Penicillin Baby "Jams: Vol. 1" EP

Having evolved out of Magic Veteran, Penicillin Baby is a Nashville-based four-piece comprised of former MV members Jon Conant (vocals) and Anuj Pandeya (drums), as well as Charlie Davis (guitar) and Deep Machine’s Brennan Walsh (bass). We Own This Town called their sound “psychedelic space-y jams” but in catching up with the band via email, Jon Conant added a broader context for their direction.
"Jams Vol. 1 was very much inspired by me relocating to Nashville. I altered the sound of what was Magic Veteran (jammy psych blues) into what is now Penicillin Baby, which is a bit more focused in the songwriting approach, and puts more emphasis on high energy material that white kids can dance to. While writing this material I became very influenced by late ’70s/early ’80s punk and new wave stuff: bands like Modern Lovers, Echo and the Bunnymen, [and] Television. Also a lot of psych music from the ’60s like 13th Floor Elevators. This is the stuff I was listening to while writing these songs."
The group’s sound is a pleasing blend of influence and exploration, without falling into psychedelic traps of drowning in fuzz or wavy feedback experiments. Complementing the instruments nicely are Conant’s vocals which he insists are really there to just increase the musical complexity of the group’s songs rather than add any lyrical depth.
"The lyrics (which are purposefully unintelligible) simply come from my everyday experiences, no philosophic BS or anything; I just write about shit that happens to me. I try not to put a huge emphasis on lyrics, and focus on creating energy that people can partake in. That is the main difference [between] this band and my last one."
One of the most telling aspects of Penicillin Baby’s depth is that by the end of the three track EP, the immediately urge is to simply press play again. It’s one of my favorite methods of releasing music — a single song or select few tracks rather than a full-length release — but as Conant mentioned, the strategy was a direct result of some terribly unfortunate circumstances. In speaking to the pending release of Jams 2 & 3 he explained,
"[Jams] 2 will be done in the next week or two. We’ve had all of the songs for those EPs written for a few months, we just decided not to do a full length album and do three EPs instead for several reasons: 1) We recorded an entire full length record in January and the files mysteriously disappeared from the studio’s computer — I guess it was fate; 2) We like to do small releases to keep fans interested and be constantly releasing material; 3) As we play the songs more in a live setting, we change them and tweak them ever so slightly so we don’t record a song until we’re fully sure it cant get any better. Spacing out the releases gives us a chance to take everything in small steps and make sure the songs we want to put out are perfectly fine tuned."
The delicacy of “Jean Jam,” the post-punk sounds of “Thought it Couldn’t Be This Way,” and the straight-forward rocker “Hecklers” speak directly to this fine-tuned approach: Nothing here is rushed, and each track seems equally well crafted and carefully produced.

Keep your eyes and ears open in the coming weeks for Jams 2 and 3, as well as a split 7″ release with Megajoos, which are all in the works to drop via Conant’s Favorite Face imprint.

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

Walk and Talk… All Day

Earlier this month the timelessness of Girl Talk’s appeal was again reinforced by Houston’s OG Ron C who delivered a ridiculous chopped and screwed version of 2010’s All Day with his Purple All Day reinterpretation. For fans of the original, Purple is a must listen. But perhaps more satisfying than its syrupy sounds might be its call for fans to rediscover other works which have utilized the source in creating something unique and exciting. My memories quickly led me to a variety of video mashups that have surfaced in the 20 or so months that have passed since All Day‘s release (BDLFilms’ is rather fantastic), but the derivative project that remains a standout is the performance art piece developed by director Jacob Krupnick titled Girl Walk // All Day.

The story of how the 70+minute film was developed revolves around its position as another of Kickstarter’s many success-stories, but in brief it happened like this: In the span of about five months beginning in December 2010, the full-length feature project was conceived and the $4800 needed to produce it was fully funded (the online support following the release of a demo trailer was massive, eventually bringing in nearly $25k). The entire production was filmed and produced in the following seven months before the first chapter was released via Gothamist, with new installments coming quickly before the complete film eventually screened in its entirety at such events such as Bonnaroo, SXSW, and the Munich Film Festival. (For a complete history check out this Kickstarter video.)

Three things about Girl Walk initially drew me in: the release model, the unusual performance techniques of lead dancer Anne Marsen, and the surviving theme projected throughout. “I’m also really aware of how short the attention span is for Web videos and how difficult it is to presume how much people want to watch,” explained Krupnick in an interview with the NY Times’ Arts Beat blog last year. “Rather than release the film in full, it seemed like an interesting thing to do to release it in short serialized segments.” And, at least in my case, it worked: While I didn’t hear of the series until a few weeks in, once I was caught up I kept up, following the story with each subsequent short. Complementing the nature of Girl Talk’s music, which can also be exhausting when consumed for any significant period of time, chopping Girl Walk up left each individual chapter feeling energetic.

Marsen, who caught Krupnick’s eye in a previous project they worked on together, was selected to star because she incorporates a variety of genres “in one fluid routine” which is obvious mere moments into the film. That said, her energetic delivery is also one of Girl Walk‘s lightning rods: Early feedback was riddled with skeptics and haters, with the spectrum of criticism ranging from relatively civil name calling (“the dancing seemed spastic“) to violent (“I want to punch her in the throat“). Admittedly, there is something off-putting about the style, with hard-wired cynicism kicking in mere moments into the video as an endlessly positive dancer freak-funks her way across the screen. If you can put aside any critical focus though, Marsen’s energy and confidence remain unwavering throughout, offering an intangible depth to her character as the role shifts from geeked-out to sexy chic and back again.

That’s not a characteristic exclusive to Marsen though, as the entire cast of performers do well in accepting the challenge of performing to an unsuspecting public. Such moments of risky public interaction include the flaunting of shopping excess at an Occupy Wall Street protest, a brush with security at Yankee Stadium, an aggressive Grand Central Station breakdown, and a risqué subway pole dancing scene. To find out a bit more about the dangers the cast experienced with filming I connected with Krupnick via email.

“I was often concerned for the dancers’ safety while we were filming in the streets, but their risks were all calculated and made with care and confidence. I don’t feel like we created any particularly dangerous situations for passersby — that would be pretty mean-spirited, and counter our mission — but Anne, John, and Dai all performed pretty amazing feats of coordination and creativity every day. If I danced as hard as they did for a single minute, I’d probably roll an ankle. On our first day of filming, Dai tap-danced on the Wall Street Bull, performed on top of a phone booth, and slid around a subway stop — I was astonished by the performance, but also crossing all my fingers for his good health… The variables in the filming days were numerous: crowds, storefronts, the weather, street merchants. We came to embrace the unexpected in New York and incorporate chance into the filmmaking process in a way that’s generally reserved for documentaries.”

Awkward as her style might appear, Marsen’s ability to connect each chapter of the story, serving as an adhesive that holds the film together shouldn’t be overlooked. And despite the ringing sound of any B.S. detectors, the theme that her work articulates is one of resounding positivity. In fact, the only lines of dialog in the entire film speak to this, coming during her interaction with a couple of unsuspecting rabbis. “Why are you dancing?” one asks as she approaches him. “Because I’m happy,” she replies. “You should always be happy,” he answers.

