Friday, November 27, 2009

2007 In Music: Recap

The Aught Music contributors (myself included) are getting close to the end. This week has seen the start of the best tracks of 2008, with the final year set to begin in the next two weeks or so. So, as I say with every update, keep checking the blog out before we reach the conclusion. Free downloads and samples are available with every track, along with some wonderful memories, analyses, and deconstructions. Here are my write-ups for the best tracks of 2007.

1.) "Impossible Germany" by Wilco (from the album Sky Blue Sky)

Even today, I'm still on the fence in regard to my opinion of Sky Blue Sky as a whole. I genuinely like the album, but I don't get the same intangible feelings generated by their earlier works. Also, I remember reading more than one review that classified it as Jeff Tweedy's "happy album." With Wilco's music, there's usually so much more to think about in terms of music and lyrics, so determining or classifying an album by so generic an emotion as 'happy' or 'sad' seems utterly pointless. However, this is my favorite song featured. There's a definite melancholy in the lyrics:

But I know you're not listening
Oh I know, you're not listening

If this is supposed to be "happy," then the reviewers must be borderline suicidal. A lot of Wilco songs seem to deal with strains in communication and understanding between two parties, and "Impossible Germany" is an excellent example of this. Also, despite the well-documented control that Tweedy has over Wilco's sound and production, this track feels like a true group effort.

2.) "Don't Make Me a Target" by Spoon (from the album Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga)

This track is deceptively simple. I went through a few different ideas for a write-up on this one, but nothing seemed to work. More than once, I've written about some songs here sounding like inspired jam sessions, and this one is no different. A little research on Wikipedia proved my hypothesis correct, as it states that Britt Daniel and company went through quite a few trials on this track, attempting to find the best sound. The bass line is blunt, and the lyrics work almost like a protest song against an ambivalent but worrisome opponent. The final two lines offer what sound like some awesome novel titles:

Clubs and sticks and bats and balls
For nuclear dicks with the dialect drawls
They come from a parking lot town
Where nothing lives in the sun.

3.) "Brunettes Against Bubblegum Youth" by The Brunettes (from the album Structure & Cosmetics)

This song never gets old for me. It's a sly wink at pop music, both as criticism and homage. Take these lyrics on their own, separate from the song:

I love to call you 'baby'
When we're this spaceship

Sappy? Yeah. Surreal? A little. But the Brunettes know exactly what they're doing, making this an intentional mashup of pop, rock anthems, and a little bit of soul for good measure. However, the kicker is that it doesn't feel like any sort of hipster irony; there's a lot of love here. I've put this track on countless mix compilations for people, yet nobody seems to share my enthusiasm. This always gives me a little boost of energy.

4.) "My Moon My Man" by Feist (from the album The Reminder)

The abstract idea of "cute" depends on personal opinions, and can be used as an insult ("oh, that was cute.") However, Feist is one of the few musicians who can use cuteness as a benefit to their music. She sounds adorable here. While at first glance that may sound chauvinistic, it's anything but—her voice is stunning, her songwriting is terrific, and her sweetness works in stark contrast to the lyrics, which aren't as bouncy as the sound would imply:

My moon and me
Not as good as we've been
It's the dirtiest clean I know

Along with '1234,' this song was inescapable for quite some time. But going back, it hasn't lost any freshness, and Feist, in video and song, always makes me smile.

5.) "No Cars Go" by Arcade Fire (from the album Neon Bible)

Quite a few Arcade Fire tracks, if not all of them, are almost begging to be heard live. "No Cars Go" is no exception. This is the indie-rock answer to the stadium anthems of the likes of U2 and the Rolling Stones. In 2007, I saw them perform this live at the Chicago Theater, and the acoustics of the venue were literally perfect for the rise and sonic atmosphere. The lyrics are simple and beautiful, but the music here always draws my complete attention. The background vocals serve as separate instruments, creating a stunning blend.

