Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Lioness

Band: Songs:Ohia
Album: The Lioness
Best song: "The Tigress," "The Black Crow" and the title track are all perfect.
Worst song: "Back on Top" isn't great.

(This is long and self-indulgent. So, if you don't want to read it, click this and it'll get you to the home page.)

We're approaching the new year, so, please, indulge my reflection. Let's go back eightish years. To the waining months of 2000 for a minute. George W. Bush and Al Gore were involved in a legal entanglement to see who would ultimately become president of the United States. I was in Journalism 200, the "weed-out" class required to gain entrance into the vaunted University of Missouri School of Journalism.

(I would later find out that half of college is just showing up and graduated journalism school on time and with a pretty good GPA.)

I was basically, assistant Program Director of the KCOU music staff. I was running much of the music staff operations, as the actual PD, let's say, delegated a lot of authority to me. I was doing a lot of heavy lifting and, for the most part, enjoying it.

I'd also, just a few months before, gone through what anyone would call a messy breakup. It's difficult to describe in any coherent way without my sounding like an immature idiot -- the actual breakup wasn't messy, but my reaction to it could charitably be called "childish" -- so, I'll spare the details. The main thing is that my ex-girlfriend and all of her friends hated me for a period -- understandably, no doubt -- and I wasn't feeling great about the whole situation.

As such, I had a big crush on a girl in several of my classes and was not exactly shy about it. Because I'm socially inept, I didn't necessarily ask her out, I just tried to get involved with her new arts newspaper (It sucked. Hard.) and hang out with her and her friends a lot (Her friends sucked. Hard.), including eventually getting my best friend to bet her on the World Series -- a bet he lost and therefore had to pierce his eyebrow (It looked terrible, though hilarious.).

It's a weird period in my life. I was still learning about Columbia and spending the vast majority of my time at the station. I saw a lot of movies at RagTag (often tailing this girl). I was getting into my time as a student, finding my groove as a b-level dude. I got some decent station friends and shed my tendency to idolize my elders at KCOU.

It's during this time that I became a vegetarian. That lasted almost two years. It's during this time that I ended up dating a (different, not the one on which I crushed) girl in which I had no particular interest. It's during this time that I lived in the dorms, yet spent the majority of my time off campus (when not at the station, of course). I started wearing glasses -- as opposed to the contacts I'd worn up until that point. Most of all, though, this was the time that my music taste went from immature to the omnivorous situation I find myself in now.

It was, as it were, the time when I turned into the person I am today. While we are all works in progress, we all have turning points. The year between late 2000 and the fall of 2001 was my big turning point.


The grand regret of my early adulthood is that I never kept a journal or diary for any extended period of time. That's a lie. Rather, I regret that all attempts at journaling were all done online and mostly deleted. Indeed, online journals -- now known as blogs -- last forever in the semipublic view, or at least until the server account is lost or whatever.

My regret for not journaling (or not keeping a copy of those journals) is that I have a strange obsession for my former self. No doubt this is led by my massive ego and self-centeredness, but I also like to think it has something to do also with self-reflection and introspection. What kind of person have I grown to be? How does that compare to a younger me? What does that say about the aging process, my experiences and the human experience? I wish I had a clearer view into my mind during those times, because I'm sure my recollection is different from the realities.

As such, when I did journal online, I mostly was taking my frustrations out on the world. Often, it was decidedly messy, immature and regrettable. Indeed, I now wish it never ended up on the Web, not only because I took all that stuff down and therefore have no window into a 19-year-old Ross, but rather because it sullied relationships I cherish in hindsight.

And as such, self-reflection is needed. Why did I feel the need to post everything on the Web far before Blogger, Livejournal and Typepad were accessible? Was it because I could? Was it because I wanted validation for my feelings? Was I simply searching for attention?

I don't know the answers to those questions and, eight years out, I don't know that I ever will. I still write on the Web, but they're almost entirely these masturbatory ramblings or my RS project or whatever. I think I've learned my lesson.

Indeed, there is a LiveJournal I keep, though it rarely sees a "real" posting. It's one of the more cherished things I have (if having a username and password denotes ownership). I started posting in it the summer before my girlfriend went to study abroad (senior year) and kept posting actual thoughts and such in it for more than two years.

