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.