Some of them got really close to her, and so for spring break last week I used them as an excuse to get out there, and meet her.

Her name is Los Angeles.  She is an angel too.  I went out west for two weeks and got to know her really well.  She's a little shallow at first glance.  She knows how to dress, and she's all glitz and glamour.  She's got a movie star smile, and a sharp wit.  I know you've talked to people and even been with guys who will tell you that she's fake, that it's all an act she puts on, that she's some sort of siren out there to lure weary traveler's off their path and then swallow their souls.  I won't lie.  She is definitely a little tougher once you get past the surface, but there is something more there too.

She went out west, from New York I can only assume, because there has got to be some Jewish in her history (look at Hollywood).  She had that desire for the American Dream and went chasing it.  She couldn't escape her roots, and wanted to make something like New York, but the guys she met out there had left the east coast for the exact opposite reason.  It was too cramped, she got in a little too close and wouldn't give you enough space.  You're notorious for that, though not quite New York.  I'e got a friend with her and I don't know how he can do it.  Some guys are just made for that sort of thing I guess.  Anywhoo this isn't about New York, she's good in her own sense.  Very much one of those one night stand kinda girls, if I was into that.

The thing about LA is she recognized this early on and gave people space.  She gave them lots of space, but not too much.  She kept them close, and they stayed faithful to her.  She can be a little mess, and a little hard to get around with, but when you get past the city girl, you see that really she is all domestic and suburban.  That's the key right there.  That's what I was looking for.  It's a little more permanent.  A little more dedicated.  I'm a suburban kid.  I love the city.  I love to visit it.  City girls can be a hell of a lot of fun.  I mean look at you.  You're crazy.

Sometimes I feel like I am a little too young.  It's hard to take you out on the town because you want to bar hop, and I can't.  That and it is just too damn expensive.  You want me to spend money on you, and I do.  All the time.  It's getting a little much.  She's just a little more laid back.  I mean, sure to get around is gonna cost a little more, and I'll actually have to drive her places, which means gas money, but also means that I need to get a car, but she is just as happy walking in the park, or watching the sunset, or anything, money is good, but not the be all end all with her.

I guess what I'm really trying to say is that I'm sorry for stringing you along like this.  Maybe had we met under better circumstances,  You're just not my type.  The people you know I just can't be friends with.  I've tried.  I really have, they're just a little too hard nosed for me.  I mean c'mon, six months now and not a one of them really feel like friends.  That's saying something.  I know that it shouldn't be about that.  I know that it's about you and I mostly.  That friends are a definite factor, but not the deciding factor.  It's saying something when I take a vacation out west for two weeks, and all of her friends mean more to me than anyone I've met here.  They're more respectable.  We've got more in common.

So I've rambled for a really long time and tried desperately to make myself not look like the bad guy.  To try and salvage some modicum of respect before I finally pick up and get the hell out.  I hope that you can understand, and not take things too personally.  I'm sure that once I've put some time and distance between us, and feel a little more stable with myself, that we can be friends.  I want to be, I really do. I want to be able to stop in for a weekend from time to time, but not feel like I have to prove anything to you.  You've been a good and terrible experience, and I thank you for both because you have helped me grow in ways I couldn't imagine.  I'm sorry.


Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Sucker Punch - A Review

To save everyone the time of reading my cumbersome reviews, I'll start with a tweet-length soundbyte:

Sucker Punch is a caterwauling visual behemoth that raises some very dark ideas and then fails to address their implications. (that's 125 characters for those counting)

Now the review:

To say that Sucker Punch is excessive is true, but is about as accurate as saying the ocean is full of water.  The point is correct, but fails to capture the true scope of what's being described.  Whether it's shooting at a dragon from the tailgun of a B-25, or mowing down row after row of steam/clockwork German soldiers in a WW1 trench with giant mechsuit that has a bunny painted on the front, Sucker Punch is a movie that does not have any understanding of the concept of reining it in.  In fact it is a true disciple of the Nigel Tufnel school of going to 11.  This is fine, to a point.  A point that is crossed multiple times in the film.  A point that needed to either be addressed or circumvented with a little more compassion.

