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Monday, December 31, 2012

Start Today

If something is staring me in the face that needs to change, I'm not patient enough to wait until January 1st to take care of it.

Last week, Jenny and I enjoyed spending time in Florida with her family and a few days at the beach. The hope of any vacation - no matter how short it is - is that you are relaxed while you're on it and come back to regular life with some clarity. Being at the beach last year was great for me, looking at Lake Michigan felt great earlier this year, and I certainly felt clarity while on the beach last week. I thought about things I could change in my life, and how to change them.

Loosely, I've made some resolutions in the new year, but they're not the kind I want to be extremely vocal about. There's some housecleaning to do in my house as well as in my mind. I already started on some of those today, and I'm not finished with them until I say they're finished.

I look forward to 2013. Lots of good stuff is on the horizon, and that horizon doesn't feel very far away.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

My first . . .

This week's edition is a monster. I reached out to a dozen people I interviewed this year for the column, and almost all of them got back to me via Facebook. Since it's the holiday/best-of version, it's OK that it's long.

And I contributed to a year-end list for best local releases. It should come as no surprise that I praised Things of Earth once again.

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Tenacity of the Cockroach

(I briefly mentioned this in yesterday's post, but I wanted to write a separate post on Keith Phipps' departure from The A.V. Club.)

When Keith broke the news on his site yesterday morning, I was surprised and saddened. I'm not one to think that one person will remain in the same job position until retirement, but the departure seemed abrupt. Especially since this was just a few days after The A.V. Club reached a pop culture milestone when it was spoofed on The Simpsons.

I will remain a daily reader of the site as long as the content is worth reading. I hope Keith will land on his feet in a job that brings out the best of his talents as a writer and editor. But I can't help reflect on how much the site has meant to me under his command. He had been with The Onion for fifteen years, helping make a small section of it into a full-on epicenter of pop culture discussions.

How I came to know Keith was from a very brief encounter while I was writing my first book. 

Back in 2004, I interviewed Bryan Jones, who was a longtime pen pal of mine because he played in a band that I loved called Horace Pinker. I wanted to talk to him about his involvement with At the Drive-In in their early days and we had a great discussion. As we finished up the interview, I expressed interest in talking with fellow writers for the book and he said he knew somebody at Punk Planet. That was Kyle Ryan, a fellow Houstonian and a writer/editor who had a number of his Punk Planet articles uploaded onto his personal site. I contacted Kyle via an e-mail address Bryan gave me, we hit it off right away, and about a year later, Kyle asked me if I wanted to write music reviews for Punk Planet. This was the first chance for my writing to be published in a printed capacity, so I jumped at the chance.

As it would turn out, I ended up working on only one issue with Kyle as my editor. He left Punk Planet to take a full-time job at The A.V. Club. Working with his successor Dave Hofer, I stayed with the magazine until it folded a couple of years later. I bore no hard feelings towards Kyle because by then, I was a regular (and avid) reader of The A.V. Club. I was proud of him to go onto a great place.

What led me to the site was The Tenacity of the Cockroach, a collection of A.V. Club interviews with all kinds of people in the entertainment industry. I was in the research phase with my book and I was looking for anything and everything I could use as reference material. I bought Tenacity because it had an interview with Ian MacKaye, one of the major players in the book I was trying to write. I was very interested in many of the other people interviewed, like Tom Waits, Aimee Mann, Gene Simmons, "Weird Al" Yankovic, and Jello Biafra. What was talked about and how it was talked about was quite different from anything I had ever read before. Talking more about the craft, the inner-workings of the entertainment business, and horror stories about the business, there was more substance to these interviews compared to other publications. These interviews were more conversational, like the ones I enjoyed reading in The Big Takeover. (If you want to know where I got my interview "style" from, it's Punk Planet, The Big Takeover, and The A.V. Club.)

Eventually I came back to Chicago and made a lunch date with Kyle. I went to his office, which he shared with Keith and a few other full-time writers. I introduced myself to Keith, told him about this book I was writing and the blog I was keeping to track the book's progress. Keith, pulling his keyboard in front of him, acted very interested in my project and asked for the name of my blog. Not too long after, Kyle and I went to lunch, and to this day, that has been the only time I've been in the same room with Keith.

