12.31.2009

Resolve

I don't like New Year's resolutions and try not to make them. It seems like a recipe for disaster to me to forge new promises at the darkest, bleakest, most depressing point in the year. Aren't we all desperate for change? Don't we all just want to be thinner, younger, happier, more better? Sure.

Plus, it seems like when everyone fails to fulfill their resolutions, it gives you a kind of permission to do the same.

Typically, I make resolutions (in whatever form) around my birthday, which is in the spring, which, to me, is a sensible time for beginnings.

But let me say that sure, there are things I want to accomplish in 2010, the calendar year, and I might even write those things down and track them as if they were "goals," but not resolution.

A resolution is something that mends. It concludes. It decides.

How final! Instead I will shoot for the moon. I will probably miss. But I will surely still be among stars.

One thing I really need to recommit to is my exercise routine. My back injury barred me from gym visitations for more than three weeks now, and let's just say that back injury + no gym + food-based holidays = yuck. Let's just say my jeans feel like they belong to someone else now.

But I've enjoyed sleeping in. I feel like I've been having an affair. With my comforter. It's luscious.

12.24.2009

My Favorite Albums of 2009

ALBUM OF THE YEAR


Gossip, Music for Men
Music Math: (Olivia Newton-John + Melissa Etheridge) x Pansy Division
Best Tracks: "Heavy Cross," "Dimestore Diamond," "Love and Let Love," "Love Long Distance," "Men in Love"
Representative Lyrics: "Everybody knows the things she does to please / Low-cut sweaters with her skirts above her knees / She's a dimestore diamond"
Notes: Fronter Beth Ditto leads Gossip through a refinely tamed version of their previous sound, flexing disco beats and syncopated rhythms with a decidedly queerpunk sensibility. And they are amazing live.

HONORABLE MENTION

Franz Ferdinand, Tonight: Franz Ferdinand
Music Math: 1970s psychedelia + Donna Summer / Mick Jagger's leather pants
Best Tracks: "Turn It On," "No You Girls," "Can't Stop Feeling," "Lucid Dreams"
Representative Lyrics: "Kiss me / Lick your cigarette, then kiss me / Kiss me where your eye won't meet me / Meet me where your mind won't kiss me"
Notes: Blending irreverent janglepop with sinister chords and seductive lyrics turned FF's sound inside out, and the album itself seems saturated with booze, cigarette smoke, night, and man-musk. The first track, "Ulysses," implies that this is a journey through the urban nightlife underworld, and it's a trip you'll want to take again and again with these sexy beasts.

REST OF THE LIST IS SORTED ALPHABETICALLY, BECAUSE ORDER SOOTHES ME

Amanda Blank, I Love You
Music Math: (Peaches x P!nk) + Scary Spice
Best Tracks: "Make It Take It," "DJ," "Shame On Me," "Make-Up"
Representative Lyrics: "If I wear a dress, then he'll never call / So I'll wear much less / I guess I'll wear my camisole"
Notes: Dirty, sexy, and confrontational, Amanda Blank's debut experiments genre like a curious college student, pulling R&B, hip hop, pop, funk, and disco together in one fabulous package.


Andrew Bird, Armchair Apocrypha
Music Math: Björk x (Blues Traveler - barbeque + Talking Heads) + 1/3 Wilco
Best Tracks: "Fiery Crash," "Imitosis," "Heretics," "Scythian Empires"
Representative Lyrics: "Oh close your eyes and you wake up / face stuck to a vinyl settee / Oh the line was starting to break up / What was that you were going to say?"
Notes: Like Björk, Andrew Bird is a musical hyrbridist, sewing together genres, pairing unlikely instruments, and singing strangely hummable melodies in his tremulous voice. This album is, I gather, one of his most accessible, and it's also fairly "fun" as far as music goes.


