Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Best Unheard Music of 2011

Instead of a traditional "Best of" list, I wanted to acknowledge some of the great albums of 2011 that I haven't seen mentioned by many critics as we get closer to the end of the year.

The Bon Ivers and Drakes and M83s deserve their accolades and will get them from more prominent writers than myself. Here is some of the great off-the-beaten-path music 2011 had to offer:

The Psychic Paramount - II

Not the heaviest rock of the year -- a few of those later in the list -- but The Psychic Paramount give the heaviest art-rock statement of 2011 with their relentless second album. The first track doesn't even really begin; you're thrust into an intense, guitar-laden fray mid-note.

Fell Voices - Untitled

Dark and forboding, Fell Voices' Untitled LP stands as one of the most haunting and confounding records of 2011. It's the doom metal equivalent of one of the better M. Night Shyamalan movies. The build-ups and riffs never quite go where you think they will and it rewards multiple listens.

Deerhoof - Deerhoof vs. Evil

A few indie hits later, Deerhoof is still churning out great art pop songs. They throw everything in the bag so as not to duplicate themselves, but Deerhoof vs. Evil is closest in nature to 2008's masterful Friend Opportunity. There are songs on here that I swear would be huge if they made it on the radio. Like every Deerhoof record though, you realize that a solo-room dance is as close is it will come to mass appeal.

Akron/Family - S/T II: The Cosmic Birth and Journey of Shinju TNT

I really don't know how this album got so overlooked. To me, it's Akron/Family's White Album (hyperbole noted). It could easily have been a double album had they squeezed a few more tracks in there, but as it is, you've got an hour of frenetic freak-folk balanced with some of the most beautiful melodies outside of the 60s. Fortunately, one of its best tracks, "Island," as a nice accompanying music video for some visual stimulation.

Boris - Heavy Rocks/Attention Please/New Album

Boris is like that movie that has so many great performances that it splits the Oscar votes. These guys just put out so much material, it's almost hard to keep up.

Thurston Moore - Demolished Thoughts
Beck has a good habit these days of producing other artists' albums and make them sound like a split LP. Last year, Beck produced a Charlotte Gainsbourg album that sound liked a set of Beck songs produced by Charlotte Gainsbourg. This year, he gives a similar treatment to Thurston Moore's latest, nine acoustic songs with that rambling outcast vibe. A solo effort on par with Psychic Hearts.

Handsome Furs - Sound Kapital

Sound Kapital is the dancepartiest of all Handsome Furs albums thus far. I saw them at the Echoplex a few months ago and it was one of the best shows I've ever seen where the performers didn't have much more than a guitar and some variety of noise-bloop machine. Crazy Dance Party. I approve. (Album cover below is NSFW)

Grouper - A I A:Dream Loss/Alien Observer
Liz Harris's latest is a collection of two 12" records, but their combination works well as a double LP. Like the greatest of Brian Eno's ambient recordings, Grouper's music could be background music if it wasn't so damned gripping. Despite the droning aspects, most sounds are created through Harris's vocals and guitar plucking. Worth a deep, focused listen.

(This post can also be found on my co-music blog, Teenage Quiet.)

Thursday, November 10, 2011

11 Ways to Ruin a Photograph

Here's the winning children's story for one of our contests for The Help that we had professionally illustrated. Please read and share if you're so inclined.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A Dog in Pain

In the middle of the night
I heard a dog whimpering outside my window
I peaked but it was over the wall
In my neighbor's yard.

I lay there and listened
And tried to imagine the scenarios

Was its torso trapped under something,
Perhaps a fallen cement block?
Or maybe it was simply ill
And unable to move
And it was calling out endlessly
Hoping someone would come outside
And realize it needed help.

But nobody was coming outside
From the neighbor's house
And it was, as I said,
The middle of the night.

