Early Favorites for AOTY (Plus a mini announcement)

I’ve come to a realization during this first part of 2019 regarding music: for the last several years I’ve been trying to take in as much quantity as possible, and maybe I’ve been missing out on digging in as deeply as I could into the highest quality of music available to me. Some of this, admittedly, is self-inflicted by the existence of Apple Music and the fact that paying for the account allows me to listen to pretty much anything I want without consequence. So Friday mornings throughout the last few years have included swiping through the New Music lists, picking out potential new listens based on genre, record labels or simply based on the album cover. Not exactly scientific, and the result of which left me with a mixed bag of discoveries. Sometimes I would listen to an album once, sigh a little “well, that was an album,” and move on; other times I wouldn’t even make it all the way through, but it always ended up in an adventure. And, from time to time, I’d listen to something that I didn’t know about before hand, hadn’t been anticipating or pining over for months, but ended up enjoying and returning to throughout the year.

But here’s the thing: the new stuff didn’t get the benefit of the doubt that a known artist would. So if, say, the new album from a band I’ve been following for years didn’t quite hit the first time, I was more likely to give it several more listens before bowing out and deciding it wasn’t working for me. Bands or artists I didn’t know previously didn’t get that same opportunity, at least not most of the time, and so were left either getting deleted from my library or sitting there, lost amongst more listened to albums. Sure, it didn’t cost me anything, other than time, to try to see if the records would prove to connect with me, but it also feels like a crapshoot I don’t really want to invest that time in.

All this lead up is to say that I’m trying to do this less for 2019, and likely moving forward. This isn’t to say that I won’t sift through the new music lists each week, it just means I’m a little more reluctant to give up the time to listen to something I’m not familiar with at this point than just to give that time to listen to an album I’m really loving for the 10th, 15th, 20th time. I think I’ve just grown disappointed with the depth of knowing I’ve had with my favorite records over the last few years. I can still sing all the lyrics to my favorite albums from my college years, and I don’t feel connected to some of my recent favorites at the same level. This, to me, is an unfortunate shame; so I’m willing to sacrifice the possibility of fewer new musical discoveries to really dig into and connect with more music this year and beyond.

With that in mind, 2019 thus far has been focused on three albums more than most: Pedro the Lion’s Phoenix, Copeland’s Blushing and American Football’s American Football (LP3). Yes, there have been other albums that have come out this year that I’ve enjoyed and will likely revisit throughout the year (Switchfoot’s Native Tongue, Swervedriver’s Future Ruins and Alameda’s Time Hasn’t Changed You are all quality in their own way), but these three records, those top three, have just plastered themselves in my brain. Whenever I find myself needing something to listen to, one of the songs from one of these albums pops into my head on cue. To me, that’s the mark of a great record, but it’s also what I’m looking for. I want those songs burning in my ears, I want the lyrics bounding around in my head, to feel like they’ve become a little part of me. It’s true that all of these albums came from bands I’ve followed for a long time, and it’s actually interesting that each shares the similar story of being a band that disappeared for a while (or in the case of PtL and American Football, a long while), only to come back and restart the band in earnest years later (although, in fairness, that last statement isn’t necessarily true of Pedro yet, while both Copeland and American Football are on the second post-return records). Maybe there’s something to that, or maybe it’s a coincidence, but here’s what I know for sure: they all made excellent albums that came out in the first few months of 2019.

I’m not saying that my new method is going to be a foolproof way to avoid listening to bad music (have you heard Weezer’s Black Album?) or that my longtime connection to a band will make certain a connection will be generated with more of the music I consume each year, but I do know that focusing on the quality over quantity will grant me fewer (or more, depending which side you mean) opportunities on either side. And since this is the point, that will count as a win for me. I’m looking forward to seeing how well these albums hold up, not just throughout the year, but in years to come as well.

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A side note that is mostly unrelated to the above information. I’ve decided to get back into podcasting. It’s been a few years since my buddy Ryan and I stopped doing episodes of our Brew With A View Podcast, mostly because it took a lot of time and required a great deal of effort to make it happen, but recently I’ve been searching for more ways to express my creativity. The blog is good, and I’ve got more writing projects in the pipeline and continue to consider ways to write and record more music, but this podcast idea just sort of flowed out of me once I really dug into it, so I figured I owe it to myself to try it out. The plan is release episodes twice a week, with varied topics of interest each month, since I couldn’t decide on one idea that piqued my interest more than any other. So look for the appropriately named (according to my wife) Things That Matter (To Me) podcast in the coming weeks. Who knows, I may enlist the help of you, person who is reading this blog right now. Be ever ready.

Oscar Predictions 2019

Well, it is that time again, ladies and gentlemen. Time for me to pretend that I either a) can see into the future or b) am smart enough to know what a gargantuan voting body will think about the year in movies. In reality, this is, as always, going to trend more in the direction of not only what I think the Academy will do, but what I would do if I were voting (I’m not). There are 24 categories and some of which are filled with movies I didn’t see, but I’ll do my best to cover each category, sometimes with very little explanation other than wild guesses. And away we go!

Best Picture:

“Black Panther”
“BlacKkKlansman”
“Bohemian Rhapsody”
“The Favourite”
“Green Book”
“Roma”
“A Star Is Born”
“Vice”

Should/Will Win: We’ll start with a category that, to my mind, is relatively easy. Yes, it’s the “biggest” award of the night, which would seemingly make it more difficult, but this year I just don’t think that’s the case. I’ll do this the way the Academy actually does the category, with preferential voting, in reverse order.

8. Bohemian Rhapsody – It’s a messy, unexciting and often incorrect biopic about a guy who’s life should have been a lot more interesting and tumultuous. For the life of me I can’t understand why this is even nominated when movies like First Man existed this year.

7. Green Book – Speaking of overhyped things. My initial response upon completing the movie was that it was a male platonic romantic comedy that made sure to include some racial issues stuff so people would pay attention. The acting is good, but the story is told with little effort, and that is not a compliment.

6. The Favourite – This is an absurd movie, and it’s lower here because I liked some of the other movies more (and also because I couldn’t quite figure out what this movie was about). Three great performances, especially from Emma Stone, but the movie itself didn’t do it for me.

5. Black Panther – This seems to be the movie people are getting behind as the one the Academy should be paying more attention to this year (see: Get Out from last year), and while I admired it in a lot of ways, for me it felt muddled and trying to accomplish too much.

4. Vice – More fun than I was expecting it to be and featuring a great lead performance from Christian Bale, I really didn’t think I would like this at all. It wears its politics on its sleeves and doesn’t always stick the landing, but there was something powerful about the movie itself feeling a little unsure what to do with the subject matter.

3. BlacKkKlansman – I’m not a Spike Lee fan (my favorite of his films is probably 25th Hour, which is pretty much nobody’s favorite Spike film), and I almost avoided this one altogether because of that. I’m glad I didn’t. There’s still some elements of this I didn’t love, and while powerful, the ending almost does too much to spell out the whole “hey, this is still going on” point of it all, but overall the film is well executed and really well acted.

2. A Star Is Born – I had no expectations for this one, and almost missed it altogether because of the massive hype train that was pulling into the station months before anyone even saw the film. Thing is, the film delivers in almost every way you would want it to. The performances, both acting and musically, are spectacular, the songs are mostly strong and, even though this is the fourth rendition of the movie, the story seems freshly updated (note: I’ve never seen any of the other versions). Honestly I’m confused as to why this has gotten drowned out by all the BoRhap and Green Book love, because this is a much better and more effectively executed film.

1.Roma – I was engrossed from beginning to end, at times I was even terrified and uncomfortable, and somehow I left feeling that Alfonso Cuaron had made me care about this family and devastated by the tragedies of its life. Part of that, yes, was because the movie was in Spanish and forced me to focus on it fully, but I also believe it would have done so anyway. The scene in the hospital close to the end was one of the most heart wrenching sequences I’ve seen this year, and it was a credit to the work of the film that I was both desperate for it to end and captivated by how he managed to make me want to keep watching. This is both my pick and the film I think will win on Sunday night.

Lead Actor:

Christian Bale, “Vice”
Bradley Cooper, “A Star Is Born”
Willem Dafoe, “At Eternity’s Gate”
Rami Malek, “Bohemian Rhapsody”
Viggo Mortensen, “Green Book”

Should win: Christian Bale, which seems very Academy of me, since they usually love transformations (see Gary Oldman just last year). But in all honesty, while the make up and weight gain enhances the performance, there is something specific about each of Bale’s choices, and that he makes you question your own motives regarding a Cheney that is clearly being represented in a certain way by Adam McKay and company, is a testament to how well his performance works. Honorable mention to Bradley Cooper here, who embodies the character of Jackson Maine with grace and eloquence.

Will win: Rami Malek, who I like a lot in Mr. Robot, but felt he was going through the motions here. That’s weird to say in a movie where he’s required to do a lot of capital-A Acting, but his performance never excited me or made me pay attention to the way either Bale or Cooper’s did. He’s kind of just doing an impersonation rather than making choices.

