American Calendar: Philosophical Short

These United States reward individual accomplishments. Each of us is asked/told to define the "individual," "original" me through our style, thoughts, and career. Success is often measured in creation or work ethic, beauty or fortune. Often, through pop culture we are shown that the successful person is the independent super-person whose grace and talent is mixed always to the ideal solution. Balance that leads to well-rounded, attractive success. This is television, and business, and well... everything in American culture.

What strikes me is the way our calendar attempts, if archaically, to bring maintain/revive the concept of American Family. Of course, not the calendar itself, but the holidays we print and celebrate on our calendar. For all of our lauding of personal success, individuality and originality, each year our date-system tells us to stop, for one day, usually per month, and do something for the family and extended family... or to partake in religious celebration/observance. Each of us is pushed throughout our lives to exceed, and though much of this drive is inborn, it's as much or more through the nurturing of our society. Our calendar tells us to not to do that... not to forget about people, religion, history. America claims to be two things, disparate things, at once: A country of families, and a country of epically-strident individualists. The calendar acts to mitigate that conflict, but it seems nearly impossible given the polarity of the two ideologies.

Instead, we're asked to branch out from our parents in young adulthood to succeed and go full speed at all times. And then, we're stop and remember via Mother's Day, Father's Day, Grandparent's Day, and all the religious holidays. All of them about bringing the family back together. It's a bit of a confusion of concepts. I am not attempting to argue against these holidays... merely point out the way they diverge from what modern life is like. When was the last time we added a holiday anyway? Mother's Day was created in 1912, officially. (Though to be fair there were numerous celebrations of women/mothers throughout pagan history.) There aren't many modern, non-historical holidays. And there aren't really any holidays set in secular fun either. Why is that? Why are we not supposed to set aside a day for having fun without the expectations and requirements of religious/semi-religious celebration? I mean, what about National Relaxing Day, but have it on a Friday and give the power to close every institution of business?

This is getting beyond the point. The calendar and it's holidays and notations in the United States just seems sort of archaic. Maybe 50 years ago, before America had fully assembled the image of individualism, and of the "army of one," the calendar would feel more realistic. But now it seems like it keeps dates from years ago, nostalgically, that don't mean what they once did. (Or, I could be making a crass, negative and aggrandizing assessment of a yearly list of days and numbers...)
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Re-Arrange Us

Following the stellar Mates Of State show at the Oriental I trekked to the downtown Denver Virgin Megastore (now closing in 5 days - everything is 40% off!) to pick up one of their albums. I wanted, after the live show, an impression of the band as a polished, studio group. Albums are artistic expressions of a certain phase in a band's existence, and the mish-mashed set-lists of concerts don't always convey those periods. There's also something to be said for the non-remastered, generally rockier way in which bands play live shows. When working a crowd, flamboyant and powerful drumming and keyboard playing, and screamy vocals are must haves. I mean, what is less engaging than a live show where the band is stone-faced and sounds exactly like the album? (Other than being water-boarded for the 88th time--U.S.A.! U.S.A.!) And since I worked the system backward, let's talk about a Mates Of State album in contrast to the live show. This is gonna be poppy, well-mixed, and at times repetitive.

2008's Re-Arrange Us is a really solid album. Most of these infectious, but repetitive piano/drum power-pop tunes are entirely catchy and a lot of fun. These songs, rather logically, were almost all played during the live show. The lead-off track, and single, "Get Better" stuck with me, at least subconsciously since the show, which means they did a solid job. Follow-up tracks, "Now" and "My Only Offer" are just as ingrained in my musical memory, which is actually a great compliment to the band. Not only catchy, but memorable, Mates Of State has succeeded in burrowing into my cortex like few pop bands have in recent years. The difference, and only a minor disappointment, is that the recorded band is not as lively and vibrant as the live one. (This is often the case... but the album feels appreciably "softer" than the live show and the drums feel dialed back. Say what you will about drum mixing at a concert, but feeling the bass drum pounding in your chest like a second heart is exhilarating as hell. The album invites that feeling, but puts it in the child-safety seat buckled in the back row.)

Above all, the album is fun. And thoughtful in spots, as they hit the usual slow-down tracks without hitting the tear-jerking lows of bands like Stars or The Shins. Mates remind me of Tegan & Sara, both musically and vocally, but minus the combined, at times lethal, shrillness of vocals and sad-sappiness of lyrics. The up-tracks are fast, quirkily bouncy and it's easy to learn the lyrics so singing along is an added bonus. If you're looking for an elitist, indie music experience wrought with "walls of sounds" and "somber, metaphorical lyrics" Mates Of State won't hit the mark. But if you want to listen to music that makes you feel good after it's over, and makes your feet tap a bit (hell, I could get up and dance right now) then throw on Re-Arrange Us, or I imagine other of their discs, and enjoy. I mean these two Indie-poppers love each other. And there's something pretty fucking special about that.
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States Mating - Another Blind Show.

