Monday, December 16, 2013

Best Albums of 2013 (Albums 10-1)

What a fantastic year for music. While 2012 lacked any classic albums in my opinion (Frank Ocean being the exception), my top five of 2013 will most likely go down as long-time favorites. With releases promised from stalwarts Local Natives, Iron & Wine, Arcade Fire, the National, and Vampire Weekend, the year looked promising. While not all of the old-timers followed through as hoped, there were enough unexpected resurgences from low lying bands and a few stellar releases from new comers to make a top twenty list difficult to hammer out. Oh, and who even knows what to do with Beyonce... she may make an appearance on next year's list.

Enough said. Yesterday's blog started the list with albums 20-11. And this blog finishes out the list with my favorite ten albums from the year.

10. The National - Trouble Will Find Me
As usual, The National gave us a sad, melancholy album. Only this time there's some humor thrown in there. When they consistently produce such great music, it's easy to forget just how good these guys are. There's some great songs in here and, as always, their sound is so full and rich.
9. Arcade Fire - Reflektor
Perhaps the most anticipated album of the year, Arcade Fire wasn't afraid to take their music in new directions, adding some Haitian-influenced sounds and letting James Murphy (of LCD Soundsystem) add some of his dance-beat influences. While I got a little bored with the Orpheus allusions, Reflektor, Normal Person, and Here Comes the Night Time are rather brilliant. It's saying something when a band's "worst" album is still one of the best albums of the year.
8. Mikal Cronin - MCII
OK, I'm going to be honest. I don't know a lot about Cronin. He's a singer/songwriter and his music is good. And I listened to it a lot this year.
7. Cayucas - Bigfoot
I have a loose connection to this band (a former student/friend's brother who plays). So that's what initially drew my attention to this Californian act. They got roasted by a few critics but I absolutely loved this album. I wasn't coming to this album with any expectations on changing my life but, taking it as it is, it's an absolute West-coast blast.
6. Josh Ritter - The Beast in its Tracks
I could say a lot on this one but I'll keep it short and not comment his Messiah concert (though you should try to see him play live). Ritter has a lot of albums out there. His last album bored me and I was starting to drift away. But The Beast in its Tracks was stripped down and rich with emotion. I totally dug his ability to reflect on his life (including a semi-recent divorce) in an honest manner.
5. Kanye West - Yeezus
Yeezus may be the most controversial album on the list. Kanye is, in my and many others' opinion, crazy and brilliant. He's the best at producing rap albums. His samples are crazy and they work and they don't get old with repeated listens. Yeezus dives into some crazy new sounds with an industrial vibe on one song, then random screams on the next. And the Justin Vernon and Frank Ocean features are beautiful. Lyrically, there's a lot to unpack. Most songs include elements of sexual fantasy for Kanye, making for a difficult listen. But then he'll give a super interesting comment on modern racism (such as New Slaves) or deal with self-loathing (such as Hold My Liquor) the next song. Regardless, Kanye brought his game again and isn't settling in any way.
4. James Blake - Overgrown
I can't say that James Blake's Overgrown is wildly different from his first LP. But that's not a bad thing. Blake's layered R&B vocals are gorgeous. Contrary to just about everyone else's opinion, I loved the RZA feature on Take a Fall for Me and Retrograde was a great single. Blake made a great album from front to back.
3. Justin Timberlake - The 20/20 Experience
JT makes great pop music. With an average track length of seven minutes or so, he's also not afraid to play around a bit with his music, adding a few minutes of outros on most songs. The 20/20 Experience had some fantastic singles in Suit & Tie and Mirrors. And tracks Let the Groove Get In and Strawberry Bubblegum round out what I think could be more great singles. Unfortunately, Part 2 of the Experience didn't quite match the first half. But, that's another conversation.
2. Chvrches - The Bones of What You Believe
I tried really hard not to like this band. They had a lot of hype based off of a just a few tracks. Jorje and I caught part of their set at FreeFest and they played a solid show and were thoroughly likeable though they didn't blow my mind. I thought they might just pass by unnoticed. I was wrong. The sugary pop of their sound is tempered with the lead vocalist's sweet maturity. Every other track is single-worthy. Aaaand, I listen to this album a lot.
1. Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires of the City
Vampire Weekend’s self-titled debut came with about as much baggage as an indie-band can bring. They had an overwhelming amount of hype before their first album even dropped. Their highly literate and over the top privileged white-guy lyrical content, various world music influences, and East Coast prep-school image solidified them as 2008’s most strikingly quintessential “indie-band.” They were both praised and mocked for their catchy lyrics and hooks. Regardless of one’s opinion of them, it was music that anyone could listen to.

Fast-forward two years later to VW’s release of Contra. Debuted at number one. Tracks Horchata, Cousins, and Giving Up the Gun were as catchy as ever. I was bored by a few tracks here and there but overall it was a great album. It also solidified them as indie stalwarts albeit, I would contend, continuing careers as masters of pop rather than depth.

With the announcement of a new album in 2013, I heavily anticipated the album alongside a number of other heavy-hitters in the first half of the year, wondering which band would bring their A-game.

