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Saturday, January 31, 2009

Danny King - The Pornographer Diaries ****

I was lucky enough to stumble upon Danny King's The Pornographer Diaries while I was in New Zealand. In one of my favorite cities in the country, Hamilton, about an hour outside of Auckland, I ducked into a little used bookstore and ended up picking up this book, and British releases of Jonathan Lethem's Amnesia Moon and George Saunders' CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. What was most surprising at the time was how cheap the books were--a typical paperback new release in New Zealand goes for around $26, so finding these three (the Saunders one being a book that I'd been meaning to pick up for some time anyway) for $7 NZ a piece (about five bucks American) was a real treat. When I finally got home and had the time to read again, I found another surprise: Danny King was awesome!

It was a Frenzy Buy, like I'm infamous for making, something that looked interesting but I really didn't have that much hope for. Where exactly could King go, writing about a guy who works for a porn magazine? Well, that turned out to be the entire point of his novel--where do you go when you think you've just landed your dream job, only to find out that it is, in fact, a job. With his droll Brit humor, King brings his characters to life in such a real way, that I'd almost want to hang out with them if they weren't all such royal fuck-ups. I just end up feeling bad for them instead, especially main character Godfrey Bishop.

It's almost as though King has lived the life himself, so well he leads us through it. I'd be more prone to say that he has except for the rest of the books in his series (ones that I desperately would like to read, but haven't had much luck finding here in the states): The Burgular, Bank Robber and Hitman Diaries. Somehow, I just don't think an upstanding English gent like King, no matter how un-politically correct his work may be, has had stints in all such occupations. But you wouldn't know that to read his work, as deeply involved as it is. It is not typical, dialogue and scene-driven fiction. The Pornographer Diaries is most certainly written like a diary, just with live-action bits interspersed. These introspective moments where Godfrey is just talking to us then, are indeed biased to the narrator, but in such a way that you believe and trust him--that despite it all, he might really be an alright guy, just with a series of unfortunate events propelling him into the life he's ended up leading. As fellow Brit novelist and comedian David Baddiel, says, "King is brilliant at making you love characters who essentially are quite bad people." I, for one, can't wait to fall in love with all of King's bad boys, once I can find the books in a store here.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Shut up and swallow

The latest in television's never-ending assault on common sense (and frankly, reality), comes in the form of a series of commercials released early last fall. I've only begun to see them pop up on TV recently (probably because I don't have cable at my house, and therefore don't even bother flipping on the tube much), but my first viewing was quite enough to make my blood boil. Perhaps you already know the ones I'm talking about, sponsored by the Corn Refiners Association? The cute little commercials that tout the virtues of such a wonderful and natural sweetening substance as high-fructose corn syrup?



Now, I will be the first to admit that our health-crazy, all-or-nothing society has demonized high-fructose corn syrup to an unrealistic point. It is not as dangerous as trans fats or high cholesterol, nor nicotine, as one particularly vocal opponent has suggested (on YouTube, of course). But to suggest that HFCS is just a natural and balanced part of our daily diet is a truly appalling claim.  Truly "natural" sweeteners like cane and beet sugars are primarily composed of sucrose, a compound naturally regulated into the body by the enzyme sucrase. However, when digesting HFCS (a combination of fructose and glucose), sucrase is not processed, allowing the absorption of the sweeteners into the blood to go unfettered. But the commercials don't mention that, do they? They don't mention that Cadbury Schweppes, producers of 7-Up, agreed (under the pressure of the Center for Science in the Public Interest) to stop branding their classic "Uncola" as "100% Natural," due to its inclusion of the highly-processed and genetically-modified sweetener, do they?

No. Instead, when the commercial's token block-headed health nut (who is obviously just reading his hatred of HFCS from Dr. Phil's own cue cards) is given a chance to respond, he trips up, unable to name a single thing that might be wrong with HFCS. Because there is nothing wrong with it "in moderation!" Or so his girlfriend would have us believe. That might be true if there were such a thing as "moderation" for the consumption of HFCS, but sadly there is not. High-fructose corn syrup is in everything. From sodas and potato chips to tomato soup and bread. Yes, fucking bread. There is no way to "moderate" your intake of HFCS, because just about everything that passes over your tongue has it as a primary ingredient. Poke through your pantry if you don't believe me, and if you don't do all your shopping at Whole Foods, you should be all but pissing your pants at the sheer volume of HFCS you are consuming on a daily basis. Moderation.

