2012 Closeout

It has been a very crazy, stressful, happy, sentimental, geeky, tear-filled, music-crammed year. For many reasons, 2012 really put me through the ringer and for much of the year I was more distracted from this blog than I care to admit. A lot of good and bad things happened this year. Looking back now on the last twelve months, all I can say is that I’m one year older, my joints are a little stiffer, perhaps I am a tiny bit wiser, and I am definitely a tad more cynical. But I’m still here. I’m lucky enough to have a day job that pays the bills, a loving husband who puts up with my moods, dear friends, faithful family, and snuggly cats. And I try to appreciate all of it, and give them their much-deserved credit for keeping me sane.

But enough introspection. The year is coming to an end and I’ve got a backlog a mile long! So let’s cut to the chase and fill you in on a few of the amazing albums I’ve been obsessed with this year, but have been just too darn busy to write about until now. Put on your thinking caps and open up your ears, my dear readers, because we’re going to hit them fast and hard and it is definitely going to get loud.

First on my list is an intriguing little synthpop trio from Brooklyn called Class Actress. This group was brand new to me, but turned out to be oh-so-appealing. Elizabeth Harper’s voice and lyrics bring to mind classic pop princesses like Tiffany and Blümchen (two of the artists on my list of guilty pleasures), but she manages to ditch the teeny bopper innocence and bubblegum in favor of sexy lyrics and a jaded world view. And when paired with Mark Richardson and Scott Rosenthal’s synthpop production, it is not surprising that their 2011 album, Rapproacher, is nothing short of top-notch. The bouncy beats, techno flourishes, and New Wave influences actually mask a lyrical content that is much heavier than is apparent at first. Much of the album is spent dealing with the problems of an almost obsessive love affair that is obviously coming to an end. Starting out strong with the upbeat and endearing Keep You, by the end of the track list all you are left with is the sad, echoing, and introspective plea of Let Me In. There is definitely more than meets the eye here, and the result is an album that is hard to put down for long.

Weekend by Class Actress

Next up is the emo-tinged pop-punk outfit known as Motion City Soundtrack. I loved 2005’s Commit This to Memory, but I kinda lost track of these guys until 2012’s release, Go. (Oops!) However, I was downright thrilled when I heard they were releasing a new album this year. Their first single, True Romance, is positively stellar and perfectly evokes all the things I loved about them years ago, yet somehow manages to feel amazingly fresh at the same time. The most likely culprit in this is Justin Pierre’s lyrics, which have changed a lot over the years. What happens to the neurotic emo singer that grows up? They start talking about the mid-life crisis that 30-year-olds across the country seem to be experiencing these days, that’s what. This is probably why I keep coming back to this album. Nostalgia pulled me in, but the way it speaks to my own experiences as an unwilling adult is what keeps me listening. As a whole, the album is a little unbalanced, starting strong but getting darker and more depressing as the track list progresses. The opening songs of Circles and Wires and True Romance start the album out on a high note. But when you hit the contemplative Everyone Will Die at track 5, you start to realize that this is a different kind of album than they would have released eight years ago. And it only gets darker from there, with the second to last song, Happy Anniversary, which is a rather chilling account of a man who believes he is dying. Pretty heavy stuff, I must say, and the mood only partially recovers in the closing track entitled Floating Down the River. Surprisingly, this all feels even more introspective than their previous work and throughout the album there is a keen awareness of the passage of time and the changes caused by it. However, despite the slightly depressing finish, there is some major potential here, which renews my faith in the viability of the post-punk rock alternative genre.

Timelines by Motion City Soundtrack

Moving away from the heavier (read: soul-crushing) stuff, we now come to the amazing riot girl rock of Wild Flag. This indie rock supergroup (if there really is such a thing) is made up of former members of Sleater-Kinney, Helium, and The Minders. The list of members would be familiar to many a hipster, I’m sure, but I found this straight up rock ‘n’ roll band through NPR’s All Songs Considered–confirming that I still like new music, while simultaneously publicizing my advanced age (listening to cassette tapes when dinosaurs roamed the Earth). Rejecting all traces of bubblegum, Wild Flag’s 2011 eponymous album is nothing short of indie rock bliss with a hard-rocking edge that avoids sounding overly heavy or dirty. Devoid of all the usual synthpop and electronica influences I so often gravitate towards, they feel like a real successor to Siouxie Sioux and the Banshees. Tough and intelligent, empowered and full of bravado, with just a touch of vulnerability, the result is downright brilliant. The album is filled with strong guitars, pounding drums, good bass lines, and the clever use of a Hammond organ that completely sidesteps being cheesy. And on some of the songs you can hear that they are just itching to be a jam band, which I’m willing to bet must be the case with their live performances. Clocking in at only 41 minutes, my only real complaint about this album is that it is always over too soon.

