Friday, January 2, 2015

Dr. Spin's Honorable Mention Albums for 2014

As beautiful and touching as Hawaii was, there were some unsettling issues.  My understanding is that of all of the islands, Kaua'i is the most idyllic and undeveloped.  From what little I saw, this was certainly the case.  The cost of living, however, is incredibly high.  We flew into Lihue, which was, for all intents and purposes, a small but contemporary urban city, and prices on regular goods here were noticeably higher.  The further away from the city you went, the higher the prices got.  We stayed on the north side of the island in Princeville, and grocery prices were nearly three times what they might be on the mainland.

Most of the people living in the area did not seem to care too much, however, because they were largely the upper class elite and exuded the attendant entitlement that one might expect. The general impression I got was that Hawaiians are aloof and exclusive.  By "Hawaiian," I don't necessarily mean the stereotypical indigenous people of the island.  This cultural group was clearly not in the majority, nor did they generally hold much power beyond their roles as torchbearers for traditions that the upper class elite have marginalized through high-dollar land ownership.

Don't get me wrong - Hawaii is incredibly diverse from a cultural standpoint, and there were many people that I met who I genuinely liked.   This schism between idealized "Hawaiinness" and the street-level reality, however, often set me ill at ease - probably more than it should have. 

As with every year, I have a few albums that just did not quite make it into the top 20.  In this case, a couple of these albums I was saving at the end of November for the top ten, but they got edged out by some last-minute rising stars.  It would not be unfair to put this catchall list in a limbo between #11 and #10. 

Wobbler – Rites at Dawn: An online discussion with a few Yes fans about Wobbler caused me to reevaluate Rites at Dawn. I rescind the majority of the criticism I leveled against it a few years ago – It s a fantastically complex and tuneful iteration of retro-prog that just couldn’t quite find a place in this year’s top 20.

Ghost of a Sabertooth Tiger - Midnight Sun: Sean Lennon’s newest project wades into the same retro-nostalgia that Tame Impala did last year. Musically, there is a lot to like about it, but there are a few lyric ideas that did not totally win me over.

Peter Gabriel – [car]: For a long time, I viewed Peter Gabriel’s debut album as a disjointed first step into what would become a masterful solo career. I reframed the album this year as a creative burst by the artist who led Genesis to its logical end, however, and from this perspective I find it to be incredibly compelling.

Haim – Days are Gone: Haim combines the tunefulness of 80s girl bands like the Bangles with the empowered voice of TLC and other female 90s hip hop. While they sometimes rely too much on obvious hooks, their tunes are catchy and their delivery charismatic.

The War on Drugs – Lost in The Dream: Although I fail to see how this is a criticism, The War on Drugs were quite publicly chastised this year for sounding like Bruce Springsteen or the Dire Straits, circa late 80s. Lost in a Dream is a great album that sort of slipped between the cracks, but has proven to have great replay value in the long term (meaning that I really grew to love it in December, after the top 10 had mostly been set).

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Dr. Spin's Top 10 for 2014

A good part of my holiday break this year was spent in Hawaii.  We were on Kaua'i, which is also known as "The Garden Isle."  I walked off the plane with no small amount of cynicism, but I quickly learned that all of the picturesque scenery that accompanies the literature on Kaua'i is in no way exaggerated.  It is breathtakingly beautiful.  The wildflowers there would sell for high dollars in a florist shop here in Texas. A simple drive down the highway cuts through breathtaking views of verdant mountains pushed right up against crystal clear water.  I was blessed to find myself with my wife and kid on Hanalei Beach on Christmas Eve, staring out into the open sea watching those waves crash.

From an environmental perspective, it was life-changing, and an introspective way to spend a very busy, somewhat hectic year.  Also a very good year in music.  If you look at this list alongside last month's post, there was a distinct move back towards progressive rock in comparison to last year, but it still contains a satisfying diversity of styles.

10. Deafheaven – Sunbather: Any criticisms that might be leveled against this album are easily and convincingly countered by its surprising emotional range. Sunbather’s marriage of indistinct, shoegazey vocals with head-bobbing metal conjures a particularly distinct flavor of repressed, seething rage.

9. Secret Chiefs 3 – Book M:  Mr. Bungle does ethnomusicological fieldwork in Persia with stunning results. This album found its way into the library a couple of years ago, but became particularly meaningful over the course of this year.

8. Syd Arthur – Sound Mirror: After a solid debut, Syd Arthur makes an impossible step forward on their sophomore release. Impossible, because they change virtually nothing in their approach but still manage to refine and expand on what they have already accomplished.

