Posted by: Nathan | May 26, 2010

The Paste Effect

It wasn’t too long ago that I had all but given up on finding new music to listen to. I hated the crap that spews forth from radio speakers–the same songs every day, sometimes three or four times per day. Even songs I enjoyed were (and are) ruined by being overplayed. Almost nothing that was new was good, and I had grown weary of trying. The radio and I were through. I figured I would buy older albums from artists I already liked, and that would be the end of it.

Then, as I discussed previously, I received the magazine Paste as a gift one Christmas, and via its music sampler I encountered artists that were (1) talented, (2) unknown to me, and (3) not on the radio.  In the two years or so that I’ve received Paste, I’ve stumbled upon many excellent musicians that would otherwise be absent from my life; some of the artists have become staples of my music listening. In order to share the joy, dear reader, I’ve decided to list the songs from Paste that led to the discovery of an excellent band or artist.

This is a top ten list, but it’s not the ten best songs the magazine has sent me; there are many songs J and I love that have not resulted in the purchase of an album and/or further exploration of a given artist’s music. Rather, this list consists of songs that opened doors to rooms where unfamiliar and enrapturing music was playing. Perhaps this humble list will lead you to a new band or artist to love.

10. “People Got a Lotta Nerve” by Neko Case. When Neko Case’s wan face and vermillion locks graced the cover of Paste, two things were quite clear: Paste thought she was a big deal, and I had no idea who she was.  The wife and I loved “People Got a Lotta Nerve” with its playful tune and Case’s unmistakable alto belting out lyrics with imagery and wordplay. The singer is a man-eater, and she warns the boys by comparing herself to other lovable, dangerous creatures: “You know, they call them “killer” whales /  But you seem surprised when it pinned you down / to the bottom of the tank / Where you can’t turn around / It took half you leg and both your lungs.” Love it. We purchased Cyclone shortly thereafter, which is a good album but is still growing on me.

9. “Violet Stars [sic] Happy Hunting!” by Janelle Monáe. Any song that begins with “I’m an alien from outer space” grabs my attention, and when the drumbeats kick in, we couldn’t help but love “Violet Stars.” The tune is off of Monáe’s LP Metropolis–The Chase Suite wherein she takes on the guise of an android who has fallen in love with a human. It’s supposed to be a concept album, but she seems to drop the persona at times. In any case, the song was so infectious that we had to get Metropolis. Monáe is definitely a talent, and she is slowly becoming a media darling to boot.

8. “All the Pretty Girls” by Fun. All right, so they have a period in their band name, and that is most definitely annoying. However, “All the Pretty Girls” is so fun, clever, and musically unique that it had to make the list. The drums, piano and guitar are great, but it’s the three-part harmony that escalates this song into greatness. The song features a narrator who can’t find anyone he wants to date when he goes out on Saturdays: “I wish all the pretty girls were shaking me down / But not you, you still wear boots and your hair is too long / And then this one doesn’t want to admit she’s falling in love / Oh come on, come on, what’s a boy to do / when all the pretty girls don’t measure to you?” If all of that weren’t enough, the song also features the epic line “please don’t make me face my generation alone.” I hear you. Aim and Ignite (the disc the song is from) is an excellent buy.

7. “Chicago” by Lucy Wainwright Roche. I enjoy this song, which is a light commentary on human behavior, but we bought her first album 8 Songs rather than 8 More on which this song appears. Roche’s soft, lilting soprano infuses her songs with life and emotion. She does a lot of covers and folk tunes on 8 Songs, and she does them all well. “Bridge,” “Next Best Western,” and “Everywhere” are standouts.

6. “My Only Offer” by Mates of State. This piano-based pop song was one of our first loves from Paste, but it took us a while to purchase Re-Arrange Us, which is a good album. Mates of State is husband-and-wife group with unpredictable music which is a delight to listen to. “My Only Offer” ended up on just about all of our playlists.

5. “Belated Promise Ring” by Iron and Wine. I don’t think I liked Iron and Wine before we received the sampler with this brilliant song; J was already a fan. For me, though, “Belated Promise Ring” was the draw to Iron and Wine’s whispery folk music. The song is about Rebecca, the quirky woman the narrator loves, and all of her eccentricities. It’s the details of the song that make it superb: “I once gave to my Rebecca a belated promise ring / And she sold it to the waitress on a train / I may find her by the phone book with a fashion magazine / She may kiss me when her girlfriends leave again.” This focus on suggestive detail would make William Carlos Williams happy, and it makes for lovely song that rewards repeat listens. We own Our Endless Numbered Days, and I’m planning on picking up more Iron and Wine soon.

