Monday, June 4, 2018

4 Podcasts That Feed My Soul

Lately I've been listening to a lot of podcasts on my commute. And there are a few specifically that I'd like to mention here because I find them constantly encouraging and fascinating and they fill my heart with joy and hope. Maybe they will for you too.

1. Conversations With People Who Hate Me. YouTuber Dylan Maron started this podcast by reaching out to people who left hate messages on his past and talking through it with them, and now the conversations often include him mediating between other content creators and the people who leave hateful messages on their work. What I love is that this is not a podcast to try and change anyone's mind as much as a podcast just to remind us that, as Dylan says at the end of each episode, "there's a human on the other side of the screen." Listening to the civil disagreements Dylan and his guests have together and how they learn from each other's different perspectives gives me hope. I love how Dylan always centers the conversation on empathy and understanding the other person's experience. It's exciting and rewarding to listen to.

2. Where Should We Begin? A couples therapy podcast. Couples therapist Esther Parel hosts one-time counseling sessions on-air, and we get to hear both snippets of the session and Esther's musing on it later, sometimes even musings like, "If I could go back, I would have done it differently." The issues range from sexual compatibility issues to forgiveness from affairs to abuse to caregiving through chronic illness, and Esther treats each couple with such hope and such compassion that I have actually cried a couple times listening to it because I get so wrapped up in it all.

3. The Robcast. Rob Bell gets labeled a heretic a lot of the time in conservative Christian circles, but his writing on art and faith changed my life as a young adult and I continue to love his work. A lot of the stuff he says on his podcast isn't terribly new, but he couches it all with such joy and optimism and understanding that I never leave feeling guilty (something that can't be said of almost any other Christian teacher I listen to, whose goals always seem to be to just make me feel crappy about myself). His sense of grace and love and empathy for the people around him oozes out to me through the airwaves and leaves me feeling heard and understood, even though, of course, I'm the one listening.

4. Good Christian Fun. My newest discovery of all of these. Two Christians host this podcast about Christian pop culture, and while a lot of it is being snarky and silly about how strange Christian pop culture is (because, yeah, it's weird), they often go much deeper into the aspects of faith that have gotten lost or warped in these culture wars. They have a guest on every week, many times someone who is no longer or was never a Christian, and (as you can see is a pattern with these podcasts that are filling my soul) the empathy with which they treat their guests whose beliefs are so different is refreshing and lovely. It's a very funny podcast, but it also feels like a place where people can open up and have the conversations I never felt like I could have had in my church. (The Facebook community for this podcast is incredible as well -- very much following the tone set by the show itself.)

These four are all worth checking out if you need something positive and interesting to add to your day. They add to mine!

Friday, April 27, 2018

"Body Talk" by Robyn (150 Albums by Women #143)

NPR compiled a list of the 150 greatest albums created by women. I've decided to listen to these albums, from #150 all the way up to #1. But to give myself a bit of forward momentum and have a sense of when I was "done" with each album, my method is to listen to the album one time all the way through, then with each subsequent listen, I'd remove my least favorite. This lets me listen to the best ones most frequently without having to sit through too many that didn't work for me at all.

Album #143 is Robyn's "Body Talk," a 2010 dance pop album. This is the newest album thus far on this playlist, as well as the most purely "pop." What surprised me was how interesting it was lyrically. A lot of electronic dance pop doesn't venture into unique or interesting territory beyond "let's all dance," but these songs are about everything from unrequited love to the difficulties of being friends with an ex to recovering from a bad breakup. It was also great music to listen to on my morning commute when I needed to wake up for the day. A lot of the songs ultimately started sounding too similar and blended together, but a few definitely rose above to become my favorites.

5. Indestructible. The music for this song is just okay, a typical pounding electronic beat and a mediocre melody, but it ended up this high on the list because I really enjoyed the lyrics. The album as a whole goes back and forth between braggadoccio and vulnerability, and this one mixes the two in a very interesting way.

4. Call Your Girlfriend. This was the one song I knew already before I started listening to the album, although I knew it from a cover version rather than the original. I like the sound of it, and some of the lyrics are interesting, but I kind of hate how condescending some of these lines are ("And it won't make sense right now, but you're still her friend"). It's still a fun song, though.

