Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Pop Week: Parquet Courts leads off a rock 'n' roll week

The definite highlight of my week was seeing Parquet Courts at the 9:30 Club in Washington D.C. It was such a rocking show that I think it actually made me sick for much of the latter half of the week.

That's the power of rock 'n' roll, and also presents the sad facts that I must be getting older and it's been way too long since I've been to a concert.

Regardless of how long it's been since I've seen a show, there was no denying how awesome this one was. Also, despite the fact that the Courts didn't play my very favorite song, "Stoned and Starving," it was far from any kind of let down. Here's their set list, and definite highlights were "Human Performance," "Dear Ramona," "Berlin Got Blurry," and "One Man No City," to somehow name a few.

Parquet Courts is my favorite contemporary rock band these days, alongside long-time titleholder Wilco and Foxygen, which I'm seeing next month. Stay tuned on that one. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

And if rock 'n' roll was the theme of the week, then this Archie Andrews thing is fitting right in. I can't get enough of Riverdale on the CW. So I took to the new era of Archie graphic novels as well, reading the final issue of Life with Archie, where he dies in highly dramatic fashion. The first half of the double commemorative issue leads up to Archie being shot at Jughead's restaurant during a fundraiser for political upstart and acclaimed gay Senator Kevin Keller. the storyline also makes us wonder who Archie has been married to for the past several years. Is it Betty or Veronica?. The second half, which I'm still reading, takes place a year later. Also stay tuned. Five out of five star

Despite all his problems in recent years, I still consider Woody Allen pretty rock 'n' roll. Although not among my favorite of his prime-era classics, 1982's A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, received a rewatch this week, and it holds up relatively well as a Shakespearean take-off. It didn't make my top 21 Woody Allen films, and it's a little slow by today's movie standards, but it's somehow still 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Another classic I rewatched this week, since my son is now old enough to start watching some key film milestones, was Raiders of the Lost Ark. Little needs to be said about this 5-star flick that came in 17th on my list of all-time favorite movies.

The Age of Innocence, lastly, offered some rock 'n' roll via the classic novel. I still love the 1993 film version with Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder, but really, how could those actors mess up with a script this juicy? Newland Archer battles his whole life over cousins May and Ellen, in true Betty and Veronica love-triangle fashion. However, the "innocence" of the era's social structure makes it impossible for him to ever end up with his true love. This may sounds rom-com, but oh no, everyone should read this page turner before they die. 5 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Pop Week: How a big event like the Super Bowl is so rare these days

This is a new column I've promised myself each week, to tie all the random TV, movies, magazine articles, books, and more that I've ingested each week into a loosely-tied-together glimpse on what the world might mean at that very moment. Call it an experiment. Here goes ...

The Super Bowl set up a pretty phenomenal pop-culture week, with its satisfying ending for anyone who loves high drama but its very unsatisfying ending for those who still retained a glimpse of hope that the Steelers would remain the greatest football franchise of all time instead of the Patriots.

It was the rare event that brings the nation together in a common conversation, like All in the Family and, to a lesser extent, Seinfeld, used to do.

My favorite magazine read of the week was "The Social Medium is the Message" in WIRED's special section of the 49 trends that will shape the very near future. It looked at how we need to seriously re-examine our Facebook and Twitter use. In a country still tragically lacking in media literacy (how we use and can understand media), Marshall McLuhan would have recognized Donald Trump's Twitter propaganda as eerily similar to how fascist leaders of the 1940s spoke to their citizens. Further, he would have recognized how our avalanche of information and misinformation (heavy thanks to social media) could foster fear and anger about the world.

Another example of how our society has gone from major to meta is Archie Andrews. Long ago, every kids read the comic-book in the newspaper or watched him on TV, but nowadays, he's just another of the many dozens of shows that premier each week. But man is Riverdale a good one, and it is my favorite TV show of the week. It takes Archie, Betty, Veronica, Jughead, and all the other players to deep, dark places in ways the comic books never did. It's like a new remake of 90210, but only much better than that recent semi-fiasco and much more suspenseful.

