Thursday, August 25, 2011

Bon Iver, Bon Iver

Sometime between my initial addiction to Bon Iver in early 2008 and now, the band got itself rather famous. I still refer to the band as “he” (as in Justin Vernon), which is beyond mistaken, as Bon Iver is comprised of a boatload of musicians nowadays, or so I hear. At any rate, For Emma, Forever Ago is a desert island record of mine—a record of which I will never grow weary, and which accompanies many happy memories of very specific days in very specific places. And so I find it quite fitting that Bon Iver’s latest, Bon Iver, Bon Iver (curse those journalists who call it simply Bon Iver) is, for me, bound up inextricably to very specific days in very specific places.


On June 19, dear friend Kristie and I departed L.A. for Dublin, Ireland. For five days, our group of fellow students took up residence at Glencree Centre for Peace & Reconciliation in the countryside of County Wicklow. A couple of days into the trip, when all three of my roommates were taking an afternoon snooze, I in my wakefulness plugged my newly-acquired Klipsch earphones (snob alert) into my boyfriend’s iPod and listened to Bon Iver, Bon Iver in its entirety. Although my noise-canceling earphones provided measly defense against the loud squeaks that emanated from the beds at Glencree upon slightest disturbance, a big part of me loves that even now I cannot listen to the album without hearing the echoes of those Irish bed squeaks.

A few days later, as our coach bus approached the ancient monastic city of Glendalough, and then a few days after that as our van sped across the northern coast of the island, Bon Iver inevitably provided the soundtrack. Even now, when “Towers” comes up on shuffle in my apartment in California, all in my mind turns to a rush of greens and blues and greys and the reflection of my rain jacket splashed across the bus window.


Near the end of July, boyfriend Dave, friend Cody, and I travelled across the desert to Las Vegas for an Avett Brothers concert. Cody is a fellow appreciator of things Bon Iver, so naturally the new album garnered a few plays on the car stereo. Vegas, with its endless strip of factory outlet malls, fast food chains, $3.99 steak buffets, nudie shows, hot desert air, and all manner of indulgence could not be further removed from Ireland. Want to teach a child what the word “antithesis” means? Take her on a trip to Ireland, then to Vegas. Boom, word explained.

Somewhere amid the flood of not-so-positive emotions brought forth by my boyfriend’s spending habits and our friend’s texting-while-driving habits, I found in Bon Iver, Bon Iver an odd yet welcome antidote to the ridiculousness of road-tripping to Sin City to see a band I’d already seen twenty-two times.


How odd, that an album filled with song titles like “Calgary” and “Lisbon, OH” and with a song like “Holocene,” in which Vernon sings of particulars—Milwaukee, 3rd and Lake, Lip Parade, Christmas lights—transports me to places very unlike those and very unlike each other: Ireland and Las Vegas. Or perhaps it just goes to show that the good artists are the ones who eschew vague appeals to “the universal” in an effort to embrace more fully “the particular.” After all, it’s in the particularity of holding a Compline prayer service in a German cemetery in rural Ireland with thirty-five people and thirty-five thousand midges, of riding in a Vegas-bound Honda Fit alongside a young man steering the car with his knees and in front of a young man with a penchant for Lacoste shirts, that we are able to catch, however near-sightedly, glimmers of the universal, of the little foibles of human nature that make life so interesting. Oh, and it sure doesn’t hurt to listen to some Bon Iver along the way.

--Barbara (posted on her behalf by duke)

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Lead or Radiation Poisoning?: Ink Spots

With descriptions of Bon Iver’s self-titled album forthcoming (word is: you should listen to it if you haven’t) I’m wondering what to recommend. Or whatever it is that we do.

In all truth, I’ve sort of lost my hipster-cred since working overseas. What am I listening to, then? Ink Spots. 1930s-50s Radio fuzz. Maybe it’s M. Ward’s fault that the AM radio sound is so perfect. Or maybe it’s the fault of the Fallout video games.
Can you believe the apocalypse sounds like an old-timey radio group? I’m totally serious here. If there’s one thing the designers got right when dismantling Washington D.C., it’s that they threw American culture back to the days of lead-based paint and white picket fences, to Stepford wives and golly-gee schooldays.

