Sunday, May 31, 2009

Because it's been a while...

Because it's been a while, I'm just going to recommend several songs. In list form. With no explanation. Are these my favorite songs of all time? Maybe, but not necessarily.

Leonard Cohen - Hallelujah (The John Cale recording is possibly my favorite version of this ever.)
The Beach Boys - God Only Knows
Bob Dylan - If You See Her, Say Hello
the Mountain Goats - Masher
Shearwater - Near a Garden
Jackson Browne - These Days (if you can track it down, check out the St. Vincent cover. Amazing.)
John Lennon - Isolation
The Beatles - Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)
Okkervil River - It Ends With a Fall
Radiohead - Cuttooth
The Replacements - Answering Machine
The Records - Starry Eyes
Big Star - Kangaroo
Wilco - Sunken Treasure
Jeff Buckley - Lover, You Should've Come Over
Tim Buckley - Song to the Siren (It goes without saying that the This Mortal Coil cover is very impressive as well.)
The Velvet Underground - Stephanie Says
Rufus Wainwright - Poses
Elliott Smith - Say Yes
Nick Drake - Northern Sky
Beat Happening - Godsend
Blur - Tender
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - The Ship Song
Elvis Costello - Couldn't Call It Unexpected #4
The Prayers and Tears of Arthur Digby Sellers - Lisa
R.E.M. - Country Feedback
New Order - Ceremony
The Smiths - Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want
Modest Mouse - Talking Shit About a Pretty Sunset
Red House Painters - Void

So, that's it. An off-the-top-of-my-head list of thirty songs that are doing it for me right now. Both in terms of where I am in my life and, you know, RIGHT NOW. So track them down. Listen to them. Spend time with them. Love them. Include them on mixes. Discuss in the comments. Et cetera.

Friday, May 22, 2009

math is hard; let's go shopping

Today's recommendation is Pretty Charts & Graphs.

I realize that seems pretty insipid, but wait.

As a female living in the virulently anti-intellectual America, I have had a complicated relationship with math & science my entire life. This is not why I went into the humanities, but there you go. Anyway, despite the fact that I haven't made a career of math or science (much to humanities-haters' lamentations), I still respect elegant ways to organize information. I prize optimization, and I respect ways to visualize and organize said optimization.

Therefore, I'm something of a meta-hobbyist. For me, half of the fun of Netflix is using Feedflix and trying to get my cost per disc into the green (current cost per disc: $1.06). Thom introduced me to the Gas Cubby app for the iPhone (Aren't we yuppie douchebags? We have iPhones) and now I compulsively check to make sure that overnight, my Buick didn't suddenly start getting a better MPG or that I didn't drunkenly soup up the rims. If it costs me 9 cents a mile PLUS gas to go somewhere, do I really want to go?

The other day, I was extremely excited (not nerdily excited, not geekily excited - I'm sick of having to qualify & pathologize excitement just because it centers around things mainstream society considers uncool) to hear about the premiere of Wolfram Alpha, a promising new site that, if it develops right, will kinda change everything. For one thing, it is the most unfortunate URL ever. It is difficult to remember - is it that hard to get a straight WWW? - and egotistical on a level that competes with Stephen Colbert. I, too, hope my name is someday a verb, but I also have a name less cringeworthy than "Wolfram." I like to think.

Anyway - Wolfram is pretty much in alpha / beta (parking lot?) mode but once it's up and running it will be rather revolutionary. It unites computational knowledge with something close to natural language searches.
This means, for me, that all the math questions I ripped my hair out over in 11th grade, I can suddenly enter natural-language-type inputs- like - "volume cylinder height 3" and see a PRETTY CHART and a multitude of other information.
Wolfram Alpha has gotten a lot of hate. I see both sides, and I suspect I would disagree with Stephen Wolfram on a lot of things. I am still puzzling out how to use Wolfram, and at least 90% of the time it doesn't work, but this is also how I remember the early, all-textual Internet working.

