Omnivore’s Delight and Dilemma

In his inaugural blog post on Bandcamp, Andrew Dubber wrote about the trade-offs that come from being a musical omnivore. On the one hand, you can never listen to enough music to get the depth of knowledge in any one genre that say, a true metalhead may have of Finnish melodic death metal. On the other hand, you get a breadth of music that a specialist lacks. An omnivore can still listen to some Finnish melodeath, but won’t miss out on Sigur Ros. Another joy that comes from omnivory is that sometimes it allows you to see hidden threads in the zeitgeist.

In some cases, this makes listening to music more fun. Exhibit A:

The first time I saw Fleet Foxes’ beautiful animated video for “The Shrine/ An Argument,” I was so blown away by the beauty of the music and the art that I didn’t give much thought to how much the unfortunate ungulate in the video was like the creature on the cover of Mastodon’s The Hunter.

Cover of "The Hunter"

Then, a couple of days ago, Mastodon released a new video for “Dry Bone Valley,” featuring animation. Something about the origami-like forms of the animations was reminiscent of the Fleet Foxes video. The similarity is subtle, but I don’t think I’m imagining it. Is there any connection between these two very different bands beyond their both being amazing? Maybe not, but I enjoy both videos more for the unexpected similarities.

Exhibit B: This wonderful new-to-me video by My Brightest Diamond (ironically discovered on the Angry Metal Guy blog) is a powerful song dedicated to the victims of human trafficking.  It uses noh masks to powerful effect. Then, a couple of days ago, Gorilla vs. Bear posted this Zebra katz video, also featuring noh masks.

This thread is more obvious, and somewhat unsettling. The symbolism of the masks is the same in both cases. But the contrasting attitudes in the lyrics change the impact entirely. Alone, “Be Brave” would have been an uplifting affirmation of feminine strength. Alone (or without the noh masks and ominous beats), “Ima read” could be read as tongue in cheek, and may have been meant that way – Njena’s smirk at the end seems to imply that it is.

Together, the two videos form a feminist dialogue. You can’t write off “Ima read” as irrelevant or simply humorous when faced with the knowledge that My Brightest Diamond is raising money to respond to the real present-day problem of women subjected to sexual slavery.

Especially when I consider the initial response to Canadian writer Natalie Zed’s new series on women in heavy metal, this has been a week when crossing genres has done much more than let me enjoy a variety of music styles. It has forced me to think. Sometimes music is about more than just having fun.

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When the de la Cruz Family Danced – Book Review

Seeing a book on at the bookstore with my friend’s name on the spine gives me a vicarious thrill- but I open the book with a feeling of trepidation. What if I don’t like it? I cannot, like Che Guevara in The Motorcycle Diaries, look my friend in the eye and flatly state, “Frankly, it was bad. You should stick to (insert day job here).” Perhaps that is why it took me six months after the release of “When the de la Cruz Family Danced” to get around to reading my coworker Donna Miscolta’s first published novel. I needn’t have worried.

Like Jane Austen, Donna has written a story where most of the action is internal to the characters. A young man questions his paternity, an old man reconsiders his treatment of his family, people grow a little. But this is no stuffy English comedy of manners. A mixed-race family living in a bad neighborhood in a strip-mall-ridden So-Cal town, the de la Cruzes have no fashion sense and few social skills. They are misfits even amongst each other, sharing little more as a family than a sense that everything they do is slightly skewed somehow.

Johnny was not ignorant of his own shortcomings, especially when he saw them repeated in his daughters – the awkwardness and hesitancy with which they stumbled from childhood through adolescence to confused adulthood, in constant anticipation that life would begin to happen at any moment, but fearful at heart that it had already happened without them.

As the de la Cruz family moves through the non-events of a story tightly tied to the ordinary and mundane, they try so hard not to make mistakes, and yet never quite get anything right. Their repressed feelings and self-edited actions lend a strange flatness to their lives. The introduction of a handsome young man with a stylish haircut and good manners provides enough contrast to their restrained and awkward existence to throw everything off balance. The inevitable climax releases only some of the tension when it realistically comes not as a soap-operatic revelation, but a messy, typical family blow-out at a funeral. The lid is quickly put back on, and on the surface, life continues as before. Although hopeful, any lasting changes are slight, and are not quite acknowledged by the family.

Donna’s carefully written novel consistently struck me with its wise observations of average humans.

“I thought you might have bought green beans,” he said.

Tessie was silent a moment. “Well, dear,” she said finally, “I’m not a mind reader.”

Johnny acknowledged this with a disappointed nod. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. But it did matter, because some couples knew such things about each other. He knew it was his fault that he and Tessie did not.

Moments like this are almost casually scattered on each evocative page. She captures feelings of awkwardness and insecurity with painful accuracy.  Although it is a work of fiction, “When the de la Cruz Family Danced” contains more truth than you are likely to find almost anywhere else.

KEXP Powers Me

I confess to a contrarian streak. If someone (especially an authority figure) tells me to do something, I will do the opposite. If everyone says to do something, you can be sure I won’t. This is particularly true in subjective matters. For example, I cannot bring myself to read the Da Vinci Code or watch Jurassic Park. When bands that I like finally hit it big, I unconsciously stop listening to them. Years of yoga practice and introspection have revealed this tendency to me, and I have worked hard to resist it. I try to evaluate books and music based on their objective merits and my own taste.

If my emotional maturity were insufficient to quell the knee-jerk reaction against the sway of public opinion, one would hope that hard experience would teach me to overcome this contrary tendency. After scoffing at the hubbub surrounding a children’s fantasy novel, I read Harry Potter link and was instantly converted to a Rowling fan. After rolling my eyes at the slavish praise heaped on Snow Patrol link, I received a pair of free tickets and found myself in tears at their show in support of Eyes Open. But did I learn? No.

I have ignored the buzz surrounding local artists Fleet Foxes for years. Finally, I checked out the latest album from these KEXP link darlings, and needless to say, I was floored. Then I watched the video for The Shrine/ An Argument. Not since Radiohead’s Kid A have I had this feeling of stumbling on something wondrous and new.

The Shrine / An Argument from Sean Pecknold on Vimeo.

At last, I have learned my lesson. Although my determined anti-cool stance has saved me from many one-hit wonder and manufactured ingénue in the past, the cost is too high. By ignoring the recommendations of KEXP’s noble DJs, I have missed out on years of Fleet Foxes. Who knows what other music I have overlooked simply because it came with critical acclaim? From now on, I will follow the middle path between pop culture cynic and mindless consumer.

From now on, I will listen to my betters. Since my undergraduate days listening to KCMU, our local noncommercial radio station where the music matters has never let me down. Ok, so they have rarely scheduled the shows I like most during the hours I can listen to radio, but in these days of podcasts and streaming archives, that is a petty complaint. The DJs at KEXP know of which they speak, and I will trust them. Cheryl Waters, John Richards, Hannah Levin and all the rest of y’all – thank you. Thank you for Fleet Foxes. Thank you for all the bands I have ‘discovered’ since 1992 while listening to your programs. I will listen more consistently, more carefully and more respectfully in the future.

Music provides a soundtrack to my memories. The right music at the right time can open me up to new ideas, emotions and experiences. At times, it provides an emotional anchor, or acts as a spark plug to ignite strength and energy when I can’t seem to generate it myself. And that music, as often as not, comes from KEXP. In a sense, KEXP powers me.

And with the first paycheck of 2012, I promise that I, too, will power KEXP.