Of course, like everything else in this country, it all comes back to money. When sugar became "too expensive" to import in the 1970s due to government protection tariffs (the same kind of wonderful import taxes that run the cost of foreign cars up so that our paleolithic-minded American automobile makers can just barely compete), companies turned to science to create a cheaper alternative. The trend caught on, increasing food production profit margins across the board, and has remained a staple into modern times. In America. What's that? Oh yeah, companies like Pepsi and Coca-Cola still produce their soft drinks with real sugar in other places around the world because the demand dictates they do so. Other people have something to say about the substitute sweetener that has been proven to promote the onset of Type II Diabetes, but what about us? Are we content to just sit idly by as the Corn Refiners Association hopes we will, like the young man in their commercial who has not even taken the time to educate himself about his own health and well-being? You're damn right we are. When the French government tried to deregulate labor laws in 2006, the people revolted. I'm not saying it was a good idea for thousands of young people to take to the streets and torch cars, but at least they did something to show they would not be pushed around so easily. On this side of the Atlantic, however, we are far too comfortable in our lifestyles, and have all but completely lost the spirit of revolution that gave birth to this nation so long ago. We might complain a little, but we keep on blindly eating (literally in the case of HFCS) whatever slop we're being fed by our corporations and by our government.

And those in power know it. It couldn't be more obvious than in these commercials. If the Corn Refiners Association wanted to really make a hard-hitting commercial that truly would show that their product is no more harmful than sugar, they would give the opposing voice a chance to speak. Let the young man on the picnic blanket say what the rest of us already know (all you have to do is visit the Wikipedia article on HFCS to find a laundry list of health detriments that have been scientifically linked to the consumption of the sweetener), and then, with whatever conflicted science they can muster up, they could refute his claims and show us how good for us HFCS really is. But they don't even need to. We're lazy and prone to believe just about anything we see on TV (how else can you explain the ratings that FOX News receives?), so they didn't even bother. The mindless commercials they're airing are more than enough to convince us that we don't really need to change our diets. To just shut up and swallow. But most of all, to keep on buying. They call us "consumers" for a reason.

There is, however, a silver lining to this dreary grey cloud. The simple fact that the Corn Refiners Association has taken it upon themselves to make a commercial attempting to extol their product means that they've noticed a decrease in sales. Enough people have made a change in their lifestyles that it has effected profits, and the CRA is scared. I can only hope the trend continues. If it's un-American of me to want these profiteering farmers and their corporate associates to go out of business, then ship my ass out of here on a burning flag. But I believe in an America where quality can and should succeed. If you can't make a potato chip worth eating or a car worth driving, I should be able to look for a better alternative elsewhere. Why are so many American industries crumbling? Because they haven't bothered to advance and have fallen by the wayside as competing markets have continually progressed. Can you guess what brand is the most commonly-driven here in the States? Toyota. Haven't heard that name attached to the auto bail-out, have we? If this truly is a "free market economy," say fuck-all to the protection taxes and let me shop around! Yes, we need industry to power our economy, but we need an industry that works. We need to stand up for ourselves and make it known that our days of just swallowing the soma and soylent green are over.

There was probably even high-fructose corn syrup in them too.

Friday, January 23, 2009

On the road

Americans don't know how to drive. Now that's not a completely horrible thing, because really no one knows how to drive, no matter where they come from. But is it really any wonder? Most of us are freely given the helm of our parents' Thousand-Pound Battering Ram of Death before we can even grow a respectable moustache. Any given 16-year-old male is far more concerned with what the girls at school think of his hair than he is with checking his sideview mirrors. Unless, of course, it's to fix his hair.

And these same strains on the teenager exist in other cultures as well, they're just different haircuts: Norway's got the greased-down black metal bangs, Colombia with its foofy soccer afros, and who could forget about Japan's gravity-defying spikey/swoopy things that can only truly be fully realized within episodes of Cowboy Bebop. With all the time the world's adolescents spend worrying over their hair, it's no wonder they can't pay attention when they're being taught how to drive. Of course that's a misnomer in itself. The actual teaching of the mechanics of driving are pretty basic: push this down to go, press this one to stop, turn this thing whichever way you want to aim. Explaining it like that just now makes it sound like directions to operate a missile. Fitting.

