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Kodaline, All I Want

Everyone feels like a lonely, awkward monster sometimes. The video for Kodaline’s “All I Want” has been around since last year and many have probably already seen it, but I recently revisited it and thought it worth mentioning here for a few reasons. 

For one, the song itself is extremely touching and emotional. Even without the excellent accompanying visuals and storytelling of the video, Kodaline knocks it out of the park with this epic anthem of love and longing. Google recently used it to great effect in their annual “search in review” video to look back at the most searched for and significant stories of 2012.

It’s been refreshing to watch the ascendance of celebratory, uplifting music like this in popular culture. From subdued beginnings, a rousing crescendo brings a wave of emotional gratification. Many artists seem to have studied what bands like Explosions in the Sky had quietly (or not so quietly) been doing for years and started applying it to their own work by embracing a more open sense of hopefulness. 

There’s one other aspect of the video that I love. Beyond the emotional content, the video perfectly captures the dichotomous tensions of modern working life. As I (and countless others) have experienced, working in an office can be overwhelmingly depressing. You are separated from all of the freeing hobbies and pleasures you’d prefer to pursue outside the cubicle walls because, well, you have to eat and that’s the modern world. Thankfully, this video reminds me that despite the many sad hours spent in a place I do not want to be, there is happiness waiting in the comfort of a loved one’s company.

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Andrew Bird

Andrew Bird, Three White Horses

Andrew Bird, Heretics

Andrew Bird, Tenuousness

Andrew Bird, Tables and Chairs

A couple of years ago, my significant other, Cassie, (to whom I am now engaged) was kind enough to indulge my admittedly silly birthday craving for inefficient old technology by gifting me a beautiful vintage Royal typewriter. It was an excellent gift that I love dearly, but like the hardcopy books I continue to horde, more modern advances have infringed upon those technologies’ relevance and nearly rendered them obsolete to most people.

And despite my love for science fiction and the popular trend toward employing new technologies, there’s something in my heart (and many others’) that simply won’t let go of the old ways. In fact, “the old ways” seem to have become something of a theme on this blog in the last few months.

So, after hearing at length the merits of listening to music via vinyl records (courtesy of my father, friends, and an interview with Nick Waterhouse), I finally convinced myself it was time to give LP’s a spin and expand my collection of old technology, accusations of hipsterdom be damned. A Christmas gift of the patient and indulgent variety, I received last year a modern, automated record player and one album: Andrew Bird’s newest, Hands of Glory.

I’ve been a fan of Andrew Bird for a long time, but always from a distance. For those that don’t know him, he is an indie singer/songwriter who is most famous for three things: his violin skills, his whistling skills, and his ability to create extremely complex music and lyric concoctions. It’s this last bit that can make it difficult to get into Andrew Bird and why although he is often regarded by critics as a superstar, he has yet to achieve broad popularity.

It takes work to appreciate Bird. His technical prowess and lyrical complexity are infinitely appealing, and also daunting. But once you put in the time, his stories and sounds reveal depths of artistry that make you feel like you’re a part of something special; part of a collaborative creative process. He’s the kind of musician that challenges you to really listen and understand not just what he has to say, but what it means to you. And though I love many of his songs dearly, Bird’s albums as whole works have largely failed to connect with me. Until Hands of Glory.

Back to the record player. It’s winter and Christmas has past. It’s snowing outside and the sun’s gone down. I decide it’s the perfect time to hear what Bird’s been up to. I connect the wires, press a  button, and set the record spinning. Moments later my speakers crackle. Strings are plucked, lyrics are sung, and I am transported to somewhere warm and inviting and pure.

Like Nick Waterhouse, Bird infuses vintage sounds with youthful energy. Simple acoustic renditions of old Appalachian-style standards flow into Bird’s original songs, all recorded around a single microphone and performed by excellent talent. You get the sense that you are among friends late at night, sipping a drink and quietly enjoying an impromptu summer jam session. The meandering collection of songs, which at turns celebrates love and ruminates on death, culminates in a nine-minute track that ties the whole experience together. In “Beyond the Valley of the Three White Horses,” Bird crafts a hypnotic, expansive soundscape and is content to let the listener’s imagination wander and reflect.