VW easily earned my favorite album of the year. In years past, I have chosen albums that have been good (some great) for the top spot but very well knew it may not be the “objectively” best album of the year but rather held a place near my heart. While it’s impossible to single out an album as “objectively the best,” I would contend that this is the best produced, written, meaning-filled, and catchy album of the year.

Modern Vampires of the City continues VW’s penchant for creating unique yet relatable hooks and songs you find yourself humming later on that day. The production isn’t extremely out of line with their previous albums but it’s just… better, more focused, and completely relevant to each and every song.

What they’ve added to their arsenal is a level of depth found in their lyrics that results in themes including growing up, religion, death, and independence. They sound like clich├ęs in a review but the ease in which VW broaches the subjects are refreshing and in no way come off as their “mature” album simply for the sake of it being their third album.

First single, Diane Young, approaches death and old age with lyrics “Nobody knows what the future holds on / Said it’s bad enough just getting old” and stand-out Step says, “Wisdom’s a gift, but you’d trade it for youth / Age is an honor – it’s still not the truth.” An obvious levity is present. And that’s not including the Psalm-like Ya Hey or Hannah Hunt.

I consistently come back to this album like it’s a comfort food, yet a healthy one. I listen when I need a pick-me-up, when I want to rock out, when I’m looking for something to challenge me.

A move in this direction begs the questions of, what’s next for these indie-superstars? What year will they dominate next in “Best Of” lists?

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As always, it's been a pleasure. Let me know your thoughts.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Best Albums of 2013 (Albums 20-11)

What a fantastic year for music. While 2012 lacked any classic albums in my opinion (Frank Ocean being the exception), my top five of 2013 will most likely go down as long-time favorites. With releases promised from stalwarts Local Natives, Iron & Wine, Arcade Fire, the National, and Vampire Weekend, the year looked promising. Many of albums 20-11 are sophomore releases - making it difficult not to play the comparison game. While not all of the old-timers followed through as hoped, there were enough unexpected resurgences from low lying bands and a few stellar releases from new comers to make a top twenty list difficult to hammer out.

Enough said. Here we have my favorite twenty albums from the year 2013. In this blog we have albums 20-11 and tomorrow's blog will finish out the list with albums 10-1.
20. The Head and the Heart - Let's Be Still
With their sophomore album, The Head and the Heart brought more of their great indie-folk. While not a dramatic departure from their first album, Let's Be Still provided enough variety to make the follow-up worth my listen on a regular basis.
 19. Sigur Ros - Kveikur
Sigur Ros's previous album, Valtari, was a total sleeper. Although they are a beloved band of mine, I thought they might be on a trajectory to fade away into my music past. So with the release of Kveikur, I was thrilled with how Sigur Ros brought a new driving, percussive sound that maintained their "Sigur Ros-ness" yet explored some new sounds. I loved the sound and tracks such as Isjaki could even be construed as singles.
18. Youth Lagoon - Wondrous Bughouse
Critics loved this guy yet I was left a little wanting. There was some great layering and Trevor Powers' vocals are as distant/intimate as ever yet I was put off by some of the trippy aspects of the album. So I was distanced from connecting with the entire album as a whole. With that said, the good parts are really good and demand attention.
17. Lucious - Wildewoman
Lucious stopped by Messiah in the Spring as a part of the B-Sides series (free shows every Wednesday!) in what was one of my favorite acts of the year. It's impossible to talk about this band without talking about the lead singers - two vocalists, singing as one. These ladies sound incredible and the rest of the band brings a sense of pop that feels nostalgic without merely being a "throwback" band.
16. City and Colour - The Hurry and the Harm
I was unaware of this Canadian artist until this year when I saw them at FreeFest in September. They put on a solid live-set but more than anything, they've been my go-to band for early mornings and basically anytime I've needed a slow down. The lead vocalist's vocals are so warm and inviting, it's hard to pass up.
15. Surfer Blood - Pythons
OK, I absolutely loved Surfer Blood's first album and had pretty high expectations. Upon initial listens, I was fairly underwhelmed, feeling as though the band had lost some of its beach vibe and sounding more Vans Tour. I don't know if it was a desire for the album to work or if I worked through my preset expectations but I kept coming back to this album and let it be it's own. While not my favorite album of all time, I have faith in the young band and hope to see more of them in the future.
14. Lorde - Pure Heroine
I don't think I'm going to add anything to what's already been written. Lorde is young, different, authentic, and from New Zealand. The production is minimalistic and wonderful. So yes, I buy into her music. Kind of like a better Lana del Ray.
13. Jim Guthrie - Takes Time
I first heard some Jim Guthrie's music on NPR's All Songs Considered. I was happy to find that his latest album was full of joyful folk songwriting that garnered a considerable number of listens throughout the year.
12. Phoenix - Bankrupt!
While Phoenix has been around the indie-pop scene for a while, their last album, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, broke heavily into the mainstream music arena. I believe Bankrupt! followed a similar path of style as my own. Wolfgang was a party in itself, pausing every now and then for a drink of water. Bankrupt! certainly has it's jams (Entertainment, S.O.S in Bel Air) but it has a more subdued demeanor throughout with great tracks like Chloroform and Trying to be Cool.
11. Local Natives - Hummingbird
I had a lot of expectations coming into this one. Gorilla Manor was a dear friend. Moving onto Hummingbird, it felt like a matured sound compared to their breakout. While I missed some of the exuberance, there was an added depth that rewarded repeated listens and indicated a good direction for the band. Oh, and I was able to see them live again and they haven't lost anything.

