Birdy - Birdy

Spotify is quite possibly the internet's best, craftiest, music marketing device. Yes, it's also a delightful, wonderful and exceptional music playing, seeking and loving platform, but Spotify wants you to check out what it wants you to check out. While pondering a review of the Shins' newest Port of Morrow, a great album in its own right, but one that you'll like if you like the Shins or dislike if you don't, Spotify pushed Birdy's (15 year-old Brit Jasmine van den Bogaerde) new album titled Birdy into my ad-susceptible face. The pitch there was that Birdy covers Bon Iver's "Skinny Love" and being the sucker for covers that I am--Oh fuck, I'm a sucker for covers!--I decided to give the album a look. Turns out, van den Bogaerde/Birdy is pretty damn good. Within Birdy she covers Phoenix's "1901," Fleet Foxes' "White Winter Hymnal," The Postal Service's "The District Sleeps Alone," and James Taylor's "Fire and Rain." Birdy does each song justice in a way, but as is the problem with the dearth of covers brought to us by the internet, these songs don't change very much. That's not always a problem, but paradoxically, it also always is a problem.

Birdy's smooth, airy, pure voice is a joy to listen to. She evokes pain and sweetness in each held note. But, she also takes little in the way of chances here. Now, she's 15. And who am I to judge her work? It's remarkable that she so confidently and fully sings each of these tracks, but I would trade the purity of her voice for some more risk. Each of those key covers sound like slower versions of the originals. It's the same problem that struck in the AV Club's second cover of 2012's AV Undercover when Memoryhouse covers the Police's "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic." It's not bad, but it doesn't add anything to the song. Or to the experience. Being able to sing does not a rock star/musician make. We've had years of American Idol winners who GO NOWHERE to prove that fact. Birdy does great work with "The District Sleeps Alone Tonight," but otherwise, the music is an exercise in re-hearing the already heard. The best covers flip a song over and teach it some new tricks; see the Sex Pistols' "My Way," Lou Barlow's "Round and Round," and Johnny Cash's "I Hung My Head" for examples.

Birdy is enjoyable, and emotionally wrought, though, and that makes it a worthwhile listen and a great album. If nothing else, this is a promising glimpse into what van den Bogaerde can do. The songs are all winners. And her turn on them, sad, sometimes jazzy, sometimes with a breathy indie dream-pop flutter, works. The judgements I make above are more about covers than about Birdy's execution. It's a larger issue that either one must do it as good as the original, or make it one's own. With Birdy there are moments that teeter on the edge of either one, but never seem to redefine the original text. It's a pleasant, kinda, sweet, heartfelt and enjoyable listen, but these covers won't supplant their source materials.

Listen to the album on Spotify here: Birdy – Birdy
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5 Things We Can Still Learn from Joseph Heller's Catch-22

Despite being a whopping 51 years old, Joseph Heller's Catch-22 remains an American cultural touchstone. Whether you've read it or not, you've been party to its signature Catch-22, now a philosophical concept summing up the old "damned if you do, damned if you don't" paradox. But it's more than the titular catch. Heller's novel, a cornucopia of satire, reaches into the majority of the best (I'll qualify the best as the most critically acclaimed) entertainment in pop culture. You can see Heller's satirical influence in each episode of 30 Rock or Community, as well as inside the best of Wes Anderson's films. Not to mention, of course, the long-running M*A*S*H. Big characters, confusingly chaotic scenarios and conversations that are at once hilarious and revelatory fill the pages of the book. And while Heller keeps things purposefully confusing, mirroring the chaos and nonsensical nature of war, his cartoonish, but believable characters confront stark, horrifying, delightful, and cogent facts about human life. Where The Walking Dead went wrong all over Season 2, spending time discussing the issues directly, Heller's Catch-22 features philosophical developments that come from conversations that aren't even pointed toward such ends. In short, Heller's novel is a finely tuned machine, made so much more obvious by how un-fine and un-tuned World War II is presented.

There are definitely more than 5 total life lessons in Catch-22, but if the internet has taught us anything, it's that we don't much care for long lists, unless they're episodic, include Firefly's Nathan Fillion or Buffy and Dollhouse alum Eliza Dushku, or happen to feature cute animals in cuter-than-or-equally-cute-to hats. So, here are 5 things we can still learn from Catch-22.

