The Cloud Rank: CHINA MIÉVILLE

It wouldn’t surprise me if many of our readers had not heard of the novelist China Miéville before.  I myself only stumbled upon a story of his in a collection a few years back, and had to read backwards from there to catch up with his writing.  Below, I’d like to share some thoughts about his newest novel, Embassytown and then list “The Cloud Rank” of all of his works that I have read, but before I do, here are just a few brief thoughts by way of introduction…

  • Miéville is primarily known as an author of science fiction/fantasy-esque novels, but they are eruditely creative, densely multilayered (political/spiritual/culturally reflective), and deeply engaging examples of those genres, that is, versus the kind that have implausibly-bosomed alien/elfin women in space/fairy bikinis.  Supposedly, there is a “school” of writing to which Miéville belongs called the “New Weird.”  I don’t know about weird, I just think it’s devastatingly clever. Except when it’s not (see Cloud Rank below for works that fall in the AVOID category).
  • He’s British and male, though his name seemed French and feminine when I first encountered it (he made himself the central character in the first story of his I read, mentioned above).  He is a avowed Marxist (I think? Maybe just a hyper-socialist?) with a PhD in International Something (Law? Economics? Can’t be bothered to fact-check anything floating about in my memory).  He has a shaved head, a plethora of earrings in one ear, and he’s far from either of the polar extremes one normally associates with the sci-fi/fantasy crowd (i.e. skinny nerd or fatty schlub). This last sentence is rendered wholly unnecessary by inserting…
    Portrait of the artist as a person you would hand over your wallet to

    His newest novel, Embassytown, was released in May of 2011, to mostly quite positive reviews.  It is set in the future on the most distant planet of the known universe, when human existence on earth is only a vague memory (or something like that).  I won’t go into the details of plot, character, etc.  All those things can be found in reviews elsewhere with considerable ease.  Instead, I’d simply like to tell you a few of my own impressions…

  • I initially found myself simultaneously intrigued and baffled by the world he created (aliens, technology, politics, etc.), yet I was willing to patiently uncover the meaning of words like “miab” or “immer” by their use in context.  However, I later became a bit bored with this lexical snipe-hunt, being that some words’ meaning seemed almost indeterminable.  Still, the wordsmithery of this writer cannot be denied.
  • The central character and narrator, a human woman called Avice, held my attention and affection throughout, though there was a disquieting passivity to her–intentionally, I’m sure, as Avice describes herself as a “floaker,” which is a neologism the author uses to define someone who is an underachiever/layabout/slacker combination mixed with a dose of elitist and a hint of mischievous social agitator.  I personally would hope to live up to such a description on my finest days…
  • In terms of literary pedigree, I found myself sensing the influence of two works quite strongly in his novel (though he may have read neither):  Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (if you’re ever in a used bookshop, look for this & buy a pulpy copy…it’s so worth reading) with its androgynous sexuality and ambassadorial politics, and C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra (I’m pretty sure that Miéville would not be a fan of Lewis, given his harsh words regarding Tolkien) with its re-imagined Edenic narrative and grand human themes.  If you liked either of those books, I think you would enjoy their offspring in Embassytown.
  • The book had the potential to be a microcosmic epic, an unveiling of life in a particular place that seemed to speak to the totality of universal existence.  But ultimately, it lost steam on this quest and became a story that was crushed by its own inability to live up to the grand vision it had promised.  And yet, this book is so much better than most of whatever else that is published every year, so it comes highly recommended nevertheless.

So where does Embassytown fall on the Cloud Rank of China Miéville’s literary output?  About the middle…