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Feel free to leave comments. Top ten albums coming soon!

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Best Songs of 2013

It seems as though this summer was especially full of jams. Between the never-ending run of Blurred Lines at number one (not included), the introduction of Lorde and her minimalist Royals, and the return of Daft Punk with their single, Get Lucky, the summer had a lot going on.

The year also included Miley and Kanye making a little bit of a splash on the scene. We can't forget the indie-darlings Haim and Chvrches, the folk contributions from City and Colour and Josh Ritter, and a few off-kilter rap releases from Drake, Earl Sweatshirt and Danny Brown.

All in all, some great releases from a variety of artists. Feel free to listen through the list on Spotify. Be advised, a number of the tracks contain some R-rated material.

Here are my thirty-three favorite songs of 2013. Enjoy and let me know what you think.

35. Justin Timberlake - Take Back the Night
34. James Blake (feat. RZA) - Take a Fall for Me
33. Earl Sweatshirt - Chum
32. The Avett Brothers - Another is Waiting
31. Phoenix - Chloroform
30. Mikal Cronin - Peace of Mind
29. Drake - Started from the Bottom
28. Josh Ritter - New Lover
27. City and Colour - The Hurry and the Harm
26. Volcano Choir - Tiderays
25. Kanye West - Blood on the Leaves
24. Chvrches - Recover
23. Youth Lagoon - Dropla
22. Justin Timberlake - Mirrors
21. Tegan and Sara - Closer
20. Sigur Ros - Isjaki
19. Lucious - Hey, Doreen
18. Washed Out - It All Feels Right
17. Local Natives - Colombia
16. Vampire Weekend - Ya Hey
15. Miley Cyrus - Wrecking Ball
14. Cayucas - High School Lover
13. Small Black - Free at Dawn
12. Neko Case - Man
11. Jim Guthrie - Taking My Time
10. Arcade Fire - Reflektor
9. Kanye West - New Slaves
8. Haim - The Wire
7. Lorde - Royals
6. James Blake - Retrograde
5. Justin Timerlake (feat. Jay-Z) - Suit & Tie
4. Vampire Weekend - Diane Young
3. Chvrches - The Mother We Share
2. Josh Ritter - Joy to You Baby
1. Daft Punk (feat. Pharrell Williams) - Get Lucky

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

A FreeFest Recap

FreeFest. When I first heard about it, I thought, "This is too good to be true." But no. It was true. A free, one-day festival at the historic Merriweather Post Pavilion in Maryland, somewhere between Baltimore and DC. Donations ($10 a piece for Jorje and I) made to a local charity. And it's super legit.

A little about the festival:
Three stages, shows from noon-11pm (Sept. 21st), a ton of booths and food vendors, and random things like Waterfall Swings, heart-shaped foam machines, and free suckers.
So Jorjette and I really enjoyed the day. I don't think either of us could have done more than a day (especially if there was camping, etc. involved) but it was a super solid chunk of shows and we would totally go back next year if we could score tickets again.

One quick story: We got "stuck" at the Pavilion Stage (the main stage) once we realized that if we left, we probably wouldn't be able to get back under the pavilion... and it was down pouring... and two of the main bands we came to see were on the docket. So we stuck it out for a solid six hours. It was a miracle we didn't pee our pants or eat an arm or something.

Oh, the only artist we wanted to see but didn't get to was Robin Thicke. Mainly because it was raining and that stage had zero shelter.

I could go on for a while so I'll just give a couple thoughts on each band.

Ghost Beach
Dance Forest
This new group from NYC started the day off with a lot of energy. Poppy, an electronic bent, and some great hooks. The lead singer was intent on making sure the crowd was 100% into the show, demanding "hands in the air" about four or five times throughout the show. But the band was tight and put on a good opening show.

Washed Out
Dance Forest
I've been grooving to Washed Out through the last few albums, loving the general vibe they set. Front runners of the chillwave genre, they know how create a mood. With that said, I wasn't sure what the live show would look like, especially as it's a heavily produced album. I was happy to see a full band (drums, electric, acoustic, bass, synth, plus a number of mixing boards), a surprise considering many bands in their genre rely solely on prerecorded tracks. So, good vibe, people were excited to be there, and they weren't quite as pretentious looking as I would have expected them to.
Chvrches
West Stage
Perhaps one of the most hyped bands of the year, I've been trying to avoid liking this band. But they've got something about them that just sticks with you. We missed the start of this set but, what we saw of it, they sounded great. They relied primarily on tracks and synth (not a favorite of mine) but they had a lot of charm and their vocals were on point. Also, the crowd was eating it up.
Icona Pop
West Stage
I only know this Swedish band through their radio single, I Love It, a sugary, easy-to-forget summer hit. To be honest, their live show felt about the same. Two female vocalists, occasionally playing an instrument here and there. They sounded decent but primarily came across as a parody of a European pop group.