Though the trip is at times short and melancholy, it is relentlessly beautiful. This is, to me, a nearly perfect album. With Hands of Glory, Andrew Bird has distilled the most critical elements of his talent and experience and convinced me in the process that he is more magician than musician. I couldn’t imagine a more appropriate performer with which to initiate my record-collecting journey.

Ai WeiweiAlison Klayman, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (documentary trailer)

Ai Weiwei’s TED Talk

Jeffrey Brown, PBS Newshour, “Art, China and Censorship According to Ai Weiwei”

Foreign Policy, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”

Ai Weiwei, Newsweek, “The City: Beijing”

Jonathan Landreth, Foreign Policy, “Interview with Ai Weiwei”

On the modern global economic and political landscape, few countries loom larger or cast a darker shadow than China. In the United States, China is perceived to be the country’s chief economic rival – despite the powerhouses’ overt interdependence – and is often the subject of fierce scrutiny.

There are many conscious and unconscious elements that combine to generate this climate of distrust, but principal among them is the political structure of the country. The People’s Republic of China, as it is officially known, is governed by a single Communist party. For U.S. citizens, the concept of communism carries residual historical weight that most people reading this are probably familiar with and which informs popular perceptions of labor conditions. In other words, many in the U.S. believe (perhaps correctly) China is potentially responsible for a great many economic woes.

That debate aside, a perhaps more significant and alarming issue dominates the social reality of the country: despite the internet-facilitated modern age of nearly-universal freedom of speech, Chinese authorities impose extreme restrictions on personal liberty and expression as a means of maintaining control of the populace. The power of this government is so absolute that protestors are known to disappear – abducted and interrogated – sometimes never to be seen again.

In response to these conditions, China has a long history of dissident activity among the small and besieged intellectual and artistic community. There are many famous examples of this struggle, including “Tank Man,” the Tiananmen Square protester, who would not budge in spite of an oncoming column of tanks. Two years ago, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Liu Xiaobo, a writer and human rights activist who is currently incarcerated for inciting calls for political and civil reform in the country. And this year civil unrest began to spread among disenfranchised and impoverished rural communities.

Enter into the fray Ai Weiwei, the 55-year-old, epic-bearded, notorious Chinese conceptual artist, persistent dissident, and good friend of the aforementioned Liu Xiaobo. He’s a man you may not be familiar with, but as has become my habit with this blog, I want to make you aware of yet another excellent example of inspiring, freedom-seeking humanity.

I recently had the pleasure of watching Alison Klayman’s documentary about Ai Weiwei, Never Sorry, on Netflix (it is currently streaming – go watch it!). To say I was moved by it is an understatement. If you are not already familiar with Ai’s work, I strongly recommend checking out the Foreign Policy photo essay above, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” I already had a passing knowledge of Ai’s unique projects and the critical undertones of many of them, but the film provides an in-depth, behind-the-scenes look at the man’s motivations, including the life experiences that molded his scathing attitude toward the government.

Never Sorry goes on to document the last few years of Ai’s life, during which he has risen to prominence as an international symbol of intellectual curiosity and human rights activism, but also as a repeatedly detained and perpetually monitored enemy of the state. Throughout his growth as a pop culture icon (he has many followers and uses internet services like Twitter to great effect), he has cultivated a philosophy that emphatically asserts that freedom of expression is the stuff of life and that to restrict that freedom is nothing short of evil.

Communication is the means by which humans affirm their existence, and Ai is intent on assuring the lines of communication are open by defying the oppressive will of the government. It sounds overblown and faux-heroic, but the point is that his is a philosophy I agree with.

