Sunday, July 18, 2010

Wolf Parade at Beachland

Call it fact, call it fiction, but there's a story behind the title of Wolf Parade's debut album Apologies to the Queen Mary.

The band supposedly trashed their room at the Queen Mary hotel so bad that they felt obliged to publicly apologize in the form of a record.

This story might seem hard to believe if you know anything about Wolf Parade: the Canadian indie quartet plays mostly bouncy Beach Boys-style rock heavy with synths, retro charm and unique vocals sent straight from tree-huggers up north.

Yet while the group’s studio material rarely approaches anything near a fever pitch, Wolf Parade proved that it can back up its wild reputation on-stage during a frenetic 90+-minute set at the Beachland Ballroom in Cleveland Thursday night.

Playing mostly material from their third studio album, Expo 86, released late last month, co-songwriters Spencer Krug and Dan Boeckner traded off songs, throwing their heads into spasms as they tried to keep u with the blazing pace of most songs.

Expo 86’s more straight-ahead rock feel coincided with the show’s frenetic mood, but several old tracks were also took a burst of caffeine in hopes of keeping up. "Fine Young Cannibals" and "California Dreamer," two tracks from Wolf Parade’s middle album, At Live Zoomer, shook off their subdued studio tones, and while the latter’s interlude teetered on the point of sounding overdrawn, the song’s frenzied outro more than compensated for this. Hit single “I’ll Believe in Anything” was one of the surprise beneficiaries of the group’s energy, as they tore through the track in what could not have been more than two minutes of drunken Thursday night sing-along.

And while the quartet mostly got things right in selecting their new material – save for the exclusion of Expo standout track "Little Golden Age" – it was surprising to see a bit more material from Zoomer than from the critically acclaimed hotel-room smasher.

The group’s song selection was most suspect on its encore. Krug perhaps exposed the band’s mistake of choosing favorites that simply don’t translate well during shows when he opened penultimate song “Two Men in Tuxedos” proudly saying something along the lines of, “The critics don’t like this song, but we’re playing it anyway.” That track, surely one of the weakest from Expo thanks to its meandering pace and lack of direction, was followed with Zoomer’s 8-minute closer, “Kissing the Beehive.” While a perfectly fine track on the album, Wolf Parade’s rhythmically complex closer seemed a bit too much for the crowd to go home to, especially since few of those in attendance seemed familiar with it.

Still, there were plenty of cheers as the band finished its set. And although Wolf Parade’s sound could be best described as cacophonic and at the expense of instrumental clarity in Beachland's intimate setting – this author's ears will still ringing the following morning – the group surely made up for its sonic deficiencies in sheer energy and enthusiasm.

Japanese band the Moools started the night off with a very solid set to a crowd that would have been mostly unfamiliar with their work. Guitarist Yasuaki Sakai’s voice was all over the place, but the instruments were spot on as the band played no-frills, infectious rock' n' roll. And to cap things off, Sakai and the rest of the band were visibly thrilled to be on-stage and in America. Sakai described his band’s brief visit of Niagara Falls earlier that morning, and vowed to do some sightseeing in Cleveland (although it wasn’t clear exactly what he would be visiting, especially now that LeBron is gone). And when his rudimentary English finally reached its limit, Sakai instantly made himself a fan favorite by settling with earnest suggestions to “Buy our stuff.”

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Google Reader is the reason for 99% of my posts

Terrific article from the NYT magazine showed up in my Google Reader inbox today. A must-reed for soccer fans on the Ajax youth training center, which has exported guys like Sneijder and Van der Vaart to rich European clubs.

The article rightly notes that formerly storied teams like Ajax now simply content themselves (or are forced to) sell their best players to richer clubs (But even if a team has tons of cash, if it sells all of its players and thus doesn't win much, then what's the point?). The author calls this phenomenon a result of globalization, which I think is a bit too easy and simplistic, but it definitely shows the sad state of World club soccer, which resembles the MLB much more than more financially egalitarian leagues like the NFL.

The most interesting aspect of the article is what it shows about how youth are groomed. The heartless training system rewards only the cream of the crop (who will go on to riches later on in life), while those who are not good enough to make it all the way to the top are jettisoned along the way.