4. “Dream” by Priscilla Ahn. Here is a soft, lovely song about childhood and growing up voiced by the talented Priscilla Ahn. I love the picked acoustic, the evocative strings, and slow build of the song. As good as it is, “Dream” is hardly the best song on A Good Day; Ahn is sassy in “I Don’t Think So,” sweetly shy in “Wallflower,” offbeat in “Astronaut, “and funny in “Opportunity to Cry.” I dare you to listen to her without liking her. Go ahead. Try.

3. “Broken” by Tift Merritt. Our very first issue of Paste featured this number as the first song on the sampler. A couple of notes, some rhythm guitar, the opening riff, and then, “Once you were a straight shot / A shiny quarter in a new slot / Night would keep the dreams that you’ve got / Till afternoon.” Rhyming triplets?! No one does rhyming triplets, and even fewer people do them well. Yet here is Tift Merritt, with her country influences and captivating soprano singing about what happens when life is shattered by lost love, using rhyming triplets. The best lines have to be: “So close your eyes for this long / Something’s mixed up and something’s gone / Only fingers can you count on / When one leaves two.” Brilliant. We purchased Another Country, which is a lovely album that you should check out.

2. “That Moon Song” by Gregory Alan Isakov. The music of Isakov is one of the more recent loves of our Paste life, and it is a fervent affection I assure you. As usual, it was J’s superb taste that showed me the value of Isakov’s imagistic lyrics, acoustic sound, and rough, drawling voice. The artist is a native Coloradoan, and–this may seem odd–he sounds like the mountains. His music is lovely but earthy: “You came on strong like some running wave / Your beauty left me broke and hungry / Left me begging to the birds for a bone or offering / Left me saying nothing, nothing, like I always say.” This Empty Northern Hemisphere is a superb album. True, his baritone isn’t always right on the pitch, but his descriptive lyrics more than make up for that fault.

1. “Hideaway” by The Weepies. All right, I’ve written about Deb Talan and Steve Tannen’s band quite a bit already, so I won’t spend too many words here begging you to give them a listen. “Hideaway” is characteristic of the band in its simple instrumentation and intelligent lyrics, and it led us to purchase their LP Happiness, which we adore. After that, we had to get Hideaway and then Say I Am You (my personal favorite), all of which are excellent albums. Still not sated, we downloaded The Weepies iTunes sessions LP, which features a couple of songs from Deb and Steve’s solo careers. One of these songs, “How Will He Find Me” (one of my favorites) is also on Deb Talan’s album A Bird Flies Out, which we also acquired. Now I’m salivating over the band’s new album Be My Thrill, which is out in August. In the meanwhile, I think I’ll pick up Something Burning–another of Deb’s albums–to tide me over. The Weepies are my favorite band, and I can listen to them anytime, anywhere, no matter the mood or situation. They are that good.

So there you go: some of my favorite music from our various Paste samplers. Naturally, I had to make some cuts to pare the list down. Here are the honorable mentions and their albums: The Avett Brothers, I and Love and You; State Radio, Calling All Crows; Anathallo, Canopy Glow.

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Posted by: Nathan | May 12, 2010

Our New Blog

Since the wife I and found out we are pregnant, we thought it might be neat to start another blog devoted solely to family items of note. The AQ is mostly my musings on life and book reviews that most people don’t care about, and we wanted a place to tell stories, upload photos and videos (especially baby photos!), and keep people up to date on what’s going on with us and our little one. The new blog is called The Re-Arranged Us, and you can find it here: http://rearrangedus.wordpress.com You should check it out.

You’ll notice some differences between the blogs. First, J is a co-author on the new site and will post updates along with yours truly. In fact, she wrote the initial post; my moniker is attached because she forgot to sign me out. Second, the design element is much improved on the new blog. J created the header herself (I watched her do it), and it looks far better than anything I’ve attempted design-wise on this blog. You can expect more of the same from her in the future. Third, we’ve created (i.e. J created) a spot where our dog Lucy gives her thoughts on baby-related issues. If all of that isn’t enough to get you to click the above link, you should know that the first post announces whether our firstborn is a boy or girl!

Don’t worry; Ahab’s Quest isn’t going anywhere. I’ll continue to post my thoughts. Now that the school year is over, I’ll probably be posting more regularly here again. There is a lot I’ve been wanting to write about. The wife and I hope you enjoy both blogs, dear reader, and thank you for stopping by to keep up with our lives. We appreciate it.

Posted by: Nathan | May 9, 2010

Weighty Ideas in Unbearable Lightness

It is a shame that my teaching load didn’t allow me to read The Unbearable Lightness of Being properly; it would have been more enjoyable if I had been able to read it through in a shorter amount of time in order to see the totality of what Kundera is up to in these pages. Milan Kundera is the consummate novelist of ideas, by which I mean the plot and characters function in order for the author to explore things he’s interested in.

