Friday, December 31, 2010

media of the year

2010 Best-Ofs

  1. Two Cow Garage, Sweet Saint Me—My favorite band in the world does it again. With Sweet Saint Me, Two Cow serve up an amazingly complete collection of songs. The highs are tighter and more mature than anything else in their catalog. Sweet Saint Me opens up with “Sally, I've Been Shot,” which, lyrically, took my breath away from first listen...and continues do to so every other play; how can it not, with a chorus that includes “Hello, Mrs. Hayes, this is Holden, and I'm so sorry to wake you up, but righteous boys caught me down in midtown, and I'm choking on the blood. What's the use?” There are so many perfect songs on here: “Lydia,” “Soundtrack to My Summer,” “Insolent Youth”...and you gotta love any disc with a song title like “Lucy and the Butcher Knife” (which exceeds the promise of its totally bitchin' name).
  2. The Hold Steady, Heaven is Whenever—The Hold Steady somehow manage to constantly refine and improve themselves. While this might not have quite as much edge as their earlier efforts, it makes up for it with improved vocals (particularly “Weekenders), improved textures (“The Sweet Part of the City”), improved musicianship (the solo in “Soft in the Center”), and what might just be the perfect pop song (“Hurricane J”) with the perfect lyrics (“They didn't name her for a saint, they named her for a storm, so how's she supposed to think about how it's gonna feel in the morning?”). Even more impressive, The Hold Steady managed to pull it off live, not just in front of big crowds (at Detroit's Fillmore) but in small bars (Toledo's Headliners). These guys keep improving, and this could've easily been my top pick.
  3. Ghost Shirt, Daniel—This too could've been my top pick. I received Ghost Shirt's first album (Domestique) after much struggles with a horrible online retailer. By the time I finally got their first cd, though, Ghost Shirt had already topped it with Daniel. Daniel is not as polished as their debut, but that works in the favor of this collection of songs. It moves from clean to distortion, from control to abandon, from beauty to rage, and everywhere in between. Astounding lyrical depth is only boosted by Ghost Shirt's arrangements...this is already a band strength, but the unexpected orchestration here takes everything to new heights. I first discovered Ghost Shirt when in Columbus to see a Two Cow Garage show. I'd heard a few online tracks, but they were amazingly cool and solid live. If there's ever a band to prove that you don't need a music industry to have awesome music, it's Ghost Shirt.
  4. Sick of Sarah, 2205—To be honest, I didn't really care for Sick of Sarah's seemed like all the rock and all the edge had been produced out of it. That is definitely not an issue with 2205, which manages to capture both the edge and the sophistication of this band. Infinitely quotable (“I'll do anything you ask for, anything you wanted, as long as it's free”), infinitely hummable (I dare you to quit humming “Kick Back” [see the video at] or “Kiss Me”, while still capable of bringing the rock (“Autograph”). They are awesome live, so go see them if you have a chance.
  5. The Sword, Warp Riders—This is one of the latest additions to my list (thanks, Spicoli!). Utterly fun and cool metal that makes me wanna grow my hair long...and almost makes me want to go back to double coil pickups.
  6. Hemline Theory, For The Stranger—More proof that the music industry is utterly superfluous when it comes to good music. Bowling Green's own Hemline Theory describes themselves as “Cabaret inspired rock with sultry female vocals and evocative lyrics.” I just think they're utterly smooth and cool, awesome musicians and cool people to boot. Go to cdbaby or iTunes and give them a shot. We got a chance to play with them in December and they were great...and I'm not just saying that because they gave the audience cupcakes.
  7. Superchunk, Majesty Shredding—These guys are a new discovery for me...and I always love discovering anyone who loves distortion as much as I do, is able to pair it with good songs, and realizes that good musicianship and songwriting can and should be paired with raucousness.
  8. Glossary, Feral Fire—Glossary continues to get closer to where they need to go, and this album is the best thing they've done yet. First off, it's an amazing sounding album...Matt Pence does his usual brilliant job pulling the rawk out of a band. But it's also much looser and cooler than previous efforts. If the opening duo of “Lonely is a Town” and “Save Your Money for the Weekend” doesn't get you moving, well, you might have bedsores.
  9. Peter Wolf, Midnight Souvenirs—who would've guessed that, post J. Giles Band, he had become such a bang-on honest songwriter? Good rock and roll with swagger.
  10. Drive-By Truckers, The Big To-Do—After a disappointing few albums (including the overwhelming sprawl of Brighter Than Creation's Darkness), the Truckers return with what is their best album since The Dirty South. Of course, the Mike Cooley songs, particularly “Birthday Boy” and “Eyes Like Glue” are awesome...proof that Cooley is cooler than you. However, Patterson Hood's contributions are better than they've been for a while...and “After The Scene Dies” is one of the best and most insightful DBT songs in ages.

