Tuesday, January 25, 2011

That Wonderful Year in Music... 1996

As many rock historians will argue, 1996 was grunge's final stand; the genre was fully immersed in the alternative movement and the punk revival, but that revitalizing Seattle aesthetic had run its course. In retrospect, the rock sound was haunted by the ghosts of alt-nation past (Kurt Cobain), present (Bradley Nowell), and future (Layne Staley), and we the fans were Ebenezer Scrooge. 1996 was also a commercially successful year for female singer-songwriters with alternative inclinations; the popularity of Tori Amos, Alanis Morrissette, Sarah McLachlan, Fiona Apple and others --while not necessarily enduring-- was enough to launch the Lilith Fair music and arts festival, i.e. "the women's Woodstock," a year later.

From a personal perspective, 1996 was the year I turned 12 years old, and it was probably the first year I demonstrated any interest in politics. I spent a big chunk of the year parroting my dad's political beliefs (social moderate, fiscal conservative, pro-Flat Tax), demonizing President Clinton with the luddite bluster of a radio pundit, and alienating some of my sixth-grade cla.ssmates in the process. The Democratic National Convention was in Chicago that year, and I avoided news coverage of the proceedings like the plague. A decade and a half later, my underinformed and transparent dabbles with conservatism feel like juvenilia, a phase of my life that I don't look back upon fondly. On a more positive and less polarizing note, 1996 was the year I attended my first Kansas City Royals game (at New Comiskey), my first Blackhawks game (versus Anaheim), and moved into the attic bedroom that I spent the majority of my teenage years.


1. Pinkerton, Weezer. Rivers Cuomo set the blueprint for the band's 1994 debut: sunny, heavy guitar-pop with proto-emo and punk flourishes. Their sophomore effort was also heavily manuevered by Cuomo, eschewing playful power chords for raging, squealing guitars. Initially lambasted for taking such a starting left turn --Pinkerton made many critics' worst albums lists that year-- this album now stands as a singular artistic achievement bolstered by Cuomo's growth as an anxious, witty songwriter. Time heals all wounds, it seems.

2. Odelay!, Beck. In 1993, wispy anti-folk singer Beck Hansen released "Loser," a surrealistic blues-meets-rap lark that spoke to millions of jaded Gen-Xers. Three years later Beck, with crucial assistance from uber-producers The Dust Brothers, cut Odelay!, an album that fleshed out his unique voice, eclectic sound, and constant stylistic shifts. The album scored three Top 40 hits, but Odelay! is best enjoyed as one singular recording, a sonic mosaic whose overall image is greater than the sum of its parts.

3. The Score, The Fugees. An oasis from the increasingly monotonous and repetitive Gangsta Rap sub-genre, Lauryn Hill, Pras, and Wyclef Jean gave hip-hop a badly needed transfusion of intelligensia and social consciousness with their masterpiece The Score. It's hard to find a track that tops the clever "Fu-Gee-La," but the two standouts here are both covers: a funky rendition of Roberta Flack's "Killing Me Softly With Her Song" that turned Hill into an MC to be reckoned with, and an interpretation of Bob Marley's "No Woman No Cry" that makes you wonder why it wasn't a rap song to begin with.

4. Being There, Wilco
5. If You're Feeling Sinister, Belle and Sebastian
6. Evil Empire, Rage Against The Machine
7. Tidal, Fiona Apple
8. Sublime, Sublime
9. Everything Must Go, Manic Street Preachers

10. No Code, Pearl Jam. An underappreciated entry in the PJ canon, their fourth album might pale to their first three efforts yet rocks hard all the same. What might alienate you upon first listen is Eddie Vedder's sudden interest in Eastern religion and philosophy; each track delineates or alludes to some type of moral dilemma. Acoustic tracks like "In My Tree" and "Off He Goes" provide free range for Vedder's soul-searching, diamonds in the rough of a flawed yet utterly fascinating recording.

Honorable Mentions: Tigermilk, Belle and Sebastian; Maniacal Laughter, Bouncing Souls; Fashion Nugget, Cake; Reasonable Doubt, Jay-Z; Murder Ballads, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds; Millions Now Living Will Never Die, Tortoise.


