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Thursday, January 28, 2010

Impasse

I've got the January blues. Sometimes the first month of the year just gets me down.
I just feel like I can't think, like my life is a hurdle I'm supposed to leap over or something.
It doesn't have anything to do with the baby or the new responsibilities. That stuff is great. I love it.
It's the same old January pits I get almost every year. I just don't feel like I'm good enough for the life I've been given. Like I can't take two steps in the right direction. Like I just want to lock myself in a dark room and scream profanity or something. I hate it.
Maybe it's because at this point I can't see the future. I tend to take every year as the start of something new, and sometimes, instead of just enjoying the grace of the ride, something in me wants to sulk and try to misunderstand it. I have referred in this blog to this place in time as the lobby. I'm ready to leave the lobby. I just have to open the door and walk out.

Friday, January 15, 2010

In Defense of the CD

The other day I saw an older news reporter speaking to a writer from Rolling Stone magazine about the top albums of 2009. As the writer rattled off a half dozen artists the reporter admitted he had never heard of, the reporter stopped the writer in his tracks.
"Who buys an album anymore anyway?" the reporter asked. He looked over to the other reporters sitting at the news desk. "Who buys CD's anymore? When is the last time any of you even bought one?"
"I bought the Susan Boyle CD," one woman said.
The other reporters showed blank expressions.
The older reporter laughed, said the segment was out of time, and the commercials started rolling.

I still buy CD's. This post is not a defense of the album, though I could easily make it that. This is a defense of the Compact Disc format.
I am not sure if I am a materialist or not. When I own something, I like to be able to see it. An invisible digital object does not cut it for me. I want to be able to hold the things I purchase in my hands. I held off getting an MP3 player until last year, and even then, I only purchased a second-hand Zune. I am happy with this purchase because I feel that all the music I own (and digital pictures I have taken) are backed up. However, I have found one major factor to be unsatisfying: unable to resist the low prices of certain MP3 albums, I purchased the digital versions over the physical CD versions.
Immediately, something felt off. The satisfying feeling of unwrapping something was completely absent. There was no artwork, no lyrics, no liner notes to gaze upon. Just a cellphone screen-sized image of the album cover and the music.
No big deal, I thought. Well worth it for six dollars.
Actually, disembodied sound is not worth six dollars.
Despite the quality of the music, I felt completely disconnected from what I was listening to. The sounds seemed to hold no value.
Call it a New Years Resolution if you will, but I am not buying any music beyond the random single that doesn't come on some type of physical media. I think I will take this ranting a step further, though:
I think CD's are better than vinyl.
There I said it.
I own a record player and a decent amount of vinyl. I admit, nothing sounds as good as a vinyl record. I can honestly hear the difference, and I love them.
Still, as a format, the Compact Disc is better.
CD's, for the most part, sound good. The quality is marginally less than that of a vinyl record. There is just a little less of that thick, bass feeling. Otherwise, the quality is fantastic. Better than that of most MP3's, and certainly no MP3 sounds better than a CD.
One edge for the CD is portability. If I want to transfer thirty CD's somewhere, I can fit them in a big shoebox, and they don't really weigh that much. On the other hand, thirty records weigh a ton. They take up a lot of space...and honestly...they look kind of ridiculous...
Okay, blasphemy, I know. For everyone who grew up listening to records (myself included), records look normal, but think about it: nothing should really be that big. Records are huge. The surface area of one cardboard record sleeve is about the same as three or four hardback novels. I love them for nostalgia's sake (and I will keep buying them), but they are too big.
MP3s don't take any space because they don't really exist.
CD's and their jewel cases are the perfect size. They take up just enough space to feel substantial, but not enough to get in the way. You can listen to them in your car, and read the lyrics in the booklet when you stop at a traffic light. You can't listen to a vinyl in your car! The jewel cases are just the right size to fit a decent sized booklet, and the CD booklet is a marvelous thing.
Take Radiohead's Kid A for example. The booklet itself is a labyrinthine work of art. Page after page unfolds with unique surprises.
The vinyl does not even try to duplicate this because it can't. If it did it would be ridiculous. You wouldn't even be able to hold it in your hands.
I can think of at least two or three hundred CD booklets that would seem ridiculous if blown up to LP size. Plus, 95% of CD booklets contain the album lyrics; maybe 5 % of records do.
Confession: I came of age in the 90s, not the 80s. I listened to my parents vinyl in the 80s. I bought my own CD's when I started working and making money...in the 90s. Maybe I look on them more fondly than I should. Maybe the kids today think that having a CD and a case and a booklet is stupid and pointless. To me they are essential. I wonder if 20 years from now there will be a CD revolution like the vinyl one of the last two or three years. I hope so.
Despite the fact that the Earth would probably be a cleaner place, and less resources used, a large part of me hopes physical media, CD's in particular do not go away.
They will go away, though.
Someday I'll die and people will fly around in space cars.
Instead of trees there will be "Oxygen Poles."
Archeologists will excavate a late 20th century home and find hundreds of flat, plastic cases housing thin plastic discs and booklets worn to dust.
None of this matters anyway.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Selflessness

