Musings, Nits, and Praises: June 2008

Musings, Nits, and Praises

A farrago of all things deemed blog-worthy by a music-loving, poetry-writing, humor-seeking English teacher

Coldplay's Viva La Vida or Death and All This Friends

Originally published in the Main Street Journal

In an interview in the latest Rolling Stone, Coldplay frontman Chris Martin jokes, “I would still give my left ball to write anything as good as OK Computer.” Judging by the the band’s prolixly titled new album, Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends, all of Martin’s reproductive parts are still intact. But while the band may still be in search of its masterpiece, Viva La Vida does find Martin and company willing to extend their musical boundaries—albeit safely—making for an occasionally brilliant album that’s exponentially more vibrant and engaging than 2005’s generally stale X&Y.

To aid in the their efforts in deviating from a Coldplay-by-the-numbers approach, the band turned to renowned studio egghead and “sonic landscape” guru Brian Eno, known best as a producer for his work with David Bowie, Talking Heads, and Coldplay heroes U2. Inspired by Eno and by their own globe-trotting, the band infuses their customary soaring Anglo pop with an eclectic batch of world music color. On “Life in Technicolor,” the album’s instrumental opening track, a Persian santur emerges from a warm bath of synthesizers to provide the hook as acoustic guitar, piano, and a barrage of percussion slowly join in, propelling the song steadily towards Martin’s climatic “woah-oh-oh’s.” The frenetic, flamenco-flavored “Cemeteries of London” follows, offering a gloomy counterpoint to the opening track, but the music retains too much of a sheen to match the angst hinted at in Martin’s graveyard musings: “God is in the houses/ And God is in my head/ And all the cemeteries in London/ I see God come in my garden/ But I don’t know what he said/ For my heart it wasn’t open.” A church organ and a tabla and handclap groove accentuate the uplifting “Lost!” a song on which Martin’s seemingly effortless sing-along melody is so good it makes a line like “You might be a big fish/ In a little pond” almost forgivable.

The band takes several stabs at eschewing verse-chorus-verse-chorus song structure to mixed results. “42” moves from a sleepy piano ballad that nearly sinks from Martin’s hackneyed attempt at profundity—“Those who are dead are not dead/ They’re just living in my head”—to a frenzied musical interlude led by Jonny Buckland’s caterwauling guitar to a hard-driving, arena-rock section before closing abruptly with a return to the opening verse.

Elsewhere, non-traditional song structure comes in the form of two songs sharing the same track space. An indelible plinking piano hook backed by Will Champion’s propulsive drumming and Buckland’s atmospheric, Edge-like guitars drives the soaring “Lovers in Japan,” which gives way to the ethereal “Reign of Love,” carried only by only ambient piano and strings and Martin’s delicate vocal. On the woozy “Yes,” the band’s most demonstrative break from their traditional sound and one of the album’s strongest tracks, Martin drops to a surprisingly low register to deliver a tale of loneliness and sexual temptation amid tortuous Middle-Eastern string flourishes: “There we were dying of frustration/ Saying, “Lord lead us not into temptation”/ But it’s not easy when she turns you on . . .” But whereas “Reign of Love” somewhat complements “Lovers in Japan,” the three and a half minute guitar onslaught “Chinese Sleep Dance” that follows “Yes” proves an awkward and superfluous juxtaposition.

If EMI execs were concerned that Coldplay’s musical tinkering would make for a lack of marketable singles, “Viva La Vida” has certainly alleviated their worries—as I write this review, the song sits atop Billboard’s Hot 100, making it the biggest hit of the band’s career. The song certainly doesn’t have the profile of a typical smash; songs with lyrics from the point of view of deposed king, washes of synthesized strings, dashes of splash cymbal, and the faint hammering of an anvil don’t generally top the charts. But thanks to the band's talent and Eno's know-how, they manage to mesh those elements into an ebullient orchestral pop anthem.

“Violet Hill,” the stomping lead single, offers some honest-to-goodness kick-in-the-pants rock (well, as close as Coldplay comes), with distorted guitar, thundering bass, and thudding percussion bashing away as Martin simmers at the abuse of power and the disintegration of society in wartime—“When the future’s architectured/ By a carnival of idiots on show/ You’d better lie low—while “Strawberry Swing,” a shimmering pop number steered by a backward guitar loop and African percussion, exudes a carefree, summery vibe.