Lead Actress:

Yalitza Aparicio, “Roma”
Glenn Close, “The Wife”
Olivia Colman, “The Favourite”
Lady Gaga, “A Star Is Born”
Melissa McCarthy, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

Should win: Lady Gaga, which is saying a lot coming from me because I’m not what you’d call a Gaga fan. But my goodness is she great in this movie. I’m just lost as to how she’s gotten forgotten throughout this award process, because there was nothing in her past career that would have suggested she was capable of the kind of emoting and realism she showcases here. In some ways, yes, the role was made for her, but it doesn’t matter so much because she owns it. It’s showy without being obvious, emotional without succumbing to melodrama. Honorable mention to Aparicio, who makes her debut in Roma and holds the movie together with her steady performance.

Will win: I mean, I guess Glenn Close, although by all accounts The Wife is just an okay movie. This stinks of a career achievement award because they’ve never awarded her before. I haven’t seen the movie, because apparently it’s impossible to find and, frankly, it just doesn’t seem worth it.

Supporting Actor:

Mahershala Ali, “Green Book”
Adam Driver, “BlacKkKlansman”
Sam Elliott, “A Star Is Born”
Richard E. Grant, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”
Sam Rockwell, “Vice”

Should win: Sam Elliott, who is the emotional fulcrum of A Star Is Born. Elliott takes his usual gruff cowboy act and makes him feel lived in and real. The movie doesn’t work without him, which, by definition is what a supporting actor should be doing (unlike most cases where this award goes to a second lead, more on that in a second). Driver is great in his role, but it feels lighter in comparison, which is weird to say given the film’s content, but he isn’t asked to deal with as much weight.

Will win: Mahershala Ali, who is the aforementioned co-lead of Green Book, and honestly plays mostly one note (pun intended) through most of the film’s run. He’s everywhere these days on the heels of his win in this category two years ago, and he definitely grants a sense of elegance and even humor to the role, but the film itself feels so slight to me, I just don’t see how he should actually win for this movie. This isn’t an award for overall acting ability (he’d probably win that, with Driver close behind), but for this film, which doesn’t deserve this type of recognition.

Supporting Actress:

Amy Adams, “Vice”
Marina de Tavira, “Roma”
Regina King, “If Beale Street Could Talk”
Emma Stone, “The Favourite”
Rachel Weisz, “The Favourite”

Should win: Emma Stone, because she makes all the shenanigans of The Favourite work in a way that it wouldn’t in lesser hands. Weisz has less to do, and Adams is fun in Vice, but not as supporting (yes, I’m taking this category literally). She’s due eventually, though (she’s already up to six nominations, five in this category, with no wins). Marina de Tavira really propels some of the action of Roma, though, too, in a way I wasn’t expecting as the movie began. I could go any way, but Stone is my favorite.

Will win: I haven’t seen Beale Street, but King seems to be the frontrunner here. I won’t be surprised any way this goes.

Director:

Spike Lee, “BlacKkKlansman”
Pawel Pawlikowski, “Cold War”
Yorgos Lanthimos, “The Favourite”
Alfonso Cuarón, “Roma”
Adam McKay, “Vice”

Should/will win: It’s Cuaron and there’s very little competition here, other than maybe a sentimental vote for Lee. All the hats that the Roma director wears will probably help his case (and allow him to win more than one award on the night himself). Cooper not being here is confusing and probably wrong, but at least it’s McKay, who directs an interesting movie (even if you hate it) and not Farrelly for Green Book.

Animated Feature:

“Incredibles 2,” Brad Bird
“Isle of Dogs,” Wes Anderson
“Mirai,” Mamoru Hosoda
“Ralph Breaks the Internet,” Rich Moore, Phil Johnston
“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman

Should/Will win: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a better movie than a few of the Best Picture nominees, and should walk away from this one with an easy victory, in spite of strong competition from Incredibles 2 and Isle of Dogs, both of which are also excellent. The wow factor, especially in the animation department itself, is too high for Spidey not to win.

Animated Short:

“Animal Behaviour,” Alison Snowden, David Fine
“Bao,” Domee Shi
“Late Afternoon,” Louise Bagnall
“One Small Step,” Andrew Chesworth, Bobby Pontillas
“Weekends,” Trevor Jimenez

Will win: “Bao,” because it was the only one I saw and I ate some bao in Chicago this summer and it was delightful.

Adapted Screenplay:

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” Joel Coen , Ethan Coen
“BlacKkKlansman,” Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, Spike Lee
“Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty
“If Beale Street Could Talk,” Barry Jenkins
“A Star Is Born,” Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper, Will Fetters

Should win: A Star is Born mostly because it was the best of these nominated films, so far as I’m concerned. Cooper needs something to reflect the magnitude of what he accomplished, and this might be the best shot outside of a category yet to come. Sadly, I don’t feel super confident in that.

Will win: BlacKkKlansman, and I don’t really have a major problem with that. And while I haven’t seen Buster Scruggs, never count out the loved-more-expected Coen Brothers film, especially in writing categories.

Original Screenplay:

“The Favourite,” Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara
“First Reformed,” Paul Schrader
“Green Book,” Nick Vallelonga, Brian Currie, Peter Farrelly
“Roma,” Alfonso Cuarón
“Vice,” Adam McKay

Should win: I’m going with either First Reformed (which I haven’t seen but heard great things about) or Roma here. The issue with Roma is how little dialogue there is, but if the screenplay also takes into account the narrative arc (which is should), that gives Roma a slight edge (along with my having seen it).

Will win: It makes me gag, but for some reason the D-grade racial conversation centered around Green Book has kept it around much longer than it should have, and for some reason I think this is one of the places where the film gets recognized, even if the script is  basically a mediocre Joseph Campbell/Robert McKee hybridization that never excites.

Cinematography:

“Cold War,” Lukasz Zal
“The Favourite,” Robbie Ryan
“Never Look Away,” Caleb Deschanel
“Roma,” Alfonso Cuarón
“A Star Is Born,” Matthew Libatique

Should/Will win: Cuaron again (although this will probably actually be his first award of the night), because of the boldness of most of his choices in terms of where the camera goes and what it chooses to show you. The hospital scene is enough for me. The plethora of foreign-made films here is really interesting, though, and might impact the category, but I think it is Cuaron’s to lose, although it should be noted that the American Society of Cinematographers gave their feature film award to Zal a few days ago (also, another First Man snub).

Best Documentary Feature:

“Free Solo,” Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
“Hale County This Morning, This Evening,” RaMell Ross
“Minding the Gap,” Bing Liu
“Of Fathers and Sons,” Talal Derki
“RBG,” Betsy West, Julie Cohen

Will win: Having seen none of these, I will guess Minding the Gap, which I’ve heard is fantastic. That or Free Solo. No idea.

Best Documentary Short Subject:

“Black Sheep,” Ed Perkins
“End Game,” Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman
“Lifeboat,” Skye Fitzgerald
“A Night at the Garden,” Marshall Curry
“Period. End of Sentence.,” Rayka Zehtabchi

Will win: See above for explanation. “End Game” feels like a nice selection.

Best Live Action Short Film:
“Detainment,” Vincent Lambe
“Fauve,” Jeremy Comte
“Marguerite,” Marianne Farley
“Mother,” Rodrigo Sorogoyen
“Skin,” Guy Nattiv

Will win: Yet again. Let’s go “Skin,” for randomness.

Best Foreign Language Film:

“Capernaum” (Lebanon)
“Cold War” (Poland)
“Never Look Away” (Germany)
“Roma” (Mexico)
“Shoplifters” (Japan)

Should win: So this is an interesting one. There’s a real chance that Roma walks away with not one, but two “Best Picture” awards, both the overall BP and this category. But I’m also thinking there’s a chance that those voters who give the BP nod to Cuaron’s film will also look to award someone else here and grant this category to someone else, namely…

Could win: Cold War, which is nominated in several other categories this year (there nominations in all), suggesting it has support in different sections of the Academy. If voters decide that Cuaron’s film winning in both places is too much, don’t be shocked if Pawlikowski’s film prevails here. Still think there’s a good chance Roma sweeps, though.

Film Editing:

“BlacKkKlansman,” Barry Alexander Brown
“Bohemian Rhapsody,” John Ottman
“Green Book,” Patrick J. Don Vito
“The Favourite,” Yorgos Mavropsaridis
“Vice,” Hank Corwin

Should/Will win: Before we start, this is a ridiculous category. The aforementioned BoRhap and Green Book are so dull and unoriginal in their editing, it kills me that movies like Roma (because of how little it cuts, forcing you to stay with moments longer than you want) or First Man (for almost the opposite reason, creating the uncomfortable sense of claustrophobia) aren’t here. Given that, the rhythm of Vice is what propels it forward and part of what makes the film so off-kilter and interesting. So I’m going that direction here.

