The Sirens of Titan

Kurt Vonnegut is, hands down, my favorite author. And though I never had the privilege of meeting him, one of my favorite humans to ever walk this earth.

I was recently charged with choosing a favorite book: a difficult task, to be sure. I knew that it would be a title that he was responsible for. But the memories of his books, much like the narratives of the stories contained within, are ephemeral: weaving in and out of each other. Small details poke out of the fog, but I have very little recall of greater story arcs or character names. Was Hocus Pocus the one about the painter? Or the kid who accidentally kills a woman? Which one has Morasses? Wasn't there a chemical that would instantly freeze all water on the planet?

I'm pretty sure I marked Slaughterhouse 5 as the pick, but in retrospect, I think that The Sirens of Titan deserves the spot. Not because it was necessarily the most riveting plot (Mother Night), the most emotionally involving (Jailbird), or even the most outlandish (Galapagos). Sirens deserves the spot, because it was the first of his books that I ever read. And it was at a time when I needed his unique brand of whimsy, wisdom, and reluctant optimism. It also taught me a lot of the inherent power of women at a time when I had really only known girls.

My wife is a truly gifted singer & songwriter. In the early stages of occurred to me that very little (by which I mean virtually none) of the music I listened to was created by females. And in an effort to more fully understand the music that she makes, I tapped in to my feminine side.

Here are some of the standouts that I re/discovered in the process:

Track Notes

  1. Agnes Obel - Beast: I love that the instrumentation is carried almost entirely by a harp. It's surreal and elysian. I'm not usually into breathy, whispery voices, but when the effect is used sparingly it's chillingly beautiful.
  2. First Aid Kit - The Lion's Roar: These Swedish sisters wail together. It doesn't hurt that they sound more sincere than 95% of the garbage played on commercial country radio. Take note, record producers: this is a single.
  3. Lucius - Wildewoman: Like First Aid Kit, Lucius has mastered tight 2-part vocal harmony. But these two have embraced a degree of whimsy and silliness that makes it so you just can't help but smile when you hear it. And they dress identically. Which is strange. But still really cool.
  4. How To Destroy Angels - Ice Age: arguable the prettiest track on an album that very obviously has Trent Reznor's thumbprint all over it. Simple production. Just the right amount of dissonance. Carefully treading the line between hope and despair. Very mature music.
  5. Lydia Ainsworth - White Shadows: This woman has a very bright future ahead of her. Her ear for production is nuanced and strange and glitchy and gorgeous. I can't wait to hear what's next from her.
  6. Crystal Castles - Empathy: 95% of their music is noisy to the point of being painful. The remaining 5%? Haunting and ethereal and very very beautiful.
  7. Purity Ring - Belispeak: this band is almost painfully intriguing. Production that leans heavily on 90's Horrorcore. Dark lyrics that speak of death, occultism, cannibalism, mutilation. And one of the sweetest voices in the indie pop world. An odd combination that works very well together.
  8. Sleigh Bells - Treats: Zero Nuance. Zero Musicianship. Zero Finesse. Just chunky guitar riffs, nasty beats, and a fashion sense plucked right off of Bedford Ave. Which in small doses is so awesome.
  9. Lamb - Sugar 5: It's a shame that more of this album doesn't stay in this place, because there are so many things about this song that I love: the analog-sounding drums & secondary percussion, the bubbly string swells, the dreamy backing vocals, the walking bass line. A seeming fluke, but a great one.
  10. Goldfrapp - Train: Proof that you can be sexy and silly at the same time. The vocal lines would not be out of place in the golden age of disco.
  11. Heather Friedman - Gotta Move: This song feels like the opening credits to a creepy children's movie: my favorite recording of Heather's so far. But that will likely change in a couple of weeks when her new album drops...
  12. Janelle Monae - Many Moons: if you're unfamiliar with her work, Janelle Monae is in the process of writing a multi-album super concepty rock opera about a dystopian future, performance androids, and love. And it's still some of the most compelling pop music of this generation.
  13. Metric - Stadium Love: I fell in love with Metric when I first saw 'Scott Pilgrim vs the World'. They're not afraid of noise, but are always pleasant sounding. Emily Haines' lyrics are smart, fun, and accessible. And sometimes she sings in French. Which is really cool.
  14. Nina Simone - Feeling Good (Bassnectar Remix): there are a lot of people who will not approve of contemporary DJs messing with classic recordings. But if it makes believers of youngsters, then I take no exception. This song (well, the original) was the first dance at our wedding, and will always be important to our family.

If you'd rather listen on Google Play Music, you may do so here

No More Black Boxes

Black boxes are everywhere.