Black Tiles by Wild Flag

And last but not least, my absolute top album of 2012 is Master of My Make-Believe by the fantastic Santigold. This is a juggernaut of an album from start to finish. Well-balanced in both genre and mood, she ranges from boastful, arrogant, and tough as nails, to quiet, introspective, and understated. Throughout the track list there are touches of punk rock, synthpop, industrial, electronica, rock, rap, R&B, reggae, and a whole lot more. Hailing from Philadelphia with the title of A&R representative for the likes of Epic Records on her curriculum vitae, the unsinkable Santi White embraces all genres and bends them to her will. Everything, and I mean everything, is fair game. This is evident in every aspect of the album, from the music, to the lyrics, to the album cover, which features her in some of her many and varied guises, including an oily looking man in a suit lounging in a leather chair, two bikini-clad amazon gatekeepers flanking him, and a grinning country noblewoman posing in a massive portrait painting hanging in the background. She is everything and all. Not afraid to genre bend, she moves around and through them freely, both throughout the album and within each song. Displaying a talented voice, she is not afraid to push to the far reaches of her range, and her use of overdubbed vocals in the background is clever. And I have got to say that her collaboration with Karen O. of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs on the opening track,Go!, is one of the more brilliant match-ups I’ve seen in a while. I truly adored her first album, and (if you couldn’t already tell) I can’t say enough good things about this second album. I love that she pushes the boundaries of my musical tastes and encourages me to get out of my rut, as all truly worth while artists should. I am anxiously waiting for her next project and just about ready to kick myself because I have not seen her live yet. So what are you waiting for? Hit play now!

The Keepers by Santigold

Crossing the Stone Wall

Highway to Mt. Lemmon

The winding road up…

Way back in October–which strangely enough feels like it was two years ago instead of only two months–my husband and I went home to the desert to watch my sister-in-law get married to a great guy (an upcoming post, which I promise will be worth a read). Being in town for only a few days, and maneuvering our schedule to include some down time, we found ourselves with a (mostly) open Friday afternoon. Racking our brains for something to do, I got the bright idea that we should drive up nearby Mt. Lemmon. My husband was game, so we jumped in the rental and off we went. Little did I know the adventure before me.

As we drove up Catalina Highway towards the foothills, I snapped pictures on my phone, almost compulsively. One of the things I miss the most about the desert is the mountains. My hometown is bordered by four different ranges that align pretty closely with the cardinal directions, so no matter where you look or where you are in town, the mountains are an ever-present feature on the horizon. I must say that this is something that is severely lacking in the harbor of Charm City. As a result, the prospect of actually being on a mountain was more than a little exciting to me.

Sonoran Desert vista

Desert vista seen from the foothills of Mt. Lemmon, AZ.

It was a gorgeous October day, with clear skies and surprisingly cool temperatures for the area. As we began to climb in altitude, I was enthralled by the towering saguaro cacti, the brushy creosote, the spiky palo verde trees, and the sweeping rocky hills. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that the desert is without its beauty. It is a rugged place and every single plant and animal, of which there are many, is there because evolution has engineered them to survive in that environment.  Sometimes stark, it is none the less gorgeous. And it is more colorful than most would imagine. They’d had a pretty good monsoon season this past summer and I was amazed by how green everything looked.

Dead saguaro cactus

The still-standing ribs of a dead saguaro cactus.

After a brief stop for pictures of the view back towards town and of the impressive cacti in the foothills, we climbed back in the car and headed towards Windy Point. Now I’d been to Windy Point many times since I was a child. There is a parking pull-off there with an amazing view and there is a long  and wide rocky outcropping that extends far beyond the low rock wall meant to keep tourists from falling off the edge.

I had been past this wall before when my husband and I were dating, almost a decade ago now. We made a similar mountain pilgrimage together and let me tell you, I was petrified. Every step past that little wall, no matter how stable and secure, was met with shuffling feet, strong feelings of vertigo, and a bit of terror in my heart. It was a miracle that I got any distance past that wall–mostly due to my husband obliviously striding along the edges with a firm grip on my hand. That was my experience ten years ago, but on this day it was the last thing on my mind as we climbed out of our car and crossed the road to the stone wall.

