Criticism


A few months ago, I was flipping through the channels and settled on Dave Letterman for a few minutes. I was delighted to see that his music guest was not some horrible new indie band, but a jazz bassist and vocalist. After hearing Esperanza Spalding play and sing, I did the requisite Wikipedia search, and found out she was a faculty member at Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA. At twenty-four. Needless to say, I was impressed with her and depressed at my own lack of accomplishments. (Really, I’m fine with that, but the thrill of über-talented youth is getting to me—did you win eight gold medals last week? I didn’t. I barely managed to floss every night.) (more…)

Author’s note: Apologies for the long absence. Occasionally, that thing called grad school demands my attention. Also, as of late, I’ve become obsessed with the Olympics. Remedies for my case of Phelps fever, which has now developed into Phelps pneumonia, are welcome. Thank you, Bob Costas. I’ll try to post more regularly.

Driven beats with silky smooth vocals dominate Uh Huh Her’s new album, Common Reaction. The first track, “Not a Love Song,” is an excellent lead-off for a solid electro/pop/rock album. The song captures the seemingly contrasted atmosphere of the entire album—determined, upbeat songs laced with languid yearning. “Not a Love Song” begins with a fairly standard electric guitar intro that is quickly overlaid with almost angelic vocals. The chorus kicks in without apologies. Several layers of guitars and keyboards create an ethereal atmosphere tied down by an unrelenting, solid drum beat. Although the beat isn’t terribly innovative, it serves the purpose of sharpening the meter’s focus. “Not a Love Song” is probably the album’s best song, and the band chose it for a music video, complete with unicorn.
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I recently got a new phone, after switching from Verizon to T-Mobile. (By “recently”, I mean, roughly three hours ago.) I’ve been fiddling with it off and on since then, though not seriously. Since I don’t use phones much, or at least no more than I’m forced to, I mostly just want to know how to transfer my old phone book over from the previous phone, check voicemail, and make calls. Ideally I’d also like to know how to do this “ringtone” thing since, I think, unlike my previous one this phone can actually do that. I think fifty crying babies would be pretty awesome as a ringtone. Everyone else would feel the way I do about incoming calls!

More to the point, though, the text message part of the phone has a series of “templates” built into it – which is actually quite clever. There’s a “I’ll meet you at ” template, a “I’m in a meeting right now, but I’ll be out at ” one, etc. If I used text messages this could be a really useful feature. What I’m ambivalent about, though, is that one of them is “I love you too”.

Seriously – “I love you too“. So not one that you’d automatically send to someone, but only in reply. And I’m not sure how to react to this. On the one hand it’s kind of hilarious. But at the same time I find it sort of sad as well, as if the phone is already designed for vaguely pathetic people. But not vaguely pathetic in the way that I’m vaguely pathetic (there is no “Leaving my apartment seems like a lot of work tonight” message, for example). So it’s not useful. Still, I suppose I could always add some new templates. But since that would involve committing to actually using text messaging I think it’s better not to.

The past few days I have found myself getting more and more enmeshed in the day to day crap that is the primary season. There’s nothing substantive to report, and there hasn’t been for over a week now. The media continues to ignore the actual issues on which these politicians are campaigning, and that leaves them with only the horserace, who bowled what stories. Seriously, there are segments of our news media that want the candidate’s bowling skills to play into the race. Do they think the next president is going to have to challenge Kim Jong-il to a bowling match over nuclear proliferation? It would be hard to find a skill or issue LESS relevant to a person’s ability to be commander and chief. We sure are hell aren’t going to give them time to get any bowling in when they get into office. Hell, John “Forever War” McCain would probably tear his bicep if he tried bowling. He’s pretty spry for his age, but the body takes a long time to heal at that age, and the trail can be pretty punishing.

In all of this, I have wasted a lot of time. I’m not proud of it, but I can come back from the experience with a little knowledge about how I will spend my time in the future. I will never again read a comment thread with more than twenty five replies. I will not just read the first few and move on, I will ignore the thing in its entirety. Twenty five is about the point at which one can with certainty expect the conversation to degenerate into sheer idiocy. I know that I will miss out on some things by doing this, and it seems to be a little at odds with the blog itself. We want people to post here, and have conversations, and spirited arguments. But something about the nature of blogs guarantees that somewhere around post twenty five, someone is going to stop actually making sense, and start spouting nonsense.