6.) "Plasticities" by Andrew Bird (from the album Armchair Apocrypha)

They'll fight, they'll fight
They'll fight for your neural walls
And plasicities
And precious territory

As much as it fits the other songs and atmospheres of Armchair Apocrypha, Andrew Bird's "Plasicities" feels like it would have blended well on his previous work, The Mysterious Production of Eggs. With an amazing "orchestral-pop" backdrop and lyrics that blend art and science, this track represents the best of Mr. Bird. This song is especially poignant. The "they" mentioned feel especially ominous, paired with the battle cry to reclaim space, thoughts, and independence. It's indie pop meets dystopian future landscapes. This may not have been his original intention, but if a track can lend itself to such wild possibilities, that's not a bad thing.

We're almost done!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Substance Misuse

My recent reading of the graphic novel The Alcoholic was done in the interest of satisfying two slightly different goals. First, as I've mentioned here once in awhile, I'm woefully behind on readings in the graphic novel genre/format. This applies to both major works and less heralded ones. Quite a few of my friends have given me a lot of suggestions in order for me to get a few titles knocked out, and I figured that The Alcoholic would be a decent place to start. The second goal was to familiarize myself with the writings of Jonathan Ames. For someone who has been writing for as long as he has, it seems that a lot of his mainstream and everday attention has been intesified recently. Undoubtedly, this has a lot to do with "Bored To Death," the HBO series that he created. The Alcoholic has its share of brilliance in small flashes, but I do have a few criticisms with the text, ones that I'll address shortly. Normally, I wouldn't have to preface this in any way; I'd simply go about my analysis as I've always done. However, since I'm so new to the form, I had to think about my reaction to the book a little more than usual, to make sure that I wasn't missing anything or looking at the book differently merely because of a format change.

The story tells about the life and substances of a "fictional" writer, Jonathan A., and how his missteps, problems, and social woes can be tied into his alcoholism. The protagonist never hides his disease. He shares his thoughts immediately, after a blackout finds him in a very precarious situation. "I have a lot of problems. Not more than the average person, really, but I have a propensity for getting into trouble, especially when I've been drinking. This one night, I came out of a blackout and I was with this old, exceedingly tiny lady in a station wagon (Ames 6)."

The reader then goes on a dizzying journey of Jonathan's life and relationships, with three people sharing the duties as the most important in his life, for better or for worse. His childhood friend Sal attempts to make love to Jonathan in high school, leading to an unspoken attraction between the two that's marked by their friendship growing increasingly sparse and fractured over the years, with the occasional reunion that goes nowhere. After Jonathan's parents die, he grows closer to his Aunt Sadie, sharing (and hiding) his problems with her, and sharing a relationship that toes the line between genuinely touching and subconsciously incestuous. Whether sober or drunk, he carries a torch for a dead relationship with a younger woman whom he refers to by the name of the current city in which she lives after their relationship ends (San Francisco, Seattle, etc.). Jonathan not only has to deal with his alcoholism, but also with increasing forays into cocaine. Even his respect as a novelist cannot compensate for his substance abuses. It leads to him losing potential teaching jobs and acting with low social decorum.

This might seem like a simplified overview of the plot, but it's difficult to give too much away, especially when the words need to be read in conjunction with the illustrations by Dean Haspiel. Also, since this is a graphic novel, it's imporant to realize that these sketches, both logistically and formally, don't give nearly as much away as it may seem in the above paragraph. Returning to the notion that I don't want any of my critiques to be a result of my simply being a novice to the form, I'll understand if anyone reading this takes my opinions with a grain of salt. That said, I had some problems with Ames's vision of the character. The best, strongest moments in The Alcoholic come when he reveals Jonathan's deepest, most open thoughts regarding his relationships. Sal is the best example. In the early developments of the relationship, as well as Jonathan's subsequent attempts to reconnect with him, Ames's attention to emotional detail is beautiful as well as saddening. There's a definite love between the two, and whether or not they're both gay (Sal definitely is) is besides the point. It's a love, platonic or otherwise, that's nearly tragic in its depiction. Combined with Haspiel's gift of facial nuances (see the image below for a semi-decent example), the full, combined effect truly hits the intended chords. Nothing is embellished on the page.

