Growing Up Before Our Eyes (And Ears)

February 9, 2010

It’s been a few years since I’d heard from him, and I could tell that something was different. He seemed more sure of himself, comfortable in his own skin, and willing to take some new chances. And as Seth Avett threw a seemingly insignificant vocalization into the bridge of the title track of The Avett Brothers’ album I And Love And You, I realized that the fraternal band had taken a great leap forward.

As pop culture becomes more fragmented and monoculture becomes a thing of the past, acute genre specialization can sometimes discourage artistic growth. Even in sub-cultures where experimentation is valued, experimentation itself becomes the status quo; actual evolution can stagnate. Thus, leaps like the one that the Avett Bros have made are not frequent, and are all the more shocking and energizing for it.

In the Avetts’ case, the leap was from a good-to-great band, one that melded bluegrass and punk into a sometimes messy, always fun strum and stomp through the Carolinas, to a refined rock band that defies categorization and wears its earnest heart proudly on its rolled-up sleeve. The involvement of legendary producer Rick Rubin, the hirsute Rasputin behind the late career revival of Johnny Cash and the early career shenanigans of the Beastie Boys, certainly helped; together, they distilled the bands strengths until they were 200 proof, sanded the rough edges, added the missing instruments, and came out the other side with the most coherent album of their career.

The rewards of their efforts have been swift: late night talk show performances, main stage booking at music festivals, critical adulation (Paste’s #8 album of the decade), and the real holy of holies: distribution at Starbucks, though that’s more of function of their new, major-label backers than the quality of the record, if we’re honest. The band’s breakthrough creativity has allowed them to carve out a new public identity as critical darlings, a more distinguished promotion for the former cult heroes.

Leaps like these are not without precedent in pop culture. Gifted artists have a way of finding the essence of their earlier work and pushing past its existing boundaries until something resembling perfection is achieved. The result is often a cultural landmark, like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or The Royal Tennebaums. Go back and listen to Wilco’s pre-YHF output in sequence, and you find a very talented band without a concrete identity playing around with some of the very elements that made their subsequent brilliance possible. Likewise, Wes Anderson’s masterpiece picks the themes and visual tics that worked well in Rushmore and Bottle Rocket, and puts them front and center, thereby creating an intricately detailed fantasy of New York and the eccentric Tennenbaums.

These two examples are merely a toe in the water. Certainly you know that moment, when a piece of art connects with you at such a core level that it makes the hair on the back of your neck stand on end. Maybe it was the first chorus of “Do You Realize??” or Heath Ledger’s kinetically fiendish pencil trick in The Dark Knight, the visceral gut punch of an episode of Breaking Bad or the verbal rollercoaster of Outkast’s “B.O.B.”, but in an instant you know that entertainment has been surpassed by beauty, and distraction by awe.

As humans in a broken world, we ache for occasions where we can observe forward progress. Though it’s satisfying when a band springs fully realized from the primordial ooze, it’s even more fulfilling to watch a band struggle and stumble before finally pulling it all together. It gives us the hope that we might do the same, and the joy of experiencing beauty in a world marred by imperfection reminds us that perfection is not an improbable utopia but an eventuality that requires vigilance and appreciation to observe.

The preceeding was to have been released before the album dropped, but I got lazy, so here it is because it kept mocking me from my hard drive for being unpublished.


The new phonebooks are here!

September 18, 2009

I was recently faced with a conundrum. As a huge fan of The Avett Brothers, I’ve been eagerly awaiting the September 29th release of their Rick Rubin-produced major label debut, I and Love and You. I’ve voraciously consumed all the information I can get my hands on about the album, and have absolutely fallen in love with the three tracks that were released in July as an advance EP. But. The place where I go to find music to download recently received an early copy of the cd for free download. Hurm.

In general, I don’t have a guilty conscience about downloading music. For starters, in the past three years I’ve lost an iPod, a case of 90+ cds, and a laptop to thieves, and much of the downloading I’ve done is merely replacement of music which I once rightfully, legally purchased. Other downloads are for music which I need for a particular purpose (like a wedding reception) or just to scratch a momentary itch. The current artists that I care about merit me making a trip to Cactus Records to buy an honest-to-gawd physical cd, which I then dutifully rip to my hard drive and transfer to my iPod. I believe that musicians, particularly those who are trying to be heard above the drowning din of the current popular culture marketplace, are worth supporting, and I try as much as budget allows to provide this kind of support.