In an article that draws a bit on differences between Dutch and American soccer development systems, I'm going to take the liberty to use my experiences in French school to draw some comparisons between how kids grow up in Europe and in the U.S.

The fact that a talented young Dutch soccer player will basically stop seriously trying in school to pursue a soccer career when he could eventually not be good enough to earn even a liveable wage in semi-pro leagues is a depressing reality. But it's not just like that in soccer.

Spare my generalizations, but European education forces teenagers (and even pre-teens) to decide what type of career they are going to have early on by what kind of subjects they concentrate on, and even what kind of school they go to (Regular high school for the smartest, and various trade and professional schools for those who are not cut for academics).

Besides the fact that this places a lot of pressure on kids from a young age and rewards those who develop intellectually from a young age, it also means that if a kid eventually realizes they don't like, aren't cut out for, or aren't good enough for what they are doing, they are basically fucked.

And without a good education, what is a former soccer prodigy going to do in life?

My friends in France were always surprised that I didn't have a major in high school (or even up until my junior year) as if going on in general studies was a waste. But I see it more as a way to keep opportunities open instead of on one subject.

Granted the European way of being essentially trained to be a plumber early on might make it easier to get a job, but the American system is much more forgiving, and in the sports arena, it does provide elite athletes with an education they would not receive in Europe (Although people familiar with competitive collegiate athletics might disagree with that).

So here is the question both in soccer and in life: Is it better to have kids focus on a certain career from a young age in the hopes that this gives them a better chance of eventual success, or is it better to leave their options open, as is done, in principle, both on and off the field in U.S.

The NYT article suggests that college educations for top soccer players in the U.S. will inevitably restrict the competitiveness of U.S. soccer teams and players. Instead, maybe a Dutch system is necessary for the U.S. to compete on the global soccer state (Although the author does a good job at criticizing the ruthless soccer factory at Ajax).

But at what cost?



Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The National

To complete my journalism/soccer/music power trio, let me talk a bit about The National, a band a lot of you have probably heard of. Instead of logically talking about their new release, I'll revert back to their previous album, Boxer, since I haven't listened to the new one, High Violet, and listened to pitchfork, I did think their review of Boxer was definitely right in certain respects. Specifically, I think Boxer is an album that you need to ease your way into, more than other albums. It doesn't come out and hit you after one listen, and even the standout opening track, Fake Empire, takes a few listens before the epic build-up really gets you.

Contrary to the end of Fake Empire, Boxer is a lot about key emotional moments in each song (2:30 in Slow Show and before the choruses in Green Gloves). The fact that the rest of the somber album (that someone on pitchfork described as one that demands a person in a dark room sipping whiskey while regretting lost love) is so quietly subtle only heightens these moments. Because Boxer is an album with a distinct mood, haunting melodies that stay in your head - possibly because they don't occur as often as you might hope.

Boxer is great in that it is not overly-ambitious. The National are not over-bearing in what they do. They come off as regular guys writing - God how can I say this? - indie music with a distinctly working-class ethos. This is not music for Brooklyn hipster dandies, but music for the tough yet sensitive day laborer somewhere in Virginia.

There aren't the stand-out tracks that will jump out at you, but as I all too often find myself saying, give this album a few listens and it will grow on you.

If I were a lyrics guy, I would take the time to look them up and read them, and this would help support (hopefully not refute) my thoughts on the album. But I am stubbornly anti-lyrics, so this will have to suffice.

More M.I.A. drama!

Call me prophetic, but without knowing that much about Lynn Hirschberg, the author of the NYT magazine profile on M.I.A., but it turns out the author didn't neutrally paint a portrait of M.I.A., she seems to have altered quotes - and in my opinion the worst thing she did - she fixed things in a way as to help support her point of M.I.A. being a string of contradictions between a rudeboy political rebel and a materialistic artist living a life of luxury. I'm specifically referring to the Truffle-covered French fry incident. This is pretty shitty if M.I.A. is telling the truth (which it seems like she is), so although some of the contradictions in Hirschbergy's article do strike me as worthy, her - and her piece's - credibility are forever tarnished. Too bad for what might have been a decent article...

