Winter Albums: Sounds for the Season

This was first published in 2011, but winter’s come again so why not?

As much as I enjoy all of the seasons, I’m glad to see the last flickers of autumnal warmth snuffed out by the cold. I enjoy watching trees shake themselves free of leaves. I like watching my breath roll away as I walk to work. I enjoy hearing the crunch of snow under boot. And I also enjoy the wood crackling in a fire, baking Christmas cookies, and noticing the first snow of the season dancing to the ground.

But what I really love is winter music. Not Christmas music—I do enjoy that too, but I consider “winter music” to be something different. My favorite winter music comes in two flavors: textured slabs of drone (guitar-based or not) or crystalline, atmospheric folk. (As much as I like other genres like jazz and R&B, I haven’t really found many examples that fit the bill here.)

There are many other albums that fall into this category, but for the sake of brevity, I only picked a few to highlight. I wrap up the article with an extended list. It’s not exhaustive (I could add any album by Mogwai there), but it covers some of my favorites.

HumDownward is Heavenward (1998, RCA)

Even though their indefinite hiatus as a band is interrupted by reunion shows every few years, Hum put their music career on standby after the release of Downward is Heavenward. What a note to go out on. Hum’s music was dense: waves of feedback and guitar effects coalesced into something quite melodic, and vocalist Matt Talbott’s quiet delivery of cryptic sci-fi poetry barely surfaced in the ocean of noise. Hum seemed equally indebted to the ‘90s shoe-gazer bands, prog metal, and Polish author Stanislaw Lem, and it’s a combination that worked perfectly for them. And I’ll repeat how thick their music sounds.

Though practically overlooked upon its release, Downward is Heavenward has gathered an incredibly positive reputation over the past decade. I think it’s deserved: the album shifts between complex, shimmering epics (“Afternoon With the Axolotls”),  space-bound pop rock (“Ms. Lazarus”) and tunes that are somewhere in between (“If You Are To Bloom”). While it’s a warm, rich, loud album, there’s nothing summery about it.

Son Lux At War With Walls and Mazes (2007, Anticon Records)

at war with walls and mazes

Son Lux is one man (Ryan Lott), a handful of repeated lyrical fragments, and thousands of short samples arranged into something magnificent. The album has elements of trip hop and neo-classical music, both resting on a wonderfully ambient shelf. Lott uses sampled tones from opera singers, keyboard drones, string quartets, breakneck drums, and a host more; it’s meticulously constructed and wonderfully downbeat, despite the moments of musical euphoria throughout.

Lott’s brittle voice chimes in from time to time, using lyrical riffs to set the mood. There’s a meditative, monastic aspect to how he pauses between verses, eventually repeating a variation and then repeating it again. “Tell me anything you want to tell me, I have nothing to say,” he sings on “Tell.” He follows it up with “I have nothing to say to you / But you have everything to say to me.” It’s simple, but has impact. That the song is permeated by mournful slide guitar and pulsating samples only heightens this. It’s a chilly album, but there’s a lot of warmth sheltered in the ice.

IdahoHearts of Palm (2000, Idaho Music)

Jeff Martin’s music project Idaho started moving away from a full-band rock sound almost immediately after they released their first album in the mid-’90s, but the drift to ambient soundscapes didn’t really register until Hearts of Palm. Martin uses piano and tenor guitar to create frozen skeletons of songs, only sometimes fleshing the music out with drums, bass or additional keyboards. The resulting songs, like “To Be the One” and “Alta Dena,” are hummable without being cloying, pensive without sliding into depressing.

My favorite cut on Hearts of Palm is also my favorite winter song, “This Cloud We’re On.” The warm, fuzzy guitars and shuffling drums part to let in fragile female backing vocals and stark piano. It’s like watching sun briefly cut through the cloud cover on a December day.


Other wintery suggestions:

The Cure — Disintegration

Elliott Smith — Either/Or,

Okkervil River — Black Sheep Boy

Castor — Tracking Sounds Alone

The Twilight Sad — Forget the Night Ahead

Red House Painters — Red House Painters (Rollercoaster)

Eric Bachmann — To the Races

Mogwai — Mr. Beast

Urge Overkill — Exit the Dragon.

In Plain View

West Texas is long on churches and short on curb appeal. It is mythmaking territory, a land where legends sprout more readily than trees. The names of its towns speak the truth about this arid swath of geography: Levelland. Plainview.

Balmorhea State Park's artesian fed pool.

The fancifully-named “Sweetwater” breaks the trend, but then again the town did build its own lakes in the late 1800s in order to attract commerce. That’s what you have to do in West Texas if you want a lake: you have to build it yourself. The land is so flat that whichever of the six flags that flew over the state at any given time in the past few centuries would have been easily visible rippling in the dry western breeze for many, many miles.

About other regions, it might be a stretch of the truth to assert that the character of its residents reflects the land’s contours. About West Texas it would be a falsehood to argue otherwise. Whether the landscape draws certain types of folks, or whether it makes folks behave a certain way once they’re already out there, is not clear. What is clear is that you know what you get with these people. They speak directly, and let you know exactly where you stand, just like a quick glance around the dusty plains will tell you exactly where you stand relative to the nearest house, farm, town, low-hanging cloud.

You can hear everything, too, in a terrain unbarricaded by natural soundbreaks. In a 2007 interview with West Virginia Public Television, American composer George Crumb said that the mountains of his home had imprinted their soundscapes indelibly on him through their endless echoes. And it’s true; Crumb’s music is always resonant with echo, either vastly or intimately. The wide West Texas country also comes with its own soundtrack. The even, steady, predictable beat of the plains across which trains once howled is mapped onto the sparse and transparent music of Buddy Holly, one of its greatest sons. The rockabilly singer who hailed from Lubbock and streaked across the pop music firmament like a brief and bright comet wrote and sang in a level, straightforward way, like the earth under his feet. His lyrics and delivery functioned in a single layer: if he sang “oh boy,” it meant he was glad. He didn’t even take poetic license with Peggy Sue; there really was a Peggy Sue. Plain songs with plain words by a plain man from the High Plains. No point in singing the multifaceted and signifyin’ blues here. The land is the blues.

Maybe this kind of landscape heightens the moral sensibilities, makes people better somehow. After all, hiding iniquity is quite difficult when even on the rare un-clear day, you can see forever. There is no cover for evil deeds. Perhaps this is why fundamentalism flourishes here: you can see exactly what your neighbor is up to, facilitating both judgment and fear of judgment. Or maybe this kind of landscape just makes people brazen rather than ethical. Everyone will see anyway, the thinking might go, so what does it matter? The notion of such a wide open expanse is inextricably bound up with sight, literal and moral. You can especially see the fundamentalist evangelicalism that dots the plains: pious specks of tiny Assembly of God churches, get-right-or-get-left billboards, and Christian bookstores.

You can hear it, too; on a three-day visit I counted as many references to the Rapture in normal conversation. The end of time was spoken of as it were just around the corner; and indeed, in what can sometimes seem a post-apocalyptic wilderness, it is easy to believe it just might be. Upon concluding a conversation, one elderly gentleman left me with the cheerful promise, “See you here, there, or in the air!”

Second only to the  fundamentalism in regional religious thought is a loose conglomeration of land-centered beliefs that coalesce around the thesis that until the Rapture, West Texas is the best place on earth to wait it out. Charles Reagan Wilson wrote a book called Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause. In it he argues that the mythology embodied in the “lost cause” worldview, which emerged among southern states following a humiliating loss in the Civil War, constitutes a religion, with high priests, sacred texts, and rituals. It is a convincing argument, and can be applied in some senses to the fervent regional loyalty of Texans. The only difference—and it is a big one—is that their pride, never having been mortally wounded by sociopolitical defeat and cultural irrelevance, doesn’t have to be bolstered by falsehood. Standing on the High Plains, surrounded by longhorn cattle and empty miles, one comes to share their unshakable belief that Texas would be just fine if the other forty-nine should fall.

