The Andrew Bird Show.

Andrew Bird brought his amazing, erudite, artsy indie-folk rock to the Ogden Theater in Denver last night. And I was there. I've seen many shows at the Ogden, and this was the most populous of any of them. He will be at the Fillmore next time, likely to sell out the larger venue... easily. Granted it was all ages, so there were many kids branded with the black X on their hand-backs milling about smoking pot and drinking $2 bottles of water... mixed with the usual 21+ crowd. The number of younger kids surprised me, partly because it means that high schoolers today seem to have much more discerning tastes in music than I recall from my day. My school was filled with kids who liked new-pop-punk, kids who liked reggae and jam, kids who liked 311, pot and ecstasy, and then the oldies kids (Beatles, Stones, et al) of which I was a member. Music is better now that it was, though. The mid-90s post-grunge era was a wasteland of pop-one-hitters. And these kids like one of the less accessible, most educated artists in indie rock. The kids ARE alright.

The show itself was brilliant. Loney Dear, of Sweden, opened the show with some solid pop-folk numbers loaded with great vocals, sweet harmonies and even an audience sing-a-long. (As often happens, it took till the third go round for the bulk of the show-goers to belt anything out... and even then it was more a light cooing.) Ultimately the music was solid singer-songwriter indie with a focus on vocals as an instrument rather than as a conveyance for lyrics. Most of the songs had a couple of verses, a chorus or bridge, and then winding measures of folk scatting. Emil Svanängen, the man behind the sound has a smooth, syrupy, and breathy (but not John Mayer breathy) voice. He's also an exceptionally kind human being. I caught him at the merch set-up and we spoke briefly about his touring of the States, and how great an opening act he was for Andrew Bird. He last toured with Of Montreal, whose theatrical bombast would be a massive tone shift following Loney Dear, and was very complimentary and thankful for the turnout in a middle-America city like Denver.

Then, enter Mr. Bird. His set was nothing short of spectacular. Using a multi-pedal system, Andrew looped and overlaid whistling, violin string pluckings, bowed riffs, and guitar work to make the entire sonic experience full and nearly studio clean, but not lacking in character. (The Ogden has always been my favorite Denver venue for sound quality, and Bird cranked that assessment up a few notches.) He opened with songs from the new album Noble Beast. Then he rode right into "Plasticities" and "Imitosis" from Armchair Apocrypha. He admitted to composing one of the new songs from the album while on a fly fishing trip with his father in Winter Park--to the cheers of his Colorado crowd. And his stage presence is particularly arresting, in that he is both incredibly intelligent, but also affable and unassuming. For a man who writes songs laden with $5 words, he never spoke over the heads of his crowd.

Andrew Bird put on one of the greatest shows I've been to in recent memory, with the skill of a showman and the humble air of an open-mic'er. He is someone you must see live. Now, I'm going to go buy and learn how to play the violin, since it is the greatest rock instrument of a new indie era.
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Proper-nouned possessions and status.

This one is about language, based on observations from my "everyday life." You may be asking, are air quotes pretentious? Yes. Yes they are, and that's what I'm going to discuss today. The trend of possessions (a requisite of capitalist society) and the unnecessary use of proper nouns to describe those possessions that afford their owner a level of status. The following example is not meant as a judgment, merely an broad case of the forthcoming point:

Imagine two men driving cross-country. They are friends, or at very least burgeoning acquaintances. They hear a clunk from their car, and a puff of steam rises through the seams between the hood and front quarter panels. The car dies and they are forced to pull over.

Man A says, after looking at the steaming, overheated engine, "We've gotta call a tow truck."
Man B replies, "Not to worry. I have my iPhone."

Now what's odd about that? Nothing really... But consider how unnecessary, especially given the situation, it is for Man B to state not only his possession of a phone, but of an iPhone. The same could be true of a couple leaving a house, the woman saying, "Honey (assuming such pet names apply), do you have everything you need before we leave?" To which the man could reply, "Yes, dear, I've got my keys and my iPhone."

