You Know My Name?

The other morning, when I was unsuccessfully resisting consciousness, I thought back on the two times I’ve seen the new James Bond movie. First reflection: the Chris Cornell theme music has grown on me. The first time I heard it I was unimpressed, but the second time I caught myself humming the theme for days afterward.

But (second reflection) the theme plays on the main character’s self-introduction and the scene in which he has broken into M’s apartment. “Your name is —” Judi Dench cuts him off and admonishes him not to utter her name.

Didn’t we just see her leaving a hearing with Parliamentary leaders who’ve been grilling her about Bond’s misadventure in the Nambutu embassy? What do they call her? Are there any governmental officials in the contemporary world whose names we don’t know?

M’s identity can’t be a secret.
Continue reading “You Know My Name?”


Well, I finally got around to beginning the Beautiful Theology seminar blog. I’m using Blogger for this one, partly for convenience, partly because I was curious to see how Blogger is doing these days. I’ve post the first three frames of Magritte’s “Words and Images” essay; I think we’ll read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics next (and I’m enjoying Reinventing Comics again, so it’ll be hard to resist covering that too) and then work on some Edward Tufte.

Feel free to drop in and join the conversation. I strongly recommend reading the posts in sequence, from the beginning. (The main blog page is here, and the Atom feed is here, for newsreader users.)

Running the Table

Nate came downstairs this morning and challenged me: “I see that your blog says nothing this morning about the other team running the table against yours at Bible Pictionary last night — contrary to what your t-shirt said.” Well, true. Nate and the younger generation (Si, Laura, Pippa) whupped Margaret, Jennifer, Mile and me in the first round of Pictionary, led by an intense sequence of successful clues drawn by Nate himself. Nate triumphed!

In the second round, maturity and experience prevailed, though the result might have been different if the youngsters had divined the answer to Pippa’s very difficult word:

Pictionary by Pippa

You can click through to the Flickr page if you want clues and the answer. I thought she did a great job, and if her team had gotten this one, they might well have gone ahead to sweep the doubleheader.

Full House, Gloating

Jennifer and Mile arrived last night, so (for a couple of days) our family is super-sized: Pippa and AKMA, Margaret, Si (with Laura H. around much of the time), and Nate, Jennifer and Mile (the only one missing is Nate’s Laura). The dining room table is full, the bedrooms are overflowing, and schedules are intricate.

As to Christmas loot, I know it’s inappropriate to boast, but yesterday I was one of the elite few who wore an aoudad t-shirt, and today I have an “I’m blogging this” t-shirt on. I’ve been working on a present to send my mom (shhhhh, it’s almost finished, I just have to add the soundtrack). I’m running an errand over at Northwestern’s art library today, and sometime today we’re going to watch a digitized version of Flashfork’s Escape from Margaret’s parents (I’m lobbying to put it on YouTube, but the principals have resisted so far). Jeanne and Gail sent Pippa a Wobbler, which has provided near-constant entertainment.

I didn’t give anyone Fun Home for Christmas, because I had begun to feel like a fanatic about it — but I felt vindicated when Time chose Fun Home as the top book of 2006.

Trust and Mamet

David Weinberger’s post about David Mamet’s plays intrigued me for a variety of reasons: trivially, because I hadn’t noticed that Mamet wrote Ronin (which I evidently liked more than David did) and because I share David’s sense of overexposure to William Macy’s hinder parts. I mean, it’s good that movie directors are beginning to show some gender-inclusivity to their exploitation of nudity, but William Macy as pioneer? (I greatly admire Macy as an actor — just not so much as an object of sexual exploitation. Then again, my horizons in homosexual attraction are extraordinarily narrow, so maybe the set of all lustful-gazers-at-men’s-backsides detects something about Macy that I miss. Probably so.)

The aspect of David’s remarks that interests me more involves the opening comment, “Good lord I’m tired of David Mamet” in the context of David’s other criticisms. I second David’s frustration with the tortured dialogue Mamet imposes on characters who seem otherwise to be normal citizens, though I enjoy the twists and surprises Mamet springs (David’s “mechanisms” parragraph).

