The Ones that Got Away: Other Good Music in 2011

January 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

Here are a few other albums that I think deserve your attention from this past year. If you missed my top ten, head over to the Mockingbird Blog to check it out.

Return of 4eva-Big K.R.I.T
Big K.R.I.T. is a rapper’s rapper: he makes his own beats, writes his own songs and releases song-heavy mixtapes for free. The reason Return of 4eva didn’t find a spot on my top ten was due in part to the sprawling nature of the album. With 21 songs on the album, some of them just don’t measure up to the others. K.R.I.T. is at his best when his raps are personal and socially conscious, and those tracks are the ones that carry this mixtape along and make it stand out. One such song is Dreamin’ where K.R.I.T. tells his life story, his smooth flow sliding over a laidback beat, which acts as a counterpart to the personal and relatable final songs of the mixtape Free My Soul and Vent. However, the two best songs on the album find K.R.I.T. commenting on the perception of hip-hop and African Americans. American Rapstar’s chorus is a hard-hitting condemnation of the hip-hop lifestyle and what it engenders, while Another Naïve Individual Glorifying Greed and Encouraging Racism’s (it’s an anagram) quiet piano and shimmering horns mask a potent social commentary about race.

Metals-Feist
The newest album from Canada’s Leslie Feist is beautiful and heart-rending, and would have made my top ten save for a few songs I just really don’t enjoy. However, Metals is home to some of the most beautiful songs I heard this year: Cicadas and Gulls, Graveyard and Bittersweet Melodies. And bittersweet this album is, filled with Feist’s tender voice ruminating on a broken relationship, emotional and fragile. It is a certainly a cathartic piece of art and more than worth your time.

Lasers-Lupe Fiasco
If you know anything about Lasers, you probably know about Lupe’s problems getting this album released and the eventual compromises he had to make with his record label. When Lasers is good, it’s very good; however, when it’s bad, it’s some of the worst music Lupe has ever put his name on. For an artist who thrives on his nerdy persona, slick, over-produced songs like Out of My Head and Break the Chain just don’t work. Fortunately, songs like The Words I Never Said, The Show Goes On and All Black Everything find Lupe at his best and are welcome additions to his best songs.

The Whole Love-Wilco
Shortly after arriving in Texas, I went on a Wilco kick and finally listened to some of their older albums like Summerteeth and A Ghost is Born. This minor obsession culminated with my purchase of The Whole Love, which is a perfectly good album, but can’t compare with albums like Summerteeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It simply doesn’t have the same consistency as those albums, however it still boasts some fantastic songs like I Might, The Whole Love and the twelve minute album closer One Sunday Morning.

The next three albums definitely would have found a way onto my year-end list had I listened to them in 2011. Alas, I can only give them my stamp of approval now, and hope if you haven’t already checked them out, that you do so ASAP.

Bon Iver-Bon Iver
While I often have no idea what Justin Vernon is singing about, his music conveys emotion with such ease that it is hard to not be swept away. In that manner, Bon Iver reminds me of a Terrence Malick film: poetic, abstract and transcendent. Art like this is not immediately accessible, especially if you’ve never listened to Bon Iver before, but it’s worth the effort to appreciate.

Camp-Childish Gambino
I’ll come right out and say it: this is not an album for those easily offended. Donald Glover, known for his role on NBC’s Community, is also a very good rapper, and Camp showcases those skills much better than previous mixtapes he has released. Musically, the albums stands out, with luxurious soundscapes on the softer songs, and hard-hitting beats that let Glover’s explosive flow stand out. Lyrically, Camp reminds me of Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, as songs like Outside, L.E.S. and That Power are achingly personal, while others (Bonfire, Sunrise) are straight-up battle raps, pointed at Gambino’s haters. Despite some of these ill-advised jabs, Glover often takes aim at important social issues, which makes Camp an engaging, if paradoxical listen.

Helplessness Blues-Fleet Foxes
Helplessness Blues is a big album, asking big questions about life and love, and doing so with such grace that it never feels overblown. The folkish Americana played by the group transitions in between upbeat and slower tempos effortlessly over the course of the album, and often even mid-song, creating a musically well-rounded album. Considering that themes of purpose and growing older carried through the album, Helplessness Blues feels like a coherent work of art, not just a few scattered songs.

