The Great Diet Soda Debate

Here’s my dilemma: I don’t really care to drink water exclusively, and I don’t want to consume the calories that come with normal soda, so for the most part when I want to pour myself a refreshing ice-cold beverage, I stick with diet soda. Diet Mountain Dew is a personal favorite, and diet A&W Root Beer isn’t far behind, but to be honest: I usually keep it cheap and stick with generic store-brand alternatives (for 89 cents, it’s hard to say no). Diet soda tastes good and by choosing it over regular soft-drinks, I avoid the 800 (or so) calories that come with every two liter of the normal stuff that I might otherwise pour down my throat. The problem is: diet soda isn’t exactly a “healthy” alternative.

Most diet soda brands use the artificial sweetener aspartame (NutraSweet), and aspartame is hardly a recommended nutritional supplement. In doctor-speak, “Aspartame consists of the amino acids phenylalanine (50%), aspartic acid (40%), and a methyl ester (10%) that promptly becomes free methanol after entering the stomach. 3 The breakdown of phenylalanine to highly vasoactive substances—such as dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine—is clearly relevant to pulmonary hypertension, systemic hypertension, and the frequent cardiac arrhythmias experienced by persons with aspartame disease.” Which is to say that upon being ingested, aspartame becomes aspartic acid, phenylalanine, and methanol — and yes, that is the same methanol that further breaks down into formaldehyde, potentially “damag[ing] both your immune and nervous systems.” The chemical’s relationship to cancer is staggering and its impact on diabetes is highly suspicious. All in all, aspartame isn’t exactly something that nurtures healthy bodies.

This isn’t exactly news to me though — actually, I’ve been doing my best ostrich with my head in the sand for a while now — so in an effort to flip the script in my own life, I stopped in my local grocery store this week and looked at every brand of diet soda they have to see if any didn’t contain aspartame. The single-solitary-choice that I found was the regional cherry soda brand Cheerwine. “Born in the South. Raised in a Glass. Since 1917. Cheerwine is the legendary singular soft drink of the South with the taste that always surprises.” Unlike Coke and Pepsi products, Cheerwine uses sucralose (Splenda) as its artificial sweetener — even touting the lack of aspartame right there on its label. By Splenda’s own accord it’s, “a great choice for everyone looking to take small steps to live a little healthier each day.” “Whether you’re looking to manage weight, cut back a few calories, minimize carbs or just plain eat a little better,” its website advocates, “Splenda Brand Sweetener Products are the perfect way to help you do that.” Not bad, right? So, I put a bottle in my basket, brought it home with me, poured myself a glass and hit the web to find out what I was drinking. Pretty tasty stuff considering it’s “a man-made chemical sweetener containing chlorine.”

Sucralose, while still posing some potential health concerns that include “skin rashes/flushing, panic-like agitation, dizziness and numbness, diarrhea, swelling, muscle aches, headaches, intestinal cramping, bladder issues, and stomach pain,” doesn’t seem to have the same risks as aspartame, but no studies have been conducted to gauge the long-term effects of the sugar-substitute, so very little information is available in that regard. The FDA (which is hardly the noble, people-first department of health-regulation that it’s made out to be), sticks by its approval of both aspartame and sucralose in diet sodas, ruling that the levels of the chemicals that are found in the products are suitable for human consumption. Just remember though: ammonia-soaked McNuggets are also “suitable for human consumption.”

All the same, as the year winds down and fresh, new, and exciting goals take hold for 2013, edging its way closer to the top of my list of things to do is: stop drinking soda. Period. Diet or otherwise. I don’t think it’ll make a huge impact on my life — all things considered, removing diet soda from my actual diet isn’t going to right a lifetime of nutritional wrongs. That said, I think it’s still worthwhile in the event that diet soda actually does disrupt metabolism, damage kidneys, and contribute tooth decay. Wouldn’t you agree? As far-fetched New Year’s resolutions are concerned, a No Soda New Year doesn’t seem entirely all that crazy, so I think I’m going to do it.

(Well… a little Cheerwine every now and then probably isn’t going to hurt.)

Party Trash "Remixes (Part One)"

There isn’t much of an expressed back-story behind Remixes from Nashville’s Party Trash… the album contains ten remixes, produced for fun, released for free. Straight-forward as the concept might be, the quality of the tracks is in no way diminished by the simplicity of the concept behind the release. In fact, the electronic dexterity on display goes far beyond the minimalist-mode showcased on last year’s full-length release, ALONE (be sure to listen to the standout “Night Flash,” by the way), with an energetic thread running throughout the compilation, stringing together Purity Ring, Destiny’s Child and Aphex Twin reinterpretations without a single beat sounding out of place.

[This article first appeared on Break on a Cloud.]

Old White Men For Obama

I’m walking to the gym and I catch a glimpse of someone up ahead of me, standing behind an S.U.V. As I get closer I realize that it’s a woman and she’s taking a picture of something with her phone. As I get closer still, I realize that it’s a slightly-past-college-age girl taking a picture of a bumper sticker that reads “Old White Men for Obama.” Hashtag: blog-worthy.

She sees me seeing her capturing the moment, and I smile at her. Seemingly embarrassed, she smiles back while saying something and turns to head the other way — the same way I’m heading. I take my earbuds out only to catch nothing she says, and I speak up, trying my best to be spontaneous and funny, “So, who do you like more? Old white men or Obama?”

Appearing momentarily speechless, she says something quickly under her breath about men before moving on to how she does actually like Obama. It was a strange question posed to her by a strange man walking alone on a Friday night, a man who also could have been an angry Republican freshly bitter about the election, attempting to sabotage her innocent moment of Instagramming with an anti-Obama rhetoric-bomb. I didn’t realize that until I said it. I’m not sure how I would have answered my question if I was her. We walked together for somewhere between an instant and a moment before it all occurred to me.

“I didn’t realize how creepy that might have sounded — being an older white man asking you if you like old white men.” She sort of laughed and said she was thinking about what she might have looked like, her taking pictures of bumper stickers. I said I’d forget the whole thing if she would. We agreed and mentally shook on it. Nice girl.

It had been a good day prior to that moment, but the culmination of things appeared to have contributed to a timely wave of physical energy. I smiled my way through the workout. While walking home I came across a gathering of police cars not far from my apartment, blocking off one side of traffic across from the grocery store I was heading to. I purchased dinner and continued walking home before I saw a tall man overlooking what had to be seven or eight cop cars. Each of the vehicles had their lights set on strobe, and number of officers in reflective vests were assuming various form of police business across a city block. I walked up to the tall man and asked him what he thought had happened. He pointed at somewhere around ten o’clock to where there was something still in the street, broken, which I couldn’t quite make out: Wreckage of some sort that had colors I associate with children’s toys. I didn’t really want to think about it. We talked for a minute about the dangers of jaywalking before he mumbled something about making it home safe to eat his ice cream. I slapped my grocery bag and told him that’s what I was hoping to do, too.

After dinner I scooped a bowl’s worth and ate my ice cream in front of the television. In hindsight, I probably should have introduced myself.

Love and Death

Yesterday morning at 4:40 A.M. my mom’s mom passed away. She was 90 years old. I have no idea who she really was though. About two weeks ago one of my parents’ neighbors died in his sleep. He wasn’t very old. He was a nice guy, and was very kind to my folks. About seven months ago my parents put our family pet down. It was a small bichon shih tzu named Eddie. I named Eddie after a hard-partying hockey player, my childhood hero. At times Eddie could be a pretty good dog to have around.

Even considering recent events, death really hasn’t played much of a role in my life. The people who essentially served as my adopted grandparents are both gone, but while I cared for them it wasn’t exactly foundation-shaking news when word came of their passing. Never having been close to my real grandparents, the three that died during the last decade or so had no real impact on me. My dad’s dad died long ago. As for my immediate family members and relatively close relatives: some are more alive than others, but they’re all still here.

When my parents’ neighbor passed I received an email around midnight letting me know what happened. That night I sat awake awhile, thinking about death. In elementary school one of my best friends died in a car accident. It had been a while since I’d actually thought about him. He, his brother, his sister, and his mother, all died driving home from visiting family for Easter in Saskatchewan. Sadly, the father, who had stayed behind in Calgary (I can’t remember if he had to work, or what it was) survived them all. All three were in separate grades in our elementary school, and I remember how everyone came together for a terribly emotional assembly in the wake of the accident. There were a lot of people — both big people and little people — who were very confused about things when that happened. I was one of them.

I don’t really remember much else about that time aside from a couple of strange moments. For instance, I vaguely recall the outline of a ridiculous lie I told a grief counselor in class, about how I had seen the crash in a magazine and something-or-other about seat-belt safety. For whatever reason, that memory still leaves me feeling guilty and embarrassed. Then there was a girl in the grade’s other class of students (her name was Trista — no idea how I remember that) who asked me if I was friends with the boy (his name was Greg, and yes, I was). I also have this weird out-of-body type memory — the kind where you can see the whole wide-angle scene, as if watching it in a movie — where I was walking home with a neighborhood girl who didn’t go to my school, telling her that I wished I had a punching bag full of chains to hit, because that’s how angry I was. Even as a kid I was typically full of shit.

