Thursday, August 7, 2014

High Fives for Summer: Music

As I've spent most of my summer cooped up in my apartment, occasionally doing laundry but mostly just reading, listening, and watching, I thought I might pass along the media highlights that I've come across. To do so, in this four-part blog series, I'll list five of my favorite TV shows, books, albums, and movies that I've consumed this summer, thus creating my "High Fives" for each medium.

(Below my "High Five," I've listed a few Honorable Mention albums; albums that have been on regular rotation though who knows if I'll be listening to them a year from now.)


It's been a slow year for music and the summer has not been much different. That said, it's not as though I've stopped listening to new music... that'd be ridiculous. Here are some albums I've been listening to a decent amount this summer.

Coldplay || Ghost Stories
May, 2014 || Alt-rock, Post-Britpop || Website
Being old friends, I was obviously going to give the new album a listen or two. And, well, it's not bad. After X&Y, I was starting to question my belief in these alt-rock-pop superstars but then Viva La Vida came along and contends for one of my favorite albums of theirs. Then the ultimately annoying Mylo Xyloto followed and made me question everything about them. And then, here we have Ghost Stories. Perhaps the most adult-contemporary of their albums. But then again, I'm just about a full-fledged adult so that's not inherently a bad thing, I guess. Track Midnight had a pretty awful music video and there were some fairly blatant rip-offs of Bon Iver but, hey, I love Bon Iver. Listening through the album with the lyrics in front of me didn't help but when played while driving, getting ready in the morning, or reading, this album works rather well. 
Stand-out Track: Ghost Story, Another's Arms

Ages and Ages || Divisionary
March, 2014 || Indie-folk, Raw choral pop || Website
Listed on Paste editor Josh Jackson's top songs of the year (so far) list, I checked out this yet unheard of Portland-based band and found them delightfully upbeat, choral (as the genre suggests), and filling my Of Monsters and Men / The Head and the Heart hipster-folk void. As with any album involving more than two people on vocals, the listener is invited to sing along and just about every song does that wonderfully.
Stand-out Track: Divisionary (Do the Right Thing)

Phantogram || Divisionary
February, 2014 || Electric rock || Website
I originally heard of these guys about four years ago as they opened for The Antlers at The Blind Pig in Ann Arbor. They definitely had a good, beats-produced sound to them and their first LP had some good tracks on it. When their follow-up released earlier this year, I gave the album a few spins in my office but moved on. As Jorjette has recently found a growing interest in indie-music (beyond allowing me to play whatever I'm currently listening to), she independently got into them and, once we bought tickets for their 9:30 Club show in D.C., we were hooked. The new album is certainly a major-label affair though, in my opinion, they needed a little more accessibility, making for a still off-kilter summer album. 
Stand-out Track: Fall in Love

Sam Smith || In the Lonely Hour
June, 2014 || Pop, Soul, R&B || Website
Remember when this guy performed on SNL earlier this year? It was kind of boring but he was intriguing, at the very least. Of course that Disclosure released single that he is featured on, Latch, is irresistible (with radio stations finally catching up, playing the track a year and a half after it released...). His single Stay with Me had Jorje and I hooked but then the album got mediocre reviews. The album finally released on Spotify, allowing us to get a full listen to the whole album. While there are still a few misses, album opener Money on My Mind is fantastic and his British R&B vocals soar throughout. 
Stand-out Tracks: Money on My Mind, Stay with Me

Sylvan Esso || s/t
May, 2014 || Electric, Indie folk || Website
Briefly introduced to their single, Coffee, via a mix CD a former co-worker gave to Jorjette, I was formally acquainted with this band when visiting friends Matt and Allison in NYC while playing Sorry in their living room. Looking at their genre, I'm a total sucker for anything slow-moving, ethereal but with a purpose.
Stand-out Track: Coffee

Honorable Mention: First Aid Kit, Kishi Bashi, How to Dress Well

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

High Fives for Summer: Television

As I've spent most of my summer cooped up in my apartment, occasionally doing laundry but mostly just reading, listening, and watching, I thought I might pass along the media highlights that I've come across. To do so, in this four-part blog series, I'll list five of my favorite TV shows, books, albums, and movies that I've consumed this summer, thus creating my "High Fives" for each medium.


Television has been described as being in the "golden age" for the last decade or so and I would tend to agree. Although there's certainly more trash out there than ever before, the broadening of the television market created by cable networks and, now, internet based programming has created both quantity and quality.