Top Ten Albums of 2011

January 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

Just wanted to let all of you know that my top ten albums list is posted over at Mockingbird Blog (link here).  Also, I’m pleased to announce I’ll be contributing to their fine blog from time to time so make sure to check over there frequently to read my contributions as well as the other excellent posts from their contributors at http://www.mbird.com. You can also follow them on twitter @mockingbirdnyc.

Also, be on the look out for a post later this week about some honorable mentions in terms of my favorite music of the year and hopefully in a couple weeks I’ll post my top ten films of the year.

Kanye West: Celebrity and Insecurity

November 26, 2011 § Leave a comment

Regardless of what you think about Kanye West, there is no denying his celebrity or his meteoric rise to fame in the past decade. It’s quite possible that, at this point in his career, Kanye is more infamous than anything else, due in large part to certain incidents involving George Bush and Taylor Swift. Some might think he is simply another celebrity with an enormous ego, making vacuous music to garner profit from the masses. However, if we actually consider his music, especially of the past four years, Kanye is quite a complex figure; he is a person with real feelings and real struggles, who, even with all his fame and fortune, seems to be searching for something more in this life.

Beginning with his first album, The College Dropout, Kanye’s music has always been deeply personal, highlighted by songs like “Through the Wire” and “Family Business.” His next two albums, Late Registration and Graduation, would follow in a similar manner, balancing the personal with typical rap braggadocio, always backed by fascinating beats. This pattern is so irrevocably severed, lyrically and musically, by 808s & Heartbreak that it comes as a shock. It is with this album, an intensely personal reaction to a painful break-up, that Kanye begins to reflect on his fame and celebrity, and his vulnerability and honesty are surprising.

The auto-tuned electronica that comprises the majority of 808s & Heartbreak allows us to see a different side of Kanye. The cocky exterior is gone, replaced by a broken human being, questioning his life. “Welcome to Heartbreak” illustrates this with a certain profundity, as Kanye takes a different perspective on his material possessions than normal: “My friend showed me a picture of his kids/ And all I could show him were pictures of my cribs/ He said his daughter got a brand new report card/ And all I got was a brand new sportscar.” This lament is tinged with regret, a common theme throughout an album concerned with lost love.

The song I find the most interesting on this album is “Pinocchio Story,” a live freestyle from Toyko, Japan. Kanye repeatedly mentions his desire to be a real boy, wondering if he has missed out on “real life.” Once again, he sings about the inability of his possessions to bring him contentment, “There is no clothes that I could buy/ That could turn back the time/ There is no vacation spot I could fly/ That could bring back a piece of real life/ Real life, what does it feel like?” For a hip-hop artist who constantly references his style and material wealth, this is an incredibly candid statement. However, with his next album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye, perhaps in an attempt to drown his sorrows and inner demons, dove headfirst into the deep end of celebrity.

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is opulent, reveling in its luxury and gigantic production budget. Filled with A-list guest spots, it nonetheless remains Kanye’s show, magnifying his ego and celebrity even as it delves into some of his deepest struggles. Contradictory and profane as it is, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy reveals the insecurity that still remains in its creator. Pop culture and designer style references abound, the possessions that Kanye hides behind. However, on songs like “Gorgeous” and “Power” he takes aim at those who have made fun of him in the media, offering a harsh defense of himself and his actions. In fact, it seems as if Kanye can’t take a joke, as he directs profanity laced rants at those who “tried to black ball” him, South Park writers and the cast of SNL.

Indeed, the end of “Power” hints at suicide, with its coda, “Now this’ll be a beautiful death/ I’m jumping out the window/ Letting everything go.” Clearly, all of the “power” that Kanye possesses cannot banish his problems. It’s very easy to lose these moments of honesty amidst the sheer force of ego that Kanye normally exudes, but they are there to be seen. “Monster” is a hard hitting track with multiple guest stars, where Kanye assumes the title of “motherf—ing monster” as a badge of honor, turning the insult back around on those who have talked about him behind his back.

