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Saturday, December 03, 2016

A year in music, 2016 edition

This year has been another fruitful year of new music. While I still dig in and revisit the past, there were many new records that I immensely enjoyed. I have made a Spotify playlist of tunes I liked, but here is the rundown of what I championed in 2016.

Albums





















American Football, LP2
When American Football released their debut album in 1999, nobody I knew considered it a classic whatsoever. The four-piece had a lot of close company in the emo/post-hardcore world at that time, including Pedro the Lion, Rainer Maria, the Get Up Kids, the Promise Ring, Jimmy Eat World, and many more. Seventeen years later, this once-short-lived Mike Kinsella project is bigger than any other band he's been involved with. The debut inspired many young bands to create a sound that was more from the heart instead of the hope of becoming famous. Their second LP was a bit of surprise as it seemed to be a project that was under wraps until it had a release date. The bigger surprise is how great it is. Not just good, but a record that surpasses the debut in a number of ways. Kinsella has much more experience as a songwriter in 2016, and it's obvious in terms of the quality of the tunes on here. It's a sad yet pretty album. It's the kind of album that works on rainy days and sunny days. (Spotify) 





















Beach Slang, A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings
This is Beach Slang's second LP in two years, and it's a final document of a line-up that is no longer intact. The band broke up onstage earlier this year, only to reform a couple of days later. Drummer J.P. Flexner later quit the band, then guitarist Ruben Gallego was fired, and frontman James Alex did a number of shows alone. Who knows what will hapen for this band in the future, but A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings is certainly a worthy follow-up to The Things We Do to Find People Who Feel Like Us. It's much more diverse, and it's definitely not a retread of the first album. A song like "Atom Bomb" is a rough-edged, harder tune for the band while a song like "Spin the Dial" sounds like unapologetic ode to the Replacements' "Can't Hardly Wait." One can hope there is more Beach Slang to come in the future as the band's sound holds a special place for those who thought punk rock went away with the Warped Tour. (Spotify)





















Tiny Moving Parts, Celebrate
This trio's second album, Pleasant Living, was one of my favorite records of 2014. It was a record I listened well into 2015 because I could not get enough of it. Celebrate will probably get as much attention in 2017. Pleasant Living was, for me, a long ode to grief over a relationship that ended. Celebrate comes across as addressing those close to you who cannot seem to find happiness. This is the band's most accessible record to date, blending complicated rhythms with sing-along choruses. (Spotify)





















Into It. Over It, Standards
Evan Weiss's latest balances out the major sides of his Into It. Over It project. Produced by John Vanderslice, Standards has both delicate acoustic-driven songs mixed with full-on rock songs. Into It. Over It's previous albums, Proper and Intersections, explored both extremes. Standards blends all of that together quite well, where the whole album doesn't sound like a Jekyll and Hyde sort of identity crisis. (Spotify)





















Explosions in the Sky, The Wilderness
Explosions in the Sky did a major reboot of their sound on The Wilderness. Rather than be dominated by shimmering guitar lines and behind-the-beat drumming, this album is anchored by keyboards and programming. Still, these songs are beautiful and there is plenty of welcoming sounds that Explosions in the Sky is known for. The longest song on here is seven minutes in length, which is also a bit of a change for them. A band who inspired many others created a newer sound to inspire even more bands. (Spotify)





















face to face, Protection
I don't fault face to face for trying to expand their pop-punk leanings. As much as I love their first three records, which elevated pop-punk in many ways, I still find a lot of merits in Ignorance is Bliss, a record that owed more to the Cure and the Foo Fighters. Matter of fact, I championed everything the band did until Laugh Now, Laugh Later and Three Chords and a Half-Truth. I simply could not connect with them as they tried to be a bit more than what they had been known for, whether it was short punk tunes or songs more in the vein of Stiff Little Fingers. With Protection, the magic of the band is back. Trever Keith is still an inspiring vocalist and lyricist, and the rest of the latest version of the band (with new guitarist Dennis Hill) they have found a good, stable footing again. (Spotify)





















