Sunday, December 11, 2016

"In the Light" (Live)

Got a chance to play some of my songs at Old Haverford Friends Meetinghouse last night... Here's a clip from the show...

Monday, November 28, 2016

"The Many Sided Window" by Tim Simmons

My friend Tim Simmons recorded this track (with an assist from Marc Schuster) and then assembled some footage he found in the Prelinger Archives to go along with it. It's actually pretty cool how the imagery goes with the music -- kind of like the way Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon goes along with The Wizard of Oz.

Monday, November 21, 2016

"Obstacle" by the DROiDS

I love Electronic Dance Music, but I sometimes worry that it overshadows other forms of electronic music. Case in point: the curiously organic electronic sounds of the DROiDS. Their music blends analog synths with more traditional instruments. I'm pretty sure those are real drums on "Obstacle" (the track below), but even if they're not, by moving beyond the four-on-the-floor beats of EDM, the DROiDs remove us from the pounding rhythms of day-to-day life and deliver us to a quirkier, jazzier state of mind. Which isn't to say that the band doesn't rock when the occasion calls for it. After you've listened to "Obstacle," check out the grinding, gritty blues of "Dive." Offering a cross between Depeche Mode's most recent work on Delta Machine and the classic synth-driven rock of Gary Numan and Tubeway Army, the DROiDs bring heart and soul to electronic pop.

The DROiDS are offering "Obstacle" and all of their tracks at a pay-what-you-want rate, so give it a listen and if you like it, buy it!

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Music That's Getting Me Through: "Sickle/Hammer" by Spirits

Maybe I'm betraying my latent socialist sympathies, but I'm so glad that my friend Tom Powers turned me on to "Sickle/Hammer" by Spirits. The track opens with an acoustic guitar line that reminds me of Guster. After four measures, though, the song is pure eighties power pop. I'm thinking XTC meets Crowded House with some gorgeous backing vocals a la the Beautiful South? Some nice, fat synths in there, too. And listen for a wonderful lyrical sentiment at around the two-minute mark: "Harvest the moon. The darkness will digest the light." Good advice for how I'm feeling at the moment.

The track is a pay-what-you want deal, but come on... Throw a dollar their way! If you like it, buy it!

Tuesday, November 8, 2016


First, I'll admit that this is a somewhat odd bunch of music, but I keep coming back to it. The dialog in the first few seconds of the opening track "holeinone" remind me of "Frontier Psychiatrist" by the Avalanches, but when the beat kicks in at around 0:16, we're plunged into a murky, swampy, sticky groove that has the feel of a broken tape deck. The second track keeps the muddy feeling going with a warped melody that might be the drunken cousin of the Six Million Dollar Man theme song. The remaining tracks on this collection follow in suit with wobbly lo-fi grooves that strike a curious balance between fun and creepy. Somewhere there's a DJ who's going to do something really cool with this stuff.

This one's a pay-what-you-want deal. If you like it, buy it. 

Sunday, November 6, 2016

New Music: "Never Talk Back"

Here's a track I recorded last week. I'm not entirely sure of what it's about, but there are two characters (possibly three), and one of them ends up dead. They may actually be robots. I say this because in the middle of the song, I do some weird things with phrase "rock star" and that part ends with a drawn-out, mechanical sigh. Is the hotrod kitten robot trying to talk the rock star robot out of killing her? At the end of the song, I do some more weird stuff with the phrase "never talk back." If you figure out what it all means, let me know.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Why I Write "If You Like It, Buy It"

If you've read any of my music reviews, you've probably noticed that I tend to end by saying "If you like it, buy it." A friend of mine recently said that this sounds a little glib, or like I'm trying to tell people what to do and how to spend their money. To an extent, I suppose my friend is right. But the main thing I'm trying to do is to remind anyone who reads my blog that musicians are people who put a lot of time, effort, and, yes, money into recording songs. Sure, we do it because we love making music. In fact, a lot of us have day jobs that help pay for our musical habits, and very few of us expect to make a fortune selling our music, but I think it's important to let artists we like know that we appreciate what they're doing. It's the online equivalent of dropping a dollar (or more!) in a tip jar.

Personally, I'm always flattered when I get a message stating that someone just paid for one of my songs, and I know that other musicians probably feel the same way. It means we've connected with a listener -- and that our music was more than just something playing in the background while they were busy doing something else. So when I end each post with "If you like it, buy it," I mean just that: If you hear a song that you like, show the artist that you appreciate what they've done and drop a dollar or two in their virtual tip jar. You just might make someone's day!

