Sunday, December 22, 2013

Best Music of 2013 Mix

Lo and behold, here we are again at the close of another year. Time, then, for my annual "best of" mix--basically an excuse for me to look back at my favorite releases from the past year and make a mix CD to give out to friends. What can I say, I'm old fashioned like that.

2013 has been a pretty great year for music! In fact, after agonizing over what all to include on this mix, I think I may put together a couple of extra lists (online only, because CD-Rs get expensive!) to compile my favorite local music of the last year, as well as some stuff that didn't quite fit the flow of the main mix. We'll see how motivated I'm feeling.

Anyway, on to the mix! As always, this is by no means meant to be comprehensive. There is just too much great music being made for me to keep up with it all--but I like to think this is a pretty good look at a few genres, at least. And a fun listen. If I do say so myself. Feel free to let me know what some of your favorites from the year have been in the comments!

"Post Millennial Creep" - Em's Best of 2013 Mix

1. "The Mother We Share" - Chvrches, The Bones of What You Believe
I've been loving the modern synth pop trend, and Chvrches debut album is an absolutely perfect example of just how good this genre can be. There's no denying the heavy influences from '80s new wave pioneers, but bands like Chvrches are great because they don't attempt to bury said influences. They revel in them, and bring some 21st century mood to the mix. I love everything about this track.

2. "I'm Not Your Hero" - Tegan and Sara, Heartthrob
I included the first single from Tegan and Sara's near-perfect Heartthrob record on last year's mix ("Closer" was released in 2012, after all) and have zero shame about including another track from that album (fully released in 2013) on this year's compilation. I haven't stopped listening to this heartfelt and joyous masterwork of synth pop all year.

3. "We Are Explorers" - Cut Copy, Free Your Mind
Cut Copy knocks another one out of the park. Highly danceable, catchy as hell, and let's be real - pretty queer. How can you not love these guys?

4. "Painful Like" - Austra, Olympia
There must be something in the water in Toronto. Austra was a "Lost Girl" soundtrack discovery for me, along with list-mate Lindi Ortega, Adaline, and Lioness (all bands I also recommend). Throw Diamond Rings into that mix as well (discovered when I was randomly asked to be his opening DJ for a show here in Madison) and I reiterate: Toronto is where it's at. I love Austra for the strange and beguiling nature of their lyrics and lead singer Katie Stelmanis' fascinating voice.

5. "I Want You" - Lindi Ortega, Tin Star
Toronto native but now Nashville-based Lindi Ortega's new record is pretty much just one dusty road foot-stomper after another, and that's just how I like it. This track ain't particularly complicated, but boy does it pack a wallop. I mean, who among us hasn't felt that plaintive "I want you to want me" refrain deep in our bones? Sing along, let it all out.

6. "Ain't Fair" - Deap Vally, Sisteronix
One of my favorite new bands (if not winner of that title outright) of the year, Deap Vally is a powerhouse rock n' roll duo that I desperately want my band, Damsel Trash, to open for some day. Drums, guitar, vocals. Sometimes that's all you need to make your point.

7. "Health Plan" - Pissed Jeans, Honeys
I have to give my friend Matt Fanale (aka Caustic) the nod for turning me onto these cats. Dirty punk rock with a slyly progressive soul. The whole record is just a rip-roarin' good time, and this track is especially timely. THANKS, OBAMA.

8. "Werkin' Girls" - Angel Haze, Reservation
Another new favorite artist for the year, Angel Haze came charging out of the backfield with this track that seems to have caught some mainstream attention as well (it was featured in the movie "The Heat," for instance). The subject matter of many of her tracks is deeply personal, and just fuck-you in-your-face real. An emcee with serious flow and, from the sounds of it, no fear. MORE PLEASE.

9. "Batches and Cookies" - Lizzo, LIZZOBANGERS
Lizzo was a last-minute entry to my list, and I'm ashamed that I hadn't caught wind of her before. Minneapolis based emcee with serious talent and this track is both awesome and adorable.

