Saint Etienne - Foxbase Alpha

This may not be news, but today is the last day of 2010. As we all hustle and bustle through today in anticipation of the great parties and questionable decisions of tonight, and we all make our resolutions; looking always forward, we have to remember to look back too. Since New Year's is always about the perpetual forward motion of existence, albeit arbitrarily concocted via our perception and construction of time, we often forget how much the last year meant to us, and the year before that, and all the way back to ten, 20 years ago. And we do this with music, too, as our hunger for the new and original (imagine air quotes around that last one) often overrides our interest in seeking older sounds. See, that was a great segue, right? So, today, let's look back, not to last year, not to 2009 or 2008 or even 2000, but back to 1991, when several people who can definitely drive and can very nearly (legally) drink, were born. That was the year Saint Etienne released Foxbase Alpha.

Pitchfork posted a great review of the album's reissue back in '09, an album that expanded to two discs to capture all the material that we never knew we needed to know. For me, I got a copy of the original issue, down at our local Twist & Shout, and even now the dance-laden, poppy and aware music falls out of my iTunes into the air around me. The original album is eclectic and energizing, mixing in the kind of chill pop music any Saint Etienne fan expects, with occasional radio-fuzz between-tracks and a fine blend of electric piano, guitar, horns and strings. In fact, without the year stamped on the back of the album, it's highly unlikely that this music, heard as a new experience, could be placed temporally as a turn of the Go-go '90s at all.

On later albums, Saint Etienne shows a greater capacity for morose, self-aware dance pop, but with Foxbase Alpha, their debut, they are free and loose and every song sounds full of promise and excited by possibility. Especially during a time when dance music like theirs would have struggled to compete with the death throes of glam metal, and the rise of grunge and hip hop. So, you get tracks like the (I'll back track slightly on my previous claim of timelessness) very '90s-esque "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" (Seriously, do you hear the Ace of Base-y-ness in that opening riff?) and the stellar whispering/singing "Nothing Can Stop Us." These are songs about optimism and youth and vibrant energy, even in heartbreak, rather than the deeply self-important, emo-fuckery of other popular genres from the same time period. So, with this album, a fun 9/10 of an hour, you gain a lot in the way of freely looking forward, while keeping a guard on your past. And it's worth checking out, even if you feel that the old music, that is not yet classic, or canon, is not. Remember the past.

Here in Colorado, we're just over 12 hours away from next year. 2010 has been a truly life-changing year. Paths are new, machetes brought out to clear the brush, and new has combined with old in the most phenomenal way I could think of. So, from the bottom of my heart, as we wave goodbye to one number on the calendar, and write in another, I wish everyone a happy 2011, and a year filled with peace, happiness, love, and dreaming. And a year in which we all look back to what we were once, remember it, learn from it, and keep the parts of everything about us that are great, no matter how much we've grown. Deepest love and best wishes to everyone from the folk (It's just me) at Gas Lantern Media.
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Atlas Sound - Bedroom Databank Vol. 1

Bradford Cox has wowed the music world countless times before, under the moniker Atlas Sound, and via his excellent four-piece ambient band Deerhunter. The difference in sound, between the whispering, sound-wall generating, softness of Deerhunter, and the work done as Atlas Sound is subtle, but it boils down to an increased feeling of intimacy and naturalness when comparing the latter to the former. Atlas Sound always sounds more spare and human, built on fragile lines of carefully chosen notes, while Deerhunter is boisterous and musically large. This contrast is beautiful, and simply adds to Cox's resume and repertoire, making him one of the most dynamic indie composers of this not-quite-lost-but-nearly generation.

On Bedroom Databank Vol .1, Cox employs the DIY aesthetic, dropping this album as a free download that also offers a peak into the quiet, underproduced beauty of a small, in-basement concert. The album is relaxed, adorned with light acoustic guitar and harmonica, and feels utterly bohemian. At least in the early going ("Green Glass Bottles" and "There Were My Walls"), but on "Wild Love" Cox ups the ante, bringing in fuzz, synthesized tracks and overlaid vocal accompaniment to create a more lush experience. It remains that distant, vaguely effete vibe, much like listening to a dream overdubbed by a chorus of strange voices, but it never peaks to that Deerhunter size. Until "Lanterns" where Cox brings in an even more complex and intriguing structure of sounds and beats that feel churning, nearly like a dance track, but build to a more peaceful than motivating ultimate experience. It is a song that feels self-aware and mechanical at the same time, and one that lends itself to constant repeat treatment. As a loop, it create a tone of focused confusion.

"New Romantic" takes the album in a completely different direction, with its subtle Spanish influence, and country-bluesy trimmings. Cox even brings a fuzzy, scratched record-type pop to the backing track, lending an undeniable nostalgia to a song that feels like it has time-traveled. The acoustic, heart-felt mode marches on with the whispering and guitar-plucked "Cynics Recourse" drops a traditional blues scale behind mournful, airy vocals. But, in an album by an artist as dynamic as this one, we must shift again. On "Freak Train," a Kurt Vile cover, Cox arranges a fast, rousing, improvisational-feeling, pseudo-jazz track that lives by video game theme style tones and repetition. The also heavily-synthesized "Afternoon Drive" follows, this one as a mood piece that feels watery, contemplative and magical. No vocals ruin the mood piece, instead, the song builds slowly, to a subtle top and then cools off. "Hotel Orlando" turns everything back on its head, with a song that feels like a blues-rock album straight from the mid-seventies. Cox sings his clearest, and gutsiest here, pushing his voice to growl at times, but still reliant somewhat on the fuzz.

What follows, almost as a mark of direct inspiration, is a cover of Bob Dylan's "This Wheel's on Fire." Cox does a beautiful job putting his own mark on the track, keeping the acoustic guitar and light percussion, and filling it with echo and subtle bits of distortion. It is reminiscent of the cover version by Siouxie and the Banshees, but slowed down enough for a new flavor. The closing track "Postcard" is a staccato blend of xylophone-sounding tones bouncing in and out of the track. It is unsettling, but in a way, the title gives it significance because the track, like postcards, presents only a taste of a conversation, a tidbit, that never paints a complete picture. Overall, Bedroom Databank Vol. 1 is a pure and delightful exercise. It offers a sampling of Cox's more intimate compositions, and still manages to feel full and powerful.

Volumes 2 - 4 are now also available. It's worth it! Take a few seconds, download and enjoy!
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Top 25 Tracks of 2010

It's that time of year again. A time when every major pop culture site, blog, station, magazine, et al., produce lists that sum up the year in various media. Last year, I threw down a very personal three-parter that covered the previous decade, but this year, we're gonna try something new. This is my list of MY top 25 individual tracks of 2010, and I'll tell you up front that the order is a bit specious. On any other day, the bulk of the bottom, say, 20 (I know that's a lot!) could be reorder and reconsidered. I feel lucky to have so much great music from this year to have sorted through, but also slightly unprepared because there are several top albums of this year that I haven't yet got my grubby mitts on (Sorry, Kanye). There's also a serious shift in my musical tastes over this year to consider, how I trended toward dance and electronic stuff more than ever before, which informs this list and also skews my rankings ever so slightly. Ultimately, these tracks would comprise a stellar mixtape, so I compel you, even if you don't care why I like any of these, give each a shot and be blessed with the holiest of holiday traditions, the indie music orgasm. Now, here's the list:

Honorable Mentions: "Kiss On My List" - The Bird & The Bee, Interpreting The Masters Volume 1: A Tribute To Daryl Hall And John Oates; "Crash Years" - The New Pornographers, Together; "Rambling Man" - Laura Marling, I Speak Because I Can

And I'm already cheating a bit, throwing three extra songs on the list of 25. But, well, if you have a problem with it, continue reading and comment at the end. The Bird & The Bee's Hall & Oates cover album is one of the most fun listens of the year, and even though there is only one original on the disc, they needed a mention. "Kiss On My List" is my fave original, and their cover here is heartfelt and charming. "Crash Years" is a great, if too familiar song on the somewhat disappointing Together. Beautiful vocals by Neko Case, though. And Laura Marling gets props here for a great, sour, sad folk song, equipped with banjo and wonder. It's not catchy, per se, but it is exceptional musicianship and her vocals are haunting. But, serious, now let's do the list...

25. "Holiday" - Vampire Weekend, Contra
The main reason Vampire Weekend's catchy track falls to the bottom of the list involves a Honda commercial that is so ubiquitous right now I can barely stand the song anymore. The upside, it's a stellar song and is evidence that the band continues to churn out yelping, hook-laden, post-punk-pop.