The Internet was built on binary. It is a system in which things are either on or off, 1 or 0, right or wrong; yet in this system, in a short period of time, a Wild West society of freedom, libertarianism, acceptance, and a multitude of other things has sprung up. In this society, free information is key. Wolfram's pompous project uses the very form/ media of the Internet to subvert it, refusing to divulge information or to buy into trendy, world-changing notions such as open-source software.

But, they have pretty graphs. And charts.

I decided long ago that if I was going to spend a long time puzzling over something, it would be something vast and unknowable. I decided this long before I really knew that mathematics and physics and biology could be vast and unknowable; I'm the product of a sub-mediocre public school education where science meant memorizing boldfaced words and literature meant spewing plot details onto a quiz; however, I'm telling you this so you understand the framework in which I made this vague decision. Words were infinite and I'd spend hours puzzling in frustration at the dining room table only to be left with a hollow and unsatisfying number.

I recommend them to you!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

freedom is overrated.

Today I recommend Romanian Names, the new album from John Vanderslice. The album officially streeted yesterday, but because of a very generous preorder offer from JV and his new label, Dead Oceans, I've been living with the album for about three weeks or so as a digital download. In that three weeks, according to my iTunes, I listened to the album in full no less than 9 times, with various tracks receiving additional single listens. Because my copy of the LP arrived this past Saturday, it is impossible to say how many times I have now listened to this album, and I'm still finding new details on which to focus with each subsequent listen. Obviously, this is going to be more of a gushy post than a professional-type review - bear with me. 

So far, this may very well be my favorite album of 2009. I have been a JV fan for many years, and have reliable fallen in love with his past several albums instantly and have come to expect a certain standard of quality and consistency from him; yet, somehow, this album took me by surprise, in spite of the implicit high expectations I already had for it. Perhaps this is partially because I was introduced to 5 of the 12 songs in stripped-down, solo acoustic form on the Gone Primitive tour; I became so intimately acquainted with 2 songs in particular over the course of the tour that I know the lyrics in full and was comfortably singing along with JV by the final night. It had gotten to the point where the only way I could conceive of these songs was in the stripped-down acoustic form; how much of a shock was it, then, when I first listened to the production on this album? JV and Scott Solter have always had a great knack for interesting production, sound design, and attention to sonic detail, but on this album more than any other in JV's catalog one can really get lost in the layers.  Speaking as an amateur (and amateurish!) home-recording musician who has a tendency to pile on layers and sculpt the sound, this album is truly a technical marvel.

Technicality aside, though, one of the big things that sets this album apart is its easy-going, breezy nature. JV has always had an undercurrent of anxiety in his solo recordings; once the post-September 11 influence began to seep into his albums starting with Cellar Door, this anxiety was amplified and moved to the foreground, culminating in Emerald City, where every song seems to be an exercise in divergent ways of channeling a jittery, anxious nervousness about a world gone wrong with no respite. Here, although many of the themes are ones that JV has explored before, he seems to be at ease and relaxed; no longer jittery, the songs feel more accepting of the things in the world that he cannot change and more at peace as a result. Even as he sings the sweetly heartbreaking album finale "Hard Times," there is a zen-like calm to his voice, as if the pain that he has traversed in getting through the hard times has left him bruised but wise, refined. The juxtaposition is fascinating - as meticulously as the album was crafted, the songwriting feels remarkably simple, non-fussed-over, natural.

It is not often that an artist writes and records the best album of his career seven albums in, but I dare say that JV has done it. I implore you all to check it out. For a preview, download Fetal Horses or my favorite song from the album, Too Much Time. If you have an eMusic account, you can download it there; or, better yet, purchase the album from Dead Oceans or directly from JV on tour (JV gives great hugs, by the way!) Speaking of tour! If anyone will be in Brooklyn on Friday, June 12, consider seeing him with The Tallest Man on Earth at the Music Hall of Williamsburg! I will be there! So will Miranda! Come hang out with us and JV! It will be a great time!

