Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Mumford & Sons pt. 2, or "Homeruns and Strikeouts"

Today was the US release of Mumford & Sons' new album, Babel. I wanted to love it completely, but I have some beef. I don't want to come off as a grump. The reason why I'm going to be hard on them is that they've set such a high standard for themselves.

The title track, "Babel," is great. I love the energy, right from the get-go. Just the timbre of the guitar establishes a pace and direction for the song, and we know it's going somewhere fast. We get great, mostly nonsensical but compelling lyrics, my favorite being, "I stretch my arms into the sky / I cry, 'Babel, Babel, look at me now! / For the walls of my town, they come crumbling down.'" This song is a homerun. I especially like Marcus Mumford's little "whoo!" in the middle.

"I Will Wait," a single that's been out for a while now, is not so solid a triumph. The music is great, but the lyrics are lackluster. I mean, the chorus is just "I will wait for you." Come on, guys. I mean, the music is really moving, but there's no substance behind it. The song creates neither a narrative nor even a string of images. This is no "White Blank Page."

"Lovers' Eyes," though, is a homerun, with a few caveats. The way the song starts out with that electronic ambience kind of gets on my nerves. It doesn't sound like anything Mumford & Sons has done before, or like anything else on the album. I don't feel like it's their style; I feel like it's the style of their producer, who also works with Bjork. This feels much more Bjork than Mumford.

Continuity, actually, is one of my biggest problems with this album. I learned from iTunes that it was recorded over the space of 18 months in four separate studios. They said that like it was a good thing. But Babel lacks the cohesion of their first album, and it sounds like a series of hit-and-run recordings. And the lyrics sound a little scatterbrained and recycled. Here are a few words Mumford should put to bed for at least a few albums:

Stone, grace, shame, son(s), heart, sin, tongue, truth, rage.

But back to "Lovers' Eyes." They have some fun wordplay with the idea of sight. Blindness and brightness establish themselves within the first verse, and the whole "I'll walk slow / take my hand" definitely implies a blindness at the end. It's kind of a great progression. I love it. I also love the almost a capella passages in this song. Their harmonies are tight, rich, and full.

The ultimate strikeout for me, though, is "Broken Crown." At the risk of sounding like a prude, it's largely because of their vulgar (and frankly idiotic) use of profanity. On iTunes, I pre-ordered a non-explicit version of the album, which version appears to now be non-existant. So I was surprised when I kept hearing, "I can take the road, and I can f### it all the way." (This is a family blog.) Yes, "Little Lion Man" has similar profanity (which is why it remains unchecked on my iTunes library), but at least "I really f###ed it up this time" is something people say. 

What does that even mean, "I can take the road, and I can f### it all the way?" If we take it literally, it seems like 1) a really inefficient mode of transportation and 2) a guaranteed way to get some serious chafe-age. But my objection isn't just that I won't listen to something because they used a dirty word. The reason I listen to great music and poetic lyrics is that I want to momentarily get a lift away from quotidian ugliness. I want to feel moved and inspired. If I just wanted to hear nonsensical obscenities, I wouldn't listen to music. Lyrics like that go against the very reason why I put on my headphones.

"Broken Crown" is full of sexy wordplays, and whatever. That's their prerogative, but when I come across lyrics like, "Crawl on my belly til the sun goes down / I'll never where your broken crown," I have to ask with Michael Bluth, "Have I missed this euphemism?" I never thought I'd compare a Mumford lyric to Gob. Not a good sign.

It's like the old saying goes, "Anything too stupid to be spoken is sung."

So, in sum. There are a few really good singles on this album, one song that made me feel betrayed, and the rest are just okay. The album as a whole comes off as poorly planned, subject to caprice, and executed by amazing musicians. To put this in perspective, I was so frustrated when I finished listening to it this morning that I felt compelled to watch "Gangnam Style."

Yeah.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Mumford & Sons pt. 1

Tonight is the eve of Mumford & Sons' new album release. I like Mumford & Sons. A lot. They're smart, they're catchy, and they're engaging. Let's talk for a moment about how they're smart.

