Sunday, March 7, 2021

Random Notes, March 2021

 Bouncing off the (news) satellites:

+ I was fully expecting the early days of the Biden administration to be a mixed bag. The worst is gone, but our problems will not be immediately absolved. The decision to bomb Syria to intimidate Iran was concerning, but I like what Biden et al. are doing in regards to the pandemic. 

+ Meanwhile, I have both of my COVID shots!

+ It probably goes without saying I'm not flying to Texas for Spring Break. Money is too tight to travel, on top of... well, you know. I am saving my money for a couple of short, cost-effective road trips, though.

+ If I've been keeping my semi-regular dispatches short, I've been distracted or overwhelmed by other things at the moment. Cleaning out our parents' house has been just as much of a challenge as I expected. My sister and I are sifting through the belongings of not just things we inherited from our parents, but from grandparents, aunts and uncles as well. So much of our once big, sprawling Catholic brood has trickled down to the two of us.

+ I'm guardedly optimistic about my Royals this year. We made a number of good moves, and I have faith in our plethora of above-average arms in the minor leagues. I'll go more into detail when I write my baseball haikus later this month. 


Monday, February 15, 2021

Dispatches from Arm's Length, Part 14

Nearly half a million Americans are dead. A population the size of Kansas City has been wiped out by COVID. The rise of numerous variants has complicated most forms of treatment. For some, we're beyond pandemic fatigue. For others, we hope for the best, even without an end in sight.

I am now one of the few and lucky to have been vaccinated. One of the districts I sub for offered, and I accepted. I drove to a local high school gym on a Saturday morning, took my sweater off, and there it went. I felt groggy the rest of the day, but otherwise I'm fine. I'll get my second Moderna shot in early March.

Other notes:

+ Former President Trump getting acquitted a second time was disappointing, though hardly surprising. You can blame the Democrat higher-ups or weak-willed Republicans, but to me they're apples and oranges. The prosecution was excellent, but the decision to not call witnesses made the lack of punishment a foregone conclusion. 

+ It took a year, but the epic Minor League Baseball realignment happened. I was half-right about the outcome; the Burlington Bees were shut out, but the Beloit Snappers were spared. On the flip side, the Kane County Cougars didn't make the cut, but now they're joining an "MLB partnership" league that's basically independent ball. Alas, I'm still a season-ticker holder, so I guess I'll witness first-hand whether this works out.


Monday, February 1, 2021

Still Hiding in Plain Sight

Sorry for the delay, everyone. I had a hard time writing this one without going too much into detail:

Two weeks ago, I had to block a former improv teammate on all social media. I described my situation with his person and a non-for-profit improv organization 15 months ago. I was participating in a goofy contest for the organization via Facebook, and they commented that Funny Bones is transphobic. (This is the same person that threatened to sue and lead a boycott of a children's charity.) I deleted the comment, then they rewrote it 10 minutes later. They did the same thing on Instagram. This was my first direct interaction with this person since they were kicked out in November 2019.

I don't feel great about doing it, especially with how complicated the situation was, but it was probably the best course of action. This person was looking for a confrontation, and I know that no matter what I was going to say, they weren't going to budge. A mutual friend --a woman they dated briefly last year-- was willing to hear me out. She suggested it was argumentum ad lapidem, or "appeal to the stone." This person in question is too festering with anger from this and other situations to hear a counter-argument. The problem is them, not me. 


Sunday, January 17, 2021

That Wonderful Year in Music... 2001

2001 was ten years ago? What the hell?

Right off the bat, I will acknowledge that no political or cultural event that year holds a candle to the events of September 11th, and as much as I'd hate to downplay its significance, this is not what this blog entry is about. Like the American psyche, however the music scene faced startling changes in 2001. This was the year that rock turned to pebbles, when an entire genre stopped focusing on one or two forms and broke off into what seemed like a million little niches. Every evolutionary milestone of the previous 40 to 50 years was being reviewed, recycled, or homaged, and bands were becoming subgenres onto themselves. No niche stood out in 2001-02 quite like garage rock, a raw, do-it-yourself approach that contrasted significantly to the slick, overproduced pop piffle that dominated CHR radio at the time. Also in 2001, the underground scene suddenly shifted from "college rock" to "indie"; college stations were giving up the free-spirit, "anything goes, support the little guy" approach for what commercial radio already had in heavy rotation. As a result, unknown bands on small labels were forced to promote their music by word of mouth, pray for positive reviews, or if they were lucky, nab a short-term deal with a big-name distributor. In short, they were independent in every sense of the word.

