Monday, June 20, 2011

Late Father's Day post

I owe a lot to my father.  I've mentioned him before and will mention him again.  Both my parents were great, I'll say that out front.  I was a lucky kid, parent-wise, even if my parents weren't always lucky parents, kid-wise (yes mom and dad, I now know what a huge wiseass I was from the ages of 7 to 19).  Both of them managed to make me feel accepted without being sheltered or coddled, so I didn't end up like the kids in this Atlantic article nor like some of my friends who had more demanding parents -- more driven than I, perhaps, but a good deal less happy.

But beyond this, my father in particular showed me an example of who I could be as a man -- he was patient, gentle and kind to a fault.  'Nurturing' is one of the first words I would use to describe him, so the traditional depiction of fathers as impersonal disciplinarians always puzzled me, to say nothing of the depiction of them as bumbling incompetents.

The effected not just my view of father but of men in general -- why does a man have to be aggressive or domineering?  Why are those things 'manly'?  My father was my model for manhood, and he was none of those things.  Now I am less patient and more inclined to dominate a conversation than my father, (I can only hope I'll get better with age) but he did set me down a path of wanting to define for myself what being a man meant.  I don't know where this path ends (does being a man mean anything at all, beyond what we decide it means for ourselves?  I doubt it), but I'll always be thankful that he showed me the way.  In the end the proof is in the pudding though -- if at the end of the day I'm half as kind and patient as he is, I'll be happy.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Greatness of "Die Hard"

I'm still working on the blog post I'd hoped to write this week.  In the meantime, here is some pop-culture thoughts.

I saw "Die Hard" for probably the 10th time.  It's still awesome.  It succeeds at what it sets out to do -- tell a thrilling story well -- better than most movies, including most prestige pictures that end up vying for Oscars.  Having seen "the King's Speech" recently, I'd say they're about on par -- neither is life-changing or philosophical or whatever, but they're well done movies.

Here's some random thoughts about what makes Die Hard so great.

On a pretentious note it adheres to the 3 classical unities of drama:

1) Unity of Action - On watching it again it was impressive how organically the movie flows.  Every action sequence make sense in the context of Alan Rickman's takeover of the office tower -- many of them are Rickman's thugs chasing Bruce Willis around, others are the result of Willis and Rickman matching wits (about the detonators in the 3rd quarter of the movie, for instance).  Action sequences have not been added willy-nilly and some classic sequences (notably car chases) are absent entirely because they wouldn't fit.  The result is that the movie builds extremely well.

2) Unity of Place - the office tower is a great setting.  Rather than leaving it we're taken over the same ground multiple times to give us an idea of how frantic Willis is and how claustrophobic and crazy the situation is.  This restricts the kinds of scenes that can take place, but they give each scene a very strong sense of context -- you feel like you could map out the office tower, from the lobby to the maintenance area with the pin-up to the roof.

3) Unity of Time - the movie almost unfolds in real time.  As near as I can tell it takes place over 4-5 hours, so very little time is compressed.  This lets the events unfold in detail and seem more real.

Beyond the unnecessary shout-out to Aristotle's Poetics, the above points get at the movie's core strength -- it is tight.  Everything about it is tight.  That is to say, nothing is extraneous, every piece fulfills some part of it's central purpose.  The characters are fleshed out enough for us to care about them, which is aided by the solid acting by the whole cast.  The writing is often funny, sometimes touching, and always pulls you in -- there's no backstory or subplots patronizingly thrown in to appeal to demographic x or y to take away screen time that would be better spent blowing shit up.

At the risk of being curmudgeonly, action movies would do well to stick closer to the Die Hard formula rather than spastic crap like the original Fast and Furious movie or plodding nonsense from Michael Bay.  Action movies are about action -- things that get audiences blood pumping, make them cackle a tad sadistically, etc. These are simple things.  Adding on other stuff, Michael Bay style - an extended romance or a complicated mythos -- doesn't turn your action movie into an epic, it just makes it boring.  For myself, I can always watch Die Hard an 11th time next time I want to turn my brain off and enjoy myself.  Yippe ki yay.

Monday, June 13, 2011

7 Country(ish) albums for people that don't like Country

Country is cool these days.  First Johnny Cash came back, then Loretta Lynn, then Old Crow Medicine Show and the Drive By Truckers came along with Old Timey and southern rock albums about the contemporary South that produced a hit or two.  Still, I imagine that the twanging might turn some people off, and I will confess that I myself am still flirting with Nashville rather than embracing it, so here are 7 albums that got me closer to country music.

Artist: Earth,
Album: Hex or, Printing in the Infernal Method

Recommended for: metalheads, post rockers
Yeah, it's a metal album, but a metal album that sounds like the soundtrack to some creepy contemporary western.  Particularly, the guitar distortion has a distinctly non-metal, western twang.  It's going to be in my CD player if I ever drive across the high plains.

After this album Earth's other records have pretty much followed it's style, so if you like this you'd probably like The Bees Made Honey in the Lion's Skull and Hibernaculum.