My obsession with Ink Spots may also stem from my grandparents’ fiftieth anniversary earlier this summer. I found myself in Iowa, in charge of putting together a slideshow of old photos of my grandma and grandpa, a book-keeper and truck-driver who have made their house a kind of central meeting point for my family. Whenever we’re in transition, we seem to end up back in North Richland Hills Texas, for a little while or longer. They’re an amazing couple, and I’m in awe that they’ve stayed together for so long.

All that said: Ink Spots was all over that slide show. They’d put together a mix of their favorite songs and sent it in (under some ruse—they had no idea we were putting together an event). Seeing them, surprised, in a railway-house-turned-party-hall, with that music, with pictures of them young, aging, growing, was something special.

Having grown up overseas, I’ve lived in a world where TV was far away, where furniture was decades past its prime, and sat around reading racially-insensitive comic books from the fifties. I can just imagine turning on a radio years back to hear Bill Kenny’s soft voice drift out and turn the world to a hazy yellow. I can see parents I might’ve had dancing in the kitchen in slow time to this music. I can see a whole other world where time mattered less, where life unfolded at a less frenetic, less worried pace.

Of course, I can also imagine myself tramping across radioactive wastelands fighting for survival, with nothing to keep me company but a lonely radio with 3-Dog and the Ink Spots. Same difference, right?

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Concert Review: Yuja Wang at Hollywood Bowl

Event: Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 + Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5

Soloist: Yuja Wang, piano

Conductor: Lionel Bringuier

Orchestra: L.A. Philharmonic

Venue: Hollywood Bowl

Date: 2 August 2011

Seats: Section H, Row 20 (“super seats”)

I do not play any instruments. I have not plumbed the intricate depths of music theory. I cannot tell you which recording and whose performance of such and such piece of classical music is the “best.” (Though a musically inclined friend of mine is convinced I have relative pitch.)

I do know one thing, however. Sergei Rachmaninoff composed music that, for me, constitutes the golden standard of aesthetic experiences. And so it should come as no surprise that when Rachmaninoff is being played in my vicinity, I’m there.

My boyfriend Dave accompanied me on this our first visit to the Hollywood Bowl, an outdoor venue situated in the hills of Hollywood. Its stage has hosted everyone from Frank Sinatra to Elton John (ala 5 grand pianos spelling E-L-T-O-N) to Dolly Parton. In the summertime, the LA Philharmonic Orchestra migrates to the Bowl from the usual venue, Walt Disney Music Hall. All of that is to say: I was beyond excited see one of my all-time favorite pieces of music, the “Rach 3” performed in such an unusual setting.

When 24-yr-old Chinese pianist Yuja Wang walked onto the stage in a tiny, firecracker red dress and 4-inch gold stiletto heels, gasps of delight (and of horror from the snooty types) emerged from the audience. Yeah, she’s hot, and she knows it. But how the heck was she going to pull off playing one of the most technically demanding piano pieces ever composed whilst wearing precious little clothing? Well, she did it... and she did it well. Of course I ‘bout died (in the good way) the instant she began tickling the keys, as the opening measures of the first movement are what drew me to Rachmaninoff so many years ago.

Wang demonstrated a strong yet elegant command of the keyboard—she managed to make even those thunderous, dramatic chords near the end of the first movement seem like child’s play. Of course, some folks in the audience clapped between movements (a pet peeve of mine), but otherwise it was an A+ experience from beginning to end. The famously epic finale was indeed quite epic—especially when Wang immediately leapt from her seat upon firing the final note. The audience showed their appreciation with a lengthy standing ovation. My favorite part? The fact that Ms. Wang did not take herself too seriously. She approached the Rach 3 with appropriate respect and sensitivity, allowing the piece to speak for itself. I think Ms. Wang knew that, in the end, even her itty bitty red dress and glitzy shoes could not overpower the profound beauty of this beloved piece of music.

Following the intermission, the L.A. Phil performed a rousing rendition of Tchaikovsky’s 5thSymphony. Unfortunately, a very distracting “ticking” noise was emanating through the speakers during the performance, perhaps a feedback issue? But at that point, I didn’t really care, for I finally got to see the Rach 3 performed live.

Photo credit: Los Angeles Times