Maybe I'm imagining things, but it seems as though this golden aged television has delivered dramas in waves. The Sopranos, The West Wing, and The Wire all aired relatively alongside each other in the early '00s. Mad Men and Breaking Bad dominate(d) for their runs in the following six or so years. And, now, a new slew of heavy hitters are just starting up with House of Cards, True Detective, and Fargo. Of course, this ignores a few shows like Homeland and Downton Abbey and disregards the comedy side of television programming but regardless of my wave-theory, if these next young guns are as fantastic as the last few waves, we're in for a good ride.

As for my "High Five" selections, many of my picks were decided heavily by their availability to me. Namely, whatever I could get my hands on at the local library and whatever is on Amazon Prime Instant Video, which recently added a ton of HBO shows in addition to their FX offerings. That said, here are some television highlights for the summer, old and new, funny and serious.

 Bored to Death || Season 3
HBO, viewed on Amazon Prime || 2009-11 || Comedy || Website
This three season sitcom finished it's course a few years back though I'm not sure why this little gem didn't get more attention. The premise is fairly simple and absurd: Jonathan Ames (Jason Schwartzman) is an aspiring New York author who works as a P.I. in the evenings and is assisted by his two friends, George Christopher (Ted Danson) and Ray Hueston (Zach Galifianakis), both of whom are cast brilliantly. The writing is smart, if not a little smarmy, and the actors are allowed to play off each other in ways a sitcom should allow their characters. Nothing about season three stood out as better than the rest of the series but if a Wes Anderson / Judd Apatow style HBO sitcom sounds intriguing, check it out.

Orphan Black || Season 1
BBC, viewed on Amazon Prime || 2013- || Canadian sci-fi || Website
Generally speaking, sci-fi shows aren't necessarily my cup of tea (e.g. I couldn't get into Battlestar Galactica for the life of me) but this brilliantly paced sci-fi thriller had Jorje and I flying through. Reminiscent of J.J. Abrams' Alias, this felt a bit tighter and had the added foreign-produced spunk. For those unfamiliar, the premise of the show follows orphaned, street thug Sarah Manning (Tatiana Maslany) after she witnesses the suicide of a woman who looks identical to her. It's a fun one, perhaps specifically for a long summer afternoon.

Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee || Seasons 3 & 4
Viewed on the internet || 2012- || Comedy web series || Website
This internet-based interview series hosted by Jerry Seinfeld is quaint and unique and could only be successful with Seinfeld's notoriety and this day of internet programming interest. True to it's title, the episodes include Seinfeld driving some cool car, picking up a comedian friend, and going to get coffee. The episodes range in length from six to twenty minutes, rarely lagging too long or depicting a lull in the conversation. Sure, there is some over-reminiscing with the older comedians and the product placements are overwrought (intentionally, though not as tongue-in-cheek as, say 30 Rock pulled them off) making for a package of a show that might be a little too tidy at times. Still, what distinguishes this series from any late-night show is the off-handedness and strangeness of the locations and activities. Who doesn't love going for a drive in a cool car? Grabbing a cup of coffee? Somehow these household name comedians feel rather relatable. In season three, Tina Fey is herself, which is hilarious. On Patton Oswell's episode, their DeLorean breaks down. But of course they have a back-up at the ready. And Louie C.K. shares about how his favorite thing to do is get high and go to the IMAX, a story which is preceded by a heartwarming story about taking his kids out on his boat (which, by the way, is only another example of Louie showcasing what, I would contend, makes him the best entertainer able to blend the sacred and profane). Season four was recently posted. All episodes are up on the site.

The Wire || Season 1
HBO, viewed on Amazon Prime || 2002-08 || Crime drama || Website
I originally tried watching this show a few years back during my "gap year" between undergrad and grad school but I had just come off watching the entire The Sopranos series and couldn't handle another slow-paced though brilliantly constructed show. I'm glad I returned. The hour long episodes move along not slowly, like I originally felt, but at a pace true to life, taking time to allow the viewer to get to know its varied characters ranging from the Baltimore Police Department, drug addicts, the drug dealers and gang leaders, and the kids from the projects growing up among all of it. No one is overtly vilified or made to be a hero. The police slowly work to bring down the network of drugs and murders. Avon Barksdale serves as the calculating and well-reasoned leader of the network of drug distribution. I've also been watching 24: Live Another Day this summer and contrary to that show's handling of death, The Wire appropriately gives each life the respect any human life deserves, a rarity among television and movies these days, specifically for a show set in one of the roughest parts of the country and focusing on the homicide police department. I'm excited to work my way through the remaining four seasons as they focus on different areas of Baltimore.

