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12.25.2010

I.
a baby enters the world bathed in blood
loudly protesting his circumstance
with lungs that cannot be emptied
his eyes roll back
and his mouth opens very wide

II.
a young boy laughs with crushing vigour
dreams of big and boisterous things
time gives no glance and moves
on

III.
compromise

IV.
an old man coughs
the cold air drawn in
rapid
tatte
redga
sps
spit beads on his lips

V.
a man on yellowed sheets sees death
and whispers two words
well met

12.18.2010

Where is SimCity 5?

I love SimCity. Not Spore. Not the Sims. Not My Sims: Pets. None of that junk. I love SimCity!

Along with RollerCoaster Tycoon, SimCity got me hooked on simulation games. Recently, I finally gave in and bought the SimCity 3000 port for my iPhone. It works surprisingly well. I’m counting on it keeping me entertained on a few trips.

This sparked me to go dig up my old SimCity 3000 Unlimited disc since that’s the latest version of the game I own for PC. I never got into SimCity 4 because it was infamously buggy and the way roads and zoning were implemented ruined the game for me.

So I popped in SC3K. Thankfully it runs just fine on Windows 7 64-bit. I was kind of surprised about that. Equally surprising: the game is just as fun now as it was ten years ago. Some old games get nostalgically surrounded by a fuzzy pink aura in your memory and are quite disappointing when you
play them again, but not this one.

I did have one technical issue: there are only a handful of resolution options available and, of course, none of them are widescreen. I actually had to change my color setting to 16-bit to get the game to run in a window instead of inelegantly stretching to fill my 16:10 monitor.

This got me thinking. Why is there no new SimCity game in development? The last new game in the series, SimCity 4, came out in 2003 (SimCity: Societies and all those spin-offs don’t count.) Isn’t it time for a new game? I would love to play a well-designed current-generation SimCity!

Why am I complaining when I just said how much I still enjoy SimCity 3000? Shouldn’t I be happy with that? A sequel probably wouldn’t be that great anyway, right?

I thought that Civilization II was the greatest Civ game ever until Civ IV came out (I'm still not sold on Civ V). Why does a classic series like Civilization get well-thought-out refreshes while SimCity, a series which is arguably even more classic, stagnates and gets milked for ports to the iPhone and Nintendo DS?

I have two theories. Either Maxis/EA is content to release keep raking in the cash with new Sims games and ports or they are in development of a new game that we don’t know about yet. I’m hoping it’s the latter. I kind of doubt it though. Secretly developing big name titles isn’t the way Maxis (and especially not EA) rolls. I mean, this isn’t Valve we’re talking about… WHERE’S EPISODE 3, VALVE?

Maxis, EA, c’mon people. Get off your laurels and make a great new SimCity game worthy of the franchise name and my fifty bucks. Oh, and don’t screw it up with stupid DRM and reliance on user-made content either.

8.17.2010

The Suburbs

Buy this album!


See it? Go buy it! iTunes, Amazon, Walmart - whatever! Just go buy it. It's great.

Okay, okay. Not everyone's going to like it, obviously. There's no music that everyone likes. Not even all Arcade Fire fans love this album. But I do. All I can do is share my opinion, right?

On my first listen, I liked about half the songs on the album. Indeed, there are some slower, more subtle songs that take a few concentrated listens to "get" but when I did, they became some of my favourites. The only song on the album that I don't absolutely love is "Rococo"  though it is by no means a bad song.

Funeral was a picture of childhood. Neon Bible went off in a different direction with a bemoaning look at current events. The Suburbs seems like the true successor to Funeral. The Suburbs is about the transition from adolescence to adulthood.

The opening lyric "In the suburbs I learned to drive..." recalls a similar imagery used in the song "In the Backseat" from Funeral: "I've been learning to drive my whole life." There are all kinds of hints that in The Suburbs we're no longer children, but neither are we grown-ups yet. The themes of transition, longing, and uncertainty are most prevalent in the songs "Ready to Start," "Empty Room," and "Sprawl I." About half the album is seen from the perspective of the adolescent while the other half is an adult looking back at his youth as in the songs "The Suburbs," "City With No Children," and "Suburban War."

When I first heard the name of the new Arcade Fire album, I thought to myself, "well that's perfect." Having grown up a suburban kid all my life, this album really speaks to me. Not only that, but the music is fantastic. Although it's nothing new for the band, there's a lot of really beautiful strings used on the album. What's more surprising is the amount of electronic influence evident in songs like "We Used to Wait" and especially "Sprawl II" which has an 80s vibe (surprisingly that's a good thing.)