The List

  1. It's crazy to follow the rules all the time, but it's crazy not to follow them sometimes. Yossarian's novel-long quest to get out of the war leads him into numerous confrontations with mission-raising Colonel Cathcart and the titular catch. Our protagonist finds safe and reasonable ways to hide from an unfair war, either by checking into the hospital, running around naked, or escaping into lots of carnal activities with prostitutes and even the wife of one of his commanding officers. Yossarian fears that he's going insane, but he fears dying more, and all of his "crazy" behaviors serve to keep him sane, arguably MORE sane than the rest of his squadron. The trick is that Yossarian also knows when to abide by the rules, too. His moral compass remains finely tuned. He follows the rules of life and of love for humanity, fighting to save Nately's Whore's kid sister, and to punish the men who stand to gain most from unjust situations.
  2. People, Places, and Events are always more than meets the eye. The squad camp at Pianosa isn't a well-oiled military machine. It's a summer camp for kids playing as men in uniform. Rank in Catch-22 more often than not gives reason to mistrust rather than to assume experience and clarity of vision. Major Major is promoted just because. Yossarian receives Captain for making a mistake that gets men killed. Colonels Cathcart and Korn want only to become Generals for the title, not because they wish to serve better. Milo's syndicate is a business in name only, an elaborate scheme of moving materials to make him a personal profit and get whatever he wants. Even the squadron is not a cohesive group, a team. Instead it's a random assortment of ill-fitting pieces. Of course, then there's Washington Irving, the Chaplain, the soldier in white and the soldier who saw everything twice. For Heller the world is not what it seems, capped perfectly with Orr's epic escape from war by crashing on purpose and the disguises Nately's Whore wears as she pursues Yossarian.
  3. Capitalism and other institutions are often blanket excuses for free-reign corruption. Milo's syndicate runs amok, even playing both sides of the war, helping the Germans attack while coordinating a bombing on the Germans by the Americans. For Milo, it's always a matter of business. Business excuses all trespasses. The Military within the text operates the same way, built as a mechanism for high-ranking ladder-climbing, rather than as a system to keep men from harms way unless absolutely necessary. The fringes of society provide the most clarity, from the old man in the brothel, who tells Nately that Italy will outlast America in history, to the halls and wards of the hospital where men and boys at war are most free to be human.
  4. Death is Life. Life is Death. The key revelation for Yossarian comes from trying to save Snowden. It's the moment Heller calls Snowden's secret. And it's a secret only because we choose so often and constantly to ignore it. When Yossarian removes Snowden's flak jacket and the boy's viscera spill onto the bomber's floor, he is confronted with the truth of life. Life is a means of conveyance toward Death. No matter what our bodies show on the outside, youth, beauty, virility, survival, we are always dying. It's that moment that flips the switch in Yossarian that he won't fly anymore. He doesn't want to speed himself toward death, knowing full well that he's already on that trajectory. Heller's work with this sub-story specifically links to Julia Kristeva's Approaching Abjection. For Kristeva, we hate the things we hate because they remind us of our own mortality, limitations and failings. We, and Yossarian, are horrified by the sight of Snowden's drizzling entrails not because they look bad, but because we realize in that moment that we have that inside us, and that there's very little holding it in. We are weak, and we will die, no matter what we tell ourselves. 
  5. It's better to die running toward what you love, than live a lie. It's the key message to the book's final pages. Yossarian has the option to return to the States, a rich, honored man, but he must tell everyone how heroic his experience of war was. To be free, Cathcart and Korn force him to maintain a horrible illusion. It's really an illusion we still maintain to this day, through war films and video games. We glorify battle and the destruction of enemies that are inherently "evil." Toughness and manliness have violence as a necessary quality. But, Yossarian chooses to avoid that lie. He chooses to run away, fighting a harder battle than the one he would fight by staying in the war, but one that is moral and guided by self-preservation and basic humanity. Given the options, he makes the infinitely more difficult choice. There's a chance that he could have returned to the States and never spoken to anyone about the war ever again, but simply by being there, recognized as a hero, he would be validating all of the corruption he fights throughout the text. The message is clear, go for what you love, and don't settle for the deal that keeps you comfortable, especially when your eternal soul is the bargaining chip.
What's perhaps most sad is that the lessons we should have learned from this text and from World War II continue to go unheeded. And more so, the satire that Heller proposes throughout the text is more and more realistic every day.
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The Walking Dead - "Beside the Dying Fire"

Something. That's what finally happens on The Walking Dead Season 2 finale, "Beside the Dying Fire." After a season that was littered with wasted time on conversations that never went anywhere and solved nothing, the surviving group, led by Rick Grimes faces a giant zombie horde. The horde, it seems, comes all the way from Atlanta, following a helicopter that we never get a follow-up on, but will certainly play an integral part in Season 3. We hope. The helicopter could be nothing, but it is a sign that there are survivors out there, and that they have access to fuel for such a machine, so that, in itself, seems promising, at least on a cursory level. The opening scene, all zombies, all traveling, all over, is well shot and pristine. Especially when the horde pushes through a fence marked "Trespass, it's your ass." The clear implication is that fences don't mean anything when there's a force that cannot be stopped. But then, that's what is always so terrifying about this concept of the undead. They don't stop. They have no interest in self-preservation. They have no self. And an enemy without any concept of self simply won't tire, simply won't be dissuaded, and simply won't stop.

