Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013: My Year in Music

The past several years, I've been a music junkie; listening to handfuls of albums and compiling my "best of" list at the end of the year.  This year, I've spent less time with new albums.  This comes as a by-product of: 1) spending less time listening to music, whether at work, on my commute, etc. and 2) spending more time with past albums I've missed.  Three of my favorite discoveries have been Lord Huron's Lonesome Dreams, Langhorne Slim's The Way We Move, and Frightened Rabbit's Midnight Organ Fight. These bands also happen to be the best live acts I saw this year.  If you have a chance to see any of them live, DO IT.

Having said all of that, I still do not hesitate to give you a list of 10 albums released in 2013 that I thoroughly enjoy(ed):

10.  Houndmouth - From the Hills Below the City

I'm a sucker for debut albums and this is easily my favorite of the year.  Houndmouth may be the best thing out of Indiana since Reggie Miller.  Houndmouth couples a gritty rock 'n' roll sound with Bob Dylan-inspired lyrics.  As my buddy summed it up, "they sing about drugs a lot." Both Matt Myers and Katie Toupin steal the show on vocals, often together in mighty good harmonies.  I saw them live, and the show was an outrageously good time as the band has an incredible amount of energy and Katie sang until her vocals were shot...
Notable songs:  Penitentiary, Ludlow, Come on Illinois

9.  The National - Trouble Will Find Me

Listeners approaching The National are most rewarded by multiple listens.  I gave High Violet several listens before chalking it up as alright, but nothing special...only to come back to the album months later and realize its brilliance.  I did not make the same mistake with Trouble Will Find Me.  Trouble may be less immediately accessible than High Violet, but the album finds The National at its finest.  With frontman Matt Berninger being the insane perfectionist that he is, the arrangements, hooks, and harmonies of each song are crafted to near-perfection.  Likewise, Matt's neuroticism fills the honest, often dark, sometimes cryptic, but certainly raw lyrics.
Notable songs: Don't Swallow the Cap, Sea of Love, Graceless, Pink Rabbits

8.  Josh Ritter - Beast in Its Tracks

While I lost a lot of respect for Josh Ritter this year due to his shenanigans with Messiah College (at least have your manager do research before booking gigs, dude), Beast is undeniably fantastic.  The album, in its bare minimalism and raw lyrics, finds Josh in his darkest moments as he reels from the pain of his recent divorce.  For that very reason, some have compared the album to Dylan's spiteful Blood in Its Tracks, perhaps because both songwriters focus little on their own relational faultsBut Josh's darkest lines, such as "if you're sad and lonesome and you've got nobody true, I'd be lying if I said that didn't make me happy too" don't come close to approaching the vengeance of songs like Idiot Wind.  Josh sings about his real, honest pain, but also recognizes that his past relationship was something worth having.  Joy to You Baby contains one of my favorite lines:  "There's pain in whatever we stumble upon.  If I never had met you, you couldn't have gone.  But then I couldn't have met you; we couldn't have been."
Notable Songs:  Hopeful, Joy to You Baby, Lights

7.  Dawes - Stories Don't End

Dawes is easily in my list of top 5 current live acts.  What's not to love about them? The band plays with gobs of energy and an extremely polished sound.  Taylor Goldsmith is on the board of Newport Folk Festival.  And the band is holding the hand of the insanely-talented guitarist Blake Mills to pull him out of his stage fright and onto the stage.  Not to mention that Dawes has toured with Dylan and appeared onstage with Mumford.  While Stories doesn't contain individual songs with as much punch as some of their past tunes, the album as a whole is more polished, rounded, and tight than either of their two previous albums.  Taylor Goldsmith works very hard on his voice, which improves and is better tailored to the band's sound with each new album.
Notable Songs: From a Window Seat, Most People, From a Right Angle

6.  Neko Case - The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You

It's a testament to Case's talent that, despite collaborations with M. Ward, Jim James, the New Pornographers, and Calexico, the most powerful musical weapon on every song is Case's powerful, nuanced, pure, and versatile voice.  In the album opener, Case sings "I'm not fighting for your freedom, I'm fighting to be wild."  From that moment on, her voice fights for this wildness in every song, often jarring the listener with hooks and in-your face lyrics.  The minimalist nature of the instrumentation on the album turns tiny details--ringing bells in Local Girls, tumbling piano in Wild Creatures, sonar blips in Where did I Leave that Fire?--into album landmarks and makes the sonically-lush Ragtime a perfect album closer.
Notable Songs:  Man, City Swans, Ragtime

5.  Frightened Rabbit - Pedestrian Verse

Looking to imitate the non-stop music frenzy of Newport Folk Festival, my buddy and I saw Man Man and Frightened Rabbit on back-to-back nights in October.  While Man Man was entertaining, Frightened Rabbit, and their rabid fans, put on an unforgettable show. Almost every song on Pedestrian Verse is crafted for a live audience, from the slow, tragically triumphant opener Acts of Man to the baseline-driven Holy to the anthemic Late March, Death March.  The outstanding musical arrangements of each song is paired with vivid, brutal, and honest lyrics.  As Scott (FR's frontman) is an atheist who has suffered bouts of depression, these lyrics--at their worst--highlight the tragic, suicidal state of mankind (Acts of Man, Nitrous Gas) and--at their best--offer a "light at the end of the tunnel" as hope in these disastrous times (Oil Slick).  All that's to say, I can't stop listening to the brilliant music of FR without wanting to sit down with Scott and have long, meaty talks about God, hope, and life.
Notable Songs:  Acts of Man, Woodpile, Oil Slick

