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Thursday, May 1, 2008

Over the past few years I have amassed a mountain of songs that I’ve never listened to, and lately I’ve begun the quixotic project of trying to listen to it all and sort out which songs I actually like so I can find them more easily. Consequently, I feel like I never listen to music for sheer pleasure or distraction anymore; it’s systematic, Sisyphean work, as I keep adding more unheard music to the pile. Not that it has deterred me, but I quickly realized that this is no way to decide whether I actually like these songs. In fact, most songs, if they have managed to make it to my hard drive, are pretty okay. The often snap decision about whether they will make it into the “good” playlist is typically an arbitrary one, based on whim and giving me the gratification of decisiveness for its own sake—the joy in this procedure doesn’t come from hearing the music itself. (This is a clue to why record reviews are so often irrelevant.)

And even then, when allegedly deciding I like a song, it’s not that I really like it in that moment exactly. It’s more that I have made a promise to myself to like it later, that at some point down the road it will be in rotation on my iPod and I will grow to truly appreciate it then. This realization leads me to believe that the value of any song has little to do with its intrinsic qualities and more to do with what I have managed to invest in them; the songs are repositories for my emotional energy, the energy I’ve spent consuming and remembering them, linking them in various ways to the story I tell myself about my life.

It may be that certain qualities in songs lend themselves to this kind of emotional investment. It helps if they are a relatively blank slate. If they are too specific, they will crowd out the feeling I need to be able to pour into them to like them. If the songs have timely political messages of their own or are specific gripes about how being a professional musician sucks, they will rarely attract any emotional energy investment. Generic songs about having feelings—falling in love, going to a party, leaving home, etc. These seem to work the best. Also, context contributes to whether or not a song can attract emotional investment. If it is in the right genre, or was in a movie, or was referenced by friends or something along those lines, it gives one a reason to pay extra attention to a song, and once you have singled a song out to actually pay attention to it, you are 99 percent of the way to liking it. (Not to belabor the obvious, but liking a song is no more than a willingness to really pay attention to it when it is playing.)

As part of my project, I was listening to an album called She & Him and I was thinking it was mediocre and was going to delete it. Then I remembered why I acquired it in the first place—because M. Ward (whose other albums I have already decided to like) was part of the band. That simple piece of knowledge changed the whole way I perceived the music; it focused my attention and shifted my attitude away from looking for reasons to reject it toward listening carefully for things to like. The songs are occasions for bringing to bear pieces of information like that, to connecting memories and data about what brought pleasure before. If a song can fit into a larger structure—a musican’s oeuvre, an approved genre, memories of having heard it at the bar or whatever—it becomes more listenable, likable for that reason. But they are too insubstantial in isolation to be fairly judged on their own merits. The criteria can’t emerge from some ideal notion of what a song should be; the criteria in practice emerge from the richness of the situation, which paradoxically enough, is a product of the limitations it imposes on what you can consume.

In general, I liked music a lot more when it was scarce. When it was scarce, I was much more likely to look for reasons to include songs in my life rather than reject them. It’s often constraints that make music meaningful to me—for example, I won’t forget the one tape I had in the car when I drove across New Mexico (a compilation of the Music Machine, the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band, and the Gestures); those songs will always have that peculiar resonance. The songs in heavy rotation on the oldies station in Phoenix was partial to in the 1990s—“Woman, Woman” by Gary Puckett and the Union Gap; “Summer Rain” by Johnny Rivers, etc.—will always signify that specific time and place, what I was feeling then, the drives I used to take down I-10 late at night, crossing the Maricopa County Line on the way to Tucson. I was discovering new music in a very measured way, and I felt like it was expanding my mind at a pace at which I could assimilate it, enjoy it.

Now, there’s no danger of my ever running out of music; there is no need for me to be discovering more. (Maybe I’m just old, and that’s why my discovery phase is over. Just about everything I hear sounds like something else I’ve heard already, and if it doesn’t, I get cranky over its newfangledness.) Instead, I am haunted by the fear of running out of attention. So it helps when there are limits imposed on how much music there is to consume, a limitation that was once imposed by radio playlists and the amount of money I was willing to spend on music.