Speaking to this in our conversation, Krupnick continued, “The film is optimistic at its core.” He continued by elaborating on how the project changed thematically over the course of its production. “There are a number of themes we’re trying to project with Girl Walk, and our intentions definitely evolved while filming, and gelled during editing. I was interested in making a film in public space to prove that there is still a public space — and that it’s something that needs to be used and celebrated for it to be recognized and protected.”

The enduring beauty of Girl Talk’s music is that it, too, celebrates public space, utilizing standards and oddities alike to help redefine how we appreciate music. Mashups on the whole ask us to wave our flags, no matter how geeky our influences might be or how embarrassing our passion might appear to others. Girl Walk does this as well, challenging us to celebrate our passions in the face of an apathetic public or a set of listless onlookers. One of the reasons it has stayed with me isn’t because of the often goofy dancing or the visuals celebrating New York City’s magnetic landscape, but it’s message encouraging us to be ourselves.

All day.

[This article first appeared on Silence Nogood.]

PRo "Get Up" Video

Directed by Marco “Oracle” Villalobos comes the most recent video from Murfreesboro MC PRo for the track “Get Up.” Maintaining a grounded beat — supplied by the team of Chinky P & Frank Dukes/Sarah J — the track focuses on PRo’s disenchantment with the world he sees around him, only to look back on himself and realize that the change he seeks has to start with the individual. The track is a prime example of how PRo maintains a focus on his faith — a key motivator of his music — without drawing distinct lines and preaching. I recently connected with PRo where the young MC expanded on his goal with the track,
"If we are all real with one another, when we look at the world around us, it’s clear that it’s broken. I’ve seen the effects of drugs ruin a community. I’ve seen broken families. The sad part about it is, many times instead of plotting on how I create change I usually just turn, look the other way and forget what I’ve seen. The song ‘Get Up’ has two purposes: 1.) Is to make people aware that these things are still going on around us; 2.) To encourage us to respond and do something about it."
The track will appear on PRo’s upcoming PSA Volume 3 mixtape, which the MC calls a “back to the basics” release.

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

BandMo Interview

Introduce yourself to our readers. Who are you and what is your background?

I’m a Canadian-born Nashvillian who loves hot chicken and beer, and for about seven years I ran shop at a music blog called Culture Bully. Having moved on from that project I’ve been contributing to a few websites here and there while also playing around with my camera and doing my own thing on my personal blog.

What relation do you have with music (past-time, passion, a business)?

For about three years I carried on as a full-time freelancer, concentrating on developing Culture Bully as well as doing work for Minneapolis’ local alt-weekly City Pages among a host of other small gigs. That period of my life came to an end last fall though, so I guess you could say that I’m just a fan now, more than anything.

What do you think of the current state of music?

What’s not to enjoy? This year we’ve seen some great new music from Fiona Apple, El-P, Killer Mike, the Ty Segall Band, and Aesop Rock… The current state of music is going to be what you want it to be: if you look for trash, you’ll find it, but if you look for carefully crafted pieces of aural art, the choices are ample. Heard a new Cat Power track the other day that I like also: The grass is looking pretty green from where I’m standing.

Where do you think it’s heading?

I just shook up the Magic 8-Ball and was given this as a response: “Pop punk revivals and the return of Master P.” Though not exactly the answer I was expecting, stranger things have happened, right? (As a sidenote: Don’t you think that’s a strange answer for the toy company to be including in Magic 8-Balls? I mean, really, how many times is that going to remotely answer someone’s question? Get your shit together Magic 8-Ball people, the buck stops here.)

What are your favorite websites to discover new talent, any tips for our readers?

Honestly, I don’t really know what’s hot right now in terms of finding new music. I check Pitchfork once a day to see what’s shaking but don’t have the passion (as you referred to it before) to stay on top of things like I used to. I’m happy to be ridding myself of the PR email diet as well, and just finding music on a level that I would consider slightly more organic, at least from the standpoint of a fan. If a friend recommends something, I’ll check it out, and if it get a “Best Album in the World” stamp of approval from someone I respect (guess there are a few names I pay attention to more than others: Jeff Weiss, Nitsuh Abebe), I’ll check it out. Otherwise, I’m having more fun by not discovering new talent via websites…

One of the issues that I return to is that there’s just so much music right now, and so many outlets for it online, that it’s impossible to hear everything that’s good. And I’m not even talking obscure indies that pop up on the radar from time to time: Staying on top of what’s going on right now — even only with mainstream releases — means dedicating a ridiculous amount of time to sifting through everything to find something you actually enjoy. It’s a paradox of abundance regarding blogs now every bit as much as it is music: there’s so much out there that’s deemed “good” that I have no idea to know where to start. Even on Pitchfork, there’s no way to consume everything that hits the website on a daily basis.

I never felt like I was a great curator, and I don’t think most music bloggers (or even, eh hem, “journalists”) are, which is unfortunately a large part of why I don’t put my faith in many voices online in searching for hot new jamz.

What role will the internet play in the music industry future?

The industry continues to change in ways that even those who consider themselves extremely tuned-in won’t be able to predict. Having never used Spotify, I can’t say for sure, but friends tell me it’s great. But, for instance, something else is going to come along and dwarf Spotify, then the tides will again change when something else makes that once-great technology obsolete, again re-configuring the face of the industry. I don’t really have anything here except the abstract: The Internet will play as big a role in redefining the music industry moving forward as it will in redefining every other part of our lives. Which is to say, tremendously.

[This article was originally published by BandMo.]

Ty Segall Band "Slaughterhouse" Review

A consensus pick as one of last year’s top albums, the momentum behind Ty Segall’s Goodbye Bread has already carried over into 2012 with the San Fransisco garage punk’s collaboration with White Fence (Tim Presley). Listenability an increasingly moot concern, Segall continued his breakneck string of acclaimed albums about a month back with Slaughterhouse, released under the Ty Segall Band moniker, recording alongside longtime collaborator Mikal Cronin, guitarist Charles Moothart, and drummer Emily Rose Epstein. The album is invariably powerful, and undeniably good. Which, oddly enough, might somehow detract from its impact.

History has proven creativity and talent to be something of a sand-in-an-hourglass scenario, both steadily caving in as the universal force of time sucks the source of its fertility. So what’s one to do when the muse strikes at the same time that creativity and talent are peaking? In Ty Segall’s case he’s turned this equation into tireless creation, keeping up an absurdly prolific recording and touring schedule. And can you blame him? When so many creative-types go without ever tasting such a wildly rare combination of flavors, he’d be a fool to not drink until the well runs dry.

From a listener’s perspective though this can be a divisive combination, leaving many to either gain a deeper appreciation of his craft or burn out from pure overload. As a friend of mine said in his review of Slaughterhouse, likening writing Ty Segall reviews to annually penning Father’s Day greetings, “How many ways can you thank a person for doing what they do before it sounds trite and banal? Thanks Dad for supporting me for 26 years… you are the BEST!” Taking the unenviable task of critiquing his rapid consistency one step further, Pitchfork’s Stuart Berman almost went out of his way to not write about Segall for a few paragraphs in his review of the album. And then there’s whatever this is… Pure Redundancy: words about other people’s difficulty mustering fresh ways to describe someone’s abilities. Maybe if he sucked more often it’d be easier to maintain interest in music as enjoyable as this? Back to the music though…

Segall’s albums have served not to cast him merely as a powerful musician, but to showcase him as a diverse artist within a relatively narrow genre. Despite being problematic for people trying to add their two cents as to why he’s good, with each new release Segall is increasingly keeping things interesting by switching-up which version of himself we hear on any particular recording. Distortion and melody holding constant, Segall’s music has a way of teetering between soft bubbly psych-influenced pop-rock and aggressive, borderline-caustic noise. This is a line that Segall walks with brazen confidence throughout Slaughterhouse.