Since the release of the first teaser, all the way through the credits tonight, I've been ruminating on a very debatable point about this film, which I think, at the heart, is the leg upon which this movie either does or doesn't stand on.  Is Sucker Punch a) an exploitation film in the vein of Lolita-cum-dominatrix male fantasy or b) a feminine-empowering action yarn?  Depending on how you answer it, and your awareness of these thematic elements, I think will color your take on the rest of the film.  As for me, the verdict is still out, and I'm willing to be swayed either way (I'm curious what some females think about it).

Cleverly the story opens with the raising of a curtain and a quick slipping from a framed stage show to the movie, introducing us to the angel-faced, but as of yet unnamed heroine portrayed by Emily Browning (called Baby Doll).  True to Zack Snyder form the film opens with an orienting montage/credits sequence that is true candy for the eyes.  With very few words, and very comic-like frames (compare to the brilliant opening sequence of the Watchmen) we get the story of a broken home, a dead mother, her spurned husband, his revenge, and ultimately how our heroine ends up in the Lennox House, a mental institution for the mentally insane.  We're given a glimpse of the cruelty that is foisted upon her leading all the way up to an important moment that I can't spoil (though you'll hit it in the first five minutes) that defines how the story is told through the rest of the film.  As devices go, it's unique and allows for the liberal caterwauling that are the fantastic action scenes making up about 80% of the rest of the film.

And lordy are there action scenes.  As has been poured on from the advertising, these scenes are like somebody took a thirteen-year-old boy's brain on shuffle, picking random ideas and elements out in no discernible order or method.  In many ways it works.  Watching as our heroes fight through clockwork-German filled trenches with samurai swords and machine guns, while other members of this five girl team tear apart biplanes and triplanes in the skies above (all with astounding accuracy and training and grace) is a treat to be hold.  And in flagrant contradiction to the earthquakey jump cutting that ruined any coherence in films like Transformers, the camerawork is carefully paced and set to allow for a real sense of the geography and movement.  These action scenes have the imagination of a young boy, and I was put in mind many times of the epic games of pretend I would play during elementary school recesses.

This fantasticism is not without its issues though.  For a good 2/3s of the film there is never a sense of challenge or danger befalling our heroine and her allies.  They're able to pilot any vehicle that appears, jump out of planes without parachutes, disable bombs, and precisely gun down wave after wave of faceless characterless villains in the pursuit of five items that will help them to escape.  They take relentless beatings, thrown through walls, punched, kicked and maimed, but never fall.  Because of this the actions scenes are filled with more a sense of inevitability rather than the breathless sense of danger eluded.

But alas, it's not the non sequitur nature of the action sequences where the real, and very dangerous flaw of the film emerges.  Were it just a run-and-gun blockbuster the movie would be enjoyable, and ultimately forgettable until its DVD release and inevitable directors cut (the strategic sound effects bleeping f-bombs the first part to be removed no doubt to let the film revel in all its profane glory).  Its the asides, and the quick moments between action sequences that raise severely darker implications.

Upon entering the asylum Baby Doll immediately falls into one fantasy world, imagining the Asylum as a burlesque bordello for most of the course of the movie.  Doctors take on roles as Pimps and Madams, orderlies as thugs, everyone a grotesquerie of their real self.  The implication is quite disturbing, but is brushed lightly aside, by almost completely ignoring it.  The action sequences come when, already in this first fantasy, Baby Doll enters a second fantasy even deeper within, allowing her to "dance" for targets, while the rest of the girls go in search of the items they need to escape.  There are moments approaching rape, and abuse and serious psychological damaging that are brushed quickly aside in the name of action.  All of which resolve breathlessly with an overly melodramatic conclusion and "sucker punch" that didn't quite jive with the rest of the story.  Again, depending on how you read it based on my criteria above will really determine how you like this movie, I think.

