Sometimes it’s not the whole song but just a moment.
Like the verses in “Grease is the Word” from Grease. The chords alternate between Bm and E before hitting F#m7 at the end of the couplet. Then the bass steps up to Em7 at “There ain’t no danger” and walks down to D and C. That Em7 (at :23 in the video below) hits me like honey:
Or the beginning of the chorus to “The Mixed Tape” by Jack’s Mannequin, which is preceded by an electric guitar sliding up to the climax of the chorus. The piano arpeggiates, tickling the ivories as it tickles my spine, McMahon crooning “Where are you now? / As I’m swimming through the stereo / I’m writing you a symphony of sound” beneath a fulsome ahh-chorus, starting at :29 here:
I didn’t choose these moments; they chose me. They burrowed into whatever deep part of the psyche finds transcendence important, however fleeting. “The Mixed Tape” is from a very specific memory, and I listen to it to evoke that time. “Grease is the Word” doesn’t fit in with the rest of the songs from Grease (which isn’t even close to my favorite musical), but for some reason I like it the best.
I have a new piece at ThinkChristian on how a book and an album were telling me the same thing at basically the same time:
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” You’ve probably seen this quote, the final couplet in Mary Oliver’s poem The Summer Day, on pictures of sunsets or accompanying “Adventure” boards on Pinterest. I encountered it elsewhere. First, it’s the inspiration for Gungor’s One Wild Life, a trilogy of albums entitled Soul (2015), Spirit (2016) and Body (forthcoming). I had Soul on heavy rotation when on a whim I picked up David Dark’s new book, Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious, simply because of the provocative title. Together, these distinct works of art share more than just the Oliver quote, which Dark also directly references. They preach a similar message in a way that’s accessible to a wide audience of readers and listeners who crave a richer understanding of religion.
Pictured is the haul ($8 total) from a recent afternoon browsing used bookstores, which I do once in a while, when my time is open and therefore my self-discipline is weak. But I didn’t feel bad about getting more Stuff this time, because I’m coming to something approaching terms with it.
I love books, movies, and music, but developing an extensive catalog has never been a priority. Working at a library is a factor. With easy, daily access to a plethora of titles, expanding our humble collection of books, DVDs, vinyls, and CDs seems unnecessary. Since I tend not to reread books, amassing more out of fun or bibliophilia isn’t an issue; only the most meaningful or heirloom-worthy books have secured space on our limited shelves. Ditto our LPs and CDs, which are now mostly survivors from several moves and curatorial weedings. For me, less stuff has been better. My friend jokes about being able to move me and all my stuff from college to grad school in one trip in his Geo Prizm.
That’s changed recently. I’ve rediscovered the desire to own analog media, if only as a supplemental collection to my mostly-digitized life. Also: for their tangible or aesthetic appeal, to preserve tangibility, to not be constantly tracked and advertised to, to escape the mercurial whims of licensing and arcane digital services, or to have something to do when the internet goes down.
In a way I haven’t even needed to rediscover it: the majority of my movie watching has always come from DVDs or the theater, and I’ll always prefer print over ebooks. We still have Amazon Prime for movies and Google Play for music, and they are often handy. But I need to remind myself once in a while that newer/easier/faster doesn’t always equal better.
I’m not concerned I’ll suddenly become a hoarder. In fact I’m starting to become concerned we’re not keeping enough things around we’ll regret not having later on, either as historical curios or as cultural artifacts that boomerang from modish to obsolete and back. I can’t tell you how many times, when I bring up my interest in typewriters, I’ve heard something like, Oh yeah, I had one from college, but… or My parents had one but didn’t use it anymore, so… It makes me cringe to ponder the fate of those machines. Whether it’s vinyls, typewriters, love letters, Polaroids, or anything else that doesn’t live in an app or social network, the things we think no longer matter in our lives might in time prove us wrong. And what with the internet ushering in a new Dark Ages, methinks we all should get a little more discerning on what we keep, what we don’t, and why.
I don’t think I could have named a single Prince song before he died. Nothing against him at all; I just never glommed onto his music. Though I was certainly aware of him as an icon, an object of parody, and as one of the few interesting modern Super Bowl halftime shows.
Given the outpouring of respect and adulation since his sudden death, I figured I should give him a try. Apparently a lot of his music is (intentionally) not available on the standard streaming services, so I checked Hoopla and sure enough there he was, 32 titles strong. Your public library, ladies and gentlemen!
Since I’m coming in fresh, I started at the very beginning of his insanely extensive discography with 1978’s For You, then moved 1979’s Prince and 1980’s Dirty Mind. And what do you know, I dig it. I mean, how great and danceable an opener is “I Wanna Be Your Lover”? Not sure how much more of his stuff I’ll like, and how different it will get, but I can start to see where everyone’s coming from.
Resurrecting my 2013 choice to include all my best-ofs into one omnilist, here are 15 films, books, and albums I loved from 2015.