What hurts the text the most is the constant winking between the author and the reader. Ames names his character 'Jonathan A.," and as Neil Gaman is quoted in his blurb in the book, "I don't know how much Jonathan A. is Jonathan Ames. I'm not sure I want to." Yes, there are two equal hypotheses at play. Perhaps Ames is giving a genuine autobiographical sketch, or maybe he wants the reader to merely think as much. There's also the excellent chance that he's turning the dynamic of "don't confuse the author with the protagonist" on its head. This literary style has the potential to be a great branch in postmodernism. However, I found it more distracting than anything else. The book also sets up what could have been more in-depth plotlines (a shady drug dealer named Art, and the aftermath of September 11th), but these are immediately dropped for other developments. Perhaps more expansion would have taken away from the immediacy of the main plotline, but the effect is jarring.

However, I highly enjoyed my introduction to the art of Dean Haspiel. His drawings are heavy on small details, especially the aforementioned facial expressions. The pictures are an almost flawless blend of noir atmospheres and shadings with almost cartoon-like evocations of the major actions. This is all done in the most serious way, allowing him to capture both the drama of the actions as well as the absurdity of some of Jonathan's more shocking escapades. I know that I have a lot of ground to cover in this genre, and hopefully in due time I'll have some more works to write about as I increase my knowledge of the graphic novel medium. The Alcoholic is not completely lacking in worth, not in the slighest bit. I'm also curious to see how Ames's writings work in longer formats. I'm sure others would be able to suggest better introductions, but this slim volume at least has the foundation for what I'm sure to discover in the future.

Work Cited:
Ames, Jonathan and Dean Haspiel.The Alcoholic. Copyright 2008 by Jonathan Ames and D.C. Comics.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Booked Solid

As I was reading Bill Simmons's The Book Of Basketball, I realized that writing about it would coincide, seasonally, with my previous post. My review of Lew Paper's Perfect came the day after the 2009 Major League Baseball season ended. Today, I'm looking at a book about professional basketball when the 2009-10 NBA season is less than a month old. This will surely be the last sports book that I'll read this year, and having back-to-back looks at my two favorite sports was entirely coincidental. However, with one season gone and one season underway, I couldn't help but notice this chronological symbolism.

I've spent quite a few months waiting for the publication of The Book Of Basketball, but in spite of my excitement, I realized that I wouldn't immediately call myself a "fan" of Bill Simmons. I read his Page 2 columns on whenever I see them linked, but they've never been an essential part of my online readings. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I've never read a bad article by him (given my admitted sporadic patronage, I'm sure he has a few duds). My eagerness to read the book stemmed not so much from the author, but rather the subject. As I've mentioned a few times, passionate NBA fans are sometimes hard to find, since the prevailing assumption is that NCAA basketball is superior, and that the professional ranks are easier to criticize. The example I usually fall back on is writer Chuck Klosterman, a writer I deeply respect for his intelligence, humor, and love of NBA basketball. Now, I'm happy to include Bill Simmons in this category as one of my two favorite basketball writers, based on the strength of his latest book. Two weeks after publication, The Book Of Basketball already ranks as one of the best works on the sport, and the research that went into it is commendable on its own.

The title is perfect in all of its simplicity. This isn't a strict history of basketball, nor is it merely a collection of anecdotes and memories. While these are featured prominently, for all intents, this is a book of basketball in every sense, and from every angle. Simmons discusses the evolution of the professional game, analyzing everything from single games, players, drafts, and happenings. He also deftly shows how aspects of the game cannot be immediately compared throughout the eras. This refers mainly to statistics, and how averages from the 1950s and 1960s cannot be adequately compared to the stats of today's game.

"[Celtics guard Bob] Cousy got screwed historically by his first four years (the pre-shot-clock era, when nobody scored more than 75-85 points a game) and the last five years (when they started counting assists differently). Cousy averaged 8.9 assists for a '59 Celtics team that averaged 116.4 points per game; John Stockton averaged 12.4 assists for a '94 Jazz team that averaged 101.9 points per game. How am I supposed to make sense of that? How do we know Cousy wasn't averaging 15-16 assists per game if we applied the current criteria (Simmons 492-493)?"