Surely one of the highest liturgical rituals of Texanism must be the outdoor musical drama “Texas,” performed almost nightly near Amarillo since 1965. Big enough and epic enough to stand up to the canyon (!) in which it is performed, the musical is a cocktail of love stories, expansionism, and frontier dilemmas set in a vague period in the 1800s. The requisite Native Americans obligingly appear in headdress, and vigorous square-dancing is pounded out over a score reminiscent of Copland’s Billy the Kid. Given that even the terrifying thunderstorm depicted in the play coincides with a romantic stage kiss, “Texas” makes frontier life look pretty great. It is easy sport to poke fun at the bland patriotic finale tacked onto the production in recent months, until one realizes that throughout most of this number, the Texas flag is still foregrounded onstage, with the American flag in the background. No, Texas’s cause was never a lost one; and it is impossible not to feel a thrill as riders on horseback fly through the canyon bearing the flags that have flown over the state. The rite is enacted to an enthralled congregation seated on the floor of a rocky open-air cathedral, a reminder that West Texans have succeeded at living on the plains not by subduing them, but by acquiescing to them. Descending into the massive gash to watch the musical hammers home the strange sacrifice of mingled pride and humility that these flatlands demand from their dwellers.

Land and people are connected here as they are everywhere—always a truism but always different in its manifestation. In Wendell Berry’s What Are People For?, he speaks often and in many ways about the “practical harmony” between a land and its people. In West Texas, the harmony is sometimes discordant, with certain strains missing as raindrops pelt the earth less frequently and buffalo hooves have fallen silent. Yet it is still there, throbbing through the music of the plains, which sometimes sounds like a square dance in a canyon, and sometimes sounds like the moan of a lamenting cow, and sometimes sounds like two electric guitars and a dutifully-thumping bass for a Lubbock boy to sing against. The sounds and sights grind themselves into the souls of their inhabitants, whose much-lauded fierce independence is yet ever-dependent on the flat lands on which they stand.




At Least I Author My Own Disaster

“The past is a grotesque animal,” begins the eponymously titled Of Montreal song; “and in its eyes you see / how completely wrong you can be.” What follows is a beautiful, rich, long composition, one that’s as mesmerizing lyrically as it is musically.  Its lyrics might qualify for great poetry on their own, they so precisely describe the human condition.

The older I get the more I see that my own past is not merely a mistake or series of lapses in judgment but more of a whole cloth, a fabric of mistakenness. Having done wrong becomes having been wrong, there’s so much wrongness woven throughout my memory—throughout my self. And if I’m in the midst of a dark, bourbon-enhanced night of the soul, my past comes to life, bares its teeth at me. If it gets close enough to bite, I risk becoming the mistakes I’ve made, losing hope, and “like a dog returning to its vomit” (Proverbs 26) going back to them. It’s a vicious cycle that can remove the promise, the meaning from life, as the next lines of the song indicate:

The sun is out, it melts the snow that fell yesterday—

makes you wonder why it bothered.

The poetic beauty of this Of Montreal song—and the genius of Kevin Barnes, the band’s founder, lyricist and lead singer (basically the whole band)—lies in the way one very specific memory has come to symbolize “the past.” At a Swedish festival, he says, “I fell in love with the first cute girl that I met / who could appreciate Georges Bataille.” Blame his impulsive neediness, his imaginative tendency to see more in the woman than was there, and maybe on both of their parts a tendency towards eroticism (hence the Bataille reference): he had allowed himself to develop a quick, deep attachment. And when he realizes they don’t quite see eye to eye on Bataille’s Story of the Eye, he understands that what he had taken for love was really only half a thing. What comes next is almost a gag reflex:

It’s so embarrassing to need someone like I do you—

How can I explain? I need you here—and not here, too.

Evidence of “how completely wrong you can be”: In no legitimate “fell in love” scenario is the loved one inexplicably both needed and not needed—nor is true love a source of shame. But you know, these connections tend to strike swiftly and with deadly accuracy. Barnes’ imagination becomes his rationalization, too:

I’m flunking out, I’m flunking out, I’m gone, I’m just gone;

but at least I author my own disaster.

Performance breakdown, and I don’t want to hear it.

I’m just not available. Things could be different, but they’re not.

This pattern of attachment and regret-filled detachment, like the “cruelty” in Bataille’s Story of the Eye, is “so predictable,” says Barnes. He recognizes he’s become a “perihelion” to her—a point of closest orbit—and muses, “sometimes I wonder if you’re mythologizing me like I do you.” Then he adds a damning confession: “We want our film to be beautiful, not realistic.”

Yet still—still—he swoons, “You’ve lived so brightly, you’ve altered everything” and in the end turns back to indulgence, profound and seemingly indefatigable:

I’m so touched by your goodness,

You make me feel so criminal—

How do you keep it together?

I’m all, all unraveled.

But you know, no matter where we are,

we’re always touching by underground wires.

Herein lies the immense appeal of this song, as if twelve minutes of glam rock/electronic pop perfection weren’t enough. We want to believe in a connection that always holds, no matter where we go, no matter what we do. It’s not just sexual or erotic, though it might begin that way. It’s a desire for spiritual presence, a need to be “touched by … goodness.” It’s a need for blessing. This is why wallowing in a lost past or reveling in the pain of an abortive romantic attachment makes us feel good. It’s like candy for the soul. “None of our secrets are physical now,” concludes Barnes, further emphasizing the transformation of random “cute girl” to goddess, object of worship.

My theory is that Barnes’ desire is a desire for God. Compare the song’s conclusion to Psalm 139: “You discern my thoughts from afar” writes David; “Where shall I go from your Spirit? / Or where shall I flee from your presence?” David wanted the same thing, to be loved in an inescapable way, always touching by underground wires. David knew this desire in a Godward sense, but earlier in his life he also had known it in its shadow sense. He, too, had fallen in love with a cute girl that he saw bathing on a nearby rooftop (2 Samuel 11) and chose beauty over the reality that she was married to one of his most faithful warriors. I’m sure that when her husband was sleeping on his doorstep, David felt the “need you here / and not here too” anxiety Barnes expresses in “The Past Is a Grotesque Animal.” David was looking for the same thing, discovered destructively in Bathsheba’s beauty and eventually known more dependably in God’s love.

We all want to be known, loved—given. Especially in a culture of ephemeral electronic communications and multiplying forms of social networking, we’re desperate for permanence. Instead we’re finding replicated versions of ourselves, mini-myths constructed around our own avatars, shrines of self-indulgence that look like other people. What we tend to forget is that the people we’re mythologizing actually are other people, children of parents, members of communities. Remember that although Barnes’ song spins into a kind of self-flagellating love-candy even the Cure never dreamed of, the whole song is submitted in evidence of “how completely wrong you can be.”

I’d revise that, come to think of it. “The Past Is a Grotesque Animal” demonstrates how partly wrong you can be. It’s right to desire deep connection, to be loved by someone who’s “lived so brightly [they’ve] altered everything.” Everything needs to be altered in my own dark, memory-filled heart. Still, I’m not sure how to soldier through without a splash of bourbon now and then.


Machine Girl and Her Remedies

  When I first heard a song by Lana del Rey, I was tipsy-drunk and wondering whether or not we were going to run out of alcohol in the midst of an escalating party. The song was “Video Games,” her first, immensely popular single, and it only took a few moments of hearing the pleasant strings and gentle vocals of that song to convince me that I loved the woman who was singing to me. “Video Games” is about love in all of its idol fascination, and argues that the only true reason for living is “if somebody is loving you.” Even in my rum-fogged state of mind I knew that was a special moment. I had found the woman for me—Lana del whatever—and we were going to have a lovely life together. I downloaded the song within the hour and our love affair began amidst the din of chatting partygoers and the haze of hard drinks. I think Lana would have preferred it that way.


Lana Del Rey (aka Elizabeth Woolridge Grant) is the face that launched a thousand think pieces. She was born in New York City and sings songs made for hot, sultry Manhattan summers. The following is some historical perspective:

Lana Del Ray

After “Video Games” was released on her MySpace page, the music world was abuzz with speculation and expectation regarding this self- styled “gangsta Nancy Sinatra.” Who was this girl who seemed so aloof and elusive in interviews? How do we react to a young woman who openly admits to choosing her stage name because it evokes a ”faded seaside glamour” aesthetic? Doesn’t she realize that you can’t be this honest about image creation with music critics? Name dropping Williamsburg and claiming that she “had a vision for making her life a work of art” in interviews didn’t help the question of authenticity. Authenticity. It became hard to refer to Lana Del Rey without at some point mentioning that troublesome word. And all of this was before her wealthy upbringing came to light. She didn’t fit the indie motif she peddled. Occupy Wall Street and Brooklyn co-ops were cool. Trust funds and cocktail parties in the Hamptons were not. Yet the indelible quality of “Video Games” could not be questioned. It was what Betty Draper would have listened to if she could have taken a break from shooting birds and vomiting in cars. 1960’s glamour is cool, right? Keep in mind all of this was before her full-length album “Born to Die,” was even released.

