Friday, June 05, 2009

Time to Die

Hi everyone,

It's time to kill Inbound Gowanus. My new blog will be called "Patently Oblivious." It'll be at It's pretty ugly right now, but Becca is working on making it look purdy, so bear with the changes. Love you all!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Beautiful Demise of Detroit

Two French photographers, Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, have documented the abandoned ruins of Detroit in a new series of photograps on their website. It's quite breathtaking.

Detroit's crumbling facade has become the de facto symbol of the faltering American auto industry. What was once an industrial mecca full of luxury hotels and fancy restaurants has, through deindustrialization and middle class flight, transformed into a postmodern symbol of the dark side of capitalism. Definitely worth a look.

And the Lions aren't gonna be decent any time soon, either.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

2009: The Year It Became Cool To Be Smart

After Obama's win in the 2008 election, there was a lot of talk about the end of the "dumb-as-I-wanna-be," Joe Six-Pack style of politics embodied by George Bush and, more recently, Sarah Palin. While labeling those two as practitioners of "dumb politics" is a bit reductive, there is a lot of validity to the idea that Obama is a bit more bookish than the average politician, and that played in his favor once the economic crisis started; it just felt better having a smart dude in the White House during times like these.

There have since been a lot of organizations trying to explain the financial crisis, as it is a situation so far beyond the understanding of normal folks. One of the best has been a public radio project called "Planet Money." It's a joint effort between NPR's Adam Davidson and Alex Blumberg, and it's been distributed mostly through the programs All Things Considered and This American Life. The shows that they've done for This American Life are among the most fantastic pieces of reportiing and storytelling I've ever heard. Listen to Part 1 ("The Giant Pool of Money"), Part 2 ("Another Frightening Show About the Economy"), and the latest, Part 3 ("Bad Bank").

Another example of how it's cool to be smart these days is the Khan Academy, a not-for-profit organization that provides tutorials on math, science and, most recently, finance and the banking crisis. In simple, 10-minute videos, the site breaks down concepts like liquidity, examines what happens when a bank fails, and traces the fall of housing prices. It's an incredible resource for anyone hoping to learn more about just about anything math or science-related.

It's quite encouraging that the response of so many people to this banking crisis is to try to learn more about it and understand the complexities. It's no longer acceptable to simply say, "Bankers have always been crooks, it's no different today," or "That's for other people to figure out." There's a sense that we're all in this together, that good ideas about the economy could come from anywhere. It's kind of scary, but pretty exciting too.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Going Galt

Ayn Rand’s tirade against big government, Atlas Shrugged, finds a new set of devotees with each incoming class of college freshmen. It’s one of those books that will always resonate with a significant portion of the population. It hovers near the top of most lists of the most influential books of the 20th Century, and its sales have maintained a steady clip in the fifty or so years since its publication.

But something interesting has been going on this year. As the Economist reports, sales of Atlas Shrugged have been steadily rising and even spiking in conjunction with events like the bank bailout and the stimulus package. The sales rank of the book in the first months of the year was several hundred places higher than where it typically sits, reaching as high as #33 on January 13.

Looking back historically, there is evidence to suggest that any time governments begin to intervene in things that are usually private, sales of the book spike. Adding fuel to this latest flare-up are bloggers and right-wing pundits who are lamenting the control that the government is assuming. Many are even floating the idea of “going Galt” and, like the protagonist of the book, ceasing work so that the engine of the world stops. That’ll show ‘em.

The problem with this comparison (aside from the fact that bloggers and pundits consider themselves essential to the operation of the world) is that Rand’s philosophy is a model based not off of a reality but off of an ideal. Or, more accurately, the only way Rand could envision her philosophy was by defining what it was not. Rand grew up in Soviet Russia, a society so hindered by its government that it eventually collapsed under the weight of it. She was right on there. Trying to apply the principles contained in her books to our present situation is like trying to recreate M.C. Escher with an Etch-a-Sketch. Rand deals in broad strokes, and her philosophy only works in a vacuum. That’s one reason why they’re so popular among college students, the one population with very high intelligence but very low experience.

I find it surprising that people try to apply Rand’s philosophy to government. Where her ideas are valuable, and where I think her points are most salient, are in the arts. This is another reason why they are so popular among college students, a population that views everything with an earnestness and idealism that is usually the domain of artists. Howard Roark and John Galt are icons of the counterculture because they stood up against the machine and went their own way, regardless of how much resistance they faced. When you apply that to government, you get George W. Bush, and you get the sort of principles that led to the banking crisis.

Pundits can crow all they like about “going Galt” and the idea of the creative classes bringing the world to its knees, but it’s a notion that doesn’t have much basis in reality. It sure makes for some good TV though.

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Top 20 of 2008: #1

1. Fucked Up - The Chemistry of Common Life

Ok, where the fuck did this come from? That's what I hear you saying. And you're right. I have no business making The Chemistry of Common Life my favorite album of 2008. I like stuff like Ryan Adams and My Morning Jacket (who both had albums this year, by the way, one was ok and one sucked hard). I don't listen to hardcore. I don't even know how to distinguish good hardcore from bad hardcore. What the hell, Cliff?