4.  Jars of Clay - Inland

If you're me, you saw that Jars of Clay released a new album and you could care less.  Then you saw that it was their first independent album; with the goal of reaching a larger audience with their message of hope.  From that mild intrigue, you spotified Inland, didn't think it was anything special, got to the last song...and put that song on repeat for days.  After listening to Inland countless times, I still think the album starts slow.  But the band's versatility, talent, and Dan Haseltine's ever-improving voice kick in around track 3 and go full-throttle for the last 3 tracks, which are 3 of my favorite tracks of the year.  And, unlike FR, the lyrics on Inland are infused with substantial, God-centered hope and love in the midst of the confusion and tragedy of today's world.
Notable Tracks:  Reckless Forgiver, Skin & Bones, Inland

3.  Hello Seahorse! - Arumina

Denise Gutiérrez (lo blondo) has a uniquely distinctive soprano-rock voice that defines Hello Seahorse's sound.  On their previous album (Lejos. No Tan Lejos), Seahorse went to a dark place, experimenting with their sound that gave lo blondo's voice an opera-esque sound at times.  Here, Seahorse goes for a fuller, lighter sound that still features lo blondo's voice front-and-center.  Ripple synths and drums open Buen Viaje, which has a double meaning: the lyrics wish 1) a departed lover a good trip and 2) that the listener would have an unforgettable trip through the album.  The rest of the album delivers on this promise; with the lush sounds and heavy synths of Seahorse, along with lo blondo's squeels, yelps, and other throat trickery, providing an unforgettable journey.  La Flotadera is one of my favorite songs of the year, as the band perfectly drapes lo blondo's voice over dreamy synths to craft the trance-like state she sings about (le dije ando en la ceguera, ligeramente desprendida de mi cuerpo y de me esencia, flotando entre materias de carne y hueso).

2.  Okkervil River - The Silver Gymnasium

Frontman Will Sheff is a story teller at heart; one whose story-telling songs tend to be verbose, cryptic, and graphic.  For Silver Gymnasium, Sheff wanted to get autobiographical with his songs focusing on his childhood in 1980s Meriden, New Hampshire.  The songs on Silver Gymnasium are (slightly) less cryptic than usual to attract a wider audience and contain heavy synths to transport the listener to the 80s.  The band promo'd this album hard; recording songs in Sheff's high school, making an 8-bit computer game, and drawing an elaborate map of Meriden to serve as the album jacket.  The result, while not Okkervil's best, is an album that features an extraordinary range of emotions (extreme sorrow as Will struggles with the death of a buddy on Down, Down the Deep River; frustration with how horrible Will, despite wanting otherwise, can treat people on Everyday All the Time; the reckless abandon and love of teens in Stay Young) and some of Okkervil's finest musical tricks (the bouncy piano of It Was My Season; the opening build of Pink-Slips; the triumphant end of the slow-burner Lido Pier Suicide Car; the pulsating rhythms of White).
Notable Songs: It Was My Season, Down Down the Deep River, Pink Slips, White

A perfect album on a level that none of the other albums on this list comes close to.  If you've read the news at all, you will know that Venezuela finds itself in a tumultuous state moving on from the death of Chavez and out of the dark blanket of his reign.  This four-piece band from Venezuela captures this tumultuous, volatile, and confusing time almost perfectly.  First, the adjective experimental applies immaculately to Será, giving the listeners a sliver of the "on-edge" feeling permeating Venezuela.  The album begins with the horns and synths on Cementerio del Este making the song bombastic and urgent, before the song takes a 180 and blends into Cementerio del Sur, a funereal march highlighted by acoustic guitar and wailing vocals.  The rest of the album features a dizzying array of styles; flirting with punk rock (Hornos de Cal), melodious pop (Bestia), disco beats (La Piel del Mal), merengue and hardcore (Viernes Negro), folk rock (Aún), cabaret (El Futuro Funciona) and industrial beats (Antes Era Mejor).  Second, the lyrics capture a range of states, feelings, etc. permeating Venezuela: from sombre and funereal in Cementerio del Este/Sur (cubran los vahos con capillas y césped que siga creciendo el cementerio del este) to anger at corruption in Viernes Negro (¡ya no creemos en ti!), to how to move on from "sins of passivity" in La Piel del Mal (Hoy mi Dios me obligó a oir y oí el horror que negué por años y a pleno luz permití...¿como ser quién debes ser?) to hope for the future in El Futuro Funciona (he visto el futuro y funciona).  In sum, Será is a concept album you must get your mitts on.
Notable Songs: La Vida Mejor, La Bestia, La Piel del Mal, Hornos del Cal

Monday, March 25, 2013

Coming to Peace with Science

As many of y'all know, I hooked a bachelor's degree in physics and am currently working towards my PhD in biophysics.  In essence, biophysics is biology studied with physics and chemistry-based techniques.  Specifically, I study the mechanisms behind the packaging of cholesterol into lipoproteins.  Your doctor calls lipoproteins by their three-letter acronyms:  HDL (good cholesterol) and LDL (bad cholesterol). If your LDL count is high, your doctor prescribes you statins and tells you to eat better and exercise often.  The risk to ignoring this advice is that LDL builds up in atherosclerotic plaques, which cause heart disease and stroke. These diseases kill more people in the US than cancer and AIDS combined.  As a result, developing drugs to retard buildup of atherosclerotic plaques is of utmost importance.

