Wednesday, December 1, 2010

If You Don't Leave Me Now, Do You Love Me Back?

My super duper music crush of the year is Sharon Van Etten. I have to agree completely with the folks over at NPR music (where she did an amazing Tiny Desk Concert)--for any singer-song writer to stand out in this age of a gajillion singer-song writers, she has to be pretty special. If you're going to sit on a stage on your lonesome, strumming your guitar and singing thoughtfully, you better be damn good or I'll wonder why you aren't sitting in a subway station sifting through commuters' quarters.

EpicVan Etten is that good. To be fair, her new album, Epic, has a bit more production that just the voice and the guitar, but that's just gravy on what is easily the most listenable-yet-sad-hearted album I have heard in years. The 17-year-old in me would have put this album on repeat and dreamed about moving to Brooklyn just to be in close proximity to this woman. As it is, the 34-year-old who is me is still playing this album more than anything else I've purchased in the last several months.

But don't take my word for it. Follow the link to the concert above or play the video below, which has her playing "One Day", the song that got me hooked on her in the first place. If you don't like her, you can still be my friend, but not as good a friend.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Wondermark Hits Too Close to Home

I have not posted much this year. Clearly. There are a few reasons. One, I've just been too busy with work and family. I don't really consider spending time with my family "busy" exactly, but it's super duper important and I want to do that more than I want to do anything else when I'm not working. Another reason is that I found I was listening to music/reading books/watching movies with the express purpose of writing about it on this blog. It was seriously distracting me from actually enjoying stuff. Instead of thinking, "Hey, I love this album! I want to listen to it over and over and totally lose myself in it for a month!", I was thinking, "Hey, I love this album! I'm going to write about it on the internet and then basically be done with it."

And then, I read the following comic strip and it hit way, way too close to home. It's really too small to read here, so just click it to go to the Wondermark website. It'll be worth the ever so slight finger motion required for clickage:

This scenario has basically happened to me. I'm well aware that I've become a bit of a douche bag when it comes to convincing the hoi polloi that I have, like, the best taste ever. I'm sure I've used the term "indie cred" multiple times on this site alone. And no, I don't have a TV, though I do watch DVDs of TV shows sometimes. And I've been told no less than three times that a song I've played for someone is on a car or iPod commercial (no Burger King yet).

I'm not giving up this blog altogether. In fact, I plan on posting more consistently...I'm gonna shoot for once a month. But instead of reading/listening/watching with the blog in mind, I'll sit down at the end of the month and write something about the pop culture nugget that blows my mind the most. Other Love-Camel contributors can do whatever they want...which for the past year or so has been nothing. It's all good. Oh, and I'll still do my favorite music of the year list at some point, because my musical taste is so, so awesome.

And finally, read Wondermark. It's wicked funny. I even bought the books.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Best Music of the First Half of 2010: Pt. III

Albums That Surpassed My Expecations

Admittedly, many of the albums below fell into this category because I had pretty low expectations for them. Nevertheless, these are all pretty high quality and I would recommend any of them.

Clem Snide - The Meat of Life: Clem Snide's last album, Hungry Bird, was a huge let-down for me. But Eef Barzelay followed up with an album I can totally get behind. It may not be as high quality as some of the earlier Clem Snide albums, but the wry humor is still there in tracks like "Walmart Parking Lot"; and the heartbreak is there in tracks like "Denver". Barzelay also tends to name drop other musicians in his songs, and there's a nice nod to Sufjan Stevens (or at least his fans) in "I Got High."

Tunng - ...And Then We Saw Land: Tunng is, in my opinion, and incredibly underrated band. At least in this country...I don't know if they're any more popular in their native UK. I got this album hoping it would be as good as their last effort, Broken Arrows. It's a very different album, but I like it as much, if not more. The opening single, "Hustle", is the song that got me hooked:

Tunng - Hustle from Thrill Jockey Records on Vimeo.

The Bouncing Souls - Ghosts on the Boardwalk: A number of things surprise me about The Bouncing Souls. First and foremost, the fact that they're still around and making new albums. These guys have been kicking around for a good 12 years or so. Their albums may have matured somewhat, but unlike some of their peers (lookin' at Green Day here), they don't aspire to anything too fancy. They just want to make fun music. They also often have a song on each album that borders on novelty, and "Badass" easily fits that bill. It's basically the band reeling off one "badass" thing after another for a few minutes, and it is awesome.