From a personal perspective, 2001 was also the year I finally embraced modern rock. Okay, maybe embraced is too strong a word, but this was definitely the year it finally garnered my respect. I can pinpoint this sea change to one song: "Last Nite," the leadoff single from the album ranked #1 on my list below. For me, contemporary music offered little promise: on the rock end, you had an endless sea of samey nu-metal, rap-rock, and watered-down industrial; on the pop end, you had N*SYNC, Britney Spears, and Lil' Kim in all their glittery creampuff glory. Compared to those two options, The Strokes were a revelation; if you were a 17-year-old boy self-taught in the virtues of classic rock and new wave, they were saviors. Though the singles and videos below do a fair job of capturing the soundtrack of my junior year in high school, I didn't discover the most of these albums until I was in college.

1. Is This It, The Strokes. Considering the direction of popular music --a theme that I shall continue to beat to death-- recording a full-length with such a simple rock sound was either absolute genius or commercial poison. The end result was a disc that was more joyful, rhythmic, and intense than anything else released that year. To the haters that complain The Strokes will always be defined by their debut: who cares?
2. White Blood Cells, The White Stripes. After noodling around with minimalist, stripped-down punk-blues on their first two discs, "siblings" Jack and Meg White hit creative paydirt on their third effort. This is how a breakthrough album should sound: take the band's strongest elements and make it bigger and tighter. The pop teases of De Stijl are expanded and accented, from the honky-tonk of "Hotel Yorba" to the frustrated debauchery of "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground."
3. The Blueprint, Jay-Z. After declaring his ascension to the throne of the East Coast rap scene after Biggie Smalls' murder in 1997, it took four years for Jason Carter to silence any and all critics. The Blueprint was not only a statement, but confirmed that Jay-Z would reign for years, if not decades to come. This is the rare rap album that plays like a critic's highlights collection, from "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)" to "Takeover," from "Hola Hovito" to "Jigga That N***a." Better yet, the cameos are kept to minimum (Eminem and a young Kanye West appear on one track apiece), maintaining the focus on the king himself.
4. Oh, Inverted World, The Shins
5. Amnesiac, Radiohead
6. Things We Lost in the Fire, Low
7. "Love and Theft", Bob Dylan
8. Discovery, Daft Punk
9. Toxicity, System of a Down
10. Gorillaz, Gorillaz. Cartoon bands are a tiny, deservedly derogated novelty in the annals of rock; after this funky "quartet," the best group in this little alcove are probably The Archies. A side project of Blur frontman Damon Albarn --which eventually became his #1 gig after the band's 2003 fadeout-- is 80% hip-hop, 20% Brit-pop, 100% ear candy. The band's cartoon alter egos (a Japanese child prodigy, a mop-topped cretin, a 280-pound black dude, and a fab frontman) is just as eclectic and fascinating.

Honorable Mentions: B.R.M.C., Black Rebel Motorcycle Club; Hybrid Theory, Linkin Park; Get Ready, New Order; We Love Life, Pulp; Tenacious D, Tenacious D.

"Schism," Tool
"Where's Your Head At," Basement Jaxx
"Hash Pipe," Weezer
"Short Skirt Long Jacket," Cake
"Fallin'," Alicia Keys
"Get Ur Freak On," Missy Elliot
"I Did It," Dave Matthews Band
"God Gave Me Everything," Mick Jagger
"New York, New York," Ryan Adams
"All The Way To Reno," R.E.M.