  1. The Scar (2002):  This is the second novel in the Bas-Lag trilogy.  It is a sci-fi sea novel (Miéville is also known for experimenting with hybrids of various genres) and one of the greatest stories I’ve ever read.  Cloud Rank = MUST READ (Note: this book can be read as a stand-alone novel, but why not start with…
  2. Perdido Street Station (2000):  The first of the trilogy, sometimes a bit bogged down by detail, but absolutely brilliant in its world creation, vivid descriptions (it can actually be a somewhat intense read with the violent accounts of the horrific “slake moth” monsters and what not), and deeply compelling storyline.  I was gripped by this book.  Cloud Rank = MUST READ
  3. The City & The City (2009):  This is a crime/noir novel set in an Eastern European-esque location which actually houses two distinct cities, existing in the same geographic space but divided by an ingrained, mutual disregard established in a elaborate set of rules that keeps one city from acknowledging the other.  Brilliant conceit, but the story lost the central suspense narrative (to my mind) at some point. Cloud Rank = SHOULD READ
  4. Embassytown (2011):  See above comments.  Cloud Rank = SHOULD READ
  5. Railsea (2012):  Sometimes, a bit hit & miss, this is a postmodern re-imagining of Moby-Dick with trains replacing boats in a futuristic world.  If you can stick to the end, I think you’ll find it is ultimately a satisfying read.  Cloud Rank = SHOULD READ
  6. Looking for Jake (collection, 2005):  A mixed bag of stories and other pieces, notable mainly for the post-apocalyptic vampire novella, The Tain, and a story in the Bas-Lag universe called “Jack.”  Cloud Rank = MOSTLY FOR FANS
  7. Iron Council (2004):  The third book in the Bas-Lag trilogy, half of it written in the manner of a classic western novel, other parts a narrative of class struggle, and yet other parts creepy sci-fi.  I was so deeply disappointed in this conclusion to the trilogy, I finished it only out of a sense of obsessive completism.  Cloud Rank = AVOID, UNLESS YOU HAVE THE SAME NEED TO COMPLETE THE SERIES
  8. Kraken (2010):  I could barely bring myself to keep reading a few chapters in–there was not much that I liked at all.  It felt like a D-grade rehash of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere.  And just to be spiteful, I will spoil the end here:  the whole thing with the kraken is just a red herring and the real villain is a former fundamentalist Christian who wants to erase the evidence for Darwinism. This is inexcusably bad.  Cloud Rank = AVOID AT ALL COST
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Returning to the Cloud: Fall/Autumn 2011 Preview

Greetings to our faithful cadre of subscribers & readers…it has been some time since I’ve posted anything on our humble little weblog here (due to a overloaded class schedule at Fuller Seminary & increased summer childcare–all three little angels were home with me– combined with a new job at my church) but I am here to announce that a number of posts WILL BE forthcoming in the next weeks and months.  Here’s a preview of what you can expect on this site in Fall/Autumn 2011:

• A number of my favorite novelists have new books that have recently been or will shortly be published.  Along with a brief review of their latest work, I’d like to begin a new feature called, “The Cloud Rank” where I assess and position the rest of their oeuvre (or as many of their novels as I’ve read) against the new work.  Some of the novelists receiving this treatment will include: David Lodge, China Mieville, Tom Perrota, Julian Barnes, and graphic novelist Craig Thompson.

• You may also expect a response to this article about hell from the Summer issue of Biola University’s magazine.  I’ve largely worked through my issues with Biola, my former employer, so you need not expect a diatribe against the conservative evangelical establishment, and I find that I am generally opposed to the the Rob Bell book on eschatology that the Biola article denounces as well.  Rather, some points that the “expert” author makes about annihilationism are quite ill-founded and need a corrective voice to balance out, which I am happy to provide!

• I am also looking forward to reading the upcoming “multiple-views” volume on the topic of evangelicalism (about which John Stackhouse writes here) and adding some thoughts about the schism that seems imminent in the evangelical consensus and ways that we might avoid committing or being the victim of a “friendly-fire” tragedy.

• I am also hoping to do a Cloud Rank on the albums of The Smiths and Morrissey, hopefully publishing a Top 50 Smiths/Morrissey Songs list in the process.

• Finally, as we draw closer to the end of the year, you can count on Elijah and I to continue the long tradition of our best of the year in music here on Lost in the Cloud.

I offer my deepest apologies for this long absence and hope you will enjoy some of the posts in the days ahead!

‘America!’, a ramble

Is America a force for good in the world? Many people would respond positively, convinced of some strange belief called ‘American exceptionalism’, and would top it off with a resounding ‘God bless America!’ But on the other end of the spectrum we find many who would respond with disgust, as if such a question was not worthy of a response at all. Perhaps both of these responses are true.  In an interview on the Dick Cavett Show in 1970, Orson Welles argued,

I think one thing that is generally true, the one generalisation that is true about America is that everything is true about it. It’s impossible to say anything that isn’t true, good or bad. Our enemies are right, our friends are right. It’s an awful big country [with] an awful lot of different kinds of people in it.

I think there’s a lot of truth in that statement. From my perspective, an expatriated American of Scottish extraction, I can’t bring myself to side with either one of the two  extremist responses above. The disestablishmentarian in me would readily scoff at the first answer when looking at the actions of ‘America’ throughout its short history. ‘Manifest Destiny’; CIA plots to interfere with South American politics in order to stop the spread of COMMUNISM(!); capitalistic exploitation in America and in third world countries; the ill-informed invasion of Iraq in 2003; all those boy bands from the 90s – America isn’t a wholly good nation. But then again, such a thing doesn’t exist. All this is not to say that America has done exclusively ‘bad’ things with this power. Throughout history America’s government—however manipulated by an insecure worldview—has acted in self-interest. Sometimes America’s self-interest is beneficial for the rest of the world and sometimes it isn’t.