Ryan Reynolds continues to underwhelm me, after a promising early career. I know he's sort of like the Tom Brady of actors to many people and Deadpool is like the Superhero Super Bowl to some, and I appreciated it's yearning to be a different, more adult version of a superhero movie. But it's just too winking-nudge-nudge-hipster for my tastes. There are some fun scenes, but Deadpool is the most boring movie of the week. Cool-looking Spider Man-looking knock off though. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

For what very well may be the most boring (but important) article I wrote for the week, see
"New services are moving fast, and cities are looking to update procurement processes to keep up." It could definitely make the ears of government groupies pop up.

And finally, now that football is over, the world of college basketball is starting to seriously heat up. It continued to be a rough year using my season tickets to Georgetown games. In what often seems like a talented team with Coach John Thompson III not necessarily all there, the Hoyas at least had a little fight in losing at home in overtime to Seton Hall and then on the road to #2 Villanova. My teams completed the win-challenged week with North Carolina barely losing at Duke.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

I suppose La La Land leads the pack of recent movies I've seen

It's been a long time since I really wanted to go to movie theaters. Uncomfortable seats, sticky floors, crinkling wrappers, ridiculous prices, traffic, and heart-attack food selections.

But then I discovered the Wheaton AMC just up the road. Movies before noon are $5, seats are massive leather recliners, there's a bar (haven't hit that up yet), and there's a sweet Vietnamese bahn mi sandwich joint across the street.

A summary of some of the movies I've seen recently, some at Wheaton and some elsewhere:
  • La La Land: I don't like a ton of movie musicals, so this was a tough one to take in some ways. There are a lot of things I liked about this multi-award winner. But Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are fantastic as the romantic leads. The plot is a little light and some of the songs aren't very good, but I like how the movie moralizes that life is usually not much like Hollywood. I don't think it is the best movie of the year, but it will probably win the Oscar in a few weeks. 4 out of 5 stars.
  • As a footnote, the movie musicals I like most are, in no particular order: The Wizard of Oz, West Side Story, anything with Travolta, This is Spinal Tap, South Park, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, what I know of Hamilton, Willy Wonka, Annie, I suppose the Julie Andrews stuff, and Sing Street.
  • Sing Street: This is the best musical I've seen in a while. It's sort of the Irish version of School of Rock and features beautiful rock songs. 5 out of 5 stars.
  • Hidden Figures: What a story. I may be secretly cheering for this on Oscar night. The unheralded (until now) African-American women who played such a crucial role in NASA's golden era of space travel is truly inspiring, especially in today's entirely uninspiring political climate. 4 out of 5 stars.
  • Sing: This is like an actually good version of American Idol, with lovable, huggable animated animals playing the roles of stars of stage. Totally enjoyable for kids and adults. 4.5 out of 5 stars.
  • Night of the Hunter: My new cable setup has some good old movies, so it was nice to finally see this Robert Mitchum classic. He plays a traveling preacher who specializes in serial killings and terrorizing young kids. Kind of ahead of its time and very creepy. 4 out of 5 stars.
  • True Grit: I love a good Jeff Bridges flick, and this one has him playing bounty hunter Rooster Cogburn. I had completely forgotten that I'd seen it, but it's really really good. The cornpone Western dialogue is completely mesmerizing. 4.5 out of 5 stars.
  • TV Bonus - Search Party: I also just finished watching season one of this TBS ... dramedy? It's a hard-to-classify weirdo hipster thing that is apparently the creation of Alia Shawkat (Arrested Development). It's not as great as TV's #1 comedy Baskets, but I'm hooked. 4 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

My 40 favorite albums of an impressive 2016, plus odds and sods

Pity Sex
Updated February 22.

If this list doesn't prove what a typically exceptional year it was for music, then I don't know what could. That staple greats like Band of Horses, Wilco, and Parquet Courts got reduced several spots down in the top 10 by upstarts ought to be exhibit A.

Best Compilation: Whether you like The Grateful Dead or not, this expansive collection called Day of the Dead has something for everyone.

Best Soundtrack: Sing Street is way deeper and funnier  that La La Land, and its songs blow them away. That's saying a lot too, because La La Land was pretty good.

Favorite Vinyl Purchase: Pure McCartney is great because I now have four albums worth of great post-Beatles tunes in one semi-quirky boxset.

