22 June 2008

catching hold of the light

click on the song titles to listen

The first thing you will notice when you listen to This Too Will Pass, an album by Hrishikesh Hirway or The One AM Radio, is the melancholy of his sound. These are midnight songs, best heard in bed in the company of empty space, eyes open staring into darkness. The second thing you will notice is the serenity of his voice. Hirway does not sing as much as softly breathes, but his is the monotony of quietude. If he is perturbed, he has found peace with it. And if neither has yet grabbed your attention, the third thing you will notice is his visual lyricism. Hirway's songs are beautiful pieces of haiku stretched into prose, creating imagery with attendant mood: calm but intense, unadorned but symbolic, concise but redolent of a rich narrative. Consider this, the entire lyrics to Our Fall Apart, about a couple on the brink of a perhaps decisive separation:
We stood within the dappled shade of the small backyard where we had our start. You kept your eyes on your cupped hands, held as though you might catch hold of the light. Behind the curtain of your hair, you began to say, half-turned away, "How strange to find this place unchanged to our hardened hearts, and our fall apart."
And then there's Cast Away, which is a haunting song about a man struggling to accept the prosaic reality of normal life after a long surrender to depression.
The first thing you saw when you washed up onto the shore were the words "I don't love you anymore" scrawled into the sand. And as the sun and the din from the street beat you sore, you had a sudden ache for the ocean floor. Every night you dream of the same underwater scene, where you nearly made your peace, but then the silence suddenly ceased. And placed by an unseen hand, you were brought back to the tumult of land. The sound of the hull against the waves is not around to lull you to sleep nowadays. You just lie awake, listening to the gulls in the bay. Breathe in salt air as you stare at the ceiling, trying to recapture the feeling of being married to the sea, but your vision gets so watery. Every night you dream of the same underwater scene, but safe beneath your sheets, you'll never find your way back to that peace.
It makes you think: Is it possible for someone to be so depressed, he wants to stay depressed?

20 June 2008

three portrayals of almost love

Or, films with characters that sing.

click on the song titles to listen

An Irish indie hit from last year, Once tells the story of a relationship that develops between a Dublin busker and an immigrant flower vendor who inspires him to pursue his recording ambitions. I first saw it on a plane and fell asleep halfway through. I thought the story was more interesting than the music, but felt it was too slow to keep my attention. I gave it another chance on DVD, and loved it. It's intimate storytelling; we don't even get to know the characters' names. Theirs is a relationship of mutual respect, admiration and love of music, with physical and emotional attraction an undeniable presence, a looming uncertainty over how it might change the course of the lives they're trying to carve for themselves.

One of the film's many charms is the simplicity of its story, and watching it unfold raises only two questions: Will he make it, and will they end up together? Spoiler alert. We only learn about the latter, and I can't think of a better ending: They record, he decides to go to London, they spend a day together before he leaves, and they confess to a mutual attraction in a sweet, awkward goodbye, where she declines his suggestion to consummate the relationship, afraid it would only lead to pointless "hanky panky." What a girl.

So here are my two favorite songs from the film. Frankly, we've heard Hansard's style before, which many people say reminds them of Damien Rice, but to me sounds more like a stripped down, pre-White Ladder David Gray. I like the way When Your Mind's Made Up develops by gradually adding and removing various elements – guitar, piano, voice, drums, backing vocals – to complement the mood of specific parts of the song. Gold, on the other hand, is a duality, alternating string virtuosity with vocal and lyrical purity. The latter, however, stands out in its earnestness. Vocalist Fergus O'Farrell sings with the withered voice of a medieval troubadour, delivering a song that is not only traditional in sound, but also in its use of metaphor. It's amazing to me how a song like this can still come from this century.

click on the song titles to listen

The Hottest State had its moments, but in the end I decided that it was an overdramatized piece of work that lasted far longer than its statement was worth. Written and directed by Ethan Hawke based on his own debut novel of the same title – in other words, it's self-masturbatory – The Hottest State tells the story of how a young struggling actor, William, falls in self-destructive fashion for a young struggling musician, Sarah. Their mutual attraction is obvious from the moment they meet – he is beguiled by her air of mystery, she by his mawkish verbosity – but the relationship they eventually establish remains platonic, until Sarah declares herself ready to get over a prior rejection, and by extension, to let herself fall in love again. Not long after the act, she begins to distance herself and decides that she doesn't want a relationship after all.