What we teach our kids behind that wheel the fateful day they turn fifteen is not about how to drive. They've already been running down pedestrians on their PS2's for the last six years if you're any kind of parent at all (seriously now, it'll keep them off drugs). What we're teaching them is what the United States Air Force calls "evasive maneuvering," and has nothing to do with driving itself and everything to do with the fact that no one knows how to drive. No one in the world. We get behind the wheel with a cell phone in one hand, a cheeseburger in the other and a box of fries between our legs as we try to suck soda out of the cup in the dash cupholder and read the newspaper on the passenger's seat. Substitute items with falafel, Neo Geo Pocket, and the Book of Mormon and we've pretty much covered the entire globe (and part of outer space). It's less driving and more Narrowly Escaping Certain Death at Every Turn. The only difference between America and the rest of the world is that American's actually think they're really good at driving.

When I was in New Zealand, I saw the exact same kind of boneheaded mistakes I see all the time on the road here at home. In fact, I was making more than my fair share, trying to get used to driving on the left in a manual transmission courier van with the gearshift on the opposite side. But I thought nothing of the drivers there until we talked to Bryan Crump at Radio New Zealand National in Wellington and he asked if we'd had any run-ins with the "terrible drivers" that populated the country. I said no, that the drivers had been, if anything, definitely more considerate than the ones we regularly came across in the States. He was surprised and told us that Kiwis generally thought of themselves as some of the worst drivers around. Here in America, you'd never hear such a thing. We could easily hold our own against Dale Earnhardt, Jr., the priss. We're regular Arctic adventures in the snow as long as our massive, top-heavy SUVs have the Holy Grail: "Four Wheel Drive."

And that's what makes us so much more dangerous than all any of the rest of the world's drivers, no matter how old, female and/or Asian they might be. As with most things that we do, we're the best, and nobody better tell us otherwise. We have the most car accidents of anywhere in the world per capita, the most drunk driving offenses, and the most vehicle-related deaths. Want to know how shockingly real those statistics are? I just completely fabricated all three of those claims, but you didn't even bother to question them because you know damn well that they're true. You see it on the road all the time. You're probably even part of the problem. That's not to say that I don't; I know I make stupid mistakes myself when I'm on the road (Jess reminds me of it all the time, usually in screaming tones as I slam on the brakes right before a red light I wasn't paying attention to). I am not, however, one of those Type A (is for "Asshole") Personalities who proudly brand themselves as "aggressive drivers" (I like to think of myself as an "offensive driver," slipping in and out of crowded highway lanes not in rage but in efficiency), behind the wheel of their trucks with bigger cabs than towing beds (that means you didn't need a truck in the first place, you fucking twat).

I'm also obviously not a "defensive driver," in either of its two most common forms: the garden-variety Frightened Old Lady Who Has to Sit on a Shoebox to See Over Her Steering Wheel, or the definite worse of the two, the Good Samaritan. That's the one that got my knickers in enough of a twist tonight to inspire me to sit down in front of my computer and bang this whole rant out. When I was leaving Jess' house tonight, I pulled out of her development onto the well-traveled main drag that cuts through the center of a number of small towns on my way home. As I waited for the two cars on the road to pass so that I might pull out safely, I noticed the front one--a minivan, of course--slow down. I stayed still, waiting to see if he was going to turn into the development before a leapt out in front of him, a bit irked that he hadn't put on his turn signal. Then he stopped completely, in the middle of the road, prompting the car behind him to slam on its breaks. I looked on in utter confusion until the minivan's headlights flashed.

OH THANK YOU GOOD SAMARITAN OF THE ROAD! I COULD HAVE NEVER WAITED ANOTHER TWELVE SECONDS FOR YOUR CAR TO PASS ME! IT'S A WONDERFUL THING YOU STOPPED IN THE MIDDLE OF A BUSY STREET, RISKING THE SAFETY OF THE DRIVER BEHIND YOU WHO WAS OBVIOUSLY AS SHOCKED AS I WAS AT YOUR CHOICE OF ACTIONS SO THAT I COULD BE ON MY MERRY WAY! LET ME WRITE DOWN YOUR LICENSE PLATE NUMBER, I WOULD LIKE TO REPORT YOU TO THE POLICE AND HAVE YOU AWARDED THE KEY TO THE TOWN. WHAT IS YOUR ADDRESSS? LET ME PUT YOU ON MY CHRISTMAS CARD LIST!

No. Fuck you. Are you an idiot? The guy behind you was not at all prepared for you to stop in the middle of the road for no reason whatsoever, and could have easily buried his front end into your back. And then you probably would have sued. Of all the people on the road, these idiots are the worst. At least aggressive drivers admit they have a problem. They might totally get a boner over the problem, but at least they know it's there. These Good Samaritans think they're doing a service for the rest of us, letting us go out of turn at 4-Way Stop signs, fucking up the whole flow of things, and causing more accidents than cell phone use does every year. Again, a statistic I did not take the time to look up, but that's beyond consequence here. You are the bane of the road, the worst of the worst. You go home and tell your spouses about all the good deeds you did today, while the rest of us wish we could figure out a way to get your license revoked. You are the epitome of the American Driver, always knowing what's best for everyone else, and proud to be doing just that every time you get behind the wheel.