Christians love the medical treatments (such as statins), optical devices, and technological innovations that science produces.  But many Christians don't love the questions science asks and the theories and laws scientific evidence overwhelmingly support.  Three of these theories are that the earth is 4.5 billion years old, the universe is 13.8 billion years old (check this research hot off the press this week!), and evolution, the process by which the 1-2 billion species that have walked this earth came to be from the first single-celled organisms that appeared on earth 1.5 billion years ago.

Let me take a few paragraphs to expand on evolution before I return to my point (skip if desired).  The purpose of the Darwinian theory of evolution is to explain the biological diversity that we see all around us.  This diversity includes:
1) On a microscopic scale, the 10^14 (that's 100,000,000,000,000) bacteria and 10^13 cells living in your body.
2) On a terrestrial scale, the estimated 10-20 million living species our planet currently contains, which is 1% of the species that have ever lived on this planet.  A species is a population of organisms that interbreed with each other, but not with other organisms.

Microevolution refers to variation within a species (think of the various breeds of dogs, which exhibit great variety, but can still breed with each other).
Macroevolution refers to changes above the species level.  For example, DNA evidence indicates that whales are closely related to even-toed ungulates.  These include hippopotamuses, cows, sheep, deer, and giraffes.  Fossil and DNA evidence suggest that the whale and hippopotamus descended from a common ancestor. 

Both forms of biological evolution depend on DNA, the code which makes who we are, and consist of two big-ideas, intimately connected with each other:
1) First, there is the generation of diversity in the genome, for example by mutations of various kinds which occasionally make a difference to the ability of the resulting organism to survive and reproduce.
2) Second, there is the ensuing process of natural selection, whereby genomes generating organisms with slightly better survival and more offspring tend to be the ones passed on to succeeding generations. Conversely, genomes generating organisms with slightly or significantly worse survival and fewer offspring are less likely to be passed on.  Examples of beneficial mutations that allowed isolated organisms to flourish in a particular ecological niche and led to macroevolution include:
  • Two species of salamanders (E. klauberi, E. exchscholtzii) evolved from a common ancestor, but developed different characteristics due to migration of their common ancestor along two sides of the San Joaquin valley with different environmental conditions.
  • 170 species of cichlid fish live in Lake Victoria in Africa, which evolved from two species that 'seeded' the lake 14,700 years ago.  These species show differences in body structure and appearance linked to their feeding habits: some cichlids eat insects, others crustaceans, others plants, others molluscs, and others fish scales.  Each new species has found its particular niche.  About 4,000 years ago, a small new lake (Lake Nabugabo) became isolated from Lake Victoria by a narrow sandbar.  Since this time, at least 5 new species of cichlids not found in Lake Victoria have evolved.
  • The marsupial mammals of Australia resemble (similar body structures) the placental mammals of North America (numbat vs. anteater, cuscus vs. lemur, flying phalanger vs. flying squirrel, tasmanian tiger cat vs. bobcat, tasmanian wolf vs. wolf, etc.) because they evolved in similar environmental niches (grassland plains, forests, etc.).  However, the Australian mammals have pouches because their South American ancestors were marsupials. Geological evidence shows that Australia broke off from Antartica, which was connected to South America, 50 million years ago.  A land bridge allowing placental mammals to migrate from North to South America only formed 2.5 million years ago (due to formation of a polar ice cap that caused a dramatic fall in sea level).
A few additional comments:
I challenge Christians that dislike the idea that genetic mutations, which are central to evolution, are random (while natural selection selects those that are beneficial for survival) to consider their own existence: one, out of millions of sperm, won the race to fertilize the egg that became you.  If God is providential over this, could He be providential over evolution?
Evolution is often referred to as a theory, but we must understand what we mean by theory in this instance.  Just as the law of gravity best fits with tides, the orbit of planets, and why everything on the surface of earth is drawn to its core, evolution is the theory that best fits the massive amount of evidence (fossil, DNA, geographical distribution of species) regarding the development of life on earth.  Evolutionary theory is not a simple hypothesis to be tested in a single laboratory experiment.