Last week a friend and I were going back and forth, talking about how people come and go in our lives. The conversation wasn’t about death though, but about love. Either way, loss feels its worse when those lost are those we love.

When I think of love I remember the first elementary school girlfriend, innocent junior high flirtations, a solid high school crush, the first “real” love, and later a woman who challenged my views on fatherhood, and whether or not I could see myself picking up such a position. But love has always been a weird thing for me. Love is a weird thing for most people, I think. And that sort of love isn’t even what love’s always been for me. I loved Greg just like I’ve loved a lot of people, and even right now I love a number of friends. Sitting here, it just sort of struck me how fortunate I am that I even have friends who mean enough to me that I’d actually care if they died. It’s a wild ride, love and death.

The shifting personal definition of what love is often presents itself as a difficult terrain to navigate in terms of how we reconcile its meaning with our actions toward those who we express the feeling for. And when that person is gone, whether they die or the relationship merely stops existing, it’s strange how some feelings linger while others become Photoshopped in our minds, taking on new lives of their own post-mortem. This afternoon a small group of family members will bury my mom’s mom. What happened with the neighbor, I’m not sure. As for Eddie, her ashes now sit in a small nondescript box. Someone at some point in time loved each of them though, and that love will continue to linger, sometimes lost or misplaced, sometimes positioned as firmly as it ever was. Of course, in the end we’ll all die. I guess the hope is, though, that when we die we do so as one of the loving and one of the loved.

Amerigo Gazaway "Gummy Soul Forces"

Following a meeting of the minds at Atlanta’s recent A3C Festival, Gummy Soul‘s Amerigo Gazaway has linked up with Detroit’s Clear Soul Forces crew, blending styles and summoning hip hop godfathers with a new collaborative track titled “Gummy Soul Forces.” Exuding a sound very much in line with Gazaway’s much-celebrated Bizarre Tribe mashup album, “Gummy Soul Forces” retains a comfortable early-’90s feel, with the MC working loosely over the jazz-oriented beat. Considering that the verse was “whipped up” while the Gummy Soul guys were driving back to Nashville, it’d be a silly to critique it as a fully-fleshed out piece. Instead, have fun with it and just accept it for what it is: a fun, playful, and so-very-fitting verse that meshes nicely with the tight Clear Soul Forces beat, “All this time I spent obsessin’ over rhymes / Just tryin’ to find some kind of purpose in life / Murderin’ mics, makin’ sure these verses is tight.” To keep things going, you’d be wise to (re)introduce Bizarre Tribe to your ears.

[This article first appeared on Break on a Cloud.]

Evan Blocker "Reign Dance (Eyes Open)"

When I was first introduced to Evan Blocker‘s debut, Life’s in a Blur, I subconsciously slipped up and confused the young Nashville MC’s name with that of a pro-wrestler (Evan Bourne). Make no mistake though: his debut was memorable, and Blur stands as one of the better hip hop releases to come from the city last year.

Now the MC is back, intent on solidifying his name within the greater Nashville scene with his largely self-produced sophomore release, Its All Life. With the first taste from the forthcoming album, the teaser for “Reign Dance (Eyes Open)” continues the trend that Blocker started with Blur, tightly focusing his sharp-tongued style and representing the P.U.S.H. Productions crew nicely. Keep an ear to Blocker’s Soundcloud page as the countdown to Its All Life continues.

[This article first appeared on Break on a Cloud.]

Olivier de Sagazan

For over two decades the Congo-born French-based artist Olivier de Sagazan has “developed a hybrid practice that integrates painting, photography, sculpture, and performance,” explains his website. “In his existential performative series Transfiguration, which he began in 2001, de Sagazan builds layers of clay and paint onto his own face and body to transform, disfigure and take apart his own figure, revealing an animalistic human who is seeking to break away from the physical world. At once disquieting and deeply moving, this new body of work collapses the boundaries between the physical, intellectual, spiritual and animalistic senses.”

The “Transfiguration” video itself is unlike anything I’ve seen before: It is primitive, dark, intense, and disturbing. “This is pretty much my two-year-old eating yogurt,” joked one Metafilter commenter, putting the clay and paint meld into humorous perspective. “In my Transfiguration performance, where I transform my face,” revealed de Sagazan in an interview with Loving Mixed Media, “my purpose is to descend into the depths of my being, to bring out what is buried deep inside me. The masks or images that emerge are not merely seen, but felt in a visceral way, and so they create emotion.”

While a variety of press clippings and interviews are available on the artist’s website, little exists in English, leaving much to the imagination for non-French speaking onlookers in terms of intent and motivation. Yet each individual medium seems to bear its own direction while simultaneously conforming to a broader ideal. Taking inspiration from Rembrandt and Francis Bacon, his paintings replicate the grotesque nature of his performance work, vividly speaking to de Sagazan’s ability to manipulate his materials. His sculptures are fitting for this Halloween season, invoking hellish images while simultaneously breathing humanity (and reminding me of Adam Jones’ groundbreaking music videos for Tool). “My work is essentially a hymn to life,” he said to LMM. “[A]n attempt to understand what it means to be alive.”

But the way in which de Sagazan speaks with his performance work is unlike his use of traditional mediums. A rough translation of his 1994 piece “Bandages” reflects his longstanding relationship with the urge to reveal the human within, “Arrive the bandaged face, undo slowly his mask / Open its veins and mark with his blood: ‘This is my body, this is art.’” “I dreamed of being a dancer,” he continued with LMM, “using my own body as an essential element to express my anguish and my fascination with being alive. My performances are another way of channeling this urge. My main inspiration is in looking at nature with the eyes of the biologist I was and the philosopher I am trying to be.”

I don’t have a particularly well-grounded position to place Olivier de Sagazan’s work within the broader artistic landscape. I’m ill-informed when it comes to modern art, let alone the performance niche, and am oblivious as to whether his work is either derivative or groundbreaking within the field. To pretend to know is beyond me. But when I watch him I am moved, my pulse increases, and I’m left in a state of wonder, curious about what it is I’ve just seen and what it might be saying. “We must remain alert and lucid, aware of this amazing thing happening to us.” Transfiguration is just that: a vibrant announcement, awakening dulled emotions and desensitized nerves.

Damien Echols

Damien Echols and Jack Silverman at Nashville Southern Festival of Books

In 1994 Damien Echols was sentenced to death, while Jessie Misskelley Jr. and Jason Baldwin were given life in prison, after all were convicted for the savage murders of three boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. The thing was… they didn’t do it. “Police investigators believed the teens had formed a satanic cult and used the victims as part of a ritualistic slaughter,” writes Sarah Norris of the Nashville Scene. “The prosecution based its case on the fact that the ‘West Memphis Three’ — Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley Jr. — were widely perceived as ‘weird’. They were known to be fans of Metallica, and Echols tended to wear black clothing and a long trench coat. The only thing connecting them to the murders was a coerced confession from Misskelley, who tested low enough on an IQ test to qualify as borderline cognitively impaired. After confessing, he almost immediately recanted. A high school dropout who’d struggled with depression, Echols was depicted as the threesome’s ringleader, a devil-worshipping killer.” If ever there were a kangaroo court, the boys found themselves at the mercy of such a proceeding — the crime scene was significantly tampered with, police records were grossly mishandled… the entire process was a farce.

About 14 months ago the three were given a deal, setting them free while, as Echols explains, absolving Arkansas of any potential wrong-doing, forcing the waiver of any case the three might have in a lawsuit against the state. “On August 19, 2011, they entered Alford pleas, which allow them to assert their innocence while acknowledging that prosecutors have enough evidence to convict them.”

It’s been at least seven years since I first learned of the case of the West Memphis Three: Like many before and after me, I watched the Paradise Lostdocumentaries (The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills and Revelations), and found myself disgusted by the thread of injustice that flowed throughout the entire story. I bought a shirt to help support the defense, I told friends, and I felt sick about the whole thing.

I haven’t been a close onlooker of the aftermath following the WM3′s release, but in preparation for Echols’ appearance at Nashville’s Southern Festival of Books I was reintroduced to the powerful feelings that I remember struggling with when I was first turned on to the case. I cried. The anger, the sadness, the grief, the sympathy, the confusion, the fear… all of it surfaced at once and my body, not knowing how to react, funneled everything into tears. As Echols sat in the War Memorial Auditorium Sunday afternoon, speaking to the beatings he received from guards, the absent health care measures that he received during his decade of solitary confinement, and the extreme anxiety that followed his release, those feelings returned, and on a few occasions I had to divert my attention to avoid a minor public breakdown.

Throughout his appearance Echols remained calm, well-spoken, thoughtful, and articulate as conversation bounced between he and the session’s host, Jack Silverman. As questions began flowing from the event’s attendees, Echols gently floated a few jokes out to the crowd as discussion touched on items including his affinity for Stephen King and his ongoing work with organizations such as Amnesty International. Sitting there however, the words that struck an especially sensitive nerve with me were those offered when asked if he was interested in changing “The System”? His response was shockingly rational and objective despite the pain that The System had caused in his life. Think of the money, he replied, and the celebrity endorsements, the media’s interest in the case, his wife’s dedicated pursuit of justice, and the enduring efforts of those who offered their help along the way… think of all of that, he repeated, and recognize that even with all of that in place, it took nearly two decades before one case found a result that remotely reflected “justice.” Even for someone with his profile, changing “The System” is entirely out of reach.