All of this expectation was smashed by an SNL performance in mid January, two weeks before the official release of “Born to Die.” Lana Del Rey looked nervous and sounded shaky in what some called one of the worst SNL performances ever. The expected backlash burst forth. SNL parodied her performance and Lana’s perceived awkwardness was confirmed for many– mere few days before the release of the LP. I’m sympathetic towards Lana’s SNL performance. Selecting the worst SNL performance, music or otherwise, would be an almost impossible task for anyone due to sheer volume of possible selections. But I digress, and the story continues.

Reviews were mixed when Lana’s “Born to Die” was finally released. Pitchfork, Paste, Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly all gave it less than stellar marks. Pitchfork, the Death Star of music publications, compared the album to a “faked orgasm.” Ouch?

Let us conclude this bit: due to sky-high expectations and an environment of hype usually reserved for new Radiohead albums, coupled with her own innate ability to raise questions of authenticity and arguments pitting sincerity against phoniness, Lana Del Rey’s “Born to Die” is hyper- scrutinized and her inability to live up to all of the buzz seems to disturb.  And thus concludes the back-story of Miss Elizabeth Grant.


 There is a serious tension in the cultural discussion of Lana Del Rey. The combination of the hype and her own Devil-may-care attitude toward any criticism has moved perceptions of Lana Del Rey away from the actual quality of her music (let’s give her a solid B) to a her role as an emblem of greater culture values.  Does the fandom of Lana Del Rey illustrate the end of authenticity in music? The perpetuity of narcissism? Or is she just another weird trend-celeb that vapid music “fans” can gravitate towards?

Lana Del Rey’s own music only adds to this exchange. Her song “National Anthem,” a love song to materialism and decadence, which if performed by any other artist would be considered social commentary, but feels sincere in LDR’s hands, talks of “blurring the line between the real and the fake;” her own admission that she “wanted to be part of a high-class scene of musicians…hoping that (she) would meet people and fall in love and start a community around (her), the way they used to do in the ‘60s,” sets her up as an architect of her own public personae. Again, is she real or is she fake? Does purposely trying to construct an identity make it any less authentic once it’s achieved? At some level, I would argue that all artists are trying to purposefully create their own perceived realities. While no artist admits to this, LDR seems proud of her “vision for making (her) life a work of art.” The femme fatale personae feels contrived and overly produced; Lana Del Rey simply doesn’t give a damn that it bothers.

Rather than address the authenticity of Lana, I view Miss Del Rey’s place in popular culture as a remedy for an affliction: the constant need for icons of cool.

Popular culture rides on the ebbs and flows of consumer tides, and the concept of “cool” is the moon to these mercurial obsessions. Modern cultural taste develops from one artistic icon of reality to another. Consider the following: real life occurs (the 1960s), art creates a perspective on the actual event (books and tv shows about the 1960s), a particular piece of art is constructed rather well (AMC’s Mad Men), this exceptional artistic snap shot becomes associated with the authentic “real life” and established as cool (critical acclaim and 1960s themed cocktail parties) and the new icon is born. For those who didn’t experience America in the 1960s, art such as Mad Men is now the widely accepted version of those real events. In essence, Don Draper as an icon of American masculinity and complexity informs the new perception of the 1960s, bringing with it the label of cool due to proper artistic construction. Perhaps in 10 years a different historical era will emerge as cool, but for now Mad Men serves as the icon of cool that leads to a potentially misplaced nostalgia. It is this process of icon creation and the subsequent cultural attraction to these icons that powers the machine of Lana Del Rey. It may be true that at one time Lana Del Rey may have “just wanted to be seen as a good singer, and not much else,” however she now seems more than pleased to become much more. Lana Del Rey is a machine: a hype machine, a sex machine, a beautiful, glassy eyed machine that provides all of our pop culture remedies.


 Lana Del Rey has attempted to build herself as yet another icon of cool, taking advantage of the storehouse of nostalgia in modern pop culture created by past icons. What makes Lana Del Rey ultimately so compelling is not her attitude or questionable authenticity, but rather the positioning of herself in perhaps the most potent “cool” icon factory of all: the cultural tradition of New York art.

New York City seems to always find a warm welcome in the American mind, and this New York mythos of popular imagination provides the appropriate blueprint for understanding the Lana Del Rey machine. Countless articles can and have been written about New York as a nexus of art, culture, and as an idea; Lana Del Rey has inserted herself within this context and seeks to gain from the established affection for New York art. When I refer to New York art, I do not just mean art that has been created within the geographic confines of the five boroughs and surrounding landscape, but more specifically art that directly addresses and reflects the varied manifestations of New York City in popular perception. Let us briefly examine a few select New York icons of cool:


For the bibliophile:

Few American novels are held in such high regard as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, a series of slices of the elite New York lifestyle revolving around the exploits of the determined-in-love Jay Gatsby, the ever-observant Nick Carraway, and the dynamic duo of Tom and Daisy Buchanan during the Roaring Twenties. Booze- filled parties, philandering husbands and a prevailing carefree attitude define the lives of the Long Island socialites. Lana Del Rey’s Born to Die would have been played on loop at one of Gatsby’s rollicking parties while she downed cherry schnapps with three lacrosse players in the moonlit pool. The Great Gatsby’s legacy as an icon of cool? Drinking became sexy and the high school prom theme of the “Roaring Twenties” was born.

For the classy music fan:

So he was born in New Jersey and he spent an unhealthy amount of time in Las Vegas– Frank Sinatra has still become almost inseparable from any pop culture representation of New York, thanks in part to his music and his legendary affection for Gotham City’s nightlife. When she describes herself as a “gangsta Nancy Sinatra,” Lana Del Rey isn’t leaving too much up to the imagination. Yes Lana, we get the connection you’re making. Sinatra in New York? Yep, that’s about as cool as it gets.

For anyone who has ever met a sorority girl:

The movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s, based on Truman Capote’s novel of the same name, is sublime. I hated this movie the first time I saw it, and then I awoke from my dream, ate some cake, and realized the whole thing is genius. Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly is one of the most iconic characters of all time. Go into ten female freshmen dorm rooms in an American university and I’d bet at least six of them have a poster of Audrey wearing that black dress and those pearls, holding a cigarette in that hoighty toighty way of hers. Breakfast at Tiffany’s took the raging party fun of The Great Gatsby out of the Hamptons and into the Upper East Side. Mix in some implied prostitution, a struggling writer, mobsters, and some uneasy racial tension on the part of the audience (sorry Mickey Rooney), and you have a New York tale forever engrained in popular consciousness. Holly Golightly would have probably listened to Born to Die after waking up with her cat wrapped around her neck. Lana Del Rey simply modernizes and continues the iconic party-girl aesthetic popularized by Holly Golightly and her New York escapades.

 For the  angsty, barely-holding-onto-the-y yuppie:

Don’t worry, The National has nothing in common with Lana Del Rey…except for the song “Available.”

Did you dress me down and liquor me up, to make me last for the minute, when the red comes over you, like it does when you’re filled with love, or whatever you call it.”

Yes, Lana Del Rey could have easily written those lyrics. Watch it, Matt Berninger.

For the same people who listen to The National:

Mad Men has already been referenced enough in this piece, but it bears reiterating the important role that this show has had on creating a modern perspective of the 1960s, a perspective that paved the way for Lana Del Rey styling herself as a throwback to the newly imagined glamour and swank of that decade. Without the “cool” icon creation of Mad Men, it is hard to imagine that such a high level of expectation would have existed for LDR’s 1960s personae.


In an attempt to provide an alternate interpretation of Lana Del Rey, I find comfort in viewing her as yet another icon of cool in the New York City tradition, rather than just the most recent vapid addition to the female pop star carousel. The image of Lana Del Rey as a machine is crucial to this understanding: she knowingly creates the remedies for popular culture’s desire for new emblems of cool, conveniently packaging all the allure of past icons into one sexy and, admittedly, talented machine girl. It seems that Lana got what she wanted after all: her life has become a work of art, and we’ve all been caught staring.


The Death of Live Music

One of the definitive moments of my life was my first live concert. I’ll protect the shred of dignity I have left by not disclosing the artist, but rest assured that at that time, they were one of the most popular acts in the country. The show took place at a major venue in Hartford, Connecticut, and I paid less for those tickets than I pay to see some local shows in Brooklyn today. I was twelve years old, but I felt like I had the world at my fingertips.

