Friday, May 23, 2008

Underrated or Appreciated Albums: Regretfully Yours

I thought that the Desert Island Discs post was so much fun (I'll certainly have more in the coming weeks) that I came up with other specially-themed posts to do. This one, Underrated or Appreciated, deals with albums that I like a lot but am surprised and a little disappointed that they didn't get more attention/praise. I've found this trend happening often enough that it deserves its own kind of post. Basically, I'm going to do two things in this kind of post: 1) praise the album I like, and 2) complain that more people don't see things my way.

First up in this set of posts is one that I think is one of the most underrated albums of the 90s: Superdrag's debut album Regretfully Yours. This album came out in 1996 at the height of the alterna-craze of the 90s. "Sucked Out" was the main buzzworthy song, and MTV played the video for a little while. The rest of the CD, however, was overlooked for some reason. I mean, I like "Sucked Out" for sure (who can't appreciate screaming along with John Davis, "Who sucked out the FFFEEEEEEAALLLLIIINNNNGGGG?!?"), but most of the album has a really nice energy. Also, despite its occasionally depressing lyrics, the songs sound upbeat and so catchy. It's a fun album that combines the youth of innocence with the angst of adolescence. Maybe that's why I got into the record so much during college.

You have such a strong start with "Slot Machine," the driving one chord that moves into lines about unrequited love and trying for friendship. The song bleeds into another smooth rocker, "Phaser," that makes you want to dance and jump around. Another strong point is "Destination Ursa Major," a song that builds up enough energy to propel it to the stars. The second half of the album is great, although it is more hit or miss than the first half. "Whitey's Theme" has a playful feel, particularly since it includes a guitar solo that sounds like like a taunting song that everybody sang on the playground in elementary school. "N.A. Kicker" has such a sweet guitar line that it practically demands a head bob. The album's closer, "Rocket," finishes off the record with another bouncy, driving melody that promises you it won't go away. The only bothersome tracks on the record are "Truest Love" and "Nothing Good is Real." Both are worth skipping, but even if you take them away, you have eleven songs that make a nice, cohesive album that can meet you with as much optimism or pessimism as you are willing to bring. Either way, Regretfully Yours packs a punch and gets you to enjoy the ride.

Unfortunately, Superdrag were never really able to recapture the same amount of magic that they achieved on their first album. Subsequent records have good songs here and there, but they couldn't make an album that worked as well as a cohesive unit like Regretfully Yours. I'm really surprised that they didn't receive more attention or praise for this album, mostly because I think there were enough strong songs that they could have certainly been appreciated by a broader audience. "Sucked Out" was their biggest hit, but it didn't really create the lasting attention for them that carried over to other songs, sadly enough. They're certainly worth listening to, particularly if you have an affinity for 90s alternative.

Superdrag - Sucked Out
Superdrag - Destination Ursa Major

Friday, May 16, 2008

A new way to get music

I've been searching off and on for a way to get music cheaply or free for a while. I like supporting local, indie music stores when I can, partially because they're a dying breed and partially because there are a couple great ones in Athens within walking distance of UGA's campus. The problem, however, is that being a starving grad student means I don't have enough disposable income to spend on a slew of albums that I might be interested in hearing. I have to pick and choose. The only other alternative is getting them from torrent sites, and I think the RIAA's narrative and heavy handed tactics are enough to make me feel guilty whenever I even visit one of those sites, regardless of my ambivalence regarding intellectual property and copyright laws.

Early this year I heard about a music service for college students (yes, I still technically count, even though I'm not in undergrad) that provides free music. It's called Ruckus, and it's a fairly good way to access most of the music that you might want. It obviously doesn't have everything, but the selection is pretty good. I mean, most of the albums that I listed in my "Favorite Albums of 2007 (latecomer edition)" and "Favorites so far of 2008" posts I got through Ruckus. The upside is the pretty good selection and ease of getting stuff (once you get the hang of the website/player). The downsides are the following:
1) you have to download the Ruckus player, so that becomes another player that you have to deal with. The Ruckus player itself doesn't have many bells or whistles. It also doesn't link up with other programs very well like iTunes, Winamp, or Windows Media Player. There is a slight way around this, however. The files are all in .wma format, so they can be played in Windows Media Player with no trouble. In fact, I rarely listen to the songs through the Ruckus player anymore; I use Windows Media Player.
2) in order to download anything, you have to have both the player and the website up at the same time. It doesn't all work through just one or the other. This isn't really that big of a deal, but it can be a hassle compared to sites like iTunes and other similar programs.
3) DRM: this isn't specific to Ruckus. iTunes has DRM, and most websites that sell their music (or have it for free) have some form of encryption on their music files. The point, obviously, is to limit what you can do with the music file. Ruckus, however, goes farther than iTunes. With iTunes, you can at least burn the files to a CD even if you can't convert them to mp3 or a more usable file. Ruckus doesn't allow burning, converting, or transferring the files to another device. You can't load the files onto iTunes, because iTunes would need to convert the files away from .wma, and you can't convert them. DRM gets in the way of transferring the files onto a portable mp3 player. If you plan on listening to a lot of music at your computer, then it's ok, but you can't take the music with you as is.

