27 October 2008

Barackstock '08

Could the age of the self-flagellating liberal finally be approaching an end?

You tell me:

21 October 2008

prepping for the end of the year

Seeing as how we're nearing the end of October here, it's probably a good idea for me to start thinking about how to get my thoughts in order for my end-of-the-year music list (5 favorite albums, plus favorite song, plus various other incidental awards). The best way that I can think of to do this is to begin fashioning a list of all of the albums (and not-albums) released in 2008 that I have purchased and/or listened to (in 2008). In no particular order...

Hans Zimmer & James Newton Howard - The Dark Knight Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Kanye West - 808s & Heartbreak
The Verve - Forth
United Nations - United Nations
TV On The Radio - Dear Science
Trap Them - Seizures In Barren Praise
These Arms Are Snakes - Tail Swallower And Dove
Smashing Pumpkins - American Gothic [EP]
Sigur Ros - Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust
Ryan Adams & the Cardinals - Cardinology
Russian Circles - Station
The Roots - Rising Down
Rise Against - Appeal to Reason
Randy Newman - Harps and Angels
R.E.M. - Accelerate
Portishead - Third
Opeth - Watershed
Oasis - Dig Out Your Soul
NIN - The Slip and Ghosts I-IV
Mogwai - The Hawk is Howling
Oracular Spectacular
Metallica - Death Magnetic
Lil Wayne - Tha Carter III
King Hobo - King Hobo
Intronaut - Prehistoricisms
The Gutter Twins - Saturnalia
Gnarls Barkley - The Odd Couple
Ghost Buffalo - The Magician
Genghis Tron - Board Up The House
Fucked Up - The Chemistry of Common Life
Foxboro Hot Tubs - Stop Drop and Roll!!!!
Earth - The Bees Made Honey In The Lion's Skull
Disturbed - Indestructible
Coldplay - Viva La Vida
David Byrne & Brian Eno - Everything That Happens Will Happen Today
Bryan Scary & The Shredding Tears - Flight of the Knife
British Sea Power - Do You Like Rock Music?
Bison B.C. - Quiet Earth
Atmosphere - When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold

(hey, reverse alphabetical order!)

This is not going to be the easiest list to pare down. 2008 has, by and large, been a good year, and we're not through yet. Some of the various awards that'll get issued include:

The Andy Roddick Memorial Award - good, but not good enough
The Stretch Armstrong Tribute Award - demonstration of artistic growth
The Salvador Dali Memorial Award - good, but incomprehensible
The Spirit of Planet of Ice Award - a previously subpar artist/band's first worthwhile release
The Bourne Identity Soundtrack Award - for a noteworthy electronic album (which will henceforth get expanded to be an general "awesome production" award)
The Phantom Award - the letdown album of the year
The Die Hard with a Vengeance Tribute Award - a good new release, but one that pales in comparison to what came before
The "Holy Shit! I Care About You Again!" Award - self-explanatory
The Samuel Beckett Memorial Award - for the "fuck you, I'm making this my way" album
The Live Free or Die Hard/Lethal Weapon 4 Award - the unnecessary, but still enjoyable, album
The '04-'05 Phoenix Suns Award - for an album that I am coming to appreciate a year late (which may also result in a reworking of the previous year's Top 5 list)

Why do I have two awards named after Die Hard sequels?

For the couple of people that read this on an irregular basis, have I missed anything of critical importance?

13 October 2008

an attempt at saying something meaningful about punk rock

There's a quote from Pablo Picasso on the inside cover of the new Rise Against album (Appeal to Reason) about how how all works of art are really instruments of war, that they're engaged somehow in the immediate world around them.

Regardless of whether or not you'd consider yourself an "artist," I think engagement with the world around you is an essential element of anybody's behavior. This probably goes a long way towards explaining why some of my favorite records in the past few years (Pearl Jam's self-titled album, Green Day's American Idiot, Eddie's Into the Wild soundtrack, and, if we're willing to go back a few more years, The Rising, among others) have wound up being records dealing pretty directly with the
events of the day. That's at least part of why all of those protest songs from the '60s have the legs they do (well, that and the fact that they're just good songs).