Sound Editing:

“Black Panther,” Benjamin A. Burtt, Steve Boeddeker
“Bohemian Rhapsody,” John Warhurst
“First Man,” Ai-Ling Lee, Mildred Iatrou Morgan
“A Quiet Place,” Ethan Van der Ryn, Erik Aadahl
“Roma,” Sergio Diaz, Skip Lievsay

Should win: Ironically, I’d like to give a little love to the under-nominated A Quiet Place, which won Emily Blunt a Screen Actor’s Guild prize a few weeks back. Yes, much of the movie is quiet, eerily and uncomfortably so; but when the sound does kick in, it really does, and is part of what makes the movie tick. Close second to First Man, which, if you can’t tell, I’m fully prepared to beat the drum for as long as it takes for people to realize it’s spectacular filmmaking by one of our better young directors.

Will win: This feels like a Black Panther category, especially since it’s unlikely to win anywhere else and the voters will want to recognize it somewhere. I’m okay with almost anything winning here, except, well, you know by now.

Sound Mixing:

“Black Panther”
“Bohemian Rhapsody”
“First Man”
“Roma”
“A Star Is Born”

Should win: I’m also perplexed when there are differences in these two categories, and while yes I realize they are different skills, it feels like they should go hand in hand. If the sound design/editing works, then so, too should the mixing. So I’m back on the First Man train for this one, because of the just insane quality of the sounds throughout.

Will win: Again, probably a Black Panther category, although I could see A Star Is Born jumping in here because of all the music to call attention to the mixing.

Production Design:

“Black Panther,” Hannah Beachler
“First Man,” Nathan Crowley, Kathy Lucas
“The Favourite,” Fiona Crombie, Alice Felton
“Mary Poppins Returns,” John Myhre, Gordon Sim
“Roma,” Eugenio Caballero, Bárbara Enrı́quez

Should/Will win: The re-creation of 1970’s Mexico in Roma is astounding, so I’m fully on board for that win, although the same could be said for First Man and The Favourite, also period pieces, which often look good in this category. Black Panther is visually interesting, but depends so much on CGI to create the look of the film, so I’m going with Roma again on this one.

Original Score:

“BlacKkKlansman,” Terence Blanchard
“Black Panther,” Ludwig Goransson
“If Beale Street Could Talk,” Nicholas Britell
“Isle of Dogs,” Alexandre Desplat
“Mary Poppins Returns,” Marc Shaiman, Scott Wittman

Should win: Justin Hurwitz, who for some reason isn’t here for First Man. Barring that, the Academy really seems to love Alexandre Desplat, who has won in this category twice (for last year’s The Shape of Water and 2015’s The Grand Budpest Hotel) and been nominated seven other times, not including this year, since 2007. I enjoy his style, and as far as fits, it feels the strongest of the two films I’ve seen in this category.

Will win: Again, having not seen Beale Street, I have no idea, but I’ve heard great things. Won’t be surprised to see it go any way here.

Original Song:

“All The Stars” from “Black Panther” by Kendrick Lamar, SZA
“I’ll Fight” from “RBG” by Diane Warren, Jennifer Hudson
“The Place Where Lost Things Go” from “Mary Poppins Returns” by Marc Shaiman, Scott Wittman
“Shallow” from “A Star Is Born” by Lady Gaga, Mark Ronson, Anthony Rossomando, Andrew Wyatt and Benjamin Rice
“When A Cowboy Trades His Spurs For Wings” from “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” by David Rawlings and Gillian Welch

Should/Will win: I mean, I don’t think there’s much question here. This is likely the best chance for a win for A Star Is Born, and “Shallow” is a pretty great song, even if I don’t believe how it came together in the timeline of the film.

Makeup and Hair:

“Border”
“Mary Queen of Scots”
“Vice”

Should/Will win: Vice doesn’t work if the make up doesn’t work. No debate there.

Costume Design:

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” Mary Zophres
“Black Panther,” Ruth E. Carter
“The Favourite,” Sandy Powell
“Mary Poppins Returns,” Sandy Powell
“Mary Queen of Scots,” Alexandra Byrne

Should/Will win: A win for Black Panther would be pretty off brand for this one, as period pieces are quite often awarded in this category. I’m going with The Favourite, since it’s likely one of the few real chances the film has to win despite double-digit nominations (inflated a little by three acting noms). It’s costumes are excellent and specific to the characters, which matters a great deal.

Visual Effects:

“Avengers: Infinity War”
“Christopher Robin”
“First Man”
“Ready Player One”
“Solo: A Star Wars Story”

Should/Will win: Strangely, with as much love as Black Panther got (it was nominated for seven total Oscars), it doesn’t end up here. First Man would be a nice surprise here because it doesn’t really fit what the Academy most often awards here, which is massive Visual Effect spectacles, something that describes 3/5’s of the nominees here. Christopher Robin being here is interesting, too, because honestly in the trailers the talking animals didn’t look all that good. For me, although I liked Solo: A Star Wars story more than many, I thin it comes down to Infinity War and Ready Player One, and I think the Marvel train keeps a-rollin’ here, even if the degree of difficulty for RPO is much higher, since most of the movie depends on the quality of the VFX.

And so there you have it. It’s going to be an interesting show on Sunday night, what with there being no host and the Academy deciding first to slash four awards from the telecast and then last-minute change directions on that choice, but in the end the important thing is who wins and where. When the night’s over, I fully expect Cuaron’s Roma to be the biggest winner, both in terms of number of awards and having won the biggest award of the night. We’ll see soon enough.

Weekend of Music

Every so often–not nearly as often as I used to, and in some cases not as often as I’d like–I still get the chance to see live music. When I was younger and only responsible for myself, I’d go probably once a month, more during the busier periods of the summer, but for various reasons, I’ve not seen as much in recent years as I did. In some ways this is okay. It’s an expensive night out, and to be honest there are times when it just doesn’t seem worth it anymore. So there has to be some combination of the right bands, a good night, great location or something along those lines to really pique my interest. This past weekend, however, I found myself attending not one, but two shows, and it was one of the better weekends I’ve had in a while.

On Saturday night, my wife, my dad and I drove to Atlanta to see Switchfoot, Colony House and Tyson Motsenbocker at the Tabernacle. Since I moved to the Charlotte area, I’ve driven to Atlanta maybe a half a dozen or so times to see shows, the most recent being when my wife and I went to see The Classic Crime on a rare trip to the East Coast a few years back. This latest trip was a Christmas present, and along with concert tickets, my wife secured the three of us access to The Room, a VIP lounge located on one of the Tabernacle’s five levels, complete with catered hors d’oeuvre, our own bar and a private restroom, a cool perk to what was a great show at an excellent venue.

Mostenbocker opened the show with a few solo acoustic numbers. I’ve now seen him three times in the last six months, and while he’s never played for very long, he’s always earnest and entertaining. More importantly, his sets always seem to have a sense of purpose and theme to them, something I appreciate a great deal. I will say that I am bummed that he ignores his fantastic debut LP, Letters to Lost Loves, but I also understand that he might be ready to move on from those songs by now.

He was followed by Colony House, who are probably one of my favorite working bands at the moment. I’ve seen them several times over the last few years, and their debut record, 2014’s When I Was Younger, is one of my favorite albums of all time. They also kill it live, and they’ve continued to build their skills as cohesive rock band over the last several years. There’s a feeling that exudes from a band that has it that together on stage, and Colony House, led by frontman Caleb Chapman and his drummer/brother Will (along with guitarist Scott Mills and bassist Parke Cottrell) have it in spades. Their music has energy and dynamics that is unlike many other bands around these days.

Switchfoot closed things out with a fairly expansive set. Like the others, I’ve seen them several times over the years, and even in those moments where I haven’t been following the band that closely or really been enthusiastic about their most recent album, I have to say I’ve never been disappointed in the quality of their live show. Sure, there are always songs I wished they’d played or entire albums they might have ignored, but when you’re eleven albums in, that’s bound to happen; but the band always gives it their all, and I respect that. While there was some emphasis on their latest record, Native Tongue, for the most part they managed to cover most of their more recent albums going back to their breakthrough, The Beautiful Letdown, which features hits “Meant to Live” and “Dare You To Me.” But as was the case with the artists before them, the most exciting thing about the show was that you could feel that the band felt there was a bigger purpose to their being there; and that while playing a great show as important, creating a sense of unity amongst the people there, doing good for the world and spreading a message of the power of love matter most. So for all the bombast of the night, I walked away feeling that good was done in that place.