I often reread it and marvel at the differences between me at 21-24 and me now. Age-22 Ross was full of optimism and hope. I had goals -- specifically to be an editor or columnist on a major sports page -- and I had the delightful self-centeredness of youth to power the journal. Indeed, here's a quote from April, 2003:

I almost got hit by a bike again today. I'm really tired of the bikers on this stupid campus. They have absolutely no regard for those of us walking. I cannot stand bicycle riders. In fact, I believe I wrote a column about it.

Oh, well. I'm off to go and discuss the "Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of Real." I haven't seen the movie in years, nor have I done the reading. I'm hoping we can talk about cloning or the ethics of cyber organics.

You never know.

That's the bulk of the entry. It's got all the highlights of any vapid online journal of a 22-year-old. Self-promotion. Self-absorption. Banal details of one's life. Schoolwork updates. The final up-in-the-air artfully detached sentence/paragraph.

It's the picture of a different person. The level of self-awareness is so low that this person actually thought that someone needed to know that he hadn't done the reading for his cyborg class and that he could negate much of the proceeding paragraph with a simple "You never know." It's someone with self-confidence. Someone lacking the simple barrier of the thought "hey, maybe you're writing about yourself too much."

And you know something? I like that guy. I like him a lot. I think he's got a freshness and an optimism that I find lacking in the adult world. I miss him terribly, but I think he's gone or has morphed into something entirely different and equally as self-absorbed.

At least that guy was funny and talked about poop or expounded on the nature of relationships, a concept that escapes me now.


I'm similarly self-absorbed now. I think the downfall of my early college online journaling was that I was more interested having people read what I wrote. I think I was looking for validation in some form -- again, this was before comments on posts, as no blogging software was widespread yet. In true self-obsessed emo fashion, I desperately wanted to have my feelings validated by my friends, the people involved, whoever.

I guess my current situation is more based on my own confidence.

(Time to hop on the couch...)

One thing age has given me is a sense of realism. I'd say I have a much more accurate view of myself now than I did at 22, largely because I've spent the vast majority of my time thinking about myself (again, self-absorbed). I know I'm not going to be Lester Bangs or Tony Kornheiser or David Eggers or Chuck Klosterman or whoever. And as each day goes by, there's a smaller chance that I'll do any of the things they do.

Indeed, that is part of the Web's greatness. I don't have to know someone at a publishing house to write a book, as you can self-publish with I don't have to know someone at RS or Pitchfork or wherever to write about music. I do it here. I may not get an audience -- I almost certainly don't have one -- but I can certainly put my writing out there. If one person reads it, I'm happy. If no one reads it, I'm happy.

And as such, I've sort of come to terms to my reality: I'm just a dude. I'm not going to be someone famous or important or whatever. I'm just a guy who works for a magazine and has a few hobbies. And that's kind of where I put this project, the RS project and, oddly, my softball team.

There's an excellent documentary called Darkon about a bunch of -- yes, I'll say it -- nerds who participate in LARP, live action role playing. These -- again, I have no problem saying this -- nerds are just regular dudes in real life. They work in IT or they're store clerks or they work in gas stations or they're stay-at-home-dads or whatever. But, every weekend, these guys are knights and kings and emperors. They control "countries" and "subjects." They command "armies." At least in their own minds and certainly in the game.

(Really, though, they're just nerds dressed like morons running around a field with Nerf swords.)

This is softball to me. Every day, I work at a job I enjoy, but it it ultimately, my job. My delusions of grandeur are not absent and being a lower man on the company ladder does not satisfy this need. However, every Sunday from April to early November, I find myself dressing like a moron with expensive equipment acting like I'm playing in the seventh game of the World Series. I wear batting gloves and baseball pants. I have high socks. I slide. A lot.

There's no difference, by the way, between those two. I play softball to role play some sort of baseball dude. I'm really just a short, fat guy in a ridiculous outfit, but in my mind, I'm fucking A-Rod.

For many of us, our profession is where we find out value. For others, it's in family. I love my job, but I do not define myself by it. My family is not how I define myself, either (that is as diplomatic as I'm going to be about that one). For me, it's my hobbies. I play softball. I write album reviews no one reads. I write about myself.


