Tuesday, December 27, 2011

My year in music

#1. Tori Amos, Night of Hunters. Tori is my favorite artist and I regard this as her best album since 1999's To Venus and Back! Not only that, it's her first album on the classical label Deutsche Grammophon (twelfth studio album in all). Tori was approached by the label to compose a twenty-first century song cycle based on classical themes. To listen to her tell the story, she responded by saying, "Can I have a drink?" She said that if she were to get it wrong, she would get it really wrong because she was messing with the masters so to speak.

Tori's vocals and virtuosic piano playing are accompanied by the Apollon Musagete Quartet on strings and Berlin Philharmonic clarinet soloist Andreas Ottensamer. And as with her last effort, 2009's seasonal album Midwinter Graces, she enlisted her daughter and niece to provide a few of the vocals.

Night of Hunters is a great achievement, as was the tour in support of it with the Apollon Musagete Quartet through Europe, South Africa (her first time touring there), and North America. The highlight for me was a stunning new arrangement of "Cruel." It was so daring to rework that song from her '98 album From the Choirgirl Hotel (my favorite) with the string quartet.

#2. Bright Eyes, The People's Key. Bright Eyes' eighth album and first in four years represents a departure from both the band's last album, Cassadaga, and Conor Oberst's recent side projects: "I was really burnt out on that rootsy Americana shit. So I tried to steer clear of that." Honestly, I hope he gets into that again but I also love Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, so this album did not disappoint. It certainly has a harder electric sound, with the exception of the quiet "Ladder Song," which Conor Oberst tacked on after the album was almost complete and a friend of his committed suicide. "No one knows where the ladder goes," he sings. Influenced by his interest in Rastafarianism (the Bible and eastern religion are also referenced), the most prominent theme on the album is unification of humanity.

Other 2011 releases that I've enjoyed include:

Adele, 21
Death Cab For Cutie, Codes and Keys
The Decemberists, The King is Dead
Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues
Indigo Girls, Beauty Queen Sister
The Kills, Blood Pressures
Paul Simon, So Beautiful or So What
Robbie Robertson, How to Become Clairvoyant
Stevie Nicks, In Your Dreams
Vanessa Carlton, Rabbits on the Run
Wilco, The Whole Love

Concerts I attended this year:

Jan. 2nd: Sarah McLachlan, Capitol Center for the Arts, Concord, NH
Jan. 8th: Vienna Teng, The Center for the Arts, Natick, MA
Mar. 11th: Bright Eyes, State Theatre, Portland, ME
Mar. 13th: Shawn Colvin, Chandler Center for the Arts, Randolph, VT
Apr. 1st: Sara Bareilles, State Theatre, Portland, ME
June 24th-25th: Wilco's Solid Sound festival, Mass MoCA, North Adams, MA
July 28th: Bright Eyes, Meadowbrook U.S. Cellular Pavilion, Gilford, NH
Aug. 1st: Death Cab For Cutie, Bank of America Pavilion, Boston, MA
Aug. 30th: Sara Bareilles, Bank of America Pavilion, Boston, MA
Sept. 9th: The National, Bank of America Pavilion, Boston, MA
Sept. 20th: Wilco, Wang Theatre, Boston, MA
Oct. 22nd: Indigo Girls, Keefe Auditorium, Nashua, NH
Nov. 2nd: Brandi Carlile, Calvin Theatre, Northampton, MA
Dec. 2nd: Tori Amos, Beacon Theatre, New York, NY
Dec. 6th: Tori Amos, Orpheum Theatre, Boston, MA

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Review of Wilco's The Whole Love

The Whole Love is Wilco's eighth studio album and the first on the band's own label, dBpm records. It is also Wilco's best album since 2004's A Ghost is Born. The Whole Love has plenty of variety. Interviewed in the latest issue of Rolling Stone, frontman Jeff Tweedy says, "It sounds like Wilco, but with something that feels new and fresh."

