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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Turns We Took



There's a reason why the ending of The Muppet Movie always tugs at my heart. Doesn't matter if I'm depressed or happy when I watch one of my favorite movies. The lump in my throat or the tears that come out of my eyes are from this reminder about life: When things fall apart after you think you're finally on track with your life, you find beauty and answers you've longed for over the years.

I've often come back to this final movie sequence in my adult life. This year, it resonates more than ever.

In 2014, I said goodbye to Juliet, the dog that cemented my love of dogs for the rest of my life. I also said goodbye to Sunny, a dog who lived a very long life that let me be in her life despite being frail, hard of hearing and seeing. As a result, every single day I get to spend with the dogs I have is a gift. They are there for me on the best days and the worst days, which I've had many of both this year.

I was heartbroken when word passed along that my friend Laura died after a very long fight with cancer. She never stopped being positive about her life, even when things seemed the most grim. A few weeks later, my friend and mentor Dwight had a heart attack during a routine procedure. I saw him on life support with his wife by his side, and I went to his standing-room-only funeral the following week. The man impacted that many people in his 82 years on this planet.

And then there was my friend Evan, who died unexpectedly during the final week of October. Writing about him was helpful in the days immediately following his death, but the acceptance of his death is only beginning to settle in.

I had to come to terms with a two-year relationship coming to an end. As painful as it was to see her go from my everyday life, I can't begin to tell you how thankful I am that we remain friends. She let me adopt her dog Truvy, paying me one of the nicest compliments I've ever heard: "There's no one else I would even consider having her."

Add in the wild ride of my job situation. As tough as it was to see a promising new direction in my career end so quickly, I thank a higher power for me landing a new full-time job only a few hours later. Couple that with another year with the Observer and more opportunities to write in the content marketing field, I'm over-joyed to say for the first time in my life that I'm happy with my job situation.

I finally put out When We Were the Kids. Much of that came from seeing Video Games: The Movie at the Texas Theatre. The guy who made it is from Dallas and made something for the world to enjoy. Since I need a constant reminder of that idea, that's why I have a signed poster from the director hanging in my bedroom. It's a reminder of following through on what I want to do, even if I have to wait and deal with hang-ups along the way. 

Dealing with the abrupt changes and turns came in the form of traveling and taking many walks with my dogs. I drove to Round Rock and saw a friend from college get ready to become a first-time father. Helping him and his wife set up the baby's room allowed me to get out of my head and do something positive. I flew to Los Angeles just to do a podcast. I drove to St. Louis hoping to see a show that wound up getting cancelled. I made the most of my time there, seeing touristy things, and was lucky to have lunch my friend Donna in Conway, Arkansas on the way back.

Donna is a very spiritual woman. As she gave me a big hug during our parting, she said, "Hopefully the heavens will open up and bring joy into your life." I'm happy to say they did.

Having my friend Joel move into the spare bedroom in my house has been wonderful. The guy's a voice of reason and great person to have around. On weekends, we watch Manchester City play football and dig through various record store shelves for white whales in our respective vinyl collections. And the dogs love him, too.

Also, some people I haven't seen in years are a welcome sight. I might not see them everyday, but when I do, I love catching up with them. 

Despite some down days during the holiday season, I'm ending the year feeling optimistic. Not just about the immediate future, but the future down the line. I really don't have any reason to think overly-pessimistic thoughts, but sometimes I do. I've learned a lot from the turns in life this year, and the effects of them don't necessarily dissipate at midnight tonight. Here's to a happy new year and a desire to keep moving forward even with the knocks and turns that come out of the blue.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

A Year in Music, 2014 Edition

As a long 2014 draws to a close, I'm sharing my musical favorites of the year. From albums that came out this year to albums that came out twelve years ago, there's a lot to talk about, so without further ado . . .






Favorite Albums Released in 2014

Against Me!, Transgender Dysphoria Blues
A brutally-honest punk rock record with instantly-likeable melodies. Laura Jane Grace doesn't hold anything back about being transgender in her lyrics, and this is AM! at its most immediate. And thanks to Adam "Atom" Willard, this has the best drumming AM! has ever committed to record. I think it's safe to call it a classic AM! record.(Stream the whole thing)

J. Robbins, Abandoned Mansions
I've admired J's work with all of his bands, which have been loud, twisted rock. This EP was a complete revelation to me. Reduced to an acoustic guitar with piano and strings, these reworked versions of Jawbox, Burning Airlines, and Office of Future Plans songs work incredibly well in a completely different light. And the new song (the title track) is one of the catchiest songs he's ever recorded. (Stream the whole thing)