In this book, Kundera is interested in different people’s views of love and sex, and (as the title suggests) just how easily our lives are ruined, lost, and forgotten. He uses mainly four characters in the book to accomplish his ends: Terez, Tomas, Sabina, and Franz, all of whose lives are subject to their respective fundamental ideals. The first three characters form a love triangle which is then undone, and Sabina meets Franz later. For a book with so much sex in it (there’s a lot), Unbearable Lightness is more about what drives people to make decisions than love per se. As one expects with a postmodern novel, Kundera isn’t interested in moralizing here; he explores his characters psychologically. Their interactions are simultaneously loaded with meaning and completely bereft of it–like life in general, perhaps.

The best part about this book is the way Kundera takes an object or idea and then stretches it to the limit of its meaning to see what he can squeeze out of it. One example is the bowler hat on the cover, which is symbolic of a myriad of different relationships that Sabina has had, yet the hat never transcends itself.

Even more fascinating is the extended exploration of “shit” and “kitsch” at the end of the book: “The objection to shit is a metaphysical one. The daily defecation session is daily proof of the unacceptability of Creation.” (248). On the other hand, “kitsch is the absolute denial of shit…kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence” (248). Which is the better worldview: one that includes everything we hate about existence or one that deliberately ignores all things unpleasant?

The discussion of kitsch gets even more intriguing when Kundera attaches it to politics. He writes that politics always bring trenchant division in the public because “political movements rest not so much on rational attitudes as on the fantasies, images, words, and archetypes that come together to make up this or that political kitsch” (257). This statement couldn’t be more true today.

Milan Kundera creates his novel as a vehicle for him to take up ideas and words he wants to explore, and the narrative serves that end. I wouldn’t say the story is lacking–it is compelling now and again–but to write a great tale isn’t what Kundera is after. He wants you so grapple with challenging issues and ideas that make up society, and he is successful at doing so. I liked the book but not as much as <i>Immortality</i>, which stays lighter in mood and is funnier. ★★★★

Posted by: Nathan | March 28, 2010

We’re Pregnant!

Two lines on both. Yep, that's conclusive evidence.

Well, it is probably more accurate to say that J is! We found out in January that my beautiful wife is expecting our first child, and it has been an exciting and bumpy ride since. People talk about morning sickness and having a rough first trimester, but I had no idea what they meant (besides a general feeling of sympathy) until these past few months. As some of you know, morning sickness can happen at any time, and it can happen all the time. Unfortunately, that’s what the wife endured through January and February.

However, we are now into the second trimester, which we were looking forward to most eagerly, and things are looking up. J feels much better. She even cooks sometimes now! We also just got back from going to church for the first time in a while; J just wasn’t up to going for a month or two. I’m overjoyed to that she’s feeling more like herself these days. It feels as if I have my wife back.

We are still wrapping our minds around having a kiddo of our own, but it helps to have friends who have already gone through pregnancy or are experiencing its unique combination of joy and discomfort right now. We really appreciate all the well wishes and prayers from all of you, and we’ll post news and pictures as the pregnancy rolls on.

Here is a picture of the wife about thirteen weeks in:

J is holding back her dress a bit to emphasize the bump that is daily becoming more and more evident.

Oh, and for those of you who wonder, we are due September 26!

Posted by: Nathan | March 17, 2010

The Book Thief is Captivating

It isn’t easy to write a novel set in Nazi Germany that reads entirely fresh. Upon finding out that The Book Thief features a German family harboring a runaway Jew and the Allied bombing of Munich, perhaps one would hesitate to open its cover. Don’t fear clichés here, reader. Markus Zusak’s book is a standout.

The characters in this novel are all well conceived and complex. Liesel, the protagonist, is soft-hearted but tough and willingly steals from strangers, as does her friend Rudy who also dresses as Jesse Owens (complete with blackened skin). Papa is a quiet and loving man who quietly resists the Nazis, while Mama’s verbal abuse almost disguises her strong heart. My favorite character, though, is Death, who narrates this book. Banish your preconceptions about who Death is and trust Zusak; his Grim Reaper is unrelenting but also caring. He executes his job (pun intended) despite his wishes.

The prose is fluid and enticing. You are drawn into the world of the book effortlessly, and you are immediately invested. Death paints the story in colors both bright and faded. Zusak uses foreshadowing effectively and interestingly to keep the pages turning because of and in spite of what you know. At times the author chops up his text a bit too much for me; I rarely enjoy sentence fragments. However, the vibrant story always compels.

Although some typical World War II tropes appear in these pages, there are many new elements, too. It was enjoyable to be able to cheer for a German family during WWII. They hide Max, a Jew, in their basement, and he rewards them (and the reader) with wonderful tales and illustrations. If the ending is a bit predictable, the experience is stirring and delightful. I highly recommend.  ★★★★ 1/2

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