Saturday, May 29, 2010

You Missed Out: Tallest Man on Earth

We've all cringed upon hearing an undergrad bro playing a Bob Dylan song on his acoustic guitar. He's closing his eyes, doing his best impression of 60s' Dylan with a fake nasally voice, and sometimes he even tries to play the harmonica. There are literally millions of these guys, at least a few hundred in every college town. But once in a great while, one of these guys actually does the Dylan thing properly. Instead of making listeners cringe, he captivates them.

Dylan got his start singing like Woody Guthrie, but came into his own when he started writing his own songs. Nearly 50 years after The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, comes the Swedish singer-songwriter Kristian Matsson. Matsson plays like Bob Dylan, but is much more than just another bro at the pub covering Blonde on Blonde. Just as Dylan before him, Matsson writes his own magnificent songs, which is why the crowds pay attention to him.

Kristian Matsson, the Tallest Man on Earth, silenced his sold out Chicago crowd with an acoustic guitar and a scraggly voice. No backup band or visual gimmicks. When the crowd cheered between songs, he termed the listeners as being "polite" for listening so intently as he played. But that wasn't exactly it. Matsson just took everyone's breath away. They couldn't have made a noise during his songs if they wanted to.

After about an hour of songs mostly from his excellent new album, The Wild Hunt, Matsson came out for an encore. First, a Bob Dylan song, "I'll Keep it With Mine". Then another, "The Man in Me". And they were two of the best Dylan covers you'll ever hear. He sang them with fervent emotion, and when they were over he even remarked, "Two Dylan songs, how about that? ...I love that guy."

As if everybody didn't know this after 10 seconds of hearing his opening song.

But then came the final song of the night on the final stop of his tour. It wasn't a Dylan song, but a bonus track off of his latest album called "Like the Wheel". It was quiet, powerful, and written by Matsson himself. The most beautiful moment of the night came then The starkest silence from audience as they realized he was actually building off of the greatness of Bob Dylan, rather than cheapening or detracting from it. The Tallest Man on Earth has skills stretching far beyond the guy at the local bar's open mic. It's an exciting thing to witness, especially when Matsson starts finger-picking. It's like he's incapable of mistake.

Matsson was so good, he even made the typically banal necessity of tuning his guitar between songs an enjoyable part of the show. He pretty much turned it into a John Fahey jam. It's not often a guy in his 20s' is able to captivate a large audience by standing alone on a stage. But the Tallest Man on Earth is something very special. Of course he isn't "the next Bob Dylan," because nobody can ever really be that. (Just as Dylan wasn't the "next Woody Guthrie.") But Matsson is able to play a song that someone might not be familiar with, and simply by virtue of his talent and intrigue, force them to listen.

The trick, most likely, is a combination of hard work and a sincere love for that work. One doesn't simply pick up a guitar with the ability to finger-pick like Kristian Matsson. But if a guy loves music enough, he'll work for days on end to play the songs.

Throughout the night, Matsson quipped about how tired he was. He couldn't believe that he was still standing after playing night after night of headlining concerts. But when he sang, he sure didn't sound tired. So much creative energy spilled out of the man that it fueled my spirits and I actually stayed up all night as a result. Usually, the guy singing Bob Dylan covers doesn't pull this off. But covering the greatest songwriter of all time isn't a matter of capability, it's about building on foundations. Kristian Matsson would be nothing without Bob Dylan, but he's fully aware of this fact. And this is just one of the reasons why he's worth listening to. I can't wait for what it'll sound like when Matsson "goes electric".

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

David Dark Blog Interview

One of the highlights at the most recent Festival of Faith and Music was the lecture by David Dark. David is the author of The Sacredness of Questioning Everything, which takes a sideways look at postmodern Evangelicalism. His thoughts really resonated with me, and after I met him at the festival, he told me he'd be more than happy to do an interview on Total Darkness vs. Blinding Light. That may have been a year ago, but we just now finally got around to talking about trends in Christian theology, media consumption and how it all relates to our spiritual livelihood. If you're interested in that conversation, read on:


Dylan Peterson: First thing that jumped out at me when I looked at The Sacredness of Questioning Everything: Zondervan. When I heard you speak at Calvin, and even in the book, I thought, “David Dark doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who should be published by Zondervan.” Did they come to you? Or did you go to them? And if the latter is the case, why would you want to be published by Zondervan instead of a mainstream publisher?

