Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009 in review: the world of Mike

The final of the lists!

Other Cool best-ofs:

  • Best musical purchase: my Fulltone Fulldrive 2 distortion pedal. Whooboy, this thing sings.
  • The coolest thing that's happened to me personally: I'm in a band!
  • Happiest BG moment: old friends returning!
  • Best TV-related purchase: Deadwood: The Complete Series
  • Best video game purchase: Dead Space: Extraction
  • Best “I'm happy to be an academic” moment: wandering New Orleans with friends while “attending” a conference.

Saddest moment of the year:

  • Jay Bennett, RIP.

2009 in review: music

The top ten albums:

  1. 1372 Overton Park, by Lucero—I got a chance to see Lucero in (I believe) 2008, and I remember being more impressed with opener Glossary (and getting to hang with the indomitable Micah and Shane, who both made the trip up to BG for the show). I did like Lucero enough to buy Rebels, Rogues, & Sworn Brothers, but when I listened to it, my impressions were that they had potential, but most of the album just seemed lazy in terms of playing and inconsistent in terms of writing.

    I bought 1372 Overton Park after an online request for “new rock and roll.” Man, is this album miles above anything else from this band. Solid songwriting throughout, tight arrangements (winning the “best unexpected use of horns in rock and roll 2009” award), great playing throughout. Lyrically, this is a leap above most rock and roll out today. How can one not love “What Are You Willing To Lose?,” an ode to realizing that you might risk all without ever seeing the rewards due? “Would you keep on going if you couldn't make it through?” Indeed.

  2. baby darling doll face honey, by Band of Skulls—I picked this up as a “listening booth” find at Culture Clash records in Toledo. At first listen, Band of Skulls is definitely operating in the White Stripes vein, but with a little less Zeppelin in the mix. I think, however, that Band of Skulls might do it better...better lyrics, better vocal melodies, and generally smarter. Plus they have the coolest name ever.
  3. When The Stage Lights Go Dim, by Micah SchnabelTwo Cow Garage frontman steps out with a quieter sound. This could've easily been a sleeper pick, doing little else but to hold us over until 2010's TCG album. Instead, Micah's songwriting elevates this to simply being an awesome album. Micah brings more heart and soul, but more importantly, energy and insight. An acoustic album which definitely rocks.
  4. Them Crooked Vultures (s/t)—Okay, I admit that I only bought this because John Paul Jones (yes, the former Led Zeppelin bassist) is playing on it. Sue me. Solid rock and roll throughout, great hooks, awesome musicianship, with enough funk and hooks to make you want to move.
  5. Message to Garcia, by Visqueen—This album is not the deepest or most varied pick on my list. However, it might just be the most fun. Plus awesome vocals...if I knew someone who could sing like this, I'd do anything to become part of the band. “So Long” might be the best ballad in years.
  6. Murdering Oscar & Other Love Songs, by Patterson Hood—While I have been increasingly meh about the Drive-By Truckers' last few, Patterson's solo work continues to bring it. No one brings scathing lyrical insight nearly as well, and there are several songs (most notably the stunning “Skrewtopia”) which will make you quiet with awe.
  7. Wolves, by Roger Bryan and the Orphans—Bar rock done right...slightly sloppy, slightly messy, slightly over the top. But this is how rock and roll should be...walking the tightrope and coming dangerously close to crashing.
  8. Quest for Fire (s/t)—Will this one burn your face off? Well, it should. Quest for Fire is a full-out sonic assault that slams your face against the wall before simply crushing and burying you.
  9. Live at the Ohio Theater, by The Polka Floyd Show—Yeah, it's a live album. Yes, it's a Pink Floyd cover band. Yes, the songs are done in polka. Get over it. This band could easily slip into parody and get old really quickly. Instead, The Polka Floyd Show boast a level of commitment and musicianship (the guitar specifically will blister your face) that allow them to really get it right. After a few spins of this one, regular Pink Floyd seems dull and insignificant.
  10. A New Tide, by Gomez—Yes, it's mellow at times. But the songwriting is generally fun and doesn't go to the normal, expected places. There are enough toe-tapping moments to keep this one regularly going to my cd player.

