Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Hold Steady Covers All Sorts of Great Stuff

For this week's edition of "Undercover," CSD favorites The Hold Steady stopped by the AV Club's offices to perform Huey Lewis & The News' "The Power of Love." We've been waiting for The Hold Steady to make an appearance in the "Undercover" series, because the AV Club staff are all outspoken fans of theirs, and, though we didn't expect it to be Huey Lewis who they covered, the results are pretty cool nonetheless.

The Hold Steady covers Huey Lewis & The News
And, when it comes to Craig Finn covering catchy 80's songs, this cover of Elton John and Kiki Dee's "Don't Go Breaking My Heart" that he sang with Frightened Rabbit

Thursday, August 18, 2011

"It's Been A Tough Couple of Years For Condescending Nerds"

As John Hodgman explains, its been a tough couple of years for condescending nerds. He has a point -- all of those bookworm hipster douchebag types who used to work at records stores, then went to work at video stores once the record stores went out of business, then went to work at Borders once the video stores closed and became crystal meth dens now have to find somewhere else to work. Although, its worth noting that Nathan Rabin, Keith Phipps, Josh Modell, Noel Murray, and a number of the other AV Club critics worked in video stores, record stores, and movie theaters before becoming some of the most insightful and influential critics in the country, so maybe there's some hope for those guys after all.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Magicians, by Lev Grossman

Oh, how I loved this book. I enjoyed it so much that I limited myself to a chapter a day, so that I wouldn't get through it too quickly, because this was my only opportunity to read The Magicians for the first time, and I wanted to savor it. After twenty pages, I pre-ordered its sequel, The Magician King, which was released last Tuesday.

I've read very few fantasy novels in my adult life -- other than Neil Gaiman (who I love), I probably haven't read one since high school. This may be the novel that turns me on to the entire genre. Sometimes, when a fantasy novel is reviewed in the mainstream press, a reviewer will make a point of saying that, though it is a fantasy novel, adults can read it, too. In most instances -- for instance, the Harry Potter books, or the His Dark Materials trilogy -- the critics really mean "this young adult novel is so well-executed that adults can read it without embarassment." The Magicians, on the other hand, is a fantasy novel written for adults. Quentin, a nerdy, fantasy-loving know-it-all living in Brooklyn, goes to interview for Princeton University, only to find that the old man who was to interview him had died shortly before Quentin arrived. A paramedic hands Quentin an envelope, apparently left for him by the old man. Quentin opens the envelope, and a note flitters out, deep into a community garden. Quentin enters the garden to search for the note, and finds himself whisked away to Brakebills, a magic school on the Hudson River in upstate New York, inspired by Hogwarts, Professor Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters, and other famous fictional magic academies. Quentin's entrance exam, equal parts written and practical, is a gorgeous, laugh-out-loud funny set piece that could stand alone as a short story in a prestigious liteary anthology. Besides Quentin, only two other students pass, out of hundreds sitting for it. That test earns Quentin one of the twenty seats in the first year class at Brakebills. Only then does Quentin realize that the entrance exam was the easy part.

The Magicians is also noteworthy for its dark psychology and attention to detail. How many books attempt to reconcile the bizarre combination of medieval, Victorian, and modern technology found in most fantasy novels? In how many fantasy novels is one of the main characters a self-loathing homosexual? When you encounter a talking bear, should you be surprised that it primarily wants to talk about honey? If magicians did exist, how would they find meaning and avoid depression in a world in almost everything came to them easily, where they could, for example, coax money from an ATM with a simple spell? The Macigians' characters struggle with these problems, the, um, "real world" (?) implications of magic, which I haven't seen a fantasy story discuss in depth. The novel's only drawback is that some of Quentin's friends are familiar "types," but they're all real-world types, and none of them are the sort of pure, virginal teenagers who populate other fantasy novels. I can't wait to see how those characters grow and evolve in the next two books in the series.

Monday, August 15, 2011

In Which I Subscribe to NPR's Concert Series and End Up Falling In Love With Adele

Last week, All Songs Considered hosts and NPR music editors Bob Boilen and Stephen Thompson commemorated the 150th installment of NPR's "Tiny Desk Concert" series. These concerts, held at Bob Boilen's desk in NPR's office bullpen, typically consist of three songs sung without microphones and with spare accompaniment, in front of NPR's employees, who sit in a semi-circle just feet away from the musicians. They are as intimate as any concert you are ever going to see broadcast. Clips of ALL 150 CONCERTS are now available on YouTube.

