Monday, December 31, 2012

Top 40 Albums of 2012

Nude Beach - II
One again, it was a great year for underground (for lack of a better term) rock music. This year's top albums include veterans like Paul McCartney and David Byrne. Punk legends like Dinosaur Jr., Soul Asylum, and Green Day. Side projects like Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth, Lightships from Teenage Fanclub, and A.C. Newman from The New Pornographers. Robert Pollard, with five releases by himself and his band Guided by Voices, continues his run of having a top 10 album for yet another year running. And the top 10 itself is loaded with exciting new bands that will surely give us lots of joy in the future.

To listen to these albums and many other honorable mentions, take a listen and subscribe to my Spotify playlist. In Spotify, search "Paul Mackie" and "Best of 2012."

40. The Men - Open Your Heart
39. Mystery Jets - Radlands
38. Lightships - Electric Cables
37. R. Kelly - Write Me Back
36. Paul McCartney - Kisses on the Bottom
35. JJAMZ - Suicide Pact
34. David Byrne and St. Vincent - Love This Giant
33. Jason Lytle - Dept. of Disappearance
32. Dent May - Do Things
31. Kendrick Lamar - good kid, m.A.A.d city
30. New Multitudes - New Multitudes
29. The Shins - Port of Morrow
28. Shintaro Sakamoto - How to Live with a Phantom
27. Foxygen - Take the Kids Off Broadway
26. Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti - Mature Themes
25. The dB's - Falling Off the Sky
24. Titus Andronicus - Local Business
23. Divine Fits - A Thing Called Divine Fits
22. Cardinal - Hymns
21. Lee Ranaldo - Between the Times & the Tide
20. Allo Darlin' - Europe
19. Yukon Blonde - Tiger Talk
18. Guided by Voices - The Bears for Lunch
17. Soul Asylum - Delayed Reaction
16. Best Coast - The Only Place
15. Green Day - Unos Dos Tres
14. Frank Ocean - Channel ORANGE
13. Dinosaur Jr. - I Bet on Sky
12. The Sea and Cake - Runner
11. Beachwood Sparks - The Tarnished Gold
10. Robert Pollard - Jack Sells the Cow
09. Weird Dreams - Choreography
08. King Tuff - King Tuff
07. Jeff the Brotherhood - Hypnotic Nights
06. Family of the Year - Loma Vista
05. A.C. Newman - Shut Down the Streets
04. Pujol - United States of Being
03. Nada Surf - The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy
02. The Avett Brothers - The Carpenter
01. Nude Beach - II

Sunday, December 23, 2012

U City's Walk of Fame is a Must-See St. Louis Highlight

It's always good to be back in St. Louis for the holidays. And we took a break from my mom and dad's festivities in Edwardsville, Illinois to head across the Mississippi River yesterday and visit Rachel's college friend Rachel Korenblatt.

After eating lunch with her family (eating has of course been a theme for the past few days), we strolled along my favorite St. Louis neighborhood, the University City Loop.

This used to be home of Cicero's, where my old band Birmingham Squadron once got kicked out for Dewey screaming at the soundman and my punctuation of jumping into Matt Beatty's drumset. I think our behavior led to us being one of the few bands not to get Cicero's complimentary pizza for performers.

Cicero's is no more, but Vintage Vinyl, one of the country's finest remaining record stores, remains. So does a book store, the Tivoli independent movie theater, and several clothes stores and coffee shops. Not to mention Blueberry Hill and Fitz's.

One of the most impressive elements of U City is the walk of fame. The amount of homegrown St. Louis talent is amazing and includes Vincent Price, Stan Musial, Harry Caray, Bob Costas, Robert Duvall, Miles Davis, Rogers Hornsby, T.S. Eliot, Tennessee Williams, and many more.

And a new feature since the last time I was in U City is the Chuck Berry statue (pictured). Jackson and I did a little duck walkin'.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

You For Me For You. How About None of Them?

I saw You For Me For You a couple of weeks ago at the Woolly Mammoth Theater in Washington DC and almost immediately forgot the details of the play's content. So reviewing this now is mildly daunting.

But what I do remember is that it was about North Korea, which is, of course, an endlessly fascinating and mysterious place. Unfortunately, instead of taking any chances or being truly interesting, the show stuck to the script that North Koreans think Americans are the crazy ones and, conversely, their fearless leader has them set on the correct course.