As I read along, though, it occurred to me that “tired,” no, “exhausted” captures my primary response to Mamet dramas. And I suspect that Mamet exhausts me because the one theme he hits relentlessly (in his “I’m David Mamet and this is my movie” mode) is duplicity. Once you catch on to Mamet’s fixation on duplicity, you as viewer know that any attention you vest in any of the characters may be turned against you. So you either withhold your emotional response to the film (boring), or go ahead and invest in some characters who then betray you (tiring and frustrating), or keep vigilant attention to who might be lying to whom (exhausting and often self-defeating, since Mamet has made his trademark by devising characters who lie to you in ways you won’t anticipate).

Mamet hits this theme so insistently that I’m inclined to infer that he thinks it’s cosmically significant (as David notes, Mamet assigns his leading character “his existential (= inexplicable) crisis”). Yes, but. Duplicity and betrayal carry their valence of importance not for their own sake, but as corrosive parasites on the more fundamental importance of trust, and of our need to trust one another. Mamet toys with, and aggravates, the American illusion of the self-determining individual by showing us a world divided into exploiters and suckers; his art invites us to escape being a sucker by joining the world of those whose self-awareness and caution would enable them to exploit, if only they weren’t too honorable. Or maybe they only exploit a little bit, because after all, everyone does, except maybe the suckers.

That sort of world horrifies me. My horror may derive from my theology, from my deep aversion to betrayal, from my resistance to binary divisions, from my Victorian sense of honor, or maybe from just being a minimally decent human being (not to overrate myself). Still, I wonder whether David’s weariness connect with his oft-stated enthusiasm for the generosity of the internet, for the intersubjectivity that helps makes us wiser than we would be on our own. Maybe Mamet gives some of us the gift of seeing more clearly how despicable the world would be if Mamet were telling us the truth — and how tremendous is our obligation to work toward sustaining durable, non-manipulative, trusting relationships that may help us, and others, make their way past the ingenious exploiters and those who parasitically romanticize exploitation.

Spasmodic Death Throes

Does anyone think that the record industry’s tactic of repackaging albums with newly-added material signals anything other than short-sighted desperation? Perhaps the idea will come into sharper focus if we peer into an executive’s imagination: “Let’s see, some consumers still reliably buy their recordings on physical media, despite all the drawbacks attendant upon that mode of production and transmission. If fewer and fewer people still buy our product, what shall we do? I know! Render physical-album releases obsolescent even faster! That’ll build the market, increase consumer goodwill, and stave off the digital media revolution!”

Nate and I have talked before about the demise of the “album” as an intelligible unit of artistic expression; doesn’t this development underline and accelerate that decline? What sense does it make for The Artist to say, “Tasty Dog Biscuits belongs together as an integrated song cycle, reflecting our lyrical expression of the superiority of liberal democracy over planned economies,” when six months later the record label rereleases Biscuits with six other tracks, a supplementary video, and two mash-ups and remixes of The Artist’s big hit [single] from the album? Where did the integrated artistic whole go?

Query Answered

We’ve had a lovely relaxing Christmas day (no gifts, for the time being, since Si has been spending the day with Laura’s family), watching Love Actually, A Day At the Races, playing Scrabble (dark horse Nate trounced the family on the strength of a 50- or 60-point word), and generally enjoying ourselves.

But we’d still be fretting and gnashing our teeth if so many people hadn’t answered our plea with copious helpful advice and even several recordings of the service in question. What a great Web! Thanks to everyone who answered the last post, plus Suw too!

Another Business Opportunity

Margaret wonders why people don’t pay for personalized snow-making. Wouldn’t the same people who pay thousands of dollars for lighting displays, pay for a dusting of snow (especially for snow that the neighbors don’t have)?