10. "Get Lucky" - Daft Punk, Random Access Memories
I usually try to avoid including songs that were quite so ubiquitous, but dammit if this Pharrell featuring track isn't just...well, really good. It's a "song of the summer" that I can actually get behind, without wanting to throat punch the singer (that's right, Robin Thicke, I'm looking at you).

11. "We Were Rock n' Roll" - Janelle Monae, The Electric Lady
Someone explain to me how Janelle Monae isn't just, like, Prince levels of popular and world-dominating yet? This woman has more talent in her android-loving pinky that half of the current crop of pop starts combined. Expertly crafted soul-funk-R&B hybrid amazingness, super fly dance moves, dapper as fuck personal fashion, and an absolutely beautiful voice.

12. "Man" - Neko Case, The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You
Another album I've been listening to on repeat since its release, this particular track is a wonderfully bold, brash, gender bending, and strangely moving ode to masculinity. If you're not yet familiar with Neko Case's work in general, please do yourself an enormous favor and get on it now. This album is a good place to start. Then pick up Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. Then, everything else.

13. "Don't Let Me Die In Florida" - Patty Griffin, American Kid
Patty Griffin has been at this music business for decades now and hasn't lost a step. If anything, I'd say she just gets better with time (if that's possible? because she was always so damn good). This record is full of fantastic Americana, storytelling, and Griffin's signature golden voice. This song in particular is a tribute to her father, who made the title plea after a visit to the Sunshine State. I can relate.

14. "Copy of A" - Nine Inch Nails, Hesitation Marks
The first reviews I heard of the new NIN were that it was "too poppy" but fuck, have you listened to old/original NIN lately? That shit was basically industrial pop. And I LOVED it. Just like I love this track, and the album is pretty darn good in general. It's fun to watch and listen to an artist progress and try new things, especially when it works out so well.

15. "Candy Tongue" - Trentemoller, Lost
I continue to be pleasantly surprised by every new Trentemoller release. He knows how to make great use of his various guest vocalists (I'm always a sucker for good female vocals in electronica), and how to turn the electronic genre on its head in new and interesting ways.

16. "All I Know" - Washed Out, Paracosm
A fitting way to end a mix, I think - Washed Out is fast becoming the king of lovely chill out music. His last record has been my go-to relaxation soundtrack whenever I have to fly, and I suspect this album will fast join it in rotation. Beautiful.

(Listen to this playlist on Spotify)

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Hizzoner is not a diplomat

Hoo boy, this is going to start some fires. As if this issue wasn't contentious enough. Email today direct from Mayor Soglin himself, regarding the ongoing debate over the presence of homeless people at the City County Building downtown (and how the city treats homeless folks in general):

Last night about 5:20 when I returned to the City-County Building from the Board of Estimates meeting a heated dispute was taking place at the chairs adjacent to the entrance to the Park Division office. 
Sitting on the left was Man A. He was talking on his cell phone at the time and continued to do so during the entire incident. Sitting in the center was Woman B. Wearing a gray hat she refused to move. Sitting next to her and closest to the door to the Parks Division office was Woman C. She was yelling at Woman B and telling her to get up and leave. Standing over Woman B was Man D who was yelling in a threatening manner at Woman B ordering her to move. 
I stopped to watch the incident and when it became clear the matter was escalating, called 911. Before the officers arrived, woman B got up from the chair, staggered over to Woman C and continued to yell at her. Man D took the center seat and asserted his claim that the chair was his. Man A continued with his phone call. I could hear him saying that the background noise was because of an argument. 
Woman B, Woman C and Man D continued to argue. As the police officers arrived Woman C threw a punch at Woman B. 
We can build and spend money on more libraries, day shelters, night shelters, restroom facilities and none of these behaviors are going to change. The people of Madison deserve better. Therapy, treatment, and counseling, with constant supervision are needed for a significant number of people who hang out in this building and the surrounding area. No number of shelters or amount of money is going to address their needs unless it is focused on treatment for mental health and substance abuse matters. Frankly I see no sense in spending public money for buildings, shelter, day centers, or housing for individuals who will either refuse to use them or will be banned from them for behavior reasons. 
Someone has some explaining to do. Why is there no treatment, voluntary or compulsory? 
If the individuals in question had not been fighting and arrested they could have gone up to the third floor where the City-County Liaison Committee was meeting and joined in the testimony that a security guard was not needed in the lobby. It appears that at least one of these individuals was involved in a fight on Friday. 
Paul R. Soglin - Mayor City of Madison 
He's right that a lot more money and focus needs to go toward mental health and substance abuse treatment, I absolutely agree. But throwing shelter facilities and other resources for the homeless under the bus in the process is incredibly wrongheaded and short-sighted. Not all homeless people are mentally unwell and/or addicts. And even those that are will need resources for seeking out services and then being able to access those services on a regular, reliable basis.