All of this admiration aside, I was initially hesitant to write about Ai Weiwei. A part of me was skeptical of the man’s rock star status and wondered if he was the real deal. He has lived and worked in China most of his life, but has also lived in New York City for more than a decade, attending school there. Not that that necessarily undermines his credentials as a punk provocateur, but in watching Never Sorry, I wanted to be sure my own personal belief in him was genuine, instead of fueled unconsciously by a like-likes-like satisfaction with his western-style tactics and attitude.

Of course the documentary is sympathetic to Ai, but after watching one particularly emotional and heart-rending sequence, in which he and his team pursue a project to attain the government-concealed names of more than 5,000 children that allegedly died in a recent earthquake as a result of shoddy school construction, my fears were dispelled. And I was elated when he happily celebrated the government’s retaliatory destruction of his newly-constructed studio after denouncing the famous “Bird’s Nest” stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics when its construction necessitated the removal of citizens’ homes. Ai has been referred to as China’s modern conscience, and upon listening to him explain how those children no longer have a voice so someone must speak for them, I can truly understand why.

Another artist interviewed for the documentary goes on to say that in China, a country with a staggering population, individuals who truly care about the people of the country – like Ai – must be treasured and protected. The intelligence with which he uses media to cultivate popularity as his armor and employs his power to wage war on the system from within despite the risk of reprisal is incredible.

There are far too few examples of this kind of bravery on the world stage, but I hope you take the time to acquaint yourself with this one. We may live in a place where personal freedom is sacred, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from those still fighting to build such a place for themselves.

Nick Waterhouse & The Tarots – Is That Clear (Live)

Nick Waterhouse – Is That Clear/Time’s All Gone (Takeaway Show)

Nick Waterhouse – Some Place (Takeaway Show)

Like Zach Condon of Beirut before him (whose music I also deeply admire), Nick Waterhouse has managed to make something old new again: his sound epitomizes a modern evolution of early rhythm & blues and rock & roll sensibilities that is unmatched in the contemporary market.

Simple, genuine, and performed by his band with true instrumental musicianship, Waterhouse sets your toes to tappin’ and your soul to bruisin’ with his short-but-dance-inducing sonic concoctions. It’d be easy to dismiss his throw-back style as a gimmick, but in today’s world of saturated synthesizers and sameness, Waterhouse is a blast of fresh air.

The reversal is welcome and well-timed. When you listen to his debut album straight through, you can feel the music as a bluesy representation of the young man’s old soul. Some would argue that reviving 50’s rock & roll is not an endeavor to which today’s tender-hearted technocrat musicians are up, but thankfully Nick Waterhouse not only steps to the plate, but knocks it out of the park.

Rollicking guitar licks, punchy horn sections, emphatic female back-up vocals, and Waterhouse’s simple song-writing and -singing style all combine to create an energetic and excellent aural experience. Music critique cliches aside, I encourage you to step back in the past and revive your synth-soaked eardrums with Nick Waterhouse.

Malala Yousafzai vigil.Foreign Policy, David Rothkopf, “An Army of One”

BBC News Magazine, “Malala Yousafzai: Portrait of the Girl Blogger”

The Christian Science Monitor, Adil Jawad and Sebastian Abbot, “The Malala Moment: Tens of Thousands Rally In Pakistan for Girl Shot by Taliban”

Radio Free Europe, Ron Synovitz, “The Pakistani Taliban’s Rationale for Shooting A Schoolgirl”

A 15-year-old girl by the name of Malala Yousafzai was recently shot in the head during an attempted assassination carried out by members of the Taliban in Pakistan. The offense for which she was targeted? Speaking out to western news outlets – specifically the BBC, for which she wrote a blog as an 11-year-old – about the plight of uneducated girls and women who are prohibited from seeking education in regions of the country controlled by the terrorist organization. If it’s any indication of her prominence in the fight for girls’ rights, she was nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize by Desmond Tutu.

This virulent, horrific, and pathetic action is despicable and reflective of the worst of humanity, but that’s not the reason I wanted to write about it. To focus on the violence itself would do a disservice to Malala’s efforts and the efforts of those who support her and her peers.