Monday, October 31, 2016

"What Was I Gonna Do With The Rest Of My Life" by Scot Sax

Hard to believe it's Halloween already! I originally wanted to post something with a spooky theme, but it's Monday, and I needed to hear something upbeat to get me going. Thank goodness, then, for "What Was I Gonna Do With The Rest of My Life" by Scot Sax. It has a strong, rocking beat and a live feel, and Scot's falsetto singing reminds me of Prince. And, to be honest, there's something spooky and haunting about the track. Minor chords in the verses, maybe? The doubling of the vocals on the chorus? The cool fuzztone on the lead guitar? Or maybe it's the song's attention to the ghosts of paths not taken in life? In any case, it's a great tune for Halloween or any day of the year...

"What Was I Gonna Do With The Rest Of My Life" is available for $1 (US) at BandCamp. If you like it, buy it.

And check out this ad for Scot's new CD, Grooved Pavement...

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Weekend Music: When We Collide by Baker Man

The six tracks on Baker Man's When We Collide drift between the rough-hewn indie pop of early REM and the grinding garage punk of Dinosaur Jr. I also hear hints of the Decemberists and Ben Folds, particularly in the lead vocal of songwriter Mike Five on the album's opening and closing tracks ("What Tradition Means" and "Keeping Score"). The latter of these is a shimmering six-and-a-half minute opus that's equal parts dreamscape and early misty-morning hangover. Production on the album isn't slick -- nor is it meant to be -- but it's organic and has the feel of a live performance. These are the guys you saw performing in your buddy's basement or your favorite dive bar in college. Smart lyrics, jangly guitars, and a healthy dose of world-weary cynicism.

When We Collide is available on a sliding scale for $1 to $10 (you decide) on BandCamp. If you like it, buy it.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Morning Music: "Dust" by Jude McGee and the Soft Touch

After hearing "No Word from China" by pel mel a little while back, I found out that the band's singer, Jude McGee, has been working on a new project with her band the Soft Touch. Her album The Household Guide to Heartbreak has a polished, adult contemporary feel (as does her re-imagining of "No Word from China" (a free download definitely worth checking out)) that calls to mind The Beautiful South and Brandi Disterheft's 2009 album Second Side. Kicking off The Household Guide to Heartbreak, "Dust" opens with a charming flamenco guitar riff and a whistled melody straight out of an Enrico Morricone movie, and when a surf guitar joins the spare arrangement, the picture is complete: this is a song of loss and loneliness, but also a song of survival. McGee's haunting vocal floats through the track like the ghost of a shattered relationship, and there's a kind of creepy subtle electronic scratching noise that skitters through the song like a rat pawing through a long-abandoned home.

"Dust" is available for $1 (AUD) on BandCamp, and The Household Guide to Heartbreak is available for $10. If you like it, buy it.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

"My Head"

Here's a song I wrote a long time ago -- back in high school when I was in my first band. We tried a bunch of names: DD-7 is one that I recall. I think we also tried Plaid Sasquatch. There were some others in there, too, until we settled on Circle Sky. Now that I think about it, we probably spent more time thinking of band names than we did working on music. But I did manage to build this song around a nonsensical chorus I'd thought of: "You stepped on my head, she said." I think I was trying to describe the life of an overworked housewife. It's the kind of thing that passes for deep when you're seventeen and it's 1990. In any case, my friend Joe Lavelle recently told me I should record the song -- so here it is, Joe...

PS: It's a free download this week. Just enter zero as the price you want to pay. Next week, I'll probably notch it up to a dollar.

PPS: Check out Joe's CD, More Popular Than Reagan!

Morning Music: "Head & Heart" by From Apes To Angels

Trippy, shimmering synths and a crunchy backbeat give "Head & Heart" a vibe reminiscent of the the Cure, and the lead vocals recalls Jeanette Landray's singing on the Glove's 1983 Blue Sunshine album. As with both Robert Smith projects, there's something dark and brooding lying in wait beneath the surface of this and other tracks by From Apes To Angels. On the surface, the song is about love, but the lyrics betray something else. Obsession, maybe? Jealousy? Hubris? A hint of rage? Whatever the case, "Head & Heart" is a deceptively twinkling tune with hidden, murky, even sinister depths.

From Apes to Angels are currently working on their debut EP. To help them out, download one of their singles at BandCamp and pay what you want...