24. "The Cave" - Mumford & Sons, Sigh No More
Here's a tough spot. I couldn't figure out where to put Mumford & Sons, so they fit in with "The Cave" at 24. This is a phenomenal song, released as a single this year that combines the dreary self-awareness of The National with the pastoral sonic scenery of Fleet Foxes. It's just beautiful work, and should probably be higher on the list than it is.

23. "In The Sun" - She & Him, Volume Two
On a somewhat disappointing follow up to the great Volume One, "In The Sun" is a tightly plotted and fun song with a rousing, but not too rousing chorus. Zooey Deschanel's voice is perfect and M. Ward's musicianship excellent, but the song never challenges the listener enough to be "great."

22. "Daisy" - Fang Island, Fang Island
Beautiful Beach Boys-esque harmonies converge with flying, speedy guitars and an anthemic closing loaded with raucous chants, claps and heart-moving drums.

21. "Rachel" - Sleigh Bells, Treats
With Sleigh Bells, you get a lot of different tastes, and "Rachel" is the slower burning, fuzzier type of song, filled with lots of "oohs." It's one of their most accessible tracks on the album, and while not as fun as the others, it feels full, and grown up.

20. "Romance Is Boring" - Los Campesinos!, Romance Is Boring
As a title track, this one grinds out Los Campesinos! punk rock-ish frustration perfectly. The build within the song to a powerful and catchy chorus basically give the finger to romance, siding with the more pure lust, aggression and passion.

19. "What Did My Lover Say? (It Always Had To Go This Way)" - Wolf Parade, Expo 86
I loved Wolf Parade's return this year that felt like a "back-to-roots" project to wash the terrible taste of At Mount Zoomer out of our collective mouths. Really I would've picked the whole album, but this track has some of the best lyrics and the best licks on the album.

18. "Pap Smear" - Crystal Castles, Crystal Castles (II)
As I said in my review earlier this year, this song with its lamentable title may well be the best on the album. Crystal Castles keeps things disjointed with pace changes and jangling mixes, and the vocals are distant, but beautiful throughout.

17. "Night By Night" - Chromeo, Business Casual
With it's Rocky-esque guitar riff and beat, this is a seriously catchy dance-rock track. Chromeo shows hints of reaching toward LCD Soundsystem heights, with an extra injection of fun and less self-awareness. A great, catchy song on a surprisingly fresh, full album.

16. "Superfast Jellyfish" - Gorillaz, Plastic Beach
Plastic Beach is overloaded, but since day one, I've been all about "Superfast Jellyfish" because it is the most unapologetically charming, poppy song on the album. Where much of the greatness with the album comes from maturity and careful songwriting, this track is a boost that keeps you listening.

15. "Got Nuffin'" - Spoon, Transference
The only good song on the whole goddamn album. But it's a really good song and it means that Spoon can get back to writing the music that seems to come so easy to them. Next album... hopefully...

14. "Fixed" - Stars, The Five Ghosts
Exhibit A: Amy Millan's beautiful vocals and lots of synthed out guitars and keys. Exhibit B: Catchy, but sad, as is Stars wont. Case closed.

13. "Real Love" - Delorean, Subiza
Delorean is one of my favorite finds of the year, and "Real Love" is just one of a litany of phenomenal songs. It's long, slow-burning, and has just the right amount of natural sound mixed in with the electronic to hold onto its humanity. And it drops to a hush and breathtaking bridge when the love drops out of the lyrics.

12. "Odessa" - Caribou, Swim
It's the opener, and the top track on the disc. So sonically interesting, despite its repetition. And the lyrics offer just enough to keep you thinking about the sort of machinations that keep us going every day in spite of the odds against us.

11. "Walk in the Park" - Beach House, Teen Dream
On such a wonderful album, it was hard to pick just one song, but I settled on "Walk in the Park" because it is full and cinematic. The opening lyric "We go for a walk in the park because you don't need anything" is exceptional, and captures the whole idea of Teen Dream, looking at music through the eyes of naivety dressed as experience.

10. "Bloodbuzz Ohio" - The National, High Violet
Another case of "fuck I have to pick one," I went with "Bloodbuzz Ohio" because it is endemic of The National's catalog. A song about home, artistic goals, and life with bills, it's just a slice of being a dreamer in a world where dreaming is associated so often with the laziness of sleep and the time wasting of daydreaming.

9. "Heaven's On Fire" - The Radio Dept., Clinging To A Scheme
The Radio Dept.'s album is a must own. I mean that. You, whoever you are reading this right now, MUST OWN this album. "Heaven's On Fire" is the second track, and it's an energizing masterpiece that opens with a touch of politicized interviewing.

8. "Hand Me Down Your Love" - Hot Chip, One Life Stand
Hot Chip simply knocked this album out of the park, but "Hand Me Down Your Love" is as thumping a track as they've ever produced, with heavy snare drum and smashing piano. It's catchy, powerful and ornately arranged to the point that it's hyper-eclectic.

7. "Subliminal Message" - Happy Birthday, Happy Birthday
Another surprise album for me, Happy Birthday produces a great throwback-y single with "Subliminal Message" that has a nostalgia for '80s sound, a nostalgia for love and simplicity in life, and a great chorus.

6. "The Game Gets Old" - Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings, I Learned The Hard Way
I'm a sucker for the opening brass line on "The Game Gets Old." In fact, I get chills every time I hear the song, and that's before Sharon Jones' powerful pipes take control of the scene. This is a song that remakes and retouches Motown's past and tells significant truths about love and what "the game" can do to those who lose out. It's brilliant.

5. "Bottled Up In Cork" - Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, The Brutalist Bricks
I wanted to throw in "One Polaroid A Day" and others from Ted Leo's The Brutalist Bricks, but I couldn't bring myself to include those at the expense of other great songs (but see how I got the one in here anyway... sneaky mother). "Bottled Up In Cork" is classic Ted Leo, with a powerful guitar riff, bouncing drums and a compelling story. It's political, personal and epic all at once, and has a great repeating verse/chorus about travel, growing up, and loneliness. The song is built on hooks and a great solo, just like any great Ted Leo song is, and it's intimate and opinionated.

4. "The High Road" - Broken Bells, Broken Bells
As a collaboration, Broken Bells couldn't have worked out better. Danger Mouse and James Mercer combine to create songs that mix the Shins with the unnatural feeling of electronics, and Mercer uses it to evoke even more distance within some of his lyrics. "The High Road" is the best song on the album, if at this point, somewhat overplayed, and even tired. It's got that chanting, rousing "Hey Jude" quality about it.

3. "Ready To Start" - Arcade Fire, The Suburbs
On a seriously wonderful and essential Arcade Fire album, "Ready To Start" stands out for me because of the dark opening that breaks out into a jostling bouncy rock track, and for the lyrical excellence in it. For a song to be fun and also bring up all the artistic and love-related fears inherent to us; that business will destroy us, and that love will be lost, it ultimately becomes a song about hope and being ready to fight on. The strength is in us all to stand up and fight, even when we're in the throes of depression. That's the key. This is your vehicle. This song is your anthem.

2. "Dance Yrself Clean" - LCD Soundsystem, This Is Happening
If this is the last LCD Soundsystem album, then "Dance Yrself Clean" is the perfect, dominating, self-aware track to start it off. It feels the burden of fame, and creation, and questionable friendships, and wants a sort of baptism by motion to wash away its fear and sadness. In that typical James Murphy fashion, it feels distant and sturdy, but fragile, and that makes the song, for its minimalist first three-plus minutes, extremely accessible. And then it rips open, breaking out of its shell and the dance begins. I hope, really and truly, that this isn't the last for LCD Soundsystem, but if so, it is a hell of a great way to go out.

1. "Cold War" - Janelle Monae, The ArchAndroid
The best song on the most comprehensively eclectic album of the year takes my top rank. For everything that Janelle Monae does live and recorded she deserves high marks, and "Cold War" is song that touches on her overall story arc as well tapping into the self-doubt and humanism that drives any great. "You think I'm alone, well being alone is the only way to be" is a line carries sorrow and empowerment. And the song's powerful beat and melody keep it on the top of your memory no matter how many times you hear it. That's my reasoning to make it number one, and the reason why Janelle Monae deserves as many awards as she can carry.
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The Walking Dead - "Wildfire" & "TS-19"

Let's wrap this up shall we? The final two episodes of this short premiere season of The Walking Dead were both essentially solid ones, despite reports that the ENTIRE writing staff is now turning over for next season. The reason for those firings (or shit-cannings, the term I prefer) could well lie in the way poignant reveals and new information seemed to give themselves away (like Merle's hand removal and Jim's grave digging), telegraphed to the extent that they were barely as interesting a cap to their respective episodes as the preceding scenes. That could be the reason, but the real truth of it is unclear. When paced well, as it often is, The Walking Dead is phenomenal television, and great morsels of zombie-related violence and social interaction. And both "Wildfire" and "TS-19" offer good examples, if not overflowing with either.