Kanye’s sensitivity seems to be a recurring theme, as “Runaway” and its chorus evidence: “Let’s have a toast for the douchebags/ Let’s have a toast for the assholes/ Let’s have a toast for the scumbags/ Every one of them that I know.” Given the multiple times this is repeated and the many different names Kanye gives these people, there seems to be quite a few of them. In many ways, this album is a send-off to the haters, but the vitriolic language disguises something that hearkens back to 808s and that will come into focus on this year’s collaborative album with Jay-Z, Watch the Throne.

The last song of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, excluding the bizarre outro, offers a note of transition to Watch the Throne. In “Lost in the World,” Kanye raps, “Lost in this plastic life/ Let’s break out of this fake-ass party/ Turn this into a classic night/ If we die in each other’s arms, still get laid in that afterlife,” which is followed by a woman’s voice singing very clearly, “Run from the lights/ Run from the night/ Run for your life.” So, we come full circle, and Kanye is still looking for love, even though he knows that his life and all the parties can’t offer him the validation he seeks. He knows he has to run, break free, but he is trapped by other’s opinions of him.

Watch the Throne is much less of a personal opus for Kanye, and he seems to be having fun making music with Jay-Z, but issues of insecurity still surface. Now to be sure, Jay-Z has his share of songs where he is dissing others, but they don’t carry the same emotion as Kanye’s. Even on a peaceful, uplifting track like “Made in America” Kanye can’t resist mentioning his haters, “South Park had ‘em all laughing/ Now my n—— designing and we all swaggin’/ Ignore the critics just to say we did it/ This ain’t no fashion show, motherf——, we live it.” In an insightful review of the album, Calum Marsh point out that this is “the second time that Ye’s indignantly referred to that good-natured South Park ribbing from, what, two years ago?” Marsh goes on to mention how this shows how even a little joke can have unexpected outcomes in celebrities.

Marsh is right, of course, but Kanye’s reaction reveals more than just injured pride; we see ourselves mirrored in his reactions, as we all search for acceptance and love. None of us want to be judged, why should Kanye be an exception? The words he spits on “New Day” are poignant and resonate with me, even though I am a poor, white guy, who can’t even imagine the life that Kanye leads. Speaking to a future son, he raps, “See, I want him to have an easy life, not like Yeezy life/ Just want him to be someone people like/ Don’t want him to be hated, all the time judged.” These few lines speak volumes.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

September 16, 2011 § 1 Comment

I just finished my latest re-reading of Annie Dillard’s incredible Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, the third of which I have done over the past two years. Now I’m quite sure that Mrs. Dillard or her 1979 Pulitzer Prize winning book don’t really need any more compliments, (leastwise not from a fledgling graduate student) but that’s not going to stop me from praising this masterpiece of writing for its exuberance and beauty. Perhaps it may even spark someone’s curiosity who is unfamiliar with Dillard to take a chance and dive into one of the most life affirming texts I have ever read.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek  is a memoir of sorts, concerned with a year that Dillard spent living in the woods of Virginia as she observed nature around her and wrote. She is our tour guide, teaching us things about nature that most people would never suspect, from the egg laying habits of dragonflies to the best way to stalk a muskrat. Most of all, this is a book about being truly alive and letting life seep into every part of your being as you walk in this strange, beautiful world.

This book is wrapped up in the present, both as a moment in time and also as an idea. Dillard speaks of the present as a character, hurtling through space and time, trying to get us to notice its machinations before it disappears into the past. In chapter five, appropriately titled The Present, Dillard invokes the present with such verve that it is impossible to think of it in the same way again: “The present is the wave that explodes over my head, flinging the air with particles at the height of its breathless unroll; it is the live water and light that bears from its undisclosed sources the freshest news, renewed and renewing, world without end.” Elsewhere, she describes the present as a form of grace, constantly giving us a second chance, as newness is birthed every instant.