David Dark: A good question. I was contacted by a Zondervan editor somewhere back there, and I had the same thought you did. Turns out that, at the time, they were looking to branch out a little (Think Shane Caliborne), and I was assured that they were very up for what I had in mind. I know what you mean on the “mainstream” concern, and I share it, but Zondervan’s in the HarperCollins/News Corporation salesforce. If I think of it that widely, Patti Smith and Charles Bukowski and I are in the same pond. Just different ways of going to market.

DP: How does one even get to a point at which he’s able to write books about the movies and music they enjoy? Which is what it seems you have done with this book, in a sense.

DD: I did it for Prism and Books&Culture and then contacted Rodney Clapp of Brazos with a book idea. This was in the days before blogs. I’m told that publishers and agents will hardly even talk to people who don’t have some kind of Internet presence these days. If I was just starting out, I suppose I’d begin with a blog. I recently listened to Patton Oswalt citing Roger Ebert as someone who helped him to understand that you can make a living by liking things, telling stories about stories, corralling your own enthusiasms in interesting directions. I suspect this characterizes an awful lot of what I’m up to.

DP: It’s clear that you value blogging. Do you do a lot of interviews with little blogs like this? Why put so much time in for such a small return?

DD: I don’t THINK I’ve ever turned down an interview. I might love the the voice in my head too much. I’m also helped considerably with my own thinking/words/work when people ask me questions.

DP: Virtual reality is almost just “reality” nowadays. Zizek elaborated on this almost a decade ago. Is community not “real” on facebook or throughout the blogosphere?

DD: I have no doubt that many people are trading away (or avoiding) the possibility of living relationships through the time they devote to seeing if someone’s written them or gazing over photos of long lost friends while there’s a child nearby who’d like to be a little less alone with their legos. There’s a false urgency and a pseudo-intimacy at work in our interaction with electronic appliances. BUT these platforms can and do occasionally facilitate real connections. Nevertheless, I’m haunted by Jacques Ellul’s adage: “A computer isn’t a companion. It’s a vampire.”

DP: “Deliverance comes by questions” you say early on in your book. But so many people don’t want to ask questions. They do NOT feel joy when they ask questions, but only when they receive answers to questions. Should everyone become a philosopher even if it feels against his or her nature? What do you say to these kinds of people?

DD: I suppose I’d challenge them (presuming they claim one) to look a little harder at their alleged religious traditions and to ask what they mean (or think they mean) when they speak of faith. Flannery O’Connor once noted that college freshmen who steer clear of philosophy courses for fear that it would make them lose their faith probably don’t have a faith to lose in the first place. Faith doesn’t allow doubts and questions; faith is the work of doubting and questioning and wondering and giving voice to our own confusion. The biblical witness, like most sacred texts, is a record of these discordant voices. Being faithful to it means getting in on the act; finding and placing our own voices in the mix, voices that don’t know what’s what and say so. If someone was to say that love of wisdom (philosophy) is against their nature, I would tell them that I share their confession in a certain sense but that such foolishness can be meaningfully combated through prayer and study and listening to one another.

DP: Maybe you even said something about this in your talk at Calvin, but I see heretics as an essential part of a successful religion. Heretics provide that form of questioning WITHIN an establishment, not as some outsider objecting from miles beyond the club gates with nothing actually invested in the group project. A good dose of heresy may eventually turn a one-time heretic into a saint due to the progressive thinking they aggravatingly brought into a stagnating dogma. But, the former heretic only is seen as a saint once he has died, so what does this all mean for the living heretic? Though he may rise up against the orthodoxy that promises salvation, will his inner dedication to truth be the wildcard that all of the other followers could never attain? And if so, what of those followers? Are they doomed for not listening to the “heretic” when he spoke?

DD: I guess it means that he or she was/is faithful. And faithfulness, as I understand it, promises little or nothing when it comes to popular affirmation or the admiration of peers. Daniel Berrigan quipped that if you want to follow Jesus, you better look good on wood...Oscar Wilde said that no righteous deed goes unpunished. When it comes to the bad ideas that doubtless have hold of us now, I pray I’ll have the wit and humility to receive the instruction and admonition of the youth upon whom I’m counting to show me the way, and I trust future generations will assess ours clearly but also with mercy and love. Love alone is credible.

