Tuesday, December 29, 2009

50 Favorite Movies

Each Christmas, my family does something very rare for us - we watch a whole, whole lot of movies. Inspired by this and by a friend's recent list, here are my 50 favorites, including a few guilty pleasures. * marks Top 10.

2001: A Space Odyssey* - Favorite Sci-Fi Film
The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
Apocalypse Now! - Favorite War Film
Batman Begins
Beauty and the Beast - Favorite Animated Film
The Bridge on the River Kwai
Chariots of Fire*
A Clockwork Orange
Control - Favorite Biopic
The Conversation
The Departed
Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Evil Roy Slade
The Godfather* - Favorite Overall Film
The Godfather Part II
The Insider
Jackie Brown
Kill Bill, Volumes I & II - Favorite Action Film
The Last Temptation of Christ
Lawrence of Arabia*
The Lion King
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
Mystic River
Night of the Hunter
Night of the Living Dead
North by Northwest*
O Brother, Where Art Thou?* - Favorite Comedy
On the Waterfront
The Producers (1968)
Pulp Fiction*
Quiz Show
Raging Bull
Sid and Nancy
Silence of the Lambs - Favorite Horror Film
Spirited Away
Star Trek: First Contact
Star Wars
The Sting
Terminator II: Judgment Day - Guiltiest Pleasure
There Will Be Blood
This is Spinal Tap*
Toy Story

Monday, December 28, 2009

My Practice Jersey...

...had been hiding in my backpack for a few months. I wore it today and got a nosebleed. Just the weather, but some of the blood leaked onto the sleeve where it turned the shade of middle aged lipstick. I remembered layout practice from last spring break, again and again reaching for some poor throw, batting the disk, scratching my arm in the grass until the blood gushed and I smeared a handprint across the front of the shirt. I miss college.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Nice Early Christmas Present

I was completely taken by surprise this evening when I received an email stating my acceptance to Wisconsin-Madison's PhD program in chemistry. They're ranked 7th in chemistry nationally and 8th in organic. The only schools I applied to ranked more highly are Harvard and MIT, though Columbia is pretty comparable, not that these rankings really matter. Still, thrilled to be accepted to such a prestigious program and optimistic about the other schools I applied to. Madison is supposed to be a great town with terrible weather. The other major drawback is that I have no friends there.

Not that I take these coincidences too seriously, but I note that 3 of the 5 officers of their graduate Intervarsity organization are chemistry PhD students. Guess I'd be in good company.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Album Ideas

Since I purchased my first guitar about a year and a half ago, I've written many songs, and in all honesty, some of them are terrible, but I think that some of them are pretty good and if I had some money, I'd record a demo on something nicer than my $9 computer microphone. This week I released my first EP "A Mixture of Action and Comedy" as a gag gift. It took approximately one hour to record and only one physical copy exists. It will be a collector's item someday.

The tracklist:

1. Dance in the River (Chris Tomlin (?) cover)
2. The Four Chord Praise
3. Never Gonna Give You Up (Rick Astley cover)
4. You're Beautiful (James Blunt cover)
5. The Ballad of Teddy Stollard
6. Take It on the Run (REO Speedwagon cover)
7. Tangled Up in Blue (Bob Dylan cover)
8. Jesus is my Boyfriend
9. Dance in the River (Reprise)

I've written enough real material for an entire album at this point, an album that would include nothing from "A Mixture of Action and Comedy". I've thought of titling it "12 Unattainable Women" since unattainable women come up frequently in my songwriting. However, I've got twelve candidates for inclusion and of these, "When I Dared" is a breakup song, "Dancing on the Moon" is a dis track, "Another One Gone" and "Things You're Supposed to Feel" are reflections on friends getting married, "Generous Thief" is a political protest and "Aged Castle" is a song of spiritual reflection. We're now down to 6 unattainable women, expressed in "Evil Ideal", "I Only Fall in Love...", "Quarantine", "Friendly Letter", "What's Wrong With Being Obsessed?", and "Through a Wisher's Eyes". So screw that album title.