Annie, Don't Stop
Music Math: (ABBA - irony + 20 years) + (Kylie Minogue - Australia - 20 years)
Best Tracks: "Hey Annie," "My Love Is Better," "Don't Stop," "I Don't Like Your Band"
Representative Lyrics: "Tell me the truth / I don't want no lies / When I'm with you I'm hypnotized / Looking for trouble, that's what I am / Playing a game we both understand"
Notes: Formerly known for dance songs like "Chewing Gum," this album provides Annie an opportunity to grow up a bit. Not gone is her sense of irreverence and understanding that pop music is at its best when its both irrelevant and nonsensical; however, the beat and melodies are enough here, and her voice is both ethereal and purring.


Asher Roth, Asleep in the Bread Aisle
Music Math: (Eminem - aggression)/Judaism + (Amy Winehouse - narcotics)
Best Tracks: "Lark On my Go Kart," "Be By Myself," "She Don't Wanna Man," "I Love College"
Representative Lyrics: "Drink my beer and smoke my weed / But my good friends is all I need / Pass out at three, wake up at 10 / Go out to eat, then do it again, man I love college."
Notes: Although he gives a lot of deference to Eminem on this album, Asher Roth is more like Eminem on Paxil, a shiny, happier-go-lucky version who raps about maybe some things that aren't quite so serious. The merging of lite rap and 1960s go-go rhythms and music is fun and interesting.


Cobra Starship, Hot Mess
Music Math: Fall Out Boy + NSYNC + satire
Best Tracks: "Hot Mess," "Good Girls Go Bad," The Scene Is Dead - Long Live the Scene," "Pete Wentz Is the Only Reason We're Famous"
Representative Lyrics: "Oh yeah, it's alright cause I got a pretty face /
I guess that I can sing alright /H-oh yeah, it's alright, I can love you like a sailor
/ I can make you dance all night. "
Notes: For a novelty band that formed only to record a single for the Snakes On a Plane soundtrack, Cobra Starship had an amazing year. Hot Mess is both cheekily derivative of "typical" pop music and gleefully deconstructive of its banality. Whenever these songs come on, I want to get up and shake my moneymaker. And it doesn't get old.


David Guetta, One Love
Music Math: (LA Fitness Radio - Radio Disney) + divas
Best Tracks: "I Gotta Feeling," "When Love Takes Over," "Sexy Bitch"
Representative Lyrics: "I'm underwater, now I can't breathe / It never felt so good / Cuz I can feel it coming over me / I wouldn't stop it if I could"
Notes: The Timbaland of dance music, David Guetta's latest album of collaborations features everyone from Akon to Kid Cudi to Estelle, but it's Kelly Rowland who seems to be his main muse. While all dance music is invariably lame to a degree, Guetta's tracks are a cut above the rest.


A Fine Frenzy, Bomb in a Birdcage
Music Math: (The Hush Sound - men) + (Tori Amos - faeries) + Rilo Kiley
Best Tracks: "Stood Up," "Blow Away," "Electric Twist," "Happier," "What I Wouldn't Do"
Representative Lyrics: "We are young / fighting any war / we stood up / we stood up / and there are two of us / and there will be more / yeah, they'll show up"
Notes: Alison Sudol's songwriting is some of the best I've heard this year, and these arrangements, ranging from lush and somber to fiesty and toe-tapping, are the perfect vehicles for her pitch-perfect voice.


Florence + the Machine, Lungs
Music Math: Kate Bush + The Clash + Loreena McKennitt
Best Tracks: "Howl," "Drumming Song," "Kiss with a Fist," "Dog Days Are Over," "Rabbit Heart"
Representative Lyrics: "The looking glass, so shiny and new / How quickly the glamour fades / I start spinning, slipping out of time /Was that the wrong pill to take?"
Notes: On the one hand dense and operatic, while on the other fragile and percussive, Florence Welch's songs seem spun from dark fairy tales and hallucinogenic literature as told through the eyes of a contemporary twentysomething. It's both immediate and oddly relic-like. A curious mix. Lots of promise.


Hockey, Mind Chaos
Music Math: Black Kids + Bob Dylan + The Strokes + The Cars
Best Tracks: "Too Fake," "Learn to Lose," "Wanna Be Black"
Representative Lyrics: "And I guess there's a lot to learn / Well from a life of very fast days / Yes and I guess there's a lot to learn / All from a life of take-what-you-want-days"
Notes: Sounding a little bit like Bob Dylan fronting The Cars, Hockey makes the 80s seem to start all over again. This album will make you long for roller skates, muscle cars, and leggings.


