Saturday, February 28, 2009

Top Chef Season 5 Wrap-Up: Suck Mountain

On a 1-10 scale of suckiness, the Top Chef Season 5 Finale was a 9.4, with Gail's rudeness and Carla's cryfest each accounting for roughly .3 points towards the not-suck end.  Here's a frankenstein recap from Gawker's Joshua Stein and comedian Max Silvestri:

After drawing knives, Hosea picks first. He picks Blaise. Stefan picks Marcel. Carla is stuck with Casey. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. FUCK! WE DESERVE TO BE EXPLAINED WHAT IS GOING ON. Here I'll help: Hosea fucks Stefan by taking all the foie gras. Hosea fucks Stefan by taking the caviar. Hosea gleefully eats a cake—he's a fucking fat whore—in which he finds a golden baby. This translates into his using the golden baby to fuck Stefan some more by giving him alligator meat whilst choosing the less challenging red fish from himself. Hosea continues to demonstrate a creepy and malevolent obsession toward Stefan that transcends the competition and delves into deep, if well-founded, insecurities on Hosea's part concerning his lack of intelligence and skill.

The chefs rush to finish their dishes. Carla says it's like the last 6.2 miles of a marathon. Hahaha, oh man, I totally know what you mean. Those last 6.2 miles are such a funny and well-known thing about the marathons we all run.

At the judges' table, they have harsh words for Carla being so out of character. She breaks down in tears and breaks my heart in the process. Stefan, the tenderest villain ever, hugs her and I literally wept. Hosea's dishes were consistent, but Stefan's highs were higher and lows were lower. The frozen fish and "pedestrian" dessert were a mistake. Each chef gets a chance to plead their case. Not fair! Stefan's got a language barrier. It's unclear whether a better defense would have helped. The new Top Chef? Hosea.

What a disappointment. The look on Hosea's face and subsequent gleeful "who's the next Top Chef? Oh just little oh me, Hosea" gloating sucked all the joy out of this for me. Stefan's a gracious loser, and he somehow manages to not punch Hosea in the face when Hosea says "You were really close at the end, man" or whatever. No class, Hosea. Speaking of, did you see when Leah ran up to Hosea and tried to kiss him but it got so weird and awkward? Here's a diagram on how of how lamely this season ended.

To anyone watching the entire season, it is clear that Hosea wasn't the Top Chef. He was inferior to both Stefan in terms of technical skill and Carla in terms of imagination and passion. 

After watching an entire season of an uncharacteristically untalented field of competitors repeatedly underwhelm and underperform, I was hoping for less uns and a well-deserved win for either Alpha-Male-Douchebag Stefan or Batshit-Crazy-Sweetest-Woman-Ever Carla. Instead, I suffered through Carla dropping the ball in Casey-esque fashion, the least exciting judges' table ever, and Blow-sea's pathetic defeat over his ridiculous obsession, Stefan.


Monday, February 23, 2009

Overlooking Democracy

Democracy is being overlooked in the field of international development. Take a look at the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDG); strengthening democratic institutions is simply not a priority. Not that this list is the end-all-be-all, it simply represents an important trend. As discussed in this recent NY Times article by Peter Baker, even President Obama has not yet made democracy abroad a top priority.

We could invest billions in education, health, gender equity, and other important initiatives, but without a foundation of accountable and responsive democratic government, funds may be spent inefficiently and used to maintain corrupt (and mostly ineffective) structures of resource distribution. In my estimate, democracy one of the most powerful forces for social good in the world and is being entirely underutilized.

My guess is that democracy is being undervalued for two main reasons. First, large international organizations like the UN, World Bank, World Vision, etc. attempt to be apolitical and categorically nonpartisan in their work. In many developing countries, working for free and fair elections is essentially the same as working against the regime in power, thus being perceived as partisan behavior.

