Tuesday, June 26, 2012

That Wonderful Year in Music... 2007

I look back at 2007 as a year of questions. It was a year where people asked queries like, "is 'John from Cincinnati' supposed to make any sense?" "who will be our next president, Rudy Giuliani or Hillary Clinton?" and "hissing fauna, are you the destroyer?"

In all seriousness, however my '07 was defined by hanging out in the basement of Fell Hall at Illinois State University.  It was my senior year, an as a member of the Z106 rock music staff I listened to and rated new releases for air.  I was also a DJ for three semesters, so I enjoyed this task both ways.  I did an internship in the station that summer, so during my down time I had unprecedented access to free CDs, resulting in an equally unparalled time of new musical knowledge. I graduated that December thinking, "damn, these last 12 months were a lot of fun." Suffice to say, listening to the following albums and songs made for a great trip down Memory Lane.

I wrote out a year-end list in 2007, and even though I still agree with most of my picks I did overlook a few albums that I hadn't heard in full at that point (*cough* In Rainbows *cough* Sound of Silver) and nearly overrated others (in hindsight, Mark Ronson's covers disc Version seems more "fun" than bold or substantial).  It was only my second stab at blogging about music, and these types of things do benefit from hindsight. I will concur with myself insofar that '07 was a bountiful year for indie-rock and electronica.  Five years is my self-imposed minimum of determining whether a particular song or album holds up, so what remains essential a half-decade on?

(parentheses note previous ranking)

1. In Rainbows, Radiohead. By default, this is the band's most romantic album. That is not to say that Thom Yorke and the boys have cheered up; buzzwords like "comatose," "nightmare," and "trapped" are sprinkled all over the disc. On their first self-released effort after bolting Capitol/EMI, Radiohead is more focused upon their introversion than ever, but instead of fearing society and technology the angst aims eerily inward.  For all the electronic abstraction, they just want to be loved.
2. Neon Bible, Arcade Fire (1). Trading sepia tones and monochrome for brighter colors --hence the title-- we find the Montreal septet beyond mourning their youth and having a stiff drink after a long day's work. Immediately dismissed by some as Funeral Part 2, the Fire's sophomore effort holds up as a distinctively wrecked and defiant effort of its own valor.
3. Sky Blue Sky, Wilco (2). As much as I adored Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, it wasn't until Sky that I truly "got" Wilco. Returning to their alt-country roots while still keeping one foot in experimental pop, their sixth album evokes Neil Young circa Harvest, the end result sometimes sounding like '70s soft rock. Newcomers Pat Sansone and Nels Cline make the disc, their organ and guitar work respectively meshing well with Jeff Tweedy's yearning harmonies.
4. Sound of Silver, LCD Soundsystem
5. Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?, Of Montreal
6. Wincing the Night Away, The Shins (3)
7. Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, Spoon (5)
8. Icky Thump, The White Stripes
9. Boxer, The National (11)
10. Back to Black, Amy Winehouse (10). Yes, go ahead and judge. Winehouse spent the last four-plus years of her life in the tabloids, a shambolic train wreck of a woman doomed to an early grave by her impulses and narcissism. What she left behind, however was a very promising singing career, demonstrated to full effect on Black. It was her second full-length, her commercial breakthrough, and ultimately her last completed statement as an artist. "Rehab" and "You Know I'm No Good" are great songs, with or without the baggage of historical irony.

11. Because of the Night, Kings of Leon
12. Strawberry Jam, Animal Collective
13. The Reminder, Feist (4)
14. Graduation, Kanye West (8)
15. Favourite Worst Nightmare, Arctic Monkeys. What sophomore jinx? It's not my favorite Monkeys album --see my 2006 list-- but it contains two of their best songs ("Brianstorm" and "Fluorescent Adolescent"). If the big complaint about their debut was that they owed too much to the artists that influenced them, than Nightmare is the sound of a young band finding its voice.
16. Kala, M.I.A.
17. Challengers, The New Pornographers
18. The Cool, Lupe Fiasco
19. Attack Decay Sustain Release, Simian Mobile Disco
20. Widow City, The Fiery Furnaces (6). In some ways, the Friedberger siblings are like indie-rock's answer to Dim Sum: it's delicious if you love weird things, but only occasionally is it accessible to newbies. Their 2003 debut Gallowsbird's Bark is a decent starting point, but Widow City is an expert-level feast. The disc alternates from baroque pop to free jazz to proto-Metal, sometimes in the same song. If you get it, you'll love it.