Tyson Motsenbocker
Almira
Something in the Way
Kickball (I’m guessing, I couldn’t find this song anywhere, so maybe it’s unreleased)
Dreamers
Colony House
You & I
Silhouettes
Was It Me?
Learning How to Love
2:20
Lonely
Caught Me By Surprise
Moving Forward
Waiting for My Time to Come
Wipe Out
You Know It
Switchfoot 
Let It Happen
Meant To Live
Voices
Hello Hurricane
Love Alone is Worth the Fight
Live It Well
Won’t Let You Go
Take My Fire
If the House Burns Down Tonight
Learning to Breathe
Shadow Proves the Sunshine
All I Need
Float
Native Tongue
Where I Belong
Encore:
Needle & Haystack Life
Prodigal Soul into
Dare You to Move

On Sunday night I went with a friend of mine to see Copeland headline at the Visulite Theater in Charlotte. The show was originally supposed to take place at the newly revamped Amos’ Southend, but it seems like Amos’ wasn’t quite ready, so they had to move the show a few weeks before the date. I like the Visulite, it’s a smaller, intimate venue with plenty of different places for people who want to stand (as we did, right up next to the stage) or sit at tables or the bar. I waited outside for a little bit before the doors opened, a misty rain falling down, and waited for my friend to arrive with another friend of his whom I had yet to meet. Upon their arrival, she promptly made friends with the guy standing behind me in line (who was alone and had driven up from Greenville), setting up the rest of the night.

Many Rooms began the show with a female-fronted, serene, atmospheric alternative rock sound that leaned heavily into the melancholy and quiet. The singer told us she was used to playing shows alone, and while I liked their sound, it was pretty clear the band wasn’t something she was used to, as there were several pockets in the set where the drummer had nothing to do and, to be honest, seemed a little bored. She didn’t play a lot of songs, but she was honest and thoughtful, and I appreciated the songs. I would have probably bought a record if they’d had one, but sadly they were all out.

From Indian Lakes came on next, a band who I’ve listened to sporadically for a while now, and actually own several albums from, but I wouldn’t exactly call myself a big fan of theirs. They played a great set of energetic indie rock–the lead singer joked about how fun it was being the heaviest band on a tour for once–and I recognized several of the songs from listening to the records over the years. I tried to snap a shot of their set list from my vantage point, but just as I was about to, someone reached out and grabbed it, so I don’t have a full set list for them, but I’ve included what of theirs I can ascertain from what I can see.

Copeland finished the show, playing a nice mix of songs throughout their discography, touching each of their six albums at least once. The focus was split between their most recent albums, 2014’s Ixora and Blushing, which came out just a few days before the show. As they were playing newer songs, I was watching the bass player, who was situation right in front of us, who seemed to be reacting to many people knowing the words, and I wondered about how cool it would be to be on a tour just as a new album was coming out and watching in real-time how the fans were reacting to it. Based on his face, he seemed pleased.

All in all, the weekend of music was excellent, and while they were two very different types of shows, I appreciated the intense work that went into the making of each one, be it in creating the music in the first place or figuring out how to piece the whole thing together in a live setting. I usually walk away from good live shows with two thoughts in my head: 1) I miss playing for people and 2) I should go see more live music. But then I remember it has to be the right collection of great things, and I’m thankful for times like this weekend where it all comes together.

Many Rooms (in no particular order and missing a few)
Hollow Body
99 Proof
Danielle
From Indian Lakes
Happy Machines (?)
?
Dissonance (?)
Blank Tapes
Sleeping Limbs
Am I Alive?
Awful Things
Sunlight
Bed (?, missing a word)
?
Copeland
As Above, So Alone
I Can Make You Feel Young Again
Chin Up
Have I Always Loved You
Disjointed
Lay Here
Choose the One Who Loves You More
Safer On An Airplane
Not Allowed
Should You Return
Erase
Pope
Skywriter
Coffee
You Have My Attention

Recapping 2018

Goodness me, 2019 is here, and it feels like it came swiftly, hence the delay in getting some final thoughts together for the end of last year. The holidays went off mostly without a hitch, although my threshold for human interaction did hit me right in between Christmas and New Year’s, and there was a mild attempt on my part to disappear for a little while. I also learned why I shouldn’t consume too many Trenta, quad shot iced coffees in my life, as they can lead to my brain literally going haywire in the middle of a shopping trip to IKEA and causing a little bit of a nervous breakdown in the middle of the furniture bins. All in all, however, I’d say that I more than survived the holiday season of 2018 and smoothly transitioned into 2019, planting myself more or less unscathed back at work and ready to take on a new semester.

As I’ve mentioned here several times before, that move back into “normalcy” is a strange one in my house. Everyone just about starts to get used to not have to go anywhere everyday and that’s about the time the break is over and it’s time to go back to work. Add to that the fact that there are no breaks on the horizon for neither E nor myself (we both pretty much have school from here until Spring Break, which falls in between Palm Sunday and Easter this year, a cool 13 or so weeks away), and you’ve got a potential recipe for disaster. But I’m proud to say we’ve gotten back into the swing of things rather well, a bit of a first for us, and I’d like to think that feeling settled into the new house and it really beginning to feel familiar and like home is helping, or at least it is for me. There’s still work to be done, and I get this constant feeling that we always have something we could be doing, but overall, things are feeling content for the first time in a while.

I will say, however, that all the happenings of this year–and really of our life–don’t allow as much time for media consumption as I’d like, especially in terms of time to take in as many movies as I have in recent years. We watch the Golden Globes on Sunday, and I really didn’t have much to say about much of the field due to my not having seen as many of the nominees as I usually do. There just isn’t enough time in the day. I should figure out a way to get the studios to send me Academy screeners. That would help a bunch.

All that said, I’ve done a fair amount of listening to things (169 albums this year with at least one listen all the way through, and countless podcast episodes), as a good amount of time in the car coupled with lots of hours in my office has granted me the opportunity to take in a lot of good stuff. One thing I’ve not done nearly as much of this year is reading books, however–partially because I spend a lot of my work time reading student papers and other writing–so I think I want to make that a bigger priority this year, even if it means doing more of that over the summer. Anyway, as a means of recapping 2018, I’ll leave you with my top albums, movies, podcasts and some good things I read, and wrap it up with some things I hope to accomplish in 2019. Happy new year!

TOP 5 ALBUMS of 2018

  1. mewithoutYou – [Untitled]
  2. Dearest – Sonder
  3. Household – Everything A River Should Be
  4. Emery – Eve
  5. Foxing – Nearer My God

The rest, in no particular order:

Mae – Multisensory Aesthetic Experience

Thrice – Palms

Death Cab for Cutie – Thank You For Today

Wild Pink – Yolk in the Fur

Crowder – I Know A Ghost

Justin Hurwitz – First Man OST

Basement – Beside Myself

Author – lifoiic

Underoath – Erase Me

Cory Asbury – Reckless Love

Pianos Become the Teeth – Wait for Love

Weathered – Stranger Here

It Looks Sad. – Sky Lake

Biggest disappointments in music: Dashboard Confessional – Crooked Shadows; Arctic Monkeys – Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino; Saves the Day – 9

TOP 10 FILMS of 2018

Like I said, seeing new movies was harder this year than it has been. My total this year was less than 25, so narrowing this down wasn’t as difficult as it has been in recent years. I’ve also included my “need to see” list so you can see just how much this list could have changed.

  1. First Man
  2. A Quiet Place
  3. Mission: Impossible – Fallout
  4. Avengers: Infinity War
  5. A Star is Born
  6. Annihilation
  7. Incredibles 2
  8. Isle of Dogs
  9. Vice
  10. Black Panther

Definitely not the best picture of 2018 (drama, musical, comedy or otherwise): Bohemian Rhapsody

Other things I liked: Ocean’s 8, Ready Player One, Ant-Man and the Wasp and Venom

Disappointing or just plain no good: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Deadpool 2, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindlewald (Middle movie goes nowhere syndrome), and the aforementioned Bohemian Rhapsody

Everything else (or movies I saw because I live with a 4-year old): Peter Rabbit, The Grinch and Solo: A Star Wars Story (which I’m still unsure about, but think I like more than most)

Finally, a long list of movies I didn’t see but wanted to (and may still yet): Won’t You Be My Neighbor, Death of Stalin, You Were Never Really Here, Tully, Leave No Trace, Eighth Grade, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, Christopher Robin, BlacKkKlansman, First Reformed, Wildlife, Widows, Roma, The Favourite, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, The Mule, If Beale Street Could Talk, Mary Poppins Returns, Welcome to Marwen

TOP 5 PODCASTS of 2018

  1. Happy Rant Podcast
  2. Labeled: The Stories, Rumors and Legends of Tooth & Nail Records
  3. Niners Nation Better Rivals Podcast
  4. The Ringer NFL Show
  5. School of Science Radio

TOP THINGS I READ IN 2018

(Note: Obviously little of this was new in 2018, but it’s simply what I read this year)

  1. Feverland – Alex Lemon
  2. The Cubs Way: The Zen of Building the Best Team in Baseball and Breaking the Curse – Tom Verducci
  3. Basketball (And Other Things) – Shea Serrano
  4. Authority – Jeff Vandermeer
  5. Horrorstör – Grady Hendrix
  6. Acceptance – Jeff Vandermeer
  7. The Dark Tower series, books 1-4 – Stephen King

TOP THINGS I WANT TO ACCOMPLISH/DO MORE OF IN 2019

(Just don’t call them resolutions)

  1. Finish this pesky manuscript I’ve been working on for well over a year and a half now.
  2. Stick to my read the Bible in 365 days plan (I’m already 7 days behind because I thought of it too late!).
  3. Commit to a 3-day-a-week exercise plan and make better overall health choices.
  4. Having said that, ironically I want to brew at least one beer per quarter/season.
  5. Golf with some frequency (quarterly, at least, I’d say).
  6. Record some music, possible an entire new album.
  7. Write more on the blog, but also produce more material like more poems and maybe even some stories and essays.
  8. Remember it’s okay to make time to do things I love to do, and that doing those things doesn’t always mean I’m selfish or not giving my family what they need. So I can see more movies, go to shows and take time to accomplish these goals; in the end, this time can mean I’m taking care of myself, which can be better for everyone.