When we can learn, or attempt as in my case, to see the present as Dillard sees it, it opens up the store of the world’s beauty to us. Along with that beauty, however, comes the realization of the horrors of nature: death, violence and pain. Dillard does not shy away from these things, examining this decrepit world with the intensity of an investigative journalist searching for answers. In Intricacy shes firmly lands on the side of beauty, while in Fecundity she is shocked at the excess of death present on earth. Her answer to this dilemma comes in the final chapter, The Waters of Separation, in a declaration of life and mystery: “It is so self-conscious, so apparently moral, simply to step aside from the gaps where the creeks and winds pour down, saying, I never merited this grace, quite rightly, and then to sulk along the rest of your days on the edge of rage. I won’t have it. The world is wilder than that in all directions, more dangerous and bitter, more extravagant and bright. We are making hay when we should be making whoopee; we are raising tomatoes when we should be raising Cain, or Lazarus.”

This world is both terrifying and glorious, the mystery lies in how these two things can be combined in such a paradoxical way, existing alongside each other without overwhelming the other. Which has the final word? Death or beauty? Perhaps, as Dillard suggests, the answer is not as important as we think, for here we are surrounded by both, yet never truly noticing either. Before we cede control to death and march on our way, let’s search for beauty:  it’s very existence may change our minds about everything. Every beautiful or grotesque example that Dillard gives points us to a world that, although broken and run-down, is  filled with glory bursting from its seams. This is the planet we inhabit—an extravagant mess—and it is begging for us to realize this.

Captain America vs. Batman: The Superhero Myth

August 2, 2011 § 8 Comments

I recently saw the newest superhero movie to come out this summer, and hopefully the last, Captain America:  The First Avenger. As the film played itself out, I found myself in the place I normally do when watching any of the new wave of comic book films from any director not named Christopher Nolan: bored and disappointed. After beginning strong, Captain America torpedoes itself as soon as it resorts to the standard battle montage scene accompanied by a random shift in visual style. It’s unfortunate, because the film had an opportunity to say something profound about propaganda and media during wartime, especially considering Captain America himself is being used as propaganda. Instead, the movie contents itself with resorting to the same superhero myth that propelled the original comic books heroes, investing our wonderful Captain with all the perfect crime fighting capabilities and a charming, no faults personality to match. In an age where that myth of America no longer rings true, Captain America seems to be almost a parody.

Last year in school, I had to read an article which discussed the famous Iwo Jima war photograph and how it was used to create a largely false atmosphere which facilitated the sale of war bonds. The image was imbued with an absolute, timeless message and resonance that fell apart in the 60s and 70s leading to many parodies of that classic image. The “timeless” morals and significance of this image no longer held true in a society which had rejected the beliefs of its parents, therefore the image necessarily had to fall into satire. The same thing has happened to the comic book hero in this postmodern age. These perfect men and women who always do the right thing and never falter can no longer exist because their mystique has been shattered by the unmasking of reality. People cannot escape from this anymore, at least not to the extent they could in the past.

This is why Nolan’s superhero films are so perfectly suited for this time. Divesting the myth of the superhero, Nolan makes Batman into a real person in a real world. We see Batman’s flaws, and this allows Nolan to actually make statements about authentic issues.  Of course, in this day and age, everything is subject to parody and Christian Bale’s Batman voice has seen its share of satire, but Nolan’s films, as proved by the critics and box office have made an impact far beyond mere escapism.  Compare any superhero film made in the past 10 years to Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, and you will see the massive difference in depth between Nolan’s dark, realistic vision and the others.

With this summer’s movies on their way out, it looks as if next summer will contain its fair share of superhero films, most notably The Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers. I’m still waiting to see if any other directors try to make their films noticeably darker to try and mimic Nolan and it appears as if the new Spiderman reboot may be trying just that. With that being said, unless those directors are willing to strip the superhero myth of its bygone conventions and restart from the ground-up, I have less than high hopes for their efforts.

 

The Tree of Life: Suffering, Memory and God

July 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation…while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”  Job 38:4,7

These are the verses that open Terrence Malick’s newest film, The Tree of Life, and I thought it fitting to open my reflection on the film with these same verses. These verses are but a small fragment of God’s response to Job when Job inquires as to why he, a righteous man, is suffering. This is the same question that Malick, through his characters, is posing as The Tree of Life hurtles along its unconventional, disjointed narrative. These spiritual questions coupled with the fractured narrative allow Malick to reach a place where he seems to make some conclusions about the nature of God and the world we inhabit and illuminate these conclusions as only a director with the touch of Malick could do.

