Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Album Countdown: 8-7

#8. Our Endless Numbered Days - Iron and Wine (2004)

Fact about the album

Our Endless Numbered Days is the second Iron & Wine album. Hey, nobody promised these facts would be interesting.

Why it makes the list

I discovered Iron & Wine during my first raid for “similar artists” to Red House Painters. There are websites that will tell you “If you like X then you’ll love Y”. I’ve gone through a lot of Y’s. Some have stuck, others have disappeared. Iron & Wine clearly falls into the former category, thanks in no small part to this delightful album.

While more polished than its predecessor, The Creek Drank the Cradle, it retains the dark charm of Beam’s full debut, and also the simplicity. A couple of guitars and a couple of vocalists make up much of the album. Speaking of the vocals, Sam Beam basically whispers his way through the album, but in a good way.

The songs themselves are the best of their kind. If you like good singer-songwriters, you can’t not like Our Endless Numbered Days. It’s an album that works as background music, but it’s also an album you can cry over as you think about what Beam sings about. Think of it like you’re grandmother. She can either be a pleasant piece of the furniture at a family gathering, or the woman you listen to intently as she tells stories from the good ol’ days.

Memories it evokes

Watching In Good Company at one of Galway City Baptist Church’s famous dvd nights. Two of my favourite tracks from Our Endless Numbered Days feature during the film, which is perhaps why I think it’s not too bad a movie. Well, that and the presence of Scarlett Johansson.

Speaking of Scarlett Johansson, I once read a nice comment on the way she divides opinion: To some, she’s the most beautiful woman in the world; to others, she’s a Pete Burns lookalike.

Favourite tracks

Naked As We Came, Sodom South Georgia, Sunset Soon Forgotten

#7. And Now That I’m In Your Shadow - Damien Jurado (2006)

Fact about the album

Damien Jurado once wrote a song about asking god to kill his schizophrenic brother. This album makes that song sound like something by Hannah Montana.

Why it makes the list

An almost relentlessly downbeat album shouldn’t be this enjoyable, but Jurado pulled off the impossible. There’s barely a drum beat of note, but the guitar/piano/cello combination does more than enough to keep things interesting, as of course do the lyrics.

How much of what Jurado sings is true is akin to wondering how much of Albert Finney’s stories in Big Fish were true. I mean there must be some truth to them, but if everything is factual then surely Damien Jurado would have killed himself by now. Alas, he hasn’t, and he continues to make good music, with his latest offering to come out last year up there with the best of his work.

This album isn’t for the light-hearted, but its deep songs provide a rich source of nourishment if that’s what you’re into. And in ‘Denton, TX’ it contains one of my favourite songs of the noughties.

Memories it evokes

Sitting in a dark, dirty bar with a shot of whiskey in one hand and a revolver in the other, contemplating what I’m gonna’ do ‘bout that no good cheatin’ hussy of a wife who left me for another man.

Favourite songs

Denton TX, Shannon Rhodes, I Had No Intentions

Monday, December 28, 2009

Album Countdown: 10-9

#10. These Friends of Mine - Rosie Thomas (2006)

Fact about the album

When Rosie Thomas talks during this album -- something she does quite a bit -- she sounds like what a pixie might sound like.

Why it makes the list

I’d be lying if I said I think this album is better than most, or indeed any, of the ones that are lower down the list. Its presence at the tail end of my top 10 is more as a representative album for all the ladies in the house - that is, all of the female-led groups that I’ve come to enjoy in the latter part of this decade. Ida, Hem, Trespassers William, Over the Rhine to name a few.

But Rosie Thomas was the original, and this album broke what might be considered my musical sexism. There is a distinct formula to her songs, but instead of making things monotonous, it gives the album a sense of familiarity. As renowned music critic Johnny Giles says, simplicity is beautiful. These Friends of Mine is simple, and for that reason it is beautiful.

Memories it evokes

Playing in the snow.

Favourite tracks

Much Farther To Go, Say Hello, Kite Song

#9. A Rush of Blood To the Head - Coldplay (2002)

Fact about the album

Coldplay stole the riff for ‘Clocks’ from Kelly Roland.

