Stop Whining About U2

ipodquadI don’t like defending millionaires. But people need to stop complaining about U2.

For all the people angry that content has been automatically included with new technology: did it bother you that Duck Hunt and Super Mario Brothers came with the original Nintendo system? Were you livid when Minesweeper came with Windows?

And for all the youngsters with the clever “what’s a U2” question. Do you think your kids are going to know who Drake is? Time only moves one way. Yes, U2 is an old band with old fans. Your youth will pass and you shall someday be old. Don’t be a dick about being young now and you won’t be bummed out about being old then. When you consider that the only alternative to aging is death it won’t seem so bad.

By the way, the funniest person to complain about U2 being old is Sharon Osbourne, who is married to a 1,000-year-old man who still sings “Crazy Train” at festivals.

For all you oldsters complaining that it’s not punk or metal music: “Kill ‘Em All” is 30 years old. Minor Threat broke up the same year that album was released. Your loud aggressive music is Dad rock. It’s just not in beer commercials yet.

For people complaining that the U2 album is coming up when they set their iTunes to shuffle: you know the big button with the two triangles that point to your right? Try clicking on it. All should be OK with the world.

Just realize how bitterly ironic your online moaning is. You are complaining with the same instrument that caused the situation. The Internet burped and inflates the cultural bubbles that make it possible to be inundated by pop culture without ever encountering U2, the most famous band in the world.

And it’s likely that Internet users created the need for the biggest band in the world to partner with an international mega-corporation to have their music not just heard but also paid for. Every song you’ve ever streamed, bit torrented or youtubed has led to U2 popping up on your music library. Congratulations. Well done. You have stripped music of its monetary value. Now the biggest band in the world can’t rely on selling records. Bravo.

And the Internet insures U2 can never happen again. The weird little band they were in the early 80s would never find traction. They’re hard to twitter. Pitchfork probably wouldn’t give care. They’d never register with American Idol Fans. Their second album was a disappointment so they’d look like a one hit wonder.

So when Metallica puts out their next EP of Misfits covers exclusively on Vine or something, remember it was probably you that put us all in this dumb position.

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The Lighter Side of Cult Deprogramming

vmk4bOcAfter 15 years of living in a cult, the unbreakable and wide-eyed Kimmy (Ellie Kemper, “The Office”) is rescued along with three other women, causing a national sensation that culminates with an appearance on the “Today” show.

That’s the first sentence in a description of “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” a TV show NBC is airing this fall. They’re trying to go for a girl against the world thing—they even invoke the “Mary Tyler Moore Show” at the end—but that set-up is so unpleasant that it’s hard to get over.

The first thing I thought of was Ariel Castro, the monster in Cleveland who kidnapped three women and held them captive for over a decade in his home. The second was Elizabeth Smart, who was kidnapped from her bedroom at age 14 by a volatile religious zealot.

These are not stories where nice, sitcom-appropriate things happen to women. They are grim and troubling stories of violence and lost innocence.

To be fair, there’s a difference between the famous cases and the situation comedy background. The titular Kimmy Schmidt wasn’t kidnapped; she was in a cult. And cults are funny, right? They’re full of hilarious characters like Jim Jones, David Koresh, Charlie Manson and Warren Jeffs. They do funny stuff like hold armed stand offs with federal agents and committing ritual suicide while wearing Nike sneakers.

I kind of understand the thinking behind this. The star, Ellie Kemper, has a weird, chirpy energy. Her characters in “The Office” and Bridesmaids have been dimwitted and childlike. Stunting her character’s development would let her continue to use that kind of humor.

But the cult membership
is a dark way to arrest her development. I’m sure they’re going to do the TV thing where the cult is weird and silly but not threatening, like they worship a ray of light named Frank and always wear roller skates or something. But it’s still icky and there are probably easier ways to justify her acting like a 12-year-old.

There seems to be a much easier way just sitting there, waiting for the show’s producers to notice. I looked up Ellie Kemper on Wikipedia: she’s from some crazy old money family in St. Louis—her grandmother is the namesake of the city’s Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum. Make her a rich girl who’s been coddled all her life and has to learn how to function as an adult when her family’s money unexpectedly runs out.

It’s easy and it dials down the creep factor to just over zero.