The main focus of the film is Jack, whose older iteration (Sean Penn) is experiencing somewhat of a crisis in his life as he works in the big city, surrounded by glass and mortar, a sharp contrast from his childhood days in suburban Waco, Texas. This crisis seems to have been set off by the memory of his younger brother who died earlier in life, the circumstances of which Malick never makes clear. The film flits back and forth in Jack’s memory, occasionally dipping into dream states, as he relives the days of his youth in Texas. We see the younger Jack being born and growing up, eventually reaching a kind of stasis around age 12 or 13, where he is played splendidly by Hunter McCracken. The majority of the film takes place at this time, as Jack struggles to become a man, misunderstood and confused by his father (Brad Pitt) and shown grace and faith from his mother (Jessica Chastain).

What sets the film off is the memory of Jack’s brother and his death, a monumental event in the family’s history, one that leaves Jack’s mother devastated. In this state she asks many questions of God, which lead into the film’s most challenging section as Malick shows us the foundations of the world being laid  which directly hearkens back to the film’s opening verses. It is in the background of this magnificent visual and aural display that we must ask ourselves where the suffering of this one family comes into play in the universe. Why does or should God care, if, in fact, there is a God? And if He does care, who are we to ask Him questions when He set in motion the entire universe in all its glory and splendor? But we do ask questions, and we continue to struggle with death and suffering, and Malick struggles along with us.

There is a key scene midway through the film as the family attends church and the priest is giving a sermon about the book of Job, telling the people that suffering will come to them in this life because God doesn’t necessarily protect us from hardship. I saw the film twice and I’m still not sure if his words ring hollow at the sorrow we’ve witnessed or if they make perfect sense compared with the glory we saw at the beginning of the universe. I think Malick wants to make us aware of the suffering so we can see the glory after we have passed through the storm. His films all contain some element of this, whether it is the graphic battles of The Thin Red Line juxtaposed with peaceful sunsets and forest creatures or the raging fire of Days of Heaven combined with the majestic fields of grain. If there was no glory, then suffering wouldn’t matter and without the certainty of things being ravaged and claimed by death the glory might not shine as brightly as it does. Or perhaps it is the hope that one day the glory we see will be allowed to go unchecked by death and suffering that drives Malick’s reluctant, mournful acceptance of suffering in this present time.

One balm for this sorrow, at least in the film, is the presence of memory to bring us back to the happy and sorrowful times of our past. The majority of the film is seen through Jack’s memory, detailing important events in his childhood, skipping from moment to moment with no seeming order or narrative. For some this may be a distraction, but this is exactly what memory is; it is fragments strewn across our minds, something we have very little actual control over, as we remember the good and the bad with equal alacrity. In the specific memories that Malick exploits in the film, many of them probably his own, there is a certain sense of universality, at least in the emotions drawn out by the events. Many times I was surprised as I was caught by a wave of emotion brought on by a specific scene that had no direct correlation to any time in my past but I recognized the emotion that it brought forth.

Memory and the emotions associated with it seem to help older Jack arrive at some peace as the film comes to a close. With a typical Malick deftness, Jack has begun to reconcile the way of the world and the harsh competition of his father and nature with the way of grace and love shown by his mother and also through the glory of nature. The closing shots of the film can only reinforce this thought, but I would not want to spoil them for anyone. Malick certainly knows how to close his films.

So where does suffering and memory leave us in terms of God? Who is God? What is He like? It seems that Malick is content to leave us with more questions than answers when it comes to determining the nature of God. There are moments that leave us astounded at their beauty, and Jack’s mother is clearly a model of living in grace and love that is favored by Malick, as he has shown us in other films. Suffering is something that does not undermine God, but just seems to be part and parcel of the world and nature. In Malick’s world there is both glory and death, pleasure and pain, beauty and ugliness; it’s up to us to love and show grace as we search for the glory.

