Friday, July 30, 2010

Fort Wilson Riot's lovely new album

I've blogged the Minneapolis-based band Fort Wilson Riot a couple times before -- first in the series "Let me tell you about the awesome musicians I know" (as I said in that post, I got started playing music in a band with Jacob Mullis of FWR) and then in the top 100 songs of the past decade.

Since then, the band's personnel has gotten whittled down. It used to have 4 or 5 members, and now they're down to two: my friend Jacob and his girlfriend, Amy Hager. And they're embarking on an adventure: they recently quit their day jobs and are going to be literally living out of their touring van, playing shows to promote their new album, Predator/Prey.

I've been listening to an advance copy, but the album will be officially released tomorrow was released on July 31. You can order a physical copy or a digital download here. (You might also want to jump to the bottom of this post for a couple free mp3s.)

Here's an article on the band's new phase:

Formerly a baroque, minor-key rock unit with a penchant for bombast, the slimmed-down Fort Wilson Riot that returns this month with Predator/Prey is a sly and seductive pop-leaning twosome. . . .

Beginning life as wistful pop-folk practitioners on album opener "Forgotten Language," they shift their sound effortlessly over subsequent tracks, tapping into their Blondie-copping inner disco-rock divas on irresistibly slinky single "All My Friends" and bringing the album to a close while striking their finest garage-rock pose on "Lead Me On."

Repeated listens to Predator/Prey reveal the album to be both exhilarating and slightly jarring in its idiosyncrasies. The transition from a Mullis-sung slice of laid-back pop like "Gold-Flecked Morning" into Hager's lush, high-drama ballad "Heira" isn't exactly seamless, but the end result is a true original.
I agree with most of that, but not the part about how the "idiosyncrasies" (though there are many) and are "jarring." That block quote does give a pretty good description of how the album sounds, but one thing it leaves out is the extraordinary interplay of the two voices. Based on reading the author's description, you'd think Jacob sings one song, and then Amy sings another that's drastically different and has nothing to do with Jacob's. Actually, Amy's song is only slightly slower and more dramatic than Jacob's. But here's what really makes their songs work well when paired together: just as Amy joins Jacob in sumptuous harmony halfway through his song, Jacob does the same thing for Amy in hers.

And when I say the vocal interplay is "extraordinary," I mean that literally: it's out of the ordinary. I'm hard-pressed to think of many musical acts with a male and female singer who are strong both on their own and in harmony. I can think of bands led by a male singer where a female band member regularly sings backup and occasionally sings lead (the Arcade Fire), or vice versa (Rilo Kiley) . . . and not surprisingly, the secondary singer is not as good at leading the band. Fort Wilson Riot is the rare band where both the woman and man can do a convincing lead performance and some nice '60s-style harmonies to back up the other one. (The latter has unfortunately been a dying art form in the music of the past 20 years.)

The song-writing has an essential simplicity -- straightforward chord progressions, vocal melodies that are easy to sing along to. But the simple structure is filled in with complexity in the details: every song seems to have a clarinet or cello or music box or piano sneaking into the mix at unexpected moments. It's the kind of album with which a band risks being called overly ambitious, but everything is done with such an intuitive touch that it all comes together into an exquisite little masterpiece.

I am, of course, biased in favor of my friend and former bandmate's music. But I recommend giving it a few listens. You can download mp3s of the first two songs on the album for free here: "Forgotten Language" and "All My Friends" (via their website). And here they are playing "Snakes and Scorpions" live:

(Photo by Staciaann Photography, from Fort Wilson Riot's MySpace.)

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Cartoonist John Callahan is dead at 59.

John Callahan, the cartoonist known for his bleak and caustic sense of humor, died yesterday at 59 "from complications due to his paralysis." (Via Metafilter.)

I was never a huge fan of his work (which often seems overly self-conscious in trying to shock and offend), but I always found him a fascinating character. And I have to admire his nerve -- both for making cartoons that he must have known in advance would be hated, and for choosing an occupation from which most people would have thought him plainly disqualified. As a quadriplegic, he had to hold his pen between two hands, which accounts for his crude drawing style.