City and Colour
Pavilion Stage
Shortly before the festival, I checked out City and Colour's album on Spotify and was loving the lead singer's raspy, soulful lead vocals over the band's full sound. Their live set showcased this very well. With that said, their genre of music may not have the most energy for a live set. Very glad to see them. Note: this was the first of four shows we saw at the Pavilion Stage, never leaving our seats. Also, how great is this venue?
MGMT
Pavilion Stage
Hmm, how to describe MGMT's live show? They're holding strong to their acid-rock vibe, politely ignoring the success of their two or three hit, pop singles. They sounded good, backed by their trippy computer-generated insect-men type videos playing in the background. It was a sitting concert... except for Time to Pretend and Electric Feel. 

The Avett Brothers
Pavilion Stage
Wow, the total highlight of the day. These guys brought an hour and a half of energy and passion to the stage. They were so excited to be there, performing and doing what they love. While their recorded albums sound great, they come across as relaxed and soothing folk. Live, they sing with so much conviction and emotion that it's hard to even reconcile the two. The stand up bassists wouldn't let his instrument touch the ground for whole songs, due to so much energy. The next song, three of them would gather towards the center of the stage, slowly singing a folk-ballad of theirs. They could have gone all night and I would have been entertained.

Vampire Weekend
Pavilion Stage
Modern Vampires of the City is my front runner for best album of the year. Although Jorjette and I have seen Vampire Weekend live before, I was psyched to catch their new material performed. I wasn't disappointed with how great they sounded live. And they hit all my faves off their new album: Diane Young, Step, Ya Hey, etc. For that, I was thrilled. Besides that, following The Avett Brothers is difficult. VW are masters of producing incredible sounds in the studio, yet performing their smart, preppy, world-music influenced rock with a lot of energy doesn't seem to be their top priority. I will say, since seeing them last, the crowd-response has become much more enthusiastic. Note: this is the fourth show we saw in the Pavilion Stage, a solid six hours without food/bathroom - we're diehards.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

An Alt-J / Lord Huron Show Recap

This past Wednesday (9/18) I had the chance to catch the Alt-J and Lord Huron show at the 9:30 Club in DC with my buds Ben, Jeremy, and Taylor. Alt-J has always held a place of intrigue in my mind though I wouldn't count myself a super-fan. With that said, their music is so full and unique that, when given the chance to catch them live, I jumped at the opportunity.
Front row!
As Jeremy did all the organizing/purchasing, it was only a few days before the show that I found out that Lord Huron was opening. Their latest (only?) album has been a favorite of mine over the last year, commonly creating a perfect atmosphere of smooth, folksy goodness.

As their music has a relaxing vibe, I thought the show might sound good but be a little bit of a bore, especially as the guys came out in their J. Crew / Levi gear. Yet I was surprised by how exciting of a show these guys put on. The lead singer lost his cowboy hat a number of times due to rocking out or playing percussion in addition to his guitar (something I absolutely love). We were able to nab front row spots, giving us a great view of the electric guitarist's fantastic skills in creating a great sound. All in all, they sounded great and put a ton of energy into making an engaging show. Check them out sometime if you get the chance.

Onto Alt-J. These guys just exploded with their first and only album. We were catching them on the first night of two sold-out shows at the 9:30 Club. The crowd was psyched to be there. And we could feel the energy up front.
The four piece band came out arranged in a neat row and started right into their song, Intro. The word "calculated" was mentioned many times in describing their show and I think that's fair. They enjoyed playing their music for their fans but they weren't necessarily intent on creating incredible stage presence, perhaps an indicator of the specific *ahem* culture their music creates.   
The lead singer, big red beard, all black outfit and floral shoes, sounded great both with his super distinct vocals and guitar picking. Bleached-hair bassist and pizza-delivery-boy drummer were on point. And put-together keyboardist created just about every distinct sound to fill in the gaps. While their album has some super creative sounds on it, it's always a little disappointing when the interesting parts are created solely by a synth... I guess my desire for a live show is to see something I wouldn't see elsewhere.
When performing off of just one album, filling a headlining setlist usually requires some additions. Perhaps the anecdotal highlight was Alt-J's cover of College's "A Real Hero" (the standout track from the Drive soundtrack). That, in addition to the pretty dynamic light-show that accompanied, made for a real good show. Again, check them out live and, perhaps more importantly, check out their album.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Movies: A Fall, 2013 Preview

August has arrived and, for those in higher ed, that means work. Over the summer, I reached my goal of an insane amount of media intake - 14 seasons of various tv shows, 27 movies, 9 books. So there was a lot of catching up on shows/movies/books and discovering new ones happening. My one downer with summer is the low amount of quality movies that are released. There's always a few exceptions but nothing I was able to get to blew me away this summer. Perhaps Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine, Sofia Coppola's The Bling Ring, or the latest "before" installment, Before Midnight, would have proved me wrong.

With the onset of the fall comes a new school year and all that it entails (full schedule, new students, etc.). As for movie releases, this means some award-seeking movies are headed our way. I'm intrigued by Neil Blomkamp's Elysium (out this weekend) though it still falls squarely in the summer blockbuster genre. And the holiday season promises at least a few more great action blockbusters such as Ender's Game, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.

