Saturday, December 31, 2011

My Top 70 Albums of 2011: What Do You Think?

I've mistakenly thought, for the past few months, that 2011 may have been a stinker for music. But then I started to compile my list of favorite albums, and there was actually a lot I loved this year.

To make this list, an album needed to capture my imagination all the way through. Which means that a record with only a couple of great songs (like those of Paul Simon, Jeff Bridges, Britney Spears, or Lady Gaga, for a few examples) would have a very difficult time making my list.

What's impressive about this year is that at least the top 20 (from Girls to a supposed Amy Winehouse posthumous throwaway) are potential classics. The list goes deep with tons of promising new bands appearing as well.

Listen to my "Top 20 Albums of 2011" playlist for free at my Spotify account. And if you haven't discovered the Spotify streaming-music phenomenon, I recommend you dig in. It's my favorite online music system and has just about everything. I subscribe to the $10 monthly option, which gives me Spotify on all my laptops, desktops, and devices. But there are also free and $5 monthly option.

For my favorite 20, plus my other favorite 50 behind that, here you go:

70 - Cage the Elephant - Thank You Happy Birthday
69 - Death Cab for Cutie - Codes and Keys
68 - Brian Wilson - In the Key of Disney
67 - R.E.M. - Collapse Into Now
66 - Daryl Hall - Laughing Down Crying
65 - Ben Lee - Deeper Into Dream
64 - Boston Spaceships - Let It Beard
63 - Bill Callahan - Apocalypse
62 - Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues
61 - Lykke Li - Wounded Rhymes
60 - Iron and Wine - Kissing Each Other Clean
59 - Garfunkel and Oates - All Over Your Face
58 - A.A. Bondy - Believers
57 - Jay-Z and Kanye West - Watch the Throne
56 - British Sea Power - Valhalla Dance Hall
55 - Robert Pollard - Space City Kicks
54 - Foo Fighters - Wasting Light
53 - F*cked Up - David Comes to Life
52 - St. Vincent - Strange Mercy
51 - Wild Flag - Wild Flag
50 - J. Mascis - Several Shades of Why
49 - Bright Eyes - The People's Key
48 - Widowspeak - Widowspeak (Shoegazer)
47 - Sonny and the Sunsets - Hit After Hit
46 - Jason Isbell and the 400 Units - How We Rest
45 - The Elected - Bury Me in My Ring
44 - Fountains of Wayne - Sky Full of Holes
43 - Ash - The Best of Ash
42 - Thurston Moore - Demolished Thoughts
41 - The Streets - Computers and Blues
40 - Veronica Falls - Veronica Falls (Power Pop)
39 - Let's Wrestle - Nursing Home
38 - Admiral Fallow - Boots Met My Face
37 - Young the Giant - Young the Giant (Power Pop)
36 - Those Darlins - Screws Get Loose
35 - Ryan Adams - Ashes & Fire
34 - The Kooks - Junk of the Heart
33 - Foster the People - Torches
32 - CSS - La Liberacion
31 - Charles Bradley - No Time for Dreaming
30 - Comet Gain - Howl of the Lonely Crowd  ?
29 - Meat Puppets - Lollipop
28 - Urge Overkill - Rock and Roll Submarine (Power Pop)
27 - Big Talk - Big Talk
26 - Beirut - The Rip Tide
25 - Glen Campbell - Ghost on a Canvas
24 - The Cars - Move Like This
23 - Givers - In Light
22 - Smith Westerns - Dye It Blonde
21 - Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers - Rare Bird Alert
20 - Amy Winehouse - Lioness: Hidden Treasures
19 - My Morning Jacket - Circuital
18 - Arctic Monkeys - Suck It and See
17 - The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - Belong
16 - Buffalo Tom - Skins
15 - I'm From Barcelona - Forever Today
14 - Big Sean - Finally Famous
13 - Destroyer - Kaputt
12 - Deer Tick - Divine Providence
11 - Jonny - Jonny
10 - Tommy Stinson - One Man Mutiny
09 - Telekinesis! - 12 Desperate Straight Lines
08 - The Decemberists - The King is Dead
07 - Megafaun - Megafaun
06 - Architecture in Helsinki - Moment Bends
05 - Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks - Mirror Traffic
04 - Wilco - The Whole Love
03 - Mazes - A Thousand Heys
02 - Yuck - Yuck
01 - Girls - Father, Son, Holy Ghost

Tell me what you think. What did I miss? What was your favorite album(s) of the year?

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Classic Reads: Of Mice and Men's Raw and Failed American Dream

Find the other parts of this ongoing series of "Classic Reads" in the Books section.

It was a pleasure to reread one of my first favorite classics from young childhood, Of Mice and Men. Everyone knows this one, so there's not much to say about its legendary status.

The story takes place over three days during the Depression in Salinas Valley, California, where simple-minded giant Lenny Small walks down a dusty path with his friend and protector George Milton. They are headed towards a ranch to become barley bucks, which should be an easy job to land, as long as George does all the talking for his buddy who got "kicked in the head by a horse when he was a kid. He's alright. Just ain't bright."