Monday, October 24, 2016

Lovin' This Track: "Funky Cola" by Block35 feat. Thane

First thought: Shouldn't Christian Slater be riding a skateboard to this music in someone's empty swimming pool somewhere in the 80s? "Funky Cola" could definitely stand its ground alongside the entire Gleaming the Cube soundtrack or any number of teensploitation films of the era. (No surprise, of course, as their artist bio reads, "Through an inter-dimensional wormhole Block35 transmits the music from a parallel universe stuck between 1988 and 1992. The haunting soundtracks to its strange visions of a future that will never come.") A crisp, popping bass line bubbles through the song, and synth stabs reminiscent of the Pet Shop Boys (not to mention a rhythm track recalling the best of Technique-era New Order) bring this track to shimmering, syrupy life.

"Funky Cola" is $1 (US) on BandCamp. If you like it, buy it.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

I'm Loving Lovers & Poets II by Lovers & Poets

Does it help that the first song I heard from the new Lovers and Poets album is a cover of one of my all-time favorite David Bowie songs? Yes, it most definitely does. Their cover of "Ashes to Ashes" is slow and moody with a lush, trippy backing track, and it captures the chill mood of the rest of the album. Highlights include album's opening track, "You + Me in the Summer," a soft-rock gem that isn't hard to imagine spinning on an L.A. turntable circa 1979. (I don't know what that means, exactly, but something about the track put that phrase in my head.) "That's the Way It Goes" opens with a piano riff that would be right at home on Carole King's Tapestry album, but as the song progresses, the funky clavs and synths take us into Buck Rogers territory (in the best way possible), and the rest of the album follows suit with a blend of rootsy singer-songwriter funk-and-disco-influenced rock and silky chillwave synths. "Here Comes the Morning" and a cover of "I Am Barely Breathing" have a distinct 90s vibe that's underscored by vocal reminiscent of Sarah McLachlan, and the album's closer, "Beautiful World" comes off as a prayer to the world we're all capable of making if we only put our hearts to it.

To sum it up, Lovers + Poets II = Carole King + Beach House + Sarah McLachlan. The album is available on BandCamp for $9.99 (US). Individual songs are $1. Definitely check out their version of "Ashes to Ashes." And if you like it, buy it.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

New Music: "Juzz"

Here's a track I recorded this afternoon. The title comes from one of my favorite Simpsons lines: Bart says to Lisa, "I need you to teach me all about the world of juzz." (He means jazz, of course, and Lisa is livid that all of her jazz heroes want to play with Bart and not with her.) Anyway, the track is fairly short, so I've made it free for anyone who wants to download it. Just click "download," and when they ask how much you want to pay, enter zero.  Of course, if you really like the song, feel free to pay whatever you think it's worth...

Rockin' It Old School: Wild Style by Robots with Rayguns

I have no idea what the lyrics are trying to tell me, but I love the way they sound -- sliced up and processed, alternately high-pitched and growingly low. (Remember Yello's "Oh Yeah" from Ferris Bueller's Day Off? Kind of like that.) Definitely an 80s vibe going on here -- zippy synths, crisp beats, snappy snares. A hint of "Axel F" here, a touch of "Jam On It" there. Once in a while I pick up a very slight whiff of New Order and maybe a little bit of the Cure. It's no accident, of course, that Wild Style, the latest release from Arizona-based Robots with Rayguns, feels like a throwback to the best of 80s electropop... Just check out their album art and the full range of merch they have on offer, or consider the fact that you can buy their latest release on cassette. But it's not just throwback music. At its best moments, Wild Style offers a perfect blend of vintage sounds and contemporary EDM. If this is what the robot revolution will look like, then sign me up...

Wild Style is available for $10 (US) on BandCamp. If you like it, buy it.