Well, I've got news for you, Good Samaritan. Have you ever read that whole parable in the Bible? At the end, the eponymous hero of the tale gets brutally raped and stoned to death by all the people he's pissed off. Once more, information that I did not bother looking up, but it sounds right. Food for thought.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The News at 3

Today on Dr. Phil, the subject of discussion was "Hope vs. Reality," in regard to what we can truly expect of our new President in his coming term. Yes, I happened to catch some Dr. Phil today, so sue me. My mom always has it on during the afternoon and as loud as she cranks the TV, I'd have to leave the county not to hear it. But today's subject caught my interest as I played Risk on my brother's computer downstairs. It is one that does need to be discussed, because many people have touted President Obama as something of a messiah for our country, who would come in and fix all of our problems with a magical wave of his well-manicured hands. So I was excited to hear what my mom (and your mom) would be believing for the next week, because Dr. Phil, no matter how much of a doctor he really isn't, has quite an impressive sway over Middle America.

That was until I heard an all-too-familiar voice emanating from the TV upstairs. You see, to argue their opposing sides to the issue, Dr. Phil had invited a token Liberal and Conservative. The Liberal, of course, in obvious reflection of Dr. Phil's rather right-leaning opinions, was moderate milquetoast Alan Colmes. The Conservative however, her voice peeling through my mind like screaming cats caught under the wheels of Satan's Hummer H3 (you know he drives one, and in that truly offensive shade of yellow they make too), was completely the level-headed, mild-mannered hellspawn the world knows as Ann Coulter.

I was shocked. I knew Dr. Phil was a pretty conservative-minded guy, but to bring Coulter onto his show as a "Voice of the Right" is a pretty fucking wacky thing to do. Even Bill O'Reilly is scared of her. The least the good doctor could have done was given us some real television gold and invited Rachel Maddow or Keith Olbermann. Of course, Maddow would have been too cerebral and Olbermann probably would have stood up and punched Coulter in the face. But at least it would have been more "fair and balanced" than Colmes cowing to every psychotic rant Coulter went off on. Even having John Stewart on to parry her admitted wit would have been an improvement. Coulter is, indeed, quite clever, which makes her even more dangerous on a show like Dr. Phil's. When she's on her throne at FOX NEWS, there is only a specific demographic watching her (namely, one that already agrees with her), and on the rare occasion that she shows her face on CNN or MSNBC, she regularly gets housed in front of a far more moderate audience. Both of these environments, therefore, keep her in check. However, when she's uncaged on one of the favorite shows of politically under-educated and impressionable housewives across the nation, she has the ability to use her razor wit as a chisel and carve away at their opinions. The crowd was eating it up, laughing and cheering like they were at the Apollo. Or maybe a Larry the Cable Guy set at Bobby-Joe's Komedy Shack; the Apollo is probably a little more "culturally progressive" than they are comfortable with.

What Dr. Phil (or at least his producers) need to realize is that, whether he likes it or not, he has a responsibility in his broadcasting. He is beaming out information to receptors in the brains of millions of people who often have not gone to college or know the first thing about politics in general. That is not meant to rag on housewives or stay-at-home moms in the slightest--I have the utmost respect for my mom for always being there when I grew up. However, my mom is not a political neophyte. Despite being registered Republican (in my district you have to be to vote in local elections--no one runs for the blue), she voted for Obama this year, Ron Paul in the primaries, and Ralph Nader and Ross Perot in the past. She had no idea who Ann Coulter was, but she had an instant distaste for her after the harpie railed on President Obama for his "preferential treatment" to Muslims in his inaugural address (of course Coulter left out his mentions of Jews, Hindus and atheists, but who's counting?).