Curley, the rancher's son and a former boxer who likes to intimidate the hired help, chooses the wrong person in Lenny to pick on. Lenny pummels him, breaking every bone in Curley's hand.

Next, Lenny accidently kills a little puppy who he loves too much and accidently mauls. He then accidentally does the same to Curley's wife, breaking her neck in the barn while a game of horseshoes goes on outside.

Lenny runs away and a manhunt ensues. Luckily, George finds him before anyone else does. Knowing he has no other choice, George, for one last time, recounts the story of how they would work hard and someday own a farm together, before he points a gun at Lenny's head and kills him, knowing they would never escape Curley's hatred.

This short novel is so classic because it epitomizes the everyday heroes of the time, many of whom had nowhere to go but tragically downward as they pursued the raw and elusive promise of America.

***** out of ***** stars

John Jeremiah Sullivan and the Surprising Humanity Behind the Lives of Christian Rock Fans

A recent article in The New Yorker turned me on to John Jeremiah Sullivan's hilarious takes on the pop-culture landscape. I purchased his collection called Pulphead: Essays and just finished the first story, called "Upon This Rock," which is no letdown.

Sullivan decides to document the Cross-Over Festival in Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri -- three days of "top Christian bands at some isolated Midwestern fairground." He decides he'll post an invitation for fair-goers to hitch a ride with him as he makes his way there from the East Coast. What he doesn't expect is that the youth experience he's hoping to document is not a bunch of twenty-somethings, but rather mostly prepubescent tweens, who soon attack him online as being some sort of pervert on a "questy missiony thing."

Soon enough, he decides to change plans and instead hit an even bigger Christian rock festival called Creation Fest in rural Pennsylvania, which happens to begin the next day.

Sullivan does a great job in this essay of not prejudging the characters he would soon meet, which would be all too easy to do, especially with this subject matter. He finds the 100,000 people in attendance, in general, "exceptionally kind" and different from the guys at sporting events who generally seem to have a dark machismo and appear to be just waiting for something bad to happen.

He meets a group of West Virginia dudes with whom, surprisingly, he becomes enamored. "They were passionate to make me see what kinds of guys they were." They were hardened by their violent lives and had given all their anger to God. But other than that, they were entirely likable and not much different from non-God-y guys.

Sullivan's take on Christian rock is funny too. He says a Christian band is one that simply has Christians in it and can be quite good, like U2. But a Christian rock band is one that has no desire to be artistic or original because it simply needs to play something "proven to please ... while praising Jesus Christ." It is fail-proof to these audiences because it automatically carries a message that they will approve of. Sullivan speaks almost not at all of the music because it doesn't matter. Either it's fine because you agree with it or "if you think it profoundly sucks, that's because your priorities are not its priorities."

This is the most thoughtful take on an extremely weird and foreign subject matter to me. I can't wait to dig into the rest of the essays in Pulphead, including ones on Axl Rose, reality TV, his brother's near-death electrocution, and more.

**** out of ***** stars

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Meet Anoop Singh, Our Favorite Cab Driver in Durban

I referred to him in the last blog, as the guy who took us to our safari three hours northeast of Durban, South Africa and even accompanied us on two of our three treks into the bush. But his own story is deserving in its own right.

Anoop Singh (pictured on our boat safari of the St. Lucia Estuary, with my colleague Matt Barrett) was driving some passengers in his minivan about 10 years ago when he was shot in the shoulder and robbed. He lost so much blood that he should have died. He suffered extensive nerve damage, went on morphine for three months, and still has limited use of his disfigured left arm and hand.

He says a preacher healed him and he was able to stop taking the morphine. Although he never drank or smoked, he became born again and cleansed himself of any vices, including gambling. Two days after he was born again, he says his assailant was shot dead.

On another occasion, Anoop suffered a rare eye disease and went blind for 10 days. At least that’s what his doctor said, but he thought it was from straining his eyes from driving too much.

With Singh, the stories kept coming. He claims his first ancestor to immigrate to South Africa, in 1860, had two wives and worked in the sugar fields. After five years of working, the family was given the option of going back to India or getting a piece of the land they had worked on. They chose the latter. He said his family in South Africa now consists of 930 people, and many of them work in the transport sector.

The only one I was really wary of was his claim of being related to Ghandi. Isn’t it a myth that every Indian says he's related to Ghandi, or something like that? Nevertheless, he said Ghandi’s granddaughter, Ela Ghandi, was married to his “granny’s brother," which at least seems pretty feasible.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Some “Cabbie Facts” About Durban, South Africa

Since my previous travel posts, there has been a lot more I've learned about the fascinating city of Durban, most of it courtesy of our driver for our safari, Anoop Singh.

A fifth-generation Durbanite himself, Singh said the first Indians arrived in 1860 at about the same time the English were building the city outwards, so as not to “cram too many people in.” I reported in a previous blog that the city’s population is 6 million, but Singh said it is between 4.8 and 5.2 million. He was encyclopedic, so I’ll take his work for it.

Some other interesting tidbits courtesy of Singh:

He said the government spends a lot of money on roads, and you can tell. Most U.S. cities could learn quite a bit from the South Africans.