Why it makes the list

As I said already, Parachutes isn’t my favourite Coldplay album. In A Rush of Blood… Chris Martin lays down his guitar for many of the songs and sits behind a piano instead, with a great degree of success. Everyone knows the singles, but it’s the other tracks on this album that propel it to a top 10 place on my list. ‘Green Eyes’ is a pleasant acoustic ballad, ‘Warning Sign’ is yearning ode to love which finishes with the line “And I fall back into your open arms” repeated in falsetto, and ‘Amsterdam’ is one of my favourite tracks of the decade, and as fitting an end to an album as there ever was. (By the way, if you want to tell if an album is good, listen to the last song. A bad last song doesn’t exactly tell you much, but if the last song is good then you can be almost certain that the rest of the album is good too.)

There is one caveat though, and it comes in the form of ‘God Put a Smile Upon Your Face’. I really despise that song, and it prevents the album from being a couple of place higher on the list. Bad Coldplay. (And bad Coldplay for releasing subsequent albums that have failed to enchant me.)

Memories it evokes

Smallville. Back in days of yore when people used to actually watch television shows on television, A Rush of Blood to the Head was my personal soundtrack to Smallville on Friday nights at 7 on Network 2. Whenever there was an ad break in my then favourite show, I’d stick on a song from the album to pass the time and dream about eloping with Kristin Kreuk to a far away island where we would spend our time converting the indigenous population to our Western ways.

Favourite tracks

Amsterdam, Warning Sign, Clocks

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The True Exodus

“Out of Egypt I called My son”.

These are words familiar to many of us from Matthew’s gospel (clinging on as they do to the coattails of the nativity scenes), but their significance is often missed.

After informing us of Joseph, Mary and Jesus’ flight to Egypt to escape the wrath of a jealous and threatened King Herod the Great, Matthew says this getaway occurred in order to fulfill what was written by the prophet Hosea, or, more accurately, what Yahweh has spoken through the prophet Hosea. That is, the phrase “Out of Egypt I called My son” was, in some shape or form, fulfilled in Jesus’ exile to Egypt and return to the Holy Land.

The rather shallow (and unfortunately quite common) way of reading this is as a sort of Nostradamus-esque prediction which miraculously comes true in the life of Jesus. In this case, Hosea made the prediction, and Jesus’ flight to Egypt made it come to pass. Then we’re supposed to go, “Look! See! He is the Son of God! He made an 800 year old prediction come true!”

But, as appropriate as that way of reading certain prophetic passages might be, I don’t that is what Matthew intended. After all, the text in Hosea speaks not of what god will do, but what he has already done.

Therefore instead of being a mere prediction about some event in the early life of Jesus, by drawing on the prophecy of Hosea Matthew is making an important identification; an identification between Jesus and Israel, who, collectively, is the original “my son” of Hosea 11. Through this identification Israel’s history is becoming Jesus’ story in a symbolic way, which is really Matthew’s gospel in a nutshell. And though of course there are similarities between the two stories -- or the two sons -- it is the differences that make all the difference.

Israel was called out of Egypt to be Yahweh’s kingdom of priests. The god of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob delivered the nation as part of his plan to deliver the world and thus uphold his promises of universal blessing to Abraham. Israel, however, failed to live up to the vocation of Yahweh’s chosen son.

But god did not give up, neither on Israel nor the world. In Jesus of Nazareth, he was once again calling his son out of a foreign land -- out of exile -- and setting him up to be a light to the world. Jesus would be Israel’s representative, and play to perfection its role as manifestation and herald of the kingdom of god. And so Matthew, through his quotation of Hosea 11:1, is in effect saying, “This is the deliverance out of Egypt, take two. Lights, camera, action!” The remainder of the gospel fleshes out this plotline - in familiar ways but also in fresh, surprising ways.

It is notable where Matthew stops his quotation (remember, he wasn’t reading Hosea 11:1; he was simply reading Hosea). The next part of Hosea goes on to describe Israel’s idolatry, and their unfaithfulness to the call. This is where Jesus’ story parts ways with Israel’s tainted history. Or perhaps, it is where Jesus’ story rights the wrongs of Israel’s history. At his baptism Jesus is affirmed as Yahweh’s chosen son, the one he is well pleased with. During the 40 days of wilderness trials he -- unlike Israel during their 40 years of wandering -- stays faithful to his sonship, and refuses to bow down to another for his own selfish ends.