Back to my point.  I grew up in the church, attended private Christian schools from kindergarten to seventh grade, still (and hopefully always will) love Jesus wholeheartedly, and wouldn't trade my upbringing for anything.  However, through middle school, I grew up in a church and schools that feared evolution.  As a result, I never learned the evolutionary theory and had no science classes in sixth or seventh grade.  I was taught that the earth was roughly 6,000 years old and all species were discretely created by God.  There is a gaping hole in my education regarding dinosaurs; the reason for which is obvious:  dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago due to a huge asteroid (nine miles in diameter) that struck the earth at that time. This left a massive crater (112 miles in diameter, 30 miles deep) in the gulf of Mexico.  It also raised an incredible amount of dust and debris, causing a darkening of the sun and severe polar winters.  The starvation that ensued led to massive extinctions.  Importantly, these extinctions facilitated the rise of mammals as there was significantly less competition in most ecological niches.  The church I grew up in, on alternating years, taught its middle schoolers to believe in the rapture and sudden creation.  Throughout my high school years, I was too concerned with girls, grades, work, athletics, and youth group to consider my beliefs on evolution (or the rapture, for that matter).   However, college significantly challenged my beliefs:
  • As a member of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, it became clear from attending lectures and experiencing departmental research that the universe was older than 6,000 by several orders of magnitude.
  • In taking an Eschatology course, for which our final exam was to outline our beliefs of the end times, I realized the rapture had no Biblical support (aside from misreadings of 1 Thessalonians 4:17) and stemmed from this guy named John Nelson Darby in the 1830s in America.
  • While I only took one Biology course, from conversations with peers and reading books such as this, I decided that evolution probably brought all species into existence, except for mankind. Having since seen the fossil evidence for neanderthals and intermediates between ape and man, I now lean towards man evolving from apes.
As graduate school plunged me headlong into the arena of biology, I developed an eagerness to explore evolution and faith in God.  I've read numerous books by devout Christians who view the Bible as the inspired Word of God and Jesus Christ as God incarnate, while striving to see if an old universe and gradual creation by evolution is compatible with a proper interpretation of Genesis 1-2, the image of God uniquely bequeathed on man and woman, and the fall.  These books (from which I got much of the facts mentioned above) include: Creation or Evolution: Do We Have to Choose? and Rebuilding the Matrix: Faith and Science in the 21st Century by Denis Alexander, The Language of God by Francis Collins, Seven Days that Divide the World by John C. Lennox, Questions of Truth: Fifty-one Responses to Questions about God, Science, and Belief by John Polkinghorne and Nicholas Beale, and Coming to Peace with Science by Darrel R. Falk.  While I highly recommend all of these books, I particularly recommend Coming to Peace with Science.  Darrel writes as a Christian who grew up choosing to ignore biology so as to preserve his Christian faith, fearing that evolution was inconsistent with God as creator of the universe.  However, Falk's enrollment in biology courses in college developed an insatiable appetite for exploring the intricacies of life that launched a career as a biologist and professor.  His book is written to students who wrestle with belief in God and belief in evolution, which are, as he argues, compatible and complementary.

In the opening chapter, Falk shares his story before addressing the relationship between faith and science.  He writes, "Most of the books about creation that evangelicals have on their shelves espouse the position that there are major scientific flaws in the view that life appeared gradually on this earth...[these books] advocate a view [of sudden creation] that, carried to its conclusion, leads to the position that the sciences of astronomy, astrophysics, nuclear physics, geology and biology are fundamentally wrong.  These sciences point toward a very old earth and universe and to the gradual appearance of new life forms on earth over billions of years.  If they were wrong, it would not mean the demise of a marginal theory at the sidelines of each discipline.  So central are the notions of an old earth and the gradual appearance of life to these fields of scientific endeavor that the scientists in research universities hold them with absolute certainty" (emphasis mine). The question this urgently begs is: what if it is the large segment of the American evangelical church that is wrong? This question becomes all the more urgent in considering our call to spread the gospel. In isolating ourselves from scientific research, are we pushing away a more educated demographic that needs Jesus just as desperately as we do?

Before exploring what science has to tell us about God's mechanism of creation, Falk spends a chapter engaging with Genesis 1-3 and the rest of the Bible to understand the purpose of creation.  He shows that the heart of the creation message is not to be found in the mechanical details of life and how it arose, but in the person of Jesus Christ (John 1:1,4).  Just as the creation story reveals that we were made for life with God, the new creation story--the story of how you and I can become new creations in Christ (2 Cor 5:17)--reveals that God's goal in creating humankind is so that we all might have life "to the full" (John 10:10).  The Bible shows Adam and Eve were created by God to live in the presence of God--knowing no guilt or the meaning of evil.  Tempted to doubt God's words to them, they chose to disobey the all-good God who wanted the best for them.  In a similar fashion, we are repeatedly tempted to doubt God's promises to us and to value prestige, power, and control of our own destiny in the place of the simple call to obedient discipleship.  In the midst of our sinful state, God seeks us out--from Adam and Eve, hiding in shame in the garden, to us, hiding behind our idols and in our shame, God has never stopped relentlessly pursuing His children.  God was with Adam and Eve, but their sin had consequences: spiritual death and banishment from the garden.  However, in Jesus Christ--God incarnate--God shows His rescue plan for all sinners.  "If being cast from the garden meant being removed from access to the tree of life...then Jesus' death and resurrection make it accessible to us once again."  He explores how the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ--fully God and fully man--provides new life for sinners who fall at His feet; new life in a new heaven and a new earth.  He closes the chapter by arguing that all the evidence in the world (apologetics, convergence in evolution, the anthropomorphic principle, etc.) can provide "strong hints that there is something more."  However, "it is not our minds that lead us to God; we come to know God because God chooses to reveal Himself and His nature to us."  As a result, the real challenge to evangelicals today should not be to change people's minds (for instance, by getting the creation story into the classroom) but to show people God, such that He can melt their hearts.

Is this narrative of creation, and Genesis 1, in particular, compatible with gradual creation? In the third chapter, Falk argues that, for a long time, the time frame of God's creative work in Genesis 1 could be 6,000 years or an unknown amount of time.  Since Genesis 1 is a literary genre seen nowhere else in the Bible it is tricky to interpret.  Issues that add interpretation intrigue are that the sun is not created until day 4, the creation order is reversed in Genesis 2, 'day' is used to represent an indefinite amount of time elsewhere in the Bible (2 Peter 3:8, the 'day of the Lord' throughout the NT), there are poetic parallels between days 1-3 and days 4-6, there is authorial intent to combat Babylonian creation stories (the number 7 and its multiples were unlucky in Babylonian literature, the Sabbath is a deliberate replacement of the Babylonian lunar cycle), and the phrase "and there was evening and there was morning" is not repeated for day 7 (indicating that day 7 is not a day so much as it is the period since creation in which God dwells in the 'temple' He made for Himself; see this book). As a result, multiple views of God's creative time frame were compatible with Genesis 1 and were held by various theologians since the time of Christ.