I'm also constantly rewriting these songs to accommodate rapid advances in my guitar playing and reconsiderations of lyrical choices. "Friendly Letter" is the only decent song I've ever finished in one sitting and the only unattainable woman song I've written that accurately expresses my feelings and experiences, since I usually make up lies and then sing them. It is awesome because it includes the rhyme "epistle/guided missile" and the line "I'd love to punch the bastard in the face." I thought that "I Only Fall in Love..." was complete until I decided to write a new bridge today. "Generous Thief" is definitely the weakest of the bunch and is also essentially finished. The title sat in limbo for months before any other part of the song came to me and I've always thought the comparison (Obama spends like a generous thief) was a bit cheap, but hey, "Masters of War" wasn't exactly nuanced. I confess that I've never considered any of the others complete in part because I have a terrible time with second verses. "Dancing on the Moon" is also a little gimmicky and may undergo a total rewrite saving only the title hook, which had played in my head for years. "I Only Fall in Love...", "a Wisher's Eyes" and "Aged Castle" are the cases where I really think I might have struck gold. I played their melodies out on the piano the other day and thought "Hey, that's quite good. People might really enjoy hearing that." "Things You're Supposed to Feel" is my most recent composition and there might actually be two songs lurking in there, as the verses and the chorus seem to address different subject, each worth singing about.

Whether or not these will ever meet anyone else's ears on record has yet to be decided, but it's certainly a fun hobby.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Listening Journal 3

Nirvana - Bleach
-sounds awesome at high volume on terrible speakers
-not so good on earbuds

Bright Eyes - Fevers and Mirrors
-can't remember the last time I hated an album this much
-I feel sorry for the kid, and I hate myself for it because this is exactly what he wants
-what I don't get about serial daters - why so emotional about it? you know you're going to fall for a new person soon after your breakup, so why act like your life is over after this one?
-what aggravates me most is that there's some real melodic sense on display here, but it's overshadowed by the kid's narcissism
-things get better - I did give Cassadaga an honorable mention a couple of days ago

Tom Waits - Nighthawks at the Diner
-hilarious, and Waits' rapport with the crowd is great
-band is solid, but I'd like to hear more instrumental work
-the songwriting is a little lacking and formulaic at this point, though occasionally effective
-"Better Off Without a Wife" - engaged friends, please listen to this one

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Favorite Albums of the 2000s

Not the best-informed list in the world. I spent most of the decade catching up on the previous 50 years of rock history and still haven't heard tons of supposedly good stuff from the aughts.

