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. 

Monday, October 9, 2017

"The Mosaic Project" by Terri Lyne Carrington (150 Albums by Women #148)

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 #148 is Terri Lyne Carrington's "The Mosaic Project." Carrington is a jazz drummer, and this album is definitely a jazz album. Some of the songs have vocals, some don't, some are originals, some are covers. This one took me awhile to get into the swing of (which is why I'm posting this blog so late). However, from this point on I'm only going to write short pieces about the top five songs on each album. Otherwise on albums (such as this) that were a tough sell for me, I'd spent most of the time griping about it instead of praising what I do like. So here were my top five from this album.


5. Transformation. This is the first song on the album, and for awhile I thought it might be my favorite of the whole thing. It ultimately became less interesting the more I heard it, but I still think it has an interesting sound and sets the tone for the rest of the album.

4. I Got Lost in His Arms. I was delighted to hear this Irving Berlin tune covered on the album. It's a smooth, interesting cover that I prefer to any of the cast album versions I've heard.

3. Echo. This song drew me in lyrically more than it did musically. Every time it came on I'd find myself paying closer attention to the lyrics because they were saying interesting things. It's one of the few songs on the album that attempts to say something larger about society, and while those songs don't always work and sometimes sound preachy, I got into this one.

2. Sisters on the Rise (A Transformation). The album closes on an unexpectedly hip-hop note, sampling the album opener and interspersing it with rapped verses and chorus. After thirteen songs of straight jazz, this was always a refreshing bit of variety.

1. Crayola. This song was dangerously close to being cut early on, but the more I listened to it, the more it fascinated me. There are some versions to be found online without vocals, but I absolutely prefer this one, as the vocals are my favorite part. They are playful and unique and varied, and I'm very glad I didn't cut it when I did, as it's turned out to be my favorite.

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

Next up was supposed to be #147, "Dolmen Music" by Meredith Monk, but this is not easily available on Spotify, so I'm moving past it and will circle back around to any albums I didn't get to later. In the meantime, on to #146, "Flaming Red" by Patty Griffin.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

"Songs in A Minor" by Alicia Keys (150 Albums by Women #149)

A few weeks ago, a friend shared a list NPR compiled 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 #149 is Alicia Keys' debut album, "Songs in A Minor," recorded and released when Keys was very young. She started work on it at age 17, though she was 20 when it was officially released. I already knew three of these songs very well: Fallin', A Woman's Worth, and How Come You Don't Call Me, so I removed those from the rotation to focus on ones I don't know. I've put them back into the final list in their correct ranking. In order from least favorite to favorite, these are the "Songs in A Minor."


16. Piano & I - This went immediately because it's not really a song, it's a spoken-word intro.

15. Goodbye - The songs at the bottom of the list are almost all for the same reason: they just bore me. There are several slow, languid, energy-less songs on this album that blend together in my mind. This was the one that stuck with me the least.

14. Butterflyz - I'd heard this one before but didn't register it very much. I still don't. It's not very interesting.

13. Caged Bird - While I like the lyrics a little bit more than the ones that fell below this, it's still not appealing to me musically. I like the idea of tapping into a more melancholy feel for these lyrics, but this music isn't melancholy so much as plodding.

12. Rock wit U - Despite having heard this song five times by the time I removed it from my playlist, I still couldn't remember how it went. Time for it to go.

11. The Life - Most of the ones after this at least have a thing or two I like about them. Most of them are upbeat. This is the lowest-ranked upbeat one, and it just didn't do much for me.

10. Why Do I Feel So Sad - I love the chorus for this song, but Alicia's voice sounds especially weak throughout, and it grates on me a bit. The chorus saved it for awhile, but eventually this one had to go.

9. Jane Doe - Kind of a catchy song, and it's fun to sing along with, but it doesn't really stand out.

8. Mr. Man - There's a weird sort of wispy sound to this whole song, and it's interesting and different in comparison to the rest of the album. Definitely it kept me listening for awhile. It's out now because the lyrics are strange and do nothing for me.

7. Troubles - I kind of sort of knew this song before I started listening to this album, but I didn't like it then and I liked it more now. There's a cool dark sound to it, and singing solemnly about "letting your troubles go" is much more interesting than trying to force a positive sound into that.

6. A Woman's Worth - My least favorite of the ones I already knew, but it's still pretty decent. They definitely chose some of the stronger tunes on the album to be the singles. It's slinky and bold and interesting.

5. Never Felt This Way - This is the saddest, loneliest love song ever.

4. Lovin' U - Almost all of my favorite songs on this album had a more old school R&B sound. This one I enjoyed a lot every time I heard it, but I kept forgetting it existed, otherwise it probably would have landed higher on the list.

3. How Come You Don't Call Me - The second of three songs I already knew. I like that, unlike many of the slower songs on this album, this one's got a bit of swing to it.

2. Girlfriend - More typical modern R&B than most of the songs at the top of the list. I think I'm most intrigued by the range Keys shows in the chorus vocally. It all sounds so natural until I try to sing along and I realize she's doing much more than I can. It's sneakily impressive.

1. Fallin' - The first one I ever heard from this album, and by far my favorite still. It's the only one of these that I really love, and it showcases Keys' moody music, melancholy lyrics, and retro sound at their best.

Next up: #148, "The Mosaic Project" by Terri Lyne Carrington.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

"The Roches" by The Roches (150 Albums By Women #150)

A few weeks ago, a friend shared a list NPR compiled 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.

I began with #150, "The Roches" by The Roches. I only knew one song by this band: "Come Softly to Me," which was one of my father's favorites and was featured in the film Crossing Delancey (one of my mom's favorites). It's a lot smoother-sounding than most of this album, which is more folksy and casual and sometimes awkward-sounding. But overall, I liked this album a lot. Here are the songs I listened to, ranked in order of when I kicked them off my playlist.


10. Damned Old Dog - The only one I actively disliked. It's kind of interesting lyrically, but some of those harmonies are really unpleasant to listen to.

9. Runs in the Family - You know it's a decent album when the ones I kick off just because they're boring are the second-worst.

8. Pretty and High - I never quite got into the feel of this song, but it has some striking moments

7. Quitting Time - This is a pretty little song, but the lyrics didn't interest me as much as the sound, so it fell a little lower on the list.

6. The Married Men - Here's where the decisions got difficult. I ended up being stuck between this song and my #5 for awhile and tossing it over to a music group I'm in on Facebook to be my deciding factor. This one lost. It's fun, though.

5. Mr. Sellack - One of the most interesting little songs I've heard about unemployment.

4. The Troubles - I initially thought this was going to be in my top three, but an unexpected late favorite pushed it out. I really like the bit at the end where they sing a little round of the most important word in each verse.

3. Hammond Song - This song just sounds *gorgeous*. Lyrically it doesn't grip me as much, and it's a little bit longer than I'd like, but the beautiful harmonies and instrumentation boosted it way up to #3.

2. We - Right from the beginning of this album, I knew I was going to have fun with it. It starts off with this cheerful meta-song introducing the sisters, explaining their back story, and sighing a bit about how they always get asked the same questions in interviews. It's delightful.

1. The Train - On my first listen through, I'd never have expected this to be my favorite, but the more I heard it, the more I kept connecting with it thematically. I don't take the train to work, but I definitely know the drudgery of a long commute and the desire to do something, anything, to break it up. I kept being struck by the line, "I am trying not to have a bad day," in the first verse. The thought process in this song is so familiar to me that I deeply related to it even with completely different circumstances.

Next album: #149, Alicia Keys' "Songs in A Minor."