On a whim I attended the Mates Of State/Black Kids/Judgment Day show at the Oriental Theatre on Wednesday night. I had heard of Mates Of State before, but hadn't listened to their catalog at length. Black Kids had made a couple plays through on our office stereo, so I was at least familiar with their '80s style dance-rock. Judgment Day was a blind, jarring, and incredible surprise, and one that was entirely enjoyable. Imagine a band comprised of three guys; one violin, one cello and drums. And the music they play is metal! Hard, fast, speedy, belligerent, but still melodically complex metal! These are the guys that open the show. And the beauty of it is that their set opens with a calm, soft, symphonic solo. Obviously, the pair is classically trained, and self-taught face-rockers, rockers of face. Their set starts soft, blazes to crescendo after crescendo and then fizzles out in musical embers like the remains of a sonic fireworks display. After 30 minutes of show, the opening band has succeeded at blowing my mind. This will be a good evening.

Black Kids take the stage next. Anyone familiar with the hype-machine's over-blowing of their first LP release may recall the massive nod their way by Pitchfork Media. After a stellar review of their initial EP (8.4/10), through which Pitchfork boosted the band to extremes, completely deviating from their normally reserved/hyper-skeptical stance on new music (especially the poppier stuff), The Black Kids released Partie Traumatic. Pitchfork was so dissatisfied with the full-length debut that it was given a 3.3/10 and no review was even printed, only a picture of two sad puppies with the text, "Sorry :-/". Other media outlets were kinder, awarding A and B-grades along with higher "star" ratings. And the album performed well, rising to #2 in the UK and a respectable 129 in the States (given that indie bands rarely make a mark at all). Knowing all this, I was excited to see if they had the talent to carry a live show. Throughout their hour-long set, they proved themselves energetic, passionate and talented. They didn't mail it in and kept a lively, danceable pace alive for the whole time. Reggie Youngblood's 80s rock voice (think The Cars meets Peter Gabriel) was in fine form, and the lovely ladies on the keys were exceptional. For such a divisive band, they had the audience locked in, and were a perfect primer for Mates Of State.

Having not listened to much Mates Of State, I was intrigued to hear what "twee pop" meant throughout an hour of continuous play. Live. Turns out, they fucking rock. Their songs are largely predicated on simple, repetitious lyrics and driving drum and piano tracks. Familiarity with a band, especially as a headliner with a large back catalogue, can be extremely important to the enjoyment of a live show. And honestly, Mates Of State started this way for me. I initially had a hard time getting into the simple progressions, clattering sound and belted, forceful vocals. Either they settled in or I adjusted, but in either case, they did not disappoint. They rather intensely rock in fact. "Twee" seems to be a misnomer because it lead me to believe they were a squeaky, cutesy, hyper band, and instead they are a pop-rock slamfest. Fast-paced and dancey, but not to the disco degrees touched by Black Kids, Mates Of State kept an audience alive and active on a Wednesday night. Brilliantly, their first encore song was a traditional country-folk duet, followed by two more raucous drum/piano attacks. I wish very much that I knew more about their LPs, and I will be picking them up over the weekend to be certain.

Live shows! Brilliant! I've got to commend Denver for another great evening. The Oriental definitely has better acoustics than the Fillmore, and more charm, more intimacy, better bartenders, cheaper beers, and cooler bands. But don't take my word for it... (Reading Rainbow, anyone?)
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Something about English.

Bill Bryson's 1990 etymological opus The Mother Tongue explores the English language from its earliest beginnings up to the "present." Such an academic text would normally pose a dauntingly boring threat to the average reader. Learning the origin of language and the effects of it on others around the world is not every one's chosen hobby, but the brilliance in Bryson's writing is that he uses his classic wry wit to keep even the least momentous chapters moving along. The historical sections, especially those exploring how English developed from German, Norse, Gaelic, Welsh and French dialects all converging on the British continent can drag, delving deeply into pages of listed words and examples with a brutally plodding pace. As with any good lecture, even the most fluid and exciting topic can bore in the details. These, though, are rarities.

Three of the last 4 of the book's chapters explore some of the most interesting aspects in English etymology. Bryson works with Names, and naming, discussing the ways in which Anglos earned their last names, and how towns, pubs, and cities have monikers hilarious, arbitrary and historical all at the same time. Following that he deals in the history of swearing (and the publication of taboo words). Interesting to explore that while shit, fuck, and cunt are the most recognized/reviled curses in English, that these are the first batch that deviates almost entirely from religiosity. Throwing out a damn or 'zounds was much more scandalous for the fact that it referenced God in one way or another. It seems to point to our cultural taboo list throughout time, a point Bryson doesn't really explore (he's not writing for philosophical inquiry) at all. We now, in America, are more concerned about sexuality, and the abject, than we are about speaking ill of religion by proxy, or claiming to direct the mantle of God's power. It seems a clear point, but it is intriguing that our concerns of swearing are directed by our concerns of society. English is fluid. Living.