Two sisters decide to escape from the country and their miserable lives, but the sister that is starving and unhealthy decides she can't leave. The other sister makes it to the U.S. and embarks on a relatively happy new life. She drops it all, however, as things reach a high point and returns to North Korea to reunite with her sister.

Sounds interesting, actually. But the story plods, the characters aren't particularly interesting, and the lack of chances taken by playwright Mia Chung makes it puzzling that this production seems to be so successful

I've been complaining about Woolly Mammoth's shows for a while now, and I really miss the stuff that once made this theater DC's best. Could it be that theater in general just kinda stinks these days?

*** out of ***** stars

Photograph by Scott Suchman

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Best New Albums: December 2012

This is a new monthly feature recently introduced. You can stream all the albums mentioned here for free at this Spotify link, which I keep updated.

This month's list is dedicated to so many great 1990s artists still being around and still being relevant.

Best Album of the Month
Dinosaur Jr. - I Bet on Sky

Bringing all the elements of the best Dino Jr. albums (Bug, You're Livin' All Over MeGreen Mind, Dinosaur, and Where You Been), and adding a little bit of string and some Maurice Sendak-like cover art ... what's not to like? I'll buy any new music that J Mascis is associated with for the rest of my life.

Best of the Rest

Band of Horses - Mirage Rock
This album didn't exactly get a lot of love from critics who have grown cynically obsessed with Band of Horses being too likable for their liking. These guys are supposed to be semi-scary lumberjacks, right? Well, I'll just say it: I love the new, poppier direction that this set brings alongside 2010's Infinite Arms.

The Sea and Cake - Runner
This Chicago band is consistently one of my all-time favorites. You can put their music on in the background or you can throw on the headphones and sail away into wimpy, upbeat, jazzy blissfulness. I defy anyone to listen to opener "On and On" and not want to dig back into more Sea and Cake, like classic albums The Biz, The Sea and Cake, and Nassau.

Green Day - UNO!
Seems like there's been a lot of critical bashing of Green Day this year, but there's something to be said about a band releasing three albums in three months (this was the first). All three albums basically feature the same hooks that were on Dookie so many years ago. But darn if those aren't still delicious hooks.

Jason Lytle - Dept. of Disappearance
Remember that album The Sophtware Slump by Grandaddy? Lytle was the leader of that masterpiece, and if you liked that you'll like this ... and anything else he has ever been associated with. His music is kind of like Radiohead without the icky feels-too-important-not-to-like factor.

Robert Pollard - Jack Sells the Cow
Between his three Guided By Voices and two solo albums this year, this release might be my surprise favorite. It is very similar to his 2000s work with the Doug Gilliard-era GBV. Pretty brilliant and necessary stuff.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Dan Takes Lessons From Brother's Life ... And Mysterious Death

Dan Sullivan visits his brother's grave.
One of my best friends and the best man at my wedding, Dan Sullivan, is featured in an article by National Public Radio's DC affiliate, WAMU 88.5 FM. By reading the article, you will see that I know how to pick my friends ...

You can listen to the radio segment by correspondent/photographer Raphaella Bennin and view a slideshow of photos at WAMU.


Tom Sullivan ran at life full force. His brother Dan approached decisions with deliberation and caution, so it wasn't uncommon for Tom to jab at Dan, telling him, "Stop being a wimp. Just go out and do things!"

In 2000, Tom had an impromptu conversation with a recruitment officer and joined the Marines. The career turned out to be a perfect fit for his personality.

"He just went at it full force," recalls Dan. "I mean, he went into boot camp; he got through boot camp. He loved the marines. He actually had the opportunity to quit before he was sent to Iraq, and he believed so strongly that the Marines was what he was destined and wanted to do, so he re-upped."

Tom went to Iraq in 2004, but while he was deployed, he started to feel sick. His blood pressure became elevated and he started to have gastro-intestinal problems.

"It was very debilitating," says Dan. "He would literally miss three or four hours a day having to be on the toilet." Tom returned to the U.S., but his health continued to deteriorate. He was in intense pain and he became so swollen that new friends didn't recognize pictures of him from a year or two earlier.