There's a difference, though, between records like The Rising and those like, say, the Beastie Boys' To The 5 Boroughs (and still further difference between those two and Randy Newman's Harps and Angels, which doesn't do much to furthe
r my point, but is interesting to think about, regardless). That is to say, there's a difference between being timely, and handcuffing yourself to a single moment in time. Let's take a moment to compare some of the lyrics in Springsteen's "Into the Fire" to the Boys' "It Takes Time To Build." First, Ad Rock, MCA and Mike D:

You wanna change things up, well hey just get set/
It's easier to sit back than stick out your neck/
It's easier to break things than build it correct/
We've got a president we didn't elect/
The Kyoto treaty he decided to neglect/
And still the US just wants to flex/
Keep doin' that wop we gonna break our necks"

And now, Springsteen:

You gave your love to see, in fields of red and autumn brown/
You gave your love to me and lay your young body down/
Up the stairs, into the fire/
Up the stairs, into the fire/
I need you near, but love and duty called you someplace higher/
Somewhere up the stairs, into the fire"

This might not be a fair comparison, given Springsteen's inherent lyrical superiority, but, in a lot of ways, that's at the heart of the matter here. Both of the albums on which these songs are contained deal, to varying degrees, with the fallout from the events of the 11th of September, 2001 (I'm making an early New Year's resolution to avoid using "9/11" wherever possible - it's time to reclaim it from the evil wing of the Republican party), but they do it in vastly different ways. The Beastie Boys turn their vitriol to a very specific person, in the finest rap tradition of calling out a foe (see: pretty much every feud between rappers since the dawn of time), while Springsteen speaks in somewhat broader terms, ones not completely married to this specific moment in time, leading up to this election.

[Let's take a second to admit that, yes, the Beastie Boys' "An Open Letter to NYC" is a very sincere, very moving song, and I mean them no disrespect in their tribute to their hometown. But, let's be honest here: Springsteen vs the Beastie Boys. On perceived artistic merit alone, the Boss emerges victorious. But I'm losing sight of the point with every sentence I type.]

Rhymes about George II and Kyoto date themselves moments after they're spoken; whatever sort of power the words have, well, they fade with time. Eventually, the current audience (who you've got to hope will be listening to your music in decades time, right? Why create unless it's intended to endure?) won't appreciate your cracks about how we're "strung out on OPEC" - hopefully - in the way that the listeners of today will. Bruce's extolling of the virtue of the selfless sacrifice of the firefighters who saved as many as they could before they, themselves, fell... well, it carries a lot more weight. But, then again, it's supposed to.

I suppose what I'm saying is that I think there's a fine line between "timeless" and "generic," just as there is between "timely" and "dated."

But now, to the point: the new Rise Against album, Appeal to Reason.

I did not manage to discover Rise Against on my own; I had managed to swear off anything resembling "punk rock" during my "metal" phase in high school (with the notable exceptions of Green Day - always thought Billie Joe was smarter than people gave him credit for, and American Idiot proved me right - and Bad Religion) and had continued along that merry path up until Adam pretty much ordered me to listen to The Sufferer and The Witness. You could've considered me a convert to the church of Rise Against after the first four tracks on the album.

Someone once said that the great thing about punk rock is that it all sounds awesome at first, so primal and accessible is it, but the other great thing about it is that it doesn't take too much listening time to separate the wheat from the chaff, as it were (I'm taking great liberties with phrasing, here). It's not difficult to figure out whether Dookie is a better album than anything Good Charlotte has released, or will ever release, even though it's pretty obvious that they all loved the exact same sort of music growing up.

I remember the rise of what I'm going to refer to as "high school punk" (or "pop punk") during, interestingly enough, my time in junior high (high school, sadly, comprised the salad days of the boy band explosion - how excited was I when I got to college and found out there were bands where people actually played instruments?). Blink 182-type bands. It was kind of cool, at first: fast, funny, and easy to like from the start. But, it didn't go anywhere. It didn't say anything that hadn't already been said better earlier.

Rise Against, though, trades in significantly more than whining about girls from high school. Rise Against wants to change the world, or at least wake us up so that we're able to realize what sort of damage we're wreaking upon it. That's a sentiment I can get behind.

It's kind of like the flip side of the UN album, in a lot of ways. Appeal to Reason is very well-produced, very listener-friendly (much of the album could, and probably will, find a home on contemporary hard rock radio, and that's not a bad thing, I don't think), and very... musical. It's anthemic ["Re-Education (Through Labor)], assaulting ("From Heads Unworthy"), and heart-breaking ("Hero of War" - I bet everyone in the world can call this song out as cliche, but would you care to tell me when a cliche isn't a cliche? When you - the person producing it - believe in it sincerely), all traits I suppose you could ascribe to that "most important" of art, the timeless art. Oh, and the music supports the lyrics - I don't think there's a moment that you could accuse the words of taking a backseat to the power chords.