Luckily, the power of the Internet allowed us to keep in contact over the years. Whether it was trading e-mails, commenting on respective blog posts, or befriending each other on various social networks (including MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, and GoodReads) the lines of communication remained open. Given how The A.V. Club welcomes feedback and dialogue from their regular readers, I was happy to be a friend of the site, getting to know many of the other writers as well. (I had considered pitching/asking for some freelance work with them over the years, but decided not to, mainly because my fields of expertise are handled extremely well in the hands of Kyle, Jason Heller, Noel Murray, and Steven Hyden.)

The site has been a wonderful source for people like me who take a deeper look and appreciation of pop culture. Whether it's an Inventory, a Random Roles, or an A.V. Club Q&A, I usually find out something new or brand new information I can't find elsewhere. Where else could I find a genuinely well-written review by actual fans on a film about the Replacements or about Bob Mould's autobiography? Better yet, where else can I depend on writers who aren't trying to be hipper or cooler than the average consumer? As vast as the Internet is, these kinds of traits are a little hard to find in a reputable place.

I've found the site to be a place where I can find out about a new release by Texas is the Reason, a review of a micro-budget documentary about fathers and sons, and a well-written review of The Avengers. Usually, stuff on the fringes of pop culture stay on niche websites, but The A.V. Club tends to give things a better chance than other sites. Thanks to the site, I've seen many great films I was iffy about seeing initially (The Descent, The Mist, and Zodiac come to mind right away) and books I was iffy about reading (especially Jason Zinoman's Shock Value.) Doesn't matter how big or small the thing is, if there's a sizable interest with the readers, chances are, they'll cover it. (Personal note: I was honored when Jason Heller was kind enough to plug my then-unreleased book back in April of 2008.)

Wherever the site goes post-Keith, I want to give it a shot. If it goes in a direction that I don't like, I will simply stop reading it. I have a feeling they will continue to be good, given the number of writers I like that are still writing for them. (I certainly hope it doesn't take the direction that Idolator took after Maura Johnston left.)

But on a personal note, I'd like to talk about the virtual friendship that I've had with Keith since that brief conversation all those years ago. Because of blogs, Facebook status updates, updates on GoodReads, and tweets on Twitter, he's given light to things going on in his life. Be it details on the last few years of his father's life, the birth of his daughter, or a neighbor who was scared of him while he walked his dog, I've enjoyed the slices of life that he's shared. These are ways of keeping in touch when it's hard to find the time to see each other, e-mail each other, or talk on the phone.

When he announced his departure yesterday, many passed the word along via Twitter and Facebook, including myself. Many shared praises of his work and his personality, and it certainly was a delight when he tweeted last night: "Thanks to everyone who made me feel like Jimmy Stewart at the end of It's a Wonderful Life today." I think the praise was overdue, especially with the reputation he has built over the years.

In my time as a reader and a pen pal, there have been instances where what he said and what he did were kind. Extremely kind, actually, towards someone he'd only briefly talked to a number of years ago. When I had a question about some freelance database work and thought his wife Stevie could help answer my question, he sent me her way. When my previous girlfriend was diagnosed with cancer, he referred me to a friend of his named Jean who was in the process of finishing her cancer treatment. In addition, he told me two words that sounded so simple, but meant plenty when he wrote them in an e-mail: "Stay positive." And when he and Stevie sent Jean cupcakes with "Fuck Cancer" written on them, I was inspired to make vegan red velvet cupcakes featuring that phrase for my then-girlfriend's birthday.

Certainly meaning more than just another guy who writes and edits pop culture stuff, he's someone that exudes a positive personality. That's why when I read testimonials on Facebook by Todd VanDerWerff and Donna Bowman on Keith's impact on them, my heart was warm. I truly wish the best with what comes next for him. He deserves it.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

One day at a time

On my way back from Houston yesterday, I saw a sign outside of a church: "You can argue with God, you just can't win." I had a good chuckle because I agree with that sentiment.

While I don't brand myself a Christian, I do have an attachment to the ideas of being hopeful, a good person, helpful towards others, and a positive-thinking person. And it's taken me a long time to understand the difference between things that are in my control (which is a small number) and the things that are not in my control (which is a very large number).