Shrill screams mash with propulsive guitars in the both the album’s opener “Death” and its title track. “The Tongue” and “Oh Mary” bounce on distorted grooves, while “Tell Me What’s Inside Your Heart” swings between vocal harmonies constrained shredding. The band’s take on Fred Neil’s 1965 track “That’s the Bag I’m In” is a feedback growling monster, and drawn out album closer “Fuzz War” holds remarkably true to its name. There’s a complementary duality within Slaughterhouse that speaks to how harnessed and uncontrollable the band-leader’s music can be at any given moment. So while overload is possible, the music’s diversity leaves it unlikely.

No doubt that when the pageview milking list-machine yields its ugly head at the end of the year, Ty Segall will again be one of the consistently prevailing figures mentioned as having created one of 2012′s Best Albums. If not for the White Fence collaboration Hair, then certainly for Slaughterhouse (and if not for Slaughterhouse, then certainly for whatever else he comes up with in the next few months). The truth is, that regardless of how difficult it might be to consistently qualify the his music, Segall seems intent on making the most of what he’s got going for him right now. And good on him for it. Legends are made of those who can keep his pace up for decades, while time tends to forget the many thousands of artists whose stars fail to align for even an entire release. Right now, Segall’s somewhere in the middle of that particular spectrum. Whether overwhelmed or inspired by his output, one can’t help but hope that the man’s hourglass defies history and leaves us with even more great music like this before his run inevitably comes to an end. The world needs more legends.

[This article first appeared on Each Note Secure.]

Kalle Mattson “Water Falls” Video

It’s difficult to explain exactly what’s at the heart of Kevin Parry‘s HYPNO SF project. I suppose you could call it hyper-zoom, or Mr. Toad’s wild ride on a slingshot-cam, but both of those descriptions would fail to speak to the unique creativity of the project. Scored by Kalle Mattson and filmed by Andrea Nesbitt, the short shows off the sights of San Francisco while, like a rubber band, snapping back and forth from one point to the next. Late in the clip the shots begin to encircle various landmarks within the city… though again, any written description would fail to speak to each scene’s beauty. I don’t think that I’ve ever seen anything quite like HYPNO SF.

[This article first appeared on Seen Your Video.]

Aesop Rock "Skelethon" Review

It’s a tough position to be in, critiquing a piece of art that appears way above your head. It’s challenging to take in such a piece of work, from multiple angles, perspectives even, and still come away from it with little understanding of why it is that you appreciate it. You just do. Such is the case for me when attempting to figure out why Aesop Rock’s Skelethon works: It just does. This isn’t to say that an appreciation of the album is based entirely on the abstract though. Yes, it’s lyrically complex and musically robust, but it’s also straight forward and even sort of funny at times. Still, there’s a lot here that goes right over the head.

“Silk screen band tees, take apart a VCR/Ringer off, canned peas, cabin fever, mi amor/Patiently adhering to the chandelier ta key-in-door/To usher in the understated anarchy of leisureforce.” If Ace’s one-time Def Jux brethren El-P’s Cancer 4 Cure invokes Hunter S. Thompson as it “unfold[s] like gonzo vignettes,” would the San Franciscan MC’s Skelethon best relate to the thesaurus-scouring literary work of David Foster Wallace? Then again, how many footnotes would it take for the aforementioned excerpt from album-opener “Leisureforce” to make sense? Aesop Rock’s vocabulary is abnormally deep and his ability to pull from the most distant corners of his memory, juxtaposing impossible references with wry charm, is elite. Take the “free-form rap song” “Tetra” where he interjects a phonetic rim-shot into an oddball ThunderCats reference, “Wore the same hoodie everyday like Mumm-Ra/Buh-dum-bum.” Who else does that? (Who else can get away with that?)

Skelethon isn’t entirely abstract though. The album’s second single, “ZZZ Top,” follows a trio of youngsters as they discover their unique paths in life, the poetic “Ruby 81” captures a moment of tragedy-turned-triumph, and “Fryerstarter” is a tribute to one of Ace’s favorite doughnut joints. That said, they’re hardly straight forward, and without those footnotes might be a little trickier to follow: “Hazelnut raiders of the lost, navigate consecutive pastries like stations of the cross.”

Musically, Skelethon is every bit as claustrophobic as can be expected from an artist who is becoming a “more and more isolated person in every facet of [his] life.” “Zero Dark Thirty” sounds a late night soundtrack to a hi-tech diamond heist, and the rollicking drum-play in “Saturn Missiles” offers a base every bit as energizing as anything from the MC’s archives. The album has an overall feeling of looming darkness though – perhaps a stemming from from the loss of his best friend a few years back. The pair of “Crows” tracks spotted mid-way through the release cement Skelethon’s aural tone, which is aided throughout by the likes of the Kimya Dawson (The Moldy Peaches), Allyson Baker (Dirty Ghosts), Hanni El Khatib, and Ace’s longtime collaborator Rob Sonic. But the LP’s hardly all doom and gloom though. “Racing Stripes,” for example, retains the playful feel of the recent Hail Mary Mallon project, telling the story of how an old friend would use horrible haircuts as an unusual method to kick-start motivation. Intentional or not, the dialog-focused flow of “Grace” is no less humorless, “Who was at the door just now?/Kids on dirt bikes asking you to bunny-hop the curbside/Really?/Yup I told em ‘oh he busy, he staring at his green beans being a total pussy’.”

If only for an instant, Aesop Rock might seem a lyrical Jackson Pollock, allowing his work to unravel at its own pace without allowing transparency of his intention to corrupt his presentation. But his work isn’t as above your head as it might first appear. Take “Homemade Mummy,” where his wordplay revolves around the mummifying of a pet before focusing on the instructional order, “take the brain out/leave the heart in.” All he’s calling for is to think more with the heart, and not the head. And maybe that’s the point of art. Regardless of how any masterwork from a skilled artisan might be a complex and layered production (as Skelethon is), an honest critique needs to come from the heart every bit it does the brain. In the end, even if all you see is splattered paint here, it’s difficult not to feel some sense of satisfaction and amazement by the skilled craftsmanship of it all. Or at least that’s why I appreciate it.

[This article first appeared on SF Critic.]

"God Bless America" Review

Breathing in what he surely recognizes to be his final living moments, Frank (Joel Murray) is ushered to the setting of God Bless America's final scene by the grizzled sounds of Ray Davies’ haunting “I’m Not Like Everybody Else” before slowly unveiling his last calculated act of vigilante justice. The film is ripe with cartoonish scenes of violence and murder, but writer/director Bobcat Goldthwait views it more as “a violent film about kindness,” a point which is emphasized by the key monologue delivered by Frank in the production’s closing moments. Decrying and condemning a crumbling nation, he rips into the general masses who’ve given rise to America’s current state, calling the country a “cruel and vicious place” where the “meanest and the loudest” are rewarded while “the worst qualities in people are looked up to and celebrated.” In Frank’s eyes (or rather, in Goldthwait’s) the country has become “a nation of slogan-saying bile-spewing hate mongers.” He concludes: “We’ve lost our kindness.”