For Arcade Fire fans' reference: this album is right up there with Funeral. And remember, Funeral was my second-favourite album of the 2000s. For everyone else's reference: this is simply one of the best albums I've ever heard in my life... at least right now. I've been listening for two weeks which is generally the time it takes for me to form a lasing impression.


Though I can't explain exactly why, The Suburbs is sometimes so stunningly beautiful that it makes me want to cry. This is great art.

7.24.2010

Your Mind is the Scene of Confusion: Inception Review

I have been extremely busy this past week so I am terribly late with a post on Christopher Nolan's latest film Inception. Here's my quick review:


Yeah. It's good. What can I say about it that hasn't been said already? I'd agree with the general praise that's been granted it: it's intellectual, exciting, creative, and it's not a sequel, remake, or adaptation. Those things are great, but don't they don't necessarily make a great film.

What's impressive is Nolan's literal exploration of what it is to dream and how he weaves those experiences into a compelling narrative. And it looks amazing as well. Like in his previous films, the CGI was kept to a minimum resulting in a very realistic looking film despite being set in dream spaces.


The cast is excellent which is good because a lot of the supporting roles are underdeveloped and would be forgettable if the actors didn't own the roles as they do. Only two of the main characters can be said to be truly well developed - the rest are simply glorified catalysts. Perhaps that's by design.

The protagonist Dom Cobb provides an emotional and dramatic center to what would otherwise be just a thinking man's action movie. We also get a glimpse into the psyche of Robert Fischer, the victim of the mind crime. To say much more about the plot or characters would be a disservice to those who haven't seem the film yet.

If you still haven't, I highly, highly recommend it. But like all Nolan's films, the more you pay attention, the more you'll get out of it. It's not passive entertainment. I demands a thinking audience. I generally have to see his movies twice to get the most out of them and Inception is a prime example of that.


If you are a fan of Nolan's other films you will undoubtedly enjoy this one. As some have pointed out, it is the logical culmination of everything he's done until this point. If you simply like movies that challenge you to think, Inception will promote some serious thought. It will confuse you in a good way. If, on the other hand, you are looking for simple popcorn escapism, then you should probably go see the A-Team or Knight and Day, because Inception will mess with your mind just as it does with its characters.


When I get some more time, I'm going to do a more in-depth spoiler-filled post in which I will discuss some of the theories that I've been thinking about as well as a discussion of the various elements at play in the film.

This will really mess with your head.

6.21.2010

Toy Story 3

Fifteen years ago Toy Story was released. It was one of the first movies I remember seeing in a theatre. I was only 6 years old.

Four years later, the excellent sequel came out.

Last Friday, I went with a large contingent of friends to watch the final part of the Toy Story trilogy. I wasn't sure what to expect. The trailers didn't look promising. Most of my friends agreed. Nonetheless, we all spent our $10.50. Even if it didn't turn out like I hoped, how bad could it be? It's still Toy Story after all!


Of all my friends, I am probably the harshest movie critic and I do not go easy on children's movies. I was one of the few people who didn't like Pixar's last effort Up despite the universal praise it got. So even though I really, really wanted to like this movie, I was prepared to grade it harshly. Things weren't helped by the attached short "Night & Day." Though it was clever and creative I didn't really like it. But if you ask me, the last good Pixar short was "Lifted" attached to Ratatouille.

Then the film itself started and my critical mood quickly melted away. I won't spoil anything in particular, but I will say that the opening scene is awesome. It does everything necessary for the opening: reintroducing the characters while building a bridge between the older films and this one. Did I mention it's really funny? It's really funny.

Actually, this might be the funniest Toy Story of them all. Maybe that's just because I get all the subtle jokes now that I'm older. Maybe it's because all the homages to the previous films work. Referencing the films that came before is a frequently abused trope of sequels, but Toy Story 3 amazingly makes all the references work by building on them. The opening scene is a perfect example of that.

Speaking of referencing the earlier films, many of the themes of the second film are re-introduced here and made a central part of the plot. What will happen to the toys now that Andy has grown up? That's the central question of Toy Story 3. And while that set-up makes for a fun adventure with lots of laughs along the way, it's also cause for more than a few emotionally poignant moments.

I'm man enough to admit it: this movie made me cry. Several other guys my age admitted they did as well. It's crazy how something as seemingly fake and unnatural as a movie about toys can be so emotionally gripping. And not only a movie about toys, but the second sequel to said movie... made in a computer. You can't get much more artificial than that. Then again, aren't toys themselves like that? They're mass-produced in some factory in Asia - the complete opposite of "personal." But to kids, they are are precious.


As I watched this film I couldn't help being overwhelmed by nostalgia. I found my inner critic was struck silent not simply because I was watching a new Toy Story movie, but because that movie was genuinely good.