3. Dancing On My Own. My first couple listens to the album, I thought this might be my #1. Slowly others started climbing above it, but I still really enjoy it. I listen to these as I drive, and this one is an AWESOME driving song -- the beat really feels like it's pushing you forward and not just holding you in place, if that makes any sense at all. And I'm always going to have a fondness for songs that are about unrequited love, even several years into a very happy marriage. The angsty teen inside me still hears this and connects.

2. U Should Know Better. This one took a couple listens to get into, but when I did, I loved it. The only thing keeping it from being #1 is that I'm not a huge fan of how muted the lyrics are in comparison to the loud music. But this one is so much fun, and the lyrics are clever, and I love how aggressive it is. It makes me wanna be like, "YEAH! GET OUT OF MY WAY!" and those are always really enjoyable for me to listen to.

1. Fembot. I liked this one from the very beginning, but it just kept growing. There's an intensity to the music that I really enjoy, and I'm all about songs that use nerdy metaphors to talk about love (or, well, in this case, mostly sex). It's everything I like about this album encapsulated into one song, and it's one that will definitely stay in my rotation for quite some time.

The albums I've listened to thus far in this project, in order:
1. The Roches - The Roches
2. Robyn - Body Talk
3. The Breeders - Last Splash
4. Patty Griffin - Flaming Red
5. Alicia Keys - Songs in A Minor
6. Oumou Sangaré - Moussolou
7. Terri Lyne Carrington - The Mosaic Project

Monday, February 19, 2018

"Last Splash" by The Breeders (150 Albums by Women #144)

NPR compiled a list of the 150 greatest albums created by women. I've decided to listen to these albums, from #150 all the way up to #1. But to give myself a bit of forward momentum and have a sense of when I was "done" with each album, my method is to listen to the album one time all the way through, then with each subsequent listen, I'd remove my least favorite. This lets me listen to the best ones most frequently without having to sit through too many that didn't work for me at all.

Album #144 is The Breeders' "Last Splash," which took me a little while to get into. It's sort of punk, sort of surfer rock, lots of distorted vocals, and it was initially frustrating that I couldn't hear or understand the lyrics. After a few listens though, I found myself really enjoying it and my favorites definitely floated to the top. Even the ones I didn't love became enjoyable to listen to.

My top from the album:

5. Saints. This has such a fun interesting sound to it that vacillates between the two primary sounds on the album: light and breezy, and angry punk.

4. Do You Love Me Now? There's a really lovely mournful feel to this one, and for some reason I'm digging the muddled vocals more than I usually would.

3. S.O.S. I would never have guessed that my top five would include two instrumental pieces, but this and my #2 are both super interesting. I like the sort of ominous feel of this one.

2. Flipside. And this one is such cheerful surfer rock. It was an especially fun treat to hear for the first time in the middle of a lot of darker punk songs.

1. Divine Hammer. This was probably my favorite starting on my very first listen. I like the simplicity of the lyrics and how cheerful the song is. It's just a fun piece.

The albums I've listened to thus far in this project, in order:
1. The Roches - The Roches
2. The Breeders - Last Splash
3. Patty Griffin - Flaming Red
4. Alicia Keys - Songs in A Minor
5. Oumou Sangaré - Moussolou
6. Terri Lyne Carrington - The Mosaic Project

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

A Ridiculous Rant on Dear Evan Hansen

Note: So... this kind of got away from me as I wrote it. It was intended to be much shorter. But here you go!

Pasek and Paul are musical theatre's favorite people right now after Lin-Manuel Miranda, and I just don't get it. People gush over everything they've done, while I kept listening to individual songs and thinking, "That was... a really boring pop song." They did three songs for the TV show Smash, the songs for La La Land, and the musicals A Christmas Story, Dogfight, and Edges, all of which I have attempted to listen to and then got bored.

Then Dear Evan Hansen came along, and people lost their minds. It was nominated for nine Tonys and won six (including Best Score). Knowing what I did of their work and what the other shows nominated for Best Score were, I was livid about them winning. Then I decided, ya know what, I should try this with an open mind. I should listen to the cast album a couple of times. After all, it's a show about depression and social anxiety. That's an important and personal topic. Surely that's going to connect with me, right?

Listening to the cast album has convinced me of two things:

1. Ben Platt is a national treasure.

2. Nope, these guys still can't write songs with any kind of emotional weight.

This musical and its content were almost guaranteed to make me love it, just for the sole fact that I connect so much to these stories, but the cast album is... a mess. What little works, works because Ben Platt is amazing enough that he can bring depth and characterization to these pretentious, awkward, stilted lyrics.