10. Back Home – Caedmon’s Call – It’s fitting that the Contemporary Christian Music industry is headquartered in Nashville, because only mainstream country faces tighter artistic restriction. And so Back Home is the bravest album on the list. The lyrics flow from some forgotten hymnal and the arrangements from plain, pasture and mountain. It favors doctrinal insight over smarmy therapeutics is all the more emotionally affecting for it. There are a handful of clunkers, but even a couple of the white female numbers stand up. It is a true rarity, a worthwhile CCM album.
9. Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend – They crossed the deep rift between contemporary black and white music by going to the source, crafting sprightly, jittery Afro-pop chronicling the woes and joys of white nerds. Leave it to the townies to keep me from getting into their concert.
8. The Hold Steady – Stay Positive – A distillation of all they do best. One this one, the stories are sharper, the jokes funnier and the guitar pyrotechnics pulverize their Neil Schon origins. The lapsed Catholicism gets two of its best expressions, “Lord I’m Discouraged” and “Both Crosses” and the constant stream of allusions to their earlier work indicates that they’ve perhaps given up on the worse parts of youth. But the dream is still alive.
7. I’m Not There Soundtrack – Duh, the songs are good. The songs on the Across the Universe soundtrack are also good, and they earn that album a whole bloody star. But for this soundtrack, the producers assembled a crackerjack session band and courted artists of little fame but great merit, who dug through some dark recesses of Dylan’s back catalogue and totally reinvented or at least rocked the tarnish off of almost every cut. 34 tracks and only 5 are less than wonderful.
6. Tom Waits – Alice – I don’t catch many lyrical allusions to its literary namesake, but it’s an appropriate soundtrack to a mad land that plays by indiscernible rules if it plays by any at all. Waits shows why he’s the greatest active arranger in pop music, setting “Flower’s Grave” against a clarinet choir that makes saccharine sentiments wrenching, and fine tunes his junkyard orchestrations for each new bit of devilry.
5. Radiohead – Kid A – Forget difficult, forget innovative. It only takes two listens to figure out how these parts fit together, and there’s nothing sonic here that you can’t find in Brian Eno or Aphex Twin. Kid A is a masterpiece because of pure craftsmanship, because within its opening measure, the thickest keyboard lick of all time, it draws us into a gorgeous, terrifying world from which we can only escape by turning off the record. Yorke sings like a man whose only scrap of humanity is his voice, and only by crying out can he hope to regain the rest of him. On “Idioteque,” he drones “Here I’m allowed everything all of the time,” a proclamation that becomes more frighteningly true with each year.
4. The Arcade Fire – Funeral – Pulse is everything. Decorate the songs as ostentatiously as you will, but if any ornament isn’t pointing back toward that low thud at the center, it has to go. The Arcade Fire makes communal music, drawing its listeners into its own ranks, urging them to join in the wake up cry, the public mourning for the departed. This album’s lament for the end of youth will continue to resonate when the time comes for my own funeral.
3. Outkast – Stankonia – Its first half contains the last word on unplanned fatherhood (“Ms. Jackson”), a piece of braggadocio that fully validates itself (“So Fresh, So Clean”), and a bit of interplanetary funksmanship that manages to indict the whole American identity and remain squarely apolitical. The second contains “B.O.B.” and cut after cut of hip-hop so original and so natural that you wonder why no one had done it before and why no one’s tried it again.
2. Frog Eyes – Tears of the Valedictorian – It’s so easy to chalk down a formula for the mystical. Slow tempos, some open keyboard vamp, meaningless strings of space poetry and boom. But then the mystical becomes comprehensible and the mystery is lost. This album gets it. You can’t parse the instrumentals. You can’t pick up more than a word here and there. You don’t understand, you submit to the maniacal chaos and you let it feel you through states of heart and mind long forgotten.
1. TV on the Radio – Dear Science – Despite my love for Return to Cookie Mountain, I was entirely unprepared for this grand amalgamation of everything great about black music, white music and computer music. Dance to it, cry to it, introspect to it, drive to it, sing along to it and it will never let you down. The finale, “Lover’s Day” is so deeply felt that the only thing really comparable in rock history is “Layla” and it makes me ask from my inexperience, “Is it really that good?”

15 Honorable Mentions
Arctic Monkeys – Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not
Audioslave – Audioslave
Bob Dylan – Modern Times
Broken Social Scene – You Forgot It In People
Ghostface Killah - Fishscale
Jay-Z – The Black Album
LCD Soundsystem – Sound of Silver
M83 – Saturdays = Youth
The Mars Volta – Frances the Mute
Mastodon – Blood Mountain
Joanna Newsom – Ys.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!
Radiohead – Hail to the Thief
The Strokes – Is This It?
TV on the Radio – Return to Cookie Mountain

10 Critically Acclaimed Albums I Never Understood
Art Brut – Bang Bang Rock and Roll
Burial – Untrue
Coldplay – any album
Franz Ferdinand – Franz Ferdinand
Green Day – American Idiot
Interpol – Turn On the Bright Lights
The National - Boxer
Panda Bear – Person Pitch
Bruce Springsteen – any 2000s albums
U2 – All that You Can’t Leave Behind

Monday, December 14, 2009

Bad Form, Mr. Kelly

I have no stake and little interest in college football. My alma mater is Division III, and in nearly every aspect of the game, the professionals provide superior entertainment. That said, I think that Brian Kelly's recent decision to cut short his contract with the University of Cincinnati and accept the head coaching job at Notre Dame is truly poor sportsmanship and I feel terrible for UC players and fans.