There is one other interesting thing to take from the subsequent passage in Hosea that Matthew perhaps intended to echo, if only faintly. That Jesus is to be identified with Israel is quite clear, given their respective roles as Yahweh’s chosen son. But if we read the rest of Hosea in the light of Matthew’s gospel, there is also an identification between Jesus and the god of that passage.

In Hosea 11 Yahweh speaks of teaching Israel to walk, taking him by the arms, and healing him - all parental activities. Though Jesus doesn’t echo the words exactly, he certainly echoes the sentiment in Matthew 23, where he speaks longingly about wanting to gather the children of Israel as a mother-hen gathers her brood under her wing. But like the Israel of Hosea’s time, the children “would not return” to their father. Repentance -- a significant theme in Hosea as well as the ministry of Jesus -- was not forthcoming.

Another particularly striking catch word is “yoke”. In Hosea 11:4 Yahweh says he “came to them [i.e. Israel] as one who eases the yoke on their jaws”. In Matthew 11:29-30 Jesus bids all who would come to him to take his yoke which is easy, and so once again the “chosen son” is actually assuming the role of “father”.

But as with his identification with the Israel of Hosea, Jesus’ identification with the god of Hosea also diverges away from perfect similarity. As Yahweh struggles within himself between compassion and judgement (a struggle embodied by Jesus throughout his own ministry), he finally gives in to his compassion, affirming that “I am god and not man”. Here is where something new has occurred, for Jesus is both.

This is the wonder of Christmas - the fullest revelation of god is found in the form of a man. Jesus came not simply to make questionable predictions come true, but (in the inimitable words of my former teacher) to “reveal deity and heal humanity”. To reveal deity he had to identify with god; to heal humanity he had to identify with us. He did so from the very beginning, and took this identification right to the depths of human depravity as he hung on a cross, giving his life as a ransom for many.

God called his son Jesus out of Egypt so that the true exodus could come to pass; the deliverance from a life of sin and the deliverance to a life of Christlikeness, where god and neighbour become truly loved. The message of Christmas is that god’s son Jesus is the suffering servant, and this suffering servant is the Israel’s messiah and lord of the world. This is the good news that Matthew wanted his original readers to know, and it is the good news that continues to be made known to this day, with profound effects on all who receive it freely and obediently.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Album Countdown: 12-11

#12. April - Sun Kil Moon (2008)

Fact about the album

You can buy it on marble vinyl, whatever the heck that is.

Why it makes the list

If nothing else, this album represents great value for money (if you’re still into that whole paying for music thing). There is roughly 75 minutes of original material packed into one disc, and what fine material it is too. The opener is classic Kozelek, with its alternatively tuned guitars, haunting vocals, and absurd lengthiness. In fact those are three charges that could be levelled against almost all of the songs on April. But in between the epics are some beautiful(ly) short numbers like my personal favourite, ‘Moorestown’, and Americana tinged ditties such as ‘Unlit Hallway’ and ‘Like the River’.

And then there’s ‘Tonight the Sky’, which is nothing short of an ode to Neil Young and Crazy Horse. If imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, then the opening riff of ‘Tonight the Sky’ is one of the most flattering things never said. However, it certainly doesn’t flatter to deceive. (And with that, ‘flatter’ and its cognates have lost all meaning). Repetitive solo aside, it is a brilliant anthem, which I also had the pleasure of hearing live.

2008 was a good year for the album, and April deserves to be right up there with the best of what that year offered to us.

Memories it evokes

The gig I alluded to. I’m going to go ahead and say it was the best I’ve been at.

Favourite tracks

Moorestown, Tonight the Sky, Lost Verses

#11. Gold - Ryan Adams (2001)

Fact about the album

Gold peaked at no. 45 in New Zealand’s album charts. If that’s not prestige then I don’t know what is.

Why it makes the list

It was never going to be easy to follow Heartbreaker. Sequels are rarely if ever better than the original. Of course it’s a matter of opinion whether Adams has achieved the almost impossible, but whatever your opinion, Gold is anything but disappointing. In fact it’s astounding.

