(I realize that, after a month-long absence, I should probably be bringing a little more heat than a college football recap. That's not the case, but then again Welsh corgis.)
LSU's victory* over North Carolina was, shall we say, underwhelming. As with last year, the most obviously frustrating issue was offensive coaching. Gary Crowton, as Paul Crewe at ATVS noted, can design some very pretty plays. Unfortunately, his implementation in-game is lacking both strategically and tactically, and I don't know how satisfied I am (to say nothing of the perpetually-scowling Jordan Jefferson) with the "Don't make the same mistakes as 2008" excuse.
--First, the pressing sports news of all our lifetimes: Chris Paul possibly (but not really) getting traded from New Orleans. I was going to address this in a separate post, but I had serious doubts that Paul was going to be moved before the start (or end) of next season -- he's simply too valuable, and of all the teams on his supposed wish list, only the Lakers could really send anything back worth the Hornet FO's while. It could still happen, and I'd understand Paul's reasons for leaving; it is unlikely that he'll be in championship contention in NOLA, the team should have told him about trading Tyson Chandler and firing Byron Scott, and he does play for one of the worst owners in the NBA.
That said, these are problems with fairly clear remedies if Paul's willing to look long-term. And it goes without saying that the front office can't trade Paul; he's one of the only draws for a team that's hemorrhaging money. It's highly likely that a Paul-less Hornets organization folds within the next few years. Again, I understand where Paul's coming from. The only aspect of this that I really hate is LeBron's obvious influence, even if it's only the influence of the precedent the Heat set. It's entirely possible that I'll write a Comic Sans-laced tirade if Paul does leave (and be mocked by Chili's accordingly), but for the moment, at least, I can feign objectivity.
In Frightened Rabbit's breakout second LP, The Midnight Organ Fight, frontman and songwriter Scott Hutchison confessed his struggles with depression and alcoholism in, to use his language, "brutal" and "oppressive" detail. For all its glumness, though, The Midnight Organ Fight is still a remarkably honest, exciting album; its combination of earnest vocals, dire subject matter, and propulsive folk-pop reminded me of Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, only without some of the consistency and nuances of design and theme that made that album so singularly great. To invite the comparison at all is about as high a compliment as I can pay a record.
Having said that, I think that The Winter of Mixed Drinks, Frightened Rabbit's 2010 follow-up, is even better. Give the record's first four tracks -- its best -- a listen; if you're not hooked, then I don't think I want to know you. The band, centered around Scott Hutchison and his brother Grant on drums, expanded its sound considerably from The Midnight Organ Fight, which leaned a little more heavily on the folk part of the folk-pop equation. The addition of Make Model's Gordon Skene, along with Scott Hutchison's changing sensibilities, help weigh Winter decidedly in the opposite direction; even with the added shoegaze elements and the percussive stomp from the band's roots in Scottish folk, each one of those first four songs is unabashed, anthemic pop.
Accompanying a somewhat more accessible musical style is a relatively more optimistic outlook on life. The Midnight Organ Fight was a breakup album in the vein of Beck's Sea Change, a remarkably detailed look at Hutchison's misery from beginning to end. The Winter of Mixed Drinks listens like a self-help record by comparison; the dominant theme of The Midnight Organ Fight was trying to understand or to even accept pain, and The Winter of Mixed Drinks, with its nautical imagery,is about fighting it. "Swim Until You Can't See Land" is about an act of desperation as much as anything else; the narrator has to take to the sea lest his myriad worries back home overtake him. Sure, he might drown (as the reprise "Man/Bag of Sand" implies) but at least he's given himself a fighting chance.
My best friend in elementary school was Matt McAnnally, and our friendship was, like those of many children our age, rooted in a mutual appreciation of Tekken and Animorphs. In spite of those time-tested foundations, however, our relationship flagged and sputtered once we went to middle school. One day, sitting on the opposite side of the bus from Matt, an older kid sat down next to me and said, “So, you guys aren’t friends anymore? He’s acting too cool for you now, I guess, hanging out with other kids.”
I was awestruck. This person, a complete stranger, had diagnosed the unspoken seed of discontent nestled in the heart of my friendship with Matt. I was impressed not only with his perspicacity but also with the fact that, upon reflection, maybe my experience wasn’t unique, wasn’t special. Maybe our story was just like everyone else’s.
Listening to 69 Love Songs by The Magnetic Fields—the concept album brainchild of songwriter Stephin Merritt—gave me that same feeling, making me wonder if there was an emotion that couldn’t be encapsulated in a three-minute pop song. The titular love songs are really songs about love songs, about the craft and inherent dishonesty involved in trying to write a love song for mass digestion. There are a few you can point to that might be sincere, but by and large they’re clever, irreverent, funny metafiction.