I weighed my options.
Should I go outside and look for the dog?
If it's in their backyard,
Should I knock on the door?
Or maybe just bite the bullet
And climb over their fence
And help it any way I can
And deal with the consequences

There's probably something I'm not even thinking of,
I thought. And I laid there.
And listened.
And there'd be a moment of silence
Between stark whines through the air

And I closed my eyes and did nothing
And turned on my side
And pressed my ear into my pillow
On the coolest part of it I could find
And thought about how the world is full of injustice.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Pusha T Declares Himself 'Third Best Rapper Alive' On New Album

VIRGINIA BEACH, VA -- On the title track to his upcoming solo album, Job Application, Clipse rapper Pusha T refers to himself as the "third best rapper alive."

The verse, which starts, "I'm pretty damn fly / you gotta admit / Might not be too famous / but semi-legit," also makes reference to his guest appearance on Kanye West's latest triple-platinum endeavor, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

"I'm quite confident in my rapping abilities," the shy rapper said. "My producer initially suggested I remove the phrase "one of the best rappers" from the last track ["Belated Birthday"] because it might make me seem too cocky. After all, there are some really good rappers out there.

"I certainly didn't want to offend Lil Wayne or Jay-Z," he continued, "So I decided to go with the 'third best rapper' designation. That's a fight I don't want to get into."

At press time, The Game could not be reached for comment.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Prix Fixe

The following is the first part of a short story I started writing two months ago. I keep opening it up and can't think of what comes next. I'm posting it now so that I can start on something else without worrying that I have something "unfinished."

Picture me: crooked and bloated, shifting to one side of my chair, my cheeks supporting a mixture of tears and sweat, my face removed of color except for a thin drizzle of Worcestershire sauce threatening to make its way onto the collar of my turquoise Polo. This is what I look like several nights a week. I do it for work and I get paid well.

The evening consisted of four courses, a standard for our show, considering the placement of commercials. It goes like this, usually: Appetizer, "Salad", Main Course, Dessert.

We started with rock shrimp nachos, garnished with fresh rosemary and melted Mascarpone cheese. The side (yes, the appetizer has a side) was truffled potatoes with freshly whipped sour cream and a light chanterelle mushroom sauce. I finished it all in 96 seconds, but the segment, when broadcast, stretched out to a gluttonous 11 minutes and 43 seconds, complete with a slow-motion montage, audience commentary and a brief description from the chef as to the painstaking mushroom selection process. It was delicious, but honestly, I would have sloshed a healthy helping of Tapatio sauce on top of everything, had it been available.

The "salad" course was an arrangement of organic baby spinach and arugula, topped with deep-fried chicken strips, cherry tomatoes, and drenched (as most "salads" are) with a creamy honey dijon dressing. Tabasco was available for this portion, and I used it liberally. Freshly cracked pepper as well.

These segments are cut to fit in the first 25 minutes of the show, to allow the greatest amount of time, two entire segments, for the main course. This evening's selection: braised bison short ribs with a mandarin glaze, garlic Rose Finn potatoes in a red wine reduction and steamed carrots. Despite the length of the segment, I have never been encouraged to hedge the speed at which I consume these offerings or pause to comment in any way on their quality; indeed, the producers have always been amenable to my way of doing things, my hunched posture, how I use a fork twice as wide as is standard, using a shoveling motion over my plate which I protect with my left arm as if trying to prevent a fellow student from cheating.

Then came dessert. You wouldn't guess it to look at me, but I don't have much of a sweet tooth, especially after my taste buds have been treated to several thousand milligrams of sodium and any number of meats marbled to meet my palette. Nevertheless, I press on. One has to follow through. Once I'd plucked the last tender piece of bison meat and chucked the bone into the air (which prompted our talented staff of editors to pay homage to the introductory sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey), the plates and drippings were immediately cleared and I was presented with the simplest dish of the evening. A creme brulee garnished with fresh blackberries, 22 inches in diameter.

I wasted no time, though my producers asked me to perform a ceremonial crack on the surface. I trailed my spoon quickly around the circumference of the dish and lifted as much CB as I could at one time, keeping my spoon exactly parallel to the table to avoid gravity forcing a creme-slop onto my face.