It would be nice if the discussion about these issues could be had without needlessly inflammatory sniping (the Mayor is not the only guilty party here). Too many people's actual lives and well-being are on the line.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Church of Roller Derby

I was raised in the Presbyterian Church. My father was and is a minister, and my mother was heavily involved in everything from directing the children's choir to bake sales and other organizational duties.

Every Sunday morning I had to wake up early to attend services, usually grumbling about being made to sacrifice one of just two precious chances to sleep in each week. When I was very young, I remember that my mom would wisely resort to scratching my back during dad's sermons as a way to basically pacify me, keep me from squirming or causing trouble during these longer periods of inactivity and introspection.

I never hated church. There are aspects of church life and community that I really enjoyed, in fact--mostly the potlucks, the holiday pageants (or the weirdly ambitious stagings of musicals like Godspell), the bake sales, and later the youth group outings to do service work restoring homes for elderly folks or bringing gift baskets to the residents of a mental health institute.

Still, as soon as I left home for college, I stopped going. Partially this was because I moved to a new state and wasn't familiar with any of the church communities in my new city, but mostly because I had decided that I no longer felt comfortable calling myself a Christian.

I had, and have, too many serious objections to the overall bent of the Church--too focused on outmoded beliefs about women and queer people (both groups to which I belong), too guilty of misdeeds against the very people the church is supposed to exist to help: the poor, the downtrodden, the oppressed, the minorities.

I saw too much lip service to serving God and too little actual service.

There has been much written about the worldwide decline in people who identify themselves as religious and/or who attend church on a regular basis, especially among younger generations. It is, most certainly, a time of major transition and transformation. Splits. Schisms.

I see that as a good thing. The Powers That Be need a stark wake-up call from the rest of the world--among all the religions and communities--that they've strayed too far from the path that I think the majority of us know in our hearts is the righteous one: to help those less fortunate, to strive for a better world, to be open and inclusive.

You don't need to believe in God to believe in that.

So where does roller derby enter into all of this, you might be asking at this point?

I've been a member of my local roller derby community for just over a year now. In that time, I've frequently joked that the sport and its community have become my new church. It often involves getting up for 8 a.m. practices on Sunday mornings, after all. And I do it gladly!

But I've been thinking. It's a whole lot more than that. And there's really something to the joke:

Roller derby is an amazing sport that requires an enormous amount of time, dedication, hard work, mental and physical discipline (don't believe me? watch the championship match between Gotham and Texas from this past weekend).

Roller derby is also an amazing community of people from diverse backgrounds and with differing abilities and talents, one that places a big emphasis on community outreach and charitable giving. The Mad Rollin' Dolls, my home league, has raised tens of thousands of dollars for local non-profits over the years. They've spent countless hours doing service work, too: packing Thanksgiving baskets for those in need, building homes for farm animal sanctuaries, serving up food at community events, being part of Make-A-Wish days, and a whole lot more.