U.S. - Turkey

A little late on this, but just wanted to get my thoughts out on the U.S. team's latest 2-1 friendly victory over Turkey. I'm starting to think more and more that friendly results heading into the World Cup aren't that reliable, as a lot of teams have had mixed results (A part of this thinking might be a way to protect some of my sleeper teams like South Korea and Mexico, who have had their fair share of losses recently), but there is no doubt that the U.S. had a solid win against a team that is probably stronger than both Slovenia and Algeria.

The thing that impressed me about the U.S.'s win was that they really didn't look good during the first 20 minutes of the game. They were getting outplayed by a more aggressive, confident, and quicker Turkish team that has its fair share of players at strong European teams, but managed to bounce back for a great result.

It's been a few days so not everything is fresh in my memory, but I remember the game as being more about key moments than about spurts of dominant play by either side. Turkey capitalized on a gap in the U.S. defense, showing just how quickly good teams can capitalize on a mistake.

The U.S. defense held up despite looking shaky, and allowed a resurgent U.S. squad to dominate in the second half. New additions to U.S. soccer Edson Buddle and Jose Torres were very impressive, and provided a spark for the team throughout. Landon Donovan was involved in both goals, reaffirming that he'll need to repeat his strong showing in 2002 if the U.S. is going to succeed. Dempsey showed what a solid goalscorer he has been all season, and U.S.A. showed just how much potential offensive power it has by capitalizing on two key moments. It's great to have a come-from-behind win and show a lot of fight in them. They showed that they don't even need to necessarily dominate an entire game to get the result - they just need a few key moments to key in on.

I think one of the the important things to take out of this match is that although the U.S. roster is certainly replete with guys who play for pretty legit teams in Europe (I'll include MLS loan to Everton Donovan on that list), guys like Buddle show that MLS players (at least some of them) are not pushovers in international competition. It no longer seems to be the case the only Americans playing abroad can compete highly at the international level. This is good news for the MLS, although I still don't think the MLS quality of play is high enough to warrant serious interest.

I still like the U.S. to advance, and see Denmark, South Korea, and Mexico as bubble teams that will make it pretty far. I also, against my better judgment, like Ivory Coast maybe beating out portugal. We'll see about that, more serious predictions later...

Friday, May 28, 2010

Some music

All thanks to Lil Wayne pandora (the 2nd best next to the inimitable phoenix pandora)

Hip hop and rap (they are different)

T.I. - I'm Back New song from the King, who is apparently no longer behind bars. Tip's flow is expectedly solid, but what really makes this song is the beat, which is impeccable on T.I.'s hit songs. The recurring provide most of the melody, but notice the weird UFO sounds every once in a while, and the drum beat is noticeably T.I.-esque.

More Tip! Ride wit me I knew King was a great album, but sheepishly will admit that I hadn't listened to it thoroughly enough to catch this killer track. This one is a bit more laid back - something to listen to as you ride around in your tricked-out SUV in the suburbs - or even the hood, I guess. The synth that is so prominent on T.I.'s best tracks like "What you know" is infectious and catchy as hell.

For something a little more underground: Mos Def Sunshine I'm a bit baffled that pandora thought to include both Mos Def and T.I. on the playlist, but I think that says a lot about our Lord Weezy. Weezy has the mainstream cred to put out club songs like T.I., but his wordplay is creative (weird?) enough to be comparable to Mos. The New York MC is really on point on this one, and while the sample is infectious (strings once again provide much of the interest), Mos Def steals the show.


Soccer in the U.S.

I was listening to pittsburgh sports radio yesterday on my way to go an interview some pittsburgh steelers players, which was sick, and they were talking about soccer, which of course perked my interest. More specifically, they were talking about why soccer isn't more popular in the U.S. Admittedly, the guys on the radio - especially this one - weren't huge soccer fans, and the callers seemed to be fighting a losing battle arguing for why soccer is important.