I washed it down -- all of it: rock shrimp, salad, fried chicken, short ribs, creme brulee -- with a large cafe au lait made with half & half. At this point, my dining chair (an Aeron whose limbs have been widened to accept my body -- "bulbous corpus," as members of the crew have begun to refer to it) begins to slide inevitably backward, my shoulders now unable to keep myself perpendicular to the floor. I can still speak, though in a hushed gurgle. In post-production, the editors usually add subtitles that attempt to replicate my reviews immediately upon meal completion. They're fairly accurate, though I've never once been asked to transcribe.

Then, the evening was over. The lights turned off, the table removed, another several gigabytes of digital video data sent off to be worked over, mixed and remixed. I'll see it in about two months and, despite the size of my gut and the state of my pancreas, think, "Man, that rock shrimp was damn good."

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Miller Lite's Assault On Men, Women, Decency, Humor, And Anything Else You Like

This post is about six months too late. When it comes to despicable commercials, what's the point of complaining? The campaign will typically run its course in a few months and then you'll never have to deal with it again. Obsolete are the posts decrying Budweiser's "Wassuuuuuup" and Carls Jr.'s "Paris Hilton Washes A Car/Eats A Burger." But there is a campaign so pervasive, so obnoxious, that it begs to be systematically criticized, its insipid creators forced to sit through weeks of sensitivity training and read aloud Milton Berle's Private Joke File in its entirety. His classic one-liners, such as "I take New Years with a grain of salt and three aspirins" (ha ha!) could perhaps give these jokers some inspiration.

At any rate, if you've watched any sporting event in the last eight months or so, you already know what I'm talking about: the Miller Lite commercials that adhere to men to "Man Up" and choose Miller Lite because it has "more taste" than other light beers (they mean Bud Light).

Here's a generic example of this commercial:

Whoa, that dude's wearing a skirt AND he doesn't like Miller Lite! I don't wear a skirt either (because I'm not a huge FAG, duhhhh)...which means....wait a minute, don't tell me...I should drink a Miller Lite! Because then...I won't be a huge FAG!

Okay, so you don't need to think too hard about why this is garbage, but I'd like to go through some of the arguments made in this commercial point-by-point, and then show you some of the other commercials in the series (they made about 10 by my count) on how they are upping the ante in terms of pure asshattery.

1) Have you ever been asked if you cared about the quality of a product you were purchasing and responded with a no? Obviously, this is ridiculous, and it's the beginning of every one of these commercials. The entire basis of this ad campaign is that some guys -- some real pussies, dontcha know -- just want a beer and they don't give a fuck what it tastes like. In fact, if you ask them, they'll actively say that they don't think it matters what the beer tastes like. That's exactly what the dude in this commercial below says:

Yes, he's genuinely confused by her question.

2) In the fantasy world of the commercial, the attractive lady bartenders are either a) total sellouts to the Miller Brewing Company or b) actually think that Miller Lite is the best tasting beer they offer. Either way, they totally suck and should be fired immediately. If I ran a bar and found out that my bartenders were being paid under the table by the proprietors of one of the shittiest beers I offered, that'd clearly be a breach of contract. I'd be even more angry, however, if I found out that they actually thought that Miller Lite was the best tasting beer available and continually forced it upon my clientele while insulting them. If you're going to push anything, make it that expensive Duvel!

3) Each of these commercials makes the same disgusting arguments about both genders. In order to be socially acceptable, men have to dress and act in a very specific way. You essentially have to be an average bro to be cool, in the Miller Lite world. For women, it's even worse. Ladies, you are a shallow and vacuous expanse of space, existing only to criticize the appearance of lesser males and to shill an inferior corporate product.

"Less is good for me." -- the only reason anyone would say that is to set up the bartender's line, "Yeah, less would be good for you," referring to the man's "bronzer," whatever the hell that is. The ad team behind these campaigns really must think they're nailing those excessively tanned individuals with this one! I would NOT want to be John Boehner right now.