1. Brooklyn There’s a scene about five minutes into Brooklyn that setup the whole film for me. Eilis (Saoirse Ronan), soon bound for a new life in 1950s America, watches as her friend disappears into the dance crowd with a partner, leaving her alone, on the outside looking in at what will soon be her old life. The camera holds on her face, which betrays a tender bittersweetness that characterizes the whole of John Crowley’s exquisite and humane film. Even while still at home she is homesick, a struggle she will have to endure long after she sails away from Ireland and attempts to forge a new meaning of home. Saoirse Ronan carried this film, and me with it.
1. The Hunt for Vulcanby Thomas Levenson (review)
I’m a sucker for concisely written popular histories that uncover forgotten pockets of history and render them understandable and entertaining to the general public. This book does just that. Having read Isaacson’s biography of Einstein last year I was a little better equipped than I otherwise would be when reading about Einstein’s role in this narrative, yet I found Levenson’s distillation of the theories revolving around the Vulcan episode even more accessible than others. I’ve been pimping this one at the library with hopes more people will enjoy it as much as I did.
2. Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot by Mark Vanhoenacker
5. The Typewriter Revolution by Richard Polt (review)
1. Psalms by Sandra McCracken “All Ye Refugees” was quite timely this year, given the animus surrounding immigration. It’s heartening to remember public policy need not and should not be influenced solely by politico and demagogues. Though this album is explicitly based on the Psalms, like her previous albums The Builder and the Architect and In Feast or Fallow its blend of modern and ancient style lends it a timeless sound even the irreligious can appreciate.
As biopics go, Love & Mercy is more interesting than most. I liked how the two arcs and time periods of Brian Wilson’s life start off on their own but then slowly merge like converging highways. Having ’90s Brian in our heads as we watch ’60s Brian slowly devolve personally and psychologically, even as he peaks musically and famously, lends more dramatic irony to the film. Most Beach Boys fans probably already knew Wilson recovered and returned to music, but the film doesn’t let on until the credits (and fanboy postscript).
As for the Pet Sounds sessions, at times the process of inspiration to execution took on the feel of the movie version of Jersey Boys, where someone would say offhand “Big girls don’t cry…” and then we’d see the proverbial lightbulb over Valli’s head, and then cut to the band singing the fully formed “Big Girls Don’t Cry.” I suppose it’s just an efficient way to signify the creative process, but it’s also a bit disingenuous. Lightbulb moments do happen, but shotgun songwriting in my experience tends to be the exception and not the rule.
The movie luckily doesn’t overuse that trope; indeed, it dedicates good time to watching Wilson “compose” the album via the many studio musicians and strange new sounds. And the subsequent self-doubt and uneasiness about the album’s prospects for success will ring true to any musician or artist venturing into unorthodox grounds.
I’m grateful, above all, that it didn’t go full-bio. We learn just enough about Wilson’s upbringing to provide context for the story; and we see just enough of Older Brian to get a sense of his nadir. Put those two halves together and you’ve got a story that says more than if they were to actually include more.
More of that, please.
Sidenote: Paul Giamatti is a national treasure. He can be likably flawed (John Adams, Win Win), a colorful character actor (Saving Private Ryan, Parkland), and total sleezeball or straight-up villain, as he is in Love & Mercy and 12 Years A Slave. (Also, his middle names are Edward and Valentine, apparently. If he were around in the 1930s and ’40s he could have gone by Eddie Valentine and been a badass Edward G. Robinson doppelgänger. Come to think of it, he is today’s Edward G. Robinson.)
When you’re parched and dehydrated and take that first drink of cool water, you can feel it slide down your sandpapered throat like a tingling balm to soothe your thirst. That’s what it felt like to listen to Anathallo’s “All the First Pages” yesterday, a relatively bad day. Fate got fidgety, wanted to spice things up, so it decided to burn me. Literally: my morning coffee in a new thermos dropped not down my throat but onto my tan khakis as I drove to work. Cosmically: I inadvertently parked the car on the wrong side of the street, the ticket-earning side. And relationally: the night before was a bumpy one with my fiancee. Words laid down gently transformed into a landmine. We got through it—we always do—and we’re sitting here this morning enjoying our daily cup of coffee (in mugs). But redemption began with a song.
Mmhmm is Relient K’s best album. I thought so when it was released ten years ago and I think so still today.
I was in high school when it dropped, on Election Day 2004. The version of Mmhmm I listened to back then, over and over again, still lays calcified somewhere in my subconscious. So baked in it was to my adolescence that it’s hard to render an unbiased verdict on the album’s legacy these ten years later. (Add to this that I was in a band that held up Relient K as the paragon of pop-punk.) And yet, I’ve revived its musical bones since then. Mmhmm is not frozen in time and perspective like other albums that stick to us simply because we were young and impressionable; it’s alive and wriggling for me even today.
The first of Mmhmm’s two exemplary qualities is its diverse timbre. Whereas Mmhmm’s predecessors (2001’s The Anatomy of Tongue in Cheek and 2003’s Two Lefts Don’t Make a Right…but Three Do) felt like self-contained musical ecosystems, sonically and lyrically, Mmhmm expanded Relient K into a greater realm, a confederacy of sounds living and interacting in the same world but nevertheless on their own adventures. I imagine it as a map of Middle-earth, with the cheery “High of 75” in place of Hobbiton, the doleful “Life After Death and Taxes” overlaying Minas Morgul, and the plaintive “The One I’m Waiting For” in Gondor’s stead. (Want a Cliff Notes viewing of the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy? Just listen to Mmhmm.)