He was profoundly affected by a sequence of tragedies in his life that occurred from ages 8 to 21. This 2004 article told the story:

Callahan traces his first artistic stirrings to the fourth grade at St. Mary’s Academy. “I started drawing cartoons of rodents to amuse my friends in class,” he says. He also sketched Sister Joseph of Mary, a nun who liked to isolate him from other kids. “While they played at recess, I had to sit on a bench with her,” he remembers.

At the age of 8, he was sexually molested by a female teacher. To deal with the trauma, John began drinking at the age of 14. “I used the alcohol to hide the pain of the abuse,” he says. “I felt like an outsider in my family,” John recalls.

“It was a circumstantial thing. The relations with that nun really messed things up.”

Upon graduating from St. Mary’s Academy in 1965, John went to public school. “Catholic school was much more strict than public. In comparison, public school was boring.” As a result, John often skipped classes to drink with friends.

Gradually, his dependence on alcohol increased. “My philosophy was drink and live for the day,” he says. “On any given day, I’d have maybe twelve beers, wine, and whiskey.” He also experimented with other drugs, including marijuana and LSD. “LSD scared me, and pot made me paranoid,” John explains. Still, alcohol was his drug of choice, and would play a significant role in the event that would change his life forever. . . .

At the age of 20, John moved to Los Angeles. A year later, he was confronted with a life-altering twist of fate.

“I was simply riding with a friend,” he recalls. “I got too sleepy and too drunk, so I let my friend drive the car. He passed out at the wheel, and crashed into a signpost at 90 miles per hour. After that, I just remember a lot of lights and sirens.”

Although his friend was not hurt that badly, John’s spinal cord was severed, leaving him a C5-6 quadriplegic.
He kept drinking after the accident but stopped for good when he was 27.

You can buy several of his books on Amazon -- collections of his one-panel comics plus an autobiography. Two animated cartoon series were also based on his work. One is a show for adults that's still on the air in Canada and Australia and that, according to Wikipedia, "retains the violence, joie de vivre, and political incorrectness of his cartoons." The other one, surprisingly, was a children's show on Nickelodeon.

He posted his favorite hate mail on his website. I love this one:
Dear Sirs:

I am currently a guest at a htel [sic] in Boston, where these is a card store in the lobby. I noticed a highly distasteful and absolutely DISGRACEFUL postcard on the shelf. it was a John Callaham [sic] card that showed a group of cowboys in the dirt, with an empty wheelchair. The caption read "Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far On Foot".

My Brother sits in a wheelchair, a quadrapalegic [sic], as a result of a diving accident at 19. Until Mr. Callahan can understand the emotions behind such a life of struggle, I feel he should not fell to freely about poking fun at the disabled. I find your marketing of his insensitivity positively DISGUSTING!


Allison F
That letter is so perfect that I wonder if it was actually written by a savvy fan just to make his day.

He also made music on the side, releasing an album of his songs in 2006. His music is very amateurish and probably wouldn't hold much interest if we didn't know who it was by. But watching him perform one of his songs in his living room is oddly touching:
Life is hard but death is worth it
Nothing is certain of being real
Give me something cheap but perfect
Touch me someplace I can feel

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

More things gotten wrong

Last week I culled some language-related answers from the huge AskMetafilter thread responding to this question:

What in life did it take you a surprisingly long time to realize you've been doing wrong all along?
Here are my other favorites from the thread:
I'm 41. Last year I learned that pimentos are in fact NOT the red center of an olive. We saw some olives stuffed with bleu cheese at the grocery store, so I asked a friend how they got the pimento out in order to stuff in the cheese.

Said friend just stared at me. (link)

[I]t took me a while to figure out that other people can't actually read my mind, and that it's unfair to expect them to. It takes a bit of effort, but I'm a lot better off actually starting a conversation about some perceived issue than waiting and hoping someone will notice that my brain is wildly waving its hand in the air. (link)

[T]he point of small talk, and why people engage in it.

