the next thing

11 Aug

It’s been a long time since I posted anything. Let me fill you in on what’s happening.

I’m extremely close to launching a new site devoted to ‘writing about music.’ It will be called Cap Gun, and it won’t be music news, or reviews, or videos. It will be long-form music criticism a la Kelefa Sanneh’s treatise on Jay’Z’s Decoded and the language of hip hop as well as discussions with other music writers on the art and craft of being a critic.

My voice recorder is perpetually filled to capacity with thought-provoking proclamations and questionable musings by the musicians I interview. Much of it never makes it into the final piece. Cap Gun will be a place to sort things out. It will be a place to discuss the best medium for criticism (print? blog? podcast?) and a place to explore the question of why artists make unlistenable music. Content will be infrequent but worth reading.

Things around here had been focusing more tightly on music for quite a while, but I needed a clean break from Read::Zebra to make the new site what I wanted it to be. What you liked about coming here should keep you coming to Cap Gun, and I hope you do. I’ll have the official URL soon and hope to launch this fall. The first project in the works is a roundtable with Chicago-based editors of music magazines, weeklies, and Web zines. Should be really interesting.

I’ll be back with more info soon, but in the meantime you can keep up with my writing by heading to my portfolio,

Thanks for reading. Can’t wait to begin the next thing.

the making of misty

2 May

Joshua Tillman was a songwriter before he became the drummer for Fleet Foxes. Now he’s traded Seattle for Laurel Canyon and his birth name for Father John Misty.

“In January, Tillman left Fleet Foxes and, somewhere along the highway between Seattle and Laurel Canyon, became Father John Misty. Los Angeles and all its gritty, sexed-up, Big Tent attractions became the raw material that Tillman used to assemble songs that are less ruminative and more narrative, and as sharply poignant as Boogie Nights.”

Take a second to listen to “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings.” 

Fear Fun is the “debut” by Father John Misty, aka Joshua Tillman, aka the Fleet Foxes drummer. Whether you like Foxes or not, don’t go into this thinking about that. That’s Seattle. This is LA.

an apt analogy?

13 Apr

“Many people have critical opinions on this subject, ranging from ‘this will ruin Instagram’ to ‘$1 billion is too much.’ And for many Instagram users it’s discomfiting to see a giant company they distrust purchase a tiny company they adore—like if Coldplay acquired Dirty Projectors.”
—Paul Ford, in New York Magazine

leaving eden for the frontier

28 Feb

Today the Carolina Chocolate Drops release "Leaving Eden," a spirited entrant in 21st-century Americana.

I went to Ipsento last night to knock out a review of Leaving Eden, by the Carolina Chocolate Drops, the Grammy-winning African American string band, and ran into my friend Dan. We talked about his recent travels to Puerto Rico, our friends’ soon-to-open pie shop, and recording some music of our own. Inspired as always by moments of incidental contact, I settled in at the big table—joined later by a petite girl reading what appeared to be chic lit—and sipped a cortado while I attempted to boil a fascinating story down to two-hundred-and-some words.

By the time I finished, I mostly liked the way it began. “To listen to the Carolina Chocolate Drops is to hear the history of the United States of America, distilled to its brightest and blackest realities.” But that’s quite the thesis for a piece whose remaining word count is a third the size of an average Huffington Post blog entry. With any luck, I’ll soon flesh out more of what I’d like to talk about in regards to the Chocolate Drops’ story—like how the name comes from the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, a black country blues band that played at the 1933 World’s Fair.

The new album from Australian trio Dirty Three might've been completely alien to most listeners if not for its emotive instrumentation.

As incredible as their story is, the Chocolate Drops’ new release isn’t what I’ve been listening to for the past week. One of Alarm‘s other picks for This Week’s Best, Dirty Three’s Toward the Low Sun, has been streaming on NPR since last Sunday, and it’s been blowing my mind a little. I’m obviously a sucker for frenetic drums, but the haphazard structures of this post-rock-meets-free-jazz are equally delightful, even as they teeter.