The Black Keys - Brothers : Simply put, the best Black Keys album in ages. I've felt like they were on a bit of a downward spiral the last few years, but this is an amazingly accessible album, but it somehow it still sounds like The Black Keys. I'd be very surprise if this one didn't end up in my top 10 of the year.

The Black Keys "Tighten Up"

The Black Keys | MySpace Music Videos

Black Francis-Nonstoperotik: I don't really care what Charles Thompson wants to call himself these days, but starting with last year's Grand Duchy (a collaboration with his wife), he seems to be in an upward spiral. After several years of stuff that was barely passable, one of my favorite musicians is finally making good albums again.

Ted Leo & The Pharmacists - Brutalist Bricks: I have no idea how these guys started an album with an opener as explosive and energetic as "The Mighty Sparrow" and follow it up with a bunch of songs that are equally as good. Brutalist Bricks is, hands down, my new favorite Ted Leo album.

Vampire Weekend - Contra: I was pretty much convinced that lightning would not strike twice for this band. Their self-titled debut was unfollowuppable, or so I thought. But I'm still playing this album, which came out the second week of the year, on a fairly regular basis, and still finding new things to like about it. Never has a sophomore slump been so utterly and completely avoided.

Cornershop - Judy Sucks A Lemon for Breakfast: It has been 8 years since Cornershop's Handcream for a Generation came out, and I was utterly convinced I would never see another album from Tjinder Singh's band again. And even when I found that they were releasing a new album, I was skeptical. Eight years is a long time...if and when bands come back from a break that long, they...well, they often kind of suck. Cornershop came back with not only a strong album, but one of my favorite albums of the year. Some songs are political, some are nonsensical. There are multiple styles of music, from straight up anthemic rock, to a little calypso, to gospel, to bizarre mixes of many other genres. There are quite a few albums I like this year so far...some that I like a lot. This may be the only one so far that I really love.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Best Music of the First Half of 2010: Pt. II

OK, the next category does not count as "Best Music", because these are some...

Albums That Failed to Meet My Expectations

Laura Marling - I Speak Because I Can: I enjoyed Marling's 2008 debut, Alas I Cannot Swim, immensely. Her follow-up is OK, but not great by any means.

Hot Chip - One Life Stand: An underwhelming effort from a usually fun band.

The Magnetic Fields - Realism: Normally I worship a
t the alter of Stephen Merritt, but this latest effort didn't do much for me. "We Are Having a Hootenanny" is sort of a fun novelty song, but for the most part I expect better from this usually peerless group of musicians.

Spoon - Transference: I heard the the phrase "best Spoon album ever" tossed around by a number of critics, but I was less than impressed. I'll
probably listen to Girls Can Tell or Kill the Moonlight 10 times each before I listen to this again.

Didn't Know Enough to Have Expectations

These are albums I've really been enjoying by either new bands or bands I'd never really listened to before. Broken Bells would have been on this list if I hadn't given them their own post yesterday...

Frightened Rabbit - The Winter of Mixed Drinks: This band's been around for a few years, but this was my introduction to them. As I explained when I wrote about We Were Promised Jet Packs last year, I guess I just like Scottish guys singing rock anthems.

Black Prairie - Feast of the Hunter's Moon: Comprised of 3/5 of The Decemberists (Chris Funk, Jenny Conlee, and, um, the bassist), and a few other Portland musicians, I expected some high quality musicianship, but I didn't really know what form it would take. If you have ever watched the defunct HBO series Deadwood and enjoyed the background music, that's pretty much Black Prairie's music to a note. It defies genre to some extent, but it's kinda old-timey and very much American.

Freelance Whales - Weathervanes: This band has been getting plenty of support from the blogosphere, and as far as I'm concerned, they're just about worthy of the hype. I've been listening to this album a lot.