For those who have already enjoyed the album, or still need convincing, check out this utterly incredible performance of "Too Much Time" with an orchestra. It's magical. I can't wait to hear how these songs sound on stage with a band behind him.

John Vanderslice "Too Much Time" from AV on Vimeo.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

ideas for vegetarian substitutions are welcome.

in this economy, it certainly hopes to cut corners wherever one can. one of the most effective ways to do so, while reaping other benefits as well, is in eschewing ordering out or going out to eat. in this spirit, i will attempt to pepper my regular recommendations with interesting or self-created recipes to help you, beloved readers, live a more financially prudent life through financially prudent meals. and so, my devoted followers, i present to you the first installment of the recession gourmet: thom's snappy chicken salad (in search of a snappy name). i should add that ideas for the snappy name are also welcome.

chicken salad is a summer picnic staple. unfortunately, it is also boring. so, when i was looking for things to make and bring to work for lunch, and had tired of both salad and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, i started to think of what else i could make and also inject my own personal touch. after a couple of experiments with different flavor combinations and ingredient ratios, i think i have hit upon a formula which represents an interesting diversion from your usual deli/lunch fare.

i start with a large can of swanson chunk chicken meat. yes, canned food in general is pretty disgusting, and i'm sure it would taste better to use fresh chicken, but it's more than i want to deal with and frankly, it's probably more cost-effective to use the canned stuff. once you have the other ingredients mixed in, you no longer get that weird canned-chicken smell and look. next, chop up a stalk of celery and throw it in. crush a fistful or two of pecan halves and throw them in; toss in a handful of craisins. (obviously, i am not very exact with my measurements. i firmly believe that this is the one and only correct way to cook anything that isn't in a book or printed on the side panel of a box.) chop up/dice about 1/3 of a medium-sized apple and toss that in, as well. you can skin the apple if you'd like, but don;t feel obligated. i generally prefer to use granny smith for this; today i tried it with an organic gala, and it was good, but i feel like the tartness of the granny smith adds a nice accent that was missing from my sandwich today.

once you have mixed together all of the solid ingredients, mix in some light mayonnaise (i tend to use hellmann's, but any brand should do; and if you are one who fears the "light" label on foods, let me assure you i can detect no taste difference between regular hellmann's and light hellmann's). any pretense of even estimating measurements goes out the window at this point; add just enough to evenly coat all of the solid ingredients. with all of the fruit and nuts that you added, it will likely take lots of turning with a small fork to make sure it is all evenly coated.

voila! you have just created a quick, easy, inexpensive, colorful, and tasty chicken salad that should feed you for about a week, depending on the size of your sandwiches. speaking of the sandwiches: here is what i have determined to be the ideal way to prepare them with this chicken salad.

first, the bread choice. oatmeal bread is good, but lately i have fallen completely in love with this apple honey oat bread that i have found at wegman's. this particular bread is manufactured by wegman's, and i am unaware of any nationally-available equivalent, so you may want to search around, or simply find your own favorite alternative. spread some apple butter on one slice of the bread; i like to use the clearbrook farms brand, which has a nice texture and a robust flavor to it. on the other slice of bread, lay a bed of romaine lettuce. spoon out some of the chicken salad onto the romaine, then sprinkle liberally with ground black pepper. and there you go. when all is said and done, it costs less than $2.00 per sandwich, since a little bit goes a long way with all of the fruit and vegetable ingredients. it is reasonably healthy - more so than whatever fast food you were going to get on your lunch break, anyhow. and if i may say so while still maintaining my usual modesty, it is a really interesting, unique combination of flavors.

i'd be interested in knowing if anyone tries this, and i'd ESPECIALLY like to know of any modifications anyone makes to the recipe! today, i tried something different; i tried to temper the more traditionally autumn flavors of the apple and cranberries by placing slices of strawberry into the sandwich. it wasn't bad, but it wasn't great either. in the end, i think it was just too many different flavors at once, and the strawberry really didn't have a complement. but if you try something else and have success with it, please let me know!

in the furthest country that you did not make up

I'm on a roll! Look at me recommending things 2 for 2! My allergies seem out to kill me, or at least make me extraordinarily lazy. So today's recommendation is not lowering your standards of personal hygiene or accountability and spending days in bed coughing and drinking sugar-free Kool Aid, as I have done.