I used to think small talk was the most boring, pointless thing ever, until I realized it's often a way for people to feel more comfortable with one another before continuing the conversation. It's like handing someone a small familiar appetizer before bringing out one's personal plate of weirdness. Makes things go down a little more smoothly. (link)

Goals are now just placeholders. General aims. I've been much happier since transitioning to being more about the journey or process than reaching some arbitrary memoir building bullet point that I think I want, but don't really. (link)
That one's been important for me to realize; in fact, I'm still in the process of internalizing it. I keep imagining that my life is supposed to build up to this great biography and that it's important for me to stay on track to reach that goal. Aside from the obvious flaws with this mindset (that you probably won't be famous enough to be the subject of a major biography; that even if you were, it would still be more valuable to enjoy life as it happens), one knock-down argument against it, in my own case, is that I don't even like reading biographies of anyone!

Back to the thread:
I learned less than a year ago how to figure out which glass is mine when sitting with a big group at a round table: curl your middle, ring, and pinky fingers on each hand down to touch your thumb while leaving your pointer finger straight up. One hand will be it the shape of a lower-case b, and that is the side with your bread plate; the other hand will be in the shape of a lower-case d, and that is the side with your drink.

Before, I had to wait until someone sitting next to me claimed a glass and bread plate before I could start enjoying anything, and half the time they were wrong anyway. Making letters in my lap is a much, much better way to do it. (link)

One thing I've only recently realized is that it's stupid to "save things for best." Dishes, sheets, expensive bath products, etc... - use them on a regular basis, or they're worthless. (link)

That life has no meaning. Liberating. (link)

I didn't realize until my early twenties that if a man would have sex with me, all it meant was that he wanted to have sex with me, not that he liked me as a person or found me attractive. This is the one thing that was left out of the sex talk that my mom had with me that really would have been helpful to include. (link)

When I was little I asked my father about turn signals on a car. I wanted to know how he told the car which way he wanted to turn. He would never give me a straight answer. He kept saying, "it just knows." I figured he was jiggling the steering wheel in some way, I never saw him deliberately switch anything on. Granted, I was always in the backseat, so I didn't really have a good view.

Cut to many years later, when I was 17. I had never learned to drive (still haven't), so I hadn't had any first hand experience. I was in a pick up truck with someone I was fairly desperate to impress. I don't know why it occurred to me to ask just then, sitting in the passenger side, all cool and adult.

"So," I ask. "How does the car know which way you want to turn?"

You can imagine the look I got. Whose fault? My dad's. (link)

If you try foods enough times you might eventually get to liking them. . . . How could I have hated mushrooms!?

If you don't ask you'll never know. - Girls, employment, raises, resources.

When I was in (private, fundie Christian) elementary school, my teacher told me that dinosaurs weren't real, that their bones had been put in the ground by Satan to lead us from The Light. Around the same time there was a scandal at a nearby history museum that one of the dinosaurs on display was actually made from the bones of two different species.

I got the two incidents mixed up in my mind and didn't believe in dinosaurs until COLLEGE.

I still have a hard time believing in them, honestly . . . (link)

I was well into my teens before I figured out that the phrase "Any Time" on "No Parking" signs meant that you couldn't park there, ever. I thought for years that it was the sign's way of saying "You're welcome," as in an imagined dialogue:

Car: I'd like to park here.
Sign: No parking.
Car: Oh, OK. Thanks.
Sign: Any time.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Getting it wrong -- language edition

There's a huge thread (over 800 comments) on AskMetafilter about this question:

What in life did it take you a surprisingly long time to realize you've been doing wrong all along?
A lot of the answers have to do with language, especially mispronunciations resulting from only seeing a word written -- or from seeing and hearing a word, but not realizing that it's the same word. Some of the more common examples seem to be "awry" (the second syllable sounds like "eye," not "ee"), "segue" (two syllables, not one), "victuals" (not pronounced how it looks), "infrared" (three syllables, doesn't rhyme with "scared"), and "beck and call" (not "beckon call"). A couple of them seem to be based on dyslexia: "larynx" (people pronounce the last syllable as "nix") and "remuneration" (people mix up the "m" and "n").

This mistake is surprisingly common:
Definition of 'erstwhile' - I thought it meant strong and steadfast, instead it means former. (link)
In senior year of high school, I had a logophilic friend who gave me a copy of his yearbook photo. On the back of the photo, he wrote a nice note with a pen and signed it: "Your erstwhile friend, [his name]." When I pointed out the correct definition of the word to him, he added a superscript "1" after "erstwhile," then wrote a footnote at the bottom: "1. And current!"

