Some Recent Listenings

I listen to music a lot while working. One of my Spotify accounts is called “Grading Papers” because that’s when I listen to it. Lately, I’ve been listening to some long, mellow tracks as I slog away:

 

But then again, I’ve also really liked having this one on in the background, too!

I came across that one while listening to this on a loop:

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RIP Dolores O’Riordan of The Cranberries

Dolores O’Riordan, lead singer of The Cranberries, died today at the age of 46. This is a sad day for those who love Ireland and 90s music.

Just last month, I was thinking about their song “Dreams” again. At first blush it can come off as too light, too fluffy–it was featured in the movie You’ve Got Mail, after all–but the song’s pop catchiness is deceptive. It’s not a simple, formulaic pop song–far from it. The story presents a new infatuation as a chance for self discovery and reinvention, optimistically claiming that such growth is inevitable. The iconic guitar riff complemented that perfectly, and perfectly represented the early 90s with its bubbly electricity, part gritty grunge, part power pop.

But back to the words–not only did O’Riordan’s lyrics delve deeper than they seemed to, in ways that strayed outside the norm, but so did her vocal work itself. If the guitar in “Dreams” was prototypical early 90s, her voice was the exact opposite. It was the style for women at the time to try to sound as tormented and angry as their male counterparts, but she was happy to chirp out pretty melodies which were no less affecting for it. To be earnestly positive while still communicating a solid connection to elemental reality–that’s a tough balance to strike. Few try. Dolores did it. Witness “Linger” and “Ode To My Family.”

And yet, this is the woman who also wrote and sang “Zombie,” a passionate lament about actual political violence! This was a deep well of lyric and vocal artistry, friends.

46 is far too young. Her work will be missed.

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7 Old Albums

One of my goals while I’m 40 is to listen to 40 albums that were important to teenage me. I’ve gone back and heard seven so far.

1. U2, The Unforgettable Fire

This one’s a bit of a cheat–I’ve listened to parts of this pretty consistently over the years, but I haven’t heard the whole album, start to finish, in who knows how long. My preferred tracks probably hurt this, though: the tracks I tend to avoid–“Fire” and “Indian Summer Sky”–sounded out of place now. Besides, they’re harsher than the soft, mellow, flowing tracks that attract me to this album: a lot of late work nights this last semester were capped off by a long drive home to the trio of “Promenade,” “4th of July,” and “Bad” on earphones (but of course I still love “Pride,” so go figure).

New Verdict: B+

2. The Cure, Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me

I remember this being a long, rambling, uneven album…and this re-listening confirmed that. The surprise here was that some of the highly visible singles from my childhood–like “Hot Hot Hot!!!” and “Why Can’t I Be You?”–are just annoying now, and some of the more obscure tracks from later on towards the end of the album–such as “The Perfect Girl,” “Like Cockatoos,” and “A Thousand Hours”–are more catchy and pleasant than I remembered.

Still a deeply uneven effort. Why make the album so overstuffed with discordant filler like “The Snakepit” and “Icing Sugar,” the later of which sounds like a ripoff of their own classic “The Hanging Garden?”

New Verdict: B-

3. The Cure, Disintegration

Holy crap, this is even more of a perfect classic than I thought it was! The themes are explored so deeply that the album has more variety than I recalled, but every detail is tightly in service of the overall effect. It’s genuinely moving. No surprise that the lesser tracks now strike me as just as powerful as the well-known ones: though not a popular single or anything, there’s a reason why the track below gave the album its title! Really, a total masterpiece from the first note to the last.

New Verdict: A+

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Haydn

So I’ve spent a lot of this year getting into Haydn. It’s odd–I’ve been courting a taste for classical music for most of my adult life, but I never really listened to Haydn until now. He slipped through the cracks somehow. I read something recently about how Haydn used to be regarded as highly as his younger contemporary Mozart, and was just as popular, until the last generation or so, when we decided Mozart was the be-all and end-all of music. (I enjoy this channel of animated classical music, which has hundreds of videos, but which I just found has zero pieces by Haydn.)

The two men’s styles are certainly similar, but in Haydn I see a man I find spiritually simpatico. His symphonies each sound simple, but developed deeply–each a paean to grace–like Mozart’s–but also direct in a clean, friendly way, as opposed to Mozart’s often overbearing showmanship. A balance of lofty and grounded.

