Friday, December 30, 2011

2011 New Year's List

Believe it or not, this used to be a blog about music. Some of you may remember when I used to write reviews of new albums, along with the occasional essay. Simpler times. Times with more free time, really. I've spent the last four months being as busy as I've ever been, and the music listening has suffered as a result. I wish I could say I'm as well versed in this year's releases as I was in years prior, but I'm not. I'm really not.

It would be disingenuous of me to provide you with a Top 10 list. Getting past my lingering doubts about numbered lists, I don't think I've listened to most of this year's releases enough times to really get a sense of them. Having said that, I can still make some recommendations. Here are the things that did manage to bend my ear in the last 365 or so days.

There weren't that many complete albums that held my interest, to be honest. Which could be due to my not paying attention, or maybe there just wasn't anything that really hit me right. There are albums I still want to talk about, though. A few I loved. A few were great. And a few I'm still not sure about, but I feel compelled to discuss.

Lykke Li's Wounded Rhymes was one of the two albums I really fell in love with this year. I still haven't listened to Youth Novels, her previous album, nearly enough, but that's largely because it always sounded a bit empty to me. Musically, it created the skeleton, and didn't put on the flesh. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, but on her second album, Li elected to go big or go home. The album opens with "Youth Knows No Pain," as massive as opening tracks get. It's more than that; for this album, it's a statement of intent. In her writing, she creates the same corners as her last album, but here she fills them in. Some will walk away feeling like she stuffed them to the point of bursting. It helps, I think, that her singing is so restrained. Like her Nordic sister Annie, she turns her lack of emoting (to be fair, she does a great sad) into a strength. These tracks with a voice eager to share would be overwrought and too much. But Li's lyrics need something to drive them home, and, for her, it's the marvelously detailed music going on all around her. If you get the chance, pick up the actual single for "Get Some". The non-album b-side, "Paris Blue," is intoxicating in the right mood.

Alison Krauss & Union Station were not a band I had put high up on my list of expectations for the year, but I loved Paper Airplane as much, if not more, than anything else that came out in 2011. I listened to it almost every night in June, and it's easy to see why. The title track is my favorite piece of songwriting from the last year. The cover of "Dimming of the Day" is elegant, understated, and the perfect vehicle for Krauss' crystalline voice. "On the Outside Looking In" gives Dan "Foggy Bottom Boys" Tyminski a powerhouse of a bluegrass number. And throughout the album, you are reminded of what it's like to listen to people who can really play their instruments. There aren't many bands so fine-tuned at playing together as this lot. "Paper Airplane" along is a masterclass in handling dynamics and feel. And what's truly terrifying is that they make the whole thing sound effortless.

I'm happy to admit that I jumped on the Elbow bandwagon when most people did, around the release of 2008's The Seldom Seen Kid. In that time, I've really only listened to their first album, Asleep in the Back, and their latest, Build a Rocket Boys!. They are a band that requires time, under the best of circumstances, but they reward it fully; every time I listen to one of these three albums, I like it just a little bit more. Guy Garvey writes lyrics perfectly pitched between the every-day and the grand; He's Springsteen if Springsteen didn't sometimes leave me with the uneasy aftertaste of pandering. On the music front, as with all of their releases, this is a beautiful, patient album, full moments of intense quiet and cathartic release. It makes you wonder why more bands don't take advantage of both the "loud" and "quiet" opportunities music can afford. Probably because it's so damn difficult. Elbow used to be pegged as Radiohead/Coldplay also-rans. That has always been unfair. Radiohead are far afield in their own world. Coldplay are one of the biggest bands in the world. Elbow, meanwhile, have once again quietly made the argument that they are the best.

It's an aphorism at this point that there's nothing original left to do in music. In the broadest sense, that is likely true. But I firmly believe that, working in specifics, there will always be something new to do. And lo tUnE-yArDs' w h o k i l l, an engrossing take on what popular music can be. The rhythms are always somehow jilted, but the music moves seamlessly between melodic and dissonant, between the angularly beautific ("Wolly Wolly Gong") to the riotous ("Gangsta") to the frustrated ("My Country"). As far as replay value is concerned, I am drawn to words more than music, which is why I will always rate The National above this, and Randy Newman above everything else, but the music gets you in the door in the first place. And this is some of the best music you will hear. If you like it a little weird.

