Sunday, October 2, 2011

The rock album as a cohesive work of art

While listening to Tool's most recent album, 10,000 Days, on the way to the mall yesterday, I fell in love with it all over again. I had to stop to think why that was. I hear those songs all the time as part of playlists and shuffles on my iPod. But unless I'm listening to the whole album, they don't seem as powerful as they do separately.

Then it hit me. Tool meant this album, and its others, as a cohesive work of art. Its songs are the bits of tile that make up a mosaic. Sure, they're pretty on their own, but you don't get the whole picture unless you put them all together in a definite pattern. What makes the songs go together is Maynard's mourning of the death of his mother, which seems to drive the album's purpose, as well as the texture and feel of the songs. Instrumental/transitional tracks like "Lipan Conjuring" are used to link together less similar parts of the album - here, moving away from the moving tribute of "10,000 Days" and the edgy "The Pot" into the contemplative and eerie "Lost Keys (Blame Hoffmann)," which leads smoothly into "Rosetta Stoned." "Rosetta Stoned" just wouldn't make as much sense if you took away its preceeding track. And so it is with other of Tool's albums. I can't ever listen to "Parabol" without hearing "Schism" before it and "Parabola" after's just not right.

Green Day uses another method to link its songs into a cohesive album: this time through lyrics, theme, and story moreso than instrumental texture and feel of the songs (although they do this too). American Idiot is a story. So is 21st Century Breakdown. The "story factor" of these albums was so strong that they could be woven together to create a Broadway rock opera. Yes, the story of that musical was weaker than that of, say, Rent or Wicked, but you could still eke out something of a plot line out of the music. And it made sense.

I think that with short attention spans and the popularity of the iPod, we're losing sight of the rock album as a cohesive work of art. Songs are made to fit into perfect 3-4 minute slots on the radio, and who wants to listen to a song on the radio if you have to go on your own and listen to the whole album to properly understand? And then the iPod. Put it on shuffle, or make a playlist, and you can go for hours without hearing more than one song from a particular album. It's tempting for the songs on today's rock albums to have nothing more in common than that they were made at roughly the same time. The bands who resist this are labeled as weird or too hard-to-understand sometimes, as is the case with Tool. I chalk it up to America's shortening attention span. I'd love to see rock bands make more cohesive albums, go out on a limb, try something new and creative - and come on, who didn't love The Who's Tommy?

In other news, I think I've decided on what I believe to be the best Tool album, and also my favorite. Despite all the praise I've heaped upon Lateralus and 10,000 Days, I think the prize HAS to go to AEnima. Why? It has the cohesive element I was talking about, and yet the songs can be understood on their own, taken out of context. Each major non-transitional track is a self-contained world, with multiple emotions, tempos, feels, and even time signatures. Yet when put together, they add to each other and flow. I think the tracks in the two albums that followed AEnima, while fabulous works of art, are less so  self-contained worlds. Every time I come across Parabol or Intension on a playlist, I skip them. It's not that I dislike them, it's just they only work within the context of an album.

And what was the problem with Opiate and Undertow? Not enough cohesive albums for my taste, and not as refined and deeply emotional/personal as the later albums. Tool is like a good wine. They get better with age, they grow, they develop. Most bands remain static or regress. Not saying I don't love those first two albums. But the technical musical skills, and song-composing skills, of the band improved with each successive album. The leap was probably the greatest between Undertow and AEnima, and then smaller between the following ones. But, even though 10,000 Days isn't my *favorite*, I will have to say it represents the peak of actual musical skill for Tool. Maynard's voice never sounded better, the drumming more precise, the bass more dark and thump-y than in their latest album. But then again, Tool, in my opinion, is so far ahead of all other bands that even Opiate, its weakest release, is pretty awesome in my eyes. The only bands that I think come close to Tool are A Perfect Circle, Pink Floyd, (those all make sense, right?), and Red Hot Chili Peppers (but in a totally different way).

P.S. Have you listened to I'm With You, the new release from RHCP, yet? If not, GO DO IT. It's beyond wonderful.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Journalists, novelists, and literary creativity

Title translation - basically just my random ramblings.

I love having a blog. My necessity to fill it shows that I am a creative and inspired person. Maybe not in the visual arts – I still think I suck at drawing. But words. They do something for me, the way music notes used to (and maybe still) do something for me. But the difference is, I have to be taught how to shape notes, either in composition on a page, or through an instrument. I have a vision in my head of how something sounds but I don’t know how to make it happen, to bring the sounds to life. But with words, I have them in my head already, and have nothing to do more than to write them down. They just work for me. Sometimes, I have an idea in my head of what I want to write but the words don’t sound right. That’s just called writer’s block, and I get over it. All the ideas that float around in my head need to come out somehow. I’ve already shown that the consequences of repressing them are decreased focus, obsession, and even loss of sleep. It’s important. Creativity is somehow necessary to my being.

