Friday, October 30, 2015

The Superhero Theme Project: Ant-Man.....and the End?

In the most recent chapter of the Superhero Theme Project, I added an “expansion pack” to the playlist inspired by four of the Little One’s favorite characters on Marvel’s Superhero Squad animated series. Although one was handpicked from a new source, for the most part I adopted these themes from personal favorites from my own past. Even though all of these characters have appeared on screen, I did not adopt music from their respective franchises. This last theme was different.

As those with nerdly interests are aware, the Ant-Man movie was in development for several years before its release this summer. I have been anticipating its release from its earliest stages. When it finally saw a release date, I convinced my wife to go out and see it. Although it was hardly a perfect film, it generally did not disappoint. Certainly, any fan of Ant-Man should not be terribly displeased that the movie was even made, much less made well.

Although he is not a regular character on the show, Ant-Man is featured in a Superhero Squad episode in which he shrinks down several other squaddies and narrowly avoids becoming cooked into a batch of “Quesada Joe” (“…’s extra cheesy!”). Although the Little One did not specifically cite Ant-Man as a favorite, she was really into this episode around the same time that I saw the movie. Christophe Young’s soundtrack for the film caught my attention, so I took the liberty of slipping the theme into the playlist along with the others.

I feared that if I played the compositions associated with her favorites first, this theme would be relegated to the background, so I led the whole expansion with Ant-Man. She took to it immediately. It took her nearly five plays to move on, and then it was only after some persuading.

I ended up purchasing the full soundtrack, and although Ant-Man may not represent the pinnacle of Marvel movies (we’ll relegate that title for The Winter Soldier), I think that its score might be the finest that the MCU has offered up yet.  It is varied in style, but conceptually cohesive, and it does an outstanding job of acknowledging what Ant-Man, both the character and the movie, is about.

The movie centers on Scott Lang, who is more recent, but Ant-Man has a long and complicated history that can be traced back to the very foundations of the Marvel Universe. Hank Pym, who plays a role in the film, was original Ant-Man in the 60s. Christophe Young’s score has a decidedly contemporary feel, but there is also the sense that it references this era of cinema. It carries the distinctive flavor of 60s themes like Mission: Impossible and I Spy. This sensation of espionage and intrigue is particularly effective because the movie is, at its core, a heist movie, which is only a slight genre shift from the spy film. As a result, a cold war aura hangs over the entire score, and is often so subtle that it might not seem intentional. Young shows his hand, however on the track Tales to Astonish.

Superficially, this is a bit of a stylistic gag in which the Ant-Man theme gets a surf-rock treatment.  It does not by any means represent the rest of the soundtrack, but it reveals something about Young's inspiration for the character.  The title refers to the comic book that debuted Ant-Man in 1962, around the time when Dick Dale and Duane Eddy pushed this style of instrumental rock into the mainstream. In a way, Tales to Astonish would be as relevant for Hank Pym as Fanfare for the Common Man might have been to Steve Rogers.

I know that I have said this before, but for several reasons, I feel pretty sure that this recent expansion will be the last. At 29 songs, the Superhero Theme Project playlist is as big as it needs to be (anyone interested in a master list?). We periodically go back and put it on shuffle and enjoy it, but generally she has moved on to other musical interests. I think that the seeds we have planted here have already taken root and are showing themselves through these interests in indirect ways.

Besides, Star Wars is coming…….and that’s a whole other ball game.

To see the previous post in this series, click HERE
To see how it all started out, click HERE

Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Zeitgeist of Repetition: Steve Reich and Little Two

I have not made an official announcement here on the blog, so let’s do it: we are pregnant with Little Two. The feeling is a wadded up ball of excitement, joy, anticipation, stress, and fatigue. Certainly, there is a lot to look forward to. There’s also the downsides, not the least of which is the subtle dread that is attached to the feeding cycle of a newborn. I definitely remember taking my shift on the unenviable 2-3 am feeding time with the Little One a few years ago. Going to sleep was not really an option, but staying awake was nearly impossible.