Immediately hooked on live music, I started saving my allowance to buy tickets to the next great show coming to town, much to the chagrin of my father who was tasked not only with driving me and my friends to the shows, but also with taking us to the Ticketmaster outlets to buy tickets. (You couldn’t buy tickets on the Internet then, and it was generally agreed upon that there was really no point in trying to penetrate busy signal after busy signal on the phone.) In those days — because it really does feel that long ago — ticket sales began on Saturday mornings, giving everyone with Monday through Friday work and school schedules an equal opportunity to land tickets. I’d wake up at the crack of dawn and my father would drive me down to the local donut shop — you know, when towns had local shops — for some early morning trans fat before making our way to the empty parking lot of the nearest ticket outlet in the next town over. There we waited for hours, always the first in line to get the best seats available for whichever band had captured my attention. It was, for a young man, a grand adventure that is now a very fond memory.

Nowadays, I question how many young people will have the opportunity to make such memories. The state of live music has changed dramatically in the last fifteen years, and so has the state of ticket sales, neither for the better. With quality and affordability stacked against them, I wonder — and frankly, worry — about the increasingly limited access to events that not only create lasting memories, but that also reaffirm over and over again the importance of live music in our culture.

The irony, of course, is that there is no lack of musical performances going on in America today. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more musical acts taking various stages across the country than ever before. But quantity has never been a very good substitute for quality, and live music is the furthest thing from an exception. That there are hundreds of musicians lining the stages of bars, concert halls, stadiums, festivals, and the like does not mean that the live music industry is thriving. Instead, I suggest it means that music, like so many other things, has become far more about business than it is about art.

Take one of the most basic venues for live entertainment: the bar. Now the functional purpose of a bar is to provide people with a place where they can socialize, engage one another in community, and otherwise unwind. What people don’t — or at least, never used to — go to a bar to do is to listen to live music. Live music, once upon a time, was part of the package, one way among many in which bar owners sought to placate their patronage. Now, at least in New York City, bar owners don’t want to simply deliver live music to their customers, they want the live music to bring in the customers. And they frequently don’t want to pay their live music to do so — they offer a late time slot on a weeknight, require a pull of at least twenty people (usually friends of the musicians), charge five to ten dollars at the door and a two drink minimum, pocketing more than half of the door charge. Those looking to unwind apart from the music suddenly have to pay a cover to do so, and those looking to support the music have to force themselves to either down two drinks in an hour or simply pay for a drink that will never be consumed.

From the standpoint of the art, there are a few problems with this business tactic. The first is that bars offer slots to artists primarily based on how many people they can bring in, not how good they are. So a tone-deaf, lo-fi, prog-rock, insert-any-other-hyphenated-descriptor-here band of college students with a collective total of 3,000 Facebook friends might be offered a gig over an accomplished solo jazz artist ten years in the business not because walk-in customers happen to enjoy noise rock, but because the individuals playing the noise rock will bring their friends into the establishment, even if only for an hour. Those friends become compulsory customers, and so a bar’s business will likely be much greater than it would have been had they brought in a more talented act with a smaller network. Suddenly the tone-deaf, lo-fi kids are being offered regular gigs despite the fact that the quality of music being performed is questionable.

By bringing in audiences of twenty people or more to tiny or no-name bars, it may appear that a band has a particular talent or appeal, even though the majority of that audience is friends who are simply looking to show support. Regular draws bring regular gigs, presenting the illusion that a band has achieved some measure of musical success when in fact, they have only so far been successful in strengthening a bar’s cashflow. Through self-promotion — still not a measure of musical prowess — this illusion spreads to larger venues, which means finally reaching a wider audience. The larger venues are no different than the bars in that they want to know how many tickets they will sell, not whether the music is of any notable quality. When a venue promoter believes that a band will bring in a large audience of their own, they use it as a springboard to bring other people in. “Look at what everyone else is doing,” they seem to say, “Don’t you want to do this, too?”

I don’t mean to say that buzzworthy bands never catch a break, but oftentimes, the wrong bands are given opportunities because they are better at promoting themselves than they are at playing music, and venue owners and ticket brokers are happy to cash in. It is at this stage where the cultural value of live music really takes a hit. While the quality of music presented remains relatively subjective — everyone has different musical tastes — the imperfect way in which ticket sales are handled has hurt music fans across the board.

As long as I can remember, there have been service fees associated with any ticket purchases made through a vendor as opposed to a box office. And while these surcharges have always been annoying, they were also nominal — maybe four dollars a ticket — so we dealt with it. Now, tickets sold through a vendor like Ticketmaster will cost the music fan somewhere in the vicinity of fifteen dollars on top of the list price — and that doesn’t even include receiving the tickets in the mail. Indeed, the only method of ticket delivery that does not include an additional charge these days is e-mail delivery, which means the consumer is now even responsible for his own printing costs. Why, exactly, have surcharges increased if the service provided has decreased?

More frustrating is the increasing popularity of presale tickets — tickets that can be purchased ahead of the release date by those willing to spend more. That isn’t to say that those who want to pay more shouldn’t be able to if it guarantees them seats to their favorite band, but true fans aren’t the only ones paying inflated pre-sale prices, and frequently, they are in the minority. Professional “scalpers”, or ticket resellers as they’ve come to be known, have access to significantly more funds than the average music lover, and ticket presales open the door wide for them to make the investment because they will only turn around and sell the tickets at marked-up prices anyway. The profits still outweigh the costs, leaving music fans with less access to regularly priced tickets on regular sale dates.

Ticket resale sites like StubHub and TicketsNow provide a platform for people to sell their tickets to any event, at any price set by the seller. Thus if I happen to purchase two tickets to see the Rolling Stones for $100 each, I can turn around and sell them for $1,000 each. It’s bad enough that the average Joe is empowered to make such disgusting profits off a ticket resale, but imagine the field day for the brokers. Because they have more resources to access tickets — as a business, they have more computers, phone lines, and agents seeking to purchase — they are more likely to actually land high-demand tickets. With entire teams of people working under brokers to secure tickets to the hottest shows, the access music fans have to those same tickets exponentially decreases. And I can’t help but feel that there is something fishy about the best seats to the best shows appearing on StubHub and TicketsNow within five minutes — barely enough time for the average person to complete a transaction — of going on sale through Ticketmaster, and for unreasonably inflated prices.

Unfortunate as it may be, I won’t deny that as long as capitalism is here, then business will need to remain a part of music so that musicians can make livings for themselves just as anybody else. But there was a time — and it wasn’t that long ago — when this was achieved with more harmony. Musicians were paid to do their jobs, ticket outlets and venues made money doing theirs, and fans had access to the bands they wanted to see at prices they could reasonably afford. Now at the grass-roots level, musicians aren’t paid fairly (if they are even paid at all) and at the higher levels, many fans are denied access to their favorite bands because of obstacles put up by venue owners and ticket sellers and resellers who are seeking to make a profit, regardless of whether or not they are promoting something of value.

All of this needs to be taken back to formula, so to speak. In a culture saturated with songs and sounds, we have grown to take music for granted, viewing musicians as dollar signs for those who would give them a platform to make a name for themselves. We need to remember that music is, first and foremost, a gift, one that is able to transcend the routine of everyday life, providing us an outlet for our thoughts, emotions, and our souls. It’s not the sort of thing that should have ever had a price tag on it, but since it does, then it is not merely a good idea, but it is our duty to ensure that the musicians who offer us this gift are provided for, without robbing audiences of the myriad other priceless riches that music will always, no matter the state of the economy, afford to culture around the world.

Not Your Father’s Shoplifting

I remember well my family’s second desktop computer. It was bigger and faster than the clunky Packard Bell that was our entry into the digital age. This new computer, a Compaq, was more than just a glorified typewriter. This computer could not only access the Internet―it was fast enough to download things.

So download we did. First we downloaded games or software, but that was still too large for the modem on our rural DSL.

Then one day my dad came home and said there was this program you could download that would let you access music from other people if you also shared it with them. It was called file sharing. We jumped right in.

I downloaded country albums and my dad downloaded tons of classic rock. We never had to pay for any music again. What an amazing concept. The Internet was just raining down gifts to us, and all we had to do was let someone download our music and then we could download theirs. It was a brilliant concept.

Brilliant and illegal.