And because of the port, one of the busiest in the world, Durban is located in the most densely populated province of the country.

South Africa is the second-largest exporter of sugarcane behind Brazil – some 550,000 tons each year.

Durban has a beautiful promenade (see photo of me on the promenade with a rented bicycle, and that white building in the background is my highly recommended hotel, the Southern Sun North Beach) that stretches for miles down the beach. The rare times I got some exercise during the climate conference, I took full advantage of it. It was completed in May 2010 in time for the World Cup.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Playin' Those Mind Games with Black Swan and Horrible Bosses

Shows you just how busy I've been at the UN climate talks in Durban, South Africa for the past two weeks: I haven't even reviewed the two movies I watched on the international red-eye over here.

One was excellent, and the other was a bit of a comedic let-down. First, the excellent.

Black Swan had been on my list for a while. Certainly not because of the ballerina plot line, but rather because two of my favorite actresses (Winona Ryder and Mila Kunis) star in it. And they don't disappoint, with Ryder as a washed-up superstar and Kunis as this generation's Winona Ryder (cute-and-dirty in the same package).

The psychological thriller watches the also-excellent and Academy Award-winner Natalie Portman fall into a tailspin as she tries to play both the white swan and the black swan in the upcoming production. The black part gives her fits, and her forceful director (the perfectly-cast Vincent Cassel) is just the tip of the iceberg of her problems.

Portman and Kunis trained hard to do a lot of their own ballet moves in the film, despite a controversy that flaired up from one of their body doubles saying they didn't do as many of the moves as the actresses said they did. Nevertheless, this is a film on par with some of Alfred Hitchcock's best. And Hitchcock being my favorite director, that's saying quite a lot.

The second movie I watched on the plane also involved mind games, albeit of much-less-dramatic sort. The comedy Horrible Bosses doesn't always work, but it generally supplies a good time, and the cast is hard to beat.

Jason Bateman is tormented by his satanic corporate boss Kevin Spacey, who is at his ruthless best. Charlie Day plays nearly the same role he plays in It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which is fine, since that role is so hilarious. He is trying to keep his mind on his fiancee, but an over-the-top seductress boss by the name of Jennifer Anniston does her best to spoil his efforts. And Jason Sudeikis, who has never stood out for me on Saturday Night Live, is very solid as the good guy at a company with an uncaring, coke-snorting sleazeball of a boss.

Much as I love many of the actors here, the true star is Jamie Foxx, in a bit part as the gang's hitman they hire to off their three horrible bosses. Every line that comes out of his mouth is brilliant, and he actually saves this movie from becoming an unexpected stinker.

It took the director six years to make this film because of all types of production issues, and word is there's a sequel in the works. That may be the worst part about this movie, because this one would've probably been a good one to just let rest.

Black Swann: ****1/2 out of ***** stars
Horrible Bosses: *** out of ***** stars

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Sharks, Warrior Paint, and Pedal Power Over the Weekend in Durban

Durban continues to be an interesting city to be visiting for two weeks of work. After attending something called Forest Day, I had an hour or so to walk (and jog again) around the beach near my hotel.

So I snapped a few photos. The best one is of this baobab tree replica. That is my hotel in the background and the energy these fellows are generating from pedaling is lighting up the tree.

On Saturday night, my Nature Conservancy delegation celebrated the half-way point of the UN climate conference by going to Moyo, a fun touristy place on The Point a few miles down the beach from our hotel. Some of the more interesting items on the menu include sprinkbok, octopus tentacles, and snoek. That's some of their entertainment in the photo below. And there I am with my warrior paint on my face, courtesy of our waitress.

Moyo is at the end of a long outdoor shopping mall and it's next to Durban's allegedly world-famous aquarium, called uShaka Marine World. I'm hoping to get back there because I'm told the sharks swim above visitors while they walk through.

Another thing about sharks off the coast of Durban. Supposedly it is true that this city, where the Indian Ocean meets the Atlantic, sports the highest concentration of sharks in the world. The good thing is that there are nets offshore and they can't get to all the swimmers and surfers. Apparently there's only been one shark/human incident in the past several years, during a storm when a shark was able to get around the net.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Welcome to My World for 15 Days: Durban, South Africa

So this is my fourth night in Durban, South Africa to attend the annual UN climate conference and I have yet to post a single blog post. I've been working the usual 18 hours a day and there's just no time.

I stayed in tonight to find some down time, but it's now 1 a.m. and I've finally just stopped working long enought to write this. Not that I'm complaining. It's fun and challenging work. And Durban is really interesting. Here's a little of what I've learned so far.

Durban is the third largest city in South Africa. A guy named Raj, who I met while pedaling bicylces that power up the lights on an art installation in front of my hotel, said it has a population of 6 million.

Durban has the biggest population of Indians anywhere outside of India, which probably explains why most of my meals have been Indian. In fact, Raj called in my meal for me at the delicious Jewel of India restaurant.

The Southern Sun North Beach lobby staff is the friendliest I've ever encountered at a hotel. I didn't really want to use my iPhone so Robert and Robert (their actual names) found an old phone in the lost-and-found and gave it to me to keep until I check out.