Let's Wrestle - In the Court of the Wrestling Let's: I can't even remember why I bought this album, other than that it was released by Merge, who I generally trust to release great albums. I can't even really explain why I've been listening to it so much. There are plenty of dirty garage rock bands out there that are borderline ridiculous. I think that maybe since Let's Wrestle saunters across that border and revels in their own ridiculousness, I have embraced them. I'm also a sucker for choruses that fall back on "ba ba ba ba ba....":

Drive-By Truckers - Big To-Do: These guys have been around for nigh on a decade, but this is the first album of theirs I've ever heard. I can't remember exactly why I picked it up, but I'm glad I did.

Fang Island - Fang Island: This bizarre band will not be everyone's cup of tea, but I personally think this is a helluva fun album. If you're at all familiar with Ponytail, this is sort of a toned down version of them. There's less screaming, but you're still not listening to Fang Island for insightful lyrics (if a song has lyrics at all). There's just a joyfulness to the music that one doesn't hear much these days. Sadly, it's kind of rare to listen to a group and think "Hey, they sound like they're having a really good time." This band, on the other hand, is having a blast.

Charlotte Gainsbourg - IRM: I initially picked this up because I knew Beck was involved, and I've honestly enjoyed it more than any of Beck's own recent albums. The trippy video below is for my favorite song off IRM, "Heaven Can Wait", but there are plenty of other excellent tracks that make this whole album worth a listen.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Broken Bells and Their Trippy "Video"

I was going to talk briefly about Broken Bells briefly in Part II of my first half of 2010 music review anyway, but then I stumbled upon this. It's an interactive video for their song "October", and it's pretty damn clever. Clever enough to warrant it's own post, I reckon. Make sure you move your mouse around the screen lots and lots.

The band is comprised of James Mercer (of The Shins) and Danger Mouse. Both great artists, but not necessarily two people I pictured together as a band. They sort of pull it off though. The self-titled album sneaks up on you. I wasn't impressed on the first listen (which was several months ago now), but after a few more spins it really started to grow on me. It's good wind-down music...not so good pump-up music. But winding down is good, too, ya know?

Friday, August 13, 2010

(A Very Late) Best Music of the First Half of 2010: Part I

After post #300, I took a hiatus from this got busy. It still is, but I'm feeling like writing about stuff again. I've been listening to a lot of music this year, and my ego compels me to share my opinions with the internets.

The albums mentioned below and in the forthcoming posts all came out before July (I think). There are plenty of good albums that have come out since then, but I'm sticking to the first half of the year for now. Instead of a standard top 10, I've split everything up into 4 categories and things are in no particular order. Category 1 sounds boring, but it includes some great albums:

Albums that Met My Expectations

The National - High Violet:
Didn't think it would be as good as Boxer, and it's not. But it's still a great album by nearly any other standard.

Gorillaz - Plastic Beach: Expected good, got good.

The Hold Steady - Heaven is Whenever:
The Hold Steady know how to put out an album around the beginning of the summer that begs to be played loud in the car with the windows rolled down. That's what I wanted and that's what I got.

She & Him - Volume Two: I won't claim to like this album as much as Volume One,
but that was a hard debut to follow. It was as much as I could have hoped for from a pretty actress with a pretty voice and an indie star who has been, arguably, a little too prolific as of late. I guess that makes it sound like I didn't like this album, but I do. I expected fun, light pop and that's what Zooey and Matt brought.

LCD Soundsystem - This Is Happening: Everything I could have hoped for from a group that's just getting better. Video for my favorite song off the album, "Drunk Girls":

The New Pornographers - Together:
This band has set such a high standard for themselves over the years, it's hard not to worry about a dud coming along. But I didn't, and it hasn't. A.C., Neko, Dan, and the rest of the gang can make albums forever as far as I'm concerned.

Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings - I Learned The Hard Way: Exactly what I wanted from a band that offers a nice change of pace from pretty much everything else I listen to.

Robyn Hitchcock - Propellor Time
Laura Viers - July Flame
Dr. Dog - Shame, Shame
These are all artists that I like, but seldom love. They tend to put out albums with several OK songs and a few greats songs, and their latest efforts did just that, no more and no less.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Comfort Music of the Last Decade

I have a crapload of CDs. My brother-in-law asked me how many I had the other day, and I honestly didn't know. I stopped trying to keep track after 500 or so, and I'm probably closing in on a 1,000 by now.