Spoon, They Want My Soul
Spoon put out another killer record this year. This record is much more driven by pianos and synthesizers, and at times really trips out. Yet Britt Daniel's songwriting is still at the top of his game (Watch "Do You")

Tiny Moving Parts, Pleasant Living
In only a year and a half, I have seen this Minnesota trio four times. These days, I don't see local bands that many times. Taking cues from the Fall of Troy, in terms of songwriting, Pleasant Living is much more accessible than the band's previous work. Features one of my favorite lines I've heard in a song this year: "I love you/at least I used to." (Stream the whole thing)

Somos, Temple of Plenty
This Boston-based band came from a recommendation from Tom Mullen, the proprietor of the Washed Up Emo podcast. He doesn't often heap a lot of praise on young bands, which is fine, so that means when he does, I'm inclined to check it out. This is one of the few emo revival bands I know of that doesn't sound like they're aping a pioneering band, like Cap'n Jazz or American Football. They loosely sound like Braid, but not by much, which is fine by me. These nine songs are killer. (Stream the whole thing)

Braid, No Coast
A surprisingly poppy record, by Braid's standards. The band's previous record, Frame & Canvas, came out in 1997 with all kinds of moods and melodies. That's a classic for me, but No Coast is definitely a worthy follow-up. (Watch "Bang")

Moose Blood, I'll Keep You in Mind, From Time to Time
Like Crash of Rhinos last year, this English band has a silly name, but an incredible sound. Remember what Vagrant Records sounded like between 2000 to 2004? This record made me think of that time, but in the best possible way. I'm talking Saves the Day and Hey Mercedes, especially. (Stream "Anyway")

Things of Earth, Dangers
One of my favorite Dallas-based bands put out a heavier, nastier EP this year. More Deftones and Pelican this time out, mixed with Failure and Hum. (Stream the whole thing

United Nations, The Next Four Years
Featuring members of Thursday and Pianos Become the Teeth, this is more like Converge and Deafheaven than their other bands. Probably the most vicious and unrelenting thing I've heard this year. (Stream "Serious Business")

Foo Fighters, Sonic Highways
Once you get past the first track, which sounds like a toss-off from In Your Honor, this is another very good Foo Fighters record. From the Naked Raygun-esque "The Feast and the Famine" to the power ballad "I Am A River," I have no major complaints. (Stream the whole thing)

Slipknot, .5: The Gray Chapter
To be honest, I had lost track of Slipknot's material in the past few years. Iowa is still a crazy and sick record, but I hadn't spent any time digging into the two records they did after that. With the departure of founding drummer Joey Jordison and the death of bassist Paul Gray, The Gray Chapter is mostly about coming to grips with loss. especially the anger and sadness stages. With Jay Weinberg on drums, the band sounds as strong as ever. And the intro riff to "The Devil In I" is the best metal riff I heard this year. (Watch "The Devil In I")

Favorite Songs Released in 2014

The Hold Steady, "Spinners" (Stream) 
Teeth Dreams was a comeback of sorts from the polished, gentler, Heaven is Whenever. "Spinners" is one of the best Hold Steady songs to date. 

Taylor Swift, "Shake It Off" (Watch)
Though it always makes me think of OutKast's "Hey Ya!", this is one catchy tune. It's the exact opposite of "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together," one of the worst songs I have ever heard in my life.

Gates, "Not My Blood" (Watch)
I have to admit, while this band is incredible live, their debut Bloom and Breathe is a little too samey to my ears. This tune, though, is ace. Take the rising power of Thursday's best material, mix it with Explosions in the Sky, and you have this.

Henrietta, "2,000 Miles" (Stream)
What if you played Pedro the Lion at a faster speed on vinyl and it was really good? It would probably sounds like this song.

Mastodon, "The High Road" (Watch)
Mastodon remains a major favorite of mine, but Once More 'Round the Sun sounds like a band going in circles. Not much a different record than their previous record, they sound fine staying this route, but selfishly, I wish they would take risks again. "The High Road" is one of the highlights. 

Sloan, "You've Got A lot on Your Mind" (Stream)
Sloan doesn't put out bad albums. This year's Commonwealth sounds more like Fleetwood Mac and Badfinger, along with their usual Kiss and Cheap Trick vibe. "You've Got A lot on Your Mind" is one of the best tunes on here.  