Diplomacy is a board game similar to Risk, but without that special "realize one hour into the game that no one's having any fun" quality. The biggest difference is that there's really no element of chance; you can be tricked, certainly, but the little armies and navies on the board win or lose their battles because of math, not dice. Winning the game requires both an ability to cut deals and a keen understanding, as in chess, of the possible moves your opponent can make. You can backstab people, but you can only do it successfully if you understand the likely consequences of your actions.
Last night, during his interview with Michael Wilbon, LeBron James -- barely containing his excitement, eyes constantly darting offscreen -- looked like he'd made a power play for the ages.
--America's nightmare descent into socialism has been delayed -- for now. The Ghana game was tough to watch in both an agonizing and boring sort of way, and served as an especially fine example of the truism that Bob Bradley's greatest gift as a manager is correcting Bob Bradley's abundant tactical errors. Cherundolo (and Bradley, for that matter) was too tired to keep up his excellent form from the past few games, and Gooch Onyewu, rehabbing or not, was best equipped to deal with the size/speed combo Ghana offered.
--And may I note, for the record, that soccer is the last, best hope of "go harder, win better!" analysis? Baseball and football certainly suffer from it too, but there's at least the pretense of strategic analysis in those sports to go along with determining who does and does not have swagger (a term generally reserved for people of the natural athlete persuasion) or scrappiness (more appropriate for players of a fan favorite complexion). With soccer, it really is just, "[Player name]...GOAL!/Just wide." Or, if the announcer is the insufferable John Harkes, "THESE GUYS JUST NEED SOME HEART TO GO AND WIN OUT THERE!"
--In conclusion, the reason why America isn't more competitive in Ninja Warrior is that the best athletes in America are playing sports other than Ninja Warrior. Think about it, people!
--Speaking of athletic competitions that are superior to soccer, Spencer Hall had an excellent post recently detailing one of my very favorite things about college football: superdickery. It's an incredible list (bolstered by incredible writing), but my favorite has to be the Jack Pardee story, which is just Biblical in its douchiness.
--Dr. Saturday is in the midst of Mid-Major week, and he's been absolutely on fire. Hinton's blog is required reading anyways, but posts like this one on Saban show that, in addition to his great statistical analysis, he's a really funny guy, too.
(That’s three-for-three on LCD Soundsystem-inspired titles, by the way.)
My biggest problem with LCD Soundsystem (the alter ego of James Murphy) before I heard Sound of Silver was that I thought it was generic. I’d heard “Losing My Edge” and a bevy of other singles at a party no one in particular enjoyed; the wave of beats might as well have been Lady Gaga, or, hell, even the Black Eyed Peas. Compounding the issue was that what lyrics I could make out seemed phony, forced, or copied. Oh, it’s so tough to be an aging hipster! Oh, it’s so wearisome to go to all these parties!
Sound of Silver is a lot of things, but it isn’t generic. The album illustrates the basic similarities of dance and post-punk music, which in retrospect are pretty obvious; post-punk is much darker, but it’s no great surprise that the quintessential post-punk band, Joy Division, was reborn as the highly-successful electronic outfit New Order. The bookends of an excellent three-song run in the middle of the album, “Someone Great” and “Us v Them,” manage to combine driving, funky dance beats with jangling post-punk guitar and foreboding piano. The major themes of those two songs? Grief, paranoia, and isolation, hearkening back to a variety of Joy Division's wrist-slittingmodes. The album’s major accomplishment isn’t making electronic music sad, which plenty of people have done (or attempted to do). Sound of Silver’s success lies in never sacrificing its constant, stunning movement for atmosphere; most albums in this vein veer toward one genre or the other, but even in its more forgettable tracks, Sound of Silver meets dance and post-punk exactly halfway.
Is it authentic? Well, part of what makes the album so unique is that it’s copying a lot of different influences, and copying them effectively. The most victimized source is David Bowie: Murphy apes his voice shamelessly (but effectively) across the album, especially on the title track; the end of “Watch the Tapes” steals the relentless piano of “Star”; “New York I Love You” has the same blues structure, climaxes, and, on occasion, even the same lyrics as “Rock ‘n Roll Suicide”; and the album’s tone as a whole hearkens back to the Berlin era. David Byrne, Ian Curtis, and even Lou Reed all have legitimate complaints, too. Does that make the album less authentic? I tend to think so–it’s easy, for instance, to mimic David Byrne if you want to sound paranoid—but the album’s best song, and undoubtedly the best one Murphy will ever write, is completely sincere. “All My Friends” is a perfect song about a simple theme: home, found either in family or friends. It’s something you don’t see much, unfortunately, in indie music: something sweet, pure, and hopeful.