As the event closed and the audience scurried to get a place in line for the book signing which followed (it should probably be noted that Echols’ appearance was in support of his recently released book, Life After Death) my friend and I remained in our chairs for a few minutes before slowly exiting the venue. As we walked away she asked what I felt, and all I could muster was “angry” and “sad,” a frog quickly took to my throat preventing me from saying anything further, as if the words were even there in the first place. I’m happy that Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr., and Jason Baldwin are free men, but how free are they? What sort of justice can be had to repair two decades of misery, let alone the pain that will remain in the lives that follow? What if he were put to death? What then?

I couldn’t hear the question but during the event Echols was asked something to do with the prevalence of innocents on death row, and without missing a beat he shot off two names of people he had met who were, in his eyes, innocent. Yet, unlike his case, they didn’t have the media push to bring their cases into the public eye, nor the outpouring of donations necessary to challenge their convictions beyond a bare-minimum defense. Such cases are generally easier to sweep under the rug, he said, than they are to investigate further. And what’s more, Echols added, much like his own case, the state would rather send an innocent to die than admit a mistake.

When writing this and reading back over it, no tears came to me. The anger, however… The anger, the sadness, the grief, the sympathy, the confusion, and the fear: all of that remains. We live in a broken world — each of us potentially at the mercy of a broken system. And I don’t have slightest clue as to what can really be done about it.

Three O'Clock

I woke up this morning at three o’clock a.m. to the sound of rain on the tin roof that lines the outer shell of the apartment building I live in. I’m on the top floor and that puts little room between me and the sound. Normally I enjoy the echo of the rain pounding down in sheets, the wind drawing it to and from the building such that when the sky exhales it sounds like a wet towel slapping the back-side of the building. But not last night. Last night I laid in my bed, angry that I couldn’t sleep, bitter about the lack of control I had in the moment to re-escape consciousness, and the reality of the day that had put me in such a foul mood in the first place. I wasn’t angry at anything or anyone in particular — not at the rain, not even at myself — just generally unhappy with the feelings that kept returning in sporadic intervals, bookending laughter, endorphin highs, and brief moments of everyday zen.

I woke up this morning at seven o’clock a.m. to the sound of my alarm but all was not forgotten. I remembered the rain that I hated, and the inexplicable feeling that soiled my otherwise “fine” day prior to the night’s unwelcomed interruption. I cracked an eye, read a text on my phone, replied, and returned my head, face down on the pillow. Another buzz on my phone, another half-conscious effort, another pillow flop, the mind unwilling to return fully from the departure. When I awoke again, whatever it was that was in my head was gone.

Three o’clock a.m.s don’t happen that often, but when they come I’m told to ride out the emotional storm, recognizing that the mental tides are constantly shifting, sometimes unpredictably so. Weeks can pass without issue, then at once, without reason, a volatile mood strikes and life is stripped of its flavor.

Depression is just a word, but the uncontrollable feelings that suck me in and inexplicably warp everything around me go well beyond the power that ten simple letters wield.

Mister Rogers Goes to Washington

I don’t know where to find PBS on my digital cable subscription, or if I even get the network (I have to, somewhere, right?). And aside from NOVA, I can’t really think of a show that might land on the channel that I’d enjoy watching from time to time. I don’t have kids, nor do I have any idea about how beneficial the current state of children’s educational programming is on PBS, or whether or not a budget cut would retard a generation of preventative learning — that’s a fancy little term I’ve come up with to describe the benefits of edutainment that might help prevent an outpouring of later-life subsidies to cover a nation of under-educated, under-skilled, over-stuffed citizens who have no choice but to turn to the government for aid after two decades of freely roaming the land as a small army of dimwitted Honey Boo Boos. (For the record, cable programming makes me very nervous about the future of this planet.) I don’t know enough about the upsides or the downsides of Mitt Romney’s bold statements at last week’s Presidential debate to accurately invest myself in that conversation (besides, that’s what political blogs are for).

I will say this, however: I love this video. In response to the proposed budget cuts by President Nixon, Fred Rogers took the floor to deliver what remains one of the most rational and thoughtful arguments for the continuance of funding for developmental programming that might ever exist: Mere reference to the statement that Mr. Rogers made in 1969 in front of the United States Senate Subcommittee on Communications should be more than enough justification to keep backing this “liberal propaganda machine.”
"What do you do with the mad that you feel? When you feel so mad you could bite. When the whole wide world seems oh so wrong, and nothing you do seems very right. What do you do? Do you punch a bag? Do you pound some clay or some dough? Do you round up friends for a game of tag or see how fast you go? It’s great to be able to stop when you’ve planned the thing that’s wrong. And be able to do something else instead — and think this song — I can stop when I want to. Can stop when I wish. Can stop, stop, stop anytime… And what a good feeling to feel like this! And know that the feeling is really mine. Know that there’s something deep inside that helps us become what we can. For a girl can be someday a lady, and a boy can be someday a man."
Enough about making a non-argument an argument though, because the point of bringing this up is to reflect on the compassion that Rogers spoke to while explaining himself. This isn’t just about funding some TV station that you don’t enjoy watching, this argument is about developing a national community with an understanding that our well-being and self-esteem are worth caring about. This is about nurturing the growth of young minds so that they know that they have meaning in this world, despite the overwhelming sentiment that drowns out the idea in daily life. This is about empowering young minds with the understanding that they are not some weak loser despite not meeting the cultural quota for cool, and it’s about showing children that the world is every bit as beautiful as you make it to be. I’m almost 30 and I wish that this message was pounded into my head every day NOW, let alone when I was young — this message of maintaining an honest regard for the care and well-being of self to better the larger society as a whole.

Would Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood even resonate with kids today if he were alive? Hell, did it even make sense when I was a kid? I don’t know, but I don’t think so. But without a nurturing system that encourages preventative learning we’re going to find out with increasingly speedy results just how distinct the disparity between the classes will become in our country… I’m not talking about the poverty line, necessarily, as much as the knowledge line — but in recognizing the illiteracy, ignorance, and uneducated population that exists even within my own community, the correlation between the two seems undeniable. Is there a direct link in avoiding this future and the shelling out of PBS’ $430 million annual budget? I don’t know. But to parallel the sentiment of Senator Pastore, a bet on the future of our children (let alone the children of those poor unfortunate families who only have basic network TV channels, and not some multi-tiered Comcast entertainment-explosion at their disposal like I do) seems like one that we should be willing to make.

Aesop Rock at Exit/In (Nashville, TN)

I went to a fight and an Aesop Rock show broke out…

It wasn’t without incident, but for the most part Aesop Rock’s show at Nashville’s Exit/In felt like something of a light-hearted family affair. Ace, Rob Sonic & DJ Big Wiz opened strong with a series from the MC’s recent album Skelethon, immediately setting the bar high with the powerful “Leisureforce,” “Crows 2,” and “Homemade Mummy” (which wound down with a “Make Mummy, Mummy, Make Mummy, Mummy, Mummy/Take Mummy…” play on the Make/Take Money hip hop standard — it was funny, it was unexpected, and it encouraged a playfulness that would remain throughout the set).

“Smock” followed as the first from the trio’s Hail Mary Mallon release which dropped late last year via Rhymesayers. While seeming a little disengaged late in the set, Rob Sonic shined early through this song and the track which followed (introduced as some “Brand new never heard before Rob Sonic shit” from his forthcoming Alice in Thunderdome release), with Ace taking a supporting role, appearing equally as enthused to be lipping Sonic’s lyrics off-mic while slipping deeper and deeper into the music.

A bit of crowd-interaction turned an intermission letter-association-game into the powerful “ZZZ Top,” lifting the energy of the room before slinking into one of the night’s most memorable moments. In recent years it’s become fashionable to mash media on stage in an attempt to create a value-added sensory-overload rock show extravaganza — many times this takes the form of a video accompaniment (as it did during this show) or something like a painter creatively slopping a brush over a canvas while their stage-brethren sail through some this-is-coming-straight-from-the-heart indie rock interpretation. (This isn’t always the case, but it’s been my experience… just sayin’.) Not so with Ace & his band of merry men though.