On the closing track—well, sort of—“Death and All His Friends,” the band once again avoid verse-chorus structure but with more cohesion than on “42,” transitioning from a vocal/piano introduction to an extended instrumental break that veers into quasi-prog-rock that culminates with Martin declaring, “I don’t wanna battle from beginning to end/ I don’t want a cycle of recycled revenge/ I don’t wanna follow Death and all of his friends.” Though Martin’s cry would make for a powerful conclusion to the album, the band goes the “hidden track” route again with “The Escapist,” which reprises the layers of bubbling synthesizers from the beginning of the album as Martin sings, “And in the end/ We like awake/ And dream of making our escape.”

Of course, “and in the end” immediately brings to mind The Beatles’ “The End.” I wonder what body parts Martin would be willing to part with to write something as good as Abbey Road?

The album’s flaws—cut-and-paste hidden tracks, herky-jerky musical meanderings, lyrics that lack the specificity to convey the larger themes Martin tries to tackle—stem from the band’s reach exceeding their grasp. And that’s a good thing. They could’ve easily cobbled together a collection of X&Y-like songs replete with a handful of wave-your-cell phone ballads and an inordinate amount of falsetto and sold ten million copies. Instead the band sounds reinvigorated, bent on making an album that reaches their musical acme. They’re not there yet, but at least they’re trying.

Jakob Dylan's Seeing Things

Rick Rubin's expertise proved the elixir to revitalize the music of Johnny Cash (his American series) and Neil Diamond (12 Songs and Home Before Dark), but his deft production apparently doesn't have the same energizing effect on younger frontmen turned singer-songwriters. Last year, former Semisonic frontman Dan Wilson teamed up with Rubin for Free Life, his well-crafted but hardly stunning solo debut. Rubin is also behind the control board on Jakob Dylan's new album, Seeing Things, his first solo release.

There are a number of problems with Dylan's first potentially post-Wallflowers release (it's hard to ascertain the exact status of the band), but none of them can be tied to Rubin's production. To his credit, Rubin captures Dylan's intimate, finger-picked folk so well that it often sounds like he could be playing in your living room (albeit a living room with great acoustics). Instead it is Dylan's lack of varied songwriting that makes Seeing Things as dry as a pack of saltines. The album's press release describes it as "raw and dynamic." If only that were so. Drawing inspiration from the likes of Robert Johnson, Neil Young, and his iconic old man, Dylan doesn't so much dispel his reputation as a gifted and articulate songwriter as he simply fails to achieve the visceral impact of his influences. His plaintive rasp is tailor-made for the album's soft, spare arrangements, but on a number of tracks the coupling of his just-rolled-out-of-bed delivery with the album's low-key sonic palette makes for a somnolent listening experience. It's ironic that the album is being released through a deal with Starbucks given that Dylan sounds like he could use a few shots of espresso.

Overall the album suffers from sameness, but it does offer a couple of captivating folk gems that excel at combining simple but engaging melodies with reflective and evocative lyrics. Whether it's the agrarian metaphor that carries "Will It Grow" - "My forefathers they worked this land/ And I was schooled in the tyranny of nature's plans" - or the rich imagery of "Valley of the Low Sun" - "It's boom, boom thunder and no sleep coming/ Out mining the slippery world/ Of snow-covered beaches, junkyards of diesel/ And bombers named after girls" - Dylan knows how to turn a memorable phrase. (Is wordplay passed down genetically?) On "Valley of the Low Sun," along with the beautiful melancholy of "War Is Kind" and the deadpan "Evil Is Well," Dylan offers his musings on the zeitgeist, wisely eschewing ham-fisted political and social commentary in favor of poetic, impressionistic portraits of the world. His introspective work retains the same intriguing ambiguity as his worldview. On the album's closer, "This End of the Telescope," Dylan sings: "Years of progress digging the sand/ Companions we made didn't last/ Now lousy lovers do well with their hands/ But I'll reach you like nobody can."

It's unclear whether Dylan's foray into austere folk will mark an extended change of musical direction or just a respite from his Americana-rock roots. In delving in headfirst into the singer-songwriter genre, he has retained his poetic wit but sacrificed much of the intensity of his best Wallflowers' work. There are pleasant moments, but by any measure Seeing Things as a whole is rather bland and featureless.

At 30

Sunday marked the Big 30 for me. Besides the fact I bid adieu to my 20's, I can't say that my 30th birthday felt much different than my 29th birthday--or my 25th for that matter. Well, I take that back. My 25th birthday was exciting because I started paying less for car insurance.

As a means of commemorating my 30th, though--and as a means of having something to blog about--I thought I'd use this post to take stock of my life a little to this point, hopefully providing a little levity for my readers along the way. By the very nature of this sort of post, I know I'm risking steering into all-out navel-gazing territory. My apologies in advance.