Best Extras Release: R.E.M.'s 25th anniversary release of Out of Time has tons of great alternate versions of many of the band's most excellent songs.

Best Remaster: The Turtles are a criminally under-appreciated 1960s band, from their Monkees-like hits such as "Happy Together" to their weirdo tendencies fitting for a band that often backed Frank Zappa; "All the Singles" is a loving collection of great songs.

Most Unnecessary Release: The Rolling Stones are back with their first release, "Blue & Lonesome," in eons. And while it's not particularly bad, it is a huge bore and not nearly as good as the great blues records the Stones are trying to emulate.

Car Seat Headrest
Honorable Mentions: 
  • The Jazz Butcher: Last of the Gentleman Adventurers
  • Oscar: Cut and Paste
  • SWMRS: Drive North
  • Beverly: The Blue Swell
  • Close Lobsters: Design and Signs
  • Rogue Wave: Delusions of Grand Fur
  • Adam Olenius: Looking Forward to the New Me
  • Winterpills: Love Songs
  • Crying: Beyond the Fleeting Gales
  • Honeyblood: Babes Never Die
  • Field Mouse: Episodic
  • Lunch Duchess: My Mom Says I Have Rich Inner Life
  • Metallica: Hardwired ... To Self-Destruct
  • M.I.A.: AIM
  • Kanye West: The Life of Pablo
  • The Monkees: Good Times!
  • Pinegrove: Cardinal
  • Beach Slang: A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings
  • Frankie Cosmos: Next Thing
40. Pete Yorn: Arranging Time (this guy sold out for corporate concerts a long time ago and hasn't released anything good since his excellent debut, but this is a return)
39. JEFF the Brotherhood: Zone (not as good as earlier efforts, but metal-pounding pop that works anytime)
38. Weezer: White Album (as much as I want badly to dislike every new album they keep releasing, I just keep liking them all)
37. Empire of the Sun: Two Vines (pop-glam weirdos that I liked a lot more when they were named Sleepy Jackson, but this is still pretty essential stuff)
36. Charles Bradley: Changes (not as good as his earlier stuff, but anything with a great cover of this great Black Sabbath song can't be wrong)
35. Animal Collective: Painting With (these avant-garde dudes aren't always my cup of tea, but this album adds enough pop hooks to make it compelling enough at first to want to stick with for further hidden joys)
34. Dr. Dog: The Psychedelic Swamp (these jalopy rockers keep getting more expansive and interesting)
33. Iggy Pop: Post Pop Depression (not a huge Iggy fan, admittedly, but this weirdo collection is very compelling)
32. Beach Slang: A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings (it's like the 80s college wave and 90s Archers of Loaf meet in this collage of soaring guitars)
31. The Strokes: Future Present Past (nothing as classic as the early Strokes, but it's still nice to have a little more in the collection from them, and they're still mighty NYC cool)
30. Drive-By Truckers: American Band (the new Lynyrd Skynyrd puts out another great collection, this one on the mellower side)
29. The Pooches: Heart Attack (the most pleasant chill-out pop EP of the year)
28. Lucius: Good Grief (a blend of songs you could have sworn you've already heard for years on the dance Top 40 radio stations, but this album is filled with earworms that are all brand new)
27. Lisa Prank: Adult Teen (Tacocat buddy Lisa Prank plays the kind of lo-fi tunes that fit right into a year when playing it low key sometimes is just that much more refreshing)
26. Santigold: 99 Cents (which features my favorite song of the year "Can't Get Enough of Myself")
25. Various: The Hamilton Mixtape (this is one musical whose songs I can't get enough of)