Enter the show’s openers for the Dark Time Sunshine Barbershop, with tonight’s V.I.P., Mandy A. The crowd huddled closer to the stage as Mandy was invited on stage and sat down on a chair, putting the fate of her well-kept mop in the hands of two questionably qualified barbers while Ace, Sonic & Wiz broke out with “Racing Stripes.” If there was a personal highlight of the night, this was it: chanting along to my favorite song from Skelethon, hollering “muthafuckin’ bzzz bzzz” while the crew on stage proceeded to leave Mandy with a surprisingly-presentable dew. The performance was great and the haircut ended up looking sharp in a sort of “I just got my hair cut on stage at an Aesop Rock show” sort of way. Satisfied by the final product himself, Ace joked with the crowd how they could have left her looking like Friar Tuck (Think they’re joking? Think again.) only to apologize moments later in the event he inadvertently insulted any Friar Tucks in the room. No harm, no foul…

Within moments of “Grubstake” opening though, things began to fall apart as a fight broke out near the front of the crowd, leaving the crew on stage shutting down the Hail Mary Mallon track to play peacekeepers. As the situation settled down someone yelled out how their Jack & Coke was spilled, and Ace threw out an order to replace the wounded soldier. Keeping that light-hearted feeling alive amid all the bull-shittery in the crowd, Ace joked about how someone else spilled a large pizza and coke, proceeding to beg for a replacement while he was in such a giving mood.

“Cycles To Gehenna” followed, with another new Sonic track (“Rock, Paper, Scissors”?), and “Zero Dark Thirty,” before (another personal favorite) “Grace” kicked in, somehow sending a universal message to those same mouth-breathing knuckle-draggers in the crowd, encouraging them to start fighting again. “Broads be goin’ hard in Nashville, yo,” joked Sonic as a petite blonde-haired trouble-maker was literally dragged out of the club. (Sidebar: It’s at this point in the night where my buddy Rob leaned over and dropped what might remain the night’s finest moment of commentary, adding “They were literally rapping about vegetables and a fight ensued.” Well played, sir.) “Anyone wanna take a swing before the next song starts?” mocked Aesop (or Sonic, I didn’t really catch which one said it — my bad) before the duo took a backseat to Wiz as he kicked in with his “Making a Beat From Scratch” mainstay. The man’s turntablism and mixing is excellent, and his ability to improvise on the spot is insane… though I can’t but feel like it was overshadowed by the surrounding nonsense.

HMM’s “Meter Feeder,” “1,000 O’Clock,”and Sonic’s “Happy Land Disco” played through before a brilliant version of “Fryerstarter” hit, and “Gopher Guts” closed out the main set. The group took a moment to gather themselves before the dozen-year-old “Big Bang” exploded, with the crowd fist pumping its way into the introduction of the “Night Light”/”Daylight” blend, which served as the final shot for the show. It was nice to end the night by hearing something so comfortable (though predictable… I mean, Van Halen’s not leaving the stage without playing “Panama,” are they?), properly book-ending the night’s wide-reaching circus of human emotion. If I have one regret about the show though, it’s only that I wish I would have been the one with the pizza-joke. It still makes me laugh… maybe you had to be there.

[This article first appeared on Break on a Cloud.]

Penicillin Baby "Daddy Drove a Hearse"

A little over two months back, in my interview with Penicillin Baby and Favorite Face Records’ Jon Conant, the vocalist mentioned that the group was in the process of putting together a few projects including a split-release with Megajoos. The two bands have now wrapped things up and packaged everything together as MEGA/BABY, a four-track EP which features a pair of songs from both bands — the early standout being PB’s “Daddy Drove a Hearse”: the track’s smooth vocals propelling a surf-rock vibe that (rather nicely) veers from the band’s previous psych-rock leanings. Megajoos’ “Gnar Gnar” is also up for streaming right now, but to hear the whole thing you’ll have to either keep an ear to Favorite Face’s Soundlcoud page come October 13, or head out to the release party the two bands (along with Tennessee Scum) will be holding at Dino’s Bar and Grill October 14.

[This article first appeared on Break on a Cloud.]

S.T.A.N. feat. Sofa Brown "The Almighty Dollar "

The tone for “The Almighty Dollar” is set early in the first single from S.T.A.N.‘s forthcoming Nightmare Next Door release, as the brooding track flips between verses from the MC and the P.U.S.H. Productions mainstay Sofa Brown. Produced by Fred the Tech, the dueling verses cascade over the sounds of a haunting piano and thunderous beat. “My goal with ‘The Almighty Dollar’ was to raise the awareness of the evils people rely on just to get by,” explains S.T.A.N. “From crooked leader heads in church down to the stick up kids on the block. The track is just a sample of what’s going on Next Door.” The new album will be released on Halloween, further emphasizing the theme that the new songs will play to. “Every track has a somewhat dark undertone feel with real life situations.”

[This article first appeared on Break on a Cloud.]

"It Gets Better"

I’m a little torn here. I almost feel like suicide is something that should either be talked about without reservation, or not talked about at all… Which is why I don’t really know that I should be writing anything. In this video, Ze Frank says it’s like a virus, and that it can spread from one person to the next — how true that is of a lot of destructive behavior.

When I was in college I knew a girl who was dealing with tremendous night terrors, where she’d start thrashing around at night, still asleep, yelling and kicking until she woke herself up, only to then think she was still trapped in the world which her mind had created for her. I can’t imagine what that’d be like, fearing sleep. She took medication, but that didn’t help much. She sought therapy, but in the small college town we lived in the options were very limited. She told me one day that she had been using another coping mechanism in her life: To help manage the pressure, and take control of her emotions, she would cut herself. This was a new concept for me, and I didn’t really understand it at first. It didn’t take long before it made complete sense though.

For some reason I have a harder time talking about cutting than I do suicide, but both are destructive outlets for release that I’ve used to try and get through, or escape, living. Part of the reason that I started attending meetings at a local sober house in August wasn’t because I was strung out (to be fair, I sort of was), but because I could see my mind drifting, opening up possibility for that dark cloud of self-destruction to return. I was confused, about a lot of things, and after finding no help from local outlets that are supposed to be able to at least point me in the right direction, I decided that just being in a room with people was better than being in a room by myself. I was right.

Talking about suicide is a hard thing to do, and I still don’t know the right way to even approach discussion of it. Whether or not this is ever true, it seems easy for those who haven’t struggled with crippling depression to offer catch-all, broad-stroke advice to those in need of support, or to say, “seek help,” or “you’re not alone,” or “it will get better.” And that pisses me off. What pisses me off more is that even coming from someone who continues to struggle through suicidal ideations years after a failed attempt at ending my own life, that’s about all the advice even I can offer.

I don’t know what good there is that can come from putting this out there, but maybe in some universal-positive-lifeforce-energy kind of way, it’s just my way of taking the aluminum foil down that has been covering my windows, and setting a tone within the tiny, little community that I live in. And if by some odd chance someone reads this who feels like a miserable sack of shit, who’s working a soul-crushing job to pay for a house that they purchased because that’s what grown-ups do, who’s getting shuttled to and from that dreadful job by friends they don’t even like because they lost their driver’s license, who’s as depressed when medicated as they are normally, who doesn’t get any reprieve from therapy, who feels like their family would be better off without the burden of dealing with an emotional train-wreck on a daily basis… just know that I felt that very same way, too, and it actually does get better. And if you can’t believe that and things continue to appear their most bleak, you’d be surprised who will show up on your doorstep in order to talk you off of that ledge. People care. You’re not alone.

Caveman the Wise "Harold of the Moon"

Back in 2009 Vic French connected with Jota Ese in Macomb, Illinois, where the two musicians eventually hooked up for a jazz project with French on sax and Ese on bass. From there a relationship with Ese’s Day Old Records was born, which is where French (now recording as Caveman the Wise) released his first album as a producer, dropping Android Blues in 2011. In addition to Ese, he’s since worked with the likes of Nashville’s Truth Clipsy, recently releasing “Birthday Cake” with the MC, but is now focused largely on his production-work as he looks ahead to his second full-length album, Wax Eclectic.

The first track from the release, “Harold of the Moon,” is magnetic, casually reflecting the producer’s laid back jazz roots, revealing itself slowly while wrapping a firm bounce around a wide range of audio samples running the spectrum from Nietzsche to Mad Men to Cowboy Bebop. “The rest of the album will certainly have similar stylistic roots as ‘Harold of the Moon’,” explains French. “But as the name of the album suggest[s], there are a lot of different genres that I tackle and infuse with my own character.”

Aside from splitting his time and performances between Nashville, Carbondale (where he’s attending school at Southern Illinois University), and his native Chicago, the producer intends on releasing the full-length Wax Eclectic November 3, which he ultimately expects to bear some 15-20 tracks. Until then, you’d also do well to check out the equally tranquil “Malice,” which revolves comfortably around a sexy vocal loop and piano sample.

[This article first appeared on Break on a Cloud.]

Alcoholic Musings

“Alcoholics Anonymous” has played a comedic role in my life for ages; the brunt of a joke between friends who, by no stretch of the imagination, are all variants of the term’s textbook definition. For instance, in college we got drunk (drunk!) before putting on our workout gear and hitting the gym for an intramural basketball tournament. Game One was us against a team of football players (our team had those too, but there was a size and speed advantage on the other team which unfortunately was only made that much worse by our largely inept lack of skills and, of course, the jags we all had going). The last thing I remember is jogging around the court prior to tip-off, mocking the other team. In my blackout state I hard-fouled one of their biggest players, and he sent me flying. I broke my collar bone, and a small “skirmish” ensued. I ended up sitting out the rest of the tournament (though, in a just world, I shouldn’t have played at all… I’m the worst basketball player I know), only to shine again during the last game of the season.

