This post does not contain any actual sweat nor actual tamales

In the oh so brief lapse in my bloggy style, I became enamored of a couple music-free things and one thing that includes music as a background element rather than the focal point. In a semi-particular order, I present my Summer Romances of ’10:

1) Tamales. Holy mother-loving Jebus. I’m not exaggerating when I report that I’ve eaten at least one tamale every single weekend for the past two months. But when I say one, I typically mean about two in a sitting. And when I say every weekend, I mean every weekend as well as a few instances of lunchtime hanky panky. If I end up pregnant before the summer’s over, you know what the baby’s going to look like.

2) Glow in the dark bocce ball and the weather that makes it possible to play long after the sun has set without sleeves and the mosquitos ramp up their attack style to “ravenous.” It’s a little hard to decipher what’s happening in this shot, but you’ll get the picture. Get it?!?

3) Hot yoga. When I lived in San Francisco, I had a housemate who swore by her classes at the Funky Door studio. I became interested mainly because all the yoga garb I had previously seen looked shapeless and puffy. You exercise to avoid appearing shapeless and puffy, right? Bikram yoga allowed me to wear tank tops in a city where summer comes as quickly as a sneeze. But like the city of San Francisco itself,  the yoga exacted a formidable toll. At the end of every class, the strappy workout wear I was so pleased to use ended up crumpled in wet heaps until laundry day. That was due to all the sweat. Lord, do you sweat when you do hot yoga. I began the practice with a pretty naive sense of hubris.

“I grew up in Hawaii! I love heat! Yoga is mostly just stretching and laying around, right? How bad can it be?”

At the end of my first class, this is how my hubris sounded:

“Gauuurgharigalknsgljnsdlgjnpqajfhiabfaabahahb’sk.”

However, unless you’re more reptilian than most people, you don’t persist with hot yoga just on account of the extreme temperature. Stronger muscles, better posture, stress relief, feelings of fleeting but welcome accomplishment, yada yada, fitnesscakes. All those factors were lovely. But like many romances, my affair with bikram yoga became harder to sustain as reasons both internal and external stopped my attendance. I moved away from the Haight neighborhood, started a new job, yada yada, excusecakes.

Let’s move forward to the end of May in 2010, when Groupon advertised a crazily discounted month of classes at CorePower Yoga in Portland. I’d read about the studio before, as it’s one of the only businesses to offer yoga in a heated room, but the cost and the constant stuffing myself with excusecakes kept me from investigating directly. The Groupon cleared the first hurdle. Now if I could just put the cakes down for a second . . .

So far it’s been a lot of what I expected but with a few surprises. Yoga is a lot like writing. You feel sort of cool when you tell people you do it. You consider it definitive and vital to your existence. But when you’re actually doing it, even when you do it often, sometimes it can really, really, REALLY suck. It can make your efforts feel dim-witted, superfluous, and ineffective. You often think about how you could spend the time sipping champagne in front of a TV instead of doing it, sometimes while you do it.

And once in a while, you do it, it works, and you feel like you’re capable of creating strong, gorgeous things with your body, your mind, and your breath.

CorePower Yoga even has a Pandora station. Thankfully, it has not played Sufjan Stevens the way one instructor did, which briefly took me out of the moment and made me feel like I was doing yoga at Disneyland. However, towards the end of one grueling hour, this came on and sounded the way water tastes.

  • Pearl Jam ~ Backspacer ~ Monkeywrench

Just Breathe

Still here, and with a very important cause

Don't be fooled - they're less cuddly than they appear.

The systematic campaign of violence against pandas has been a long-documented blight on the panda bear and panda bear impersonator community. It is an issue where one group, sometimes very twee young Spanish nationals and sometimes other panda bears, coerces the pandas into circumstances that compromise their safety through persuasion and Casio keyboards, but more often than not brute force. The harm enacted upon pandas is shameful to any person who considers himself a lover of panda bears (ew) and those in bear suits, but contains a dreadfully lurid quality that makes the widespread response to all the atrocities a strangely complacent shrug.

It is not sufficient to dismiss pandas as face-eating murder bears and allow the abuse to continue unchecked. As a citizen of the planet, I urge you to watch the following footage from Papa Topo and make your voice heard. Clearly, if you think that brutality against pandas is not safe for your work environment or your own fragile psyche, steer clear of viewing (you pansy).

  • Papa Topo ~ Oso Panda ~ Elefant Records in Spain, through Darla in the U.S.