1. "Weapon of Choice," Fatboy Slim. To the two or three people that read this blog that have seen "Pennies From Heaven," you'd know that Christopher Walken is an excellent hoofer. This much-paroded clip exposed Walken's "hidden" talent with limber, gravity-defying zeal.
2. "Clint Eastwood," Gorillaz. Speaking of dancing, an army of zombie gorillas pay homage to Michael Jackson's "Thriller" and terrorize our misfit heroes in this highly animated clip.
3. "Let Forever Be," The Chemical Brothers. Shot and released as a single in 1999, this trippy Michel Gondry-directed effort didn't find an American audience for two years, and even then it aired on MTV2 in the wee hours of the night, when they normally played techno and electronic music. That's a damn shame.
4. "Last Nite," The Strokes. Sometimes a great single doesn't need a big, flashy production, as this clip proves. Also, it's live in-studio, no overdubs or lip-syncing, which makes the low-fi earnestness all the more hip.
5. "Tribute," Tenacious D. Dave Grohl cameos as Satan in an ode to the greatest song ever written, which is... what, exactly?
Honorable Mention: "Everyday," Dave Matthews Band; "Island in the Sun," Weezer; "Everything Hits at Once," Spoon.

Your thoughts?

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

These Last Four Years (Which Felt Like a Decade)

 Much like my late December music blog, it's become a tradition of sorts to letter-grade an outgoing U.S. president. I've been writing this blog for almost 16 years, and I summed up the Bush 43 and Obama administrations in lengthier than usual pieces. Given who our latest outgoing president is, I don't think I'll be nearly as verbose.

I don't think there's really anything I can say that hasn't already been analyzed or scrutinized in regard to Donald John Trump. He is by far the most polarizing president of our time, a man no one has no opinion about. No one used (or abused) social media quite like he did, and certainly no one flirted with abusing their power like Trump, either. History will remember him for running laps around Nixon's misdeeds. To paraphrase the man himself, he grabbed democracy by the pussy. 

Trump is a man of contradictions, if you consider his love for attention and disregard for the media contradictory. He is man who loves attention, a category 5 narcissist, who can't handle any negative news directed at him. He persuaded his base, already socially conservative and disdainful of the social media, to make "fake news" his mantra of choice both on the campaign trail and in office. He lives for flattery and bombast. 

I could just rattle off his various crises and scandals: the Russia hack, the sloppy attempt to cover up the Russia hack, Ivanka plugging her handbags, Stormy Daniels, myriad deregulations, a mountain of sexual misconduct allegations, and of course the situation in Ukraine that led to impeachment. His failure to address COVID --at least, until he tested positive himself-- was a stain on his final year in office. Now, just days after a bunch of Trump's most rabid supporters raided the U.S. Capitol building, a second impeachment is not beyond possibility. (Forgive the brevity, but frankly I'm sick of writing about the man.)

I remember reading something in Entertainment Weekly 15 years ago (I want to attribute this to Alynda Wheat, but I'm probably wrong) about the pitfalls of giving anything an "F" review. Wheat or someone else said that if you give something the lowest possible grade, it implies that the film, TV show, etc. has a train wreck quality that will still intrigue and attract people. An F makes one think it's so bad it's good, like "The Room." Almost for that reason alone, I'm giving Trump a D-, which is marginally better but far less savory. Trump had a few scant positive achievements, but they were minor and offer little long-term impact. 

In short, a new voice can't come soon enough. Former Vice President Joe Biden, our oldest elected U.S. President, has a tall order ahead of him. He's not perfect, but in many ways he's already an improvement over his volatile predecessor. Things can only get better. 


Thursday, December 31, 2020

That Wonderful Year in Music... 2020

 Arts and culture frequently mirrors its time and surroundings, and this massive kidney stone we call 2020 demonstrated that in spades. (I know I said pretty much the same thing about brilliance under duress in 2016, but it still applies.) Even though most of us couldn't go to a movie theater or attend a music festival, there were artistic achievements to celebrate. A uniquely weird year certainly wasn't a bad one, and if visiting the record store wasn't an option, then we all knelt at the throne of Spotify in 2020.


1. Fetch the Bolt Cutters, Fiona Apple. In a year where up was down, left and right, and nothing could be taken for granted, the most outstanding release of the year was a literal shaggy dog story. Apple recorded this album with a tight quartet, on and off for five years, in between her rescue pets barking at her home studio in Venice Beach. Neither prolific (her third album since 2000) nor predictable, Apple takes any assumptions you make about her work --sometimes radically shifting a song at mid-course-- and throws it out the window. Bolt Cutters is jarring, cathartic, disarming, but above all very human. Odds are, Apple will disappear for another six or seven years, assume everyone forgot about her, then release another album that's even more astounding than this one.

