The Speckled Mind

Thursday, December 28, 2006

I Demand A Recount

As much as I would like to let my most work intensive blog of the year dwell at the top of the Speckled Mind, I couldn't go another minute without blogging about this.

Time Magazine has been naming a 'Person of the Year' for decades now. (Disclaimer: I realize that it used to be 'Man' of the year) Figures as different as Adolf Hitler, Bono and George W. Bush have graced the front page under that prestigious heading. Not because we necessarily like them or respect them, but simply because the planet was formed in a profound way by them in a given calendar year.

The winner this year?

You. And me. And everyone we know. Now, I should give the writers of Time their fair due. The article is pretty well written and reasoned. But do we really deserve this? So we make the most of Facebook, MySpace and Blogger. Does that really qualify any of us for 'person of the year' status? Time magazine thinks so, and many have called it a clever move on their part.

But something strikes me as terribly wrong about all of this. Admittedly, I could be worrying over nothing. But isn't this award just an illustration of how self-focused and "I'm Ok, You're Ok" our culture has gotten? The cover of that magazine brings up thoughts of those children's soccer tournaments in which every kid gets a trophy regardless of his/her place in the competition. Is this kind of pandering really helping the kids? Or could it be that Dash (from The Incredibles) was right: "Saying that everyone is special is just another way of saying that no one is."

So...I've decided not to accept this award. And I hope you won't either.

Let's face it, as proud as I am of this little corner of cyberspace, it's just a blog. I'm just a guy with a couple of ideas in my head, a decent English writing class under my belt, a bit too much free time on my hands, and an unscratchable itch for an audience. In my opinion that doesn't make me remarkable, though I fear it is starting to define what makes an American.

Time Magazine is attempting to enchant us with its Siren call of middle class American narcissism. Cover your ears, friends, and let your voice be heard. If not me, if not you--then who? Who do you nominate for person of the year in 2006?


Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Good Music Year: Best of 2006

It's that time again, ladies and gentlemen. Maybe you haven't been anticipating this in quite the same way I have. But believe me--I look forward to this all year long. I am convinced that asking someone, "What do you like to listen to?" is the best get-to-know-you question in my arsenal. You can learn so much about a person from their music tastes, which means I completely distrust people who say, "Oh, I pretty much like everything."

A couple of housekeeping items.

First I am admittedly a music snob. I make no claims to the contrary. So if you find yourself thinking, "Lame. I haven't even heard of most of these bands," fret not. Just keep telling yourself, "Well, Tim has to do something with his music degree." And who knows--you might even find something on this list that trips your fancy.

Second I'm not claiming that this list accurately reflects the ten best albums from 2006. Rather, of the albums I purchased this year, these are the ten that I enjoyed the most. Give 'em a spin. maybe you'll see it my way.

Now, without further ado...


10. Good Monsters by Jars of Clay

The Jars' 1995 self-titled release was almost single-handedly responsible for the advent of respectable Christian music. In the 11 years since that album's release, the band has proven over and over that 'Christian band' and 'good art' need not be mutually exclusive terms (with the exception of 2005's hideous and predictable 'Redemption Songs'). 'Good Monsters' is in many ways a culmination of what has come before it, taking elements of the band's early acoustic folk sound, and combining them with its more recent gospel and new wave rock influences. Few other bands could pull off such an eclectic effort without giving the listener musical whiplash. With Dan Haseltine's unmistakable voice as an anchor, the Jars have proven that after over a decade they are at the top of their game. In a time when 'Christian music' is seen as monstrous by many people it is comforting to know that at least some of the monsters are good.

Standout Track: 'Oh My God'

9. Nightcrawler by Pete Yorn

There is something about Pete Yorn's voice that has always demanded my attention when I hear it on the radio. It's got this 'gritty but fragile' quality to it that epitomizes what I like about alternative music. Like 2001's 'Musicforthemorningafter' and 2003's 'Day I Forgot', Nightcrawler dances back and forth between the shininess of pop melodies and the sensibilities of alternative rock. Pete gets a little help on the pop side of things on the song 'The Man' from Natalie Maines of Dixie Chicks fame. The meshing of these two voices is a match made in pop music heaven, and is certainly the strongest track on the album. All things considered, the three year wait between albums was worth it, though I hope Pete's next hiatus will be a bit shorter.