Just missed the cut:

  • American Central Dust, by Son Volt
  • The All-Night Bedroom Revival (free download), by Joey Kneisser
  • The Majestic Beast of the Flatlands, by Raise High the Roof Beam

If only I had more time/yes, I know I need to check out:

  • Superchunk
  • Brendan Benson
  • Vulture Whale
  • Japandroids
  • Reigning Sound

Other 2009 releases:

  • Backspacer, Pearl Jam—And I still can't hack Eddie Vedder's voice.
  • 21st Century Breakdown, Green Day—An overly poppy letdown after the brilliant American Idiot.
  • Porcupine, Tim Easton—He continues to show why his high point was The Truth About Us.
  • Wilco (The Album), Wilco—This has a few great songs, but it has many more deathly dull songs.
  • Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit (s/t)—On first listen, this did nothing for me, which is strange considering how much I lived his debut. I'll have to go back to this
  • The Mountain, Heartless Bastards—Sorry, I've been told I should like this, but it's a bit monotonous. A shame, really...they have such a great band name.

The best 2009 songs:

  1. “What Are You Willing To Lose?,” Lucero
  2. “Bull Black Nova,” Wilco
  3. “Screwtopia,” Patterson Hood
  4. “American Static,” Micah Schnabel
  5. “Dynamite,” Son Volt

Shows of the year:

  1. Two Cow Garage, Jackson MI
  2. Josh Ritter, The Agora Ballroom, Cleveland OH
  3. Micah Schnabel, Frankies, Toledo OH

Why 2010 will be a better music yea:
  • rumored releases from Two Cow Garage, Grand Champeen, Glossary. RAWK!

Wanna hear more? For a limited time, download my 2009 sampler!

2009 in review: films

The best of an awesome year at the theaters:

  1. Up!—I utterly love Pixar movies, and they are perhaps the only film studio to get an utterly free pass from me. However, nothing prepared me for Up! Visually beautiful? Of course. However, this film rang with a level of emotional resonance throughout that I've never before experienced. Unbelievably uplifting, sad, and touching...the best film of an amazing year in cinema.
  2. Where the Wild Things Are—I heart Spike Jonze, so I knew this would be good, even worth the multi-year wait. You knew this was going to be unbelievably stunning visually. But did you think it would drive you to tears? So easily make you unbelievably happy, touched, and frightened all at the same time?
  3. The Fantastic Mr. Fox—Yet another director I adore comes through with an utterly fantastic film. The retro-claymation plays really well against the retro-music. But where this movie shines is the overall, indefineable sense of coolness it exudes. Every character is someone I would dearly love to know. A friend and fellow academic told me that this film made him utterly unable to apply a critical lens to it because he was just enjoying himself so much. I agree.
  4. Inglourious Basterds—Tarantino films are always an event, and Basterds certainly qualifies as extreme. However, it's not the violence (brutal and fun) or the dialogue (snappy and memorable) that sets this one off. No, it's the utterly unforgettable performances of both Melanie Laurent and Christoph Waltz, who bring layer upon layer of depth.
  5. Coraline—This is the fourth film so far to prove that kids movies are best when they don't limit themselves to “kiddie” stereotypes. Great stop-motion animation, even greater characterization of the angst of growing up. Both creepy and touching at the same time.
  6. The Hurt Locker—While this covers much of the same emotional ground as 2008's The Wrestler, Hurt Locker is notable as a movie that does pretty much everything right. It looks great. Wonderful characterizations. Moreover, this is a shockingly relevant film which will have you thinking days and months after you leave the theater.
  7. Star Trek—A popcorn movie? Sure. More action/adventure than we're used to from the Star Trek Franchise? Granted. But as an action/adventure movie, this succeeds wholeheartedly. Nicely paced, beautiful, with just enough characterization to keep you intellectually with the film.
  8. Men Who Stare At Goats—With talent like Ewan McGregor, George Clooney, Kevin Spacey, and Jeff Bridges, the acting in this film was bound to be outstanding. Funny, to be sure, but just enough depth to the story to keep this from being fluffy.
  9. Monsters vs. Aliens—I wouldn't have seen this if not for a showing at the cheap theater...and that would've been my loss. This was much smarter than it had a right to be. Great acting throughout, especially from Seth Rogan.
  10. Harry Potter & the Half-Blood Prince—It's not the best of the Harry Potter films, and, for those of us who read the books, there are a few puzzling choices. However, still a very solid entry in the series

2009 in review: television

The best of the year's television:

  1. Burn Notice—Could this show be any smoother? Could anyone look better than Fiona in tennis whites? Could you have anyone more awesome than Bruce Campbell?
  2. Castle—Sure, it's fluffy. But the dialog is snappy, and both Nathan Fillon and Stana Katic tear into their characters. Some of the most fun tv out there.
  3. Dollhouse—Consistently challenging tv that breaks the rules—no real “good guys” to speak of, morally repugnant behavior from most characters, long serial plots that only offer a delayed payoff—all mean that this was bound to be canceled. However, for those willing to stay for the ride, there's some great acting (particularly from Tudyk, Kranz, Glau, Lachmen, Williams, and Gjokaj) and some of the most thought-provoking television out there.
  4. V—If there's anything that had the potential to mess up, it's this. The original is a classic that still holds up pretty well. However, whatever questionable politics this remake might have (too early to tell, really, but I have suspicions), this is undeniably good for its sense of dread.
  5. House—Once again, House risks failure by completely and utterly disrupting its own status quo. On paper, is there a worse move than having House in therapy, cured of his addiction? But it pays off.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

on music, being doomed, and the chance to start house fires

Out of my many obsessions (beer, popcorn, killing zombies), one to which I've always felt strongly connected was music. If I could be anything when I grow up, it would still, to this day, be a rock star...or at least a professional musician. I think I definitely have the mind for music, and lately, I've become convinced I also have the skills. For the first time in ages, I'm in a band that practices regularly, has gigs potentially lined up, and is playing songs that I would, if not in the band, listen to and enjoy.

However, there are issues. There are a few of the standard band issues; while this is going more smoothly than any other musical collaboration from my past, we still get into an occasional (yet tremendously polite) "this doesn't sound like a chorus to me," followed by "well, what should a chorus sound like?" debate. These are of no real worry for me, though. I am nothing if not adaptable.

What concerns me? The same things as usual: my own dumb luck and the conspiring hand of fate.

When we last discussed musical matters, I was still missing my distortion pedal, and my amp had just blown up. Well, the pedal came in, and, after two months (due to a backordered part), my amp was finally repaired. Together, they sounded great. One band practice, though, I decided to add my wah wah pedal to the setup, and I realized that whenever I moved (usually while pulling Rock Star Pose #24), both pedals followed, skidding across the floor, cords becoming tangled. When I bought a cheap digital delay at an after-Thanksgiving sale, the problem got worse, and I felt like I was leading a tangle of spaghetti on a walk.

I decided that having a row of pedals meant that I had to mount them onto a pedal board of some sort...that is, if I wanted to maintain any credibility as a musician. After all, if you're not going to have a neat pedal board, what separates you from the hoard of frat boys playing Guitar Hero? And I decided that rather than buy a pedal board, I would, driven equally by my innate cheapness and my need to assert at least a shred of traditional masculinity, instead build my own.

This actually went fairly well. Although I was utterly flabbergasted by the cost of professional-strength velcro, I quickly procured all the parts at my area hardware chain conglomerate. For the cost of a Corner Grill lunch, I conned a friend into breaking out some power tools and helping me assemble the final piece. And several days later, I managed to even hide all the cables (after riddling the top of the board with 368 holes).

Then, at our last band practice before Xmas, my channel switch quit working. Okay, I can do that one manually. Then I tried out the wah wah, and it started to cut out the volume of my entire rig. Sigh.

I decided, again in a fit of DIY/I'm too cheap to hire a professional/please let me feel like a man just this one time, to fix everything myself. I bought a soldering gun, and I decided to repair the channel select footswitch first. Before I could add a jack to the thing, though, I needed to remove the old wires from the actual switch. I heated up my soldering gun and dove into the task at hand. Of course, rather than simply remove some solder, I accidentally melted the switch.

However, if 39 unsuccessful years on the job market have taught me one thing, it's to never give up. After I finish with my current project, I will teach myself to solder. I will learn how to hook up wires to a switch! I will gain the skills to mod my new phaser pedal! I will build my own ring modulator! The masses of musicians will bow down before me! And it will all come to pass through the simple tool of a soldering gun!!!!!

Either that, or I'll burn the house down.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

has anyone seen my rage?

Usually, my winter break moods are a more sure sign of the seasons than eggnog recipes, visiting relatives, or the slew of rabid shoppers. Xmas comes, I have one week of tremendously bad behavior, visit some family, and then turn into a the bleakest, meanest, most curmudgeonly person you've ever met. Yes, even more so than usual.

This is mostly because the end of Fall semester represents a very special time in the cycle that is the academic job search. If you're going for one of the major jobs, this is when someone will contact you for an interview if you've made the cut. The big English organization is, as we speak, holding its annual conference. This also serves as the meat market for those hoping to get Literature-esque jobs, so if you're one of these fateful people, you're either de-linting your suit and practicing interview-speak, coming to a new level of understanding of the true ramifications of the current job market, or you're just...becoming one of the bleakest, meanest, most curmudgeonly person anyone's ever met.