Pixar made this film not for the kids of today, but for those who were kids when the first movie hit theatres 15 years ago. I enjoyed it much more than my 11 year old sister. Now Pixar has grown up and we've grown up. The movie is reflective of that while still being wholly faithful to the spirit of the first two movies.

This is probably the best sequel I could have asked for. As the movie concluded Friday night, just two days after my 21st birthday, I couldn't help thinking that my childhood had officially come to a close. In many ways, this is the most personally meaningful film I have ever seen.

Thank you, Pixar.

2.06.2010

Matt's Top 10 Albums of the Decade (2000 - 2009)

This past decade, the digital revolution has changed how we listen to music. Ten years ago I took a portable CD player and a case of discs on car trips. Now I have all that functionality and much more in pocket-sized device. Amazing.

Digital music has changed how we buy music. Ten years ago, iTunes didn't exist. Now it is the world's largest seller of music, digital or physical. I bought my last CD two or three years ago.

Some people speculate that digital music will eventually kill the album format. Artists will instead opt for shorter, more frequent releases - perhaps regularly releasing singles. I hope and pray that won't happen.

The album is a wonderful format. Like a good book or movie, a good album has a central theme or feeling. A good album isn't a collection of good singles; it's not even a collection of good songs. A good album is a series of songs which play off and compliment one another contributing to the work as a whole. This involves pacing, variety, and creativity in each individual song. In other words, a good album is greater than the sum of its parts.

I decided to make a list of my "Top 5 Favourite Albums of the Decade" almost six months ago. I quickly discovered I couldn't narrow it down that much, so I've gone with a more traditional "Top 10" list. Here are the rules:

1. Only one album per artist
2. Must be full-length albums (no EPs)
3. Must have been release between 2000 and 2009 (obviously)

I'm sure I will look back on this list in the future and wonder why I picked some of these albums. It is inevitable. But I am human. I reserve the right to be inconsistent. For now, these are my favourites.


10. I See Things Upside Down

Derek Webb
2004


“I’ve got faith in the bank and money in my heart”

I would be remiss if Christian singer/songwriter Derek Webb did not make this list. I have long been disillusioned with the Christian music scene for lack of creative innovation and imitation of the secular music business. There are a few exceptions, however. Three of them made my list.

Actually, I say Webb is a “Christian musician” but he’s something of a pariah in the CCM world. His usage of “strong language” has gotten him in trouble with Christian bookstores on more than one occasion. But I don’t have time to discuss that controversy here. Beside, those were different albums.

Despite some Christians’ dislike of Webb’s approach, I would argue that he, in fact, writes better, more honest, more Christian music than the likes of Mercy Me and Casting Crowns. Webb has taken Matthew 7:3’s admonition to fix one’s own faults before others. His debut solo album (he’s also a member of Caedmon’s Call) She Must and Shall Go Free was a criticism of the modern American church.

I See Things Upside Down carries Webb’s message further and moves from folk-influenced acoustic rock to more broad and artful musical territory sometimes bordering on the experimental. What remains unchanged are his brilliant, beautiful and challenging lyrics. Through them we are shown how we as Christians, as a church; as a culture do indeed have things backwards.

The title comes from the album’s final song: “And I give myself to what looks like love//and I sell myself for what feels like love//and I pay to get what is not love//and all just because I, I see things upside down.” We do indeed. I cannot say the things Webb says in this album any better than he, so I won’t try.

I don’t always agree with everything Derek Webb has to say or how he says it, but I appreciate what he’s doing and for now, at least, he seems to be the only one doing it.


9. Sea Change

Beck
2002


“These days I barely get by"

This might be the saddest album ever. Admittedly, I’ve never heard Blood on the Tracks, but come on. I’m not a “professional.” Also, Bob Dylan can sure write some awesome lyrics, but his voice – uh, eh, ugh. So let’s just call this the saddest album of the decade, ‘k?

Oh my. Beck Hanson. What a weird dude. Allow me to list for you some of his singles: “MTV Makes Me Want to Smoke Crack,” “Steve Threw Up,” “Beercan,” “Mixed Bizness.” Wow. That tells you a lot right there. There are others I can’t (shouldn’t) even list the names of. Nevertheless, I like a lot of this guy’s music. He’s always done his own thing in deference to most popular music and for that he gains a bit of my admiration. In recent years he’s classed-up his act significantly beginning with this album.

Sea Change is the product of Beck’s grief after breaking up with his longtime girlfriend. The pain of that loss is palpable. It does a better job of conveying the emotion of deep personal loss and loneliness better than any other album I’ve heard. When Beck comes to the titular lyric on “Guess I’m Doing Fine” I just want to shout to him, “No, man! No you aren’t!” and give him a hug. Ok, maybe that’s a little weird. Listen to the song; you’ll know what I mean.