I’ve been thinking how journalism and novels aren’t so different as people might make them out to be. They need to be grounded in some way that makes them believable. Even the most fictitious story, in which the author makes up an entire other world or language (like Lord of the Rings), feels real because the characters feel real. So much rests on character development. Journalism and novels both need quotations. People have a way of bringing things to life by injecting themselves into it, because we’re not all the same. But the big thing is that truth can be found both in the news and made-up stories. Journalists tell the truth about what is actually happening in the world: concrete events, places that HAPPENED in real space and time. Novelists tell the truth about what is actually happening in our minds. No one person is alone in this world. Someone else somewhere must have a similar belief to any given person. Novels speak of the human condition. That’s a kind of truth. Yes, the story may be made up, but the feelings are real and have to have come from somewhere. And both novels and news have a duty to their readers: to inform and entertain. I remember seeing a quote on, of all places, a stupid free bookmark from high school or something. It said, “You become a writer when you stop writing for yourself and start writing for others.”

Of course, no novelist or journalist can ENTIRELY write for the public. They have to write because they like it. Even some portions of their writing can be pure self-indulgence, and that’s ok. 

Monday, September 12, 2011

I gave myself two minutes

So I tried out for the equestrian team yesterday. We were asked to walk, post trot, two-point at trot, and reverse directions. Pretty simple. I thought it went "okay" although I couldn't tell if I was on the correct diagonal or not - haven't posted in a while. Also, the instructor who told us what to do while we were in the ring was really hard to hear, and I missed the direction to do two-point. I was still pretty hopeful.

I didn't make the team.

In the past, a letdown like this would have meant tears, calling myself worthless, getting ready to give up on the activity I "failed" at (which was usually music), and feeling absolutely crappy for weeks. Not today.

I gave myself two minutes.

Two minutes to feel bad, two minutes to want to cry, two minutes to feel sorry for myself. Then I started to think of the next step. If life doesn't give you a way, you have to make your own way. What was my own way to get to ride horses? I'd remembered looking up a barn just a 10-minute bus ride away from campus where you can take private lessons. I came up with a list of questions to see if the barn will fit my needs and if so, I'm going to take English lessons there every other week. I'll also see if I can get myself some voice lessons every other week. This way, I'll get to do BOTH the things I want for a reduced cost and reduced time commitment. It actually works BETTER. Then next semester, I can try out for the team again if I want. Or if I like doing things this way, I will just keep doing it.

Part of me feels like I've been to so many auditions and have had so many ensembles or audition judges tell me "no" that I've gotten used to hearing that word, or not seeing my name on a cut list, that it's stopped hurting. But the other part of me knows that feeling like a failure doesn't do ANYTHING for me. Today the sky ripped open and rained lemons. Today I made the best lemonade recipe ever. Soon, I make my own refreshing lemonade.

It's the equestrian team's loss. I'm a hard worker, I'm willing to learn, and I love horses.

"Life's not about waiting for the storm to pass, it's about learning to dance in the rain." 

Friday, September 9, 2011

It's been a rough start, but it doesn't feel like it

3 weeks down, 12 to go. And let me say that the new semester/year/major has been off to an interesting start. And if you look at it from the outside, you might be tempted to say it's been a bad start. But it feels better than the facts sound put together. Here's what's gone on so far:

Week 1 of 15: Got a job working at the campus dining hall: was told I'd be on cash register. Felt happy! Now I won't be broke.

Week 1.5 of 15: First shift at said job. Was made to serve food instead of working register. Hated it, but sticking it out.

Week 1.75 of 15: Was told to wash dishes during second shift. Quit job.

Week 2 of 15: Made reservations for a weekend at Ocean City, Maryland. Was excited!

Week 2.25 of 15: Auditioned for an a cappella group, felt okay about how I did, worried because my voice cracked due to plant allergies.

Week 2.5 of 15: Someone else from a cappella auditions said she got an e-mail for a callback. Got no e-mail. Did not get into group.
Decided to try out for local student-run newspaper, The Daily Collegian. Thought it would be good for journalism experience.
Went to an equestrian team mixer. Everyone was so nice!

Week 2.75 of 15: Found out I didn't make the newspaper.
Also, found out that my hotel reservations didn't go through. No OCMD.

Week 3 of 15: Went home anyway. Went to Renaissance Faire and Hersheypark. Had fun!

Week 3.5 of 15: Had placements for ballet club. Did terrible across the floor. But got close to turnout on my first try!