Frank’s last stand unsubtly echoes the iconic words of Network's Howard Beale, who demanded that we begin to combat the wretchedness broadcasted to us as normalcy by joining together in yelling “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” There’s something powerfully emotional about a wave of citizens taking to their windows, doorsteps, and fire escapes to cry out against the vile projections of reality that have corrupted their daily lives, coming together to take the first step toward change by simply saying enough is enough. God Bless America, though, has no such coming together moment as both Frank’s mission and message appear lost in translation to a hopeless audience.

The plot is one that should appeal to fans of either Idiocracy or Falling Down, as God Bless America is a rather bold combination of the two: The story of a broken man pushed to the brink of sanity by the increasingly apathetic (and idiotic) culture that surrounds around him, who ultimately decides that if he’s going down, he’s going to make a stand for decency in the process (by killing a spoiled and utterly tasteless reality television “star”). In the act of doing so he unintentionally befriends a young girl named Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr) who tracks him down post-murder and implores him to continue his quest for change (by way of brutality), the high-schooler convincing him to allow her to become the Bonnie to his Clyde as they take to the road. Despite Roxy’s eagerness to wipe the slate of everyone ranging from NASCAR fans to Diablo Cody, Frank demands that they focus simply on “people who deserve to die.”

At first it’s a fun ride, living vicariously through the pair as they put an end to the crass teenager and her fame-seeking parents, an inconsiderate group of movie-goers, a fear mongering talking head, and a clan of “God Hates Fags” protesters. But the killing spree isn’t entirely satisfying – following a parking shooting one headline reads “man fatally wounded for taking up two parking spots” – and the payoff fails to come in simply holding a mirror up and saying “Wouldn’t you want to kill them, too, if you could?!” Also, it’s not as if it’s entirely unfashionable right now to bask in a pool of such critical sentiment — simply offering up the satirical commentary doesn’t lend the film its worth. Instead, where God Bless America finds its real value is within a pair of seemingly unrelated plot points.

Early in the film Frank is fired from his job after crossing the guidelines of a corporate harassment policy by using an office directory to send flowers to the home of a fellow employee who he felt had appeared to be in need of an emotional pick-me-up. The woman, who also seemed to welcome Frank’s friendship, went behind his back and reported his act of courtesy as that of malice. Later, Frank firmly speaks his mind with Roxy, stating that he wouldn’t become involved in an “inappropriately mature conversation” with the young lead, nor would he respond to her claim that he wanted to be with her in a romantic way. (“So, you can kill a teenager, just not fuck one?”) Frank instead shoots back about how he’s neither American Apparel or Woody Allen, and his moral compass would lead him beyond the objectification of children simply because cultural norms backing his position continue to dissolve. “Nobody cares that they damage other people” he sermonizes, concluding that he wouldn’t be “responsible for the self-esteem of a teenager” by refusing to tell Roxy whether he feels that she’s “pretty” or not. Though immediately dissimilar, these two moments offer an interconnectedness that would play out later in the film.

The bulk of God Bless America's damning tone revolves around a television watching audience’s blood-lust as exhibited through an American Idol-like showcase that, as Frank says, is “a karaoke contest that makes stars out of people with no talent.” The emphasis of the show is on a mentally dim William Hung-type of character whose misguided confidence is mercilessly mocked by judges and onlookers alike. In the end though, the seemingly helpless contestant Steven (Aris Alvarado) is revealed not as an innocent mark, but as the same type of attention-whore that the pair was trying to eradicate. Frank, having blasted his way on-stage at the show’s finale by this point — moments removed from us hearing “I’m Not Like Everybody Else” — looks to Roxy who had unexpectedly joined him from the crowd and passes her his automatic weapon. “You are a pretty girl,” he tells her.

The point Frank made of once shutting a hotel bathroom door so as not to see Roxy in a moment of disrobe, or refusing to speak to her as a sexual being rather than a child was for his own sake, not hers, but by making this statement he stepped outside of himself by addressing what it was that she needed. If only for a moment he recognized that he wasn’t speaking to a broken child whose self-esteem relied solely on the validation of others: He was speaking to a young girl who was dealing with something that all young girls deal with. And as gross as the secretary’s action of ratting Frank out to his boss without addressing her concerns to him first was, Frank didn’t seem to consider if he was being imposing by sending her flowers. He was thinking about what he felt was right, and moral, and decent, and didn’t take into account that within the predatory business environment that he was involved in, he might actually be out of line by making such a seemingly innocent gesture.

God Bless America doesn’t have the same crowd-rallying cry for change as that of a Network, but it elevates a tone of understanding, reminding us that not only are there others out there who are seeking a kind and thoughtful existence amidst a cruel and uncivilized culture, but that our actions shouldn’t land outside the scope of our own inner critics. Recognizing that there is a problem and being part of the solution are sometimes farther apart than they might first appear. God Bless America does a good job of revealing this to be so, but in the end, despite his pleasant gesture, it still seemed uncertain as to whether or not Frank actually understood that himself.

[This article first appeared on Descrier.]

OFF! “Borrow and Bomb” & “I Got News for You” Video

Whitey McConnaughy, the brains behind a killer string of Red Fang videos, strikes again in the form of this double-shot of OFF!. In the clip Dave Foley (Kids in the Hall/NewsRadio) hosts the awkward and occasionally handsy forum Teen Talk: where the teens get to do the talking and [the] adults get to listen. After OFF! (Off?) lays out “Borrow and Bomb” in the studio, Foley unceremoniously boots a relatively aged crowd member before ending the show on a low note, its closing graphics bleeding through into a commercial for the cable access gem Lethal Justice (oh, how much I would love to see that show!). Next comes Electracize with Randy Babcock which cranks up the level of ticklishness as “I Got News for You” blares in the background.

[This article was first published by Seen Your Video.]

Atmosphere at Marathon Music Works (Nashville, TN)

“If you’re gonna rap all of my words back at me, what the fuck do you need me for?”

Denying that Slug is an elite MC seems a silly proposition. His ability to make an audience feel appreciated appears effortless. (During last night’s show he inserted various calculated local references throughout without appearing to pander.) His presence has few cracks. His flow, casually impressive. The group’s other members are hardly any less worthy of the label. That said, I’ve been trying to blow these guys off for years.

Taking the stage at Nashville’s Marathon Music Works, Atmosphere represented both their city and label well, with constant Minneapolis shoutouts bouncing off a mirrorball-like Rhymesayers logo which hung immediately behind Ant’s DJ set-up. Keyboardist Erick Anderson and guitarist Nate Collis filled out the four-piece for the night, but aside from an organ solo and acoustic showcase late in the set the focus was primarily on Slug.

“Why did it rain all day?” the frontman tossed out before laughing to himself and glancing at Ant, smirking while he joked about how that’s where the DJ was supposed to drop the beat to “Sunshine.” Ill-timed stage-improvisations or no, the weather was terrible all day, which might have made the warm ambiance of MMW seem that much more comforting. It almost felt like home.

Relying heavily on Lucy Ford-era tracks early on, the group mixed up a varied selection of songs throughout the night: old favorites “The Woman with the Tattooed Hands,” “Guns and Cigarettes,” and “GodLovesUgly” were balanced by the likes of later-stage singles “She’s Enough” and “Just for Show.” While much of the set revolved around slower-flowing tracks and sentimental reflections, the power of the road-tested veterans was showcased with “Trying to Find a Balance” and “Scapegoat,” the night’s most booming selections.

