Thursday, October 28, 2010

Sugarland - The Incredible Machine

An interesting question to ask someone who continuously spouts off about not liking country music might be, “Why, then, did you buy the Sugarland album this week?” That is an excellent question that does not have an excellent answer. Basically, I was sitting at my computer Tuesday morning before work looking at what had been newly released that day and didn’t see much that interested me, so I decided that in the absence of any albums I actually wanted to buy I would go country. The fact that I decided to buy something I didn’t particularly want versus buying nothing at all is probably an indication of a shopping disorder, but that is a blog topic for another day.

There is a good lesson in this, however: sometimes when you listen to music you don’t want to listen to, you find out you actually like it. I’m not saying I’ll go to work tomorrow with a plaid shirt and cowboy boots on, but I was surprised that there were a number of tracks on Sugarland’s new album (“The Incredible Machine”) that I really liked.

If you’re not familiar with Sugarland, they are a male/female country duo and should not be confused with Sugar Loaf, where my family skied in Michigan last year, or Candy Land, the popular children’s board game. My observation about Sugarland based on this album is that they are a very positive thinking people. There are no bad relationships or bad days or even bad hair days in Sugarland. Most of the vocals are from the female half of the duo and she must be the most chipper person around. This was somewhat of a refreshing change of pace from some of the music I’ve been listening to lately (I’m talking to you, Mumford & Sons).

Not surprisingly, the songs I tended to like most were the ones where the twang wasn’t over exaggerated and the lyrics weren’t too cutesy (I’m hard to please); there were definitely a few that violated both of those criteria. I really liked the title track (“Incredible Machine”), which I think is about airplanes but am worried that’s too obvious and I’m missing the real meaning, and “Find the Beat Again”, which is such a pick-yourself-up song that you’ll either feel cheered right away or find so annoyingly upbeat that you’ll want to smash your iPod- I am choosing to like it. I also really enjoyed a very quick (90 second) song that is the only one exclusively sung by Mr. Sugarland, here upgraded from his role as only a backup on a few other tracks. The song, “Incredible Machine (Interlude)” is really pretty and I would love to hear more of his voice on other songs. The first single from the album, “Stuck Like Glue”, wasn’t my favorite, but I actually liked it a lot more after I watched the video- sort of a cute twist on a stalker (what’s not to love?).

Sugarland is obviously a country group, but I don’t think they’re so over the top countrified that they can’t cross over to mainstream popularity- I call it Country Lite. If you’re like me and don’t usually fancy yourself a country fan, I still think you will like some of the tracks here. Enjoy!

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Monday, October 25, 2010

Our Latest College Visit

The warning everyone gives new parents is finally coming true in my family: “Before you know it they’ll be heading off to college.” Before that becomes a reality, however, there is the minor matter of figuring out what school my oldest daughter will attend. The process has been far less painful than I anticipated, but that might be partly because my daughter is very independent and has pretty much done all the work herself. She is blessed with having a very accessible and helpful guidance counselor, and at this point I think my daughter just enjoys chatting with the poor woman and hanging out in her office. She has spent so much time with her counselor that the secretary in the guidance center not only knows my daughter’s first and last name but also what class she happens to be missing when she writes her a hall pass back to class. My main involvement in the whole process has been showing up on the designated days for campus visits. Two schools have emerged as frontrunners.

A few weeks ago, my daughter told me she wanted to visit one of the finalists a second time; we initially looked at this particular school over the summer and there weren’t many students there. Without really questioning the logic of driving 3 ½ hours to simply walk around a campus we had already toured, I agreed to the trip. This school is secretly my top pick of the two finalists, but I need to play it cool. My finely tuned parenting instincts have revealed that 17-year olds do not always value the opinions of their parents as much as their parents think they should, so I’m been employing something called reverse psychology. If I push too hard for the school I like, I’ll push her toward the other one. This reverse psychology is a little risky, partly because she’s not a toddler and partly because she’s actually taking psychology in school right now. Not only have we been the recipients of some free (and unsolicited) analysis, but she also seems to have become more adept at identifying such trickery.

Due to my daughter’s schedule, we were pretty much stuck visiting the school on a Sunday. This threw me a little since Sunday is typically my official day to get ready for the following week: I do laundry, plan dinners, head to Jewel, conduct some high level schedule conflict resolution and other equally fun weekend activities. Determined to make this visit happen, however, I did the week’s laundry on Saturday (which created more family confusion than it seemed like it should have) and off we went Sunday morning.

I was excited to drive north on a fall day, anticipating a beautiful drive. I didn’t factor continuous rain into that vision. The deer carcass count reached five before we had even arrived, and the only living wildlife we saw was a flock (???) of wild turkeys along the road. If you don’t know what a wild turkey looks like, I’ll just say that from a distance I thought it was a group of black garbage bags blowing from some sticks. You will definitely not find a rendering of a wild turkey on any of the holiday tableware in the Pottery Barn catalogue because who would want to serve Thanksgiving dinner on plates depicting vultures? However, about 30 minutes before we arrived, the skies cleared, the seas parted and the fall colors were indeed magnificent. My daughter did not appreciate the beauty as she had basically folded herself in half and gone to sleep with her head on a pillow on her lap about halfway through the drive; her ability to fall asleep on command in any awkward position will serve her well in college. It’s almost certainly the result of superior parenting skills!