When Rick and Carl throw themselves into the barn, and the horde tears the door down, no doubt rending the dead flesh on their hands in the process, they don't stop. That builds tension. And real tension is what this show needs, and needed, all along. Rick and Carl are having a father-son moment when they realize the horde is coming. Carl wants to know when Shane got bit, but Rick can't tell him. And the zombies provide a quality reason to delay that reveal. Instead, they run, burn the zombies by burning the barn, and everyone on the farm battles in true siege fashion. The downside, the stakes are emptied because none of the people we care about are ever in true risk. Only two characters die. And both were people in Hershel's group we had seen once or twice, but never had a real affinity for. To make these deaths count, as I stated in the last review, the writers need to show these people as somehow valuable and interesting. These two weren't, and while Jimmy and Patricia had names, they didn't have characters, so their deaths, while gruesome, mean little.

After the siege, the episode slows down. Glenn tells Maggie he loves her, and that it had been true for a long time. Time in this show is confusing. Sometimes it's a string of days per season, other times, we're meant to believe that there's been a greater passage. Everyone else ultimately rendezvous at the highway, where the season started with Sophia's running away. The show tries to put a lot of weight on that, but it only works a little. Really, like at the end of Season 1, we are right back where we started. There's out with the old and in with the new, but not too much else. Excepting two key incidents:

1. Andrea gets left behind, runs away, and is about to be killed when a mysterious veiled samurai beheads the zombie that's afflicting her. We don't find out who that is, though, the character's name appears to be Michonne. And the character appears to be an effective bad ass. Also, Andrea is confirmed as a bad ass here too. She fights hard and while she would have died without intervention, her marksmanship and strength are impressive. Plus, now she has a reason to mistrust the others because they left her. Who knows what psychological drama will occur as a result.

2. Rick's admissions to the group. When he tells Lori that he killed Shane, she freaks, characteristically uncharacteristic as her character always is. It doesn't make sense because she wanted Shane dead. And it makes sense because right after that, she didn't. Lori is a messy character. But, Rick tells the group three tidbits after that mean the most. First, that he killed Shane, that he had to, and that he was bad for the group. They are all fearful after that, but will come around. Second, they are all infected. He reveals that Dr. Jenner told him that before the CDC blew up in Season 1. It doesn't seem to be an issue as long as no one dies, but everyone becomes very agitated by it. Why does it matter? We don't know yet... though if Lori miscarries that baby... holy shit that would be some gory zombie fetus action. Oh, and then Rick says that it's not a democracy anymore. He's in charge. Fuck all the debate. They want to survive, he'll help them, if not, he's out.

"Beside the Dying Fire" is this season's best episode, and while still by no means perfect, it gives us a feeling of dread that many of the others did not. Especially with the large prison standing tall over the landscape just beyond their camp. It's a place they can hold up, but they'll have to clear it out first. And even then, nothing is that easy. But, hey, maybe it will call into effective question whether prisons are meant to keep the bad people in, or the good people out. Or vice versa. I'll get back with this next year, more than likely. Thanks The Walking Dead for another season of ups and downs. May you always improve.
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The Walking Dead - "Better Angels"

After last week's strangely affecting episode of AMC's The Walking Dead, we get "Better Angels" to continue the full-steam-ahead vibe that's beginning the serve the series very well. "Better Angels" is a strong episode, but in what appear to be attempts to tie up loose ends and maintain some emotional core to the show, there are moments that don't really work, or for that matter, make a lot of sense. The big news, if you don't already know please turn your head now, is that Rick stabs Shane, not in cold blood, but not in self-defense entirely either. It's a killing in lukewarm blood, but it also seemed otherwise completely unavoidable. The way that the episode closes, or nearly closes, on this brutal moment, sets a solid contrast to Rick's plea that the group come together and maintain their humanity as Dale wanted... to be un-broken and to stay together because they'd honor his memory. The problem is that Rick never loses his humanity completely. The twist, or rather the turn of the knife, isn't nearly as big because we know that Rick knows better. The problem is that Carl witnesses it. Or at least sees his father looming over Shane's body. And in that moment, the innocence is all gone for the young man.