All in all, I'm glad to have Ruckus because at the very least, I can listen to new stuff and get a sense of whether I like it enough to buy either online or in CD form at a local store. If you're a university student, you can sign up for free and download music for free. It's a great, free, legal way to learn about many new artists, and if the album is available from Ruckus, you can get it the day it comes out. For example, I've been listening to the new Death Cab for Cutie album off and on this week. I might review it a little later...Who knows?

Desert Island Discs: OK Computer

A while ago, a friend of mine, Bethany, began a frequent blog post idea in response to an idea from her father: desert island discs. It's kind of a popular thought experiment. If you were stranded on a desert island and could only have a handful of albums (assuming a way to listen to them) with you, what would you take and why? Typically, the goal is to point out some of your favorite albums of all time, albums that have made a big impact on one's life. I like the idea so much that I'm starting the series here. First up, I have to go with the top one on the list, a soundtrack to technological dystopia.

In 1998, critically acclaimed alternative band Radiohead went from "pretty good" to "this generation's Beatles" with their third album: OK Computer. This album has been noted by Spin Magazine as the top album from 1985-2005. It has the originality, songwriting, melody, and lyrical complexity that you only get in rare albums when things go just right. Of course, the album's popularity on its own isn't the only reason I have it here. I bought the album not too long after it came out. It has both the pessimism and the ambiance that has followed me for the 10 years since its release. It has grown with me, and the sounds have only deepened with repeated listens. I've also seen Radiohead play most of the album live, and they achieve a fullness that even eclipses the album in a concert setting.

The first guitar line of the opening song, "Airbag," begins the album with a sense of disorientation. The song discusses the feeling of a car accident and the feeling of empowerment that comes with surviving a potentially tragic event. Next came the album's first single, "Paranoid Android," which both delves into the fear of totalitarian control and the desire for that same sense of control that overruns you. Consider the lyrics, "when I am king you will be first against the wall/ with your opinion which is of no consequence at all." The song goes over 6 minutes, and winds through both heavily distorted guitars on both sides of a beautiful, melodic breakdown. This song is so complex that it took me a few listens to appreciate it fully. From there, we have one of the softer numbers about alien abduction "Subterranean Homesick Alien." Next comes the song written for the end credits of Baz Luhrmann's "Romeo + Juliet," "Exit Music (For A Film)." It is the second eeriest song on the album, yet the hushed intimacy builds to the dramatic climax with the line "we hope that you choke." "Let Down" comes next, a song that beautifully spells out pessimism. Ending the first half of the album is the most popular song on the record, "Karma Police." This somber ode to comeuppance imagines a scenario in which you are able to enact just revenge on those who annoy you. The song ends with what sounds like machinery breaking down as it fades into the most unique track on the record. The second half of the album begins with "fitter happier," a repetition of popular, feel good platitudes spoken by a computer voice. The effect is to disconnect the words from emotion, making them feel empty and cynical. "Electioneering" follows, the loudest song on the record and a direct critique of status quo politics. We move from the loudest song to the creepiest song, "Climbing Up The Walls." Thom Yorke finds ways both with notes and with lyrics to scare the ever-loving crap out of you. Then we transition to the lullaby, "No Surprises." This one is such an interesting sleeper because includes lyrics about fading out ("a handshake of carbon monoxide") as well as political messages ("bring down the government/ they don't, they don't speak for us"). This song typifies Radiohead's complexity on the album because of the musical beauty combined with such varied lyrical expressions. Next comes "Lucky," another eerie song that is also confident and complex. With such a somber, yet brave tone, Yorke belts out "it's gonna be a glorious day/ I feel my luck could change." The album ends with "The Tourist," another lullaby, but it expresses both the sadness and frustration of going too fast without slowing down to pay attention to the world around you.

This album has helped me comprehend my emotional state in some more depressing moments as well as helped me cope with what I often see as a horrific political/cultural environment. Though my outlook on some things has changed, I can safely say that I wouldn't be who I am without this album. It may sound cliche, but in some important ways, I found out who I was because of OK Computer.