It's likely this will become known as the Difficult Radiohead album, a title that seems to get perpetually back-shifted with each new release since it was first claimed by either Kid A or Amnesiac, depending on whom you ask. For my money, the difficult one is still Pablo Honey, but that's a cheap shot. The King of Limbs is definitely the low-key Radiohead album, which is both to its credit and detriment. The upshot is that it makes the outward statement of appearing calm while feeling anything but, and that's not easy to pull off. The downside? You have to pay it much more mind than previous releases, and I'm still not positive it rewards the effort. But I keep coming back to it, and I've not been the sort who would blindly follow a band anywhere for at least the last year and a half. The first half is where my uncertainty lies. But that half is texture. The second half, the songs, is hauntingly beautiful. And if none of it is knew, well, neither was anything on Hail to the Thief. I'll still get excited about the next one.

I want to spend more time with Bad as Me, but I want to spend more time with Tom Waits albums in general, so that's hardly surprising. It's harder and has more drive than what he's done before. There's no "Misery's the River of the World", in sense of arrangements moreso than tone. He takes a (modest) step away from the mad carnival director angle, and while I've yet to tire of that take, it's probably the right time. "Bad as Me" is the most immediately engaging song he's written. Everything before that and after doesn't quite stick in the mind, at least not yet; but, as I said, I'd like a
while longer with it.

St. Vincent's Strange Mercy is well worth listening to just for the second track, "Cruel," which a coworker described as the best song he'd heard in years. He might be right. St. Vincent specializes in putting together all these lovely, completely singable bits and pieces, and then slathering them with baroque arrangements and fuzzed-out guitar. It can have mixed results; her first album, Marry Me, isn't as good when you're not listening to it as it is when you are, while her second album, Actor, is flat-out awesome. I'm not sure what I make of Strange Mercy. The perfect "Cruel" aside, the songs don't come together for me. The verses are great, and then the choruses annoy me. And so it goes.

At long last, it is here. 40-odd years of waiting have seen the original tapes for the infamous Smile Sessions come out in an official release. Brian Wilson's final days as an uncontested genius on display for all the world to see. What separates it from the 2004 release of SMiLE, recorded by Brian Wilson and a few magic fairies? Well, for one, this one's actually sung by the Beach Boys. The first second of the album makes it abundantly clear as to why that matters. While the "Our Prayer" on 2004's album was beautiful, this one is transcendent. "Heroes and Villains" contains more twists and turns than most albums do. "Surfs Up" is haunting. Outside of that, I'm not so sure what I think. The music is often top-flight, but the lyrics, written by Van Dyke Parks, refuse to mean anything to me. Worse than that, they feel like they're striving for meaning. I don't mind meaningless prattle when it knows that's what it is. As for the extensive bonus material, Brian's solo demo of "Surfs Up" is my favorite thing here, including everything from the album proper.

I seem to be in the minority on Bon Iver, Bon Iver. I don't like it for reasons entirely unrelated to the embracing of soft rock. I've listened to it seven or eight times, in a multitude of settings and mindsets, and I just don't like it. I don't like how it sounds, I don't like how it's mixed. Some of it is beautiful, and Justin Vernon's voice remains an incredible instrument, but I just don't like it. It's too busy, I guess. I'm coming to piece with it. Everyone else can enjoy it, though. Don't stop on my account.

Another disappointment, ultimately, was Brad Paisley's new album, This Is Country Music. Unlike his still-masterful American Saturday Night, after a few spins, the new one smelled suspiciously like pandering. Which, too be fair, may have been an attempt to apologize for recommending on his last album that country music embrace multiculturalism. A final album note, I wish I had spent more time with Laura Marling's A Creature I Don't Know. She remains truly impressive.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The China Diaries: The Market

Here are a few pictures I took today from the food market next to my apartment. If you press "shift" and click on them, it should take you to a blown up version.