“This is as close to church as some of us are gonna get,” joked Slug somewhere around the middle of the set. Oddly enough, I’ve avoided Atmosphere (live, at least) for so long because of the group’s place as a sort of deity in the Twin Cities hip-hop scene.* It’s not like I haven’t had my opportunities to see them: I came of age in the Midwest, spending many good years in Minneapolis and its surrounding suburbs, coping with its icy landscape in the winter and fending off its muggy heat and flocks of mosquitoes in the summer. For all those years I was turned off by the idea of how an Atmosphere show might play out — that mistake’s on me.

Somewhere late in the set Slug rapped something about being from Minnesota and wearing camo and I had to laugh at myself a little. My unwavering appreciation for camouflage aside, Atmosphere is the kind of group that makes me feel homesick for a place I don’t particularly ever feel homesick for, and Thursday night I felt a bit of pride for having once lived and loved in the city that they proudly call home. They didn’t lean on party anthems (like “You” for example) as I’d expected but instead laid down a well-rounded set combining classic tracks and deep cuts. The show was efficient, the set tight, and the talent was… elite. It’s been a minute since I was staunch supporter of their albums, but to answer Slug’s question: what the fuck do we (still) need Atmosphere for? Maybe only to help remind ourselves to smile at the endless array of moments gone by. Thursday night provoked that exact reaction — a smile — though I ended up not reflecting on the good times gone by, but regretting having waited a decade to let down my guard and just have some fun with these guys.

*As a sidenote, if you’re looking for a proper introduction to the TC hip-hop scene, Guante has done a great job in accumulating a list of names to check out that includes show-opener I Self Divine. Unfortunately due to a bus driver’s inability to open his damn eyes and pick me up at a scheduled stop I missed ISD and most of Blueprint’s set as well. I did catch “Radio Inactive” however, which Blue killed as his set-closer.

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

Amanda Palmer & the Grand Theft Orchestra “Want it Back” Video

I’ve never been in love with Amanda Palmer’s music (maybe I’ve never given her a fair shake), but I can’t help but respect the trailblazing chanteuse’s ability to balance her forward thinking business sensibilities with her artistic endeavors. Most recently her Kickstarter campaign made headlines as it shattered expectation, skyrocketing past the goal of $100,000 before finally coming to rest at nearly $1.2 million as the clock expired.

Here, the video for “Want it Back” falls as one of the first samples of what’s to come from the resulting fan-backed project, Theatre is Evil. As far as stop-motion goes, “Want it Back” is a prime example of how the delicate and time-consuming creative process can result in a wonderfully creative and inspiring work of art, with both artist Curran James and director/editor/producer Jim Batt gracefully lending the exhausting format an invigorating breath of fresh air.

[This article first appeared on Seen Your Video.]

ULTRAS S/C "Black Face Time"

The closing moments of “Black Face Time” come as an orgy of distortion with ULTRA S/C’s Jemina Pearl (Be Your Own PET), Ben Swank (Soledad Brothers, Third Man capo) and Chet Weise (The Immortal Lee County Killers) collectively peaking on a note of psyched-out fuzz. Perhaps making a little more sense is the Scene Cream‘s D. Patrick Rodgers, who calls the track as an “unrelenting, buzzing, feedback-ensconced, four-minute burner full of instruments being punished and Jemina Pearl’s unmistakable howl.” They’ve also been called “blues rock,” but regardless of how you label them, the group (formerly known as the Black Faces) kills. That’s something we should all be able to agree on.

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

Zac Brown Band “The Wind” Video

As far as the Zac Brown Band goes, aside from recalling the name from whiskey commercials I really can’t tell you much about them. A quick search suggests that they rep Georgia roots, boast a Southern-rock influenced country aesthetic (see: whiskey commercials), and have a massive following as illustrated by last year’s 26 combined Grammy Awards, Academy of Country Music, CMT Music Awards, Country Music Association Awards, American Country Awards & American Music Awards nominations. Not bad.

But this video isn’t so much about their track “The Wind” — which I actually find to be quite the enjoyable tune, for what it’s worth — as it is the animation short by the ridiculously accomplished pairing of Mike Judge (Beavis & ButtheadKing of the Hill) and Titmouse (Metalocalypsethe Venture Bros.). Kicking off as a ZBB concert, “Robo Redneck” quickly devolves (or evolves, depending on your definition of fun) into drunken swamp muddin’, taking a turn for the unexpected as a fluke accident with a moonshine still leads to some backwoods surgical magic, ultimately resulting in the creation of a whiskey-swilling, hatchet-tossing, road-raging cyborg.

[This article first appeared on Seen Your Video.]

Treekeeper "Tròpiçále" Video

New from the Bohemian Hype Cult‘s Treekeeper comes this semi-psychedelic short in support of the Nashville producer’s latest track, “TRÒP!ÇÁL€.” Directed by his BHC brother Trillbee the Hooligan, a chill tropicália feel is invoked through not only the song’s smooth repetition, but also the video’s wavy visuals (though I’m cautious to throw out the chill-wave label here, all the same). For more: Earlier this year Treekeeper dropped the Welcome to Bohemia EP with Macro, offering a closer look at the man’s ability to parlay his talents into the world of hip hop.

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

fun. “Some Nights” Video

Fresh off his take on Jackie O & JFK in Lana Del Rey’s “National Anthem” comes another historical recreation from the mind of director Anthony Mandler in the form of fun.’s “Some Nights.” Further connecting the two videos are the themes of tragedy and loss, this time set around wartime flashbacks visualizing a romance torn apart by the madness of combat, and a pair of friends separated by duty: Both relationships shattered over a war that was hardly civil.

[This article first appeared on Seen Your Video.]

The Great Epiphany

"Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know." —Ernest Hemingway

Drinkers know The Great Epiphany all too well: a moment of clarity where reality makes perfect sense, where intent and actualization meet, where destiny seems to be redefined. However, if the combination of my hazy memory and the scarce few journals I’ve kept is any indication, those once earth-shattering revelations are typically embarrassingly useless ramblings when contemplated in the sobering light of day. Yet the more likely you are to have these thoughts while drinking — continually brewing up conclusions from the distillation from the day’s incoming ingredients – the more likely you are to continually have your wheels turning when you’re not drinking. While over-thinking isn’t necessarily a negative on its own, in terms of its relationship to happiness it’s not necessarily a benefit either.

Though the connection between over-thinking and intelligence is casual, their interconnectedness might play a big role when considering the realms of happiness, depression, and dependency. Happiness, as Hemmingway claimed, is a consolation prize given to those lacking the the capacity to know better; in the summer of 1961 the legendary author took his own life. History is littered with Hemmingways, countless thinkers who were unable to maintain a hold on life while straddling the thin line between mental illness, dependency, and sanity. David Foster Wallace, purveyor of realistic hope to the 2005 class of Kenyon College graduates, took his life in September of 2008. Philip Brickman, a forefather to the Positive Psychology movement, predominantly referenced for his study comparing the self-reported happiness levels of lottery winners and paralyzed accident victims, ended his life but four years after that work was published. This pattern hit a little closer to home during my treatment facility stay, when a young man of 18 took his life. (The feelings that followed were ironic, my having been there on account of my own suicide attempt.) Again, to paraphrase a conclusion made by Jennifer Senior: knowing happiness and knowing about happiness are two sets of understanding that sometimes fail to ever intersect.