10 Year Recall: Copeland’s You Are My Sunshine

It’s been awhile since I delved into one of these, what with all the other things to write about, but as I was looking at my now-failed attempt at setting up a calendar for my writing for this year, this one jumped out at me. Maybe it was because the band in question–Copeland, of Lakeland, Florida–has recently popped back into the world with what appears to be a new album (teasing its fans with a random assortment of Instagram posts over the last few days). Or maybe it’s because the record stands out as one of the most intriguing albums I’ve ever heard and it feels right to revisit it more than others on my list.

Copeland is a bit of a strange entity. When I first discovered them, they were opening for Mae at The NorVa in Norfolk, VA, and lead singer Aaron Marsh looked like he’d rather be literally anywhere else, the level of his perceived introversion was so great. Still the band’s set was excellent, and I immediately sought out their debut record, Beneath Medicine Tree, which I probably purchased from my local Tower Records, because it was 2003, and this was a thing kids did back then. The album was guitar-driven rock with Marsh firmly displaying his heart on his sleeve on a record focused on his grandmother dying in the hospital and a relationship the singer was in at the time. For all its flaws, the album still has some standout tracks (“Testing the Strong Ones,” “There Cannot Be A Close Second” & “California” are the best), and drew attention to the band in the indie music scene of the time.

The band’s follow-up, 2005’s In Motion, leaned even more heavily into the rock sound, and even featured some tunes that felt like radio rock of the day, while maintaining Marsh’s signature lyricism and well-trained vocals. The band would never be considered a hard rock band, but their sophomore record is certainly their heaviest (although it also features some pretty significantly softer moments on tracks like piano-driven “Sleep” and  the moody “Kite”), even if that isn’t saying too much. Their third release started a 180 degree turn, as Eat, Sleep, Repeat is still very much a guitar album, but starts to see the band delving into new sounds, like xylophones, brass and more atmospheric sounds, along with time signatures that were a little non-traditional for bands in their genre. And by the time You Are My Sunshine came around in 2008, the movement away from traditional guitar rock had pretty much disappeared. This was a new version of the band, and is one of the reasons that the record stands out so much amongst their early catalog.

To be clear, there are guitars on Sunshine, but rather than being the focal point of the album’s sonic space, Marsh’s keyboard takes over as the primary instrument, with other keyboard sounds and more classical instruments like bassoon, oboe and clarinet joining a string section and more horns as staples of Copeland’s sound. There are even suggestions of electronics peppered throughout the record, something Marsh and Co would dive into even more for their next record, 2014’s Ixora. What results is a record almost entirely devoid of anything that sounds like anything from their first two records and only contains cursory connections to ESR which came before it. Sunshine is a tremendously quiet record that pushes Marsh more into his falsetto and other higher voice registers, as if the band needed you to know that this is art and these songs are difficult. Yet the songs are simple in structure, foregoing the more complicated elements of songs on the previous record, and giving into the truth that a simpler structure allowed the band to be more experimental with the instrumentation. This is a daring choice, and one that mostly works, even if there are times where the album can sometimes feel like it becomes part of your surroundings rather than standing out. It’s beautiful and never boring, in spite of how much it maintains its overall feel and mood.

For all its loveliness, Sunshine is not a perfect album. The inclusion of early-Copeland retread “Chin Up” is odd here, mostly because it doesn’t quite sound like the rest of the record, although the band does their best to not make it seem too far out of left field (partially by placing it early enough in the track listing, and deftly in between songs that really commit to the new sonic space). And as I said, there are times where the album doesn’t require much of you as a listener, as it is possible to not be an active listener for this one, which can, likely on purpose, sound dreamy and spacey throughout its run time. It should be noted, however, that really digging into what the album is doing is well worth it, as active, engaged listening is essential for really understanding this record.

It should also be noted that the packing for the CD version of this album is one of the last great CD’s I remember owning. The special edition that I owned back in 2008 came in a simple almost khaki colored box, labeled very elegantly:

Image result for copeland you are my sunshine special edition cd

Inside the CD was sleeved individually, along with a making-of DVD and an additional DVD with “music videos,” mostly made up of abstract visuals mostly befitting the tone of the record. While the quality or necessity of these extras might be in question, the care taken into creating something that people wanted to own in an age where digital ownership was beginning to take over music sales. Such was the beauty of the CD, I almost held onto it when I unloaded all my CDs a few years ago. Now I own it and the rest of the band’s discography on vinyl, and of all the earlier albums, this one sounds the best on that format. Among all things to say about this album, the care that clearly went into it stands out the most, no matter how you hear it.

First Man has The Right Stuff

I should begin by making it clear that when I like something, I tend to really like something. I don’t have a ton of free time to give away, so it’s my experience that experiences or hobbies that I feel middling interest in often find themselves cut out completely. This goes for music, podcasts, and movies as much as anything else.

All that to say, directors play a large role in my connectivity to films. Sure, I get excited for the new Marvel or Star Wars films, too, but mostly because of the content; when it comes to directors that I love, the focus of the film is of secondary importance. That list is short for me, mostly consisting of Wes Anderson, Christopher Nolan, and, most recently Damien Chazelle, director of Whiplash, La La Land and now, First Man, which tells the story of Neil Armstrong and his fight to get to the moon.

Chazelle, who recently became the youngest person to ever win an Oscar for Best Director at just 32 years old, has already shown himself to be a master technician, and stands with the aforementioned directors, and others like them, who seem to always excel in the creation of the film, even if the sum of the parts doesn’t always add up. Fortunately for Chazelle, that hasn’t happened to him yet, as Last Man stands up both in terms of its technical prowess and storytelling, which focuses not necessarily on the Space Race or the politics of America in the 1960’s, so much as it does–like Whiplash and La La Land before it–on the obsession of its protagonist and the impact that has on those around him. So while Last Man is cognizant of its surroundings–the politics, the cost of errors, both in money and lives–the film is full entrenched in the mind and experiences of Gosling’s Armstrong, whom the actor portrays as focused but flawed, driven but disconnected from his emotions.

The film’s emotional framing device is the early death of Armstrong’s daughter, Karen, who dies of cancer at two-years-old just minutes into the film, allowing Chazelle and writer Josh Singer to insert the thematic ideas of how loss impacts Armstrong and the astronaut’s inability to express himself emotionally. Gosling’s performance, then, is muted and almost seems passive at times, but fits the reality of the character as the film presents it. This leaves the emotional weight to be carried by Claire Foy, tremendous as Janet Armstrong, who struggles both to keep her life together at home and with the regular and terrifying reminder that one of these days her husband may not come home. The repeated refrain of death is one that the film handles adeptly, as its drum beat repetition serves as a reminder both to the characters and the audience that the cost is extremely high.

Much has been made of the film’s perceived anti-American stance, and people who have not seen the movie, from friends of mine on Facebook to the President of the United States have spoken out against the movie because of what they’ve been told. The problem is that these people, who misinterpreted a story about the film, are wrong about the movie and its treatment of America as hero. While it is true that the planting of the American flag on the moon is not explicitly depicted on-screen, the flag is shown twice in rare wide shots of Tranquility Base, and the Stars and Stripes are all over the film’s scenes, from a heroic shot of Armstrong’s son hoisting the flag outside of the family’s Houston house to the flags literally in every shot of the astronauts in uniform or in spacesuits, the image is an indelible one in the film. Furthermore, while the script doesn’t go out of its way to make political statements about the Soviet Union, the mission is clear: NASA has to beat the Soviets to the moon, and it is embarrassed by its being beaten, time after time, by the Soviet space expeditions. The reason this is not hammered home even more throughout is also pretty clear: this is a film about Armstrong and his obsession to reach his goal, which has little to do with the Space Race and everything to do with his own desires. The film is called First Man, after all, and time and time again reminds the viewer that this is Armstrong’s story, not the history of the Space Race or of NASA (if that historical perceptive is of importance to you, try Tom Hanks and Ron Howard’s HBO docuseries From the Earth to the Moon).