The Web provides my outlet for this, as do my friends, often acting as a sounding board to my nonsensical ramblings. And, as such, we have this: An opus of self-absorption that serves no one.

Indeed, I don't know the point of my recounting my personal journey from jolly self-hating misanthrope to more reserved, conservative adult guy. I guess it's to get to this idea: Music soundtracks all these experiences.

Sometime around my first two years at the station, I learned to love Jason Molina and his Songs:Ohia. Molina's music is both referential and entirely unique. Comparisons are difficult to pin on the band, as Molina's guitar-based rock could easily fall into many genres. His singer/songwriter thing has been compared to Will Oldham, but the brightness and country aspects of Oldham's work is far afield of Molina. Molina's misanthropy in his lyrics are often compared to Bill Callahan, but Callahan's smirk reflects an irony that Molina does not appear to enjoy. Moreover, the direction of Callahan's lyrics are dynamic, while Molina mostly addresses himself.

The most interesting aspect of Molina's sound -- save for his deadpan baritone -- is the sound he cultivates on his masterwork, The Lioness. It's near-impossible to put your finger on it, but the entire album sounds as though it was recorded in the middle of the night. It's dark and sad. Melodies ring and tempos slow.

"Being in Love," for example, has the organ sound of a post-rock record and the drum beat of the slowest dance song in music history. Molina intones the song's ominous opening line: "Being in love means you are completely broken." "Coxcomb Red" is the most sparse of the album's songs, with a simple guitar progression backing Molina's note of lost love ("Every love is your best love and every love is your last love/
And every kiss is a goodbye").

"Coxcomb Red" shows Molina's other main theme on the album: The use of animal metaphors to explain the world. "Coxcomb Red" uses color ("your hair is coxcomb red your eyes are viper black"), while the album's title track and "The Tigress" shows Molina's view of women ("of that look of the lioness to her man across the Nile" and "you are alert as a tigress at a common table with her fate") that borders on sexism.

(Molina's ending lyric of "The Tigress" shows this apparent sexism: "and I believe every woman has made up her mind to win.")

The album's opus, however, is the opener, "The Black Crow." The song is what once made me describe Molina's songwriting as a "suicide note set to music." The song nearly defines the word "driving." The guitar line begins and builds until the song's climax, seven minutes later.

Molina's lyric is deeply veiled, but contains the one classic Molina-ism on the entire album: "I’m getting weaker I’m getting thin/I hate how obvious I have been" as the guitar continues, like a railroad car.

I saw Songs:Ohia my sophomore year of college -- my defining year -- at Washington University and the band ended with this song. I'll never forget watching Molina and the band envelope the crowd with sound and that outro riff -- that glorious, low-end riff with accompanying drum sound. I never wanted that song to end.

It's the type of album you listen to when you feel like shit. It's not technically impressive like a Tortoise record or necessarily pleasant like the Nada Surf record. It doesn't bring the highs and lows of a Death Cab record nor does it explore the ordinariness of Elliott Smith's best work. It doesn't deal with the inevitability of death or the pressures of the modern world.

It's an album about being down and we all need that sometimes.


I'm 27 years old. I live in a city 700+ miles away from where I grew up. I'm pretty low on the ladder of a magazine. I am dating someone who I truly enjoy and care about, though my confusion over our non-relationship relationship is ever-present. I have friends, though, often, I question the nature of these friendships. I am studying to get my Master's Degree, though I'm not sure I understand what benefit that will garner. I am far too serious about softball.

And how did I get here? Certainly, the experiences over the last five (in the case of my Liveournal) or eight (in the case of my first online journal) years have shaped me. My college experiences and academic training. My relationships, both romantic and platonic. The shitstorm that is my family. Moving out to Washington to pursue goals, only to have them shift.

Mostly, though, I've learned this: Self-absorption's grandest side effect is loneliness. Maybe that's an obvious statement. But, only the man who finds himself to be fascinating all the time can hang with that man all the time. That, sadly, has been me. It has been me far too often.

I have a friend -- I actually haven't talked to her in some time -- who had (has) a serious codependency thing going on. She, back many years ago, tried to explain to me how she would rather hang out with someone she didn't really like on a weekend night than do stuff alone. I found this mind-boggling at the time.