I just watched a lecture by Robert Greenberg about Haydn, and learned that he was a child of the working class, and a late bloomer: another level at which I connect with him. It may be illustrative of pretension, but when I listen to Haydn, I feel the best of both my abilities and aspirations underscored–ambitions for productive contemplation, if you will. I’ve listened to the Sunrise quartet on some Sunday mornings, for example, and find it a perfect fit.

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Two Examples of Cultural Whitewashing In Recent Movies

hfNot long ago, I saw this essay pointing out a huge hole in the otherwise excellent Jackie Robinson biopic 42: the total absence of his faith, which was ubiquitous in his real life.

Such changes to how we tell stories about history say more about our time than they do about times in the past.

Two small examples I noticed in movies I’ve recently seen:

Hidden Figures was a fantastic movie. I loved everything about it. Except one tiny detail kept nagging at me.

Not a single person is ever seen smoking.

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Learning to Read Literature the Way Critics Watch Movies

When I’m trying to teach rhetorical analysis or any kind of analytical reading, I find this metaphor to be useful: we need to learn to read literature the way that critics watch movies. Everybody can picture that and relate to it immediately. All students have seen movies and have seen and heard others pick apart the various aspects of films.

The two processes–literary analysis and film criticism–are remarkably similar: they’re both exercises in identifying the basic building blocks of a work, and then scrutinizing them through lenses like comparison, connection, and evaluation. They’re both means of interpreting the content of messages while appreciating the modes of communication themselves.

I find that having students examine examples of great film criticism, such as essays found from Roger Ebert or the Criterion Collection, is a productive foundation for then extending the tools those writers used to their own approaches to literature in our classes.

And–bonus!–students also get exposed to quality films!

 

Great Gravitas in Two Popcorn Flicks

We don’t exactly think of superheroes or science fiction when we think of Oscar bait, but two performances in mainstream pop movies of recent years have stuck with me. They both demonstrated a subdued gravitas which may have slipped past many people’s radar because the work was so naturally understated.

The first is Robert Downey Jr. in Captain America: Civil War. One of the complaints about the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that it has so many dead ends, and despite the continuous storyline, so many of its films still feel like stand alone fresh starts. That’s largely true.

An exception is RDJ’s work in Civil War. His portrayal of Tony Stark has been uneven, partly as he has explored the character himself, and partly as the varying quality of scripts has left him more or less to work with, but not only did the plot of Civil War bring to fruition all the character growth earned and lost over the course of several films, RDJ brought his A game to it, and gave an impressively nuanced performance.

We can really feel the weight of all that has happened in recent years in the MCU in this film. We can see this movie as a depiction of the age-old political struggle between collectivism and individualism, but Tony Stark is no bureaucratic stooge here: RDJ makes it clear that this man is finally just crumpling under the burdens that life has kept stacking on him. He needs escape. He needs rest. This is a man in turmoil.

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Ten Favorite Paintings

The top 10-themed culture conversation continues between two old friends and I. This last week the category was simple: ten favorite paintings. I got to go back over my posts here on that subject, and I came up with this list:

10. Durand, The Morning of Life

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9. Van Gogh, Cafe Terrace at Night

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8. Church, Country Home

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7. Bocklin, Isle of the Dead

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The 10 Best Albums Of My High School Years?

Recently, a friend posed an interesting question for us to ponder: what were the best albums of our high school years? We decided to make our own lists to compare and discuss.

This is tricky right off the bat because we became freshmen in 1992, a year after music’s best calendar year ever. Still, the early 90s had a ton of amazing quality: our lists had to be from albums released between August 1992 and June 1996.

I decided my list would have to balance personal taste with importance and impact on the larger musical world. This is really just a first draft, but for now, here are my ten.

10. Rancid, …And Out Come The Wolves

9. Beck, Odelay

8. The Crow, Soundtrack

7. Smashing Pumpkins, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness

6. Nirvana, In Utero

5. Live, Throwing Copper

4. Pearl Jam, Vs.

3. Nine Inch Nails, The Downward Spiral

2. REM, Automatic For The People

1. Nirvana, Unplugged in New York

 

Great Student Film From My School

I recently went to an evening awards show for the film department at the fantastic arts schools where I teach. Student films were shown on a big screen and awards were given, Oscar style.