At 30, I ___

1. am in the best shape of my life. (Kudos to Body for Life. I thank you as does my wife.)
2. still have embarrassingly little know-how for auto and home repairs.
3. find my questions about life outnumber my answers.
4. am no longer holding out for a growth spurt.
5. feel like I'm as ready as I'm ever going to be to be a father.
6. have spent 5/6 of my life following the school year calendar.
7. miss the days before reality TV.
8. have only read a fraction of the books I'd like to.
9. feel like I have a noble profession and believe I'm good at it.
10. wish I got paid considerably more for what I do.
11. wish finances would/could concern me less.
12. regret my perpetual self-absorption from high school through my mid-20's.
13. prefer Austin to any other place I've lived.
14. feel incredibly blessed to have a wonderful wife who loves me in spite of my quirks and flaws.

15. feel like I've been married for more than three years--I mean that in a good way.
16. don't miss dating.
17. miss the days before Clear Channel radio.
18. am increasingly aware of my own mortality.
19. would like to get back into writing letters.
20. hope to be a better husband, son, and brother.
21. am happy to say I still haven't ever seen Titanic.
22. readily admit to having conversations with my dog in which I speak for him.
23. can't eat nearly as much as I used to.
24. still prefer driving to any other mode of transportation.
25. hope I've made a positive, lasting impact on at least a handful of my students.
26. still can't explain why the outcome of Maryland Terrapins basketball games have an emotional impact on me.
27. am just as much of a night owl as I've always been.
28. have watched The Shawshank Redemption countless times and would gladly watch a TNT marathon of it right now.
29. still couldn't grow a beard if my life depended on it, which crushes any hope of one day being a lumberjack.
30. have amassed an inordinate amount of music trivia knowledge. Now if only Rock'n'Roll Jeopardy would come back on the air.

Soft Drink Vernacular

I'd be interested to know how many folks from Maryland responded to this survey. I've always used "pop" when referring generically to soft drinks, but according to this survey, "soda" is the predominant term in my home state--I think there's just a hint of purple in Washington County, though.

Cringing at the Pump

I've gotten to where I actually try not to read how much gas costs me when I fuel up the car because knowing what I'm paying only makes me want to cringe, cry, cuss, or do all three.

But it wasn't until I did a little basic number crunching today that the long-term effect of the price increases really hit me. When I bought my car back in May of 2003, I had to pay roughly $20 to fill the tank. When I stopped at the gas station yesterday, I paid $50. So assuming I fill the tank four times a month, that's $120 more per month and $1,440 more per year.

If I could recall what I paid for particular grocery items five years ago (I suppose I could look that up), I'd calculate the difference as well.

A Rose for Hillary

The day after his death [her father] all the ladies prepared to call at the house and offer condolence and aid, as is our custom.  Miss Emily met them at the door, dressed as usual and with no trace of grief on her face.  She told them that her father was not dead.  She did that for three days, with the ministers calling on her, and the doctors, trying to persuade her to let them dispose of the body . . .
In William Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily," the reclusive Emily Grierson, the last of the once wealthy and prominent Grierson family of Jefferson, obstinately, and eventually downright insanely, refuses to accept change as time and the Reconstruction inexorably erode her standing in the community, leaving her at the time of her death little more than a "fallen monument" in the eyes of the townspeople.  
The narrator, an anonymous townsperson who speaks on behalf of the entire community, offers glimpses of Emily's steadfast denial of reality throughout the story.  When her father dies, she insists for three days he isn't dead; when a new generation of town leaders insist that she pay taxes, she refuses, telling them to speak with Colonel Sartoris, who had remitted her taxes forever.  Sartoris did indeed remit her taxes, but he had been dead for ten years.  But it isn't until the end of the story that the narrator reveals the maniacal extent of Emily's clinging to her past.  
When the townspeople come to her house for her funeral, they discover Emily's horrifying secret.  Wanting to preserve the joy of her wedding day and fearful of losing another man in her life, she poisoned Homer Barron, leaving his corpse dressed in wedding attire on their bed for over thirty years, the room and everything in it untouched, a frightening, dust-ridden tableau. 
Of course, Hillary Clinton isn't that crazy.  In fact, she's not really crazy at all.  But she is a sore loser, unable to accept not only that she has lost the Democratic party's presidential primary, but also that the Clintons are no longer the face of the party.  As Chuck Todd noted following the RBC's ruling on Saturday, the Democratic party now belongs to Barack Obama.  HRC knows that, too.  But the question is how long her clutching to her delusion will last.  
The Democratic party, the media, and anyone else who can recognize obvious defeat is coming for the dead body of her candidacy.  Hopefully she gives it up to be buried sooner than later because last night the stench became unbearable.

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