"Chelsea Dagger," The Fratellis
"Ruby," Kaiser Chiefs
"Silver Lining," Rilo Kiley
"Back to the 101," Albert Hammond Jr.
"Don't Make Me Wait," Locksley
"3's and 7's," Queens of the Stone Age
"Thrash Unreal," Against Me!
"Lake Michigan," Rogue Wave
"Hard Sun," Eddie Vedder
"Falling Slowly," Glen Hansard & Markéta Irglová

When I said 4 1/2 years ago that mash-up were in vogue and YouTube hasn't caught on to music videos yet... I guess I wasn't looking hard enough. I missed out on some awesome clips. Once again, the benefit of hindsight.

1. "1234," Feist. This well-choreographed, multi-hued clip actually did air on TV... in a 30-second iPod commercial. That was enough to turn "1234" into a left-field hit.
2. "What's a Girl To Do," Bat For Lashes. If you don't mind the "Donnie Darko" allusions, this video is a perfect match-up of visual and audio atmosphere.
3. "Can't Tell Me Nothin'" (Version 2), Kanye West. A pre-"Hangover" Zach Galifianakis and troubadour Will Oldman chill out at Zach's North Carolina farm in this dance floor hit expressing Yeezy's ambivalance to the hip-hop lifestyle.
4. "Atlas," Battles. Their 2007 release was titled Mirrored. Therefore...
5. "The Underdog," Spoon. Inspired by "Russian Ark," this daring single-shot video depicts a typical, "humdrum" recording session with Britt Daniels and company.
6. "100 Days, 100 Nights," Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings.
7. "Conquest," The White Stripes.
8. "Young Folks," Peter, Bjorn, & John.
9. "Peacebone," Animal Collective.
10. "Electric Feel," MGMT.

Honorable Mentions "Smile," Lily Allen; "Long Road to Ruin," Foo Fighters; "Phantom Limb," The Shins.

Your thoughts?

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Lesson for Today

Even though I seldom mention this --other than when I'm rambling on about retirement pensions-- I'm a substitute teacher.  I just finished my second year at the district one town over, where I "teach" English and history at the middle and high school level. I've had a sub license in DuPage County since 2008, after a brief dalliance I didn't really depend upon teaching until after losing my job at Salem two-plus years ago.

One of the most challenging aspects of being a sub is the lack of training. Unless you have a full teaching degree, you're not necessarily prepared for dealing with a classroom of disaffected teenagers.  I went into teaching fully knowing I was going to be challenged, so in a lot of ways I'm learning on the job. Unfortunately, I had an experience several weeks ago that exposed my lack of attestation, and potentially hurt my credibility.

It was the last Friday of the 2011-12 school year.  In this district the seniors neither take finals nor prep for them, so they get to sit out the last week before graduation.  Even though the high school was only three-quarters full, the staff and faculty still ran on all cylinders. At 6:05 that morning the district dispatcher called, asked me if I could fill in for a social studies teacher, and I accepted.  I arrived right at 8 o'clock, only to discover that for the first two periods I was an aide and my presence wasn't needed. Third period was Mr. F's planning hour, so my first part of the day was suprisingly easy. Little did I know what 4th period would deliver.

My first real class of the day was civics, and Mr. F assigned his remaining students a video with an accompanying worksheet, worth 40 points and due at the end of the period.  Of the 13 students that showed up, a group of five or six (mixed gender) sat in a cluster on the front right side of the room. Judging from their build, I could tell at least one of them played football.  They were chatting away loudly as I handed them the worksheets and gave instructions.  One of the athletic extroverts even helped me with the overheaded projector.

From that point, things soured.  As I dimmed the lights, I heard a crash; I turn around to see a desk on the front left side had been knocked over. I asked who did that, no one answered, and I nonchalantly turned the desk right side up.  Upon playing the DVD, I noticed that the cluster was still talking amongst themselves.  I raised the volume to drown them out, but it didn't work.  From about twelve feet away, I could tell that the one helpful student had music blasting from the buds of his iPod.

As the other half of the class worked away, I walked over to the group and asked to be quiet and work on their assignment. Than, I asked the boy to put away his iPod. After refusing, I asked him again. Still declining my orders, I looked him straight in the eye and said "are you deaf?" The boy scowled, his friends fell silent.  Feeling like I had toed a line somehow, I gave up and walked back to my chair. The clique resumed their conversation.