All of this is not to say that I didn't enjoy the film.  As a fan of a good blockbuster I was sucked in, and whisked along on a relentless and ridiculous ride that I ultimately appreciated.  It was great seeing all the major characters as girls, and to allow them the strength, somewhat, to be the ass-kicking name-taking heroines, and that, while the girls were overtly sexualized, they weren't buxom or twiggy idealizations but rather petite, youthful girls.  I can definitely say that I recommend this movie.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Story Week

I'm in Chicago again.  Having a job that allows me to make my own hours and work remote has afforded me the luxury of not having to work from out of my house, and the ability to not miss exciting events.

For instance, this week I am at Columbia College's Story Week.  A week long conference for writers and publishers, students, faculty, and alumni to celebrate the art, craft, and business of writing.  For six days all over the urban campus they have both faculty and students and unaffiliated professionals do readings, speak on panels, meet and greet, and hob knob with each other and generally drum up interest in writing as a job and as a lifestyle.  Every year they feature prominent authors that do readings, and speak about their process.  Over the past few years that's included the likes of Joyce Carol Oates, Jonathan Lethem, Salman Rushdie, and this year Columbia's own Audrey Niffenegger (author of the Time Traveler's Wife).

I came into town yesterday hoping to attend the Alumni Story Workshop, an event that gives alumni the chance to sit in the half circle of the story workshop and basically take another class.  When I was at Columbia the Story Workshop was the bane of my existence.  Since graduating I've learned to love it, and will gladly eat my words for griping about it during the two years I was hear.

The train, of course, was ahead of schedule all the way until about thirty miles out of town.  Then, because of freight traffic, we were stalled for an hour.  I missed the Story Workshop, having to dash up to Logan Square to drop my bag off at my first couch of this couch surfing week, and then rush back to the loop.

That evening was the Second Story reading at Martyr's up in Irving Park.  Featuring Columbia stalwarts like Lott Hill, Patti McNair, Megan Stielstra, April Newman, and Eric May.  Preceding the event at Martyr's was the alumni reception, and for me it was the first time I've seen a lot of the guys I walked with in 2008.

Now I'm sitting in Starbucks next to the library having a quick breakfast of a muffin and a cup of coffee, before dashing over to Columbia's Film Row for the Adjunct Faculty Reading, featuring Mort Castle and Tina Jens among others.  I'll be tweeting about it with the hashtag #storyweek.

Pictures to come.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Bye Bye Portland, Hello Snow...

Sitting in the airport at PDX with an hour to kill until boarding.  It turns out that this is the only airport I've been to yet that has free WiFi.  I love it already.

Good times had in Portland.  Saw Duke off to whatever antics await him in Rip City.  Got to see Zach's band, Archeology, open for Kay Kay and the Weathered Underground last night, and then drinks with a few of his friends.  Full blogpost detailing the end of the roadtrip and my week in Portland to come probably tomorrow.

This next week it's back to the grind.  Making up hours at work, job hunting, marathon training.  Friday the adventure continues. I'm hopping a train down to Chicago to dogsit for a friend for a week.  It'll be the longest I've been back in the city since I graduated back in 08.

Now I'm going to find a notebook so I can get some writing done.  I'd work on the laptop, but the battery has a minute and a half battery life.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Westward Ho, Day 2, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, and Cheyenne, Wyoming

I'm at a La Quinta Inn on the outskirts of Cheyenne, Wyoming tonight.  Duke, James, and I are taking part in a tradition that is as old as this country, and is tied in integrally with its culture.  The loading up of all of ones worldly possessions into a small vehicle, and traveling cross-country into the unknown, without any sense of what the future may hold.  Going west.  Here's a rundown of the day:

Woke up stinking early at Chelsea's in Chicago.  Showered and on the road by 7:15.  Now, on the road doesn't necessarily mean on the highway heading west.  This morning it meant navigating the city, working our way down from Wrigleyville into the downtown, and then over to 90/94 to catch that highway to 80 to head west.  The primary concern was finding a gas station, which apparently is harder than it looks in Chicago.  We drove around near 90/94 for almost an hour and finally found one, filled up, got Dunkin Donuts, and then drove back to get on the highway, magically passing a half-dozen other gas stations on the way.