Refreshingly, Simmons does not shy away from the racial areas of the game. He gives stunning accounts of the racism in basketball, injustices experienced by such legends as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson. "When Oscar's Crispus Attucks High School became the first all-black champion in state history in 1955, Indianapolis rerouted its annual championship parade toward the ghetto, with the implication being, We don't trust the blacks to behave themselves, so let's keep this self-contained. Oscar never got over it. Nor did he get over Indiana University's coach, Branch McCracken, for recruting him by saying, 'I hope you're not the kind of kid who wants money to go to school' (559-560)."
According to Simmons, the rise of pro basketball correlates with the rise in black players, athletes who were able to add speed and creativity to the game even while facing prejudice on and off the court. These realizations and stories are not new; however, basketball history and racism are not as well known as baseball. Baseball players weren't the only ones who dealt with (and overcame) such injustices.

The bulk of the book is devoted to Simmons's excellent idea of the Pyramid, a combination hypothetical revision of the Basketball Hall Of Fame/detailed history and rankings of the best players of all-time. This is not the obvious list that might appear in lesser hands; Simmons has done staggering amounts of research, reading dozens of books and watching hours of seemingly forgotten game films. Even the players ranked in his Pyramid aren't exempt from harsh criticism. All of it is constructive, however. Take his look at former Indiana Pacers guard Reggie Miller, a player recognized as one of the best in the modern game:

"At no point was Reggie considered one of the NBA's top ten players for a single season. Nine of his contemporaries at shooting guard made All-NBA (first or second): Jordan, Drexler, Dumars, Latrell Sprewell, Mitch Richmond, Kobe [Bryant], T-Mac [Tracy McGrady], [Allen] Iverson, and Ray Allen. Reggie only made third-team All-NBA three times ('95, '96, and '98). That's it. And his reputation as a "great" Playoffs player has been slightly overblown. The Pacers were bounced from the first round in his first four trips to the Playoffs (344-345)."

These examples are just a fraction of the topics covered. The Book Of Basketball is the type of book that needs to be read in its entirety for one to fully appreciate its scope and research. Also, Simmons's style might not be for everyone--he's serious when he needs to be, but the statistics and analyses are kept humorous and light, and are marked with hundreds of footnotes that often deal with funny stories or far-reaching pop culture references. This is not to say that this isn't a serious work. As opposed to other sports books, however, Simmons thankfully keeps a lot of cliche and melodrama under wraps. He's a naturally funny writer and is able to mesh this comedy with basketball issues that are never trivialized, unless he does so intentionally. Perhaps I spoke too soon when I claimed that this work is already one of the best basketball books ever written. However, in time, I feel that the research and opinions will still hold up.

Work Cited:
Simmons, Bill. The Book Of Basketball. Copyright 2009 by Bill Simmons.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Not Quite Perfect

So far in 2009, the book world has seen a stunning wealth of baseball books, spanning an excellent, diverse array of subjects that appear fitting for involved, book-length studies--Thurmon Munson, Satchel Paige, and a joint interview between Bob Gibson and Reggie Jackson. However, the one baseball book that I've read so far this year would, at first glance, seem like a tired subject: a New York Yankees championship team. After the Yankees won their 27th World Series last night, I'm sure that most people (myself included) have had their fill of superlatives and outlandish hyperbole, and aren't interested in books or reviews about the team, no matter what era is being discussed. With baseball season now over, the focus will and should shift completely to football and basketball. However, Lew Paper's Perfect: Don Larsen's Miraculous World Series Game and the Men Who Made It Happen proved irresistable for me. The subject (Don Larsen's perfect game in the 1956 World Series) is well known to baseball fans, but lends itself to wanting more analysis and facts. On top of that, Chuck Klosterman gave the book a strong review in Esquire magazine.

Despite my interest, I nearly stopped reading this book after only half a page. The prologue is entitled "The Moment Of Truth," and begins with this opening:

"The tall right-hander peers down at the catcher from his perch on the pitcher's mound under the fading afternoon sun in the cavernous environs of Yankee Stadium (Paper 1)."