Do you like American football?

A camp of Campesinos(!)

If you know me, you’re aware that despite having very limited athletic abilities of my own, I love to watch sports. Give me a decent football game, and I’ll likely be planted on my couch until the final concussion is doled out. This current season, I’ve been to 12 Blazers games, and I think the Rose Garden owes me at least one beer on the house. When I lived in San Francisco, I took the BART to the Coliseum to see the A’s, who are the red-headed step-children of Bay Area professional sports. And during the upcoming Olympic games in Vancouver, I’m DVR’ing the figure skating events, including ice dancing. I never said my sporting stories were cool.

To me, sports and music have a lot in common. At their best, both fields involve practitioners (in both areas, those people disproportionately tend to be men) performing seemingly effortless feats with their chosen instruments. When witnessed first-hand, each activity causes onlookers to scream and all but jump out of their skin in excitement. Heck, drugs are all over the place in both sports and music. Beyond these trite similarities, I bring up the comparison because I used to be one of those kids who believed one’s personality was tied to the worst stereotypes of that image. I assumed that anyone with an interest in professional sports might as well enjoy flinging feces when not dragging their knuckles across the ground. I also thought that since I listened to alternative music, I was worlds more artistic and free-spirited than the jocks in my class. You’re probably glad I wasn’t blogging at the time.

It’s good that time can change even the dimmest opinions. If it hadn’t, on Super Bowl Sunday, I wouldn’t have been present at a house full of warm foods, enough bottles of champagne and beer to send a frat party to the hospital, and friends from a wide array of careers, academic disciplines, and parts of the country. The mixing of such a variety of folks was helped considerably by the mostly unanimous roars of approval as the New Orleans Saints took off from a rocky first quarter to defeat the Indianapolis Colts. And when there was no game to watch – which was probably more than three quarters of the time the entire Super Bowl pageantry aired – we all joined forces to boo the commercials we disliked. Needless to say, it was a noisy and lovely place to be. Heed the advice of Los Campesinos! from their most recent album, Romance is Boring: “We agreed we couldn’t trust a guy that didn’t like a single sport.”

  • Los Campesinos! ~ Romance Is Boring ~ Arts & Crafts

This Is a Flag. There Is No Wind

If there’s a better reason to jump for joy, who cares?

Real talk

Real talk

Something was so awesome I actually returned from the blogging dead to let you know. How awesome is it? If you are a fan of the Magnetic Fields and any or all of their 69 love songs, then you will find this most awesome.

You want more? Fine. I really wanted that blog to be a logical and topical segue to talk about Magnetic Fields’ newest endeavor, Realism. But the group affiliation is seemingly where logic and topicality stop. But that’s not exactly the case. The Magnetic Fields, both in the heyday of 69 Love Songs and after, has always been a band content to wander through city landscapes and occasionally put down their books, stand at the keyboard, and sing about their thoughts. They’ve built a hefty repertoire of songs for the lovelorn, the twitterpated, and the spurned, and in their dealings with the mundane and messy details of one’s personal life, the Magnetic Fields’ work resonates the strongest. Merritt’s wry observations and pop culture allusions have hooked droves of fans, even the kind who generally can’t stand the unabashed preciousness of such an outfit. So that could make it easier to excuse Merritt, in his striking toneless bass, as he goes on about Dada polka to a clacking tambourine. Or maybe not. As with the Love Songs trilogy of albums, not every track can be sublime. I’m including the first song of the album here, for its similarity to the standout parts of 69 Love Songs, and the obligatory 1999 nostalgia.

The Magnetic Fields will play at the Aladdin Theater on Sunday, February 21 (this show is sold out), and Monday, February 22. Mark Eitzel will also play.

  • Magnetic Fields ~ Realism ~ Nonesuch

You Must Be Out of Your Mind

RIP Jay Reatard: The world will always want more

Kind of a bummer of an album title today

Let me preface this entry by saying that it has been a tragic day, both in and outside of the world of music, with Jay Reatard’s passing and the disaster in Haiti. I don’t mean to equate the two events or suggest that the death of one musician is on par with the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people due to a natural catastrophe. That’s ludicrous. But since this is a blog about music, I am choosing to focus on Jimmy Lee Lindsey, Jr., better known as Jay Reatard. That should not stop you from reading or watching news about Haiti, and it should definitely not keep you from visiting the web sites of organizations such as the Red Cross or Mercy Corps to determine how you can help.