DP: You are a proponent for non-violence, yet you find value in a film like, say, There Will be Blood. Is this not hypocritical? Why not?

DD: I’d say I aspire to be a practitioner of the non-violent vision of the beloved community (Wouldn’t want to decree myself a proponent though I’d accept it as a compliment). I don’t think There Will Be Blood holds to the myth of redemptive violence; I think it unmasks it like Shakespeare and Melville do.

DP: “Redemptive” art seems particularly valuable for Christians. Can non-redemptive art be as valuable--do you believe in “art for art’s sake”?

DD: When I call something artful or poetic, I am speaking of what I take to be its redeeming witness, its way of calling upon the audience/reader/viewer to re-value, re-assess, re-vision, and re-member. When I withhold this affirmation, I’m admitting that I have yet to see if or how it does this.

DP: I’ve seen some writers try to redefine the word “fundamentalism” almost as an attempt save it from the bad reputation it’s garnered over the years for being so closely equated with “radicalism.” Are you trying to do the same sort of thing with the term “evangelical”? And if so, why? Why not just let that word remain the ugly thing it has evolved into? Why not just use a new term?

DD: I think words are worth recycling, re-deploying, and salvaging. I treasure so many figures who used the word in a life-giving sense: Barth, Bonhoeffer, William Stringfellow. I value the tradition too much to see it misconstrued as a sleeper cell for a political party within one nation-state. It still means something else outside of its English language use in this one particular country. I want it to keep it alive and signalling.

DP: You’re very aware of what good art, drama or comedy is made of. Since you know what is required, why have you chosen to write non-fiction about good art, instead of making it yourself?

DD: Give me time. The commentary comes quicker (or more easily) at present, but I am possessed of certain, ridiculous aspirations. I’m interested in at least pretending to be Dostoevsky for the 21st century.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Top 10 King of the Hill Episodes

For the past few months, I diligently watched the entire series of King of the Hill on Netflix. Maybe it's still too soon, but right now I feel confident saying that it is one of the best TV shows of all time. There isn't another satire so successful in its subversive brilliance that it was able to sustain 13 seasons on a major television network. Never did it become fan service, never a cheap rehash pop culture parody. I'm such an admirer of Mike Judge's work, my wife and I have even decided to name our new puppy "Arlen." (which I have a good feeling is an anagram for "learn." And you better believe this border collie is going to be a learner)

Here are my 'top 10' favorite episodes. If you're a latecomer to KOTH, start with these ten 22-minute masterpieces of animated comedy:

10. The Perils of Polling
Season 5
Plenty of political embarrassment goes on down in Texas, so KOTH had a hefty supply of comedic fodder. But the best attack on conservative hypocrisy came in this season premiere which featured an animated version of George W. Bush. Hank was determined to vote for him because of "the issues," that was until he met the Governor of Texas and discovered that the man had a limp handshake. How can he vote for a man with a weak handshake?

Best line-
Hank: I just think that if you don't read a newspaper and the only TV you watch is the MTV, then you shouldn't be allowed to vote.

9. A Firefighting We Will Go
Season 3
It's hard to find an homage to the Three Stooges that doesn't make me cringe, but leave it to Mike Judge to hit slapstick comedy on the head (pardon my pun). Not only are there tons of laugh-out-loud moments in this episode, including the best Boomhauer gag in the series (in which Boomhauer speaks at a normal rate while the other three guys speed-mumble), but it's one of the best self-contained stories about what happens when the four guys from the alley become fish out of water.

Best line-
Bobby: Maybe it has something to do with when you pulled your groin picking me up.
Peggy: Well honey I don't think that could be true, since ladies do not have groins.

8. Nancy's Boys and My Own Private Rodeo (tie)
Season 4 and Season 6
Both of these episodes deliver key moments of crucial character development in the arc of the series. The hilarious affair between Nancy Gribble and John Red Corn comes to an end, and though Dale never finds out about his wife's infidelity, he does learn about the concept of relational trust in a painful way. When it's discovered that Dale's father had become a gay rodeo performer after Dale's wedding, not only must Hank prove he's capable of tolerance for the sake of his friend, but the issue of personal honesty smacks Nancy Gribble poignantly. My Own Private Rodeo was nominated for a GLAAD award and a Writers Guild of America Award.