I could wax lyrical about the many excellent tracks, but I’ll simply say this: When it comes to artists plying their trade today that posterity will deem worth listening to in a few decades time, Ryan Adams will surely be near the top of that list. Forget about Kings of Leon, Foo Fighters, or whoever else is the flavour of the month. Ryan Adams has made music that will last well beyond his prime.

Pity he’s such a plonker.

Memories it evokes

Lengthy debates with a college friend over which is better - Heartbreaker or Gold.

Favourite tracks

La Cienaga Just Smiled, Firecracker, When the Stars Go Blue

Friday, December 18, 2009

Worth Less

Every single moment on this planet from here on out, human beings are worth less. Not more; less.

Perhaps it's his deep religious heritage, perhaps it's because he's simply a very angry man, but whatever the reason, David Simon is a great embodiment of the prophetic imagination that is sketched in Walter Brueggemann's excellent book. Or at least a great embodiment of one half of that imagination - the criticism half. He goes on to pronounce that

At every given moment where this country [The U.S.] has had a exalt the value of individuals over the value of the share price, we have chosen raw, unencumbered capitalism. Capitalism has become our god.

Listen to the rest of what Simon has to say here.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

People Falling Over

The Apprentice 2009 featured so many brilliant moments that if were to write about all of them I would fill up all the books in the world. Here, then, is perhaps the funniest of them all. It happened in the last episode, and after a dozen times of watching it, it still makes me laugh. What is about people falling over that makes it so wonderful to behold?

Album Countdown: 14-13

#14. At Home With Owen - Owen (2006)

Fact about the album

The Pietro Crespi referenced in the title of track 2 is a character from the novel One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Why it makes the list

Mike Kinsella -- aka Owen -- recorded (and perhaps still records) his music in the basement of his mother’s house. To say he has been an inspiration for me would be a gross understatement.

Though some of the songs on this album have enough overdubbing to rival Paul Simon’s finest, they all revolve around a simple guitar riff and honest lyrics. In the opening track, Owen tells a friend of his, “You’re a has been that never was”. In track two he asks his fiancé (now wife) “Could you love someone who does whatever he wants to do, whenever I want to? I’m only asking ‘cos I don’t wanna die alone.” In track 5 he lets his fiancé/wife in on a few home truths - “When I put my arms around you, I mean it. When I’m too drunk to stay up with you, I mean it. When I slam doors ‘cos I’m pissed at you, I mean it. And when I put on a suit and say ‘I do’, I mean it.”

As a singer-songwriter Owen is quite unique, in that his songs don’t sound like the product of one man’s imagination. That they don’t is a testament to Kinsella’s musical prowess, capable as he is on multiple instruments. But at the heart of it all is a man, a guitar, and a few stories to tell about friendship and love.

Memories it evokes

I saw Owen play live, and after ‘A Bird In Hand’ he successfully managed to make a funny joke about beating his wife. His wife was at the gig too. Ah, happy memories.

Favourite tracks

Bad News, A Bird in Hand, One of These Days

#13. O - Damien Rice (2002)

Fact about the album

Songs from O have featured on 679,453 episodes of television shows all across the world.

Why it makes the list

You know you’ve got a good album on your hands when you’re favourite track from it keeps changing. About seven tracks from O have been my favourite at one time or another.

As per usual, it was one particular song that reeled me in - 'The Blower’s Daughter'. My cousin was listening to it on our computer, and as he was doing so I took up my guitar and attempted to play along with it. The open chords I was hearing were -- quite literally -- music to my ears, and perhaps for the first time in my life I embraced a singer-songwriter. Big moment, that.

The album went on to get a lot of air time on my gigantic mp3 player. Though some songs have lost their initial appeal -- e.g. 'Amie' -- others have emerged as classics, none more so than 'Older Chests'.

I’ve owned Rice’s second album since it first came out. Two weeks ago I couldn’t have told you its name. O may be the only Damien Rice album I’ll ever listen to, but I for one am okay with that. Say what you like about the man who was once a farmer in France, this is a great record and I’ll stand by it, no matter how pretentious the album art may be.

Memories it evokes

It’s all about ‘The Blower’s Daughter’, really. I played this song at a talent show with two other people (one singing, the other on violin), and it sounded surprisingly good. When we got to the final “I can’t take my eyes off of you”’s, someone in the crowd rang the singer’s (then) fiancé and he started crooning the words into the phone. Tremendously cheesy, but it was done with tongue firmly in cheek, which is said singer’s wonderful disposition to almost everything in life. A classic moment.