Jay Brannan, In Living Cover
Music Math: Kurt from Glee + acoustic guitar
Best Tracks: "The Freshman," "Both Hands," "Zombie"
Representative Lyrics: "When I was young I knew everything / She a punk who never really took advice / Now I'm guilt stricken, sobbing with my head on the floor / Stop a baby's breath and a shoe full of rice milk"
Notes: Jay Brannan's voice is perfect, amazing, soft and lilting, and when put into these familiar songs, it's hypnotic. Particularly excellent is his a capella arrangement of "Both Hands," in which many layers of his voice merged together make chords like a pipe organ. It's amazing.


Kelly Clarkson, All I Ever Wanted
Music Math: Bonnie Raitt + Heart / Avril Lavigne
Best Tracks: "I Do Not Hook Up," "Save You," "Don't Let Me Stop You," "Impossible," "If I Can't Have You"
Representative Lyrics: "Started with a perfect kiss then / We could feel the poison set in / Perfect couldn't keep our love alive"
Notes: Although I don't think album is as good as the much maligned My December, it does feel like a successful compromise between what her label wants her to do and what Kelly wants to do. Snappy pop anthems and soulful ballads line up alongside southern rock-influenced jams and house party rock songs. And Kelly's voice is the chameleon that vanishes inside each of the genres, pulling the album together seamlessly.


Lady Gaga, The Fame Monster
Music Math: Madonna x Christina Aguilera / Yoko Ono
Best Tracks: "Bad Romance," "Monster," "Telephone," "Teeth"
Representative Lyrics: "Take a bite of my bad girl meat / Show me your teeth / Tell me something that'll save me / I need a man who makes me all right / Tell me something that'll change me / I'm gonna love you with my hands tied"
Notes: Gaga ratchets up the camp just a single notch on her new release, and while the songs are a bit more ambitious sonically than The Fame, they cover similar territory. More of an EP than an album, this release does signal a promising future for La Gaga, and perhaps does little more than tide us over until her next full album is complete.


Lily Allen, It's Not Me, It's You
Music Math: Natasha Bedingfield / Amanda Palmer
Best Tracks: "Everyone's At It," "The Fear," "Chinese," "Back to the Start," "Who'd Have Known"
Representative Lyrics: "I want to be rich and I want lots of money / I don't care about clever, I don't care about funny / I want lots of clothes and f***loads of diamonds / I heard people died while they're trying to find 'em"
Notes: Lily Allen treats genre like brief layovers on a sonic world tour. On her second release, she turns her satirical pen toward politics ("F*** You"), religion ("Him"), her parents ("Chinese," "He Wasn't There") and even herself ("Back to the Start"), mining in each song a kind of perceived failure or hypocrisy in our culture or ourselves. Pop music with substance? Who'd have known.


M.I.A., Kala
Music Math: (Björk - Iceland) + Bollywood / P!nk
Best Tracks: "Boyz," "Jimmy," "Paper Planes"
Representative Lyrics: "In a faraway land we get shit made / Ray-Ban shades, warheads laid / Babies born in air raids / My girls run the Everglades"
Notes: A consummate hybridist, M.I.A. fearlessly pulls instruments, traditions, and sounds from every remote corner of the world and then fills them with her searing, vitriolic lyrics that burn as painfully as they do ring true.


Paramore, Brand New Eyes
Music Math: (No Doubt + Jesus) + (Collective Soul/Good Charlotte)
Best Tracks: "Careful," "Ignorance," "Playing God," "Brick by Boring"
Representative Lyrics: "Coiled up on the dirty ground / Her prince finally came to save her / And the rest you can figure out / But it was a trick / And the clock struck 12 / Well, make sure to build your house brick by boring brick"
Notes: Hayley Williams has now cemented herself as rock's voice to be reckoned with. This album's acidic guitar riffs boil over with her soaring, arena-sized voice. Lyrically, the band's grown up; while fame often makes for a boring subject to be explored by famous people, here, they plumb the unexpected effects of sudden fame with sensitivity, regret, and without apology.