I use them everyday: my phone, my car, the card reader at the pharmacy, the device on my countertop that fills uninteresting tap water with delicious bubbles of carbon dioxide, my credit score. Anything that I don't fully understand the operations of can be classified as a black box: collecting input, performing some sort of magic and then spitting out something useful out the other end.

I'm clever enough to figure out as much as I need to get by: charge the phone overnight & don't drop it, make sure the car has fuel & check the oil every few fill ups, swipe the debit card with the stripe facing down and to the right...but these things are ultimately a mystery.

But that is not to say that they are incomprehensible.

Here's a collection of tunes to help inspire you to open those black boxes: to decide that you've not known how to do something or what something is or how something works for too long. There's a huge chance that whatever you're seeking is easier attained than you thought.

Track Notes:

  1. Clap! Clap! - Kaluma: a product of an Italian Producer playing in a sonic space that's primarily African. Leaning heavily on tribal percussion and a trance like repitition of patterns and themes. Simultaneously sinister and whimsical: like a gang of boys playing with knives.
  2. The Flashbulb - Lines Between Us: probably playing the nostalgia card on this, but the simple chord progression reminds me of Thomas Newman's work on 'Six Feet Under'. It's somber but hopeful: an agnostic hymn.
  3. Ben Frost - Aurora: there's slow burn on this and the climax is noisy and chaotic and best experienced via a pair of headphones.
  4. Black Moth Super Rainbow - Harispray Heart: there is a fine line between comfortably weird and psychically distressing. These guys tread that line like a trip that is on the borderline of taking a turn for the worst at any moment, but is an absolute blast.
  5. The GOASTT - Too Deep: finally, Sean Lennon produces a work that stands tall on it's own owing nothing to his musical pedigree. The entire album is fun, strange, pretty, and very listenable. Easily one of my favorites of 2014.
  6. Alt-J - Every Other Freckle: don't be fooled by the production, this is a very sexy tune. It takes a deft group of musicians to compare his lover to a 'Crisp Packet' (an empty bag of chips for us yanks) that he intends to 'turn inside-out and lick'. And they succeed brilliantly.
  7. Self - So Low: Matt Mahaffey is so ridiculously ahead of his time that pop music is just now catching up to this record from 1995. Tight vocal harmonies, grungy guitar riffs, simple lyrics. Still scratching my head that this guy's not huge.
  8. Battles - My Machines: proof that music is math in it's most beautiful form, Battles knocks this one out of the park. I love these guys.
  9. Bonobo - Between the Lines (Instrumental): this guys oozes cool. If my life warrants a movie version and even one of his tracks makes it on the the soundtrack, I will have considered it a life worth living.
  10. The Budos Band - Eastbound: Afro Funk band from Daptone Records + Vintage gear & recording equipment = some of the nastiest grooves in music today.
  11. Django Django - Hand of Man (Gulp Version): 'Sit down and talk to me\Think of colors, shapes and harmony\Picture it, the space becomes a scene\Open up your eyes and start to dream' - sounds like meaningless psychedelic nonsense. And maybe it is. And maybe there's nothing wrong with that.
  12. Puscifer - Tumbleweed (The Beta Machines Delusions of Grandeur Mix): one of Puscifer's most melancholic & beautiful songs turned on it's ear. The end result is driving and noisy and still really pretty.

If you'd rather listen via Google Play Music, you may do so here.

Jekyll vs WordPress

My development journey started with Dreamweaver's WYSIWYG interface. I made horrible excuses for sites and somehow convinced people to pay me for them. As soon as I realized there was a way to write that code by hand I became fairly obsessed with standards down to every self-closing but unnesessarily self-closed <br> tag. After hearing the question "But how do I make changes?" from one too many clients I began to learn my way around CMS's. I built a couple of sites with Drupal, but ultimately settled on WordPress because of its polished admin interface and the active community supporting it. I built a few sites and found that I had amassed a robust enough skill set to find work full-time making websites.

But there is always the desire to learn more, which is why I'm giving Jekyll a shot - a lot of devs whose opinion I value are big fans. Given that my only real basis of comparison is WordPress, naturally I will evaluate my experience in setting up and publishing my first site against the strengths & weaknesses of WordPress.

Jekyll's Strengths

  • Lightweight & fast - one of the benefits to not having a database.
  • Composing in Markdown - bettter than any WYSIWYG editor
  • Possible to host on GitHub Pages - lightning fast & free hosting.

Jekyll's Weaknesses

  • Cannot simply 'login & post from anywhere'
  • Not appropriate for most client work (if they need to make their own changes)
  • Not nearly as many themes as WordPress

I recognize that many of these points are debatable. And that I've only been using Jekyll for about 24 hours. So I'll get a few more posts in and look to make some style & content additions and see how I'm feeling about the transition from there.

Thanks for reading.