This one goes after those skinny jeans-wearing hipster FREAKS! Now, I feel for the John C. Reilly guy in this commercial. He's doing his best. Also -- if I saw a guy like this wearing those pants at a bar, I wouldn't really consider it that out of the ordinary. Honestly, it doesn't look that weird! The bronzer dude is way more noticeable. Shame on this bartender bitch for judging him.

Fuck yourself.

Oh, burn. Put down your purse, pussy boy, and start caring about the taste of your beer. And once you care about how it tastes, go for the 2nd Worst Tasting Beer out there. Think about it. That's their entire argument. Bud Light is the shittiest beer, and Miller Lite tastes slightly better than that. That would be like a commercial where someone is drinking a Dasani, and you ask, "Hey, lame-o! Why aren't you drinking this day-old bathwater?"

I've saved the best for last:

Oh, god, I hate you so much. So, if this douchebag had removed his sunglasses, he would have seen that the Miller Lite bottle has fricken' grooves in it! That settles it for me! Scientists have worked tirelessly for years trying to perfect the taste of beer -- to no avail. But those geniuses at the Miller Lite Laboratories, at a sealed bunker deep inside the Earth's crust, have got it. Put some weird ridges in the top of the bottle and it no longer tastes like diseased rat droppings! Thank you, quantum physics. Man, I can't believe that sunglasses-wearing loser didn't recognize that. He'll never get laid.

Dos Equis should make a commercial where the lady bartender insults the Dos Equis guy for not buying a Miller Lite, and then he uses The Force to set the bar on fire.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Enjoy It

Once, when I was a little boy, my parents were screaming at each other in the kitchen. My father stormed out of the house and tore off in his car. He came back that night, after I was in bed and supposed to be asleep. I crept to my bedroom door and stuck my ear to the wall, but couldn't make out what he said to Mom. It was just grumbling.

The next morning, before he left for work, he called me over to where he was finishing his coffee at the kitchen table and asked me to sit on his lap. I did and looked down at his tie and listened to him say that he loved me very much. He didn't mention the screaming, but I could tell from the way he said it and from the way Mom stood right there behind the table watching us, that it was all connected. My sister was only an infant at the time, so I doubt she'd noticed anything was wrong.

Whenever my parents would fight after that, Mom pulled my father upstairs and into their bedroom. This served the dual purpose of keeping the noise level down so as not to frighten me or my sister, but also made the journey to the car that much more distant, should my father wish to leave. Mom won out on most of these occasions, so that trips to the car were rare; even so, I started creeping outside during these fights and into the back of my father's car.

The car was outside but I could look up at the window to my parents' bedroom to keep tabs on the fight. Even though I couldn't hear anything, I had a sense of what was going on, and kept my head low enough so that I'd easily be able to duck down behind the driver's seat, should the front door suddenly open.

When nothing happened, and the sun would go down or the light in my parents' bedroom went out, I'd sidle out of the car, into the house through the side door and back upstairs. If it was already dark when the fight started, I'd close my bedroom door after I left to make it look like I'd gone to sleep. I was always halfway concerned that Mom would check on me post-fight and see that I wasn't in my room, but if she ever did, I didn't know about it. The house was always quiet when I'd re-enter.

After a year or two, I began to suspect that one or even both of them knew what I did when they'd have their hushed disagreements, since I was never caught and they never noticed that I was no longer in the house after the fight was over. Perhaps they knew my motives already, knew that I wasn't crying or attempting to deny that they'd argue, but just waiting in a place that would serve beneficial to view the aftermath, the way a hyena might perch on a cliff top to watch a battle between beasts.

As my sister grew out of infancy, my parents would have long talks in their bedroom with the door open, in chairs side by side. I'm not sure what they talked about, because if I walked out into the hallway and stared inside, they would stop talking and Mom would come out and ask me to play in the backyard or go back to my room and read. The difference between serious talk and average conversation was clear, and I grew accustomed to hearing the bass-heavy mumbles that nearly all children recognize.

I began to feel comfortable hiding out in my father's car, a navy blue wagon that seemed monstrous to me at the time. I would bring a bag of pretzels sometimes or even read a comic book, and by the time we'd all take the car to dinner a few days later and I was sitting back there the proper way, the crumbs would be gone. They always knew. They must have known.