Shortly after sitting down, I heard another crash. Just beyond my peripheral, I saw another desk toppled over, this time on top of another desk.  One leg left a dent the size of a quarter in the wall.  The girls in the group giggled.  It was pretty evident that the largest member of the group tried to throw the chair at me, but missed me by about four feet. At my wit's end and in no position to retaliate, I called the front office, explained what had happened and requested the dean (I didn't know his extension).

A minute or so later a tall, muscular gentleman tapped on the door.  He was the dean, and upon walking in he correctly assumed who hucked the desk at me.  At his orders, two of the boys were sent to his office; the rest of the group was broken up and sent to opposite ends of the classroom.  Before the end of the period, they regrouped and resumed their conversation; however, I was too fed up to just keep calling them out.  Finally the bell rang, and the rest of the day went by without incident.

Over that weekend, the incident kept circing around in my head.  I learned later in the day that the two students had a history of being problematic; I can only assume they were suspended through finals, or at the very least sent to their umpteenth detention.  I chronically wondered if I properly handled the situation; I had dealt with unruly students before, but I usually kept my cool.  Attacked or not, I felt like I failed myself somehow.

I had all but forgotten about the incident until last weekend.  I was volunteering for the WDCB table at the Naperville Jazz Festival when I struck a conversation with a lady visiting from San Jose.  She was a 6th grade teacher in her early 50s, and we were comparing slashed retirement benefits in her school district to budget cuts in mine.  As she shared, she mentioned how there were fewer distractions and gadgets 10-15 years ago. As I nodded, she offered a tip of sorts: if a student is playing music in class, ask politely to put away the device, or confiscate it. Don't order, just do. On one hand, the lady was merely giving fortuitous advice. On the other hand, she all but confirmed my anxiety. My instinct might've been wrong after all.

As I look back on my moment of weakness, I brace myself for the coming school year. What happens if that student has a long memory, and exacts some type of revenge? Can I keep my professionalism in check? I would ponder cutting bait and looking for work elsewhere, but I can't take the risk.  All actions have consequences, and now I must spend the summer  worrying about an unwanted cliffhanger, a lapse in judgment that I can't erase.

Next Week: the year in music, 2007.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Legends in a Jugular Vein

This month marks the 20th anniversary of the passing of MAD magazine founder and editor-in-chief William Gaines.  The milestone was not acknowledged by any media outlets, but his role in mid-to-late 20th century American satire is invaluable.  After my Playboy essay several months ago, I felt the need to write about a magazine that had a far greater impact on my formative years.

I was an undisputed comedy nerd growing up, and my three most reliable sources for laughs couldn't have been more disparate: newspaper comics, "The Simpsons," and MAD.  Reading strips like "Peanuts" and "Calvin & Hobbes" were age-appropriate, but I got away with MAD and the Springfield clan because they were, at least in my parents' aloof minds, "a comic book" and "a cartoon" respectively.  Even though MAD came into existence as a satirical comic book --I'll go more into the "classic 23" later on-- it was, and still is, a satrical magazine illustrated by commercial and comic book artists.

Even though Bill Gaines had the vision, it was the creative talent --the famed "Usual Gang of Idiots"-- that were the bloodline of the magazine. Some names became legend for their consistency, zaniness, and longevity: Al Jaffee, Jack Davis, George Woodbridge, Don Martin, Bob Clarke, Paul Coker, Antonio Phohias, Desmond Devlin. Some were masters of the caricature: Mort Drucker, Angelo Torres, Frank Kelly Freas, Jack Rickard.  Some fulfilled a niche: Irving Schild was the in-house photographer whenever realism was necessary; Frank Jacobs could be counted upon for poetry and song parodies; Dave Berg was given five pages of real estate per issue to espouse on middle-of-the-road, middle American foibles. Norman Mingo, the only World War One veteran to ever contribute to the magazine, gave birth to the magazine's most lasting symbol: mascot Alfred E. Neuman.

What made MAD even more idyosyncratic was that it allowed its readers to explore its past while offering its present. From the mid-60s until 2005 or so, MAD published a "Super Special" collectors' series alongside its regular publication that featured memorable articles from yesteryear. In any alternating month, I could laugh my butt off or get a skewed history lesson. More often than not, the oldies ran laps around the new stuff.