Unable to understand why, William tries to win her back, progressively becoming more obsessive, through midnight phone calls and recitations of Shakespeare in front of her apartment. You begin to get the idea – which, I guess, is that love can be real and passionate even at an early age – but Hawke rubs it in by sending William to a downward spiral that becomes too exasperating to watch. Perhaps it's due to a weakness in direction. Unlike other talky films that Hawke is very well familiar with – like Before Sunrise, where the conversations cleverly explore each character's lives – The Hottest State uses uncreative dialog and narration to explain. The flashbacks of William's early separation from his father are a disjointed explanation of how he developed his need for a relationship he could hold on to, and everything we get to know about Sarah's past is crammed in a dinner scene almost as an afterthought. This is, of course, a film about William as much as Ethan Hawke, who has called his novel a work of autobiographical fiction. But the film takes itself too seriously that it becomes pretentious – words that have been used to describe Hawke himself.

Thankfully, the soundtrack is enjoyable, made up mostly of songs written by the unheralded Jesse Harris, performed by some good artists and himself. One Day The Dam Will Break is an uplifting self-medication against an inevitable fall, and Never See You is a shy wish for a second chance.

click on the song titles to listen

I don't really have much to say about this film, which the world and half of Mars have probably seen, other than it's worthy of its acclaim. The soundtrack is an excellent alternation of mostly classic folk/rock songs and Kimya Dawson's jocular songwriting talent and tongue-in-cheek folk sensibility. Director Jason Reitman's song choices give the soundtrack a character as quirky as the film itself, and it's impossible to listen to it without thinking of the film's story and its starkly different characters. I predict Juno will be up there in the company of Singles, Garden State, and Pulp Fiction in all-time lists of Hollywood's most memorable soundtracks.

14 June 2008

do you hear that, mr. anderson?

a playlist : ringtones for people who hate ringtones
click here or on the image below to listen

Bear with me for a bit and let's talk about numbers. I was happily ambling about the internet the other day when I came upon this highly disturbing bit of news: According to soothsayers, mobile phone users will spend about $6.65 billion in ringtone downloads by the year 2012. Assuming that by then there will be at least 3.3 billion people with cellphones, and that the price of ringtones remains about a dollar each, then that amounts to at least two ringtones for every mobile phone in existence. That means there's going to be an awfully good chance that every phone that rings in the future will do so to the sound of music. But that's just the half of it. According to misfortune tellers, ringback tones will be more popular than ringtones within just a couple of years. That means instead of hearing the familiar ring when you're calling someone's phone, you will be hearing a song that that person has chosen for you to hear. So what kind of music will you be hearing more of – against your will – in the streets, in restaurants, in public transport, and even on your own phone in the near future? Check Billboard's Hot Ringtones chart for a hint.

Now I don't really care what songs they are. Putting it mildly, I'm not very fond of ringtones. All of them. I think ringtones are one of the most useless inventions ever, way up there in the ignominious company of electric candles, umbrella hats, and superhero capes (except Batman, who isn't superhuman, so he needs it). People have taken to ringtones to publicly announce what cool individuals they are or how much sense of humor they have. Well let me tell you something, Mr. Bleeding Love, your ringtone sucks, and when you pretend to be embarrassed when your phone rings and you fumble as if you can't find it just so the song plays a bit longer, what you're actually saying is, "Ooh, look at me, I'm an attention whore!" Twat. Apologize is for pole dancing, not moviehouses. Shake It and Pork and Beans are for frathouse pukefests, not supermarket aisles. Viva la Vida is for driving yourself off into a cliff, not for hospital waiting areas. And you should all be reminded that a blaring playback of Beautiful Girls in an ATM line is an abuse of airspace rights, tantamount to assault. One day, someone will Taser your ass in revenge and I'll be cheering them, bro.