Back in the day, I imagine the infancy of the culture industry also limited things—the number of records that received distribution was much smaller. This morning, I had reached the a compilation of the Shangri-Las greatest hits. After sorting out the obvious keepers—“Walking in the Sand,” etc.—I was left with 20 songs that were all cut from the same cloth, all decent in their own right, but indistinguishable from one another. Being able to hear them all at once, with no expenditure or effort, undermined songs that in isolation might have seemed dramatic, powerful, singular. And they all probably seemed that way when they were singles, and you lived with them on the radio for a finite amount of time and grew to like them or not. The songs weren’t made to withstand being clicked through, rapid-fire, to determine which are good and which aren’t. (No music is made for that.) I ended up grasping for reasons to pick one over the other to put on the keeper list, thinking ashamedly to myself, If this song were to crop up in a commercial or get covered by some other band I heard of, I’d keep it for sure. 

So while I think the subscription-type services that will allow users access to all of recorded music that Reihan Salam describes in this Slate article are inevitable, I don’t think they will do much for people’s enjoyment of music. They may discover a lot more stuff, but only in the collector’s sense of having filed away an awareness of it. It will become much harder to find the time and the discipline to invest emotional energy in a few songs when the temptation will always be there to indulge that antithetical pleasure of judging—in or out? keep or toss from the playlist? The editing will be a never-ending process, and we’ll never get to the point where we have the time to listen to the carefully compiled playlist and start making the effort of investing ourselves in the music, in bringing the songs to life so that they can return the favor later on.

Perhaps that is why muxtape, the site that lets you upload and share online “mixtapes” of 12 or so songs is such an attractive idea—not so much for the consumer but for the uploader. It takes those playlists of chosen songs and gives them an immediate broader context for emotional investment—a community of fellow listeners. It helpfully imposes some parameters, limits that sharpen your focus. It becomes a forum for making your listening habits performative. Which 12 songs will go together? How can I put my tastes to use to impress somebody out there who might be listening? Isn’t that the bottom line in amassing a mammoth knowledge of pop music in the first place—impressing people? But when you are simply listening to music—for yourself, rather than brandishing the extent of your familiarity for others—you are just remembering yourself and what effort you spent in the past to really listen. That energy returns to you, as if the song supplies it. That seems to me to be what it means to like a song. And if we don’t budget the time to make that investment, if we feel too overwhelmed with choices to bother to attach much feeling to the choices we make, we’ll end up amassing all kinds of music, enjoying the pleasures of curating a collection while not really liking any of the music.

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Thursday, May 1, 2008

The migrant experience has been the topic of libraries full of books: some good, some poor; some true, some fictionalised.  The archetypal story sees a family or an individual leaving behind a country troubled by famine or war or oppression to seek a better life.  On arrival in their new homeland, they work hard to establish themselves but encounter linguistic and cultural difficulties, if not open racism.  Eventually they triumph through a mixture of assimilation, ethnic pride and hard work.

For nations built predominantly by migration, such as Australia, Canada or the United States, these stories are part of the founding myths: the tales of Pilgrim Fathers, Huguenots, Irish potato-farmers and Eastern European peasants.  Yet the stories have become possibly more dramatic as the twentieth century brought with it unprecedented levels of dislocation.  The refugees since World War II have been almost of a different kind: more different to the people they are joining than previous groups and scarred by atrocities that their new neighbours cannot even conceive.

Australia, a nation that a mere forty years ago was excluding migrants on the basis of skin colour, has had a troubled relationship with these newer arrivals.  The influx of Vietnamese and Cambodians in the 1970s and 1980s was met with caution and even hostility.  Yet those who fled Ho Chi Minh and Pol Pot have been in Australia for a generation and have adult children born and raised in Sydney or Brisbane or Melbourne.