Standout Track: 'The Man'

8. Dusk and Summer by Dashboard Confessional

I know what you're thinking--"Don't you have to be a 13 year-old girl to like this band?" Good question. And the answer is NO, you don't. The proof? I'm a 26 year-old heterosexual, married man and I think Chris Carrabba writes incredible music. I rest my case. Seriously, though, this guy is a gifted songwriter and a perfectionist when it comes to recording. Rumor has it that this album was finished at the beginning of 2005 but he wasn't happy with it, so he scrapped the entire project and wrote a brand new batch of songs. And though much of the lyrical territory isn't particularly novel, Carrabba's tunesmithing has never been stronger. In fact, I dare anyone to listen to these songs a few times and not sing along. Plus if you ever need to let off a bit of angst, just pull up this record on your iPod and go for a drive. You'll come back without a voice, but you'll feel a whole lot better. Face it, there's a little emo in all of us just waiting to get out.

Standout Track: 'Reason to Believe'

7. Weightless by Katie Herzig

Katie Herzig is my STOP THE PRESSES!!! artist of the year, because I just discovered her music last week. I was listening to the Paste Magazine podcast, and her song 'Charlie Chaplin' froze me in my tracks as it floated across the airwaves. The folksy, singer/songwriter recorded 14 gems on this album--her second since leaving Newcomers Home a few years ago. This is an excerpt from the song 'Jack and Jill':
She wore that dress like it was a Saturday
Pretty as a summer rose picked in the morning
And he held her hand like she was a mystery
One he couldn’t quite believe, was walking with him
They were high up on a hill with something to say
And daylight to kill
Time slips away the way that it will...
Lyrics like these were the reason I fell in love with Katie's music immediately. And trust me, there's plenty more where that came from on Weightless. In short, it's tough to find good whimsy these days, but Weightless will fill the void if you find yourself deficient on your daily recommended allowance of whimsy.

Standout Track: 'Crazy'

6. How We Operate By Gomez

The members of Gomez, a five piece from Southport England, are known for their creative musicianship and multi-instrumental abilities. In an interview the band described their song writing process as follows:

"Who wants to sing this one? Who wants to play drums? Guitar? Bass? Cool. Are we all set?"

My friend TJ refers to this type of band as 'talent rock.' How We Operate is the band's fifth full-length release and has proven to be its strongest effort. Great all around songcraft--melody writing, instrumentation and production. What you won't find on this album is a ton of lyrical depth. The fifth track on the record, 'Girlshapedlovedrug', is paradigmatic in this sense--the whole song can be boiled down to one line: "The girlshapedlovedrug messes with my mind." Well said, gentlemen. Well said.

Standout Track: 'Notice'

5. Continuum By John Mayer

I know what you're thinking...again. And AGAIN, you don't have to be a 13 year old girl to like John Mayer. And, no, I'm not afraid of losing my indie-savvy-cred by asserting my love for this guy's music. In fact, I saw John Mayer play at The Quest BEFORE he signed to a major label. Okay, now that I've got that off my chest...

Buy this record. If you didn't like John Mayer before, there is enough discontinuity from his past to allow you an avenue into the music--forays into R&B and jazz serve him well on Continuum. If you did like his music before, you'll notice more of the same types of impressive chord progressions, cool guitar riffs and creative lyrics that mad you a fan of his work in the first place. I suppose that's what the name of the record is all about--a continuity between past, present and future. Yes, he's a pretty boy. Yes, he did once write a song called 'Your Body Is A Wonderland' that made me want to poke my eyes out. But any guy who has the mettle to cover Hendrix's Bold As Love--and does it as well as Mayer does on this record--is a man worth listening to.