Their primarily problem is that I constantly feel they are trying really, really, really hard to be deep and provocative in their lyrics. Their use of metaphors is the worst. They repetitively smash them into the audience's head ("Anybody Have a Map?", "Disappear") or they hop around from one clumsy metaphor to the next without thinking about how they connect or what they're actually saying ("Waving Through a Window," "You Will Be Found"). At best, they simply have a character explain plot points that are apparently supposed to make us feel things ("So Big, So Small," "For Forever") but explaining their feelings about them in such cliched language that nothing about it sinks in.

A quick comparison here. Let's look at "Waving Through a Window" and compare it to my favorite song about social anxiety in high school, Joe Iconis' "Michael in the Bathroom."

Notice how few simple personal statements are in "Waving Through a Window." The first verse is probably the most coherent in what it's saying: "I'm afraid to speak because I might screw up so I don't and I run away." It's a little cheesy and heavy-handed but it's OK on its own. The metaphor about sunburn in the bridge is important because it's later repeated in an awkward way.

Then comes the chorus. I. Hate. This. Chorus. Like, I can't follow the character's thought pattern. The first verse makes it clear that he chooses to isolate himself deliberately, while the chorus makes it clear that he feels others isolate him, like he's putting himself out there ("I'm waving," "I'm tap, tap, tapping on the glass," "I try to speak") and they're just ignoring him. I also don't understand even a little bit what "Will I ever be more than I've always been?" is doing in the middle of this line, much less why it's followed by a "'cause" before it goes into "I'm taptaptapping." Is him tapping on the glass what he's always been, or his attempt to be more? THIS SENTENCE DOESN'T MAKE SENSE. And the whole chorus is muddy on whether he's inside or outside, because while he says he's outside, "watching people pass" definitely sounds like he's inside looking out, because who would peek in somebody's window and say "Oh, look at all the people passing?" No. That's something you say about people OUTSIDE.

The second verse is a blissfully clear message as well: "I used to feel normal, but something changed and I don't know where or how." HOWEVER. He ends the verse with "But every sun doesn't rise, and no one tells you where you went wrong." The phrase "every sun doesn't rise" is I think technically correct but it's really awkward phrasing when, of course, some suns do rise and he probably means "not every sun rises"... but the part that really bugs me is that we go right from there into the repeated metaphor about the sun being bad: "Step out, step out of the sun if you keep getting burned." YOU CAN'T HAVE BACK-TO-BACK SUN METAPHORS WHERE IT'S BAD IN ONE AND GOOD IN THE OTHER. They inevitably invite comparison and now I'm not even listening to the second chorus (which is still bad) because I'm just stuck figuring out if the sun that's burning him is from one of the other suns that did rise or what.

The bridge is just an endlessly repeated, ever so slightly varied use of the "a tree falls in a forest and there's no one around, does it make noise" phrase as a metaphor. Because we didn't have enough disconnected metaphors in this song yet. This part is boring but at least the music builds and Ben Platt sings it like it means something.

Then we finish with our awful chorus again.

Aside from the second half of the first verse, everything in this song is either an awkward metaphor or a generic "This is what happens to people" statement. So little of it feels real or true. It certainly doesn't feel like something anybody would ever say, it feels like Pasek and Paul made a list of metaphors and cliches that had to do with feeling isolated and said, "Sure, yeah, let's just make it rhyme and sing that." It tells us so little about the character.

Compare this to "Michael in the Bathroom," one of my all-time favorite songs. Immediately, from line one, we are in the character's mind and viewpoint. No metaphors to climb over, no generalizations to weed through. We learn in two lines what it takes Pasek and Paul four minutes to kinda sorta get around to.

These lyrics are so simple but so honest. Incidentally, this chorus would be a much better place to insert PasekPaul's awkward "Will I ever be more than I've always been?" line -- like look at how much better it fits with the ending of chorus one: "I'm just Michael who you don't know / Michael flying solo / Michael in the bathroom by himself." We get an actual sense of how Michael's (deliberate self-) isolation feeds into the grander view of himself as a person capable of doing and being things. He's just "Michael who you don't know." Will he ever be more than that? That thought works there.