That means there are a lot of albums I don't listen to all that much. I'm still exploring new music, and there's simply not enough free time in my life to listen to everything. That's why it's kind of remarkable when a handful of albums do pop into my CD player on a relatively frequent basis (and yes, I actually still buy and play CDs...I'm old school like that).

I equate these albums to the musical equivalent of comfort food. My definition of a comfort food is something I can eat that makes me feel good. I can eat it on a regular basis, and I generally won't ever get sick of it. The quality of the food could be great or it could be not-sot-great. Quality isn't necessarily the issue here. The food--or the album--might bring back a certain happy memory or time period in my life. It might be all style and no substance. If it's an album, maybe it just makes shake my ass on a consistent basis. Maybe I know it so well that I don't have to think about it anymore. I can just consume it without worrying about whether it's good for me or makes me look like a dork.

Here are a dozen albums from the last decade that fit this description (the description of each gets shorter as we move through the years since I've written about the latter ones on this blog before). I'm not telling everyone that these are the best albums ever. Many people might hate them. But for whatever reason they have created a little niche for themselves in my music-loving mind. Some of them really are amazing albums that I think everyone should hear. Some I probably latched onto for completely personal reasons. I won't differentiate. I'll just tell you that I love these albums and they make me happy. (I apologize in advance for the font changes and crappy video embed. My grasp of Html is not good enough to figure out what happened.)

Clem Snide -
Your Favorite Music (2001)
I consider Eef Barzelay one of the more underrated contemporary song writers in the US. His lyrics are often described as "overly clever", which I think is a ridiculous critique. I always feel that if a critic or reviewer uses expressions like that, they're seriously grasping for something negative to say, or they're jealous. Barzelay is the core of Clem Snide, and essentially the only permanent member as far as I can tell.

The aptly named Your Favorite Music was not Clem Snide's first album, but it was first I heard and it was the one that got me hooked. The opening track, "Dairy Queen," is a surreal, stream-of-consciousness trip of a song. Later we come to "Bread", a love song that makes every other love song you've heard lately sound...moldy. "I Love the Unknown" is one of my favorite songs of all time. It's a gem of a pop song. It's a philosophy. The album continues to amaze right up to its closer, a cover of "Donna" by Ritchie Valens. Barzelay does not have a classically great voice, but this cover is pretty sweet. When I first started listening to this album, a girl named Donna was doing some work in our lab. She was cute and all, but I think the primary reason I developed a crush on her is because I'd been listening to this song.

I would not say I love every track, but I love most of them, and like the rest. Out of all my CDs, this is the only I have actually worn out from over-playing. It was replaced quickly.

Stephen Malkmus - Stephen Malkmus (2001)
Stephen Malkmus had a huge chip on his shoulder when this album came out, and that chip was called Pavement. Pavement was huge in the 90s, and if you knew music, you were familiar with them if not downright devoted to them. When they split up, it brought closure to a tumultuous decade of music.

Pavement was a lot of things, but it wasn't pop. So when Malkmus came out with this self-titled debut and we got this, it was a bit jarring to a lot of people. But not to me. I loved it. There are songs about pirates ("The Hook") and Yule Brenner ("Jo Jo's Jacket"), as well as "Jenny & the Ess-Dog" a song that describes the beginning, middle, and end of a relationship between a young girl and her much older, hippie boyfriend. I've listened to it dozens of times and seem to hear something new every time. "Off with those awful toe rings" indeed.

Malkmus would go on to release several more good-but-not-great albums with his new band, the Jicks, and eventually he started sounding more Pavementy (and Pavement has actually reunited this year), but there will always be a place in my CD player for this first breakaway effort.

Dressy Bessy - Dressy Bessy (2003)
To put this band into context, I first heard them on a soundtrack for The Powerpuff Girls. But I didn't really fall in love with them until I saw them live. When I saw Tammy Ealom strutting her stuff in her go-go boots and singing her heart out--visually, a stark contrast to her scraggly-but-talented band of dudes--I became a fan for life. They were touring with this album, which though self-titled, was actually their third or fourth LP.