We had a lovely walk around campus and tried not to dwell on the fact that perhaps we should have come on a weekday when we could meet with someone from the program she’s interested in (a third visit, apparently). The only black mark on the day was the fact that the campus bookstore is not open on Sundays, which threatened to overshadow everything else. We rectified it with a quick online order when we got home, although she still grumbled about not being able to wear her new sweatshirt to school on Monday. Alas…

I once lectured my kids that they were lucky to have a mother who exposed them to good music, to which I was met with some exaggerated eye rolling, so I have since downplayed that particular benefit of their lineage. The drive to visit Sunday’s school got me thinking about what the youngsters are listening to these days. The back page of Rolling Stone has always featured multiple lists, such as top albums, top pop songs, top ten songs from 1982, etc. The number of lists has grown so voluminous that it now takes up two pages in every issue. They always include a list of the top college albums, so in honor of our college visit I took a peek at that list and am sharing it here. I have the Arcade Fire album and have heard of Jenny and Johnny, but that’s about it. I guess the take-away is that college students indeed speak a foreign language. They don’t even listen to our music! Where are Sheryl Crow and Eric Clapton?

Wish me luck- there is no rest for the weary. As soon as we complete this process with my daughter, there is another daughter on her heels and we get to do it all over again. I have to admit, I like the college visits and the one-on-one time. Ask me how much I like my kids going to college in the fall when I’m crying about them leaving the nest and I’ll tell a different tale. My freshman son consoles me by telling me he’s not going college and is going to live at home forever. Isn’t that every parent’s dream? For now, enjoy the music!

1. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
2. Of Montreal – False Priest
3. No Age – Everything in Between
4. The Walkmen – Lisbon
5. The Black Angels – Phosphene Dream
6. Ra Ra Riot – The Orchard
7. Grinderman – Grinderman 2
8. The Thermals – Personal Life
9. Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest
10. Jenny and Johnny – I’m Having Fun Now

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Saturday, October 23, 2010

Kings Of Leon - Radioactive

Prior to purchasing the new Kings of Leon album (“Come Around Sundown”) my exposure to the band was fairly incidental. We heard them in concert a few years ago when they opened for U2, which means we tolerated them while we waited for the band we actually went to see (and at that time no one had heard of Kings of Leon, believe me). I am also fairly skillful at playing their song “Sex On Fire” on Guitar Hero; it’s one of only two songs that I’m reasonably good at. Finally, it was almost impossible not to have heard their huge hit “Use Somebody” from their last album at least 8,000 times about a year ago. I liked it at first, but it started getting old after about the 4,000th time I heard it.

After having several big hits and really becoming widely known from their last album, Kings of Leon was the recipient of some negativity prior to the release of “Come Around Sundown”. One of the band members noted in Rolling Stone that if anyone had to listen to anything as much as the general public had to listen to the songs from their last album they would certainly end up hating it (I’m paraphrasing but not much), so there is some self recognition about the overexposure. The band also got some bad press a few months back when they aborted a concert after playing only three songs. Apparently the rafters of whatever venue they were playing were populated with pigeons relieving themselves on the audience (and band) members, and they were thereafter characterized as divas for bailing on the concert.

Because of this, they’re a little jumpy about how well this latest album will be received. The band is comprised of three brothers and their cousin. The brothers’ father and all four band members’ grandfather were both named Leon; hence the band’s name. They’re from the south: the brothers are from Tennessee and the cousin from Mississippi, and all four currently reside in Nashville. As a result, some of their songs have a hint of a country twang to them. The sound on some of the songs also walk just this side of whiny, so I think they need to be a little careful about that.

I did enjoy listening to this album. When I started thinking about what I wanted to write, I decided to look at the lyrics for the songs; because of the sometimes twang and the almost whininess, not all of the lyrics are easy to decipher while listening casually. When considering the lyrics, I realized with dismay that I couldn’t necessarily understand what they were getting at in a lot of their songs. What’s up with that, Kings? I don’t like to think that the Kings of Leon are too smart for me as I pride myself on having solidly mediocre intelligence. I concluded that I should just leave the lyrics alone and enjoy the songs.

Many others must agree: this album is actually both #1 and #3 on iTunes right now, once for the extended version (a.k.a. the $14.99 version) and once for the regular version ($10.99). Of course, because I didn’t notice that there were two versions when I downloaded this at 5:30 a.m. last Tuesday morning, I bought the extended version, which has five more tracks than the regular version. I should note, however, that three of those five tracks are related to the same song (remix of the song “Radioactive”, video for that song and video for the making of the video). Therefore, if you don’t like “Radioactive” it’s probably not worth the extra $4.00 for the extended version.

Luckily for me, I do like “Radioactive” and especially like the remix version as it features a gospel choir, also highlighted in the video for the song. The other tracks I liked were “Back Down South”, which has a definite country feel to it (as you might guess from the title), and “Birthday”, which is easy to sing along to. I know “Radioactive” is supposed to be their first radio single, although I’ve only heard it once on the radio so far. If you’re interested in learning more about the band, there is a 14 part interview with them on both their website and YouTube (yes, 14 parts). They’ll be (or or possibly were by the time you read this) on Saturday Night Live on October 23rd, which will be big for them.  Here is the video for "Radioactive"- enjoy!

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