Plastiscines, About Love
Music Math: (The Hives - testosterone + French supermodels) x Phoenix/The Donnas
Best Tracks: "Runaway," "I Could Rob You," "Bitch," "Another Kiss"
Representative Lyrics: "I could rob you if I want to / I could rob you if I try / I could rob you if I need to / Just be alright
Notes: Sexy, sensual, and nonsensical, Plastiscines take punk, put some hot lip gloss on it, and then prance around in their underwear where they know you can see them. The album is polished pop-punk, fun, sassy, and a nice example of how different punk sounds work in Europe (see also The Hives).


Switchfoot, Hello Hurricane
Music Math: Stone Roses + Five for Fighting + Jars of Clay + Evanescence
Best Tracks: "Mess of Me," "The Sound," "Hello Hurricane," "Always"
Representative Lyrics: "I've been watching the skies / They've been turning blood red / There is not a doubt in my mind / There's a storm up ahead"
Notes: This feels like the album that should have been released after their breakthrough The Beautiful Letdown and offers the most synthesized take on their various sounds from the past several years. Furious rock songs stand alongside piano-driven power ballads without irony or ill effects. And clearly, someone's been taking some voice lessons.


Weezer, Raditude
Music Math: Weezer - Weezer + Weezer
Best Tracks: "(If You're Wondering If I Want You To) I Want You To," "I'm Your Daddy," "Can't Stop Partying"
Representative Lyrics: "Tell me the truth / I don't want no lies / When I'm with you I'm hypnotized / Looking for trouble, that's what I am / Playing a game we both understand"
Notes: Weezer's new album is ridiculous (Hello, "Raditude"), but it's a very sincere hysteria. The songs are straightforward pop-rock songs (verse/chorus/verse), but they sparkle with wit and charm as Rivers Cuomo creates the quintessential house party album.


White Lies, To Lose My Life
Music Math: Joy Division/Depeche Mode + She Wants Revenge
Best Tracks: "Death," "To Lose My Life," "Farewell to the Fairgrounds"
Representative Lyrics: "Let's grow old together / And die at the same time"
Notes: Dark, eerie synths and driving rock drums make this early 80s throwback sound both prescient and retrospective, sort of like when all the popular kids start hanging out at the goth danceclub--although they're tourists, their curiosity is sincere, and deep down, maybe they are a little goth after all.


Yeah Yeah Yeahs, It's Blitz
Music Math: New Order + Garbage / Smashing Pumpkins + Scissor Sisters
Best Tracks: "Zero," "Heads Will Roll," "Shame and Fortune," "Hysteric"
Representative Lyrics: "Shake it like a ladder to the sun / Makes me feel like a madman on the run / Find it never, never far gone / So get your leather, leather, leather on on on on"
Notes: The new evolution of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs is much more electropop than their last album. Veritable dance floor anthems are nestled among more lilting ballads, but the overarching connection seems to be the synthesizer and its many, many guises. Karen O's voice sounds fantastic on this record.

12.18.2009

Brilliance

"Probably some of us were taught so long and hard that poetry was a thing to analyze that we lost our ability to find it delicious, to appreciate its taste, sometimes even when we couldn't even completely apprehend its meaning. I love to offer students a poem now and then that I don't really understand. It presents them with the immediate opportunity of being smarter than I am. Believe me, they always take it. They always find an interesting way to look through its window. It presents us all with a renewed appetite for interpretation, one of the most vibrant and energetic parts of the poetry experience."

—Naomi Shihab Nye, "Lights in the Windows"

12.16.2009

Organizational Change & Development in Tabatha's Salon Takeover



Bravo has been running a lot of this show lately, and since I've been laid up (or, more accurately, laid out, like a cadaver) with a wrenched back, I've watched a bunch of episodes. And I'm kind of hooked. I was initially sort of reproachful about the show's premise--über-wench Tabatha Coffey (formerly of the first round of Shear Genius) goes into a failing/miserable/grody hair salon, knocks everyone around, and teaches them but good. But you know what? The manager in me really likes this show a lot.