While I still think it to be a foolish position -- one needs to be comfortable with oneself -- I understand it more now. I've grown to be incredibly selfish in the four-plus years since my ex-girlfriend and I broke up, as I have spent the vast majority of time alone, with a few close friends and fewer outlets. It's an odd post-college thing and one that I'm glad that I'm aware of.

I've started to become more conservative in the "people should follow the rules" way. I've become quieter, more calm. I'm certainly happier with myself, but there is a question as to if I'm actually moving forward. Maybe I've stagnated.

But, maybe not. Maybe I'm in a place where I can understand my place in the world better (I'm not going to be David Eggers or whoever). But, maybe I can better understand what I can be. And part of that -- in the most self-absorbed aspect of it all -- is to enjoy the things I enjoy. Not to worry about it so much. Think a little less about my worries and just enjoy the sunshine and cheeks that is my current non-girlfriend.

You never know.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Dust of Retreat

Band: Margot & the Nuclear So and So's
Album: The Dust of Retreat
Best song: "Talking in Code" and "Skeleton Key" are fantastic. "Quiet as a Mouse" is wonderful. "Dress Me Like a Clown" is nice.
Worst song: "Paper Kitten Nightmare" is stupid.

I used to have XM Radio, largely because terrestrial radio sucks -- especially in DC -- and also because I wanted to listen to baseball games. It was great for my old job, because I had to drive to my old job everyday. Anyway, one of the many stations I enjoyed on XM was XMU, which was supposed to be the indie rock/college radio station-style station.

XMU mostly sucked when I listened to it, though I imagine I hold that view because XMU played a whole lot of Helio Sequence and not much post-rock. However, I did try to like it and was rewarded with Margot & the Nuclear So and So's.

Margot & the Nuclear So and So's are not Battles. Not even close. Richard Edwards doesn't do much outside of standard rock instrumentation, save for the well-placed cello on the record's best tracks. Similarly, his voice isn't worlds different from the usual indie rock whisper.

But, The Dust of Retreat has that wonderful mix of melancholy and sweet only found in certain brands of indie rock. The album's lyrics deal with the slightly regretful ("Jen is Bringin' the Drugs"), the sad ("Dress Me Like a Clown") and the mildly vitriolic ("Vampires in Blue Dresses"), all while keeping an earnestness to be admired.

"Skeleton Key" exemplifies this well. The song's regretful opening lines ("I did a sick, sick thing to my love/My lack of loyalty, it swallowed her up.") falls into a drunken explanation ("And I miss you less and less everyday/This stream of whiskey helps to wash you away."), eventually ending up in vitriol ("And it's clear to see/You're nothing special/You're a skeleton key."). The song's overall breakup message is nearly universal and beautifully bathed in a cello melody line and a lilting acoustic guitar part, all led by Edwards' sweet voice.

The rest of the album follows suit, largely. "Dress Me Like a Clown" is a nice little "Skeleton Key" knockoff. "On a Freezing Chicago Street" is more upbeat and powerful, while "Quiet as a Mouse" features a half-aggressive Edwards asserting himself ("When I awoke/I was alive in somebody's room/I felt life and love and hope infesting my bones/Wake up, you've got a lot of things to do/Wake up, the sun is rising without you.") after a one-nighter.

The album's other highlight is the penultimate song on the set, "Talking in Code," another breakup song, from the other side. The song begins as a simple singer/songwriter bit, but builds as Edwards recounts the veiled conversations between lovers as the end nears. The song breaks down as Edwards intones the final bits:

And your voice cracks with the lack of piano
you keep moving, where are you going?
Baby, were long gone
Yeah, were long gone

Like "Skeleton Key," it's a spot on breakup record, finding lost love in a cello and building guitars. Edwards' gift, albeit not revolutionary, is extracting those small relationship pieces and turning them into wonderful songcraft.

Monday, December 22, 2008


Band: Nada Surf
Album: Lucky
Best song: "See These Bones" and "Weightless" are excellent. "I Like What You Say" is pretty good.
Worst song: It's all pleasant.

Nada Surf's transformation from novelty rock act (They were the band that did "Popular," after all) to moderately successful indie rock band is kind of interesting. For one, it is the first thing every Nada Surf review mentions with the review then veering into "My Iron Lung" territory.