Then it was summer. I was old enough to where I didn't need constant attention from Mom, but too young to be spending every day with my friends. My life still had a structure independent of the social life that would come to dominate it in my teenage years. As such, I still spent most of my time at home, looking after my sister and dreading the daily series of errands on which I'd accompany Mom. As far as I knew, "errands" were all Mom ever did.

That summer, especially, my father grumbled about his job.

When you're my age, you won't get a summer vacation. Enjoy it.

I believe he actually intended for me to enjoy it, though it was near impossible after exposure to the same dreary greeting every morning. I once thought it was the sun that made my father so grumpy in the summer, and would sometimes even hope for snow in August to spark a smile or even a knowing nod.

My parents hadn't fought in months. My dad would take the car and head to work and the sun was already high in the sky. If we were home, I would sit in the backyard and roll a ball back and forth between my hands, watching my sister explore Mom's garden, and the grass rows between sets of flowers and the specks of dirt sprinkled out on the cement.

I could sense a change in Mom over the summer. There was a sly contentment coming over her. There were times in the evening when my father would say something that in years past would have incited an argument, but now Mom would just keep doing what she was doing, be it wiping down the table after dinner or thumbing through the pages of a new mystery novel. It would wash right over her like the calmest tide and she'd sit there with her subtle smile. This is the same smile I started seeing in the backyard by the garden on those summer days.

I began to fear my father's isolation. The change in Mom's strategy had disrupted his routine and without their banter he seemed withdrawn and fidgety.

One morning in early August the sun was streaming through the skylight in my parents' bedroom before either of them woke. I dressed in silence in my room and closed my bedroom door behind me before I went downstairs. I took a Pop Tart out of the package in the cupboard and ate it cold before sneaking outside with my father's spare key and crawling into the back of the car.

I took a gamble by being there. Some mornings Mom would let us sleep in and others she would wake us up to get the day started. My sister could saw straight through the afternoon, but I was an early riser. There was always the chance that Mom would get suspicious, even if my door was still closed at 8:30.

But nothing happened, and when my father emerged through the front door in his casual attire, a button-down shirt tucked into pressed trousers, he appeared unfazed by my recent non-appearance in the kitchen as he gnawed on his usual buttered piece of toast.

I ducked down behind the driver's seat, stowed my snacks and my comic books, and tucked my legs behind me. I heard the car door open and felt the sudden pressure of the seat against my head as my father sat down.

I kept my breath silent and tried not to move.

The engine turned and we backed out of the driveway. I probably could have lifted my head enough to see the street signs but, convinced that any movements would alert my father to my presence, I kept perfectly still, glanced up at the street lights passing in my periphery, and tried pitifully to gauge our destination by my knowledge of the lefts and rights in our neighborhood.

After a few moments, I could tell we were turning onto the highway. We were on a curved ramp for a time and then the lower gears turned over and we held at 60 for awhile. It took some time for me to realize the radio was on, a talk DJ moaning low about irrelevant problems. My father hadn't yet said a word, which I thought was odd, as he was known to talk to himself when he thought he was alone. Sometimes I would watch him from a distance when he shaved. He would hum song lyrics or practice lines I presumed he'd be using in a meeting.

"Hi, it's nice to meet you. Let's all take a seat. Can we get you anything? Coffee? Orange juice?"

But, now he was silent as the car ambled along and the talk radio DJ spoke too softly to be heard by either of us.

After a few more minutes, we were angling right, exiting the highway. I moved my hand under the driver's seat and held my snacks and comic books in place so that they wouldn't move around and make noise while we turned.

We pulled into a parking lot. I saw a wide, silver truck directly above me when the car stopped. My dad took a deep breath, switched off the car and got out quickly. I ducked down just in case, but he didn't look in the back as he walked by. I uncurled my legs and pulled myself up onto the back seat. We were in the parking lot of a diner I didn't recognize. My father was going inside.