From there it's been pretty much standard roadtrip fare.  Trade-offs on driving (Duke for the first shift through Illinois and Iowa, and then I had the second shift through Nebraska and the smidge of Wyoming leading up to here), road games (Marry, Fuck, or Kill), laughing at bizarre signs on the road (a trucker had a sign on his cab reading "Be A Flirt, Lift Your Shirt" (I almost flashed him)).

We determined a few things:
  • The Mississippi is a big river.
  • Iowa resoundingly sucks.
  • Nebraska is really long.
  • Wyoming has huge sky with tons of stars.
I saw a shooting star just over the Wyoming state line.  I had a conversation with a gas station attendant about adult footie pajamas.

And now, with James and Duke passed out in the hotel I'm checking e-mail, updating the blog, figuring work tasks out, and other nonsense.

In other news I got another rejection letter to add to the pile of rejection letters while I'm hunting for full-time work, but I also got a letter forwarding my resume on in another search (this one in Seattle, WA), so apparently the trickle is starting to happen.

Tomorrow we finish the trip up to Portland, passing through the rest of Wyoming, a corner of Utah, Idaho, and most of Norther Oregon.  With the slight adjustment to our trip (we ended tonight in Cheyenne instead of making the drive out to Rock Springs) we'll be facing the longest leg of our journey (figuring on 16 hours), and also the hardest (the Rockies).

More pictures and adventures to follow.  I'm tweeting about them with the hashtag "westwardho"

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Westward Ho, Day 1, Chicago

In the midst of working, and running, and rewriting, fighting off a whole lot of sick, and just generally trying to get by, I'm squeezing in a whole lot of travel.  For those who know me, being on the move like this is a catharsis like no other.  Here's what's going down.

My best friend, Duke, who blogs over at Curious Orthodoxy, graduated back in December from Michigan State University.  With no debt, and no obligations, and no real reason to stay in this slowly sinking state, he decided to answer the call to "Go West, young man," pack up his Conestoga wagon and hit the Oregon trail out to Portland to be with the rest of my close unit of friends (James and Zach).  To give a context how "close unit" I mean, I met Duke in first grade, James and Zach in second grade.  Duke's and my relationship is almost old enough to order its own drink at a bar.  So, of course when he said that he was moving out to Portland, and making the cross-country drive, it was an opportunity I couldn't pass up, packing tight into the passenger seat with James and him, a laptop, a digital camera, and all of his worldly possessions.  Over the next few days I'll be keeping a log on the road of our travels and travails as we cut a westward path.

Day 1 - Haslett to Chicago.
James and Duke went to church at Trinity up in Lansing.  We hit the road around 11:30 after fussing with trying to get James's and my duffel bags in the overhead carrier.  It took a lot of pushing and cursing, but eventually we got everything in, made a quick Starbucks run and hit the road.

The drive into the city was smooth.  Limited construction, and even the traffic from the Bears v Packers game wasn't too bad.  We went to Wrigleyville where we're staying with our friend Chelsea.

After unloading the bags we went to a boardgame bar, Guthrie's Tavern near Wrigley Stadium.  It was during the game, and of course we had a superfan who was pacing about like a caged tiger and shrieking as if maybe, just maybe screaming "FUCK!" and "BULLSHIT CALL" at the top of his lungs might stave of Da Bear's inevitable defeat at the hands of the Packers.  We ordered pizza from Giordano's and played Identity Crisis, and Scrabble (which James kicked our butts in).

Duke made plans ahead of time with another of his friends who is still living in the city to meet at a bar halfway between Wrigley and Wicker Park on Belmont called the Hungry Brain.  When we finally found it, all that was there was an abandoned storefront with graffiti and warning signs not to lock your bike to a nearby pole.