They also band together when one of their own is in need. Right now, for instance, there's a massive fundraising drive for a Milwaukee skater who was shot during a mugging. I've seen derby folk from other countries jump in to help out with medical bills, housing needs, and more whenever called upon. We get each others' backs.

Roller derby is also, by and large, an incredibly inclusive community. We were founded by the outcasts and queers who wanted a sport of their own in a world that typically shunned them. We've built this thing from the ground up, mostly through the blood, sweat and tears of volunteer work. We have our troubles, our fights, like any family--but we stick together and find solutions. We take all-comers, so long as you're willing to give back in a positive way. Black, white, queer, straight, trans, religious, atheist--it's an open door policy.

This is my church. This is my home. This is the world I want to live in and want to help build for everyone. Whether or not you're interested in strapping on a pair of skates and ramming yourself into other human beings doesn't matter (I just happen to really enjoy that). The point is, we should apply this same ethic of service, inclusion, and community to all aspects of our lives.

You want butts back in seats at your house of worship but aren't willing to make real changes? I'd rather put on skates and roll into something better. But if you're serious, the examples of how to do more, to grow and evolve and bring people on board--they're right here, at the Church of Roller Derby.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Passing the buck

Interviews with Madison Mayor Paul Soglin regarding the issue of homelessness in the city have become something of a broken record.

He says he wants to help, that he sympathizes, but that the city is simply too strapped for cash and resources to do anything more to help. He blames the Walker Administration and the state and federal level destruction of social welfare programs. He says that's where we should look if we want to place blame for the steady increase in the number of people left out in the cold, and certainly Walker Co. has been no friend to sane, compassionate projects.

An article in today's Capital Times does a good job of looking at the current state of affairs as regards the homeless population in Madison. In it, there are quotes from Soglin that could have come from any number of interviews he's given on the subject over the last year or two:
"I’m flattered that people as usual think that their city government, the most responsive and accessible unit of government, is expected to solve the problem," he says icily. "But certain problems, because of cost and mobility issues, cannot be solved at the local level." Advocates for the homeless should instead direct their complaints to Gov. Scott Walker and Republican members of Congress, Soglin says. "We’re watching at the state and federal level the wholesale breakdown of support systems," he says.

I think we're all too prone to passing the buck when things get hairy, and especially when there's a big ol' bureaucracy involved. No, Madison government can't solve all of the problems. But the fact of the matter is that is is possible to make positive change even in small, incremental ways if we just set our minds to it.

Take the Little Houses project that's being undertaken right now, and the initiative to allow private landowners to allow a certain amount of camping on their land. Everything helps. Sitting around throwing our hands into the air does not.

It's not just Soglin, of course, and his flaw seems mostly to be that he's terrible at talking about the issue (I don't doubt that he cares, deep down). There are a lot of people in this city, many of them well-placed within government, neighborhood associations, and the business community, who are actively stymieing efforts to make real change, and that would rather sweep the problem under the proverbial rug than deal with it head-on.

This is not what "community" is supposed to be about.

We should know by now, too, that ignoring a problem like the wholesale disenfranchisement and displacement of an entire class of human beings only leads to bigger problems for everyone down the line. We should know by now that a rising tide does lift all ships. But we make the same mistakes, over and over again.

Perhaps it's time we redirected some of the millions of dollars earmarked for something like the controversial Judge Doyle Square development project to, say, finally building that new shelter.

Heck, even providing a storage locker facility would go a long way toward alleviating some of the immediate needs of folks without permanent addresses.

Oh and, maybe don't gut funding for the Tenant Resource Center while we're at it.

I'm somewhat heartened by the inclusion in the 2014 Capital Budget of funding for a project that could provide permanent housing to 100 homeless individuals. I really and truly hope it goes through and gets done. It shows there are people thinking about and working on this issue at the city level, and that we do have the capacity to act when we want to.

Regardless, while those of us with roofs over our heads continue to argue, too many of men, women, and children continue to go without.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Damsel Trashed

It was only a matter of time before I found my way back to my punk roots. Enter Damsel Trash, the new side project with friend and fellow Little Red Wolfer, Meghan Rose. We had our debut show at the Wisco here in Madison just this past Friday night and had an absolute blast. Packed the place, too, because our friends are awesome.

