Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Dr. Spin's 2019 Preview Episode 2

I made some progress with the second episode.  It may be perhaps a touch too long, but I am examining the strengths and weaknesses of the medium as I go.  Enjoy!

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Something New for 2019 - My First Video

So, I did something.

I have been thinking for a while about adding a video component to the blog and, to make a long story short, I gave it a try.  Below is the first attempt.  I am not widely sharing this one, as it has some pretty significant problems (not the least of which was some unforeseen rendering problems with the album art graphics).  It is an important document of my progress, however, so if you stumble across it or back into it from another post, please forgive its shortcomings.

The process, however, has me excited about the potentials in the medium.  I am already looking forward to the next episode.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Unsure of What Day It Is, Full of Cheese: 2018 Honorable Mentions

The posting that accompanied the 2018 top ten was more anecdotal than is usual for year-end postings. Narratives that surround these postings are traditionally reflective, with one eye looking at
the past year and the other looking forward to the potentials ahead. There is a subtext in that post, however, that serves as a microcosm for what I would like to address in 2019.

I recounted how my kid's nutritional standards have slowly eroded over the past five years, but I refrained from admitting that these looser standards stretch into my personal nutritional choices.  Not too long ago, I was in the best shape of my life and was balancing my personal interests, my family, and my career in an unprecedented way. The profound and rapid changes that I have endured since them however, has necessitated changes in that precarious balance that I have not been able to correct.  Despite having a great year at school so far and really enjoying my family's growth, I am not playing music for myself in any form, nor is my fitness where I would like for it to be, nor am I in the dojo as much as I would like to be. 

I hope that in the coming year I can find ways to regain that equilibrium. I am trying to let go of the idea that it will look exactly like it did then, but devoting energy into figuring out what it could like to feel as good about my personal musicianship and fitness as I do about my career and family is unarguably a worthwhile path forward.

Below I have included a few albums that I really wanted to get into 2018's top 20, but just got edged out for one reason or another. Still, they are generally compelling enough to deserve mention.

Soen - Lakaia: I showed up for the Tool references, but the melodic overlap with Opeth’s more progressive tendencies got me to stay. Lakaia has been gaining momentum on a slow simmer since this summer, but didn’t quite crack the top 20.

Tangerine Dream - Zeit: This album was in no way what I expected, but as a prototypical pre-synth ambient album it continued to pique my curiosity for the better part of 2018. It unfortunately suffered the fate of having no appropriate venue - too atmospheric for the car, but too sinister for late nights in the house.

Big Big Train - Folklore: A very good progressive rock album that just barely got edged out due to a couple of lyrically goofy moments. This album was followed by several other positively reviewed releases that might warrant further investigation.

Alcest - Kodama: Described as “black metal” inspired by Miyazaki, Kodama ended up confounding my expectations. While there are a few extreme moments on the album, these are carefully placed for musical effect, resulting in a largely melodic and engaging experience.

Boards of Canada - Music Has the Right to Children: Yes, I am very late in the game to this classic album of 90s electronica. Well worth it, and a difficult decision to leave it off the final 2018 list.

Field Music - Open Here: The first inconsistent album from Field Music that I have encountered. It has some of the best songs and grandest orchestrations in their oeuvre, but also some less inspired moments that are more apparent due to the greatness of the stronger material.

Monday, December 31, 2018

A Dairy Revelation: Dr. Spin's Best Albums 2018 pt. 2

My initial decision to avoid feeding my daughters milk wasn’t entirely a choice. Although my involvement in the CrossFit lifestyle when she was born opened my eyes to the benefits of a non-dairy, non-grain diet, my first daughter seemed to have a genuine intolerance. Once I was able to find alternative sources for calcium and natural fats in her diet, I did not make serious efforts to acclimatize her system to drink cow’s milk. I met a lot of resistance along the way, but by all accounts she and her sister (whose colic caused us to take a similar path), have grown up quite healthy and strong.

Shortly after EJ was born, life changed dramatically in more ways than I can easily summarize. You can go back and read about it starting here for the full story.  Not the least of these changes was the unexpected birth of our son just a year and a half later. Unlike his sisters, he did not show any significant intolerance for milk. My hardline stance on the paleo diet had softened since P was born six years before and inarguably, milk is a convenient source of nutrition. So he drank milk. Quite a bit of it, for a while.

