The Month in Review: TV and Music

Despite my infrequent updating, November and December of 2010 were the most successful months that Mouth of the Beast has ever had. The blog has now passed 20,000 pageviews. Thank you for visiting!

I don’t actually know that you’re all men,and it’s been more than a year.

December flew by this year due to the combination of an unusually busy finals week and the fast-paced holiday season. Still, I managed to watch, read and listen to quite a few things.
TV is what I’ve paid the least attention to this break. Just after Thanksgiving, I finally finished the fifth season of The Wire, which killed my appetite for TV dramas. I did watch the third season of In Treatment, which I liked immensely through about the middle of the season, then lost interest in. I don’t think I’ll go back and watch the first two seasons. In other kinds of TV, I enjoyed the first season of Darker than Black, an (English dubbed) anime series available through Netflix. It was a worthy contender in my ongoing quest to find a series that can stand with Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, which is my favorite anime series and my favorite animated show, period. Less worthy, but also good was Fullmetal Alchemist, which I somehow hadn’t seen before. The only series that I’ve watched over the break has been season two of Parks and Recreation. Many of my friends like P&R, but I’m having a hard time getting in to it. It’s an awkward hybrid between realistic, observational office humor (à la vintage The Office) and absurd wacky hijinks humor that I get really tired of. Part of my problem with the show is that I really don’t like Amy Poehler, I find her really annoying and not funny. I am enjoying Rashida Jones, Aubrey Plaza and (in small doses, because the show leans on him way too hard) Aziz Ansari.
I haven’t been listening to much classical music–I usually give my ears a break after finals. One new work that I’ve enjoyed very much is William Levi Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony from 1934. Dawson was an important arranger of spirituals and one of the preeminent black composers of his time, but I love the symphony for the gorgeous orchestration and colors. Another piece that I’ve been trying to grapple with is Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Times. Messiaen is one of the composers that I’ve constantly revisited over the last three years because I always feel like I’m gaining a new appreciation for what his music does, even while not completely understanding it.
I’ve been catching up with a bunch of my favorite pop artists this break, as well as discovering or re-discovering new artists. The most random rediscovery has been Fleetwood Mac’s album Tusk. I’m not familiar with much of their other music, so it might be that all of their music is like this, but this album is a great blend of tight harmonies, heterogeneous song styles, 80’s production, and these little musical details that I seem to discover again every time I listen to the album. After taking a break of three or four years, I started listening to the music of Owen Pallett, formerly Final Fantasy. I discovered him around the same time as I started listening to Andrew Bird, but I have always thought that Pallett was the better songwriter. Bird’s songs always seem like novelty songs, even though his musicianship and arrangement skills are better than that (I should confess that one of the best concerts I’ve ever been to was an Andrew Bird concert). Pallett has continued to push himself, and his 2010 album Heartland is really interesting and really good. Another band that I’ve been looking back on is The National. Boxer is one of my favorite albums, and I’ve been trying to listen to their two other critically acclaimed albums, Alligator and High Violet.
I’ve spent a lot of time the past few weeks grappling with two enormous, deeply interesting albums, Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Sufjan Steven’s The Age of Adz. I don’t think these albums are that dissimilar, and they’re interesting in similar ways. Sufjan’s album was surprising, and perhaps upsetting, so some people because it incorporated a lot of electronic elements and seemed to turn it’s back completely on the formula that made him popular through the album Illinoise (although this turn in his music was not surprising to anyone who heard “You Are The Blood” on last year’s compilation album Dark Was the Night). Even more, by using T-Painesque Auto-Tune, he seems to be poking a stick at those of his fans who use “Auto-Tune” as a shorthand for the moral decay of modern music that Sufjan’s bardic banjo-and-flutes music was supposed to be a corrective against. Still, the differences between Illinoise and Age of Adz are more superficial than aesthetic, and I think any fans put off by the glitchy noise are going to misremember their opinion of the album in 10 years. I feel pretty unqualified to write anything about Kanye’s album, as I don’t listen to much rap, nor have I heard his other albums (except the near omnipresent “Stronger”). Still, I’m critiquing the album mostly as pop music. Although it’s not as dramatic a stylistic shift as the Sufjan album, MBDTF is a rejection of a formula as well, something that I only began to appreciate after listening to his 2007 album Graduation. There’s no trace of the good-natured cockiness of “Good Life” or “Champion.” Instead, everything–from the album’s unwieldy title to its obscene and weird cover to the filthy Chris Rock routine at the end of “Blame Game”–seems calculated to dare listeners to pull away. And like the Sufjan album, it’s polished, it’s catchy as hell, and it’s great.

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