Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Interstellar and Time Away

Regrettably, I haven't documented the trials and triumphs of EJ’s infancy as meticulously as I did her sister P. This is due in no small part to the job hunt, but also because EJ had a little trouble getting off the ground in the beginning. She had, to use the pediatric term, colic - which really means that she cried a lot.

And she did cry - a lot. Her sensitive tummy often made her inconsolable, and because of this the late night feedings that I came to enjoy with P were not quite as peaceful as I anticipated. It seemed pointless to have music playing when she clearly could not have heard it over her own screaming. When she finally did calm down, my wife and I both welcomed the quiet.

I had every intention of shaping EJ’s musical world as I have her sister's, but she clearly was going to take a different path.  To start, I started playing “wind down” music between dinner and bedtime.  Music for 18 Musicians was often first choice, followed closely by an album that I had purchased last year during the last push of the Superhero Theme Project but that only clicked for me earlier this year - Hans Zimmer’s Interstellar soundtrack.

This soundtrack received quite a bit of acclaim when it was released, and even though I had not seen the movie, it impressed me when I put it in rotation. In many ways, Interstellar struck me as a relatively traditional soundtrack when compared to Zimmer's more recent work, with strings and organs outlining its grandiose meditations rather than the earth-shattering intensity of Inception or the physics-bending atmospherics of The Dark Knight. Despite its more orthodox approach, it relayed a sense of exploratory fascination that clearly reflected the movie’s scope, even capturing the ominous wonder of a water planet with mountain-sized tsunamis covering its entire surface. 

I thought the Interstellar soundtrack was breathtakingly beautiful at the time, but it did not stick. I shelved it until I finally saw the movie earlier this year. Interstellar, as a film, affected me. It is certainly good science fiction, but one of its underlying messages spoke to me personally in a way that took me off guard, and it drastically altered my perception of its soundtrack.

The movie contains a plot line where, due to the tenets of relativity and space travel, a lifetime passes for a child while her parent experiences hours. In one scene, the father leaves his daughter to go on a mission that he is convinced is for the good of mankind, but that will most likely take him away from her for a substantial part of her lifetime.  As he drives away, she begs him to stay.

This scenario alludes to a real-world paradox that many parents face: they go off to work for the benefit of their families, an act which takes them away from their families. There is a deep, dark fear that we will look up one day from our work to find the children that we have been working so hard for have grown and that we never really took the time to know them. The elegant beauty of this soundtrack also harbors the pain and angst of this heartbreaking struggle. It felt even more meaningful when I went back to work a mere four weeks after EJ’s birth and was expected to act as if nothing had happened. Or as if I was getting more than three hours sleep a night.

Pediatricians say that most infants will grow out of colic, and fortunately that has been the case for EJ. She has turned a corner in the past few weeks and is much more peaceful in the evenings, so I came up with an alternate plan for late night music. Since my old ZEN MP3 jukebox finally bit the dust last year, decided to use my standalone bluetooth speaker.  It sounds surprisingly good for how small it is, so I uploaded five or six appropriate albums (Including Interstellar) on my phone. I was excited about cycling through them.

By this time, however, we were working on staging the house for its sale and the bluetooth speaker got unintentionally packed away in storage in the process. It won’t be seen again for several months. Looks like EJ’s Interstellar experience may be coming back at a future date - but probably in less than seven years.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Finding a Job: Frost*'s "Falling Satellites"

If you read between the lines on my last couple of posts, it might be apparent as to why I have not posted much in the last few months. I was the one who instigated my family’s move, but as of my last post, I still did not have a job. My lack of success weighed heavily. Despite nearly twenty years of band directing experience, the application process was gruelling, frustrating, and often disheartening. It took precedence over working out, practicing, writing, and almost everything else besides daily family duties.  I felt like any moment I spent away from hammering on applications was a missed opportunity that might have serious repercussions for my family's future.