But I fear that my mother is an exception to the rule. Far too many Americans receive their news of everything from politics to nutrition to adolescent fads (you're damn right my mom was worried that I was into autoerotic asphyxiation when Dr. Phil told her to be worried about it) from daytime television. And to have Ann Coulter come on and espouse her gospel of intolerance and hatred toward all whose values lean anywhere but back-breakingly starboard is a frightening move for Dr. Phil to make. He even admitted on the show that he isn't always sure how seriously to take her, trying his best to distance her more extreme comments from himself. But then stand up for yourself, Phillip. If you want to have a show about what we can realistically expect from our new President, then bring on someone realistic to discuss it. I'm not doing anything around 3pm most weekdays. And even if I am, my FIFA season can wait.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

While I was out

During my lengthy hiatus from regular posting here, I was editing some photography and found a bunch of pictures I took during the time I spent in New Zealand. Now, if you followed my blog about the trip, you've seen a lot of the sights I saw, but these pictures weren't included because they're more about "art" than "scenery." Or at least, that's how I'd like to see it. Hopefully you'll like to see them as well.




















And a few of my new favorites from here at home. I even gave sepia tone a try, which I never do. I was pretty happy with the result, though I don't know if it will become a regular thing for me. Sometimes it just seems a bit forced. Of course, I can do it perfectly, because I am perfect.










If you are so inspired to check out more of my photography, feel free to visit my Flickr site for more from both New Zealand and from everywhere else I've found myself with a camera. I even stumbled upon a couple old pictures from my on-going series, "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh," and posted them as well. Of course, now everything is horribly out of order and Flickr doesn't have enough customization capability to allow me to remedy that, and it's driving me nuts. But that's alright. Perfectly alright.

I'll get you, Flickr.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Alles glänzt, so schön neu

When I started my Top 10 Albums of 2008 list, I didn't expect it to take the better part of a month to finish. If you note the dates on each of the entries, I started off strong, posting one a day until Christmas. But then a number of things happened that derailed me from writing. Mostly it was playing Wii at Jess' house, but family gatherings, church, other writing projects, and online Scrabble also got in the way and it ended up taking a bit longer than I had expected to drill through ten measly music reviews.

But before it was completely finished, I thought I should make an addendum to the whole thing. A pretty big one, actually. You see, I know that I missed quite a few excellent albums. I knew that from the start. I completely ignored TV on the Radio's Dear Science and the newly-reunited B-52's Funplex, but that was for fairness' sake. I hadn't listened to those albums much during the year. Neither of them was even in my iTunes, so to call them my Top Albums of the Year seemed like it would have been a little cheap. Then I stumbled onto Seattle's Fleet Foxes and their sophomore album Sun Giant in the midst of my list making, and though I liked it quite a bit, I again could not legitimize putting it on the list, because I'd only found it by noticing it on other End of the Year Lists.

But as much as it broke my heart to have to skip over these three excellent albums in particular, I knew it was the right thing to do. At least, that's how I felt until this week, when I found the single most banginest track that I had heard all year--maybe even all my life: a strangely dark and orchestral dancehall banger complete with a drum corps and a slick bit of rapping done in--wait for it--German. Yes, Berlin's Peter Fox, the self-proclaimed "wrecking ball of the German scene" (whatever the hell that is supposed to mean, other than stating complete badassery beyond the point of sense or grammar) and former frontman of the world-renowned German reggae group Seeed (I know how ridiculous that sounds--my fingers could barely handle typing it), laid out one smooth piece of plastic with his 2008 release, Stadtaffe (literally, "city monkey").

The album as a whole is solid, and becomes even more so if you can understand any of what he is singing about, but the star of the tracklisting is its first single and lead track, the bombastic "Alles Neu" that turned me on to Fox only a few days ago. The music on its own makes me want to alternately shake what my mother gave me and destroy everything in the room. The lyrics, when translated, then only add to that passion for destruction. The very first line of the song is "Ich verbrenn mein Studio, schnupfe die Asche wie Koks," or, for the Yanks in the house: "I burn down my studio and sniff the ashes like coke." Mr. Fox then goes on to murder his goldfish and blow up his hang-out, all in an attempt to get rid of his old life and start anew. From there, he continues, a bit tongue-in-cheek, about all of his plans. But the chorus actually is quite a mantra to live by:

Alles glänzt, so schön neu
Wenns dir nicht gefällt, mach neu


or

Everything shines like brand new
If you don't something, make it new


Without sounding too cheesy, I feel like it's a perfect song to start a new year on. If there is some grand scheme of things, maybe this is supposed to be my theme song for 2009 instead of one of my best of 2008. It's certainly going to be stuck in my head for the next twelve months anyway. And as for the video... just, wow. I'd try to explain the total and complete ass-kicking-ness of it, but it would take me days. It's better to just watch.



