Friday, September 21, 2012

Pop Culture Roundup

I've been reading Bo's Lasting Lessons this week, co-written by Bo Schembechler and John U. Bacon. You know the former as one of the greatest head coaches the University of Michigan ever had, and you may know the latter as the guy who also wrote Three and Out, a blow-by-blow recap of Michigan's (thankfully short-lived) RichRod era. Anyway, this book is part memoir and part lessons on leadership: Bo recounts memorable moments from his entire coaching career and extracts general tips on being a leader from them. So, for example, the first few chapters tell of his early years learning from guys like Ara Parseghian and Woody Hayes, and he parlays that into some general thoughts about the importance of having good mentors. A little later, he tells of his first season at Michigan and establishing what you're about right away while at the same time respecting the institution's history and tradition. This book has been entertaining, informative, insightful, and has caused me to reflect on my practices as a pastor more than once.

The new season of Boardwalk Empire started this past Sunday, most of which served as a setup for what is to come. We had to do quite a bit of "where are they now?" which includes Nucky apparently going full gangster while maintaining some helpful political ties and keeping a public image as a philanthropist. Jimmy's mother now runs a brothel and is raising Jimmy's son as her own, to Richard's silent objections. And we have a new obvious foil for Nucky in Gyp Rosetti, who beats up a guy with a tire iron in the very first scene after a perceived slight and who goes off on a swear-filled tirade when Nucky tells him he's not selling booze to him anymore. I get that we're meant to see him as a complete sociopath, but I'm used to a little more nuance from this show than we're apparently going to get from Rosetti. But it's still early, so I probably shouldn't rush to judgment. Regardless, this season is shaping up to be much more of a straight-up gangster show, now that Nucky no longer needs to balance the line with his political office. As the dearly departed Jimmy told him, "You can't be half a gangster." I guess that goes for the show as a whole, too.

I've now made it through the first three seasons of Mad Men, which does have plenty of nuance to go around. That's why I maintain that this is my Sopranos replacement rather than Boardwalk Empire. Draper is not the most honorable guy in the room by any means, but he's played in such a way that I like rooting for him, just like a certain pasta-loving Italian from North Jersey. I've only seen the first episode of season 4 so far, but a lot of the characters who went on to form Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Pryce (just rolls off the tongue, doesn't it?) have landed on their feet, relatively speaking. I wonder what if anything is going to become of the few regulars left behind at the old office, but I suppose that I have to watch more to find out. While Betty leaving Don was understandable, she doesn't come off very likable in the first episode of season 4. I hope that changes.

And now, time for our new Pop Culture Roundup feature...


The Avett Brothers, The Carpenter - I'm ashamed to say that this is really my first brush with The Avett Brothers. I'm a big fan of Mumford & Sons, which are of a very similar sound, but hadn't taken the time to listen to these guys before now. But really, that's part of why I took on this project in the first place. Like Mumford & Sons, they employ a mix of folk, rock, and bluegrass, although the Avetts have a little more Americana to their sound. There were points on this album that reminded me of my trip to Appalachia this summer.

There's also something a little more melancholy about this album. I've yet to encounter past albums (this was released this year), but this was very introspective, at times expressing regret and at other times striving to transcend overpowering sadness. "Winter in My Heart," for instance, talks about struggles with despair seemingly without a cause. "Through My Prayers" laments not being able to talk to a lost loved one face to face any more.

The album isn't all slow and depressing, however. On "Pretty Girl From Michigan" (which is redundant, amirite?), a Buddy Holly-influenced tune, they sing about a breakup that they can't seem to get over. So, still despairing, but more upbeat about it. "February Seven" is more hopeful after discovering something new about reality, either of oneself or the world one knows.

All in all, this was as good an introduction to the group as I could have picked, I think.

Beth Orton, Central Reservation - My introduction to Beth Orton was a few years ago during a trip to Vintage Vinyl in St. Louis. One of my friends bought and gave me her Daybreaker album. I was quite taken with what some call her "folktronica" sound, mixing folk and electronica. Some time later I burned a copy of Central Reservation, and then stuck it in a CD booklet and never listened to it. So, having resurrected this silly project of mine, it became a prime candidate.

I found this album to actually be far superior to Daybreaker. Orton hits the right balance of acoustic ballads and slightly heavier electronic tunes. "Stolen Car" is a steady guitar-driven song reflecting on false righteousness, while "Stars All Seem to Weep" has a chill flavor. Finally, "Feel to Believe" is an acoustic song weighing whether to stay with someone who is self-destructing.

Madness, One Step Beyond... - I first heard a reference to this band and album in one of my favorite movies, High Fidelity, but never made it a point to check it out before this week. What really got me interested was when somebody recently saw a patch on my bookbag that says "Ska," and asked if I'd ever heard Madness. At that point my response was, "Wait...Madness is SKA?!" So of course I had to check it out at that point.

This is a fantastic album. No track is incredibly long, but the musicianship is tight. And if you've never heard a ska version of the theme from "Swan Lake," this is your chance:

I'm incredibly ashamed to have not heard this album before now. Makes me wonder what else I've been missing out on.

Oh, wait, that's the point of this new feature. Yay.