What accompanies an ever-moving mind is a tendency to not only over-think but over-analyze, especially when it comes to matters so critically important as the great indicator of perceived personal welfare known as happiness. We wonder why others appear happy, why we aren’t as happy as them, what we could have done differently to be happier, and how we can change our path to gain the results we see elsewhere. In short, with the good comes the bad. Aristotle held true a belief reflective of Hemmingway’s suggesting that intelligence was accompanied by the ability to see tragedy in the world around us. Research by Canadian sociologist and philosopher Bill Allin lends a bit of modern context to this historical perspective, taking the theory a step further with his paper titled “Why Intelligent People Tend To Be Unhappy” in identifying that not only are intelligent people not necessarily happy because of their cognitive advantages, but that intelligent youth often develop a sort of social and emotional retardation due to the perception that they’re smart enough to realize happiness on their own. We treat intelligence as though it means self-sufficiency when the reality is that intelligent individuals are every bit as needy of emotional nurturing as anyone. To remain in a state of constant contemplation, it would seem, leaves individuals increasingly susceptible to the downward tug of depressive thinking.

A remedy for thought, unfortunately, isn’t turning the brain off. There’s no real way to reverse opening the eye of one’s mind (and as history suggests, the effectiveness of lobotomies can be sort of hit and miss). Instead, we’re left combating this thinking either by our own means (In his introduction to the 40th anniversary edition of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, journalist and author Matt Taibbi described the legend’s struggle as such, “People all over the world don’t identify with Hunter Thompson because he was some kind of all-world fraternity-party God… No, they connect with the deathly earnest, passionate, troubled person underneath, the one who was so bothered by the various unanswerable issues of life that he went overboard trying to medicate the questions away.”) or through utilizing the precept that certain ways of thinking – in particular positive thinking – will help ease the mind. The ability to channel one’s attention specifically through a particular train of suggested idealism is about as simple as not thinking at all though. Further, any level of believed happiness that is reached through positive thinking has regularly been identified through research as brittle, fleeting, and undependable.

There’s a fun exercise that’s cited by various sources which challenges its subjects to simply not think about a polar bear for one minute. Try it. It’s impossible. As author Oliver Burkeman explains, “the fact that you’re trying so hard to do something sabotages your attempt to do it.” Happiness works much in the same way: the more you’re thinking about it the harder it becomes to stop thinking about not merely happiness as a whole, but specifically your place as an individual on the happiness spectrum. So much of the self-helpedness within modern society has become far more a diversion from happiness than an guide to achieving peace of mind: It leaves us always thinking about ourselves; our next step; our recovery; our depression; our happiness; our peace of mind. Compiled with advertisers who promise happiness, dictating that we too would be happy if only for a faster car, a bigger house, an expensive vacation, or flawless skin, and compiled by television’s continual projection that these ever-achievable goals being achieved by Everyone But You, we can be left feeling disillusioned, dissatisfied, unreasonably insecure, empty, powerless, and guilted into blaming ourselves for the failure of not having achieved an ideal that doesn’t really exist, while further neglecting the things that do. As it turns out, over-thinking doesn’t really get us too far.

One of the consistent mainstays of happiness (which is just as easily determined by every day life as it has been through numerous studies) remains the idea that caring exclusively for personal happiness comes at the expense of realizing something believed to me a more actualized happiness. As it turns out it’s when we consciously and thoughtfully put the needs of someone else ahead of our own, no matter how small the act of selflessness may be, that has proven to grant those completing the action a sense of not merely satisfaction, but genuine happiness. There’s no cosmic karma or universal boomerang implied here; as my dad once told me, “Let me do this for you for me.”

Yet even among over-thinkers it’s remarkable how much under-thinking goes on. We think and think and think about everything in our lives that could go right or wrong, rambling off countless scenarios concerning what the future may hold given what we know from the past. Yet when trapped in this loop of insecurity the tendency is to overlook others for the sake of the self; an inclination which is not only multiplied when fueled by dependency or addiction, but magnified to exponential lengths. However, the ability to reverse this trend within the world of recovery (let alone the world outside of recovery) is so easily lost when the given path is as difficult to navigate as it is. The Great Epiphany here isn’t that we need to change Everything to reach our goals, which is often the message, but really just that we actually need to change. Learning that separate realities exist is one thing, but unless that information parlays itself into action that appropriately assists in accepting that your life isn’t the only one that matters, the concept is meaningless. Making amends with those we’ve hurt, as A.A.’s 12 Steps require, is one thing, but changing our actions to be not merely compassionate and sympathetic to others, but sincerely considerate of others moving forward is something altogether different. A change in focus is what can open up over-thinking to whole new vistas of understanding.

"I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me." —Winston Churchill

In accordance with having to change Everything, the scope of how much needs to change is typically intensified by an understanding within the field of dependency that there is a general tendency to forgive or forget in terms of the harm done by addiction: When it comes time to decide whether or not there will be a Next Time, the rule of thumb is that the upside is inflated while the downside is, well, played down. Speaking to the human tendency of selective memory, Jennifer Senior said it best: “Our imagination has an odd way of Photoshopping things out and airbrushing things in.”

Seeing oneself through the eyes of objectivity is a hard thing to do, but the theory is that we’ll be better off for it if we can learn from what it is that we see; again, we don’t have to see Everything, but the act of looking is worthless unless we can grow from what it is we find. Coming at this from a personal angle, it has become increasingly discouraging to take that filter off and see things for what they are in my own life: When I drink heavily I can be absolutely unbearable, to both others and myself. My insecurities begin to bleed like sweat from my pours, forcing a hand of overcompensation to help mask my underlying emotions. This has typically resulted in an ugly mess of a person going overboard at every opportunity. To put it bluntly: When I allow it, I become the type of person who doesn’t care at all for what those around me might be experiencing, the type of person that the sober me hates.

But to change, the typical paradigm of recovery requires that you “work the program” (again, regardless of what that program might be). For some this works wonders. For others (many others as A.A.’s tawdry success rate might suggest) it doesn’t. Telling an individual to work a program, though, is really just a slightly different way of saying that their old way of doing things wasn’t working, so in order to get results a new method is in order. Obviously, the demand of changing one’s ways isn’t a bad thing – why else would one need to work a program unless such a change was necessary – but the way in which recovery is set up is often the reason why the process remains such a mammoth failure. Working the program, while encouraging change, often neglects real personal growth in the pursuit of results. The list of addictions is lengthy (and bizarre, ranging from those who can’t stop chewing ice, pagophagiacs, to those who literally drink themselves to death from Coca-Cola, as New Zealand’s Natasha Marie Harris did in 2010) but the constant remains that if you want to change you have to follow established guidelines; in order to stop binging on a vice, the solution becomes binging on rhetoric, diverting over-thinking into a pre-assembled batch of rules meant to help you refocus your life. Two negative side effects often result from this however: dependency displacement and unintended isolation.