The reason I am writing about Malala is because hers is a story worth knowing; a story of the excellence individuals can achieve in spite of daunting ideological and cultural obstacles. To quote her: “All I want is education. And I’m afraid of no one.”

I don’t want to go on about this because the articles listed above do a better job than I could of exploring the various facets and ramifications of her efforts, which even at her young age have had far-reaching, positive effects on the regressive situation imposed on Pakistani women. Thankfully she has been able to receive the best medical care available and it seems she will survive her injuries.

I do want to say that this young girl has stood for something and said “Enough is enough.” Malala and her supporters (her father is also an activist) correctly assert that the only way out of economic and ideological poverty is through education. Her actions are inspiring and refreshing, and I think we could all learn from her heroic example. I recently wrote about Superman and how the character represents a paragon of humanity to which we can all aspire, and from all accounts, Malala’s spirit is reflective of those excellent qualities.

Despite the inevitable dissipation of this event’s ripples, I am ecstatic to be able to count Malala among the living and look forward to her triumphant return to the fight for human decency. There is little doubt that she will go on to achieve great things.

If you would like to take some sort of action in support of Malala, I encourage you to add your voice to those coming from Amnesty International on her behalf, or participate in the UN’s special envoy initiative. I also encourage you to check out an organization I’ve featured beforeThe Girl Effect – which aims to promote awareness of and change the dire, unfortunate circumstances of young women like Malala all over the world.

Every kid wishes they could fly.Man of Steel

A new Superman movie, Man of Steel, is in development, and after seeing the most recent trailer, I couldn’t be more excited. The film is directed by Zack Snyder, whose visuals are usually excellent despite so-so story-telling, produced by Christopher Nolan of single-handedly-reviving-the-superhero-film-genre-with-Batman fame, and stars Henry Cavill, who appears to have been genetically engineered for the role.

Judging by the trailer alone (some say I have too much hope), it seems like the film has the potential to become something really special: a big-screen adaptation of the ultimate superhero that does justice to what he means to many fans (myself included). The excellent narration of the trailer, provided by Superman’s biological father, Jor-El (played by Russel Crowe – there is another version featuring narration by Jon Kent, played by Kevin Costner), sets a lump in my throat and my eyes to watering, and captures perfectly the purpose and significance of the character:

“You will give the people an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you. They will stumble. They will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.”

Superman, a.k.a. Clark Kent, a.k.a. Kal-El, is an incredibly complex character both in terms of his comic book incarnations and the public’s perception of him. Weighed down by decades of campy adaptations, inaccurate Christ comparisons, and sub-par storytelling, Superman is poised for a comeback on the more serious dramatic stage set by the recent Batman films. And given the relationship between the characters as two of the most popular of all time, it’s impossible not to compare them. It is common among people my age to dismiss Superman in favor of the Dark Knight, and that preference is an interesting touchstone with regards to the state of Western culture’s psychology.

If it wasn’t already clear, I am a fan of Superman, though not at the expense of my Batman fandom (friends know my faithful feline companion’s name to, in fact, be “Batman”). But it makes me sad to hear the tone of derision and cynicism with which many in my generation speak about Superman. I encountered this over the summer when the Man of Steel trailer above played ahead of The Dark Knight Rises. Despite the trailer’s obvious earnestness, it was met with murmurs of dismissal and scoffing. I was dismayed.

Like any good character, Superman has evolved since his creation and the most significant iterations have been fantastic (see Superman: Birthright, All-Star Superman, Superman: Secret Identity, and more). But for many, he is unfortunately nothing more than a cliched Boy Scout Christ allegory, without a place or relevance in today’s more hard-line, knife-edged age.

The gritty, depressing terror of the Batman films has dominated the pop-culture conversation regarding these types of characters and brought into question what they mean to the culture at large. Don’t get me wrong: I love Batman. The darker, more pragmatic side of me identifies with and idolizes the character for his ingenuity, steadfastness, seriousness of purpose, and many people obviously feel he’s very relevant.