I spent most of this year upset about things that happened in 2011. I couldn't shut the door on a drastic change in my personal and professional life that happened over the course of four short months. I had started 2011 in a happy relationship while I was in a band I enjoyed playing with and made the best of a hostile work environment. By the end of October last year, all three of those situations were not in my life anymore. They didn't leave my mind though. They were too close to my heart to brush them off like dust on a shelf.

As easy as it would sound to stop all thinking about those situations, I have tried, but I have not fully put them behind me. I'm happy to say that I'm in a much better spot in my personal life thanks to Jenny. She's brought me so much joy, love, laughs, and stability since we met in July. I still play the drums even though I can't seem to find the right fit with a band situation. The way I figure, whatever band I'm in next will appreciate a drummer who practices regularly with a metronome. And my freelance writing for the Observer and dentist websites have kept me busy, happy, and active.

I would love to have a full-time job with health benefits again, but that's not exactly something I have control over when it will happen. I've made a lot of strides to get to that point this year, but for now, it's freelance work.

In the past few days, people I've thought highly of have lost their jobs. Whether they worked in radio or worked in writing/editing pop culture articles, my heart goes out to them. Losing one's job a few weeks before Christmas can feel like a big middle finger in the face. But more often than not, I hear from others how losing a job was one of the best things to happen to them. Hopefully these people will say this in the near future.

I spent so much of this year living with a kind of anger that seemed impossible to let go of. I often thought about why my relationship fell apart (and later became extremely bitter), why my band fell apart, and why I put up with a toxic work situation for so long. I came to the realization that I can stay in bad situations for too long. Hopefully, the lesson learned is to have some kind of courage to leave those situations, consequences be damned.

I think back to that great quote by Bobby Patterson: "I thank God for all my enemies. I thank God for every job I've ever been fired from. I thank Him for every girl that left me. Because that thing makes you stronger. They make you who you are. And if you're gonna be in this entertainment business, you better learn to be strong." He is totally right.

Looking forward to 2013, there is a clearer road up ahead. There's a second book to be published, a third book to finish writing, more great times to be had with Jenny, more birthdays with my family, and a desire to be an even better person. I'm not in control of everything that happens next, but I hope to be ready for it. 

My first . . .

This week's edition is with Jonas from Turbo Fruits. Usually, I have my interviews scheduled, taped, and transcribed well before my Tuesday afternoon deadline. I was going to interview a different member of the band on Tuesday, but when I called him, he said he was in the hospital. He suggested that I talk to a different member of the group and I rescheduled with the publicist. My interview with Jonas finally happened last night at five, but he was afraid his call was going to drop because he saw mountains ahead on his drive. Luckily, the signal did not drop and we had a great conversation.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

A year in music

If there is one word I could use to describe my life in 2012, it's rebuilding. Rebuilding in the sense of figuring out what I truly want in my personal and professional life. I thought long and hard while trying to move forward. Music, as always, kept me sane through all of this. I listened to a lot of music that was released this year -- a lot more than I had in previous years. This list reflects that, as well as a number of the shows I saw and stories/interviews that I did.

The Best Records Released This Year

Title Fight, Floral Green
Despite the vastness of options on the Internet, I still go off of friend recommendations the most when it comes to finding out about new music. My friend Seth was highly enthusiastic about Title Fight's second record, calling them "Seaweed Jr." Upon listening to it, especially "Secret Society," I agreed, but I also added No Knife, Hum, and Lifetime to the list of obvious influences. Most of these guys are not old enough to legally drink, but they deliver such a punch of great songs, passion, and conviction.

Things of Earth, Old Millennium Pictures
From time to time, friends of mine will recommend that I check out their new side project or completely new band. More often than not, what I hear is very rough and not very memorable. When Brandon Butters told me about Things of Earth, his other band when he's not playing in the West Windows, I gave this freebie EP a listen. What I heard sounded incredibly well recorded and it had a tremendous sense of urgency to it. I've heard many instrumental bands that take influence from Pelican, Hum, and Far, but this four-piece does something refreshing with those influences. I look forward to what they deliver next.