Best line-
John Red Corn: I'm 36 years old. I don't need this crap.


Hank: Well I guess I am the best man, and with the joy of responsibility comes the burden of obligation.


Bill: Hey, that guy's wearin' a dress.
Hank: Heh, yeah he must've lost some crazy cowboy bet. Boy does he feel silly!

7. Vision Quest
Season 7
Heritage and tradition are common themes in KOTH, usually in the American conservative sense. But Vision Quest is about Native American heritage, and more importantly, learning how to be true to oneself. It's an episode about maturing, but reveals some of the most telling back stories for Dale's character, plus one of the funniest lines in the series from a hallucinating Dale: "I see the buffalo! I see the Indian!! I... Am... the Indian."

Best line-
Red Corn: "Hank, this is an important ritual among my people. Don't half-ass it."

6. The Unbearable Blindness of Laying
Season 2
The concept of going blind because you've seen a man having sex with your elderly mother is one of the most hysterical things I've ever heard. This Oedipal effect strikes Hank literally, and it takes a feigned belief in faith-healing for him to overcome the inflicted damage. Bonus laughs from the old Jewish Arizona boyfriend whose dialect is mimicked by Bobby.

Best line-
Faith Healer: "Hiccups, be gone"
Hiccuper: "Hic."

5. Ceci N'est Pas Une King of the Hill
Season 8

Winner of an Annie Award, this episode brutally exposed Peggy Hill for what made us groan for years. She's a plain-jane fraud with delusions of grandeur. A prideful person with zero merit. Peggy's artistic ambition is a result of her own arrogance and desire to be better than her peers, yet somehow, it still seems sad when her vices are exposed by the art world. It probably has something to do with the art world being just as insufferable, just on the other side of the coin. Plus, the title refers to a painting by Rene Magritte.

Best line-
Peggy: Can I invite everybody who didn't believe in me and really rub their noses in it?
Art dealer: It wouldn't be an art show without it.
Peggy: My God, art is fulfilling!

4. Lady and Gentrification
Season 12
The episode about hipsters. Probably the most accurate satire of hipster culture yet created. Is this enough to make it one of the best KOTH episodes ever? Sure is. Because no other show on television can accurately do this (unless it's a niche program on HBO, which only hipsters watch anyway. Thus accomplishing nothing in terms of satire). Gentrification is something that's hard to laugh at, but Mike Judge knows how to put the right joke out there.

Best line-
Enrique: This music... makes me feel weird. And depressed.


Hank: (sigh) Is everyone a DJ?
Peggy: Yes.

3. Reborn to be Wild
Season 8
The best episodes of KOTH have endings that warm your heart and remind you why you laugh at satire in the first place. This episode is about sincerity, and so marvelously attacks "Christian cool" that it's a miracle Relevant magazine still exists. Good satire won't work unless it's attacking a vice or folly. So when a professed faith of humility begins to twist into a fad, and "the Lord" can just become another trend, this is cause to spring into satirical action. Forget 'Stuff Christians Like', Reborn to be Wild is real satire of contemporary Christianity.

Best line-
Hank: Can't you see you're not making Christianity better, you're just making rock and roll worse.

2. Square Peg
Season 1
The second episode of the first season is, in many ways, the quintessential KOTH episode. We are introduced to the Hill family as conservative, uptight, and ignorant. This magic formula propels the series at full steam for 13 excellent seasons. It all starts with the substitute Spanish teacher stuttering "vagina," and a man with a narrow urethra. Nobody criticizes the sexual dysfunction of our country better than Mike Judge. KOTH reveals the sexually repressed side of America, but check out his films for the other extreme. Idiocracy and Extract both attack the rarely admitted folly of our "sex sells" informed capitalism.

Best line-
Hank: The whole neighborhood can hear ya cussin'!
Peg: It's not cussing to say the name of a God-given body part.
Hank: It is if it's a part of the body that's meant to be concealed by an undergarment!

