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june 2007


Now that it's June, we'll sleep out in the garden
And if it rains, we'll just sink into the mud

I really miss the old Conor Oberst...

Stewart Copeland is still the coolest guy on the planet. Or, at the least, he's locked in a tie for first place with Anthony Bourdain.

The iPod has been sick in love with the Flaming Lips recently, playing tracks from their most recent three albums at least once every four or five songs. But what's to complain about? I, for one, welcome our new Oklahoman overlords.

My third class is tonight, in which we'll cover the third through fifth movements of Charles Ives' Symphony No. 2. We covered the first two movements on Monday, but even though I listened to each movement at least a couple dozen times before class, I couldn't really make sense of it until we broke it down a bit during the lecture.

I have no understanding of music theory or composition, and if you had asked me to pick out a structure in the first two movements before that class, I couldn't have done it. But once our professor explained the basics of the sonata form and went through the movements section by section to show not only how the sonata form was implemented, but also which pieces of earlier music Ives had borrowed from for his themes, it all started to make a lot more sense, and for the first time I felt a sense of organization and purpose to the music.

I like the second movement pretty well, but the third movement is my favorite so far——it's very calming, very peaceful, and it's a nice counterpoint to the stress and frantic pace of thinigs at work recently. I'm pretty excited to get in the classroom tonight and break down this movement the same way we broke down movements one and two on Monday.

Next Wednesday is our first listening quiz, where the instructor will play a minute-long excerpt from one of the movements and then ask us to identify it. I was a little concerned about this at first when I couldn't make any sense of the movements, and they just seemed like long, indistinct passages, but now I have a much clearer sense of the breaks and transitions, of the structure the movements and the distinct themes that fit into that structure. So I'm not too worried about passing this quiz now. I'll feel even more confident after next Monday, when we're scheduled to take a sample quiz before the one that actually counts.

I really enjoy going to my class, hearing types of music I rarely take the time listen to, and breaking the compositions down so I can understand the classical/orchestral genre better, but man, my ears can't wait until I get to my car and I can let the undiluted rock hooks of Les Savy Fav or the Hold Steady dig into me for the drive home.

I haven't bought any new records recently, and I really haven't been listening to much when I'm working besides Charles Ives' Symphony No. 2, which we have a listening quiz on tonight (to show you how——let's say nice or generous——the professor is, the quiz tonight is just a practice quiz to build up our confidence before the real quiz on Wednesday).

I'm not too worried about it——there are lots of elements of the different movements that we've discussed in class that give me a much better sense of the structure of each movement and the instrumentation, pacing, and phrases that make it unique——but it is a lot more challenging to listen to than the pop/rock structures that I'm so accustomed to.

Sure, lyrics and vocalists make identifying a particular song pretty easy comparatively, but even rock instrumentals are a lot easier to learn to recognize than this stuff——when my brain first hears any kind of orchestral work, it seems to immediately shove it into the "classical" category, and finding ways to keep the movements distinct from one another or from other classical pieces takes a lot more processing power for me than learning to distinguish the subtle differences between, say, Cursive and The Good Life, to name one particularly nuanced example.

You know, I felt a lot better about spending fifty bucks on a set of very limited edition Wilco UniPo figures from UNKL back before I heard Sky Blue Sky. But the figures are still pretty cool.

I've always had a soft spot for Perry Farrell, but Ultra Payloaded, from his latest incarnation as Perry Farrell's Satellite Party, is exactly as bad as his haters would have you think. I didn't buy it——god, no——but I listened to clips of the first five tracks in iTunes, and that's all you really need to hear.

I aced my first listening quiz, which I was a little nervous about (I was trying to think of the last time I've had to take a quiz, and I swear I think it was in college). Because of the compressed summer schedule, we only have one more of these, and that one should be a lot easier because even if we don't correctly identify the specific movement, we should probably get partial credit for identifying the composer and the work (this quiz was on one symphony from one composer; the final quiz will be on five different works by three distinct composers). Now all I have to do is figure out a paper topic and I can just sit back and enjoy the class lectures for the rest of the term.

Almost halfway through the year, and I have to say the biggest surprise so far is Albert Hammond, Jr.'s Yours to Keep. It's a very listenable album that allows you hear the Strokes connection without being overwhelmed by it.