My favorite Mumford song to date is "The Cave." I'm almost certain that it's an allusion to Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" from his Republic. If you're unfamiliar with the allegory, Plato describes the way most people see the world as prisoners watching the shadow of a puppet show against the wall of a cave. Coming out of the cave is painful because we're not used to the light of the sun and full mobility. Mumford's "The Cave" and most of the album seems to be about rebirth, expansion of the self, and enlightenment. So this is an apt allusion to make. And it makes way for one of my favorite lines, "So come out of your cave walking on your hands / and see the world hanging upside down."

Speaking of allusions and great lines, they quote Shakespeare all over the place, which naturally, I feel great about. The album's name, Sigh No More, is from Much Ado About Nothing.

Here's the text read at the opening of Branagh's brilliant film adaptation:

Anyway, they use the "one foot in sea and one on shore" line in first track as well.

While I think the Plato allusion is clever, playful, and apt, I mostly think they Shakespeare allusions are just playful. By way of example, the exuberant "Roll Away Your Stone" takes a deeply morbid line from Macbeth ("Stars, hide your fires; Let not light see my black and deep desires.") and turns it into a positively triumphal shout. I think they just used it because it sounds cool, which is fine. I'm all about that.

Other times, they seem to be using Shakespeare more consciously. I think "Little Lion Man" is an adaptation of Leontes' story from A Winter's Tale, since he did indeed "screw it up that time." (For those of you familiar with the original lyrics, this is a family blog.) Plus, his name means "little lion." I also like how they repeat King Lear's heart breaking line, "I gave you all," in the eponymous single. The line and its repetition give the song a powerful infusion of poignancy.

But when it comes to poignancy, nothing tops the delightfully melancholy "Thistle & Weeds." After a few times of listening to it, I realized that you could easily make the case that the narrator of this song is at the subject's grave. "But plant your hope in good seeds. / Don't cover yourself in thistle and weeds. / Rain down, rain down on me." Also, "Let the dead bury their dead, they will come out in droves, / But take the spade from my hands and fill in the holes, you've made."

And has the banjo ever sounded cooler than in the hands of Winston Marshall? Dang. I didn't know such a thing as a rocking banjo solo could exist, but it does. And the texture of Marcus Mumford's voice is spectacular. The way he sings "a swelling RAGE" in "White Blank Page" is fantastic. I'm ready for a new wave of British invasion.

Anyway, I'm quite excited about their new album coming out tomorrow. You can expect a review of it then!

ADDENDUM:

Here's all the Shakespeare quotes I know about, but I'd be grateful to anyone who can find more:

"Sigh no more" Much Ado About Nothing
"One foot in sea, one on shore" Much Ado About Nothing
"Man is a giddy thing" Much Ado About Nothing
"Stars, hide your fires" Macbeth
"Little Lion Man" A Winter's Tale (And a lot of the language is similar to Paulina's rants in act 3, scene 2.)
"I gave you all" King Lear

I'm sure there's more. If you find it, please post it in the comments.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Sennheiser HD 202: No Apology

I've long been dissatisfied with bud headphones. They either don't fit in your ear well, or they fit so snugly that you can suddenly hear every physiological shift within your body. They usually only last me a few months at best, and sometimes much, much less than that. Also, they're bad for your hearing. Because they don't block out external sound, you have to turn them up higher when you're around traffic noise to compensate.

Plus, I just haven't been satisfied with the frequency response of any of the buds I've bought. They're either lacking in bass or high frequency detail. (This is also bad for your hearing.) Granted, I've never spent more than about $20 on buds, but why would I if they don't last?

Enter the Sennheiser HD 202. I've been using these headphones for over a year at work, and I've always loved them. Great sound, and they're pretty comfortable. (That's another thing about buds—they really heart my ear after about an hour.) Based on just my longterm use of these headphones, I would happily pay $80 for them if I were the kind of person who spent $80 on headphones. So the other day I decided to Google the price of these cans. About $24. Twenty-four dollars. That's cheaper than any of the terrible headphones Apple puts out. WAY cheaper. I mean, I'm writing this on a MacBook, but the only thing keeping those terrible buds on the market is Apple's monopoly on tech mystique. Their standard headphones are $30, and the slightly-better-than-abysmal version is a full eighty dollars.