True Detective || Season 1
HBO, viewed on Xfinity On-Demand || 2014 || Mystery crime drama || Website
I'd heard great things about this one and, I'll be honest, it catered to my faux-deep side. It's gotten some well-founded criticism for the lack of three-dimensional female characters but the acting, writing, and sepia-toned shots of deep-South Louisiana is gorgeous. The show does a marvelous job of creating mystery in the first few episodes, moving back and forth through time, using interviews of leads McConaughey and Harrelson as voice-overs, occasionally telling the truth, occasionally not. While the conclusion focused more on the inherent bro-mance and general worldview of the two leads, the lack of a mind-blowing mystery ending felt right, I suppose.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

High Fives for Summer: Books

As I've spent most of my summer cooped up in my apartment, occasionally doing laundry but mostly just reading, listening, and watching, I thought I might pass along the media highlights that I've come across. To do so, in this four-part blog series, I'll list five of my favorite TV shows, books, albums, and movies that I've consumed this summer, thus creating my "High Fives" for each medium.

(Below my "High Five," I've listed a few books that certainly got a passing grade and come with a recommendation.)


I like to read books and the summer (usually) provides ample time to do so. This summer has been no different. Here were a few of my faves.

Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? || Beverly Daniel Tatum
1997 || Anthropology, African-American studies || Amazon
I'm not sure why I've waited until now to read this classic guide to understanding race relations, specifically for kids, adolescents, and students. The book helped me understand much, specifically things that, as a white person, I am ambivalent towards. Perhaps most importantly, it caused me to further realize that our society is not inherently moving towards a more racially sensitive and welcoming place but we, conscientiously or subconsciously, move the other direction. Thus, the emphasis must be put on actively working towards better understanding our own prejudices, allowing space for those of color in my own world, and intentionally working on dialogue with those other than me.

The Fault in Our Stars || John Green
2012 || Young adult || Amazon
Read in two days time, this young adult fiction novel, like the movie made after it, is filled with half-cheesy quotes of love and carpe diem living and a desire for understanding how to deal with grief. If all the kids are reading this one, I'm fine with that. And if all the adults who read young adult fiction are reading this... there could be worst things, I suppose.

Gone Girl || Gillian Flynn
2012 || Fiction, Thriller || Website
I'm going to go ahead and say this was the most exciting read of the summer. Definitely the biggest page-turner. Clocking in at over 400 pages, I read it in a three or four days, even as a dreadfully slow reader. This story of a marriage and of suspected murder is intriguing on multiple levels. Split into two parts, the story is told from both husband and wife, past and present, leaving the reader in constant suspense as to what really went down and, eventually, unbelief as to how things unfold. Of course, one could read the whole thing as allegory for relationships/marriage or conspire down a lot of other rabbit trails. Suffice it to say, I'm pretty stoked for the David Fincher directed film-adaptation coming this fall.

Torn || Justin Lee
2013 || Biography, Gender & sexuality || Website
Justin Lee recounts his experience growing up in a Christian home, stable family, leader at school and youth group, and, eventually, coming to terms with his gay identity. The book primarily focuses on Lee's experience in working through his identity, specifically as it relates to the Church, though he also touches on the nature/nurture, Biblical commentary, and appropriate response topics as well. Ultimately, Lee creates the Gay Christian Network, an organization hoping to spur dialogue and support for LGBTQ people and the Church. In the book (and elsewhere), he has helped people converse with each other, even with strongly held oppositional viewpoints. Way to go, Justin.

The Complete Stories || Flannery O'Connor
1971 || Southern gothic || Amazon
You can't argue with Flannery. Admittedly, I'm not as well-read with short stories but Flannery is able to pack more description, character depth, and life commentary into twenty pages then most fit into full-length novels. Mostly set in the South, most characters are both sympathetic and hypocritical and full of surprises.

Honorable Mention: A Storm of Swords, The Violence of Scripture, A Walk in the Woods

Monday, August 4, 2014

High Fives for Summer: Movies

As I've spent most of my summer cooped up in my apartment, occasionally doing laundry but mostly just reading, listening, and watching, I thought I might pass along the media highlights that I've come across. To do so, in this four-part blog series, I'll list five of my favorite TV shows, books, albums, and movies that I've consumed this summer, thus creating my "High Fives" for each medium.