Other album thoughts: I really tried with Titus Andronicus and Black Keyes, but I just don't get them. I really wanted to like Josh Ritter's So Runs The World Away; it certainly has some brilliant songs (“The Curse” and “Another New World” are both jaw-dropping), but it also has a lot of weak moments. I know I need to get Arcade Fire and The Henry Clay People, but I just ran out of time.

  1. Two Cow Garage, “Lucy and the Butcher Knife”
  2. The Hold Steady, “Hurricane J”
  3. Ghost Shirt, “Meds”
  4. Sick of Sarah, “El Paso Blue”
  5. Josh Ritter, “The Curse”

  1. True Grit—This has more mood and atmosphere than anything I've seen for a while. Plus a really wonderful performance both by Matt Damon (who continues to show more range than I'd imagine) and Jeff Bridges (who is simply cooler than anyone else).
  2. Toy Story 3—More exciting, frightening, epic, funny, and gut-wrenching than I tought movies (let alone children's movies) could be.
  3. Kick-Ass—People who found this too shocking completely missed the point...if you were not disturbed by this, you were not really paying attention.
  4. Red—Hellen Miren as a retired assassin? Utterly awesome.
  5. Inception—Wild, mind-bending premise that wasn't quite achieved...but gorgeous to look at anyway.

  1. Justified—My new favorite show. The dialog absolutely crackles, and Tim Oliphant is amazing.
  2. Castle—This continues to be one of the most clever shows on television, with the best cast chemistry ever.
  3. Leverage-A good, hip, cool show gets even better.
  4. Dollhouse—True, most of season two was actually 2009, but it finished in 2010...and it really showed what could happen when Fox took their hands off and let Whedon run.
  5. Big Bang Theory—Clever and painfully funny at times. Yeah, the characters are way far from reality, but the humor (an example: “You know, if they took the money they spent trying to make a decent Hulk movie, they could make an actual Hulk”) is “how do they think of this?” funny.
  6. Modern Family—One of the most consistent shows whose writing continues to deepen and add layers...all while being laugh-out-loud funny.
  7. Louie—Not 100% consistent, but when it works, whooboy, like early Woody Allen done better.
  8. Eureka-A show completely changes its back story via time-travel and leaves it that way? Cool!

I really need to catch up on: Doctor Who, Burn Notice, Terriers, The Walking Dead, Dexter. I've also been watching The Wire on DirecTV, which is better than TV should be.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

forcing morality

The holidays might have many associations for you, but one of my prime memories revolves around Star Wars. It seems like, come Christmastime, there's always at least one cable network airing at least one of the movies. Yes, they are not technically about Christmas, but, through sheer force of habit, they have become my holiday normative movie experience.

(This is actually a complete lie, because everyone knows the ultimate Christmas movie is still Die Hard...but that's another post.)

I love the original trilogy, but, as I get older and more egghead analytical/academic/nitpicky, I've started to more readily notice its foibles. I'm not talking about the little things, such as why every large structure has an endless pit build into it; seriously, Luke falls down one in Empire, and the emperor is thrown into one in Jedi; throw in the pit where Darth Maul dies in Phantom Menace, and you have a galactic architectural trend with which a Freudian would have a field day. These are puzzling, but they are far from the biggest thing going on.

