Salt & Shadow

The misapplication of social media can lead to the dissemination of fraudulent information, the degradation of trust in democratic systems and even the incitement of tragedy. These are worrying, ever-present concerns in the modern world. They are also representative of the types of social problems that have existed for millennia because, for as long as there have been social systems, there have been those who seek to misuse and abuse them.

It may be, then, that the bigger concern with regards to social media networks isn’t how to handle instances of their misuse but instead how to manage their impact on users when everything is functioning as intended. Though the science is young and the data inconclusive, there’s growing body of evidence that suggests that social media usage can have serious negative effects, including increased isolation and a lack of actual social bonding.

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The Labyrinth Within You

At the climax of the 1986 muppet-dystopia Labyrinth, David Bowie’s impressively-codpieced Jareth confronts Jennifer Connelly’s emotionally ascendant Sarah in an Escheresque series of gravitationally impossible stairways. Frustrated by Sarah’s continued rejection of his romantic overtures, Jareth makes one final attempt to subdue the object of his affection.

He fails.

But in the opening minute of “Within You,” the weirdly apocalyptic song that begins this whole exchange, he also delivers an exceptional line on power, love and the limits of devotion: “Everything I’ve done, I’ve done for you. I move the stars for no one.

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A Better Son

You can disdain the band’s high-school-goth lyricism or snicker at their emo-extremist wardrobe but you can’t deny that My Chemical Romance had a flair for the (often needlessly) dramatic. With Father’s Day just having passed and with parentage on my brain, let’s take a moment to enjoy one of the best instances of that dramatic impulse.

A little over halfway through The Black Parade, the album takes a turn from its bizarrely humorless anthems and goes full weirdo. I’m talking, of course, about “Mama.”

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What a World We Have Made

Three years ago The Decemberists released What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, the band’s seventh full-length album which, like most releases from Portland’s premier prog-folk outfit, is clever and catchy and thoughtful. Stylistically, What a Terrible World hews closely to The Decemberists’ well-established folksy style but the album is no worse for being something of a retread (in fact, the haunting ‘Lake Song’ may be the single greatest installment in the band’s extensive archive).

Despite its simple construction, the most interesting song on What a Terrible World is undoubtedly ’12/17/12′ in which lyricist Colin Meloy reflects on, among other things, the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that claimed the lives of 20 children and six adults.

Through his laconic lyrics, Meloy tries to reconcile the joy that he feels from the impending arrival of his second child with the immense grief that empathy for the Sandy Hook victims and their families demands. In confronting the inherent complexity and duality of simultaneously experiencing both intense joy and utter anguish Meloy poignantly states,

“Oh my God, what a world you have made here. What a terrible world, what a beautiful world.”

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The Best Albums of 2017

Okay, so that title is misleading. These aren’t necessarily the best albums of 2017 – who am I to judge? – but they’re certainly the new releases that I enjoyed most this year.

(Presented alphabetically by artist.)

I’m Only Dreaming by Eisley

By the end of the album’s very first song, it’s clear that I’m Only Dreaming is a special record. You want proof? Album opener ‘Always Wrong’ rides deliberate melodies that transform into stratified harmonies while the serenity of springtime seems to bloom right out of the speakers during in ‘When You Fall.’ If those don’t do it for you, try the majestic closure of ‘Brightest Fire’ or the tranquil tenderness of ‘Rabbit Hole.’ Few albums this year offer a single song as brilliant as any of these and yet I’m Only Dreaming has them all and more, including what is perhaps the album’s greatest passage as the second half of ‘Defeatist’ unfolds across a looped melodic line, tracing out a verse that hits maybe a little too close to home:

“As the dust falls down, I usually give up so easily. I let my head hang down before I even see a truth that’s plain as day staring back at me. I’m a defeatist, but I don’t have to be.”

I’m Only Dreaming is that rare album that grabs you from the moment it begins and never lets go; it’s bright and warm and surprisingly existential. The end result is that with this release, Eisley, on the heels of significant lineup changes, has created what is likely their best album. Continue reading “The Best Albums of 2017”

Writing Young

A decade ago I sat in a collegiate music composition class and listened to a professor explain how, in order to write a truly great song, it was necessary to hone an idea over and over, fully exploring it and discovering the best way to implement it. Young people, he posited, struggled with this because they have too many ideas and want to work each of them into every project. They lack the ability or willingness to be patient, to refine, to focus, to reduce. Besides the fact that this is a pretty condescending stance to take in front of a classroom of young people who want to write music, it also – irony alert – feels like a rather unrefined position. Presumably he was trying to convince us that writing music was work, except that it felt an awful lot like he was saying writing music was for other – better, more dedicated – people.

To be clear, there is some truth in what he said. There is absolutely benefit to honing one particular idea and refining it into its purist form. However, that doesn’t mean that you can’t have a lot of ideas in one song, or that the desire to combine a number of ideas is somehow detrimental to any one of them. It just means that, if you want to include a lot of ideas in one song, you had better be able to give each of them the attention that they need. It’s also worth pointing out that young people are just as capable of this as their seniors – if not more capable, considering that the vast majority of “great” songs and albums were written by young artists.

In fairness, the overarching concern that this professor had is a good one: to really make a song work, you can’t simply string a couple of ideas together. You need to truly understand those ideas and how they fit with one another. How a song’s elements relate and what makes each one successful in achieving its goals have a huge impact on how the song will turn out. What our dear professor failed to understand is that there’s no age barrier to focus and drive and deep thought. You don’t have to have had a certain number of birthdays to write a good song, you just need to have the ideas and the commitment to putting in the necessary work. Which, come to think of it, is not all that different from what you would need to teach a collegiate music composition course. In retrospect, maybe Mr. Professor wasn’t being a dick in an effort to discourage us from writing music; maybe he was afraid that we were coming for his job.