24. Lydia Loveless: Real (not as classic as her last release, but she's still making the best alt-country happening these days)
23. De La Soul: and the Anonymous Nobody ... (this is all over the place, kind of like the classic De La albums of old, and makes for fun repeated and deep listenings)
22. Sturgill Simpson: A Sailer's Guide to Earth (I wasn't really onboard the earlier craze, but this album is about a good as country pop gets right now)
21. Hudson Bell: Yerba Buena (indie rockers wait no more, go get this)
20. Ladyhawke: Wild Things (this is like the second disc if Tegan and Sara's album were a double album; can't get enough of this kind of not-dumb dance pop)
19. Drugdealer: The End of Comedy (this is a little like a lost George Harrison album if he had spent more time in Laurel Canyon in the 1970s)
18. The Jayhawks: Paging Mr. Proust (didn't think these Minneapolis 90s alt-country warriors could still have it in them, but this is great)
17. The Goon Sax: Up to Anything (falling somewhere between the mellow pleasures of Belle and Sebastian and the off-kilter Daniel Johnston, and what a name!)
16. A Tribe Called Quest: We Got It From Here (not much needs to be said, other than this was too long in waiting)
15. The Sandwich Police: Love Yourself (not quite sure where this obscure Evan Dando-involved EP came from, but it sure makes me happy)
14. Frankie Lee: American Dreamer (don't know much about this guy, but his album is officially the best country release of the year)
13. Twin Peaks: Down in Heaven (garage-rock Stones-like band that has been floating around awhile, they pull it all together with this release)
12. ESP Ohio: Starting Point of the Royal Cyclopean + various EP releases (not even hardcore Guided By Voices fans necessarily even know these were released, but there are some early-2000s-like gems scattered throughout)
11. Parquet Courts: Human Performance (quickly becoming consistently my favorite contemporary band)
10. The Avalanches: Wildflower (this psychedelic mash-up of tons of popular tunes is insane and extremely catchy throughout, and a real surprise for the year)
09. Band of Horses: Why Are You OK (much like Parquet Courts, this band is just so consistently great, in a very gorgeous way with this one)
08. Ages and Ages: Something to Ruin (this may be the most upbeat thing I loved this year; as if Pavement merged with the Polyphonic Spree to create ridiculously happy slacker rock)
07. Free Cakes for Every Creature: Talking Quietly of Anything With You (this is almost painfully twee, but if you love their tune, "All You Gotta Be When You're 23," then you'll want all this album)
06. Wilco: Schmilco (mellow and gorgeous, it's almost unfair to everyone else who has to compare in the years that Wilco releases an album)
05. Tegan and Sara: Love You to Death (my kids' everyday addiction to "Boyfriend" may have destroyed that song forever, but there's no denying how perfect this album is)
04. Dinosaur Jr.: Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not (J Mascis just keeps doing his thing, and if you love his thing, this release was hard for much anything else to beat this year)
03: Against Me!: Shape Shift With Me (heavy metal hasn't much been my thing since I had a major crush in high school, but this is so amazingly catchy that I'll still be listening to it in my 80s)
02. Car Seat Headrest: Teens of Denial (we've waited a long time for someone to do Guided By Voices as well as GBV, and this young dude may finally be the rocking, rollicking answer)
01. Pity Sex: White Hot Moon (this band made this ultra-hooky shoegazey and rocky ode to the 90s and then promptly broke up)