I took stock of my surroundings. This diner was right off the highway, adjacent to a gas station and a few other restaurants and fast food joints. We had only been on the road for 20 minutes or so; I knew we couldn't be that far from town. All the same, something odd washed over me as I recognized that we were certainly nowhere near my father's office. His was a medium-sized gray building, just west of the downtown area, that I had visited once or twice in past years for whatever reason, to be oggled by the assorted office ladies or to pretend to make myself useful by filing papers or sealing envelopes.

We were not near downtown and I guessed we had driven in the opposite direction, based on the position of the sun relative to where we exited the highway. I looked out at the diner and began to get hungry myself. It was a warm morning and the sun was almost directly above me, despite it being several hours before noon.

I don't know why I did what I did then. If my intention was to stay hidden, as it had been to that point, my actions were tantamount to sabotage. But, I found myself reaching for the handle and sliding out of the car, leaving my belongings under the driver's seat. I looked back at the highway we'd arrived on. It was rush hour everywhere else, I assumed, but this highway was deserted, as if we had traveled the one direction nobody else knew about, as if my father had sought this specific location for pancakes and solitude. This is what I thought.

I approached the door and had a vision of what I was about to see: my father alone at the counter, reading a newspaper, enjoying his coffee, a brief moment of quiet where nobody knew him before he picked up his belongings and worked his way back to the car and off to the office where everyone knew him, where his responsibilities and meetings and agendas would overtake him.

But, this is not what I saw. The diner was surprisingly full despite the lack of movement in the parking lot. I noted this first, as I considered myself very observant, and this is something the protagonist of Mom's mystery books would have noticed before entering. Mystery protagonists are rarely caught off guard.

There appeared to be two active waitresses. One for the counter area and the east side of the restaurant, and the other for the west end which contained the bulk of the booths. The patrons at the counter were not single men, as I would have anticipated. There was an old fat couple, scooping up eggs in silence. There was a woman with a little girl, younger than my sister. She was pouring syrup onto her waffles. The syrup bottle looked like it made a face when she poured: a little syrup monster sticking out its tongue. I didn't see my father.

I must have only been standing there a few seconds before the old woman came over to me. She was probably the hostess or the wife of the owner or something, because she wasn't wearing the same dress as the other waitresses.

Are you lost, sweetie?

I didn't say anything. What could I say?

She looked at me with concern and moved closer to me and got down on a knee. People only get down on one knee when they're proposing or questioning a child.

What's your name?

At this point, I knew I couldn't just turn around and walk out. I was in this.

My father came in here. I'm looking for my father.

Then I saw him. He was dressed like I'd never seen him before, wearing a long white apron and a black visor. He walked right out from the kitchen and took me by the hand.

It's alright, Elizabeth. He's mine.

He said this as if he'd expected to say it all morning, as if he knew I was in the car all along and that this was an inevitable part of his day.

We walked hand-in-hand back to the kitchen. Several other cooks were back there and I tried my best to notice what they were all doing. One was on pancakes. The other had a big line of bacon he flipped 10 slices at a time.

So, you're here now. Do you want something to eat?

I nodded my head. I was hungry, after all, but I really didn't know what else to do. He sat me down at a small table in the back of the kitchen. I watched him move to his station, whipping up a large bowl of eggs, scrambling maybe 20 at a time. I sat quietly.

He gestured to the bacon man and the pancake man after a few minutes and they brought over a serving of each. My father placed a plate in front of me and poured me a glass of orange juice. I stared at the food and I could see my father's hand on his knee in the corner of my eye.

Don't you want to eat? Isn't that why you hitched a ride?

I looked up at him and suddenly became very conscious of the eyes on me. The other cooks had stopped at their stations and were looking at me. I could even see the old woman who had come up to me a few moments before standing behind the counter in the main dining room, looking back at me.

I picked up the fork and began to cut into the pancakes. My father smiled and put his hand on my shoulder.

Atta boy. It's not so bad.

I ate with the ferocity of a starved beast. The food was warm and sweet and soft. He was sitting next to me and wasn't at his station and nobody seemed all that concerned.