The city purports to be the busiest port in the country, which is why it's amazing that the entire beach front as far as the eye can see from my 22nd floor hotel room is so beautiful. There are restored sand dunes, an amazing skate park, a "minature things" park, and a promenade that stretches for miles along the beach.

Here's something amazing. I've jogged twice down the promenade on the beach in front of my hotel. I hate jogging. But it's nice breaking it up in the middle with some peddling on the aforementioned solar bicycles along the area in front of my hotel, which is called "The Golden Mile."

The rooftop pool, as you can see in the photo, is pretty sweet too. I filmed some interviews of my colleagues for our Planet Change blog there and took a short dip in the water as well.

Some of the bad things about Durban. The rate of HIV/AIDS is 38 percent. The air is polluted, and is especially harsh on those jogs. I'm told that it can be a violent city, and that people don't get mugged, they get mugged and then punched in the face. Luckily, I've only been affected by one of these three so far. I can't seem to get the smog-induced frog out of my throat that's been in there since my arrival.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Muppets Transports Me to My 10-Year-Old Self

I was thrilled that my first movie with Jackson was one that he stayed awake and behaved for and that I absolutely loved. I might not have laughed so much since The Hangover.

The Muppets tapped both my funny bone and my sense of nostalgia. I actually choked up during some of the classic Muppets tunes reprised here. And lead actor Jason Segal is the secret weapon as one of the creators of the story, which is textbook Muppets but also really, really funny.

Amy Adams and Chris Cooper are also cast really well respectively as Segal's girlfriend and the oil-tycoon bad guy. The price of admission is worth it based on the cameos alone. What's interesting is that the cameos complement, rather than overtake, the performances of the stars and the muppets. Some of the biggest cameos, like George Clooney and Mila Kunis, are tellingly left on the cutting-room floor.

This is a classic, at the level of the original Muppet Movie and the best of The Muppet Shows.

***** out of ***** stars

Friday, November 18, 2011

What Would Happen If a Bunch of People Disappeared? "The Leftovers" Has Your Answers

With clearly great titles in his cannon (Election, The Abstinence Teacher, and Little Children), I had been meaning to read some of Harvard creative-writing professor Tom Perrotta's fiction for a while. And with the apocalyptic subject matter of his new book, The Leftovers, the time was finally right.

The story centers on various groups of loosely intertwined people in the nowhere town of Mapleton, which serves as a setting and microcosm of a world that has suddenly lost about half of its inhabitants. They all disappeared at the same moment in time - October 14 - and the book's title refers to the people who remain. Nearly all the characters have been devastatingly crushed and bewildered by the loss of loved ones.

Kevin Garvey is the town's mayor and his wife remains, but she has left him to join the Guilty Remnant, a secretive and creepy, all-white-wearing cult. His daughter remains but has become wayward and hangs around with a best friend who has a complicated relationship with Kevin. Meanwhile, Kevin has a new girlfriend whose entire family disappeared moments after an argument at the dinning-room table and his son has dropped out of college to follow a questionable guru named Holy Wayne around the country.

As weird as it sounds, the book is much, much less about science fiction or fantasy than it is about love, loss, family connections and lack thereof, and it is really a psychological study masked as a page-turner. Pretty phenomenal and impressive.

****1/2 out of ***** stars

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Joseph Gordon-Levitt Fills Up My Time With a Mixed Bag of Movie Moments

Somehow the last two movies I've seen have been vehicles for former 3rd Rock From the Sun child star Joseph Gordon-Levitt -- 2010's Hesher and 2011's 50/50.

Everything about 50/50 should make it no better than a Lifetime movie about living with cancer. Gordon-Levitt plays a young worker at NPR who pals around with Seth Rogen and has a jerky girlfriend. When he discovers he has the disease, he is befriended by some fellow patients at the hospital. The performances  rise far above a TV melodrama, and make the movie at least worth watching.

Hesher is just weird. And slow. And pretty offensive. I guess the filmmakers were trying to show that loss can be a devastating thing. The ending (along with the middle and end) are just really ridiculous, meandering, heavy, and none of the sad-sack characters are too worthy of sympathy. Gordon-Levitt plays some sort of troubled but prophet-like Metallica-type longhair. We never really find out much about why he is the way he is. I can't think of a good reason that Natalie Portman (who co-produced it) and Rainn Wilson got involved.

It seems, at least with 50/50, that Gordon-Levitt has gotten back on track after the Hesher misstep. He was putting together a halfway decent little run before that, with Inception and (500) Days of Summer.

*** out of ***** stars

* out of ***** stars

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Classic Reads: Anna Karenina Feels Global Growing Pains

Find the other parts of this ongoing series of "Classic Reads" in the Books section.

Unlike the other great 19th-century Russian author, Dostoievsky and his peasants and scallywags, Leo Tolstoy examined the elite. Anna Karenina is the tale of a Russian aristocratic class being turned upside-down by the import of Western morals.