Oh, yes, the words. Significantly more important in punk rock, I think, due to the relative simplicity of the music (as compared to, say, Dream Theater). The point should be to get your point across. Here's how the first song, "Collapse (Post-Amerika)" opens:

"When our rivers run dry and our crops cease to grow/
And when our summers grow longer and winters won’t snow/
From the banks of the ocean and the ice in the hills/
To the fight in the desert where progress stands still/
When we’ve lost our will

That’s how we’ll know
This is not a test, oh no/
This is cardiac arrest/
Of a world too proud to admit our mistakes/
We're crashing into the ground as we all fall from grace"

Getting the point across, like I say. Let's use one more example, from my favorite song on the album, "The Dirt Whispered:"

She got down on hands and knees, one ear against the ground,/
Holding her breath to hear something, but the dirt made not a sound tonight

Echoes of songs still lurk on distant foreign shores, where we/
Danced just to please the gods that only ask for more, and so it goes

But still we give ourselves to this/
We can't spend our lives waiting to live"

This isn't to demean the musical abilities of the band, mind you. They're all skilled musicians, though I'd be remiss in my reaction-writing if I didn't say that I think the guitarist on The Sufferer & The Witness was a little... punchier than the new one.

There are too few records anymore that can sustain themselves beyond the first four tracks, but Appeal to Reason is solid pretty much throughout. The last thing you'd want to do is to see your argument fall apart in the last 10 or 12 minutes, right?

This is what "high school punk rock" should be, frankly: timeless, in a weird sort of way. That is to say, it can cut across a generational gap, so hopefully in the way that some parents are introducing their children to the "rebellious" music of their youth, the children of today could someday pass along their copy of Appeal to Reason to their children, for the points Rise Against makes today will be points worth making in the future, I believe.

It took a mainstream political campaign in 2008 to finally put into practice what many musicians have been saying all along: mobilize the youth. Let's hope it works, for all our sakes.

03 October 2008

the day after the [VP] debate

Biden has command of the issues; Palin can at least twist around the question and give answers to questions she wished the moderator had asked. Biden is smart, qualified, engaged, while Palin is, well, the opposite (I wasn't expecting to see Biden as the Jed Bartlet analogue, but I'll take it - he's even Catholic).

They got Palin on the ticket to boost its folksy authenticity (among other things), thinking her "realness" would connect with the average American. I didn't see an instant of truth in a single thing Palin did last night, so rehearsed and programmed was every word, gesture (that fucking winking thing she did at the camera...) and strand of hair.

Joe Biden, a man, like Barack Obama, that embodies the American Dream in its most pure form, a man who pulled himself up by virtue of his drive, intellect, and ambition, bared his soul to the world when he reminisced about his great personal tragedy. In a clearly unrehearsed moment, a moment devoid of political posturing and vote-shilling, Joe Biden showed America what sort of a man he really is, where his true values, and his heart, lie.

He's one of the few people in this country that I can honestly say I like as both a politician and a person; I hope he won some people over last night. It couldn't have been easy to be himself, but that's always what he's been best at.

01 October 2008

Confessions of a Denver Native (or, What's Up With the Denver Nuggets?)

I wasn't alive (or aware of basketball) during the 1980s heyday of the Denver Nuggets; the Doug Moe, run-and-gun years, the years where, try though they might, they could never muscle their way past the Showtime Lakers. My dad's told me stories about games, though, so at least I have more than a passing familiarity. The biggest thing I've taken away from his stories is the fact that those Nuggets didn't have to win championships to be a fun team to watch, a team worth supporting (a common theme among Colorado sports teams before we got spoiled watching them win Lombardi Trophies and Stanley Cups). Oh, for the days when support for your team wasn't defined by their proximity to their last championship trophy...