ADDENDUM: After looking back through this entry, I realized that my review of the album feels kinda weak. I don't think I did the album real justice by just talking about every song and saying the album means a lot to me. I want to add a little more. For me, the sheer beauty of this album comes in the incredible mixture of lyrical content and musical diversity that still maintains an overarching theme. It's like a concept album without really being a concept album per se. OK Computer expresses fear and revulsion at a world gone terribly wrong, and this was in 1998. Think about it: Clinton was in office, things were going fairly well economically, we weren't fighting wars, and the biggest scandal was Bill's zipper problem. Yorke was able to see that something was amiss years before the rest of us could, and I think that's part of what has made this album stand the test of time more than any other in recent memory. His perspectives and turns of phrase have only become more relevant as the years went on. The album was truly ahead of its time, and it's taken many of us years to figure out how much the band's commentary on where we have been going in the past decade makes sense! It has given me the perspective to notice that the world we live in has serious problems, yet at the same time, despite the music's sense of despair, there's just a glimmer of hope in knowing that the ability to diagnose some of the problems with the world around you means that you are doing the right thing. Ultimately, that's what the album's about: understanding your relationship with a messed up world around you. That's what has given this album such meaning to me for the last decade. I have been able to use it when I was personally depressed about random things and when I needed to cope with some critically negative developments in the world at large. I think that's why so many have found this album near the top of their favorites lists.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

My open letter to Al Gore

Dear Mr. Vice President,

Let me start off by saying that you are beyond a doubt one of my few heroes in politics. You have been nothing short of a dedicated public servant despite the terrible hand that you have been dealt throughout your career. I cannot imagine that anyone else, after actually winning the presidency only to have it stolen from them in broad daylight, would handle the situation with more dignity and sophistication than you did. Not only that, you have worked since then to make the world a better place through your tireless work on so many fronts, most noticed of course being your work with global warming. I love An Inconvenient Truth, and I have been thoroughly amazed at the amount of time and energy that you have personally put into your attempts to find viable and significant solutions to the serious crisis we face in global warming.

On a personal note, I heard that you recently hired a friend of mine, Brad Hall, to work with you on research for upcoming work. You could not have made a better decision. He is a brilliant and hard working guy, and I know that whatever you have in mind will only be enhanced with him at your side.

A couple days ago, I came across a brief article that stuck out in my mind. In it, you are quoted as saying that, no matter who becomes president, you will not accept a cabinet level position if the next president were to offer it to you. I am writing to you, sir, to ask that you reconsider that position.

I can understand your decision not to run for president in 2008. I mean, you got stung once by the dirtiest tricks that the Republicans could conjure up (openly stealing an election), and I think I could see why you would not want to put yourself through the rigor and pain of another long presidential campaign, particularly since, as you are quoted in the article, you are "looking for a way to bring about change in other ways." A campaign would mean a diversion of a lot of resources and time that you have focused on fighting global warming. I can also understand why you would not want to be someone's running mate. You did that job for 8 years, and it would not make sense for you to be asked to do it again.

I am, however, a little perplexed that less than 6 months away from the Presidential election in November and 8 months away from the Inauguration of a new President you would already close the door on another opportunity for public service. First, a lot could happen between now and then, and I feel like someone of your experience and high competence would be a Godsend for our government as we turn the corner away from the disaster called "The Bush Administration." Second, I am not sure I see a high-level position in the government as mutually exclusive with the other ways you are looking to bring about change. I'll admit that I don't know all of what you are doing to fight global warming, but I feel like a lot of it could overlap with at least some of the projects you have at the time. Third, working in the government means that you have a direct influence on policy, meaning that you can take bigger steps than most people can in the private sector. You wouldn't have to be Secretary of State or Attorney General. How about being head of the EPA? You would get cabinet rank even though the EPA technically isn't a cabinet agency. I think this would be a wonderful place for you not only because you could set government policy with regard to our environment (which would make the most sense because you're immanently qualified for the job!) but because placing someone of your stature at the top of the EPA would also bring respect to an agency that doesn't really get much respect in the eyes of the country. It would signal to the country and to the world that the US is committed to taking substantial action on global climate change now. Placing you as head of the EPA would be one of the biggest symbolic and material steps forward that the next President could take in our fight to reverse the effects of global warming.

All I ask, sir, is that you think about it. If after reconsidering the idea you decided that your first inclination is correct, I would still respect you as much as I have and do. I just think that it's a bit premature to say "no" to the potential of working in the government again if the opportunity arose for you to have a direct effect on this country's habits and tendencies.

Either way, good luck in all you do. Keep fighting the good fight. Lord knows we need more people like you.