To begin with, I don't understand the timetable of the situation. UC has risen to national prominence this year, going undefeated in the regular season and earning a Bowl game against the University of Florida, an historic program led by a serious Heisman candidate. Rather than finishing what he started, Mr. Kelly has chosen to move immediately to a higher paying job with a team whose season is effectively over. Would Notre Dame's interest really have waned if Mr. Kelly had finished out the season and perhaps even coached the team to a Sugar Bowl victory?

Perhaps more importantly, I don't understand Mr. Kelly's lack of commitment. In my experience, one's teammates are what make team sports worth playing. We are able to give our greatest efforts only because we can stand on the line, waiting for play to begin, look our teammates in the eye and know that they are going to give the same. Our delight in victory is magnified because it is shared. Granted, I've never been offered a multimillion dollar contract, but to abandon one's team for money would seem to suck the sport of all its joy.

In light of this loss and a remarkable season, I wish UC the very best against Florida.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Pet Peeves

Blogs are for venting, right? A few annoyances that I hear repeatedly:

"I'm more conservative than Republican." Guess what? If you're an American conservative, you've got one serious political option - support the Republican Party and its candidates. Whether or not they're conservative as you'd like them to be, they're invariably more conservative than the Democrats, and this alignment isn't changing any time soon, so this statement has a cash value of about zero. And no, I don't consider third party support to be a serious political option.

"Christianity isn't a religion; it's a relationship." I know that you're trying to be provocative, that you're trying to emphasize that what Christianity is aimed at is the repair of relationships between God and people. But Christianity is also a set of doctrines and practices concerning the ultimate meaning and purpose of the universe, making it a religion. Your formulation is cute, but it's not true.

"That's so meta." Used to describe any ponderance or statement that's esoteric or abstract, and usually pejorative, an accusation of snootiness. However, "meta" is a prefix, not an independent adjective, and there's nothing wrong with snootiness. Legitimate use as prefix - "Many of Harold Bloom's writings are metacritical, describing the proper role of a literary critic in society."

"I like to listen to classical/jazz (only) when I need to relax." - It's certainly true that there is relaxing classical music and that there is relaxing jazz. But I find that both genres are more often invigorating, terrifying, demanding, wrenching. That's also why I don't listen to them as often as I should. Nothing wrong with listening to music to relax, but people who say this are usually revealing a very narrow vision of what these types of music can do.

Listening Journal 2

In order to keep up with my idea, I'm going to avoid trying to be comprehensive. If something impresses me, I'll record it here. If I'm unimpressed by something with a big reputation, I'll record it here.

R.E.M. - Murmur
-the playing is thoroughly rudimentary, but the songs themselves are surprisingly complicated
-some sort of songwriting genius is at work in that the verses never predict the choruses, but they transition and mesh seamlessly - see "Laughing," "9-9"
-perhaps the genius lies in the juxtaposition of post-punk riffs with folkie sonics -angular licks and hints of polyrhythms
-writing is distinctly riff-based, not chord progression based, which immediately distinguishes it from so much folk rock
-production is brilliant - again reliant on the juxtaposition of dull drum and bass with guitar chime
-like so many great albums, this sketches some sort of journey in an alternate universe
-Some albums are great for obvious reasons - this is one I think I could speculate about for hours and never dissect - note the number of perhapses here
-formula - Big Star meets Gang of Four
-perhaps the best rock debut of the past three decades - only serious challengers in my view are Jeff Buckley and The Arcade Fire

Leonard Cohen - Songs of Leonard Cohen
-if you'd only heard his more recent work, you might not realize this was him - voice is austere, but tuneful and subtle
-the arrangements are gentle in timbre, but not in harmony - they suggest the deep darkness of his lyrics
-and Cohen is probably the most poetic of all rock lyricists - he's not necessarily the best, but his lyrics read most like poetry and have the best-developed patterns of imagery
-the great contrast here - the gentleness of Cohen's voice and the menace of his words
-the arrangements are also repetitive, and the songs often have too many verses, making this a bit of a chore to hear in one go
-it's unique, it's an essential listen, but I'd rather hear these (or any Cohen songs) as part of a playlist