Monday, July 31, 2006

New Mexico and the Glen Workshop

I was in Arizona and New Mexico for ten days with my dad. The scenery in New Mexico was something I've never experienced before. We got to visit Petrified Forest National Park, The Painted Desert,and Petroglyph National Monument, but Ghost Ranch, where Georgia O'Keeffe lived and worked in isolation for many years, was my favorite.

This picture doesn't really do justice to the tremendous display of colors at Ghost Ranch. In a few hundred feet green grass, red hills, blue mountains and sky, and grey, white and black rocks all appear—somehow conjured up by the desert.

O'Keeffe was famous for her unique perspective, which held realism and abstraction in a comfortable tension. Often, she would paint flowers or bones extremely close-up, to accentuate features often missed by casual viewers. I was able to visit the O'Keeffe Museum, where over one hundred of her pieces were on display. She is one of my favorite artists, probably because of her unified artistic vision and her notoriously eccentric lifestyle.

"Pelvis IV" shows the New Mexico sky as seen through the smooth and alluring bones of a cow.

The reason for our trip was not just to visit national parks and museums (I added those later), but to attend the Glen Workshops, hosted by Image, a journal of "Art Faith and Mystery." It was a chance for Christians of many denominations and artists of many fields to get together and share their experiences. The workshops were awesome. My dad led one workshop on mixed media, and I took the fiction workshop, led by Bret Lott, an accomplished author who also edits the Southern Review. Bret has some insightful advice and very funny stories about being a writer, published as a collection of essays, called "Before We Get Started".

We also were fortunate to hear a concert performed by Over the Rhine, an outstanding band of which I have been a fan for a few years. Their music is lyrically rich, often folk inspired melodic ballads. Their latest release, "Drunkard's Prayer," is my favorite.

Eugene Peterson, scholar, pastor and translator of "The Message" gave the homilies at worship. He has one of those gravelly voices, but it was very humble and inviting.

I could keep going, but let it suffice to say that this was the highlight of my summer.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Why J.R.R. Tolkien Would Have Liked Sigur Ros

When I listen to the ethereal music of Iceland's Sigur Ros I can't help feeling the same way that I do when I read great epics like Homer's Odyssey or Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. A pervasive sense that the world has been born or died or changed forever rings from the melodies. Part of this is the immense sonic landscape that the band creates—songs that sound like a place rather than merely a progression of chords. The Arcade Fire's "Wake Up" or U2's "Where the Streets Have No Name" are songs that feel epic, but Sigur Ros has a whole catalog. Make no mistake, the Iceland group seems to craft the anthems of mythology—the stories of fairies and elves.

I am not the first to note the similarity between the band and Tolkien. A review in Stylus Magazine from several years ago beat me to it. Sigur Ros, like Tolkien, creates their own language for many of their songs. Called "Hopelandic," it is often primal and eerie, yet still maintains a weighty significance. Sometimes Icelandic is interspersed with the imaginary dialect, but to my ignorant American ears, it blends together almost seamlessly.

Sigur Ros trying to think of the word for "epic" in Hopelandic.

If you are still unconvinced, try watching the video for Glosoli. Hoppipolla is also excellent. I tend to think that Tolkien would agree.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

As Seen on a Truck...

We saw a truck like this on Imperial Highway.

I think this is all for the best...

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Lyrics Are Poetry (or something)

In my neverending search for quality music I occasionally find lyrics that make me want to have metal caps soldered over my ears. Here are a few of my "favorites."

1. System of a Down

"Lonely Day" from the album Hypontize

The alleged story on this song is that System is mocking Emo bands. This could be true. However, nothing excuses the complete disregard for basic principles of GRAMMAR and some of the worst rhymes this side of Kevin Federline. This song has received airplay ad nauseum. Here is pure poetic brilliance.

"Such a lonely day
And it's mine
The most loneliest day of my life

Such a lonely day
Should be banned
It's a day that I can't stand

Such a lonely day
Shouldn't exist
It's a day that I'll never miss
Such a lonely day
And its mine
The most loneliest day of my life"

System of a Down: Every day is the most loneliest day.

2. Nine Inch Nails

"Only" from the album With Teeth

Trent Reznor at his sollipsistic best. Denial will get you everywhere Trent. Just fade away!

Verse: "I'm becoming less defined as days go by
Fading away
And well you might say
I'm losing focus
Kinda drifting into the abstract in terms of how I see myself"

Chorus: "There is no you
There is only me
There is no you
There is only me
There is no ****ing you
There is only me
There is no ****ing you
There is only me"

Trent in his own world. There are no fans, there is only me!

3. She Wants Revenge

"These Things" from the album "She Wants Revenge"

The chorus of this song makes me laugh. She Wants Revenge is the musical equivalent of Ben Stein's Visine "Dry Eyes" commercials. Complete monotone. The lyrics alternate between the comically specific "popsicle" to the incredibly vague "cause of these things." The artist's struggle comes through so clearly: can't you all see? It's 'cause of these things!