I like albums with a tightly cohesive sound, like they came from one of those domains, but sometimes I like touring the whole land, as it were. This is what we get to do with Mmhmm. It’s all still Relient K, and it’s all still pop-punk to an extent, but stretched to the boundaries.
But Mmhmm shines above all in its eloquence. This is the key difference between Mmhmm and its predecessors. Gone are the pink tuxedos, chapped lips, and literal gibberish of Two Lefts that charmed me as a fifteen year old but don’t hold the same sway now. The silly, pop culture-obsessed outlook of the band’s first three albums gives way, in Mmhmm, to a lyrical bravura that would also infuse the group’s subsequent albums, especially 2007’s Five Score and Seven Years Ago.
My favorite song on the album (though it’s hard to choose) is “I So Hate Consequences,” a rueful lament of the futility of running from our mistakes: “And after all of my alibis desert me / I just want to get by / I don’t want nothing to hurt me / I had no idea where my head was at / But if my heart says I’m sorry can we leave it at that?” It’s also the first instance in RK’s oeuvre of the screamo effect—an apt use given the song’s pent-up frustration, and the subsequent release of it in the tender coda.
Mmhmm is not without some random, manic fun. The flash-bang “The Only Thing Worse Than Beating a Dead Horse is Betting On It” speaks the truth: “Opinions are immunity to being told you’re wrong / Paper, rock, and scissors / They all have their pros and cons.” As does the buoyant, very danceable “My Girl’s Ex-Boyfriend,” which could be sung by any dude in the throes of a rosy romance.
Even the track titles tell their own song’s stories. “Who I Am Hates Who I’ve Been,” “This Week the Trend,” “Which to Bury; Us or the Hatchet,” and “When I Go Down” synecdochically capture the guilt and frustration of failure, while “Be My Escape” and “More Than Useless” allude to the aspirational longing that pervades this record as much as RK’s later ones.
But the cornerstone of the album is the lyrical leitmotif: You took my heavy heart and made it light. That simple line appears in slightly different forms in “High of 75,” “Let It All Out,” and “When I Go Down,” which constitute the beginning, middle, and end of the record. It’s the through line frontman and lyricist Matthew Thiessen uses to join disparate songs together as a cohesive whole. It’s also emblematic of Thiessen’s great ability, one that all great songwriters have, to give words to feelings in a vulnerable and plainspoken way.
That line is also the reason why I’ve stuck with Mmhmm all these years later. I’ve drifted away from other music I liked as an adolescent, or revisit it only in bouts of nostalgia, but Mmhmm continues to speak to me. I’ve changed a lot over the last ten years. I’ve accumulated regrets, succumbed to identity crises, and struggled to reconcile who I want to be with who I’ve actually been. The emo-tinged power chords and piano-driven introspection of Mmhmm has been the perfect partner in that journey through young adulthood and beyond, and from darkness to light.
My betrothed and I caught the penultimate performance of Newsies: The Musical in Chicago on Saturday night. We’d been watching prices on StubHub for a while and finally jumped on them Saturday morning for the 8 PM showing. So glad it worked out because I’ve been excited to see it since its announcement years ago.
I went with “Breaking Newsies” because of the pun, obviously, but also because to make this show they had to break the original Newsies movie and rebuild it into something way better. I’m not exactly sure why I so love the original movie, which is—let’s be honest—a mediocre camp-fest meant primarily for kids, a la High School Musical (which is fitting given the two movies share a director.) But I watched it in high school with some friends who were strangely enthusiastic about it and found myself enjoying the music, which isn’t surprising given that it was wrought by Disney musical maven Alan Menken. “Seize the Day” is my go-to pump-up song, and what I listen to on repeat when I’m having a good day and want to keep it good.
Christian Bale famously disdains the 1992 movie he helmed, which makes no sense. If you turn off your left brain and remember its audience, the movie is quite fun, though about halfway through it dips considerably in quality. Once the strike is on and the “Seize the Day” a cappella chorale passes, it loses charm for the sake of plot and message—and who wants that in a silly musical made for kids?
This was what I worried most about in the musical. How would they fix the movie’s terrible excuse for a love story, honor the politics, and raise the stakes for everyone? No spoilers here, but I thought the adjustments they made to characters and motivations were savvy and ameliorative. The new songs, too, were welcome additions to the Newsies cult canon. They ditched weak songs (peace out “High Times, Hard Times”) and moved some existing songs around, but in a way that tightened the story and made it more cohesive.
What else should I have expected from a Tony Award-winning Broadway show based on a Disney property? The dancing was top-notch and remains my favorite element of stage shows in general. I’m always impressed by what these performers can do so well and so seemingly easily. We saw the penultimate performance in the Chicago run and yet the energy level seemed just as high as an opening night. I greatly admire what these professionals can do. I only wish from our nosebleed seats we could have seen the performances up closer.