My Morning Music: "A Part of History" by Monsieur

This morning, I headed over to Spotify to check out "A Part of History" by Monsieur. The track opens with a jazzy drum beat that's quickly joined by a piano and vocal combo that evokes Stevie Wonder at the height of his popularity in the 1980s. Soon enough, a hand-clapping, foot-stomping hook kicks in: We're all a part of history. Let's keep up the fight for liberty. Well, it would be a start for our victory if we're real masters of our destiny. It's a phrase that rings out repeatedly through the song like a mantra and serves as excellent advice for those of us here in America who are looking forward to our next election. As the song progresses, the lead gives way to beautiful blend of Bobby McFerrin-style scat, funky piano riffs, and a mellow horn section. Great flow, funky beat, strong vocals, and a moving sentiment make this a song worth listening to. Check it out along with the rest of Monsieur's latest album, Sir, for free on Spotify.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Fall Recipe: Butternut Squash Smoothie

Wondering what to do with all that squash your gardener friends always try to palm off on you this time of year? You can always use it in a bread recipe, of course, but if you want to try something different, here's what I made for lunch today:

Butternut Squash Smoothie

Ingredients (measurements are estimated)
  • 1/2 cup butternut squash (or pumpkin)
  • 1 cup of Greek yogurt
  • 1/2 cup of milk
  • 2 tbsp of chia seeds (optional)
  • 1 tsp of cinnamon
  • dash of nutmeg
  • 1 tsp of maple syrup
You'll need to prepare the squash ahead of time. To do this, cook the squash, mash it up, and refrigerate it overnight. Once you've done this, take about 1/2 a cup of the mashed squash and combine it with the other ingredients listed above in a blender. Run the blender until the texture is to your liking.

You may need to adjust the amounts of some of the ingredients to suit your tastes. And if you use the recipe for cooking squash that I linked to above, it's probably best not to add butter, salt, or pepper. Just scoop the squash out of the rind and mash it up.

Machine Made of Words (Assignment Instructions)

If you're a teacher and you liked the "Machine Made of Words" idea that I've discussed over the last few days, feel free to use (or adapt) the following instructions I gave to my students:

As we move toward the second half of the semester, we’re going to get away from discussing texts that I’ve chosen and start looking at texts that you’ve found. These texts can include articles that you’ve stumbled upon, interesting passages from books, or even videos that you find particularly intriguing or worthy of discussion. The only thing I ask is that you refrain from bringing politics or religion into the mix. I make this request because the purpose of this exercise is not to incite debate but to practice synthesis—that is, to take seemingly different and arguably incompatible pieces of information and to use them to support a single idea.

With any luck, one benefit of this exercise will be that you work on what Pagan Kennedy might refer to as your “string gathering” skills. In other words, you’ll get better at keeping an eye on the news and other sources of information in order to stay informed around the world around you while simultaneously thinking about how all of that information fits together. One way to do this might be to follow a variety of news sources on Twitter (e.g., Reuters News Agency, NPR, New York Times, Washington Post, Wired, Rolling Stone, or any other publications you might find interesting) and watch out for anything that grabs your attention. Alternately, you might check the headlines of a single publication like the New York Times or listen to local NPR affiliate WHYY (90.9 FM) daily to learn about what’s going on in the world and share it with the class.

However you choose to gather your string, keep looking for information that makes you stop and think, “Wow… That’s really interesting!” When that happens, save the link (or scan the information if it’s in print) so that you can share it with the class when your turn comes around. Though I’m assigning students with specific weeks and deadlines for sharing their links and articles, my advice is to start gathering your string now so that you don’t have to scramble to find something at the last minute to share with the class; it’s better to give yourself a few possibilities to choose from rather than forcing yourself to go with the first and only thing you find.

So, in a nutshell, what you’re going to do is send me a link to (or scanned copy of) something interesting by the Friday associated with your name below. I will then forward all of the information to the rest of the class, and everyone in the class will read the texts over the weekend so that we can work on synthesizing that information over the course of the following week. 

(The schedule appeared here; for each week, I listed five students who had to send me links to articles. The results of this assignment can be found in my post "Building a Machine Made of Words.")

Morning Music: "Until It’s Gone” by Little Glass Men

Once again, I selected a tune at random on BandCamp this morning, and this time around it was an experimental electronic track by Little Glass Men. Working out of San Francisco, California, Little Glass Men (or LGM as the hip kids say) is a 26-year-old composer whose experiments in electronica are designed “to inspire visions and spark voyages.” And this track definitely inspires visions. Despite being (accurately) categorized as electronic glitch music, “Until It’s Gone” has a distinctly organic vibe, as the rhythm track consists largely of a splashing sound, like feet marching through a bog or across a shoreline as the tide is rolling out, while the synth that provides the top line melody calls to mind an accordion. If you’re stuck in the office, take a minute (or four-and-a-half) to pop in your ear buds, listen to this tune, and drift off to your happy place.