I am learning that more than anything, being a dad is about selflessness. It doesn't mean that I don't matter. Frankly, I find that when people tell me "you don't matter anymore" they sound quite obnoxious. Of course I still matter. I matter more than I ever have before. I am a father now. Of course I still have dreams, goals, and wants, and that is important to remember. If I just forget that, then I turn into a soulless automaton. But now I have responsibility, and I am an adult with a newborn and a wife nursing him, and right now, they come first.
I think as I get older I am realizing that old "Seasons" song is extremely accurate. Sometimes your life isn't about you, but then sometimes it is. But in the future, does fulfilling my goals benefit my family? Does everything I do have to benefit my family? What about things that aren't harmful, but not beneficial?
I don't know. I am just figuring this out as I going along. I'm actually probably not over thinking things as much as this post implies. Just brain venting. Goodnight.

Friday, January 01, 2010

The Nicsperiment's Nine Best Albums of 2009

I have listened to a lot of music this year, and most of the stuff I have been told is the best has seemed kind of silly. Animal Collective, who easily received the most nods for album of the year, is wearing no clothes. Excluding My Girls, their music sounds like one bass note, one drum being hit, and a bunch of disjointed voices badly singing over each other in a way that makes no aural sense. I'm not simply going to say I don't get it. I am going to say it isn't good and everyone is just acting like it is because they are scared to not like it. I listened to Grizzly Bear and woke up three days later. I tried out the Dirty Projectors, but the scratching chalkboard in my ears was too much to handle.
Anyway, here is the music I enjoyed most this year:


9. Project 86-Picket Fence Cartel-Project 86 purposely keep it simple on their 7th record, not attempting to outdo their previous masterpiece of an album, Rival Factions. Project drops almost all of the keyboards and the entirety of the glossy production. Instead they punch out heavy, dirty metal songs, take out any complicated elements and just go for the gut. The lyrics follow suit, eschewing vocalist Andrew Schwab's usual literary depth for straightforward declarations of faith. This makes the album a refreshing change of pace, but also makes it slightly alienating to those expecting a little more under the surface. Project gave a warning beforehand that this would be the sound they would focus on, and thankfully, as with all they attempt, they do it well. You can still punch a hole through your window to this, you just might not be thinking about it when you go to bed that night.
Listen to the whole album


8. Isis-Wavering Radiant-Isis' Egyptian mythology obsessed lyrics, labyrinthine Metal grooves, screams, and rising, beautiful vocals go through slight changes here. A little of the fat (if metal can have fat) is sheared off, and the beauty is more accented. Isis still sound like the music you would hear in an underwater, torch-lit tomb, only now they don't make you wait around all day for the best parts.
Listen to the whole album


7. The Mars Volta-Octahedron-After creating an album that never took a breath, The Mars Volta return with the complete opposite. Guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez actually hits only one note at a time, and vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala spends more time singing beautifully than shrieking. Miraculously, this sound works for them. Track after track sounds otherworldly beautiful, vocals soothing instead of menacing, guitar tones soft and steady instead of violently noodling. The band still takes some time to rock out, but even these moments are more tempered. Most shocking of all, the lyrics to opening ballad Since We've Been Wrong actually make sense, a lament to a relationship that has seen better days. There are your usual worms committing suicide lyrics, but just the fact that Bixler-Zavala can now write a song that makes sense adds a new dimension to the band. I wouldn't want The Mars Volta to stay chilled out-their signature sound is just too much fun to abandon-but for now this will do just fine.
Listen to select tracks from the album


6. Bruce Springsteen-Working on a Dream-Poor Bruce. He gets all happy and reflective on enjoying life, and all anyone can focus on is what he isn't doing. This definitely isn't Born to Run, but all the Beach Boys crap people are saying about Animal Collective truthfully applies to this album. Bruce revels in harmonies, found sounds, and gentle rhythms. Unlike previous album Magic, Working on a Dream never gets bogged down in overslick production, always feeling light, airy and fun, and avoiding the mid-tempo doldrums Magic fell into. Even ballad The Wrestler (written for the film of the same name) has an "I'll get em next time" feel that works against its somber side. This is just pleasant music, not wallpaper pleasant, but summer breeze by cool water pleasant.
Listen to select tracks from the album



5. The Chariot-Wars and Rumors of Wars-The Chariot is a divisive band. Some think they just create noise, while others think they corral violent noise into art. I am in the latter camp, and I think they corral it better than ever on Wars and Rumors of Wars. Frontman Josh Scogin's voice has grown into a fearsome, throat-shredding howl, and as usual (and as it should be), it is The Chariot's most formidable weapon here. The difference with Wars is The Chariot refines its song structures, actually repeats some "choruses", and most impressively, doesn't shy away from beauty. On 4th track, Impress, The Chariot fall into a beautiful groove 30 seconds in, hold it for a minute, then drop everything to slowly alternate between two solitary guitar notes. These lovely notes ring out alone for a full minute, perhaps proving that in all this chaos it's worthwhile to stop and focus on the simple things.
Listen to the whole album