For "Wildfire" we see a brief glimpse of Rick's vulnerability in the form of a walkie-talkie message intended for Morgan and Duane. But the real juice of the opening of the episode is Andrea presiding over Amy's death, and reanimation. Seeing Amy come back to life, zombified, is not a moment of horror (those are relegated to Daryl removing zombie heads with a shovel blow), instead it's a moment of pristine sadness and a quiet argument for euthanasia. But even more so, it contrasts Andrea with Morgan's inability to shoot his wife from "Days Gone Bye." Andrea shows incredible strength and does what has to be done out of love. It's tragic, and one of the most genuinely emotional scenes in the show. The only failing is that the show hasn't been around long enough for us to fully care about all these people. So, even as Amy is put down, and the other survivors lost are buried, we don't know much about who these people are, so their loss, though elementarily sad isn't heartbreaking. But we get a set up for an emotional connection from Dale, who seems to have been near-hermit prior to meeting Andrea and Amy, who redeemed him (possibly by being blonde).

And then we find out Jim, grave-digger and sad sack, was bit during the attack. A bland and essential debate follows. Rick wants to get Jim help, Daryl wants to blow his brains out. But all of it leads to the exodus that is the crux of the final two episodes. The gang, these survivors, now growing fewer and fewer, especially because Morales and his family decide not to go along, are heading to the CDC seeking a last bastion of humanity and the holy grail of solutions to their shared problem. They hit the road, with Jim growing ill in the back of the RV, as a caravan. And in a stroke of narrative luck, the RVs radiator hose breaks, which was set up in the second episode, and Jim decides he's too ill to go on. Rick reluctantly leaves Jim by the side of the road and they drive on to the CDC. What I've learned from this first season is that these characters all have deep emotional concerns, a clear truism when it comes to the apocalypse, but something that needs stronger dialogue to convey fully.

Anyway, we get a shot, of a scientist in a lab, performing tests on zombie flesh, and then cursing his mistake as the lab is burned clean of contagions by its semi-sentient (Resident Evil-esque) computer. This man lives inside the CDC, and he has all the luxuries of safety, and all the horrors of complete solitude. And that's when the gang shows up. We get a brief bit of zombie shooting action before Rick loses his cool completely at the locked CDC door. But, in cliffhanger-y fashion, the door opens at the last second. And the gang appears to be safe for now. "Wildfire" is about the thickest episode when it comes to emotional core of the series so far, following the implied introspection of "Days Gone Bye." It's a good episode, but the story seems sometimes forced to plod forward. Perhaps the reason "Days Gone Bye" was such a revelation was because there were sustained moments without dialogue. And since that point, the show has used dialogue to tell us things, when it should only be for characters to say what is on their mind.

The season finale "TS-19" takes place almost entirely inside the CDC building. We discover the name of the doctor, Edwin Jenner, who is the last man alive in the whole complex. The others either fled to their families or took their own lives. He's a sad man, who doesn't say much, but always wears a look of depression. So, as the survivors enjoy booze and food for the first time in safety in a while, he looms unhappily in the background. And we find out why. The big reveals (there are two) give us a look at how zombification works, essentially killing the brain, but relighting the brain stem, giving these zombies the brain power of reptiles. (The title, is Test Subject 19, who, it turns out was Jenner's wife.) The reptile thing is often used, that low brain function is like a reptile, but here's my issue with that: Reptiles don't attack constantly and still behave on some level of instinct. The zombies, maybe starving of live flesh may be in full on hunger mode, but they could still demonstrate the capacity for learning, i.e. guns bad, walk away, or something.

So, we know how zombies are made, and we know that Jenner lost his wife and his hope. And for a series that centers on Rick's infallible hope, this is a blow to the group. When we find out that the whole CDC will shut down and burn itself out (to prevent the leaking of deadly pathogens), hope is lost in everyone to some degree. Andrea is the most ready to give up, followed by Jacqui (who is a "who's that" character to the extreme). They decide, as Jenner did long ago, to die. Dale gets mad and finally convinces Andrea to live, but Jacqui stays, and by the grace of a grenade found in a tank in episode two, the surviving survivors get out and last through an irrationally large explosion. The future is unclear, there are secrets and now these people are back out on the road.

I'm sure, from my tone throughout this that the impression is that The Walking Dead ended a bit lamely. It did in the sense of a wounded animal trying to walk on a bad leg, but the animal itself is still solid. We're getting more emotional power from the show, but the direction isn't always clear. And now, as I forgot to mention, with Shane and Rick's conflict rising, and Shane and Lori's conflict growing, there's a lot of story to tell. Hopefully with next season we'll transition away from some of the more soap operatic moments and toward concise dialogue that parallels the darkness within the plot lines more effectively. I'm very excited for where The Walking Dead goes this next year, and the opportunity to care more and more about the characters involved. This is complex series that doesn't always seem content to hold back, but if it does, to hold a bit of mystery without becoming listless and circuitous like the later seasons of LOST, it will be truly incredible television.
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KBCO Studio C Volume 22 - Various Artists

One of our local rock stations, KBCO, to which I listened for 99% of my formative years, and less so now, has over the last decade skewed in that Clear Channel way toward basic, repetitive set lists and limited DJ control, but there is one thing they still do amazingly well, and that's the annual Studio C live album. These albums have been produced for 22 years now, covering incredible, intimate live performances by popular artists in rock, blues and folk, and since KBCO can print only limited numbers, donating all the proceeds to the Boulder County AIDS Project, each release is highly sought after. The albums aren't always great, but they are usually quite solid, so this year I made the trek, with my father, to stand in line for 2 hours just to get our copies. It's something of a family tradition, and a Colorado tradition. And these albums certainly overflows with nostalgia and loving feelings from my childhood. This year, especially, the album is incredible.

Though I don't often listen to One EskimO, Sarah McLachlan, Mary Chapin Carpenter or Ray LaMontagne by choice, this assembly of (not entirely) acoustic tracks is one of the most cohesive and enjoyable in recent years. I was specifically drawn to versions by Phoenix, Broken Bells and The Avett Brothers, but there's a lot of music here (20 tracks worth) and it provides a solid, delightful listening experience. And it's all live, and all recorded here in Colorado, so it has a special vibe that many compilations like this one can't offer. And there's the vulnerability implicit in small acoustic performances, which is really what makes the album for me, and has been the greater attraction behind all 22 volumes. Mistakes exist and remain and the poorly manicured vocals and moments where the listener wonders how much practice a song received prior to its playing create a different musical experience. No longer about polish, now about the rough skeleton of the song, its sinewy musculature visible without the skin afforded it by production. It's a beautiful thing.

The album opens with The Doobie Brothers and brilliant slide guitar work. The musicianship is impressive, and while KBCO's Studio C has improved in size and capacity (originally being only a hallway in which Melissa Etheridge played) it is still only a space to capture these moments. So, guess what, The Doobie Brothers are great. The vocals are harsh and imperfect, but the music is impeccable. One EskimO plays a version of "Kandi" (from their debut EP) including the Candi Staton sample of "He Called Me Baby" and it works. Then there's an appearance by Jack Johnson, who never wows me, but is a damn fine acoustic musician and a fun, loving, thoughtful songwriter. Here he plays "Better Together" with backing vocals that are breathy and sweet. And Sarah McLachlan, who made me forget her musical aptitude with the ASPCA commercials, does a beautiful, delicate and lusty version of "Loving You is Easy."

It's the Phoenix cover that first piques my indie interest. They do "1901" and it's just quick drums and a guitar or two. And the vocals are slowed slightly, but it's very solid, taking more from Thomas Mars' vocals and their whiny vulnerability. Goo Goo Dolls surprise on "Home" with a song that feels mature and sincere without doing that Meg-Ryan-doing-hey-mom-no-hands-on-her-bike-with-angel-Nicolas-Cage thing. It's a great song, not spectacular, but it has a bit more darkness, and not in that emo drugs v. love way. But it's "Beg Steal or Borrow" by Ray LaMontagne and the Pariah Dogs that really opens my eyes. I never much cared for his music, but this version, this world weary, broken track at least forces me to reconsider. It feels like a Neil Young meets Crosby, Stills and Nash moment (but not one that results in CSNY specifically, if that makes sense).