Usually these kinds of solo releases from an artist who's part of a well-known group with a very distinct style are either weak, watered-down imitations of that style or attempts to do something so completely different than their main gig that you'd have no clue that this came from someone in that band.

Either way, they usually suck, and Yours to Keep doesn't. Although it probably wouldn't hurt if you were already a Strokes fan...

Tonight we're moving on past Gershwin after finishing up his Piano Concerto in F and spending a few minutes on An American in Paris. Next we'll look at Aaron Copland, who I know nothing about except that some of the music from his Rodeo was used in those beef commercials a few years back. Billy the Kid is the first piece we'll be examining, and I gotta tell you, after listening to it a couple of times, I find virtually nothing that is appealing to me.

On of the guys in my office really likes Aaron Copland and hates Charles Ives (although he doesn't like Billy the Kid much either), but I didn't find anything really wrong with Symphony No. 2, especially given that Ives wrote it while he was 21 and in college. I also like the fact that, while he wrote music most of his life, Ives wasn't a professional musician——he was in insurance (he made millions), and came home and pursued music in the evenings.

I think I'm going to write my paper on Ives, but I'm not sure of the exact topic. He actually wrote a lot about music as well, both commenting on his own pieces and analyzing larger musical ideas, and some of it is pretty daffy. Which is another reason I kind of like with him.

It's been over a month since I bought any new CDs, so I believe today would be a good time to get to a record store to pick up the new Art Brut and White Stripes, along with the Voxtrot that came out a few weeks ago. I've been listening to so much classical music for class that I've barely had time to listen to the stuff I normally listen to, but I can't wait until the class finishes to pick up It's a Bit Complicated. I need that NOW.

I picked more than just my three primary targets at the record store yesterday: in addition to Art Brut's It's a Bit Complicated, the White Stripes' Icky Thump, and Voxtrot's self-titled debut full-length, I also picked up Datarock's Datarock Datarock, Dan Deacon's Spiderman of the Rings, Battles' Mirrored, and White Rabbits' Fort Nightly.

In truth, I don't know a whole lot about the last four discs, but I was in the mood to take some chances. I also had a very long list of potential purchases, but the record store didn't have the other items on my list (like Blitzen Trapper, Jens Lekman, and the Papercuts). This probably wasn't the best time for me to buy a lot of new stuff since I should really be spending the majority of my listening time getting to know the classical pieces for my summer course, but I just couldn't resist Art Brut, and once I was in the store, I had to pick up some other stuff as well.

No impressions on any of it yet——I barely had time to load it all onto my iPod last night. But I hope to work my way through at least a couple of discs at my desk today.

Datarock, Datarock, Datarock. You started off so strong, but the ratio of disco to Talking Heads was way off for the last half of the record (too much disco, in case there was any question——I'm not sure it's possible to have too much Talking Heads).

I don't regret buying the album, though——there are some genuine keepers, including my current favorite, "Computer Camp Love", which——I swear to god I'm not kidding——appropriates the call and response of Grease's "Summer Nights" but substitutes the awkward courtship of Gilbert and Judy from Revenge of the Nerds for the romance of Danny and Sandy in Grease.

I mean it. I'm not kidding. And don't you just have to hear this song now?

I've found it hard to be a vocal advocate for the White Stripes because of their baffling commercial success (my distaste for popular acceptance is a remnant from my black sheep teen years), but I've bought every record since White Blood Cells, I think "Fell in Love with a Girl" is one of the best things ever recorded, and, after seeing the band live, I believe Jack White might be the best guitarist who ever lived.

There's really not much point in reviewing their latest, Icky Thump, in detail, because you're either already a White Stripes fan and you're going to buy this and like it just as you've loved everything they've released, or you hate the White Stripes and no new variations on their sound are going to win you over.

But there are some new variations, including a meditation on a Spanish bullfight with a punch drunk horn section and Scottish battle hymn girded by bagpipes and folk melodies, that are worth hearing. There are fewer of the mellower songs with piano and non-traditional rock instrucments than on Get Behind Me Satan, and a lot more blistering blues tracks like the kind they made their reputation on, but that signature White Stripes sound is present on every note.

It's so rare to find a band that this consistent and this consistently brilliant, and I suppose I should get over my reluctance to formally join their camp because there are millions of other people who buy their records, too. So I'm just going to say it: the White Stripes kick ass.