I wore out Clem Snide, but I've probably actually listened to this CD more than anything else in the past 7 years (I guess this CD was just physically stronger??). I put it in when I need something ridiculously upbeat. When I have a ton of dishes to do and I wanna shake my ass while I do them. It's pure bubblegum pop. I've listened to it so many times at this point and know the songs so well that it's the musical equivalent of sitting down and mindlessly eating a whole bag of M&Ms. It's sugary and probably not good for me, but it makes me feel good.

Will everybody like it? Probably not. Maybe I just heard it at the right place and the right time and it stuck. But did it stick hard. Here's a peek of what you'd be getting yourself into if you check it out:

Cat Power -
You Are Free (2003)
You Are Free is arguably the last Cat Power album Chan Marshall made before she un-crazied herself. And holy crap was she crazy when she toured with this album. I managed to make it through about 45 minutes of her "performing" these songs. She never finished a single song and she harassed the poor sound guy at the Cat's Cradle relentlessly. It was the first and only show I've ever walked out on due to the artist's assholeishness.

Lucky for her, I'd already fallen in love with her album before I went to see her live. "Good Woman", my favorite track from the album and, in my opinion, one of the best break-up songs of all time, felt like it was written just for me and my newly-ex-girlfriend. She was (and is) a good woman, and I am a good man, but we weren't so good for each other. It's a simple message, but between Marshall's smokey delivery and Eddie Vedder's guest vocals, it sounds rich and complex and true.

But an album can't be great based on one song, and there's plenty more quality stuff. I would say that 70% of my favorite Cat Power songs are on this album, including "I Don't Blame You", "Free", "He War", and so on. OK, "Names" is possibly one of the most depressing songs ever, but it's still not necessarily a bad song. Sometimes I can just listen to Chan Marshall's voice and it doesn't matter what she's singing. Now that she's sobered up, her live shows are considerably better as well. But if I could only choose one Cat Power album to keep, I would choose this one in a heartbeat.

The Shins - Chutes Too Narrow (2003)
Not too much to say about this one that hasn't already been said. Natalie Portman blah blah blah it'll change your life blah blah blah. Chutes Too Narrow is quite possibly the best sophomore album ever. Their first album was good, but this one was great. Maybe too great for The Shins. Wincing the Night Away was a huge let-down after the pop perfection of this album. Of all the albums on this list, this one was the most popular among the masses. And that's fine. I'm actually relieved that at least one of my favorite albums was enjoyed by a large number of people.

Jim White -
Drill a Hole in the Substrate and Tell Me What You See (2004)
In trying to think of someone with whom to compare Jim White, the closest person I could come to was Harry Chapin. That won't mean much to anyone who isn't either over 40 or didn't have at least one parent into folk music (thanks, Mom!). Like Chapin, most of White's songs are too long to make it to the radio. They range from the playful and fun ("Combing My Hair in a Brand New Style") to the beautifully melancholy ("Bluebird"). Most of the songs on this album fall into the latter category, so I have to be in the right mood when I listen to it. But when I am in the right mood, nothing fits the bill better.

Andrew Bird -
The Mysterious Production of Eggs (2005)
I have written about Andrew Bird extensively on this blog at this point, so if anyone who reads it regularly hasn't checked out his music by now, then it's probably too late to convince you. But I'll try anyway...listen to this album. Please. I'm not going to claim that Bird is the greatest song writer. He's admitted that the meaning behind his lyrics often comes secondary to the way the words sound. The result is beautiful strings of words that are open to interpretation, wrapped in music I can listen to over and over again. This album was my first exposure to his music, and though his earlier and later work is excellent, TMPoE is still my favorite. For some of my earlier raves of both the Jim White album and this one, check out this post.

Jenny Lewis & the Watson Twins -
Rabbit Fur Coat (2006)
The inclusion of this album almost came as a surprise to myself, but when I popped the CD in last week I realized I've actually been listening to this album a lot over the past few years. Maybe it's Lewis's sweet voice backed up by the perfectly harmonizing Watson Twins. Maybe it's the songs that are a little bit country and a little bit rock. Maybe it's the smart songs that are catchy and though provoking, which is not an easy thing to pull off. Maybe it's that perfect cover of "Handle With Care" with M. Ward. I'm sure it's a little bit of all these things.

I can't think of any other album quite like this one. If I'd been writing this blog in 2006, I'm sure it would have tied for my favorite album of the year with...