My dad eventually put a stop to our downloading when we found out it was illegal. I agreed, but for the next few years I operated in a big gray area in terms of what was illegal piracy and what was just normal usage of media. In high school, as I and most of my friends found out that piracy was illegal, we just reverted back to making copies of albums for each other on CDs. In college, with a whole network at our disposal and some tech-savvy dorm-mates, there was quickly a shared folder in which all the guys’ dorms were dumping movies, music and game. We never considered this illegal; we were just sharing what we had always shared with each other, except now the annoying things like people scratching DVDs or loosing albums in their cars could be avoided. The illicitness was not the enticing factor―sharing with each other was just plain easier. We had no idea that according to record companies and film studios what we were doing was illegal.

In a world of  legal doctrines built on physical property, the public and record companies were woefully unprepared for the onslaught of digital piracy. For one thing, the public was not aware of the potential criminality of such actions, and the attempts by record companies to put a stop to it―sending cease and desist letters to people―was a public relations nightmare. One of my friends who was a huge user of file sharing sites was shocked to receive a letter from a record company basically telling him to stop using file sharing sites, otherwise he would be subject to  jail time and fines that were going to make college loans look cheap. He stopped, as any reasonable person would, but it never seemed right for him to be treated like that. We had not been taught that our actions were illegal. The whole thing had the feeling of a police officer writing a bogus traffic ticket. It just didn’t feel wrong, yet it was.

Artists and fans have moved far beyond the confines of the law. The whole artist and fan relationship is moving forward in terms of interaction, accessibility and the use of content while the record companies and movie studios are stuck in the dark ages of physical media. Sites like Bandcamp, NoiseTrade, Vimeo and Youtube are pushing the envelope of artist/fan interaction and giving fans what they want: access to media without the hassle of annoying record companies. The sheer brilliance of NoiseTrade and Bandcamp is that it gives consumers of music what they want: music at a reasonable price.

Yet is what consumers want actually right or fair? The common belief amongst large corporations is that young people are spoiled brats who want everything for free. I beg to differ. Generation Y is not a generation of media anarchists who cast a blind eye to rules and regulation in an endless desire to consume everything that is hip and coo. According to a 2010 survey in Australia, “GEN Y is prepared to pay more for legal downloads of TV shows and movies than any other age group, while people between 31 and 50 are more likely to pay top dollar for music.”[1] What is really happening in the world today is that young people are unsatisfied with the lack of imagination and investment by entertainment companies in providing the actual services that people want and the Internet is capable of producing. Artists recognize this, and so do companies like Apple, Netflix, Pandora or Spotify. In a recent interview, Neil Young expressed what most young people are already thinking about piracy and the motivation behind it, easy access:

It doesn’t affect me because I look at the Internet as the new radio. I look at the radio as gone….Piracy is the new radio. That’s how music gets around….That’s the radio. If you really want to hear it, let’s make it available, let them hear it, let them hear the 95 percent of it.[2]

It’s interesting to note that Neil Young is more concerned about the loss of fidelity of music in mp3 files than he is about piracy. Young is not joining in some kind of youth revolt. He is a realist.

In reality, Internet piracy continues today because accessibility is still a problem, but that does not make it right.  Just because something is not readily available does not mean any person can appoint themselves Robin Hood. It would be naive to call people who are participating in piracy “thieves.”  The deeper reality is that, just like shoplifting, piracy is a problem of desire and consumption masquerading as thievery.

The problem with piracy is not consumer frustration with the current distribution system of media. Time and money will fix that problem. People are voting with their wallets. The problem with piracy is the unrelenting desire for things that is part of our culture. The value of media is swallowed by the ubiquity of digital downloading and storage. Ten years ago, the amount of media you owned was constricted by the confines of your home and how many CDs, books and DVDs you could stuff onto your shelves. There was a limit. Now with hard drives and the cloud, the the finite nature of storing media has been erased. Media used to be something that was collectible, treasured and used. Now it is something that can be consumed and tossed into the recycling bin on our computer desktops. There is no limit to the amount of media that can fill our digital landfills. Piracy is ultimately a symptom of our insatiable desire to consume instead of participate.






photo by: bixentro

Music from Life

We are often told that our sense of smell is the means of perception most closely associated with memory. For instance, for me, “childhood” smells like the hot vinyl upholstery of a 1980 Caprice, Ivory soap, and slightly stale Cheerios. “Fall” evokes the smell of burning leaves, and “college” smells like a particularly over-sweetened latte. You (almost literally) get the picture.

Lately, however, I’ve noticed how many of my memories have a soundtrack. Not just a soundtrack of ambient sounds, or like a montage in a film, but particular songs have the ability to transport me back to a specific time and place, and open a window into who I was at that moment.

This phenomenon came to my attention recently when I reached into the deeper recesses of my music collection for some new commuting music. My twenty minute sojourn to my office is my last slice of free mental energy before the drudgery of the workday, and the return trip is my decompression chamber before a return to real life. But as soon as I slipped the disc for the Snatch movie soundtrack into my stereo, the drive, and the route suddenly changed.

Photo by Maggie Stein

I was transported to southern California, 2006. I was now behind the wheel of a gleaming red Dodge Magnum station wagon, careening down the 101 at a speed that almost matched the highway’s number. It was nearly midnight as I returned to my hotel in Anaheim, and my adrenaline was pumping along with the glitchy, thundering techno of the soundtrack. It’s impossible to drive slowly to this music.

I’d left Santa Barbara an hour before, leaving behind my high school crush and her recently minted fiancée. She and I had shared a celebratory dinner near her college on my expense account, and she’d discussed wedding plans and how much she enjoyed his family. I couldn’t have been happier for her; time since high school had proven our fundamental incompatibility, so there were no lingering hard feelings.

My expense account had also purchased the Snatch soundtrack, which accompanied me around the greater Los Angeles area that week. At the time, I was working in sales, and when I travelled (which was often) I had a habit of driving straight from the rental car pickup location to the closest place to purchase music that I could find. Subsequently, every trip brought home a new album along with a new batch of sales.

So as I listened to Massive Attack’s “Angel”, I almost missed the exit for my office, and I could well have continued on Interstate 10 all the way back to the City of Angels. Brought back to reality, I considered the differences between my 2011 and 2006 selves.  No longer selling, no longer travelling for business, of course, but more subtle differences, too. The momentum that sent me hurtling back to my hotel in Anaheim, and bouncing like a pinball between coasts and relationships and jobs has slowed considerably, too. But the inspiration of the bass and drums still makes it difficult to maintain the speed limit.

I began to consider the other albums accumulated in my travels, too. How The Zuton’s “Who Killed The Zutons?” takes me back to the piney woods outside Jacksonville, the day after the overwhelmed north Florida burgh had hosted its only Super Bowl. I arrived to a shell-shocked crowd of morose Eagles fans and rejoicing Patriots fans (who were just approaching their zenith of obnoxiousness), had one early morning meeting, and had to waste the rest of the day until my flight departed.

I saw Jacksonville from one city limit sign to the other, with the blaring clarinet and nasal harmony of The Zutons keeping me on edge. I almost accidentally drove into Georgia as the pines grew so close together that I lost track of time. I briefly panicked, remembering the somber rental car clerk who’d asked me accusingly if I planned on driving out of state. I found the first exit I could, and high tailed it back to the airport.

Another album was acquired when I became stranded in the smallish east Texas town of Tyler. My boss and I had flown up early in the morning for a nine o’clock meeting, which had wrapped quickly enough for us to return to the airport for the morning’s only flight back to Houston. There was only one standby seat available, and I certainly couldn’t pull rank in this situation. I fished the car keys out of the return box, and made my way over to the sad little shopping mall. I overpayed for The White Stripes’ “White Blood Cells” at Sam Goody, and went bombing down backroads until my afternoon departure, Jack White’s snarling guitar and petulant voice giving expression to my frustration.

In Tampa, Outkast’s “Speakerboxx/Love Below” double CD provided the much-needed running time after I failed to realize how far apart Tampa and its sister St. Petersburg are, and how setting appointments on the same day on both sides of the bay bridge that separates them is probably not a great idea.

All these memories are relics of a time in my life typified by searching, wandering, and a lack of solid grounding. Hearing these songs now is not always pleasantly nostalgic; regret buzzes faintly in the background, too. But reminders of these times are healthy. They remind me of the grace that brought me to where I am now. They recall immaturity, but also growth and discovery, both of musical and life varieties.