And I'm not even talking about the lack of blood. Seriously, tons of people (and creatures) die in these flicks. Is there an ounce of blood? Of course not. But I can always explain this away using fanboy/geek logic...after all, light sabers must also cauterize wounds, right?

No, the biggest issue with the Star Wars films is the lack of a coherent moral system. Throw in the prequels, and this becomes much worse, because, as a whole, it becomes impossible to even attempt to divine an operational or consistent meta-ethical structure.

Let's consider the Jedi first. Ignore for a moment that, what was a religion in the original trilogy became some weird relationship with microscopic organisms...we'll come back to this. Are they good or evil?

They definitely posit a Manichean. existence by dividing up the force (or at least the way it's used by its very practitioners) into the light and the dark side. They seem to put themselves as guardians of the light/good. This would mean binary, right?

Well, it seems that way at first, but as they go on, the films introduce contradiction upon contradiction:

  • In A New Hope Obi-Wan Kenobi emplores Luke to "reach out with your feelings." Yet the difference between light and dark is confused here, because if you give into these feelings you've been reaching out with, you will be succumbing to the dark least that's what Yoda warns Luke in Empire.
  • Admittedly, Yoda is talking specifically about anger, not all feelings...but by separating out anger from other emotions and making it a negative, this would seem to play back into the good/evil binary. So Star Wars as a whole buys into binary morality, right?
  • Not so fast. In Jedi when asked by Luke why he said papa Skywalker was dead (and not just wearing a kooky S&M costume), Kenobi tells Luke "any of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view." Does this mean that the Jedis embrace moral relativism? Unless I'm wrong, you really cannot have both points of view and absolutes on the same plane.
  • In the prequels, Kenobi says "only a Sith deals in absolutes"...and since the Siths are the opposite of the Jedis, does that mean that absolutism=Sith and relativism=Jedi?
  • Wait a can you define yourself as the opposite of another group AND as a relativist? Can one really be an agent of light over dark while still believing in moral relativism?
  • Consider the case of Qui-Gon from Phantom Menace. Qui-Gon was convinced that Anakin Skywalker would be a savior. Yet can you really have a savior if good and evil is, as Kenobi suggests, only a matter of perspective? Isn't salvation the move towards some kind of good? So Qui-Gon shows an operational absolutism.
  • Ignoring that he too is willing to lie to get his way, Qui-Gon dies convinced that Anakin will be a force of good. Is this why Qui-Gon is seemingly written out of Jedi history, for believing in an absolute that did not work out? When Kenobi sends Luke to Yoda in Empire, he calls the little green guy "the Jedi who trained me." Only problem with this is that Yoda did not train Kenobi...Qui-Gon did. Is Qui-Gon being written out of Jedi history for his false belief in a savior who would act as an agent of good? Or is Kenobi just a pathological liar?
  • Back to the Sith for a moment. If only Siths believe in absolutes, how do we reconcile this with the explicit statements of Chancellor Palpatine, who is (spoiler alert) the hidden Sith lord? When, in Revenge of the Sith, he is asked (by a conflicted Anakin) about good versus evil, he says "good is a point of view." Well, if good is only a point of view, that doesn't sound all that absolute. Moreover, Palpatine seems more interested in using all emotions...which again sounds more relative.
  • But if you flash forward in the trilogy, when C3-P0 is trying to explain to the Ewoks why they should fight the empire (this, incidentally, might've only been in the novelization...haven't gotten to Jedi yet this year), he talks about them in terms of good versus evil. To be sure, the whole Ewok versus Storm Trooper battle seems steeped in binary oppositions. Or is C3-P0 just wrapped up in the same pathological lying of Kenobi?

So where do the Star Wars movies lie in terms of Meta-Ethics? Frankly, it's all over the map. The prequels do confuse matters more, but even if we shove them into the Great Pit of Tarkoon where they belong, the original series still has some explaining to do.

I did read somewhere that George Lucas didn't like Empire all that much because it trafficked in moral relativism, which made it a dark film...and, one presumes, this darkness made it less merchandise-friendly. This is a shame, because it is that very lack of absolutism that makes Empire my favorite of the whole series.