Some weeks later I dawned my finest thrift store sport coat and assembled a pre-game speech, trumpeting the triumphs of alcoholics from yesteryear to rally the team before the season’s final game. It remains the best speech I’ve ever given, sober or stoned… which probably doesn’t say much for my public speaking abilities. I’m pretty sure a salute to Buzz Aldrin was in there somewhere, but the point of the thing was to simply make light of life and have some fun. That game we were pinned against the team from the sober dorm. We won. Actually, it was the only game of the entire tournament that we won. I was carried out of the arena on the shoulders of a couple of friends as if we’d won the championship, my arms still rigidly hooked into a sling to help straighten out my fractured clavicle. Our team name: the Alcoholics Anonymous. We play in a fantasy football league now, and have been doing so for years, under the same name. The past two seasons I was either passed out or I drunkenly forgot about the pre-season draft and ended up with ridiculously poor teams. (This season I drafted my own team. Yay me.) Point is, the name is a joke to us.

And I think the term “alcoholic,” itself, is kind of silly, too. It’s not a medical definition, and its meaning is myriad, completely relative to the person using it. One of my favorite quotes comes from the Welsh poet and writer Dylan Thomas, who once said “An alcoholic is someone you don’t like who drinks as much as you do.” That about sums it up for me.

During the first few meetings I sat in on last month, in situations where I’d be introducing myself to the group, I’d simply say “Hi, my name is Chris.” But I thought about it some… it’s just a word, “alcoholic,” and what the word means is up to me. In the process of going out of my way to distinguish myself from others, by refusing the distinction I was sort of disrespecting where they’re coming from, regardless of how I feel about the term. So, amid all of this personal struggle and a search for self, I’ve begrudgingly dawned “alcoholic” myself. I still don’t like saying it, as if it’s some sort of slur that passes only because of the company I’m in when I say it, but I do so out of a place of compassion for what we all have in common. Together, we are alcoholics.

Yesterday I sat down for coffee and breakfast with my “sponsor” and we talked about life and “The Program.” He knows I’m coming from a place of skepticism, bearing ill will toward the religious rhetoric that powers the 12 Steps since having first read The Big Book cover to cover about four years ago. I revealed that earlier this month I made a promise to myself that I was going to “put myself in a position where I can help other young people who are struggling with this same shit that I’ve been going through.” Two and a half weeks ago I didn’t know what that meant, but it soon dawned on me that I would transform this vague memoir-slash-research-project I’d been working on into a book, written to myself four years ago, to the version of me who unabashedly mocked treatment because of personal preconceptions; the version of me who ultimately gave up on life. And over french toast and coffee I continued to explain this to someone firmly embedded in “The Program” — that I was writing something (I’m still not sure what to call it) based around a model of acceptance, an introduction to treatment for those who balk at recovery, written by someone who’s been struggling with the very thought of “treatment” for the better part of a decade. It was sort of liberating.

Sure, I mean, essentially I’m my own research tool here, letting my guard down and going with the flow to see if I’ve been wrong about A.A. this whole time. And maybe that’s not the optimal way to start out, but it’s the only way I could start out. I showed up because I had no where else to go, and no one else to talk to, and my life’s been better this month than it was two months ago. Do I think this is the doing of a “higher power”? Nope. But I can’t discredit the positivity that’s developed from simply attending meetings and talking to other people who struggle with issues similar to my own. Yesterday I attended two such meetings.

What flowed through the first was a theme of how to deal with pain, both physical and emotional, while the second was aimless, rambling, and largely worthless for me. But what both helped me remember is that life exists outside of my own head, and the problems I’m facing are hardly the worst that mankind has ever witnessed. And all-in-all, if that’s what I take away from the day… holy crap, that’s powerful. And that’s what I’m trying to build on. About three years after going through the treatment process myself, I began researching the fundamentals behind numerous recovery methods and relevant psychology branches to better understand the addiction and recovery process on a larger scale. And right now I’m back to where I began four years ago: With a blue book in my hands, trying to figure out just how the hell “a Power greater than [myself] can restore [me] to sanity.” But I’m not just reading The Big Book, I’m reading that and Jack Trimpey’s Rational Recovery; that and numerous websites and forums dedicated to the eradication of A.A., sussing out the truth that it’s a “cult”; that and resources championing A.A. as the foundation from which a better life can be built.

There’s the aim: compassion, tolerance, and understanding. You know, shit like that…

Yesterday I was talking to someone prior to my second meeting and discussion somehow landed on how I was sitting at the bar at a T.G.I. Friday’s a few days back waiting for a friend to show up for dinner, and how the smell of the stale bar-back was a little nauseating. This person — and bless her heart — gave me the stink-eye and demanded to know if my “sponsor” was aware that I was going to bars. I said no. This person’s stink-eye turned into a stink-face. I asked what response they were looking for from me. I was told that “The Program” dictates that we shouldn’t go to bars or be around alcohol for a year, which was followed by a couple anecdotal stories of how the struggle of temptation is simply too great to bear in such scenarios, so we best not put ourselves, as alcoholics, in such a position.

However deaf the ears might have been, I argued that the blanket advice is helpful, but it doesn’t speak to individual triggers, histories, and habits. I was at “the bar” because I showed up way too early and didn’t want to sit in a booth in a restaurant, bored and alone for an hour in the middle of the day while the close-captioned versions of a couple of my favorite sports talk shows were readily available on big screens but a dozen yards away. Sitting there I was no closer to losing my mind than I was an hour earlier simply because of my proximity to a substance. By sheer defiance, I’m pretty sure I lost that debate, but I feel victorious in trying to stand up for what makes sense to me without backing away out of politeness. She might be in her 50s (late-40s?) but nothing she was saying was coming from her heart, just from a place of indoctrination (see: A.A. as a “cult”). I like talking about this stuff because I like growing as a person, and right now I really feel like I’m doing that. I keep showing up to meetings not because I hit rock-bottom and lost everything, but because of all I have to gain, personally, by setting my life on a healthier course. Hopefully this “book” becomes the manifestation of my effort.

Last night I texted one of my fantasy football buddies (one of my best friends, and also a teammate on that basketball squad) and mentioned this sobriety twist in my story. He responded, “Nice man. I like that.” To be honest, I’m not hating it, myself.

D. Watusi "Brother & Sister"

New music from Nashville’s D. Watusi has been circulating for a minute, but among the ten new songs on Dark Party is the standout you best not overlook: “Brother & Sister.” Side one, track two kicks off with waves of slicing repetition, shrieking howls, and bluesy breakdowns before ripping into a spurt of majestic shredding (which is really just a fancy way of saying there’s a cool little solo near the end). What the song’s actually about? No idea. But it sounds pretty tight to me.

If you were at Nashville’s Dead’s birthday bash last week you had your shot at scoring a limited release of Dark Party (complete with “hand-screened” cover). If you weren’t, the blog-slash-label promises “the actual record will be released a little later.” (One can only assume they mean that it’ll drop sometime between now and the pending global Apocalypse in December. So with that in mind, buy two… as if your money will do you any good when the sky is raining fire, anyways.) In the meantime, the whole thing is streaming on Soundcloud.

[This article originally appeared on Break on a Cloud.]

Mr. Ahmad Rashad & Squikee "Play ‘Em Off" Video

A boomin’ granny rocking a gift-shop visor and a camera around her neck while keeping up with the locals down in Printer’s Alley: If for no other reason, that should be enough to encourage you to check out the new King Thai-directed video for Mr. Ahmad Rashad & Squikee’s “Play ‘Em Off.”

The single, produced by Johnny Mo and the Crazy 88′s, was originally released this past summer on Rashad’s Speak My Mind, but is also featured on Squikee’s DIESEL Volume One: Don’t Let the SQUIKEE Voice Fool Ya which just dropped last night.

Not to be outdone, Rashad says he has plenty of new material on the way himself, with a new project Please Say The Mister!!! and “a few mixtapes” in the works. “I also do a weekly showcase TNT talent showcase at The Limit it Printer’s Alley that is good positive vibes with great entertainment.”

So, throw on your finest Steve McNair jersey and head down there some time. Maybe you’ll find a granny of your own to get down with.

[This article first appeared on Break on a Cloud.]

B-Hoody "Gwopaneese" Video

The video for B-Hoody’s “Gwopaneese” isn’t necessarily formulaic, but bathing in smoke with a room full of pseudo-punk white girls isn’t exactly groundbreaking art either. That said, the black and white visuals do complement the laid back feel of the Bandplay-produced track (from this year’s Properly Preserved mixtape), and have since come to represent something more to the young MC, having now released the video in memorial of a friend.

“The day we shot the video was lots of fun, however one of my young homies by the name of Demarcus Jordan Ellis (aka Rock) who came out to the video shoot on September 12 was shot and killed just one week later inside of his home. He was only 17 years old and had dreams just like we all do. He was the life of the party! He was loyal and supported me, and anyone else that he believed in. He was one of the coolest young cats around with potential to be whatever he wanted to be. Rock had a good heart and plenty of grind [and] determination. It really changed my life when I got the phone call. It made me realize so many things, the biggest being tomorrow is not promise.”