So take this challenge: dig into your box of CDs, or sort your iTunes library by date added, find the oldest purchases, and reflect as you listen to them. Who were you when you bought this music? (Is it old enough that you actually got it on Napster?) What does the music itself say about you at that time? Lord knows, the percentage of my music catalog occupied by metal and emo has dropped precipitously. Where does the music take you?  Back to junior high or college? Prom or your first job? I could write a whole thesis on the impact Snoop Doggy Dogg’s “Doggystyle” had on my first high school job, but I’ll spare you, gentle reader.

A well-selected soundtrack can elevate a meager narrative, ho-hum acting, or clunky dialogue in our favorite shows and movies. Our soundtracks are more complex, and not always as flattering, but they tell a story in tones that are just as vivid.  Listen closely.


An Unlikely Guide Points The Way Home

It is early in the morning on my deadline for this column; I was up before the dawn. I’m notoriously late in delivering my work to the editor, which is probably why I would not make it in the journalism business. Like any self-loathing writer I want to improve on my craft and all its periphery. Therefore I became determined to turn this piece in on time. I knew exactly the matter on which I was inspired to compose; I had a formal sketch of it outlined; I even had almost finished writing by the week of its due date. But on the eve of the deadline I decided not to turn in the almost completed essay, and instead start a new one. This one.

So, here I sit – day of the deadline – starting the second paragraph of a new work that hasn’t technically begun yet since I insist on delaying the actual start of the piece by describing why I’m writing one at all. Rest assured, dear reader (interesting: “dear reader” is deceivingly close to being a palindrome), it was not whimsy which spurred the spurning of a near-finished creation – which was, I believe, quite good. Instead, I am coerced to write this still-not-officially-started column by the weight of a brief moment experienced on a mundane commute home that pressed my soul until I wept. A weight so weighty that if I’d been on a scale I’d have weighed 10 times what I actually weigh.

And now, it has begun.


People who are lost find out they are so by one of two ways. They might, after some time wandering off the path set before them, begin to notice the absence of the markings blazing toward their destination. Others only discover their lostness upon arriving, miraculously, back home – or at least on the path toward home. The former, now seeing the imminent danger all around them, frantically search for any sign of what was their guide and inevitably realize how precarious the journey and elusive their safety. The latter are oblivious to that precariousness and move about as though safety were ubiquitous. They don’t understand the narrowness of path and closeness of danger.

I was the latter – until yesterday.

Our deepest – and most painful when unfulfilled – dreams and aspirations for our lives are often formed in youth. I remember the me that I was when I first set sights on the me that I hoped to become. Looking back, I am glad I am the me I am now and not the me I hoped to be in almost every regard. Our lives often travel down paths that wind, climb hills, circle back, and force us to take the long way home.

I do mean paths plural. I have many dreams, many homes at which I hope to one day arrive. A home for work, one for family, one for life, one for the afterlife, and many others. Yet I, stupid little dreamer that I am, had wandered from one of those paths.

I don’t recall when it happened; I think there were signs I was taking misstep after misstep, but they weren’t ever bright enough to signal trouble – to say, “You may never get home if you keep going this way.” I wandered, feeling the whole time a security in the assumed inevitability of my arrival home, unaware that scores of threats to my hopes were amassing all around.

If I’m honest, I knew that something wasn’t right. I knew I wasn’t heading toward home any longer. I just didn’t want to believe it. It’s much easier to pretend that one day all my dreams will come true, even while I’ve forgotten what some of them were, than to pursue them.

In that frame of mind I sat on a crowded subway biding time until my stop.  I would alight there and go about believing that I was still on course. But that’s not how it happened.

Halfway home something happened – something so powerful it really did bring tears to my eyes. (Which were fortunately hidden behind dark sunglasses. Always a wise choice on crowded trains. You never know when you’ll have a “moment.” And then it gets all weird when people notice and you feel their awkward body language of not knowing whether to say something. And you have to tell them that you’re fine and they don’t really believe you because you’re whimpering like a baby. Anyway. Sunglasses are good to have.)

In my headphones, instead of the usual rotation of podcasts, I was listening to an old favorite, a group a friend recently mentioned was terrific when he suggested we start performing one of their tunes. I remembered how much I enjoyed them a decade or so ago and thought it would be fun to reminisce.

What I wasn’t prepared for was to hear the source of one of my dreams. To be reminded of why I decided to play saxophone, why I love music at all, why I studied it and still hope to “make it.” It’s not surprising that hearing music from my youth showed me how far astray I’d gone from the simplicity of my hopes and the purity of enjoyment of music that was once mine. What was surprising was the group that made me cry in public was Supertramp.

It’s almost too absurd to be true.

I loved Supertramp once. Their songs bellowed from the car stereo (back when I had a car).  I didn’t really know or care why I dug their groove then. I just did. And it was inspiring. I wanted to make music that gave others that simple – and simultaneously profound – satisfaction of relishing living.

I’m not saying that I don’t make that kind of music now. I certainly hope I do. But I had gotten caught up in the intelligentsia; in the constant analysis and dissection of music; in the reduction of the transcendent to the calculable, the concrete.

Something important happens when one falls in love with music – music which needs no justification. There’s no list of historical, theoretical, or philosophical reasons to prove why this music is “good.” It’s good because it is, and you know it instinctively.

Listening to them now, I understand why their music is compelling, why I loved it then and still love it today. I can see the stuff of which it is made, how it holds together structurally. I can hear why it is interesting.

But I don’t need the why anymore.

I had forgotten that I once enjoyed music beyond a cerebral appreciation. That I had set sights on a home where I loved the music I listened to and loved the music I made –  just because.

I didn’t even know I was lost.

Supertramp showed me the long way home, the same way they did fifteen years ago.

Christmas: The Final Frontier

Abnormally busy city sidewalks are crammed with shoppers shoving other shoppers out of the way on the “rush” home with treasures they could’ve gotten on, but feel compelled to buy locally. And while it’s not true that smile meets smile these days, it is true that on every street corner, above all the bustle, I hear this year’s newly released and tired rearrangements of the same fifteen songs every musical artist has been re-recording for 75 years.

So I got to thinking, with the smell of chestnuts roasting over a street vendor’s coal, that we need a new pop culture holiday tradition. Don’t we all have enough versions of We Wish You A Merry Christmas on our music playback machine of choice to last us the rest of our lives? Really, can anyone want figgy pudding so much that they would refuse to leave a person’s porch/living room until some is brought to them? I mean, how merry of a Christmas can you possibly be wishing me in this scenario?

Here’s what I propose: we replace the annual release of Music Celebrity du Jour’s Christmas record with something that has just as much cultural identity and brand development as those far-out music stars of wonder shining beyond us. Something that always turns a profit, regardless of the quality of the artifact. Something that would at least give us a break from hearing silver bells jingle.

“What is this something?” you ask, your cheeks quivering nervously like a bowl full of jelly thanks to all the pumpkin pie and egg nog you’ve been downing since Thanksgiving?

Movie franchises.

Instead of the Jon Secada & Lady Gaga Christmas Duets from La-La-Land, we get Pirates of the Caribbean: Mists of the Black Coal Stocking. A much needed change for the better.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Mists of the Black Coal Stocking

Captain Jack and crew sail to the North Pole to discover the source of coal filling the world’s Christmas stockings. Along the way, Will and Elizabeth Turner must rescue their young twins from the Isle of Banished Elves, while Jack schemes to find a way to turn coal mists into diamonds and partners with a most unusual sailor of the skies.

Terminator: Incarnation

War rages endless between man and machine. Weary of the constant loss of life, cyborgical and biological, SkyNet determines there is only one way to bring peace between man and machine. A young orphan, Maria, agrees to be the vessel that will bear the perfect half man/half machine. When word of this deliverer’s birth reaches ears and CPUs, many are threatened by the new world he will bring. But three cyborg generals, and three vagabond resistance guardians, join forces to protect the new hope that has entered their broken world.

AVP: Joyeux Noel

After eons of slaughter and violence cutting across the galaxies, two enemies – separated from their brethren – become unlikely friends as they learn to lean on each other for survival. Inspired by their experience together, Autjr’tyi and Xoktz return to their respective species and tirelessly pursue an unfathomable armistice on Pt’Katix, a holy day of celebration for both worlds.