In my history, as discussed, the issue of recovery is one that I didn’t exactly seek out on my own accord, but at least the methodology behind the program I was given lent itself to the idea of personal development. That said, with an established directive that life was now going to have to be based around sobriety upon completion of the 12 weeks of outpatient treatment which followed my inpatient stay, the program’s weaknesses became the same as any other similar treatment system’s: To stay “on track” required that my cup be exceedingly refilled with an ideology to counteract certain relapse. But sobriety, of any kind, doesn’t mean much when it’s replaced with artificial hope, confounding rituals, or a realigned sense of personal power that asterisks personal accountability under the guise of change. This plan of action is to lead to health, though but not by confronting the source of negative behavior, and not by the reconfiguration of emotions to define any potential causality, but through a continual recalling of the mistakes made by past selves, and the breaking down of personal power in favor of learning to cope through the support of a flawed model. Working the program endears individuals to a belief system because it creates something new to project all of the over-thinking toward, only now replacing the self with a label: I am an alcoholic.

The term is just a term, but the act of figuratively branding oneself with labels as caustic as “alcoholic” or “addict” or even “depressive” have a propensity of inviting with them a sense of being an eternal outsider. For those who can’t buy into a system of thought this can leave individuals in a very lonely place. Punctuating life with a continual reminder that recovery isn’t just the act of literally defining oneself, but defining one’s entire life based on connotation. Continually assigning recovery paramount importance in life, dictating how one is to move forward by ceaselessly defining them by past behaviors, further creates a separation between the individual and any the shroud of normalcy, often leading to a both detachment from other people, but humanity itself. Bringing this reality back around to happiness, moving forward as an “alcoholic” is a little bit like going the rest of your life having to double-check yourself at every turn because the threat of sadness is always lurking (chemical addiction notwithstanding). What we’re left with is that, again, it’s all about Me: my next step; my recovery; my depression; my happiness; my peace of mind. And because you’re not (insert label here), there’s no way for you to understand what I’m going through.

So as not to be wholly damning, the greatest benefit of “working the system” is actually surrounding yourself with other people who are dealing with problems similar to your own, but the tendency nonetheless exists to then project accountability onto others: sponsors become a life-support system rather than a safe harbor. What’s really missing (and I say this from the position of someone who deals with chemical imbalance on a daily basis, so any compassion for that tightrope act isn’t lacking here) is still personal accountability. Why do we have to change Everything? Not to merely reach some goal of sobriety that’s so far off in the distance that it seems impossible to reach, but because without doing so our ego will continue to dictate that we’re what matters most; that any of our dependency’s perceived “benefits” will forever be accompanied by a genuine numbing of the human experience; that societal exile will be the only future that comes of repeatedly allowing the same selfish behaviors to take place, leaving those around us to pick up the pieces while we remain wholly consumed by ourselves. The Great Epiphany isn’t that clean and sober living brings with it happiness, but that without real change in our lives, we are stifling any potential for happiness that might exist.

"Get your mind right, and get your grind right." —Ice Cube

In relating the rhetoric used by recovery programs to those of the self-improvement industry there becomes an unpleasant bridge between the two that is primarily constructed of susceptible irrelevance, offering methodologies that are often easily shaken. The development of a set of tools used to survive and combat daily life is of critical importance, but the worlds of both recovery and self-improvement have a tendency of relating their systematic approaches to whatever they deem as success. The reality is that what it means to be “recovered” or “happy” is utterly indefinable, uniquely based on an individual’s definition of well being, but too often does happy for the sake of being happy or sober for the sake of being sober become the surviving ideal.

Reverting all the way back to Jim Holt’s historic recap of how the meaning of happiness has changed with time, it’s clear that the term is more based on the individual or the society than on any single cultural precept. Considering the contextual transformation within the time-line of what it means to be happy, it’s no wonder why those initial Google results of savoring the moment and finding happiness in ourselves have outlasted their convoluted contemporaries: Simply put, it’s because there is real value to be found in those once seemingly transparent platitudes. In our individual searches for happiness we can look to any number of thought-driven sources for guidance: we can strive for a life of virtue; seek out an Epicurian lifestyle of minimalism, voiding ourselves of unnecessary luxuries; or we can follow the conclusions of positive psychologists who encourage us to challenge our thoughts, play to our strengths, count our blessings, value engagement, and seek out meaning in an attempt to change our lives. Yet happiness remains every bit a warm cookie as it is dedicating oneself to any of these respectable perspectives: It’s up to the individual to define what they’re seeking.

When I was in the fifth grade my elementary school class was set to take a trip to the Rocky Mountains to go skiing (which despite living a few hours away for 18 years remains the lone occasion I ever hit the slopes). Excited as we all were, we were asked prior to the trip about our experience level so we could be divided accordingly: some kids had learned to ski at a young age while others had never gone before. There was one kid in the class who was particularly difficult when this conversation came up though as he demanded to not be grouped with the beginners, proclaiming to be an expert based on the books he’d read in preparation of the trip. The conclusions surrounding happiness, dependency, depression, and ultimately recovery boil down to something much the same as what I experienced that day in class: reading alone hardly makes anyone an expert. The Greek sage Epictetus believed the road to happiness to be paved in rigorous self-discipline, personal accountability, and a duty for others; none of which can be mastered by combing the pages of Happiness for Dummies.

Leaning again on the historical definition, the term itself – happiness – has and continues to be applied to far too many areas of our life for it to maintain a consistent sense of meaning. Instead, it might be more beneficial to look to well being for that feeling of “something more” (though, be sure that neither term can be substituted for the other!). Well being, while hardly any easier to define than happiness, often incorporating similar aesthetics such as virtue into its own definition, speaks to something with the perceived density of being more complete: it appears as the culmination of turning methodology and experience into a better life.

Resources can be game-changers, and this process has been utterly life-changing in expanding my own personal view of the world, but it is the ability to absorb information for use in developing goals surrounding personal empowerment that is really important. (Doing so will remain a personal struggle as I, myself, pursue the future.) Success is what we make it out to be, and to have a legitimate chance at rediscovering what’s important to us, or what we want to achieve, we have to be realistic about what it’s going to take to do so. Not unlike the kid who thought he could read his way through the terrain of a Black Diamond slope, we have to understand that actually taking action is the only way to achieve; happiness, well being, recovery: these will forever be abstract concepts or remain projections of what others make them to be unless we honestly carve out the reason for seeking and the method by which we hope to succeed. The Great Epiphany isn’t that we have to change Everything, but that we have to understand why we’re changing.

"Blessed is the man who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed." —Alexander Pope, the 9th Beautitude

An eventuality that comes of defining one’s goals based on any measure of success is that failure is likely to come when those goals don’t appear as being realized (or immediately achieved). What happens when an effort is made to increase wellness or happiness, or to balance out internal struggles, and nothing seems to change? Expectation can not merely get in the way of progress, but it can put an abrupt end to believing that our journeys bear any particular worth. Continually thinking about oneself is only going to thicken any feeling of perceived failure if expectations aren’t met, which is why it’s not only important to look beyond yourself to gauge your situation but to deny any tendency to make conclusions based on expectation rather than reality: however much we make our lives out to be a game of chess, thinking multiple moves ahead in formulating a strategy for success, it’s really only a game of snakes and ladders. No one is safe from experiencing both the ups and downs, and it’s this wild unpredictability that comes as a circumstance of playing the game.

In 2010 when his reign as host of The Tonight Show was stripped from him, Conan O’Brien closed his final show with a memorable and particularly inspirational speech which related to expectations not being met in his own life. “Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen. I’m telling you, amazing things will happen.” Granted a $40 million severance package likely helped the man find a branch of positivity to latch onto at the time, but even so, some 17 months later he returned to the idea of expectation during his Dartmouth College commencement address. “It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique. It’s not easy, but if you accept your misfortune and handle it right your perceived failure can become a catalyst for profound reinvention.”