So what was the downfall of MAD, if there ever was one?  Even though the legendary roster mentioned above held tight for more than two decades, Gaines was reluctant to explore new talent.  The Usual Gang of Idiots were more than just hired hands and starving artists; they were Gaines' social circle.  Rather than ease in new talent sporadically a la SNL, the mid-to-late 1980s marked an awkward transitional period that some argue still affects the magazine to this day.  Rickard's sudden death, Phohias' retirement, and Martin's exodus more or less forced Gaines' hand. It's not to say that young guns like John Caldwell, Sam Viviano, Tom Bunk, Tom Richmond, and Drew Friedman haven't kept the tradition alive, but criticism of these new keepers of the torch has been much more harsh than they deserve.

For me, the turning point was issue #353, January 1997. I was on a day trip to Chicago with my dad, and bought the issue at a Union Station newstand. The majority of the issue was a combined parody to the movie "Mars Attacks" and a homage to the classic trading card series. My three dollar investment was an unexpected dud. Most of the articles in #353 relied heavily on gross-out humor, which would be fine if it were funny and not pandering.  Even at 12 years of age, I could tell that the magazine's editoral staff had betrayed Gaines' vision. The new guys didn't get it. Looking back, this 48-page pool of pus was a fluke of sorts, but my love was clearly on the wane.

By late 2002, my senior year in high school, I stopped reading MAD on a regular basis. On one hand, my taste in comedy was getting more sophisticated; on the other hand, the new editors' decision to a) publish in full color and b) include outside advertising had repelled to me to my breaking point. However, I still found the magazine's history to be utterly compelling. In the late '90s, EC Comics and Time Warner reprinted the "classic 23," the first three years of MAD's existence.  I bought two of these reprints when they first came out, I bought on the other volumes on eBay several years later.

As a comic book, MAD  was incredibly subversive for its time; the contributors were veteran artists, mocking their work and others, biting the hand of the square '50s culture that fed them. After 23 issues, the newly established Comics Code heavily censored and defanged the entire American comic scene, and Gaines and head writer Harvey Kurtzman were forced to reinvent MAD into a semi-monthly magazine.  Gaines and Kurtzman had a falling out shortly after, and Gaines guided the magazine into its aforementioned "classic" era.  Kurtzman spent the next 10 years trying to launch several MAD imitators and failed miserably.

Now that I'm nearly a decade removed from my one-sided relationship with MAD magazine, I can skim through old issues with critical thought and an adult sensibility. Its comedic influence on me plateaued years ago, but whenever I take my own stabs at satire, its aftertaste still lingers in my mouth.  Comedy is far more mondaine than it was six decades ago yet MAD still stands, weathered yet still driven, sitting at your local newstand, waiting for a new generation of smart-alecks to mold and shape.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Follow the Bouncing Ballot

I'm going to keep this week's blog short.  I spent most of last week in Kansas City with my dad, my first trip back "home" in over a decade, and I'm still catching up on things back in Illinois.  Rest assured, I'll be much more chatty next week.

"This will be Florida 2000 all over again!" cry the left-leaning activists. There is growing speculation --some legit, some unfounded-- that voter fraud and dirty tricks may play a part in the presidential election. The election is already fairly contested, with neither candidate running away from the other, but do we have to resort to fearmongering? Is paranoia getting in the way of the democratic process? Are we heading to the most staunchly partisan election in American history? The answer to all three questions is... maybe.

Florida's recent decision to outlaw early voting and add impediments to registering to vote has become a testy issue in a notorious swing state. On one hand, these new laws are meant to prevent non-US citizens and other undocumented residents to vote in November. On the other hand, a substantial percentage of the African-American population doesn't have IDs or registration.  Barring that some alterations are made, these new laws not only violate the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, but they evoke the old Jim Crow laws as well. Clearly, whoever wrote this law doesn't know their own state.

Speaking of elections, the movement to recall and usurp sitting Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was an abject failure. I'm disappointed, but I will also admit that a lot had to happen to turn Walker into the midwestern Grey Davis. Ultimately, my neighbors to the north prefer fiscal responsibility and the illusion of a free market over basic civil liberties. Walker was elected to office less than two years ago by vanquishing a weak opponent, and here we stand today with Walker beating... that same also-ran. I don't think I need to reiterate how much I resent Walker's activist, against-the-people agenda, and with any luck the Wisconsin GOP will come to their senses sometime before 2014.