Forro in the Dark -
Bonfires of São João (2006)
Forro in the Dark's most recent album was possibly my favorite album of 2009 (though I have to say there's probably a little wiggle room in the top five), and I liked this album a lot more. I've written about it before, and I will continue to give props to this band as they continue to promote forro in the US. I told myself I wasn't going to embed any video in this already too-long post, but whatever. Here's Asa Branca, featuring David Byrne:

Bishop Allen - The Broken String (2007)
I actually lost this CD for several months, and when I finally found it again, I had to play it instantly. Yes, I realize I had multiple copies of the album on my iPod and various computers. I never said I was a rational person when it came to music.

The street after which this band is named is just a few blocks from where I work. That's not actually pertinent to anything; it's just a random bit of trivia. What's more important is that this is a very fun album. It's an album I can listen to on my own, or with my kids, or even possibly with co-workers. I don't like using phrases like "If you don't like this album, then you have no soul." But if you listened to this album and weren't charmed by at least a few of the tunes, I would seriously have to question whether or not I wanted to hang out with you.

And as long as I've already broken my no video rule, here's "Click, Click, Click, Click":

The National - Boxer (2007)
My favorite album of 2007. The National comes out with a new album in a month or so, and it'll be interesting to see how it measures up. Boxer is not a happy-go-lucky album. It's not really danceable. I wouldn't call the songs particularly catchy (though they're all good). I guess I can't describe why I like this album so much any more now than I could a few years ago when I called it my favorite. It's just something I have to listen to sometimes.

Thao & The Get Down Stay Down - We Brave Bee Stings and All (2008)
My top album of 2008, I wrote about this one extensively here and here. Still fun, still listening to it. Thao's follow-up last year...not as fun. WBBSaA is a bit more whimsical and innocent, and I like it better for that.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Getting to Know OK Go

I've been aware of OK Go for a while, but I never bothered pick up one of their albums until their latest one, Of The Blue Colour Of The Sky, which came out in January. I would not say it's a great album, but it is a fun album (you can check it out here). "White Knuckles" is probably my favorite track, but there are plenty of good tunes. I've been playing it more than I thought I would, honestly. I guess it's just carved itself a little niche in my brain for the time being.

Alright, though I do actually like this album, this post is really just an excuse to share their newest video, for "This Too Shall Pass". The song is good. The video is amazing. I challenge you not to watch it a multiple times.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Concert Review: Jonathan Richman

This past Wednesday, my sister and I went to see Jonathan Richman at the Middle East Upstairs, his second of three consecutive shows there. I'd never been to a show Upstairs, and it was a perfect little venue for JR with a capacity of only 120 or so. Richman tends to stray away from the microphone frequently, but we had no trouble hearing his singing and strumming, even un-miked.

How to describe Jonathan Richman? For anybody reading this who has no idea who Richman is, you probably actually do. He's the guy playing guitar with his drummer (Tommy Larkin, who continues to play with him at every show) through the Farrelly Brothers movie, There's Something About Mary. Richman is now nearly 60, and he has been a quiet presence--both literally and figuratively--in the American music scene for most of his adult life. But I'm not here to write a biography; you can go to Wikipedia for that. I'm here to say what he means to me.

I have been thinking a lot lately about my musical comfort food. I'm hoping to do a post before too long about my comfort food albums of the past decade, but Jonathan Richman is a full-on comfort food artist. He is for many an acquired taste, and some people never understand his appeal. His singing voice is uneven, his guitar playing is quirky. His songs can range form silly to political to romantic to incredibly sad. Sometimes a single song can be a little bit of all those things.