As I troll the internet for exciting new releases, the following are a few that have my particular attention. I have the movies' websites hyperlinked and a quick rationale for my excitement. Do you have other movies' that you're particularly excited about?



The Counselor
Director: Ridley Scott
Written by: Cormac McCarthy
Starring: Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Penelope Cruz, Michael Fassbender, Cameron Diaz
Release date: October 25
Why I'm excited: Cormac McCarthy is a masterful story-teller. Add Ridley Scott and a stacked cast, something decent has to emerge, right?


Her
Director: Spike Jonze
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde, Scarlett Johansson
Release date: November 20
Why I'm excited: Spike Jonze never fails to bring an insane idea to magical life on the big screen.




Inside Llewyn Davis
Directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Starring: Oscar Issac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, Justin Timberlake.
Release date: December 20
Why I'm excited: It's a new Coen brothers movie.





The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Director: Ben Stiller
Starring: Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig
Release date: Christmas
Why I'm excited: The visuals in the trailer are just fantastic.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Marilynne Robinson's Writing: "Home," etc.

I recently finished reading Home by Marilynne Robinson. This novel is also loosely tied to her Pulitzer-winning book, Gilead. I think I valued Gilead a bit more in that there's non-stop wisdom and heartache pouring from the protagonist's thought process. But Home created the better character interactions as showcased here between central-figure, Glory, and her tormented brother, Jack.
"She said, 'I don't care if you were in prison,' but the words cost her a little effort, and he heard it and smiled at her for a moment, studying her to be sure that she meant them.
He said, 'You're a good kid'" (p. 290).
I had a chance to see Robinson in a Q&A format at a conference last year and while I was a little lost on the content of the session (having not read any of her books at the time), I was struck with her sense of calm and patience. Regardless of the style and despite the lack of excitement factor, Robinson provides the kind of writing that contains a level of wisdom that's worth every minute of reading it.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Silence

Wow, what a full week of incredible experiences. I’m not going to try to recap the whole of my experience on the Civil Rights Tour but I would like to post one final thought.
I noticed a theme from a few of the people with whom we had the opportunity to interact. Ms. Lisa McNair, sister of one of the victims of the 16th Street Bombing, spoke about what it was like to grow up in a home that had a missing member. The family recognized their daughter’s death but it was rarely ever spoken of, it was simply the way things were. We also heard from Ms. Phyllis Brown, sister of one of the Little Rock Nine who integrated Central High School. In describing the Nine’s reunions decades later, many of them would share stories that none of the others had known about. Again, there was a sense of silence.
I find a quiet beauty in this. Many of the people that we met with were simply trying to live their lives well. I believe there’s room for the Lord to speak within silence, moving people in ways our words cannot. But I am also so very thankful for the many incredibly moving words we heard this past week. I am thankful for people that are committed to sharing their story, giving others a small glimpse of one of our nation’s most important eras. Personally, I hope to allow room for the Lord to speak while also giving voice to what I have experienced.

Monday, June 10, 2013

A Few Questions: Two Days In

The Civil Rights Tour continues! A lot has been jam packed into the first few days, visiting Greensboro, NC and Atlanta, GA. In addition to a lot of sites visited, I've done a good chunk of reading and documentary-watching on the forever long bus rides.   

When any serious time is given to really experiencing and learning about the Civil Rights Movement, it's hard not to quickly be confronted with the thought, "How could people be so hateful, so blind, so stubborn?" The inhumane words, actions, and systems were horrifying. 

After that initial question, a couple other series of questions quickly follow.

The first is this: "What kind of life would I have lead if I were transported to the 50's/60's? If I was a white student growing up in the Midwest, would I have been compelled to act? How about if I was an African-American in the South, would I have had the courage to fight the system, and to do so non-violently?" 

I'm ashamed when I think about the honest answers.

The second question, and perhaps the more haunting, is this: "What systems do I turn a blind eye towards in order to live the life I do today?" 

Dr. Eskew (a GSU professor we heard from today) elaborated on the economic and political context of Birmingham leading up to the Civil Rights Movement. In many ways, segregation and poor worker treatment was utilized to make the city successful at producing iron. It was at that point that Dr. Eskew asked what unjust systems are we a part of today, where are our iPhones or Nike shoes produced? (Hint: probably not in some local, worker-friendly environment.)

It's difficult dealing with internal prejudices that effect those in my closer community. When I start to think about the systems that I belong to that inhumanely disregard others across the globe, it starts to become a little overwhelming. Yet I think this is an appropriate emotional response. And I remain hopeful, surrounded by beautiful examples within the Civil Rights Movement where both personal and systematic injustices were overcome.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Here's Hoping: A Civil Rights Tour Prologue

I’m thrilled to come together with colleagues and students from both Messiah and Geneva in order to witness, discuss, experience, and process the Civil Rights Movement on an eight day tour all over the South. There'll be lots of hotels, charter buses, museums, and interesting conversations.

As in any educational context, the hope is that the knowledge doesn’t just go in one ear and out the other. Working in residence life, my hope with my RAs and residents isn’t that they just survive dorm-life or stay out of trouble. Rather, I hope that my students encounter a transformational learning experience, stumbling upon the inherent value in committing to one another or carrying conversations from the classroom/chapel over into the lounges (or a plethora of other things).