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The Grim Brilliance of “The Leftovers”

wasting.breath“The Leftovers” is a terrible show and that it deserved to be canceled after one season.

But I can’t stop watching it. It’s too satisfying.

On a metaphorical level, the show is about crumbling, entrenched institutions. It’s probably what the apocalypse will really look like; everybody pretending everything is normal.

But on a more immediate, emotional level, it’s misery porn custom made for smug atheists. Every character on the show is so depressed happiness doesn’t seem possible. The show’s God is either dead or incredibly cruel.

Its darkness ends when the credits roll. The gloom is consequence free; it’s not the news and it’s not your life. You watch it, say “too bad for you, buddy,” and forget it when it’s done. Once it’s over, the long scenes of mournful faces scored by piano music take on a twisted humor.

The show takes place some after a Rapture-like event that magically zapped away two percent of the population. No one knows why it happened. No one knows why the people who were zapped away were chosen.

When it was first advertised, I assumed The Leftover’s Rapture would be like the one in the hideous, Left Behind book series. I thought it would follow some sociopathic reading of the hostile gibberish in the Book of Revelations, pitting good against evil at the end of civilization.

Nope! The Leftovers rapture is an evangelist’s worst nightmare. Good Christians were not whisked away. There’s no decades-long battle between the second coming of Christ and Satan. The disappeared weren’t pure Christians or even necessarily good people from saints. They ranged from shitty people to merely OK. Almost all of them had baggage.

In the Leftovers, Revelations went off book.  The church didn’t stop the disappearances and still can’t explain them. Religion was powerless when presented with one of its main tasks: dealing with Armageddon. At the start of the series,Christopher Eccleston’s small town minister’s church is crumbling from lack of followers. He investigates and publicizes the sins of the disappeared. He wants to prove God didn’t save them.  If they had, why would he still be around? And if God didn’t, who did?

“Who did” is a question I expect the show will tease throughout its run without answering. The show implies that God, or some kind of pro-Christian supernatural force, exists in its universe. Supernatural forces seem to aid Eccleston in his quest to keep his church. But they don’t help a thief accosts him in a parking lot. Eccleston, supposedly a man of God, has to beat the man, possibly to death, to keep the money. If God’s directly intervening on his behalf, He’s got a dark sense of humor.

There’s more evidence the show’s God is scoffing and cruel. After the fight, Eccleston is knocked unconscious while defending a cult member from a drive-by hate criminal. He wakes to find that the cult he defended has bought the church from under him.

When the credits rolled, my wife and I asked how the show would top that bummer. Then the next week they had an episode about his sister, who lost her husband and two elementary school children in the rapture event. I wanted to applaud. They did it. They found the sadder idea.

Just as religion did nothing to predict it or prevent the Rapture, law enforcement and government are powerless against it. Cops patrol the streets but are just empty uniforms. Politicians and bureaucrats pretend they’re in charge but secretly turn to fringe elements for guidance.

Regular folks without any illusions that they ever had any power join and start cults. The show’s world is lousy with them. Federal agents raid a rural cult with a Koresh-like leader and armed guards on the first episode. Another background group paint targets on their foreheads and forgo shoes. But the show focuses most on the Guilty Remnant, which have their headquarters in the show’s fictional upstate Hudson River Valley Town of Mapleton.

For fictional cults, the Guilty Remnant is unique in its silence. The senior members never speak. Their belief system drips out in the handwritten notes the members use to communicate with each other and the outside world. Otherwise, they chain smoke and stalk people to gain more members.

They wear white, presumably, to show they have drained the color out of their lives. I think they just smoke because it’s cool.

Justin Theroux’s sheriff character is an alcoholic and a bully. He may be a spiraling lunatic. But it’s possible his biggest mistake may be treating the Guilty Remnant humanely. As they demonstrate, most obviously, in the last episode, they are hardcore dickheads who do not deserve humane treatment.

The last episode was probably the worst one the show has presented thus far. The GR put their big plan in motion and it was kind of a letdown. I’m not going to give anything away, but I feel like the low-key awfulness they previously maintained victim to the needs for TV plot movement. The status quo was too dramatically inert for TV producers’ comfort. I wish they hadn’t made that decision because the cult was more compelling when their plans weren’t clear.

