Winter malaise

It is time to face the facts. I have been suffering from a major outbreak of writer’s block, the worst case I think I have had since starting this blog. And it is almost comical because I didn’t even realize that I had writer’s block until I mentioned the blog to someone else at lunch today. I’ve been in a bit of a funk for the last several weeks and I wasn’t aware of how bad it was getting. I was starting to think that maybe I had lost interest in writing, but that is clearly not the case. Writing here has been on my mind almost constantly–ideas floating in, ideas floating back out–but every time I started to contemplate even outlining a new post, my mind would veer off in a different direction. Invariably, some small task, the furthest thing on my mind and way at the bottom of my to-do list, would suddenly take on significance of epic proportions and I’d run off to fold the laundry or wash that dish (or re-watch that episode of Star Trek: the Next Generation that I’ve seen 5 times) instead. Then I thought it was because I wasn’t hearing any post-worthy music lately, that maybe I was just bored with the scene. But my list of music to buy is growing by leaps and bounds, while my list of entry ideas is keeping pace. So that couldn’t be it either.

So what could possibly be keeping me in such a state of frustrated suspended animation? And when I said it out loud today without thinking, the answer became so clear: writer’s block. A textbook case to boot, magnified by a resurge in the seasonal blues. And for the last week or so, it has been getting worse. It seems like writing has been all I can think about, a constant dialogue in my head between my creativity and my apathy, the former desperately trying to get something done in the face of the latter’s soul-crushing indifference. I want to write, I need to write, but the thought of actually writing makes me feel panicked and a little helpless. [Would you believe that my New Year’s resolution for 2013 is to work on the blog more? Ha! One month down with barely a peep, only eleven more months to go. Sigh.]

Well, there is only way to deal with writer’s block and that is to put something (anything) down, save it, walk away, and try not to worry too much about the details. So here goes…

Charm City’s temperature has been all over the map lately, but the last several days have been the most bitterly cold we’ve had all season, and that mean old imp known as Snow and his little toady Sleet have been making less than minor nuisances of themselves. Winter and I never do seem to get along together, dessert rat that I am. Even at the best of times, it seems like we are only able to call an uneasy truce. And despite a period of détente, our current cease-fire is wearing thin.

But there is still a lot of brilliant music associated with this season–much of it stark, cold, and depressing–but beautiful none the less. So in honor of this, here’s my top 5 picks of the best songs for this most frosty (read: dreary) of seasons.

To start things off right is the Pixies and their classic cover of Neil Young’s bittersweet ballad, Winterlong. I first became familiar with this version and was kinda blown away to learn it is actually a Young original. But if you think about it, it makes perfect sense. The Pixies pay this song some serious tribute, but the lyrics feature a sweetness and almost innocent longing that is not usually a characteristic of Black Francis or Kim Deal’s styles–as much as I love them.

Next up is Winter Winds by Mumford & Sons. Gorgeous vocals, layered acoustics, and a sense of the ethereal tempered with a healthy dose of cynicism, this band never fails to deliver. I know that they are hot to the point of being overblown (I hate to admit it, but I’ve been avoiding their new album because of burnout), but they are really talented guys. And in every live performance I have found of them, they are spot on.

Moving on, we come to the deceptively cheerful White Winter Hymnal by Fleet Foxes. I know that I have ragged on these guys before, but their style has grown on me over the last year. What once seemed too avant-garde for comfort, now feels clever and rings of craftsmanship. Beautiful, polished, and harmonious, often with just a touch of the sinister, this band keeps popping up on my radar and despite my initial hesitation, they have earned my praise. This song, in particular, really appeals to me. To the casual listener, and without the visuals of the video, it seems sweet and upbeat, but a closer listen reveals much and the video truly showcases the darker themes of the lyrics.

The fourth entry in my winter list is the Bangles’ rock-out cover of Simon and Garfunkels’ Hazy Shade of Winter. Retaining the bleak cynicism of Paul Simon’s lyrics, while adding some feminine four-part harmony and a searing guitar line, the girls produce the goods. And a little bit of 80’s flamboyance never hurts.

And the last, and perhaps my favorite, entry on this list is the haunting Winter Time by Steve Miller Band. I have loved this song since long before I knew what love, longing, or winter really were. And now that I am a bit older and more knowledgable (if not wiser), I love this song even more. Perhaps the saddest piece I know of from this band, it lacks the pomp and bombast that featured so heavily in the 1970’s classic rock scene. No winter mix can do without this one.

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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.)

Confessions of a music snob (3)

Okay, what I am about to reveal is something that could potentially strip me of all my music-snobbery cred in one fell swoop. I have absolutely no right to criticize anyone else’s tastes in music because… well, I guess I should just come right out and say it. I am a closet raver. Shocking, I know. I’ll understand if you need a moment to recover from the massive bombshell that I just dropped on you.