It's real good to have a more hardcore musical outlet again. Sometimes you just need to beat the fuck outta those drums and sing about raunchy things, y'know?

Below are two songs from our debut show. You can also check out a few rough cuts of other tracks over at our Bandcamp page, and/or like us on ye olde Book of Faces.

Friday, August 23, 2013

The importance of true names and true pronouns

This should be a very simple concept.

The soldier once known as Bradley Manning has come out as a trans* woman and would henceforth like to be called Chelsea.

People change their names all the time. Or start going by a nickname. We listen, we learn, we use the new, preferred name. Easy.

For reasons of long-held and very misguided cultural norms and biases, however, when a person comes to terms with being trans* and wishes to be addressed in a way that validates their correct gender identity, a great hew and cry goes up from the masses.

In the Manning case, even many of the major media outlets can't even seem to handle this most basic of requests. FOX News I expected, though it is still sad. When I read a statement from an NPR spokeswoman that "Until Bradley Manning’s desire to have his gender changed actually physically happens, we will be using male-related pronouns to identify him,” however, I was dismayed.

If even this, one of those most stalwartly neutral news outfits in the country, can't get it right? We really are in trouble.

It doesn't matter how you feel about Manning's actions in the Wikileaks case. That's almost an entirely separate issue (though there may be something to the defense's pointing out that the military's attitudes toward trans* people probably didn't help her depression and sense of isolation).

Words matter. They represent our attitudes toward an entire section of the population that is still largely marginalized, dehumanized, abused, and worse.

And this should be simple. It does no one a bit of harm to do a quick mental recalibration and begin referring to someone by their preferred pronouns. And guess what? It does that person a world of good. Why do anything else, then?

New York Magazine was one of the few outlets that not only got it right, but seems to really get it:
"Why is it so hard for people to type an extra s when they write about Manning? We updated our nomenclature for "Snoop Lion" and "the Artist Formerly Known as Prince." "Ali Lohan" and "Lil' Bow Wow" became "Aliana" and "Bow Wow" to reflect personal growth. We accept typographical requests from branded products like iPhone, PowerPoint, and eHarmony — and from branded humans like Ke$ha, A$AP Rocky, and 'N Sync. (The last being unusual even without the asterisk.) The idiosyncrasies of capitalism, apparently, are more compelling than a human's self-professed gender."
What does qualify as a problem, of course, is our society's continued insistence on erasing trans* identities or, worse, causing violence to them.

These are our neighbors, friends, family members, co-workers. There is nothing threatening about their identity. There is something threatening about a culture that still holds such ignorance and disdain for them.

I hope others will join me in calling on outlets like NPR to change their attitudes and policies immediately. This isn't acceptable, and silence is complicity.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Happy Spring, Wisconsin!

It can be trying to be a Wisconsinite - not just for the bizarre political climate in which we currently live, but also for the at times totally insane weather.

It's early spring 'round these parts. Last year around this time we were enjoying/being puzzled by 80 degree weather. This year? We've had a few spring-like days, but mostly it's been this delightful situation the meteorologists like to euphemistically refer to as a "wintry mix" - temperatures right on the verge of freezing--but not quite!--along with precipitation and high winds.

Good times.

The silver lining is when the weird weather combinations lead to tableau's like the one visible on the shores of Lake Mendota today. Those high winds seem to have kicked up a substantial amount of lake ice onto the shoreline, to the point that it had piled into mini-mounds and begun the process of devouring a bench along the Howard Temin Lakeshore Path (UW campus).

Going on a hot tip that this was the case, I ventured out into the cold-ass rain to get these shots--because I'm a masochist. Enjoy! And pray for sunshine.

(view the whole set of pictures here)

Thursday, March 28, 2013

The universe is testing me

Today I was tested.