Broken Bells doing a pared down, live "The High Road" is just perfect. No need to say more. Following that is Corinne Bailey Rae, who once wowed me with "Put Your Records On" (and the fact that she's gorgeous) brings a funky, dance-ready track called "The Blackest Lily" that shows her growth from that early folk enterprise into something lustier, and denser. Big Head Todd and the Monsters is here, and it's an okay track. It does the guitar, strained vocals, harmonica thing, and it's not spectacular. I feel similarly about the Jay Farrar and Ben Gibbard compilation "These Roads Don't Move." It's a better song, and a sweet one, but it feels familiar in a more stale way than a nostalgic one. And maybe it's just a mixing issue here, or album arrangement issue, but O.A.R. follows with "Shattered (Turn the Car Around)" which is a bland U2ish pop track that doesn't challenge the ear because there's not much to it. At least with some of the other bands above, there was a special quality, but this track just feels like it's following the formula. It succeeds in being catchy, but I wouldn't find myself compelled to listen to it over and again.

Natalie Merchant provides a hauntingly sparse version of "The Man in the Wilderness." It's good storytelling and spooky. Martin Sexton, too provides a unique voice both due to his actual voice and how he seems to be genuinely having fun. It's not my favorite song, but it stands out and has a great riff. Then it's The Avett Brothers, who always make me think of specific people, and feel a certain sadness that is tempered with philosophical peace. These are great musicians and songwriters, and that translates to a live situation perfectly. "Oh Brooklyn, Brooklyn take me in/ Are you aware the shape I'm in?"Chapin Carpenter song, a decent new country track, with a bit of poetry to it, and Jakob Dylan doing a pretty job with "Nothing But the Whole Wide World." It's the two closers that are very interesting. First, it's John Hiatt (sounding as strained and tired as one could imagine) with Lyle Lovett doing "Thing Called Love," a song first made famous by Bonnie Raitt. It's true to form, but a bit odd. Yet, still, as covers go it is enjoyable. And the final track, Moby doing "Pale Horses" acoustic. And Moby actually sings pretty well.

The bottom line is that this year's disk is one of the best and most enjoyable I've heard in a few years. And while the mix could have incorporated a little more creativity to avoid lulls, this is a great disk. The bad news is that they sold out the day they were released, so reviewing it, if anyone now wants one, is a bit of a tease. At least this year has a healthier dose of indie representation done very well.
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December 4: Tame Impala

Sometimes, it's the time spent around the show that define it. On the 4th, Tame Impala played the Bluebird, and I attended the show with friends (one old and one newer). The show itself was a raucous jam session by the Aussie psychedelic indie band. My relative unfamiliarity with Tame Impala didn't hurt the experience at all. Instead, it was a show that perfectly accompanied an evening. We missed the opener, opting for drinks and listening to vinyl while discussing music, television and philosophy, and then arrived just in time to catch the main act. As a live act, and as a band, Tame Impala was impressive if occasionally monotonous. To the uneducated listener (I include myself in this camp) their songs are not clearly defined, instead merging from musical thought to musical thought. All of the sounds are pleasing, and I definitely recognized the popular "Solitude is Bliss" from my experience with its YouTube music video. Beyond that, though, the show was more of a peaceful interlude in an altogether excellent night.

The Bluebird was lightly-packed, like a box of cereal, defined by weight rather than volume, but the audience was a good one, and the music was sway-worthy. Including an 18 minute jam-out of a final song. The musicianship was strong, the vocals mixed a bit low, but seeming functional as a garnish rather than a foreground image. It's the type of music that relies on its mass rather than its is lead singer, and like a sprig of parsley, the vocals were great. After the show, we went back to my friend's apartment, drank tea, listened to more records and debated the ins and outs of harmonies via Dirty Projectors, among others. And we talked and laughed. It was, ultimately, a philosophical concert experience. And I'd never fault the band for my mindset because I wasn't there to take them in so much as to take in the evening.

What has become most interesting to me is how this sort of experience, good friends spending time together, drifting in and out of focus, debating the issues, is so sustaining. Often I go to show specifically because I love or want to love the band(s) playing, but this time was refreshingly different. It was a great show. Yes. It was. And it was also a uniquely different evening. There's always value in that, I think.
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Notable Text: Eating the Dinosaur

Chuck Klosterman is a genius. I won't mince words here because it's just fact. I even wrote a comic about him. While I haven't devoured his entire literary catalog (I have previously read Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto and Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story.) but there are few, if any writers I enjoy reading, and rereading more. Klosterman uniquely parallels popular culture phenomenons and always finds incredible insight within the things we overlook as mere mundane trappings of modern American existence. It's his unique eye and unique mind that combine to forge such witty, and evocative, prose. So, being a cheap, currently freelance writer, I waited and then snatched up the paperback version of Eating the Dinosaur from Denver's beautiful Tattered Cover Bookstore, and went headlong into consuming it's wordy filling. The book is good. I always write about things that I like, mostly. So, no surprises here, Chuck Klosterman did it again. But, instead of heaping praise on the worthy (mostly because he doesn't seem to believe he is worthy of praise), let's break this book down a bit.

First thing: Klosterman has appeared numerous times on Bill Simmons' BS Report podcasts for ESPN. He is generally a soundboard and an antagonist, questioning many of Simmons' established loves among the sports world, but more so, Klosterman advances his pop culture awareness into sports, not just as comparisons or metaphors, but as analysis. I suggest listening to his appearances on that podcast at your earliest convenience. It also affords the unique opportunity to hear the author's voice, which, for me, enhances the reading of his text by making it additionally conversational.

Back to the book. Eating the Dinosaur is comprised of 16 essays covering the meaning and ethos of interviewing (which also serves as the framing theme throughout the book), Nirvana as they related to the Branch Davidians in Waco, TX, time travel, cars, road trips, laugh tracks, football, ABBA and generational-relation in advertising. And there's more! What would YOU pay for such a collection? Wait, don't answer yet! No, seriously, shut up and don't answer yet. Klosterman tackles such a disparate range of topics, but brings them all back to their cultural significance. The questions in here are things like: Why do we answer interview questions? Do we every answer honestly? Why do we tie artistic significance to commercial failure? Why do we judge some athletes as busts? What does a road trip movie mean to/do for us? Do we know what's funny anymore? And several more. These are big questions. Huge, in fact, because they are right there in front of us all the time, but we don't often ask them.

Klosterman stops short of saying it outright, but I see the book as a treatise on authenticity. We, as humans, and especially as fortunate, affluent Americans, seek authenticity in all things. We want our music to be artful and real, our cars to be strong, fast, and energetic, our athletes to be competitive superheroes, and our advertising to be focused on us, since we know it isn't a staple of truth. We want things to be authentic because we are so often surround by parody, pastiche and irony. We gravitate toward music that seems genuine, and we immediately despise music that seems the opposite (even when it is entirely honest and genuine--Klosterman makes some good points about why fans of Weezer hate everything the band now composes). When Klosterman talks about Kurt Cobain composing In Utero as a direct attempt at authenticity (to resist his band's huge fandom) it never seemed inauthentic to us because we wanted to like Nirvana. But to Cobain, that love and subsequent commercial success, broke his plan to be authentic on his own terms.

Klosterman discusses ABBA in similar terms, that despite their singing in a second language and miming the musical style of '70s disco, they were so far from their audience (Sweden to the U.S.) that it was possible to maintain a type of authenticity that keeps their musical legacy from being tarnished. Essentially, as Klosterman aptly establishes, we are a society so used to employing and observing irony that genuine, authentic work seems foreign to us. Yet, we still crave it, even if we don't always like what comes out of it. What makes us authentically human? Are we not, largely, composites of pop culture references and dreams we think we're supposed to have? It isn't a question asked in Eating the Dinosaur, but it's a question I have to ask.

Are we merely composites of pop culture? Yes. Is that a bad thing? I don't know. I look at it this way, I can bond with almost anyone via my knowledge of The Simpsons. It is, strangely, one of the ways I gauge the personalities of people I meet. If someone gets the reference, then I figure, almost immediately, that we will get along, at least on a cursory level. I think we all have these sorts of languages. Fans of LOST, for instance, or Heroes, or any of the litany of reality, talent competitions, all have a bond that pretty much locks things in first meetings. This is a lot like Nick Hornby's (and John Cusack's) High Fidelity, where people are, at least early on, judged based on what they like. I don't think the judgment is necessary (or correct), but we do establish an incredible amount of our personalities through our music, our movies, our cars, our sports heroes. Does that make us each inauthentic? Not in a world where the rules for establishing the "real you" leans on what you know and what you do. We aren't beings defined by sessility, instead we are defined by our interests and our actions. So, the most authentic thing seems to be doing what you want, rather than doing what may be more "authentic."