Tom's doctors couldn't identify the cause. They suspected Crohn's disease and then ulcerative colitis, but weren't sure. He saw more doctors, hoping someone could confidently diagnose him, and he began to carry around a backpack full of his medical records everywhere he went.

Even in the midst of his physical suffering, Tom maintained his enthusiasm for life. He got married and had a daughter.

Then, in February of 2009, Dan went to Tom's house to check on his brother, and found Tom's body.

To read the full story (and it's well worth it), go to WAMU.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Hitchcock is Not Perfect, Which is Not an Easy Thing to Do

 When I was a teen, I not only devoured just about all of Alfred Hitchcock's movies, but I read several biographies about the man himself and became convinced he's the greatest film director of all time.

So it's safe to say I've been waiting a long time for the new movie Hitchcock. His life was ripe with fascinating details and the fact that he is so awesomely funny in a particular British, snooty, yet knowing, way seems to make this an easy home run.

Problem is: the movie doesn't dig very deep into the man's story, so it can't help but be at least a little bit of a letdown for a die-hard like me. Nevertheless, it's difficult not to respect the filmmakers' decision to explore a limited bit of the director's life instead of its epic scope.

I had forgotten that his wife, Alma (played likably and sympathetically by Helen Mirren), was such a big part of his creative force. The focus on the period around Psycho, which I still think is his best film, is also a winning choice. And the explanation of Hitchcock's passion and influence behind the production, the true story of Wisconsin sicko murderer Ed Gein, is interesting.

Anthony Hopkins should be a strong contender for lead actor. My only complaint is that his mouth and eyes make him look more like Hannibal Lecter than the basset-hound like Hitchcock. That said, Hopkins is just plain brilliant.

Two of the most memorable scenes are when he goes the extra directorial step to make Scarlett Johansson look terrified in her shower scene and when he proudly views the audience's faces as they light up with horror on opening night.

That's why the limited interaction between Hitchcock and Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, and Vera Miles behind the scenes is a part that the movie leaves a little too under-explored. When those interactions occur, it is spellbinding.

The movie no doubt wins most people over by the end, but a certain un-Hitchcockian mixed bag of suspense makes it difficult to call this movie perfect. And, with my bias, being less than perfect for Hitchcock is not an easy thing to do.

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

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Jeff the Brotherhood Rocks My Hood at the Fillmore

The Fillmore has been a few blocks from my home in Silver Spring, Maryland for a while now, but the place has never featured any concerts I've wanted to see. That's pretty amazing, especially if you know about the expansiveness of my music collection.

But I think Jeff the Brotherhood has one of the best releases of the year, and they rolled into the Fillmore Saturday night with another group that has a few albums in my collection, Delta Spirit (and their arguably better side project Middle Brother). So Rachel, Lori, and I decided to go.

Further, the show was reasonably priced at $22 per ticket (check), it was great to finally get to see what turned out to be a pretty decent venue (check), and I was psyched about Jeff the Brotherhood (check).

Jeff the Brotherhood
The band is a duo from Nashville, who play what I would call laid-back stoner rock, with basic but enjoyable lyrics. The whole thing borders on a punkier version of Weezer.

Then came headliners Delta Spirit, which has a "whole thing" as well. That whole thing equated in the three of us walking out five songs in. Everything was just wrong about this band. Its performance style just didn't add up, even though the cult-following looks on the audience's faces appeared to be approving enough.

They began with a pretentious light show and some sort of piped-in music designed to build the drama before they honored us with their stage entrance (a stark contrast to Jeff the Brotherhood, which set up its own instruments and ran a sound check before their set, all the while with their butts hanging out like plumbers).

Delta Spirit
Delta Spirit, from San Diego, entered the stage like they were U2 and proceeded to immediately creep my group out. With an Uncle Jesse (John Stamos) from Full House lookalike on vocals wasting no time in encouraging the crowd to lift our hands and clap along, the band proceeded to sound nothing like the mildly pleasurable alt-country of their albums. They had a hippie on bass and a spazzy Radiohead-wannabe on lead guitar. The singer screamed a lot, lacking any sense of likableness or bluesy-ness (which I think they were going for), and sent us away a little disgruntled from our first Fillmore experience.