I suspect the second season will be terrible. They’re going to introduce mysteries and set up conflicts and I’m going to regret ever liking it. The appeal of the show is the grim rut the show runners are trying to dig out of. Hopefully writers have some real heavy bummers planned. Fingers crossed.

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Osama Bin Laden Ruined my Meeting with Michael Jackson

2001Jacko-black-ma_1431610iIt’s been nearly 13 year since I met Michael Jackson. It’s almost a funny story.

It was forgettable in a way I now find unsettling. He didn’t moonwalk or dangle a baby. We didn’t talk or even shake hands. I forgot the whole thing for a long time. It drifted back into my mind while I was prepping 9-11 commemorative articles for and the Huffington Post in 2011.

I grew up in New York and New Jersey, but was on the other side of the country for 9/11. When I landed at Newark Airport in late September, ground zero smoke was still visible from New Jersey highways. I don’t remember much of that September or October other than going to a crowded memorial for a family friend who died in the towers. But one day in November still stands out.

For a couple of hours, Nov. 12, 2001 seemed like it could have been one of the worst days in the country’s history. American Airlines Flight 587 crashed that morning in Queens, killing 265 people.  It was the second deadliest air accident aircraft accident in American history. But that day it was far worse than any plane crash could be. We thought it was the second 9/11, a mere two months after the first.

The initial belief that it was a terrorist attack panicked the East Coast to its bones. It confirmed the suspicion that life would just be like this from now on. Anthrax envelopes were always going to be in the mail. CNN reporters would be embedded forever. Suitcase nukes could be left on subway cars at any minute. And terrorist would murder people with planes on the reg. That was life for the foreseeable future.

And that was the day I almost met Michael Jackson.

Evidently, because of the crash, there was no getting in or out of New York. Evidently, Michael Jackson’s limo turned around on the way to the George Washington Bridge. Stranded on the less glamorous side of the Hudson, Jackson had his driver pull into a chain bookstore on a highway. Coincidentally, I just so happened to be at the same chain bookstore at the same time.

While I definitely noticed him, I had no idea who it was. As he often did in the last years of his strange life, he wore a surgical mask over his face, trying to either hide from germs or the public.  He was a tall but his thin frame made him seem diminutive, elf-like. I thought he was Asian. Matted down under a black fedora, his hair looked wet and wiry, like a teen metal head that had spent a month skipping conditioner.

I thought he was a Hot Topic kid wearing a surgical mask to make a bad joke about terrorism. I remember pulling aside my friend Tom, then a manager at the store, and saying something along the lines of “get a load of this guy.” Tom subtly stink-eyed me for badmouthing one of his customers and moved along.

When I got in line, he was standing about three feet from me. For maybe five seconds, I faced one of the most famous people of all time. I shook my head in disapproval at him based on my hilariously wrong understanding of the situation.

After I left a cashier realized it was Michael Jackson. Tom told me that once his identity was revealed, MJ danced, posed for pictures and signed autographs. By then, I think, everybody was pretty sure the plane crash wasn’t terrorism. So it was a kind of celebration. Or at least a relief.

I didn’t get to tell Michael Jackson that “Wanna Be Starting Something” is genius progressive rock disco. Nor did I get to publically shame him as a suspected pedophile. Something that should have been amazing was nothing.

So, happy 9/11. Hope by this November you don’t feel too numb and scared to enjoy standing next to Michael Jackson.

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U2’s “Songs of Innocence,” Reviewed by the Only U2 Writer Who Matters: Me

u2-2This is the first album review I’ve written in years. I thought it would be appropriate for me to write considering my earlier 100 percent accurate ranking of U2’s albums and that I am the only pop culture observer to have the bravery to say The Joshua Tree is a piece of shit.

So my opinion on U2’s Songs of Innocence needs to be heard.

But first, a quick word about album reviews: they are stupid. Only the rare sociopathic loner buys music based on them. Everybody up and down the music food chain knows that. Writing about music is really difficult and doing it on deadline is almost impossible. Music is about sound and feeling and the written words is about about silence and reason. The writer is always tempted to start a sentence with a variation of the phrase “it’s like” and employ shopworn clichés like “cross between” and “on drugs” or resort to tossed word salad with hipster catch-phrase dressing (aka: this rickity rocket of a rocker hits the proverbial fence like William Shatner on a bender).