"I heard it's cold out, but her popsicle melts
She's in the bathroom, she pleasures herself
Says I'm a bad man, she's locking me out
It's cause of these things, it's cause of these things

Let's make a fast plan, watch it burn to the ground
I try to whisper, so no one figures it out
I'm not a bad man, I'm just overwhelmed
It's cause of these things, it's cause of these things

Separated at birth? She Wants Revenge (left) and Ben Stein (right).

4. Hoobastank

"Inside of You" from the album Every Man for Himself

This speaks for itself...

"What do I have to do
To get inside of you?
To get inside of you?
Cuz I love the way you move,
When I'm inside of you.
When I'm inside of you..."

Hoobastank, saying "our songs are so much more poetic than 'we just want to get inside your pants.'"

5. Gwen Stefani

"What You Waiting For?" from the album Love, Angel, Music, Baby

Gwen is awesome. But really, how can she get away with this?


What you waiting
What you waiting
What you waiting
What you waiting
What you waiting for!?"

Gwen, when is your book coming out?

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Obsessed with Entertainment

A recent article in Los Angeles Magazine posed the following question: do gossip TV shows like "Entertainment Tonight" and "Access Hollywood" satisfy some "primitive urge" within people? Presumably, the primitive urge would be idolizing the rich and famous. Who are the rich and famous covered by these shows? Primarily entertainers. This question made me laugh because it assumes that entertainment has been universally valued in the same way that it is in our current culture.

I sometimes wonder why professional athletes and actors/actresses are by far the highest paid people in our society. Even if you buy the argument that entertainment has been valued across cultural and historical lines, the disparity that exists today seems tremendous. If I'm lucky, I might make, in my lifetime, what Shaq has made this past season. Not that I have anything against Shaq, but he doesn't seem that crucial to our society.

How many men read the sports page (online or newspaper) before the actual headlines (if they even read the headlines at all)? How many people would prefer to spend an hour talking about the movie that's out in theaters this week than the situation in the Middle East? I think both describe me. I don't think "escapism" is the only reason I do it either. And it's not because I don't think the situation in the Middle East isn't important or worth talking about. I just may be more interested in the movie.

I am a product of my culture. Have you noticed that gas stations have begun installing TV screens at the pump that broadcast music videos? My only guess at their existence is to be "better than the station down the road." What TV screens have to do with the quality or value of gas is beyond me. But if that station is more entertaining, more people might go to it. Albertson's has just installed similar screens all over their store here. At the check-stands and in food areas the screens give you recipes (and probably entertainment news). Stater Brothers has had a trivia contest going over the PA to give away free bags of groceries. I wonder who will win.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

The Rise of Indie Rock: An Alternative to Alternative

Note: I started writing this for a journal that promptly went under before I could finish it and send it to them. Scoundrels.

In the mid 80’s with glam rock (KISS, Poison, Stryper) and new wave (Blondie, The B-52’s, any number of one hit wonders) at their respective kitschy heights, “alternative” started making the rounds as a term to describe bands that were not getting the airplay they deserved. The idea of a music underground, struggling against mainstream corporate grooming and pop gimmicks was attractive, and owed its impetus to the early punk rock of The Ramones, The Clash and The Sex Pistols. Defined by less make-up, pyrotechnics, and production and more authenticity, alternative became associated with decade-defining bands like REM, The Cure, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Nirvana.

KISS, defining "kitsch rock."

The huge critical and commercial success of alternative bands pushed the term into mainstream usage, and soon alternative bands were not only played on the air, but in the mid 90’s stations were calling themselves “alternative radio.” Many of these stations have since switched to the “modern rock” moniker, but the irony of mainstream alternative remains, attaching itself to everything from the pop-punk of Green Day to the electronic rock of Radiohead, from the intentionally unpolished sound of The Strokes to the geek rock of Weezer. Two decades later, alternative’s broad swath can be found on stations called top-40, modern rock, and even ‘classic rock.’

Somewhere in the middle of this alternative heyday, another reaction took place against the conglomerate that was corporate record labels (EMI, Sony/BMG, Warner, etc.) and major radio stations. Signing to a major label and getting heavy airplay became “selling out,” sacrificing artistic freedom and street credibility for cash and fame. Independent labels multiplied, offering seemingly untainted artists and a host of musical options. A similar movement is visible in film, where so many independent movies are as successful as their mainstream counterparts. In 2005, four of the best picture nominees were indies. Independent films, made with a smaller budget, often feature indepedent soundtracks.

In Zach Braff’s Garden State, when Natalie Portman declares ‘It’s the Shins, this one song will change your life, I promise you,’ the indie rock community gave a collective cheer. Garden State’s mood was perfected by music from The Shins and Iron and Wine, both from Seattle-based Sub-Pop Records. Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation used British indie stalwarts The Jesus and Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine from London’s now defunct Creation Records to superb effect in capturing both the brilliant neons of Tokyo nights, and the introspective isolation of both main characters.

Natalie Portman smiling because she loves The Shins.