Jeff the Brotherhood: **** out of ***** stars
Delta Spirit: 1/2 out of ***** stars

Monday, November 26, 2012

Best Magazine Reads: Vanity Fair Features 5-Year-Old Boy Lost From His Family in India

I love magazines, so I love the app I'm subscribed to on my iPad called Next Issue. It allows me to keep up with about a dozen of some of the best glossies out there.

Last night, I was glued to an article in the November 2012 issue of Vanity Fair called A Home at the End of Google Earth. The accompanying video is also very compelling.

A 5-year-old Indian boy is riding a train with his older brother. He falls asleep and realizes his brother is gone. He can't find him but assumes he'll be back. He falls asleep again and wakes up many hours later. His brother is still gone.

The train has ended up in Calcutta and the boy hadn't really known much of anything about where he was from. He wanders around the city and escapes at least one risky situation before heading back to sleep at the train station.

Soon he lands in government custody and is adopted by a loving couple from Tasmania. He lives there for many years, adjusting to life thousands of miles southeast of India. But finally, one day in his 20s, he has an inspiration to see if he can retrace the steps of his journey away from his birth family. He starts using Google Maps.

It is four years later when, after many sleepless nights scanning the web site in the dark, he thinks he might have found his home. He flies to India and is reunited with his mother, younger sister, and lots of other relatives. He discovers that his brother had died on some train tracks not long after being separated from his little brother. His mother had searched for the boys, but a fortune teller told her she would be reunited with the boy someday, so she ended her search and hoped for the best.

A truly inspiring and amazing story, and one that is not surprisingly being turned into a movie.

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

Friday, November 23, 2012

Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence Psyche Out in Silver Linings Playbook

I'm not sure that all the Oscar talk is exactly deserved for Silver Linings Playbook, which opened today at the enjoyably artsy Charles Theater in Baltimore.

But it is an entertaining love story that follows the troubled psychological times of heartthrobs Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in hardscrabble Philadelphia.

Robert DeNiro touchingly plays a die-hard Eagles' fan, gambler, and father of Cooper, who comes home from a psych ward at the beginning of the movie. He runs into the equally "psyched out" Lawrence and the two improbably try to use dancing to find their way back to normalcy.

With Argo, Lincoln, Cloud Atlas, The Hobbit, and several others in the running, it would be improbable that this little flick could pull off the award for best picture. But it certainly shows that there's more to Cooper and Lawrence than just The Hangover and The Hunger Games.

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

Monday, November 19, 2012

Luray Caverns is a Virginia Treasure

Growing up near St. Louis, we had close access to some of the best caves in the U.S.

Meramec Caverns in Missouri is known for its long, narrow steps down into its seven stories and is rumored to have been a stop on the Underground Railroad and a hideout for the Jesse James Gang.

Mammoth Cave in Kentucky is the longest cave in the world and was also a stop for slaves heading north in the 1800s.

So it was fun to have a cave-age child and stop in at an eastern cave, Luray Caverns near Skyline Drive in Virginia, on our way back from a family vacation at Wintergreen Resort.

Our young tour guide was excellent and he told us that no animals can survive in the cave. He also showed us the Stalacpipe Organ, which was set up over 3.5 acres of the cave and pings rocks throughout to get just the right sounds as part of the "world's largest instrument," according to the Guinness Book of World Records.

There's also the pretty sweet Luray Car and Carriage Caravan Museum on site that is free with the cavern ticket. Some of the highlights include a 1913 Stanley Steamer, an 1892 Benz, and Rudolph Valentino's 1925 Rolls Royce.

Rudolph Valentino's car

Vacationing at Wintergreen Ski Resort Without Snow

Emmet, Jackson, and Frances check out a snake on one of Wintergreen's trails.
I've been skiing a bunch of times out west, but only once in the east. That running total held with a trip to Wintergreen Resort in western Virginia that Rachel, Jackson, Tony, Terry, Emmet, Frances, and I won at last year's Takoma Children's School silent auction.

There was no snow and not many other tourists, which made the weekend a little odd but pretty relaxing. Or as relaxing as a weekend with three 5-ish-year-olds can be.

We took two decent-length hikes through the leafy, mountainous trails and mostly just explored the resort. There was also a kids' area that was pretty run-down and a miniature golf course that was probably the junkiest I've ever seen.