I asked one of my friends to listen to a song with his Apple headphones and then blast that same song through the Sennheisers. When he was done, his only response was, "How did they fit a subwoofer in there?" Exactly. I've been listening to Dvorak, Bizet, the Beatles, Jack White, and it all sounds amazing. "A Step Too Far" from Elton John's Aida concept album just came on. This song has never sounded so good, not even on my Bose speakers that cost five times as much. The detail guys, the detail. I'm hearing all kinds of stuff I just never knew was there.

So although I don't want to look like That Guy walking around with the idiotic, hipster cans on his head, I don't care. I love music, and my music sounds unquestionably better in these cheaper, better, more durable, more comfortable headphones.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Götterdämmerung

So, I'm watching the Met's production of Götterdämmerung on PBS. They decided to start the broadcast at 10:00 PM, which means it won't be over til 3:00. Right now it's 11:00, so I just have the length of the "eternal Hamlet" left to go.

Obviously, this opera is a masterpiece. It hardly needs my endorsement. The orchestration is amazing, and it's a huge achievement for any cast of singers to pull it off.

But it's also a tad ridiculous.

For one, no dramatic work should be five hours. Especially when you consider the other three operas in the cycle. I mean, come on. The whole thing is an infamous 14 hours with no breaks for intermission.

Also, let's look at this from a feminist perspective. Siegfried frees Brünnhilde from her father's prison, so she gives up her immortality and identity so she can stay in the kitchen and look after his ring. In exchange for standing up to her father, she has to stay at home and wait for her crazy, drugged up, unfaithful husband. She willfully goes from one identity-crushing male relationship to the next.

Let's talk about how Wotan is a total butthole. Really irresponsible, intemperate, and (frankly) stupid. No where near as cool as the actual Odin.

But let's take a minute to appreciate how FREAKING COOL the staging is. "The Machine" is a masterstroke. It's so simple, but they're able to do virtually anything with it. It's so great to look at during all those lengthy Wagner interludes.

I'm getting pretty weary of this whole, meeting-someone-for-five-minutes-then-trying-to-marry-them business. I know that was the standard thing in drama for a long time, but after Much Ado About Nothing and to a lesser degree,  Taming of the Shrew, I don't think you can get away with that kind of laziness in character development.

But Wagner doesn't strike me as a great Romantic. (See what I did there?)

I cannot hear Siegfried's horn theme without thinking of Elmer Fudd:
O mighty warrior of great fighting stock,
might I inquire to ask,
eh…What's up doc?

You know, this thing works pretty well as a commentary on our economic woes. When you think about it, all the problems in this opera (including and especially the melt down [I can't help myself] at the end) stem from people being selfish/living beyond their means. Wotan takes out a huge mortgage he can't afford to pay for his big new house. And all this at the expense of the environment (World Ash Tree). Forget Wagner being an anti-Semite. He was a freaking hippie.

"A hero claims your hand, by force if necessary." So…you're a rapist?

I like immortal Brünnhilde better. She's so lovely.

The art direction for this thing is largely impeccable. BUT the sword and the ring look like garage sale fare. The former looks like it just got pulled out of a five year-old's costume closet, and the latter looks like a glowing ringpop.

Hey, hey! Two hours down. Only three to go!!! We've gone from the eternal Hamlet to your average non-extended Lord of the Rings film.

Nothung, take note: this was a chaste courtship. My sword (HUGE phallic symbol) will rest between me and Gunther's bride.

Alberich's repeated, "Schläfst du, Hagen, mein Sohn?" has taken on a special poignancy for me in the wee hours of the morning. Sei treu, Michael. Sei treu.

Man, the orchestral writing is really top notch. So many great textures. Also, the Gibichungs' hall is SO COOL LOOKING! I love the statue of Wotan hanging out in the background. He looks like a good old Pontifex Maximus.

And now everybody's grabbing the spear and swearing by Hagen's huge manhood.

Since everyone but Gunther and Brünnhilde has left the stage, I think they should work in "Let's Get It On" instead of the original music. Why not update the production a little bit?

Whew! Two acts down, one to go. Time for a little seventh inning stretch.

And by that I mean, more Diet Dr. Pepper. Honestly, I think my bladder is doing more to keep me awake than the caffeine.