Friday, May 09, 2008

I think I'll save suicide for another year

The semester is finally over, and now that I have some extra time, I thought I'd mention some of my favorite music so far a little over 4 months into 2008. I've divided up the list into three sections: recommended, highly recommended, and favorites so far. Albums in the last category are in the running for my favorite of the year (subject of course to new additions). With the exception of the final category, the albums are listed in no particular order. Also, with the exception of the last category, I'm not gonna take the time to add commentary on each album. I noticed that there are a lot of albums here, and I'm too lazy to talk about each one at length.

Grand Archives – Grand Archives
Throw Me The Statue – Moonbeams
DeVotchka – A Mad and Faithful Telling
Gnarls Barkley – The Odd Couple
Hot Chip – Made In The Dark
Sera Cahoone – Only As The Day Is Long
R.E.M. – Accelerate (given where I live, it would be a crime to leave them off, but the album's nice without the geographical connection)
Elbow – The Seldom Seen Kid
The Kooks – Konk
The Fashion – The Fashion
Foals – Antidote

Highly recommended:
M83 – Saturdays = Youth
Fleet Foxes – Sun Giant EP
Dodos – Visiter
Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend
The Helio Sequence – Keep Your Eyes Ahead
Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago
Headlights – Some Racing, Some Stopping
British Sea Power – Do You Like Rock Music?
The Whigs – Mission Control
Tokyo Police Club – Elephant Shell
Cloud Cult – Feel Good Ghosts

Favorites so far:
1) Frightened Rabbit – The Midnight Organ Fight: This is my favorite album of '08 at this point (despite the appearance of "Good Arms vs. Bad Arms" on Grey's Anatomy this week - it was the one at the end). It's like the potential that a band like Coldplay could reach if they just stopped trying too hard. The song construction and musicianship are just phenomenal, the melodies are infectious, and you can really relate to the ideas that the Hutchison brothers are trying to convey. It's so good that I can't even think of a weak track on the album. Standouts, though, are "The Twist," "Head Rolls Off," "Keep Yourself Warm," and "Good Arms vs. Bad Arms." I cannot recommend this record enough. Here's a video for "Head Rolls Off" to give you an idea of the greatness. Plus, kindergarteners seem to like it...

UPDATE: Charles over at Heartache With Hard Work has reviewed the album, and he agrees with me. He has one of my favorite mp3 blogs, and I often like his recommendations.

2) Cut Copy – In Ghost Colors: This is a close second for me, but the album is quite different than Frightened Rabbit. While they are more britpop-esque (whatever that term really means), Cut Copy is more of a genre traveler of sorts. They weave in and out of French pop, dance, New Wave (think Depeche Mode), and 90s Alternative so effortlessly that often you won't realize they are shifting genres until they've moved onto the next one! It's quite amazing to hear, actually. Plus, everything is just so darn catchy! I mean, all you have to hear is the opening song, "Feel the Love," and you'll be hooked. They have great melody, and it's just a great blend of elements. So many artists try to mix in new things and end up with such failure that it's refreshing to see a group get it right. "So Haunted" and "Lights & Music" are other standouts. Video for "Lights & Music" below.

3) Portishead - Third: How on earth did we get along for over a decade without a new Portishead record? I absolutely adore Dummy; it might qualify as a desert island disc (more on this in a future post). While their self-titled second album was a little bit of a let down, it was still very good. The burning question for all of us fans then was, "What is this album gonna sound like after an eleven year gap?" We all found out, and it is remarkable. They have moved beyond the confines of the trip hop box they helped to craft without losing signature sounds and arrangements. They also showed some new tricks up their sleeves to boot! This record is one I'm still digesting, and I am sure it will take some time for me to really process how I feel. My sense, though, is that the strength of this album comes in the way that all the disparate elements come together so well. I mean, you go directly from the short, ukulele driven, olde-timey sounding "Deep Water" to the pounding industrial sounds of "Machine Gun." As jarring as this transition can be, it works. Neither song feels out of place on the record. That alone is a significant accomplishment. Other standouts include "The Rip" and "We Carry On." Here's the video for "Machine Gun."

That's all I have for now. Thanks for reading. I feel like adding more as the summer progresses. I will probably discuss new music that I come across (I'm looking forward to the new Mates of State and My Morning Jacket for starters) as well as some more specifically themed posts. I may even throw in a political rant or two in...who knows? Until then, keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the top shelf of cookies.

UPDATE: I just realized that I forgot a couple more highly recommended albums.
The Mountain Goats - Heretic Pride
The Charlatans UK - You Cross My Path