Anna and her brother, Stepan, are both having affairs outside their marriages. Soon enough, Anna becomes pregnant with her suitor Count Vronsky's child. She tells her husband, Alexey, who coldly worries more about his social and business reputation, determining that a divorce would only disgrace him.

Vronsky, meanwhile, is desperate to be with Anna. He attempts to kill himself. Finally, Anna decides to run away from St. Petersburg to Italy with him. They birth a healthy little boy. Soon, they return to Russia, but find themselves ostracized. This causes them to fight, she accuses him of being unfaithful, and she begins to take morphine as a way to cope with her increasingly troubled life.

The sad story ends with more fighting between the two lovers, and Anna kills herself by jumping in front of a train.

Anna Karenina is almost farcically tragic, with new problems appearing for most of the characters around just about every turn. It is an early tale of the growing pains of globalization.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Sea and Cake Plays the Perfect Show

I've been a long-time, die-hard fan of Chicago jazz-pop masters The Sea and Cake since their earliest records in 1994-1995. But, somehow, I had never caught them live. And last night at D.C.'s Black Cat, the band didn't disappoint.

McEntire, Claridge, Prekop, and Prewitt
The four musicians look like average middle-aged guys, but when they started playing, they were the coolest and one of the most mesmerizing bands I've seen in a long time. The short video above of one of their classic tunes does a pretty good job of capturing some of their magic.

Sam Prekop leads the band with unusual guitar picking and strumming styles, and vocals that are gorgeous yet at the same time don't really matter much in relation to the rest of the powerful music being played. Archer Prewitt masterfully blends his wildly inventive lead guitar playing with Prekop's stylings.

Meanwhile, Eric Claridge muscles his bass into sounds that reach the most pleasurable expanses of the listener's brain and drummer John McEntire freaks out with his precise smashes and joyously weird facial expressions.

I love this band. And although I really couldn't tell you what the set list was, it just didn't matter. All the songs were so good that when they finally got around to playing "Parasol" from 1995's perfect album Nassau as the set-closer, it was simply icing on the cake to a perfect show.

***** out of ***** stars

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Late-Summer Travels in Memphis, Delaware, and (October!) Ocean Swimming

The family in Rehoboth
My wife Rachel impressively dashed through a 10K race around the Dogfish Head brewery in Delaware several weeks ago, and the family got to enjoy a rainy weekend at Bethany and Rehoboth beaches.

Luckily, the weather was much better (surprisingly, for late October) when we returned for another beach trip at Assateague Island in Maryland, where we biked, body surfed, camped out in the sand with our neighbors, and stood safely away from the wild horses.

Jackson at Assateague
Finally, the late summer/early fall traveling concluded with a week of work in Olive Branch, Mississippi at The Nature Conservancy's science conference, where I helped with a media training, presented on how to communicate with various audiences, sat on a panel about communicating science, and, most importantly, went out for a night on the town at B.B. King's club on Beale Street in nearby Memphis, Tennessee.

Mural in the gift shop at B.B. King's Beale Street nightclub
Me (on the left) with colleagues from Ohio

Monday, October 31, 2011

A Bright New Boise Begins An Apocalyptic Season at Woolly Mammoth

Photo by Stan Barouh
The Woolly Mammoth's new season is devoted to plays about the apocalypse. As readers of this blog know, I'm a big fan of "end days" stories, so I'm happy to be a season-ticket holder right about now.

The first offering is A Bright New Boise, which takes place mostly in a Wal-Mart-like break room at a retail store in Boise named Hobby Lobby. Will, a former member of an evangelical, cult-like church is escaping his dark past by taking a job there.

His real motive is to reconnect with his long-abandoned son, who also works at the store. But, hard as he tries to build a new life and fix his past mistakes, Will finds it hard to break out of his pattern of constantly waiting for that exact moment when the world will end.

Playwright Samuel D. Hunter's story reminds me a little of Wiener Sausage: The Musical!, my own play with writing partner Dan Sullivan. The big-box setting. The philosophical musings on corporations. The misguided characters. The end of the world. These topics are competing in a crowded field these days, so the fact that Hunter and the actors in the Woolly's production do such a great job is testament to the power of this play.

**** out of ***** stars

Saturday, October 29, 2011


I'm pretty lucky to have experienced three World Series championships so far in my lifetime. 1982. 2006. 2011.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Classic Reads: For Whom the Bell Tolls Previews World War II

Find the other parts of this ongoing series of "Classic Reads" in the Books section.

I don't like 1940's For Whom the Bell Tolls as much as Ernest Hemingway's other master war story, A Farewell to Arms, but that said, this is still better than 99 percent of all other novels.

Robert Jordan is a young American fighting the Fascists, led by Francisco Franco, in the Spanish Civil War, what was a prelude to the gory World War II. He and his elderly guide Anselmo are marching through the mountains of Spain, behind Fascist enemy lines, to meet another similar band of guerrillas, led by the drunken Pablo and his fierce and commandeering wife Pilar. Their plan is to blow up a bridge along with a good amount of Fascist soldiers, who frequently cross the bridge.