Undoubtedly, he quickly grew big and strong, which could be attributed to his genes as much as his diet. I was a pretty big infant, as well. Also like me, and unlike his sisters, he seemed to suffer from eczema and allergies. I assumed that he was the unfortunate recipient of my more undesirable genes and began rolling future management options through my mind.

Recently, however, my wife began an anti-inflammatory diet that had a pretty significant crossover into paleo.  As we discussed her plan, I realized that all of our son’s maladies could be attributed to inflammation from the cow’s milk in his diet. We tapered off the milk and within two weeks, no more runny nose or dry, irritated cheeks. Incredible.

So I wonder, with the normalization of cow’s milk in an infant’s diet, how many other people may see their children suffering from similar problems and start medications to manage them. Possibly more than is necessary. In any case, this unintentional experiment brought back home the importance of a clean diet, something that I will dedicate myself to with renewed diligence in the coming year.

Finally, all exposition aside, below is the top 10 albums list from 2018. Any one of these albums were considered at one point in time or another for the top slot, but I feel satisfied with the final ordering (at least for today).  Relatively few proper 2018 releases this year, and many obscure entries.  If you are looking for some new music in 2019, however, these albums would be a great place to start.

10. George Clanton - Slide: During the years I lived in Austin I discovered the joys of synthwave and shoegaze. Slide hit the nostalgia buttons on two fronts this year by comfortably residing in the crossroads between these styles.

9. Death Grips - Year of the Snitch: I have followed Death Grips ever since The Money Store took 2012 by storm, but very few of their albums have come back off the shelf since their initial run. Year of the Snitch has come in and out of rotation several times as 2018 drew to a close and never failed to hold my attention.

8. Wei Zhongle - The Operators: Suggesting Wei Zhongle was one of the times in which my Facebook algorithm really nailed it. Their super-quirky brand of art rock is engaging both in the short and the long term.

7. Kite Base - Latent Whispers: Great songwriting anchors this incredible and unique album from two female bass players with a knack for clever programming. Fans of late 80s electronica who prefer a wash of gothy fuzz would find a lot to enjoy on Latent Whispers.

6. Andrew W.K. - You’re Not Alone: Andrew W.K. bursts through the speakers yelling “OH, YEAH” like some sort of feral white-clad rock Jesus on this album. While the Kool-Aid he is peddling seems like its pure sugar, it’s far more substantial than it might seem.

5. Midlake - The Tales of Van Occupanther: I still like to refer to Midlake as the “Agrarian Radiohead.” Tim Smith’s liquid vocal approach often recalls that of Thom Yorke, but their tales of giants and villages paint pictures of days long past.

4. Venetian Snares - Traditional Synthesizer Music: This impossibly complex experiment pushes the possibilities of classic synthesizers past any perceived limits. Aaron Funk is able to somehow integrate enough variants to give these compositions a live, improvised feel.

3. Low - Double Negative: Although this album came in very late in the Fall, I reflected very carefully upon whether or not to designate it Album of the Year. Its predecessor Ones and Sixes became a favorite in 2015, and Double Negative is an incredible quantum leap forward in terms of creativity and musicality.

2. Modular - Dan Phelps, Vickor Krauss, and Matt Chamberlain: The mythology surrounding Modular became my “Blair Witch” for 2018, a curious investigation that I documented earlier this year. Despite my embarrassing disappointment when I discovered the truth, the album is ultimately propelled by unbelievable and subtle musicianship that continues to reveal itself listen after listen.

 Album of the Year 2018

1. Soup - Remedies: If Modular was my “Blair Witch” for 2018, then Remedies was “Lord of the Rings.” It crosses progressive songwriting and melodic post rock in relatively well-trod ways, but in all the ways that work.  Walls of sound, compelling melodies, and gentle psychedelia overlapped to make this one a sustained favorite throughout the year.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Dr. Spin's Top 20 for 2018 part 1: Missing the HEEB.