Besides, there is nothing like the first listen-through of a highly-anticipated album. The moment when a piece of music grabs you, and sweeps you up in the euphoria (or whatever emotion) of its own particular mood is so uniquely thrilling. You can probably remember particular songs that did it for you that way, where you didn’t even have to finish listening to the album before you knew what your favorite track was going to be. I can rattle off the names of the songs that grabbed me that way without much deliberation. Blister by Jimmy Eat World. Chicago by Sufjan Stevens. I’m The Man Who Loves You by Wilco. Fake Empire by The National (the oh-so-rare first track homerun). The Grey Album’s version of 99 Problems. Black Magic by Jarvis Cocker. Okay, now I’m just padding the word count…

Often these are the moments when you become a fan for life. While I’ve been a fan of the Avetts for a while, hearing the three tracks off of the upcoming album was like an epiphany. These guys should be HUGE. The aggression, harmonies, and unbridled enthusiasm of all their previous work have melted together along with a newfound pop sensibility to create some of the catchiest, most sincere music I’ve ever heard. And they all put it together in one song. And then then next song. And then the third, final song. I immediately put the little EP on repeat. It was better than it should be, a quantum leap forward as a band, and hopefully as a presence in the music world.

And that was just three songs. So now, the golden apple is dangling in front of my face. Free download. Nine more songs I haven’t heard, or of which I’ve only heard snippets. Craaaaaaaaaaap.

I’ve got to hold fast. I don’t want to ruin two Tuesdays from now. Besides, I’d rather have my first listen on my superior car stereo instead of these tinny computer speakers.


Cleansing the Palate

August 13, 2009

I used to hate doing puzzles as a kid. Once things progressed beyond those wooden puzzles where the pieces were shaped like animals and all you had to do was correctly identify a horse to solve the puzzle, I found that puzzles were infinitely more frustrating than I had the patience to tolerate. On paper, I’m a smart guy (I guess), but the whole spatial relationships + strategic thinking thing never really resonated with me. Mostly, I just liked finishing, and when it became apparent that you couldn’t finish a 5000 piece puzzle in an hour (unless you were Rain Man), I was done.

My ill-fated research career unfolded in such a similar way that it’s head-slappingly obvious why I’m not using my hard-earned bachelor of science degree. While age and experience taught me an appreciation for the big picture thinking that accompanies the daily drudgery of lab work, it was still infuriating to have to wait to see the tangible results of my work.

This week, the two main points of focus have been a job interview that I had on Tuesday, and a writing project that has slowly turned from a fun exercise into another 5000 piece puzzle or lab experiment. Ironically, part of why I undertook the writing project was to prepare myself for the daily writing of this potentially job. Now, I’m finding it necessary to find other things to write about so that I can return to the project next week with fresh eyes.

The first piece I ever wrote for the Chronicle required 900 words of re-writing after the first draft was labeled as boring. And it was, believe me. But that experience has given me the confidence that I’ll be able to draw some life out of this dry, academic article and make it sing like it’s supposed to sing. At least, that’s the idea. We’ll see how it goes.


City Boy Resurgence

August 5, 2009

I’ve grown accustomed (and fond) of living inside the Loop here in Houston. For those of you out of towners, the 610 highway encircles the core of Houston, the first of 2 1/2 concentric highways that give a map of Houston a look not unlike an ever-expanding onion. The innermost loop has experienced a renaissance in the Aughts, as the sports teams built stadiums downtown and people flocked inward from the suburbs to be closer to the action.

I was a child of the suburbs growing up, but didn’t really realize it until moving to the inner loop almost four years ago. Living in Memorial, wedged between the inner and outer loops, I was caught between urban and suburban, but I unconsciously identified more suburban. Being a Texan complicates this dichotomy; every Texan feels (rightly or wrongly) that deep down, they’d cut it as a cowboy if the opportunity presented itself. How else do you explain lawyers who drive F-350 ranch trucks to and from downtown every day?

So as I made my one residence outside of Houston in College Station, the desire to identify as something other than a city boy became acute. It can be said that, though they have a similar enrollment, Texas A&M feels like a small town, while the University of Texas feels like a small city. It’s only natural then that my life goals soon after graduation centered on eventually having some land in Washington County and buying a larger truck than the one that I then drove.

But as I returned to Houston and spent a large amount of time socializing in Katy, I began to see the limitations of suburban/pseudo-rural life. I didn’t want to eat at Chili’s again. The City Boy Resurgence began.

Fortunately, I found a church home inside the Loop, with a large group of friends, many of whom never grew up in Houston (and thus never knew a Houston life besides the urban one they now lived), and I fell back in love with the city, the city I didn’t even really know. It was like reconnecting with an elementary school friend with whom you shared some fond memories, only to find that they were even more well-suited to you now than before.

Now The City and I hang out frequently, and while I don’t regret any of the path that brought me here, I do wonder if I wouldn’t have gotten here sooner if I’d gone away to the small city instead of the small town. At very least, I would’ve traded in my truck a little sooner.


Pro Discography

August 2, 2009

Friday afternoon was intermidable; one where your friends are already discussing how to escape work and find their way to the first watering hole of the weekend, and there you are stuck at the computer, attacking a project with attention-intensive gusto. You know the kind.