All of them were at least good, and some were great–not just as “student films,” but as films, period. My favorite was this very impressive piece called “Only One.” Really, though, the whole catalog is worth checking out. Here’s their YouTube page:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCAV42CYHo6Gd7KyYN6rod1w

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wonder Woman is Basically Eve

Wonder Woman is a great movie, but I couldn’t help noticing how much it fits a scriptural template for Latter-day Saints:

(wee bit spoiler-y folks; you’ve been warned)

This movie is about a demi-goddess who’s the only one to recognize her evil demi-god brother. He’s trying to force humanity into his vision of paradise, but she ultimately realizes that all individuals are both good and bad and must choose love on their own. There are a lot of speeches about what we “deserve” vs. what we “believe” (with object lessons in justice vs. mercy). She and the man she loves inspire each other and set an example for others. She is part of the confrontation where the power of the gods casts her evil brother out. Then, she stays in the world of mortals to serve them and show them the way to love.

I wonder if the screenwriter consulted the Pearl of Great Price, or if this is just a coincidence!

Batman vs. Superman Just Sucks, Doesn’t It?

Batman_v_Superman_posterThe world doesn’t need yet another review saying the obvious, but I finally just watched it today, and holy moly, this movie is awful.

It’s a tedious, leaden, pompous, plodding mess of a movie. The dour, somber tone isn’t even level–it bounces around in degree every few minutes. Ditto for the pacing–mostly too slow (especially at the beginning), it often veers into quick summaries of scenes with hardly any context or relevance.

This movie breaks every known rule of grammar in the language of film!

Director Zack Snyder wants so badly to be the love child of Terrence Malick and Stanley Kubrick, but he just doesn’t know how to consistently balance his work like them.

Jesse Eisenberg’s version of Lex Luthor is just garbage. Seriously, who decided every interesting Hollywood character had to be ADD-addled and awkward? Eisenberg’s not a  bad actor, so I blame this one on Snyder, too.

Why was Wonder Woman there? Her presence is never really explained. She was on Luthor’s trail because…plot?

Did the Cinema Sins video for this movie have a Scowling Eyebrows Bonus Round?

Like the Star Wars prequels, the most infuriating part is that there’s clearly the kernel of a much better movie in here. How sad this opportunity got wasted.

Ugh. Congratulations, Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice. You’ve just entered the dubious pantheon of films that literally made me angry while watching them: Alien 3 and Batman and Robin are also members.

I have very little hope for Justice League.

U2’s Joshua Tree Tour 2017 Reviewed

I saw U2 play the Rose Bowl on May 20. It was the fifth tour of theirs that I’ve seen, and it was the best overall. Here is the setlist.

Highlights: “A Sort of Homecoming,” “Mothers of the Disappeared,” American optimism theme, set design and video.

“Homecoming.” We’re in the middle of a big 80s nostalgia kick in America, and this new arrangement of a 1984 track is loaded with clever throwback synth sounds. Great version.

“Mothers.” Rarely played live at all, the somber, sonorous last song on The Joshua Tree appropriately resonated that night, acoustically and narratively. Would have been great to see Eddie Vedder, though, like Seattle got to!

The Joshua Tree is about America, the country and the hemisphere. Like the original album, this tour focused on the good, the bad, and the absolutely heartbreakingly beautiful. At points in the show, Bono called for unity (“From the party of Lincoln to the party of Kennedy…”), thanked American taxpayers for helping improve the global AIDS crisis, and called himself a “guest” in this country who felt like he was “coming home.”

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Favorites From the NPR 100

I just found some notes I made from a bucket list item I checked off a few years ago–listening to NPR’s 100 essential American recordings of the 20th century. I thought I’d blogged about this before, but apparently not.

Some of the items were familiar, but many were new to me. Here are my favorites from the ones I was hearing for the first time.

“Adagio for Strings” This beautifully ethereal piece is just magical. It’s heart rending and haunting.

 

“Ain’t That a Shame” Fun, early rock track.

 

“Blue Moon of Kentucky” An early bluegrass track with a legacy in folk and country music. Feeling connected to roots here.

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