Favourite tracks

The Blower’s Daughter, Older Chests, I Remember

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Seek Professional Help

This might just be the silliest, most absurd question I've ever asked -- and I've asked a few in my time -- but here it goes anyway:

Is there a moral difference between killing someone in self-defense and raping someone in self-defense?

The notion of raping someone in self-defense is horriffic, of course, if not a downright impossibility. I won't pretent that such an action can actually exist. But then what of killing someone? How is that more morally justified than raping them? How can killing someone in self-defense justifiably exist?
In the words of William Munny,

It's a hell of a thing killin' a man. You take away all he's got, and all
he's ever gonna have.

Killing a man is the last straw. There's nothing you can do to him after that, or at least nothing he'll care about anyway. So why is it tolerated under certain conditions, either by law or our own consciences? Any suggestions, apart from urging me to seek professional help?

Friday, December 11, 2009

Album Countdown: 17-15

#17. The Swell Season - The Swell Season (2006)

Fact about the album

Marketa Irglova was 18 when this album was released. 18! Glen you ol’ dog, you.

Why it makes the list

I encountered The Swell Season rather fortuitously, although I guess that charge could be leveled against most on this list. I was flicking through a friend’s mp3 player one day in college (something I usually do to make rapid judgments on someone's character), and inquired about Glen Hansard and how good he was and so forth. Knowing my penchant for melancholy music, The Swell Season was recommended to me with confidence, and it proved to confidence well-founded.

I instantly fell in love with ‘Falling Slowly’, and so after overdosing on that track I delved into the rest of what the album had to offer. Most of the songs didn’t depart from what made ‘Falling Slowly’ such a success on me, and I for one was okay with that. There was a chemistry to this album -- no doubt owing itself to the two lead performers -- that you can’t buy or manufacture at will. Sometimes it is there, sometimes it isn’t. It was in this album in abundance, and it found its full expression on the wonderfully simple film Once, which featured Hansard and Irglova as something like musical soul mates. The songs on The Swell Season took on a whole new life when accompanied by moving pictures, but the album alone stands as one of the finest duets of the past decade, and certainly my favourite.

Memories it evokes

Marketa Irglova walking a hoover down a busy Dublin street as if it were a dog.

Favourite tracks

Falling Slowly, Lies, When Your Mind’s Made Up

#16. Parachutes - Coldplay (2000)

Fact about the album

Parachutes was banned in China because the government detected anti-Communist vibes from the song ‘Spies’.

Why it makes the list

I was originally dismissive of Coldplay. ‘Trouble’ and ‘Yellow’ came on the scene in the midst of my “If a song doesn’t have a good guitar solo then it’s rubbish” phase, so I retreated back to the confines of Dire Straits, Thin Lizzy, and all the rest of those artists with a propensity for guitar solos, safe in the knowledge that I wasn’t missing out on much.

The opening track, 'Don’t Panic', proved I was wrong. Enchanted with that little number, I was forced to give the rest of the album a fair cop, and I was not disappointed. Aside from brilliant tracks like 'Shiver', 'Everything’s Not Lost', and 'Sparks', this album also provided me with a new lens with which to view the guitar. I discovered for the first time an alternate tuning, and the value of the simple and economical as opposed to the complex and prodigal; a riff like that found in 'Everything’s Not Lost' can be just as effective as something by Jimmy Page, and is much more listenable than the show-boating of virtuosos like Al di Meola or Steve Morse.

Parachutes was nothing short of a catalyst for my musical tastes throughout the decade (for better or worse), and so while clearly not my favourite album of “the noughties” (nor even my favourite Coldplay album), it is perhaps the most significant.

Memories it evokes

This album always bring me back to Christmas ’02, when I listened to it -- and especially 'Don’t Panic' -- incessantly. I also remember there being this weird adaptation of Snow White (starring the peerless Kristen Kreuk) on Channel 4 at the time, and so while taking in the soothing Fmaj7’s of ‘Don’t Panic’ with my ears I was looking at one of the most beautiful women of the decade. Delightful.

Finally, I can’t listen to ‘Yellow’ without recalling our band’s second and final gig. It was a top, top night and I think we did a bang up job of the song. If only people weren’t too drunk to remember any of it.