The album is bookended by its longest and best tracks, "Art of Almost" and "One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley's Boyfriend)." The latter was also the highlight of Wilco's Boston concert I attended on September 20th. "One Sunday Morning" clocks in at twelve minutes and has a beautiful acoustic guitar medley with an equally beautiful piano accompaniment. "Art of Almost" recalls the experimental rock of Ghost and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, with the added benefit of some great guitar work by Nels Cline toward the end. Says Tweedy, "There's a certain faction of Wilco fans that I think has felt maligned by the directness of the last couple of records. 'Art of Almost' scratches that itch for them." In another interview, he remarks that the type of song like "Art of Almost" fits best at the beginning of an album, and wryly laments some people's dismissal of Sky Blue Sky because of its especially mellow opening track.

Were it not for "One Sunday Morning" the louder songs on the album would steal it. There are numerous relatively quiet songs on the album, perhaps more than there should be because of how powerful the more rocking songs are, leaving the listener eager for more of them. Despite how rich the album is sonically, Tweedy's lyrics still captivate. Some standouts include "You won't set the kids on fire / Oh but I might" from "I Might" and "Sadness is my luxury" from "Born Alone." "Open Mind" has strong lyrics (but it's a shame that the song is somewhat boring musically): "I would throw myself underneath / The wheels of any train of thought / Running off the rails or sail you through / The rogue waves of your brain." In "Sunloathe," Tweedy sings, "I kill my memories / With a cheap disease." He remarks, "A lot of 'Sunloathe' is mocking the internally manufactured abyss of addiction. It's a common thread in a lot of my songs--being angry at my own self-pity, or self-pity in general, in the face of real suffering in the world."

This is Wilco's third album with its current lineup of six talented musicians and its strongest together. A few critics have pointed to the variety of the songs on the album as making it seem disjointed--sure, it's not the most coherent, but it is a quality album and one of Wilco's better efforts.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Live music: rediscoveries

One of the greatest aspects of concerts is how every performance of a song is unique, with varying energy behind it--coming from the artists and influenced by the crowd. Hearing a certain song performed live can spark an entirely new appreciation for it. Seeing a piece by a favorite artist in a new light is satisfying, and it can sometimes seem like you are experiencing a new work altogether.

After a particularly moving rendition of a song in concert, there have been times when I've wondered how I missed singling out that song at all before. It was the same song, yet different. I've rediscovered numerous songs and even whole albums this way.

Rilo Kiley's song "The Absence of God" had not clicked with me until I saw them perform it in concert in 2008. I had been hoping they would play "More Adventurous," which is another slower-tempo, melancholy song from the same album. As it turned out, I found the live performance of "The Absence of God" to be touching, with a lot of feeling behind it, and it became a song to which I listened and liked just as much thereafter as the one I would have preferred to hear.

At the Bright Eyes concert on July 28th, they played a few songs from their album Cassadaga, which had never been an album that stood out to me. After the concert, I appreciated that album like I hadn't before and immersed myself in listening to it. "If the Brakeman Turns My Way" was a highlight of the show (and a live fan favorite, judging by the cheers). I think it might actually be the best song on that album.

Bright Eyes has been ending their sets with "One for You, One for Me," which also closes their latest album, The People's Key. The lyrics "You and me, you and me / That is an awful lie / It's I and I" did not resonate with me until I saw how Conor Oberst performs the song live. Rather than what could be interpreted as an isolationist stance, the line conveys the idea that we are all one. In rastafarian belief, a prominent influence on this album, the phrase connotes equality among everyone. In concert, toward the end of the song Conor always reaches out to the crowd, touching many people's hands. This gesture perfectly complements the lyrics, and can only be experienced live.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Another reason Google rocks

Google is celebrating the first day of summer with a logo enhanced by Japanese artist Takashi Murakami, of whom I've long been a fan. I have to give it up to Google for brightening my days with the enhanced logos. Recently Google had a series of illustrations intertwined with the logo by Roger Hargreaves, creator of the delightful Mr. Men and Little Miss books for kids.