Standout Track: 'Belief'

4. Eyes Open By Snow Patrol

A lot of things surprised me about this album. The first was the overarching consistency of this record. Whereas 2004's Final Straw sounded like just a collection of semi-related songs, this album has a distinct cohesion to it. I emerged from the first few listens having a feeling of what the band was trying to get at with this group of songs. The second thing that surprised me was the amount of seemingly spiritual themes that kept popping up everywhere on this record. "Shut your eyes and sing to me," Gary Lightbody croons with a full chorus to back him on the son 'Shut Your Eyes'. Or, perhaps more poignantly on the song 'Make This Go On Forever':
And I don't know where to look
My words just break and melt
Please just save me from this darkness
Please just save me from this darkness
These lyrics serve as the contemplative epilogue to a song that builds from simple piano chords to a relentlessly driving primal rhythm. It's an amazing display of patience and maturity that I didn't expect from this band. Eyes Open fits neatly into the 'Pleasant Surprise' category of this year's top 10.

Standout Track: 'Make This Go On Forever'

3. Through Toledo By Greg Laswell

I've already gushed about the greatness of Greg Laswell, but since I've never been one to heed the dangers of overkill, here goes round two. Through Toledo is Laswell's first record, and it is a very impressive debut. He wrote this group of tunes in response to/reflection on his wife's sudden and unexpected divorce request. There is probably nothing worse than having the person you love most betray you with no desire for reconciliation. Of course, the places of pain are often the catalyst for the best art. Such is the case on this record. Laswell takes the listener through his journey of pain, and surprisingly does so without a hint of bitterness. Where one would expect that kind of anger, Laswell gives a tear-jerking assessment of the situation: he just misses his best friend. Laswell's lyrics are couched in some of the most tactful songwriting I've heard this year. Tasty riffs, great builds and delicacy in all the right places. Oh, and he plays all of the instruments on the record by himself. In short--just about everything I found in this record amazed me. I trust it will do the same for you.

Standout Track: 'Sing Theresa Says'

2. Floating World By Anathall0

Like Katie Herzig, credit for the discovery of this band goes to the Paste Magazine podcast. How exactly does one describe Anathallo? I've heard 'The Polyphonic Spree meets Sufjan Stevens'. I've also heard 'A marching band gone horribly wrong'. This six person ensemble draws many analogies, but nothing quite gets to the heart of how unique they are. Eclectic, creative and sometimes strange, Anathallo's music takes the listener on a journey unlike anything else out there. Mike Devereaux, Peter Carlson and I saw the band play live at the Varsity Theater in October and we were all very impressed; Dev was almost speechless. I've never seen six people play so many instruments in one show. From drums to bells to brass, back to drums, to vocals to Velcro. Yes, that's right. Velcro. And that was just one of the guys in the band. For anyone that has grown tired of music that all sounds the same, Anathallo is my highest recommendation. Oh, and though I always link the iTunes store for purchasing, I would recommend buying a hard copy of this one. The artwork, created for the band by Greg Leppert, is up for a Plug award.

Standout Track: Hanasakajijii (four: a great wind, more ash)

1. The Crane Wife By The Decemberists

Here it is, friends--the best album I purchased this year. Don't let the understated album cover fool you. The musical and lyrical complexity of The Crane Wife make it as good an album as you could have purchased in 2006--and I have a posse of NPR listeners to back me up on this one.

When I heard that The Decemberists had signed with a major label last year, I didn't know quite what to expect. Such an action is often the beginning of the end with regard to artistic integrity. But I couldn't help but thinking, "What would the Decemberists sound like if they weren't telling Cautionary Tales or describing the Mariner's Revenge?" Fortunately I didn't have to find out. To my relief, Colin Meloy still twists tales of romance, intrigue, villainy and tomfoolery. And, as I said last year, you are guaranteed to increase your vocabulary just by listening to a Decemberists album. My favorite Crane Wife word is 'dirigible', which Meloy ably rhymes with 'untraceable'. I seriously don't know how he comes up with this stuff, but I'm glad he does. When a vacation is out of my price range and a good novel is out of my free-time range, it is a beautiful thing to be able to step into the crazed mind of Colin Meloy and find there a world unlike any I could imagine on my own.