Klosterman closes the book with an essay on the Unabomber. It's an interesting choice, a very bold one, given that most people would not be able to look at such a character academically. The essay centers on the Unabomber's manifesto against technology, and deals with the authenticity, ultimately, of human beings. Technology can break us, enslave us, and bring us to believe that we are more free than we are. Klosterman agrees with some of the claims, and I can't help but agree myself. Here I am writing a blog to put on the internet among an infinite field of other similar writings. The technology allows me to share, but it also devalues this work because anyone could do something similar, and people do, and really no one cares. So is this work, this review, and this blog more authentic because I don't think anyone reads it, or cares to? Not really.
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Words On Film: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One

This newest, and the second-to-last installment in the film exploits of Harry Potter has met with an array of mixed reviews. Detractors cite the film's slow pace, meager plot, and lack of full resolution, while the people who love it seem to do so primarily out of affection for the book/film series. Praise also seems to heap most fully in the form of appreciation for the aforementioned slow pace, artful brooding and brilliant cinematography. I, for my love of the books and the previous films (at least Order of the Phoenix through now), fall in the praising category primarily because of the incredible effort and vision to bring this opening half of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows to the screen at all. Director David Yates accomplishes a lot by merely condensing the laborious first half of the text, and keeping it interesting to as an artifact of the phenomenon, rather than a phenomenon unto itself.

Perhaps the greatest success of Deathly Hallows comes from the brilliant cinematography. Shooting on location throughout a wide variety of natural backdrops serves the film well as the world itself is a character. Deathly Hallows is not just about Harry Potter, Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley finding horcruxes and figuring out what the Deathly Hallows are, it's about that moment when these kids, teenagers, but not yet (wizard) high school graduates, first strike out into a world larger and more dangerous than they have ever seen before. Previous installments in the series have always been safely contained. Plots carry these characters from home to school and back home, but all of their discoveries and journeys have a safety net of sorts. With Deathly Hallows, Harry, Hermione and Ron are on their own, and one of the film's strengths is that it uses wide, distant establishing shots that place the protagonists' tiny (but magically sprawling) tent in perspective of a greater, unknown, wide world. It's a metaphor for growing up too fast, being thrust into the world and having to fend for themselves. And it was a point integral to the original text that Yates translates brilliantly.

The film is slow-paced though, compared at least to other fare of a similar ilk. Yates doesn't rush to finish anything, making this installment essentially a form of prolonged foreplay. Many reviewers haven't seen it that way, and I think I understand why. Deathly Hallows relies the most heavily on an expansive knowledge of the Harry Potter series. Walking into this film expecting to know what's happening, who's who and where everything will go without a dense knowledge base just doesn't work. The characters ARE brooding and the entire installment is ill with teen angst and wanderlust, but that's the point. We already know what motivates our heroes, and we've seen enough to know where their hearts lie, so the film doesn't have as much to work with. Still, it holds well as a sort of Empire Strikes Back for the Harry Potter set. Knowledge is gained, heroes learn of some power hidden that they didn't know before, and despite traveling great distances, Harry, Ron and Hermione end up knowing that they only have themselves. They are the improvised family and they are all they need, at least for now.

As for the plot, Deathly Hallows is such a densely adorned book (mostly dense in wandering, wondering and other such w's) that grinding out a two and a half hour movie that captures the high points without belaboring every scene is a lot to ask for. Yates succeeds. And it ends with a strong setup for the final half. When everything will hit the fan and the deaths are sure to become more real and more gruesome. The acting is better too, showing the age of these kids, now adults, portraying people on the precipice of adulthood, but already holding too much responsibility. As an film independent of the series, Deathly Hallows could not stand alone, but as the emotional lamentation arising from six previous adventures, it is paramount.
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The Walking Dead - "Tell It to the Frogs" & "Vatos"

I spent the bulk of last week talking about the origins of zombie film, television, etc., and why we, we the audience, never grow completely tired of the zombies as horror antagonists. This week, I'm going to speak specifically about the episodes at hand. After the stellar opening hour and a half of The Walking Dead, the show has worked to find that perfect pacing, allowing both new characters to appear and develop (if only slightly sometimes) and maintaining the sense of dread that is essential for a story taking place at what could be considered the "end of the world." Sometimes, episode two was a little too rushed, but now, with "Tell It to the Frogs" and "Vatos," the pacing has hit its mark, and the horror has become even more effective.

In "Tell It to the Frogs" we see the dramatic reunion of Rick and his family. There's a lot of heartwarming stuff here. All the survivors from the camp are happy to have their loved ones back, except for Daryl, whose brother Merle (the racist redneck) is still trapped, handcuffed, to the roof on a building in Atlanta. Because Rick has superhuman morality, he decides that they have to go back for Merle, and while they're there, his bag of guns too. And so a new group runs leaves, going back into the fray. And in camp, we find out that Shane told Lori that Rick had died in the hospital, and then Shane beats up Ed, someone who will matter so little in one episode that beating him up for being a violently abusive husband still seems fine.

Dialogue has yet to become a strong point with this show, and I've heard it's equally weak in the comic. But this episode was especially effective because it opened on Merle, with a problem, and closed on part of Merle and that problem solved, at least for him. The book-ending worked well, even if I called his saw-job upon set up in the first scene. What matters is the expansion of new characters and old. Glenn continues to be valuable for quips and good plans. And surprisingly, Daryl, who is as effective a zombie-killer as there is, seems reasonable from time to time. The key, when this episode ended, was what impact Shane beating on Ed would have on the group, and how Shane would make careful amends with the woman with whom he'd been sleeping by telling her her husband was dead. (It's that in the plot of the Count of Monte Cristo?) Turns out, at least for one more episode, we don't see a huge issue, or any resolution from a scene that should have more fully developed the survivor camp because...

"Vatos" comes along and jumps from a hand, wrapped in a handkerchief and placed in a backpack, to an unnerving image of a survivor we really haven't met yet digging a ton of graves on a hilltop. Also, Andrea and Amy have a long conversation about their childhood, and their father, and death/mortality, love, etc. while fishing for the camp's dinner. The setup for "Vatos" is compelling, and if it could have stayed where it was, for the most part, it would've been a nearly perfect episode, but for some reason there seems to be a fear to fill the space with the tension and long shots of desolation that made "Days Gone Bye" so effective. Instead, Rick and his crew of rescuers find out that Merle has gotten all the way to street level, hand-less and fancy free. The gents attempt to get the bag of guns back, the bag that Rick dropped before becoming trapped in the tank, by another genius Glenn-plan, and nearly succeed. They are interrupted by a gang, stereotypically Hispanic, who want the guns too, and kidnap Glenn. From there, it rattles from tense, to silly, to sweet, to pointless. No violence. No amazing gun-fight-that-turns-into-a-zombie-mob. Two groups kiss and make up, Rick gives them half the guns and ammo, and because their truck is stolen (by Merle?) they run (RUN!) all the way back to camp.

Camp has been interesting too. After Andrea and Amy catch dinner, Shane confronts the survivor digging his "holes," after Dale (the old guy) confronts him about the same thing. No one seems to think of graves, or say that, or even imply that, whoa, our buddy here may be going nuts and planning to murder us, but Shane cuffs him to a tree for his, and their safety. And then there's a nice bit of dialogue from Dale, talking about his watch, about time, about what keeping time means. Essentially, keeping time lets you forget about it. Amy gets up to go to the bathroom, and oh yeah, Ed was hanging out nursing his wounds, so he's in a tent. That's when... ZOMBIES! Err... WALKERS!!! And some people get bit, torn up, eaten, etc. Mostly people we don't know, or don't like. And just before any of the principle characters can "eat it," Rick and the boys run (RUN!) in from Atlanta to blow away the rest of the zombies.