7. Rage Against the Machine – The Battle of Los Angeles: Although I was a big fan of Rage Against the Machine’s first album way back when, I stopped following them by the time this album was released. Some distance from that mind-shattering debut allows this album to shine brightly on its own merit.

6. Transatlantic – Kaleidoscope: Although I don’t think it holds a candle to the stupendous Whirlwind, Kaliedoscope is one of Transatlantic’s most consistent and cohesive works. It is a glorious example of the expressive capacities of 90’s symphonic prog.

5. Django Django – This self-titled debut took quite a while to grow on me. In the end, however, I became convinced by Django Django's infectious, quirky songwriting approach.

4. Yes – Heaven and Earth: Although three years ago, the immediately gratifying Fly from Here just barely made it in the top twenty by year’s end, this year’s Heaven and Earth has slowly grown into a favorite since its summer release. It implies a sustainable vision for Yes’ future that I find exciting.

3. Hans Zimmer – Man of Steel OST:  Due to his facile ear, adventurous spirit, and incredible creativity, Zimmer’s approach to scoring seems to continually evolve. With Man of Steel, his unique instrumental choices resulted in an album of unbelievable depth and power.

2. Chvrches – The Bones of What You Believe: While Chvrches’ adopted genre is clearly electro-pop, the strength of this album lies in its songwriting. Any of these tracks could be played in nearly any style and be effective, but deft production hand elevates them to a consistent level of near-perfection.

1. Dawes – Stories Don’t End: One of the most dreadful topics that a songwriter can address is the difficulty in writing a song. That Dawes can turn this usually embarrassing theme into an introspective social commentary of the highest order is only the smallest indicator of the genius found all over Stories Don't End.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Discovering the Shakuhachi: Aikido and Ethno

When I began practicing aikido in earnest in 1998, I was fortunate to walk into a tight-knit community of Texas dojos that stretched from San Antonio to Denton. I remember taking every opportunity to practice at a new dojo in a different town. While I certainly had personal reasons for starting to practice in the first place, this sense of community often kept me going. Since then, teachers have retired and passed on, and I would love to be able to say that we, as a body of practitioners, have navigated these losses gracefully, but this has not been the case. Instead, due to the egos of individuals who feel entitled to some sort of authority and recognition, the organization has splintered. Perhaps Western culture just isn’t ready for the kind of lesson that O-Sensei was trying to teach with aikido.

Aikido practice, however, also generated a personal interest in Japanese culture. When I finished my ethnomusicology degree, it dawned on me, perhaps too late, that my martial arts experience might dovetail nicely into Japanese music studies. Clearly, if there was any culture in the world I really wanted to “immerse” myself, it was Japan. Towards the end of my research, I began to think about ways to use instruments as a lens to view culture. For me to continue on this research path, it made sense to adopt a Japanese instrument.

I started to look into traditional Japanese music. One of my favorite recordings I unearthed was the Nonesuch album Japan: Traditional Vocal and Instrumental Music by the Ensemble Nipponia. It represents a remarkable variety of traditions, but it’s also unified by the outstanding musicianship of the ensemble’s members. While all of the performances are remarkable, the shakuhachi performances really caught my attention. The track Edo Lullaby, which is an original arrangement of a traditional melody, singlehandedly convinced me to adopt the shakuhachi.

I procured an instrument and was very fortunate to find an experienced teacher. I took lessons for nearly two years with the intent of focusing on the shakuhachi in a PhD program. I have not entirely given up on this research agenda, but life has put the immediacy of doctoral work on hold for the time being. Japan: Traditional Vocal and Instrumental Music, however, remains, and has evolved into a personal and family favorite. Both my wife and daughter enjoy the album beyond its merely exotic exterior (I think). As I revisited it earlier this year, I found that The Little One particularly likes Ozatsuma for its angular, frantic energy.

My genuine appreciation for the aesthetic beauty of this music assures me of one thing: my ethnomusicological degree broadened my horizons. It gave me an irreplaceable experience that permeates the breadth of my musical experiences. When I finished my degree, however, I found myself back on the path that I left. I ended up with a challenging and rewarding job as a band director at a title one school to begin paying off my student debt. I genuinely enjoy what I do, but I sometimes wonder about the meaning of my studies, not with a sense of regret, but rather with anticipation. I suspect that their true worth has not yet been revealed.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Dr. Spin's Top 20 for 2014

Aside from the Superhero Theme Project, the blog has lain somewhat fallow this year. I make no apologies: life is busy. Still, I don’t want to give the impression that all I have listened to this year has been the 23 compositions on that playlist. In fact, quite the opposite – the playlist has only occupied a small ratio of my listening habits. It has, however, been pretty easy to write about. Aside from my attempts to program the Little One with an ear for orchestral music, a lot of fabulous music has passed through the player, resulting in an all-new, largely undocumented top 20 for 2014.