As several media sources have reported, Reatard died in his sleep early in the morning. He was 29. I feel like I should add here that I am also 29, and it’s always especially weird when someone who’s only a few months older than you passes away. Then again, in my 29 years, I have no prolific list of shouting, sweaty punk singles that I’ve composed, nor a record label that I’ve created, nor a following that has chronicled my move from garage band jumper to solo artist. But for a guy who made an early single-minded jump into music at the expense of his high school education, those accomplishments couldn’t have possibly been enough, not even at his age. Reatard’s acidic yelp can be heard on dozens of EPs and LPs with bands such as the Reatards, the Lost Sounds, and at least four other groups. His final solo album, Watch Me Fall, was released last August. You can find out more about his unique and articulate perspective in the excellent short documentary below.

  • Jay Reatard ~ Watch Me Fall ~ Matador

It Ain’t Gonna Save Me

Look outside, the meh’s come, say whaaaaaaa?!?

That's totally your dad's shirt.

It’s not that I equate Vampire Weekend with Miley Cyrus or the Pussycat Dolls. The boys in the band play their own instruments and compose their own work. For all I know, every person in the group is quite nice. But the meteoric rise in popularity that they’ve enjoyed, which has spanned maybe the last three years, baffles the hell out of me. So despite the fervor that NPR, Stereogum, and mostly likely a big chunk of my peers show towards Vampire Weekend’s upcoming album, Contra something or other, I will not give in. To bring back a phrase that my friend, Ela, introduced into our daily vernacular, I refuse it. This is why I refuse to jump on the Vampire Weekend wagon.

- The Paul Simon comparison

I’m sorry, but until the band comes up with a song as anthemic as “You Can Call Me Al” or as relevant as “Bridge over Troubled Water,” the only connection I see is that they are the most popular band that happens to fall under the Capetown-by-way-of-Cape-Cod umbrella. If someone must be compared to Simon, let it be Simon’s first son, who came out with a very strong solo album last October. Harper Simon has even appeared on Sesame Street (as a very small child singing “Bingo” with his dad). Until Vampire Weekend explains what an Oxford comma is to Big Bird, I refuse this dubious parallel.

- The Upper West Side Soweto style

For a similar reason why some peoples’ ears emit steam when they hear the word “moist,” the fact that this name exists for a two-artist genre makes me want to grind my teeth slowly and menacingly. I’m not too keen on Afro-pop, either. I don’t care if the Dirty Projectors get lumped into that description more often than not. Just quit it. The only made-up words I enjoy are the ones that I make up. I refuse this distinction.

- The obsession with preppy everything

Until Zack Morris joins Vampire Weekend, I’m just not down with the band’s preoccupation with polo shirts and campus intrigue. One would expect me to love a bunch of boys blatantly obsessed with literature and cultures outside of their educated, Northeast backgrounds. Clearly, the prep school scene was a definitive one for Vampire Weekend, one that ultimately brought the members together and infused their sound with its buttoned-up legacy. Unless I get a Zack Attack, I refuse it.

Despite the criticism I’ve lobbed here, I have to commend Vampire Weekend for cranking out a sound that is simultaneously thoughtful and playful, as well as achieving the degree of success they’ve obtained in a relatively short time. I think “Oxford Comma” is irrepressibly catchy. But it’s the same frustration you have with the characters in Wes Anderson’s movies. They’re stunningly intelligent, wear tasteful clothing (especially these tracksuits), and participate in stimulating hobbies. With all of that going for them, why are they so bad at informal and impolite interactions? Why do their concerns seem so unreal? My unsolicited advice for Vampire Weekend: After the promotions for Contra whatever that album is have ended, go to Africa for a few months. Soak up what the residents know about music, then come back to the studio and determine whether you still want grammar and vacations in Hyannis to be the focus of your work.

  • Harper Simon ~ Harper Simon ~ Tulsi

Shooting Star

If you wish to hear the new Vampire Weekend album, NPR is streaming it for a limited time

This is what I done: Top Ten Albums of 2009

Let’s get right to it. In settling on my top ten albums of dearly/gladly departed 2009, almost all the tracks that I lingered on turned out to be the slower numbers. Could it be a commentary on the year, one that saw my own household and the nation at large work with considerably meager resources and disproportionately grand expectations, resulting in the need to draw something more than simple pleasant distraction from music? Or could it be that the weather outside is soggy and cold and I’ve been operating in my pajamas with a bit of a hangover, thus making peppy dance songs sound less enticing? It’s hard to tell. But like I said earlier, no further delay!