Among the best songs are “The Golden Age,” “Paper Tiger,” “Sunday Sun,” and “Little One,” which have the sonic fingerprints of producer Nigel Godrich (who also produced my number one pick. Hint! Hint!) all over them. Godrich’s distinct “layers of sound” elevate Beck’s “guy with a guitar” approach to another level. Though intensely personal, the songs sound sweeping and epic. The tragedy is small in the grand scheme of things, but when you’re the one experiencing it, your world is being rocked.

Sea Change may be a downer, but it’s a beautiful downer.


8. Letters to the Editor, Volume 1

Andrew Osenga
2007


“I caught myself looking in the mirror wishing I was someone else”

Technically, this isn’t a full album. It’s only 6 songs and 20 minutes long. But it’s awesome and I don’t care. I’m breaking my own rules.

This album is the essence of singer/songwriter music. It’s honest, personal, heartfelt, and just a bit sappy. Plus artist Andrew Osenga gave this away as a free download on his website (you can still get it as of this writing). C’mon, go give it a listen. It’s free.

Listening to this, you might not believe that it’s actually a concept album. Sort of. Osenga had his fans send him inspirational tidbits – photos, poems, stories, quotes, etc. – that he could use as inspiration. Using only one acoustic guitar per song, his voice, and as much multi-tracking of the two as he wanted, he wrote and recorded the album within two weeks. He struck gold as far as I’m concerned.

There’s a PDF attached to the download which explains where all the inspiration comes from. It’s really cool to hear how the making of this album was a collective effort and yet it sounds very personal.

I absolutely love every one of these songs for the same reason I love all good folk. Either I have experienced these feelings and situation myself or I can easily relate to them. “Wanted,” which as far as I’m concerned is one of the best love songs ever, describes that essential element of any relationship “and if you say that you want me to//I’ll believe you to follow through//all I want is to be wanted by you.” “The Ball Game” is about the clash between dreams and reality; “The Blessing Curse” poignantly reminds us “getting what you want is both a blessing and a curse.”

But my favourite song is the closer “Swing Wide the Glimmering Gates” a beautiful song about the promise of Heaven. Osenga wisely chose to break his own rule (much as I have in choosing this album) toward the end of the song by including a choir of voices sent in by his fans.

If this were a full-length album, I’d probably place it much higher on my list. Just the fact that I’m breaking my own rules should tell you how much I love this album… or how little regard I have for my own rules. Either one. But seriously, I love this album.


7. In Between Dreams

Jack Johnson
2005


“Love is the answer at least for most of the questions in my heart”

I feel confident saying this is the best album Jack Johnson will ever produce. If I am wrong, I will happily acknowledge my mistake.

I wouldn’t say I’m a Jack Johnson fan. I’m an In Between Dreams fan. Most of Johnson’s stuff sounds the same no matter what he’s singing about or what kind of guitar he’s playing. So whether you like Jack Johnson’s music will depend directly on how much you like his style because he hasn’t and isn’t likely to change it much. Somehow all his distilled essence as a songwriter and a person wound up on this single album. And it’s magnificent.

Jack infuses the whole album an obvious Hawaiian flavour. It’s the use of Hawaiian phrases, the ukulele, and the general relaxed sound. There’s no hurry, no rush to get anywhere which makes this album sort of a nice music refuge from the insufferable fast-pace of the modern world.

In fact, this album is a genial criticism of modern life. Jack seems to be telling us all the slow down especially “Banana Pancakes.” In “Good People” he questions the ethics and morality of television; on “Crying Shame” he questions our motives for war. If there’s any central message to this album it’s probably “chill out.”

Having been fortunate enough to vacation in Hawaii, I can understand this frame-of-mind. There they have a concept known as “island time.” Maybe it’s just something they tell tourists. Maybe it’s an actual psychological effect of living on an island. I don’t know. But I felt it when I was there. We’re always rushing. Why? It seems like some people just can’t take a break no matter how badly they need to recharge.

So next time you’re overstressed and you need a break, turn on In Between Dreams: perhaps the most relaxing album of this past decade. Hang loose.

Ok, I promise this is the last singer/songwriter album on the list!


6. Mute Math

Mute Math
2006


“Can I break the spell of the typical”

In a word: yes.

Mute Math is in an odd place as a band right now. They’re still flying below the radar in many circles but are beginning to gain traction in others. I am proud to say I discovered them back in 2006 when this gem of a debut album first gained wide release. Is this how indie-music people feel all the time?

I was immediately hooked by their lead single “Typical” and its accompanying music video. Even if you generally dislike music videos, you owe it to yourself to watch “Typical.” Seriously. Go do it right now.