My Jerusalem, A Little Death
There have been many times where I have seen a band play songs from a forthcoming LP that were significantly better live than on record. Austin's My Jerusalem played a few of the songs from A Little Death months before it came out, and I'm happy to say the resulting album is great. These are some of the poppiest songs Jeff Klein and his band have cooked up, and they retain the energy they have when they play live. It's a collection of dark pop songs that you can listen to during the day or night. (Spotify)





















Joshua Dylan Balis, Modern Gospel 
Normally, I have hesitation praising a debut from an artist who is only beginning to establish himself or herself. Well, Modern Gospel is the sound of someone who has already released something exceptional. Even though he doesn't list them as influences, Balis's songs remind me of Nick Drake and Bruce Springsteen (the more subdued side of the Boss). There is confidence in these six songs and a taste of good things to come. (Spotify)

Songs

"Don't Need to Be Them" by the Sun Days
Not to be confused with the Sundays, the Sun Days make cheerful pop rock. This is one of the brightest songs I've heard all year. (Spotify)

"Portals to Hell" by Slow Mass
Featuring two members of Into It. Over It, this Chicago-based band reminds me of the mighty Crash of Rhinos. This one's a rager that's colorful, too. (Spotify)

"Just Another Face" by Modern Baseball
This is one of the most honest songs I've heard in 2016. Addressing the dark side of life while focusing on the positives, Brendan Lukens wrote a song I have listened to (and connected with) again and again. (Spotify)

Shows
















Jason Isbell, February 16th, South Side Ballroom
I'm a newcomer to Isbell's music after hearing raves about his solo work and his time with the Drive-By Truckers for years. This show was a revelation. Isbell doesn't write corny country music or by-the-numbers Americana. He has his own sort of vibe that blends folk and country with Neil Young leanings. Over the course of 20 songs, he set a comfortable mood, playing a lot of songs from his last two solo records and a few odds and ends, along with some songs he did with the Drive-By Truckers. I was captivated and I've since become a big fan of his work.













Explosions in the Sky, August 22nd, The Bomb Factory
What I wrote in my original review sums up my thoughts and feelings in detail, but I'll add this, I was deeply moved by this show. My eyes were glassy in a few spots because of the kind of emotion I draw from Explosions in the Sky's music. A wonderful show.


Friday, November 04, 2016

We look like animals seven days a week

Recently, a couple of writers/podcasters and musicians I know took to social media to vent their frustrations about how certain publications have seemingly done a 180 on emo/post-hardcore. Mainly, Pitchfork.

Ten to fifteen years ago, being an emo fan meant receiving a lot of guff from people who didn't "get it." But what was to "get," and what was "it"? Validation that this music was worthwhile? Praise for albums that have been breakthroughs in the genre? Perhaps, but do we really need validation in being a fan of this genre?

Yes, we do.

Before social media and Spotify took hold, music-centric blogs were the best ways to find out about emerging artists. You could sample a lot of stuff for free, but you also had to dig, especially if you weren't a fan of indie rock that sounded like '70s pop rock or hip-hop that was perfect for a party. Pitchfork, which started as an online zine, seemed to be the strongest influencer on what people checked out. As much as I hated a lot of its reviews for sounding like the perspective of someone who's cooler than your older brother and the most knowledgeable record store clerk you know, I still read the site almost every single day.

There were times when I found the site helpful, especially in deciding if the Scott Walker box set was worth the investment. (It was and remains something I cherish.) But many other times, I'd find it distracting when a band would be praised (later seen as over-praised) and then be ripped apart (and later seen as unfairly ripped apart). Most memorably, . . . And You Know Us By the Trail of Dead got the love and later, the shred. I get how new music from a single artist can blow our minds or let us down, but it made me wonder what was really going on. Was it flaky attitudes or black-and-white takes?

During this time, while new albums by Arcade Fire, Spoon, and Radiohead (as well as reissues by James Chance and Pavement) were dissected to explain their greatness, many records from the emo/post-hardcore genre were made light of and cast aside. Feel free and read slaggings of now-classic records by Jimmy Eat World, the Get Up Kids, the Promise Ring, and Braid herehere, here, and here. I think a lot of fans of the emo/post-hardcore genre wanted respect, and we weren't getting it from those who wanted to be smarter and cooler than everybody else.