I dredged the margins of my CD collection looking for albums that were intellectually stimulating enough to keep me awake yet soothing enough to allow her to sleep. I discovered a bunch of really interesting stuff that I had not listened to in a long time, or that I had ever really gotten into for lack of an appropriate setting. I eventually came to look forward to these meditative reprieves in the wee hours listening to jazz, Indian raga, shakuhachi repertoire, and chamber music. It was here that I rediscovered Steve Reich.

Again, for lack of an appropriate setting, I have not revisited Tehilium much since then, but I definitely notice when Reich’s name comes up. It really caught my attention, then, when the inimitable DFW personality and Ten Hands vocalist Paul Slavens cited Music for 18 Musicians as one of his most-listened to albums of all time. In my opinion, Slavens’ advocacy demands respect, and it got the album in my player at the first available opportunity.

I had an idea of what to expect. As is often the case with minimalist compositions, a superficial description of the piece sounds tiresome: an hour’s worth of simple melodies propelled forward by an unwavering, relentless tempo. In practice, however, I was taken aback by how was immediately likeable Music for 18 Musicians is. It is an enthralling journey through an ever-evolving landscape of rippling ostinatos that balances introspection and intellect with the greatest of care.

The piece’s debut recording was released in 1978, and it is somewhat difficult for me to listen to Music for 18 Musicians without thinking of the sequenced textures that would follow in the early 80s. Although I can’t necessarily envision Sting listening to the piece and being inspired to create the intro to Synchronicity I, I do think that the similarities indicate a broader interest in the creative potential of repetition.

This zeitgeist of repetition continues even today. Looping artists like Battles and Nissenenmondai employ it regularly, often with varying results. Music for 18 Musicians stands above, however, due to the intense investment of the performers, which infuses the music with subtle excitement. I don’t see how any contemporary looping musician could approximate the collective concentration that is necessary to play the piece.

A few months from now, Music for 18 Musicians will undoubtedly be floating in the air during our newborn’s late night feeding sessions. I have actually been considering it as one of the first albums she listens to. Her older sister began life listening to Kind of Blue, and by all rights it seems to have worked out pretty well. The Little Two’s life experiences will be completely unique, though, so perhaps starting off on a path distinct from her sister’s is more reasonable. In any case, I feel pretty sure that it won’t be bad for her synapses to hear such fascinatingly organized sound.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Tapestry: Picard, Spock's Beard, and Bennett's Machine

I was a fan of the original Star Trek, but it was the Next Generation that really came to mean something to me. Not at first, of course.  Most fans will acknowledge that it took a little while for the Next Generation to grow its own legs. I watched the first few seasons out a sense of obligation to the original show, but when it took off, I think it exceeded the scope of the original series.

The show’s evolution coincided with big changes in my personal life. The first season aired right as I was leaving high school, and Jean-Luc Picard's passion and intellect provided weekly inspiration to strive for excellence during my undergraduate studies.  I did not, however, really relate to the character. I did not always deal with things in healthy or positive ways in those days, and my awareness of my flaws distanced me from the ideals that Picard represented. Until, that is, an episode called Tapestry.

In this episode, Picard was given the opportunity to go back and undo an incongruously headstrong act from his youth that he particularly regretted, and saw how his life unraveled when his vigor was tempered by experienced wisdom.

It was an act of humility for Picard, who did not readily admit his faults, to look back and confess that his regrettable actions were actually essential in building his character.  Aside from the stereotypically awkward Trek-ish fight that ensues after, this was a particularly moving moment in the Star Trek canon for me, perhaps second only to the death of Spock.

Tapestry was encouraging, but in the time that has passed, I don't know if I have been successful in realizing its point.  It is a little hard to hear Q say what he does to Picard without wondering if I have "played it safe."  In any case. since the episode aired my squishy innards have proven to be particularly susceptible to impossible tales of time travel, reflection, and self-forgiveness, so Bennett Built a Time Machine, the lead single from Spock’s Beard’s recent release, hit me right in the feels.

Drummer Jimmy Keegan takes the lead and tells the tale of Bennett, a person so regretful of his past that he dedicated his life to creating a means to go back in time and guide his younger self onto a more fulfilling path.  Bennett’s myopic obsession has an undercurrent of desperation, as it blinds him to the potential benefits his discoveries could have on humanity. He just wishes that he had made better choices throughout his life, and traveling back in time seems to be the only way to find happiness.