Google occasionally gets interactive--such as marking the birthday of Les Paul with a strummable guitar graphic and commemorating Jacques Cousteau with a changeable view through the portholes of a submarine. Everything you want to know about Google "doodles" is outlined here and you can view an archive of the images.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Themes in Conor Oberst's lyrics (Part Three)

A theme across some of Conor Oberst's finest songs is a struggle with alcohol. Potentially harmless social agent and relaxant or aid to self-destruction and isolation? There exists a complicated relationship between the narrator and alcohol.

"Hit the Switch" is a song devoted entirely to the topic, mapping out the conflict that is felt. He contemplates quitting drinking, lamenting another morning spent in the grips of a debilitating hangover during which he feels like a hypocrite for continuing to inflict damage upon himself. "Lua" contains similar sentiment: "What is simple in the moonlight now is so complicated."

In "Hit the Switch," he also addresses the juxtaposition of friends out socializing over drinks with the narrator's own removed frame of mind: "I'm completely alone at a table of friends / I feel nothing for them / I feel nothing / Nothing" and "I'll call you eventually, when I want to talk / Until then you're invisible." The use of alcohol is not aiding him with his social interactions, but is in effect impeding them.

One reason why it is such a well crafted song is because the switch to which the title refers has him vacillating from beginning to end of narrative. Early on he talks about a switch getting hit and that things stop making sense, with his essential self getting lost in the shuffle. At the end of the song he says that when night descends, "It all starts making sense / There is no right way or wrong way, you just have to live / And so I do what I do, and at least I exist / What could mean more than this?" That mindset gets the last word, which connotes the cycle.

On the one hand, the narrator is continuing to exist, but on the other hand, living with an alcohol problem may feel like a cheated existence. "It's not something I would recommend," he cautions in "Lua," "but it is one way to live." In "Something Vague," he writes, "You see your breath in the air as you climb up the stairs / To that coffin you call your apartment / And you sink in your chair, brush the snow from your hair / And drink the cold away / And you're not really sure what you're doing this for / But you need something to fill up the days / A few more hours."

Morbid thoughts are woven into this lyrical theme. "Milk Thistle" (which is used to treat alcohol-inflicted liver damage) is a song about dying: "I keep death on my mind / Like a heavy crown / If I go to heaven / I'll be bored as hell." In "Hit the Switch," he refers to recurrent nightmares: "I have some where I die / I have some where we all die." In "Lua," he writes, "We might die from medication but we sure killed all the pain."

Conor Oberst is known for his confessional lyrics, and this theme across a number of his songs is a prime example. It is admirable that he would expose such a struggle and probe it to the extent that he does. He does not glamorize or gloss over the topic at all, either--rather, he strips it bare.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

It's Star Wars Day!

May the fourth be with you--it's Star Wars Day! It's funny because I have actually been making my way again through the series on DVD (first the original trilogy; now I'm on to the prequels). My favorite would have to be Return of the Jedi. There are a lot of good lines in that movie, many of them said by the macho and sarcastic Han Solo. A few favorites:

Luke Skywalker: "Just relax and stick close to Chewy. I've taken care of everything."
Han Solo: "Oh. Great."

Luke: "Quiet, there may be more of them out there."
Han: "Hey. It's me."

C3PO: "They believe I'm some sort of god."
Han: "Well, why don't you use your divine influence and get us out of this?"

Princess Leia: "It only takes one to sound the alarm."
Han: "Then we'll do it real quiet-like."

The increasingly gleeful emperor when he has Luke in his clutches: "Oh, I'm afraid the deflector shield will be quite operational when your friends arrive." (This is a fun line to do an impression of!)

Of course, Star Wars also has a bunch of other things going for it: the epic storyline; great characters, including strong female leads (Padme Amidala and Princess Leia); the score; cool special effects; impressive costumes; and edge-of-your-seat battle scenes. It also touches on interesting philosophical points, which are often articulated by Jedi Master Yoda:

"Do or do not. There is no try."

"Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering."

"Attachment leads to jealousy. The shadow of greed that is."

"The fear of losing is a path to the dark side."