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Biking with Ivanka Trump and Barrack Obama on a cold D.C. morning

I'm working at a Transportation Techies event tonight, so I took the opportunity for a rare casual, roundabout bike ride to work in frigid 20-degree weather this morning.

My usual route never takes me to Washington D.C.'s Kalorama neighborhood. And, in fact, not many routes to work of mere commoners goes through Kalorama by design. It's a neighborhood of mansions and embassies nestled between Adams Morgan, Dupont Circle, and Georgetown. But none of the streets are all that easy to pass through. So despite being practically smack-dab in the center of D.C.'s action, it has very little traffic.

That might change a little bit soon, as two new neighbors are sure to bring gawkers like me. Barrack Obama and family will soon move in to this lovely red-brick home overlooking Rock Creek Park at 2446 Belmont Road NW. Lots of workers were there getting it ready, as were a few people taking photos like me.

And just a block-and-a-half away, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner are moving into this more fortress-like abode at 2449 Tracy Place NW. I imagine the gold-plated interior walls will soon be installed. For now, there was an on-camera interview of some kind happening on the street in front of the house (and just above my thumb's-down sign).

Monday, January 2, 2017

We demonize Muslims because we never got a chance to understand them from the beginning

Strange how so many in the U.S. demonize Muslims and Islam. Then again, it's not surprising that we don't much understand that approach to the world, since we are taught very little beyond Western Civilization in school.

That's precisely why it's so important that we all read Tamim Ansary's Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Academic Eyes

In the book, as noted in past reviews, he tells "the rich story of world history as the Islamic world saw it, from the time of Mohammed to the fall of the Ottoman Empire and beyond. He clarifies why our civilizations grew up oblivious to each other, what happened when they intersected, and how the Islamic world was affected by its slow recognition that Europe - a place it long perceived as primitive and disorganized - had somehow hijacked destiny."

Ansary himself says the book is "like what I’d tell you if we met in a coffeehouse and you said, 'What’s all this about a parallel world history?'"

I'm going to buy this to keep reading, but some snippets from early in the book that show why I love the way Ansary explains things so well include:
  • One key geographical feature sets Mesopotamia apart from some of the other early hotbeds of culture. Its two defining rivers flow through flat, habitable plains and can be approached from any direction.
  • Settled farmers would build irrigation systems supporting prosperous villages and towns. Eventually some tough guy, some well-organized priest, or some alliance of the two would bring a number of these urban centers under the rule of a single power, thereby forging a larger political unit - a confederation, a kingdom, an empire. Then a tribe of hardy nomads would come along, conquer the monarch of the moment, seize all his holdings, and in the process expand their empire. Eventually the hardy nomads would become soft, luxury-loving city dwellers, exactly the sort of people they had conquered, at which point another tribe of hardy nomads would come along, conquer them, and take over their empire.
  • Later, the Persian Empire stands out for several reasons. First, the Persians were the counter-Assyrians. They developed a completely opposite idea of how to rule a vast realm. Instead of uprooting whole nations, they resettled them. They set the Hebrews free from captivity and helped them get back to Canaan. The Persian emperors pursued a multicultural, many-people-under-one-big-tent strategy. They controlled their enormous realm by letting all the different constituent people live their own lives according to their own folkways and mores, under the rule of their own leaders, provided they paid their taxes. The Muslims later picked up on this idea, and it persisted through Ottoman times.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The Walking Dead comics are no doubt a rollicking good-time phenomenon

I've been accused occasionally of not having a wide enough spectrum of knowledge about pop culture to be the owner of a pop-culture blog. But you try watching everything on Netflix, Amazon, and HBO, going to the movies, reading all the books on my Kindle list, going to the theater, and listening to all the new music on Spotify with a family and a full-time job.

Ahem. I do what I can. Well, after finally watching The Empire Strikes Back today (yes, it only took me 36 years; I swear I thought I had seen it multiple times already!), I also read book one of The Walking Dead. It captures the first 12 comic books and is a story of cultural significance nearing that of Star Wars.

It does not match Y: The Last Man, which I consider the greatest graphic novel and is also from the apocalyptic genre. The dialogue of Dead can be cliche and lazy and the story is fairly predictable. Or, maybe I've just heard so much about the phenomenon over the years that some of the thrill and suspense has been a bit ... suspended.

Rick stars as a cop who goes into a coma after getting hit in a shootout only to wake up in a world where most humans have been replaced by zombies. He makes his way from the country to Atlanta, where the zombie situation is extra bad. He is helped to a camp outside the city to amazingly reunite with his wife Lori and young son Carl. It's soon revealed that Lori had sex with Rick's ex-partner Shane after they thought Rick had died. This tension boils to a head when little Carl shoots and kills Shane before Shane nearly murders his dad. Turns out, Lori is pregnant, possibly with Shane's baby. Will be interesting to see how that storyline pans out.

The group meets a former NFL player named Tyreese, Carl is shot in the woods, and a man named Hershel helps save him while welcoming the RV-traveling crew to stay on his fenced-in property. This arrangement goes sour after Hershel is forced to re-kill his already-dead three children, who escape from the barn where they had been locked up. The crew leaves and soon finds an abandoned prison, which they are getting prepared to settle as this book comes to a close.

I can't wait to read the rest of the graphic-novel series, but I'm not so smitten that I feel I need to also watch the TV series. Am I wrong?

4.5 out of 5 stars