Cloud Nothings, Attack on Memory
I heard good things about Cloud Nothings last year when I read some year-end lists. Trevor Kelley tweeted high praise for this album, so I was inclined to check it out. While I hope their drummer adds a crash cymbal to his kit someday (yes, once a drum nerd, always a drum nerd), Attack on Memory reminds me of what I like about Cap'n Jazz in terms of dynamics and release. And "Stay Useless" is one of the catchiest songs I've heard all year.

The Jealous Sound, A Gentle Reminder
Once again, a Trevor Kelley recommendation. He tweeted at the end of January: "Mid-life heartbreak, bleary-eyed optimism, and the power of palm muting. A hands down classic." Extremely well put. "Change You" is one of my favorite songs of the year.

Ben Folds Five, The Sound of the Life of the Mind
I've written plenty over the years about how much Ben Folds' work with the Five and as a solo artist has meant to me. His reunion with the Five has produced another fine album, even though its title is a mouthful (more than The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner). Lots of great songs here, but "Michael Praytor, Five Years Later" is one of the best.

Converge, All We Love We Leave Behind
I don't listen to a lot of heavy music, but there are a few bands I can listen to over and over again for years. Converge is one of those bands, and they've been pretty consistent with creating records I want to hear. Since Jane Doe, the band's been pretty unstoppable in terms of quality. And while I truly enjoy this record, there are times when I think, "Haven't I heard this riff before?" I don't think that when I hear "Aimless Arrow."

Torche, Harmonifcraft
This record took me a few listens to really dive in. Torche is one of the few bands that can play extremely loud and heavy music with very tasty melodies. "Letting Go" certainly resonated with me this year, as did the rest of the record.

Best Coast, The Only Place
I'm extremely cautious about getting into bands that have one basic sound. Best Coast is vocals, guitars, and basic drumming. I liked their debut album, but I love The Only Place. Sunny melodies with lyrics about isolation, frustration, and heartbreak, "How They Want Me to Be" is one of the many standouts.

The Gaslight Anthem, Handwritten
Word was, the Gaslight Anthem almost scrapped this record and started over. Thankfully, they didn't. I found Handwritten to be a rebound from their last record. Like Tom Petty and Hot Water Music hanging out on E Street, especially on "45."

Best Discoveries/Re-discoveries This Year

Marshall Crenshaw
Marshall's name has been mentioned before on the A.V. Club and Popdose, sites I often read. After I read Noel's excellent Gateways to Geekery piece on power-pop, I checked out Marshall's debut self-titled record and the This is Easy compilation. This is power pop for those who love sunny melodies with a Buddy Holly/Phil Spector influence rather than a Beatles influence. Great stuff that still holds up strong.

Blur
Thanks to a massive box set containing everything the band has released, I was able to go back into Blur's album cuts and singles. Blur always made diverse music that never adhered to one genre, and their legacy is even stronger now (especially when you don't have tabloids writing about how many more records Oasis sold in 1996). 

Genesis
I've been listening to the pop-friendly material of Genesis since the mid-80s. I still love songs like "Invisible Touch," "In Too Deep," and "Misunderstanding," but I never dug into their deep album cuts or their material with Peter Gabriel. Since I always see their albums in used record bins, I was inclined to check them out, especially since the guys in Mastodon are huge fans. After spending a lot of hours this year listening to The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Seconds Out, and A Trick of the Tail, I have to say they're perfect for evenings in, sitting on the couch. 

Tom Waits
Somebody who's almost impossible to find in a used record bin, Tom Waits continues to amaze me. Whether it's a deep cut from Small Change or The Heart of Saturday Night, I'm in.

Amy Winehouse
Away from the tabloids and her untimely death,  I can enjoy a song like "Love is a Losing Game." Sad and beautiful stuff.

(By the way, I created a playlist on Spotify featuring a number of the songs from my favorite albums of the year, as well as the new discoveries/re-discoveries.)

Biggest Disappointments From This Year

Cursive, I Am Gemini
I remember driving home from Darryl Smyers' house the day he gave me his promo copy of I Am Gemini. I thought it was a tremendous disappointment, especially since records like The Ugly Organ and Happy Hollow are total gems. The songs sound unfocused and sloppy, all tied into this narrative about twins. Not my cup of tea. Worse, drummer Cully Symington -- who's a powerful drummer when the band plays live -- is reduced to sounding like he's playing in a closet down the hall. The songs sounded better live when I saw them at Trees, but that didn't excuse this record for being a disappointment to me.