I'm on the job market again myself. And, as I can see the vast Fratboy-hell BG apartment complexes from my study window as I type this post, you can guess where I fall in the continuum of employment-seekers.

This is (as long-time and therefore long-suffering readers of this blog can attest) not my first time on the market. I have been going pretty steadily since graduating sometime way back in the pleistocene epoch. During this time, I have paid thousands of dollars postage for countless application packets, received some of the most frightfully inept rejection letters (including one beauty that introduced the person they hired in a long, flowing, worship-filled paragraph before adding "Needless to say, we are no longer considering your application"), had several unusual phone interviews (one told me "your skills are exactly what we were thinking of when we wrote the job description"...but those same skills apparently weren't strong enough to land me a campus visit), and even finagled a few on-campus interviews (which were equally strange; one school asked me to do a 20 minute lecture on some point of grammar or mechanics). However, a tenure-track job has, for reasons only Osiris himself understands, thus far eluded me.

Usually, at this time of year, I am irrepressibly bitter and mean. I hate everyone and everything. I am insanely jealous of thousands of interviewing Ph.Ds and ABDs whom I've never met and want to stab them in the neck with the celery from their airport bloody mary. I feel utterly no hope for my future and utterly no confidence in any of my past decisions.

This year? I'm surprisingly non-committal about the whole process. It's one of my deepest fears that I might be simply resigned to my fate.

To be fair, I did end up in a fairly comfortable instructorship. It's outside of my field of expertise, I work entirely too much (16 credit hours in the Fall, 12 in the Spring), and I'm inextricably consigned to freshman classes, but I do get paid okay. I even have my own office with a's a window onto the hallway, but still.... Overall, I'm doing quite well, particularly when compared to my friends, who are either smarter, more charming, better published (up to and including books), or have higher "perfect colleague" potential.

Normally, though, this "it could be could be lying dead in a ditch" mentality (a favorite aphorism of my otherwise awesome Nana) is of utterly no comfort; in truth, it generally just makes me that much more brittle. And to tell the truth, it's not really a factor in my current yet puzzling lack of rage.

It's my next-to-last year on the job market for many reasons (general tiredness, age, coalescing unwillingness to continue to put off my "real life"), and I'm getting utterly no traction on the tenure job search. And even though the stakes might be higher for some of my friends than for I, my personal career failure has been longer and more spectacular to date. So why am I resigned? Where is the rage?

I kind of miss it, to be honest.

Anyway. Back to writing...I've got two articles to polish and submit if I want to improve my situation for next year's search.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The War on X-mas

Since it's been a while, I've decided to make a new mixed drink. Because of the time of the year, I call it (with apologies to Futurama)"The War on X-Mas." Here's how it rolls:

  • Fill up a pint glass with ice.
  • Squeeze in 1/2 of a lemon.
  • Add 1/2 measure of strawberry liquor.
  • Add 1/2 measure of peppermint schnapps.
  • Add a full measure of Meyer's dark rum.
  • Top off with fresh squeezed orange juice.
  • Stir, resist the urge to add a sissified umbrella.

This beverage is best enjoyed while watching football and planning out tomorrow's spree while trying to ignore the increased level of credit debt.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Micah Schnabel at Frankies--review

I am a very big fan of Two Cow Garage. For those of you who don't know them (you can hear clips on their website), they are a great rock band from Columbus. I also have a very personal connection to these guys and their music ...but I'll have to go into that at some other time.

Their singer, Micah Schnabel, has a very cool solo album out called When the Stage Lights Go Dim. He's also on a mini-tour to plug it, and when I found out he was playing in Toledo, I immediately made my plans.