However, I didn’t much mind. I was already vicarious well beyond the bounds of sobriety as I entered my second hour of listening to The Hold Steady’s entire discography. I’m working on sifting some of the recurring themes out of their music for an article, and my current approach to the task was to listen to their entire output consecutively, in roughly chronological order. For those of you keeping score at home, that would be Almost Killed Me >> Separation Sunday >> Boys And Girls In America >> Stay Positive >> A Positive Rage plus some random bootlegs for good measure.

Soon the small beans Midwestern drug dealers and wandering kooks ran together in my brain, leaving me with something approaching a hangover, but without the attendant fun beforehand. In a way, that’s exactly what I was hoping for. Like a dream that you lunge to remember right after waking, all the ideas and elements were now in my head, but without any continuity or context, just big guitar riffs and singalong choruses to string it all together.

The experiment was a fun way of really finding out what a band is truly about. Try this out some time: pick a favorite artist (preferably one who isn’t ridiculously prolific; I’m looking at you, Ryan Adams), and listen to their entire discography over the course of the day, and see what kind of mood presents to you. I’m guessing a listen-through of The Avett Bros would have me grinning like a toothless mountain hermit, The National would leave me craving a cocktail in a bright Manhattan bar, and Lyle Lovett would inspire a cross-Texas road trip (taking only the smallest highways, naturally).

I’m more naturally inclined toward a shuffling, ADHD whirlagig tour through my iTunes library, but the immersion method was eye-opening. I’ll have to try it again soon.


On Vacations

July 31, 2009

I neglected to mention in my setup yesterday that one of the key rules of this 30 day project is that it not be self-referential, i.e. talking about the fact that I’m writing every day. That’s a crutch that I’m not going to allow myself.

Part of my recent spurt of imagination stems from the therapeutic effects of a recent vacation. Hold on, you might say, aren’t you marginally employed and recently married? Didn’t you just escape to another island idyll just four short months ago? Yeah, but.

Vacations, by definition, force you to leave all of your normal day-to-day existence behind at the airport, to be picked up at baggage claim along with your luggage. Even the leash of a Blackberry can be severed (as it was in my case) by wonky cell signal and the urge to throw the damned thing into the crystal blue ocean like a Corona commercial. You exist as Yourself Minus; minus job (haha), minus extra-curriculars, minus most friends, minus your cars, house, and possessions that wouldn’t fit in the Samsonite. It allows you time and clarity to see yourself as you are without those things. Which, strangely, is not nearly as pretentious as it sounds; it’s merely comfortable in the way that staying in bed on Saturday morning is comfortable.

A brief moment creased the armor of this particular vacation, a phone call informing us that a tree had fallen on our car, followed by a second call downgrading the crisis to small branches on our more sturdy vehicle. The sheer panic of an unexpected Responsibility encroached and receded, and was forgotten except as a funny story to tell over rum drinks.

I’ve never been one for vacations. When I leave a job, I always have excess vacation days remaining, sometimes weeks worth. In the seven years since I graduated from college, I’ve taken the odd extended weekend here and there, but the only real vacation I’ve had was my honeymoon in March. Having two trips close together has implanted the importance of these breaks. As much as we all pride ourselves on work ethic and willingness to go the extra mile, we also serve a God who ordains rest. As thirty taps me on the shoulder and hands me its business card, I’m starting to see the wisdom in rest and reset.


The 250: An Experiment

July 30, 2009

After a painfully long hiatus from this blog, and something like a creative dry spell, I’m geared up about writing again. But not just in a perfunctory, “I should write something” way, no, I want to kick start my creative juices by pulling a stunt, by assigning myself a task that will get me thinking like a writer again.

My recent career meanderings have called into question whether I have any right to lay hold of the title “writer”, and while I’m pretty sure that the jury is (and will be) out on that point of order for a while yet, I can certainly do what I can to settle the question in my own mind. To that end, I’m resolving to write two hundred and fifty words a day for the next 30 days. It may be on this blog. It may be on Houstonist. It may be elsewhere on the web. The only exclusions are message board posts, Tweets, and Facebook content, all of which are taking up a large degree of my attention lately and subsequently making me a little stupider with each 140 character missive. On the upside, this experiment should make my Twitter more interesting, too.

Two-fiddy isn’t oppressive. Heck, it’s taken me a hair over two hundred words just to set this up to this point. All told, it’s 7500 words; roughly the length of a decent short story. Which is exactly what I’d like to start writing at some point as soon as I can think about writing fiction without breaking out in a cold sweat. Baby steps, people.

So that’s the manifesto and the goal. The carrot that’s mostly for me moreso than you. (Sorry) I’ll post links to stuff that I post elsewhere, maybe on a weekly basis or something. So keep your RSS well primed, because I’m gonna spam it for the next few weeks.