On stage, as my sister says, he can be a bit of a man-child. My sister (who quite frankly, is much better at this type of thing than I am, though I'm the one who continues to barf my opinions onto the internets) compared him to the 8-year-old boy who's parents make him come out to play songs for their adult party. He can waiver between nervousness and showing off in the blink of an eye. At times it looks like he's really enjoying himself; other times he looks antsy to get off the stage.
That's how he's been every time I've seen him--this was my third Jonathan Richman show in the last 10 years. The audience at the Middle East was noticeably older. This was the first show I've been to in ages in which I didn't feel like the oldest person in the crowd. In fact, I felt like one of the youngest. But Richman makes everyone feel young with his energy. Twice during the show he managed to sustain a sing-along. One occurred during his always entertaining rendition of "I Was Dancing at the Lesbian Bar", during which he not only did his special hip-shaking dance, but traded his guitar for a set of jingle bells, then a cowbell. I've seen him play this song at every show, and it's always one of my favorite parts. Years down the road, if someone asks me what my favorite musical memories are, watching Jonathan Richman play this song will almost certainly be in the top 10. He also whipped up a sing-along towards the end with a bizarre little anti-cell phone song. Richman is pretty clearly not a fan of technology (he has no official website), and I believe him when he says he will never own a cell phone. The song was particularly apt for my sister and I, who were just talking before the show about how we rarely use our cell phones. They are a necessary evil for me, so I'm with Mr. Richman on this one.

The bottom line is, I will likely continue to go to his shows as long as keeps touring. Neither his albums nor his live performance are for everybody, but for those of us who "get" Jonathan Richman, they are incredibly rewarding. He may have the saddest eyes I've ever seen, but he still manages to elicit a deep sense of joy in me every time I see him play. I'm generally a pretty happy guy, but though my children can often raise my happiness to the level of joy, it's rare for a musician to do so. To experience that feeling in room full of strangers, listening to music I love...that's really something.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Book Reviews: Magic, Parenting, and Fake Facts

There are several reasons I have not been blogging as much lately. There are the standard ones like family, work, and the holidays, but I've also been reading a lot. I don't think there's been a point in my life since I was about 7 that I didn't have at least one book going, but lately I've had 2-3 going at a time, and I've just felt more like reading than blogging. But now I'm gonna blog a bit about what I've been reading, so there you go.

Lev Grossman's The Magicians
There is no way to describe the plot of this book without making it sound derivative of at least two famous fantasy series: Harry Potter and the Chronicles of Narnia. Quentin Coldwater, our anti-hero, is recruited into a school of magic, and eventually ends up learning that the fantasy world he's been reading about since he was a child, Fillory (which is basically Narnia), is real. That's not much of a spoiler, trust me.

The twist here is that instead of young, relatively squeaky-clean British kids visiting these magic settings, we have older, far-from-innocent American kids doing so. The novel can in some ways be read as a long thought experiment. Yes, many of us grow up reading about kids who learn to do magic or travel to magical lands, and of course we always wanted to be those kids, right? Grossman takes a step back and asks, really? Would you? If you had magic powers and could do virtually anything you wanted, wouldn't you get bored after a while? And as far as magical lands go, how much fun do you think being in constant mortal danger actually is?

I can't say any of the characters are particularly appealing--they're all pretty much jerks. But that's kind of the point. Nice people apparently don't make particularly good magicians. Characters that don't promote a lot of sympathy aside, the story moves along quickly. It takes Harry Potter 7 books to get through Hogwarts, but it takes Quintin Coldwater 2/3 of a book to get through Brakebills Academy. If anything, the last 1/3 of the novel moves a little too quickly. Grossman could have easily stretched the time in Fillory out for another 100 pages and I wouldn't have minded a bit.

All in all, a very fun book, and I would recommend it to any reader (over the age of 13 or so) who's ever read a fantasy novel and wanted oh-so-much to escape into that book. The Magicians will definitely force you to rethink that notion.

Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman's NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children
Though I have been a parent for nearly 3 years now, I've never been much for parenting books. Many of them seem to work along the lines of "Hey, this worked for me, so it will obviously work for you!", which as most sane parents know is complete shite. You might call it the Jenny McCarthy class of parenting books (speaking of which, hurray for The Lancet for finally retracting the vaccinations-lead-to-autism paper!). This book caught my eye, however, because it's based almost entirely on published literature and interviews with actual scientists. Indeed, the reference section alone accounts for about 10% of the books length. Though the authors share a few personal anecdotes to demonstrate their points, the book is by and large a summary of very real research.