That said, it was a great place to take kids for a getaway from the Washington DC rat race.

Rachel wonders why the ball refuses to bounce off any of the walls at the Wintergreen miniature golf course.
Now I'm ready for a real ski trip, probably out west.

Jackson at the playground.

Emmet and Jackson get philosophical with each other at the playground.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Laughing in New York City With John Oliver

I forgot to write about my spring trip to New York City with my buddy Peter, so I just wrote about New York the last time I went up there instead. 

But it's not that that time many months ago wasn't worth writing about. I was reminded of it recently when Peter sent me this screen capture of us on Comedy Central (that's me second from right and Peter third from right). The John Oliver comedy special aired many months after we saw it filmed as well. 

It was a little odd. One, Oliver is one of my least-favorite parts of The Daily Show With Jon Stewart. Two, they made us sit for about five hours without food, drink, or bathroom breaks while they filmed two loooong episodes in a row. Three, it took us away from carousing the streets of Manhattan, which is one of my favorite things to do in this life.

I preferred the other comedy show we saw that long-ago weekend, the one that happened at 1:30 a.m. in the Comedy Cellar with Al Madrigal of The Daily Show. 

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Roy Lichtenstein's Exhibit at National Gallery Well Worth a Visit

Rachel and I are both good artists, so hopefully Jackson will be a powerhouse. We were thinking he would really love to see the new Roy Lichtenstein exhibit at the National Gallery, and sure enough he loved the cartoon-heavy show.            

Along with having the best cafeteria of all the museums on the DC Mall, the National Gallery is a fun place to wander through. For example, check out my photo of Jackson in front of the moving-walkway area that feels like a trip through a galaxy.

Jackson liked that, and also he liked Lichtenstein's pop-culture art. Famed for the dots on his paintings that he made with stencils, the exhibit displayed many of his best romance works (which remind me a lot of Archie, Betty, and Veronica) and his war pieces of flying aces in battle planes.

Lichtenstein's work stands up well to that of the master's, Andy Warhol. Now that the weather has taken a sudden shift for the cold, I highly recommend some time in this show. And Jackson got a book on how to draw people at the gift shop. He spent the rest of the afternoon drawing some Lichtenstein-like characters.

The Origins of Breakfast Cereal

I've been a connoisseur of breakfast cereal since an early age. So it made me very happy when Rachel recently gave me The Great American Cereal Book for my birthday.

The book is shaped like a cereal box and has glossy color photos of many of the innumerable cereals released over the years.

The first story in this pop-culture landmine discusses the advent of cereals. The unhealthy diet of the Civil War era inspired Granula, the first cereal, which was hard as a rock and required being soaked in milk overnight before it could be eaten. Disgusting sounding, yes, but it went a long way in building a healthier diet for Americans.

Nabisco Shredded Wheat followed in 1892, Kellogg's Granose Flakes in 1896, and Post Grape-Nuts in 1897.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Top 6 Wes Anderson Movies

Writer and director Wes Anderson is only a year older than me and he's already created seven films. So maybe I haven't accomplished as much, but at least I've seen six of those seven movies.

I just watched Moonrise Kingdom. It's about a young "khaki scout" and a supposedly troubled girl who fall in love amidst their shared passion for adventure. Those adventures repeatedly take them away from their families, who are constantly trying to get them back. The movie only slightly drags during the ending chase scene, but is otherwise pretty flawless and very funny.

The girl's parents are lacking-in-passion lawyers (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand). His scout master is Edward Norton and the policeman on the runaway case is Bruce Willis.

Needless to say, all these adults turn in hilarious and classic performances. The two kids (breakout stars Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward) are mesmerizing and every bit the oddballs that Max Fischer was in Anderson's finest film, Rushmore. Jason Schwartzman, who played Fischer, is also excellent as an oddball scout leader who has the power to unlawfully marry the two runaway lead characters in Moonrise Kingdom.

This movie receives ****1/2 out of ***** stars and places itself in a dead tie with The Royal Tenenbaums for the director's second-best movie.

1. Rushmore
2. Moonrise Kingdom (tie)
2. The Royal Tenenbaums (tie)
4. Bottle Rocket
5. The Darjeeling Limited
6. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

And I still need to see Fantastic Mr. Fox. It will truly need to be fantastic to break into those top four movies, some of the best ever.