Bennett Built a Time Machine fit into the Spock’s Beard canon in many ways.  That was a which was a relief, because I was a bit apprehensive about The Oblivion Particle.  It predecessor, Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep, featured a new Spock’s Beard lineup that successfully acknowledged the band's past while forging a distinctive version of its sound.  It also featured some writing contributions from founding (and defining) member Neal Morse, and I was nervous how The Oblivion Particle would work without his input.

With its memorable tunefulness, thought-provoking message, and evocative instrumental excursion that deepens the song’s narrative, however, Bennett Built a Time Machine immediately and wholeheartedly sold me.   The good news is that on the whole, the album is also an enjoyable, sometimes emotional listen.  It is, however, a little different in its execution than the Spock's Beard of old.

Although it’s a bit more like a cosmic-scaled Wind and Wuthering than a reimagined Power and the Glory that you can sing in the shower, The Oblivion Particle stands quite well on its own merit while simultaneously weaving its own way into the band's oeuvre.  Complexity and accessibility are the warp and woof, creating a tapestry that blends in comfortably within the Spock’s Beard continuity.  The Oblivion Particle also makes decisive moves to solidify this band's chemistry.  Ted Leonard is in fine form throughout, but it is still Bennett Built a Time Machine that I look forward to most when I spin the album.  My hope is that when it comes time to play the tune in a live setting, Keegan performs it from behind the drumset.  We all know that it can be done, and done well.  Make it so!

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Seeing Some Results: My Brightest Diamond

Since her birth, I have blogged a lot about developing my Little One's musical tastes. This has been staged mostly as a monologue, with me presenting music to her in a structured way and recording her reactions. I have spoken less about her own emerging musical tastes, though, mainly because this blog is meant to transcribe my own listening habits.  She staked a claim around her own identity earlier his year when she got into Let it Go, but increasingly there are points at which our musical tastes converge. There are several albums that I am currently listening to that she has favorite tracks from. It has been interesting and revealing the way that she describes these songs to me after the fact.

For example, she asked me one day if she could listen to a song called “I try to do it all right,” and initially, I had no idea what she was talking about. She tried to describe it further: it was the “one that had the music like you play” in it. This only further obfuscated matters, but I became determined to figure out what she meant. Finally, she tried to sing it, and I was able to recognize the “pre-chorus” from Pressure by My Brightest Diamond.

Lead vocalist and songwriter Shara Worden only sings this line twice in the whole song. I thought it very interesting that she keyed into this relatively minor part, but it is a section in which the instruments fall away, leaving that text somewhat unaccompanied.  I was still unclear, however, as to what role she thought I was playing on the album. When we listened to it together, however, she pointed out a high flute part in the introduction that sounded, with a little imagination, like a shakuhachi, which I have played for her on an off at bedtime throughout her entire life.

Both of these descriptors were intriguing. In the first instance, she had a very clear recollection of a short, identifying piece of a relatively complicated song that she held in her memory. She used this as leverage into the structure of the song in its entirety, which she now knows pretty well (although she is being creative with some of the lyrics). The second descriptor was even more fascinating. It is normal to hear music as one big sound, so to pull a specific sound out of context as an identifier makes me kind of excited to imagine how she might be perceiving music.

Her interest in this song is particularly good because the whole album is really fantastic. It was brought to my attention quite a while ago by an ex-student (who also suggested Now, Now’s excellent Threads). It was on my radar for quite awhile, but the clincher came when I discovered that Earl Harvin was a contributing percussionist. I was pondering his incredible career arc as I was revisiting Ten Hands’ classic Kung Fu….That’s What I Like earlier this year, and his potential contributions made the album particularly alluring. His vigorous, distinctive drumming is immediately noticeable in Pressure, but also throughout the entire album.

Which is amazing. This is My Hand is complex and layered enough to keep my interest upon repeated listens, but also accessible enough for capture my daughter’s attention. My wife, on the other hand, has connected with the poetic nature of the album’s lyrics. She likes several tracks from the album, but in particular the title track.