The movie is also a technical marvel. Chazelle and DP Linus Sandgren, who won the Oscar for shooting La La Land, make the purposeful choice to double down on the claustrophobic nature of the film by shooting much of the movie in close-up on its actors, to the point where Gosling, Foy and others rarely even have their full heads on-screen throughout most of the shots. While this doubles as a metaphor for the tightness of the flight capsules the astronauts flew to space in, Sandgren’s camera work, and the snappy nature of Whiplash Oscar-winner’s Tom Cross’ editing, especially during the scenes in space, continues to make the point that the film is Armstrong’s, and that the outside forces, other than space itself, matter very little. Furthermore, the exactness of how the rockets worked, how space would have impacted the camera, and the lack of sound are all part of the decisions Chazelle makes, leading to a film that is more internalized than anything else.

This is explicitly stated in the lead-up to Armstrong leaving to prepare to leave on Apollo 11, where he worries himself with packing rather than spending time with his family. When Janet accosts him regarding his not saying goodbye to their boys, Neil’s response is that the “boys are asleep,” and whether it’s true or not isn’t all that important. His reply to his wife, who is clearly yearning for some emotional reaction from her husband, is damning–they might be asleep, but that he can’t even be bothered to wake them up anyway in light of where he’s heading says a great deal about the man. Yet there isn’t a cruelty to it, and Gosling’s muted temperament remains, but the violent anger of Janet’s retort forces action from Armstrong, who agrees to an uncomfortable Q&A session with his sons. Something about that, too, feels right, as Chazelle has already shown the best way to get information out of Armstrong is to ask him direct questions, and that even then his replies are short. When his eldest finally speaks aloud the question nobody really wants to ask–“Is there a chance you might not come back?”–Armstrong’s simple “Yes” feels equal parts agonizing and potentially catastrophic.

The final piece of the puzzle here is the score, a masterful piece of work by Oscar-winner Justin Hurwitz, who won for both score and original song for La La Land, that adds to the tension of the film. Somehow, even though I knew that there was a happy ending for Armstrong coming, Hurwitz’s musical choices, including the use of a theremin, supposedly a favorite of Armstrong’s, ratcheted up not only the claustrophobia of various scenes, but also never succumb to tropes of action sequences. In fact, in places where a more traditional film might have swelled, Hurwitz’s score goes minimal, all the while remaining a pivotal part of the film’s overall impact.

The film isn’t perfect by any means, however, and one of its weakest portions might be that Armstrong was who he was. There doesn’t seem to be as much as a single heroic bone in Armstrong’s body, but instead he comes across as an intellectual who is obsessed with the task, all the while being beaten down by the tragedy of his choice to get involved with NASA in the first place. And while the decision to start the film in 1961 allows for the death of Karen to play a major role in his life and showcase Armstrong’s emotional stoicism, it does force the rush through some of the events, such as skipping through much of the Apollo missions after the test failure of Apollo 1, and relying on dialogue to catch the viewer up on that. Granted, the movie is already push 2 1/2 hours, but more insight onto some of that might have been enlightening; but the centralizing of Armstrong as the story’s focus also argues against some of that, too. Some of the shots, while intentional and effective in their desire to cause a sense of disorientation, sometimes come across as little too artsy and confusing, although to the credit of Sandgren, Cross and Chazelle, they never allow those shots to linger for too long. And while the emotionalism of the film is sometimes lost by having to spend most of its time with Neil, the core feelings of loss and an inability to cope with or express emotions, are never lost.

While Chazelle’s filmography is short (other than Whiplash and La La Land, his directing credits include the Whiplash short that led to the full length film and Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, a super-indie that seems to have informed some of La La Land), all of his films have been incredibly well made and all convey the connective tissue of what being driven can do to people, whether that be taking people you love away or causing your dreams to come crash down before your eyes. In a way, Chazelle has gotten a little more optimistic as he’s gone along, as his endings, which are always spectacular and moving, have gotten sunnier, even if they aren’t flat-out living the “everything is going to be alright” mantra. It may be that First Man is Chazelle’s weakest output so far, but given the high bar he set for himself–he’s already been nominated for two screenplay Oscars, seen both of his films nominated for Best Picture and won the Best Director prize–this might not even be saying that much. Even more importantly, not only is the backlash against the film as anti-American not true, it actually flies in the face of how much the film goes out of its way to remind you what America accomplished (a French woman interviewed on TV after the landing says she knew she could trust the Americans to do the job). But ultimately this is the story of a man who accomplished what he set out to do, and that although it came with a cost, he is finally able to rest and acknowledge his accomplishment, one that he feels is very much his to relish.

Jurassic Lost World

SPOILERS FOR JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM BELOW

Let’s get one thing straight: Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park is one of the greatest films of all time. Full stop. Not one of the greatest of its genre–which it defies time and time again–or of its era, just ever. Its follow-up, 1997’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park is a problematic sequel that made a major mistake in first removing the dinosaurs off the island and then inexplicably putting them back there (without explanation for how the T.Rex was ushered back onto Isla Sorna after the whole San Diego mess), but still managed to make decent money (over $618 million worldwide on a reported $73 million budget), though it didn’t get anywhere near the original’s quality (92% RT rating vs 52%) or box office muscle (the OG JP made over $1 billion worldwide). Four years later–just like the span between Park and Lost World–came Jurassic Park III, a slight little rescue-mission movie disguised as a sequel, although the movie might as well have nothing to do with the other two (really, only Sam Neill’s return as Alan Grant has any connection, and it’s a shoehorn at best). To date, it’s the worst reviewed (50% RT rating) and lowest grossing movie in the franchise (just $368 million worldwide).

Fourteen years passed before the franchise was revived with Colin Trevorrow’s Jurassic World revived Spielberg’s IP, and the world seemed ready for more dinosaurs, grossing over $1.5 billion worldwide and securing a sequel (well, technically, two sequels) before the first film even completed its theatrical run. Cue J.A. Bayona’s Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, which attempts to continue the story set forth in Trevorrow’s film by coming in three years later–long enough for the park to have been decimated by nature and the dinosaurs, and for the screenplay to not have to explain where the characters have been all this time. Conveniently, a volcano is about to blow on Isla Nublar, meaning the dinos are in danger, and it’s up to Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), who is suddenly sympathetic to the dinosaur’s plight, and Owen (Chris Pratt) to save the day, on the dime of the never-before-mentioned former partner of original Dino-Disney John Hammond, although actually the strings are being pulled by his assistant, whose intentions are soon shown to be less than positive (this isn’t a spoiler, it’s pretty obvious the minute he comes on screen).

What follows is a movie that can’t quite figure out what it wants to be. It’s opening section–featuring the “surprise” double cross and the removing of several dinosaur species of the island–feels like an animal rights activism film; the latter section, set in Hammond’s old mansion, now home to Benjamin Lockwood, the former partner, is equal parts haunted house horror show and Wall Street-style “no, greed is actually bad” fable. To call the film multi-minded is a bit of an understatement.

To make matters worse, the film depends on the audience to suspend disbelief to ridiculous levels in order for the movie to make any sense. Yes, I realize I’m talking about a film franchise predicated on the idea that scientists have created dinosaurs out of DNA found in amber-encrusted mosquitos and then decided to make a theme park using the dinosaurs as the main attraction, but in truth, the believability, even for a series of films like this, has lessened with each passing movie. I can buy that Hammond made the first park, thinking he could both play God and control his creation, and that his hubris would not allow him to see his mistake until it was too late; I’m even okay that they built a back-up island for genetic testing, and that people would be compelled to a) see what the ‘natural’ habitat of the dinosaurs would look like and b) try to recreate Hammond’s mistake once. The fact that they didn’t nuke the entire island after they realized the dangers in the creatures continuing to live is mind-boggling to me (and apparently I’m not the only one). JPIII would have been avoided if the aforementioned nuking had taken place, but it’s even more difficult to believe that the Costa Rican government was okay with people still even getting close to the island, let alone not making the air space a No Fly Zone or something.

But the current reboot series ups the ante on the stupid to inconceivable levels. Didn’t the new owners learn anything from Hammond’s mistake? They even had the gall to put the new park ON THE SAME ISLAND literally in walking distance from the original park which should have been a daily reminder of HOW BIG OF A MISTAKE THEY WERE ABOUT TO MAKE AGAIN! You could argue that Jurassic World is once again about hubris (or greed, which is what Trevorrow asserts), but my counter argument is that it’s about a bunch of really stupid people who learn nothing from the past. And then in the sequel, characters seem to be trying to play a game of “I Can Be Dumber Than You,” but not only attempting to bring the dinosaurs off the island and put them in cages under a mansion in Northern California, but also selling them to the highest bidder to what amounts to war criminals. So Eli got rich for about ten minutes before the T.Rex did her trademark flip and crunch, rendering the millions earned useless.