Likewise with this trip, I hope to be changed. I hope to learn a lot about the movement but I also want to be renewed in my sense of understanding of what’s come before me on issues of diversity and reconciliation and what that looks like today. I hope to recognize subtle (and blatant?) forms of prejudice in myself and work against those. I hope to discover new ways to challenge the students I work with to be courageous and inclusive. I have a lot of hopes…

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Summer: A New Season

Summer has arrived. Well, for an RD, summer sorta comes on graduation weekend. Then, after another few weeks of office-y work, summer really comes. And then there's two sweet, sweet months of absolutely nothing. (Followed by two months of non-stop work... but we're not going there mentally quite yet.)

Back to the two months of nothing. I lied.

Jorje and I are going on a mini-vaca, belated anniversary trip. A night in Annapolis. A night in Lancaster. We live in PA. We're going to see what there is to see. This part is total chilling out, maxing, relaxing or coolin' or shooting some b-ball outside of school.

But then I head out on a Messiah sponsored, eight day Civil Rights Tour, tromping all over the South, meeting some legit figures from the movement and seeing, in person, the places (and subsequent museums) of some of the major events of the time. There'll be plenty more blogging on that subject.

All that to say. Busy first two weeks of summer.

On to the real point of summer (this blog). I feel lucky to be in a position where I can really (like, really) relax. I have plenty on the Netflix queue (House of Cards, Louie, Arrested Development, a few documentaries, etc.) and a slightly unrealistic reading list (the next few: Boyd's Repenting of Religion, MLK Jr.'s Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community, Robinson's Home) that I'm thankful I'll have some time in which to soak.

As I'll be gone three strewn weeks of the total summer eight, I didn't try to land a job. So I also hope to work on some project-y things and futilely do for Jorje as much as she does for me throughout the rest of the year. The hope is that we'll also have space to lounge and take day trips and go for walks on a normal basis.

And then there's the coming of the fall. I want to go into year number two a little more thoughtfully. I no longer have the "it's my first year" excuse when it comes to thrown-together-staff-times, etc.. But the hope is that some of the reading/watching/reflecting will eventually be beneficial for not only myself, but for the students with whom I work.

There you have it. The spring ended well (albeit, "busy"-feeling) and I'm so very grateful to be where I'm at. Apologies on the purely "update-blog" but I thought I'd mark the start of this season with my general feeling.

Here's to the cyclical nature of higher ed.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Coffee Shop Crawl (#springbreak2013)

Since my spring break plans to visit alma mater Taylor U. didn't pan out as planned, I tried to make the most of the week doing what I do best: relaxing, reading, listening to music. What better place to so than a local coffee shop? So I thought I'd tack on a tour of the local coffee shops, most of which I had yet to visit.

What follows are one sentence reviews of the six places I visited in the last week.

LITTLE AMPS || harrisburg, uptown || website || best overall
This being the one shop that I had been to before, I knew I was going to experience an expertly made drink (a pour-over) in a minimalistic, friendly environment with vinyl playing in the background.

YELLOW BIRD || harrisburg, midtown || website || best food, cutest
This newly opened shop is really a bakery and soup/sandwich place (that serves Little Amps coffee) but it made this list due to its charming interior, crazy good fresh bread, and laid back coffee shop vibe.

THE CRIMSON FROG || camp hill || website || biggest, most hippies
I enjoyed my iced coffee while sitting on a comfortable duct-taped couch, next to a large plant, with the faint smell of smoke wafting through the air.

JUICE & JAVA || mechanicsburg || website || best use of space
While the Steve Harvey talk show inexplicably blasted on their overly large TV, I enjoyed the ambiance otherwise, my French roast coffee was mediocre, and I'm excited to return for one of their many smoothies.

SQUARE BEAN || dillsburg || website || friendliest, most small-town
I wondered into this coffee shop (originally mistaking it for a residential house) and was pleasantly greeted with warm service (not too overbearing), a good iced coffee and a simple sitting area inhabited by groups of elderly folks and well-meaning high school students.

OLDE TOWNE BOOKS & BREW || mechanicsburg || website || saddest
Located in downtown Mechanicsburg, this place had potential for having the most character yet I walked into the shop to find some not so pretty book shelves, a weird tasting vanilla latte, and an announcement of their closing in a week.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Faith and Jazz


"... I live with the tension - that I am called to tell others that they are called, yet I don't know precisely what my calling is. A jazz-shaped faith needs to be content with tension and paradox, even when it is close to home."
Robert Gelinas visited Taylor University a little while ago. After seeing a number of Taylor Tweets and hearing a recommendation from StAustin on his credibility, I thought I'd check out his book, Finding the Groove. I really loved Gelinas' analogy for our faith, helping to frame the way we can approach our faith akin to jazz. Perhaps my favorite aspect of the analogy is the commitment to being highly skilled (read: practiced, experienced, dedicated) Christians who also have the freedom to improvise.