"Santa Monica," Everclear
"Here in Your Bedroom," Goldfinger
"Swallowed," Bush
"Popular," Nada Surf
"Sucked Out," Superdrag
"Pretty Noose," Soundgarden
"Trippin' on a Hole in a Paper Heart," Stone Temple Pilots
"Too Much," The Dave Matthews Band
"Pepper," Butthole Surfers
"Setting Sun," The Chemical Brothers


1. "1979," The Smashing Pumpkins. One day in the life of a group of disaffected teenagers wandering nomadically in a late-70s model Dodge Charger. Billy Corgan once said this was his favorite Pumpkins video, though quite a few fans would argue for...
2. "Tonight Tonight," The Smashing Pumpkins. ...this, a faithful homage to the early 20th century silent film A Trip to the Moon starring Tom Kenny and Jill Talley of "Mr. Show" fame.
3. "Drop," The Pharcyde. After big years in 1994 and 1995, video director par excellence Spike Jonze had a relatively quiet '96. During his breather, however he still managed to create one great forwards-going-backwards clip featuring one of the '90s most memorable one-hit wonders and a litany of special guests.
4. "The Distance," Cake. A corporate drone runs away from his life and responsibilities --literally-- and encounters Fellini-esque oddballs in a colorful visualization of one of the year's best left-field hits.
5. "Big Me," Foo Fighters. Hey, remember those old Mentos "Freshmakers" commercials?

Honorable Mentions: "Sunday Morning," No Doubt; "Heaven Beside You," Alice in Chains.

Your thoughts?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Bearing Down

A great portion of my life lately has revolved around my adventures in the city of Chicago, so I apologize in advance if I seem regionally biased today:

As a Bears fan, this Sunday's matchup against the Packers is just icing on the cake. Considering what a divisive rivalry Chicago and Green Bay have, it's a marvel to think we've only met in the NFL playoffs once before, nearly 70 years ago. It goes without saying that this is the most meaningful Monsters/Cheddarheads showdown of my lifetime. I still worry about "good Cutler" and "bad Cutler," but the fact that we've made it this far is either a testament to our defense and special teams or how underwhelming the NFC was this year. Either way, I'm quite placated.

When you think about it, the Chicago sports teams in their current incarnation are a lot like the original cast of "M*A*S*H." The Blackhawks are Hawkeye (natch), the Bears are Trapper, the Bulls are Col. Blake, the Cubs and White Sox are Ferret Face and Hot Lips --you know, the comic relief-- and the Sky is Radar. Each team possesses traces of that character's quirks: the Hawks are boozy and freewheeling, Da Bears are bumbling but affable, the Cubs are borderline incompetent and constantly blaming others for their shortcomings, and the Pale Hose are shrill and overly defensive. I vaguely remember Trapper wearing a basketball jersey in one episode, and if you can make a decent Radar/Sky analogy, let me know.

Meanwhile, two weeks ago I started Writing 3 at IO. After taking on late night monologue jokes and sketch comedy, the focus has shifted to perfecting a spec script. My weekly "homework" is slightly weightier and time-consuming --hence this short entry-- but I'm still enjoying the challenge the class provides. My original idea for an episode of "American Dad!" didn't seem to impress my colleagues, but now I'm running with something I'm far more satisfied with. Concurrently, I'm in improv Level 4B across the hallway, where we're finally approaching performance level. By my best estimate, my class will be performing sometime in late February. In the meantime, I'm still jamming for 12-15 minutes every late Saturday night as Lyndsay Hailey's opening act. For you locals out there, I hope you check it out sometime.

Next Week: the year in music, 1996.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

One Day in Tucson

What happened Saturday morning in Tucson, AZ is exactly what I've feared in today's political spectrum. Granted, there is no implication that Jared Lee Loughner was motivated by anything in the media, but you wouldn't assume that from MSNBC and Fox News' coverage of the shooting. A Democratic congresswoman in a predomantly Republican state is wounded --almost declared dead, even-- and instead of joining together to mourn and reflect the partisan sniping is just as loud as its ever been.

In the wake of the shooting, Andrew Sullivan posted this blog entry. The implication of violence is blunt, though former Gov. Palin announced a day later that the crosshair metaphor weren't intended to provoke harm upon her political rivals. I may not agree with Palin's views, and she seemed as geniunely appalled by the shootings as anyone else, but I hope she uses less incediary language in the future. I'm sure Sully and Grizzly Mama would agree: acts of violence against elected political figures destroy democracy itself, regardless of affiliation.