And that’s the truth: Life isn’t guaranteed. So why not summon your voice and wave your flag today? Tomorrow might be too late.

[This article first appeared on Break on a Cloud.]

Rashad tha Poet "H.O.P.E."

“H.O.P.E.,” the first single from Rashad tha Poet’s forthcoming Hope Lives Here EP, finds its pace while relaxing on a calm flow as the Nashville MC seeks relief in what he calls “a brighter side.”

Borrowing the beat from Oddisee‘s “Beach Dr.” (from the Brooklyn-based MC and producer’s Rock Creek Park release), the song represents immense positivity for the MC, “Each verse talks about different types of things to have [or] keep hope in.”

“Hip-hop seems so one-sided nowadays. If you’re not balling or talking about how many women you have then you must be miserable, right? [I] just wanted to have fun and bring some different energy to the canvas.”

When released next month on the Hope Lives Here EP, the track will sit among five others which will all tell different stories, each speaking to the necessity to keep pushing ahead while deflecting whatever negativity life throws at you. “It’s like a mantra, wake up saying Hope Lives Here. If you don’t have hope what do you have?”

The EP is set to drop mid-October and a video for “H.O.P.E.” is also presently in the works.

[This article first appeared on Break on a Cloud.]

Dee Goodz "Look What I Came From"

With a first look at the forthcoming Donny Ca$h project dropping about a week back in the form of the Grady-produced “What’s On Your Mind,” Nashville’s Dee Goodz is keeping the momentum going with another “inspirational anthem” in the form of “Look What I Came From.” Sampling Lana Del Rey’s “Off to the Races,” the Grady & OdizzyBeatz-produced song finds the MC reflecting on his past, his raspy vocals playing to a theme of gratitude and triumph while remembering early battles. “Real shit, homie, we ain’t livin’ like a cartoon / Made it out the trenches do you want to see the war wounds?” With the sound of the track being as dense as it is, it’s easy to let the message take a backseat, but when absorbing the words and production as a complete unit, the combination is powerful, “Never let a mother fucker tell you that you ain’t none.”

Bluntly put, there’s bound to be a lot of dick-riding when Dee’s new album drops; there definitely was when he came through with Floetic Justice II last year (note: few were guiltier than I was). One of the things to be cautious of though is writing the man’s work off because of it: History calls that contempt prior to investigation. And if you put the effort in to discover what Dee Goodz is about, you’re going to find an MC still developing his skills, who refuses to be defined or confined by local barriers in his journey. The man tours — which is so very unfortunately rare in the Nashville community — and has been working hard for as long as he says he has. The results speak for themselves in the music.

“Yeah, look what I came from.”

[This article first appeared on Break on a Cloud.]

Strangers on a Bus

Last week a friend and I boarded a bus together. I swiped my pass while she followed, riding out to the next stop as she worked her way through the tedious process of depositing a handful of change to pay the fare. When she sat down next to me another passenger called from a few seats over, expressing something to the effect that “money’s money.” From there conversation began. We learned that not only does the transit system accept pennies, but that he once stood at the mechanism at the front of the bus, painstakingly unloading a few hundred of them at once to pay for a day-pass. Money is money.

As the bus continued we rode by a car dealership (two, actually) which provoked discussion of how The System has been put in place to encourage car lots without ensuring that there’s anyone left able to afford the cars; a rather obvious metaphor for the country’s current financial woes, we concluded. He then told us about how he’d lost somewhere between enough-to-pay-for-his-daughter’s-college-tuition and a half million dollars (the exact amount changed over the course of a few sentences) because of the economic collapse. This led to an aside about regrets, how living in the moment is all we really have, and the utterly fascinating actualization that comes with really understanding that the moment IS all we have.

Then he asked me if I had a Facebook page.

Riding public transit nearly every day I’m used to talking to strangers. In the South, actually, I’ve become comfortable with an openness about creating dialog as a sort of necessity to pass time. Elsewhere it’s an intrusion of privacy, but here it’s generally accepted. Sometimes people are just building momentum to ask you for a spare dollar, sometimes they’re just waiting for their destination to arrive. Either way, most people are fairly innocent in this regard.

When Thomas (I can’t quite remember if that was his name, but for the sake of discussion “Thomas” will work) asked me if I had a Facebook page, though, that triggered a defensive reaction within me. I told him no. He said a few more words, then repeated it as though I’d misheard him. I again shot back, assuring him that I did not have a Facebook page. The walls were erected and on my side, at least, and while communication continued, the conversation was over.

He knew my name, and at the time I knew his. I’d learned of his financial situation, that he was actively working through some sort of therapy, that he had at least one child of age to go to college, and that he probably wasn’t as crazy as his glazed-over eyes and speech impediment immediately made him out to appear. But I refused to cross some imaginary line of intimacy in my mind. As we were exiting the bus I shook hands with Thomas and wished him well — joking again that if I found “The Answer” to it all, I’d be sure to pass it on his way — and he replied with equal passing kindness. My friend then asked me why I told him that I didn’t have a Facebook page, since we’d just met, and we’d just connected on the social platform only a few days earlier. It took me a moment to conjure an answer, but all I could muster was that I actually intended on being friends with her. The same can’t be said for many connections on Facebook though; the excuse remains bullshit.

When I was walking home from the bus station the thought continued to plague me, if only because I’d been called out on my nonsense. I texted my friend a follow-up, about how maybe I’m just used to keeping my guard up. At least that’s closer to the truth. But the reality is that I don’t know exactly why I balked at a stranger on the bus like I did. Had he asked me for a dollar at the end of our interaction, I’d have given it to him — he earned it. But he didn’t. All he did was imply that he’d like to talk further. And I lied. Twice. What’s the worst that could happen? I don’t like him and cut him off? I don’t know, maybe he really is crazy and somehow tracks me down in person and finally asks me for that dollar? There really isn’t much “bad” that could have immediately come from it, but I was quick in putting up that wall. Had he been a gorgeous 25 year old with blonde hair and skin to die for, maybe (and by maybe I mean absolutely) I’d have reacted differently. But he wasn’t and I didn’t.

The point is that I felt bad. Not for Thomas — something tells me Thomas will be fine without me — but for myself, and my own stupid barriers that continue to prevent me from simply being as honest as I claim to be. If he was crazy, so what… he’s no crazier than the people I interact with on a daily basis, it’s just that he’d be a card carrying member of the lunatic society rather than an onlooker who denies their insanity’s existence while continuing to act on it in their own life. The good that could have come from Facebook-ing with Thomas easily outweighs the negative what-ifs, because maybe, even if only for a moment, it was clear that we weren’t all that unalike, Thomas and I. And despite the interconnectedness of us all it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find people who you can say that about.

Finding Success in Less

Saying that something has a “cult following” is as vague as saying that something is “successful.” Both exist on a sliding scale, and while neither means much on their own, both are desirable. At times the difference between the two is non-existent, at others it’s worlds apart.

Neither Office Space and Idiocracy “succeeded” at the box office, yet the Mike Judge films both found “success” through “cult followings” when made available for at-home consumption. While a success is a success is a success, Judge has made the statement that just once it’d be nice to not have to rely on finding a cult following to find success in the medium. Both are great results, but still: one is seemingly less great. (“I would rather have a huge number one blockbuster, but hey, I’ll take it.“)

Shifting gears, in a recent blog post Seth Godin writes,
"If you want to get paid for your freelance work… then you ought to find and lead a tribe, build a base of people who want you, and only you, and are willing to pay for it."
And in his recap of Dan Provost & Tom Gerhardt’s presentation at this weekend’s XOXO Festival, Anil Dash adds,
"Louis C.K.’s success narrative was ‘actually quite refreshing’ – but what about the rest of us? What if we’re not known and established? Kevin Kelly’s long argued that you should have 1,000 true fans in order to sustain your work. There’s a sweet spot between blockbuster and obscurity, and it lets you have a much smaller audience than you might imagine."
To “succeed” is to meet a goal, but first you have to address what that goal is. And in addressing goals, why not open yourself up to the idea that you might be able to do well without capturing the lone objective that you feel is vital to your success. In his recent interview on Marc Maron’s WTF Podcast, the classically-trained hard rocker (and party enthusiast) Andrew W.K. took a moment to describe why he doesn’t like to see creators limit their definition of success,
"I don’t understand that. This is not [meant as] a disrespect. I admit that my lack of understanding comes from: one, being very fortunate, but two, maybe some kind of ignorance. When I learned music is was because a joy in music. People say ‘How do you become a successful musician?’ I say, ‘Well, do you play your instrument?’ They say, ‘Yeah.’ I say, ‘Do you enjoy it?’ They say, ‘Yeah.’ I say, ‘Then you’re a successful musician.’ [Maron lunges forward in full-on hippie tone, 'No man, I mean, like, on a record'...] Oh, then you’re going to be a businessman, then you’re going to be an entertainer, you’re gonna work in show business: Those are all very different things."
All of this is to say a couple things. First off, you don’t have to be the passionate creator AND the business-savy marketer to be “successful,” as personal satisfaction and financial reward are wildly different measures. Second, those finding “success” outside of self are often the same people positioning themselves to emphasize their differences. And third, if you’re going to try to make a living from your work, it might be that tribes (or small, like-minded groups) are where it’s at: It’s been ages since you’ve needed to fill an arena to be a financially successful musician or rally for a New York Times Best Seller to be a financially successful writer. As Kickstarter (and the like) has shown, more and more a compact group of fiercely dedicated supporters is what will separate a creator from the green light and the gutter.