Regrouping we went the rest of the short distance to Wicker Park, and had drinks at Pint on Milwaukee, a place Duke and I went to before when I was still living in the city and he was coming to visit for a weekend of concerts.  They had Fat Tire, which for me was just shy of heaven.  A couple friends of Duke's and James's met us there and we watched the end of the Jets v Steelers game.  The manager who was scooting around on a Segway bought us a round of Jameson.  Then, per the request of one of Duke's friends, we retired to Violet Hour.

Violet Hour is swank, to say the least.  An unassuming storefront, that looks more like an abandoned and boarded up building just waiting to be condemned.  You step inside and it's a cavernous, high-ceilinged hallway.  There's a doorman waiting there who ID's the group.  He takes the number of the group, informs you of the rules (no cellphones, but texting is ok).  Then he disappears for like 5 minutes while they prepare a table.  He comes back, seats you.  They start you with water  (double filtered, like their ice?!) and brings menus full of drinks no one has ever heard of.  Drinks that have stuff like cardamom and egg, and other craziness.  Ordering drinks is like ordering an entree, and it takes about a half hour for them to come.  It's completely worth the wait.  The drinks are unlike anything you've ever had before.  Full of intricate flavors that emerge and disappear as you drink.  Swank is an understatement.

Now we're back at Chelsea's for cake, chamomile tea.  Ferris Bueller is on the TV.  Chelsea is blowing up the air mattress and we're all getting ready for bed.

Tomorrow we hit the road around seven, and are aiming (at best) to reach Wyoming.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Ten (Eleven) Albums of 2010 - Part 2

I meant to get on the second half of this post a lot sooner.  Instead I've been sleeping more than half of every day for the last few days trying to recover from the stomach flu that's been circulating around the house.  Head's finally cleared up.  Stomach's finally settled, so now I'm playing catchup in my writing, running, and working.  First on the to-do list is to knock off the second half of my top ten (eleven) albums of 2010.  Here we go.

Just before the fall semester started in 2009 a video went viral on youtube (as videos are wont to do).  Capturing the frustration of a generation as well as the inability to give in to the nihilism of Generation X, Cee Lo Green's "Fuck You" was an instant hit.  If you haven't heard it, watch the video.  It was the glorious precursor to the November release of The Lady Killer.  The junior release from Gnarls Barkley vocalist veers wildly from the motown infused Satisfied to the intro and outro James Bond anthemic The Lady Killer Theme.  With the single's viral success, and the album's soul, Cee Lo has established himself as a cult icon.  Beyond the single, you can't miss Bright Lights, Bigger City.

Kind of like with Mark Owen being a massive pop icon in Britain, and a virtual unknown here in the states, the same is true with most of the music coming out of Australia.  Some of their larger rock musicians (the Whitlams comes to mind), are impossible to find even in the dwindling number of record stores.  The next two artists on the list come from that faraway Land Down Under.

I first discovered Philadelphia Grand Jury on youtube with their video for Triple J's Like A Version, of the Philly Jays in a studio looking goofy and covering Jay Z's 99 Problems.  Formed between two life-long friends (Berkfinger and MC Bad Genius) and hanging on to a drummer almost as unsuccessfully as Spinal Tap.  The band has a gloriously simple yet effective sound, and all the sources I've read about them say the same thing: This is not a live show to miss, ever.  Their freshman release Hope is for Hopers was released in 2009, and then in October of 2010 was expanded on and rereleased as Hope is for the Hopeless.  This album is bristling with energy, and excitement, and awkwardness, with all the amps turned up to a fuzzing 11.  From the opening shout and driving Going to the Casino (Tomorrow Night) all the way through to Berkfinger railing out a live version of 99 Problems, Hope is for the Hopeless leaves me more hopeful of even better music coming out of the land that gave us the Croc Hunter, kangaroos, and one of the hottest accents ever.  Check out I Don't Want to Party (Party) for bar non the best song on the album.