So clearly, This is My Hand has emerged as not only one of my favorite albums, but as a family favorite. It’s now a standard listen on road trips. I’m sure to the outside observer, watching us listen to the album in the car would probably look exactly like you would expect, with lots of singing and worked-out choreography. Currently undocumented, of course, to protect our dignity to the public eye.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

The Superhero Theme Project: Wolverine and 13 Assassins

We enrolled the Little One in music classes this summer. She was very apprehensive and nervous at first, but after a few weeks, she really took to them. We learned some songs to sing around the house, and she got better acquainted with musical instruments. By summer’s end, it was one of her favorite things to do. After her last class for the summer, she asked me to come in and show her teacher some of the superhero songs in my phone, starting with Wolverine.

In my last post, I said that the Little One, inspired by The Superhero Squad Show, had acquired some favorite Marvel heroes and I used this interest to expand the Superhero Theme playlist. I gave the first two of these characters, the Scarlet Witch and the Silver Surfer, themes that were already sort of in a holding pattern, waiting for assignment. Her favorite, however, was Wolverine. I thought that, with all of the movies in the X-Men franchise, I would be able to easily find something from one of the soundtracks that would layer well with the character. Like the Matrix soundtracks, however, all of them were too incidental to give the sense that they could stand alone as a concise, memorable theme.

An admission: I think that Wolverine is a bit overrated in the Marvel universe. In my view, he was a late comer whose popularity resulted in some pretty serious retconning to other established characters. I do like him a lot, however, and I did not want to haphazardly assign him a theme, especially since the Little One had taken a liking to him. I began beating the streams again to find something that made sense.

Quite famously, Wolverine is Canadian, but his fictional history places him at intersections with Japanese culture. Just as a place to begin, I researched in Asian cinema for his theme. It did not take me too long to come across the soundtrack to 13 Assassins.

I saw this movie when it was in theaters a couple of years ago and it stands as one of my all-time favorites in the genre. Its dramatic and unrelenting tone certainly matched Wolverine’s character, but I could not recall anything specific about the movie’s soundtrack. My concern was that it would be too identifiably “Japanese,” perhaps using shamisen and shakuhachi music as its central instrumentation. Although that would certainly be to my personal tastes, it wouldn’t work as a representation of Wolverine.

I was pleased to find out that the soundtrack is almost entirely string ensemble with pronounced percussion. The only other theme that I used that employed this kind of instrumentation was Hawkgirl’s, but the execution on 13 Assassins stood in sharp contrast to her noble, gliding theme. Many of the tracks were too melancholy to be effective as Wolverine’s theme, but the tenth track, which is simply named Juu on its YouTube posting, caught my attention.

The melodic and harmonic components of this composition are fiery and vivacious, and its aggressive rhythm imbues it with a wild, primal energy. It evoked a very clear visualization of Wolverine running through the woods, senses ablaze. I was sold when its format included a thematic recapitulation that very clearly provided a beginning, middle, and end to the piece. When I paired this track with the Wolverine image, I felt very confident I had made the right choice. Although I am very fond of all of the tracks I added to the playlist in this recent expansion, this one is probably my favorite.

I became so enamored of the track that I special-ordered the full 13 Assassins soundtrack from Japan. Looking at the case, I don’t know that the track is actually called “Juu” (Japanese for “ten”), but I can’t read kanji well enough to tell what its actual name might be. Regardless, the soundtrack is absolutely outstanding throughout. I have not revisited this movie since I saw it a few years ago, but its soundtrack coheres incredibly well and stands on its own as a musical statement. I think that a live performance of the 13 Assassins soundtrack would be extremely satisfying to both audience and artist. I would certainly attend such a concert, and you can bet that I would bring the Little One along to watch her cheer and dance.

Which she would do. Undignified for a samurai, I know.

To go to the previous post in this series, click HERE.
To go see the next one, click HERE.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Near Misses and Coincidences: Beauty Pill's Apt Description

Sometimes I put albums to my Amazon list as a reminder to do more research on an artist. I think that this was the case with Beauty Pill. I don’t remember what prompted me to add their album, Beauty Pill Describes Things As They Are, to the list, but when I was finalizing my summer CD order, it cost almost the exact amount I had left in my budget.  Without ever listening to a single note of the album, I ordered it sight on scene.  It ended up being an excellent purchase.  Its deeply lush, astoundingly well-performed, and layered approach to art-pop has been a continually rewarding listen.  The lead single, Steven and Tiwongeone of the most elegant, haunting, and subtly political singles that I have heard in a very long time.  Pretty lucky to have stumbled across it.