Slowly, the tide turned. Outlets that used to piss all over the genre (or flat out ignored it) hired writers who came up loving the genre. From Rolling Stone to EW, these places were catching up to what Alternative Press had praised since the mid- to late-'90s. But when Pitchfork started to publish reviews that revered bands like Braid and the Promise Ring, (like this one for No Coast and this one for the Nothing Feels Good reissue), all was forgiven, right?

Not so fast. I stopped reading Pitchfork regularly a few years ago as I realized I didn't need their approval to know if what I liked was cool or not. I liked what I liked (as I always have), but being aware of their influence on readers' tastes certainly amped up my defensiveness. Maybe they realized there was an audience that would give the site traffic if writers weren't defecating on American Football, Jawbreaker, Braid, the Promise Ring, and Jimmy Eat World. I'm not sure, but I can understand if people my age are bitter about it now. It's like the school bully who wants to be your friend on Facebook.

I still see a lot of value in the existence of album reviews, but I've reached a point in my life where I don't need to rely on reviews to determine what I should listen to. Spotify makes excellent playlists every week that are based on what I regularly listen to. I'm not turning to publications to justify my tastes. But I still remember what it was like to have to constantly defend what I loved. Whether it was at the campus radio station I worked at (ie, when the station manager called Bob Nanna the worst singer he'd ever heard) or online (ie, enjoy this blog's archives).

For me and my friends who have always loved emo/post-hardcore, now we know what fans of Rush, the Stooges, and Led Zeppelin got to experience in the 1970s. Bands that made awesome records and affected a ton of people were not well-received by outlets like Creem or Rolling Stone. Those bands weren't up to their tastes, and they seemed to enjoy explaining why.

I don't think we should wait to get validation from people we don't see eye-to-eye with. This music has made a huge, lasting impact on us, so why should we want more? Maybe we're looking for an apology or a mea culpa. Life's too short to wait on that. Let's enjoy what we enjoy.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Season of the Witch

Two years ago, Noel Murray wrote a very thoughtful and well-worded think piece about how your opinion about a movie can change over time. Whether you love the movie every time you see it, you love it more (or less) over time, or you love it now but you originally hated it -- these kinds of shifts happen.

There are various reasons why this happens. I don't believe it's to impress peers or be a contrarian. When you come back to a movie, you are going to see it differently than how you originally saw it.

In my case, as of this year, I have a significantly different opinion on Halloween III: Season of the Witch.

This is the one Halloween film that does not feature Michael Myers as the antagonist, and none of the other films in the series reference the events that happen. Written and directed by Tommy Lee Wallace, it's a bastard child, a misfire. It's something that should be forgotten by many people. But thanks to the enduring popularity of the franchise, it continues to be packaged in DVD box sets and a part of the conversation.

When I saw Halloween III for the first time, it was 1998, and I was slowly going deep into the horror genre. Scream, Psycho, and Halloween all piqued my interest, so I was up for trying anything and everything, to a fault. I had heard of way more movies than the ones I had seen, like The Fog and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. And I had seen way more movies in pan-and-scan than in widescreen. The acting in Halloween III is nowhere near Oscar-worthy, but when the scope of the film is literally trimmed out to fit a 4:3 screen ratio, one can't help but look at the acting. (All this said, I saw Star Wars many, many times in 4:3 and I loved it then and still rank it as my favorite movie of all time.)

I didn't find value in B-movie acting, especially Tom Atkins' scene-chewing machismo. Same with the villains trying to kill lots of children on Halloween. I didn't realize there is a charm to that style of acting. It was either you're a great actor or not. (Great acting was what the Oscars, Peter Travers, and Siskel & Ebert said it was.)

About ten years ago, I watched most of the film in Spanish when I was quite bored one night. The film was even more campy to me. Any kind of redemption was not happening. The horse had left the barn and it wasn't coming back. The first two Halloween movies were the only ones worth watching over and over, while H2O and Rob Zombie's first Halloween movie was (and is still is) pretty good. Halloween III was one of the ones to skip.

A few months ago, an idea popped in my head: why don't I see this in widescreen for the first time? Since certain horror fans I trust gave high marks to the film, I figured I would give it one more chance.