To top it all off, in the final moment, when it seems like Claire, who has been wanting to save these dinosaurs’ lives for the entire movie, has finally realized that dinosaur lives don’t matter all that much compare to the humans they will either consume or crush, there’s yet another twist: Lockwood’s granddaughter isn’t his granddaughter after all, but a clone of his daughter who died in a car crash, and she thinks her being a clone and the dinosaurs being a clone makes them some sort of kindred spirits, so she releases them into the world. Jurassic World indeed, it seems.

Honestly, the set-up for JW3 feels like it might lead to the most satisfying of the three: dinos set loose on the real world where people’s lives are threatened could be fun. But the way they got there feels forced and is predicated upon people making one illogical move after another. For a movie about high level scientific breakthroughs, just how dumb this franchise must stoop to make its new premise even work is difficult to swallow.

Just so it doesn’t seem like I’m a killjoy, please understand that I realize people just like to see dinosaurs in movies (which is partially why I think the third movie might be fun), and that they aren’t dissecting the plot nearly as much as I am. The problem is that the series began with an intelligent, thoughtful and character-driven film that is one of the all-time greats, meaning that it is possible to meld action (which JP has in spades), suspense (ditto) and even a little humor (see: Jeff Goldblum) with smarts. To my mind, I wish that could still be the case. I guess I just want more from my dinosaur movies.

The Great Catching Up

At the beginning of the year, I set up a calendar to help keep me on track with my writing throughout the entirety of 2018. For the first few months, this worked really well. I was able to effectively balance all my responsibilities–marriage, fatherhood, work, church–while maintaining a weekly balance of blogging, working on my book and songwriting, along with a little bit of other bits and pieces along the way. I didn’t always follow my ideas completely, but up through April, I was doing reasonably well.

Then came May.

As a college educator, the early part of May is tricky. Most of my final papers for my classes are due within the first 4-6 days of May, and grades are usually due within the week or so after that point, thereby making it difficult to keep up with extracurricular activities outside of grading and wrapping up the semester. The week after that is usually about decompression, hence why even now, I’m only just now getting back to focusing on following the calendar. The summer hopefully shouldn’t be too busy, but my plan is to continue working as best I can to stay on top of things here. We shall see.

So today I’m offering condensed versions of my two planned early-May posts, both new additions to my now-regular 10 Year Recall series. The first is Death Cab For Cutie’s Narrow Stairs, which was released on my birthday ten years ago.

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My twenty-fourth birthday fell on a Tuesday, which meant that the main thing I was looking forward to that year was to hope for the release of an album I’d like. On the whole it was pretty disappointing, with a new album from Jason Mraz (We Sing, We Dance, We Steal Things), along with new albums from 10 Years, Filter, Finger 11 and Whitesnake, among others, but the highlight for me was definitely Death Cab’s sixth full length album. I’d liked Plans, the band’s major label debut and 2005 follow-up to their massive indie hit Transatlanticism, but it hadn’t hit home for me the same way that the latter album had, so I was looking forward to what Narrow Stairs would have to offer. This was only heightened by the appearance of the album’s first single, the 8-minute, meandering slow burner “I Will Possess Your Heart,” which the band released in its entirety to radio two months prior to the album’s drop date. This was certainly very different from what I’d expected, and so I was looking forward to seeing what the rest of the album held.

The album’s opening track, “Bixby Canyon Bridge,” also serves as a bit of a thesis statement for the record, as the song tells the story of Ben Gibbard’s pilgrimage to Big Sur, the supposed site of Jack Kerouac’s release from his alcoholism and other demons. Gibbard, at least in the song, seems to not have found what he was looking for, and the rest of the record hones in on that feeling of loss and loneliness. In fact, Stairs features some of Gibbard’s saddest lyrical content, which is saying a great deal given some of the songs of Death Cab’s past.

There just really isn’t much hope here, but it doesn’t take away from the musicianship and, surprisingly, the enjoyment of the record. Other than the lead single, the songs are fairly jovial sounding, with a lot of Gibbard’s pop sensibilities shining through at various points on the record. It’s a strange and sometimes unsettling contrast, and it’s a testament to the talent of the songwriters that they manage to make it work at all.

It isn’t a perfect record, though, as tunes like “Cath…” and “Talking Bird” always feel like a bit of a drag to me, and don’t fit next to each other, especially so early in the album (strange, too, that the two songs in together are shorter than “I Will Possess Your Heart” and yet the latter feels like it has more urgency than the other two songs). Of two of the album’s best songs, “Grapevine Fires” and “Long Division,” only the former was a single, and the final one at that, even though they arguably encapsulate the lyrical threads and overall sonic feel of the album. And lastly, even though I like “I Will Possess Your Heart” a great deal, it could definitely have been trimmed a little and not lost any of the main feel and message of the song.

Overall, Narrow Stairs is one of the stronger album in Death Cab’s catalog, and is an album that has aged pretty well over the last decade.

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The second album is the sophomore release from indie rockers The Myriad called With Arrows, With Poise, which was also released on May 13, 2008 (what a great year for my birthday!). Sonically this is one of my favorite albums of all time. It possesses a stirring sense of urgency from track one (“You Waste Time Like A Grandfather Clock”) to track 12 (“Stuck in a Glass Elevator”), as it appears to tell the story of some sort of post-apocalyptic society fleeing for its life from a great threat (possibly, as the cover alludes to, some sort of dragon-like creature).

The album itself sounds huge, with layer upon layer of guitars and, most especially, drums, feeding into the vastness both of the sonic space and the driving urgency of the record’s story. The signature of the band’s sound, however, was certainly the unique vocal stylings of frontman Jeremy Edwardson, whose tenor soars above all of the record’s various layers of sound. The band actually gained a good deal of notoriety with their single “A Clean Shot,” with a video featured on MTV2 and the band having won the 2007 “MTV2 Dew Circuit Breakout” award for the song, which was on a 5-track preview EP for With Arrows called “Prelude to Arrows” in late 2007. That song is a thumping example of the rest of the album’s giant sonic choices, making it a great choice for a first single.

The only thing I don’t like about this record is how overlooked it was. In spite of the MTV2 award, the album never really took off, and that, along with the tragic loss of drummer Randy Miller in late 2010, saw that the band never really took off to the heights they might have. Unfortunately it also meant that we never got a third album from The Myriad, and likely means the record will never be pressed to vinyl, a very sad thing indeed, as this album would sound spectacular on the format.

 

Okay, so now we’re all caught up for the early weeks of May. I’ll try to do better next time. Thanks for sticking with me.

Underoath’s “Erase Me” & Shifting of Life

My first interaction with Underoath was in college, and they terrified me a little bit. Why is that guy screaming? I can’t understand a word he’s saying! Fortunately, this initial listen was via the band’s 2004 album They’re Only Chasing Safety, a relatively pop-centric screamo album, featuring a lot of singing from drummer/clean vocalist Aaron Gillespie, although the bulk of the vocals came via Spencer Chamberlain’s guttural growls and piercing high screams. Over time, I came to appreciate the energy of the songs, the passion of the vocals–both sung and screamed–and the overall sensibilities of the music. The album rocked and popped at the same time, but the heaviness of the sound covered up the shifty ease of the song structures.

In the albums that followed–2006’s Define the Great Line and 2008’s Lost in the Sound of Separation–the pop sensibilities of the band’s third record faded more and more, as the sound got both heavier and more sprawling, taking major steps away from verses and choruses in favor of more classical structures, parts and sections, movements and motifs. Some time after Separation, Gillespie left the band, but they added a new drummer, with whom they recorded 2010’s  Ø (Disambiguation), the moodiest record in the band’s album since their early black metal days before Safety.

And then they disappeared, playing a short set of farewell tours in late 2012, and played their final show in January 2013. Two years later, they released a documentary about the tour–Tired Violence–that showed a band ending under not quite the best of circumstances, as some members, namely Spencer, wanted to continue, while others wanted to get off the road and spend more time with their families and take opportunities to do other things. Later that year, the unthinkable happened: the band announced a reunion tour, which would feature the playing of both Safety and Great Line in their entirety, a special vinyl release for both records and, perhaps most importantly, the return of Gillespie and the rest of the band who created those records. The announcement was a strange and unexpected occurrence, especially considering the depth of the relationship severing that felt apparent on Tired Violence, and yet there it was.

I went to see the Rebirth Tour at Amos’ Southend in Charlotte, and it was a wild, energetic show, albeit one I watched from the back because the mosh pit frightened me a little bit. I also assumed that was it. But as has often been the case with Underoath, I was wrong about that, too.

Earlier this year, the band suddenly dropped a video for a song called “On My Teeth,” and subsequently shared even bigger news: the band was really back now and was releasing Erase Me, its first album in nearly eight years, in April. Obviously when a band of its size goes away for a long time and then comes back, a lot of questions are asked: Is this a cash grab? What made them go away in the first place? What will new music sound like? Initial responses to “On My Teeth” were interesting, but the opinions of the general public aren’t really of major concern to me at this moment; instead, I’ll say that I was okay with the song at first, but was especially less enthusiastic about the single that followed, the very radio-friendly track “Rapture.” Still I tried to hold off full judgment until the album came out.