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Themes in Conor Oberst's lyrics (Part Two)

On Bright Eyes' latest album, The People's Key, Conor Oberst writes about the value of viewing life through a child's eyes. He devotes one whole song to this idea, "Beginner's Mind." He also touches on it in "Jejune Stars": "So it starts again / at our childhood's end / I'll die young at heart." He laments the loss of childhood and the fact that its perspective is gone or at least that it has to be reclaimed through a laborious process.

Inspired by a child's spontaneous take on life, he tells himself in "Beginner's Mind": "Swear you'll be the opposite / of all the stilted hypocrites / You know what made you infamous to them, don't you / you keep starting over." He wants to both understand his inner child and protect it: "Stay awhile my inner child / I'd like to learn your trick / to know what makes you tick / to nurse you when you're sick."

I agree with Conor that there is a purity of how we view the world as children. I wish we could stay children for longer ("Youth is wasted on the young"). How is it useful to regain a childlike perspective as adults? Could a wide-eyed approach be the best way to appreciate life? Or to put it another way, what do we get that is positive from becoming jaded? There is also the question of the essential self. In "One for You, One for Me," Conor writes, "We've come so far away from us." His desire to find and understand the purest part of himself is evident throughout the album.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Themes in Conor Oberst's lyrics (Part One)

I have been having an interesting time mining the field of Conor Oberst's lyrics. It is such rich territory that I thought I might even do a series of posts on the topic. Conor Oberst is one of those artists whom I want to thank for sharing himself with the world--he has that much to contribute. He is known for his highly personal lyrics, and as he said, wryly, "I like to feel the burn of the audience's eyes on me as I'm whispering all my darkest secrets into the microphone." He has been touted as a great songwriter by such high profile sources as Rolling Stone and celebrated author Jonathan Franzen, but he brushes off the accolades. I think he is someone who just wants to get at the truth, which I respect.

One common thread in his writing spans at least a couple of songs across Bright Eyes' albums--"Lover I Don't Have to Love" and "Take it Easy (Love Nothing)." The lyrics of "Lover I Don't Have to Love" are fascinating--it seems that he turns around from the sex, drugs, and rock and roll mentality to the realization of the emptiness therein all within a single song. He sings, "I need some meaning I can memorize / The kind I have always seems to slip my mind." He is looking for something meaningful; the other stuff is hollow.

In "Take it Easy (Love Nothing)," he claims that he will never let himself get hurt again: "Now I do as I please and lie through my teeth / Someone might get hurt, but it won't be me." But if he still feels the way he did when he wrote "Lover I Don't Have to Love," love is worth getting hurt: "Love's an excuse to get hurt / Do you like to hurt? / I do, I do / Then hurt me." Of course that can be read in a self-destructive sense, in line with the prior lyrics of the song, but I think that may not be what he is ultimately getting at. I read it as coming to an understanding of the necessary risk of getting hurt. That double layer of meaning makes the lyrics all the more intriguing.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A tribute to my favorite actress

I was saddened to read that Elizabeth Taylor passed away today at the age of 79 after battling congestive heart failure. A true survivor, she suffered for many years from various illnesses. Named Elizabeth like me, she too hated the nickname "Liz" people always think they can call you! "It sounds like a hiss," she said, and I agree. She was renowned for her beauty (complete with violet eyes), but far from just being eye candy, she was a wonderful actress. Her acting displayed heart, vulnerability, courage, and fire.

I have not seen every film she made, but I have seen many of them. I especially loved her in Giant, Butterfield 8, and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (her performances in the last two earned her Oscars). To round out my top five Elizabeth Taylor movies, I would add Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and A Place in the Sun.

When her friend and Giant costar Rock Hudson died in 1985, Taylor began her tireless humanitarian work on behalf of those suffering with AIDS. A staunch ally of the LGBT community, she was close friends with gay costar Montgomery Clift, and with James Dean, who was likely bisexual. Neither her support of her gay friends nor her crusading against the AIDS epidemic were popular actions at the time the way they would be today. She stood up for what she believed in. She has left a remarkable legacy and will be missed.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The smell of books

Rachael Morrison, who works at the Museum of Modern Art Library, began a piece of performance art a year ago that consists of smelling every book in the collection, starting with the first call number in the Library of Congress classification system. She says, "I document the performance in a ledger, recording the call number, title, and a description of the smell of each book. The goal of this personal olfactory exploration is to foster a discussion of the future of print media, the ways we read, methods of classification, and the way in which smell is entwined with memory."