The track is $1 (US) on BandCamp. If you like it, buy it.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

What I Heard This Morning: No Word from China by pel mel

Silly me... I thought I'd discovered a new band when I selected a track at random on BandCamp this morning, but it turns out "No Word from China" by pel mel is almost as old as I am. For obvious reasons, the song brought to mind "Hong Kong Garden" by Siouxsie and the Banshees. And it's not just because of the titles; the lead vocalist (Judy McGee, I'm guessing, based on what I could gather from Wikipedia) sounds a lot like Siouxsie Sioux, and the music gives off a post-punk vibe. I'm also reminded of Bauhaus. There's a galloping, almost mechanical, hi-hat on the rhythm track that gives the song some urgency, a sense that's underscored by the stabbing rhythm guitar that comes in and out throughout the song. Great music for making an escape.

The track is $1 (Australian) on BandCamp. If you like it, buy it.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Building a Machine Made of Words

In an earlier post, I discussed my theory that an essay is a machine made of words whose purpose is to change people's minds. This week, I did an experiment in which I asked my students to sketch out a plan for their own machine based on five unrelated articles.

To save my students money, I usually put together a collection of readings consisting of essays I've found online. Usually, this collection of essays takes us through to the end of the semester and gives us plenty to talk about. This time around, however, I decided to change things up. After providing my students with enough readings to get us halfway through the semester, I invited them to choose their own essays for the class to consider. The idea, I explained, was for a handful of them to pick essays on topics that they found interesting, for the class to read them, and for all of us to gather -- or scavenge -- information from them to advance and support a single idea.

For our first go-round, my students, without consulting each other, selected the following five pieces:
Clearly these are essays about fairly diverse topics, but my students enjoyed drawing connections among them and attempting to formulate a tentative overarching thesis that drew on information from all five sources. 

The first thing we had to do, I explained, was summarize each article. This way, we'd all be on the same page in terms of what the articles were about and what material we might be able to use from them. I may have been beating the machine metaphor to death, but I said that this exercise was like stripping all of the guts out of a bunch of perfectly serviceable machines to see if we could reassemble them into something new. Additionally, since summarizing the articles would take up two class periods, I told my students that they would need to take good notes, as there was little likelihood that any of us would remember details from day one as we moved on to day two.

So, briefly, here are some key points we scavenged from the various essays:
  • Cain: Introverts and extroverts complement each other. The trouble for introverts is that many of our institutions are geared toward extroverts, so introverts tend to get penalized in various subtle ways. Unlike extroverts who get their energy and ideas from being around other people, introverts feel energized when they're alone, and they get their best thoughts in solitude. It's important, however, for them to return to the fold, as it were, to share their ideas with extroverts; otherwise their ideas run the risk of going nowhere.
  • Mason: As robots take over an increasing number of jobs, humanity faces more than an employment crisis. We also face an existential crisis. For ages, people have defined themselves in terms of the work they do (and, in some cases, the amount of money they make). Mason argues that we need to imagine new ways of defining self (and self-worth) in order to transition more smoothly into the future. We also need to institute a universal basic income. 
  • Jones: When we look at works of art like Jackson Pollock's splatters of paint, we're contemplating mysteries -- essentially trying to grapple with that which can only be intuited. Pollock's paintings remind us that much of what we think we know is not objective but subjective.
  • Gustines: In 2014, writers behind the comic book character Hawkeye introduced a story line in which he lost his hearing. This plot twist presented the challenge of how to depict the world from the hero's perspective as someone who is newly deaf. Word balloons remained blank to indicate that speaking had occurred but that Hawkeye couldn't hear what was said. The comic's artist had to put some thought into how to depict sign language.
  • Gerstenzang: Many people who visit the Martin guitar factory in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, experience something akin to a spiritual encounter. One guest described in this travel article reminisced about the deceased grandfather who accompanied her to the factory years earlier. The guitars are handmade, but a robot polishes the newly-built guitars. According to the author, seeing a Martin get made puts some people "in touch with emotions they might have thought too inaccessible to be reached."
Once we had sketched out the key points in all of the articles, one of my students immediately suggested linking Cain's discussion of introverts with Jones's piece on abstract art and Gustines' piece on Hawkeye. The connection she saw between Cain and Jones, she said, was that Jones's description of Pollock made the artist appear to be an outsider -- someone who had to go off and do his own thing in order to depict the world as he saw it by way of his inner eye. But he didn't just stop at depicting the world as he saw it; as an artist, he had to share his vision with other people -- which is essentially what Cain argues that introverts need to do. That is, like artists, introverts need to "do their own thing," but they also need to return to the extrovert world to share their ideas. 