Thanksgiving was a little different this year. In lieu of the annual family trip down to the coast, which has grown prohibitively expensive, we stayed in a historic home in Gonzalez, Texas. The location was not as picturesque, but we were in no way lacking. In addition to the unexpectedly rich history of the town, there was the usual good food and family time, which is the most important aspect of the holiday. During dinner, a relative whom I have not seen in a while asked me what it was I missed most about Austin. I responded, without hesitation: “H.E.B.!”

Of course, the reality is much more complicated than that. There is much that I miss about life in Austin, but is it sometimes hard to tease out whether those things are really about living in Austin or only having one child. Life seemed easier in Austin, but we moved to Denton very shortly after EJ was born, and O surprised us not long after that. I love both of them fiercely, but to be real, having three kids is a exponentially harder than having one, especially when two of them are young. Memories of Austin are bound up with the mobility that having a small family affords. If we had stayed, I think that life would have been even more complex than it is now with a larger family.

Sure, there are things that I objectively miss about Austin, but by and large life has been better since moving to Denton. Our existence here feels permeated by potential for further growth, both for me and the members of my family.

Thanksgiving means one other thing: the first post of my year-end “best albums” list. As usual, I am revealing entries #11-20, with the top 10 showing up before year’s end. Inclusion in the “best albums” list is not dependent on release date - just on the album’s musical merits and its capacity to map to personal events in 2018.

Press "play" and read on.

20. John Powell & John Williams - Solo: A Star Wars Story OST: Powell’s soundtrack singlehandedly inspired me to watch the unfairly criticized Han Solo movie in the first place. In the long term, it actually got more plays than Williams’ masterful but conceptually dense soundtrack to The Last Jedi.

19. Park Jiha - Communion: Jiha’s exploration of the common ground between traditional Korean instruments and ethereal jazz continued to command my attention for a good part of the year. Its mostly soothing, sometimes jarring, but always engaging.

18. Cayucas - Bigfoot: When guests came over in 2018, this was usually the first album I put on. Bigfoot stays light and accessible while frolicking in the joys of songcraft.

17. The Barock Project - Skyline: This album suffered the classic progressive rock arc. At first I was convinced it was a dud, but the amazing musicianship that drives the album reveals itself through many focused listens.

16. Hans Zimmer & Benjamin Wallfisch - Blade Runner 2049 OST: Zimmer and Wallfisch’s vast, arresting soundscapes broadened the scope of this Blade Runner sequel, and it maintains its compelling affect as a free-standing piece. The inclusion of Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley serve as stylistic interludes throughout, but the final end credits “single” Almost Human nearly tanks the whole experience.

15. Shugo Tokumaru - In Focus?: This super-quirky pop album deserves all the listens it can garner. Its twists and turns threaten to derail the whole experience, but its overall vibe is so playful that it holds together in spite of itself.

14. The Knells - Knells II: Employing a classically trained women’s trio as the lead voice in the band may seem like the selling point here, but the careful arrangements sometime threaten to flatten their emotive potential. The Lifeson-inspired guitar playing of Andrew McKenna Lee functions as a compelling counterbalance.

13. The Wagakki Band - Vocaloid Sanmai: Perhaps my interest in the Wagakki Band’s J-rock on the traditional tip is a bit indulgent, but I have developed a genuine appreciation for their arranging skills and melodic approach. In the end, they get my nerd-rock award for the year.

12. Phoenix - Bankrupt!:  As a power pop entity, Phoenix deserves way more credit than I have given them. I have really come to love Bankrupt!'s too-hip synth pop and am looking forward to delving further into their catalog in the near future.

11. Burial - Untrue: Despite its origins as a piece of DIY electronica, Untrue is a deeply enveloping experience. Its time-stretched vocals and stuttering drums seemingly reach into the night and pull in vividly melancholic environments from rainy, neon-lit street corners.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Fall Roundup - Summing Up the Marching Season

Since I came on as a band director in this district two years ago, it has been my charge to help rebuild its somewhat beleaguered program. There have definitely been times in which I wondered if it was worth dealing with all the stress of moving and starting over. This year, the work has started to take root, and I can say with some confidence that the change has been positive, thanks in no small part to the success of the high school group.