And for the video with both German and English subtitles, click here.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Top 10 Albums of 2008: #1

MGMT
Oracular Spectacular

My first encounter with MGMT (pronounced, and still at that time known as, "The Management"), was four years ago, when they opened for Of Montreal at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. At the time, the acid-drenched duo were not much more than just that. They came out on stage in bathrobes with beers in both hands and proceeded to subject us to one of the messiest presentations of some of the worst electro-pop I had ever heard. They were a disaster, finding themselves far funnier than any of the crowd did and not noticing in the slightest that none of us knew exactly what to make of them. I took a brief video with my digital camera just to show people how horrible it all was, because I knew no one would believe me.

So when their second album, Oracular Spectacular was released early this year, I avoided it at all costs. Until a friend that had been at the Warhol show (and felt the exact same way about Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden's performance that I had) suggested I give it a listen. She explained that they had put together a full band and found a sound--and one that I'd probably like at that. She was right. I couldn't love this album more, and I really have to hand it to the boys, they really surprised me here.

Oracular Spectacular, with its singles-ready tracklisting (everything from "Fated to Pretend" to "Electric Feel" to the brilliant party-ender "Kids" is written in pure gold) is exactly the opposite of what Midnight Juggernauts represents at the opposite end of my countdown. This album is not piggybacking on any trends, it is a creation of something completely individual and downright fun. There are comparisons to be made, of course (the leading one to former tour-mates, Of Montreal), but MGMT manages to make even Kevin Barnes and his merry band of psychos seem bloated and overblown. Unlike Of Montreal's Skeletal Lamping this year, with its schizo time signatures and disjointed melodies, MGMT does not try to pack seventeen vastly different songs into each three minute block. They are, instead, quite satisfied with one song per song. And that's an approach I can appreciate.

The simplicity is key here--every song is a warbly sing-a-long and every beat is a burner on the dance floor. They also are each epic in their own way, either with "Time to Pretend" and its almost enlightening chorus, or with "Kids" and the emotional weight the chord progression holds, firmly placing it as The Last Song of the Night. The psychadelic nature of Oracular Spectacular does not pull the album apart at its seams, it just makes it an interesting take on an upbeat booty-shaker. I can't speak for what their live show is like now (I imagine that the boys can afford more acid than ever, so they might still be disastrous on stage for all I know), but at least they've got solid footing to begin on. This album is truly a wonder, a masterpiece of pop music that has already taken hold across the world. In Australia, the album hit number one on their national charts, and while I was in New Zealand, the video for "Electric Feel" was on TV every hour (and looking strangely like that Crazy Town video from way back when meets Lord of the Rings). I didn't even know they had a video until I saw it on TV down there! And yet, here in America, their own hometown, they are a speck of dust on the grand Pop Music Machine that pumps out Rihannas as fast as the Hostess Company can pump out Twinkies. And neither is very good for you.

I can only hope that MGMT gets their due in years to come. So long as Ben and Andy don't crash and burn before their time, they've got a good thing going finally and I can't wait to hear more from them. Thank you guys, for producing my favorite album of the year.

MGMT - Electric Feel

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Top 10 Albums of 2008: #2

Teargas & Plateglass
Black Triage

Just shy of the top spot this year (and really, just a fraction shy, because it was quite a battle for me to decide) is Teargas & Plateglass, one of the worst named bands in the entire world, with their second album, Black Triage. Despite their miserable name choice, this electronic artist collective that supposedly hails from Western Sahara (though I'm of the opinion that that, like every single other aspect of the album, is a political statement and not actually the truth), have produced an album this year--the only album this year--that made me re-think what music can do.

Like I said, every aspect of the album, from its artwork to the quote by American documentary-filmmaker Godfrey Reggio, to the very sounds emanating from the speakers and their sadly unfortunate name, are ominiously political. It is, as is evidenced in Reggio's quote and by T&G's myspace, an album about genocide, and that is exactly what it sounds like. I don't mean that there are bangs of gunshots or the hiss of gas chambers--there aren't even lyrics for the theme to lean on, just a few spoken word interludes. The music carries it all on its own, creating an atmosphere nothing short of fright. Listening to the album all the way through is almost a chore, an emotionally sapping ordeal on par with reading Paul Auster's Leviathan. The first time I listened to it, I described the experience to someone else as "watching someone being shot in the face in extremely slow-motion." And that description remains the same. The marching of boots, the suffocating darkness of hiding, the hair-on-end tense feeling that washes through you as you listen to the hammering electronic beats all push you into a state of agitation, a fearfulness almost.