The book read quickly, covered a variety of jazz and faith aspects, and used jazz and civil rights heroes effectively in communicating its message. Check Robert Gelinas out on his blog or give his book a read.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

A Quote from Bully

"If it was up to me. If I was the king of the United States, I'd make it to where there was no popularity. Everyone was equal. Cause that's how it should be." -Trey Wallace
It's Spring Break and I'm reading and watching movies. The latest being the appropriately titled documentary, Bully. A fantastic collection of stories of youths who have experienced bullying. Trey, quoted above, lost his 11-year old best friend to suicide after being bullied. It wasn't exactly an uplifting movie, but it was honest. And touching. Check out the website or you should be able to find it at a Redbox.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Break-up Movies

Yesterday's post referred to the New Sincerity, a description of culture's current typology, focusing more on authenticity than the cynicism of yesteryear. I think this is, at the very least, a partially accurate depiction. And I think this has also opened the door for a number of break-up movies made in the last 5 or so years. These movies showcase a love that doesn't work and, sometimes, people survive. I don't think this idea would have made it into the movies 10 years ago. I watched two such movies this weekend and was compelled to make a quick list.
Celeste & Jesse Forever
Rashida Jones' Celeste & Jesse Forever has been in my sights ever since I saw the super-slick trailer a few months ago. Ethereal soundtrack, great script well executed, beautiful visuals, great chemistry between Jones and Samberg, great cast. My only qualm was how obvious it is that you can't be besties with your ex (luckily, the movie progressed past that).

Take this Waltz (trailer)
Jorje and I watched this little indie guy last night and were pretty underwhelmed. It wallowed in indie world, pandering to following one's desires. Michelle Williams and Seth Rogan were solid but I just wasn't buying the self-discovery involved.

Blue Valentine (trailer)
Again, Michelle Williams. And Ryan Gosling. Beautifully acted. Perfect use of the Grizzly Bear's album, Veckatimist for its soundtrack. It's a slow one, and devastating.

(500) Days of Summer (trailer)
Sometimes I forget that this quirky, little indie-gem is a breakup movie. Zooey is Zooey and Levitt is Levitt. If you buy into them two... and everything else that the indie world brings, how can you not love this movie? It moves along quickly, it made me give The Smiths a listen, and the soundtrack is perfect.

Other suggestions?

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The New Sincerity

I'm not going to say too much about this one but I recently read Jonathan D. Fitzgerald's book, Not Your Mother's Morals. Fitzgerald is the editor of Patrolmag.com, writes for a bunch of other well known publications, and commonly spurs my thought process along.
His book highlights the New Sincerity found in today's pop culture; a progression from a few decades marked more by cynicism. He charts the progression of culture a little bit, gives a brief rundown of his personal engagement with culture while growing up within conservative Christianity, and finishes with a call to embrace this form of authenticity.

A quote in the second half of the book sums things up nicely:
Today, at this unique moment, writers, actors, musicians, and artists elevate authentic expression over manufactured image. This means that they reach back through the decades and choose from a wide array of values, selecting those that most often align with who we are and what we believe at our core. They understand that some situations are inherently better than others, and they're not embarrassed to suggest that we pursue those. This process puts morality front and center; the New Sincerity compels us to consider not just what we want, but also what is right.
Perhaps my favorite example that Fitzgerald uses is Conan O'Brien's charge to his (young) watchers to not be cynical.


It's certainly not perfect, but this little EP of a book is worth the read. Former church-mate and avid blogger, Amy Peterson, gives a much better analysis of the book on her blog or you can just read the book in an hour or two on your Kindle (currently $3.99 on Amazon).

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

First Year Students and their Questions

The First Year students on Messiah's campus were recently given an assignment to ask other students, administrators, or faculty the following questions: 
‘What is an idea or tradition or body of thought or book that has especially shaped your thinking and that helps you engage the world?’ 
The assignment was in response to a New York Times piece encouraging students to back their passionate feelings up with bodies of thought, not just a passing feeling. 

One of my residents asked me via email and I thought I'd share my response publicly as well in hopes that the three readers of this blog might also ask themselves this question.

  1. The Book of Common Prayer. My wife and I started going to an Episcopal Church a few years back (before moving to PA) and were greatly influenced by the liturgical and communal style of worship. The BCP was used as the framework of much of the service and it helped me recognize the connectedness of the wider church body, tying us to something larger than our temporary experience. There’s some type of reassurance knowing that not only is there a stable God, but a group of people that are also seeking that God alongside you.
  2. East of Eden – by John Steinbeck. This epic gem of a book has pretty easily maintained its spot as favorite of mine. It tells a “modern” (late nineteenth century – early twentieth) tale of Cain and Abel, driving home the point that we are all given different traits, life circumstances, etc. but we are responsible for our actions. So much wisdom.
  3. Garden State – The Zach Braff movie from a few years back. I view this movie as defining of my generation. As Braff (the protagonist) is faced with tragedy, romance, and awkward interactions with old friends, he’s forced to decide between distancing himself from others or choosing the hard road to deep relationships. This more or less typifies my hope in this generation; we may be sloppy and inappropriate at times, but we’re trying to be authentic.