2. Saint Cloud, Waxahatchee. Trading the defiant alt-rock of her fourth solo album for a contemplative, country sound, Katie Crutchfield turned inward to fight off getting complacent. Newly sober and in a state of introspection, Crutchfield's Alabama twang sounds wry and effortless. She's in a new chapter in her life, she insists, but the story is still being written. 

3. RTJ4, Run The Jewels. In a word, searing. Always killer with minimal filler, RTJ's beefy revolution anthems were both a harbinger and soundtrack to a tense and violent summer. Police brutality, systemic racism, and class injustice are not new problems, as Killer Mike and El-P reminded us, and it's not going away anytime soon. It's a vicious cycle, and without any systemic change it will keep popping up in the news over and over again. 

4. Set My Heart On Fire Immediately, Perfume Genius 

5. Heaven to a Tortured Mind, Yves Tumor

6. Women In Music Pt. III, HAIM 

7. It Is What It Is, Thundercat

8. The New Abnormal, The Strokes 

9. The Slow Rush, Tame Impala 

10. Rough And Rowdy Ways, Bob Dylan. If 2020 was about expecting the unexpected, how about a nearly 80-year-old Nobel Prize winner putting out yet another outstanding album? Old Man Zimmerman was probably thrilled that he didn't have to tour for this latest release, where he locks horns with his legacy as well as his own mortality. As ever, Dylan speaks directly but remains elusive; he says he's weary, but has energy to spare. The last half-hour of this album (maybe his last, but who knows) has only two songs, both rambling in nature yet compelling to listen to and decipher. 

Honorable Mentions: Miss Anthropocene, Grimes; Letter to You, Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band; All Thoughts Fly, Anna von Hausswolff.


1. Lianne La Havas, Lianne La Havas. Genre-bending (I debated putting on the above list) and overwhelmingly peaceful, La Havas' self-titled third album was written in the span of half a decade. Unlike Fiona Apple, however La Havas chose chill over catharsis. Detailing her split with her former creative and romantic partner, La Havas sings like a woman reborn, blending R&B, soul, and acid jazz while barely breaking a sweat.

2. Hero Trio, Rudresh Mahanthappa

3. All Rise, Gregory Porter

4. Canvas, Robert Glasper

5. Originations, Ryan Cohan

Honorable Mentions: Purple Dark Opal, Kuzu; Fearless, Sharel Cassity.

BEST SONGS: (in no order)

"All In My Head," Whethan & Grandson

"You Need Me," Nathanial Rateliff

"Blinding Lights," The Weeknd

"Hell and Back," Bakar

"Be Afraid," Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit

"I Will Run," Dawes

"Shangri-La," EOB

"I'm Alive," Norah Jones

"What's The Matter," Twin Peaks

"Savage," Megan Thee Stallion

"Boss Bitch," Doja Cat

"Aries," Gorillaz feat. Peter Hook

"Sorceress," Jess Williamson

"My Game," Zella Day

"You're Not Alone," Semisonic

"Fake," Lauv feat. Conan Grey

"Together," beabadoobee

"Get Weird," North By North

"See Monkey," Elvis Perkins

"Pienso En Ti," Levitation Room

Outstanding Achievement by a Song That Was Preceded by a 13 Minute Dirge About The Titanic, and Soon to Be Followed By a 20 Minute Ballad About the Hindenburg Explosion: "Murder Most Foul," Bob Dylan 

Best Song From 2019 That I Discovered in 2020: "I'm Ready," Black Pumas


1. "WAP," Cardi B feat. Megan Thee Stallion. Well great, the basement's flooded...

2. "Therefore I Am," Billie Eilish. The mall *looks* abandoned, but this clip was probably shot during regular business hours.

3. "Sickeningly Teeth," Melkbelly. A small army of Chicago-turned-NYC improvisers (including, ahem, some acquaintances of mine) remind you of the importance of flossing.

4. "3 Segundos," Melenas. A goofy green-screen pastiche of classic American TV shows, featuring Pamplona's modern-day riot grrls.

5. "Blind Youth Industrial Park," METZ. My annual heady, surreal, sci-fi/fantasy pick.

Honorable Mention: "Bad Decisions," The Strokes. Supplies are limited! Order now!

See you all in '21.