Tabatha does go into salons that are basically on their last curling iron, and yes, she does brusquely put people in their place, and she can be a little terse. But she's also encouraging, fair, professional, and, in the end, she turns the salons into high-functioning team environments focused on customer service.

It's a journey that--well, let's just say it's one I'm familiar with.

Organizational dysfunction is actually so common it has become "function." Workplace environments are chock full of people with issues, people dodging responsibility, people viciously guarding their little fiefdoms, and people hating each other. Even the best teams I've worked on have had these elements to them in some proportion; at worst, it's all there's been. This is why the workplace is such a common setting for sit coms. (And why The Office is funnier if, you know, you work in an office. See also Dilbert.)



There are a few pretty consistent things Tabatha has pointed out in her salons:

1. Clutter is the devil. A lot of the salons are a physical mess, which is often a symptom of emotional and intellectual messes you can't see. Cleaning things up and getting things organized is an important part of the transition, and it puts everyone in the salon in a good mood.

2. Leadership is not optional. Several of the salon owners I saw were reluctant to be real leaders. One was basically an irrational tyrant who felt her job wasn't to "coddle" her employees by giving them pats on the back; the rest were all mousy or immature versions of real leaders who were afraid of being disliked. Tabatha helps them understand the difference between being liked (or feared) and being respected.

3. Dead wood must go. In organizations, people who don't carry their weight are often buffered by the high-performers around them, so they can coast along without putting in much effort for a while. Tabatha roots these low-performers out, gives them a set of standards and expectations, and then gives them a chance to improve. If they don't, she cuts them loose--or, better yet, gives them an opportunity to quit on their own when they realize the salon is evolving beyond their ability to participate.

4. Clients come first. A few of the salons I saw had strong teams in them; it's just that the teams were more focused on having a good time with each other than they were on giving their clients what they want. Tabatha refocuses their work away from that unhealthy dynamic toward perfecting services first, then developing the internal team second. And really, the internal team development is the responsibility of the salon owner and manager, not the team itself--Tabatha reinforces this.

Tabatha, after her week in the salon, comes back about six weeks later to see how things are going. Most of the salons have hit their stride and do much better, even if they've painted over Tabatha's repainting and refurnishing. (But that can be an important "reclaiming" of the territory by the owner.) At least 1 owner completely restored the salon to its' pre-Tabatha operations, including terrorizing her staff and demoting her only functional leader in the team. It was sad to see. But it was clear that owner just wanted out of the business and she was hellbent on making her salon fail.

Whenever people have to work in groups, things get nutty. I think when artists work together in groups, it can get nuttier pretty quickly. Watching this show has reminded me about the importance of remembering what a leader's responsibilities are, and that even when we don't want to, we always have to do the difficult things we are called upon to do.

12.08.2009

Dear Diary



Okay, I admit it. The Vampire Diaries is the best new show this fall. (That I've watched. I need to get in touch with Modern Family and Cougar Town, though.)

How do I love The Vampire Diaries? Let me start by saying I did not want to love it. I did not need to watch another show about vampires, feeling it was well-covered territory with Buffy, Angel, True Blood, and Moonlight (plus, yuck). Like zombies, I was sure the vampire Zeitgeist had peaked and jumped the shark, jumped the pufferfish, jumped the minnow, even jumped the plankton.

I was ready to move past vampires. I was ready to move past vampires who go to high school, vampires who have a soul/conscience, vampires who are barely-tamed animals with no soul, vampires who long to be human, and vampires who both love and eat humans. I was over glamours, I was over longing looks through the shadowy afternoon, I was over men who look like they need to eat a cheeseburger instead of a cheerleader.

Plus, there's a witch! It's like, hello, did you crib right from Buffy or what??

And then I watched The Vampire Diaries. And I threw all my rules out the window. Isn't this what love is supposed to do to us? Make us shame ourselves for constructing false expectations and futile boundaries?

Here is my systematic list of why I love this show:

1. It's a killer. A whole bunch of people have died on the show, unlike a lot of vampire predecessors. Among them have been some pretty important main characters, as well as your typical out-for-a-drive-on-the-wrong-road crowd. And then people have become vampires, and they get killed right away, and cool characters get killed right away, and basically there's a lot of "animal attacks" in the town and people getting bloody and dying. That's hot. It means anything can happen on this show.