We saw Wilco play at Merriweather-Post last Thursday, marking the third time we've seen them in the past few years and the second time at Merriweather-Post. For the previous show at that venue, we bought regular seats, but after our experience sitting on the lawn for the Ted Leo/Broken Social Scene/Belle & Sebastian show last year, we decided to take a chance and buy lawn tickets for this show as well.

So of course it was raining when we got there. Not very hard, but hard enought to be annoying. We had brought along a tarp to put on the ground beneath the blanket we had brought to sit on, but the grass wasn't very wet, so we saved the tarp and used it to cover our heads when the rain picked up.

I was in kind of a foul mood thinking about having to sit on the ground under this giant piece of plastic for the whole show, but then, just as Wilco took the stage, the rain suddenly stopped and the sky stayed clear for the rest of the night. Make of that what you will, but it was a nice coincidence.

The show was okay, starting slow and picking up steam later (they haven't posted the setlist on the fan site yet, but if they ever do, here's the link). Some of the early dullness of the show could have been because of the lawn seating. I don't remember the sound being nearly as muddy when we sat there last summer, but I didn't feel like the music was nearly as loud as it had been for that show, so much so that there were times when the conversations of the stoners behind us drowned out the music from the stage. The performance of several songs from the new album also didn't make me feel any differently about those songs or the album in general, and added to the too-mellow feeling of the show.

There were some standout performances, though, most notably a "Spiders/Kidsmoke" version that's either one of the best I've heard or one of the worst, but at least it showed some other sides to the structure of the song that I hadn't heard before.

"Via Chicago" was great——there are a couple of times in the recorded version of the song where the drums go all haywire, and it sounds like the song, like the narrator, is breaking down. For this performance, they highlighted these drum breakdowns and used them three times in the song, changing them so that they sounded like fireworks going off (fireworks are referenced in the lyrics once), an effect that was reinforced by the light show that accompanied them. It was a nice alternate take on one of my favorite Wilco songs, and that alone made the show worth seeing.

Wilco are still an amazing live act, and despite my misgivings about their most recent album (I don't agree with Pitchfork's "dad rock" assessment——which Tweedy made joking reference to when he noticed there were young children in the crowd who had come to the show with their parents——but it is blander than I would have expected), I'd still highly recommend you get yourself to a live show, the closer to the stage the better. If they swing back through here later on their tour, I won't hesitate to buy tickets again. Just no lawn seats this time.

Punk rock ist nicht tot. That is all.

We're moving on to Bernstein now in class and leaving Copland behind. I actually didn't mind Copland so much——Appalachian Spring was pleasant enough, and I even grew to enjoy Billy the Kid. The two Bernstein pieces, Symphony No. 3 (Kaddish) and Chichester Psalms, are going to be much different——both are vocal pieces, and for the most part they're much more serious.

So far I've only listened to Chichester Psalms, and while I love the first movement, I'm not sold on the second two yet, although that typically changes once I get into class and I get the perspective of my professor to start hearing them in a different way.

Kaddish is going to be a bear——seven movements, which we have to be able to identify individually, and a much darker and more depressing tone than much of what we've covered so far in the course. It's a shame that the last couple of weeks will have us slogging through such formidable material, but I'm still really enjoying this class, and I think in general it's going to be a good one to end my classroom experience in this program with.

I'm still going to need some selling on Bernstein's Kaddish, but the first movement of Chichester Psalms is the best thing we've listened to all semester. Also: I didn't know that he wrote West Side Story. Weird.

I know I haven't written anything about Art Brut's It's a Bit Complicated yet, but the short version is that it's awesome in the same way that their debut was awesome. It was hard to imagine them following up their debut successfully——I figured they'd either stray so far from their sound on that disc that they wouldn't be the same band at all, or they'd stick so closely to their formula that it would sound lazy and cliched.

But somehow they've managed to pull off the trick of sounding more mature and polished without losing that spark of joy and haphazardness that made me fall in love with their first album. Bang Bang Rock and Roll was side by side with the Hold Steady's Separation Sunday as two of my favorite records from last few years, but while Boys and Girls in America didn't quite live up to the expectations set by Separation Sunday, It's a Bit Complicated pretty much does. If you adored Bang Bang Rock and Roll, you should love this record, too, without being bored with the feeling that you've heard it all before.