1. Hilloween
Season 2
King of the Hill often made hilarious light of Evangelical hypocrisy throughout its run, but no episode worked the conflict between characters as well as Hilloween. Ultimately, as proven in the final episode of the series, this show is about family (especially the cross-generational relationship between a father and son). Bobby is a product of pop-culture, but Hank is a blue-collar republican. How can this father and son relate to one another due to these contrasting differences? The answer is always simpler than expected: generations can bond through a mutual respect for the power of tradition. The moral is presented perfectly in the climactic scene of the episode when an argument between Hank (candy) and the pastor (Hell) is settled by Bobby Hill: "I don't care about candy! ...I just want to be with my dad." The only right answer, of course. When all is said and done, holidays aren't about the superficial stuff, they're about the traditions we share with our loved ones.

Best line-
Pastor Junie: "The complacency of fools will destroy them! ... Proverbs!"
Hank: "Get out of my house! ...Exodus!"

Did I leave a classic off of the list? Tell me what you think. What are your favorite episodes?
(And any other favorite lines from the show.)

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The End of Crime ("I'd Buy That For A Dollar")

"Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves. But beware of men: for they will deliver you up to the councils, and they will scourge you in their synagogues"

Crime rates in Newark, New Jersey, have dropped over the past few years, but Chicago's have risen. Perhaps the city should bring in the National Guard to tend to the "crime problem," or maybe it would be better to stuff more police patrol units into areas like Englewood and Austin (where the majority of Chicago's crime takes place). Is there a way to make the crime problem go away? If so, is that what we really want? Why do we want to do away with crime? What is our motivation? Unfortunately, it's not always an ethical matter, and crime is an inescapable part of human life that can be made into a straw man for society's collective vices.

Two major market films with an overrated/underrated reputation (Overrated because everybody knows these movies, but underrated because the movies are highly-regarded for all of the wrong reasons) offered remarkable commentaries on the business of crime. They were filmed in separate decades, yet made the same prophecies of how a capitalistically inclined, imperial America may finally put an end to crime. Through the use of technology, ethical problems are solved. This is where the satire starts in Robocop, and the hypocrisy thrives in Minority Report.

Robocop is about a future society plagued by crime, where only a stronger force can eradicate the initial problem. It's about fighting fire with a bigger fire. But the system breaks down in two ways. First, the product (the Robocop) starts to remember its humanity. As a result, it bends its programs directives to achieve personal desires. Then there's the bigger problem, that the man in charge of crime prevention is himself a criminal. Under the guise of justice, he makes himself richer. There are paradoxes at the heart of both the protagonist and antagonist.

Then in Minority Report, the future seems to have less crime than ever. A Calvinistic justice program predetermines exactly who will commit murder, and arrests them before they have a chance to commit their crime. A metaphysical quandary, but a Utopian appearance on the surface. And that's the problem--there's still a sickness at heart. Just because a problem appears to be solved doesn't really make it so. There could be a larger problem hidden by the overshadowing solution (and certainly, there always is).

In both films, there's a key hubris. The glitch in the system is always a result of human error. "The flaw is always human." Furthermore, there is a vain belief in perfect technology. Technology that will solve problems that stem from human nature. We forget that technology is simply a synthetic extension of ourselves, not a separate entity.

So why can't technology solve the problem of crime? Here's the issue: human nature may be the reason for crime, but crime is not the cause of human nature. If we continue to combat the resultant alone, the cause will persist. Ethics is more complex than justice systems give it credit for. But fighting fire with fire isn't ethics.

The antagonist in Minority Report actually uses ethics as his ploy. Even pure ethics, a system designed for the overall betterment of society, can be wielded for one's selfish purposes. And this is not fiction. It doesn't just happen in the movies.

One of the most incredible metaphors in the Bible is the wolf. Scripture uses the animal to refer to a person who comes into a flock without the desire to help it. Here's where most Christians get the wolf metaphor wrong though: its intention is not to harm. The wolf's intention is to help itself. And every human has the potential to be a wolf, one who puts his own needs before a group's.

Ethics is a system that cannot work with wolves. Ethics assumes that people will trust each other, helping their community to thrive as a whole in order to bring about the greatest possible collective happiness. If the group is happy, the individual is happy.