A penultimate section explores wordplay. The creation of crossword puzzles, Scrabble, and our long love... reaching back to Greek and Roman times... of palindromes, anagrams and puns. Truly one of Bryson's greatest chapters in the book, combining humor with really trivia-based education. Then again, my love for all of those things may have skewed my point of view.

The final chapter attempts to ask what will become of English in the future. Bryson discusses the many movements to make English the official language of the United States, and the associated unfounded fears of it being enveloped by Spanish via immigration. He quickly points out the error of these claims, seeing English as developing and maintaining strength for years, despite conflicting dialects and minor alterations. And he closes on a lamentative thought: he hopes that as English blends we do not lose the nuances between all British English and American English dialects. What is compelling here, though, is that no updated epilogue has been composed. Now, nearly 20 years after its initial publication, The Mother Tongue has nothing to say about the internet, text messaging, email and all of the technological advances that have led to historical informal changes in English.

While Bryson addresses the silliness, and arbitrary nature, of grammar, I would like to see what he could do with the new dictionaries of abbreviations for text messaging. What would Samuel Johnson have done, creating his first dictionary, with the likes of OMG, LOL, ROTFLMAO. Could he have reconciled these phrases? Bryson points out that during the 19th and 20th centuries, many scholars attempted to "fix" English spelling by making all words operate conventionally. Changing "school," for instance, to "skool." These men long since failed to gain following for their new spellings, but without even trying, texting and email (Both of these words invented since the publication of the book!) have done much for their early cause. We now see that u is an acceptable replacement for you. 2 for to, and too. Even the unaccepted, but promoted version tho is back in action. Amazingly, after years of fighting to change the language, all these scholars ever had to do was put the language in the hands of young persons who paid by the letter to send their messages. Capitalism alters English too, and not just for the purposes of communicating concepts, but in actual shape, sound and feel. And blame also lies with those damn Jonas Brothers.

Even without Bryson's take on the most recent developments in language The Mother Tongue takes a fun, educated, but not sterile or dry look into where the words we speak everyday come from, and how they've changed. Communication, though vital, is so easily taken for granted and Bryson did a fine thing by giving readers the chance to consider diction in a more physical, less academic sense. As an English major, I'd highly recommend this book. And as a casual reader, I'd still point anyone looking for wit and knowledge to snag this from the local book store. Don't fuck around, read a book. It is actually more bracing to swear in print. Bryson scores again.
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An evening at the Fillmore.

Saturday, in Denver, the local Fillmore branch hosted a handful of up and coming/hitting the big time pop-power-rock bands, notably including San Francisco's Matt Nathanson, and Jacks Mannequin, headed by the former lead singer of Something Corporate. My elitist music sensibilities, and yes, I'll freely admit that I'm a huge elitist indie-music asshole, usually preclude me from attending this type of show. I'm not proud of that, though I suppose I must carry pride enough to spout about it for nearly the entire opening paragraph of this post. Point being, this was an unusual show for me to attend, but one that was fulfilling, clattering and bombastic.

Matt Nathanson is not terrible. Let me say that. But his entire stage presence was predicated on tapping the cultural capital of the all ages audience in attendance. He, between John Mayer-esque wank ballads and soft-rock tunes, mentioned Gossip Girl, Hannah Montana and made multiple Disney original programming references that could only have been to benefit the droves of just-post-tween girls swooning at his deluge of "Your Body Is A Wonderland" rip-offs. Am I sounding bitter? Really, beyond even that his music was tolerable, if mostly innocuous and uninteresting. Lyrically it was as dense as Dr. Seuss and by no means as pleasing. Musically it was tight, driving, major-chord heavy and mostly bland. But, one of the hipster gals down front of stage threw him a bra, and he made a Flashdance reference that earned a sliver of redemption. Ultimately, the kid knows his audience of which I am not a member and that made his time on the stage excellent for an MST3000 style running critique. Verdict: Fun, but wanky as hell.