That video and song are a perfect nutshell description of the band: their energy, creativity and quest to break the mold. And somehow they have. Mute Math is a nigh-perfect merger of post-rock, experimental electronica, and progressive influences into an accessible pop form. The result is something futuristic, though not entirely avant-garde.

Plus these guys are just talented. All of them are great at what they do and if that’s not enough, they’re also multi-instrumentalists. Drummer Darren King’s mad skills shine throughout, especially when he goes nuts toward the end of “Reset.” More than anything, Mute Math is a drum-driven band. Bassist Roy Mitchell-Cárdenas whom I had the good fortune to meet in person, gets to rock the double bass on the fantastic instrumental “Obsolete.” Keyboardist and vocalist Paul Meany who used to rap with Earthsuit (wow) can be alternately smooth and gentle or rough and wild with his voice which is perfect for their style. Guitarist Greg Hill displays the ability to play a variety of styles to suit the many influences of the band.

All this talent carries over into the live experience. If you ever get the chance to see Mute Math live, do not pass it up. I when to a show last October and I can safely say it was the most amazing concert I’ve ever seen. Just talk to anyone who’s been to a Mute Math show and they’ll tell you a similar story.

And though talent and showmanship doesn’t always lead to fame and popularity, I think if Mute Math continues on their present course they have the potential to be one of the major bands of this coming decade.


5. The Eleventh Hour

Jars of Clay
2002


“Your love can make these things better”

Those who know the band and especially those who know me are probably wondering why I picked this album over Good Monsters which is generally considered superior. Good Monsters won numerous accolades upon its release and brought many former Jars listeners back into the fold. But wait a second - ! The Eleventh Hour won the band their third consecutive Grammy and was also critically acclaimed (not that I care about the critics).

So both albums are very, very good. What makes The Eleventh Hour superior in my estimation? One word: pacing. When Monsters was first released I loved it. I totally ignored the one complaint consistently lodged against the album. But it’s true, unfortunately. Good Monsters is a better collection of songs; this is a better album.

In one word The Eleventh Hour is about love, possibly the most common theme in all of music and especially in Jars’. But this isn’t a simple collection of love songs though it may seem like that at first glance. Nearly every song can be seen as a romantic love song or a song about God’s love for humanity and for every individual in particular. And it works. Sure, this is an approach that’s been tried before, but nothing is unoriginal which is done excellently.

Although there are a few exceptions, this theme is evident in songs like Scarlet: “And this old scarlet letter won’t keep me from holding you//and there is nothing you do” which might speak of a lover’s willingness to forgive a wayward partner or God’s willingness to forgive us. Silence centers on doubt and loneliness: “I thought you were silent//and I thought you left me for the wreckage and the waste//on that empty beach of faith”. The album’s closer The Edge of Water longs for the return of a lover which is an illusion to the Second Coming: “Will you chase away these shadows when you come back again?”

Musically, this album is an adept blend of alternative rock, pop, and folk. It’s not as acoustically-driven as the band’s earlier releases or as heavy as some of the stuff on Good Monsters.

It’s a lot of fun to listen to a given song in one context and then again in the other. On the one hand you get a deftly-written love song, on the other you get a song with deep theological implications. This album is for those in love either with another person or with our Creator. I think it does an equally good job of illustrating both.


4. Parachutes

Coldplay
2000


“We live in a beautiful world”

Let me begin by saying I love all of Coldplay’s current albums. This was the most difficult choice for this list. I knew Coldplay had to be represented somehow. Not only were they perhaps the biggest band of the decade, but they were also one of the few massively popular artists I feel actually deserve their large following. Are Coldplay overrated? Absolutely. Most bands are.

Aside from the massive cultural influence the band enjoyed this past decade, I just love their music which is odd because I certainly don’t like all arena rock. There’s just something about Chris Martin’s longing, emotive lyrics and vocals that smacks of utter sincerity even if he is singing to the entire world.

Parachutes, however, is a different story. Before they blew up, before they went semi-arena rock, they were just Coldplay: a little English band-that-could. It’s the group’s only album where the name “Coldplay” seems to really fit the music. It’s largely mellow and relaxed – not rushing to build itself up to a higher plane, just content to meander though visual metaphors and sweet emotional expressions. To illustrate the difference between Parachutes-era Coldplay and later Coldplay, just listen to the hit songs “Yellow” and “Clocks” back-to-back.

Not everything on Parachutes is mellow. “Shiver,” one of my favourite rock songs, showed not only what the band could do, but also the versatility of Chris Martin and his amazing trademark falsetto. “Spies” brings the tempo and volume down with a beautiful guitar arrangement and from there the tranquil mellow sound takes over.

Of all Coldplay’s albums, Parachutes is the sweetest and most sincere – but, y’know, in a good way.