I didn't include the Bible (although the BCP is a direct tie). The assignment was given on a Christian college campus, I'm assuming the Bible is a given. I also probably forgot some other major work that's been highly influential in my life but I did like the mix of ancient-ish, classic lit, and a modern work that all touch on major themes in my life.

Anything come to your mind for your life?

Sunday, January 13, 2013

A Belated New Year Post

Working on a school calendar doesn't add to the excitement of January 1. It also makes the setting of resolutions seem like it's coming too late in the game. I've never been a huge new year's resolutions guy anyhow. Yet, contrary to the last three sentences, I continue to take the opportunity of a "new start" and try to refocus my path, sometimes in large ways, but most often in small ones. Perhaps my two favorite resolutions of yesteryears are flossing and stretching. Both attainable, healthy-ish, and quirky.

For some reason, I'm feeling the need to post this year's resolutions. An embarrassing move when they're abandoned in March. But maybe a posting will add a few months to their life.

  • Join a small group. Jorjette and I were a part of separate groups last year and that went well. But this year, in a new place, we're looking to join a group from our church. Hopeful outcomes: deeper church relationships, understanding of the Bible/theology, awareness of ourselves.
  • Change my morning routine. I'm not a workaholic but most mornings I would check email in bed, a compromise between productivity and laziness. What an awful way to start? Replacing it is an attempt to read through the Book of Common Prayer (with the accompanying scripture).
  • In reading articles, limit the quantity and finish the ones I start. Nicholas Carr's The Shallows really got to me (my review here and a better synopsis/thoughts on the subject here). I'm heavily guilty of clicking on five different links from Twitter/Google Reader/Pitchfork/etc. and then only reading half of the first paragraph. I'm  training my brain to wade in shallow thinking. So this year, I'm going to limit the links I click on and then read all the way through the ones I do.
  • Listen to music well. I want to sit down and listen through whole albums using my (good) headphones.  I don't do this often but did with a few albums near the end of 2012. Already solid, meaningful albums become much more so when doing so singularly.
There ya go. Here's to growing and maturing. Comment with your own if you feel so inclined.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

My Tumultuous, Tortured Relationship (with the Academy)

The Oscar nominations were announced this morning.

This is a pretty exciting time of the year for me. I love filling out March Madness ballots. I joined and participated in a Fantasy Football league this past fall. The interactive thing is fun. But if I had a choice, I could geek out on Academy Award buzz for much longer. If only Academy Fantasy leagues were a thing (wait, are they?).

I like that the Academy has a strong reputation that goes back a long time. I like that, although there are plenty of awards for every detail of movies, there are 24 that are the main focus and an average Joe like myself can have educated opinions on most of them. I like that I can throw parties requiring people to dress up. I like getting caught up in the ridiculousness of it all.

Here's what kills me. The Academy's incessant love of biopic movies.The Academy's refusal to give a nod to anything superhero related. Its pick of The King's Speech over The Social Network. Its overflow of love poured onto The Hurt Locker. Alas, it's not a perfect relationship.

This year, I don't have any strong favorites. I probably enjoyed Moonrise Kingdom the most. The Cabin in the Woods was one of the smartest. The Hobbit and The Dark Knight Rises took me on a pretty great adventure. Bernie was the most twistedly endearing. And I hear Looper takes your brain for a ride.

While I haven't seen all the movies (Amour, Zero Dark Thirty, and Life of Pi remain in my queue) nominated for best picture, none blew me away. I'm hopeful for Zero but am trying not to set myself up for disappointment. I'm grateful the Academy is willing to include movies like Beasts of the Southern Wild in a number of categories but disappointed when The Dark Knight Rises or Moonrise are absent.

Alas.

As in all art forms, movies have elements of subjectivity. That's why they're great. That's why we all have a favorite genre. That's why I keep coming back to the Oscars even when they don't treat me right.

The Oscars will be aired February 24 on ABC.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Book Review - The Shallows by Nicholas Carr

Although the book is a couple years old, Nicholas Carr's The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains came at a good time for me. As I prepare for a few social media usage programs/presentations and as we enter a new year with the accompanying resolution season, the book provides some helpful content related to the way I think about and use the Internet.

Carr's general thought is that our non-stop Internet usage that emphasizes quick, brief attention to a wide spectrum of information pushes us to use the shallower parts of our brain while crowding out the deep thinking portions that longer and slower forms of media require (such as book reading). While he keeps it interesting with some anecdotal support, the majority of the book sifts through various studies done on the human brain. The scope of the book is rather large as it covers everything from a brief history of the the passage of information (oral to written to printed to hyperlinked digital text) to the level of depth the Google masterminds have gone to in order do our thinking for us. Although Carr doesn't stay completely objective, his level of immersion in his own technological usage certainly keeps him from any sort of judgmental tone.

My primary take away from the book is to slow down. When overwhelmed with the number of items on my to-do list, my natural inclination is to try and accomplish everything at once (even though following a to-do list usually slows me down eventually). Yet the book re-affirms the suspicion that scattering my brain over four items simultaneously really isn't helping me get anything done well. It is a reminder (and shows some statistical backing) that eliminating the distractions I expose myself to not only keep me focused in the here and now but that it actually will benefit the way I think.

Not a bad thought to start in 2013.