Do you agree with this ranking?

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Louisville, Kentucky Provides Perfect Blueprint to Become a Bicycle City

This article was originally published at Mobility Lab.

The 99.72 percent of commuters* in Louisville, Kentucky who don't travel by bicycle are really missing out.

That's what I learned when I recently visited the home of the Kentucky Derby and the state's largest city.

Everywhere I travel, I try to rent a bicycle and see the sites. And nearly every time, I wonder why most people continue to drive alone when at least some of them could much more easily and healthily travel these places on two wheels. I was staying with a friend who owns a bike but rarely uses it.

In fact, when I told him one of the highlights of my ride was posing with Honest Abe at the Lincoln Memorial in Waterfront Park, he said he didn't even know Louisville had a Lincoln Memorial! And indeed, I suppose there might not be much reason to know about the memorial unless you took a stroll or bikeride along the Ohio River.

But the miles of trail along the river are part of what helps make Louisville so bikeable, and so attractive. I rode from my friend's house – in the very walkable and vibrant area southeast of the downtown called Highlands – straight up Bardstown Road, through the beautifully wooded Cherokee Park - designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who also designed Central Park in Manhattan - to the riverside bike path. This was an easy and flat ride and, indeed, even along the retail-lined Bardstown Road, there were signs to share the road with bicyclists.

Riding between Cherokee Park and the river took me through a warehouse district that, while not all that pretty, afforded a completely easy and care-free ride. And, amazingly, took me right underneath the stressed-out hordes up above on the "Spaghetti Junction" tangle of crisscrossing interstates and highways.

I then rode west along the river into the heart of the downtown. There were bicyclist signs all along the way, so the city is definitely thinking of ways to encourage this win-win activity. There are great sites and things to do throughout the downtown that are made even greater by the ease of simply pulling right up to the front doors on a bike, including the Belle of Louisville, the Muhammad Ali Center, the Louisville Slugger Museum, and food trucks to choose from for my lunch (I had a tamale).

I headed south out of downtown through Old Louisville and through the University of Louisville campus. Then I wound back east to return to my friend's house.

* One comment I feel I should add to this is that Governing’s statistic about the 99.72 percent in Louisville who don’t bike commute seems a little off (and Governing, to its credit, admits as much in its own footnote to its very-cool graphic). I saw a lot of bicyclists on my ride through the city, and several people told me that they see quite a few people riding regularly to work.

Best New Albums: October 2012

This is a new monthly feature recently introduced. You can stream all the albums mentioned here for free at this Spotify link, which I keep updated.

Best Album of the Month
Nude Beach - II
This is a wholly unexpected treat from a band I had never heard of. It lands somewhere between Tom Petty and garage punk. I'll just assume that the title means this is Nude Beach's second release. I'd already be on the warpath for the first if I could stop hitting "repeat."

Best of the Rest
The Avett Brothers - The Carpenter
This band served up my "album of the year" in 2010 and consistently releases the best folk-rock, by miles, that exists in the world these days. If you're a newbie to North Carolina's Avetts, start here, or, for that matter, start on any of their albums. A very close second to Nude Beach as album of the month.

Eux Autres - Sun is Sunk
From Portland, this brother-sister duo is like the part of Sleater-Kinney I would have always preferred. They are slightly abrasive and lo-fi like that band, but they are so much catchier and full of melody.

Allo Darlin' - Europe
This twee-pop group is just the second stringer we need when Belle and Sebastian takes a break from making records. Its self-titled 2010 debut is near perfect, and they've got a handful of great other singles and EPs. It's a great relief to me to have album #2 in hand now.

Cat Power - Sun
Unfortunately, I heard that Chan Marshall of Cat Power had another one of her famed onstage meltdowns last week at the 9:30 Club in DC. Fortunately, her new studio work is thoroughly listenable from the comfort of my own home. "Ruin" is already on my shortlist for best songs of 2012.

Young Fresh Fellows - Tiempo De Lujo
I'm accumulating quite a collection by these guys. Led by long-time R.E.M. guitarist Scott McCaughey, the Americana fluttering around on the band's 13th album goes into all kinds of directions. There's something for everyone, and also like an old friend you always love to hear from.