The Twilight Sad, No One Can Ever Know
Another situation where the songs from this sounded better live, but this is not the Twilight Sad at their best. Jettisoning the bleak and angry rock of their past, they took a Joy Division-esque approach with No One Can Ever Know. I like a lot of Joy Division material, but I certainly do not listen to it all the time.

Best in Shows

Converge/Torche, Dada, November 1st
(Read my original review here
Crazy mosh pits and aggressive music, along with friendly vibes between band and audience. Absolutely the best show I saw this year.

Chris Botti, Verizon Theatre, February 16th
(Read my original review here
I expected to enjoy this show, but I was quite blown away by the surprise guests, song choices, and spontaneity.  

Ben Folds with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, Bass Hall, April 27th
Ben Folds Five, Palladium Ballroom, September 23rd
(Read my original Ben Folds Five review here)
Prior to this year, I had never seen Ben play live. I got a nice double dose this year.

The Jealous Sound, Lola's, February 7th, and LaGrange, October 7th
My third and fourth times to see the Jealous Sound. Previous times, they were on bills with bands I wanted to see more. These times, I wanted to see them. Quite excellent. They sounded fantastic at LaGrange, and sadly, it was the last show at LaGrange before they closed up shop.

The Afghan Whigs, Granada Theater, October 14th
I don't claim to be an expert on the Whigs, but every song they played, I was quite familiar with. And they had the best ending to a set I saw all year: a little bit of "Purple Rain" during "Faded."

The Beach Boys, Verizon Theatre, April 26th
(Read my original review here)
Nobody else at the Observer wanted to cover this show, so I did, and I'm glad. Reunited with Brian Wilson (for what eventually became a short time, sadly), they played every big hit and plenty of album cuts. I think the ten backing musicians helped.

Iron Maiden, Gexa Energy Pavilion, August 17th
(Read my original review here
My first Maiden show. Filled with classic after classic, Bruce Dickinson is still one of the best vocalists in the metal genre.

At the Drive-In, Trees, April 10th
(Read my original review here)
Prior to this year, I never thought an At the Drive-In reunion would happen in any capacity. Well, this show was a surprise. The band isn't as crazy as they were in the '90s, but they certainly made up for a shambling performance at Trees in 2000.

face to face, Cambridge Room at House of Blues, November 8th
I was lucky to see face to face play a lot of tunes from Ignorance is Bliss before the record came out. While the direction they went with that record bummed out a lot of punker-for-lifers, people like me really enjoyed the record. So it was fantastic to see the entire album performed acoustic in a very intimate setting.

Worst in Shows

Tenacious D, Palladium Ballroom, July 20th
(Read my original review here)
I'm not really a Tenacious D fan, but I was asked to sub for another writer who had committed to covering this show. After seeing this show, I can't really tell if the D have their hearts in their music. And the sound mix was awful and uneven: it might as well been called drummer Brooks Wackerman with Tenacious D.

Mark Kozelek, Granada Theater, December 6th
I like a lot of the songs Mark has done as a solo act and with the Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon. When I saw him seven years ago at the Gypsy Tea Room, he was fantastic. And it was great when he called out a guy who was talking on his cell phone during the set. I met him afterwards and he was very friendly. When I saw him this year, he was frequently a prick to certain people in the audience, including two women in the front who were whispering to each other during songs. Then he kept flirting with a girl he kept forgetting her name. And he bragged he was getting paid a lot of money to play this show. Then he has the audacity to say that the crowd seemed intimidated by him. It was a weird counterpoint to the fact that he played very, very well for over two hours. Whether it was a Descendents cover, an old Red House Painters song or the sublime "Moorestown," they sounded fantastic. I don't know if he was pretending to be a prick or not, but I left that show feeling uncomfortable.  

Jane's Addiction, McFarlin Auditorium, May 10th
(Read my original review here)
Since I was born in 1979 (and not between 1973 and 1976), I can't seem to appreciate Jane's Addiction. Seeing them play in a venue with rows of seats that are perfect for five-year-olds, it was not very enjoyable from where I sat.