There is a special class membership afforded to people owning an iPhone. I've noticed this through overheard conversations, and even through the chosen language of the people I know and love. Instead of stating simply, "I have my phone," or even the specific, "I've got my cellphone (cell, mobile--for the Europeans), iPhone owners seem often compelled to say that they are holding, carrying or talking to people on their iPhone. As I said this is not meant to be a point of citation. I wouldn't dream of affording a moral value to this phenomenon. But, why do iPhone owners tend to call out the specificity of their device?

One point is that the iPhone is marketed to be so brand-heavy that to not say "iPhone" feels foreign. Each night, for those of us who watch television, the iPhone greets us repeatedly per hour. It is, after all, Apple's prerogative to grind the existence and product name into our collective consciousness as a way to making us not only consciously, but unconsciously desire their products. But why does a Motorola of model number A, or a Razr, not elicit the same linguistic change? I have a Razr myself, and have never said, "I've got my Razr." It's just a phone, and nothing about it, other than shape and make, define it otherwise. This model applies to the Blackberry, which is essentially a phone/text/email device, but doesn't go by any name based on its function. It instead is simply a Blackberry, now and forever. It has its own mystique, its own reality and its own context.

Another point is that the iPhone is, like the iPod, an item that defines itself apart from everything else. I own an iPod, and have never, ever referred to it as my mp3 player (unless in the context of explaining its function to a less tech-savvy person). Other brands of mp3 players, Creative, Sony, etc., don't carry the same cultural capital. So, by defining (through marketing, popularity or function) the way a device should function, you get to name it. Is that a fair conclusion? We can look at the case of phonographs being long referred to as Victrolas, but that doesn't seem sufficient. The only cases beyond the archaic/antique I can think of are the most expensive, and most prestigious items. Those items that define you within a certain frame of society go by their proper names.

For example, a Rolex is always a Rolex, and not as often merely a watch. A Porsche is always a Porsche and less often only a car, or sports car. Now, in both of these cases, it can be argued that there are numerous brands of watches and makes of automobiles, so differentiation is necessary for specificity. But why are we specific? Partly, of course to paint a more vivid picture of what we are describing, especially in a case where the object described is not present for viewing; but also because we want people to know what we have. There is value in the object's make that reflects on us and our position in society as a whole. It defines us as one of the haves, apart from the have-nots. We can easily see that owning a Porsche is better than owning a Kia, or another automobile for the purposes of status and "cool". A Rolex is a better watch, in functionality and in cultural capital than a Casio. And for that reason we are likely to call out our ownership to the people around us as a way of establishing ourselves, our uniqueness, within the group.

There was a time, however, when merely owning a car or a phone or a record player was a boon to ones cultural capital in and of itself. In the early 1900s being one of the lucky few to have these items demonstrated status merely by appearance. It didn't matter who made the phone or whether you had a Ford or a Benz, both were cars, both were rarities and both construed a similar amount of capital upon their respective owners. So, why now, is it so important to have specific things? To call out those proper nouns? To bestow an additional level of detail on the claim of status?

Proliferation. When "having" isn't enough to define us in a world where everyone seems to have a cellphone or a car, it becomes infinitely important to specify what one has. And the more valuable, trendsetting, function-specialized, the better. Cultural capital has succumbed to inflation in that way, so things don't garner as much respect or "cool" as specific things do. We are left with little option, but to clearly name our possessions, not just for the status, but to define our unique part in the our sub-cultures. Gun owners know which guns are best (I do not, but one can imagine that there is a better hunting rifle to have than just the basic model). Car owners strive for the Mercedes, Porsches and Maybachs. We find our station in society not entirely based on what technologies we do or do not have, but what specific brands of those technologies we can afford to carry. And thereby language changes, from a time when saying "I have a cellphone" was a point of prestige, to now stating, "I have an iPhone" to gain the same status. Language maintains its culturally-centered fluidity and certainly always will. After all, I'm writing this blog not merely on a laptop, but on a ThinkPad.
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Valentine's, Podcast, 33 1/3

Is there a more universally divisive (non-religious) holiday than Valentine's Day? There is a small sect who regards the day with ambivalence or flat disinterest, but the gross majority really either loves V-Day or hates it... Given that hating something requires a fierce emotional investment much like loving, I can see a bit of tasty irony churning in the stew. ANYWAY. Valentine's Day was a fun occasion this year primarily because we gathered to watch horror films and subvert the "fancy-romancey" nature of the day. Love, after all, doesn't always come packaged with a diamond tennis bracelet (and WHO WEARS A DIAMOND BRACELET TO PLAY TENNIS ANYHOW?) or a heart-shaped box of chocolates. Love is usually pretty plain, lacking in unnecessarily repetitive crescendo. A symphony would be boring, and entirely abrasive where it nothing but explosive high points... and in a solid musical piece the build up is a process leading to culmination. Yet, Valentine's Day, for all the good it can mean for love, is contrived. It says that there's a day to love harder than usual and it can cause complications for new relationships (e.g. "Are we ready for Valentine's Day yet?").