4. U2-No Line on the Horizon-For years U2 have said No Line on the Horizon would be extremely experimental, but it is far more traditional than we were led to believe. That said, NLOTH is a lovely album. Starting out with the mysterious title track, U2 quickly moves back into arena rock territory with Magnificent, but they still do this better than anyone. Third track, Moment of Surrender, ascends to a plane U2 has never been before, a gospel song from space better than anything U2 has released in 18 years. The rest of the album rotates through the unfamiliar and the familiar, always enjoyable except for atrocious centerpiece Get on Your Boots, which no one likes except maybe U2. The funny thing is, the rest of the album is so lovely, Boots actually gets lifted to a better place by its surrounding material. This is a great way for a great band to end the decade.
Listen to the whole album


3. He is Legend-It Hates You-He is Legend always seemed a little afraid to be themselves, first late to the metalcore party, second late to the southern metal bandwagon. Third album It Hates You finds He is Legend in a place of confidence, making their own music, and what music this is. The only thing I can compare this to is mid-90s Stone Temple Pilotsesque rock on even more drugs, lots more drugs, especially steroids and acid. Vocalist Shuyler Croom's already impressive croon is accented on several songs by haunting female vocalist Bibis Ellison, taking the songs to a whole new level. Best of all, the album is long, 12 songs with several seven minute jams that will have you pounding your steering wheel as you drive your car into outer space.
Listen to the whole album


2. The Appleseed Cast-Sagarmatha-The Appleseed Cast have always included instrumental tracks on their albums (excluding Two Conversations, which as the title states, is verbally focused). Always having success in this field, Applessed Cast have run with it and crafted an album that only uses words as accents. The Cast almost seem like they have something to prove, outdoing just about every instrumental rock album of the decade. The music is incredible, but it is vocalist/guitarist Christopher Crisci's brief use of voice that sets Sagarmatha apart: the way it rises up from nowhere in the final two minutes of eight minute opener As the Little Things Go, the way it only lays the foundation at the opening of second track A Bright Light before the music rockets away. Only fourth track, The Summer Before, contains vocals throughout, a short and sweet pop gem that centers the rest of the album. Someday this band will be appreciated.
Listen to select tracks from the album


1. Jars of Clay-The Long Fall Back to Earth-The only sentence that will mention Jars of Clay's debut album is this one. There. Excluding If I Left the Zoo, Jars of Clay have shown growth and maturity with each subsequent release. Each has been great, but with Long Fall Jars has finally combined the consistent quality of their songwriting with a cohesion that has been intangibly missing. Each track explores different aspects of human relationships. Opener Weapons sounds like Coldplay with a soul, pleading for peace with a friend or lover. The speaker in Closer desires intimacy. Headphones is sung from the perspective of a boy who shuts the world out with his IPod, missing out on the chance of a relationship with a girl (sung by Katie Herzig) because he can't summon the will to escape his own private world. There Might Be a Light hopes for forgiveness. The Long Fall Back to Earth makes all other albums this year pale by comparison. Animal Collective. That stuff isn't actually music. Grizzly Bear. Snore… The Dirty Projectors. Are. Terrible. Jars of Clay's combination of songwriting, lyrics, musicianship, and compilation are second to none. It almost doesn't seem fair.
Listen to the whole album...NOW!!!


Also of note:

As Cities Burn-Hell or High Water-This is a great album from start to finish, nine songs of refreshing rock and roll from the now defunct band. This is about as good a swan song as you can get because it is too short, which I guess is a good way to leave your audience wanting more.
Listen to the whole album + awesome bonus track


Relient K-Forget and Not Slow Down-This is a solid album. Singer/songwriter Matt Thiessen is coming at this from an organic perspective of recovery, and there are some very good songs here, but as usual, there are a few that are weaker than the others, and knock this album, once again, from my "Top Nine" to my "Also of note".
Listen to the whole album


Asobi Seksu-Hush-Asobi Seksu has made a very pretty album. Unfortunately, that is the best thing I can say about it. It is good, but doesn't reach the ecstatic head-rush glory of its predecessor, Citrus, though Hush is still an enjoyable album.
Listen to the whole album


Biggest Disappointment-Dredg-The Pariah, The Parrot, The Delusion-No album could live up to the badness of this album's title. Unfortunately, the previous statement turns out to be false. The band that crafted the masterpiece El Cielo has sunk so low that only a third of this album is even listenable, only 1.5 songs even enjoyable. It is that bad. Why? I am just going to go out on a limb and say it is the drugs. Dredg have made no secret recently that they have been taking a lot of them. The last time I saw them live they actually invited the audience to do drugs with them from the stage. They weren't kidding. Maybe my sobriety is the impediment to enjoying this album. Maybe if I took drugs regularly, this album wouldn't sound like music composed by four randomly chosen frat guys with no previous songwriting experience. Yes, it is that bad. I am sorry to judge you, Dredg. You have given me so much previous enjoyment, but to my ears now, you have gone off the deep. I guess if I would just drop a few tabs of acid and snort a little coke, The Pariah, The Parrot, The Hell I am going to actually say the name of this album again would sound pretty good. Also, I will change my name to Hermunculous B Hippopotamus the Third. That would make sense.
Look at this picture of a penguin farting