David Byrne and St. Vincent - Love This Giant
For some reason, I didn't think I would be into this. But I love Byrne and his Talking Heads. And I love St. Vincent (a much-less-annoying Regina Spektor or Tori Amos, with serious guitar licks). These songs are weird, but shockingly catchy and hummable.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Perks of Being a Wallflower and the Best High School Movies Ever

When you look at lists of the best movies about high-school, it kind of stinks that there just aren't many (or any) near the top that are recent.

Which is why The Perks of Being a Wallflower arrives as such a treat. Author and director Stephen Chbosky captures the insecurities and neuroses of teenage adolescence with clarity and emotion. No characters are ever interesting without a backstory (we all have one), and lead characters Charlie (Logan Lerman), Sam (Emma Watson), and Patrick (Ezra Miller) have stories both real and explained.

The only element keeping Perks from being a classic is that it's not as funny as it could be. There are several moments that are very funny for a line or two, and the fact that those bits work so well, it makes me think that Chbosky could have easily added more.

Nevertheless, the film is not really aiming to be Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Dazed and Confused, or American Pie. It's much more on the darker side, like Heathers, The Breakfast Club, and Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Not a bad side to aspire to.

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

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Afghan Whigs at 9:30 Club Provides a Memorable 90s Flashback

I had quite a brush with the Afghan Whigs back in the early 90s when I had to hold the guitarist up during one song to keep him from falling off the tiny stage at Cicero's in St. Louis.

The Cincinnati kids have come a long way, as the band, now reformed, showed recently at the 9:30 Club in DC. When I first saw the Whigs, there were 20 people watching in a sweaty basement, but this  show saw a whole new generation packing the renowned club to the rafters and bellowing out many of the Whigs' classic tunes. For me, I was just thrilled that they actually played "Retarded" and "You, My Flower," two songs off my favorite album, their first, Up in It.

I could have taken a run-through of all Up in It's rowdy tunes, but the selection actually represented a pretty good mix from all their albums, which I would incidentally rank as:

1. Up in It
2. Congregation
3. Gentlemen
4. 1965
5. Black Love

With so much strong material, it is difficult to believe the band only has five albums, perhaps partly because leader Greg Dulli has so much other great material with projects like The Twilight Singers and The Gutter Twins. Even with the Whigs dormant since 1998, Dulli has been notably prolific.

And Dulli, ever the soulful performer pleased the crowd throughout with a journey into the pit, not to mention the band's forays into snippets of songs by Stevie Nicks, Prince, and The Doors.

What a pleasure it is to know the Afghan Whigs. This show was ****1/2 out of ***** stars.

The set list:
Crime Scene
I’m Her Slave
Uptown Again
What Jail Is Like
Fountain And Fairfax/Who Do You Love
When We Two Parted/Dead Body
Turn On The Water/The End
You, My Flower
See And Don’t See
Going to Town/Edge of Seventeen
Cite Soleil
Miles Iz Dead
Into the Floor

Summer’s Kiss
Sometimes It Snows In April
Faded/Purple Rain

Photos by Brad Searles and Richie Downs

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Junot Diaz Writes Another Dominican Winner in The New Yorker

I have no doubt that Junot Diaz is one of the top contemporary fiction writers. His Dominican street-smart casanova language makes me feel like I'm back on the streets of that country, where I had such a great visit a year-and-a-half ago.

The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao is a modern classic, and Diaz's latest short story in The New Yorker, "The Cheater's Guide to Love," is a similar tale. It's about a guy named Yunior (a thinly disguised confessional story, it's been rumored), who lives in Boston and is suffering from years of depression after a breakup with the love of his life, whom he had cheated on about 50 times while they were dating and engaged.

Yunior tries running, yoga, dating other girls, and other pursuits as he tries to forget her. Nothing much works, and it's a sad and hopeless story. But the way Diaz writes makes the pages turn rapidly and I really couldn't wait to discover what would happen next.

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

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Best New Albums: September 2012

This is a new monthly feature recently introduced. You can stream all the albums mentioned here for free at this Spotify link, which I keep updated.