Falk shows in great detail that overwhelming evidence from the decay of multiple radioactive elements in rocks, monitoring changes in earth's magnetic poles, tree rings, lake sediments, and ice cores have shown that the earth is much, much, much older than 6,000 years (namely, about 4.5 billion years).  Falk shows how the doppler effect and light intensity measurements of several galaxies have allowed astrophysicists to calculate a time period of 12-16 billion years for the age of our universe (i.e. the time since the big bang).  In the subsequent chapters, Falk turns his attention to earth, showing, again in painstaking detail, how fossil, geographical, and DNA evidence strongly support evolution.  He shows that evolution is consistent with gradual creation, but challenges an interpretation of Genesis 1 that holds to the sudden creation of all species 6,000 years ago (or a stepwise creation of species at discrete intervals in time).

So what does this all mean for Christianity?
  1. The Bible does not provide explicit detail about the mechanisms of creation, because that is not its purpose.  "The Bible, above all else, is a story of God's plan of salvation and as such it is a story of God's desire to enter into relationship...in a sense, then, how God created our bodies is incidental, and God chose not to go into it in detail because it is a side issue that would detract from the central purpose of the story.  Readers down through the ages would have become lost in the technical details and missed the real point of the story if it had been told in any other way.  Hence God simply told us that we, like animals, are created from the dust of the ground.  And that, as you know, is the heart of the gradual creation story--no biologist could put it more succinctly than that."
  2. Evidence for a very old earth and evolution does not lead to atheism.  Rather, the fact that the universe had a beginning, the anthropic principle, and many examples of the convergence of evolution provide great challenges to atheism.  As such, believing in evolution does not undermine the core belief of Christianity that God created us in His image for relationship with Him.  Exploring the mechanisms by which He did so is one of the many joys we have in "thinking God's thoughts after Him."
  3. Christians are all members of Christ's body and need to strive for unity.  Christians that hold a 'sudden creation' perspective must not view those with a 'gradual creation' perspective as sinners doomed to hell.  They must allow space for evolutionary creationism, so as to build bridges with the spiritually thirsty whose rational disbelief in 'sudden creation' keeps them from exploring Christianity.  They should also stop insisting that 'sudden creation' be taught in schools as if it was science, as evidence from all scientific fields clearly show this is not the case.  Conversely, Christians who believe in 'gradual creation' must lovingly embrace Christians who believe in 'sudden creation.'  "Although you may be absolutely certain that God created gradually, this does not mean that you are somehow less obligated to love and care for someone who is equally certain that God created suddenly.  We are one body and we must nurture and care for each other, all the more so when we think differently on some points."

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Simply Christian; Part 1

Having read over a half dozen books of his, I'm a big N. T. Wright fan.  A few weeks ago, I finally read Simply Christian.  In Tom's words, his aim in this book is "to describe what Christianity is all about, both to commend it to those outside the faith and to explain it to those inside."  The book has three parts. The first deals with "echoes of a voice" (the longing for justice, the quest for spirituality, the hunger for relationships, and the delight in beauty) that point beyond themselves; that point to something more than a purely materialistic, naturalistic world.  The second part lays out the central Christian belief about God and the third describes what it looks like in practice to follow Jesus.  The book is considered to be the Mere Christianity for our generation.  Additionally, it spawned the sequel, Surprised by Hope, which is one of my favorite books ever written. I loved Simply Christian and highly recommend it to anyone.  As a result, I thought I'd share a few exerts I particularly liked in a series of blog posts.  This (long) one comes from the chapter "Made for Each Other" in part one:

"Recent generations in the West have seen huge efforts expended on the attempt to teach boys and girls that the differences between them are simply a matter of biological function.  We have been sternly warned against stereotyping people according to their gender.  More and more jobs have become, at least in theory, interchangeable between genders.  And yet today's parents, however impeccable their idealistic credentials, have discovered the most little boys like playing with toy guns and cars, and that a remarkable number of little girls like playing with dolls...Nor is it only children who stubbornly resist the new rules.  Those who target magazines at different groups in society have no difficulty in producing 'men's magazines' that very few women would buy, and 'women's magazines' that hardly any men would read...In most countries, of course, nobody bothers to try to pretend that men and women are identical and interchangeable.  Everyone knows that they are remarkably different.

It is, however, harder than normally imagined to plot exactly what these differences are, not least because different societies have different images of what men should do and what women should do, and are then puzzled when not everyone conforms to type.  I am not at all denying that there are many areas where we have gotten this wrong in the past.  I have argued strenuously in my own sphere of work for far more interchangeability than has traditionally been the case.  My point is simply this: that all human relationships involve an element of gender identity (I, as a man, relate to other men as man to man, to women as man to woman), and that though we all know this deep down, we become remarkably confused about it.  At one end of the scale, some people try to pretend that for all practical purposes their gender is irrelevant, as though they were in fact neuter.  At the other end, some people are always sizing others up as potential sexual partners, even if only in imagination.  And we know in our bones that both of these are distortions of reality.

