Tuesday, September 27, 2011

First Impressions: Sep. 13th Albums

It's been a while since I wrote about...anything on here I guess. I'm not quite giving it up, but I'm also exploring new avenues to shove my opinion down people's throats. My friend Sara asked if I could contribute some stuff to her new blog, and my first post went up yesterday. Please check it out! I take a gander at new releases by Mason Jennings, St. Vincent, Blitzen Trapper, Wild Flag, Blind Pilot, Laura Marling, and Me First & the Gimme Gimmes!

Since that was already a long-ass post, here are some videos from a few of the albums...

St. Vincent's "Cruel":

St. Vincent - "Cruel"
Creepy! Awesome!

Blitzen Trapper's "Love The Way You Walk Away":

  Do I smell...America?

Wild Flag's "Romance"

Wild Flag - Romance from Merge Records on Vimeo.
A certain famous Merge label mate gets a bit of trouncing here. Watch closely!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Chihuly and a Child

This past weekend, I went to Boston's Museum of Fine Art for the first time in over 3 years. My wife and I used to be members, but once our son was born, we realized there would be far fewer trips to the MFA for us. But you can't walk around Boston longer than a few minutes these dayswithout seeing ads for the Chihuly exhibition, and I knew I had to go.

I was first introduced to the glass sculptures of Dale Chihuly about 5 years ago, while visiting the Botanical Gardens in St. Louis, MO (one of my favorite botanical gardens in the world, and I've been to a lot of them). Chihuly's works were scattered throughout the gardens, and I was mesmerized. It was like walking through Candy Land. The bright, delicious colors and Seussian shapes left an impression on me, and I knew I would have to visit them again now that they were so close.

Yet there was still the issue of the kids. Taking my almost-two-year-old was not an option--the thought of taking her to an exhibition of glass sculptures was nightmare-inducing. But I thought my now 4-year-old son could handle it. So on a cold, rainy Sunday, he and I set off for the museum. We'd see the Chihuly pieces, and depending on how things were going, move on from there and possibly see some of the new Art of the Americas Wing.

It turned out to be one of the best visits to an art museum I've ever had. The Chihuly exhibit itself was as enjoyable as I'd hoped. It didn't quite have the same "oomph" as the Botanical Gardens because it was a very different context, but these are still some of the most accessible sculptures one will come across. By "accessible", I mean I can't imagine a person looking at these sculptures and not thinking they look cool. Maybe "cool" isn't a very fancy word to describe art, but just check out this boat full of stuff (I did not take my camera, regrettably, but this picture is from the actual Boston exhibition):
It's a party. It's an alien invasion. It's a parade. In a boat. And made out of glass. It's cool.

And my son thought so, too. I didn't get to read a lot of the descriptions of the pieces as I normally would have, but instead I got to hear my son's interpretations, which I think may have been an order of magnitude more interesting: "Look at the flowers!" and "It's a giant slug, Daddy!" Exposed to his unchecked imagination, I saw the sculptures in a way I never could have seen on my own. At one point we were walking under the "Persian Ceiling", which is one of the more publicized images from the collection (in the slide show from the link above, it's the first slide). My son--who at my insistence kept his voice at an "indoor" level the whole time--looked up and said, "It's a baby!" As I looked up, a rather grim woman caught my eye and said, "He's talking about the cherub up there."

And that's when it really clicked for me. A lot of these people couldn't see this art the way my son could. They had too many preconceived notions of what everything was supposed to be.  Why couldn't it be a baby? Why couldn't that other sculpture be a giant cactus? I thought that was the point of art like this...it can be what you want it to be. But because we adults read the descriptions or listen to the audio tours, we lose the chance to come at these pieces with a blank canvas.  My son had a blank canvas...the grown-ups had paint-by-numbers.

The joy of seeing art through my son's eyes extended beyond the Chihuly exhibition and into the galleries. The way he zeroed in on specific aspects of a painting while ignoring the "main event", if you will, was fascinating. Take this painting, The Fog Warning, by Winslow Homer:
I took my son up to this painting thinking he would be impressed by the big fish in the small boat. Instead, he pointed at the tall ship way off in the background, excitedly talking about the "pirate ship" that was coming closer to the man in the boat. I'd barely even noticed the ship in the background. This was a common theme throughout our visit to the museum, which lasted over three hours. He found details I had missed. He would make up a story, explaining to me why the people were doing what they were doing. Occasionally he would ask questions, but usually he was just looking for ways to fill in the gaps in his own stories.

I can't stop thinking about this visit. I've always enjoyed art in nearly any medium, but I've often become hung up on the "how" at the expense of the "what". I'm a scientist...I think it's natural for me to wonder how Dale Chihuly and his team make his amazing sculptures. I'm sure it's an interesting process. But it took my 4-year-old to help me step back and strip the "how" away, from the Chihuly pieces to paintings that were centuries old. He helped me forget the idea that a piece of art isn't supposed to be anything necessarily.  A painting or sculpture can be whatever I want it to be: a story, an idea, or sometimes just a picture of somebody's stinky butt. Thanks, buddy.  Thanks for reminding why works of art--not to mention kids--are awesome.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

O What a Dirty Thing

When I first saw Michael Benjamin Lerner in the bathroom at the Middle East a few years ago, I had no idea I was about to fall hard for his band. I wrote about that first show here, and his first album made my top 5 of 2009.