But was it luck? Some say that there are no coincidences, implying that everything happens for a reason.  By extension, this idea might suggest that we are fated to collide with people and events in our life that propel us to our end. The philosophical argument against this kind of “fate,” as it were, is that it robs us of free will. This is an uncomfortable conclusion, to be sure, so I don’t necessarily subscribe to the idea of a coincidence-free existence. I think that there are coincidences, but I also think that they are far from meaningless. I think they matter. Surely, each of us have had enough happenstance events and near-misses that there seems to be some master plan behind the veil pulling the strings.

Our “plan” doesn’t seem to be a straight line with a predestined end, though. It branches off into multiple outcomes, with only a couple that result in our optimal path. We have responsibility in the way things turn out. I think that we can be guided along this path, however, if we keep our minds open and listen.

I was recently reminded of this when my wife and I struggled with a terribly difficult decision as the school year started up. Throughout the Little One’s life, we have been very fortunate with our child care situation, but circumstances recently forced us to seek out a different venue. Nothing to worry about, of course, because we had planned ahead. For several months, we had outlined plan “B,” and it looked great on paper. The reality, however, was much different. After two days of chaotic classrooms, disengaged teachers, and unprompted reports from her of friends that “don’t listen or share,” it became very clear to us that it wasn’t going to work. We pulled her before the first week ended.

But then we had a real situation. School was in session, and we were reporting to our own jobs. We were anxious, desperate, and without a solution. I had an urge to beg the powers-that-be for an answer, which would traditionally have been gently worded in my mind as a demand alongside a hollow promise for some sort of improvement (if You do this for me I' know the rest). Through the years, however, I have developed the sense of how misguided this sort of transcendental deal-making is.  I shouldn't expect a solution to be handed to me without taking on the responsibility of finding the answer.  So I awoke in the morning and, before I had a chance to formulate a negative thought about our situation, I told the universe that if there was a plan out there, I would keep my eyes open for suggestions.

The night before, I stumbled across the website of a small Montessori school with very positive reviews whose front doorstep was exactly halfway between my front door and the front door of my school. I drove by and, to be frank, it was not much to look at. My first instinct was to drop the idea, but I promised that I would keep an open mind. I called them later in the afternoon and set up a visit.

Despite its humble exterior, when we walked in, all the kids there were happy, welcoming, and well-mannered. We sat down with the director to talk, and noticed that there was a string of decorative Indian elephants hanging from the door of her office. The Little One has a similar set of elephants that hang by her bed (pictured at left), and she often plays with when she goes to bed at night.  Hm.

We liked the school, so later that day we brought the Little One back by the campus to visit. The elephants were the first thing she noticed. Then one of the students volunteered to show her around and she went on to have fun for about an hour before we had to go home for dinner.

By the evening, we narrowed our choices down to a couple of acceptable options, but none of them were clear.  I was apprehensive about the shift to Montessori’s open-ended pedagogy, but we were faced with a very big decision that needed to be made quickly.  Of all things, I could not stop thinking about the elephants, so I did a bit more research on the school.  I discovered some reviews and was flabbergasted to find one of them was written by a good friend of mine from the Fletcher days. When he relocated to Austin a few years ago, he enrolled his daughter there.  In fact, when we made our visit, we had missed running into him there by an hour.  He spoke highly of the school, and if the elephants weren’t enough of a sign, his advocacy certainly was.

We enrolled her, and I am happy to say that there was a night-and-day difference in the Little One’s attitude after the first day at her new school. In contrast to her exhausted, overstimulated state when she came home from the “puppy mill” (as her gramps called it), she has been happy and talkative about her days. I am incredibly happy and satisfied with our decision, and am looking forward to her progress this year in the new environment.

I would not have seen the positive atmosphere of the school if I had not let go of my initial judgement of the physical space. Additionally, I would not have been able to talk to my friend about his experiences if I had not paid attention to the little details. By getting out of the way and seeing things as they are, though, rather than through the lens of my expectations, I think that we are where we need to be right now.