As expected, when the new staff came on, there was no small amount of resistance to our new standards. The band shrunk, but the quality improved. This year, we have a fifty member band. Of those fifty, thirty of them are freshman, making the band generally young and inexperienced. If this wasn’t problematic enough, we decided to work up a socially conscious narrative for the show depicting themes of bullying and self-acceptance. Executing these themes had to be done carefully, else they be misinterpreted.

Despite our obstacles, the band exceeded all expectations.  This is not to say that the marching season was easy - there were many hardships and lots of frustration. In the end, however, they exhibited an impressive work ethic that allowed them to overcome their lack of experience - an investment that paid off. The band made a first division at Regionals, and went on to become Area finalists. Our district has a long history with many ups and downs for the music program, but this was a first. The students have much to be proud of, and I foresee a promising future for them as the program continues to mature.

As we were traveling to away games and contests, I was posted in the back of the bus with earphones in, keeping order and grading papers. This is what went through those earphones these past few months.

Death Grips - Year of the Snitch: Death Grips most recent record captures a lot of the experimentalism of their earliest work without dipping too far into the challenging abrasion of albums like Government Plates and No Love Deep Web. Maybe one of my favorites by the band.

Phoenix - Bankrupt!: It’s been well over five years since I discovered Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, an album of which I thought so highly that I wavered in delving further into their catalog for fear of disappointment. I was recently invited to see them live, however, and decided to take the plunge with Bankrupt!, which, despite possibly not reaching the heights of its predecessor, certainly stands on its own right as a compelling synth-rock gem.

George Clanton - Slide: One could argue whether George Clanton’s distinctive vocal style is a stylistic choice, but the evidence of musical depth on Slide is, in my opinion, incontrovertible. Many critics categorize his work within the questionable “vaporwave” genre , but in my opinion his clear textural connections to My Bloody Valentine and M83 makes Slide the epitome of “synthgaze.”

C418 - Excursions: It seems that the open-world Minecraft environment is conducive to creativity beyond that required to create recursive dungeons and mazes. C418 got his start as a Minecraft soundtrack composer, but has stepped out into more free-standing musical experiments with this surprisingly linear and satisfying ambient project.

FM-84 - Atlas: I tried to swear off any nostalgically indulgent projects for awhile, but Atlas had been trolling my attention for months. I finally relented and and, true to the form of classic 80’s synth pop, it has some cliched moments but remains an entertaining listen overall.

Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard - Batman Begins OST: I have long viewed The Dark Knight soundtrack as the first in a trilogy of soundtracks in which Zimmer was exploring possible and impossible sounds in relation to the orchestra. Batman Begins turned this idea on its head, as it contains ideas that expanded dramatically in the Nolan-directed Batman movies to follow.

Low - Double Negative: Double Negative gives the impression that it may, with all respect to Douglas Hofstadter, contain the sound that will result in the destruction of your CD player, but its jarring aspects quickly give way to uniquely crafted textures and beautiful melodies. It is so compelling that, despite being so late in the game, it has emerged as a contender for album of the year, challenging albums that I have had in that slot for months.

Four Fists: 6666: I was pretty excited to hear about this new collaboration featuring P.O.S., one of my favorite hip-hop artists. It is engaging, but doesn’t hold a candle to his now-classic Never Better.

Rabih Abou-Khalil - Arabian Waltz: Just discovered this cross-cultural innovator and based on this album, I look forward to delving further into his catalog. The presence of tuba to this eclectic mix brings to mind the work of Henry Threadgill, but on the Persian tip.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Yardsigns and Music: Dr. Spin's Summer 2018 Roundup

My time in Austin coincided quite neatly with the Obama administration. Not only did left-leaning policies prevail during this time, I viewed them from within the relatively liberal bubble of Austin culture. A Trump win seemed inconceivable, so I was shocked when I began teaching in a relatively small North Texas town. The street to my campus was surprisingly littered with Trump yard signs, and I incredulously cautioned by Austin friends to get the vote out, just in case. The rest, of course, is sad history.