The tired title, coupled with the even more tired description of Yankee Stadium as "cavernous" made me worry that the rest of the book would be filled with obvious metaphors and overwrought attempts to convey the "magic of baseball's Golden Age." Even as someone in my mid-20s who never saw baseball in the 1950s, there are enough books and documentaries that depict baseball at its acme in the mid twentieth century. I kept going, and was happy to find that the book provides extremely detailed biographies of the players on both teams (the Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers). For baseball fans, some of these are well-known (Mickey Mantle's alcoholism, the stunning racism expressed towards Jackie Robinson), but Paper does a great job of giving the lesser known players the same amount of coverage as the legends. For example, before picking this book up, I had never heard of Dodgers outfielder Carl Furillo, and Paper's profiles work extremely well, educating the reader on the backgrounds of the players. The chapter on Furillo depicts him as an above-average baseball player, even if he's not as well known as some of the other men from that era:

"Furillo knew all about the trickery of the right-field wall [of Ebbets Field], and he meant to master it. 'He was a workman,' teammate Carl Erskine later said of Furillo. 'I studied every angle of that fucking wall,' Furillo later explained. He would have teammates hit him flies so that he could see how the ball responded to different situations. In time, he knew every quirk. When a sportswriter later asked him how he learned to play the wall so well, he had a simple response: 'I worked. That's fucking how.'(83)."

Paper also does a commendable job as a journalist, showing an unbiased look at both the positives and negatives of the individuals. Furillo made an off-hand, negative comment about Jackie Robinson, and, regardless of his views on race, found himself linked to the racism of the era.

"...Furillo later said that he had no interest in signing the petition that Dixie Walker circulated among the team to say that they did not want to play with Robinson. Having grown up in a small community where Italians were a distinct minority, Furillo knew that ethnic and racial discrimination was not confined to blacks (81)."

Despite these compelling insights, the actual game that's supposed to be the subject seems to be lost at times. Don Larsen gets the same amount of coverage as the others when he should be the primary focus. A lifelong average pitcher dealing with a failing marriage and alcoholism pitches the only perfect game in postseason history? This should be receiving the most attention, despite the excellent backstories of the players on both teams. Paper profiles Larsen in the beginning of the book, and occasionally returns to him. What brings the book down the most is the style that Paper employs at the end of each chapter, detailing every at-bat of the game.

"Jim Gilliam is more concerned with getting on base than retaliating against a knockdown pitch as he steps into the batter's box in the top of the seventh inning of the fifth game of the 1956 World Series. But Don Larsen is not making it easy for him. The Dodger second baseman takes a called strike, watches another pitch go by for a ball, and then fouls off a pitch (224-225)."

Paper is obviously trying to create what feels like a radio play-by-play, and this ends up being incredibly distracting. Personally, I've never been a fan of present-tense writing, and this is made worse by Paper injecting the perceived emotions of the particular players in the various parts of the game. While these emotional assumptions are understandable, it feels like Paper is trying to create fictionalized scenes in a book that is otherwise a strong history text. Overall, Perfect is amazingly well-researched, but is weighed down by these little problems. Had Paper focused more on Don Larsen and strictly adhered to his journalistic tendencies, this pivotal game account would have been so much better.

Work Cited:
Paper, Lew. Perfect: Don Larsen's Miraculous World Series Game and the Men Who Made It Happen. Copyright 2009 by Lew Paper.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

2006 In Music: Recap

After a week off, Aught Music will resume tomorrow with the best tracks of 2007. This has been an amazing project to contribute to, and I'm sure that 2007-2009 will fly by as we approach the end of this year. Here are my contributions from 2006. Just like with my previous updates, click on the links below for free listens/downloads.

1.) "(Do You Wanna) Come Walk With Me?" by Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan (from the album Ballad Of the Broken Seas)

With quite a few of my selections for this project, I've written about how some female singers can sound strong and fragile at the same time. Mark Lanegan does that perfectly on this track. He and Campbell sound amazing together on this disc, but I almost wish that this particular song was a solo for him.

I'm not saying I love you, I won't say I'll be true,
There's a crimson bird flying when I go down on you
I'm so weary and lonesome and it's cold in the night,
When the path to your doorway is a pathway of light.

There are very few songs that can be evocations of both masculinity, insecurity, and sensitivity. Lanegan sounds tough, but there's much more being painfully pushed down below the surface. Jeremy wrote about The National expressing masculinity in the twenty-first century on the track "All the Wine." While these are two vastly different songs, I think that "Come Walk With Me" is another chapter in intelligent musical looks at what it means to be a man, fraught with complexities and a myriad of emotions.