By then, I had seen the original The Fog and the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It was not a shock that seeing Halloween III in 2016 was a much different (and better) experience. As it was original intended to be seen, it's pretty well shot. The in-jokes to the original Halloween (not just the TV ad for it shown in a bar, but also the casting of Nancy Loomis) are a nice meta touch. And there are some decent jump scares.

I came away thinking this was not a garbage movie, but not a great movie, either. Halloween III is way more enjoyable than the fourth, fifth, and sixth installments. Though the final act kinda throws a good build-up away with some really hammy moments, it's not an unwatchable movie. The fourth, fifth, and sixth installments movies went back over the same territory as the first two, thinking more Michael Myers mythology made for an excuse for sequels. From a producer aspect, I understand, but as a viewer, I'm not about to put the Halloween box set on a Christmas list.

Who knows? Maybe someday I will praise the merits of Michael Myers return, death, return, death, and return again. But it's probably not going to happen at this juncture.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Ask the question

Prior to this past Saturday night, I didn't think I would ever ask Kevin Smith a question during one of his Q&A's. What kind of question hasn't been asked at his events for the past 22 years? Worse, if I thought I had a good question, I'd feel crestfallen if it had been answered thoroughly on a podcast I had not heard or an interview I had not read.

I had seen audience members boo questions in the first two An Evening With Kevin Smith DVDs. I had heard of people yelling "Summaries!" when someone asked about something that had already been answered many times before and didn't read the Summaries section of the now-defunct NewsAskew.com.

I tried to interview Kevin for the Observer, hoping to ask him questions that were more about his visits to North Texas rather than talk about his current TV, film, and podcast projects. I did get a response from his manager, but the trail went cold as Kevin was locked into filming an upcoming episode of The Flash. He's a busy dude, so I didn't take it personally that he wasn't available.

Going into the event at UNT's performing arts center, I kept thinking about a question I could ask and I thought of a potentially good one. I bounced it off of Hope, and she encouraged me to ask it. Not only did she do that, she said she would have no problem if I stepped on her foot or jumped over her to get up to the microphone when the Q&A began. I mentally mapped out a way to get up there, hoping to be near the front of the line. We were in the sixth row, and I figured there would be somebody who would be ahead of me.

After Jason Lee introduced Kevin and Kevin pointed out the two microphones on the ground level, people started to get up. I walked swiftly up and I found myself in the front of the line. This was unexpected. A handful of others were behind me and there was a handful of people at the other microphone. Kevin was on stage right, hovering above the other line, so I thought he would start with that line.

Well, he turned left and started with me. No pressure or anything, as the first question sets the tone of the night. If you have a shitty question or try to be a smarty pants or be really long-winded, it could make for a very long night.

After exchanging pleasantries and him mentioning my Star Wars shirt, I prefaced that I had a short and sweet question about his fabled comic book collection. The collection he sold to partially fund his first film, Clerks. That was the tease that interested me in Kevin's work on an episode of MTV's Week in Rock back in 1994. I had heard he bought most of the collection back when he received money from the sale of the movie to Miramax. The core of my question was, did he ever buy the rest of it back?

He responded with, "What a great question. Nobody's ever asked me that."

A warm feeling went through my body. It was a sense of relief. Basically, the answer was, he was unable to track down certain items that were very rare, especially figurines. Even with the help of higher-ups at DC Comics, they couldn't track them down. Kevin would go on and tell many tales related to his comic book collection, including meeting Walt Flanagan and going through Brett Ratner's copy of Action Comics #1, and it took almost an hour. I wasn't complaining, but I was aware of the guys behind me hoping to ask questions. I didn't want to hog all the time.

There was an interesting, impromptu moment during all of this. Kevin wanted to use a microphone stand. He could not seem to loosen it and raise it. I volunteered as I had spent many years doing this for my father's video production company, setting up stands and cameras for band and orchestra concerts. Maybe it was nerves, but I didn't pay attention to how high I put the stand. Kevin and I wound up trading it three times before he found a good height for it. It brought a lot of laughter and he shook my hand at the end of it.