But, metaphorically, drink my sugar-free Kool-Aid, as I recommend to you:

Beshkempir, the Adopted Son

There are many reasons why I am Recommending this film to you.

Pretension and Elistism. it was made in Kyrgyzstan, a country you would love to play in Scrabble (if you could play proper nouns), even if you probably can't find it on a map (did you ever buy that shower curtain I told you about?). It will make you seem so cultured at cocktail parties, to casually say: "I saw this great Kryzgz movie the other day..."

Sociopolitical and historical awareness. This is one of the first films made in Kyrgyzstan since the fall of the Soviet Union & released internationally. Film has actually been really important in that country / soviet state, as the USSR used film to indoctrinate citizens (as they did elsewhere). Probably, this will be the first Kyrzgz film you'll have seen.

Enjoyable Film in and of Itself. What? Pretense and cultural awareness are not enough reasons for you to watch a movie? Wimp. This highly visual film may lack the CGI 3D effects you have come to expect from the cinema, but the story it tells is timeless. It could take place in virtually any time, save for a few excursions to the movies in the film. The film would work just as well if it were silent. The simple narrative works. The characters aren't archetypes, but humans, but they're comprehensible enough to be relatable, even from what will most likely be a vast cultural, geographical, and linguistic divide.

Reasons other than the 3 or 4 the few critics who've noticed this film have given. Here is what you know about this film from a few Google searches. It's in black & white with "strategic," "sparse" color (and I don't mean gimmicky black & white, like Schindler's List or Guy Maddin - and I appreciate Schindler's List & Maddin's work, but you know what I mean). Some critics / summaries have tactlessly given away the entire plot, which should not be as big of a sin as we make it out to be, but it's a coming of age story (but what does that mean? Whose age? Coming from what to what?). It's a relatable story, so much so that it feels like a memory, a memory from a pleasant perspective that's disjointed temporally. Perhaps it's cultural tourism, perhaps the alien landscape exacerbates the familiar emotive aspects of this story. Perhaps I'm merely re-bloviating the same reasons that critics have given for seeing this movie in the past. Regardless, I highly recommend that you watch it.

The DVD has sadly been discontinued, but you can get it from Netflix, or order it used from Amazon.

Monday, May 18, 2009

there is no leaving new york.

It's been a while since I recommended something at you. Doing nothing all day long is so much more time consuming than I thought it would be.

Today's recommendation is The History of Love by Nicole Krauss. I got this book for 50 cents at the library book sale (Attn Nicole Krauss: I am sorry I could not contribute to your fabulous royalty check that way, but I'm POOR; please feel free to contribute to my fabulous student loan fund via paypal). I wanted to read something light before I resumed my not-so-fun summer of soul-rending media theory, and this book served its purpose.

Honestly, I'm of two minds about this book & I've spent a week losing sleep about whether or not to Recommend it to you, my beloved blog readers. For one thing (Originally, I wrote "on the one hand" there, then I went back and realized I do not, in fact, have 4 hands), I am very sick of New York novels about precocious Jewish children who have lost their fathers connecting with older people who happen to have survived the Holocaust. Seriously, it's a cottage industry, and it's neither original nor plausible; I don't necessarily seek realism in literature, but I really hate precocious children in general. I think that their overrepresentation in contemporary literature is symptomatic of literature's overconcern with, and over emulation of, the cinema. I know that sounds funny, coming from a cinema "scholar" and all, but my BA is in literature, so I feel somewhat qualified to make that assumption. Frankly, I think the trope of writing through the eyes of a precocious child is a big cop-out. The writers want to affect an innocence & naiveté but they want to keep their snappy one-liners. And of course, having grown up in a media-savvy generation, they only know how to respond to situations with pregnant pauses for laugh tracks & big-eyed, affected wonder.