As for my original point: naturally, partisan pundits and other assorted talking heads are saying the massacre was politically motivated. Simply put, what I declared in regard to the Holocaust Museum shooting two years ago still applies now: hatred has no political affiliation. The man (boy?) that wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and cruelly gunned down six others was a deranged loner, an anti-Semetic wannabe demagogue intent on wiping out "the Jew problem." This is not conservatives picking off liberals or the left playing crybaby on the right; it was one man with one gun and a vague, wholly demented understanding of how the world really works.

On top of that, crazy begats more insanity; it was only a matter of time before the hate-mongerers at Westboro Baptist "Church" announced that they will picket the funeral of the shootings' youngest victim. Their relentlessness is confounding, as is the tasteless attitude of nearly every attention whore scrambling to get their five minutes' time on the cable news outlets. Jon Stewart put it best: I wish we could pin the blame on something tangential, but we can't, so we finger whoever and whatever we normally would oppose. That might be the biggest tragedy of all.

Other notes:

+ It didn't occur to me until after I posted my blog last week that 289 is 17 squared. For more on my "obsession" with the prime number, click here for a "memorable" blog from September 2008.

+ In early December, I was discussing literature with an IO classmate and she chided me for reading mostly magazines. It dawned on me that I hadn't read a novel cover-to-cover all year, and she was right to point out this hiccup. Over the summer, I had tried to read The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, but I couldn't get into it and gave up by page 75. Shortly after that conversation, I stopped at my local library and checked out The Wapshot Chronicle by John Cheever, which I read at my temp job during breaks or whenever the phones died down. I finished the book by December 30th, and after a quick breather I'm now in the early stages of reading The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow.

+ We took advantage of a division that was weaker than the experts projected, our offensive line is still pretty shaky, we're playing a losing team that spanked our asses three months ago, and I'm still convinced that Lovie Smith isn't all that, but... GO BEARS!!!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

House of Cards

Some thoughts on the "new" 112th U.S. Congress:

Last month, The New Yorker ran a fascinating profile about incoming Speaker of the House John Boehner. It was a surprisingly impartial, intermittently flattering portrayal of the Ohio congressman, though one point in the article resonated with me. His rise to power in the last two or three years, a steady climb that began in the early '90s and was almost derailed when he answered a lobbyist's siren song, has been a remarkable story of political strategy not only on his part but his allies and opponents as well. Boehner positoned himself as a Tea Party sympathizer when he agreed with maybe 50% of their platform, and his prominence in the house made him a willing target of sorts for both Democratic bigwigs and left-leaning pundits. The icing on the cake came just before the election, when President Obama himself called Boehner out during a speech, a moment that evoked the one-on-one, partisan deus ex machina between Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich 15-plus years ago. The parallels are quite striking, though you can draw the similarities on your own.

Now that we're halfway through President Obama's first term in office --yes, I'm looking at the glass as half full-- I confess that I don't regret voting for him in 2008. Rest assured, this is not liberal bluster. If I had to choose between the candidate that responded immediately when the economy collapsed against a candidate that temporarily suspended his campaign to figure out what he was going to do, I'd go with the guy that already had a plan. I'm not saying that the Obama economic agenda is perfect, but at least his team had a strategy in place. It's not that the government shouldn't be spending our tax dollars on rebuilding America's physical, sociopolitical, and economic infrastructure so much as it's the little frivolities that grinds my gears. A government cannot function without some type of financial redistribution; it's just a matter of how that money is spent.

As I alluded to in my midterm election blog two months ago, the GOP's takeover of the House of Representatives has short-term consequences, but what happens in 2012 is still anyone's guess. The Democratic blowout of the 1982 midterms was a response to President Reagan's wobbly first two years in office, but he won reelection two years later in a landslide. The "Republican Revolution" of 1994 was a rebuke of President Clinton and his failed attempt at health care reform, but he was elected to a second term in 1996 by a clear margin. Then again, the GOP gobbled up the house in the 1978 midterms when President Carter's economic and foreign policies were non-starters, and look what happened there. The number of X-factors that will pop up between now and November 2012 are infinite and endless at this point.

I know I've railed against the GOP establishment many times over the years, and I'm still hesitant to give credit to the Tea Party candidates, but all this fresh blood will help our government in the short term. The passings of Ted Kennedy, Robert Byrd, and (indirectly) Ted Stevens in the past 18 months gave way to young, unproven but determined voices in our nation's highest legislature, fresh points of view that were badly needed. The question is, will these conservative young guns provide new ideas, or merely serve as resistance and vocal dissention to President Obama? Will the two or three new Democrats go in lockstep with the President, or find their own voice? Will they push or shove?