As I stood there, I thought about telling Kevin about how Hope and I met through podcasting and writing, but I could not find the right spot. The moment had passed and he was ready to move on to the next person. Over a handful of other people got to ask questions before the 3.5 hour event was over. A couple got remarried with his officiating, a guy kicked a water bottle out of Kevin's hand to reprieve something he had done at a convention, and a surgeon shared funny stories about what it is like to work as a surgeon on the weekends and own a candy shop during the week.

I came away from this thinking it was better than an interview or an autograph. I got to experience something special with Hope as one of our main sources of inspiration talked to people individually, but did it in a way where the audience was included in the conversation. I certainly will not forget this, and I sure as hell am happy I got to do this with Hope. There was so much more elation and enjoyment in seeing this with someone I love, who gets this. (We shared our stories on an episode of Fanboy Radio the night after.) If the Texas Theatre Q&A inspired us and brought us together, then the Q&A UNT inspired us even more. And with the journey of life with this wonderful woman, I'm very happy with where this has come to and where it's going.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Offering Advice

Last month, I was asked to be on a panel at UNT on careers in digital media and print. Meant as a way to give college freshmen an idea of what it is like to work in the field, the coordinators asked me and four other writers to share our stories.

I had a while to think about what all I wanted to share. The attitude I kept reminding myself was, encourage rather than discourage. I don't think I'm a discouraging person, but my cynicism can easily come out and it can sound discouraging. I ran through what I wanted to say, remembering what I have found to be helpful and not helpful.

I believe the panel went well, as me and my fellow panelists (two of which I have worked with at the Observer, one I've known at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and one at the Dallas Morning News) talked to a packed room, and we chatted with a few people who wanted to ask more questions afterwards. No one on the panel came off as bitter or angry. We acknowledged how writing in digital media is more about working with a platform rather than writing for a newspaper. We talked about numbers and analytics, as well as the need for content, but overall, we stressed that good writing and finding your own voice is most important.

I freely admit talking about this to a room full of strangers got me riled up. I couldn't help be overcome with emotion, wanting to stress how important it is to write. For the past 12 years, writing about what I cared about has saved me from a life of being a jaded, unsatisfied person. I couldn't help but think about those who choose to go down that route. Even now, well after the panel has been over, I think about people who have that attitude. I see it on an almost daily basis and want to stand up and say something.

There are writers who become so disenchanted with their experiences in trying to write for a living. They think it's necessary to save others from the grief in going down a similar path. They like to go on rants on Facebook and Twitter, thinking the best advice for aspiring writers is, "Don't."

Frankly, I hate that attitude. If I've learned anything about life, you have to try something. Holding yourself back from trying something that interests you only prevents you from new experiences. And new experiences are vital in living life. Write about what you know, but if you refuse to try new things, then what do you really know? What it's like to spend a lot of time alone in silence, wanting to punch your computer screen?

For the people who want to vomit all over other people's aspirations and dreams, you're simply in the way. You're a road block. People, if they're really determined, will find a way to get around a road block. Furthermore, you don't motivate by discouraging. You don't inspire people by being an asshole. Your bitter and angry attitude is a bunch of noise. A Metal Machine Music for those looking for a Pet Sounds. A puff of smoke that's temporarily in the way. You might take pleasure in being right if somebody decides writing as a career is not for him or her. But really, how can you feel better about your life that way?

I'm not trying to tell an aspiring writer he or she will write for the New York Times or receive a six-figure amount to write a book someday. It's hard to make a living as a writer. What I'm saying is, do something that you love. If you are ever fortunate to make a large sum of money because of your writing, then there is nothing wrong with that. But that should not be why you write. Write because you want to communicate, express yourself, and tell stories.

Beyond whether or not writing is for somebody as a career, the bigger lesson is how you want to present yourself in life. If being a repugnant Negative Nancy is your way of being "honest," well, don't be surprised when not a lot of people want to be around you, contact you, or like you. You can choose to give people helpful feedback, where you acknowledge what works and what doesn't. You're not leading people astray with unrealistic ideas. You're inviting people to believe in themselves.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

At the Movies (Reprise)

There was a time when I went to movie theaters quite often. Whether with my parents or friends, it was a major part of growing up in New Orleans and later, Houston. This was combined with watching videotapes (Betamax and VHS) and movies run on TV channels. All of these movies offered a view of the world that I didn't experience first-hand.