Speaking of hot accents (amirite fellas?) and why the Land Down Under is musically kicking our ass, comes the next artist.  She was one of the finalists of Australian Idol, a show very similar to our own (but apparently with way better talent), lauded by the judges from the first awkward moments of her tryout all the way through to when she finally got the axe.  After she took a left turn from pop stardom, favoring a more independent path, blazing a trail across the outback, opening for acts like Jason Mraz, playing in huge venues like the Aussie's Big Day Out Festival this year.  Her music will be at least partially familiar to those of the PlayStation 3 persuasion (Neapolitan Dreams was featured on the astoundingly good LittleBig Planet soundtrack).  Lisa Mitchell burst onto the scene in with a couple EPs and then her full-length release Wonders in July of 2009.  The album features sharp song writing, quirky instrumentation and composition, intimate lyrics, endearing sentiments.  Were it not for the couple following, this album would easily have taken its place as album of the year for the sheer relentless play its received on my iPod.  If you're not sold after the music video below (she's gorgeous, amirite?) you've got some broken emotions.  All of it is worth having, but seriously check Coin Laundry.

In 2004 my favorite band of all time broke up.  It was senior year.  I was in love.  Beulah's When Your Heartstrings Break was my soundtrack.  And then, after a rocky tour, and tense friendships, the boys from the West called it a day, and went out on their high notes.  William Swan went on to normalcy and fatherhood, blogging regularly about politics and other hot button issues including fatherhood and how to put that you were in a band on a resume over at Ham Radio Central and tweets from time to time as swanwilliam, he also provided some trumpet work for groups like Death Cab For Cutie.  Eli Crews kept the flame alive in Oakland and now co-owns New Improved Recording.  The rest of the guys have pretty much done the same.  Except our next artist.  Miles Kurosky, the voice and the songsmith behind Beulah is also something of an enigma.  In the years after the band broke up he would disappear with mentions of shoulder surgery, or some crippling sickness.  I remember reading one point, maybe a message posted by Bill Swan, maybe an interview, where Miles mentions perhaps being unable to pick up a guitar again because of his surgery.  Then at some point a couple years back he talked about his next album.  How it would probably sound like the 5th Beulah album and he didn't care.  Turn the pages forward a bit to March 9, 2010.  Enter: The Desert of Shallow Effects.

Is it the 5th Beulah album, unrealized by the band?  Yes and no.  With Mile's earnest weighted vocals and the west coast etched into his DNA, it's impossible to miss the sound.  But don't let that color your opinion before you go in.  What's here is an intricately constructed, layered sonic experience weighted by Miles's bittersweet lyricalism.  And even that has taken a step in a new direction, constructing anecdotes and stories like he's never done before.

And just when that was awesome enough, Eli Crews (bassist from Beulah, mentioned above) invited Miles down to his studio, New Improved Recording, to record live for The Bay Bridged some of the songs off Desert.  Miles said sure, but do something special for it, like get a mariachi band, or a boys choir, or something to back him up.  What Eli did was so much better than that.  For me it was like Christmas, my birthday, my wedding day, the birth of my first child, and winning the lotto all rolled into one.  You can read about it here and watch this:

New, Improved, LIVE: Miles Kurosky (with members of Beulah) - "The World Won't Last the Night" from The Bay Bridged on Vimeo.