So, how was it? Overall, it was a great, great evening. The twenty one things you need to know:

  1. I always love it when I have friends that I can expose to/brainwash to become fans of cool bands I like.
  2. Frankies is a cool bar. Want proof? They have $1.50 PBRs, Black Labels, or Blatzs.
  3. One of the bouncers complained that if he wanted better luck with women, he should quit trying to use lines about (censored sexual terminology) and Greek food. I have no idea what this means, but I still think it's funny as hell.
  4. Micah is as gracious, awesome, and bubbly as always. When me and my friends came in, I asked him when he went on. He said "Not sure what time, but I go on last." And then, while pointing to his name in big letters at the top of a show poster, "Hey, I'm Micah Schnabel" Then he noticed that they spelled his name "Michah."
  5. The bar apparently earlier hosted an (excuse me for this) "all ages hardcore matinée show." Micah told me that he was the only non-teenie there and felt like a parent sitting in the back. I told him that me and my friends, as we're all teachers, we're used to the little bastard trying to make us feel old all the time, so we know how he felt.
  6. In the "good news" department, Micah told me that Two Cow will be making a new album in already I know 2010 will bean awesome music year.
  7. The bar was surprisingly packed for a weekday acoustic show. Most of the guys in the audience looked like they were cultivating their facial hair specifically for such events.
  8. All you need to know about the first act was that the guitar player was wearing a vest. Enough said.
  9. The tv sets in the bar were playing a dvd of some artist that I didn't recognize...but the singer (a middle-aged, not really in shape white guy) was wearing nothing but a micro-bikini.
  10. The second act was a singer/songwriter type who obviously thought he was Bob Dylan. He also was wearing plaid...which seems to be another stereotypically "acoustic musician" fashion choice.
  11. This guy also neglected to say his name anywhere at all in his set. Apparently, he needs lessons in marketing.
  12. The last guy was a pretty lively punk-influenced singer named Larry Love (a name which immediately made me think sex worker). He repeatedly claimed that he was very sick and getting very drunk...I guess to compensate. The two highlights of his set were a cover of "If Only You Were Lonely" and an original which was called something like "I'm Watching Porn." I thought him to be pretty engaging.
  13. For some reason, between all the other acts, the PA was playing very loud grungy rock. The genre choice was curious, as it was an acoustic evening, and I also wasn't quite sure why they had the sound up louder than the actual performers. But before Micah's set, they moved to old blues and soul...which was much better
  14. Micah just utterly dominated the stage. There was utterly nothing laid back about his performance, and during several numbers, he was stomping his feet so loudly that it was in danger of drowning out his vocals and breaking the stage.
  15. The set itself was balanced about halfway between Micah's solo material and Two Cow material. "Your Humble Narrator" sounded particularly great.
  16. There were also two covers: "Atlantic City" and an awesome, utterly perfect acoustic take on "Can't Hardly Wait."
  17. More artists should sell, in addition to the normal tee shirts, concert work shirts. Micah's looked awesome.
  18. Micah, in between thanking me for the 38th time for coming out, promised that Two Cow Garage would be back sometime in February to road-test the new album. Weeee!
  19. A great night and great music was only made better when my bar tab only came to $9.
  20. Ran into an online friend but only chatted briefly. I guess people would more easily recognize me in public if I didn't use my Mii for my Twitter and Facebook icon.
  21. The only bad thing about the night? For whatever reason, we were utterly incapable of finding anywhere on the ride home that could satisfy my french fry lust. Oh well.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

the fear of creeping professionality

One year, during a meeting of some sort, the Assistant Director of Composition (and therefore one of my bosses) leaned over to me and whispered, "Mike, you're the meanest son of a bitch in this department."

At the time, I took it as a point of pride. After all, I had a certain history professor in my background who regularly utilized what later would be called a "shock and awe" approach in his pedagogy. This certainly worked for me; not only did I learn an awful lot about Russian and Soviet history (which I unfortunately have never been able to put to use), I also learned many more important lessons on how to study, read, and write at a college level. Would such lessons sunk in if the teacher were instead "Mr. Nice Guy?" Somehow, I doubt it...and I pattern an awful lot of my teaching style based on this teacher.

The other day, however, after I finished a student paper conference, a colleague stuck his head in my office and told me that I sounded like I was slipping, because I sounded courteous and helpful...nice, even. He then mockingly asked me if I wanted to sign up for high school teaching. Unfortunately, he then ducked out of the doorway before I could throw my printer at him.

Is it true? Am I changing into a Mr. "Save the World"/Kumbaya-singing hippie teacher?

There are unfortunately several danger signs. I actually had my Spring semester book order turned in long before our bookstore started sending its regularly scheduled threatening e-mails. And just a few minutes ago, I somehow found myself turning in my yearly evaluation material well in advance of the deadline.

What in the hell is happening to me?

I can see it all coming together through my terror-filled eyes. Pretty soon, I might ask my students to address me by first name. Maybe I'll give extra credit assignments. Is wearing a suit to work really that far behind?

When I lose the fear, the bile, and the attitude, will there be anything left?