Both responses, in fact, involve a form of denial.  The former (imaging ourselves to be neuter) involves denying something deeply important about who we are and how we are made.  We simply are gendered beings; and since this affects all kinds of attitudes and reactions, in numerous and subtle ways, we gain nothing by pretending that we're not and that it doesn't.  The latter response (seeing other people as potential sexual partners) involves denying something hugely important about the nature of erotic relationships--namely, that there is no such thing as 'casual sex.' Just as sexual identity--maleness and femaleness--goes near the heart of who we are as human beings, so sexual activity burns a pathway into the core of our human identity and self-awareness.  To deny this, whether in theory or in action, is to collude with the dehumanization of our relationships, to embrace a living death.  In short, we all know that sex and gender are hugely important to human living.  But in this area we discover something that's true of all aspects of human relationships: that things are far more complicated than we might have imagined, far more fraught with difficulty, puzzles, and paradoxes."

Monday, December 31, 2012

Favorite Music of 2012

To begin, a few disclaimers:  1)  It's called "favorite" because, as objective as any listener may strive to be, (s)he still has genres and bands (s)he just doesn't like.  2)  While I've listened to a lot of music released in 2012, I have still only listened to a small fraction of music-new-to-2012.  3)  I firmly believe that great artists will release great albums, not just singles.  For those that prefer singles, I have listed notable songs with each album. 4)  A lot of excellent music was made this year that I spun regularly, but doesn't make the list.  Runner-ups for this list include Mumford & Sons, Café Tacvba, and Sharon Van Etten.  And now, feast your eyes and ears:

Claire Boucher--the one-woman show that is Grimes--uniquely blurs her gorgeous falsetto with layers upon layers of electronic beats and hooks that make her songs fresh for fans of electronic music.  While lyrically simple, the songs Genesis and Oblivion take on powerful meaning in her music videos, which challenge female stereotypes and the influence of male sports on violence in society. Notable songs:  Genesis, Oblivion, Symphonia IX (My Wait is U).

Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally master the genre that is 'Dream Pop.' Legrand's ethereal, gutteral, resonant, and incredible vocals are backed by a more diverse and lush array of synthesizers, bass lines, and drum beats than on Teen Dream.  On Bloom, the duo takes its listeners on a cryptic, reflective journey through the fear and false-self image that are common to our generation.  Notable songs:  Myth, Wild, The Hours

8. Bruce Springsteen - Wrecking Ball
Bruce's voice fighting for the lower-class bleeds through the album: romanticized in Easy Money, desperate in Jack of All Trades, down-and-out in This Depression, and hopeful in Land of Hopes and Dreams.  While a 100-piece band and anthemic ballads are still central to Bruce's music, this album uniquely includes gospel influences, guitar solos by Tom Morello and rapping by Michelle Morris.  Notable songs:  Shackled and Drawn, Wrecking Ball, Rocky Ground

7. Bob Dylan - Tempest
Bob Dylan's voice has changed with age, but so has his band--developing a bluesy, folksy rock-n-roll sound that has never been richer. Death runs rampant throughout Tempest, explored through unjust treatment by the government (Pay in Blood),  the murder of an unfaithful lover (Tin Angel), the emotions of fictional characters on the Titanic (Tempest),and an ode to John Lennon (Roll on John).  Notable songs:  Pay in Blood, Tempest, Roll on John

6. Gaby Moreno - Postales
Gaby Moreno has a smoky, bluesy, jazzy voice that will win over even the hardest of hearts.  Her musical style is heavily influenced by the jazz and blues NYC scenes, but also by her Latin American roots. Hesitant about the success of a mash-up between these genres, Gaby interspersed a few Spanish-language songs among mostly English numbers on 2011's Illustrated Songs. On 'Postales,' Gaby throws all reservations to the wind and laces solely-spanish lyrics over a wide array of musical arrangements influenced by Blues, Jazz, and Latin American music to produce an album richly rewarding on each listen.  Notable songs:  No Estoy Tan Mal, Blues del Mar, Quizas Quizas Quizas

5. First Aid Kit - The Lion's Roar
Johanna and Klara Söderberg, two sisters from Sweden, "string" together absolutely gorgeous harmonies over wonderful folk melodies.  The songs of Lion's Roar deal with "the hectic coming-of-age pace by trying to bring life to a halt." The tone of the album is "optimistically languid," while the characters of the folk narratives face fears of "being young and having a lot of hopes and dreams" and of "not ending up alone" in the words of Klara.  Notable songs:  Lion's Roar, Emmylou, King of the World

 Carla Morrison posseses a sweet as honey, gorgeous, every (wo)man voice, a mastery of stringed instruments, the ability to write heart-breaking lyrics as poetry, and a fearlessness in expressing the deepest of emotions. Applied to the 14 songs on Déjenme Llorar, Carla will win your heart and tears, whether with the 50s slow dance/burner Eres Tú, the guitarrón-heavy swing song Hasta la Piel, the classic take-me-back tune featuring an explosion of keys and strings Maleza, or the tragic tale of unrequited love Me Puede/Falta de RespetoNotable songs:  Maleza, Déjenme Llorar, Me Puede/Falta de Respeto

3.  Alabama Shakes - Boys & Girls
23-year-old Brittney Howard has some of the most powerful pipes in the music scene that steal the show throughout this incredible debut album.  Excellent drum beats and bluesy guitar give this band a fresh, gritty sound, while the songwriting drips of wisdom beyond the years of this insanely talented young band. Notable songs:  Hold On, Be Mine, I Ain't the Same
The vocal and instrumental range Fiona accomplishes on this album make the best efforts of Norah Jones and Regina Spektor look like children playing kazoos on the jungle jim.  Easily the most diverse of the year, this album represents a "listening journey" well-worth taking.  Lyrically, this journey includes Fiona's neurosis (Every Single Night), destroying relationships (Daredevil), mutual mistreatment (Werewolf), and relational playfulness (Anything We Want).  Notable songs:  Werewolf, Anything we Want, Hot Knife