The ending scene is effective, and genuinely sad. But I can't help but wonder how much more effective it could have been had the episode not invested half its focus on dealing with the "angels in disguise" gang members. We still don't know that much about the survivors. We know that Merle and Daryl are redneck racists, but that Daryl is the "reasonable" one. We know Rick and Shane were cops, and Rick is hyper-moral, while Shane is questionably motivated (but still clearly driven to protect people... his heart is good). We know that Lori and Carl are Rick's family and Lori is happy to have him back, but sad that she ostensibly cheated on him. And we knew that Ed was an abusive asshole. And Dale is an old guy who is a little crotchety, but generally reasonable. And Andrea and Amy can fish. And Glenn is the funny one. We could have known more about these people, information that would have made the deaths more impacting, but we didn't and don't. That's my only major gripe. We're supposed to feel sad because we see the characters on screen sad, but that requires heavy lifting for the actors. With more set-up on these people, we could just feel that sadness too. Also, the guy digging the holes, he lets us know, "I was digging out graves," at the end of the episode. But, viewers who weren't zombies got that imagery already.

Still, "Tell It to the Frogs" and "Vatos" were improvements over "Guts" and keep the story moving well. The show will be good. It's not perfect, but that's because it has to fight past the early shit, at least that's my hope. The real conflicts haven't appeared yet. And the only "good" conflict, will Rick find his family, was resolved early. If the show can focus on the survivor camp, and stop trying to follow a "new survivor of the week" formula, it will pace better and we will care about these people. The best thing, really, is that the show is gorgeous. Every time it's beautiful. And the gore is effective and well done. Now, if the writing staff could fix the little holes in the plots, and make us love the people will surviving through, the show will be hugely effective.
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Girl Talk - All Day

Girl Talk produces games as much as music. With each subsequent album of mash-ups, the consensus, among friends of mine, is that the music itself isn't as interesting as its parts. It's a game to pick out the pieces among the body, like Operation. On 11/15, Gregg Michael Gillis surprised us with a new album, free for download through Illegal Art, called All Day. It is, ultimately the same fare as previous efforts like Night Ripper, Feed The Animals, etc., insofar as the album is a Frankenstein-ian manipulation and re-assembly of music we already know and may or may not love. All Day isn't as fast-paced as its predecessors, which makes it a different type of listen, but aesthetically it remains successful. I can see the logic of Girl Talk's detractors. It's not new, or original, and I'm sure that many listeners would struggle to pick All Day out of a line up of his other work, meaning that these albums are difficult to consume as individual pieces, much less tracks, into which All Day is broken "only for easier navigation."

I suppose my question becomes this, why do we attempt to judge Girl Talk, or other mash-up albums the same way we judge original albums? And how can we judge an album like this one to be aesthetically valuable or musically interesting in a way that doesn't require us to compare to individual focused originals? The issue with Girl Talk, and especially with All Day is that it is judged as only the sum of its parts. That our view of mash-ups doesn't seek deeper connection between tracks, and that there doesn't really appear to be a great narrative happening, or if there is we are too distracted by the samples we recognize, the bass lines, the riffs, and the choruses, to see the forest built by all those beautiful trees. And since we, as a society, value ingenuity and originality above much else, we feel vindicated in choosing not to appreciate mash-ups or at very least to see them as cute projects.

All Day uses somewhere around 700+ samples to compose its monstrous form. That, in itself, regardless of opinions on individual samples or the whole of the music should remain somewhat awe-inspiring. I can't imagine myself taking the time to find that many pieces of songs in the first place, let alone to sit and assemble them into something cohesive, dance-able and fun. Really, the mash-up is like a musical quilt. Each sample is a patch, and those patches come together into something that's huge and cozy and warm (well, or you know, dance-able and fun). So, from a purely work-effort standpoint, Girl Talk is an insanely complex undertaking. I guess, my point here is that even the ugliest building can be appreciated for how much work has gone into it, even if you'd never choose to live in it yourself.

We want music to substantive. We want to garner meaning from it. And we see from many artists that their form expression, whether it is music or painting or sculpture, to be a window to their thoughts and something we can apply to ourselves and a better understanding of our world. Girl Talk doesn't give us that, not in a traditional sense. Instead we receive a broad overview of our musical world. The reason why All Day is good, is valuable is not because it does something that hasn't been done, it's because it gives us nostalgia and a survey of the musical world. Even the greatest collector of music doesn't own everything, and through sampling we hear things we might not choose to hear. Girl Talk provides that kind of forced exposure to new things, it broadens our listening base by giving us a little bit of everything. Philosophy aside, All Day is cohesive and well-assembled. It's fun to listen to and blends disparate themes and images like a Dali painting.

Score: (N/A)/10
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The Walking Dead - "Days Gone Bye" & "Guts"

I'm not usually one to recap television, but AMC's iteration of The Walking Dead demands deeper exploration and thought as a piece of social commentary as much as a piece of both horror and the shambling, ubiquitous zombie craze. The first question seems to be why now, when the whole zombie thing seems woefully played out throughout this decade with films (28 Days Later, 28 Weeks Later, Zombieland, Shaun of the Dead, et al.) and the book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies already spreading the genre/concept thin? The second question is how can any new text/art contribute something meaningful to the concept? And the third seems to be how The Walking Dead, as translated from its original comic series version, executes the ideas in a valuable way that makes the show worth watching. Zombies are, after all, so deeply ingrained into pop culture sensibilities at this point that adapting them in a new way is nearly impossible, so what's the deal with zombies and why are we still at least vaguely enamored with them?

From 2000 - 2010, there have been somewhere around 11+ movies with a focus on zombies or the undead as incapacitated, but still dangerous antagonists. For the purpose of this I'm included Planet Terror from Grindhouse and the Resident Evil franchise too, not to mention the yearly showings of Michael Jackson's Thriller on any and all on demand TV services. We have been exposed to zombification in film in the forms of toxins, viruses, injections, sudden-inexplicable-events and much more, and concept remains desirable. And the concept refuses to die, so to speak, but not because each new reinvention or retelling brings anything specific or new to the genre. Instead, zombie film, and texts, are a combined force of campy nostalgia and sociological study. Their staying power comes from our love of them, and from our fear of what they represent; the animalistic, unfettered, mob-mentality-driven aspect of the human animal. We all feel our society to be a fragile construct based on cooperation (i.e. we all agree tacitly not to kill and eat each other, but we all recognize that as an illusion too) and zombie films, texts, and programs give us that fear-loaded taste of being the last person to find out the social contract has disintegrated.

Ultimately, zombie apocalypse is a macroscopic break-up in our rom-com with society and order. The people who survive, who play the protagonists against the hordes of undead, are the broken up with. Society, and the gross majority of the population suddenly goes a new way, altering the arrangement to which we've grown accustom, and that leaves the broken-up-with to deal with the world completely altered, and how their ideals and concepts of reality are not longer applicable. This breach of trust, like a break-up, but even greater as a total reworking of reality is the crux of our fear. We all feel, at least to some extent, that the order around us is temporary and could be upended at any time. This is our fear of war, and famine and all types of destitution. We know that desperation makes strange brain-fellows. And with the concept so simple and over-arching, is there any way to contribute anything new to the narrative? Do we even need new ideas or is the simple basis of that fear enough to drive anything?

Ever since Night of the Living Dead (Romero, 1968), the idea of the undead overwhelming the "actualized living" (I call them this because our protagonists, as with ourselves, always define themselves by their/our free will and consciousness, regardless of whether their/our reactions and behaviors are actually chosen by them/us) was demonstrated as the truest test of our social norms and rule-based culture. When the majority has gone a different way, then it is a small group against the changing tide. And for Romero's first film, that minority group was a mix of adults and youths, races (racism plays an essential role in the film, if primarily latent and creeds, all fighting to maintain what they thought reality to be, but also fighting amongst themselves. Zombies test our resiliency against a changing larger society, but also our ability to maintain our society on a microcosmic level. Zombies force us to ask us how enlightened we really are. Can we maintain what we hold to be humanity and order when it is no longer in style? And can we also continue to fight for some level of social justice and order in the face of a collapsing world? Or, are we, as we fear, simply animals who will do what is necessary to ensure our survival, even if it means cannibalism and worse?