Meanwhile, a young girl named Maria has been rescued from starvation, torture, rape, and the execution of her parents at the hands of a band of Fascists. She is convinced nobody will ever be able to love her again, but Jordan convinces her this isn't true and they fall in love.

Along the way, Jordan encounters the remains of another guerrilla leader, El Sordo, and his band that has been slaughtered and beheaded by the Fascists. El Sordo's team was also supposed to help with the bridge scheme, so their defeat makes the plot look even more grim and hopeless. Making matters all the more impossible, Pablo steals the detonator and blasting caps one night while Jordan sleeps, meaning they will have to try and explode the bridge with the more-dangerous method of grenades.

Pablo returns right before the mission is to begin. Jordan uses his original tools and, sure enough, the bridge blows up. But the elderly Anselmo is killed by a flying steel fragment. Jordan, Pablo, Pilar, and Maria are soon trapped by Fascist troops, who fire at them. Jordan insists on being the last of the group to cross a dangerous road, and enemy fire drops his horse right on top of him. The others are able to drag him out of the line of fire, but he knows his leg is crushed. He voices his love to Maria and the others drag her away.

As Jordan contemplates his life in its waning moments, he decides he is not dying in vain. He fought for the common people and he knows he has helped lead them on a long road to eventual victory.

For Whom the Bell Tolls features the classic battle between the hopeful and good Jordan and Anselmo and the despaired, drunken, and bad Pablo. That gives the novel its heft and global meaning, and it is certainly the best story ever told about the Spanish Civil War.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Yuck Rocks. Black Cat Sound Guys Don't Rock.

Good friend Fran Chung wrote up the following review for the entertaining Yuck show the other night at the Black Cat in D.C. I'm just republishing his excellent take (which I completely agree with, and which appeared with this photo and others in DCist) rather than wallow through my own mixed emotions of seeing the show on the same night I got in my first car accident in decades (I'm fine, it wasn't my fault, and our Honda Fit didn't fare too badly). Despite that unfortunate distraction, I still give the show **** out of ***** stars. It was not as good as their recorded work, but I'm chalking that up mostly to the fact that the Black Cat sound engineers seem to be getting worse and worse every show I see there.


The label "1990s revivalists" follows Yuck around inexorably, sometimes an epithet, often a term of endearment, always an apt descriptor for their retro-leaning indie-rock sound. At the Black Cat on Wednesday night, the London-based four-piece wore it as a badge of honor, putting their own youthful spin on familiar tropes from the 20th-century's musically fecund final decade.
On the set-opening "The Base of a Dream is Empty", the guitars of Daniel Blumberg and Max Bloom trailed feedback before the band built up a creamy wall of sound that instantly called My Bloody Valentine to mind. A few songs later, Blumberg affected a J Mascis-like drawl during "The Wall", while "Suicide Policeman" came off as a strummy, mid-tempo ballad reminiscent of early Belle & Sebastian, complete with tender boy-girl harmonies. Bassist Mariko Doi took a lead-vocal turn on the appropriately-titled "Georgia", which sounded like it could have been a lost outtake from one of Yo La Tengo's classic early-'90s albums.
At the heart of the set came "Get Away", Yuck's finest song, and the one that best crystallizes their highly referential, yet distinctly appealing musical aesthetic. Bloom's bright lead guitar melodies sliced through the fuzzed-out mix on top of a throbbing, Pixies-esque bassline that propelled the song forward until Blumberg launched it into the stratosphere with his soaringly anthemic Sparklehorse-meets-Weezer hook. "Summer sun says get out more," Blumberg sang, "I need you, I want you, but I can't get this feeling off my mind." These were trite, jejune sentiments that have been expressed in a thousand tunes, but rarely with as much infectious verve.
By the end of their brisk, hour-long performance, Yuck had run through much of their self-titled debut LP, adding the bonus cut "Soothe Me" and the B-side "Milkshake". As the band capped their set with another Kevin Shields homage, "Rubber", it seemed fair to wonder what the quartet could do for a second act. As fertile a trove of musical resources as the '90s are, surely they are not inexhaustible, and one hopes the band's next record will explore some different territories. For now, though, it's probably best to just go along and enjoy the nostalgic ride.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Lemonheads Return With a Glimpse into a 1992 Classic Album

Coming up on 20 years since the release of The Lemonheads' indie-pop 1992 classic, It's a Shame About Ray, it was moving to relive that year the other night at the Black Cat in D.C., with leader Evan Dando and his gang rollicking through a lengthy set with the full album serving as the first part of the evening.

Other than some sound problems for the first three or so songs, with Evan's guitar being too low in the mix, the music sounded great and Evan, who has had his ups and downs over the years, seemed to be in pretty good shape and form. (Apparently this wasn't the case two nights later in New York.)

Some people disagree that he was in fine form. And maybe I'm just too much of a sucker for the dozens of classic songs he and his three-piece band played. (Incidentally, the drummer and bassist were very strong and looked quite a bit like Ray-era bandmates David Ryan and Nic Dalton.) Still, I will admit that this band is by no means anywhere near the prime it was in throughout the early 90s. (I mean, check out this performance on Letterman. They could really throw down, and I even remember talking to Evan one time after a Soul Asylum/Lemonheads show at Mississippi Nights in St. Louis while he was wearing that ridiculous red jacket.)