"And yet, if I weren't married, I'd totally do one of these sexy mermaids." Why are we supposed to like Siegfried again?

As much as I don't like Wotan, this opera could use a little Bryn Terfel. Also, his costume design in this opera is the coolest.

I love the string writing for the song where Siegfried recounts what the birds sang to him. Also, the dude playing Siegfried looks perfect for the part. I'm sure his glorious wig is helping, but still.

I've been noticing the sun in the background all along, and I like it. It's a nice motif to have in an opera titled "Twilight of the Gods." Ooooh! Fun parody idea. Do a mashup of Twilight and Götterdämmerung. Only problem is, Kristen Stewart would play Brünnhilde! BAHAHAHAHAHA! I guess she could pull off the being-asleep portions of the role.

I love how long it takes people to die in an opera. I think La Traviata wins for the longest opera death, though. I mean, she started dying before the opera begins, and then hours later she finally kicks the proverbial bucket.

COOL effect of Gunther washing his hands in the river. I'm telling you, The Machine was maybe single the best idea in this production.

At this point in the opera, it feels like the gods have been relegated to the cheap seats.

Also, Wagner, you have less than an hour to wrap this thing up. I hate to be rude, but don't you think you're spending a little too much time on the funeral procession stuff?

And as we hear Siegfried's leitmotif, he raises his hand for a fist bump from Brünnhilde. Oh, denied!

Speaking of leitmotifs, obviously Brünnhilde has the coolest.

Brünnhilde's "Ruhe, Ruhe," could be both a command and a plea. Everybody shut up. I need peace.

Why didn't Wotan just move all that wood from the ash tree somewhere not right next to Valhalla? It seems like a lot of his problems could have been solved if he'd taken fire safety more seriously.

Okay. The puppetry on that horse is freaking awesome.

I'm confused. Is it the fire from Siegfried's pyre that burns down Valhalla? Cause didn't they do that right on the shore of the Rhine? And didn't the Rhine overflow?

This is really kind of an unsatisfying ending. I did not care about Siegfried, and Brünnhilde literally burning the world down seems a little spiteful and myopic. Wagner's gods seem way more Hellenistic than the "real" Norse gods. You could just change some proper nouns and call this, "Zeus Gets his Comeuppance." The Odin I know is a much sadder, wiser god. And Loki is one of the most sympathetic tragic figures in any mythos. Here, "Loge" is hardly a footnote.

Well, whatever. I did it. I watched all five hours, starting at 10:00 PM. I'm glad I finally got around to seeing at least two of the four operas. I still don't get Wagner, but I get why people get Wagner, if that makes sense. I still don't think he's a great dramatist or storyteller. I think he was a great orchestrator. And honestly, I have to respect the scope of the cycle.

I'm watching the behind the scenes interviews after the opera, and Siegfried/Chris-Hemsworth-look-alike, Jay Hunter Morris, sounds like an absolute effeminate hick. It is hilarious! I can't stop laughing. I love it when my fellow Southerners represent. I never would have guessed that he was a total redneck. His website is THE BOMB! [Edit: This sounds a little mean. But seriously, I love this guy. He did a fantastic job, and from the interviews I've seen, he has zero ego. Maybe "hick" and "redneck" are too strong. How about cowboy? Without a doubt, he is the world's greatest Wagnerian cowboy.]

Why am I still awake? Oh yeah, I have two liters of Diet Dr. Pepper running through my system.

Monday, September 10, 2012

If I Were a Campaign Adviser, or "I'm Already Over This Election"

If I were Obama's campaign adviser, I would hammer into the American people's mind this question: Do we really want to go back to the party that created this recession? Dubya inherited one of the biggest economic booms in the history of the world, and after eight years he left the world in economic meltdown.

If I were Romney' adviser, I would have him talking a lot more about Obama's failure to take care of veterans. The president and vice president both gabbed a lot about taking care of the troops. Biden called it, "the only truly, sacred obligation we have as a nation--to equip those we send to war and care for them when they come home from war." But soldiers going to war today are more likely to kill themselves when they come home than they are likely to die overseas. Good job, Barry. I can see your taking the care of our veterans seriously.