This observation made me think of Plato's Allegory of the Cave, so I asked my students if any of them had heard of it. Two students raised their hands, and I asked one to explain it. Basically, he said, the allegory describes people who spend their lives tied up in a cave and staring at shadows on a wall. They think the shadows, which are actually shadows of puppets cast by a fire that's burning behind them, are reality. But one day someone manages to leave the cave, and though the light outside initially blinds this person, he eventually comes to realize that what's outside the cave is true reality and that the shadows he thought were reality were, in fact, not real. But when he goes back to the cave to tell everyone that the shadows are not real, nobody wants to believe him. 

Close enough for jazz, so I asked if anyone could guess why I thought of the allegory and how we might apply it to our current set of variables. 

Cain's point about introverts going off to be alone and then returning to the extrovert fold to share ideas was like the guy who left the cave and came back, a student volunteered. And by association, so was the idea Jones advanced about abstract artists.

What about Hawkeye, I asked?

Well, another student suggested, Hawkeye may not have left the cave on purpose, but he was definitely separated from the world he was used to when he lost his sense of hearing. Basically, learning to sign and to read people's expressions forced him to view the world in a new light. So what we're seeing in all three pieces is a need to move between worlds -- to abandon the thing everyone else is doing and think about stuff for a while and then return with new ideas. 

And the other two articles? How did they fit in?

The guitar factory, a student said, was kind of like going deaf for Hawkeye. It makes people aware of things they weren't aware of before. 

And so it's also like the abstract art that Jones describes, another student said. It makes people look at themselves in ways they're not used to.

And there's a robot there doing work that people used to do, so it's like Mason's article. 

And? I asked. And? And?

And the people who lose their jobs to robots, a student gradually started to say, is like Hawkeye. It's not as if Hawkeye wanted to lose his hearing, and it's not like these people want to lose their jobs, but when it happens, they need to figure out how to define themselves in new ways. They need to stop thinking of themselves in terms of their jobs and find new ways to discover self worth. 

And maybe art will help.

Or maybe music.

Or maybe just being alone.

With this observation, we ran out of time. So, unfortunately, we never got around to formulating a single thesis based on the articles my students chose. However, we (meaning they, for the most part) did a good job of making connections among the articles and creating something new with the material at hand.

To quote a great leader from my childhood, I love it when a plan comes together.

I Love This Album: Brian Eno & Karl Hyde's Someday World

First, the cover:

I think we're seeing power lines strung over railroad tracks beneath a setting sun. Or maybe it's rising. That may be the Japanese flag lurking in the background. In any case, the image really caught my eye because it says something to me about what it means to be human: We build things that are at once ugly and amazing, leaving footprints all over the planet as the sun rises each day as if to remind us how small we are.

So it makes sense that the first track on the album, "The Satellites," fades in like a sunrise, shakers chirping like crickets in morning dew. When the drums kick in almost a minute-and-a-half into the song, it's like the working world is coming to life and the first hints of traffic are spilling onto the highways. No coincidence, then, that they're preceded and later accompanied by synthesized horn blasts -- a veritable symphony of road rage reflected in the song's lyrics: I need the sound of cars to drown the silent night.


The car motif continues in track two, "Daddy's Car": Faster than your daddy's car/Knuckles like lanterns/Laughter in the dark/The earth is turning/Faster than your daddy's car turning. Again, there's tension between nature and humanity's machinations. The world spins quickly. Time slips away. We do our best to leave an impression, but the lone and level sands always cover our tracks.

My favorite track on the album is "A Man Wakes Up." The lyrics imagine someone waking up in a confusing world with no memory of who -- or even what -- he is, but as he makes his way out into a world of broken bottles cracking beneath his feet and power lines buzzing overhead, he comes alive with joy. He may not know much about his world, but he feels in his bones that being alive is good even if it's painful. Musically, a sound akin to radio static gives this track a synthetic feel that's ultimately overtaken by a glorious female vocalist singing, A man wakes up and shines! What I hear in this transition is life triumphing over mechanization and artificiality.

Later tracks continue in a similar vein. "Witness" asks whether you've ever taken a ride only to find out that it didn't take you where you thought you would arrive. "Strip It Down" meditates on the need to simplify. "Mother of a Dog" comes across as a slow investigation into our true nature -- the idea that we're all animals sniffing around a fallen world while miracles happen all around us -- a sense that's underscored by an instrumental break about three-and-a-half minutes into the track that recalls the sunrise fade-in of "The Satellites."