The second verse, just like in "Waving Through a Window," is about how things used to be okay and now things aren't. But compare them! One is vague and generic and applied to the whole human race ("We start with stars in our eyes, we start believing that we belong") while the other is clearly about this one individual person while still inviting us into the feeling ("Memories get erased and I'll get replaced with a newer, cooler version of me").

The penultimate line is, "All you know about me is my name." That's true about Evan Hansen. But I'm pretty sure Michael and I are best friends now.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

"Moussolou" by Oumou Sangaré (150 Albums by Women #145)

NPR compiled a list of the 150 greatest albums created by women. I've decided to listen to these albums, from #150 all the way up to #1. But to give myself a bit of forward momentum and have a sense of when I was "done" with each album, my method is to listen to the album one time all the way through, then with each subsequent listen, I'd remove my least favorite. This lets me listen to the best ones most frequently without having to sit through too many that didn't work for me at all.

Album #145 was "Moussolou" by Oumou Sangaré. I had never heard of her before, so in case you hadn't either, she's a hugely important figure in the West African music genre Wassoulou. To quote Wikipedia on this, "Wassoulou music is performed mostly by women. Some recurring themes in the lyrics are childbearing, fertility, and polygamy. Instrumentation includes soku (a traditional fiddle sometimes replaced with modern imported instruments), djembe drum, kamalen n'goni (a six-stringed harp), karinyan (metal tube percussion) and bolon (a four-stringed harp). The vocals are often passionate and emphatic, and delivered in a call-and-response pattern."

The album only had six songs, so I knew right away I wasn't going to have a top five, most likely a top three. And then I ran into difficulty.

You remember when I kicked out all those instrumental pieces in the Terri Lyne Carrington album right away? Well, I've always known I have real trouble connecting to a song without lyrics, and it turns out that's true as well for lyrics that are in a language I don't speak. With fairly similar instrumentation and vocal sounds on all six tracks, I found myself unable to differentiate between them without lyrical content helping me out. I liked listening to all six -- especially as a huge change from the previous album -- but none of them particularly rose to the top and I ended up eliminating them almost randomly as I listened.

Giving this kind of review of this album is kind of awkward because I feel like I should have been able to pick out a favorite or two. Part of me wishes I'd done more research -- found lyrics for these songs, found some translations, and learned what they were saying. Maybe then I'd have connected to them more on an individual level. As it is, we'll just call it a six-way tie and move on to the next album, though I would like to revisit this one some day.

The albums I've listened to thus far in this project, in order:
1. The Roches - The Roches
2. Patty Griffin - Flaming Red
3. Alicia Keys - Songs in A Minor
4. Oumou Sangaré - Moussolou
5. Terri Lyne Carrington - The Mosaic Project

Next up on the NPR list is #144, "Last Splash" by The Breeders.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

The Most Useless Part of My NaNo

NaNoWriMo is over, and I made it! I actually stayed more on top of it than I usually do, mostly thanks to the word crawls on the NaNo forums and the amazing Fighters' Block website which I cannot recommend enough. But I wanted to share the absolute most ridiculous part of my NaNo with you.

So I had just begun a 600-word sprint and was about 100 words into it when Jacob announced dinner was ready. I didn't want to pause my sprint but I didn't want to keep him waiting. Or the food. I was hungry. What followed was me trying to finish up the remaining 500 words as quickly as possible. Here you go. Enjoy.


They waited... and waited... and waited. Parkson kept anxiously climbing out of his hiding spot to peek into the enormous cave, until finally Junia said, "Would you PLEASE stop doing that? That's obviously going to attract the attention of Jacques and Marli if they're anywhere near the mouth of the cave. We just got rescued, I'm not about to be kidnapped again just because you could not be patient enough."

"Sorry," Parkson said, climbing back down into a crevice next to Junia. "I'm just anxious."

"I am anxious as well," Junia said irritably, "but I am not behaving like an idiot because of it. You could learn something from me and my immense soldier calm."

My husband just told me food is ready so I'm going to race to get to the end of this word sprint by writing some nonsense. Parkson decided to think of colors. Colors were nice to think of and they were a good thing to list. And they would be a good way to pass the time until Lucas came back with Jacques and Marli and Parkson's mother Elizabeth and any of the other things they hoped he returned with.

So, colors. What were some good colors? Blue was a good color, like the sky and the ocean and some people's eyes. Sometimes tears were drawn blue but they didn't have to be, they were just water. Water in general seemed to be blue but not always.