As I outlined a couple of years ago, inclusion in the year-end top 20 is not confined to 2014 releases. In addition to being musically outstanding, a top 20 album has to be somehow emotionally or episodically associated with the year of its release. Some of them are from artists that I discovered this year, while others are albums that I have had for awhile that, for one reason or another, never connected with me.

Actually, an unusual number of this year’s albums have been new releases by old favorites. While I started the year in a soundtrack and pop music phase, there was a decisive turn back towards progressive and experimental music about halfway through the year. While this temporality is not expressed in the top 20, it does seem to skew the results towards a specific style.

Presented below is the second half of the top 20, with the top 10 being announced at the end of December.

20. Oneohtrix Point Never – R Plus 7: I received this album as an act of kindness from my wife and became so excited about it that I convened a neighborhood listening party around the album. While certainly more accessible than Replica, its 2012 predecessor, R plus 7 is an intellectually stimulating foray into the boundaries current electronic music.

19. Billy Bottle and the Multiple – The Unrecorded Beam: A uniquely creative recording that sets the words of Thoreau to jazzy Canturbury style progressive rock.  O Nature has risen as one of my favorite tracks of the year. -

17. Opeth – Pale Communion: Opeth fully commits to the progressive rock paradigm with spectacular results. Pale Communion boldly and confidently strides into areas where Heritage tread lightly and cautiously.

16. Nakoi Sato – Space Battleship Yamato OST: In retrospect, I am not exactly sure how I was fortunate enough to stumble across this outstanding soundtrack. Fans of melodramatic science-fiction music should immediately take steps to add it to their collection.

15. fun. – Aim and Ignite: As I filled in Nate Reuss’s timeline between the first Format album and Some Nights, I found a lot on fun.’s first album to like. There is a broad variety of musical styles represented on the album, held together by good, if sometimes inconsistent, songwriting and the devastating strength of Reuss’s lyrics.

14. Imogen Heap Sparks: No doubt about it, Imogen Heap is a 21st century musical whiz kid, much in the way that Peter Gabriel was when he was in his prime. Her musical restlessness gives the sense that she is on a quest, with no real idea where it will end, only that there are steps to be taken to get there.

13. LITEPhantasia: As fate would have it, I received 2008’s Phantasia as a Christmas gift, only to find that a new album, Installation, would be released in Feburary, 2014. Although both albums boast the LITE’s characteristic flurry of interlocking rhythms, Phantasia’s raw energy won out as LITE’s representative.

12. Wild Belle – Isles: This great suggestion turned out to be just the right mix of whiteboy reggae and indie songwriting. It avoids exoticizing the former by delivering the latter with equal parts seduction and buoyancy.

11. Pink Floyd – The Endless River: In the big scheme of things, Roger Waters' conceptual contributions to Pink Floyd’s nearly 50 year legacy are undeniable, but they are only one aspect of the band. At their best, Pink Floyd was a band with a distinctive instrumental voice, and that is what is on full display on the Endless River.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Superhero Theme Project: Overdosing on Venom

The Little One likes her juice. Oh, yes she does. Our local HEB has single-serving juices with a variety of characters on top, and it’s not unusual for me to purchase one as a reward for patience and listening ears when she and I go to the grocery store together. Last time, she picked out one with Spider-Man on top. She noticed, however, one in back with a black Spider-Man on top. Now, those familiar with the Spider-Man mythos know that tor a brief time, Spider-Man wore a black suit. This suit ended up being an alien entity that evolved into a symbiotic monster that called Venom, one of Spider-Man’s more visually disturbing villains. I have avoided emphasizing villains with her, especially scary ones. Venom, however, was the easiest, one-word answer I could come up with on the fly.

Venom, as a character, does not play a role in any of her current books or TV, so I thought that would be the end of it. The next morning, however, she asked who that “black guy” was at the grocery store.

That one took me a minute.

Eventually, however, I figured out what she meant. She carefully practiced saying Venom’s name properly and told me that he needed to “be on my phone.” Like immediately.