Oh, yeah, and by the way. Beauty Pill.  This is the Little One's favorite:

The whole album is well worth your time.   It will probably be a top 10 album by year's end.  Check it out - maybe it'll lead you somewhere.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Curating the Past and Predicting the Future: Yes' "Union"

Hopes were really, really high when Union came out. By the time it was released in 1991, I was pretty familiar with Yes’ entire catalog. 90125 had made me a devoted fan of the Rabin-led lineup of the band, but I quietly held the opinion that the clumsily named Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, and Howe album released in 1989 was a superior album to Big Generator. The press for Union advertised that it was to be the ultimate lineup, combining the personnel from both groups. I envisioned a broadly collaborative album, with Rabin and Wakeman facing off in a virtuosic prog-rock wankery of the highest order. When I got the album to my dorm room and perused the liner notes, however, I was profoundly disappointed.

Despite its broadly inclusive roster, Union might be the least collaborative Yes album in their catalog. The two lineups had discrete tracks from one another, with the “Big Generators” contributing 4 tracks and the “Starship Troopers” contributing the rest. I was willing to look at it like Fragile, where different aspects of the band lent their voice to a larger picture. But the truth of the matter was, the majority of the material on the album just wasn’t very convincing. The best thing to come out of the album was the tour.

Still, I recently had a revelation about Union that has some relevance to the band’s current situation, so with some trepidation, I revisited it. Union has always sat quite comfortably very close to the bottom of the barrel for me as far as Yes albums go, but what if time had actually been kind to the album, and it was better than I remember? My whole hierarchy of Yes albums might come crumbling to the ground!

Fortunately, I suppose, this was not the case. Although there are a few good moments on the album and some outstanding musicianship, by and large it sounds as it did in 1991 - unfinished and uninspired.  One of the more outstanding moments on the album, however, is the track The More We Live – Let Go. I always felt that this swirling, powerful piece stood out in terms of quality. This track is of particular relevance now because it is, to my knowledge, Billy Sherwood’s first appearance on a Yes album.

Which I think is interesting. Union was intended to unify Yes’ convoluted history, but one of its more musically convincing moments also inadvertently foretold Yes’ future. Now, almost 25 years later, this single writing credit was the first stone in a long path that led Sherwood to a position in which he could significantly contribute to the band’s continuing output.

With this in mind, Union might be viewed as a reservoir of under-credited potential rather than an album sunk by record company meddling. If that is the case, despite its somewhat spotty political setting, Union could be a resource by which other musicians already woven into Yes’ history could carry on the Yes name.

If you are just tuning in, I have been playing this "Nu-Yes fantasy football” game for well over a year, and it was all fun and games when I made that first post.  Clearly, things took a more serious turn this summer, but Yes has continued (as I predicted, eerily enough) and, according to reviews, the current lineup is playing quite well, due in no small part to Steve Howe. Certainly, he shows no sign of slowing down. Still, one must wonder what would happen if he were at some point decide not to carry on as Yes’ guitarist. As the most longstanding member of the current group, his successor is not as visible as Squire's.

There is, however, a somewhat awkward situation surrounding the guitars on the Union album that most fans don’t like to address, but that might provide a solution. According to legend, Howe’s contributions to Union were demo quality, and he intended to rerecorded them before the album’s release. The record company’s unreasonable deadlines, however, could not accommodate Howe’s other commitments. Guitarist Jimmy Haun was brought in and in the end, many of the guitars on Union that are recorded in Howe’s name are not Howe. They are instead Haun’s uncredited performances.  Without Hope You Cannot Start The Day is one of several tracks that are entirely Haun.

Although I have no way to really prove it, I have sometimes had the sense that Howe’s parts felt a little different on Union, as if he was trying something new.  This track was not one of them.  It sounds like Howe, and I think it is absolutely astounding that Haun could mimic his distinctive style and sound so well.

Haun was my dream team choice for a “nu-Yes” from earlier this year, mostly due to the work he has done with Sherwood in Circa:. I knew that he had contributed to Union, but I was not aware to what extent until I began researching for this post. If Yes fans were to openly accept this uncomfortable chapter in the band’s history, it might not be unreasonable to view Haun as an uncredited Yes guitarist, and one that has enough respect for the band to carry on its creative legacy in the unfortunate event that Howe chooses to retire.