I spoke with Evan briefly after Friday night's show and he was personable, in good spirits, remembered hanging out with me last year at Iota and letting me play his guitar, and spent some time seriously making out with one of his merch girls (while a line waited to buy shirts, open-mouthed and gawking). He also was very open to taking photos with his fans, as pictured here with some guy (and his favorite merch girl).

**** out of ***** stars

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Bike Tour Atlanta, Part 3: Pop Culture Edition

Finishing up my series on the great bike ride I recently enjoyed from Bicycle Tours of Atlanta (here are parts 1 and 2), this installment looks at some great entertainment options that happened to be in town while we rode.

First up, courtesy of my guide Robyn, is me taking a photo of a theater called the Variety Playhouse in the hipster neighborhood of Little Five Points, where my favorite new band, Girls, was playing. Unfortunately, my flight was leaving for home in a few hours. I would go on to miss Girls play in D.C. a few nights later for some similarly lame excuse.

Next, we wound our way downtown, where we had lunch and wheeled past the famed "fabulous" Fox Theater, where one of my son's favorite kids groups was set to perform. If you aren't yet familiar with Yo Gabba Gabba!, watch this bit with Jack Black.

And finishing out my blog bike tour, we stopped by the Martin Luther King National Historic Site, which is a large complex not far from the spot where the bike tour leaves from, in the Old Fourth Ward. Two highlights were seeing the wooden wagon MLK's coffin was carried in as part of his funeral march, and the gentleman in the photo who serenaded Robyn and I with a song of faith.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Bike Tour Atlanta, Part 2

As I mentioned in the first part of this series about my excellent bike tour of Atlanta, Georgia, biking was the perfect way to experience all the best parts of the city.

My personal guide Robyn was kind enough to send me this set of photos that she took. The first one is me riding towards the state capitol, then a couple of me in front of some of the city's impressive pop-culture graffiti art.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Atlanta Rocks: A Personal Bike Tour, Part 1

I attended a conference of about 170 marketers from The Nature Conservancy (of which I am one) a couple of weeks ago. The conference was really interesting and fun, and I made lots of connections to people in my network. It was held at Chateau Elan Winery (made famous in this video and lampooned on Family Guy) about 40 miles northeast of Atlanta in Braselton, Georgia, a town that Kim Basinger once invested in with a since-failed plan to turn it into a movie-making locale.

Anyway, I intended to do more networking with a four-hour bike ride organized as part of the conference. But when I arrived downtown at the funky Bicycle Tours of Atlanta (pictured above to the left), I was the only one to show, which made for a great personal tour by my guide Robyn.

I'll take us through several sites of Atlanta, which I always thought of as a cold-hard batch of skyscrapers plopped down along Interstate 95 somewhere between North Carolina, New Orleans, and Florida, over the course of my next several blog posts.

One of my favorite stops was Oakland Cemetary, where legendary golfer Bobby Jones is buried. My favorite site there, however, was Margaret Mitchell's grave (pictured to the right). She basically supplied me with everything I've ever known about Atlanta through her classic novel Gone With the Wind. We also later biked past the spot downtown where her life was cut tragically short by a car that hit her as she crossed the street.

Finally, for now, we stopped in the lovely Central Park-like Piedmont Park, with its wide expanses of recreation areas and beautiful views of the skyline (pictured to the right).

Exploring cities I've never been to on bike is by far the best way to experience them. Why more people haven't discovered this travel trick is beyond me, and I wish my 20 or so colleagues who had signed up for this trip would have joined me. Then again, because they didn't show, I got to see many more sites.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Classic Reads: A Farewell to Arms Introduces Us to Hemingway's "Lost Generation"

The is the second in a series of posts about classic books that I, as an English literature undergrad major, really need to read or re-read to make my life complete. 
A beautifully described story combined with a depressing ending is pretty much par for the course for the nearly unmatchable Ernest Hemingway. And A Farewell to Arms, described by his mentor Gertrude Stein as his best novel, is no exception.

The story, at its essence, is about how war, and really society in general, "kills you in the end." This is especially true of the World War I generation of which Hemingway writes about, and he argues that those who fought in it became a generation of cynics. Hemingway, having served as an ambulance driver in the Italian army, bases a lot of the social commentary on his own wartime experiences, including the nearly-unheard-of-at-the-time unmarried love affair between American Frederic Henry and British nurse Catherine Barkley.

While serving on ambulance duty in the Italian army, Frederic is caught in the line of mortar shrapnel, which turns his legs to "hamburger." While he recovers in Catherine's care in Milan, they take carriage rides in the park, attend horse races, and dine in street-side cafes. Right before he leaves to return to duty, Catherine informs Frederic she's pregnant but refuses to marry him.

With morale sinking and a once-winnable battle looking more hopeless, Frederic's best friend Rinaldi contracts syphilis. And it gets worse. Retreating, their vehicle gets stuck and they have to hide in barns, dodge Austrian patrols, and even avoid trigger-happy Italian sentries on their own side. Finally, Frederic is grabbed by an italian military policeman and accused of being a spy. Sitting in prison and awaiting execution, he determines the war is over for him and he should say his "farewell to arms."