One criminal may be a wolf to a society, but will killing him solve any problems? There will be another wolf, and another, and another. There isn't a cyborg cop the size of the National Guard that can change this. There isn't a political plan or system that will prevent humans from living for themselves.

The wolf is a metaphor for a human who has been pushed to the brink of his natural, primal needs. When we have no other choice, we will kill to survive. This is the case in all of nature. As soon as we find out why we're killing, only then can we talk about "fixes." Robocop doesn't ask why a criminal has stooped to the level of robbing a gas station, nor does Pre-Crime ask why murderers can't help but engage in their crimes of passion. They simply demand a cease and desist.

We've heard the wackos go on about "illegals." Their righteous anger fuels their hate for injustice. They don't care about why these immigrants are here, they only know that they are here against the law. They view "illegals" as wolves, here to destroy our great American flock. But they're wrong. The wolves have a right to life too, they are not simply a disease that must be annihilated. A better society can exist only when needs are understood, and then met. If our culture is content with pushing people into places of desperation, desperate actions will result.

Until we go extinct, there will be crime. But when the wolves come, maybe we can influence the criminal by living peacefully amongst one another. Maybe there can be ethics without selfish individualism. Maybe remembering that every sheep eventually dies will soothe the burning rage of the wackos. There is no such thing as Utopia, and treating real life like a movie will only result in a self-fulfilling prophecy of satirical folly.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Dog Gaydar

Sometimes I like to sit and watch what's going on around me. The other day I was casually people-watching at a bus stop in Boystown (why Boystown? I don't know.), when I noticed a guy walking a dog down Broadway. It was a seemingly happy chow chow. But it suddenly began to bark ferociously at a couple of guys who were holding hands as they walked, frightening the partners who clutched at each other with wide eyes and clenched teeth. The dog walker restrained his animal by pulling tightly on the leash, and apologized to the two men. They quickly waved it off with limp wrists and continued on their way.

I don't know what caused the dog to bark like that, but I decided to follow it around for a bit. It passed by a few more people: groups of friends, some women, bicyclists, children--but no more barking. Until, a man in sunglasses came walking toward it with a cell phone in his hand. Again, the dog lunged towards him, barking and snarling. The man's reaction was similar to that of the previous couple, only this man had no boyfriend's shoulder to clutch at. He just brought his elbows together while covering his clenched teeth with his wrists. Then he yelled "Oh gawd!" with a laughably stereotypical lisp. The dog continued barking as the walker apologized and tried to pull him along down the sidewalk.

We've heard about the dogs who growl at black people. The racist dogs who are taught by their owners to hate what their masters hate. Is it possible that the same thing can happen to dog owners who struggle with homophobia? Can a person who hates gay people pass it off onto his pooch? If this walk down Broadway was any indication, then yes. Dogs can be homophobic too.

But who was the owner of this chow chow bigot? This walker looked to be in his early 20s, wearing an old Cubs cap and American Eagle polo. But he looked more like a DePaul student than anything. Perhaps he just walked dogs to make some extra cash between classes. Was he a homophobe? Or just the dog-walker?

So I decided to talk to him, "Hi, what kind of dog is this?" I asked as we waited at the stop light for the walk signal. "It's a chow." he responded.

"Beautiful dog. Can I pet him?"

"Yeah, he seems fine with you."

An interesting response... but I knelt down and rubbed the dog's head. "Yoor such a good boyyy! Yes yoo ahrrr!"

The dog didn't bark at all. It even appeared to have a smile on its face. But after they began walking again, I stopped a few steps back and hid behind an alleyway to see if the dog would attack anyone again. And sure enough... This time, the victim was a muscular man wearing a dress and high heels. An easy target for this monstrous, anti-gay beast.

So it all begged the question: did this dog have gaydar?

I decided to try one last experiment. I ran over to the parallel sidewalk on the other side of Broadway and started jogging ahead of the dog and his walker. Once I was about a block ahead of them, I crossed back over to the other side and strutted towards the oncoming chow. I swung my hips. I kept one elbow bent up and let my hand hang loosely. This would be it. If the dog barked at me, surely it would mean that the owner is a homophobe. But then I was interrupted by a man in a tank top. "Hey baby, which way you headin'?"

"Uhhh, I'm not interested..."

"Well I'm interested. Mind if I join you?"

"I'm not gay."