2. Only the men take their clothes off. This is probably courtesy of Kevin Williamson, who helped create this show, but there's a lot of PG-13 going on here, and it's all boys all the time. Also, most of them are really hot. I say that because it seems like no matter what flavor of boy you prefer, there's a slice of beefcake for you on this show. My favorite is Mike, but Beau prefers that angular looking vampire Sebastian.

3. It's moody. The lighting on this show is amazing. Although it takes place in Virginia, it's the darkest version of Virginia you've ever seen. The colors are both richly saturated (the greens and brows of the natural environment) and starkly washed out (buildings, faces, interiors). There are also intense, intense shadows on the show, which seems almost as if it's light by diegetic lighting alone (that would be like using only light from the lamps in a living room shot and not supplementing with traditional film lights off-camera). The characters end up living in this world where their faces and bodies are always partially cloaked in shadows.


Look at how dark & rich & shadowy that shot is!! Yum.

4. It rocks. The soundtrack uses hot music that I love. It's like they plugged into my iPod and either took bands I've liked for a while, or anticipated my tastes as well as or better than Gossip Girl has.

5. It's actually kind of scary and suspenseful. The writers do a really good job of keeping the surprises real and the plot moving forward into new directions. Unlike Buffy, which always felt as if it were snowballing toward an inevitable, inescapable conclusion, I have no idea what's going to happen on this show, and I really appreciate that.

6. It's only a little Dawsony. While the characters have slightly precocious dialogue, it's not as self-referential as Williamson's other show. The characters, instead, seem pretty "now," not too wise beyond their years, but wise enough to speak more eloquently than your average walking gland.

You can catch up with The Vampire Diaries next week on your local CW station when they run a week-long marathon of the season so far. Enjoy!

12.03.2009

Like Tiger Woods, I Too Had an Affair

and it was with David Leavitt, and it only recently ended.

But unlike Tiger Woods, I am not sorry.

I spent the last several months reading Leavitt's Collected Stories from cover to cover. I loved it. I hope it's no secret that I love a short story. I do. If I cheat on poetry, it's always with a short story. I love their brevity, like single windows in a hallway, each with a private and discrete view. And now, I love David Leavitt.

I heard him read once, at a conference, and he is foxy. His prose is also foxy. And, sometimes pretty ballsy.

Stories that stand out to me:

"Alien," in which a mother comes to terms with the fact that her young daughter is convinced she is an alien waiting to be reunited with her people.

"Dedicated," in which Celia and Nathan first appear (more later), exploring the complicated dynamic of the queer peer/gay guy relationship.

"The Infection Scene," in which the story of a modern-day bug chaser is compared to a historically fictional account of Oscar Wilde's traitorious lover Lord Douglas.

"The Marble Quilt," in which a linguist is interviewed by Italian police about the murder of his ex-lover, a marble thief.

"My Marriage to Vengeance," in which a woman attends the wedding of her ex-lesbian ex-lover.

"Houses," in which a married man emerges from the wreckage of his marriage to a woman and his affair with a man.

"Black Box," in which a man comes to terms with his lover's death in an airplane crash in a very unusual way.

I could definitely feel the stories come together as stronger and more forceful works in each subsequent collection (there are three collections in this volume). The third collection I read in a weekend and could not stop, the stories were so beautifully written and so compelling.

What I truly loved about this, though, were Nathan, Celia, and Andrew.

Nathan and Celia, really. The three characters are introduced in "Dedicated" and come back again in subsequent stories and collections. Mostly we see the world through Celia's eyes, checking in with her as she slowly but surely becomes her own person, stepping out from behind Nathan's obscuring shadow. It is a joy to spend time with her, to see the world as she sees it. She is level-headed, a little insecure, but good-hearted, warm-hearted, and astute.

It was surprising to me as I first encountered the two of them in "The Wooden Anniversary," a novella from Arkansas, and read first how they ended up in life, then went back and got the back story.

This is a book I'll want to read again.