While the guards are busy executing another prisoner, Frederic is able to escape and swim down an icy river. He can't find Catherine in Milan but eventually reunites with her and they escape to the mountains of Montreux, Switzerland. They play chess, cards, go skiing, and take long walks, discussing what they will do at the end of the war. But then the baby is delivered dead and Catherine soon dies as well, in Frederic's arms. The story ends with him walking through the streets, aimless and broken.

This is clearly one of the greatest novels of all time. However, it's only my second-favorite of Hemingway's "lost generation" novels. The Sun Also Rises is in my top three novels, along with The Great Gatsby and On the Road.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Will the Pittsburgh Steelers Win the Super Bowl This Time?

It was a heartbreaking ending last year, losing to the Packers in a thrilling Super Bowl. But good things appear to be on the horizon for my Pittsburgh Steelers, who are picked as the team to beat by one of my favorite sports opinion blogs, ESPN's Grantland. It all starts in about 24 hours, with Game 1 against the fierce rival Baltimore Ravens.

You know, the team that always manages to be in the playoff hunt every year? Them? They're our favorites. The Steelers were 12-4 with a Pythagorean expectation of 12.1 wins despite missing Ben Roethlisberger for the first four games and an offensive line for the entire season. They made it to the Super Bowl with Troy Polamalu at 60 percent and even less of an offensive line, and while they got outplayed by the Packers, they were competitive in the process.
We can keep this very brief: If you want to know why they're our Super Bowl pick, look at the schedule that the gods have gifted these Pittsburgh Steelers. The Ravens will be a weaker team, so the division won't be as tough. They get four games against the NFC West and four more against the AFC South, which looks weaker by the day. (Peyton Manning might be back in time for their Week 3 matchup, but he certainly won't be 100 percent.) And while they have to play the Patriots at home, their other first-place matchup comes against the Chiefs. That has 13 wins written all over it, and if the Steelers win 13 games, they're going to have the no. 1 seed in the AFC. That gives them a better shot of making it to the Super Bowl than any other team in football. And that's why they're the favorites.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Love and Other Drugs Takes Gyllenhaal High, Hathaway Low

Love and Other Drugs comes at you in waves. There are parts that are funny, parts that are unbelievably cheesy, parts that are questionably written and acted, and parts that are really powerful.

I was won over particularly by the strong (the "powerful part") ending. But it was sometimes a struggle to get there over the course of this off-and-on relationship between Jake Gyllenhaal (whose previous highlights are pretty high in Donnie Darko, Brokeback Mountain, and Jarhead) and Anne Hathaway.

The film is definitely one of the better ones ever made as far as exposing the way the pharmaceutical industry works. It's also probably the best one to ever educate an audience about the very-serious Parkinson's disease. So those are both pretty noble traits.

On the flip side, the fact that it required a lead actress who would be naked a lot of time probably narrowed the candidate field down quite a bit. Hathaway is annoying and really kind of unlikeable most of the time. Someone you could build up sympathy for might have made this an Academy Award-type contender.

Gyllenhaal is his usual excellent, whip-smart, and handsome self as a man making his way up Pfizer's corporate ladder. He masquerades as a shallow drug salesman before being uncovered as an actual human being, and a good one at that. Oliver Platt as a fellow drug salesman and Hank Azaria as a Viagra-gobbling big-time doctor are also just right for their roles.

I think the fact that I'm so torn between liking this movie and hating it means it gets a perfectly mediocre rating of ...

**1/2 out of ***** stars

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

J. Mascis Rocks the Kennedy Center

Dinosaur Jr.'s guitar master J. Mascis stumbled into the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage tonight for a free, after-work, hour-long "acoustic" solo set that relied on a nice dose of effects that ratcheted up the sound to almost-daring levels for such an august locale.

The show was composed of classic songs from the 80s and 90s, with the best bits of Mascis' 2000s output. Max, Fran, and I and the other attendees (hipsters, art supporters, and intrigued but ultimately confused and sometimes-sleeping tourists) were treated to upbeat tunes almost the whole way through. That was until J. had to throw in the extended proggy "Alone" that featured a mix of sweet pickings and amazing tones out of his guitar that sounded like thunder and creepy door squeakings.

And then he walked out, simply saying that was all the time he had. The setlist:

The Wagon (Green Mind - 1991)
Missed It (Several Shades of Why - 2011)
Circle (Edie Brickell cover)
Crumble (Beyond - 2007)
"There's an Ocean" ?
Get Me (Where You Been - 1993)
Not the Same (Where You Been - 1993)
Listen to Me (Several Shades of Why - 2011)
Not Enough (Several Shades of Why - 2011)
A song that was, I think, from 2007's Beyond
Quest (Dinosaur - 1985)
A classic from maybe Green Mind that I can't remember the name of
Little Fury Things (You're Living All Over Me - 1987)
Alone (The John Peel Sessions - 2003)

****1/2 out of ***** stars