"Uhmmm. What do you mean?"

"I'm just trying to see if this dog attacks me for being flamboyant. Sorry to confuse you."

He stopped talking to me and turned around to walk the other way. I felt rude, but this was an important moment and I couldn't let myself get distracted. The dog was a few steps away from me, and I was pursing my lips and crossing my legs with each step. After we passed each other, I turned around with drooping shoulders to look at the dog. It hadn't even looked at me. It just kept walking without a single woof. But as soon as it reached the next stoplight, the man in the tank top who had approached me just moments prior was also waiting to cross. The dog looked up at him, and then bit him in the leg.

Maybe he could tell that I was faking. But the thing I just can't figure out, is why this bigoted dog was being walked through Boystown in the first place.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Don't Miss Out: Chicago Street Fests

They suggest five dollars, but if you really must sneak down an alley to avoid giving a few bucks to local chamber of commerce, so be it. But the important thing about Chicago street fests: they're one of the best parts of the summer. As the lineups continue to be announced, Saturdays and Sundays are filling up on the calendar rapidly. I don't know if anybody even pays for indoor shows during the summer. We get more than enough out in the open air.

Here are the fests you can't miss. See ya there:

Do-Division: June 5 & 6
Division and Damen
The crowd sucks, I know. But last year, this street fest got Menomena to headline. So, there's good reason to shove past the Cubs fans and Wicker Park yuppies for Do-Division. This year, they got the Hood Internet, Sybris and YACHT.

Metronome Celebration: June 12 & 13
Milwaukee and Armitage
Logan Square was long overdue for a proper street fest, but they nailed it last year with Metronome. Here We Go Magic was the highlight of 2009, but the fest has taken things up a notch for 2010. Akron/Family. Come ready to get high on something. Something that'll make you dance like a hippie.

Green Music Festival: June 26 & 27
Chicago and Noble
This one isn't exactly a "street" fest, but it's close enough. It's smaller than most street fests actually, just as good on the music front. This year, David Bazan, Fang Island and Cloud Cult are playing in Ukrainian Village's Ekhart Park.

West Fest: July 10 & 11
Chicago and Damen
Now this Ukrainian Village fest does it in the street, closing down the mighty Chicago Avenue for two whole days. So far they've announced Fucked Up, and haven't yet revealed the headliner. But if Fucked Up has to play opener to some bigger act, that's a good sign.

Wicker Park Fest: July 31 & August 1
North and Division
I never go to this fest. It's too crowded usually. But, they always do have solid lineups. They haven't announced this year's yet, but expect the names to be big enough to turn the crotch of Wicker Park into an ocean of neon sunglasses and bad haircuts.

Oh, and don't forget the Renegade Craft Fair at the end of summer.

See ya in the street!

Friday, May 07, 2010

David Cross: Bigger and Blackerer

Successful comedians are always smarter than their audiences. They make the people in the crowd think that they’re so clever for getting the jokes. Comedians purposefully do this. Well, okay, Dane Cook is up for debate. But David Cross is one smart comedian. He knows exactly what will make his niche audience squirm, giggle or groan.

Religion. Hard drugs. Whole Foods. David Cross possesses a charming disdain that can simultaneously praise and scold the hipster scene he works in. And they love it. Oh, I might as well go through with this… I love it. I’ve been in Whole Foods enough times to understand why Cross would take a stab at that way-too-expensive supermarket’s way-too-green marketing efforts. There aren’t many other comedians who go there.

In my mind, David Cross is a huge star, but, astonishingly, I still regularly meet people who don’t know who he is. They may know “Tobias from Arrested Development,” but they don’t know the actor’s real name. They don’t realize that he was in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I’m Not There or the best scene in Men in Black. Nor have they ever even heard of Mr. Show. But this is exactly why David Cross is successful. He appeals to the indie kids, that self-centered sub-culture that pride themselves in knowing what the mass market doesn’t know.

So in essence, his comedy should be insufferable. If his audience is comprised of Old Style chuggers and bike polo players, one would assume his comedy would be contrived in the worst kind of hipster way. But no, he’s funny. Why? Because he’s smarter than his audience.

In his latest release for Sub Pop, Bigger and Blackerer, Cross tells tales of encountering shady homeless guys in New York City, shitting his pants due to an excess of heroin, racist pedophiles, sarcastic white entitlement and ironic atheism.