This post originally appeared at Type In Stereo.

You, Me and DuPree

When I was a kid, my best friend lived down the street. Ours was that kind of inseparable childhood friendship where we hung out pretty much every day, no matter what. We played with Legos and video games and on the same hockey team. We knew each other’s immediate and extended families almost as well as our own. Of the five phone numbers that I still have memorized, one is for that house where he grew up and where his parents still live, down the street from where my parents still live. It’s all very quaint and midwestern.

Eventually we grew up, taking our own separate paths through the latter half of adolescence and into adulthood. Though we grew apart as we were learning how to handle the intellectual and emotional challenges of being adults, we’ve stayed in touch and all these years later we’re still friends, even if we’re not as close as we used to be. Hell, after a fifteen-year break, we’re playing on the same hockey team again. Like I said: quaint, midwestern.

Like this, more or less.

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Hey Millennials: This Isn’t How They Said It Would Be

Look, the world feels an awful lot like it’s going to shit right now. And a fair number of Baby Boomers – the people who have been running this shit show for a while now – are pretty sure that not only is the world ending but that it’s all millennials’ fault. No seriously, it’s all millennials’ fault. Upon reading such buffoonery, I am tempted to join the army of bereaved souls who have written screeds against the wrongs done to my generation by our elders, the general point of which can usually be boiled down to something like: “What the fuck, Baby Boomers? This is your fault.”

We millennials were promised a world – by you, Mr. & Mrs. Boomer Parents – that we could shape as we saw fit, where a liberal arts degree wouldn’t be useless and where any job was attainable so long as you cared about it. If this idyllic world that we were promised ever really existed (spoiler alert: it probably didn’t), it sure as hell was gone by the time I became an adult. The result is a fairly-justifiable desire to set pen to paper and lambaste the teachers, counselors and, yes, even parents who misled an entire generation of idiots (read: people like me) into thinking that we could really be whatever we wanted when we grew up as long as we wanted it badly enough. As if the road to success wasn’t littered with the desiccated corpses of countless others who also wanted it really, really fucking badly. Continue reading “Hey Millennials: This Isn’t How They Said It Would Be”

Tessa Violet – Halloway

When discussing Halloway, the late-2016 EP from Tessa Violet, the natural inclination is to focus on the album’s jaunty electropop feel. While it’s true that ‘Dream’ moves along on the back of a bouncing hook and that ‘Not Over You’ sounds like the musical lovechild of Tillian and Carly Rae Jepsen, these salient points do not address the most compelling aspect of Violet’s most recent EP: ‘Haze,’ the malevolent instant-classic at the literal center of Halloway.

There’s a long history of pop musicians getting bored with their vanilla personas and trying to diversify; what usually follows is an attempt to don the black hat and try on (the appearance of) some villainy. I don’t think that’s what’s happening here. ‘Haze’ is dark and troubled but authentically so. This may be the first pop song I’ve ever heard that sounds truly sinister. It’s sparse and baleful, its melody driving towards an ominous cadence even as the delicacy of Violet’s vocals contrasts with the surrounding gloom, heightening the dramatic tension. ‘Haze’ thrives on that contrast. Compared to oft-overdone heel turns that rely on sonic violence or aggression, Violet’s approach is casual, nonchalant and dispassionately calculating. It also hints at a sense of victimhood, revealing the self-doubt that lies behind so many good villains. Honestly, it’s pretty fucking great. And so is the rest of Halloway. If you love pop music and you weren’t keeping an eye on Violet prior to this release – and I certainly wasn’t – you should be now.


This article was originally posted at Type In Stereo, where you can find lots of my random musical thoughts, like, for example, how ‘Haze’ is probably the only song to reference both Shakespeare and Fifty Shades of Grey in the same line. So that’s something.

This Is Ours Now

I.

There was a time when Third Eye Blind’s self-titled debut was the only album I listened to for an entire calendar year. Literally. That seems like an exaggeration, an overreach of the figurative use of “literally.” It’s not. I was ten during the summer of 1997, when ‘Semi-Charmed Life’ took over every radio station on Earth, and by the time I was 11 – and after pilfering my dad’s copy of Third Eye Blind – the album had effectively taken over my listening life.

It’s difficult to articulate how much I’ve listened to that album and how interwoven it is with the fabric of my personal identity. I spent my formative years – when I sat on the precipice of adolescence, beginning a never-ending existential crisis of self-discovery – listening to it almost exclusively. Third Eye Blind is light and cheery on the surface and dark and tormented beneath; those layers and that depth were incredibly appealing and important to me at a time when I was starting to learn about my own depth as a person.

Art is a mirror and as I grew and changed, I saw myself reflected more clearly in Third Eye Blind than in anything else in my life. In it I found more than just some semblance of understanding or solace; I found the same violent emotions, the confusion and isolation, that felt so prominent in my own life. I found a voice – both sonic and lyrical – that was as odd and broken and magical as I felt. I found myself.

That discovery – that there was something beyond my fingertips that I understood and that understood me – was critical. An awkward kid, I struggled with the complexity of growing up, especially with the crossing of that adolescent threshold over which everything becomes suddenly new and beautiful and painful and strange. I didn’t know how to process the changing infrastructure of my life and when it came to interacting with my evolving peers I was maladroit at best. For a long time I was lonely and confused and uncomfortable in my own skin. In my self-doubt, I leaned on Third Eye Blind, burying myself in its rhythms and patterns. Throughout my ungainly growing pains I endured the hazards of emotional awakening by telling myself that even though I had never been so alone, just as Stephan Jenkins intoned on my favorite song, I had never been so alive. Continue reading “This Is Ours Now”