Elsewhere and earlier, Rick's original plea to honor Dale could easily be a pact made by the writers of the show. Rick essentially tells the team not to be whining, philosophical, sad-sacks anymore. And if the writers are hinting that they'll take the show in a non-AMC hyper-dramatic direction, then I'm all for it. Of course, they don't make immediate good on this demand... although Lori inexplicably does. She turns to Shane, just episodes (but days in show time) from his outrageous claims and attempts to beat Rick to death, to tell him that she's sorry, that she (hints) loved him at least for a minute there, and that he's a good guy. She says it's because Dale died and that makes her question all her notions, but that's stupid if only because Lori and Dale never seemed to talk or have fun or anything. It's problematic to make a character like Dale, who becomes the whining tattletale and unwanted conscience to the audience and the group on screen, and then pretend that everyone's completely heartbroken at his passing. If the writers took 7 minutes from the philosophy aspect of the show and put it into showing a bond and a love among the characters, even if it's just an instant, then these deaths would mean more. And revelatory reactions would seem more reasonable.

Sure, we liked Dale. But we didn't love him. And when Lori opens up to the man she wanted dead two weeks ago. And when Glenn gets all sappy about the Winnebago, it seems trite, like an acknowledgement that they're SUPPOSED to have a bond that they never show. It would be one thing to say, "Oh shit! Another one is dead. This is out of hand. I'm scared." But to put weight on Sophia and Dale when no one talks about Otis or Amy or the countless other people who have already died is hollow. Carl blames himself, and has the most compelling side story option, but it goes nowhere, other than to show some warmth in Shane's heart so that we'll feel worse when Rick rips it out (necessarily) a few scenes later. And that's okay. Because Shane rises, and Carl shoots him. After, of course, Shane takes matters with their captive into his own hands and kills him too. The web is tangled. Shane went crazy. But like Darth Vader, there was still good left. And now he's dead, and Rick will have to try to explain it.

Oh yeah, and a group of zombies were bearing down on the farm from the forest, apparently fulfilling the "we have cows so we're sitting ducks" foreshadowing that was so deftly implanted at the beginning of the show. One more for Season Two. Will they make it good? I think they will. They're getting better. Plus, the visuals, especially the at-dusk showdown between Rick and Shane was beautifully shot. Stay tuned.
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The Walking Dead - 18 Miles Out & Judge, Jury and Executioner

Finally, an excellent episode of The Walking Dead appears in Season 2's "18 Miles Out." Gone, at least for one week, are the drawn out aimless conversations, and thankfully, Dale. He doesn't die or anything, but he is happily out of the picture for one week, along with Glenn, Daryl and Hershel. "18 Miles Out" focuses on Rick and Shane, for the most part, with a solid B-story about Andrea and Lori's growing conflict, and some stuff with Maggie and her just-named-clearly-last-episode sister Beth. Parts, as usual, are a little overwrought, but generally the writing feels more tight and the conversations aren't always about what they're about. First, the good:

-Rick and Shane's conversation on the road where Rick lays down the law on Shane's obsession with being the leader and his "love" for Lori and Carl. The key to it is the small talk Rick makes about winter, and hoping that the walkers won't survive the cold temperatures. He's always the optimist.

- The prolonged, pleasantly gory battle with the walkers at the police station. Quality violence, first with Rick and Shane duking it out, then with a "surprise" attack by the undead.

- Rick's handling of their captive, the kid from the other group, who they may need to kill. Rick admits that he may have to do the boy in, but holds strong to it.

- Andrea's assertion, confident, that Beth's "attempted suicide" is actually her choosing to live. It's true and it's frightening as a piece of foreshadowing, especially if one of the group chooses to take their own life in the coming episode. Always an option.

"18 Miles Out" does its good things with subtly and a lot of horror violence. Instead of trying to inject depth and philosophy where it need not be, we get people acting on instinct and motivations that make clear sense while never getting schmaltzy. The bad, though, comes with yet more infighting. I get that we're allowed a breather because these people are under extreme circumstances where they have none. But, sometime, it'd be great to see these characters so busy surviving that they can't bitch to each other. Rick returning for Shane, despite the feeling that he shouldn't is one of those things. Rick's a good guy. He's THE good guy. But he's also listening to Shane. He didn't say it, but you saw it. It was reflected in the shootout in the bar, and it arises again here. Now, if the writers could just embrace the rest of the roster, especially the women, to allow them to do things other than fuck up and wait for Shane or Rick's rescue.