One of my favorite moments is when Cross makes fun of the devil. “He has comically limited powers… If you get possessed all you gotta do is show him a cross. Just show it to him! He hates reminders. ‘Oh! Don’t remind me!’” Cross doesn’t really condemn faith as much as he points out how bizarre it is to do what so many Evangelicals have done: interpret it literally.

“What’s the gravity situation in Heaven like?”

“There must be trillions of people in Heaven by now, it must be packed! …not that many Chinese probably, but still...”

“And when you get to Heaven… are you magically imbued with being able to communicate to all people regardless of language barrier or the era they’re from?”

Smarmy as it is, David Cross helps his fans think of religion for what it can be—absurd. He doesn’t just take on Christianity either; he goes hard at Scientology and Mormonism. Cross criticizes religion with more intellect and wit than Richard Dawkins could ever manage. It’s not surprising though, this is just what the best comedians can do. Through extreme silliness, they make powerful social, political and philosophical statements. They’re the philosophers of the postmodern age, really.

In a lazy era of illiteracy and video game addiction, the majority of our generation’s knowledge has come from the first eight seasons of The Simpsons. But why not, The Simpsons (first eight seasons) was hilarious, and had very strong messages about American society and cultural folly. If kids don’t have the patience to read books anymore, thank goodness there are people like Matt Groening and David Cross out there helping them think in new ways somehow.

Comedy writing is still one of those things that gets through to people. Whether it’s Tina Fey doing a spot-on Sarah Palin, Tim and Eric tapping into our collective subconscious, or David Cross making light of clinical depression, these are the people we’re most likely to listen to. Not a politician. Not a pastor. Not a parent. Why? Because those three P’s don’t want to make us laugh. They just want to change our minds and have us believe what they believe. So if, on the other hand, someone is courteous enough to stand in front of an audience with the sole purpose of making that group of people smile, that individual deserves our attention. Laughter feels so much better when it’s amongst friends. Good comedians are smart enough to know this too. There’s power in numbers, but even more power when those numbers are laughing together.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Hasn't Come Out Yet: Wolf Parade - Expo 86

Release date: June 29, 2010

If Iron Maiden and Ratatat have taught us anything, it's that electric guitar harmonies are unarguably awesome. If you heard the two new songs from the upcoming Wolf Parade album, you've been assured that Spencer Krug has also learned this musical fact. Expo 86 is Wolf Parade's best album by far. I can't even remember what their first two albums sound like anymore. And now that I've heard this, I don't even care about the upcoming Arcade Fire album either. There's no way it'll beat Expo 86. But if a Canadian band releases something better than this in 2010, I'm moving up north.

I'm one of those suckers for accessibility. There are so many hooks on this album, you'd have to be an asshole to hate on it. I know Wolf Parade flirted with that before, but they seemed a little too concerned with maintaining some sort of fuzzy quirkiness instead of just letting loose and rocking out. And we all knew they were capable of some epic stuff, I'll Believe in Anything couldn't have been clearer on that. But there was always a bunch of filler. I don't know what good that did for anybody though. I always skipped those noisy tracks on their last two albums. But there's not a single track on Expo 86 I want to skip.

They've gone a little bit Modest Mouse on us. And I know a lot of people won't hear that as a good thing, but come on, Good News For People Who Love Bad News wasn't that bad in retrospect. So Wolf Parade is pulling in the disco drums we've come to expect from The Killers or Franz Ferdinand. But don't worry. It's okay. Spencer Krug didn't screw this up. The band just sounds more inclined to encapsulate an audience at an outdoor festival now, instead of just at a college town basement show.

I couldn't be more pleased with this record. Truth be told, Wolf Parade is simply focusing on their strong points now: hard-driving rhythm, unpredictable harmony, and catchy-as-all-hell melody. Expo 86 will result in their firm establishment as one of the best rock bands today. It's not just indie anymore. This rock and roll is packaged for the masses. Forget those odd time signatures and glockenspiels, this is 2010 people. Fuck irony. Wolf Parade is setting a tone for a decade of damaged ear-drums and post-MTV sincerity.

LISTEN: What Did My Lover Say (It Always Had To Go This Way)