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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