Read this.  The Gaslight Anthem write unironic love songs in an ironic age.  I'm convinced that if more dudes listened to them they would tap into their romantic side, gather more courage to ask girls out, and better deal with the heartbreak of failed relationships. Never has Gaslight's sound been tighter than on Handwritten, which includes punk rock, grunge rock, power ballads, and slow-burners along with the usual heavy Springsteen influence.  Notable songs:  Handwritten, Mulholland Drive, Biloxi Parish, Mae

Sunday, August 5, 2012

With this pen, I thee wed, from my heart to your distress

Every review of the Gaslight Anthem's newest album, Handwritten, begins with a nod to the band's magnum opus, The '59 SoundYou know the one; it begins with the scratchy sound of a record player before a simple, gritty guitar riff gives way to Brian Fallon's raw vocals singing "Mary, this station is playing every sad song.  I remember like we were alive...."  It's the album that, for better or worse, placed the Gaslight Album in a 'musical box,' labeled on every side with 'Tom Petty' and 'Bruce Springsteen.'  "Hey, Brian Fallon's telling stories that sound like those of Springsteen; stories of characters finding the will to carry on and make the most of the awful hand life has dealt them.  Heck, the Mary of Great Expectations must be the same as Springsteen's Thunder Road Mary."  Gaslight's gritty guitar rifts, song tempos, and growling vocals captured the essence of Springsteen-esque rock 'n' roll for our generation.  The '59 Sound was perfect; a career-defining record for this young band.

To follow up such a record, the Gaslight Anthem released American Slang.  A fantastic album in its own right, the album found the Gaslight Anthem striving to evolve as a band, changing their sound ever so subtly.  Despite it's brevity, American Slang boasted the 'punchy' rock anthem, Boxer, the feisty power ballad, Bring it on, and the slower, U2-esque We Did it When We Were Young.  Ever striving to grow as a musician, lead singer Brian Fallon took a break from Gaslight to record a solo album, Elsie.  Slowing down the tempo and stripping the musical layers to a minimalistic core, Fallon alternately developed his U2-esque croon and early Tom Waits-esque growl as he poured out his heart, singing about the three significant relationships in his life.  The result was magnificent; Elsie boasted the tragic anthem Behold the Hurricane, the slow burner that built to a spiteful growl in Ladykiller, and tearful, bittersweet closer, I Believe Jesus Brought Us Together.

With three incredible albums released in a four year span, the Gaslight Anthem had every excuse to take one of those oh so common 'introspective breaks' from songwriting.  Instead, they released the masterpiece that is Handwritten two short weeks ago.  As one review phrases it, "Handwritten is roller coaster ride you never want to get off, with a seemingly endless string of catchy tunes, hard rock edge, and a familiar grizzled voice fans have come to love."  Sonically, the band returns to its punk-rock roots in the opening lightening-paced "45"Fast guitars and Fallon's gloriously gravelly voice keeps up the rapid pace on Handwritten.  While clinging to Tom Petty and Springsteen overtones, the Gaslight Anthem reach into the realm of classic rock on power ballads Here Comes My Man and Too Much Blood.  The band explores grunge rock in the rapid, anthemic, and wonderfully wordy Mullholldand Drive and Keepsake.  After delving into one of the freshest guitar riffs on Biloxi Parish, Gaslight ends the album with the slow-burning ballads Mae and National Anthem.  The sadness in Fallon's voice, simple acoustic guitar, and orchestral backing of  National Anthem echo Springsteen's finest acoustic songs.

With the exception of Mae, Gaslight Anthem strays lyrically from the character-driven songs of The '59 Sound.  Rather, Fallon draws on the personal themes of Elsie to bleed his heart out to the listening world.  Using the analogy of flipping a record over, "45" encourages the singer to move past love lost and let his love "lay at someone else's feet."  The themes of Handwritten echo the Crowes' I Believe Jesus Brought Us Together, where Fallon yearns to love his girl despite the battle scars each carries.  "Let it out, let me in, take my hand.  There's nothing like another soul that's been cut up the same.  And did you want to drive without a word in between?  I can understand, you need a minute to breathe.  And to sew up the seems, after all of this defeat" eventually gives way to the closing lines "With this pen, I thee wed, from my heart to your distress."  Biloxi Parish puts a positive spin to the dark haunting of the Crowes' Blood Loss, as this haunting comes from a Bring it On-esque type of unparalleled love and acts of affection.  Desire reflects on the different manners by which men try to win the hearts of women, with a chorus reminiscent of Springsteen's I'm on Fire.  In true Gaslight form, the album ends with a tragic reflection on love lost and the ghost of a man that has emerged.  Fallon sings, "I will never forget you, my American love.  And I'll always remember you, wild as they come.  And though if I saw you I'd pretend not to know, the place where you were in my heart is now closed.  I already live with too many ghosts."