Indiana Jones and the Star of Wonder

After inscriptions on a rare 1st century vase from the fertile crescent are found – supposedly detailing the falling of an eastern star that had shown brighter in the sky than any in ancient history – Indy and Mutt are dragged into a race against the clock to decipher the remainder of the script and find the location of the fallen star before the evil energy conglomerate Consortio Globus can destroy the treasure: a meteorite, presumed to contain enough mineralogical space radiation to overcome the world’s fossil fuel dependence and bring peace on earth and good will to all.

Sinterklaas and the Planet of the Apes

For thousands of years Kris Kringle has warped time to circumnavigate this planet in one night to deliver good gifts and cheer to all the Earth, but this time, night is bent too far and Santa is hurled to an apparently lifeless, foreign planet. The sleigh’s power of flight lost, and his reindeer scattered, Claus begins the search for a way home and discovers the horrifying reality of this new place. His capture at the hands of an impossible enemy leaves him wondering if he’ll ever escape to be Father Christmas again.

National Treasure: The Tunnel to Korvatunturi

Santa Claus and his North Pole home are the most powerful myths of the modern world. But, what if it is more than a myth? What if the Santa Claus lore is actually a series of clues? Clues to an unfathomable hidden treasure buried beneath Mount Korvatunturi, one of the many rumored locations of Santa’s lair. Ben Gates is determined to find out. He and his band of treasure-hunters embark on twisting, turning adventure to discover the fabled entrance to the Tunnel to Korvatunturi and reclaim the lost treasure of Saint Nicholas.

Star Trek: Epiphany

The United Federation of Planets calls the Enterprise and its crew into action once more. This time the mission is one of peace: to bring a gift to a new race only just discovering warp drive. But when they arrive, they find a most unusual series of events unfolding in the history of this people – events much like those reported to have occurred on Earth millennia ago. A child that some fear and others hope will be their savior has been born. Kirk and crew must confront long abandoned ideas of God and faith to present the gift to its true recipient while the fate of this entire planet hangs in the balance.

The Matrix: Neotivity

Rain pounds the window of Michelle McGahey’s Lower Downtown Capital City apartment. This dark night brings a strange visitor to the door, calling herself “The Oracle.” She tells the young woman that she is pregnant, and that her son will be “The One” and restore order to what she calls “The Matrix.” “You shall name him Thomas Anderson, but his true name will be Neo.” The Oracle leaves behind her a guardian – John Anderson, a servant of The Oracle – to watch over the shocked mother and her unborn son as a husband and father. A word of warning she gives as she departs, “stay hidden, and stay quiet. For, others will come after me who do not seek to protect Neo, but to destroy. In good time all will be revealed. Until then, guard this child.”

Avatar: Blue Christmas (IMAX 3D)

100 years after the Pandora War, peace exists between the Na’vi and humanity. Mankind has long since colonized the Edenic planet and has intermingled life and love with the Na’vi. But some Na’vi fear the loss of their ways as they see the “small man” grab more and more authority over this shared world. A group of young freedom fighters begin to study the culture of their invaders to find the perfect time – a point of great vulnerability – to take back what is rightfully theirs.

How many of the above movies would you go to the theater to see? 1? 4? 8? Won’t you join me in righting the pop-cultural ship we see sailing in on Christmas Day? Together we can usher in a new era of the commercialization of Christmas – an era that will be as timeless as an era can be, in our age of ultimate consumerism.

photo by:

Hear The Forest For The Leaves

I am a musician.

I’ve spent most of my life learning to play instruments and studying music – history, theory, composition, performance. A lifetime’s pursuit, the study of music is never complete.


Having a deep-rooted musical knowledge opens the door to experience music in a way that is almost indescribable. The best I can do is to liken it to a botanist’s appreciation of a leaf; every part of it has meaning to one who has learned how and of what a leaf is made.

To the “Average Harry” (I have a good friend Joe that resents his name’s use in such a generic manner. I don’t have any friends named Harry. Well, except for maybe Harry Potter) a leaf is pretty – perhaps, at times beautiful. To the botanist, the leaf is sublime; it is mystery. It is a treasure trove of wonders that both asks and answers questions about life and existence. It is so much more than a pretty color; it is the blade, the petiole, the veins, the margin, and the midrib.

In truth, I find leaves most marvelous when the colors change en masse each autumn. And, the botanist can certainly appreciate leaves this way. But like a master craftsmen, the botanist cannot help but want to get a close-up, in-depth view of even just single leaf, to study it and to marvel at it.

This is the way that I listen to music. Like most, I first hear the forest, yet I yearn to pore over each leaf and find the treasures it hides.

But a problem arises. Unlike the natural world, with all its complex systems of adaptation and perpetuation, music-making does not have a controlling force that squeezes from the raw materials an artifact of worth by default. Certainly some leaves are more interesting to certain leaf-lovers than others, but it is seems unlikely that there are leaves, which upon closer inspection, elicit a melancholy, “This leaf should never have been made. It’s a crappy leaf.”

Listening with a critical ear then, leaves me with a relatively small cross-section of “leaf music.” Usually I hear a tune on the web, iTunes, or . . . (dang it, what’s that thing that you have to put on a certain number to hear some music, otherwise it’s just static? Um. Radiator? Radial? Radiation? No, no. RADIO! That’s it!) radio, and quickly find that the particular piece of music is a forest without leaves. In the past, I would have made it a point to announce that I disdained said music and wished there were a filter for music that would create a forest of leaves for me to discover and revel in. Now I simply make a small point about it and move on. (And perhaps one day I’ll mature enough to not say anything at all and spare my friends and co-workers the verbiage.)

For instance: John Mayer’s new album was released last week. In it, he conducted an experiment and condensed the usual three stages for recording an album – writing, demo, recording – into one. Whenever an artist decides to break from his or her traditional creative method, the work very well may not shine the way it had when it was created through a honed, developed system. It seems (for now) that is the case with Mayer’s record.

I was disappointed. Earlier in Mayer’s career, I had written him off as a no-talent pop hack. And then I heard his live trio album; I heard his raw performance style; I heard him shred on the guitar in a pop/rock age where few shred on guitar anymore. I was hopeful that there would be some “leaves” in this new record worth studying. But alas – there aren’t, at least for me. (True, I only heard the first 30 seconds of half the cuts. But honestly, if the first 30 seconds of pop/rock don’t grab you, it’s too late. It’s not like each song was nine minutes long.)

So, I got to thinking. What “experimental process” records out there are filled with “leaves”? Two came to mind straight away. (Undoubtedly there are many others, but I turned to these two when slightly depressed after the John Mayer preview.)

Chris Thile’s “Deceiver”

1. Deceiver – Chris Thile
It’s not often that one artist’s ideas and voice can carry an album. This is one of those rare instances. Rather than bring in the caliber of musicians that he worked with on Not All Who Wander Are Lost (Béla Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Bryan Sutton, Jeff Coffin, Edgar Meyer), Thile played all the instruments on the recording – drums, keyboards, strings, bass, guitar, and mandolin. He wrote and arranged all the songs and sang all the parts. Normally, this is recipe for disaster, and yet, it’s fascinating to hear a musician push himself as far as possible in so many areas. Musically, the album takes a lot of risks, avoiding the typical trappings of bluegrass and folk music with complex rhythmic and harmonic modulations and angular melodies while still planting key musical moments in the listener’s mind.

Is it his best work? Probably not. Are there others who have executed the same concept better? Most likely. But in the realm of musical experiments, this one holds its own.

The Mutual Admiration Society

2. Mutual Admiration Society (Glen Phillips with Nickel Creek)
Here, the experiment is a little different. The former Toad the Wet Sprocket front-man and the now-dissolved bluegrass trio got together, as the name suggests, out of respect for each other’s musical voices. Over six days they wrote, rehearsed, and recorded the album, with great success. Flaws found their way into the final cut, the mix is not quite up to industry standards, and a few moments are more raw than one expects from these artists, but the songwriting and passionate performances turn this effort from flop to fab.

Each track on these records feels the first sign of fall foliage, and draws you in closer and closer to uncover every artery and vein bringing life to the music.

What do you hear in the leaves from your favorite recordings; what music do you etch in your mind?

Few joys found in music are greater than when you delve into the mystery of what makes it move you; when you seek those songs in which you find an endless forest of leaves.

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Opera Aficianados are Drama Queens

From Psychology Today: What your music says about your personality.