This is not a hard and fast rule. Idiocy can begin with the first reply, but you know it’s not worth the investment of time at twenty five. You have to think of information as risk reward in the great sea of data known as the internet.

Am I being too lenient? Should I cut off at twelve? Maybe you think it’s safe to wade as far as thirty replies into a thread. If you do, go check out the New York Times blog comments, pick something good, like a post on Obama in the politics blog, or Gore’s new ad campaign in the science blog. Feel free to come back and tell me what you think, just don’t be the twenty sixth reply.

I think that I have tried, or at least thought about trying, to attend a Ryan Adams concert at least three times without ever getting so far as actually buying a ticket. This time was different. I had a new job and was feeling less financially strapped than usual, and for the first time ever, my girlfriend likes Ryan Adams (instead of the cringing reaction that past girlfriends have been prone to). We bought tickets for the show in Salem at a theater we had never heard of, as Ryan was not playing in Portland. So, Friday after work, we trucked the hour south, got lost, and eventually wound up at the Elsinore Theater at 8:00, a half-hour before the scheduled start time.

Then something weird happened. At exactly 8:30 (I checked), Ryan Adams and the Cardinals walked on stage and started into Cold Roses. Half the audience was still drinking beer in the lobby. I guess there was a reason no opening band was listed anywhere.

I have a number of things to say about the show and not all of them are stellar, but let me start by saying that I thoroughly enjoyed myself at this concert. The music was good, the songs were well chosen and just different enough from the studio versions to be interesting (with an occasional leap into the Experimental–more on this later), and there was an intimate feeling between the band and the audience. Of course, I’m using the term ‘intimate’ in a somewhat unusual fashion, as I don’t think it typically includes the practice of mutual bitchy heckling, but I’ll get to that later. Firstly, let me drop the major bomb of my findings:

Ryan Adams is gay. He is, in fact, so flamingly, bitchily, cattily, hands-wavingly gay that I don’t know why I’ve never heard anyone point this out before. Maybe because he keeps talking about girls. And even asking to be taken home by some nice girl for tea and a night of playing Nintendo, because “I just need a night for me.”  Everything about his physicality screams gay, from how much he plays with his hair (incessantly, which is messy and looks like the cover to “Gold”), to his knock-kneed, pigeon-toed posture that only accentuates his surprisingly womanly hips (my dyke girlfriend noticed this right away), to the way that he grips the mic stand with one hand while slightly stooped and hold his other hand out in front of his face and gently waving it around like Billy Holiday or Janis Joplin.

He is also simultaneously the bitchiest person I have ever seen on stage, and the most self-pitying person I have ever seen on stage, both of which he manages to play off humorously, to his credit. I should note that the audience was unusually vocal with the cat-calling, and that Ryan and the rest of the band were equally free in calling back. At one point, in response to a yelled song request, Ryan says (approximately) “We’ve got the song list pretty well covered, thanks. In fact, every time you holler out a song, if that song is already on the list, I’m going to take it off, just so that people in other cities don’t, you know. Every time you call out a song, think of that as a quarter that you are throwing down a well, a wishing well. Except that at the bottom of the well is shit. (Pause) Sorry, I’ve been listening to a lot of black metal recently, so I’m just, you know, tellin’ it like it is.”  He did this kind of thing all night. He mentioned that he feels lonely, and that he continuously feels that his life is not adding up to anything. That at 33, he feels that he should feel more accomplished, but instead feels like a failure. He mentioned getting sober, and when the audience started clapping, he said “Oh c’mon. It’s not like it was working for me the other way. I mean, it isn’t like there’s really an option.” Ryan Adams talks to the audience as if he was doing a show in his own basement, and just happened to let 400 people stumble in to watch. 400 people who might, at any moment, pee on the rug and need to be tossed out on their ears.  But funnier. The band stopped for about five minutes at one point so that the pedal steel player could tell a one-line joke from a list in his pocket (while Ryan sat cross-legged at the side of the stage and berated anyone who voiced impatience).