There were lots of times I wondered if it were the right thing to do. Although my band program was in no way perfect, I was very proud of the successes that we had. Things had changed at my school over the past couple of years, however, and the once positive environment on my campus had devolved. It had become routine for students to disrespect and refuse instruction with very little consequence. I did the best I could to keep that culture out of the band hall, but ultimately I could not fight the tide. I spent a lot of time and energy dealing with behavior issues while good students withered on the vine.  I still felt the conviction to continue shepherding those who sought excellence, but I could not stay in that environment without burning out before retirement. I needed a change

Out of respect for my campus and the good of my kids, though, I had to submit my resignation without actually having any interviews in line. I was committed. I finally landed a very positive interview in a small district within commuting distance of Denton. The program is in need of restructuring, and my previous position allowed me to speak with some experience on the challenges ahead. After the interview, I felt quite confident that I was going to land the job.

I had made plans to go to aikido class in Denton that evening, but I had some free time to kill and I found myself on the square. One of the things I will definitely miss in Austin is going to record stores like Waterloo and End of an Ear to browse the ever-shrinking CD selections, so predictably, I dropped in to Mad World Records. I knew that most of their CD selection is reused, so I was not expecting to find much. I was shocked, however, to find that they had Falling Satellites, the most recent Frost* disc, on the shelf.  Bonus points for them!

I enjoyed Frost*’s debut Milliontown quite a bit several years ago. I always had the sense that, although it would be hard to confuse the two, fans of Morse-era Spock’s Beard would find a lot to like in Frost*. Keyboardist and primary composer Jem Godfrey’s vocals share some timbral similarities with Morse, and the band plays with an energy that recalls the Beard’s driving, rhythmically disorienting instrumental side. In fact, if the Beard had not found success in their current line-up, it’s fun to play “what-if” games with Godfrey leading the band.

Despite my respect and admiration for their work, I did not follow them with much vigor after Milliontown. Falling Satellites received enthusiastic accolades on one of my usual online progressive rock resources, however, and also featured a guest solo by Joe Satriani. These two things earned it a spot on my wish list, and a physical copy sitting on a record store shelf on such a potentially momentous day was just too good to pass up.

Falling Satellites is a dense listen, much more so than Milliontown. Like the best progressive rock, it takes time to get familiar enough with its complexity to see the album’s best aspects. It does, however, have plenty of attention-grabbing passages, both in terms of virtuosity and production. If Frost* were not so clearly led by Godfrey’s keyboard playing, they might even border on prog-metal in some sections. Despite its intensity, however, Falling Satellites sounds very clean, perhaps so much that at times, it loses its edge and teeters on sterility. Overall, however, Frost* comes off more like a particularly fleet-fingered Collins-era Genesis.

Joe Satriani’s appearance is, as expected, fleeting, improvised, and probably mailed in. It is but a moment on the album, but it is a joy to hear nonetheless (below at 3:20). That is to take nothing away from the fantastic work of regular Frost* guitarist John Mitchell, who I have followed since Arena’s The Visitor, but Satriani is a phenomenal player that pushes the possibilities of rock guitar into new realms as a matter of course. Like the best jazz musicians, he takes a few very simple musical ideas and expands them into a full solo.

After floating around the square with Falling Satellites in hand, I made my way back to the car to head towards the dojo On the way, I received a message that I would be offered the job. Without question, I accepted the offer and put another piece of the Denton puzzle in place. It still doesn’t seem real - but what is very real is that I have been able to let go of the application nightmare I had been living in for months. That is a true relief.

Monday, June 13, 2016

The Fall of Uber: Paul Simon and Sloan

In my previous post, I alluded to some issues that have arisen surrounding my life in Austin.  A big one is the rising cost of living.  Since we have moved into our house on the hill, my little family has lived just at the edge (if not just a little beyond) our means.  Life in Austin has continued to become more and more expensive, and the climate of the city does not seem in the least bit concerned.  The general public walks around the town with dollar signs in their eyes, constantly jabbering into the air about investments, entrepreneurship, and start-ups.  Meanwhile, we teachers sometimes struggle to find space in our financial plans to get healthy groceries into the fridge.  To try to do something about this latter issue, I spent some of my evenings last summer driving for Uber.  Very often, a late evening spent driving around on the weekend would produce our grocery money for the following week.

There are, of course, tales to tell of my Uber encounters, but by and large the experience was not particularly eventful.  I picked up my passengers, made conversation if it seemed that they were the type, stayed quiet if they were not, and dropped them off as quickly and efficiently as possible.  I maintained good ratings, which is all-important to the Uber driver, but I probably could have had more success if I had added some bells and whistles.  I was not the kind of serious driver that would provide water and gum for their clients - or an auxiliary cable for them to hijack my car stereo.