2.) "Sons & Daughters" and "O! Valencia" by The Decemberists (from the album The Crane Wife)

"Sons & Daughters":

With this track, three simple adjectives sum it up quite well: moving, simple, and beautiful. Given the winding story arcs and characters featured on the rest of the album, it's amazing that it ends on such a small treasure.

When we arrive, sons & daughters
We'll make our homes on the water
We'll build our walls with aluminum
We'll fill our mouths with cinnamon.

Personally, I'll always hold this song very close. When The Crane Wife was released, my eldest brother was serving his second tour in the Iraq War. For varying reasons, I was much more scared and despondent during that second year, as if the reality of it all had truly hit me. Many a night, I was moved to tears by the closing lines:

Here all the bombs fade away,
Here all the bombs fade away.

He returned home safely, and that Christmas, I put "Sons & Daughters" as the final song on a mix CD that I made for him. I've never explained this significance to anyone until now.

"O! Valencia":

Yes, this story line has been done a million and one times, spanning every medium, and most well known from "Romeo and Juliet" and "West Side Story." So on, so forth, etc. Two lovers find themselves carrying on a secret tryst under the noses of their warring families. However, as familiar as this is, it's hard to listen to it and not root for the lovers to live happily every after, even if it's an obvious lost cause.

All I heard was the shout
Of your brother calling me out
And you ran like a fool to my side.

Both in this song and the official music video, the Decemberists do their usual job of taking a subject steeped in history and nostalgia and giving it a modern spin. It's not nearly as inventive as what they're capable of, but it's a great listen.
(Note: This post was part of a roundtable with Rich Thomas, who writes about his take on "O! Valencia.")

3.) "Star Witness" and "Maybe Sparrow" by Neko Case (from the album The Fox Confessor Brings the Flood)

"Star Witness":

This has one of my votes for the best song of the decade, not just for 2006. As stunning as her voice is, Case earns major credit for her songwriting talent. This is a loose "homage" to the rough Chicago neighborhood of Humboldt Park, and it's staggering how she can take such haunting moments and turn a complex poem into a beautiful song.

Hey pretty baby, get high with me
We can go to my sister's if we say we'll watch the baby,
The look on your face yanks my neck on the chain.

The first time I heard this, I played that last line at least ten times in a row, rewinding my CD a few seconds back. Forgive my hyperbole, but it's a punch in the stomach everytime I hear it. Songs, poems, and books are full of metaphors, but that one is literally perfect, both in the delivery and the context of the track.

"Maybe Sparrow":

I'll be honest: I still don't really know what this song means, or even if it's supposed to mean anything. The album is laced with mythogical animal imagery, so this is appropriate. I love how Case's voice rises, along with the music, to create a stunning chorus:

Oh, my sparrow, it's too late
Your body limp beneath my feet.

I always get very reflective whenever I hear this track. It's so short, yet packs some dizzying arrangements and atmospheres. As I type this, I realize that this description could fit quite a few of Case's songs. It's very difficult to explain, but this track is the one I would use to explain to anyone why Case is my favorite female vocalist. I guess that's the beauty of great music: it moves me in definite ways that, as a writer, I'm at a loss to express.
(Note: This post is part of another roundtable with Rich Thomas, who writes about the album as a whole.)

4.) "It Wasn't Me" by Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins (from the album Rabbit Fur Coat)

It's amazing how confident and sultry Jenny Lewis can sound, even when a given track is intended to sound lonely and depressing. Her voice barely rises above a forced whisper, and it creates a moody, echoing atmosphere, a sort of modern spin on the torch songs of the classic female vocalists of the early to mid 20th century. As depressed as she sounds, there's a hint of defiance in the lyrics, which are open to varying interpretations.

It wasn't me, I wasn't there
I was stone drunk, it isn't clear
And it doesn't count because I don't care.

The point of view can be interpreted as an intentional distance from any negative situation. Insert the situation of your choosing, and the song will more than likely fit perfectly.

"Everything Sounds Better on Vinyl:" New Fiction in Gulf Stream Magazine

Good morning, y'all! I have a new short story up today. You can read " Everything Sounds Better on Vinyl " in the Spring i...