Second, the severe degree of need in the developing world seems to legitimize a myopic strategy for change. When making choices about allocating scarce resources, it’s difficult for nonprofit/international organizations to invest in long-term democratic transformation in the midst of the “urgency of now.” When given the choice, they will ensure that bellies are full before working toward contested and inclusive elections. This is despite the fact that, in the long run, a well-functioning democracy may be a far better mechanism for filling bellies.

To optimize the efforts of global philanthropy, we ought to make democratization a priority among donors, NGOs, and intergovernmental organizations working in the field of development. We must invest more seriously in building the civil and political societies of fledgling democracies if we are to move beyond the aid ineffectiveness that has plagued the efforts of the West for the past 50 years.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion

For me, Animal Collective has always precariously toed the line between fascinating and obnoxious.  The same could certainly be said of most boundary-pushing artists, but there's always been something particularly eclectic about the group's affinity for yelps, tribal rhythms, and acoustic/electronic pairings.  You'd be hard pressed to find a band from our generation who has simultaneously garnered as much hyperbolic praise and utter confusion.

Personally, I have pretty mixed opinions on the band's output.  Sung Tongs (2004) is about 50/50 un-/bearable, Feels (2005) is mostly excellent ("Banshee Beat" is one of my most played tracks, all time), Panda Bear's Person Pitch (2007) is one of the most exciting albums of the decade, and Strawberry Jam (2007) was overrated beyond belief.

Which brings us to Merriweather Post Pavilion, released (count 'em) six days into 2009 to overwhelming cries of "Album of the Year!"  Uncut's Stephen Troussé wrote, "[Merriweather Post Pavilion] feels like one of the landmark American albums of the century so far," and even your-parents'-favorite-freakin' ABC News covered its release.

I'm not going to write much about this record, because there's already an absurd amount about it out there (God, alliteration rules).  I'd suggest this blog post in particular, which unintentionally mimics the space between fascinating and obnoxious that I already claimed Animal Collective occupy.

I've got two main things to say, and I'm going to present them numerically so as to appease Dave's penchant for organization:

(1) Animal Collective isn't particularly good at making consistent albums, but they are titans of the monstrous jam.  Just as Strawberry Jam had "For Reverend Green" and "Fireworks" hidden amongst a mostly unsatisfying listening experience, Merriweather Post Pavilion has its ups and downs.  I must, however, make it clear that the ups on this record are so ridiculously far up as to be downright astounding.  Attach as much hyperbole to "My Girls," "Brother Sport," and jam-of-the-year "Summertime Clothes" as you can possibly muster.  They are so mindbogglingly fantastic that I'm going to ask you to stop your reading, pause whatever you're currently listening to, and play these songs as loud as you possibly can, right now:

"My Girls" video here.

Listen to "Brother Sport" here.

Listen to "Summertime Clothes" now:

Thank you.

That said, there are some pretty boring sections (see: "Lion in a Coma" --> "No More Runnin") that make me hesitant to accept any review that touts this record as brilliant.  That said, this album is mostly very good, and presently only a notch below Feels for me.  I'd give it a B+, an 8.3, four stars, a crocodile, or something else totally nebulous.

(2) This album is virtually impossible to emotionally connect with.  Taylor Parkes gets it: "Dropping into this record can feel like walking into someone else's dream, all lit up with a significance that somehow fails to connect."

But y'know what?  I've never listened to Animal Collective with the intent to feel anything besides awe.  So I'll just keep on blasting this record and singing "I want to walk around with you" everywhere I go.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Poetic Champions Compose

Last week I attended a reading by three-time Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky at the Art Institute of Chicago. I must say that I am a total rookie when it comes to poetry. It takes all of my attention and energy to even read a poem, let alone understand one.

If you think reading poems is difficult, imagine listening to them while trying to retain even an ounce of coherence. Pinsky however did not seem concerned with whether the audience correctly decoded the meaning of his words. On the contrary, Pinsky argues, “Poetry does not begin with understanding, but with attraction- like love or hunger for food.” He not only read us his poems, but taught us to listen, arguing that the medium of real poetry is ultimately, and simply, breath.