Breath in. Breathe out. Okay, everybody still with me? Good.

Now in my defense, I did say closet raver. I have never indulged in the most iconic aspects of raver life. I have never dropped acid, experimented with black light body paint, and I haven’t messed around with light sticks since I was probably about 12 years old. In fact,  I have never actually even been to a rave…. unless you count that time that I went to a party with my host teen in Enger, Germany. It was in an empty barn with tons of beer, tipsy German teenagers, and positively booming techno music blaring from huge speaker stacks. But that wasn’t my idea and technically I didn’t know we were going to anything that could even vaguely be called a rave thanks to the language barrier. Plus I was only seventeen. Nothing counts when you’re seventeen, right? So I have never been what you would call a practicing member of the scene. And I think that given my introverted tendencies (along with the fact that I am no longer seventeen), it is fairly unlikely that I ever will be.

But if I ever put up a list of my biggest musical guilty pleasures, somewhere near the top would have to be a lesser known music subgenre called Happy Hardcore. One of the definitions on urbandictionary.com pretty much nailed it with this description:

A genre of electronic music that became popular during England’s rave movement. Characterized by a processed 4×4 kick, breakbeats, baselines, and high strung synths and vocals, happy hardcore is the staple of any candy kid’s listening experience. Drum & Bass also originated from happy hardcore and now are (ironically) anathema to one another. Where happy hardcore is known for it’s happy, almost cheesy, lyrics and sounds, Drum & Bass is a much more aggressive, hard-edged sound that is a much harder pill to swallow, so to speak.

(Never underestimate the Internet’s talent for giving even the most obscure concepts substance… as well as its talent for dishing out grammar errors). It is almost impossible to take Happy Hardcore seriously. It is like pure bubblegum on helium… and meth. But just try to keep a straight face imagining people dancing to it. It will make your day, I guarantee it!

And #1 under this heading (for me at least) is a German techno pop princess known as BlümchenFalling somewhere between an electro pop Britney Spears and a one-woman mash-up of the Spice Girls, Jasmin Wagner–better known by her stage name–was the queen of the German pop scene from 1995 to 2001. A native of Hamburg, she had a string of top 10 hits in her own country and in parts of Western Europe. Despite recording a bunch of her songs in English under the name Blossom, she never seemed to make a dent in the States, which is why you have probably never heard of her (Oops! Crap, music snobbery rears its ugly head once more).

I only discovered her through one of my undergrad German language classes circa 2000 when on one fateful day my TA decided to pop in a collection of German music videos. I laughed so hard that I knew I’d found something worth seeking out. And when I mentioned it to my techno-obsessed buddy, he loved her immediately and proceeded to feed me as much of her material as I could take–he was always generous when it came to acquiring and sharing media, especially in the carefree days before Napster was taken down. Suffice it to say, I was set-up in short order. And Blümchen quickly became my top pick for studying and grading papers (I worked as a TA for an astronomy professor at the time). To this day, whenever I am faced with a tedious or repetitive task that requires only half of my brain, I always reach for the techno. It continues to be a real lifesaver.

If you are still reading this after finding out about my dark (read: cheesy) secret, then kudos to you! Now you get a treat. And yes, it really is a treat. You’ve earned a taste of some classic German Happy Hardcore in the form of three videos. The first is the now infamous video that started me down this rabbit hole: 1998’s Ich Bin Wieder Hier, which roughly translates to I’m Back. This steam punk gem features a dirigible, WWII fighter pilots, and a flying whale. I am dead serious. A flying whale. If you watch only one of these videos, watch this one. You will not regret it.

Ich Bin Wieder Hier

Next up is the club gem Kleiner Satellit, aka Little Satellite. Featuring random dogs in an inflatable raft, some hilarious use of green screen tech, and the over-all appearance of vaseline smeared on a camera lens, this video is peculiar to say the least. But the song is infectious.

Kleiner Satellit

And my last pick, which is probably my favorite of her songs, is the hyper-actively upbeat and super positive Heut’ ist Mein Tag, which translates to Today is My Day. The video director’s use of sudden film transitions almost warrants a seizure warning. And the gratuitous use of cg fairy dust is a little distracting at times. But who can argue with a spontaneous dance mob on the streets of what looks a lot like Miami? No one, that’s who. Enjoy!

Heut’ ist Mein Tag

So now that my dirty little secret is out, it’s your turn. Are you a clandestine Happy Hardcore freak, too? Or do you have a skeleton in your closet that is equally embarrassing? Spill it!