But Batman inhabits a world of pessimism. Though he’s highly-skilled, the man in the suit is emotionally wounded. He rectifies wrongs, fights injustice, and helps others cope with the unfortunate ramifications of crime, but he cannot prevent crime. His most admirable qualities are generated in response to a world that reflects our own, but I find myself wondering if his is the kind of example we should seek to emulate. Any thoughtful reader or viewer knows that there is always too much injustice to combat permanently, so although we are entertained and satisfied by the stories, what do we take away? When we internalize the actions and ideals of a character like Batman, what do we do with his example? Is his path the one we need to walk?

Superman, on the other hand, offers the complete opposite, and although they differ, the characters are often presented as two sides of the same coin. Where Batman accepts a cynical reality, Superman encourages optimism with a vision of the individual as we would like ourselves to be. Where Batman is a human who is more super than any human will ever be, Superman is an alien who at his core possesses a humanity we wish we could emulate. Where Batman is distrustful and reticent, Superman is honest and joyous.

Superman is a metaphor that soars among the clouds, unhampered by the world that is, bringing into existence a fictional world we all wish could be reality.

As a recent ComicsAlliance piece demonstrated, the ideological significance of Superman cannot be understated. To celebrate Suicide Prevention Day, they posted a page from Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All-Star Superman graphic novel. The page deals poignantly with a young woman’s intended suicide. Through a series of unfortunate circumstances, she mistakenly concludes that no one – not even the doctor she came to trust – cares for her. Before she can kill herself, Superman assures her otherwise: “It’s never as bad as it seems. You are stronger than you think you are.”

Morrison wisely doesn’t have Superman show up in time to catch the girl after she’s jumped, making a cliched show of superheroics. Instead, Superman prevents disaster by offering a more human and inspiring solution: kind words and a hug. With this, Superman demonstrates the superheroics we could and should all engage in on a daily basis; to save a life is the kind of wonder we could and should all hope to achieve.

Sure, I may be ascribing more hope and credit than a big-budget film deserves, but the character of Superman – like the legends Robin Hood, King Arthur, Musashi, Gilgamesh, and countless others – holds special significance for culture and history. And sure, the stories from the comic books and movies don’t always embody the lofty paragon I’ve described here.

But in a time when you don’t have to work hard to witness the losing battle good, thoughtful people fight against true evil and horror every day in the real world, I personally cannot wait and sincerely hope that Man of Steel does what Superman has always done: Inspire hope for a better tomorrow among countless new and old fans everywhere. And that’s something I think the world could really use right now.

And if that’s not enough, bolting through the sky at the speed of sound is unarguably awesome.

ThatGameCompany, Journey

Austin Wintory, “Apotheosis”

Journey Stories

I’m sure everyone imagines from time to time what it would be like to embark on a journey into the unknown; to explore an untamed landscape, and uncover hidden truths about one’s self that would otherwise remain undiscovered. For a precious few that is a reality and I envy those lucky individuals, but for most that idea remains an elusive fantasy, one which is at the heart of ThatGameCompany’s recent videogame Journey.

Available exclusively for the PlayStation 3, Journey puts the player in the desert-wandering shoes of a red-cloaked, lone adventurer on a quest to reach a mountaintop many leagues in the distance. Beyond the game’s title and a brief tutorial, the player is supplied with no information they do not discover for themselves. With its breathtaking aesthetics, meaningful story, stirring score, and captivating gameplay, it is clear before long that Journey promises and delivers a uniquely profound experience. For an idea of the artistry of that experience, I strongly recommend the first two links above to watch the game’s trailer and listen to one of the pieces of the soundtrack.

Beyond the literal journey undertaken by the protagonist, the entire presentation acts as a moving storybook allegory for spiritual and emotional transformation. The mountain toward which you are constantly advancing is a practical goal for the game, but as you traverse elaborate ruins and uncover the land’s history, your imagination runs free and the mountain takes on a multitude of significant meanings both inside and outside the game world. The stylish microcosm in Journey celebrates the highs and lows of life and what it means to persist in the face of adversity.