O’Brien’s inability to live his dream as Tonight Show host led him to a place which left him with feelings of failure, before evolving into a period that he has since noted to be one of the most creatively redeeming of his entire career. In his address he stressed that putting too much emphasis on what he believed to be the perfect path ultimately led him to realizing that no single goal defines whether or not we have succeeded or failed. “Whatever you think your dream is now,” he continued, “it will change.” During the course of this project I moved 600 miles across the country for a job, only to quit after a few months. This left me feeling like I’d blown the last chance at some sort of financial success that I might ever have. But as time passed, so to did that feeling of failure (and the emptiness expressed in “The Healer“); in fact, the ability to move on has resulted in numerous benefits that I might not have otherwise experienced. This not only serves to reflect the concept of impact bias as related by the likes of Dan Gilbert, but it speaks to conclusions that there is a greater correlation between perfectionism and suicide than between feelings of hopelessness and suicide: We feel most lost not when we are simply “down” but when things don’t work out like they were supposed to. The Great Epiphany isn’t that we need to redefine our notions of what it means to fail or succeed, but that we have to understand that neither implies a concrete means to an end.

"Beware of the man who works hard to learn something, learns it, and finds himself no wiser than before." —Kurt Vonnegut

My initial curiosity (and despair) led me to the process of examining research materials and absorbing information with a goal of figuring out why it was that I didn’t feel happy. Yet in the end, the same simple point that Sophocles made centuries ago still holds true today: The more we try to be happy, the less happy we’re likely to become. Our relentless efforts to attain happiness, or achieve certain goals bound within rigid parameters set by others, becomes precisely what makes us miserable in the end. And while we are responsible for defining achievement in our own lives, without the ability to soften the edges around our own definitions of success the ability to remain both dedicated to our goals and motivated to pursuing them becomes increasingly difficult.

When I was in college one of my first roommates was a football player from Texas who, upon being placed on academic probation, printed off 8”x11” pieces of paper with motivational statements on them: go work out, do your homework, etc. The über-successful Oprah Winfrey has alluded to a similar method for reaching her goals. When asked about how she manages to run five miles every day she once responded, “I recommit to it every day of my life.” In order to battle life’s eventual negative spiral, we need to pull an Oprah and recommit every damn day to what it is we’re striving for: whether that be a commitment to well being, personal fitness, sobriety, or our families and friends. Think of the process as a boxer training for an upcoming fight: The more days they take off from training, or even worse, the more days that are spent participating in activities inconducive of winning in the ring, the less likely that particular fighter is to achieve their goal.

The same philosophy holds true elsewhere: to approach the subject of why we’re miserable without considering our depression, dependency issues, diet, sleep, exercise regimen, or any number of other issues is to walk into a fight having not trained and expecting victory. We expect happiness without having done the work. Every time we accomplish something, finish a day of work, or collapse on the couch after hitting the gym — the moment we relax on our successes and let our guard down — can easily turn into the moment where we become our worst enemies. Life-long learning means learning how to bob and weave, learning how properly defend yourself, and learning how to go on the attack when necessary. It’s also learning how to build momentum and not lose sight of goals. But without action, all of the studying and training doesn’t mean much.

"Discovery consists not in seeking new lands, but in seeing with new eyes." —Marcel Proust

As many long-time depressives, struggling drinkers, or over-eaters can attest to, the battle to simply begin toward overcoming one’s past is sometimes the hardest obstacle to overcome. And along the way, no one is utterly immune to collapse (ex: my roommate in college eventually dropped out, and Oprah’s public battle with weight has been gossiped about for decades). Looking to those who are achievers however, that constant necessity for re-dedication is what remains vital. If you’re not happy: keep searching for why you might feel that way. If medication isn’t working: keep searching for new alternatives which might help you better control your fluctuations. If you have a hard time with moderation: keep trying to find what works best for you, even if that means complete abstinence. If boredom triggers an urge to act out through detrimental behavior: keep struggling to find something new and exciting within the perceived mediocrity so as to remain grounded.

Once the wheels of progress are put in motion, momentum will eventually begin to take over, helping soften past struggles and pull you closer to a sense of well being. Simply put, the fewer times you act on an urge that pulls you away from whatever fight it is that you’re training for, the less likely you are do act on it in the future. In turn, this increased mental health tends to grant us the ability to be more welcoming to our friends and family (remember, other people do exist!), better physical health, and a more vibrant stride as we continue to move forward. Accepting your reality for what it is only becomes an issue if you also accept a belief that your future will remain confined by the reality of today’s struggles. Health Realization refers to this as “levels of understanding”: the higher the level you’re at, the easier it becomes to see the world for what it is, while the lower the level, the narrower the perspective and the smaller the world becomes. The entire process is cyclical with each progressive move triggering the next. The Great Epiphany comes in not one single learned idea but in the culmination: The first step toward wellness or happiness or recovery or success or whatever you might be looking for is realizing that you’re capable of achieving. The second step might very well be learning how to turn off the constant mental chatter, and transform that capability into actuality.

All of the positive verbiage aside, it’s important to not forget the don’ts. Don’t set goals that are either predicated on everything going right, or would seem otherwise outrageous based on past experiences. If you’ve been fat, drunk, or unhappy for a decade, it’s ridiculous to demand a complete personal reconciliation to occur in a few weeks. Don’t set yourself up for failure. Don’t rely on doing less for yourself than you know to be possible. Not unlike walking a treadmill, you can always go slow, or make excuses about why you’re not upping the speed or incline, but you’re not helping your cause in doing so. Think back to the boxer: You don’t have to constantly be sprinting toward your goal, but killing your momentum will only do yourself a disservice in the end. Don’t hide under excuses and don’t become complacent with merely coping: If you have a goal, be proactive and do something about it.

A few years ago there was a regular named Bob at a bar I frequented who would rely on a single repeated line whenever I called him on his nonsense: “I’m just testing your resolve, kid.” Think of your own personal reality as being crafted by the nonsensical Bobs of the world, continually testing your resiliency: continue trying to find a way to consider others with a sense of care, continue to remain vigilant of your actions so as not to sabotage yourself, continue to remain dedicated to yourself and your personal goals, keeping them in the forefront of your life rather than allowing them to become a faint layer of paint that occasionally bleeds back through to the surface. Continue testing your own resolve.

Denis Leary might have been right, happiness does seem to come in small doses. But eventually those doses can add up to realizing a more valuable sense of personal wellness. If they don’t and you crash, burn your blueprint, and forget everything you’ve ever learned along the way that might remotely help you out of the miserably bleak hole you find yourself in: Start over. Start reading more. Start reminding yourself through the work of others that you’re not alone. Start putting yourself in a position to get out of whatever trouble it is that you find yourself in. Happiness might seem an impossible goal at times, but try to imagine yourself as the hero of your story rather than the victim: Would you rather see yourself hit the ring and win the battle or give up before the opportunity strikes? The success of tomorrow all boils down to your ability to start today. From there, the next step is not likely to be as impossible as you believe it to be, and will actually only be as insufferable as you allow it to become. The Great Epiphany is simple: If you do good today, there’s a damn fine chance that tomorrow will be better because of it. The key is, you have to work at it.