Favorite Interviews/Stories

Bobby Patterson
(Read the original story here)
In my final year of working as a traffic reporter, I always had a blast doing reports for Bobby Patterson. When he was let go from KKDA-AM, I talked to him and wrote an op-ed piece about it. Then I caught up with a few months later and wrote another article on him. I strongly related to him and what he had to say. I wrote from the heart of someone who was getting over a layoff. I think that came across.

Jake Bannon
(Read the whole thing here)
Prior to interviewing Jake, I had heard that he was an intense personality. The guy has a heart with wings tattooed on his neck, along with all kinds of other body art. But the guy I talked to for 30 minutes was one of the nicest, friendliest guys I've ever met. We talked at length about his early influences, from Queen to European metal bands. 

Dead Flowers
(Read the whole thing here
Interviewing five people at once can be difficult. Luckily, when I interviewed the five members of Dead Flowers at their practice space, they were hilarious and easy to chat with.

Brandon Butters
(Read the whole thing here)
Before our interview, I didn't realize that Butters was much younger than me. He's a good dude with a healthy attitude about getting into music. Since we had talked before this interview (and I had imbibed half a glass of Guinness), I was rather punchy, especially when talking about Rush. I was being funny, but it didn't really translate onto the page.

Chuck Ragan
(Read the whole thing here)
I got very emo with Chuck during this interview, especially towards the end. Essentially, this was a follow-up interview to the one he did with me for Post, even though it originally was an interview about the Revival Tour. 

Edie Brickell
(Read the whole thing here)
I didn't know what to expect in interviewing Edie. Would she be cool, a space cadet, or rude? I had no idea why I thought that, but I handled things with kid gloves at first. She was very gracious and open and we had a great conversation. 

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

My first . . .

This week's edition has a peculiar origin. I met Andrew at the Converge show early last month.Our mutual friend Nikki introduced us and I thought he looked like he was in a band. Turns out I was right and I asked him about any upcoming shows. He mentioned the show on the 6th, so I figured I should interview him for the week of the show.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Unanswered Prayers

Dear Garth Brooks,
There was a time when you were one of the biggest entertainers in the world. Not just in country music, but you were an icon. Your name was up there on the pop charts with Yanni, Michael Jackson, Nirvana, and Celine Dion. It was all because you had that incredible run of chart-topping albums and singles starting back in 1989.

As a weekly reader of the Billboard charts when I was a teenager, I was very aware of this throughout the 1990s. And I was also aware of your music even though my ears were more attuned to Nirvana, Metallica, and Green Day. Whether it was a Boy Scout trip or a family trip, I heard "Friends in Low Places," "The Dance," "The Thunder Rolls," and "Rodeo" many, many times. I even played along on one Boy Scout trip and sang along with "Friends in Low Places." Most other times I scowled, moaned, and ultimately, put up with hearing your music on endless roads.

I never hated you, but your music was overplayed. That's not your fault. I blame the record label, the radio stations, and CMT. My sister couldn't get enough of your music. Nor could the rest of the country.

Alas, this is all a memory because your career seems to be a footnote in modern day.

Signing that exclusive deal with Walmart made you a lot of money, but that deal has ultimately turned into an extremely limited and divisive issue for consumers. Walmarts I've been to in the past couple of years have a row (yes, one row) devoted to CDs, and I rarely see your CDs or box sets. (And, as of this writing, your CDs are out of stock on Walmart.com.) Your music is not available in any digital music store. Even worse, your music isn't even officially on YouTube (though that great cover of "Hard Luck Woman" with KISS is still around). And it's not available on Spotify either.

What gives, Garth? Do you want to really go the route of Chris Gaines and disappear? You've had a great run of shows in Las Vegas, but your audience was so much bigger than one town. You've seen your daughters grow up. You've had a great married life with Trisha.

But come on, I want you to be relevant to the generation that's growing up quickly these days. You know, the ones you have mastered computers by age five, send texts and never make phone calls, and like Red Dirt Country. I'm more than happy to introduce my nieces (hell, even my own children to give them a bit of a musical history lesson) to your music someday. You just need to make your material more widely available.

If we've learned anything from the Internet age, people like a lot of choices instead of one choice. So, come back into that spotlight, Garth. There's still some space for you.

Best,

-Eric