In last week's episode of 30 Rock, that very example comes up. Tina Fey's Liz Lemon, asks out Mad Men star-and-special guest Jon Hamm for a date on Saturday... VALENTINE'S DAY. She, having lost track of the calendar, didn't know of the significance, but it plays into the perfectly real, minor-but-not-pointless nature of problems in dating and love. Valentine's Day does that to most situations... it's not just for people in love, or Love as an abstraction, it's for people who are stably in love. New customers need not apply, lest there are great questions to be answered.

Another topic: Bill Simmons' podcast on ESPN, The B.S. Report is exceptional. It's heavily sports-centric, so if you hate sports or prefer not to hear people discuss the trade value of various NBA players or what should be done with A-Rod and the steroids, this isn't the 'cast for you. In any case, the aforementioned Jon Hamm was on the cast last week, with SNL's Seth Meyers. And the great pop culture/music writer Chuck Klosterman was on a couple of weeks ago. This is one of the most intriguing podcasts I've ever listened to. Simmons tends to talk to everyone like they're old college buddies. It's free-flowing and loose and never feels like it's trying too hard for a direction. And it's incredibly funny, as one would expect from Simmons' writing on ESPN. Check it out. Really!

Finally, I've been reading a new 33 1/3 (it's a book series wherein the author of each one writes about one specific album--taking a variety of approaches from fictional account to philosophical inquiry). The current 33 1/3 is about Celine Dion's Let's Talk About Love, which includes "My Heart Will Go On" from Titanic. The author, Carl Wilson, breaks down taste, popular music, and Dion's own story from poor Quebecois to "superstar". The premise is nothing short of perfectly compelling: Why, when so many people say they dislike a certain artist, does that artist still sell BILLIONS of records? Wilson writes evenhandedly, never completely discarding his dislike for Dion's music, but also acknowledging the phenomenon that she is part of/she created. It's fucking hilarious too, while maintaining a necessary amount of academic value. Most intriguing is how Wilson discusses Dion's influence around the world, and that from Iraq to Ghana to Afghanistan she is incredibly popular. Consider her the great American Music. Capitalized. You can find 33 1/3's own blog online here: 33 1/3
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Parton Me, Dolly. (Sorry for the pun.)

I'm working on something really special for later this week or this weekend, but I had to talk about Dolly Parton's recent visit to the National Press Club Luncheon. Certainly, we've all been tube-fed and programmed to devour these sound bites like starving wolves (assuming Sarah Palin and a helicopter are no where nearby--That a trap!), but Dolly's recent words, below, take the cake and raise a lot of questions:

"People have asked me about running for president, but I think we have had too many boobs in the White House."

Great! Right!? Fuck! What a great joke! No one, let alone Dolly, herself, has ever made reference to her giant BREASTS before. She's known for so many other things. Jay Leno has never told four-fucking-million opening monologue jokes about her boobs. It's in NO WAY a defining characteristic! Right? Who's with me!?

Okay, and we're back from the brink, but is Dolly Parton even relevant anymore, really? Does she get an "I'm relevant forever because of my career and/or my boobs" press card? I know that she's a talent, an incredible one at that. And she's had dozens of Country hits. And well, there's Dollywood, and those iconic, immeasurably expansive... tracts of land... But someone decides, let's ask Dolly if she's ever thought about running for president and we're meant to believe that the witty quip she flings into the press corp mic is off the cuff? This person, the poser of said question (or, in the original Latin "set-up man") was a poorly disguised plant. And the simple goal seems to be... NO ONE SHALL FORGET DOLLY PARTON, despite the economy, wars, and tragedies around the world.