The short answer to the second question stated in the opening is that there is no need to contribute something new. Society is a wealth of contradictions, fears and breakdowns, and all zombies do is act as a catalyst for what we fear most about ourselves. Which leads me to discuss what The Walking Dead does that other such zombie texts and epics do not. The comic book series, now 78 issues in, digs deeper into the social fear issue. And since, I hope we've agreed, zombies aren't scary as much on their own merit as what they represent about our, maybe id-overwhelmed minds, destroying the order we feel exists, they aren't the point of The Walking Dead at all. The reason that the program should, and hopefully will, succeed is that it is ultimately a massive human drama. This is why in the first episode "Days Gone Bye" no explanation for the zombification of society is given. We don't need to know why, sure we want to know, but what matters is what the people who remain do to maintain what we hope for society, and how they fend off the extinction of culture. (And that's really what it is, right? Zombies don't create art, they don't build, they don't love or feel, they simply act to destroy... which is the thing we fear most in ourselves. A hunger for destruction.) So, we don't need to know why society has fallen into disrepair. The why is usually far more mundane anyway. We need to know what the protagonists will do to keep culture and humanity alive. We need to know/hope that there is some way for our world to bounce back in a better way. Ideally, with each zombie narrative, we hope that there will be a cure or at least that by the end we can rebuild, that even when humans become completely animal, completely primal, we can still start again and do it right so the world will be ordered again.

That's the beauty of The Walking Dead. Following one of the most brutal opening scenes in television, we meet Rick and his, then fellow officer of the law, Shane talking about the nuances of love, lust and manhood. Fitting that our first heroes would be actually responsible for the maintenance of societal order. These two men have a special interest in keeping the world safe and upholding humanity as we know it. This is also why we feel so much for Rick when he awakens in the hospital to see that the entire world is different. He believed, in his career, in a certain order of things, and when he sees the destruction and blood in the hospital, it's as much about being scared as being devastated that everything he held dear was an illusion. The unthinkable happened, and all while he was asleep. The first episode, then focuses on Rick's coping with the new world he lives in. The contract is broken. Nothing makes sense. And everything is beautifully drawn out over and hour and thirty to keep use wary of our surroundings.

When Rick meets Morgan and Duane Jones, he receives only information enough to tell him that what he has seen is everywhere and that the CDC is somehow involved in trying to clean it up. And through Morgan and Duane we are forced to confront another deep fear, that if the people we love were on the other side of the line, if they are part of the new contract, and have broken the one we hold true, how do we reconcile them? The scene where Morgan tries, but cannot gun down his zombie wife, is one of the most heart-wrenchingly real moments in zombie lore. Could any of us kill someone we loved if we didn't have to, but it would ultimately put them out of their misery. (Is that a commentary on euthanasia... perhaps a bit.) But also, what someone looks like betrays reality when they are no longer that person inside. And Rick, who puts a half-eaten zombie out of her misery is performing the same kind of service, but he does it clinically. (Now, to be clear, I'm not forgetting how Shaun was forced to shoot his mum in Shaun of the Dead, but the circumstance of direct danger forced his hand. Had she left the Winchester, it's unlikely he could have brought himself to shoot her at long range.)

In "Guts" the ante is upped significantly. Rick, who is now trapped inside a military tank in Atlanta is rescued by a group of survivors, all of whom have entered the city as scavengers. Now with a lot of other survivors, a lot of other believers in the old ways, so to speak, The Walking Dead tries to explore the failures of the old society. The episode spends a lot of time on racism, and how one redneck Southerner still holds onto his views of the black survivors in his group despite the circumstances. While I was initially off-put by the over-the-top portrayal, it seems that the core message is that society, the one we lost, but that the survivors still wish to uphold was deeply flawed. How far from the undead were we really? Intolerance still exists, and that seems like a negative that should be seen, understood and remembered. At least as zombies, everyone is equal. So, when Rick cuffs the racist to a pipe on the roof and tells him that none of the old aspects of society exist anymore, it's hard to believe him fully. Sure, Rick is an idealist, a mostly pragmatic, enlightened individual, but his contradiction is difficult. The zombies did destroy the old culture, but simply by surviving they are seeking to maintain it.

What "Days Gone Bye" and "Guts" do well is establish the collapse of the world. And how the last vestiges of society react to the change. The Walking Dead, as with all zombie work, is about us, about people, about survivors. The zombies are a convenient antagonist, but the real villains are always ourselves. My hope is that the program will continue to drive the issue of humanity until it breaks itself, really clearly showing that all we need to fall apart is a catalyst. And that our hearts and minds are powerful enough to transcend some things, but too weak to transcend others. Our tentative grasp on order is a ripe topic, especially because it works in en masse and under the microscope. Thanks for sticking with me on this long post. Hopefully my next two episode review will be exposition light and get straight at the show a little more.

The Walking Dead airs Sunday nights on AMC.
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Notable Text: Invisible Monsters

Invisible Monsters came out back in 1999. It's Chuck Palahniuk's third novel, and his only to be published only in paperback form. Interesting that a novel about image, escapism and recapturing individualism through extreme means would receive only the basic publication treatment; never getting a full hardcover look, but holding somehow to the adage about not judging books by their covers. So I'll start this minor academic deconstruction with that cover (or at least the cover of the copy I read) which features what I'll call a "princess-old hag" piece of artwork. When oriented one way, it's a princess, marked over mouth and chin with spattered pink (appropriately) and the other way, it's a notably unattractive older woman (with the spattered pink now in the forehead). Just with the cover, Invisible Monsters presents its internal dichotomy: shattered beauty v. shattered mentality. Which of the two images is most tragic is hard to say, but that's the underlying theme of the book. (Go ahead and do a head-stand to see the other image. I won't tell anybody.)

The novel opens in a chaotic, fast-changing scene where characters we don't know are all apparently on the brink of extinguishing each other. Our narrator, later called Daisy St. Patience (and numerous other names, one of which happens to be true, and the crux of the book) is standing over the body of her idol, the near-dead Brandy Alexander (neither the song, nor the drink), who has been shot down by the narrator's best friend Evie Cottrell. The scene of violence is juxtaposed with "Daisy's" self-absorption, and her continuing ties to her former career as a model, a career that ended when a tragic accident removed the lower third of her face. As readers, we are thrust into the action, unaware of the reasons for anything we are witnessing, and in that Palahniuk hooks us... that and a continuing question of what happened to the beautiful girl. How did she get here?

For a society that so greatly values beauty in women over much else, this commentary is apt, and a perfect place for Palahniuk to draw up various mysteries that keep us moving. We are drawn, as people, as Americans, to wonder why the beautiful girl is ugly, and to empathize with her loss or tragedy, especially because we all, to some degree or another, desire to be beautiful, to be desired and have the attention that our narrator describes. The story jumps back in time, to "Daisy's" accident that disfigured her, her first meeting with the incredible transsexual Brandy Alexander, her early days modeling with Evie, and all of her self-involvement begins to develop. We feel for her, the beautiful but stricken girl, but we also learn to hate her, for her constant jealousy at the attention given to her dead, gay brother, over her, and for her disinterested friendship with Evie (who seems genuinely to want only her love and consideration). Over time, we learn that "Daisy" isn't someone we like, but we accept her because, like us, she is not a hero(ine), but a fallible person.

The narrative takes course all across the western United States and into Canada where Daisy, Brandy and a male companion undertake petty crimes to pay their way, and stay perpetually high on pills. And throughout it, the questions raised are those of identity, reality, beauty and love. Really, Palahniuk balances his trademark gruesome descriptions and witty nonchalance with deep, meaningful heart. And in an effort not to throw spoilers all over the place for those who still wish to read the book, the resolution comes in the form of varying identity crises. The ultimate question being how can we define ourselves without defining ourselves by other people, by convention, by society? These characters, all of them (surprisingly) want to transcend--or ascend--past the way they were made. Instead of being reliant on beauty, we see people who seek refuge in difficulty. Instead of seeking definition by family we see characters defining themselves by doing exactly the opposite of what they want. And to see love we sometimes have to become the exact opposite of who we think we should be to become the person that we love ourselves, for taking a chance, or for suffering.

Invisible Monsters raises a litany of deep, philosophical questions about self, reality and individual satisfaction. How important is beauty? And I know that question seems obvious, but REALLY, how important is it? Does beauty define you more than you define it? It's silly, it seems, to pity the beautiful, but there's something to that. The attention, the lust, the expectation, and sometimes the beauty is the only thing that sustains that person's role in society. And how far do we go to be beautiful? If we never ask to be born, is it not our prerogative to alter ourselves as we see fit until we feel defined? But, beyond even that, what is love? Love can grow from strange places, but it is often restricted, choked and left when we try to pack it into the relationships we believe must exist. The conventions of society and science (gender, sexuality, genetics) are the great restrictions; terrorizing our individuality as we try so hard just to fit in.