I'll tell you what the hell. This record knocked my block off in a way that hasn't happened in years. From its very first notes (played on a flute, natch) you can tell something is different. There isn't anything typical about this record. Opener "Son the Father" slowly builds from that flute opening to a tsunami of guitar rage and Cookie Monster growling, punctuated by whipsmart lyrics like "It's hard enough being born in the first place, who would ever want to be born again?" This ain't your older brother's hardcore.

The rest of the album refuses to fall in line, going from the bongo-driven march of "Magic Word" to apocalyptic doom of "Days of Last" to the surrealistic power pop of "Black Albino Bones." These guys are falling all over themselves to do a mind job on you, both with their unconventional music choices and their incredibly smart, thought-provoking lyrics. Granted, you'll need a lyric sheet to keep up, but these guys sing about politics and religion with a unique and challenging point of view. It's totally unexpected.

No other album this year took my breath away like The Chemistry of Common Life. I listen throughout the year to stuff that I play again and again, but a few years on I find myself not even thinking about those albums any more. The majority of this list probably falls into that category, to tell you the truth. This album is going to stick with me for a long time. It made me relish the rush of hearing a song once and then immediately playing it again at twice the volume. It gives me chills. It's an instant classic, and it made me believe in the power of music yet again.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Top 20 of 2008: #2

2. Frightened Rabbit - The Midnight Organ Fight

I get the sense listening to Frightened Rabbit's second record that they consider themselves to still be amateurs. They talk a good deal in interviews about the short amount of time between when they first started playing together as a band and when they began recording their debut album. And you can really hear that amateurism on their first album, a garbled mess of mumbled lyrics and sluggish songs that is not worth anyone's time, even as a novelty. I'm quite glad that they still consider themselves to be amateurs on The Midnight Organ Fight, because if they didn't they might not have written such amazing, raw, risky songs or played them with such abandon. Let's hear it for the amateurs!

Even if they still feel like amateurs themselves, the songs on the record display a sophisticated grasp of structure and pace that is nowhere to be found on their first record. The one-two opening punch of "The Modern Leper" and "I Feel Better" is about as good an opening combo as can be found in pop music, and they set the tone of the album beautifully. This is a break-up album through and through, but unlike other break-up albums (I'm thinking specifically of Blood on the Trackshere), you don't any sense of hope or strength. These are self-flagellating, angry songs that point the finger of blame squarely into the mirror. It's unconventional, and it works beautifully.

Despite the startling unanimity of theme, there is a shining bright spot towards the middle of the record called "Old Old Fashioned," an entreaty to a lover to turn the TV off and dance to an old radio. It's a beautiful song, and it feels like an old Polaroid that briefly interrupts a really bad night of wallowing. And it's just as earnest and open as the rest of the album, with lines like "Give me soft, soft static, with a human voice underneath." It's quintessentially Scottish.

I think the best thing about The Midnight Organ Fight are the razor-sharp lyrics. These guys know a great couplet. Some of my favorites are:
"I am ill but I'm not dead, and I don't know which of those I'd prefer"
"I left the house without a fucking clue, and left New York City, girl, without you"
"I might not want you back but I want to kill him"
"You're the shit and I'm knee deep in it"
I'm hoping that we keep getting great stuff from these guys, but for some reason this feels like "one great album" syndrome. Somehow I feel like these guys hit on something here that they may not be able to recapture. I hope for all of our sakes that I'm wrong.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Top 20 Of 2008: #3

3. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds - Dig!!! Lazarus, Dig!!!

It's hard to believe that it's been nearly 25 years since Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds first rose from the ashes of The Birthday Party. That first Bad Seeds albums, From Her to Eternity, was everything Jim Morrison wanted to be but never could - dark, literate, interesting and intensely sexual. Morrison could never get past his own ego. You always felt like Nick Cave could take or leave all of us who admired him. He'd be doing it even if we never paid attention.

25 years on, Cave has released on of the best albums of his career. He and the Bad Seeds have been on a hot streak since 2004. That year's double album, Abbatoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, established their credentials as one of the best, most interesting bands making music. It broadened the band's horizons beyond the "band of misfits and ne'er-do-wells" label that lazy critics had tended to slap on them. Then, in 2007, Grinderman burst onto the scene spewing fluids and vitriol all over everything and everyone in its path. It was an intensely sexual album, and it signaled that Cave and the Bad Seeds may have gotten older, but they were just as depraved and energetic as ever.

Dig!!! Lazarus, Dig!!! continues the attitude begun on Grinderman, but whereas that album was a bit of a one-trick pony in my opinion, Dig!!! Lazarus, Dig!!! is a wonderfully varied effort that touches on every facet of the band's songwriting, from the jaunty storytelling of the title track to the dirty-old-man attitude of "Today's Lesson" to the quiet menace of "Night of the Lotus Eaters" and "Jesus on the Moon." There are a number of biblical references on the record, although in an interview last year with Terry Gross, Cave described the album as his least religious album to date.

The Bad Seeds have never sounded more vital as a band. There are all sorts of squeaks and whirrs on this album that sound like power tools creating not just percussion but melody as well. One imagines the band as Stomp on acid, a group of men so self-assured and familiar with each other that they could make music with just about anything you gave them. They're so good that they embody Cave's lyric on "Today's Lesson": "There oughta be some kind of law against me goin' down the street." Other bands simply don't stand a chance.