I buy breakfast from this man five or six days a week. I don't know the Chinese name for what he makes, but we refer to it as a pancake. It's a batter cooked on a griddle into the thin circle you see in the picture, though what you're looking at there is close to the finished product. After he spreads the batter on the griddle, he spreads an egg over that, then he spreads two spicy sauces on top of that (they are the red smears you can see), then he puts chives and potato bits in. To top it off, he throws on two bits of lettuce and two pieces of Crunchy Thing, a flavorless crispy "food" that adds nothing but texture to the party. It's delicious stuff. The market has it fair share of dogs. I don't know if they belong to anyone or if they are fending for themselves, but they're friendly enough either way. In the sense that they don't bark. I'm not about to pet one, as that's where germs come from.Most of my Chinese is very practical. I don't know any strange, inapplicable words or phrases, which is something of a disappointment. The least practical word I know is probably 萝卜, a bag of which can be seen above. They're a sort of radish, I think.Chinese chestnuts are delicious when they're warm, and as a way to keep them warm in the freezing Xi'an winter, the street vendors put them in heavy velvet blankets. On more than one occasion, I've walked by the chestnuts and felt a pang of envy, as I've no doubt they are warmer than me.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The China Diaries: What's in a Name?

Your name is an important social construct throughout the world. For Westerners and Easterners alike, it can symbolize important relations, monetary status, reputation... Entire careers have been built on names (Nick Carter begat Aaron, Jonathan Swift begat Taylor), favors have been traded, etc. But, outside of a social context, Western names don't really mean anything. Yes, the etymology of Andrew means something along the lines of "Strong," but the name as it stands in modern times is really meaningless. I don't meet people named Rex and think, "Yes, for he truly bears the noble stature and hard nose of a great king." That I don't meet people named Rex at all is beside the point.

In the East, names still mean something. It is unavoidable in Chinese, as the characters are identical, and so a link of meaning occurs. Parents will often name their children for an aspiration or a hope. I have a friend at my school named 豆豆, which means "Bean sprout." I've yet to crack what the aspiration there was.

Many Chinese people fail to grasp that this does not work both ways. When starting a class of new learners, many of them will not have 英语名字 (English names), and so we bequeath these upon them. The parents will often ask after the class for the meaning of the moniker.

"His name is Rick?"


"What does it mean?"

"Uh... Rick?"


"Er... Rick."


"It means Rick."


"But what does it mean?"

This can go on for ages. As teachers, we strive to create a controlled, respectful learning environment for all of our students, but I think the cracks show through when we name our students. In my first few weeks of teaching, I attempted to name a student "Ishmael" and another "Cain." Both ultimately rejected these names for "Stephen" and "John," respectively. I understand why Ishmael jumped ship, but, for God's sake, I would love to be named "Cain". I briefly flirted with naming another kid in the same class "Abel," but I didn't want to be asking for trouble. You can only do so much. One teacher recently gave two students the names "Sonny" and "Cher." They will, I assume, be partnered up in all pairs activities for the foreseeable future. There was a student recently who named himself "Airplane". The TA for the class tried to tell him that that's not a name, but the teacher said, "No, if he wants to be called 'Airplane,' let him. This is how we learn."

Funny in a less troubling way are the names students come in with. As all nouns are considered fair game in Chinese, you do end up with some classics: I have no fewer than three "Apples" in my two youngest classes. There's a "Linvida," which I still insist is not a real name. There are quite a few "Potato"s, a "Power," my roommate is teaching a "Dinosaur," and there's even a kid named "Michael Jackson," which really makes you wonder. There's a "Star" who consistently introduces herself as "Superstar." I refuse to call her this.

My own experience with picking a Chinese name hasn't been what I would call "Quite a process," but it's been a source of bemusement on the occasions when it's come up. My Chinese tutor suggested 安林杰, which is derived from my first and last names to give us "An Linjie," but that has met with general scorn from every other person in China. Taken literally, it means "Peaceful, talented grotto". But more recently, another option has presented itself in the form of 安猪, "An Ju". This is simply another phonetic transposition of my name. There are many, many possible ways of rendering my name in Chinese similar to this. But 安猪 is special. It's Chinese for "Peaceful Pig." Winner.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The China Diaries: Hospital!

I went to hospital yesterday because of a problem I've had the last two days with my right ear. For the most part, it hasn't been much more than a muffling of sound, but twice now it's gotten very, very painful. At any rate, to the hospital!

I went to a local hospital, not a hospital for foreigners, as I wanted the full experience, and I knew I wasn't going to come out of this needing surgery. On the surface, it's not all that different from a Western hospital. In need of a bit of a deep clean, perhaps (ammonia and bleach, China, have never hurt anyone (er... yeah)), but the idea was definitely the same.