Of course, I and the rest of us ringtone non-fans know that this rant is a futile exercise in rational bitchin', as there apparently is no shortage of people who will fork 99 cents for the cheapest badge of individuality they can buy. But if there's one lesson we, the people, should all have learned from Hillary!, it is to never give up and to keep rolling on. We have within our means a number of ways to keep the fight for a sane, noise-free environment, and as responsible urban citizens, we must assert our rights and do any of the following:
  1. Write for your congressman to legislate a total ban on ringtones. That way, we can litigate ringtone users to death and make their lives as miserable as they've made ours. Punishment for the guilty will vary. End-users will be isolated in a jail facility with a sound system playing Buy U a Drank on repeat 24/7, while ringtone manufacturers (including iTunes – I worship you, Steve, but please take them off the store and sack whoever told you that selling them was a good idea) will be hung, drawn, and quartered twice over.
  2. Ask Dean Kamen, the inventor of Segway, to invent a ringtone-blocking device that city planners can install in public areas, defined as any amount of space with a population density of more than one person per square meter mile. (We don't really want to be thought of as being overly selfish, so this seems like a reasonable size to me.)
  3. With the economy in a rut, the government could surely use some money. In these trying times, imposing a 1,000,000% tax on ringtone purchases is truly a win-win situation and a genius idea whose time has come. Lobby it.
  4. Start a grassroots organization and initiate a "World No Ringtone Day." Spread the word through text messages simply saying, "Today is a good day to respect the rights of others to not be violated by your insensitive ringtone. Please set your mobile phone on vibrate and shove it up a nice, warm place within your body, if you know what I mean."
  5. And now for the fun part: Beat ringtone users at their own game. Tell them how much their ringtones are the pig's ass by using one that will call their attention and slap their faces silly. Make it hard, make it punchy, make it as in-your-face as possible – anything with an angry riff, a cascade of drumming, or lyrics that will feed on their paranoia, because more often than not, these ringtone folks are right-wing Snapple drinkers who believe that terrorists are contaminating their bottled-water sources and so they try to seek comfort from wherever they can, including their cell phones. Therefore, I humbly propose the following songs:
  • Human Fly : The Cramps
  • Black Betty : Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
  • Heartbreak Hotel : John Cale
  • Shake Your Rump : Beastie Boys
  • Pay to Play : Nirvana
  • Suicide Blonde : INXS
  • It's the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine) : R.E.M.
  • Psycho Man : Black Sabbath
  • Man in the Box : Alice in Chains
  • Rebel Yell : Billy Idol
  • Space Oddity : David Bowie
  • Kashmir : Led Zeppelin
Got better ideas in mind?

16 May 2008

insert big sigh here

shots is fired
hard drive
Both songs by Evan Dando. Click here or on the image below to listen

Shots Is Fired is what you feel when you've scarred your feet from what you thought was a march to a hopeful end and the road all of a sudden forks and both paths look bleak and turning back is not an option and neither is a pause because you hear the ticking on your wrist that says time is running out. You wonder how in hell you even got here when just a moment ago or was it just a moment ago everything was so straight and so simple and so sure and you remember that you tried to blaze a trail because you weren't content with straight simple sure. Whatever part of you that's been calling the shots is fired. Tell him he's lost control how can it be how could he let you down how could he leave you on your own. But you gotta do it you gotta take a step left right right left it doesn't matter just take that step close your eyes it's gonna be okay it's gonna be fine maybe it's even gonna be easy but who are we kidding. Whatever. Get in motion. Hard Drive is what you feel when you know you'll get there you'll get to it it'll be over if not soon then eventually. You'll see it. A familiar street. The house of a friend. Pale paint on wooden gate. Your name carved in a tree trunk. Porch. Home. A path to the beach. A hand to hold. Palm on palm. Fingers locked. Wrinkled skin. You touch each other's aged face. And don't you know it, you're happy, just when it matters.

16 March 2008

heart on a stick, dipped in a vat of burnt sugar

or, a playlist : songs for the lovestruck and forlorn

Here's a playlist I've kept from one iPod to the next. I don't really have a name for it other than the generic Acoustic Ballads, but I've learned to live with it. Any other adjective would be inaccurate, any other noun contrived. Songs have come and gone on this list, but they all have one thing in common: they're stripped down songs about love, loss and yearning, and they're unabashedly sentimental. It doesn't necessarily mean they're gooey and clichéd. Most of them are not off-the-shelf expressions of abstract feelings, but experiences written as stories, as intentions, as streams of consciousness. 

As usual, you can listen to the songs two ways: Click on the image below to hear them all in one go, or on the song titles to hear each song individually.