The presence of that great three-song run—“Someone Great,” “All My Friends,” and “Us v Them”—makes the rest of the album pale a bit in comparison. It’s consistently good ("Get Innocuous" and “New York I Love You” would highlight a lesser album), but there are still some weak tracks, especially the back-to-back “Time to Get Away” and “North American Scum,” which reminded me of a lot of the problems I had with LCD Soundsystem to begin with. Sound of Silver is still an excellent album, but those conventional flaws leave it, in my opinion, just short of the canonical status it’s already reached in the critical community.
Whether or not you like District 9 is almost entirely dependent on whether you feel the movie accomplished its central aspiration to be something more than a competent sci-fi thriller. The movie takes place in a perpendicular-universe version of South Africa, where an alien mothership essentially ran out of gas above downtown Johannesburg. The ship's inhabitants, a very gooey bunch of insectoid aliens nicknamed the Prawns, are found within and given safe haven in the city below. Due both to xenophobia and the Prawns’ repulsive nature, the Prawns are soon cordoned off in the eponymous District 9, a sprawling shantytown filled with impoverished, desperate Prawns and Nigerian warlords trying to exploit alien technology.
The obvious apartheid allegory is made much stronger by the choice to make protagonist Wikus van de Merwe – well played by Sharlto Copley in his first professional role – an incompetent bureaucrat rather than a traditional hero. Sent into District 9 to evict the Prawns from their homes so that they can be moved to concentration camps well outside of Johannesburg, Wikus presents a complex and darkly funny illustration of the banality of evil argument. Putting Michael Scott (or David Brent, really) into an Adolf Eichmann role is an inspired decision, and Wikus’ character arc -- from stupidity and casual xenophobia to humanity and heroism -- is a much more satisfactory examination of the nature of racism than the other observations in the movie's world.
The movie’s greatest shortcomings lie in its lack of depth, as the slick documentary-style opening explaining the human-Prawn relationship sacrifices a lot of detail for breadth. Once we get to know some of the Prawns, we understand their motivations, but not how they expect to accomplish their goals. The movie attempts what all great sci-fi tries to do, which is immerse the audience in a new world. What prevents District 9 from reaching the level of, say, an Aliens,is that it lacks the detail necessary to convince the audience of its fantastic conceit when they take a break from the movie's relentless pace.
But yowza is this movie exciting. As a piece of visceral filmmaking, it’s basically flawless. It reminded me a lot of the remake of 3:10 to Yuma, another flawed yet extremely entertaining genre movie. The gore is intense, but you get used to it pretty quickly; by the last fifteen minutes of the movie, I gave a little fist pump when a Bad Guys Inc. sniper’s head exploded. Also like 3:10 to Yuma, there are some nagging questions that emerge upon reflection, and resentment at some of the sentimental gimmickry (in this case, our utterly guiltless, sympathetic good-guy Prawn) the movie employs. That said, you don't think about any of those things while you're watching the movie; you're too busy staring at the screen, hoping our boys make it out of there alive.
--A few weeks ago I wrote down a to-do list of albums I still needed to listen to, consisting of the dozens I picked up this year and a dozen or so that I needed to revisit. I just counted them up, and I've got 140 total. I've listened to 20. Every road, single step, and so on.
--I should've said something about the Finals last week, but didn't. Suffice it to say that I'm the kind of masochist who enjoys games like Game 7, with its epic tension and incredible defensive performances. As great as the Celtics' D was (particularly Garnett, who played with a truly legendary, life-or-death intensity reminiscent of the 2008 Playoffs), the way the Lakers rotated and communicated in the 4th quarter was magnificent. Once I got past the sad realization that Garnett and Ray Allen would probably never have another shot at the title, I couldn't resent the Lakers' victory. That team was just so damned good when it counted.
--I mention Garnett and Allen in particular because they're the most likely to get moved in this offseason, in my opinion. Allen especially has been linked to trade talks, and on a team that asks less of him on defense (like, say, I don't know, the Cleveland Cavaliers), Ray will still be a lights-out shooter. Garnett, meanwhile, has a mondo contract, and the Celtics are very much at a crossroads regarding his contributions vs. the team's future.
--In other sports news, the World Cup went ham on the collective American imagination, and it's been awesome (occasionally). I was rooting especially hard for Cote d'Ivoir in the interest of Africa having something to cheer for, but Brazil took a big ol' dump on that dream. Luckily, the US Mutant Ninja Turtles have performed well beyond my expectations, lucking into a 1-1 draw with England, a 3-2 draw with Slovenia, and a 1-0 win over Algeria. I still think Landon Donovan's an alien, but I have to like him now.