That just seemed wrong.

Being that I was generally sensitive to the ears of the public, the vast majority of passengers did not care.  In fact, the CD in the player generated conversation and provided the impetus for discussions that I could invest in.  I did find people’s reactions to my selections to be an unending source of interest.  Although I could usually rely on Deadmau5 and other nondescript electronica as my go-to, one evening I was feeling a bit selfish and decided to slip in Paul Simon’s greatest hits compilation Negotiations and Love Songs.  I was pleasantly surprised by the positive feedback.  One particularly silent client even went so far as to thank me for providing a “musical experience” that evening. Negotiations and Love Songs evolved into a consistent crowd pleaser, and reminded me that no matter how much Paul Simon you happen to be listening to, it's probably not enough.  


Of course, I was not always so accommodating.  I avoided the avant-garde, but my Uber experiences did give me some space to indulge in lesser known but still accessible artists.  With so much driving time, there were many recordings that came to define "Uber-ing," but none more than Sloan’s The Double Cross.   I was a fan of Sloan’s 1998 release Navy Blues, but it played its role for me back then and I did not follow them further.  I finally followed up with The Double Cross last summer, and it was a constant presence in the player.  Many passengers reacted positively towards it, and the more musically minded of them enjoyed discussing Sloan’s long history and perceived influences.

As the summer drew to a close and the new school year started ramping up, I decided that in the long run, Uber was not really worth it from a financial standpoint.  It could provide some easy cash on a week-to-week basis, but when gas and taxes were figured in it seemed I was barely breaking even.  It was still a nice option to have, however, just in case I did need a little extra cash.

But that is no longer possible.  Earlier this year, fears about passenger safety led the City of Austin to propose required fingerprinting for all Uber drivers. Keep in mind, Uber already had its own background check system in place, and certainly, a few nutjobs could have slipped through.  In my experience, however, the vast majority of Uber drivers were people just like me - hardworking people who were just trying to make ends meet in any way they could.

I personally didn't care about fingerprinting. I have nothing to hide.  Uber, however, did not want to comply with this proposition, stating that such checks would be prohibitively expensive and, perhaps more importantly, an unacceptable government regulation.  When put to a vote, the city’s proposition won and Uber left town rather than complying with the new policy.  Then the whole city started complaining about losing the service.

Sound dumb?  It was.

It is no secret that the cab companies hated the Uber service, and without a doubt it was their lobbying that pushed the image of the sex-crazed Uber felon to the forefront of the argument.  The reality was that negative incidents were extremely few and far between, and generally not any worse than having a bad waiter.  It was yet another example of an uninformed minority making decisions for the majority.  It seemed like there was no way it would pass.

But it did, and I suspect that Uber’s campaign to defeat the proposition was partially its undoing.  I was cold called by the company no less than five times in an attempt to secure my vote.  By the time the polls opened, I was so annoyed by their constant spamming that even I was waffling on my position.  Certainly other less invested people would have been reluctant to support such a pushy company.  If Uber would have saved the money they spent on securing the public and instead just complied with the fingerprinting regulation, we might still be able to use the service to get around.

Now, due to stupidity on all sides, we don’t have it at all - another glaring example of what has gone wrong with Austin.  Don’t misunderstand, I am not leaving Austin because Uber got shut down.  Austin has become the kind of place, however, in which an out-of-touch elite makes decisions that impact the average person in ways that he or she cannot counteract.  That is not the place that I grew up in - or particularly want to live.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Moving, Bobgoblin, and "Denton Escape Velocity"

Many years ago, when I had barely been playing Chapman Stick for a matter of months, a jazz pianist friend of mine (whom we shall refer to as “Breakfast”) was kind enough to invite me out to play in a pizza joint on the square with Paul Slavens. I just barely stumbled through the gig. I am not sure what I played, and in retrospect I am sure there were some embarrassing moments, but I made it, nonetheless. I distinctively remember playing a song called Denton Escape Velocity, which described a fascinating phenomenon: it is possible to leave Denton, but you have to be going REALLY fast. Otherwise, you just get sucked back into orbit. As are many of Slavens’ best songs, it was satirical, funny, and inarguably true. Many people who leave Denton seem to come back.