Here, Palahniuk writes about discovering yourself, even by extreme means. But it's a treatise on the destructive capacity of modern society. We are bombarded my media and belief systems that force us to find new, creative, strange ways to combat our existential distemper, going beyond numbness in drugs to complete recreation. These characters, all complex, and more so by the end than you'd ever imagine at the beginning, are fighting for their own reality. (This is especially true for the narrator's parents, who concoct a vast conspiracy and simultaneous sense of pride from the ashes of their gay son's death... again for spoilers sake, I won't spoil.) For Invisible Monsters that reality is an endless chain of clues, hints, fears, and questions, but even all that uncertainty is preferable to being stuck in neutral, simply playing the hand you were dealt at birth.
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Underappreciated Music File: Dennis Wilson - Pacific Ocean Blue

Yep. It's that time again. After a seven month hiatus, I'm delving deep into the volcanic depths of music to laud an album that most of us haven't heard, nor even heard of. Of course, I could be projecting my own lack of knowledge onto others, but for the sake of this post, let's say not. This time in the Underappreciated Music File it's Dennis Wilson (former Beach Boy, Wilson brother and tragic music figure, who drowned in 1983) with his only solo release Pacific Ocean Blue. The album came out in 1977 and is a compelling mix of rock, soul, jazz, blues and the undeniable vocal harmonies he brought from/contributed to the Beach Boys. Like most albums of the era, it is a cavalcade of quick, radio-friendly tracks, but this is hardly delicate surf-pop. This is a text of anthems, many brought to life through the lens of Wilson's fast-living, drunken lifestyle. And the vocals, with Wilson's voice battered and rough from years of abuse and cigarettes, provide the kind of urgency and realism that reminds me (if only vaguely) of the work on Johnny Cash's American IV: The Man Comes Around.

Pacific Ocean Blue opens with the charming ballad-to-nature "River Song" where Wilson laments the city and seems to be finding essential peace along the water. The song comes with jaunty piano riff and feels the most like a Beach Boys track. But soon thereafter, the album starts to show its deeper soul, the inner motivation. The bluesy and downbeat "What's Wrong" and the haunting, nearly timeless "Moonshine" both pull you down to a place where you see that this isn't about getting kids to dance. Wilson has strongly separated himself from the clean-cut, fun-life-California image he earned over the preceding years. And then the album hits the listener over the head with the ghostly, slow-burning, building "Friday Night." The song is a testament to rock, love and frustration. The powerful keys maintain a clamor with only a soft guitar riff filling the back end. The best part, it doesn't GO anywhere specifically. It's a lament. It's a moment. The Friday night in question fizzles out, with nothing solved.

"Dreamer" pulls things back up to more conventional writing by thrusting a bluesy, thick track loaded with horns and soul harmonies into the mix. And for all it's groaning, simmering anger... it finishes on a sentiment of letting all the shit, all the fucked up blues, go out into the wind. "Thoughts Of You" is a heart breaking piece of slow poetry that begins with Wilson's whispered vocals and leads into an explosion of sound, a wall with Wilson screaming out through echoes of regret. The brilliant contrast of his raspy, pained vocals to the big-production moments is staggering and inspiring. The next track, "Time" operates in a similar manner, running on Wilson's hopeful older-man persona, but it features some lines in the first verse, painfully sung, that makes the song into something special "I'm the kind of guy/ who likes to mess around/ know a lot of women/ but they don't fill my heart/ with love completely free." And this is the fall-out of free love. It's everywhere, so for this song at least, it has lost meaning.

"You And I" has more of a Beach Boys feel, more serene, more open and less pained. It's a song of acceptance and happiness in love. "Pacific Ocean Blues" feels like a bit of the Derek and the Dominoes, Beatles' Let It Be kind of vibe. It is ornate and loaded with bouncing keyboards and funky guitar and really, Wilson could be a dead ringer for Joe Cocker. "Farewell My Friend" is a straight up goodbye/love letter to a friend. The final two tracks on the original release (I won't discuss the Bonus tracks on the 30th Anniversary edition here, but suffice to say they are fine, though not as exceptional as the whole of the original album.) are "Rainbows" and "End Of The Show." The former is a love song that reaches around the edges of rock, blues and country in a fairly conventional way. The latter is a beautiful metaphor asking "where do we go from here?" A sentiment that really sums up the entire album.

Dennis Wilson was always an overshadowed member of the Beach Boys, but he proved in one disc that he was as talented as his brothers, if in a slightly different capacity. As a standalone piece of history, both musical and American, Pacific Ocean Blue is precious. The album has probably gone unheard by too many fans of the Beach Boys and all great music, and that's why in belongs in the Underappreciated Music File. But, more so, Dennis Wilson created this and only this as his swan song, prior to alcohol and drowning, and that makes some of the strained vocals and sad poetic lyrics even more poignant, even 33 years later.
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October 24: Of Montreal, Janelle Monae

There are no bad things that can be said about a show that is rich in theatrics, costume changes, tricks of lighting, giant fake television set-pieces and ends with a medley of good Michael Jackson covers. When two acts are so relentlessly active, so evocative, as Of Montreal and Janelle Monae were on Sunday night, they inject life into an audience that cannot be ignored, or perhaps more creepily, resisted. I attended this show primarily for the opportunity to witness Janelle Monae in person. I quickly hopped on that bandwagon; addicted to her bright, soulful vocals and songs that are fraught with a fantasy-sci-fi combo that is remarkably poignant as social commentary (and also exceedingly self-aware). Monae is a purveyor dance, fun music, that extends beyond its own mold of merely providing a beat to say more about the nature of love, and the way our world oppresses us at our own hand. Of Montreal is a band I have loved, specifically for Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? and 2008's Skeletal Lamping, over the last few years. I had read a lot about them and heard a great bit of anecdotal accounts of their live performance, but I had never seen the chaos myself. After seeing, Of Montreal is a sort of "bucket list band" that I'd recommend seeing live, preferably in their current prime, before dying.

The show began with Monae's face, dressed as her character the ArchAndroid, was projected above the stage. After a brief exposition, to drive the compelling story of sci-fi robo-oppression, she cried to the crowd, "There is only one rule tonight: Dance or die." And dance we did. Monae performed close to half the songs on her new album, hitting the highlights of "Cold War," "Tightrope," and "Wondaland." The show was pure energy, fueled by drama and motion. And costumes. Monae appeared initially as one of three cloaked figures. Facing away from the stage she began her first number, and in time, the hood came down to reveal her trademark pompadour, and from there her performance was lively, powerful and loaded with sharp footwork. Often, instead of back up dancers, Monae was flanked by cloaked figures or masked creatures, each group playing into the active performance art of the song. Whether painting numbers in acrylic on a blank canvas, live, throughout a soulful lament, or "gunning down" oppressive figures with her finger-guns, the show was all about activity. The fact that she wasn't the headliner was disappointing, if only because it would have meant a few more stolen moments in her presence. Also, she might've played "Oh, Maker" or "Come Alive (War of the Roses)."

After Monae, Of Montreal upped the ante on the performance art end of things. Singer Kevin Barnes appeared on stage wearing tights, a sort of skirt-apron hybrid, a frilled shirt and a vest. Truly, this is a sight to behold, even if you don't like/love their music. Again, it's the energy factor. Barnes and the whole band are working at full, break-neck speed. And that's even before a sequence of costume changes and guest appearances to the stage. Like Monae, Of Montreal had groups of characters roaming and populating the stage. Notably a pair of pigs, a man and a woman in pink bodysuits, wearing pig helmet-masks. Barnes and the woman pig share a sensual, and brilliantly vivid grind-session, at least until the man pig grows jealous, setting the stage into chaos as Barnes continues to narrate and attempts to escape the angry beast. Ultimately, the skit (if I can call it that without sounding like an asshole) is a about polyamory, among other things that may be weird or "evocative," and it is all well executed. Other highlights included aliens with fish-heads, bullet/vibrator-headed robots, and a group of asexual checkered body-suit clowns. And really, this only gives you a rough idea of the whole experience. Of Montreal is like Cirque du Soleil, as depicted in the mushroom-trip-scene in the film Knocked Up, but better.

And that doesn't even cover the musicianship, the vocals and the fact that the band makes you want to dance. Or that they closed with an encore consisting of "Thriller," "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'," and "P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)," which is possibly one of the most excellent uses of the cover-song close that I've witnessed. This was a show that was technically exceptional and irreplaceable as an experience. Should you get the chance to see either band, or both, to bear witness to their unique, united spectacle, then take it. Go, see the magical oddities and strange fantasies unfold because you're really getting 4 shows in one (Monae + theatrics + Of Montreal + circus maximum = 4 SHOWS).
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