Sturgill Simpson, "The Promise" (Watch)
Frankly, this guy came out of nowhere, sold out Dada so much that he ended up playing two shows in one night. He's much more traditional country than Florida Georgia Line will ever be, but he's not afraid to be more than a throwback. His reworking of When in Rome's classic sounds great with strings.

Rediscovered

Buffalo Tom
This Boston trio had been on my radar for many years. Very much the "If you like these power pop bands, you should listen to Buffalo Tom, too." Even though I've had a compilation of their singles for years, I didn't really jump into them until I found four of their CDs for dirt cheap around town. "Summer" helped me get through the summer months this year, especially. (Watch "Summer"

Chavez
I have loved Chavez's Ride the Fader since its release, but their debut, Gone Glimmering, seemed to elude me. Giving that record another chance, I realize now that the debut excels -- in some ways -- over the second record. Dissonant pop with a kick to it. Still sounds modern to me. (Watch "Break Up Your Band"

The Dismemberment Plan, Uncanny Valley 
If it weren't for an episode of Sound Opinions with the D Plan, I probably would have skipped their reunion record. I think a friend on Facebook openly expressed his tremendous disappointment with this when it came out and I never got around to hearing it. I finally gave it a listen and was really impressed by it. (Watch "Daddy Was A Real Good a Dancer")

Discovered

Kenny Howes
Kenny makes a kind of power pop that is pissed-off and lovely at the same time. After many years in the underground circuit, he's still underground, but his music cooks. Certainly check out a record he did in 2002 with The Yeah! called Until Dawn. To hear some of his recent work, it's up on his Bandcamp page.

Modern Baseball
What if you took the smarts of the Weakerthans, the nerdiness of Weezer and the pop-punk of blink-182 and put them into a promising band? You'd have Modern Baseball. Their second record, 2013's You're Gonna Miss It All, is a gem. (Stream You're Gonna Miss It All)

McCoy Tyner
A legendary jazz pianist who played with John Coltrane, I heard his hurricane called Fly Like the Wind in a record store. It's traditional 70s jazz fusion but with flamenco rhythms, strings, and a flute. Absolutely enjoyable craziness. (Stream "Salvadore De Samba")

Best Shows I Saw This Year

The Winery Dogs, Granada Theater, May 24th
A trio with only one record out, headlining the Granada? You bet. Playing for almost two hours, this supergroup amazed me with their chops and ability to have enjoyable songs. I've seen many shows at the Granada, and I've never seen a crowd be so into a band before.

The Jayhawks, Granada Theater, October 14th
A little looser than the previous time I saw them, the Jayhawks covered much more familiar ground for me this time. Without Mark Olson, they did a whole lot of Sound of Lies, Smile, and Rainy Day Music, which are as worthy as Tomorrow the Green Grass, in my book.

Deafheaven, Club Dada, March 16th
The highlight of the Spillover Festival for me. They just played a truncated version of Sunbather live, but it was spectacular. Bathed in red, the five-piece played furiously and frontman George Clarke had the crowd feed off his energy over and over again.

Jeff Tweedy, Majestic Theatre, June 22nd (My original review)
I came into this show with some hesitation, given what I've seen of Jeff's solo shows on DVD. Too many random non-sequiturs with songs stripped of their bombast, right? Well, not this show. Jeff played almost 30 songs either with his backing band or solo, and it was a very positive experience. 

Failure, House of Blues, June 10th (My original review)
Never did I think Failure would reunite, let alone come to Texas to play shows. Seeing them play, I was incredibly impressed by what they had in them, even as a trio.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Pieces of Me

As 2014 wraps up, I'm cleaning up and gathering together the loose ends. Here are the pieces I've done for the Observer in the last few months. 

An interview with Travis Stever of Coheed and Cambria. Just like my interviews with his bandmates Josh and Claudio, Trav was super-nice and friendly.

An interview  with Gary Louris of the Jayhawks. Coupled with my first piece for the Observer, which was a review of a Louris/Mark Olson show, and my interview with Mark Olson, this was a full-circle kind of experience.

A feature on Dead Flowers. My third time to spotlight these guys, and they are such a worthy band.

Lastly, a memorial to Evan Chronister, written for people that didn't know him.

One other thing: I went to Los Angeles in November to be a guest on a podcast called This Is Rad! Co-hosted by Kyle Clark (who has been on many Nerdist podcasts). We talked about post-hardcore/emo and had a great time. You can download it on iTunes, but you can also stream it here on Stitcher.