  1. Somebody That I Used To Know : Elliott Smith
  2. No Fear Of Falling : I Am Kloot
  3. Saturday : Josh Rouse
  4. Naked As We Came : Iron & Wine
  5. To Be Alone With You : Sufjan Stevens
  6. I Wouldn't Miss It For The World : Johnathan Rice
  7. Poetry & Aeroplanes : Teitur
  8. Sleeping To Dream : Jason Mraz
  9. Only You : Joshua Radin
  10. Your Sweet Voice : The Reindeer Section
  11. Trouble : Ray LaMontagne
  12. My Winding Wheel : Ryan Adams
  13. Kathleen : Josh Ritter
  14. Dogs : Damien Rice
  15. Silent Sigh : Badly Drawn Boy
  16. Babylon : David Gray
  17. On Your Side : Pete Yorn

21 February 2008

a boat ends its journey

playa girón : silvio rodríguez
click here or on the image below to listen

I believe that idealism is a mark of noble leadership, but its practice should not humble a people to poverty. I believe that every person has the right to health care and education, but not at the cost of his freedom of expression. I believe in the pursuit of national unity, but not to the point of denying individualism. I know very little about Cuba, I know very little about Castro. What I do know is just enough to make me both respect and revile the man, impressions I no doubt share with countless others who have neither set foot on the island nor met any of its people. And yet, I have a strong sense that Castro enjoys a positive popular bias. His name has become synonymous with romantic notions about revolution, that what he has come to symbolize seems to have overshadowed what he has actually achieved. Castro may be a divisive figure, but also an inspirational one. Forget his influence on the current turn to the left in Latin American politics. While on one hand he has driven away some of the best musicians the island has produced, on the other his rule has led others to sing of his ideals in ways that are poignant and sublime. In Playa Girón, Silvio Rodríguez, a trovador and member of the Cuban parliament, pays tribute to the fishing boat where he worked in 1969, an experience that to him represented not just man's return to primitive form, constantly in battle with the forces of nature, but also the virtue of toiling not for mere individual survival but for the shared benefit of many. The song, he says, is "an intimate and human tribute to the nameless men who work in sometimes perilous circumstances for the Cuban population." But what makes the song really moving is that it is its own answer to the very question it asks: What words and rhythm do justice to a boat as vital as the Playa Girón? Here are the original lyrics below, followed by my very liberal, not literal, translation in English.

Playa Girón

Compañeros poetas,
tomando en cuenta
los últimos sucesos
en la poesía,
quisiera preguntar
—me urge—
¿qué tipo de adjetivos
se deben usar para hacer
el poema de un barco
sin que se haga sentimental,
fuera de la vanguardia
o evidente panfleto,
si debo usar palabras
como Flota Cubana de Pesca
y «Playa Girón»?

Compañeros de música,
tomando en cuenta
esas politonales
y audaces canciones,
quisiera preguntar
—me urge—
¿qué tipo de armonía
se debe usar para hacer
la canción de este barco
con hombres de poca niñez,
hombres y solamente
hombres sobre cubierta,
hombres negros y rojos
y azules los hombres que pueblan
el «Playa Girón»?

Compañeros de historia,
tomando en cuenta
lo implacable
que debe ser la verdad,
quisiera preguntar
—me urge tanto—
¿qué debiera decir,
qué fronteras debo respetar?
Si alguien roba comida
y después da la vida,
¿qué hacer?
¿Hasta dónde debemos
practicar las verdades?
¿Hasta dónde sabemos?
Que escriban, pues, la historia,
su historia los hombres
del «Playa Girón».

Playa Girón

My comrades in poetry,
considering the many ways in which
poems are written these days,
I would like to ask you,
I'm very keen to know,
what words must one use
to pen a poem about a boat
without making it sound sentimental,
without making it pretentious
or an obvious propaganda,
considering that I have to call it
the Cuban Fishing Fleet
and Playa Girón?

My comrades in music,
considering the wealth of tones
and the boldness one can employ
in the process of writing a song,
I have to know,
what harmonies one must use
to create a song about this boat,
this boat of men who knew little about childhood,
men and only men on deck,
black men, red men, blue men,
yet men who spent their lives in Playa Girón?

My comrades in history,
considering that truth is never a compromise,
I would like to ask,
I'm dying to know,
what do you say,
where do you draw the line
when someone steals food
then sacrifices his life for another?
What do you do?
To what extent do you uphold the truth?
How much do you really know?
Let them write, then, their own story,
their own history,
the men of Playa Girón.