Another thing I didn't want to like about the book was, well, how elitist it is. This is a book for people with 6-figure incomes (or student loan debt loads), multiple degrees, therapists, and piles of books. This is a book for those who sneer at grammar and see no redeeming features in the masses, if you want to look at it negatively. This book is heavily informed by Borges, who is a writer I adore, and I adore him because I am a reluctant, overeducated elitist (True story: When I was 8 and could not sleep my father tossed Ficciones at me, and I've been a fan ever since, 4realz). This book is totally informed by a Eurocentric worldview, and as much as I identify with that, I find it very problematic lately. I'm not sure this book would be as meaningful or make as much sense to someone who hadn't read Borges or seen Shoah. I admire intertextuality, though, and if this book gets one person to read Borges, I think I'll take back the elitism part of this pseudo-argument.

However, in the end, what really sold me on this work was the problem of language. The book centers on a lost or missing text that has been translated and is being re-translated. The book centers on the problem of a missing object, and whether an object - a narrative - can exist without originals. The book deals centrally with a text to which the reader only has partial access (sort of like Infinite Jest and some other works I can't remember right now; this semester has killed my brain). The novel, in a sense, deals not just with the schmaltzy story of Loooooove and NEW YORK and DEAD FATHERS (not in the Barthelme sense) but with the inadequacies and slipperiness of language. I don't find this book interesting because of the story or the characters, but because of what the text as a whole engages with and tries to represent. Who is an author? What does it mean to translate a work? What does it mean to invent a story? Can a story be owned or attributed? Where is the essence of a story, in which words?

These questions obviously don't have pat answers - and certainly not in The History of Love, but the book begins to take them up, and for that, it is Today's Recommendation.

Stay classy, blog readers.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

We just couldn't say goodbye

Hello, beloved blog readers.

It's been a long time since I Recommended Things at you. My apologies. This semester thing came up. Or rather, it ended, in the ungraceful way it usually does. I've actually been done since Wednesday, but all I have been capable of is staring at my ceiling (it's. so. fascinating) and attempting to respond to hostile emails from students.

But, where do you, beloved blog readers, fit into all of this?

Luckily, I did not work efficiently on my papers. I scoured the Internet and netflix & my DVD collection to procrastinate in the most efficient way possible. I experienced MEDIA! Therefore, I have a slew of new things to recommend to you!

Today's recommendation is Sita Sings the Blues (2008, Nina Paley). I belong to a colloquium about documentaries, and one participant raved about this film (which is not a documentary). I barely noticed that you could watch it on Thirteen until I was looking for ways to not work for 90 minutes or so a few weekends ago. I noticed that David Bordwell recommended it on his blog, and decided to procrastinate by watching it.

Oh, this film. How I wish I could watch it on a big screen, but even on my laptop, its energy and panache took over my soul! The film is a retelling of the Ramayana, set within the framework of a present-day, mediated, intercontinental breakup, punctuated by Annette Hanshaw's jazz vocals. Also, there are cats. And shadow puppet narrators. And the greatest intermission you will ever see in cinema.

The phrase "eye candy" makes me retch, but if you're into that kind of phrase, yes, this is eye candy. Granted, I think that phrase in and of itself dismisses the impact on one's soul that beautiful images can have, like vitamins, but this blog is not about my bizarre linguistic predilections.

Today, this blog is about Sita Sings the Blues.

This is a triumph of postmodern hybridity. The film tells an engaging, entertaining story, but it also is about larger issues, about the power of media and modern technology to give us access to different cultures and stories; it's about cultural heritages both east & west; it's about the power of great literature to speak to our own lives.

Moreover, even if the movie sucked, which it emphatically does not, what Nina Paley is doing for / about copyright certainly warrants a recommendation in and of itself. This film has a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License.

You can stream the film for free on and sometime this year, it should be out on DVD. I could not recommend watching it more.