Unpolished Gem

Unpolished Gem
by Alice Pung
Black Inc Books
August 2006, 304 pages

Alice Pung’s Unpolished Gem tells the story of one such second-generation Australian.  This slight remove from the typical migrant experience is apparent from the first sentence: “This story does not begin on a boat.”  As a twenty-something, born after her parents’ arrival in Australia, Pung’s experience has been one of tension between family and environment.  This memoir tells the story of growing up in a Cambodian Chinese household in western Melbourne and straining under the expectations and rules of a family partially disconnected from the surrounding culture.  Unpolished Gem tells the story of a girl finding an identity as someone both Asian and Australian.  As the old cliché goes, she had to learn to live between two worlds.

Pung’s book is remarkable for its flair and its eye for the little quirks of migrant life: the grandmother and her disbelieving gratitude for government pensions; and the family’s progression from hostels and charity clothing to suburban one-upmanship.  Her depictions of family members are affectionate but cutting.  The fact that she has written this memoir while both parents are still living is courageous, to say the least.

Similar in many ways is Nam Le’s story “Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice”, published in Zoetrope: All Story in 2006 and collected in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2007.  The title of the anthology suggests something interesting: Nam Le is a Vietnamese-born Australian, now living in the USA.

“Love and Honour” tells of a young Vietnamese Australian writer studying at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (as the author did) and receiving a visit from his elderly father.  The narrator is reluctant to write stories about migrant life or Vietnam, preferring zombie fiction.  Even as he tries to capture his father’s stories of war-time Vietnam as a response to writers’ block, he is conflicted.

This is a dilemma common to many second-generation migrant writers.  They have spent much of their lives fighting against stereotypes and seeking to define a new identity as something more (but not less) than the children of foreigners.  The last thing that a talented young writer wants is to be pigeonholed as an “ethnic” voice, with all the restrictions that would entail.  Yet at the same time, these stories are part of their make-up, defining who these writers are.  The best path seems to be to write about it once and then move on.

I can only suppose that Alice Pung’s next book will be about zombies.

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Wednesday, Apr 30, 2008

Like most crustaceans, the blue crab has stalked eyes. When a crab is at peace with the world, they are but two little round beads. On the prowl, they are elevated and look like stubby horns. As with insects, the eyes are compound. This means that they possess thousands of facets—multiple lenses, if you prefer—which catch and register a mosaic of patterns. More importantly, simple laboratory tests seem to indicate that the stalked and compound eyes give the blue crab almost 360-degree vision. Those who with ungloved hands try to seize a crab with raised eyestalks from the rear will have this capability most forcefully impressed on them.
—William W. Warner, Beautiful Swimmers, Penguin Books, 1976

William Warner captured, with every precise word, the glory of the natural world. His Beautiful Swimmers: Watermen, Crabs and the Chesapeake Bay (with Jonathan Raban’s Passage to Juneau, William Least Heat Moon’s Blue Highways, and Kenneth T. Jackson’s Crabgrass Frontier) is among the best books you’ll find on the shifting strengths of nature’s communities. You might not think you ever needed to know so much about crabs ...

The New York Times reports on Warner’s death:

William W. Warner, a former administrator at the Smithsonian Institution and the author of Beautiful Swimmers, a study of crabs and watermen in the Chesapeake Bay, which won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 1977, died on April 18 at his home in Washington. He was 88.

The Times article provides a short overview of Warner’s life from his college days at Princeton through his Naval career and his work in the Peace Corps, to his administration work at the Smithsonian. Warner wrote three books after Beautiful Swimmers: Distant Water: The Fate of the North Atlantic Fisherman (1983), Into the Porcupine Cave and Other Odysseys: Adventures of an Occasional Naturalist (1999), and At Peace with All Their Neighbors: Catholics and Catholicism in the National Capital, 1787-1860 (1994).


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Wednesday, Apr 30, 2008

Arguably, soundtracks are more than simple music. That is, while music itself can be described in terms of compositions, orchestrations, harmonies, melodies, and performances, movie scores also evoke the rather complex synergy that exists between sound and the cinematic image. As such, a soundtrack can only be rightfully appreciated within the context of the movie it accompanies. But then again, there are a few instances where we can listen to a score and still appreciate all its structural and inspirational beauty. This installment of Surround Sound explores a few recently released soundtracks that guarantee a pleasurable listening experience, even if heard outside the movie theater.