Now, Venom was one of the reasons that we stopped watching Ultimate Spider-Man last year. She doesn’t remember, but the times he was on the show, he kinda freaked her out. While the bust on the juice was pretty tame, Venom is usually depicted as monstrous, with sharp teeth, snaking tongue, and a veined, hypermuscular physique. No two ways about it, he can be frightening. I tried to remind her that Venom was a “bad guy” and that he was kind of scary. This did not matter to her one bit. Over the next two days, she became obsessed with Venom and wanted to hear what he sounded like.

I certainly wanted to take advantage of her enthusiasm, but like The Hulk, I had to navigate this one carefully. I found a picture (seen above) that was creepy, but not too monstrous, and I examined several themes that seemed appropriate. I started with the Venom theme from Spider-Man 3, which I did like, but this score is commercially unavailable. The composer for Spider-Man 3, Christopher Young, did the soundtrack for Nightmare on Elm Street 2, which had a creepy theme that I personally liked.

Main Title by Christopher Young on Grooveshark

Still, I did not want to overly accentuate Venom’s more terrifying characteristics. Even though she would have no context for the nightmarish Freddy Kruger, that choice did not sit right with me. My research for She-Hulk, however, put the soundtrack for the recent Godzilla movie on my radar. I felt this theme was too fearsome for She-Hulk, but it had just enough unease to make for a convincing Venom theme. Plus, it has a great 15/8 riff that I was personally attracted to.  I gotta keep myself entertained here, too.

The Little One liked it – a whole lot. She asked everyone she knew if they knew who Venom was and happily told them that he was on my phone.  When I asked her what was so cool about it, she said that “Spider Man’s song is happy, but Venom’s is angry.” I agreed wholeheartedly. The problem now is that it is the only song on the playlist that she wants to listen to.

I kinda get why. We have been listening to the playlist in its entirety on shuffle now for over a month solid, and she has reacted very well to the additions to the list. I have been a little concerned, though, that she won’t connect with these newer songs in the same way as she did the older songs on the playlist. She can sing Aquaman (AKA the Great Gate at Kiev) and others from this era on command, but she has been listening to these compositions on and off for almost a year now. Mixed in with the more recent additions, the earlier selections on the list continue to get reinforced while simultaneously decreasing the chances that we will hear the new ones enough to make them similarly meaningful.

Yesterday, I decided to concede to her wildest dreams. Just to see what would happen, I put Venom on repeat for the entire ride home. She was ecstatic and listened intently the entire time. Today, however, she requested it, listened to it twice, sang along with parts of it, and then said that she was done. When the shuffle came back on, she said that she didn’t want to listen to any other superheroes. She wanted, and I quote, some “fresh music.”

Ooooookay. It seemed like the success of Venom might have shed some light on the more stagnant tracks on the playlist, potentially putting the Superhero Theme Project on ice for awhile. I pushed play on some Ethno-Jazz and let it go for the rest of the commute. Just as we turned into our driveway, however, she spontaneously sang the opening string riff to Hawkman (AKA Shostokovich 10, Mvt. 2), which she had never done before. Surprised, I whipped my head around to find her grinning from ear to ear, as if she was trying to see if I was paying attention. I guess I passed the test.

So, I’m not sure what happens next. I’ll keep you posted.

To go to the previous post, click HERE
To see where it all started, go HERE

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Superhero Theme Project: She-Hulk and the Lamp

Before the Little One was born, we envisioned her room as a post-modern landscape in which ladybugs and superheroes co-existed. Perhaps ill-advisedly, we agreed on a retro She-Hulk lamp, arguably with the intent of displaying one of the few explicitly strong female superhero characters. In truth, we thought it looked cool. As she became more aware and her imagination began to blossom, however, she concluded that due to the She-Hulk's raging facial expression, she was “not very nice.” For a while, the lamp got moved to the upstairs room, and only recently got moved back in once she was convinced that She-Hulk was a “good guy” (and, admittedly, after the purple teddy bear lamp broke).

In the big scheme of things, She-Hulk is actually a pretty marginal character in the Marvel universe, but because of the situation with the lamp, she warranted positive representation in this phase of the Superhero Theme Project. It would, however, have to be delicately handled from all angles. To start with, finding a picture of She-Hulk that isn’t threatening or near-pornographic took more research than you might think.  I settled on the one below to the right here.  She is smiling, showing off her muscles, and is also reasonably dressed.  Winner.

The music was even trickier. She-Hulk was not known for having uncontrolled rages like her gamma-powered cousin, nor did she have the same struggles as Banner did in controlling the monster within. She was able to retain quite a bit of control over her green identity, and actually embraced it as a coping mechanism for her own insecurities. She enjoyed being a superhero, so it did not seem appropriate to render her with the same menacing introspection of the Hulk.