Step One: Honestly define “success.” Step Two: Play to your strengths. Step Three: Don’t underestimate the power of less. Simple in statement, yet daunting in practice.

On Fiona Apple’s "Idler Wheel"

Fiona Apple. For years the singer’s name alone has summoned a myriad of images and memories in the minds of music fans and pop culture enthusiasts alike. Her youth, bolstered by her musical and lyrical strength, made for an easy introduction to the mainstream in the ’90s, landing her deep in the midst of a landscape populated by Puffys, Missys, and Verves. ” I’ve been a bad, bad girl / I’ve been careless with a delicate man,” she moaned in “Criminal,” the third single from her debut album Tidal. The track remains her most commercially successful, and is actually the only single of Fiona’s to hit the Billboard 200 (and her only song to chart in the States aside from “Fast As You Can” which landed on the Alternative Songs chart in 1999). The Mark Romanek-directed video incited criticisms for overly-sexualizing the then 20 year old, leading The New Yorker to famously describe her as “looking like an underfed Calvin Klein model.” Since her start there’s been a constant marketing tug, playing her beauty to offset her eccentricities. She was never goth. She was never coffee-shop. She was young. She was tough to market. She was Fiona Apple.

Just as “Criminal” remains tied to the singer (made that much more humorous when learning that it was written in under an hour at the encouragement of her label), so too are numerous other factoids and historical landmarks that continue to litter profiles, reviews, and articles long after they first seemed relevant. She’s pretty, yes, but also damaged. She’s peculiar, and was once romantically tied to the similarly misunderstood illusionist David Blaine. She’s smart, but her 1997 MTV VMA “This world is bullshit … And you shouldn’t model your life about what you think that we think is cool and what we’re wearing and what we’re saying and everything. Go with yourself” speech continues to outshine her. There was the (retrospectively misguided) “Free Fiona” bid in 2004 that found fans campaigning to encourage Epic Records to release her third album, Extraordinary Machine, “which the label deemed not sufficiently commercial enough to justify the expense of putting it out.” And what story of Fiona Apple would be complete without mentioning the “several instances of her leaving the stage mid-performance.” “These moments,” writes Sasha Friere-Jones, “have become to Apple as bat-biting has been to Ozzy Osbourne — dramatic anecdotes that play well.”

Even now, her “eccentricities” are blown out of proportion (a slew of articles emphasize her technological reservations, recycling the same “this whole Google thing” quote), and her OCD is given heavy attention (on Marc Maron’s WTF Podcast they discussed how her eating disorder — see: “underfed Calvin Klein model” — has more to do with foods not being the right color for the moment, or coordinating with a shape that’s dictated in her mind prior to being hungry, leaving her physically unable to eat). Even with the release of her new album, label drama continues to find its place in the singer’s mythos: Sony Records was between presidents when it was being completed, leaving it on the shelf as “her manager felt it would be dangerous to submit an album when the label was in such flux.” This history, it seems, is tied to the singer as much as the songs are that were written by a different person, drawing from a different perspective, representing someone who no longer exists. All of this is to underscore the detrimental angle of the process: repeating someone’s personal history to them so frequently makes it hard for them to escape it and carve out a new direction or path for as new person they’ve become. “At the moment she seems… hyper-alive,” reflected Nitsuh Abebe in March, reacting to Fiona Apple’s public rebirth at this year’s SXSW festival. “Working at a level of intensity that is rare and generally so temporary that you just have to be glad you got a look at it.” Following this public reemergence was the release of her fourth album in June, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do.

Pitchfork immediately put its mammoth weight behind the release, slapping it with a rarely seen 9.0 rating (and, of course, the Best New Music distinction), adding “Unguarded honesty doesn’t go out of style.” The album has been called “Something like the wind, howling through a canyon that, over time, has been opened a mile wide by our fury and our fury’s neglect,” with Fiona’s voice bearing “rough edges [that] she refuses to sand down — and in fact, on this album, often accentuates.” It’s not just that the album merely exhibits a certain raw vocal quality or takes on monumental abstract feelings, but that The Idler Wheel confronts Fiona’s ongoing mental health struggles, her battles with depression, and her self-destructive safe-zone, presenting them all under the larger banner of a well-crafted set of songs. Love and relationships are in there, too, but the album finds the singer going beyond “textbook teenage girl stuff,” with the singer reflecting on a longing for humanity in her life, not merely companionship. Not bad for an eccentric.

The balance has always seemed delicate. One misplaced step to the right or left of the mark and Fiona might crumble into an existence of self-imposed isolation, alienating herself from family and friends as the days turn into years of seclusion. Or at least that’s how it appeared when she was younger, when we were younger. Whether that version of her existed or not is history, but now the singer seems slightly more impenetrable to the chaos, if only because of her complete lack of attention to what’s not inside her bubble. Marc Maron continued on the podcast interview, speaking to her maturity as the overcoming of a vulnerability that she has: one that people continue to poke at despite it being at the crux of her creation. This, I feel, is like continually bringing up that she was raped when she was 13 (I’m sorry for bringing that up) in order to somehow make sense of the music she’s creating in her mid-thirties. “I thought I was a total victim trying to look strong,” she confessed to Black Book Magazine. “Always the victim of self, seeking sympathy for the craziness that I can’t control.” “It’s not a mistake that the one word Apple repeats and distorts and plays with is ‘brain’,” adds Sasha Frere-Jones. “That’s where she lives, and she’s finally decided to call it home.” Yes, emotions still exist… how can they not?! But now she’s caddying those emotions for a different version of herself, someone swinging with a more confident stroke, exhibiting a craftiness to pull from the past only when it’s really necessary to do so.

Which isn’t to say that depression has passed — as if it even could — it’s just changed. “I’m a tulip in a cup / I stand no chance of growing up,” she sings in “Valentine,” recognizing the resiliency of her foe. Moments into the album’s first track, “Every Single Night,” Fiona addresses the struggle as it continues to burden her, speaking to its pending capacity to snowball out of control. “These ideas of mine / Percolate the mind / Trickle down the spine / Swarm the belly, swelling to a blaze.” At times she sounds like her mind is becoming too much for her to bear (“The ants weigh more than the elephants / Nothing, nothing is manageable” in “Left Alone”) while at others she seems on the cusp of enlightenment (“I just want to feel everything” in “Every Single Night”). But while all of this is going on there isn’t an overwhelming sense of struggle. Instead she does appear that she’s becoming more comfortable with the realities her mind presents. And even more, as songs like “Periphery” suggest, that she hardly feels like she’s the eccentric and abnormal crazy person that she’s reminded of at every media turn. Even with 7500 word profiles outlining her as a pothead insomniac with a penchant for the drink, it’s hard to conclude that she’s really the person she’s been made out to be. Which is comforting, because are any of us the people that we’re made out to be?

There is a perverted sense of normalcy that develops in the mind of a depressive, and as someone who can empathize with the words that detail Fiona’s struggle in “Every Single Night” I can attest to their validity. “Every single night’s alright / Every single night’s a fight / And every single fight’s alright with my brain.” There’s a constant push and pull here, but even in songs like “Daredevil” where she warns “I don’t feel anything until I smash it up,” there remains a sense of control.

The eternal attachment between singer/songwriters and lyrics about love and romance has been so thoroughly milked dry that the thought alone leaves me yearning an eardrum shattering shot to the brain from Slayer. Fortunately, that’s never really been Fiona’s thing, and in the case of The Idler Wheel, the notion of love isn’t exclusive to romantic ideals, or even romance at all. Love here is about understanding people, who they are, what they need, and consequently what they don’t need. Therein lies what might be the most heartbreaking aspect of her lyrics on the album.

When it comes down to it, all I think I know about Fiona Apple comes from her music, interviews, and video clips. Which is to say that I really don’t know a goddamn thing. Still, I take away a sense that she is the sort of person who becomes oblivious to their own issues in a friend’s time of need. She seems like the type of person who would kick you in the ass when you need it, telling you to get your shit in order even though her own shit might be hanging together by its last thread. All at once, the one-sidedness of “Regret” seems to preach the validity of my imagined Fiona Apple, speaking to the cruelness of an ex’s manipulative dysfunction. And as other songs reveal, what most catches the ear isn’t the betrayal of her feelings, by others or even by herself, but her concessions that she’s not the Perfect Person for whoever He is.