Margaret is determined — and I mean that in the nicest possible way — to listen to the King’s College Chapel service of Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, broadcast on Radio Three. The problem would be matching up that event with our family (who will be in church from about 9 to 12 Central Time). I can buy the Pro version of Wiretap, if necessary, though I’d be a shade uneasy about trying it for the first time on a one-time digital broadcast. Any other clever ideas?
Continue reading “Query”

Entertainment Today

Margaret wandered down to Peets to study, Nate went for a haircut, and Pippa and Si and I have been having a YouTube morning — checking out music videos (Si: “Oh my Lord, he has 80’s hair!”), bits from Saturday Night Live, the Dead Parrot sketch, and Rutland Weekend Television (“Gibberish” FTW!). We conclude this Family Update with a seasonally-appropriate excerpt from George Harrison’s appearance on Rutland Weekend Televsion as “Pirate Bob”:

His List Counts

Nate came home from his studies at U Mich yesterday, and brought with him a list of last year’s best releases in response to my own. Since he actually knows what he’s talking about when it comes to music — his area of specialization is a kind of music criticism that I hadn’t even heard of before he tried patiently to explain it before my glassy eyes — with his permission, I append his analysis of the last year’s best music releases.

I didn’t listen to nearly enough new records this year to fairly say what the “best” releases were, but I can say what I enjoyed listening to the most of the records that were released in the past 12 months. I couldn’t make myself rank them specifically, but here they, roughly in the order of “most impressed with” to “not quite as impressed with:”

Matthew Herbert – Scale
Herbert is more than a DJ, more than an electronic musician, more than an arranger; he’s a songwriter, a really really good songwriter. All of the pieces on this album are not only notable for the creative use of sounds, but for their perfect structure. They’re great songs. They sound amazing. The opening track, “Something Isn’t Right,” is probably my favorite song of the whole year. It’s catchy, the vocals are gorgeous, the texture is full and rich and complex, and even though the key is in constant flux, the melody seamlessly holds everything together. Track 3, “Moving Like A Train,” is Luciano Berio on ecstasy.

The Decemberists – The Crane Wife
I knew that at the least I’d be able to say that 2006’s Decemberists release would be my favorite album of the year by a band that uses big words and sings sea chanties, but I was certainly not expecting it would be one of the best albums of the year, and I really think it is. If you were previously unimpressed by the Decemberists, then listen to this anyway, because it’s so much more mature than their older work that it almost sounds like a different band; but only different in that it’s grown, not changed its core. While older songs tended to be on the rougher side, each track on this album is tightly constructed and polished, but still just as original and sincere. “The Island” is my other favorite song of the year, it sounds like everything prog-rock should sound like: epic and exciting and interesting without being too esoteric or conceited or proud of its own sophistication. And even though it gets all E.L.P. in the middle, it concludes with one of the most beautiful lullabies Meloy has yet written. Also notable on the album are “Yankee Bayonet,” “O Valencia,” and “The Perfect Crime 2,” all of which characteristically manage to be both poppy and far too unique to be mainstream.

TV On The Radio – Return To Cookie Mountain
I was really excited to hear this after getting really into 2004’s Desperate Youth Bloodthirsty Babes, but unfortunately I couldn’t get my hands on it until relatively recently. I’m not even sure yet if I like it as much as DYBB, partly just cause I haven’t gotten to listen to it much yet, but even so it is easily one of my favorite albums of the year. They just sound terrific. But more importantly, behind their novel sound is real, evident, engaging musicianship. Which brings me to a different topic: what is the DEAL with the hype around Joanna Newsom? I mean.. yeah, it’s different, it’s even kind of cool, but I am straight up baffled by all the people who think Ys is one of the best records of the year. Granted I haven’t listened to it much, but I didn’t think there was really anything that stimulating about it, nothing that made me WANT to listen to it again, or that made me think it was at all more significant than any other release. In other words, it’s special because it’s different, but besides that, it’s nothing that special. Unlike (to get back on track) TV On The Radio, which is different AND special.

Electric President – Electric President
I really like this album. There is something so charming and comforting about it. The affect is all so subdued that I’d expect it to get tedious, but creative use of electronic sounds and acoustic instruments, supporting the almost whispered vocals, really draws me in. The songs are folky, but post-modern. I bet it would sound amazing if they covered some Pink Floyd songs. They really remind me of Pink Floyd, actually; just a little bit more cheerful. Favorite track: “Farewell.” They lull you into a false sense of security, then…

Islands – Return To The Sea
How could you not be crazy about this?? The Unicorns died, but this is what rose from the ashes. Jamie might have already left, but Nick -promises- that Islands are forever. If you’re a fraction as into Canadian indie rock as I am you need this record, and even if you’re not, you should listen to it.