Favourite tracks

Don’t Panic, Shiver, Everything’s Not Lost

#15. Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes (2008)

Fact about the album

The cover art is a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder called ‘Netherlandish Proverbs’, which features -- amongst other things -- the carving of a live sheep.

Why it makes the list

Fleet Foxes’ eponymous effort needs no justification to be on this list, given that it’s basically on every similar list you’re likely to read. It’s like some kind of modern day Jefferson Airplane album, full of surrealism, reverberation, and soaring melodies. Every time I listen to Fleet Foxes I get sucked into their world, and what a peaceful world it is.

Memories it evokes

I first listened to this album during one of my cleaning binges. There I was, up in the attic sorting though all the clothes I had flung carelessly on the ground, but enjoying the experience solely because of what my ears where hearing.

Favourite songs

Oliver James, Quiet Houses, Tiger Mountain Peasant Song

Thursday, December 10, 2009


Heretical Nonsense

When it comes to authority -- or authorization -- does the spirit of god (ever) supersede Scripture? At the least, a vaguely positive answer to this question sounds like a terribly messy conclusion to come to; at most, I should be burned at the stake for even daring to ask such heretical nonsense. But what does Scripture say? Or more to the point, how does Scripture itself behave, and how was it treated by those who read it long before we did?

We fins one of the most significant pivots in Scripture -- Old and New Testament included -- in the Book of Acts, chapter 10. Here we read of a Gentile joining god’s covenant community, but in a surprising way. Cornelius didn’t need to go under the knife and have a part of his manhood snipped. He didn’t need to demarcate himself by keeping the food laws. In short, he didn’t need to become a Jew. The spirit of god resting upon this centurian was enough to convince Peter that YHWH was doing a new thing. Circumcision, a fundamental law found throughout the Old Testament, was superseded by a new law -- the law of Christ -- which was radically inclusive of Jews, Gentiles, males, females, free men and slaves.

Paul took this to the nth degree, summarising in 1 Corinthians 7 that what matters is not circumcision or uncircumcision, but keeping god’s commandments…except the one about circumcision, evidently.

What Peter and Paul appear to be doing here is allowing the empowering presence of god’s spirit to shape their ministries in uncomfortable ways; ways that would have once been inconceivable to them as Jews. And what’s more, Peter and Paul are allowing the spirit to shape their reading and understanding of Scripture; it is a hermeneutic of the spirit, which sounds like a reasonable framework of interpretation given the spirit’s unique hand in the Bible’s authorship. These two apostles could never have come to the conclusion that circumcision is meaningless by merely reading and interpreting Israel’s scriptures themselves. They needed a higher authority -- the present experience of the spirit in their lives and in the lives of others -- to guide them towards uncomfortable truths.

The question remains - does the spirit supersede Scripture? Would the disciples have come to different conclusions about Gentile inclusion in the church had they let Scripture be their supreme authority? Or are the spirit and Scripture always and forever in perfect harmony? After all, in Acts 15 James quotes Amos as a witness to what Peter and Paul experienced first hand, and Paul is relentless in his use of Scripture to validate this new work of god spreading throughout the Roman empire.

I think there is an inherent harmony between spirit and Scripture, but I don’t think that implies utter consistency from start to finish, where both are absolutely immutable. For example, we affirm that the spirit of god worked with Moses as he formulated his divorce laws for Israel. But, we also affirm that the spirit of god worked with Jesus as he critiqued those laws by saying that divorce was never actually god’s original intention; rather, adjustments were made in the time of Moses to accommodate for Israel’s hardness of heart (Matt. 19).

What then of some modern day application, such as female teachers in church? Can we appeal to the promptings or gifts of god’s spirit in the lives of women over and against some texts like 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2? Has the spirit once again acted in a surprising way, a way only glimpsed by Paul (Galatians 3, for example) but not fully worked out yet? Might the spirit have said something to Paul in his day, but be saying something different to us? Something perhaps contrary to certain passages in Scripture, but resonant with the overall picture? I wouldn’t put it past him, but my word wouldn’t that open a can of worms.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Stop Pretending

I was given the task of writing a short opinion piece with a contrary viewpoint in my journalism night class yesterday. Here's what I came up with, the topic roughly being that materialism at Christmas should be welcomed.


contains words and concepts that I don't fully understand

**end warning**

The sooner it is admitted that Christmas nowadays is all about materialism the better. What matters to us in the Western world, is, well, matter, and the more we have of it the happier we will be.