As the album moves toward its conclusion, a track titled "Who Rings the Bell" opens with an industrial hum and an electro-mechanical heartbeat that almost immediately give way to an organic single-note guitar riff, leading into a sweeping vision of the secular miracles that continue to connect everyone in our industrialized world. 

Perhaps in answer to the question posed in the title of the previous track, "When I Built This World" imagines a god building a world complete with a range of flaws, not the least of which are regret, pain, and sin. The song has the feel of a voicemail message, a distant cousin of Laurie Anderson's "O Superman." But when the message ends, the music continues, and it's as if the great clock maker has wound up his creation and set it loose -- the musical equivalent of watching humanity spread across the globe in fast forward over the course of millennia. 

The album's closer, "To Us All," bears fewer overt marks of the industrialized world than previous tracks, but like many other moments on the album, it has the feel of a sunrise. Exhorting us to see the moments that we failed to seize and also to recognize the things that will happen to us all, the song evokes a sense of communion. We live in a fallen world, it implies, but that fallen world is the only world we have.

All told, Someday World describes the transcendence we find in the everyday. Yes, we've done all kinds of damage to the planet we live on -- not to mention all kinds of damage to each other -- but in the end, we're all human, and the fact that we're all here together is a miracle in and of itself. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Fighting to Become Legendary: Project 5 by Tre Thomas Reviewed

Project 5, the new EP from Midwest hip-hop artist Tre Thomas, begins like something out of a TED talk. You don’t choose to become legendary, he intones before the music kicks in. You fight to become legendary. Thomas then goes on to offer his formula for success—not just in the entertainment world, but at the game of life itself. 

Given the genre, it’s a little surprising that the advice the rapper doles out has less to do with accumulating wealth than basically being a good person and caring for others. One of his best pieces of advice: Say I love you the very next time you see your mom, 'cause you never know the day that she can be gone. Ask your dad about his day. Take a walk with him. You never know when it’s the last time that you’ll talk with him. 

Maybe it’s a far cry from “Fight for Your Right” by the Beastie Boys, but it’s good advice nonetheless. Lyrically, the rest of the EP follows in kind, with Thomas exhorting everyone to go against the grain and stay positive despite all of the setbacks life has to offer.

At the moment, the EP is available for free at BandCamp, so if you’re in the market for some up-with-people hip-hop, give it a listen. And if you like it, pay the guy for his work. 

A Machine Made of Words

Something I tell my students when I teach writing is that they should think of an essay as a machine made of words whose purpose is to change the reader's mind. The change doesn't need to be dramatic, I tell them. Sure, a good essay can make a person completely rethink their position on a subject, but it can also make people look at the world from a new perspective.

One of the ways writers construct their machines is by scavenging words and ideas from other sources. Granted, they need to let their readers know where they got the material they scavenged, but the basic premise is that writers take a little bit of information from one place and a little from another (and another and another), use their own ideas and ingenuity to analyze the material they've gathered, and assemble it all into a coherent whole.

A benefit of approaching writing -- especially essay writing -- in this fashion is that it helps students to understand that while a thesis statement usually appears in the opening paragraph (or paragraphs) of an essay, it isn't where writing the essay begins. Rather, writing the essay begins with the scavenging of parts, or what we in the teaching business would call research. Once a writer has enough parts, then it's time to figure out how they all work together to form a particular kind of machine with a particular purpose. That purpose is the essay's thesis.

Essentially, what I'm telling my students is that they need to work backwards to form a thesis, but I'm also teaching them that one of the best ways to learn is to constantly gather information and piece it together in ways that might create new and interesting word machines -- all the while imagining a single, giant mega machine that encompasses all of the material that they've gathered over the course of a lifetime of learning. That this mega machine is constantly growing -- and, therefore, changing -- ideally suggests to students that it's okay, and perhaps natural, for them to change their minds in ways big and small about the world around them.

And that they never stop learning.

Monday, October 17, 2016

In the Light

Sometimes the people we love keep us at a distance for one reason or another. This song is about giving them their space but also letting them know that we're here if they want to let us in. The chorus may sound like a downer, but it's my attempt at pointing out the obvious thing that we all have in common, and that we only have so much time to make the connections we need to make.