“Fiona Apple has always been in the process of breaking up,” adds Frere-Jones. “Usually preemptively — before you can ask, she will provide a list of reasons not to love her.” Not unlike the subject of depression, relationships have a strange duality within The Idler Wheel, with Fiona longing yet leaving, seeking yet shedding. “How can I ask anyone to love me / When all I do is beg to be left alone?” she cries out in “Left Alone.” She relents that He might be better off without her in “Jonathan” (“Jonathan, anything and anyone that you have done / Has got to be alright with me / If she’s part of the reason you are how you are / She’s alright with me”) but stands confident in “Hot Knife” (“If I get a chance, I’m gonna show him that / He’s never gonna need another, never need another”). She removes herself from fairy tale in “Werewolf” (“But we can still support each other / All we gotta do’s avoid each other”) but tragically bleeds sadness in “Valentine” (“I made it to a dinner date / My teardrops seasoned every plate”). If there’s a line that might best represent what she seems to crave though, it might be in “Daredevil” when she sings “And all I want’s a confidante / To help me laugh it off.” This goes beyond “LiveJournal stuff.”

Not only does intimacy not sooth her (“And I can love the same man, in the same bed, in the same city / But not in the same room, it’s a pity” in “Left Alone”) but in life outside of song she seems overtaken by the need for simple companionship. This, again, is something I can identify with. When away from her home, and her dog, she found a touring friend in a goldfish to keep her company, for example, but still there’s a deeper longing here that stems from year after year of admitted loneliness. “She believed that sharing her story — all of her story — would also make herself feel better,” explains Dan Lee. “It did not.” “I genuinely, na├»vely thought that I was going to put out a record and that was going to make me have friends,” continued Fiona in her Black Book interview. “I expected to give it to people and they would understand me.” They did not. But there’s a connection that weaves between everything, the depression, the love, the romance, and the loneliness: the music. “Now, at my lowest moments, I think of people who come to shows,” said the singer in an interview with Pitchfork. “I still get very sad and sometimes I feel like I have no friends, but when that happens now, I’ll think of people whose names or faces I don’t know — they’re my friends and they love me. I’ve got them. It really does save me. I still feel awkward, but that’s the one thing I can grab onto at my lowest points.”

With the understanding then that it’s the music that helps Fiona maintain a balance in her life, it’s no surprise that the actual music on The Idler Wheel speaks with such boldness. “It’s a meal beyond gourmet,” adds David Williams, a commentor on NPR’s First Listen. “These songs aren’t catchy — but after a few listens, they can become something more permanently listenable than ‘catchy’ ever could be.” Fiona’s alluded to it in the past, saying that even when she’d feel ridiculed that it was never actually for her music, but on a critical level it’s tough to find much of anything on The Idler Wheel to bicker about, musically-speaking. That being said, Enio Chiola was able to do so in his Pop Matters review of the album. Referring to “Jonathan” and “Left Alone,” he writes “Both tracks sound like they’re super artistic, reminiscent of jazz trios, and they should totally be loved for their creative conjuncture of jazz and pop — but really, they’re both far too indulgent to penetrate.” Continuing, “This is what ultimately plagues the album from achieving the brilliance that it purports.” Strong words made that much more flaccid as the arbiter of taste would later hang his own argument in the comments by calling the album “simply inaccessible — which makes it disappointing.” As Fiona sings in “Periphery,” “I don’t appreciate people who don’t appreciate.”

Jokes aside, all throughout the album the sound has been masterfully crafted, and without having been a past fanatic The Idler Wheel moves me in a way that her other albums could not. Be it the field recording approach to “Jonathan,” picking up sounds of a bottle-making factory to use for the song, the sounds of children playing on “Werewolf,” or the multi-tracked vocals of her and her sister weaving between each another on “Hot Knife” (which Sasha Frere-Jones hits on the nose, calling them “the least commercial barbershop quartet ever“), each track boasts something unique and special. There’s the swaying pounce of “Every Single Night,” the raw wailing of “Daredevil” and “Regret,” the downhill, near-out of control sound of “Left Alone,” and the rumbling bounce of “Periphery.” When I first listened to the album months back I immediately jumped to Facebook to post a reaction, telling friends that “I recognize now that I’m not going to be able to listen to that too often for fear that its richness spoils my appetite for other music.” As hyperbolic as that might sound, it’s still true. Not that my list of favorite piano players is a deep one, but Fiona might be my favorite piano player based on The Idler Wheel alone. Her ability to combine such a nimble and unique mind for sound helps create an atmosphere perfectly ripe for the lyrics which accompany each track. And I’ve already gone on long enough, adding personal context to those lyrics to help wring my own meaning from the album, so it’s probably best to move on there.

“I don’t think I’ll ever have an idea of what I look like to the rest of the world,” continued Fiona in her Black Book interview. Self-perception aside, none of us can really understand exactly what we look like to the rest of the world. Who I am in your eyes is going to be different than who I am in my own mind, and who Fiona Apple is to you will be a different person than who Fiona Apple is to me. But in paying more attention this past year, a lot has changed in building this creation of personality in my mind.

Fiona Apple is not a delicate flower of instability. Playfully relating a story to Marc Maron, she told him how her family gets frustrated at her because she closes jars and bottles too tight. She’s constantly unaware of how intense she actually is. She’s the kind of person whose “resting face isn’t a smile” she joked. And when she appeared on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon this past June her presence was exactly that: intense. Sure, “awkward” or “eccentric” might cover the gamut here, but speaking closer to what I saw was someone who couldn’t humanly stop emotion from gushing. She was excited to be there. Happy. And maybe a sense of social awkwardness got in the way of that translating as suave or sexy, leaving her unable to fluently tie stories into the context of conversation. Hell, I’ve been there, sitting backstage in life only to nervously forget the witty presentation I’d prepared in my mind, left stumbling through words and mumbling my way through a now-unrecognizable idea. I was never wearing a long black dress and matching black boots when I was doing it, but then again, who I am in your eyes is going to be different than who I am in my own mind.

Her performance later in the show carried with it a violent cadence which helped corral the uncertain movements that she carried during the interview. “Apple’s voice is an implausibly virtuosic instrument,” relates Helena Fitzgerald. “But the degree to which she demonstrates that virtuosity is also somehow childish, a kid who doesn’t know to use her inside voice in public.” I don’t know that it’s childish, maybe just child-like. Fitzgerald’s observation goes back to depression for me personally — the attitude, of why aren’t you beyond this yet? Why haven’t you, Fiona, learned to tame yourself, mold your passion and talent into something less “inaccessible”? Why are you still singing about this stuff? “This album feels current because it’s an album from ten years ago,” Fitzgerald later added, only for the imaginary bubble to burst: holy shit, look at just how much I have changed! Can’t you see inside of my mind? It’s all there. I’m different now!

A few years ago I wrote a meaningless review of Taylor Swift’s Speak Now, and quickly it was swarmed on by young fans, striking back as if I’d written the most vitriolic collection of words the Internet has ever seen. Taylor Swift is not, nor will she ever be, Fiona Apple, but in reading the media wave that followed The Idler Wheel‘s release I can at least see where her fans were coming from. I wasn’t making fun of how “white-bread” Swift was, in their eyes I was attacking them personally because she feels what they feel, her voice merely acting as an amplifier for their own teenage angst. Anyone misunderstanding Taylor Swift’s words are misunderstanding who I am! I feel like that here, like Fiona is somehow gathering words I’d never think to amass, placing them in such an order that makes me feel as though they are coming from my own soul rather than the speakers across the room.

You don’t want to live through this, per se, but there is something liberating about bearing witness to someone so unrepentantly fucked-up; she is the martyr-saint, crucifying herself so that we might live dramz-free.” That’s what separates us. When I was in high school I was really into the idea of having a “broken” girlfriend. Not because I’d be able to save her, or any other such silly delusion, but maybe because her outer representation might speak to something inside of me. Over the years that has changed almost wholly (now I want to be with someone who can level out the madness that boils inside me!), but somewhere in the middle is the Fiona Apple of today. After years of consuming a media diet that bullied me into pornographic fantasies of objectifying her as just a pretty singer that I’d like to have sex with, it feels like I can finally let go of digging her simply as one of the Top 5 Hottest Indie Rock Chicks (her not being “indie” or “rock” aside here), or appreciating her music because she’s this frail and vulnerable person that she’s made to be. Instead, the album broke a wall, leaving me appreciative of her music because it touches something of the frail and vulnerable person that I am. That brokenness that used to attract me now scares me off because I see it in myself now. I totes wish I could chillax and live a dramz-free life, but my mind doesn’t work that way.

On Late Night Fiona performed my favorite song on the album, “Anything We Want,” and as I watched and listened I started to cry, stopping only for a moment to take a note reading “and I started crying” (notes are a godsend for forgetful people). There’s something here that’s helping me work things out in my mind, and when she continues in the song adding “We started out sipping the water / And now we try to swallow the wave,” the words take on a different meaning every time I hear them, each time empathizing with me, telling me that I’m not as far out there as I think I am. Instead, The Idler Wheel leaves me feeling like I’m not out on the fringes of life looking in, but that I’m on the inside with Fiona looking out onto all the madness, both of us now content that all we have to deal with are our own minds. And even if we’re wrong, and we’re the ones on the outside, so be it, because as she sings in the song, “Oh, the periphery / They throw good parties there.”