This, and not the Christian worldview, is what dominates society’s thinking and decision making in general. It is high time this is consciously admitted by the masses and people -- both inside the church and out -- stop pretending that we can juggle both Christ and our version of Christmas. We have laid our secular bed; we must be prepared to sleep in it.

In our hypermodern world, one should not be embarrassed by the materialism surrounding Christmas. In such a world, materialism is, for lack of a better word, good; the only good, in fact. It permeates every other day of the year, so why not the 25th of December? The only embarrassment should be the mention of Jesus at this time of year. We have relegated him to irrelevance in our day to day lives; therefore his presence in the midst of rampant consumerism is at best confusing and at worst blatant hypocrisy, for as Charlie Brooker so graphically puts it, Jesus “would have doubtless vomited up his own ribcage in disgust at the mere sight of the hollow, anaesthetising capitalist moonbase” that is our take on Christmas.

Strange as it may sound, Christ and Christmas do not mix. Not today. The Christian Church will protest at this, and well it might, for we have betrayed the sacred traditions of Christmas – the celebration of the birth of a man who lived and died for the sake of others, for the sake things unseen, for the sake of true love. What was once a thanksgiving for the god who made himself nothing has now become a spending spree for people who want everything. But given our collective worldview, materialism can no longer be considered a distracting sideshow to the event of Christmas; rather, materialism finds its full expression at this time of year. Shops are the new churches, where people flock to for their most urgent needs. It is little wonder that they are planning for Christmas long before actual churches are.

The Church must concede that we live, for all intents and purposes, in a post-Christian world. No doubt the Church is largely to blame for this, as recent scandals within its Catholic expression lamentably testify to. Therefore until we as a society are willing to stand for that which Jesus stands for -- until the Christian Church is once again willing to stand for that which Jesus stands for -- materialism should be what Christmas is all about. Ironically, this will actually serve to benefit the Church, for only then will its shocking counter-cultural message begin to be understood by both Christians and non-Christians alike.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Album Countdown: 20-18

I've decided to unveil my favourite 20 albums of the decade incrementally, perhaps three or four at a time. Before I begin, a few things to note:

- There are no albums from 2009 on the list. Am I missing out something brilliant recorded in the last 12 months?

- I'm a fan of slow, melodic, and some might say depressing music. This list will reflect that for the most part.

- Feel free to offer your own suggestions as to what would be on your list, or comment on what you can't believe is on mine.

- The album is a dying specimen. Flick through a random person's Ipod and you'll see scores of artists, but many of which with only a couple of songs to their name. This is a great shame, because a good song should be like a good chapter or television episode. You can't just rip out a chapter here or an episode there and expect the same experience. It has to have a larger context in which to appreciate it fully. For the musician, albums are that context, and so we ignore them to the detriment of our musical sensibilities. Curse you, I-tunes!

And on that note...

#20. Old Ramon - Red House Painters (2001)

Fact about the album

It was actually recorded in the late 90’s, but due to various issues with recording companies it wasn’t actually unleashed to the masses until 2001. I wonder if anyone cared at the time?

Why it makes the list

This was the last album recorded by Mark Kozelek’s first solo act disguised as a band. Red House Painters were somewhat pioneers of a movement called “slowcore” during the 90’s, which basically consist of really long, mopey songs. Thing is, I happen to love really long, mopey songs, so Mark Kozelek and co. quickly became a favourite of mine.

Old Ramon is certainly not my favourite Red House Painters album, but it’s the only one recorded in the last decade, which gives it an eligibility factor that the others lack. But is it any good? In a word, yes. It’s brilliant, really, which tells you how good the other stuff is in RHP’s locker. There are a couple of sketchy songs on it to be sure (for example, the opening track is a love song about Mark Kozelek’s cat) but even the not-so-good numbers kind of grow on you. And when it is good, it is very good indeed, with the 11 minute epic River being a particular standout.