She is strong, though, and not without her own struggles with the characteristic Hulk rage. I had nothing in my catalog that I found satisfying. For several days I streamed a broad variety of soundtracks - everything from Godzilla to Cosmos – looking for something that made musical sense. I get apprehensive about finding music for the playlist this way. Without some time to simmer I have to really be attentive to hear structure, which is the hallmark of a substantial theme. One hasty choice and I am stuck listening to meandering noodles for the next few months.

One of the great, unending resources for distinctive soundtrack music is anime. There is so much of it out there and so much of it is done well that once you start down that path, it can be overwhelming. I was fortunate to stumble across the soundtrack to Blood+. I own the DVD for Blood: the Last Vampire, and I would not have thought that the music from a series spun off from that hyperviolent anime would suit the She-Hulk so well. The minute I heard it, however, I knew that I was onto something. A process of elimination brought me to the track Chasing Thru Time.

It was immediately dark, triumphant, exciting, and not too scary. It was also unified by incredibly strong theme and variation and featured an electronically enhanced section towards the end that could, with a little stretching, tie in to Craig Armstrong’s Hulk Theme.

I put both The Hulk and She-Hulk on the playlist at the same time, so she was introduced to both tracks on the same commute. We had already had an interesting discussion about The Hulk, and we were sitting in the driveway when She-Hulk came on. She gasped when she saw the picture pop up on the screen, and sat in rapt attention as the song played out. After it was over, we had another interesting discussion about The Hulk and She-Hulk being cousins.  You never know what is going to end up being important.  Certainly, She-Hulk is far more interesting, and less threatening, now that she has been included in the playlist.

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Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Superhero Theme Project: A Picture of Cyborg

To put it in current Marvel terminology, the Superhero Theme Project has moved into Phase Two. Not only have I appropriated several more orchestral works and assigned them to various characters to function as their theme music, I added graphic tags that display the characters as album art. With this latter innovation, the Little One’s obsession with the playlist has reached an all-time high. She now carefully holds my phone as the playlist shuffles through the tracks, and sometimes asks to carry it around after our commute has stopped. This has made her a bit of a rock star at school drop-off.  One day, we came into her class with Superman blaring through my phone and all her friends crowded around her to see. As I put away her backpack, I overheard them saying “thass cool!” Every day since, we have had a welcome committee wanting to see what superhero is up that day, and she is proud to show them.

While the graphics have allowed me to introduce heroes that she may not have seen in books or TV yet, it’s also reignited her own search for heroes without themes. She recently discovered Cyborg, and became very excited about hearing his theme song. I did not grow up with this character, but he has risen to prominence in the DC Universe in recent years and looks to be a major player in the upcoming slate of movies.

With virtually no personal reference for Cyborg’s motivations, I decided to plunder Daft Punk’s hybridized soundtrack to TRON: Legacy. I was ambivalent about this soundtrack the year it came out, but the passing time has treated it well. Certainly, it boasted a memorable theme or two.  I felt a little strange putting Daft Punk alongside the likes of John Adams and Mussorgsky, but my prejudice against electronically augmented orchestrations have softened a bit since the project’s inception. Besides, it kind of made sense with Cyborg, a character that epitomizes the struggle between man and machine.

No sooner did I settle on to revisiting the TRON: Legacy soundtrack than the Little One asked about Cyborg’s theme, this time during bath. I suggested we put it on, and I played the whole album as we were getting ready for bedtime. The opening track immediately grabbed her attention.

She heard the spoken word section drift in from the living room and asked if Cyborg was talking.  With my fingers crossed behind my back, I said that it was.  With her mouth open in awe, she listened intently.  When the theme kicked in, she smiled and said "that makes me happy." Can’t argue with that.

Although this track definitely has the TRON theme I was looking for, I did not use it. It was too short and, although I rather liked the idea of Jeff Bridges' grizzled ramblings as voice of Cyborg, we had been entirely instrumental so far. I did not want to go so far as to introduce text into the playlist. I ended up using the track titled Flynn Lives.

This track starts a bit quieter than I had envisioned, but it features a clear statement of the theme and a very strong ending.  Of course, “Cyborg” doesn’t talk in this one, so I had an apprehension that she would have clung to that opening track. This was unfounded. She immediately asked for Cyborg during the commute the next day and listened from the back of the car, staring at the graphic with a big grin.  At its conclusion, she triumphantly exclaimed "Cyborg!"

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