I am reminded of one of my favorite bits from How I Became a Famous Novelist, by Steve Hely, when Pete attends a book exposition:

"Along one wall were booths for hardware companies, where you could try out little hand-held iPod-style devices for reading. I picked up the Toshiba Dante and the girl showed me how to scroll through. I started reading one of the Harry Potter books on the light-up screen, but I found myself missing the feeling of dominance that comes from cracking the spine in two. I suggested she add a perfume dispenser that emitted the stink of dye and cut paper. She didn't seem interested."

I remember as a little kid I would smell every book I was reading. I have always liked how most new books smell and often the smell of antique books, too. Of course, library books occasionally can smell unpleasant: think cigarette smoke or bad perfume.

I am not personally interested in reading books on an e-reader because of how reading a traditional, physical book involves more senses than just sight. A physical book is tactile--I like actually turning the pages--and of course there is the smell. Says Bob Stein of the Institute for the Future of the Book: "These smells have an evocative power, especially for people who grew up loving books," and I certainly did!

Photograph of Rachael Morrison by Michael Schmelling

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Reading as an act of "quiet revolution"

In The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time, David Ulin expands upon an essay he wrote for the Los Angeles Times in 2009. This slim volume is an ode to the practice of reading in our current age of information overload. Ulin's book combines memoir and literary criticism, a blend that works well. He frames the content with his experience rereading The Great Gatsby as his son reads it for a school assignment.

What reading gives us, Ulin says, is not only meditation apart from other people but also the connection we form with the author through his or her words. "We regain the world by withdrawing from it just a little, by stepping back from the noise, the tumult, to discover our reflections in another mind" (151). Ulin goes so far as to characterize reading in this day and age as revolutionary, "an act of resistance in a landscape of distraction, a matter of engagement in a society that seems to want nothing more than for us to disengage" (150).

The implications of this distracted state are addressed in another recent book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, by Sherry Turkle, who asserts that we are becoming so "immersed in technology that we ignore what we know about life." This thought is in line with Ulin's belief that we should take a step back from the large number of distractions we face. Few of us are immune, and we all may need reminding about the value of reading.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Review of Black Swan

Darren Aronofsky has done it again--another harrowing and thought-provoking drama. His previous effort, The Wrestler, has much in common with his latest. Black Swan explores the interplay between madness and art in a competitive context.

Natalie Portman plays Nina Sayers, a ballerina chosen to replace aging Beth (Winona Ryder) as star of the company, playing the lead in Swan Lake. Director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) sees her as a natural White Swan, but she must also play the Black Swan, requiring an abandon he is doubtful that she can possess. Mila Kunis plays Lily, whom Nina sees as her rival but also as someone whose comparative worldliness intrigues her. Barbara Hershey has a memorable turn as Nina's rather suffocating, ex-ballerina mother.

Viewers are made to question how much is reality versus fantasy as Nina's delusions are played out onscreen. I wondered whether or not Lily was completely made up by Nina, given how many of the delusions are wrapped up with her. Some criticism of the film has centered around the horror movie tactics that pick up in the second half of the movie, but that is when Nina's psychological deteroriation increases in severity and therefore make sense. Set against the beauty of the Swan Lake production, Nina's mental breakdown is the more disturbing. For all the figures who are causing her turmoil in her life, Nina is her own worst foe.

The film is not so much about the world of ballet as a broader look at the parallel between art and madness and about delving too far into what one cannot handle. In fact, in a case of life imitating art, the role was nearly too intense for Portman: "There were some nights that I thought I literally was going to die," she said. "It was the first time I understood how you could get so wrapped up in a role that it could sort of take you down." Black Swan is a riveting look at an artist's breakdown, but the message of the movie seems to be a cautionary one rather than a complete romanticization. The violence contained in the film is therefore not gratuitous. The movie may be hard for some to take, but it is well done.