(Let me explain)

Radiohead's "My Iron Lung" is a song, basically, written about a song. The titular metaphor refers to Radiohead's "Creep," a song that both sustained Radiohead in their early years and stuck them in a metal box. Everyone only wanted to hear "Creep" and had little interest in other stuff.

Nada Surf has a similar problem with "Popular," even twelve years out. While Radiohead turned into Pink Floyd, Nada Surf mostly turned into a faceless indie rock band. They're Kind of Like Spitting or Say Hi To Your Mom, with far better hooks.

Indeed, Nada Surf's fifth album has wonderful hooks. "Whose Authority" is something Matthew Sweet would've put out five years ago while "From Now On" is easily the best Gin Blossoms-sounding song ever released. "I Like What You Say" is easy and smooth, while "Here Goes Something" is a nice tale of love.

The problem with Lucky is that the songs come to the precipice of greatness, but cannot finish the job. "I Like What You Say" has a wonderful chorus, but the middle eight falls apart. "Weightless" is a cool waltz that never really gets off the ground and falls in love with its Flaming Lips-influenced atmospherics too much. Despite its lows, its highs are better than nearly anything else on the record.

"See These Bones" is the album's best track, does the near-impossible in writing about aging while still sounding inspiring. The song's lyrics could double as a warning to the young, as sung by an elder:

Look alive, see these bones
What you are now, we were once
And just like we are, you'll be dust
And just like we are, permanent

It's haunting and pretty, while absolutely light enough to seem a pop song. Better than "Popular," it is Nada Surf's best and most lasting song.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Oh, Inverted World

Band: The Shins
Album: Oh, Inverted World
Best song: "Caring is Creepy" is amazing, as is "Girl on the Wing" and the "Celibate Life."
Worst song: "The Past and Pending" is nice, but not great.

In the interest of full disclosure, I did not enjoy this album when it was first released. Well. That's a lie. I thought it was just OK, but nothing special. I was in the midst of spending a summer in my college's town (I kind of can't believe Darwin Hindman is still mayor!) and doing work for the newspaper there (it is part of the University's requirements to graduate from the journalism school). My girlfriend and I had just broken up -- no big deal, as it was a relationship of convenience -- and most of my friends were gone for the summer. Similarly, it was my first semester as program director of the station. So, for all my lakc of social stuff, I was pretty busy.

That's not to discount my idiocy, it's just a snapshot in time.

If I remember correctly, I fancied Oh, Inverted World as an Elephant Six ripoff; I saw it as something that aspired to be Pet Sounds when it was really just some dudes from New Mexico trying to sound cooler than they were/are.

That was, shall we say, a very stupid thing to think.

Oh, Inverted World is a majestic album, lyrically. James Mercer and co. are adept at weaving literate metaphors into sunshine pop arrangements. Indeed, the album has wears its influences on its sleeve -- there is no doubt that the band takes Pet Sounds to heart -- but it similarly creates something new in Mercer's unique voice.

"Caring is Creepy" is stilted and cool, while "Know Your Onion!" has the melodies of an indie record and a beautiful harmony line. "The Celibate Life" is the kind of near-interstitial song that would steal any other album, were it not for the quality of the rest of the album. "Girl on the Wing," driven by a monster keyboard line, is one of the album's highlights, as the band shows its faster rock chops.


"New Slang" has one of the best videos I've ever seen (the band recreates classic indie rock album covers!), but has one of the weirdest gestations of any song. Though it one ofalbum's preceeding singles, the song did not become much until Zach Braff -- more on him in a bit -- included the song in his monstrosity Garden State.


Zach Braff is a very successful person and someone whose work I -- albeit begrudgingly -- enjoy in the way of the first five seasons of Scrubs. I think his character on that show is wonderful and the picture of a fun comedic foil. Though I have some problems with my love of the show -- namely, the overarching bullshit emotions Braff lays out over some middlebrow claptrap Keane song in the final moments of the show -- I do think he does good work. But, I'm sorry, Garden State is trash. It's complete sewage. It's what Wes Anderson would make were he retarded. It's poorly composed and stupid.