Whether you're a seasoned veteran or freshly discovering the glorious sounds of the Gaslight Anthem,  Handwritten must belong in your musical collection.  It is one of the best albums of the year and just may be Gaslight's best.  But that's for you to decide.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Rockin' out with the Swedes

Every once in a while there's a musical album that grabs you by the ears and won't let go.  Whether it's a slow build, first listening to the CD at a lackluster pace, or a dizzying whirlwind of listening from the get-go, there are simply some albums you can't. stop. listening. to.  I'll choose one word to sum up this effect on the listener: resonance.  Such mind-gripping albums resonate with the listener.  Whether it's the sleek musicianship or incredible and timely lyrics, something about such albums grasp you.  Often the songs on such albums take you on an emotional rollercoaster, exploring feelings you haven't been able to articulate or feelings too raw to articulate outside a medium such as music.  On the flipside, songs can find you at your mountaintop peak, contributing to the swirl of joyous emotions welling up inside you.

For me, I discovered such an album this past week in "The Lion's Roar" by First Aid Kit. First Aid Kit represents the stage name of two sisters, Johanna and Klara Söderberg, from Sweden.  Their musicianship is unparalleled.  Drawing inspiration from bands such as Fleet Foxes and Joanna Newsom, the sisters "string" together absolutely gorgeous harmonies over wonderful folk melodies.  Their instrumentation features prominent use of the pedal steel, the most gorgeous instrument known to mankind.  And, of utmost importance to my definition of a great album, "Lion's Roar" starts off with a bang with the title track and Emmylou yet finishes with even stronger songs, including "I Found a Way," "Dance to Another Tune" featuring a psychedlic folk music breakdown, and "King of the World," a triumphant song featuring brass and the guest vocals of Conor Oberst.

Lyrically, the album is equally unparalleled.  As one review phrased it, the songs of Lion's Roar deal with "the hectic coming-of-age pace by trying to bring life to a halt." The tone of the album is "optimistically languid," while the characters of the folk narratives face fears of "being young and having a lot of hopes and dreams" and of "not ending up alone" in the words of Klara.  Here are a few lyrical snippets:

"Every morning keeps returning at my window / and it brings me to you / and I won't just pass through / but I'm not asking for a storm / I'll be your Emmylou and I'll be your June / If you'll be my Gram and my Johnny too / No, I'm not asking much of you / Just sing little darling, sing with me." -Emmylou (a love song exploring the seasons of love through the temperate weather of Stockholm and allusions to past Americana music legends)

"There's a heavy load upon our backs / of things we carry from the past / my guilt-filled mind, it tried to run / but it traced us back to where we begun / so the morning came / and swept the night away / as I was looking for a way to disappear / amongst the quiet things / and all these empty streets / I found a way to reappear." -I found a way (my favorite)

"At ten in the morning / I was laughing at something / At the airport terminal / at nine in the evening / I was sitting crying to you over the phone / well passing the border from a state to another / filled with people whom I couldn't help to relate to / and we stopped a while at a roadside restaurant / where the waitress was sitting outside smoking in her car / she had that look of total fear in her eyes / and as we drove away from there she looked at me and smiled / I keep running around / trying to find the ground / but my head is in the stars / and my feet are in the sky / well I'm nobody's baby / and I'm everybody's girl / I'm the queen of nothing / I'm the king of the world." -King of the World

Spotify "Lion's Roar," watch their NPR tiny desk concert, and discover the greatness that is First Aid Kit.  Fun fact: they're chums with Karin Dreijer Anderson, one-half of the Swedish electronic band, The Knife.  As such, they cover "When I grow up" off Karin's solo project (Fever Ray).

Friday, April 20, 2012

5 Favorite Songs of 2012 (So far...)

5.  Carla Morrison - Maleza

"Regresate a mi,
Yo te cuidaré,
De todo lo malo.
Lo bueno pescaré.
En tu corazon depositaré
Todo ese amor que necesitas tener."

The movement in Carla Morrison songs is something few other artists capture.  Both with her voice and the backing instrumental medley, each verse slowly builds to a chorus that grasps your attention and makes you realize the complexity behind its simple words.

4.  Alabama Shakes - Be Mine

23 year old Brittany Howard has some of the most powerful pipes in the music scene.  The way the bluesy guitar and bass move her voice along in this song is incredible.  Getting you up out of your seat and grooving from the get-go, when Brittany goes into succinct, rapid-fire repetition of the simple words "be mine" at the end of the song, you're not sure you've heard a better song.

3.  M. Ward - Crawl After You

"And when I came of age,
I sailed away,
A pine cone on the Rio Grande.
Now I gotta crawl after you,
Tell you who I am."

Simple lyrics put to a simple piano melody makes for the most simplistically gorgeous song I've heard this year.  Not to mention entry of the violin halfway through the song adding to its beauty.

2.  Delta Spirit - Money Saves

"I alone, yes, I alone with you."

If you haven't heard of 'em, you best get on it, Delta Spirit is one of the most lively rock 'n' roll bands around.  While lead singer Matt Vasquez puts sufficient stress on his vocal chords to make you wonder if the band will be around in a few years, it works wonderfully with the incredible guitar tones behind it.  Their song structure allows for emphasis of simple one-liners that stick to your brain like gum.

1.  Bruce Springsteen - Rocky Ground

"Forty days and nights of rain have washed this land
Jesus said the money changers in this temple will not stand
Find your flock, get them to higher ground
Flood waters rising and we're Canaan bound."

What can't the boss do?  Here, Bruce writes an incredibly poignant modern gospel number.  To assist him in singing it, he recruits the talented Michelle Moore.  Who raps for one of the verses.  Awesome.