There is beauty and magic to be found in even the destitute ruins of a once great civilization and motivating much of the action of Journey is the conceit that you cannot take wing and fly toward a better understanding of what lies ahead without understanding what has come before. This concept is woven – literally – into the fabric of the game. As you explore, you learn to harness the power of flight, granted to you by mysterious scraps of enchanted scarves, remnants of a history consumed by the desert. This is a great place to mention that despite the harsh environments, every creature, location, and character is imbued with fantastic liveliness, embodying the enigmatic energies they represent. 

One of the greatest philosophical and emotional achievements of the game (and the one that prompted me to write about it now) is its unique implementation of multiplayer elements. Unless you are playing offline, the quest is not one you need undertake alone. At some point along the way, you will undoubtedly encounter another traveler also intent on pilgrimage to the mountain. With regards to your interaction, the game remains minimal. Each of you are given nothing more than a unique symbol and scarf-recharging “shout” to communicate. Adding another layer of symbolism, when two players move close to one another, they restore each other’s energy.

Actions speak louder than words in Journey, and to great effect. Contrary to what you would expect, the limitations foster a more profound connection to the companions you meet. It doesn’t matter who they are or where they’re from. All that matters is that you are on the journey together and that through partnership you can make magic and fly.

As in life, you may lose track of one another, or a different traveler will join you along the way, but there are moments of true beauty to be found in almost every interaction. The last link above, to a blog entitled “Journey Stories,” speaks volumes about the significance of some of these online interactions. As the name implies, it features stories about players’ experiences in the game. Here I will tell you mine. I’ve done my best to avoid any spoilers; there’s nothing below besides the banal revelation that the game has an ending.

My Journey Story:

Though I had already played it once from start-to-finish, I sat down recently to enjoy the game for a second time. After having worked with and parted ways with a few different travelers, about halfway through this play-through, I met one that would stick with me until the end. His scarf – the length of which depends on the discovery of in-game secrets, and determines the amount of time you can fly before needing a recharge – was short, indicating that he was a new player, unfamiliar with the mechanics or progression of the game. For what it’s worth, my scarf was quite long.

We met at one of the most trying sections of the game, one that is made all the more bearable by having a reliable companion. I was resolved to help this traveler evade every obstacle along his way, waiting and leading him across the difficult landscape. Through trials and tribulations, and one of the most emotionally-rewarding scenes I’ve ever watched in a videogame (or otherwise), we made it together to the very end. At this point, the main action of the game has subsided and there is little more to do than complete the journey. It may sound silly to some, but this is where I get choked up.

Eager to complete the game, I rushed forward, arrogantly intent on leading my ward to the ending. To my surprise, however, surrounded by the beautiful environment in this closing segment, my companion suddenly sat down. Steps from the end, he crossed his legs and took a seat, waiting for nothing. Puzzled, I turned around and approached him, wondering what could be wrong. We’d come so far together and I wanted nothing more than to complete the journey side-by-side. My friend continued to sit, seemingly meditating on what we’d done and where we were going.

Still confused, but appreciative of the quiet moment, I sat down beside this stranger. Nothing happened, but somehow… it was one of the most sublime, transcendental experiences, thinking on the time we’d spent. After a few minutes of watching our red-cloaked wanderers – and by extension, ourselves – peacefully reflect, he got up and started walking. I watched him move away for a few seconds, wondering what he would do. He stopped and turned around, waiting for me. I couldn’t help but smile. My character rose and strode toward my companion. Together, we did indeed finish the game, walking side-by-side.

Like I said, it probably sounds pathetic to some, but my heart swells at remembering those moments. I’m incredibly thankful to that companion – who I thought knew less than me – for reminding me to take time to reflect, because great things wait behind as well as ahead. To me, it’s this kind of story that makes games like Journey important. The story, art, music, and presentation are impressive, but it’s the simple celebration of human interaction that truly inspires.