And now comes his follow up, 12 Desperate Straight Lines.

There are two types of songs that get stuck in my head. There is the Katy Perry-esque treacle that gets played so frequently that it might as well be a commercial jingle. These are the types of songs that I want desperately to never hear again--they are the musical equivalent of Chinese water torture. You know the song is going to come at you again eventually, so your brain seems to mentally prepare itself. This is not the good way to get a song stuck in your head.

Then there are songs like Lerner's. His songs will have a hook that creates a mental itch, and the only way to scratch that itch is to listen to the song again. And again. Soon you've got the album on the MP3-player equivalent of speed dial. Or, if you're an archaic old fart like me,  you carry the CD around with you everywhere.

And that's pretty much what I've been doing with 12 Desperate Straight Lines. I wasn't enthralled after the very first listen, but it pretty much had me by the second. It's definitely an easily digestible album. The longest song is a shade over 3.5 minutes, but most of the songs clock in at 2 and half minutes or less, including the amazing single, "Dirty Thing":

Telekinesis - Dirty Thing from Merge Records on Vimeo.

I challenge you to listen to this song twice and NOT get the "chorus" stuck in your head. I use quotation marks since I don't know if you can call it a chorus if it doesn't have words, but you'll know what I'm talking about when you listen to it.

And this is one of many great songs on the album. Merge has been on a pretty incredible streak as of late, and Telekinesis is probably one of their more underrated bands right now. Whenever a sophomore album equals--or in this case, maybe even surpasses--a strong debut, there's cause to celebrate. Or at the very least, cause to listen.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

EJP's Very Late Favorite Albums of 2010

Well, better late than never, I guess. At least I'm doing this before the end of January.

Was 2010 a great year for music? Probably not. But I did fall in love with a few albums, and there were certainly some that I liked a lot. They weren't always the most critically acclaimed--Arcade Fire's album was pretty amazing, but ultimately I didn't listen to it all that much. Apparently Kanye West's album was pretty amazing, but I haven't heard more than a track of it.

So these are the 10 albums that I listened to the most, which is generally a pretty good indication that I like them. I'm not putting them in any particular order--I'll be a little more low key this year since this list is going up so late.

First, the albums I've already written about...

Not only did I thoroughly enjoy this album, but they made one of my favorite videos of all time. The video below, for the song "Daisy," looks pretty crudely made at first, but if you think about how it was clearly done all in one go, shot by one of the dancers with no cuts, it's pretty amazing. Plus it just makes me incredibly happy when I watch it.

  • Vampire Weekend: Contra (this album and previous 3 albums conveniently described all at once in this post)
And now some new stuff...
    There are a number of reasons this album shouldn't work for me. It's a concept album. It mixes every genre of music under the sun. It's loaded with guest artists. It's produced and produced and produced.

    And yet it does work for me. Any one of the above attributes can usually put me off an album, but I guess when they're combined, something magic happens. Which is not to detract from Monáe's voice, which is incredible. Her voice ties the whole beautiful mess together. I can't remember what compelled me to pick this album up originally, but I'm so glad I did.

    There seemed to be kind of a retro thing going on this year, with a lot of new or newish bands exploring old sounds. By old, I'm talking 50s and 60s-style rock. Gimmicky or not, I ate it up. Despite the fact that I'm constantly checking out new music, I grew up listening almost exclusively to oldies stations on the radio. That's where my heart is, and Sonny & the Sunsets--right down to their very name--tapped into my oldies-lovin' heart with this album.  Here we have a band that sounds like they're right out of the Happy Days era, only with lyrics that would have made the Fonz blush. It's simple, fun, and exactly what I wanted to listen to many times over the last several months. Check out the song that got me hooked, "Too Young to Burn":

    Like Sonny & the Sunsets, there is an appealing timelessness to The Goodnight Loving's music. I probably listened to this album more than any other this past year. I consistently grabbed for it when I was feeling indecisive. The songs can be...weird. One of my favorites, "The Pan", is sung from the point of view of a fish that ends up in a pan. You can think of it as a metaphor I suppose, but you certainly don't have to.

    I'm struggling here...I want people to listen to this album because I honestly think it's really, really good. The songs are incredibly catchy (there's even a track appropriately called "Earworm"). If you can imagine The Beach Boys as a garage band, that might be what The Goodnight Loving sound like. In some ways, this album is the antithesis of Arcade Fire's The Suburbs. Not in terms of quality--both are great. But I think the main reason I couldn't listen to The Suburbs all that much is that it was just a little too much. It was so dense that I felt a little exhausted after listening to it. Whereas Supper Club woke me up. It's a much simpler album, and yes, more fun.

    And that's my top 10! But it wouldn't be me if I didn't at least a decent list of honorable mentions. Here are some other stand-out albums to check out:
    • Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings: I Learned the Hard Way
    • Mumford & Sons: Sigh No More
    • Bouncing Souls: Ghosts on the Boardwalk
    • Drive By Truckers: The Big To-Do
    • She & Him: Volume Two
    • Freelance Whales: Weathervanes
    • Ted Leo & the Pharmacists: Brutalist Bricks
    • Let's Wrestle: In the Court of the Wrestling Let's