Some of my favorite groups, like Phoenix and Neko Case, but I most enjoy the concert series for the way in which it exposes me to artists to whom I have never - and probably otherwise would never - listen. One such singer is Adele. I've never disliked Adele; it was more that I was never really consciously exposed to her music; it never seemed like my sort of thing. I probably would never have listened to her without the Tiny Desk concert series, but . . . man. At the risk of throwing away years of hard-earned bookworm hipster douchebag credibility, Adele can really sing. Her voice is a magnificent instrument - even without a microphone, she basically blows the ears off of everybody in the audience. Few singers have pipes like hers; she is in the rarefied company of Neko Case and Alicia Keys. Like Amy Winehouse, her songs have callbacks to classic soul, but without being self-consciously retro. Basically, I think this video will charm your pants off.

Site Update

Over the past couple of days, I've made a few cosmetic changes to the blog. This site has been "optimized" to run on mobile devices, so it should look better on your tablets and Blackberries. Also, for what its worth, we have updated the "Common Sense Dancing Recommends" section to showcase some of the cool things we've read, seen, and heard this summer.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Cut Copy at the Prospect Park Bandshell

Unbeknownst to me when I wrote about them three weeks ago, the Australian dance-pop band Cut Copy played an outdoor concert in Prospect Park this past week as part of the Celebrate Brooklyn concert series.

The videos that have been posted to YouTube are of variable length and quality; unfortunately, most of the videos that show an entire song from start to finish have poor sound quality. This clip, featuring most of "Lights and Music," seems to capture the energy of the show. The enthusiasm and audience participation is good to see -- even in a irony-heavy place like Brooklyn, Cut Copy, like Phoenix and Robyn and a select few others, can inspire the sort of unbridled enthusiasm that the cool kids are normally too self-conscious (-ly hip?) to exhibit.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Bob Mould and The Decemberists cover "If I Can't Change Your Mind"!!!

Can a musician "cover" a song that was originally performed by a group of which he was a member? Rock legend and all-around hardcore old guy Bob Mould certainly believes so; he 'covered' "If I Can't Change Your Mind," by his former band Sugar, as part of The AV Club's "Undercover" series. Its good to see that Mould is still killing it well into his fifties.

Bob Mould "covers" Sugar
But that's not the coolest part. AV Club favorites The Decemberists expressed interest in covering "If I Can't Change Your Mind," more or less simultaneously with Mould, and, rather than refuse of the most critically acclaimed bands in indie music, they let the Decemberists cover it, too (which is probably more in keeping with the original idea for the series). The end result sounds more like The Decemberists than it does like Sugar, but that's one of the things about great songs - they open themselves up for any number of interpretations.

The Decemberists cover Sugar

Sunday, August 7, 2011

This Is How You Do It

Long-time readers of this blog know that, in our bright college younger and more vulnerable years, 2/3rds of us rowed competitively for our college rowing teams. None of us follow the sport as closely as we once did, but, from time to time, an extraordinarily cool race or surprising result catches our attention.

Late last month, the United States won the men's eight at the World Under-23 championshpis, leading the race wire-to-wire and finishing in a truly impressive (if wind-assisted) time of 5:24. (By comparison, the world record, set by the United States in the 2004 Olympics, is a wind-assisted 5:19, and has rarely been approached since). It showcased the talents of the next generation of United States Olympians, and was just a kick-ass race from a program that, in recent years, has failed to reach the heights it achieved in the middle of the last decade. You don't have to be a competitive rower to appreciate how bad-ass these guys are.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

If More Prayers Were Like This, I Would Go To Church

Pastor Joe Nelms' pre-race prayer at a recent NASCAR race in Nashville, Tennessee is a classic of American oratory, on par with anything delivered by Jonathan Edwards or Cotton Mather. Okay, maybe not - those guys never publicly thanked God for their smoking hot" wives, and would probably have asked the Lord to bless the drivers so that they could deliver a performance worthy of Him, instead of a performance worthy of "this great track." Even so,