Green was a color. Bright green was the color of some creepy bugs and Parkson didn't like those, but dark green was the color of some trees and some people's eyes and also sludge. Parkson didn't know where sludge came from, but it occasionally sat outside his work place and he tried to cover it up with a cloak so nobody would walk by and think, "Oh, I don't want to buy vegetables from the sludge man!" Vegetables were green, too, all sorts of wonderful vegetables -- but not tomatoes, of course -- vegetables like broccoli and kale and spinach and brussel sprouts and asparagus and cucumber and zucchini and pickles. The broccoli was named Steven, or at least it would have been if they had actual names and not just names like "broccoli." Parkson liked dreaming about naming his vegetables. It made it so much sadder, though, when they would ultimately be eaten. Instead of eating a delicious salad of lettuce and cucumbers and spinach, they'd be eating a bowl full of Steves and Michaels and Marissas and Louises and Luises and Larissas and Lourisesasas even though that wasn't a name that anybody had ever made up.

Other colors? Red. Red was a color. Red was the color of tomatoes, which was of course his favorite vegetable. But it was also the color of things like blood, which were less pleasant. Of course, on the plus side, if he bled all over the tomatoes, nobody would ever know because it would blend in and it would be great. He didn't plan to bleed all over the tomatoes, but you never could tell what would happen on the street. A crow could bite his fingers off and then all the blow in his fingers would go flying out and get all over the tomatoes, and you couldn't exactly give the tomatoes back so he'd still have to try to sell them.

Ok, on to other colors. Brown. Brown was the color of the dirt. Darker brown was mud, lighter brown was... sand? He didn't know. He pooped brown sometimes. And tree bark was brown, and some people had brown eyes. Lots of people had lots of different color eyes. He had never thought about this before, and he was surprised by how interesting it was. It at least kept him busy, letting these bizarre thoughts fly before he could be reunited with his mother again.

Monday, October 30, 2017

"Flaming Red" by Patty Griffin (150 Albums by Women #146)

NPR compiled a list of the 150 greatest albums created by women. I've decided to listen to these albums, from #150 all the way up to #1. But to give myself a bit of forward momentum and have a sense of when I was "done" with each album, my method is to listen to the album one time all the way through, then with each subsequent listen, I'd remove my least favorite. This lets me listen to the best ones most frequently without having to sit through too many that didn't work for me at all.

Album #147 is unavailable on Spotify, so I'm going to have to come back to that one, but album #146 is Patty Griffin's "Flaming Red," noted on the NPR piece for being a departure from Griffin's usually folk stylings into something much more rock. This one took a little bit for me to get into -- Griffin's lyrics have a tendency to be so vague and metaphorical I find them nearly meaningless -- but by the top five I was pretty solidly enjoying the songs that were left, so I have plenty of positive things to say about them.

5. Wiggley Fingers. The one in my top five that rocks the hardest, for sure, and that's why it stuck around as long as it did. This one is *great* to rock out to in the car, and Griffin's voice sounds amazing here in the final minute or so of the song. Lyrically it wasn't as impactful as my top four, but it sounds fantastic.

4. Change. Just like my #5, we've got some great vocals from Griffin here, particularly in verse two where a lot of them approach almost a wail. I love the lyrics of the first verse, but the rest of them aren't quite as visceral for me, so it's going to bow out at #4.

3. Big Daddy. Someone else should listen to this song and tell me whether it's about drug addiction or child molestation, because I can't decide (or if I'm totally reading it wrong and it's an innocuous, actually happy song). I find it hauntingly sad though, particularly the several refrains of "Throw the little fish back."

2. Tony - It's hard to say why exactly this one climbed to the top. I just liked it. I liked the story, I liked the sound, I liked Patty's voice in it. That's all.

1. Mary - I fell in love with this song the first time I heard it and it never stopped being my favorite track on the album. Whether it's meant to be literally about the mother of Jesus or whether it's being expanded to mothers everywhere or something totally different, I find it hauntingly beautiful, particularly that lyric, "While angels sing his praises in a blaze of glory / Mary stays behind and starts cleaning up the place."

The albums I've listened to thus far in this project, in order:
1. The Roches - The Roches
2. Patty Griffin - Flaming Red
3. Alicia Keys - Songs in A Minor
4. Terri Lyne Carrington - The Mosaic Project

Next up is album #145, "Moussolou" by Oumou Sangare.