I am happy to say that the same stretch of road now features no less than seven yard signs supporting progressive Beto O’Rourke, four more than his conservative opponent Ted Cruz. Of course, yard signs don’t vote, but it is encouraging to see this longshot Democratic candidate gaining a foothold in a relatively right-leaning area. It makes me feel more hopeful than I have since the election.

My increased presence in this area indicates that summer is over and school is in session, and predictably. I am struggling to juggle time with my family with the demands of marching season. Before time slips away, I need to log the music that was in rotation during the summer months. Many of these albums were vetted on the road, while others became new music for the family to enjoy over dinner or at bedtime. I will not parse them out as per their function as I did earlier this year, but I instead lump them all together to represent the Summer of 2018.

Don Caballero - Punkgasm: I actually ordered this in my holiday stash, but it took nearly six months for hardcopy to arrive. The presence of occasional vocals were cause for concern, but don’t distract nearly as much as I had anticipated.

Vulfpeck - Fugue State: Fugue State might be more properly categorized as an EP due to its short length. Despite this, it has evolved into a favorite soundtrack for after-school family dance parties.

Seabuckthorn - A House With Too Much Fire: This follow-up to last year’s album of the year feels much more open-ended and improvised than its predecessor. It retains, however, the engulfing resonance and atmospherics that made Turns so compelling.

Brian Eno - Taking Tiger mountain (by Strategy): This early album by Eno shows how his sonic thumbprint was stamped across a broad spectrum of 70’s art-rock. Listening to it, I often wonder what might have happened if Syd Barrett had stayed in the game long enough to develop a partnership with Eno.

Venetian Snares - Traditional Synthesizer Music: A disarming but ultimately lyrical display of modular synthesizer potential. The potential for exhaustion is very real by album’s end, but the ride is engaging enough to keep listener interest high.

Soen - Lykaia: Soen is often criticized for sounding like Tool, which, in my opinion, is hardly a criticism if it is well-deserved. There are some tonal similarities, but I would throw a heaping dash of Opeth’s liminal prog-metal as a distinguishing characteristic.

Soup - The Beauty of Our Youth: For some reason, I received a promotional copy of The Beauty of Our Youth when I ordered Remedies earlier this year. It is quite an album in its own right, but it will stand in the shadow of Remedies for quite a while.

Spock’s Beard - Noise Floor: I have been a proponent of the current incarnation of Spock’s Beard since Ted Leonard came on board as lead vocalist. Despite the return of Nik D’Virgilio of drums, however, this has been the first release from this iteration of the band that I have had trouble getting behind.

Legends of Et Cetera - Coyote: An acceptably good but sometimes bland collection of jazzy jangle-rock that I mostly like but don’t love. Really attracted to the album art, though.

The Wagakki Band - Vocaloid Sanmai: Well-crafted J-Rock with the added twist of incorporating traditional Japanese instruments and vocal styles. I finally have an album that really satisfies my secret desire to jam to anime theme songs and a justification for liking them.

Boards of Canada - Music Has the Right to Children: This is a classic piece of 90s electronica that I have circled for years. It’s an immediately accessible and distinctive work that lives up to its reputation.

Cayucas - Bigfoot: An easily digestible slice of sunny pop music goodness. Bigfoot brings the intimate cleverness of Peter, Bjorn, and John alongside the cheery ambience of the Beach Boys to immediate and consistent effect.

Van Halen - Women and Children First: The last album in the Van Halen back catalog that has eluded capture all these years. Certainly, the band’s initial steam had begun to wane slightly by this third release, but Women and Children First still features several of the band’s defining moments (not the least of which was featured in the stop-motion hamburger animation in the classic 80s movie Better Off Dead).

Midlake - The Trials of Van Occupanther: Fans of early Radiohead, Jethro Tull and the more arcane aspects of Fleetwood Mac will have a very hard time finding anything to complain about with this album. Although it shares a thread with The Amazing, a favorite from last year, Midlake is immediately distinctive and nuanced, with engaging lyrics to boot.

Various Artists - African Scream Contest V.2: Although as a rule, I avoid compilations, carefully curated collections of ethnic pop from yesteryear often find their way into my listening and can make a clear and intriguing statement. This particular collection fits that description well, featuring a variety of psychedelic pop from the 70s in West Africa.