3. Elephant

The White Stripes
2003


“A seven nation army couldn't hold me back”

Ah, Elephant. What can I say about this album? What can I say about The White Stripes for that matter? You’ve got to admire Jack White’s attitude about making music. You can tell that it’s absolutely one of his favourite things in the world. To him, making music is about love. Music is love and anything that gets in the way or covers up the raw emotion and feeling (like overproduction) should be done away with. Yes, music is a business, but not during the creation process!

Thus we have The White Stripes and band that doesn’t pretend to be anything more than it is: a guy with a guitar and a girl with a drum set. Though they’ve lately broken away from that simple beginning in favor of a more varied instrument set, this is their best album. It stands halfway between the very indie-sounding (read: rough) first few albums and the experimentation with their formula found on later albums. It’s a good place to be.

Of course you’ve got the rocking single “Seven Nation Army” to kick things off but it turns out that’s not terribly representative of the album’s sound. “Army” always sounded modern to me while most of the other songs clearly have older influences.

“Blues rock” is the best descriptor of this kind of music, I think. It’s like if B.B. King played everything with fuzz guitar and talked primarily about unrequited love and self-doubt… and used lots of power chords… and was white. That’s basically Jack White. Sort of. Not exactly. My apologies to B.B. King and everyone knowledgeable about popular music for that analogy. Please disregard.

If you’ve only ever heard “Seven Nation Army,” you owe it to yourself to check out the rest of this album. It’s just a lot of fun. It’s a throwback to a time when music was more about heart and style than production and grooming.

My only problem with is album is the cover. It’s supposed to somehow form a hidden picture of an elephant though I’ve never been able to see it. Grrr.


2. Funeral

Arcade Fire
2004


“I've been learning to drive my whole life”

Originally I was going to list Arcade Fire’s second album Neon Bible in third place. Neon Bible though generally well-thought-of is widely considered inferior to their debut. It was my first exposure to the band and is definitely more polished and reserved than Funeral.

Fortunately I came to my senses in time to declare this my number two album of the decade.

Actually, when I “discovered” what this album was about, I thought about debunking my long-chosen number one pick, but no. I think this is the right decision. For now.

The album, quite simply, is about growing up. The title Funeral refers to the death of childhood either figuratively or literally. Lost is our childlike innocence and ignorance. Open to us is the frightening new world of adulthood with a set of new challenges and lessons.

This is an absolutely beautiful album start-to-finish. It’s an especially applicable theme for me since I “came of age” this past decade. Arcade Fire makes it seem personal by using language, experiences, and feelings that broadly evoke memories of childhood. I know that magical feeling described in “Tunnels”: “And if the snow buries my neighborhood… then I’ll dig a tunnel from my window to yours.” And those clipping, screeching, “unpolished” vocals that I couldn’t stand on my first few listens so beautifully convey the emotional heights and depths of childhood and growing up.

My favourite song “In the Backseat” contains the entire theme in a perfect, poignant nutshell. As children we ride carefree in the backseat of the car while our parents worry about the logistics of travel: “I don’t have to drive//I don’t have to speak//I can watch the countryside and I can fall asleep.” But we are growing up whether we realize it; whether we want it. The cycle of life continues and age comes to us all: “My family tree’s losing all its leaves//crashing toward the driver’s seat.” And suddenly we wake up and realize we are adults: “Alice died in the night//I’ve been learning to drive my whole life.” Lyrically, vocally, and musically it’s an amazing finish to an album that’s as sweetly beautiful, tragic, and emotionally tremulous as childhood – and indeed life – itself.


1. Kid A

Radiohead
2000


“Everything in its right place”

I bet there are some eyes rolling. "Oh, he picked Kid A. Everybody picked that." But I'm seriously one of those strange people who "get" this album. I genuinely think it's brilliant and not because I was told to think that. In fact, I hated it during my first few listens. But there was something strangely enticing that kept me coming back.

Music is an inherently strange thing. When it comes right down to it, it’s just an arrangement of sonic patterns which somehow appeal to us. And music has power. Music entertains, makes us dance, makes us sing, and moves us emotionally. But only very special music can transport your mind to another place. Kid A will do that if you let it.

As I indicated, this album has made numerous “album of the decade” lists, often landing at number one. Beyond being a spectacular sonic journey, this album was an incredibly bold offering from a band that was already considered to be at the top of their game. Their previous album OK Computer, also a masterpiece, was universally acclaimed but if you listen to that album and then play Kid A you’ll wonder what in the world happened to Radiohead’s guitar-driven alternative rock sound.

It takes guts for a band to reinvent themselves while at the top of their game, but it takes true genius for that reinvention to work as well as Kid A does. Radiohead took the basic formula of 3 – 5 minute rock songs, stripped out many of the familiar sonic elements, rearranged others and ended up with something that wasn’t entirely new, but sounded completely original and unfamiliar… and amazing.