It’s fun to trace the looping line of distorted guitar through the nearly five minutes of opening track “Furnace Skies,” but I was maybe most impressed by the way such intense playing styles could be layered to create an almost pastoral soundscape. “Rising Below,” “Ashen Snow,” “You Greet Her Ghost,” even “Sometimes I Forget You’ve Gone”—each uses Warren Ellis’s violin to evoke a rugged Americana frontier (or Australia’s equivalent) and give the listener just enough of a recognizable feel to help what might otherwise be cold and alien sound familiar and warm.

Read more about Dirty Three and the full review of Carolina Chocolate Drops’ Leaving Eden over at Alarm Press.

the ‘goldilocks zone’

27 Feb

An illustration of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, by Arthur Rackham. Music writer Alva Noë says Adele's music lands in the "Goldilocks Zone."

Alva Noë provides the smartest and most sensible answer to the recurring “Why do we like Adele?” question:

“Music that occupies the Goldilocks Zone, a song like Adele’s “Someone Like You,” sets up the release of dopamine in reward circuitry in the brain. No doubt. But it would be a mistake to think this is why we like the music. Dopamine is released because we like the music. And our liking the music has everything to do with our perceptual sensitivity to the way it fits into, and plays against, a musical conversation, which is really to say, a whole musical culture.”

Read the rest on NPR.

learn to tell your story

22 Feb

A day in the life of Matthew and Timothy Schuler

On Monday I shared some thoughts about telling stories, pulled from Malcolm Gladwell’s conversation with behavioral economist Dan Ariely. In response, my wife, Allison, posted about the positive effects that a story can have on individuals suffering from PTSD. I thought it was worth reposting here:

“…Telling your own story also rewires your brain completely. Dan Siegel, a neuroscientist, found that this was one of the best predictors of health. Individuals with post-traumatic stress syndrome often cannot tell their stories coherently at first, but with work, they eventually understand their own narrative, and this can often rewire and heal their brains.”

Learn to tell your own story. You might be healing past injuries as you do. Or at least understanding yourself a little bit better.

As for the photo above, I could tell a hundred stories about the characters, creatures, and inanimate objects I became as a little kid. But I’ll save those for another day.

tesla explained

22 Feb

One of the Tesla coils used by Bjork in her stage show. Photo by Will Hermes.

Thanks to NPR’s Bob Boilen for exposing me as a shoddy music reporter: Despite my mention of it, before this video I had no idea how a Tesla coil could be used as an instrument.

five new listens

21 Feb

This week's best: Releases by Buildings, Busdriver, Pharoah Overlord, Galactic, and Sleigh Bells

Five albums make Alarm’s cut this week. I review Galactic’s Carnivales Electricos [previously]: Michael Danaher listens to Reign of Terror. Meaghann Korbel digests Busdriver’s Beaus$Eros (pronounced “bows and arrows,” if you’re struggling to make sense of that). And editor Scott Morrow takes on Lunar Jetman and Melt Cry Sleep. Read the reviews here.

getting glad

20 Feb

It’s dark out this morning when I wake up, as it has been every morning since October. There’s something pleasantly surreal about being up before the sun. Maybe it fulfills some romantic desire to work on a farm like my parents. Or maybe it’s just my version of solitude. With a single lamp and the shades drawn, I begin my day hours before I need to shower, pack my lunch, and head to the Blue Line.

Work begins at 9:30. The train ride is twenty minutes, bookended by a five-minute bike ride and a ten-minute walk. If I wanted to, on any given morning I could watch an entire feature-length film and still make it to work on time. But I wake up wanting to move, think, plan, organize, and (when I have something good on the boards) write. This morning is no different, and if I was in the habit of keeping an activity log, today’s would read:

  • made coffee (too weak)
  • emptied dishwasher
  • mapped route from Chicago to the Carolinas (by way of Louisville, Kentucky)
  • read ten pages in The New Jim Crow
  • prepped vegetarian chili in slow cooker (sweet potato, bell pepper, fire-roasted tomatoes, two kinds of beans, and lots of cumin)
  • read Vanity Fair article about the influence of 1982’s Diner
  • made lunch (roast beef sandwich, cherry tomatoes, orange)