John Legend – Once Again
John Legend is an amazing musician. He has a great voice and more talent than he’s figured out what to do with yet. I truly believe he should become the next great soul music superstar, and although he is not yet, his 2006 album is certainly progress. 2004’s Get Lifted was good, but Once Again is better, and shows off a pretty wide spectrum of styles, from the somewhat generic R&B of his debut album to alternative rock to Cole Porter-style jazz, and back to Motown. He practically channels Marvin Gaye on a couple songs. And all of it manages to stay solid and original.

The Roots – Game Theory
Best hip-hop record of the year, I think. I just love The Roots, and their “arty” aesthetics. And Game Theory is a good Roots record, not just a good hip-hop record.

Sidenote: other 2006 hip-hop (etc.) albums
Ghostface’s Fishscale got all the hype… I like it a lot, definitely, I just didn’t find it as engaging as Game Theory, and not quite top-ten material. Certainly honorable mention, though. Rhymefest’s Blue Collar was another one of my favorites, but after a few listens I thought it was a little formulaic or something. That said, I loved the sound (“Dynomite” is another favorite song of the year), and I’m pretty confident his future work will only get stronger. I haven’t heard Lupe Fiasco’s record yet, but apparently it’s really good. k-os’s Atlantis probably deserves its own paragraph, but I just got it and don’t have enough to say about it yet. I love k-os though, and so far this sounds even better than Joyful Rebellion. Of course, I don’t know if he’s strictly “hip-hop,” if he’s a genre it’s more like “whatever-genre-Lauryn-Hill-is.” This record is beautiful and catchy and fun and original and strong.

The Raconteurs – Broken Boy Soldier
Definitely didn’t expect to love this. But I do. The songs are all just good, accessible but smart. The opener is ridiculously catchy. “Hands” could be a b-side from Revolver, with its close harmonies and adept navigation of poppy powerchord progressions. A couple later tracks sound like Zeppelin. Basically, this is more than just a side-project supergroup, they really figured out how to be a band, and a really good band, in the legacy of classic rock and roll bands. Hopefully they can keep it up, but if not, this is still a great record on its own.

Two records that might or might not be good enough to be included here if not for the fact that they were by two of my favorite artists:

The Flaming Lips – At War With The Mystics
It’s kind of hard to judge any Lips album that isn’t Soft Bulletin; this isn’t Soft Bulletin, but it’s different, not bad. More guitar-oriented rock songs than their recent work, but still characteristically balloons-and-confetti-dreamy. And it’s just fun to listen to, whether or not it’s as great as Soft Bulletin.

Beck – The Information
I’m still not sure what to think about it. It doesn’t seem nearly as cohesive as any of his previous albums, or as accessible, but there are some terrific songs on it too. I recommend it automatically because it’s Beck, and he has yet to do anything to dissapoint me artistically.

Sufjan Stevens – Songs for Christmas
I think he’s one of the greatest songwriters of the decade, if not generation. His creativity is limitless, and like every brilliant composer he just makes things work, and sound good. This collection isn’t a real “album,” it’s a box set of the EP’s of christmas carols he’s put together for his friends over the past few years. But each EP still has more ingenuity and musicianship than the average regular release by an established artist, even though the content is christmas music. I hate christmas music—that is, I hate the commercial christmas music you hear on the radio, not traditional carols—but between Stevens’ ingenuity and sincerity and the fact that most of the material he uses is more on the hymnal side of christmas carols than the easy listening side, and the inclusion of several original compositions, this set is a truly great song-cycle, in spite of its narrow holiday theme. And the original “It’s Christmas Time!” with its rocking Hey Jude chorus is my new favorite anthemic christmas song.

I’m going to offer Nate webspace for music reviews any time he wants to send them to me — maybe it’ll save effort at the end of the year (it took me ages to paste in links for all those albums).