I parked my van in one of the parking ramps downtown, early for a lunch date with friends, and decided to kill a little time by running an errand at a nearby store. Once I was done, I returned to the van to drop off my purchases – only to discover, there, lying on the garage floor next to my vehicle, a bag of donuts.

I should explain something: Me and donuts, we have a history. It's a sort of checkered past involving my intense sweet tooth and the amazing deliciousness of donuts, over-indulgence, regret, bliss, shame, etc. It's physically difficult for me to pass up an offer of donuts.

I froze. Stood perfectly upright. Dared only to stare sidelong at the clear bag containing what looked like two fresh-from-the-bakery donuts. Jelly filled. Glistening with the sweat of their glaze pressed against the plastic of the bag. They looked untouched, like some poor soul had simply dropped them there and gone on with their day, unaware of the loss.

How could you not notice that you’d dropped your donuts?

I was appalled. And tempted. Should I pick up the bag? Eat those perfectly good donuts? I mean, hello, free donuts.

But then, what if this was a test? What if there was a hidden camera somewhere, recording this moment of my greatest challenge? What if there was a piece of string attached and someone, hidden behind a nearby wall, was just waiting to pluck the bounty away as soon as I bent over to grab it?

No, I thought. Don’t eat the floor donuts. Not because someone might be watching, but because it would feel like rock bottom. Resist! But...NO. Don't do it. You're better than this, dammit.

I forced myself to finish my errand and walked away to the lunch date. Left the sack of abandoned donuts behind me, for someone else to discover. 

Goodbye, floor donuts. Goodbye.

Monday, March 18, 2013

How the Steubenville case can shine a light on the darkness of rape culture


How is it 2013 and we're still debating whether or not a drunk teenage girl "asked" to be raped, or could have consented to sex in her inebriated state? How is this still up for discussion?

Why are we still devaluing the humanity of men by simply assuming that they can't help themselves when presented with an opportunity to sexually violate someone? Why are we still devaluing the humanity of women by calling them sluts, disbelieving them when they say they've been raped, and placing the "responsibility not to be raped" on their shoulders for any reason at all, let alone what they're wearing or who they're with or where they go?

There's going to be a lot of ink spilled and air time spent discussing the ramifications of the Steubenville rape case. I can only hope that more of it is spent having a serious conversation about the abominable way in which we, as a culture, deal with rape - and far less on how positively awful the whole thing is for the two boys charged with the crime, or the town itself.

Because so far that's been the dominant media narrative. CNN, ABC, NBC, and countless other major media outlets all played into rape culture narrative by placing more emphasis on feeling bad that such "promising students" with "promising football careers" were negatively effected by the eventual guilty verdict. FOX News went so far as to name the victim on air.

In fact, MSNBC was one of the only networks that posted a news piece that dealt with the actual facts of what happened, without making excuses for the perpetrators or casting doubt on the victim and highlighting the fact that she was drunk when the attack occurred (I'm looking at you, USA Today).

There is no excuse for rape. None.

It doesn't matter how drunk someone is - in fact, someone being drunk means they cannot give consent, so if they say you raped them, guess what? You raped them.

That's why consent, and understanding what constitutes consent, is such an important concept - we all need to learn it and love it. That's why we taught it so much back when I was a peer educator for incoming freshmen at my college.

And that's why, when the defense tried to say that the 16-year-old girl had "consented" to the sex - while so drunk she didn't remember what had happened until pictures and video of the incidents showed up on social media - I felt sick to my stomach. And why I was so glad when the guilty verdict was handed down, as a slap in the face to that fucked up line of thinking.

No one "asks" to be raped. And men are not animals that can't be expected to do better.

We, as a society, as human beings, need to step up and create a culture in which this sort of thing would never happen in the first place. Where coaches actually act like the mentor/role model figures that their kids see them as and emphasize/demand decent fucking behavior out of their athletes. Where the media does not impugn the dignity of victims.

Name it, change it. Kill rape culture dead.
The Lost Albatross