This album has some of the best art ever. It's a perfect visual illustration of the music. Kid A is a dream. Perhaps it’s the fantasy we in modern society have been living for years.

At first we are out on the ice in a veritable winter wonderland with tall, icy mountains lingering on the horizon. We do not even notice the fire that burns beyond them. We are happy and oblivious. Everything in its right place. But soon cracks in the dream begin to show. “The National Anthem” declares “everyone has got the fear.” “In Limbo” outright tells us “You’re living in a fantasy world.” By the album’s conclusion we finally see the harsh reality behind the dream. The final track, “Motion Picture Soundtrack,” is an ethereal symphony led by an organ. It sounds lofty and magnificent, but somehow hollow – like our dream. “It’s not like the movies; they fed us on little white lies.” The façade is gone. The nightmare is creeping in.

Of course that’s just my interpretation of this confusing and hazy album. But I find it eerily fitting for a decade defined by fear, mistrust, and the disillusion of naïve dreams. Let’s hope Radiohead’s follow-up album Amnesiac isn’t an accurate description of the 2010s.



And that's it! I'd really love to hear your opinions. What are your favourite albums from the past 10 years? If you've bothered to read this far, you might as well comment, right? End long, long post!

1.30.2010

Thoughts on the iPad

On Wednesday Apple announced their "latest creation" the iPad. But unless you've been living under a rock, you already knew that.

After months of nebulous rumors about a revolutionary tablet computing device, it turns out it's basically just a giant iPod touch. Kinda boring. Not that it's ugly or uncool - far from it. Still, it doesn't live up to the hype and seems like a really practical and mundane choice coming from Apple.

Oh well.

Now the question is: will this thing sell? I think it has a chance of doing decently well simply because it's from Apple and it's

S
  H
     I
      N
         Y
            !

The "wow" factor tends to move a lot of units on it own. This should not be underestimated. There were plenty of doubts that the original iPhone would be successful mostly due to its initial pricetag. But as the price came down and the word got around, it quickly gained a large marketshare.

But there were smartphones before the iPhone in widespread use. There were portable music players before the iPod. Apple intelligently got into those markets at the right time with the right device. I'm not sure they've done the same here.

I have very mixed feelings about this device. Let's break it down into two categories: Wins and Fails.

Win: Based on iPhone OS
Not only did this save them development time and money, but it also ensured that millions of users of the iPhone and iPod touch would already be familiar with the device. Also iPhone apps work with the iPad which is a sensible move since right off the bat there will be tons of apps for this thing.

Fail: No Background Processing
I can understand this limitation on the iPhone. People just want their phones to work and allowing users access to background processes could lead to significant problems with their devices. Even without background processing, I've still experienced some annoying technical problems and sluggishness.
Yet the iPad is supposed to replace netbooks. Granted, netbooks aren't powerful computing platforms, but you can at least browse the web and word process at the same time. Anyone looking for serious mobile productivity will have to look elsewhere.

Win: ebooks
On Thursday, I saw a spot on Fox News comparing the Amazon Kindle to the iPad. Side-by-side, it's a laughable comparison. Ask anyone what they'd prefer to own just by looking at them and I guarantee you the vast majority would chose the iPad. It's a sleeker, more capable device. And it has COLOR. That's a big deal. That means full-color illustrations and photos for textbooks and newspapers. Plus the iPad could potentially offer comic books (or graphic novels, if you must call them that). The only thing the Kindle has going for it is E Ink which is nice and comfortable to read on. It's also significantly cheaper at $260. But the iPad is so... shiny...

But did they really have to re-name them "ibooks"? That's pretty arrogant even for Apple.

Fail: Textbooks
Although textbooks would look great in full color on the iPad, there is one fundamental problem with using this for school: students are poor as dirt. Oh wait. There's one more fundamental problem: textbook publishers are a racket. Although I'd love to carry one ebook reader instead of several metric tons on books, textbook prices are likely to remain high even in digital form. And there's no reselling e-textbooks. For most students that's likely to be a deal breaker. Even if I had an iPad right now, I don't think I'd but a textbook with it for that reason alone.

Win: Web browsing
This seems an ideal device for just plain 'ol web browsing. The size and resolution are perfect. The multitouch control is unparalleled. It seems like the virtual keyboard would function very well at this size too. But will it have Flash support? Like background processing, this is a missing feature that doesn't bother me so much on the iPhone, but there's no reason the iPad shouldn't have it!

Fail: Media Player
This isn't a "fail" per se. The media playing will work marvelously I'm sure. It's just relatively useless. We'd complain if it weren't there, but how often is this going to be used as a music player? Almost never because it can fit in your pocket! And while the prospect of watching videos on its screen is more attractive than on the iPhone's, that is also a rare use case.