Sidenote: as my old Hartford Advocate buddy Katie Vrabel noted, heavy metal reviewers have a disturbing love of the word “bowel,” which is  gross and loaded with uncomfortable Freudian implications.

And while you can walk away from watching a movie or reading a book confident you’ve had a complete experience with a work of art, music is rarely understood on initial listen. You might have to hear something for the fifth or six time, on the right sound system, in the right context, to  understand it. That’s why old reviews of classic albums sound they’re written by a smug asshole with shitty taste (looking at you, Christgau).

That said: if you can accept that Songs of Innocence is as much a commodity as the iPhone Watch, it’s pretty good! It’s a c plus collection of songs elevated to a b minus by virtue of Danger Mouse’s production. You’ll hear the choruses blaring in car commercials, sporting events and movie trailers and you may catch yourself singing along in spite of yourself.

U2’s greatest strength remains their seeming unforced ability to create enormous rock hooks. It’s easy to take for granted over the course of a whole album, but it’s really remarkable that every song is ready for arena fist pumping. So even if a song limps out of the gate it’ll hit a hard stride by the time it gets to the chorus.

The song titles are strange clunkers, but I have to applaud U2’s confidence in putting out such naked first drafts. On first listen, Bono doesn’t seem to say anything too stupid in the lyrics except for the musty title of “Sleep Like a Baby.”

The album kicks off with the first of a handful of rockers, the regrettably titled “Miracle (Of Joey Ramone). It’s an anthemic intro and verse and an impeccable build to a let down, limp chorus. The song hangs on a distorted guitar riff that record producers are going to rip off for the next three years. It’s like an alien race reverse engineered the sound of a distorted guitar with nanotechnology. “Raised by Wolves” sounds like it might actually sample guitar sounds from “New Year’s Day.”

“Every Breaking Wave” is a beautiful song with an intro calling back to The Joshua Tree and a chorus that seems written for a Jennifer Aniston romantic comedy movie trailer.

Dangermouse lends “Cedarwood Road,” the other conspicuous rocker, the same polished grit he brought to The Black Keys’ Attack and Release. The atavistically simple minor third single note riff that opens the song could comfortably play over the closing credits of a Sopranos episode. It’s here and on the intro of Miracle that his influence is most strongly felt.

“Sleep Like a Baby” is an early frontrunner for my favorite track on the album. The title is really a pity because it’s actually otherwise strong lyrically, with great lines like “eyes as red as Christmas” and “dreaming is a dirty business” floating over Eurythmics-inflected trip hop and punctuated by a beautiful electronic welp of a guitar solo outro. The synth-pop on “SLAB” and the B-52s organ and jagged new wave guitar on “This is Where you Can Reach me Now” makes me wish they had gone full ’80s but I guess that’s not possible.

Maybe I’ll write about this album again in a couple weeks. But the critical question: how does this effect The Definitive Ranking of U2 Albums? Sorry, All that You Can’t Leave Behind. Hope you weren’t too comfortable in sixth place. Building on the experimental anthem electro-rock of their previous two albums, Songs of Innocence is officially ranked behind War, Zooropa, Achtung Baby and Boy.


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New Song: “Nervous Music For Sexy People”

What if you created your masterpiece and didn’t like it?

That seems an unreasonably pretentious worry to have about a song recorded on free Apple software. But it’s the thought I’m having about “Nervous Music For Sexy People,” the song I posted on Sound cloud Sunday night.

A song that started as an exercising in rewriting Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” became an exercise in dynamics and increasing intensity inspired by DJ Shadow’s “Organ Donor.” The intro has a nice urgency and the song builds steadily. The mood is tense throughout. I like that the chorus power chords evolve from ZZ Top grit into Euro-metal drama. There’s a nice crisp sound overall and there’s nothing too jarringly out of tune or out of time.

It’s probably a verse too long. The kaossilator break might have been a miscalculation. The outro solo storms out of the gate but fizzles before the finish line, but I actually like the effect.

The bigger issue is the lack of a strong hook. The bassline/rhythm guitar part is so busy the melodies I tried to overlay on  it just got lost. I wanted to write a synth part but couldn’t settle on a sound. If I were a better singer I could have just sung something to tie it all together but alas, no.