Artist: Songs Ohia
Album: Magnolia Electric Company
Recommended for: Indie rockers
The recommendation is somewhat superfluous, since this album was a pretty big deal back in 2003.  7 years later, it's still awesome -- on the balance I'd call it southern rock, but it varies between ballads like "The Old Black Hen" and almost metal riffs like the ones in "John Henry Split My Heart."  I can't listen to this album in the daytime for some reason -- generally it's in the CD player when driving country roads late at night.

This album was the last recorded as Songs Ohia -- but the same group continues to release albums as Magnolia Electric Company. Unsurprisingly, they sound rather like this one. 

Artist: Slim Cessna's Auto Club
Album: Cypher
Recommended for: fans of punk rock, goddamn near everyone
This is the best album I've heard that's come out in the past 10 years.  No joke.  There's only 1 track that's merely mediocre, everything else ranges from very good to excellent.  The songs range from shape-note like spirituals (the "Power of Braces" quartet of songs that frame the album) to raucous rock songs like the one above to "Red Pirate of the Prairie's" hard rock (it's probably the most metal song ever to feature a banjo) to noise rock ("Jesus is in My Body - My Body has Let Me Down," which sounds like Swans).  The whole thing is raucous, danceable and fun, if often creepy.  Also, the band probably puts on the best live show of any band currently touring the US.

Cypher is my all-time favorite, but Slim Cessna's albums are all worth checking out, though the older ones like Always Say Please and Thank You are a bit more country. More like Cypher are The Bloudy Tennet Truth Peace, which includes the band's all-time theme song, "This is How We Do Things in the Country" and their latest album, Unentitled.

Artist: 16 Horsepower
Album: Sackcloth 'n Ashes
Recommended for: Goths, anyone else who likes Joy Division
Unlike Magnolia Electric Co. or Cypher, this isn't a particularly diverse album, sound wise.  The album is very much like Black Soul Choir, above -- dark, depressing stuff, with great, catchy melodies and some awesome instrumentation.  In particular, it has awesome concertina parts on songs like "American Wheeze."  16 Horsepower came from the same Denver-based Gothic Americana scene as Slim Cessna's Auto Club, and the frontman, David Eugene Edwards, released awesome albums with both 16 Horsepower and his subsequent act, Woven Hand, though never one quite like this.  Particularly notable are his covers, particularly those of "Bad Moon Rising" and "Day of the Lord's" by Joy Division.  I could easily make this whole list David Eugene Edwards albums, but that will have to wait for an upcoming introductory post to Gothic Americana.

Artist: Drive By Truckers
Album: Brighter than Creation's Dark
Recommended for: Alt-rock fans, open-minded hip hop fans
The hip hop recommendation is admittedly weird, since musically this album has nothing in common with hip-hop, musically speaking.  But unlike the albums listed above, which are an excelletn but mostly humorless lot (except for Slim Cessna's), Brigther than Creation's Dark has a lot of the lyrical playfulness and humor that old-school country has, which isn't unlike what you'd find in Hip-Hop.  They can just as easily turn their lyrics to more serious ends, singing about issues like the Iraq War and Methamphetamine abuse disproportionately effect rural America (not unlike the soical consciousness of some rap acts).  So maybe it's a stretch, but I think there's something to the comparison.

The Drive-By-Truckers are pretty consistently good, but Decoration Day is another great album.

Artist: Old Crow Medicine Show
Album: Big Iron World

Recommended for: Singer/songwriter fans, mainstream rock fans
If you haven't heard OCMS's 2004 song "Wagon Wheel" you may have spent the past 5 years living under a rock.  But the band is no one-hit wonder -- on their follow up album the two best songs are probably "James River Blues," above (an original composition about the end of the era of the bateau men of Virginia with the coming of the railroad) and "Cocaine Habit" (traditional, maybe one of the oldest songs about coke and how it makes you an asshole).  Probably the best part about their songs are their vocal harmonies (which are de rigeur in bluegrass and often in Old Time Music as well) and the violin part, which is as gorgeous in "James River Blues" as "Wagon Wheel."

Artist: Seldom Scene
Album: Act 1
Recommended for: everyone who doesn't mind banjoes
Now we're in pretty thick.  This is a straight bluegrass album, even more so than Big Iron World is a straight old-time album.  Still, the Seldom Scene don't restrict themselves to the old standards like "Will There Be Any Stars In My Crown" and add in a James Taylor cover and the 70's folk song "City of New Orleans," which they helped make a new Bluegrass standard.  Act 1 as a whole has some of the best vocal harmonies in the genre and some virtuoso banjo and dobro playing.  The songwriting is also quite tight -- unlike some of there other 60's/70's bluegrass contemporaries they don't get stuck on jam band meandering.  Stand out tracks include the two songs mentioned above, the great banjo track "Joshua," and "With Body and Soul."

IF you like this album, The Seldom Scene has been together in various incarnations for 40 years, so there's a lot there.  One of their best is their live album, Live at the Cellar Door, which includes a lot of songs from their early albums and an all-time great cover of "Baby Blue" by Bob Dylan (I'd say it ties the 13th Floor Elevators version).

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Music for Sunday

The rocking opening track from Secret South, probably 16 Horsepower's most mainstream-sounding album.