I've listened to music since I was a little kid, I've played it in bands and orchestras, written it and studied it and analyzed it, but never before in my life have I heard something so visceral, so supremely affecting as Black Triage. That said, you probably won't like it. Not that I don't think you (whoever you are), have sophisticated enough taste or anything like that, it's just a difficult album. If you don't like electronica, you're automatically out, but even if you do, it's still going to be a tough sell. I like it because of what it represents; the idea that music is not just music--it can be a political statement, an art piece, just an experimentation for the sake of experimentation. It's obviously not the first experimental piece I've listened to in my life (in fact, I'm a total sucker for it, as you'd know if you've ever listened to my old radio show from which my blog gets its name), but it does go down as one of the most conceptualized, most fleshed out, and ultimately, one of the best.

And the second best album of them all this year.

Teargas & Plateglass - Plague Burial

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Top 10 Albums of 2008: #3

Nine Inch Nails
Ghosts I-IV

Wow. What is there to even say about Trent Reznor's first of two albums released this year, the epic, all-encompassing, utterly overwhelming, instrumental tour-de-fucking-force, Ghosts? Thirty-six nameless tracks over four discs, released online without expectation of a single cent, this Reznor-produced, Alan Moulder engineered work is absolutely the most fantastic thing that has ever been released under the Nine Inch Nails brand. Now take that with a grain of salt, as I am a huge Fragile fan, which many other NIN fans cannot say they are--I loved the wandering, orchestral nature of then-epic double disc album--but if you want to completely engulf yourself in Reznor's work, the coming of Ghosts has answered your prayers in a single, fell swoop.

Ever since Trent got clean, it's like he doesn't know what to do but make mountains of amazing music, so much that he doesn't even care about getting paid for it anymore. He's made his money, now he's just making art for purely art's sake and letting us have a listen in. And I couldn't be happier. I used to wait half a decade or more at a time, for a new NIN release, and now I can expect two or three a year--and not all just the same goth-rock industrial pap rehashed and repackaged. While the last few years have given us great NIN pop albums, from With Teeth to Year Zero and finally to 2008's The Slip, Trent has still been exorcising his more complex musical demons, and on Ghosts he lets himself go completely. Wonderfully so.

Ghosts is hardly even an album, so much as it is a soundtrack to the horror movie that has played in Reznor's head since boyhood. It is frighteningly dark and atmospheric but adventurous and unafraid to go where he has never let himself go before. Along with the brutal guitars and thundering drums, there are pianos and banjos and xylophones, delicately melodic lines played out under the buzz of distortion. He revisits melodies and themes from older albums, especially The Fragile, playing them out as far as he pleases, unrestrained by a pop song's structure or time limit, or a record label's expectations of him. It is disjointed, yes, and completely insane, turning over on itself and turning over on itself again. It is not an easy listen or radio-friendly in the slightest. It is not even his White Album, as I initially wanted to compare it to--there are no catchy pop gems here, just pieces of Reznor himself, spread out before you in song. And there are no lyrics to get in the way, a plus to many of NIN's typical detractors; no cheesy lines about death and dying or empty souls. I've always been a fan of Reznor's lyrics, but without them holding the songs up, his true musicianship is allowed to shine through even stronger.

I have always been amazed by Reznor's work, and I am not disappointed in the slightest with my number three pick in the countdown. It is the most creative, most honest album that he will probably ever make, and if you can get through its almost two-hour long running time, you will surely see what a truly gifted musician the little town of Mercer, Pennsylvania has produced. Even if you don't love every second of it as I have, you will understand what Reznor has been trying to say all of these years, and that is worth the listen alone.

Nine Inch Nails - Ghosts IV - 34

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Top 10 Albums of 2008: #4

Make A Rising
Infinite Ellipse and Head with Open Fontanel

I discovered Make A Rising when I was booking a show last spring as Promotions Director of WPTS-FM in Pittsburgh. We had two bands for the night, The LK from Sweden and Civil Twilight (whose music can now be heard on House and VH1 series Scream Queens) out of South Africa. Trying to figure out how to promote the concert, I finally decided to emphasize the "international" flair of our offerings, grabbing local downtempo genius Discuss (originally from Puerto Rico) and calling it "Rock U.N." (like Mock U.N., only cooler). Then, in an effort to avoid competing for the same date, local promoter and all-around-good-guy Manny Theiner offered up the two bands he was supposed to have at his venue Garfield Artworks that night--a local post-rock band called In the Wake of Giants, and Make a Rising, a little-known art-rock collective from the Center of the Earth (actually from Philadelphia, but I jumped on their employment of Edmund Halley's Hollow Earth Theory to spice up the international line-up a bit).