April 6 came during Spring Break, so E and I were in Charleston with her family, but on the Saturday morning that followed I found myself mostly alone in the big house we were all sharing. After watching Everton play rivals Liverpool to a 0-0 draw, I decided to get some writing done and throw on Erase Me for the first time. The record kicks off effectively, with “It Has to Start Somewhere” feeling a lot like pretty classic Underoath, especially the They’re Only Chasing Safety era of the band. The two singles–“Rapture” and then “On My Teeth”–followed, and the former continued to leave me at a loss, while the latter felt pretty comfortably mid-career Underoath to me. Then comes the middle of the record–roughly “Wake Me” to “ihateit”–where the radio friendliness, at least a first listen, began to make me feel uneasy. This was not the band that had left in 2010, it wasn’t even the band that released a giant album in 2004, although it did feel like some sort of strange hybrid of most of the band’s history, save for one thing: there were several songs without any screaming at all.

The record ends with a little more traditional Underoath turns, but closes with the moody, piano-led “I Gave Up,” which matches the melancholy and the pace of a song like “Some Will Seek Forgiveness, Others Escape,” although unlike the closer for Safety, the final punch of Erase Me sticks with its softness, ending the album on a dour note. My issue was that upon first listen, I didn’t feel the urge to listen again; I just felt disappointed.

Look, I know what a lot of you are thinking: bands are allowed to change, and should actually be encouraged to do so. And yes, I agree with this. But even for people like myself who consider themselves pretty advanced listeners, sometimes it’s true that emotions take over higher level thinking. The weirdest part about this particular instance is that there isn’t a singular sound I wanted from Underoath, because I like the string of Safety to Separation all a great deal, but for very different reasons ( Ø (Disambiguation) never did much for me, although in going back to it recently, I admit it’s got its charms). I don’t exactly what I expected of the band in 2018, but initially I knew that Erase Me wasn’t it.

A week or so after the release, I finally went back to the album, and soon the ear worms began to dig in. There was something undeniably catchy about songs like “Rapture,” “Bloodlust” and even the silly-titled “ihateit,” and as I began to take in more information about the record itself–like Matt Carter’s podcast with guitarist Tim McTague on the making of the record, or Spencer’s appearance on the Lead Singer Syndrome podcast–I felt compelled to go back to the record, to give it more than the chance my first listen suggested I should.

For various reasons, I don’t think I’ll ever get to a place where Erase Me rises above my three favorite Underoath records–there are just too many outside factors that are part of the reason I connect with those three so much and they’ve been part of my life for so long, I can’t imagine this new album having that much power–but I am willing to acknowledge that my first impression wasn’t completely accurate. It’s a good album, even if it’s not a spectacular one to my mind, full of interesting sonic choices and featuring a band that finally seems to be on the same page, as weird as that is to say this many albums in. The songs that sound more like alternative rock tunes are catchy, but still feel genuinely Underoath in a lot of ways, and are certainly better than most of what rock radio has to offer these days.

The point of all this is similar to something I considered after the release of the second Colony House album: music as art is tough, in part because of expectations of fans, but also because it’s one of the few mediums where the fan matters almost as much as the artist does. Maybe that means that Erase Me remains a mid-tier Underoath record in my mind, or maybe over the years I learn to love it more for whatever reason. Either way, my ability to grow with artists and to continue to let them do what they think is best is always going to be better.

Best Albums of the Year…So far

I’ll admit to be a little behind on my music listening this year, at least in terms of really latching onto multiple albums released so far in 2018. My running tally of albums listened to sits at 36, which isn’t bad for 2 1/2 months into the year, but quantity isn’t the issue so much as quality.

Part of that is due to not really having any albums released by bands I already count amongst my favorites, a problem that seems like it will continue as the years go by. Let’s face it, most of my favorite bands aren’t fully operational anymore, if they are at all, which means most of my musical consumption is new bands and artists, presenting me with a bit of a learning curve. First, I have to figure out what makes the band/artist tick, then, if I feel like continuing to figure the record out, I circle back to it, now having an understanding of what I’m getting into. I’ll be honest, fewer and fewer records are making it past the initial stage.

On top of that, bands I’m familiar with aren’t exactly delivering. Fall Out Boy, seminal artist of my early twenties, has fallen off to the point where I don’t care anymore. Their new album, MANIA, came out in mid-January and was the third record I listened to this year; it’s a substantial mess, as they seem to have given into every pop impulse they can, completely allowing their rock sensibilities to fall by the wayside (ironic for a band that wanted to save the latter genre just five years ago). I was underwhelmed by the new Tiny Moving Parts record, Swell, released the week after FOB’s album, mostly because it doesn’t seem like they’ve tried very hard to challenge themselves in the not-even-two-years since the band’s previous album came out. Dashboard Confessional’s first album in nine years is made up of one song for each year they were gone, and features almost no attempts to recreate the band’s sound; instead, it occupies the sonic spaces of other Dashboard albums, where each song could exist on another record in their discography without issue. That’s great for some sort of retrospective album, not so much if you’re trying to create something new almost a decade after your last attempt to do so.

I could go on listing albums that did nothing for me for various reasons, but the negativity isn’t the reason for this particular blog. Instead, I’m ready to share five records from the early part of 2018 that have stuck with me. If you’re interested, I’ll add places where you can check out the music, or, hopefully, go support the band with a purchase of a physical copy or some other merchandise.

5. LOYALS – S/T

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LOYALS is one of the latest signings from Tooth & Nail Records, and a decade ago, they would have stood out amongst their label peers in a similar way that early-T&N bands like Joy Electric did. LOYALS actually borrow some of the electronic sensibilities of JoyE, although they’re supported by more driving guitars and other rock instruments. I had the opportunity to see LOYALS open for Emery late last year, and I was taken by their energy and the way they clearly loved the songs they played. The album captures that as well as a record can, with Dane Allen’s voice being the band’s trademark. His voice is powerful and energetic, matching the musical choices perfectly. It all adds up to a record that is pop music at its best.

4. Glen Hansard – Between Two Shores

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Hansard is one of those musicians that never seems to let his listeners down, and that continues with his latest record, Between Two Shores. Between his time as frontman for The Frames (a band, sadly, that I’ve not really listened to), as the mastermind behind most of the music for the movie Once, as part of duo The Swell Season or with his solo efforts, Hansard has always worked to create something that feels uniquely his. There’s a melancholy on this new album, as there often is when it comes to the Irishman’s music, but also a certain hopefulness. This isn’t likely to pull in new listeners, but for those who already love his music, Between Two Shores should be a nice addition to Hansard’s body of work.

3. Pianos Become the Teeth – Wait For Love

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This is a band that has managed to change itself from album to album in a way that feels organic and purposeful. PBtT used to be a much heavier band, predicated on more hardcore musical choices and screaming vocals. Over time, they band has mellowed, mostly because lead singer Kyle Durfey considered the change necessary for the starkness of his lyrical content on Keep You, the band’s last effort that came out in 2014. The singer needed to be heard, and so the band’s sound followed suit. Keep You is an emotionally draining record, and while Wait For Love is clearly its emotional sequel, there is a hopefulness present on the latter that the former either couldn’t or wouldn’t recognize. This is important, because it means that the band continues to stretch itself, not only sonically, but also lyrically as well. The emotive core of this record is one of the best I’ve heard so far this year.

2. Toy Cars – Paint Brain

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My final two records both fall under the “new bands” concept I outlined above. Both are bands I knew nothing about prior to hearing these 2018 releases, but I am now glad I did in both cases. For the first couple of weeks of the year, I was sure that this record, the first full length from this New Jersey emo band, was going to sit atop my best of list through the whole year. It’s early January release date was perfect for this album, a moody, sometimes angry, but always thoughtful record that fit the weather of mid-winter in the Carolinas perfectly. Toy Cars fit nicely into the emo revival, but also don’t feel like a band whose sole purpose is to mimic an earlier musical era. Instead, they’ve made their own sound in the midst of expectations, with fewer punk influences and more opportunities for space within the songs. The album has flaws, sure, but its continuing to pull me to it is one of its great strengths.

  1. Household – Everything A River Should Be

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My top record so far is also one of the newer releases by comparison, coming in as the 23rd on my list in chronological order for the year. Household is another band I knew nothing about coming into the album, but its an engaging, thought-provoking album from beginning to end. Most importantly, however, it appears to be a record that I’m trying to figure out how they did it, at least based on how I keep coming back to it over and over, having listened to it more than any other record so far this year. My desire to understand how it was done is a testament to the quality of the work, as I’m looking for ways to use what this band does so well and churn it into my own musical efforts. Surprisingly, it’s also pretty catchy as far as tunes of its genre go, and the little earworms of songs like “It’s Easy to Feel Rotten,” “Don’t Listen to Me” and “Bloom” are beginning to sneak out of my mouth when I least expect them to. This is a sign of quality songwriting; an album full of those, and you’ve got a pretty great record.