"New Slang" -- and the band -- gained a lot of popularity from the song's inclusion on the film's soundtrack. Indeed, in the movie Natalie Portman -- you cannot convince me that Braff didn't write that movie for any reason other than to write scenes in which he makes out with my dream woman -- hands Braff a pair of headphones playing "New Slang" and tells him "It'll change your life."


My problem with Braff is that he exemplifies middlebrow claptrap. Braff's half-witted emo philosophy at the end of the very episode of Scrubs is full of common sense bullshit (you know, love is hard and shit), but thrown out there like it's goddamned Socrates. Like Pete Yorn, Travis and the like (sadly, my beloved Death Cab for Cutie fall here), the emotion therein is true, but it's retarded. It's Titanic: Populous nonsense dressed up as depth.

The Shins toe this line very often. Shins fans (specifically those born of Garden State), by and large, are idiots. This is why I don't go to Shins -- or Wilco, by the way -- shows anymore. The band is great and literate and interesting, but the fanbase seems only to want to hear the (sorta) hits and stare longingly into their boy/girlfriends' eyes when they hear them.

Fuck that. I'm going to go listen to Priest.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Every Day and Every Night

Band: Bright Eyes
Album: Every Day and Every Night
Best song: "A Perfect Sonnet." No question.
Worst song: "Neely O'Hara" is probably a little long.

As with many bands popular at my college radio station when I was there, Bright Eyes is one I initially dismissed. He played in Columbia my freshmen year for our annual birthday party show series (and put on a decent show), but many reasons (he's only a year older than I am, his fanbase was mostly the skinny jeans set, the premature comparisons to Dylan, etc.) kept me from embracing his music. Mostly, his vocal style really didn't appeal to me.

So, all throughout college, I stayed away form Mr. Oberst and his cohorts. It took the LIFTED album for me to even embrace one song of his ("Waste of Paint") and even then, I did so reluctantly.

Since graduation, though, I've come to enjoy some of his work. Oberst, as a singer and guitar player, isn't wonderful. His warbling gets annoying and it mostly plays improperly on anything other than the sensitive-guy stuff he mostly plays. Example: His free "When the President Talks to God" single. That thing sucked.


Every Day and Every Night is Oberst's third record. It's an EP recorded and released when he was 19. It has all the hallmarks of Oberst recording, including his crescendoing warble-scream on "On My Way to Work," Oberst's everyday song. "A New Arrangement," a wanton recitation of a relationship's change/end, is soft and easy, without Oberst's signature dynamics. "A Line Allows Progress, a Circle Does Not" speaks the pressures and sadness of addiction over a simple guitar line. "Neely O'Hara" is a long-winded, albeit pretty good, experiment that doesn't utilize Oberst's best gifts.


Songwriting, inherently, is a tough thing to do well and to make a cohesive, evocative song that doesn't sound ridiculous. To write a song that can actually utilize interesting structures is amazing.

"A Perfect Sonnet" is this song.

Singing with an undying urgency and striking passion, Oberst writes in a vague sonnet form (not really) of lost love. Oberst's strength is his fantastic vindictiveness that eventually comes to a head with acceptance and love for those he despises.

But, the key to the song is the parallel structure thing he does with the chorus lyrics, using similar lyrics as to each philosophical stage he encounters.

But I believe that lovers should be tied together
And thrown into the ocean in the worst of weather
And left there to drown
Left there to drown in their innocence

I believe that lovers should be chained together
And thrown into a fire with their songs and letters
And left there to burn
Left there to burn in their arrogance

Now I believe that lovers should be draped in flowers
And laid entwined together on a bed of clover
And left there to sleep
Left there to dream of their happiness

By using such a structure -- and a dynamic slowdown for the final one -- Oberst is able to emphasize the song's writing while backing up its meaning. His nod to love being something we envy in others is gorgeous and fits his adolescent voice.

Moreover, the song is based in a tidal wave of guitar and band, utilizing four chord to pound the chorus' melody into a listener's head (the chorus and verses have the same melody, basically). It's a wonderful pop trick and catchy as all hell.

Music like this is tough to pull off, no doubt. It's mature -- the evolution is, certainly -- and a very introspective look at relationships in a way most songwriters do not touch. As with LIFTED's "Waste of Paint" -- his other opus -- Oberst touches on humanity in a way that is seldom seen in music.