Several topics are discussed: the importance of sleep for kids' development, the actual causes of aggression in young children, sibling rivalries, how to build a child's vocabulary quickly, and perhaps more importantly, how not to. Many parents have learned by now that the Baby Einstein series not only fails to help kids talked sooner, it can actually impede speech development. This book explains why. There's a chapter on lying, and why it's not necessarily a bad thing when kids do it. In perhaps one of the most eye-opening chapters for me, the authors tackle the dogma that thrusting a child into a multi-ethnic environment will help make them "color blind". And in my favorite confirms-my-suspicions chapter, the authors essentially trash the idea that kindergartens for "advanced" kids are worth a damn.

All of this is presented in easy-to-digest prose--it's a quick but informative read. NurtureShock has not become my new parenting bible, but it has changed the way I interpret the behavior of my children, in what I have to believe is a good way. I would even go so far as to recommend this book for non-parents, because chances are you will have to interact with children some day, even if they aren't necessarily your own.

John Hodgman's More Information Than You Require
I can direct you to my earlier review of Hodgman's first book, and that would pretty much cover my bases here. This book is basically a continuation of The Areas of My Expertise--the page numbers even start where the last book's left off. Only this time we have a list of mole man names instead of hobo names, and Hodgman himself was a bit more famous when he wrote this book. Is it essential reading? Absolutely not. Is it still pretty damn funny? Yes. That is all.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

EJP's Favorite Albums of 2009

OK, I've been on a very long hiatus. The last two months have been nuts. Normally I'd stretch my favorite music of the year out over several posts, but since this post is over a month late, I'll just pound out my top 20, with minimal explanation (there are links to everything that has appeared in earlier posts). As usual, the top 20 basically reflect the albums I played the most. I'm not saying everyone should go out and buy these albums, but this is the stuff I gravitated towards in 2009. I won't say it was a great year for music, but it was alright, and there are some definite keepers on here.

20) Phoenix--Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
This album might have scored higher if didn't hear its single played 5 times a day on the radio station at work. Thanks for nearly ruining a perfectly good album for me, radio station!

19) Grand Duchy--Petits Fours
Clyde Squid didn't post much this past year, but this was a great recommendation. Easily the best thing Frank Black has put out for a long time.

18) Lilly Allen--It's Not Me, It's You

17) Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears--Tell 'Em What Your Name Is!
It's retro to the point of being a bit gimmicky, but it's also fantastic and you can shake your ass to it. This one should probably be higher up on the list, but I just recently got it, so it's here. Just give it a listen...


Black Joe Lewis | MySpace Music Videos

16) Madeleine Peyroux--Bare Bones

15) Art Brut--Art Brut vs. Satan

14) Neko Case--Middle Cyclone

13) Lightning Dust--Infinite Light
Amber Webber's voice is totally wack, but I like it. Their song "I Knew" will probably go on every mix I make for a while, but the vast majority of songs on this album are excellent.

12) We Were Promised Jetpacks--These Four Walls

11) Yeah Yeah Yeahs--It's Blitz!
Yay! A good Yeah Yeah Yeahs album! It's incredibly different than their debut album (which is still my favorite), but fun nonetheless.

10) Dan Deacon--Bromst

9) The Mumlers--Don't Throw Me Away
This album caught me by surprise. I just kinda liked Thickets & Stitches, this band's debut from 2008, and I was hesitant to even check out their sophomore effort. I'm glad I risked it. This album has received far more play time than I ever anticipated.

8) the boy least likely to--the law of the playground

7) Devendra Banhart--What Will We Be
Pitchfork hated this album, which figures, because I think it's the best album this dirty hippy has put out in years. WWWB is easily his most accessible album ever (which is probably why Pitchfork hates it), and I would consider it a good introduction to this profoundly weird artist.

6) Todd Snider--The Excitement Plan

5) Built to Spill--There Is No Enemy

4) Telekinesis--Telekinesis!

3) Andrew Bird--Noble Beast

2) Ida Maria--Fortress 'Round My Heart

1) Forro in the Dark--Light a Candle
I can't even understand most of the lyrics on this Brazilian-by-way-of-Brooklyn band's album, but that hasn't stopped me from enjoying it immensely. I loved their first album a few years ago, and I love this follow-up. If you like the song in the video below, consider that it's probably one of my least favorite songs on the album. Not to say that I don't like it (and it's the only video I could find of theirs from this album), but most of the other songs are even better. Good stuff all around.