The question “What kind of music do you like?” is so revealing, it is the number one topic of conversation among young adults who are getting to know each other, according to psychologists Jason Rentfrow of the University of Cambridge in the U.K., and Sam Gosling at the University of Texas at Austin. Knowing whether a person prefers John Coltrane to Mariah Carey, or Puccini to Prince allows for remarkably accurate personality predictions, their research has found.

Harmony in the Middle East

I sort of loathe reading most accounts of history and politics. History and politics are two great humanity-shaping forces, and I recognize the importance of absorbing such information. But all too often, these accounts are poorly written: arid deserts of facts and dates, with no mention of stories of the actual people who lived out these events. Now that I’m in my thirties, I’ve cultivated more of a mature interest in these subjects by reading the newspaper, and listening to NPR and a few podcasts.Even so, his or her story will always spark my concern of worldwide tumult before arguing talking heads.

The Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy broke my heart with the beautiful epic of Kristin’s life in medieval Norway. I read the Maus graphic novels, and saw Schindler’s List, and was forever fascinated by the tragedy of the Holocaust. The Persepolis memoir-graphic novels helped me understand the mayhem of Iran’s history; Khaled Hosseini’s novels did the same for Afghanistan. Art helps us to see, to live a better life, and good stories help me understand the world.

The Arab-Israeli conflict has constantly been in the headlines as long as I can remember, and before then. The contention has always been about land: this land is not your land, this land is my land. The genesis of the entire clash can be traced back to the late 19th century when Zionists purchased land from the Ottoman sultan, but the fire of the modern day conflict as we know it was lit in 1948 when the UN created the State of Israel after WWII, displacing countless Palestinians and furthering their hatred of the Jews. Unceasing hostility led to the Six-Day War in 1967 which Israel not only won, but they also seized extra land – the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Believing these regions to be rightful spoils of war, the Israelis built small settlements to secure their possession.

But this friction was not palpable to me until I watched The Band’s Visit, Israeli filmmaker Eran Kolirin’s debut feature, quite the opposite of a war movie, framed with bleak beauty. The film begins with the introductory narration printed in both Hebrew and Arabic on a quiet black screen, and the English subtitles read:

Once, not long ago, a small Egyptian
police band arrived in Israel.
Not many remember this,
it was not that important.

A sad, slow piano tune begins, and the band suddenly appears in blue uniforms, looking around in confusion at the hushed airport. They check their watches, and look expectantly for a ride. They were scheduled to play at the opening of an Arab cultural center, but due to poor communication, nobody was there holding a sign. Tension is thick in the air as Lt.-Colonel Tawfiq, the conductor, argues with another band member, Simon: Shall they call the Embassy, or try to manage on their own? Their Egyptian pride is evident, but so also is the extreme awkwardness of being dangerously stranded in Israel.

Sasson Gabai as Tewfiq Ronit Elkabetz as Dina
and Saleh Bakri as Haled

Tawfiq orders the handsome violinist, Haled, to verify their intended destination of Petah Tiqva, but his comical flirting with the woman at the ticket counter results in the band arriving at the town of Beit Hatikva, in the middle of nowhere – one of the aforementioned Israeli settlements. The Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra is dropped off right in front of a common diner owned by a brazen, sensual woman, Dina, who said, “There is no Arab center here. No culture, no Israeli culture, no Arab – no culture at all.” Clearly bored with her uneventful life, she stares at Tawfiq in amusement as he asks her if they could have something to eat, pay in Egyptian money? Upon telling the Colonel that the next bus doesn’t roll by until the morning, a glimmer of sympathy flickers across her face. She offers her home to Tawfiq and Haled, and convinces two friends to do the same for the rest of the band, much to her friends’ protest.

They all begin to communicate in English and the subtitles disappear, the first subtle clue of what is to come. Each pairing of the characters is a set-up for disaster, yet their immersion into each other’s lives produces scenes full of unexpected warmth and absurd humor. Dina takes Tawfiq to a small restaurant, encouraging him to ignore raised eyebrows, saying that her neighbors live in the Stone Age. Tawfiq unchisels his mental blocks against her gender, race, and immorality. Overnight, he grows to romantically respect her and see past her wayward behavior to who she might truly be. His forgiving eye beautifully balances how Dina’s kind, free-spirited personality melts his rough exterior. After all, director Kolirin did say, “The language of the film is a fairy tale.”

Haled invites himself out with a set of double daters to a roller skating rink, and instead of seducing a woman as he usually does, he teaches the ways of romance to one of the clueless guys. Simon and the rest of the band find themselves in the home of a less than ideal marriage, accidentally barging in on the wife’s birthday celebration. What could have ended with clenched fists, fighting, or worse turned into a portrayal of grace. The small Israeli community welcomed their enemy, and the Arabs gradually cast off their fear and suspicion – all due to the art of hospitality. It’s an inspiring peek into what could happen if we all opened our doors to a controversial stranger.

Going on blaring headlines alone, one would think that Palestinians and Israelis are destined for perpetual racial cacophony. Yet this film presents a world that ought to be, and already is in parts of the Middle East. In the documentary on The Band’s Visit DVD, I was surprised to learn that even the making-of process reflected the deep beauty of the film, a healing of racism. Palestinian and Israeli actors worked in harmony together, the most surprising being Sasson Gabai, one of Israel’s leading actors who played Egyptian Lt.-Colonel Tawfiq. As Jewish actress Ronit Elkabetz (“Dina”) said, “This meeting between Palestinian and Israeli artists . . . there’s nothing more lofty and more wonderful than our ability to be with each other and create. Why, this is the cure for everything.” The director stated that he didn’t set out to make another “Arab and Jew” film; he and the actors believed they came together to find their own truth inside each and every soul. In my opinion, they uncovered the truth – that all things are possible: Arabs and Jews can overcome the world, conquer politics and hatred, extend simple kindness, and stand alongside one another.

Ronit Elkabetz as Dina
and Sasson Gabai as Tawfiq

The Band’s Visit communicates all of this with a lonely, quiet allure, which is interesting in a film featuring a band of musicians. It’s as if music is another restrained voice in the film. There are times when people just stop and hear music. Dina requests a ballad to play overhead in the restaurant, to flirt with Tawfiq. In the tense, dysfunctional Israeli home, Arab band member Simon plays a bit of his symphony-in-the-works on the clarinet. In another scene, nameless band members sit under a silent night sky and play their instruments, which seems to comfort them in an unknown land. Even Haled’s shameless flirting involved the pickup line, “Do you like Chet Baker? ‘My Funny Valentine‘?”

At one point, it’s revealed that the police orchestra might be disbanded for the sake of economy and efficiency. Tawfiq protests this notion, and the soundtrack does, too: the music leading up to the band’s performance at the end is a lovely traditional Egyptian song with exotic instruments such as contrabass, goblet drum (darbuka), and a qanun. This small orchestra audibly teaches us that unlike the beginning narration stated, their arrival in the wrong town is important. They share culture with Dina and her community who were previously deprived, and both clans mutually surrender their racism. As music is crucial to the healing of these awkward relationships, so may art be for the world as we try to forbear with strangers, and love our neighbor as ourselves.

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.

From The Believer: Dancing About Architecture.

I just published a novel about music. Early in the process of writing it, I was warned by a similarly music-obsessive friend that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Since that first somewhat menacing reminder, I’ve heard the line frequently.

At first blush, the claim is a smugly dismissive one: verbal descriptions of music are doomed to be pointlessly, perhaps even ridiculously, inferior to actual music. As a reader, I resisted this idea; it just felt false, though I couldn’t quite say why. But as a writer, this assertion paralyzed me: I didn’t want to waste two or three years trying to produce something that could not be produced. I tried to put aside the line’s foundational snobbery (“My music is too ineffable for your inky art”), and then, reassuringly, it seemed like nothing more than a truism: words are words and music is music. And perfume is perfume; paintings are paintings; facial features are facial features. Yet writers are never counseled against attempting to evoke paintings or smells or faces or feelings or buildings or the nonmelodic sounds of jackhammers, thunder, or snoring. What was so elusive about music that it couldn’t be captured by words?

The Value of Music

Karl Paulnack’s welcome address to parents of students at Boston Conservatory.

I have come to understand that music is not part of “arts and entertainment” as the newspaper section would have us believe. It’s not a luxury, a lavish thing that we fund from leftovers of our budgets, not a plaything or an amusement or a pass time. Music is a basic need of human survival. Music is one of the ways we make sense of our lives, one of the ways in which we express feelings when we have no words, a way for us to understand things with our hearts when we cannot with our minds.