I checked in at a window and told them my ear was bothering me. I had to pay 6元, a bit less than a dollar, to check in, and then I went, with my translating friend, to the fourth floor. I checked in and waited. Perhaps now the greatest difference is the lack of reading material. There are no years-old National Geographic, nor any 国家地理学会 for that matter. I'd expected as much and brought my own, so that wasn't such a big deal.

I went in to see the 耳科医生 (Audiologist) after only a few minutes. She looked in my ear and told me I'd damaged it cleaning it. When I told her this was impossible, as I don't use q-tips, it hardly seemed to phase her, though it was difficult to read her expression through the face mask. She printed up an order for an audiogram and sent me on my way.

We went over to a window, where I paid another 31元 ($5-ish) for the audiogram. We went back to the same waiting room, and waited. When I was called in, I had an experience that was esoterically very funny, but may not mean much to you. I will do my best to relate it:

I have had three audiograms in my life. The first was at an independent ear-plug manufacturer in Chicago. The second was at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. In both places, I was brought into a room and put in a soundproof booth. I was then given sound-isolating earbuds with foam around the outside, so they would fill your ear canal and block out all outside noises. You are completely and utterly cut off from the outside world. Were a fire alarm to go off and your doctor particularly prone to panic, you'd have no idea. Then, the doctor plays a series of tones at different frequencies and volumes while you sit and press a button each time you hear something. It's a surprisingly tense and unnerving experience, I find, as you really don't want to miss the tones. You get trigger-happy. Moving on.

The third audiogram was here in China. I walked in the testing office to find not a soundproof booth, but that they'd divided the room in half using drywall. The light fixture in the ceiling was half in the "room" and half in the "booth". The door to the "booth" was made out of drywall. The headphones "inside" were old can headphones that sit on the ears, rather than over them. A test done with iPod standard-issue earbuds would probably be better. The whole thing felt a bit like they'd seen a picture of a western audiogram setup without ever having asked questions.

From there, we went back to the q-tip doctor, who looked at the results quickly, told me to stop cleaning my ears ("Stopping before you start is the best way to quit," I said quickly), and then gave me an antibiotic, seemingly to keep me from bothering her again. Which is fine with me. That prescription cost 16元 to fill. The big lesson for the day, I think, is that there are benefits to not being able to sue your health-care provider.

Friday, December 2, 2011

The China Diaries: Miscellanea

At last, the holiday season is upon us. I, for one, could not be happier. Sure, China itself is almost entirely bereft of actual decorations, per sé, and the only Christmas lights one is likely to encounter are lights that are up all year for practical lighting purposes, but still, come on, it's Christmas time! Yes, yes, it's true, the only advent calendar I've got to keep me company in my countdown (only 22 days, two hours, and eight minutes!!!) is the latest update to Angry Birds Seasons, but that'll do. Besides, each time I click on the one that unlocks Christmas day, it tells me exactly how much time is left (only 22 days, two hours, and seven minutes!!!). Who needs four advent calendars anyway? There's a point where it just becomes obsessive. (six minutes!!!)

* * * * *

(five minutes!!!)

* * * * *

At some point, I will get a picture of this for you (I feel awkward about it, really), but Chinese children have exposed bums. All the time. Until they reach the age where they are potty trained, instead of using diapers (be these renewable or disposable), their pants simply lack a crotch or seat. In some ways, I admire it. Cuts down on waste, certainly. But that does mean you will often see babies peeing in the street.

Of course, the Chinese don't want babies peeing willy-nilly (tee-hee), so there is a sort of system in place. When a caregiver seeks for their child to relieve itself, they will hold the child in a squatting position, and start to whistle. The whistle is meant to be a cue for the baby to release. If the child is so unfortunate as to be a boy, there's a decent chance their will get their willy flicked as well. It's not dignified, but when the alternative is to sit around in your own filth until it's convenient for the adults around you to give you a change, I suppose you'll take what you can get.

The funny thing for me is when the parent decides the baby should pee, but the baby doesn't agree. The baby doesn't struggle; it knows that would be futile. Instead, as the parent holds the baby in the squat, whistles, and, gender permitting, gives a few well-placed flicks, the baby's eyes will glaze over. He or she (I have witnessed this twice in the last few days, with each gender) will stare off into the middle distance with a look that says more than words ever could. It's a look mostly of annoyed resignation; "I know this isn't going to go anywhere, but we both know you're going to keep trying for a bit, so maybe if I space out it won't seem like it's taking as long."

* * * * *

(22 days, one hour, and 51 minutes!!!)