After about an hour and a half, at the end of an extended tripped-out guitar session, Ryan mumbles into the mic what I hear as “We’re gonna take a break. See you in a few.”and walked off stage with the band. Apparently, the majority of the audience (and the light tech) didn’t understand him, because they stood standing and clapping for several minutes before Ryan walks out alone and says into a mic, sounding exasperated: “Hey, we’ve got a lot of music, so we’re gonna play until this place closes. Maybe you didn’t hear me when I said ‘We’re taking intermission. See you for the next set.'” Then walked off again. Then the house lights come up. Ten minutes later, the lights went down, and the band walked out and started into Let It Ride, with a quarter of the audience still in the lobby.

On the music in general: it was fantastic. Live, the music sounds a little more Rock and a little less Country, without anything really being different. Ryan does indeed play lead guitar, and plays well. He is  also obviously a musician of vision. There were several moments during the show when he would start waving at one or more of the Cardinals to either start or stop some activity because he wanted a specific sound at that moment (e.g. quieter drums, adding pedal steel solos or guitar fills, dropping the backup vocals, or changing the lyric structure). In this way, he reminded me somewhat of Keith Jarret, who you can hear groaning on some tracks when he is trying to get just the right sound from his piano.

Ryan also decided, obviously without having discussed it with anyone ahead of time, to do one song a cappella, which turned out to work surprisingly well, due in no small part to the quality of the guitar player’s falsetto.

A few other notes:

They covered Wonderwall. A slow, folky version that I liked at least as much as the original.

Ryan Adams is now the only musician I have ever seen sing a song with a cigarette in his mouth, and then a minute later, play a guitar solo with said cigarette between the fingers of his strumming hand.

There was no encore, nor even a tease that there would be one. These guys start on time and end on time.

Both sets ended with about seven minutes of non-melodic, experimental crap. Massive use of effects pedals, detuned guitars, the whole works. I started to fall asleep both times. Maybe it was Deep, Original Material, but those were easily the two low points of the concert for me.

In Summation:

If you get a chance to see Ryan Adams and the Cardinals, pay the thirty bucks or whatever and go. The music is excellent, even if Ryan is kinda drunk and short-tempered. The trick is to see it less as a Concert and more as Watching Some Guys Play Music. They aren’t playing for you, they’re just playing. Yes, Ryan is a bitchy drama-queen. But he is funny, surprisingly sharp, and an incredible musician.

And if you figure out what’s up with the Gay, let me know.

You can read it right here.

She’s arguing that the idea of increased food stamp allowances wouldn’t be a useful economic stimulus in the way a tax rebate would.  There are five reasons that she gives, and the first is

The poor don’t need more food. Obesity is a problem for the poor in America; except for people who are too screwed up to get food stamps (because they don’t have an address), food insufficiency is not.

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Our rental car is covered in dust and I’m savoring the inertia of sitting still after spending the day bouncing down washboard roads. The folks and I have been meandering around the scruffy bum of North America, Baja California, for the last week. My guidebook for the trip is John Steinbeck’s The Log from the Sea of Cortez, which dazzles, like most of Steinbeck’s books they don’t make you read in school. No matter which direction we head, Steinbeck went there first, and his honest, accurate prose doesn’t suffer for the near seventy years that separate his trip from ours.

It isn’t surprising that The Log from the Sea of Cortez is still insightful; Steinbeck was a good writer and places change slowly. But where I expected a travelogue, Steinbeck delivers a bawdy philosophy of science. Steinbeck is unimpressed with a bundle of results tied up neatly with explanations—“a world wrinkled with formaldehyde.” He writes science: exploration, dissection, discovery. Of course, lab scientists such as me always envy field workers. Unless I start synthesizing psychedelics, I won’t be taking any trips into unknown country anytime soon. But, when I publish, I will cling to The Log as my antidote to the desiccated style of “proper science.” Steinbeck had another hypothesis, that found favor with me: that the water at Cabo San Lucas was bad, and the crew should drink beer and coffee instead. In honour of that remark, I present the following recipe:

New Year’s Mojitos

Prepare a simple syrup by combining equal parts white sugar and water with several sprigs of mint, and heating gently while stirring until the sugar dissolves. Cool immediately. Chill a highball or other glass. While it chills, prepare a solution of 60 mL white rum and 30 mL of fresh lime juice. Add simple syrup until the mixture tastes neither sour nor sweet, about 15 mL. Add several sprigs of mint to the glass, followed by the solution. Muddle the mint. Add a slice of lime, then fill the glass with ice. Top off with soda water and stir a couple of times, but not too much or the mint will float to the top. Imbibe.

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