Admittedly, though, that relativism might not be the best fit for Christmas, but I am willing to deal with it.

Monday, December 27, 2010

a cool ho-ho-holiday story

The other week, my band Analog Revolution (come see us play live soon, buy the shirt, end of plug) was playing our last show of the year with the awesome Hemline Theory, and I figured, hey, since it's the holiday season, I would get some candy canes to hand out to the audience.

The first thing you should know about passing out candy canes at a rock bar is that stage lights are very bright and shining directly into your eyeballs, so you really have to hurl them rather than toss. This leads to a certain percentage of the audience ducking and covering their eyes rather than catching the candy. Secondly, it's a good idea not to throw the canes with your pick hand...that is, unless you wanna lose your guitar pick in the process.

Hemline Theory played after us, and they one-upped us in the holiday audience-giveaway area. Where we passed out candy canes, they had homemade cupcakes...and they also had gifts for the audience. I didn't mind the one-upping, though, as 1) they've been doing this longer than us, and 2) I got some nice chocolate-filled almond cookies.

It also led to one of the best moments of the season.

After Hemline finished, I was talking to a friend who made the drive down from Toledo to see us. Partway through our conversation, someone I didn't know came up to our table.

"Excuse me," he asked, "but you're Mike, right?"

I assumed he just liked the show, so I shook his hand. After he introduced himself (sorry, can't remember who it drinking, you know) and complemented me on the set, he also said "I heard you and your wife have a child on the way...and I think you could use the gift I got from the band more than I can." With that, he ceremoniously presented me with a Santa Claus Mr. Potato Head.

This, my friends, is the kind of thing that I love. To round out the year, I got to play a show with my awesome band. I also got to hang out with a good friend I don't see nearly enough. Furthermore, I had a complete stranger give my unborn child a Christmas gift.

True, it may not be on the level of world peace, but it does make me feel awesome about humanity and life.

Thursday, December 02, 2010


I hate holiday music. Utterly, terribly despise it. When I was in high school (and beyond), I worked at a variety of Little Caesars pizza places, and more than one location was in a shopping center which piped in generic, sappy, cheesy Christmas music starting immediately after Halloween and ending somewhere around Groundhog's Day...a year later. This insidious music dug into my brain, ripping out my insides...and not in a good way.

Each of those seasons was pure pain. I know this might get me labeled a "humbug" (see, even the Christmas insults are sappy), but let me make this clear: I don't really hate Christmas itself. I can even handle the consumerism and crowded malls; hey, I actually did all my shopping on Christmas eve one year, and seeing people go crazy trying to spend money on ungrateful brats is kinda funny. No, it's just the music that drives me batty. So I try and avoid it whenever possible.

Totally evading Christmas music, however, is unfortunately unavoidable unless you lock yourself in a closet and plug your ears up with a spare ornament or something. Much like oxygen, the communist conspiracy, and ugly sweaters, it's everywhere.

Case in point: I was doing some copying and scanning in my department office, and the student assistant was streaming Christmas music on her computer. Of course I control myself, because I am smart enough to know that office staff holds the true position of power. However, I still have to hear the damn stuff, and my snarkiness utterly refuses to turn itself off.

"Here Comes Santa Claus" starts playing, and I have pay some level of attention to the lyrics (mainly because my sleep-deprived brain is trying to kill me). I hear "Let's give thanks to the Lord above, 'cause Santa Claus comes tonight," and it dawns on me...these songs are often very, truly, epically stupid. Thank God because Santa Claus is coming?

The whole idea of Santa Claus strikes me as kind of insidious. Who thought it would be a great idea to create a massive lie and spread it to kids everywhere? Sooner or later, they will find out that Santa does not indeed come down their chimney to drop off the iPods and Gameboys his elves manufactured up at the North pole. After hearing that, how can said kids ever really trust anything their parents tell them again? And to directly connect the Santa Claus mass deceit into any idea of God just seems a really stupid move for churches trying to fight the evil liberal atheist agenda (or whatever they're calling it nowadays).

I will admit, however, that my thinking may indeed change when my child is born. I will also admit that, just maybe, I've had too much coffee this morning.