With "Judge, Jury & Executioner" things take a very clearly Lord of the Flies-ian turn. It's an episode that deals exclusively with the decaying, dying humanity of the group. As Rick and Shane, and the others debate killing the kid from the other group, still their prisoner, Dale spends the episode trying to change minds. He is the Piggy character, from Golding's novel, in this episode. In a way, he always has been, despite being a whiner, Dale was the last bastion of society as it was. While the others, even Hershel, have lost their hope for a rebirth of normal American life, Dale holds strong to the ideas of equality, safety, and the value of human life. So, Dale marches the camp, even talking to Shane, trying to convince each of the others that killing another person would turn them into the evil that surrounds them. His argument is fairly pat. The idea that society teeters on our participation, our choice to participate, is not new or novel, but it's pertinent here.

Meanwhile, there is debate about the value of a human life. And Glenn even receives Hershel's blessing to continue loving, and whatever else may happen, Maggie. It's the only small bright spot, with a minor story of redemption and acceptance. Hershel's somewhat below the radar racism is gone in an instant. But, the main B-story is Carl. Carl is listening to Shane and to his old man. He's turning cold-blooded too. He's losing his sense of society. And as the only kid left in the group, he's most prone to completely forgetting what humanity was. And it is a was. Carl is stuck because he's growing up fast, but he doesn't have the norms, mores and structure that the others had at his age. He's prone to becoming wild. It's one thing for a man, like Shane or Daryl, to choose evil over good. But Carl, well, he's not really getting a choice. Evil is all around and as it seeps into the group, he's most susceptible.

Carl talks back to Carol. Carl thinks Heaven is stupid, and he's probably right, but it's an indication that his innocence is going. Then Carl ventures into the woods alone and finds a zombie stuck in the muddy ground. Carl is afraid, but when he realizes that the beast is trapped, he becomes brave and throws rocks at it. It's another Golding-esque moment, this time recalling the boys throwing rocks at Simon. There are no rules. Nothing is sacred when the world is gone. So Carl throws rocks and finally decides to try shooting the zombie himself. He fails, and loses his gun, but he gets away. The consequences of his actions are not clear, and seem like they could just wash away as the walker remains half trapped in the mud. But, of course, something terrible happens.

In some of the most effective horror and drama in the series, Dale, fresh off trying to convince the group to value human life, wanders into the fields and finds a steer that was gutted, spilling viscera everywhere. He turns and is attacked by the same walker that Carl did not put down. At first it seems like he might fend the beast off, but then the zombie tears Dale open, mirroring the cow to the slaughter in the previous frames, and Dale is left alive, but too near death to heal. When the group gets there, and no Rick couldn't kill the kid from the other group, they find their voice of reason, like Piggy shattered against the rocks, near death. Hershel can do nothing. So Rick takes up arms to put Dale out of his misery. He can't do it. But Daryl can. "Sorry, brother." Fade to black. BLAM.

"Judge, Jury & Executioner" redeems this season in large part. The writing is getting tighter. And the themes more poignant and real. Losing Dale here is a big blow. For one, the group has no voice of reason. Though, it seems Rick might take up the mantle now, having been unable to take the mercy shot. But, for two, Dale was the closest thing they had to an elder statesman. He wasn't always written well, but he meant a lot. Good job, The Walking Dead. You pluck some heartstrings with this one.
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Bravestation - "Signs of the Civilized"

"Signs of the Civilized" a new track from an upcoming, as yet unnamed, LP from Toronto's Bravestation is a fantasy wrapped in warm summer sun. While the band describes themselves as purveyors of "tribal pop," they're far more than guitars and steel drums or the driving beats of a war chant. Instead, with "Signs" Bravestation displays an incredible acuity to tap into the greatest elements of '80s era alternative, while also capturing the lush dream pop known to listeners of Beach House and similar acts. Now, Bravestation trends away from the dream, toward that fantasy I mentioned above, and I don't mean "swords and spells" fantasy either. Instead, the music is driven, purposeful and catchy, while still maintaining an ethereal quality that sets it aside some of Peter Gabriel's best. It's a fantasy because it feels like a transportation to another place and time. But the place is rooted earthly lyrics. And direct hopes for love. It's really even better described as yacht-dream pop, the kind of music that rushes through your hair like a sea breeze. If you're already completely confused, as I am, by my string of comparisons and similes, you should just listen to the track. It's hard to describe because it is a bit of a quilt of colorful, semi-impressionistic vibes and styles, the upside here is that "Signs" is as good to listen to up close as it is to take in all at once. Give it a listen and fantasize.

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