No matter what I’m doing, one part of my brain keeps trying to figure out what to say about Galactic’s new album, Carnivale Electricos. My review is due sometime today, but until I make it to the train and find that Presidents’ Day has emptied the Blue Line of its normal cast of commuters, I don’t have anything good to say about it. But never underestimate what getting a seat on a train will do for the imagination, for de-cluttering a head. I’ve noticed that I really can’t think straight until I’m in a situation where I’m a captive audience to myself.

I put on the album, starting with “Magalenha,” a remake of a song made famous by Brazilian composer Sergio Mendes. From there, I skip around, noting rhythms (rumba clave), instruments (saxophone), and references (Black Eyed Peas). I agree with Scott, my editor, that the best tracks are the ones without the guest artists, except for “Karate,” which features the KIPP Renaissance High School Marching Band and brings it about has hard as Mucca Pazza, Chicago’s salvaged marching-band outfit. By the time the Clark/Lake station blurs into view, I’ve got a good start. Two-hundred words isn’t a lot anyway.

I’m at work early enough to devote some time to my Google Reader. Today, I’m surprised to see activity on the blog of a good friend. There are more than a few of us waiting for Derek Hamm to break his radio silence (at least consistently), so I hit that link first. It’s a quote from Malcolm Gladwell, not from Blink or The Tipping Point or any of his other sociological studies, but from a conversation he had with behavioral economist Dan Ariely:

“I’ve learned that if you tell your story properly, people are very, very open-minded—far more open-minded than I would’ve thought. Or to put it in a more sophisticated way: People are information-rich and theory-poor. If you can give them a way of organizing their experience, then their minds are wide open. Which I would not have not have necessarily thought. And if you can frame questions appropriately you can overcome all kinds of ideological—what you would have thought of—as ideological constraints. So I’ve been continuously surprised. I always thought my book, because I am a political liberal, that my books would have heavily liberal audiences. But in fact they don’t….”

He could’ve stopped at the first line. “…If you tell your story properly, people are very, very open-minded….” That’s a powerful truth we keep forgetting. It also hints at our big failure: our relegation of the story to a world of impractical art-making.

Our storytellers are not people of power. Yes, we’ve got folks like Graydon Carter or, well, Malcolm Gladwell, who wield the same kind of influence that politicians do. But others work their miracles from the periphery. Most accept it, maybe prefer it. But we’ve let things like voting records and rhetoric usurp story’s place in the way we learn about others and the type of people they are. Stories can be corrupted, obviously, but it’s a fairly straightforward medium. No one expects a story to say everything. Fortunately, it seems like there has been a resurgence of the idea that the stories we tell—both true and false—are not just important but completely inimitable. That nothing communicates the same way a story does.

A few minutes after the first quote, I’m reading Gladwell again. Liz Danzico apparently read the same conversation as Derek. She pulled out a different bit:

“To be a writer I think you’re kind of constitutionally disposed toward optimism.”

I haven’t read the whole interview, so I can’t say whether I agree or disagree, but my instinct is to lean toward the latter. I’m aware of the irony of it: An optimistic person would readily agree. But that wouldn’t necessarily prove Gladwell right, just that he and this hypothetical reader are both optimists. My skepticism about this exact statement notwithstanding, I am a fairly optimistic person, to the point of naivete at times. So I’m hoping that not only is Gladwell right, but that it’s reversible, that simple optimism begets a disposition toward writing good stories.

Now, the question remains: how to tell the story of Carnivale Electricos “properly?” And how to do it in 200 words?

global love letter

14 Feb

No Stranger Here, by Business Class Refugees, Shubha Mudgal, and Ursula Rucker

A beautiful mash-up of spoken word, traditional Hindustani vocals, string arrangements, and Western beats. Inspired by Indian poet Kabir. It’s like a global love letter for Valentine’s Day.