Big studios should be afraid. With internet downloads (legal and non) of music on the rise, album sales are down. When idie releases out-perform their big studio counterparts, insult is added to injury. The Postal Service's "Give Up," also from Sub-Pop, went platinum. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah offered a self-titled, self-released album that was purchased in large quantities by Target stores after generating a buzz. But perhaps corporate labels are only waiting for bands to succeed before buying them out from indie labels (The Strokes, Interpol, Death Cab for Cutie). Sub-Pop is famous for signing Nirvana and Sound Garden, only to later lose them, while Creation Records can boast discovering Oasis before having them bolt for a larger contract.

This may soon change. Bands don't necessarily need to be marketed in traditional ways in order to attract a national fan-base. Radiohead may be the next to self-release, following the expiration of their contract with EMI. Moreover, the best bands you’ve never heard of may not be unknown very much longer. Increasingly, indie rock music is getting major media exposure. Bright Eyes’s lead singer, Conner Oberst, called “the poster boy of indie rock” by Rolling Stone, was recently the musical guest on The Tonight Show, garnering a national audience. Instead of "selling out" to a larger label, he has staunchly released indie records. Oberst, a singer/songwriter who has drawn comparisons to a young Bob Dylan, released two albums simultaneously in 2005. I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning (Saddle Creek Records), finds Oberst churning out his customary, folk-inspired sound with whirlwind fervor. Digital Ash in a Digital Urn (Saddle Creek Records,) takes an electronic bent, mixing keyboards, drum machines and a vast array of effects with Oberst’s strong lyrics. Although his subject matter has ventured into Christian faith (Arc of Time), doubt (We Are Nowhere, and It's Now), politics (When the President Prays to God), Oberst writes most potently about failed relationships, again returning to the idea of independent music capturing a deeper emotional honesty than big studio releases.

Oberst looking very indie.

Certainly lost love has been a theme of big studio releases, but they often lack the authenticity and aesthetic flair of bands like Bright Eyes. The freedom from big label expectations and formulas (also Hollywood's problem) has led other indie artists like Elliott Smith or Daniel Johnston to create music that excels, precisely because it is not forced or over-produced. Bands like the White Stripes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs appear to be intentionally creating a raw sound, perhaps in part a reaction to much of mainstream rock.

Indie bands can also self-promote now, more than ever before, through internet avenues. A popular website, E-Music, is devoted to the electronic sales of independent music. That, coupled with a seemingly generational love for artistic intergrity, a little punk rebellion, and a distrust and distaste for corporate America seems to point toward the continued rise of indie rock.

BLUE/RED #1 The Sky (selection from my current story)

BLUE/RED #1 The Sky, 7/4/1985

The sun was setting on Independence Day. Bottle rockets cackled and shrieked on the blacktop and in backyards invisible from the cul-de-sac. Edgar lounged inside his parents’ house, but the rays shone in through the large picture window. He kept lifting his hand to shade his eyes. Tomas, a friend of the family drunk on appropriated ideas, sat across from Edgar on a burgundy velveteen couch. A gilt outline of light framed Tomas’ face.

“How do you know that the sky is blue?” Tomas asked, in a fit of profundity. He stared at Edgar with an aura of cosmic importance.

“What do you mean?” said Edgar. “Of course it’s blue.”

“If someone told you, when you were growing up, that the sky was red, and all you ever heard was red, red, red—would the sky be red?”

Edgar glanced at his, (he thought), pale green chair, not sure if he understood. Tomas licked his upper lip in anticipation of an answer.

“No. Lava is red. Blood is red. Not the sky.”

“What if you call it blue, but really see red? You can never know that you see the same color of the sky as everyone else, or even anyone else.”

“I guess not.”

Dinner interrupted them, and Tomas’ conspiratorial remarks faded with the last bites of desert. Edgar would have probably forgotten them completely, if not for the events of that night. He was awakened from a sleep without dreams by a fire engine’s siren. A stray bottle rocket caught in the branches of a dehydrated, overarching chestnut. The tree burned. From his bedroom window, Edgar could see his neighbor’s yard—and the smoky sky above, pulsing like an angry red vein from the glare of the flames and the flashing light of the siren.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Diane Arbus Show (at the Walker in Minneapolis)

On vacation with my family last week I was able to see a great photography show (for free)! Diane Arbus was a prominent fashion photographer who worked for magazines like Harper's in the 50s. Later, she developed a singular portrait style by having her subjects look directly at the camera. She became interested in fringe communities—especially circus performers and insane asylum inmates. Arbus committed suicide in 1971.

At the exhibit, one photo so arrested my attention that I couldn't move on for several minutes.

Both disturbing and enthralling, I think the boy for me embodies a kind of dissastisfaction with the world. I have always been fascinated with dystopian children, not necessarily abused or neglected (Arbus photographed the children of the wealthy in New York), but ones that seem unable to enjoy childhood. Why does this happen? It is a small part of the problem of evil, but one that troubles me from time to time. This picture also seems especially relevant given current dissastisfaction with war in our country and and the fanaticism that started it. I recommend the show, which is currently at the Walker

This is Me (Until Further Notice)

Someday I will get a better digital picture.

At Long Last


I have started a blog. What you will find here is some of my writing, which could be anything. I write stories, essays, reviews and occasionally poems. Perhaps you might find one or two personal stories from my oh-too-exciting-life, but I will try and keep those to a minimum.