10. Why? ~ Eskimo Snow ~ Anticon

Like the clownish guy at a party, Yoni Wolf knows how to get your attention right off the bat, as evidenced by the first words on Eskimo Snow when Wolf explains, “I wear the customary clothes of my time like Jesus did, with no reason not to die.” But Why?’s work goes beyond non sequiturs and bon mots, not to mention bizarre punctuation tendencies. The lyrics come from an absurdist’s vigilant eye, and the bell-heavy music makes the horny preoccupations in songs like “In the Shadows of My Embrace” appear almost whimsical. The production gets a little silly on more than a few of the tracks, but you can think of that approach as the funny man from the party pulling out all the tricks he knows to get you to smile.

In the Shadows of My Embrace

9. mewithoutyou ~ It’s All Crazy! It’s All False! It’s All a Dream! It’s Alright ~ Tooth & Nail

This past year, the Decemberists put out a record that barely sounded like the Decemberists of albums past. So while that band explored their hard and prog rock proclivities with mixed results, a band called mewithoutyou from Philadelphia assumed the helm of braying vocals and evocative, well-read lyrics. The rousing music giddily pulls the listener through mewithoutyou’s tableaus of modern-day mythology, drawn from pastoral imagery, religious folklore, and hyper imaginations.

Goodbye, I!

8. Fanfarlo ~ Reservoir ~ Atlantic

It’s a double-edged sword when a band boasts rich layers of orchestral instrumentation as well as lush production values, in that the final product can sound nearly clinical, too pristine to have been made by human beings. All the same, there’s no denying that Farfarlo’s Reservoir is a booming, gorgeous album that sounds just as eloquent in a miles-wide amphitheater as it does in the few square feet of one’s bedroom.

Luna

7. Neko Case ~ Middle Cyclone ~ Anti-

You could spill ounces of toner in rapturous descriptions of Neko Case’s cool and confident voice, her pretty red hair, and her impressive résumé of projects. The component of Case’s work that often gets overlooked is the honest, thoughtful quality of her song-writing. On Middle Cyclone, she assumes the forms of a lovesick tornado, a prematurely married girl, and occasionally, a smart and bruised woman who has allowed herself to indulge in romantic fantasy for just a little bit too long. There’s a lot of anger in Middle Cyclone on behalf of the wronged earth as well as its unjustly treated inhabitants. Since Case herself has tried to avoid the use of metaphor in her songs, I’ll back off the hackneyed “force of nature” reference and say flat-out that this album is lovely and, just below the surface, even more brutal than the sword on the cover.

Middle Cyclone

6. Laura Gibson ~ Beasts of Seasons ~ Hush

It’s extremely appropriate that I saw Laura Gibson perform at a big, old church in downtown Portland this last year. The obvious reason is her album’s, Beasts of Seasons, dual themes of communions and funerals and the related explorations of loss, grace, and self-improvement. All Christian associations aside, the main reason I’m grateful to have heard Gibson in that venue is because the broad acoustics serve her soft, husky voice and careful fingerpicking style perfectly. Part of the notion of church, part of the reason some of us failed Catholics squirm at the very mention of mass, is the requirement that an attendee sits quietly and attentively. But it doesn’t feel burdensome when you get to listen to Laura Gibson sing. It’s the best way to hear her.

Spirited

5. Avett Brothers ~ I and Love and You ~ American

The brethren Avett became grownups in 2009. That’s not to say that the two thirty-something brothers and their bassist, Bob Crawford, haven’t done a ton of growth, from their country roots to their stellar 2007 album, Emotionalism. But despite the fact that I and Love and You is the band’s major label debut and supported by the magical ear of Rick Rubin, there is a profound level of humbleness in the thirteen tracks. There is confidence without cockiness, though the effortless harmonies and bobbing pianos certainly afford the band some bragging rights. There is also a dominant insistence on love and acceptance minus the need to shroud such a desire in irony or gimmicks. You might call such a perspective naïve or ambitious, but just a minute into the title track, you already understand that the Avett Brothers have earned the right to ask for something epic.