Man climbing over rugged terrain.

Climbing the outcropping at Windy Point.

Taking care placing my feet, I continued to snap photos like a stereotypical Japanese tourist. But my hands weren’t shaking and my breath wasn’t shallow. Not yet conscious of the change in my reactions I forged onward, capturing some wonderful pictures of my husband as he climbed ahead of me.

mountain vista

Impressive view as we move towards the edge.

As we neared the edge, it finally occurred to me how much this sort of thing used to freak me out. And like Wile E. Coyote realizing he is walking on thin air, a little of that old fear started to come back to me. But I had been doing so well, so my husband came back and took my hand.

Crossing the crevice

My brave husband crosses a deep crevice.

He led me gently to the closest edge, I squeezed his hand and looked down… and down… and down… a long way down. I was nervous and a bit shaky, but I gave that drop a good hard look and then we cautiously stepped back. Then he went back to his impression of a mountain goat and I made the startling realization that my breathing was… well, normal.

I looked back to the stone wall and realize how far away it was. It was like something changed in me. I was cautious and vividly aware of my surroundings, but I wasn’t afraid. I was a little bit amazed at myself, but I tucked that realization and the feelings associated with it into my back pocket, and continued my exploration of the outcropping.

Rocky terrain with a low stone wall in the distance.

Looking back towards the stone wall.

If anything I became more adventurous after this, climbing higher and higher and further from that silly wall. I began getting closer to the edges and soon, I was leading my husband, instead of the other way around. And it was… exhilarating? Fantastic? Empowering? All of these words would apply, but none of them truly capture the way that I felt. It has been a hard year, one that would get a lot harder only a few days after these pictures were taken. But this day burned into my memory bright sunshine, rushing wind, a mountain under my feet, and the best day I think I have had for a very long time now.

Looking down without fear.

Looking down without fear.

I’ve been saving this song for months now, waiting for a little personal victory that I could crow about. But every time that I thought to myself, if this pans out I’ll put this song up, things would always fall through. And I’ll admit that during my mountain climbing this song–or any song–never entered my mind. I was too caught up in the moment, which is really saying something for me. But looking back on the experience, I’d say it is the only song that fits.

The song I am referring to is Walk the Moon’s I Can Lift A Car. It is a the story about discovering that the life you once knew is ending, but then finding out that there is another part just waiting to begin. The singer is uplifted and empowered and finds that he is capable of things that he never knew were possible. The imagery in this song is truly commanding. I especially love the way the vocals in the chorus are divided between the four band members. The effect is more echo than call and answer, but there is something about it that is simply wonderful. It is infectiously uplifting and I am convinced that this song is the perfect encore material. It just begs for audience participation.

Just the thing for rediscovering yourself on the edge of a windy cliff.

I Can Lift A Car by Walk the Moon

(All photos in this blog entry are property of Anna Kresmer and subject to the same Creative Commons license as the text of this blog.)

Lennon’s Last Interview

I don’t usually like to reblog stuff here. I prefer to write my own material and give other people the freedom to do the same. But for anyone out there who is interested in the amazing nature of 20/20 hindsight, then you should go read John Lennon’s last print interview, which Rolling Stone published in December 2010 after letting the audio tapes languish for 30 years. The interview, recorded exactly three days before Lennon’s death in 1980, is a stunning look into the mind of the man just before he ceased to be.

The most poignant quote is this:

[Speaking about the media and their styled image of him] “They only like people when they’re on the way up, and when they’re up there, they’ve got nothing else to do but shit on them. I cannot be on the way up again. What they want is dead heroes, like Sid Vicious and James Dean. I’m not interested in being a dead fucking hero…. So forget ’em, forget ’em.”

Looking back on historical figures and events with the knowledge, vision, and mindsets of the present–and the conflicts that are inevitably created between them–has always fascinated me. It is the lens used by all historians view history with–whether consciously or unconsciously. It is the mental filter that makes the saying, “History is written by the victors,” so empirically true. But only when you are aware of this internal conflict can you really be moved by history. Its complexity, its beauty, and its tragedy.

And it is interviews like this one, where you are reading the exact answers that Lennon gave to specific questions, that you can really see through the reverence that so many began to show towards Lennon after his assassination. You see the man as he was–or as close as you can get–you see the human, not the martyr. The musician, not the ad campaign. And that is what makes this interview such an interesting (and arresting) read.

John Lennon: The Last Interview