Now, I'm not bashing Dolly. I love 9 to 5, et al., and she's a hell of a lady, but really... we're living on sound bites right now. With the economy tumbling like a Sherpa from Miss Parton's massive tetons, shouldn't the press luncheon consider tackling some questions that aren't thinly veiled attempts to give an aging country star an easy lay up? How about they go out there and interview all the Senators and Reps not interested in the bailout package and ask them why they feel the economy is stable enough to wait? Or, at least ask them why even elected officials can't provide a real argument against the plan... resorting to phrases about "over-regulation" and "tax refunds". I'd really appreciate that kind of transparency... and that kind of effort from our press (who really, REALLY took the last eight years off to scratch their own undercarriages instead of asking GWB what he was doing).

In short, applause to Dolly for noticing her own breasts. Good show. Only in America! Jeers to the press corp for giving her that joke, then publishing it and acting like it was newsworthy. "She said, 'Boobs'!" Grand-tastic. Really.

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Amsterdam? Atonement.

In 1998 Ian McEwan won the so-coveted-a-writer-would-step-over-his-own-scotch-to-win-it Booker Prize for his novel Amsterdam. It's a Shakespearean/Grecian tragicomedy about two men who, after the funeral of a friend Molly (who took both men as her lovers at one point in time or another), go on two meteoric paths that lead them from great success and confidence to failure and ultimately death. Clive, a composer and self-thought genius charged with penning the Millennial Symphony that will become a theme for the world in the 21st Century, ends up at odds with Vernon, the editor of fictional UK-paper The Judge over what is essentially a mutual misunderstanding. Both men are flawed, tragically, in the near-Hamlet/Romeo & Juliet-esque sense. Circumstantial errors in judgement, and comically petty contrivances lead to their demise. Now, clearly, the book is meant as farce. It's hilarious. In the tiny notes of rich comedy that comprise the "British humour" (Notice the "u"). You can't help but laugh at the absurdity of the situations these two men find themselves in and subsequently blow out of proportion.

Amsterdam is a fine work of fiction. Watch-like in its craftsmanship. Each note is placed effectively, and the final joke against both Clive and Vernon-insomuch as how they both die-pops up from several points in the story to razz you saying, "I was here all along! Gotcha! Hard!" McEwan provides a great story, peppered with the right seasoning of gags, slapstick and dark humor. But it doesn't resonate, at least it didn't for me. I finished, and I felt reasonably satisfied. I was disappointed, but I wasn't on my cell moments after texting to everyone I knew that they "MUST READ THIS BOOK".

I sent that text message after I read Atonement, McEwan's 2001 masterpiece. Let me rephrase. Atonement was the BEST BOOK OF 2001 and is A MASTERPIECE! Atonement was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 2001. Short-listed! People say it is an honor just to be nominated, and sure, I agree. Hell, I'd be elated, dancing on the fucking table if anything I write comes within 500 authors of the Booker. It's an honor, McEwan should certainly be honored, but Atonement is a revelation compared to Amsterdam. They're built for different things, and it is like comparing an ham sandwich to a ham radio... both books (both "hams") but not matched. Still, straightforward comparability aside, Atonement left me devastated. The whole tone and weight of the book, and the characters I loved fell upon me at once. I was lost, emotionally, mentally for hours after I closed the back cover. Everything McEwan built, all the cute, wry naivety and realism crashed down. If you haven't yet read Atonement you should. Now. Or. Right after you finish reading this. It's a book about something so simple, as McEwan does best, as a misunderstanding. From that, a little girl alters her life and the lives of her sister, and her sister's lover. If you've seen the movie-and it's great, I know, I enjoyed it-you still ought read the book to get a full grasp of McEwan's clean, careful prose. And so much of the book occurs inside the minds of the characters that the film can't do it complete justice. But all this is beside the point...

For a book with so much tangible gravitas to be denied a victory for the Booker Prize, while another that was great, but by no means as essential a read, wins is unsatisfying. Perplexing even. Perhaps this is why my continued efforts to join the Booker Prize Committee have failed. If I only were more Irish. Kidding, of course.

Read both books. And anything else Ian McEwan has written or writes. He's an exceptional author and one overlooked too often on popular reading lists.
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