I moved to Denton in 1989 to go to UNT, and I stayed in the city’s orbit for nearly twenty years. When my wife and I finally left the metroplex in 2008, I thought for sure that I had reached Denton Escape Velocity and that my path would lead me away from my second home. I was wrong.

There have been several issues with our life in Austin that have become impossible to ignore.  I have been increasingly dissatisfied with aspects of my position.  The rising cost of living in the city has made it impossible to subsist on our teacher’s salaries.  We have not found a sustainable plan for getting P into kindergarten that doesn’t turn her into a latchkey kid at age 5. These and other nagging problems made the idea of a change more and more appealing. My wife and I began putting out some feelers in Austin, Houston, and the northern DFW metroplex to see if we could land something that would resolve some of these problems. Being an elementary art teacher, she got the first real bite.

And don’t you know where it was?


She was offered a position at a brand new elementary school in a reputable district, and we decided that she should accept. Not only would she take the lead at a new school, but she felt so confident in the school’s philosophy that we both felt comfortable about P attending with her. Additionally, P and EJ could grow up in Denton, which is more like the Austin of my youth than the ridiculously overcrowded, overpriced, self-important, bloated mess that the city has sadly become. I would much rather let my kids make fond memories of dancing the polka to Brave Combo at Denton’s Christmas Tree Lighting on the Square than inhaling car fumes at the Trail of Lights.

Seems oddly fitting, then, that after almost two decades, one of my favorite bands from Denton’s big live music boom of the 90s has released a new album this year. Back when I played with Fletcher, we had a few projects that we openly supported whenever we could, and one of them was Bobgoblin. They had all the accessible punk-pop aesthetic of Green Day, but tempered it firmly with the virtuosity, intensity, and intellect of Rush. Plus, they wore uniforms.

They were a great live act whose musicianship far exceeded any superficial preconceptions surrounding the punky style in which they played. I particularly remember finding it difficult to take my attention away from drummer Rob Avsharian. His playing was always a presence, and often a subtle one. He was Bobgoblin’s spark plug, not unlike Terry Bozzio was when he played with the Missing Persons in the 80s. Avsharian could energize a relatively straightforward rhythm simply by aggressively nailing it deep in the pocket, but he could also throw out highly technical and melodic passages when it served the song.

Bobgoblin had a major release in 1997 called the 12-Point Master Plan that deserves its own dedicated post at some point, but for now let’s suffice it to say that it was and still is personal favorite. Since then, the band has been active at varying levels and in different forms, but no plans for a new full-length Bobgoblin release have ever been announced - until recently.

Several months ago, plans for the release of Love Lost for Blood Lust, the first full Bobgoblin album in nearly twenty years, began to surface. Early recordings were posted and taken down.  Partial digital releases were teased on Amazon and other major outlets.  Finally, earlier this year, the album was released in full form on disc.  I ordered it directly from the Bobgoblin site and amazingly, it picks up right where the band left off. The consistency between it and its predecessor belies the decades-long gap that exists between them – a continuity that stands in tribute to Bobgoblin’s unwavering mission statement.

It is important to note, however, that Love Lost for Blood Lust is not a rework of the 12-Point Master Plan. It is a more mature album, but as with most things Bobgoblin, its maturity is only subtly revealed. Superficially, they still present themselves a purveyors of angular, riff-driven, intensely delivered power pop with a countercultural edge. Inside these infectious tunes, however, hide dense production, complex rhythms, and an almost sarcastic mastery of the power chord’s harmonic ambiguity. None of these features are new to Bobgoblin, of course, but they are expressed on this album in way that suggests decades worth of consideration, rather than a spontaneous rehash.

Love Lost for Blood Lust has the sense that it is a labor of love made for long time fans of the band, with the optimistic undercurrent of raising visibility in the process. It is certainly being released to a much different world than its predecessor. Gone are the days of beating the streets to get a record deal and getting gypped by the company. For better or for worse, artists today have much more creative control over their work and often have a direct line toward their audience. I for one am very grateful to have the opportunity to dip my toe in 90s nostalgia without living in the past as I end one era of my life and usher in another.