But obviously I’ve thought about this song too much. I am satisfied with the effort and craft I put into the song but I have no idea if the song is enjoyable.

Anyway, if someone could let me know, I’d appreciate it. All criticism is welcome. Constructive, destructive—have at it.

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With Military Gear, There Are No Good Cops

tensions-still-high-in-missouri-war-zone-after-mondays-riotsAs a reporter, I’ve dealt with a lot of small town cops. With rare exceptions, I got along with them. Reading the coverage of the protests and police riots, I’ve struggled in vain to recognize anything resembling my personal experience.

My impression is that being a small town cop is most often like being a hall monitor with a gun. There’s a lot of sitting around in cars, directing traffic and filling out forms. It’s kind of boring, but a good gig overall. The perks are great. You get uniform stipends and generous time off. Then it’s pension city after a quick 30 years or so.

In general, I found small town cops to be friendly and genuinely concerned about their communities. They were mellow, upbeat guys. With notable exceptions, we got along.

Despite that sunny outlook, I wouldn’t trust any of them with military grade weapons.

My disagreements with cops occurred happened during interruptions to their routine. When bad stuff goes down, cops get heated and feel they have to assert order. Ordinary places become crime scenes, holy land upon which infidel reporters can’t tread. That’s when they start screaming at rookie reporters crossing police tape. They grab for cameras and invoke their right to take 24 hours to make a statement.

No matter how good a person you are, no matter how well trained you are, breaking from a comfortable, quiet routine will make your emotions run how. Being outfitted with twice your normal complement of weapons, armor and vehicles will only make it worse.

These weapons are designed for soldiers to suppress large groups of enemy combatants. Active duty soldiers could encounter situations like that everyday; they get a lot of practice with the gear. A cop might have to put it on once, maybe twice in a career. Even if they’ve been trained to use it, it will be disorienting and foreign.

The presence alone of scopes, the armor and the vehicles create a hostile environment. They are meant to be aimed at an enemy. When police take them out, they are no longer protecting and serving their community. They’re threatening to fight it. 

Besides, small town cop would never have a real need for military equipment. Regular police gear will suffice for everything except extreme situations, and those only require swat gear. It isn’t like ISIS is coming to the suburbs anytime soon.

Once the armor and the sniper rifles are in play, a cop’s ability to exude calming authority is ruined. They can’t direct traffic out of the elementary school after parents have seen them pointing a high-powered sniper rifle at their neighbors?

While the long term effects of using military weapons are likely to be corrosive for community relations, according to one security expert interviewed this week by the news website Vox, they’re not even helpful in the moment.  

There’s a couple levels on which what the Ferguson police are doing, compared to the phalanx, is ineffective. They’re not near the protestors, and they’re not pushing them off the ground they want to push them off of. They’re not doing what they want to do. They’re standing back, using this show of force — I guess that’s the best way to describe it — and it doesn’t work. 

I don’t know how to turn back the clock on the militarization of America’s police departments. But maybe the thing for a good cop to do is to send the gear back.

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This Song Bums me out for all the Right Reasons

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Wes Montgomery, and Maybe we do Live in an Age of Miracle and Wonder

So I googled “Wes Montgomery live,” not really expecting much. And this whole thing popped up. 20 years ago you’d probably only be able to access this when a PBS station played it or you dug into the crates at a college library. Now, you can have it for free, instantly, on a whim.

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So I Spent Two Hours Listening to “Sledgehammer” on Repeat. Am I a Lunatic?

The other day I had to get some shit done. I was alone (the baby was with grandma) so I pulled my old school move of putting a single song on repeat for an hour. It’s a good technique if you’ve never tried it. You forget the song is on after the third time. It stops being a work of art and starts being a propulsive force. Once in a while you hum along. An hour feels like five minutes.

When I started working, “Sledgehammer” by Peter Gabriel was in my head. Since I was on that groove already, and it seemed like a funny 80s movie montage tune, I pulled up Rhapsody and put it on repeat.

Later, I told my wife about my afternoon and she said I picked the worst song in the world for my work lunatic repeat trick.

Would love to get some comments. Am I a lunatic? Was my song choice crazy?

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June 18, 2014 · 8:58 pm