Week 3.75 of 15: Came home to find bathroom flooded. Dorm suite toilet overflowed. Huge fans are now blasting in our common room and blowing our posters off the walls. Literally.
Was placed in beginner ballet class. No surprise.
Took a bus to the local dance store. Bought ballet slippers and a leotard. Excited and happy!

To come later: meeting my theater club "family" for dinner tonight, PSU vs. Alabama tomorrow, equestrian team tryouts Sunday (WISH ME LUCK! Heels down, toes up...)

Last year all of these setbacks would have had me reeling. But this year? Nada. I don't know, everything just feels...better now. Is it because I switched majors? Or did thinking about switching majors give me a fresh perspective? Whatever it is, this is the most I've enjoyed life in at least a year. Setbacks? Nah. Challenges and learning experiences? Yup. I've got plenty. JUST GO FOR IT.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Playing with GIMP

Yup, I've been doing some post processing. It's funny how much you realize is wrong with your photos once you start to be able to fix them.

Color corrected:

What's wrong with the first one? It looked blue. 

And original:

New version, not as warm:
Color-edited version of "Decay"

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Not missing it at all

So, second day of classes, and let me tell you.
There is NOTHING I miss about the music major.
I guess that means I made the right decision.

I'm almost done feeling weird that I don't want to spend my life devoted to my saxophone anymore. At first, like I said, I felt like I wouldn't be the same person anymore. But I was talking to my dad on the phone today, and he said that aside from band being a social thing, maybe it was because I'm competitive and needed a challenge.

Not to brag, but I guess I'm pretty smart. I was placed in the gifted first grade. I took multiple AP classes in high school. I'm not much of a math person, or a math-based science person (you want me to take chem? Physics? COUNT ME OUT.) but other than that I don't think enough of my grade school classes challenged me. Especially not in elementary or middle school, when there weren't different levels of classes. Then, one day in fifth grade, we all had to watch a presentation on musical instruments. I thought, hey, clarinet could be fun! So I picked it up. Then another day in seventh grade, I decided I wanted to be in jazz band. No clarinets in jazz band. Mr. Band Teacher, can I play saxophone in jazz band? Sure, if you play tenor sax, you can play it in concert band too. We need more. I really loved saxophone even from the beginning. It was fun, and then came the challenges. As a competitive, smart girl who didn't like playing team sports and had some natural musical ability, this was my activity, and how good did it make me feel when, after weeks of practicing hard, I made first saxophone in middle school jazz band? Or got into the top concert band in high school? It made me feel like I was WORTH something, and to a girl who had had self-esteem issues due to acne in the past, that was a godsend. Even maybe my college audition and being accepted into the School of Music was a way of one-upping the two male saxophone players who my band director in high school placed in front of me, even though everyone knew I was a better musician. He played favorites.

But then I got to college.
Let me tell you, I was being challenged PLENTY.
Playing saxophone became work, my job, a chore.
It lost its fun, and I burnt myself out on it.
Now I haven't touched my saxophone in about 2-3 months, and not missing it.

Of course I can't just stop being a musician. But now I fancy myself a vocalist. I'm going to try out for one of our pop a cappella groups here in college to satisfy the part of me that still enjoys practicing and performing music. But I've been bitten by the musical theater bug, and it's the new way I do music. Times change, and so do I, but that's a good thing.

Bottom line: I'm happy. I can't tell if I like my classes yet, because all we've been doing is discussing the syllabi, but I'm excited to dive into learning completely new things (not just building on music I already knew). Journalism, advertising, and tourism are new avenues for me. Also, not that it's related, but I'm happy to be going to the gym again. Ran on the treadmill for 20 minutes today at an embarrassingly low 3.2 while other college kids plugged away like they were running a marathon. But whatever. I haven't worked out much this summer, and I'm building myself back up. And I have a job. Busy already, but in a good way.

Friday, August 19, 2011

South Central PA food

This week I went to one new place to eat and returned to one old place.

I went to a local cupcake shop called the Lemon Tree on the Carlisle Pike in Mechanicsburg to give a local place some business. Here's a photo of the "Double Trouble" cupcake I got. It's a chocolate cupcake with cream cheese drizzle, caramel and chocolate sauce, and a Hershey's kiss.


Since I couldn't find this place on, here's what I thought of it. The actual cake part was just mediocre, not much better than what you'd find in Giant. But the cream cheese icing was fantastic, and of course, anything with a Hershey's kiss on top is good. The price was not bad - about $1.50, which is not much more than the price of your average candy bar. Wasn't warm but looked as though it was pretty fresh. 

Then I returned to El Sol, a Harrisburg Mexican restaurant. I got the molcajete mixto, some grilled chicken, shrimp, and steak in a volcanic rock bowl in red sauce and cheese. With some fantastic green onions:

Click here for my Urbanspoon review of El Sol. It's under Shannon S.