But about fifteen years ago, I almost stopped going to a theater completely. I would go maybe a couple of times to see something I really wanted to see (the Star Wars prequels, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Matrix sequels, four of the Saw sequels). The pull of DVDs, whether purchased or rented, was so strong with top-quality picture and enlightening (most of the time) supplemental features like commentaries and documentaries. I was much more comfortable watching a DVD at home alone and occasionally, with a friend or girlfriend.

Blame it on the cost of seeing a movie in a theater or feeling very alone out in public, I decided to keep my viewing habits to myself. God forbid I hear people who have different opinions on stuff I loved. Especially as I walked out of a movie during the closing credits.

Too often, I would detect a general consensus about a movie from both people I knew in real life and what people wrote about online. There were many times where I seemed very much at odds with what people said or wrote. Defending the Star Wars prequels and praising the hell out of The Matrix Reloaded came across as out-of-touch and clueless. Free speech might be allowed with pop culture, but it seemed like if you didn't agree completely with the general attitude, you might as well find a dark corner to stand in and keep your opinions to yourself.

Slowly a tide turned in me. I realized I didn't have to get too defensive with people who didn't see things the way I saw them. I could be myself and not have to defend myself, unless it's ribbing with friends of mine I've known for years. The tide turned so much that when Hope came into my life, going back to a movie theater was as welcoming as it was when I was young. Having a partner in crime in life makes a lot of things infinitely better.

These days, I don't have to worry if somebody with a loud mouth will spew negativity all over something I enjoyed. I still get defensive, strangely. Seeing movies in a theater is much more rewarding now, especially realizing how special places like the Alamo Drafthouse and the Texas Theatre are. They're places for people who don't want to deal with massive crowds.

In the past ten months, I've seen more movies in a theater than I did in the past fifteen years, combined. A lot of praise goes to Hope, but it's not just that she's willing to see movies in a theater. It's more this idea of, you can be who you are (faults and all) and still get along with people.

I'm very thankful to return to a place I valued so much when I was younger. It's very comforting to know I can like a movie theater more now than ever.

Monday, July 18, 2016

GOAL!!! (part 2)

A self-deprecating excuse for 30 years came to an end this past Friday night. With the help of my fellow Oil Money FC teammates, I scored three of our six goals in a victory. Along with the goal I scored in our first game together, I can now say those two own goals in 1986 are in the distant past.

But what's the big deal here? I scored goals in a league where the points don't really matter and everyone gets a free beer afterwards. This is like a friendly; not the Champions League final.

I make a big deal out of a lot of things, and arrogance can come across when describing any sort of accomplishment. It's probably because I often invest a lot of emotional baggage into why I cannot competently do things in the present. In other words, I make a lot of excuses.

Scoring those goals means I don't have to let the past shackle me. Whether it's with what happened at previous jobs, in previous relationships, or previous friendships, life isn't over when the outcome is not what you hoped it would be. Life is not over as long as you keep moving forward.

I am not the best player on my team. Other players currently play and/or coach, and they know what to do. I, on the other hand, try to remember what I learned when I played as a kid, along with what I have seen in football matches played all over the world. What usually happens when I get the ball is push it down the pitch some and then pass to a fellow player who is in a much better position. I often look like I freeze up when I play. There's something to work on.

Going into the match on Friday, I didn't think about anything other than playing well and not be afraid to go for the ball. This is not aggressive football, but I have seen some people collide and have to be helped off the pitch. Accidents happen, and as long as you're playing like you want the ball (and not aiming to break your opponent's bones), you will be fine.

Opportunities presented themselves, and I was lucky to connect three times with the back of the net. I got a hug from our team leader Mark (who, along with Joel, made me feel welcomed to the Manchester City watching group in the first place), and I twirled my kit around my head after the second and third goals. Sure, it was a bit much, paying a tongue-in-cheek homage to Sergio Aguero's memorable goal in 2012 against Queens Park.

But there are times in life where you just have to celebrate. That was one of them.