The concert went wonderfully, and the absolute highlight of the show for me was Make A Rising, in their hand-sewn animal costumes and warbling harmonies. I went to their merch booth after they finished because I had to pick up a CD. Typically, I only buy t-shirts from bands these days because I want to support them and give them my money, but a CD I'm just going to throw away after I upload it to my computer. But these guys I had never even heard of just a few weeks before, and I knew I wasn't going to have much luck in finding their albums on the internet or in the library we had at the stations. Plus their t-shirt designs pretty much sucked. So a CD it was, and now, months later, their sophomore release, Infinite Ellipse and Head with Open Fontanel, has landed at number four on my countdown.

The CD, like their live show, is a bit difficult to truly sum up. There are moments of beauty, where the junky off-beat rhythms (and I mean junky literally--it sounds like they are banging on trash cans and household appliances) and voices join in what can only be described so cheesily as "choral wonderment," but as soon as you think you've got these boys pegged down, they swing into crunching guitar breakdowns, blasting away as heavily as Meshuggah for a few bars, then letting the madness evaporate into twinkling pianos. And that is all in just the first song.

Part Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, part Animal Collective, this man-beast of a music machine is raw and it is gentle, a schizophrenic mixture of everything good. When trying to describe their music to a fellow WPTS DJ, I said that they were sort of like "Of Montreal at a Rennaissance Faire smoking salvia," but even that is too constricting for them. What is so wonderful about Make A Rising is their ability to do anything at the drop of a hat. Their command of composition is unparalleled in pop music; they know just what to give when, and how to deliver it. The changes in single songs are enough to make your head spin, but when you sit down and listen to the entire album as a whole, you begin to understand it. Their methods may be unconventional, but they are a pop band at heart, a hyperpsychadelic version of the Beach Boys perhaps. This album is a trip, in more ways than one; something so novel and creative that only these exact guys from Philadelphia (or the Center of the Earth, if you'd want to believe them), at this exact time, with their exact influences could have managed to create. There is nothing cookie-cutter about this, and for that sheer brilliance Make A Rising comes in high on the list. No pun intended.

Make A Rising - Woodsong Part One

Friday, January 2, 2009

Top 10 Albums of 2008: #5

Portishead
Third

Eleven years after their last studio release, Portishead finally returned to the world of music with their aptly-titled third album, Third. While the cover art might not be the most interesting thing, the album sets itself apart from the rest of the Bristol band's discography as one of the most interesting collections of songs they have ever produced. That isn't to say it is the best--I still have a special place in my heart for Dummy that will be hard to unseat for not only Portishead, but music at large.

If I had to place Third amongst Portishead's other efforts, it would be securely between 1994's Dummy and the band's self-titled album released three years later. It is, perhaps, my love of Dummy that keeps this new release so low on my countdown, but I can't help but compare the two. It was a struggle for me to put these top few positions into order because of just how much I loved each one of the albums that you'll be reading about in the next few days, but in the grand scheme of Portishead's existence, and what music has meant in the past year, I had to relegate Third to fifth place, and it has pained me to do so.

It's not that the album isn't creative--the angular rhythms and almost industrial nature that has replaced their trip-hop origins are something to be admired. If eleven years later, Beth Gibbons and her boys had come back with more of the same, I think the album would have been lower on the countdown, viewed as a rehashing of everything we knew they could do. This is a new direction for the trio, and I hope it is only one of many releases in the years to come. Beth still has it, her smoky, sulty voice cutting through the atmospheric production and machine gun beats like a sexual being all its own. There is no one sexier on tape than Beth Gibbons. It's just strange to hear her voice used as a weapon this time around, instead of the velvet blanket of sensuality I've wrapped myself in since I first heard it. It works, don't get me wrong, it just takes some getting used to. Even listening through the album again as I write this, I find the album growing on me more and more--but still wanting to press Pause, and throw on Dummy.

Perhaps that is the most telling thing I can say about Third. It is great--it's exactly what Portishead needed to do after hanging under the radar for over a decade--but it still falls a little short of what I had hoped for. The singles, "Machine Gun" and "Plastic," are both truly masterpieces in showcasing all that Portishead has become, but can anything really compare to "It Could Be Sweet"? They've set the bar so high, it's tough to leap over. Still, it lands them above my halfway point, miles above hundreds of other releases this year. I only criticize them because I love them so much, and that's the true testament to the quality of their art: even when they're not quite on, they're still a hundred times better than just about everyone else in the world.

Portishead - Machine Gun