I and Love and You

4. David Bazan ~ Curse Your Branches ~ Barsuk

During his live performances, in the breaks between numbers, David Bazan famously has his audiences ask him questions, and when I saw him at Mississippi Studios a couple months ago, a person asked him why he fell out with his faith. Bazan’s response? “Because I determined that it was bullshit.” But somehow, in spite of his recent uprooted stance, Bazan’s work is free of self-pity. He holds nothing back as his narrator watches his grasp slip away in the slide toward alcoholism and helplessness. In a year that struck a healthy fear of the unknown in a lot of people, a voice as shrewd and generally hilarious as David Bazan’s is a welcome form of assurance.

Lost My Shape

3. Dirty Projectors ~ Bitte Orca ~ Domino

It might be easy to dismiss the Dirty Projectors as a hipster fad. They were covered by a ton of artists from college a cappella groups to famous sisters. They earned the devotion of Questlove. The band is from Brooklyn, for goodness sakes. All the signs of twee are present, but nevertheless, the eccentric mind of Dave Longstreth and the fresh-faced folks who make up the Dirty Projectors produced an inventive, thrilling record. While most music critics as well as fellow musicians remain stumped about how to describe what the Dirty Projectors sound like, the factor you can count on throughout Bitte Orca is that you have no idea what each song will do. With every dizzying run of Longstreth’s guitar, blast of sound after a quiet interlude, and choral spasm from Amber Coffman, Angel Deradoorian, and Haley Dekle, the album may be too haphazard for some listeners, but the rest of us are too busy having our socks knocked off to care.

Temecula Sunrise

2. Rodrigo y Gabriela ~ 11:11 ~ ATO

If you’ve followed this blog, you already know that for me, 2009 was a year for a multitude of live music and a score of bizarre maladies. So when I contracted H1N1, it was less of a surprise and more like a running gag in a sitcom. I tried not to bitch too often about the various illnesses that plagued me, but I am still so pissed that the swine flu kept me from watching Rodrigo y Gabriela at the Schnitzer in October. “But you saw a bunch of shows, what does it matter?” some of the less perceptive of you might ask.  To that body of imaginary readers, I would direct you to obtain a copy of 11:11, press play, and proceed to have your aural cavities rocked in a way they have not previously been rocked. Because if you already knew what the duo is capable of, you’d be pissed at my side. Each track on the album is a tribute to artists who have influenced Gabriela Quintero and Rodrigo Sanchez, and based on the frenetic rhythms and enthralling guitar work, every listener should be just as thankful. If you happen to be in Australia, Japan, or Western Europe this year, see one of the band’s concerts for me.

Santo Domingo

1. Elvis Perkins in Dearland ~ Elvis Perkins in Dearland ~ XL

There is no algorithm to picking one’s favorite album of the year. You could arrange your iTunes library by the highest play count numbers then do a bit of fuzzy math under the influence of a few glasses of Malbec, maybe with some improvised program of Obscure Band Affirmative Action tossed in, so you appear open-minded but not indiscriminately so. But that just isn’t the case. Sometimes, you only need a snip of a given album, and you already hear that album playing on a days-long loop from your stereo. You memorize the words from a couple songs within a day. And even if you listen to technically more deserving albums afterward, if someone were to grab you at gunpoint and demand that you name a favorite album – because that’s totally what armed assailants want to know – you would give that album’s name.

As soon as I heard Elvis Perkins sing, “What am I if bound to walk in chains ’till I die?,” I knew what I’d be writing about in this entry.

While the song that the line comes from isn’t even the best one on the album, the emotional hooks that the song plants serve as a handy representation of what the rest of the self-titled effort does. Some of that response has to do with the music, which swings from deliberate and morose to airy and lively, all carried by Perkins’ passionate tenor and the band’s generous supply of instruments. Part of the album’s resonance is in its subject matter, which bids goodbye to loved ones from the past, present, and even future in the indomitable single, “Doomsday.” On a very personal level, however, I think the reason Elvis Perkins in Dearland tops my list is because it’s exactly what I needed to hear this year, as age and the nebulous notion of an impact started to weigh on my mind more than effective hangover cures and dinners that can be cooked within half an hour. This album has a few great tracks by which to brood, much like Perkins’ debut, Ash Wednesday. But at the same time, when I begin to take it all too seriously, the album hones in on the fluidity of joy in day-to-day existence. In 2010, I hope that the balance between documenting and living life becomes easier to negotiate, and I hope to do that with the kind of skill this album possesses.

Hours Last Stand



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