Cloud Atlas: An Excursion into Mediated Reality

June 29, 2011 § Leave a comment

Many of us take for granted that the things around us exist in space and time and we go about our daily routines never questioning if the world around us is, in fact, real.  We do the same thing when we encounter a history textbook, read our favorite newspaper or watch the news channel of our liking. We assume that what we find in these texts or speeches are, in some sense, objective reality or truth. Do we have any reason other than a mentality incited by the Enlightenment, to believe that the world and the things in it are real and not constantly being mediated and interpreted through our thoughts and stories? I’ll leave the question of reality, debated for centuries, to the hands of more capable philosophers than I, and instead focus on David Mitchell’s book Cloud Atlas which, if books could speak, would answer the proceeding question with a resounding no.

Cloud Atlas is one of the most intriguing books I have read lately, gaining most of its momentum from the interconnected form it employs. It is a novel that contains six smaller stories within it, all of which, except for the sixth, are split in half in such a manner that the stories begin in ascending order and are wrapped up in descending order. This form and Mitchell’s exuberant, genre-shifting prose enables the novel to pose questions about the very nature of reality and the way we interact with and ascribe reality to texts. When I put down the book, I came to the realization that every story in the novel was mediated through another story or was framed as being told in some form that wasn’t directed tied to reality. In fact, I’m not certain if any of the stories in the novel are real in the fictional universe described in the book.

Let me unpack that and also touch on some of the implications Mitchell seems to be making. The first portion of the novel is from the journal of a Pacific explorer, written by Mitchell in the verbose, pious tone of a learned man of the day. Clearly, we are not reading direct reality, but this man’s interpretation of his experiences. The first part of this story ends abruptly, cutting off in mid-sentence, a device we don’t understand until in the next portion of the novel, a series of letters from one friend to another, we read a description of the author of the letters finding and reading The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing, unfortunately ripped in half. The very portion of the novel we just read has been read by the character in the current portion. This trend continues for the rest of the novel, and it would take me far too long to describe all these instances of intertextuality, but these instances raise serious questions about the authenticity of any story within this fictive realm.

Third-person omniscient narration is only employed once in the novel in a portion which is revealed in the next story as being the manuscript for a novel. There is no objective viewpoint in this entire novel, instead what exists is mediated through personal stories, often told in the novel through the text and others reading or telling stories. In typical postmodern fashion, Mitchell has made us doubt the very existence of impersonal, objective truth, or at least he has made us doubt our ability to uncover this truth. His characters forge their way through the confusing quagmire of their reality by learning from and telling stories. Perhaps this is the way we make sense of the world now, instead of searching for theoretical underpinnings that pack up our entire lives in nice little, understandable packages.

Among Mitchell’s critique of objective reality and the other postmodern trappings of his novel, I think that this focus on story is something that deserves a closer look. Humans making sense of the world through story is nothing new, just look at communication scholar Walter Fisher who introduced his narrative paradigm in the late 80s, a theory asserting that humans are basically homo narrans, or storytellers. Fisher showed that the way mankind communicates is not through cold, stark factual information, but through lively personal narratives. Mitchell takes this idea and suggests that truth is difficult to find in this world and the things we think of as objective reality are often simply the personal narratives of the person who is doing the research or the writing of the information. We can’t actually touch or experience things that we consider set in stone such as the history of the Civil War or even the story our friend tells us about yesterday. We have to accept that what we know about the past or external reality beyond us is generally mediated through stories, whether they are our stories or those of someone else.

This doesn’t mean truth doesn’t exist, after all plenty of stories are entirely true, and much of history is accurate in as much as it can be. However, Mitchell provides us with a useful caution: if life is composed of stories and interpretations, don’t believe everything you hear. Something that you think is true and real may simply be the appropriate story created to serve the needs of whoever birthed it. Your objective reality about the world, America, the existence (or lack) of God could be shattered in an instant if a previously unknown narrative suddenly reaches your ears or eyes. Think about it. Then again, this is just one more story about a book with six stories, so take it for what it’s worth.

For those who stuck with this rambling, if you are interested in a philosophical position that tries to marry the subjectivity of our personal narratives with an objective sense of truth check out Critical Realism. 

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