Jacks Mannequin was an altogether different beast. A band led by a piano, but not carried by it to the extent of Coldplay made for a raucous show. I'll betray my hand a bit and say that I had visited the Newcastle tap several times (5) by the time the headliner hit the stage. So, as they cranked up the volume and mashed, like an illiterate badger, at the keys on back to back songs I began to lose interest. There's also the simple fact that the Fillmore is likely the most acoustically-challenged venue in Denver, outside of the alley behind a porno theater and that guy Barry's garage. In short, not knowing the band, who were very clearing reaching the entire rest of the crowd... and not being able to adequately hear the words or pick out the nuances of piano, guitar, bass, drums made parts of the show difficult to fully immerse myself in, but still enjoyable. Another factor: Jacks Mannequin is a radio darling on 93.3FM, and I've not listened to the radio consistently in years.

The best part of this show, aside from my company, and a darling couple my friend and I met during intermission were the handful of Jacks' songs that opened with a gorgeous, intricate piano line and then built to the rocking explosion of drums and guitar that makes any good song great and very danceable. They especially impressed in utilizing the minor chords that make even the most lyrically upbeat song physically lamentative and take full advantage of the beauty inherent within a piano. Jacks Mannequin were the elder statesmen of the show and carried themselves with that air, not flinging current (and negligible) pop culture references into the crowd, but letting their music do the talking. Verdict: Excellent. Jacks piqued my interest enough that I would like to hear the recordings to see what lies beyond what the Fillmore "acoustic-ally" drowned.
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Sound On Sound: A shock to your soft side.

After kicking and screaming their way onto the indie-punk-pop scene in 2003 with the howling declaration that was Fever To Tell, Yeah Yeah Yeahs have developed musically in ways that most listeners likely did not predict. The raucous drumming by Brian Chase, distortion-laden grinding guitar by Nick Zinner and Karen O's passionate screech all pointed toward louder, neo-indie-punk success as the album opens loud, turns it up and then stays at eleven over the first 8 tracks. At track 9 on Fever To Tell the omen of Yeah Yeah Yeahs to come surfaces in "Maps" (First appeared here as part of Santa's Sad Song Sack). In the wake of all the clatter is a soft, mournful ballad evidencing not only Karen O's vocal strength (aside from screaming), but also the band's ability play a slower, calmer song and not have it sound at all out of place. "Maps" was easily the best (or second best) song on the whole album and it was also a window to the future coexistence of punk and ballad. Anger and lamentation.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs' newest record It's Blitz! demonstrates the continued creative expansion of the ideal started with "Maps". Much less prevalent is the anthemic power-punk, which gives way to the pseudo-dance-vibe that first took greater hold on 2006's Show Your Bones. Don't get me wrong, they still rock, but it's a more casual, more refined style of rockin'. Gone is the "Hey, look at me" hollering. Instead, the songs deliberate, haunting at times, and brilliantly mixed and arranged. The album is spectacular. Wait. Spec-fucking-tacular! Wait. There just isn't a word to adequately capture how amazed, satisfied and elated I was to hear this project succeed from beginning to end. I do miss the louder bleating of Fever To Tell, but the maturity and elegance of It's Blitz! shines so brightly through incredible songs that the album has instantly become a favorite. I compel you to go out and get the Deluxe Edition of the album, which follows the original album with 4 gems: acoustic versions of the greatest songs on the record. Including one reminiscent of the great "Maps" in tone, but stronger, better... the Six-Million Dollar "Maps" we'll call it.

"Soft Shock" is track 3 on the record, and the first of the acoustic bonus tracks to grace the ear on the end of the disc. It hints at a complicated love that feels lost despite what may still remain of it. The message seems to be that often the shocks we experience in life are not violent, they're the soul shaking softer ones, the ones we feel through love. And yes, that's the best description I could come up with. As with "Maps," "Soft Shock" is not built on comprehensive lyrics. It's the chalk outline of a romance, both lost, but defined with shape. The song is linguistically impressionistic. The lyrics are puzzle pieces that fill in the border built by the music.

All in all, the track is thoughtfully rocky in its first iteration. Drums are light, but present, the vocals are more sing-less scream, and Karen O has a subtle despondency in her voice. She's breathy and vibrant, while simultaneously sounding cautious. Amazingly, she comes off as strong and fragile at once. The original version builds gradually from a synth-y opening to a powerful guitar-grinding crescendo. Karen O belts out "yeahs" and "oohs" with full-voiced passion. Really, it's a beautiful track. The acoustic version of "Soft Shock" is drum-light, calm, sparse, and noted by plucking staccato strings rather than guitar. The vocals are quiet, soft and smooth. The pace is slowed. The tone is hauntingly beautiful. It's more with less, and has a brilliant way of reminding the listener about all the ways love is shocking, austere, delicate, and scary. Love is won and lost in the quieter moments. I have fallen in love with the acoustic version.

Best lyrics: "Louder, lips speak louder/ Better back together/ Still it's a shock, shock/ To your soft side/ Summer moon/ Catch your shut eye"

"Skeletons" is also not to be underestimated or overlooked. Like I said, the album is amazing.
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