Ironically I think the biggest problem with the iPad is branding. Apple normally does a marvelous job at this. This time I think they failed to give their device an identity.

What is the iPod? A portable music player. It's for people who want music on-the-go.
What's the iPhone? A smartphone with a well-design operating system and the features of an iPod built-in. It's for people who want a phone with a lot of features that's easy to use.
What is the iPad? It's a... uh... portable computer that's smaller than a laptop and performs the functions of a stripped-down tablet computer and an ebook reader with the features of an iPod built-in... I think.
See how nebulous that is?

If you've already got a laptop and an iPhone/iPod touch then I see no reason for a device in the middle. Steve Jobs, even with his infamous reality distortion field, fail to convince me of that. It's still a niche device, but if anyone's going to make the tablet and/or the ebook reader catch on, it's probably Apple.

1.27.2010

dans France, pt. 1

Hello everyone! This is Joshua, signing in for what seems like the first time this year. I know most of the stuff that we've done on this blog hasn't strayed very far into our private lives, mostly because they're, well, private. But I don't really have anything to say that hasn't been repeated ad nauseam and the only thing that I really have any unique ideas on is my life.

So, for those interested in what's been going on in my life, continue reading.

As some of you may know, I am currently studying abroad in Strasbourg, France


It's a little town (around 450,000 people live there) in north-east France, about a 5 minute drive from Germany. I'm studying at both the Ecole de Management and the Institut Etudes Politiques, basically the business and political science branches of the University of Strasbourg. It's been pretty fun thus far, especially the meeting new people from all corners of the world bit. I feel like I will come back from France speaking more Spanish, German, Italian, and Portuguese than I will French, but c'est la vie.

My routine has started to become routine, settling into that old familiarity with which most people approach daily life, all the while oblivious to the fact that they feel completely at ease doing what they're doing. That's the real struggle here: feeling at home and comfortable. I am constantly reminded I don't speak the language by the signs on the side of the road, the people walking by me, and the people who are unlucky enough to hazard a one-sided conversation with me.

Half the students I talk to haven't even heard of the Chateau de Pourtales, my home for this semester, so I've found it rather difficult to explain that I live in a castle. Pictures are few and far between online, so here's one I took myself.


Despite the fact that I took these pictures on a really nice camera, Blogger is for some reason down-scaling the resolution so that they can fit on its limited bandwidth, which is a bummer. Anyway, so that's where I live. It's really pretty and very castle-y--meaning it creaks, is cold at night, and just generally rocks. Here's another picture of it while the weather was warmer than it is now.


Doesn't that look awesome?

Anyhow, back to what we've actually done so far. I flew into the Frankfurt airport and was picked up by one of the coordinators here, Willi. I met Ian and Thomas at the airport, both students participating in the same program that I am. We drove back to Strasbourg, and crashed, because at that point we had all been up for longer than 24 hours.

Over the course of the next couple of days, we "discovered Strasbourg." Willi showed us the cathedral, the downtown area, and various other beautiful parts of this beautiful city. There'll be a lot of pictures going up soon on Facebook.

pt. 2 coming soon!
Boat cruise
Walk through the park
Kehl
Welcome dinner: Gurtlerhoft
Alsatian museum
Stuttgart
Baden-Baden
Wine tasting

1.16.2010

Hilarious Sesame Street Guest Appearances

Sesame Street of course has a long history of having guest stars who no kids are going to recognize. But I guess being on Sesame Street is a sign you've "made it" or something. Here are some recent guest star segments that made me chuckle.

Jack Black - I think he's really, really good at this. Maybe he should be on more childrens' shows.


Liam Neeson - I don't think Neeson has even been scarier. I love the line: "I counted to 20 on the West End."


Neil Patrick Harris - The shoe fairy seems on oddly fitting role after having played "Dr. Horrible." He and Jack Black need to co-star on a new childrens' show. I'd watch it.


Feist - This is far better than the real music video.


Lawrence Fishburne - Morpheus on Sesame Street. Yes.


Anderson Cooper - Cooper doesn't seem to be that into it, but watching him pop out of the trash can is priceless.


Natalie Portman - I can't decide if I like her better in this or in her SNL rap video.


Ricky Gervais (creator of the original British version of The Office) - This is just surreal.


Jason Miraz - I've not heard that much of his stuff, I just thought others would appreciate it.


B.B. King - Yes. B.B. King's the man.


Ray Romano - I find the subject matter very fitting.


Joe Torre - I think it's funny how Torre basically tells Elmo to stop playing baseball and go for a walk... y'know, 'cause baseball is so unhealthy.