Atonement - Music from the Motion Picture [rating: 10]

Nominated for several prestigious awards around the globe,Atonement (Joe Wright, 2007) is a gorgeous movie that talks about culpability and penitence. Based on the celebrated novel by acclaimed writer Ian McEwan, Atonement is a compelling study about the unbearable guilt felt by one its characters, who, after giving a wrongful accusation that ultimately led to the destruction of several lives, cannot find solace in life. As such, Atonement is about those irreparable loses, that no amount of remorse and regret will ever bring them back. Furthermore, Atonement beautifully reconstructs the serene mid-‘30s on a refined English estate, as well as the dreadful beaches of Dunkirk and the overwhelmed military hospitals in London during the War World II years. Adding to the mix, the movie enjoys the truly exceptional performances of James McAvoy and Keira Knightley. Atonement is, without a doubt, one of the best films of 2007.

Dario Marianelli’s Academy Award winning score for Atonement is truly outstanding. Believe it or not, its most salient characteristic is the use of an old-fashioned typewriting machine as a musical instrument (but then again, the legendary maestro Ennio Morricone did something similar in Il Mio Nome e Nessuno [aka My Name is Nobody, Tonino Valerii, 1973], where he accompanied his orchestra with alarm clocks and automobile claxons). Still, most of the score relies on the English Chamber Orchestra, French classical pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and cello prodigy Caroline Dale to create a majestic, romantic, and dramatic underscoring to the film. Furthermore, the compositional style of this soundtrack is at times reminiscent of Beethoven, and it truly conveys a wide spectrum of emotions. For instance, the track “Elegy for Dunkirk”, a mournful composition accompanied by a solemn chorus, not only is the highlight of the score, but also one of the most beautiful pieces ever composed for a film. From depressing sadness to paradisaical happiness, Marianelli’s score for Atonement is a true masterwork that demands to be appreciated on its own strengths.

Youth Without Youth - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 8]

Youth Without Youth (2007) marks the return of the illustrious Francis Ford Coppola to the directorial chair after a 10 year hiatus. Unfortunately, in spite of its many highlights, Youth Without Youth falls short of what is to be expected from such a legendary director. Based on a novella by Mircea Eliade, Youth Without Youth takes place right before the first shots of World War II were fired, and Tim Roth plays Dominic, a 70 year old Romanian linguist who is struck by lighting. Instead of killing Dominic, this inexplicable atmospheric event somehow causes his body to rejuvenate. As a consequence, Hitler and his Third Reich want to capture Dominic and study his unique physiological processes, probably with the purpose of building a race of super-soldiers. Full of intrigue and romance, Youth Without Youth succeeds in articulating an intriguing and preposterous idea, providing a satisfying viewing experience.

Acclaimed Argentine classical composer Osvaldo Golijov provides Youth Without Youth with a truly outstanding score. Golijov’s composition gives Coppola’s film a moody atmosphere of mystery, drama, romance, and suspense. Avoiding the gargantuan orchestrations that are popular in modern Hollywood flicks, Golijov’s music feels kind of retro, reminiscent of the scores written by Max Steiner and Franz Waxman during the ‘30s and ‘40s. Furthermore, Golijov’s orchestration uses rare instruments, such as the Kamanche (a Persian stringed instrument played with a bow) and the cimbalom (an Eastern European instrument that looks like a hammered dulcimer). In addition, even though the movie takes place in Romania, Golijov adds some Argentinean flavor to this films score. Indeed, some of his compositions, such as “Love Lost”, have the same rhythm and instrumentation as the Tango. A beautiful soundtrack, Youth Without Youth offers a refreshing approach to movie scoring.