Playing by his own rules, I fell in love with this very short poem entitled “ABC” in which he uses, in order, every letter of the alphabet:

His delivery is earnest yet playful, immediately compelling while not stifling the imagination. I cannot say much more than that without overstepping my bounds as a self-proclaimed poetry weakling.

During Q&A I wanted to ask him about his politics. I hoped to catch a glimpse of some radical new vision for society or whatever. However, when asked about such things, he humbly commented that he is not an expert on politics and won’t use his position to pretend that he is one; his aim is to master the English language.

In Robert Pinsky I found a man full of depth, passion, and humility in a field of literature that has always pushed me away with its pretense and inaccessibility. I am grateful to have seen him and encourage you to check out his Favorite Poem Project, which landed him the position of Poet Laureate for three years straight.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Grouper - Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill

Despite reading articles, blogs, and message board posts galore last year, I managed to remain in the dark on Grouper's Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill.  In fact, 2008 year-end list season was the first I'd even heard of "Grouper" (a moniker for Portland's Liz Harris), despite the fact that this is (apparently) her third album.  Deer made Pitchfork's Top 40, Boomkat's Top 15, and a few individual Dusted lists, yet I couldn't recall seeing a single review.  What on Earth was all this out-of-nowhere fuss about?

Deer begins with a slow rumble that gradually builds and fades; it's possibly a train rolling by--it doesn't matter.  There's an amp switch thrown and Harris' siren-like voice breaks in.  It's soft and pretty, or maybe child like.  I can't make out a single thing she's saying--that doesn't really matter either.  What matters is how this thing sounds.

The way it sounds is like: somebody really sad is fucking around with a guitar in an auditorium, and I'm down the hall taking a leak with the door open.  And as I get wind of opening track "Disengaged," I'm dragged head first in search of this eery-ass sound; this sound that's so over-muddied, too ridiculously fuzzed out to know whether or not Harris is trying to say anything with her words, or just use that voice to lure me to her.  Then there's an organ (or something), and the amp fuzzes out.  You hear her switch off a tape recorder, pick up an acoustic guitar, and begin strumming "Heavy Water/I'd Rather Be Sleeping."

By now I'm standing in the corridor of the auditorium.  The sound of her voice and guitar still echo, but she's more intelligible and emotive than from down the hall: "Oh dreamer/ oh heavy water/ love is enormous/ it's lifting me up/ I'd rather be sleeping/ I'd rather fall in a tideway/ right where the deepest currents flow."  (Ok, I'm probably a tad off, but it's close).

The way this album sounds is: dark and lonesome, foggy and tired, or as Boomkat writes, "It's a mass of mesmerizing magnetic hiss and soft noise, with a voice cloaked in lo-fi haze somewhere at the back."  Sounds kinda like shoegaze, don't it?  So does Deer, except the standard elements aren't used.  For instance, "Wind and Snow" blankets just about everything in layers of--not electrics, but--creaking vocals, like a microphone just on the verge of doing that annoying screech thing it does if it gets too close to random objects.  The result is a "wall of sound" you absolutely have to hear on the best headphones you can scrounge up.

In many ways, this album will appeal most to fans of shoegaze (Harris even reminds me of Asobi Seksu's Yuki at times).  But it will also serve as a strong companion for anyone who's finding these winter months colder, darker, and longer than usual.  I've listened to this album about two-dozen times in the last month, but I doubt I'll touch it once Spring rolls around.  Who cares?  Right now, it's utterly perfect.  Maybe that's why so many music journalists felt compelled to throw a moderately well-received record onto their (December) Best Of lists.  And Goddamn am I glad they did.

Listen to "Heavy Water/I'd Rather Be Sleeping" (TURN IT UP):