For anyone unfamiliar with Red House Painters I probably wouldn’t recommend jumping straight into Old Ramon, but it is nonetheless a fitting end to a seminal band’s career; an end which prompted the beginnings of a band that will take this list by storm.

Memories it evokes

Romania. I listened to this album (along with Ocean Beach and Songs for a Blue Guitar) while volunteering for a couple of weeks in Romania. The long bus journeys, car journeys and plane journeys were filled with the soothing sounds of Kavita, Cruiser et al. Every time I hear these tracks I’m always transported back to Count Dracula’s home country, which is really quite nice.

Favourite tracks

River, Smokey, Void

#19. Post-War - M. Ward (2006)

Why it makes the list

I don’t know very much about M. Ward. I don’t even know what the ‘M’ stands for. But I do know that this is a terrific album, and quite unlike most on this list. It has that clichéd “old school” vibe to it that would convince you it was recorded in the 60’s or 70’s if you didn’t know any better. The songs move swiftly along, and never fail to put a little smile on my face in the process. It certainly makes for a nice change of pace from the previous entry, and many of the subsequent ones.

Memories it evokes

I’ve never seen Dead Man’s Shoes, but I know M. Ward has at least one song featured in the film. So now when I listen to Post-War I usually think of the fact that I’ve yet to see Dead Man’s Shoes, even though I had it in my possession for a couple of weeks. How crazy is that!?

Favourite tracks

Requiem, Chinese Translation, Rollercoaster

(Delayed) Fact about the album

The ‘M’ stands for ‘Matt’. I think we all learned something important today.

#18. Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place - Explosions in the Sky (2003)

Fact about the album

It has been described by one of the band members as “Explosions in the Sky’s version of love songs”. Love songs without words - there’s an interesting concept.

Why it makes the list

One esteemed musician and social commentator likened Explosions in the Sky to Mozart. Far be it from me to disagree with this sage. Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place is the album I use to lift my spirit. If I were a professional sportsman, this is what I’d listen to in order to get psyched before a big game. It really does give me goose bumps when I hear those chiming guitars creating sweeping landscapes, but such is the power of music when it is carefully crafted. I’ve waxed lyrical about Explosions in the Sky before so I won’t do it again. Suffice to say that this is the best album of its kind that I’ve ever heard, and one which successfully turns electric guitars into works of art.

Memories it evokes

It always makes me recall Friday Night Light’s (for obvious reasons), especially Billy Bob’s ridiculously cheesy “Love in your heart” speech. But it also brings back memories from my two weeks at The Anchorage, since Your Hand In Mine was the song playing during our slideshow presentation. Ah, good times.

Favourite Tracks

First Breath After Coma, Your Hand In Mine, Six Days At the Bottom of the Ocean

Thursday, December 3, 2009

In The Process of Formulating

Posts have been scarce for the past week, but there will be some blogging goodness coming your way very soon. I'm in the process of formulating my Favourite 20 albums from 2000-2009. This will of course be an unashamedly subjective list, but I reckon I can make a good case for most of the albums that will be included. Some will be popular, some will be more obscure, but all of them have had a role to play in my life over the past 10 years. I've lumped them all onto a big playlist and am very much enjoying the result.

So, yeah, expect the fruits of my labour to be available some time before Christmas. In the mean time, I'll keep doing what I've always been doing - stealing the thoughts of others and selling them as my own.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Philosophy of Eating

As a consequence of unemployment, I've had to make a few adjustments in life in order to keep my bank balance a feint shade of black. In what may be the first of a new series, here is one of those adjustments:

My eating habits have had to be completely reworked. I used to eat mostly for pleasure; a biscuit here, a chocolate bar there, a yogurt somewhere else. I liked to keep things ticking over, because when I get hungry I can be nothing short a huge tool.

Such perpetuity of consumption costs money, however. Money that I simply can't afford to spend. My philosophy of eating had to change. The economics demanded it. Here, then, is my cost-saver solution to the problem.

Instead of keeping things ticking over, I now do the exact opposite. I starve myself until I pass out from the hunger, and when I (hopefully) wake up again, I eat something. Those of you interested in my financial situation will be pleased to know that I've only eaten three meals in the last two weeks at a combined cost of 7 Euro. Those of you worried about my health, rest assured that I didn't cook the meals myself.

God bless you Marks and Spencer.