Standout Track: 'The Perfect Crime #2'


Happy 2006, Speckled Mind readers. And remember--life is too short to listen to bad music.

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In Case You Were Wondering

I Voted in 89.3 The Current's Top 89 Albums of 2006

...and you can too!! Just click here. It's fun, it's free and--best of all--if you submit your list, you could win an 80 gig video iPod! I mean, you probably won't win...but it's a good incentive to go there and vote. The Current will be counting down the top 89 albums (according to listener votes) starting at 10:00 a.m. on New Year's day. It will be fanciful.

This is not just an advertisement for The Current. It's also a foreshadowing of things to come. I will be posting my top 10 albums of 2006 very soon ('soon' being a flexible term). I challenge everyone else to do the same.

So, if you bought one album or 20, post the ones you liked on your blog. I had fun doing it last year and I hope we'll all enjoy it together this year.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Hermeneutics Reflections: Part 1

...or 'Why I Began My Presentation With A Beer Commercial Yesterday'

Obviously the guys in this Coors Light spot were not in the room when the original press conference was taking place. But there they are--asking Dick Vermeil their questions and receiving answers just as if they had been there all along. Just as if they belonged there. Just as if the press conference was intended to answer their questions.

The problem?

Nothing if our aim is comic relief...which is, I'm assuming, what Coors was hoping for with this ad. But it's no laughing matter when a similar situation occurs in Biblical interpretation.

My contention is that this kind of phenomena happens all too often in our readings of the Bible. Each person comes to the text hoping to get something that will speak to them personally, as if that was the text's primary concern, giving no credence to the pertinent historical/cultural background. What does God have to say to me today??? Just open the Bible at random and point. Let's confess, friends. We've all done it.

But what if...

What if our questions are not the questions the text is trying to answer? What if our questions are of relatively little importance in light of the themes the text is trying to bring to light? What if the text was not written, as has been so often assumed, to us? What if, instead it was written for us.

But have we really been missing things? I mean important things in our readings of scripture? How is that even possible? I think the Coors ad answers these question well. On one level, it really seems like Dick Vermeil is answering a question about onion dip. Both he and the 'reporters' are using language about 'making something' and showing some sort of uncertainty about the whole situation. Someone who knows absolutely nothing about American football may be satisfied at this point. But how about those who have played and/or watched football frequently? I bet those people can venture a guess what the original question was about. It probably had something to do with making or not making a touchdown or field goal...and nothing to do with onion dip.

These are some of the questions I've been working through lately. I think they're very important and, despite the objections I expect this post to illicit, I don't think the implied answers make Biblical study into an elitist exercise. But it does mean the task of interpretation needs to be undertaken more seriously and with more care. I fear that if we do not begin to ask some of these hard questions about the way(s) we read the Bible we run the risk of asking questions of God's word that have little more relevance than 'Doesn't this guy's hat look awesome backwards?'

Lord have mercy on me--the chief of sinners.


Monday, December 04, 2006

Mondays Need Beauty

I've got nothing profound to say this morning, but I did come across something beautiful, and I thought I'd share (for those who haven't seen them). The bottom line is that more advertising needs to go the direction of becoming better artwork in and of itself. I have a hunch that fewer people would be Tivo-ing past commercials if they were as good as these two for Sony Bravia. It also doesn't hurt to have Jose Gonzalez enlisted for the soundtrack.

This is last year's ad and probably my favorite of the two. (Click here for the hi-res version from the website--I highly recommend you see it that way.) Below is the 2006 edition.

Again, I recommend seeing it in hi-res. If you're interested in seeing how the thing was executed, you can also do that.

I encourage everyone, on this bleak winter day to notice something beautiful...and blog about it. The gauntlet has been, as they say, thrown down. Are you up to the challenge?