Here are some more language-related realizations:
I was in my teens when I realized that those "hors d'oeuvres" that I read about and those "ordervs" I heard people talk about were one and the same. (link)

I thought Chanukah and Hanukkah were two different holidays, and that I'd just never heard the first one spoken since I'd never heard anyone say CHanukah. One day I was in line at the grocery store where I'd shopped for years. The person in line in front of me had a loaf of challah bread on the belt. The cashier said "Man! Isn't our HALLA bread just the best?!? And I immediately said to myself "OMG Chanukah is Hanukah!" I was 25. (link)

I didn't know what "penultimate" meant until recently. I thought it was a synonym for "ultimate". Oh the shame when a friend corrected me. (link)

A few years back I learned that the proper spelling of dilemma does not have a silent n. Up until that moment I was 100% stake-my-life-on-it certain it was spelled dilemna. (link)

Macrame and macabre are unrelated words. (link)

I was nearly 30 before I realized that my parents had been talking a Wodehousian language during my youth and that normal people didn't refer to each other as "old bean" or "the mammal" or share a refreshing snort before dinner. (link)

I was about 25 when I figured out that Soup Du Jour wasn't actually a certain style of soup. (link)

I was probably 12 before I realized that people on the radio singing to "my baby" weren't singing to their infants. (link)

NEXT: More things gotten wrong.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The problem with David Brooks columns

Jonathan Chait, with support from David Brooks himself (who calls every one of his columns a "failure"), explains why his columns are often weak.

Brooks admits that he should be writing 3,000-word essays, not 800-word op-eds. He's better at exploring an issue by sorting people into different cultural groups ("this type of person believes this, while this other type believes that") than at making a directly persuasive argument ("here's what I believe, and here's why it's right").

This resonates with something I said in the comments section of my post on Brooks's deeply flawed column on morality as instinctive rather than rational:

I think a lot of it has to do with Brooks's temperament and profession. He's an open-minded intellectual who gets easily excited about writing columns that announce revolutions in the way society thinks about such-and-such an issue. (Luckily for him, these revolutions seem to come along at a steady pace of about twice a week.)

So he probably read about some empirical findings on morality, reason, and emotions. He realized that there's a tension between them and some of the most famous moral theories -- most obviously Kant and utilitarianism. And this got him excited about writing a column announcing that the new empirical studies signify the end of moral philosophy as we know it.

But then he thought more carefully about things and realized that it's not so simple. You still need to apply reason and consistent principles; sometimes our instinctive reactions can be misguided; and so on.

But he was still excited about getting a column out of his idea. So he figured he could disseminate the basic idea (prominently placed at the top of the piece) but still be intellectually honest by including the nuanced qualifications (buried deep in the piece). Hence this strangely incoherent column.
The whole state of affairs actually benefits the New York Times and Brooks, as Chait explains. Everyone may be completely aware of the consistent defect, but no one is both willing and able to change it.

That's the mainstream media for you. If a blogger's content had the same shortcomings, the problem would be solved automatically: people just wouldn't read that blog.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Is patriotism a good thing?

Jonah Goldberg and Will Wilkinson have a refreshingly nuanced and civil debate about this question (with Goldberg arguing "yes" and Wilkinson arguing "no"). You can watch it below or download it as a podcast.

They also debate whether America's Revolutionary and Civil Wars were good wars.

A few of Wilkinson's main points:

• Patriotism makes it easier for us to violate civil liberties and go to war without a good reason.

• The idea of a "country" is too abstract and diffuse to be the basis of a passionate personal commitment.

Some of Goldberg's:

• It's inherent in human nature that we disproportionately care about those who are close to us. Prioritizing the interests of our fellow Americans is like prioritizing the interests of our family members. This is basically admirable and useful even if it's also somewhat selfish and irrational.

• We can glorify America for its principles without being blind to the ways it's tragically fallen short of those principles.

• Americans revere their country and its political process, which prevents them from trying to violently overthrow the government even when they disagree with the results of that process (for instance, a Supreme Court decision or presidential election).

• "All poisons are dependent on the dosage."

That last point is a double-edged sword.