Hitman - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 7]

Over the past decade, films based on popular video games have proved to be problematic. The adaptation of an intrinsically egocentric environment into a narrative structure is far from being an easy step. And still, these movies continue to be produced in spite of negative critical reviews and poor audience reception. Such is the case of Hitman (Xavier Gens, 2007), a violent flick based on the game of the same name. In Hitman, Agent 47 (Timothy Olyphant) is a brutal mercenary who gets embroiled in a complex political conspiracy. A brainless action movie if I ever saw one.

The effective action oriented score for Hitman was composed by Geoff Zanelli, a member of the renowned Media Ventures (nowadays know as Remote Control Productions). As most connoisseurs know, since the late ‘90s, and under the firm direction of the legendary Hans Zimmer, this group has defined the musical structure of the action genre. In terms of compositional style and performance, Hitman does not offer many musical surprises. At times this music brings to mind the incessant percussions and relentless rhythm that characterizes the Bourne scores, and tracks such as “Train Station” offer action driven orchestrations with a spotlight on strings, percussions, and electronics. In a nutshell, the score for Hitman is loud, uses a combination of orchestra and synthesizers, and although structurally simple, it offers extraordinary moments guaranteed to raise our adrenaline levels.

Into the Wild - Original Score [rating: 6]

Allegedly based on a true story, Into the Wild (2007) tells the story of Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch), a successful student and thriving athlete, and his trip of self discovery in the Alaska wilderness. A film with a narrative structure clearly cemented on the ideas of Joseph Campbell, Into the Wild shows how Christopher donates most of his possessions to charity, and then hitchhikes his way to the top of the continent, meeting several characters who shape his view of the world. Firmly directed by Sean Penn, Into the Wild is an inspirational and evocative film that questions the cultural traps of modern society and consumerism.

The score for Into the Wild was composed by no less than three artists: Michael Brook, Kaki King, and Eddie Vedder. However, while Michael Brook provided most of the instrumental compositions that underscore the action seen in the film, Eddie Vedder and Kaki King provided a series of songs. Thus prospective buyers should beware that there are two different soundtracks available on the market, and the present review is about the one that includes Brook’s inspiring music. With this score, Brook proves to be a great musician with a good sensibility for film scoring. For instance, the unique location of the film is aptly encoded into the music. That is, most of Brook’s compositions rely on harmonicas and guitars to emulate the wild and rural landscape of Alaska. Overall, the score for Into the Wild is structurally simple, but very melodic and elegant.

Broken English - Music from the Motion Picture [rating: 5]

Zoe R. Cassavetes’ Broken English (2007) is a surprisingly delightful romantic comedy. Parker Posey plays Nora Wilder, a thirty-something single woman who clearly lacks a meaningful personal life. Furthermore, her mother and friends constantly remind her of her loneliness and misery. Under these circumstances, she meets Julien (Melvil Poupaud), a Frenchman who will teach her a couple of lessons about life. In a sense, Broken English tries to poke fun at the complex behavior of single adults who cannot fit within the norm established by a coupled society.

The soundtrack for Broken English mostly consists of a series of pieces composed and performed by Scratch Massive, a techno group created by two famous Parisian Disk Jockeys, Maud Geffray and Sebastien Chenut. The techno music is surprisingly good, featuring rhythmic instrumental tracks that emphasize electronic tonalities and percussions. The track that opens the Broken English album, “In the Dressing Room”, probably is the best on the entire CD and features soft and elegiac female vocalizations. In addition to Scratch Massive’s composition, we also get to hear three good pieces by Juan Trip. The best of them, “A Dreamful of Time”, is mostly based on a rhythmic guitar. Taken as a whole, the soundtrack for Broken English may not be noteworthy in the scoring scene, but nevertheless it provides a good listening experience.

Darfur Now - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 5]

Darfur Now (2007) is a harrowing documentary that denounces the heinous acts of genocide currently taking place in Darfur, Sudan. These terrible and brutal events are portrayed in Darfur Now from the perspective of six different individuals. From a UCLA graduate student to a United Nations humanitarian, this film explores the intractable difficulties of the situation by showcasing the first hand experiences of its protagonists. By any means, Darfur Now is a powerful piece of filmmaking, and its highlight may well be the strong ideological, political, moral, and legal complexities that the movie conveys.