When one dj suggested that the U.S. was the outlier for not liking soccer, while the rest of the world found sports like baseball boring, the one especially ignorant dj responded with an infallible argument: "there are 2 indian guys in the minor leagues," he said, which obviously meant that the whole world did not think that baseball was boring.

But enough of non-soccer fans' opinions, let me try in a few paragraphs to understand why soccer has been unable to find a major foothold among U.S. sports fans. An important point raised on the radio was that it's not as if no one in the U.S. played soccer. The beautiful game is the most played sport among America's youth if my memory serves me right, so the question is, why doesn't this translate into Americans watching soccer?

The two reasons are inextricably linked. One, the local American league, the MLS, just isn't that good. The more I watch the MLS, the more I see a noticeable difference in the quality of goals in the MLS and in English and Spanish football. The level of play just isn't as high as in Europe, so true soccer fans would rather see the best players in other leagues.

This inherently creates another problem - no local teams for fans to root for. American sport fans are pretty diehard for their local tams - or whatever teams they root for. This is what a 13-year old guy in Liverpool has that American soccer fans don't have. Instead, many soccer-playing American sports fans will also root for their favorite football team or basketball team. I remember guys on how guys on my soccer teams would talk about the New York Giants and the Lakers just as much - if not more - than Manchester United or Arsenal, not to even speak of, say, D.C. United or the L.A. Galaxy.

This means that until the MLS can compete with the other leagues, soccer as a spectator sport will never compete with America's three pastimes (sp?): baseball, basketball, and football (and even hockey!). I read a good book by Grant Wahl on the Beckham Experiment - when David Beckham came play for the L.A. Galaxy - that deals with the topic.

Yes many Americans are excited for the World Cup - even perhaps some that don't follow league football all that much - but national team soccer isn't frequent enough to make true soccer fans out of most Americans. Once the MLS is on par with other leagues (if ever), then kids will grow up as fans of New England Revolution, as well as the Celtics and Red Sox.


Everyone loves a bit of journalism controversy, right? (Or is it just me?) I had never been a huge fan of M.I.A., which isn't to say that I didn't like her, but I was definitely interested by the recent N.Y. Times Magazine profile prompted an angry yet pretty clever response by M.I.A. Basically M.I.A. listed a number for fans of hers to call - which turned out to be author Lynn Hirschberg's message machine. It's too bad Hirschberg didn't take the clever move with a grain of salt, but this issue definitely highlights the leeway magazine journalism writers get to not only tell a story, but to tell it in a very concerted way that proves their point.

If hip hop is collage, then so is magazine journalism. You can tell that Hirschberg carefully selected a variety of ammunition which pretty effectively highlight certain contradictions in MIA's (i'm sick of putting in the periods) persona. The scene in which a neighbor visits a Sri Lankan photographer MIA had been collaborating with, and asks a presumably blinged-out MIA what she's doing there, sticks out. The artist clearly doesn't notice the class tension, and dumbly responds, "Why wouldn't I be here?"

The tough thing with this situation, and the reason I might understand MIA's anger is that Hirschberg is surely picking quotes, scenes, symbols, etc. very conscientiously in order to prove her point. There are probably several details she left out that might have contradicted her argument, but of course she doesn't mention them.

I know from personal experience that it can be easy when writing something like this to focus on an angle, and then just look for evidence that supports your point, while ignoring the rest.

Basically, this whole commotion shows how subjective magazine journalism can sometimes be, and with so much freedom to tell a narrative, it can be tough to remain balanced, and it is inevitable that your point of view will likely come across (whereas in more straight-forward, hard news pieces, that point of view may still be there, but is just less noticeable).

I can know say that I know a bit about Sri Lanka's political strife!

Let's give M.I.A. a little shout-out. I listened to Kala for the first time in a long-time, and here's a track that stood out. It's droned-out and sound's remarkable like that song "Blue Monday" by prodigy. Here it is:

New beginnings

So this whole blogging thing is new to me, but at least it's not a myspace or a xanga or one of those things. Anyways, this will be a place for me to rant about a variety of things: sports, music, journalism, quirky things I notice in everyday life, etc.

I hope people will read this. I more hope my dry tone will accurately be conveyed to readers, if any.

Here we go I guess...