Sorry, I didn't mean to get sidetracked. My clearest first Denver Nuggets-related memory is of them clinching the playoff berth that led to the historic Sonics upset (sorry, Seattle fans, don't mean to bring up painful memories, I'm just telling it like it is); maybe it was the new uniforms, or the fact that everyone in the city lost their minds after the overtime victory, or the fact that, like a lot of the best times my dad and I shared during my youth, he and I watched the game together, cheering all the while (that's probably the single-best Nuggets-related time we ever had – most of those basketball bonding nights were spent watching the Jazz take on the Bulls. I'm really tearing open some old wounds today, aren't I?).

That was sort of the high-water mark for my time with the Nuggets. Most everyone remembers the decline: the trades (why, Dikembe?), the losing streaks, the awful records, Dan Issel getting carried out of the locker room on a rail... Maybe that last one didn't happen. It sure felt like it, though. While the Nuggets didn't become irrelevant during this ebbing period, they certainly didn't call to me, or our city, in the same way that they had used to. When we went to games (“we” being me with either my friends or my family), it was typically to see the marquee players from the other team, and certainly not our guys.

Fastforwarding (memory allows you to do that, you know) to 2003, and the Carmelo Anthony draft. Miraculously, the Nuggets became fun to watch again almost overnight (though, really, it was the result of nearly two years of hard work behind the scenes by former Nuggets star turned current Nuggets GM Kiki Vandeweghe). Nene, Boykins, Camby, Miller, Melo... Denver finally had a basketball team with players whose names were worth remembering. I wasn't much of a fan of the new uniforms (powder blue and yellow? Still looks like the color scheme you'd expect of a WNBA franchise), but that was a fairly small price to pay if there was NBA basketball in Colorado that was worth watching.

We thought the turnaround was complete with the return to the playoffs, or certainly with the inclusion of George Karl to the position of head coach (and the eventual addition of the much-revered Doug Moe to the staff); at least the Nuggets would be fun to watch again. They'd be competitive (playoffs 2 years in a row!), and play like they cared (putting up a fight in the losing playoff series, putting up an actual fight against the Isiah Thomas-coached Knicks). The question about whether or not they'd ever be able to get over that playoff hump might not have even been a question; Denver was, for a time, happy with a basketball team that was interested in actually playing basketball.

However (in a fairly ham-fisted transition), the question would receive an Answer, whether we liked it or not. Allen Iverson, inarguably one of the best pure players of his generation, made his way to the Nuggets on December 19, 2006. With the arrival, a month later, of Steve Blake from the Bucks, it was clear that the people running the show intended to make a real push for some level of dominance in the Western conference. Iverson, Melo, Blake, Camby, Nene, K-Mart... players whose names really were worth knowing. Or, so I thought.

Everything should be lining up. A solid Nuggets team that can compete with the best in the league, that plays adventurous, seat-of-your-pants basketball, packed to the brim with personality. Why, now, after the seeming resurrection of the classic, run-and-gun Nuggets, do I (along with many of my fellow Coloradans) find myself less than compelled by them? Is it the trade that sent Marcus Camby away for... nothing in return, is it because it's clear that Coach Karl really doesn't have the fire to get his team to the next level (despite the fact that he's only missed the playoffs once in seasons that he's finished with a team), let alone ride his superstar players hard enough to get them, if not to play actual defense, then to play with the other members of their team, or is it because, as commissioner David Stern might fear, the “thug” image of the team's principal players puts me, a white guy, off just enough that I can't commit my loyalty to the team?

Well, the third part of that question won't get us anywhere; there are plenty of scary things in this world, but basketball players are not really among them. Also, I haven't been intimidated by tatoos, or the way a person dresses, since high school. It has nothing to do with that. The two other parts of the question, well, they're really symptoms. A better front office could've organized a better trade (and put together a better team after Kiki left – great teams push each other above and beyond, and this Nuggets team is categorically incapable of doing exactly that), and better management could've found a coach more committed to, you know, coaching (and not wasted Melo's career, minus the Olympics, up to this point).

It's like the 80's again (deficit's up!), up to and including the fact that they're surrounded by teams that, sure, they can compete with, but can't consistently beat. The great thing for basketball fans is that team in the West decided to get good pretty much at the same time; the bad thing for Nuggets fans is that the team's just not good enough. They're not even really a team, at this point, but a bunch of guys out to score as many points as they can every night. I don't have a solution, aside from blowing the team and the coaching staff up and starting fresh, but that argument would work better if I had names of players and personel to target. Even then, I don't know if I'd care.

Photo of Rocky the Mountain Lion by Garrett W. Ellwood.