Summers are notorious for their mindless offerings, opting for explosions rather than depth of character, etc. That said, there have been some decent offerings this summer ranging from well-made blockbuster action movies to teen and kids movies doing an excellent job within their genre. And of course I'm not only watching newly released movies; the summer is a time where I can catch up on all those little indie or foreign films that escaped my grasp from yesteryear.

(Below my "High Fives" are a few Honorable Mentions, movies that I saw and got a passing grade. And then some Highly Anticipated, movies about which I hear great things and were released in theaters but I haven't gotten to yet.)

Short Term 12
2013 || Coming of age / Drama || Website
Although I had always heard good things about this one, I missed it in theaters and its on-campus showing this past school year so when I was able to watch Short Term 12 through Redbox, I jumped at the chance. Set on a residential treatment facility for minors, the story closely follows the support staff as they interact with and live alongside of the kids. When introduced to the characters and setting, it originally feels cool and hip, like they're all young and struggling but, since they have each other, they're alright. Though as the movie progresses, it becomes apparent that the support staff isn't as functional and stable as one would like, progressing through and past addiction isn't easy, and, sometimes, those we're working with don't always make recoveries. As someone who works in a live-in position with students of all sorts (though, let me be clear, very different than the treatment facility of the movie), I sympathized with the themes of simultaneously growing as a person while helping those around me. One last note, the lead actress, Brie Larsen, has appeared in a number of movies over the last few years but this is easily the standout role. Look for more of her in the future.

The Fault in our Stars
2014 || Romance / Comedy-drama || Website
The latest teen-sensation book-turned-movie, The Fault in Our Stars has a lot of the elements of a cliched movie packaged up nicely and sold to teenagers and they spend their summer job money on the latest. And yes, if you Google the title, there's plenty of quotable fan-art that's been created. Let's be honest, if this movie came out fifteen years ago, I would have thrown a quote or two into my AIM Away Message to show how emotionally in-touch I was. All that said, the movie (and book) get a lot of things right. Shailene Woodley shines (as always) as Hazel and Ansel Elgort plays the good-looking Gus with ease. (In fact, these two are about the only positive take-away from the otherwise disappointing Divergent.) The movie deals with cancer and death is distinctly teenage, authentic ways while maintaining a deeply meaningful approach to life as showcased throughout the coming-of-age elements throughout. Lastly, the movie takes place in Indianapolis... which I realize isn't really an objective positive quality of the film but it's cool to recognize a few landmarks here and there.

The Broken Circle Breakdown
2013 || Romance / Music / Foreign-language || Website
Stuck at home without Jorjette one evening early this summer, I was scrolling through Amazon Prime's movie offerings and stumbled across this foreign-language Oscar-nominated film from 2013. I had vaguely heard of it but had no official recommendations. I'm glad I took the time to watch. The movie follows the two leads as they deal with love, parenthood, sickness, grief, commitment, and belief. And yes, it is a Belgium movie, set in Belgium, yet they love to sing folk music. The acting is fantastic and the music, an accent rather than the dominating force, gives Inside Llewyn Davis a serious contender for the best soundtrack of 2013.

2014 || Drama / Foreign-language || Website
While visiting family in the Midwest this summer, my mother, lover of all things Eastern European and Jewish culture, suggested going to this little Polish film playing at the arts cinema in Bloomfield Hills. I had never heard of it yet when checking it's glowing critical ratings, happily agreed to join. What resulted was perhaps one of the most beautiful movies I've seen in quite some time. Utilizing a 1.37 aspect ratio (basically, a square frame), the black and white movie is like a series of beautiful photographs. Yet more than a pretty picture book, the film, set in 1960's Poland, follows a young Catholic girl as she prepares to take her vows after a childhood in the convent. Before doing so, she is asked to meet an estranged aunt, a successful Jewish judge. There's lots of self-discovery, few words, and yet more striking images. 

How to Train your Dragon 2
2014 || Fantasy, Action || Website
Beautiful, empowering, and dealing fully with the realities of kid-life (set in a different time/place/etc.). If all kid movies were this good, I'd... go to more kid movies.

Honorable Mention: Snowpiercer, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Highly Anticipated: Boyhood, A Most Wanted Man, Locke, Edge of Tomorrow, Obvious Child