The album that took this year's album of the year slot, was rather a surprise for me when I started listening to it, but the more I thought about it, the more I couldn't deny the fact that above all else, this was the album that had its hold on me, and on my imagination.  Craig Minowa's band, Cloud Cult, is no stranger to my album list, Feel Good Ghosts was on my 2008 List and The Meaning of 8 almost made my 2009 list for the sheer playtime it saw (though I'd been listening to it often the year before too).  Those who know Cloud Cult know that the band is no stranger to hurt.  The central axis upon which the band has turned for the last eight years was the 2002 death of Minowa's son, Kaidin.  Since then each Cloud Cult album has been infused and bristling with the need to understand why, the need to understand death, mortality, grief, and living.  Every listening to a Cloud Cult record is an emotional experience that reaches down to my very core.  2007's The Meaning of 8 was a revelation, when I finally gave it a full listen through, and one of the few albums to move me to tears.  All this makes their last release this September, Light Chasers, a truly unique experience.  For the first time since the death of his son, we're graced with a Cloud Cult record that transcends the trappings of death, and much like the lyrical content, breaks its tethers with the earth and goes out with wide eyes into the unknown on a quest for meaning.  Filled with the fierce joy of life and potential, Light Chasers feels less a broken father's eulogy trying to understand the randomness or purpose that took his young son from him, and more that same father taking his newborn son (the Minowas welcomed their newborn into the world in August of 2009) by the shoulder and telling him of how amazing the world is, how dangerous it is, and how full of energy and light we all are.  This is a truly transcendental experience.

And now for an honorable mention, because I really didn't know how to approach them, their album, and their business model.  I have to talk about Pomplamoose.  Bypassing the need for labels, distribution companies, or even a regular album release or tour schedule comes a band that is redefining what it means to be a musician and a celebrity.  When I first heard about them it was back in February, and my friend Kate was telling me that I needed to see this video of this girl covering Beyonce's Single Ladies.  I was intrigued.  She pulled it up.  We watched it, laughed, and watched it again and laughed some more.  Then (because I was visiting her and her husband in LA and was sleeping on their couch) she left to go to work, and I went to get started with my day.  Then, humming the song to myself, I pulled it up again.  That was when it struck me, this was actually really good.  Instead of getting on with my day I sought out as much of their music as I could, watched all the videos at least twice.

Pomplamoose does what they call Videosongs, which is also the name of their album.  A concept created and defined by the male half of the Pomplamoose couple, Jack Conte.  There are two rules.
  1. What you see is what you hear. (No lip-syncing for instruments or voice)
  2. If you hear it, at some point you see it. (No hidden sounds)

And with those two rules they create not only brilliant compositions and unique covers of a bizarre range of songs (everything from Arrowsmith to Earth Wind and Fire), but sharply cut videos that show musicians at the process in an interesting way.  The only way to get their music is through iTunes or their myspace or to watch on their youtube channel.  And apparently the business model is working.  They're living off the money they're bringing in, and they were just featured in a series of Hyundai commercials.  Their album Videosongs is a blast.  Check it.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Ten (Eleven) Albums of 2010 - Part 1

I know that I've done a lot of bitching about the last year.  It had a lot of downs for sure, but when prepping for this post it dawned on me that, if nothing else, 2010 had a helluva soundtrack.

It's becoming a bit of a ritual now to collect together in a new years post the ten albums of the last year.  2008 is here2009 is here.  And welcome to the 2010 post.  To give you quick orientation, these ten albums are (except for the album of the year (at the bottom)) in no particular order.  Albums don't necessarily have to be from 2010 (a few of them aren't).  I just have to have found them during 2010.

So before we get started here's some fun facts and numbers.  When gathering this list originally I was faced with 113 albums over 90 different artists.  When I subtracted all the artists and crap that crept in, and the stuff I got but didn't listen to, I was dealing with 48 albums across 36 artists.  The final list was of course 10 albums by 10 artists (and one honorable mention because I couldn't get rid of it no matter how hard I tried).  7 of the 11 albums came from 2010.  2 from 2009.  1 from 2005.  And 1 from 2002.  The list contains 159 songs, over 9.4 hours of music.  And with those fun facts.  Let's go.