Acclaimed composer Graeme Revell has made a name for himself by making scores with unusual instrumentations that generate a musical atmosphere made of tribal, ethnic, and ancestral sounds. That is, avoiding melodies, themes, and motifs, Revell shines in the creation of overwhelming musical backgrounds. And such is the case for his score for Darfur Now. Indeed, most of the tracks on the soundtrack CD feature guitars and synthesizers accompanied with what appears to be native instruments. Nonetheless, the dissimilar sounds produced by Revell’s distinctive instrumentations blend nicely with each other. Overall Darfur Now is a notch above the average music for a documentary, and deserves to be listened on its own. 

Persepolis - Original Soundtrack [rating: 5]

One should not get fooled by the fact that Persepolis (2007) has substantial animated sequences, as this flick packs a strong political and ideological subtext. A French production directed by the duo Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis is sort of an autobiographical effort exploring the troubled upbringings of Satrapi. Indeed, most of the movie is based on a series of popular graphic novels authored by Satrapi, where she narrates her cultural angst as an inquisitive kid with a love for western culture while living in traditionalist Teheran. Combining comedy and drama, Persepolis succeeds in its discussion of complex themes such as the Islamic Revolution and the difficult cultural conflicts that have troubled Iran over the past three decades.

The score for Persepolis was composed by Oliver Bernet, and smoothly mixes a variety of sounds and styles. Even though traditional Middle Eastern tonalities are heard throughout the entire soundtrack, we also appreciate delightful guitars playing Spanish and Mexican music, and a strong Parisian flavor. At some points during the film this music is used in a fun way, reminiscent of the scores for the classic Warner Bros. cartoons. And at other times the music is rather majestic, bringing to mind Maurice Jarre’s opulent score for Lawrence of Arabia. Furthermore, the soundtrack includes a new envisioning of Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” (featured as the main theme in the unforgettable Rocky III). Arguably, the combination of musical styles in the soundtrack of Persepolis further highlights the cultural conflicts featured in the film. 

The Great Debaters - Music Recorded for the Film with Vintage Bonus Tracks [rating: 3]

The Great Debaters (2007) unmistakably shows the many outstanding artistic sensibilities of Denzel Washington, not only as an accomplished actor, but also as a competent director. Based on the true story of Melvin B. Tolson, a farsighted professor at Wiley College in Texas, The Great Debaters succeeds in providing an inspirational and motivating cinematic experience. Washington plays Tolson, and the film is a dramatization of how he created the school’s first debate team, and subsequently challenged the prestigious University of Harvard at a national championship.


The instrumental score for The Great Debaters was composed by the versatile James Newton Howard. However, this review is for the accompanying CD that features a generous selection of songs featured in the film. As such, this soundtrack is a mere collection of pieces that appear to combine the gospel, jazz, and blues in a rather rhythmic fashion. Most of these songs are composed and performed by Alvin Youngblood Hart and Sharon Jones. A true mixed bag of goodies, this CD can only be recommended to those die hard fans of these often misunderstood musical genres.

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Wednesday, Apr 30, 2008
The Guitar Hero franchise is being diluted by the sheer number of uses of the Guitar Hero name.

A pile of the tracks that are going to be on the upcoming Guitar Hero: On Tour release for the Nintendo DS broke yesterday, and…well, look for yourself:

Do What You Want - OK Go
All The Small Things - Blink 182
Spiderwebs - No Doubt
Are You Gonna Be My Girl - Jet
We’re Not Gonna Take It - Twisted Sister
All Star - Smash Mouth
Breed - Nirvana
Jessie’s Girl - Rick Springfield
Hit Me With Your Best Shot - Pat Benatar
This Love - Maroon 5
Heaven - Los Lonely Boys
Helicopter - Bloc Party
China Grove - The Doobie Brothers
Rock and Roll All Nite - KISS (cover by Line 6)
What I Want - Daughtry

(Opinions and rants after the jump.)

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