Best Album of the Month
Pujol - United States of Being
Tennessee garage rock that is obscure, but should not be and probably won't be for long. This is high-spirited party rock n' roll, like an even better Kings of Leon or Black Keys. It's all good, but I especially like "Keeper of Atlantis" and "Each and Everyday," which sounds like the best of every decade merging together into one rollicking Foo Fighters number.

Best of the Rest
Shintaro Sakamoto - How to Live With a Phantom
I have no idea who this guy is or where he came from, but it's very Japanese Brazilian tropicalia-ish. It makes me very happy whenever I play it. Samba beats, groovy beach guitars, and soothing backing harmonies. "In a Phantom Mood" is like the great lost Os Mutantes song.

Wussy - Buckeye
This month seems to be filled with semi-obscure recommendations. However, this band has been around for several albums and this may be their best one yet. Male and female vocals run throughout a diverse range of rock styles and sounds, probably best described as a mix of punk and alt-country. It still keeps growing on me after several listens.

The White Wires - WWIII
More 60s AM radio garage punk. This must have been my late-summer theme. These new kids on the scene, from Ottawa, have two records out this year. The first one was called, you guessed it, WWII. Not sure what happened to WWI.

Various Artists - Just Tell Me That You Want Me: A Tribute to Fleetwood Mac
This is an unusual tribute album in that it's really good and interesting. It helps that the Mac's songs are so strong, but groups like Best Coast, The New Pornographers, and Tame Impala shine on original takes.

Hacienda - Shakedown
This is a warm, organic, funky band from San Antonio that wouldn't normally be my thing, but the boogie woogie going on throughout most of this is just too darn difficult not to recommend to just about anyone, even the most hardened and jaded hipsters.

Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti - Mature Themes
This is my favorite Ariel Pink release yet, and I'm a little angry I missed their recent show at the 9:30 Club. It must have been weird. There are a lot of obvious Frank Zappa comparisons, but it has been updated to fit in even better into our current era. There are also beautiful interludes of pop majesty throughout, meeting somewhere between Brian Eno, Of Montreal, and Todd Rundgren.

Friday, September 21, 2012

A Hipster Invasion at the H Street Festival in DC

Originally published at Mobility Lab.

While visiting the H Street Festival northeast of Union Station in Washington DC last weekend, it was apparent that hipster culture is booming and that many sideline hipsters like myself are more than open to exploring the hipster part of town. Rumor has it that the festival expanded from 35,000 to 65,000 attendees from last year to this year, although I haven't seen that verified anywhere yet. Travel & Leisure magazine has taken note, placing H Street in 6th place among "America's Hippest Hipster Neighborhoods." The top 5 are:
  1. Silver Lake in Los Angeles
  2. San Francisco's Mission District
  3. Brooklyn's Williamsburg
  4. Chicago's Wicker Park
  5. Portland's Pearl District
The magazine measured hipness by walkability, coffee shops, food trucks, farmers' markets, locally owned bars and restaurants, artistic community, and various ways how people talk about the neighborhood. Many of these variables are the same ones we're seeing again and again in measures of the most valuable real-estate markets of today and the future.  Photos by Paul Mackie

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Banff and Jasper in Photos: A Hard-to-Beat Vacation

My brother Tim with Jackson, overlooking Banff from Tunnel Mountain
I guess one thing we know about starting a new job (which was actually about four months ago) is that it makes your personal blogging suffer.

My hundreds of blog posts per year have dwindled to more like dozens in 2012. But, alas, that's OK. Half the battle of running a blog is updating it at least semi-regularly and not letting it die, as happens to 99 percent of blogs.

Jackson scampered up a steep rockpile at the start of Moraine Lake, near the famed Lake Louise
Moral of the story: Better late than never. I just realized tonight that I never posted part two of my Canadian Rockies blogs. It was a great family trip to celebrate my brother's 50th birthday. And I reported on my afternoon in Calgary, but I never wrote about the actual best part of the trip, which was a week in and around the beautiful ski town of Banff.
A surprisingly impressive, but very crowded, hike up Johnston Falls, not far outside of Banff

Taking a long hike up near the glaciers of Jasper on Wilcox Pass
Here are some of my photo highlights.

The drive from Banff to Jasper was beautiful the whole way

Heading up Sentinel Pass, which took us up terrain that was Kilimanjaro-like at times and ended with steep switchbacks and a view of "10 peaks"