The year started off with the February 14th release of Angels & Airwaves junior release, Love.  Being heralded by their frontman, Tom DeLonge (yes of Blink 182 infamy), as the band that would change the face of rock and roll for this generation (can't find the quote but it was on MTV somewhere), Angels and Airwaves has never been anything short of staggeringly ambitious.  A game changer it's not.  Featuring their pretty much standard simple progressions, layered and layered  with jam band drums U2-stolen guitar solos, and soaring galactic synths, Love is not the messianic delivery DeLonge promised.  Which makes it sound like I don't enjoy it.  It's far from the case.  What Love is, is over produced ambitious apocalyptic thematic soundtrack music.  Great for writing to.  Great for reading Marvel Comic's Annihilation miniseries, or the Green Lantern.  If you can get past DeLonge's whiny punk vocals, trying desperately to keep pace with the soaring, driving chords.  The album comes on strong, and then overstays its welcome.  Check out the Flight of the Apollo to get all you really need of it.

I've been listening to the Apples in Stereo since I was in middle school.  The band has been around since the 90s, making fun psychedelic pop music that's been the soundtrack to my springs and summers all through high school and college.  I got to see them for the first time back in 2007 while in Chicago when they were on tour supporting their album, New Magnetic Wonder.  This was the first real shift in their sound.  Coming out of the flowery sunshiney post-British Invasion sixties, and into the world of ELO, and the 70s, and really showing frontman, Robert Schneider's nerd side with his creation of a non-Pythagorean music scale.  In April they released their seventh studio venture, Travellers In Space and Time [sic].  Fully embracing their new disco sound, the album is steeped in synth and dance beats.  Dreaming about the future, and wearing flashy sparkly jumpsuits.  This is one of their strongest releases to date.  For the best experience, get your hands on Dance Floor.  The music video featuring everyone's favorite nine-fingered hobbit:

The next album emerged as something of a darkhorse late in the year. Evelyn Evelyn's self-titled freshman release, Evelyn Evelyn is one of those records that needs to be heard to really experience.  The story, as it's told by Neil Gaiman's new better-half, Amanda Palmer, goes something like:
"About a year ago Amanda Palmer of The Dresden Dolls and Jason Webley received Myspace messages from the most unusual profile either of them had ever seen – conjoined twin sisters, both named Evelyn. Intrigued and charmed, they began corresponding with the twins hoping to lure them into the studio." (source)
The album tells the story of the twins as they go from their mother's death at their birth, to a traveling freakshow, to a freak brothel, to national fame thanks to Amanda Palmer and Jason Webley.  Yeah.  This is one of those ridiculous, concept albums.  It's also absolutely great.  Veering madly from cabaret to dustbowl freak circus jingles.  Theatric.  Over the top.  Darkly humorous.  To really get a feeling for the album, the second song, A Campaign of Shock and Awe.  And here for a taste is Elephant Elephant, their bizarre music video

It's interesting watching fame and music and the way it is handled over seas, in England, and Australia and other European countries.  How huge names over there are barely known at all here in the states.  A great example is Mark Owen of the English boy band, Take That.  After the band split in 96, Owen went on to have a successful solo career that stretched until Take That's reunion in 2005.  Coming out on the heels of the band's reunion was Owen's third and final solo album.  How the Mighty Fall came out to a little acclaim, opening at #78 on the  UK Album charts (far below his last venture).  Featuring beautifully constructed, poignant ruminations on love, on desire, How the Mighty Fall is one of those albums that's dug in with its tight wording, and soaring compositions.  Hit up Believe in the Boogie.

The oldest album on the list comes from the band the Squirrel Nut Zippers.  Coming from the 90s and the swing rebirth, SNZ offered a slight variation on the model championed by Royal Crown Revue and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy.  Coming with a 30s, depression-era sound, SNZ features the sultry vocals of Katherine Whalen and "Jimbo" Mathus.  They rocked us with swinging ukulele sounds for almost a decade between 1993 and 2001, broke up, and reformed in 2006.  Shortly after their breakup, they released The Best of the Squirrel Nut Zippers as Chronicled by Shorty Brown.  Covering the six albums before their breakup (excluding their spectacular christmas album), this single disc'er is a great accompaniment to reading Raymond Chandler, or any other noir mystery.  The opening track, Good Enough For Grandad, is one to give a listen to.

The second half is on its way tomorrow.