When I left America for Scotland I was told by a Northern Irish friend that I would probably find myself defending my the States more than I expected. But to be honest, I never had an entirely bleak outlook on America in the first place. At different points I toyed with expatriation as a self-righteous act of political protest, but if anyone wants to lump America together as a homogeneous society of nit-wits I will try my best to convince them that this cannot truly be said of any nation. America, with more than 300 million citizens who for the most part find their origins in faraway countries, is an incredibly diverse and dynamic nation. But as it stands, and while this is not unique to America, many Americans (me included) and American governments have been guilty of making this world a poorer place in many inventive ways.

But America is also a beautiful nation full of beautiful people. This as well is not unique to America. Even so, growing up in and around Los Angeles has shaped who I am in many ways and I wouldn’t change that fact even if I could. And while I profess a love for Scotland, inevitably, it shares many of America’s flaws. I simply can’t escape what is broken with the world because I can’t escape the world. All any of us can do is aim to repair what is broken and spread what is good. But at this point we must ask the question, what is good?

Regarding America, and in celebration of the Fourth of July, when Americans commemorate the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 (according to Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams), I will now point out two things that I think are exemplary of the good: American music and baseball.

Let me make clear that these two things are not free of their own flaws. For instance, in addition to the 90s boy bands I mentioned earlier, America is also responsible for Journey and a host of other terrible artists. Of course this is a matter of taste, and while some poor folk might think that Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan are passé, their music had and continues to have a profound impact on culture around the world. It is important to be  reminded of the words of Donne, ‘No man is an island’, and the two owe a great deal to a rich and fertile musical heritage borne from countless sources, such as the Negro spiritual. But it can be argued that, among many others, the highly influential genres of ragtime, jazz, country, rock and roll, soul, hip-hop, and grunge were all founded in the US of A. And of course there’s the broad Americana genre. Perhaps these developments can be attributed to the rapid economic growth of America throughout its short history, mixed with the continual convergence of various world cultures, all taking place alongside the development of music recording and transmission throughout the 20th century.

Regardless of the cause, American music has always pushed new ground and inspired subsequent generations of artists. See legendary musicians of days long past like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Jelly Roll Morton, Robert Johnson, Lead Belly, Hank Williams, Billie Holiday, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger (who is still kicking!). Their torch was passed to popular artists like Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, Johnny Cash, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Thelonius Monk and Frank Sinatra. Then this was followed by a wave of dramatic developments from American artists like The Beach Boys, Blondie, James Brown, T-Bone Burnett, Devo, Philip Glass, Iggy Pop, Michael Jackson, Love, Ramones, The Talking Heads, Television, The Velvet Underground, Tom Waits, and Frank Zappa.

In more recent years we’ve seen the rise of significant American musicians like Lou Barlow, Jeff Buckley, Botch, Converge, Fugazi, Grandaddy, Aimee Mann, Neutral Milk Hotel, Nirvana, Pixies, R.E.M., Tupac Shakur, Daniel Smith, Elliott Smith, Sonic Youth, Sunny Day Real Estate, The White Stripes, Yo La Tengo, and yet more recent artists like Animal Collective, Deerhunter, Explosions in the Sky, Fleet Foxes, Grizzly Bear, Cass McCombs, and Frightened Rab…nevermind that last one.  Of course there are many more artists that should be included in this list (I merely picked some of my favourites), but that only goes to show how important American music has been in the last century. In Sufjan Stevens alone we can see a massive and ambitious output of constant reinterpretation and innovation.

Now onto the second good thing I want to affirm about America, which probably came as no surprise to seasoned LITC readers. Baseball may not enjoy the global fame of association football, but I happen to think it is the greatest sport to ever grace the face of the earth (though football’s soccer’s not far behind – apologies to cricket, rugby, golf, etc.). I’ve professed my undying love for baseball through blog posts on several different occasions. And despite the inevitable corruption that plagues the sport (greed, performance-enhancing drugs, marital infidelity, bench-clearing brawls, etc.), there’s a magic and heart to baseball that is truly good.

In the classic 1989 film Field of Dreams, the character Terrance Mann (James Earl Jones) is trying to convince the main character, Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner), to embrace his dream, a vision he had of a baseball field on his farm in Iowa. Because Ray has cleared land for this baseball field and has invested money into its development (outfitted with stadium lights and all), he is losing money rapidly and in this particular scene his brother-in-law is trying to convince him to sell the farm and leave his dream behind. Mann responds,

Ray, people will come Ray. They’ll come to Iowa for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll turn up your driveway not knowing for sure why they’re doing it. They’ll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past. Of course, we won’t mind if you look around, you’ll say. It’s only $20 per person. They’ll pass over the money without even thinking about it: for it is money they have and peace they lack…

And they’ll walk out to the bleachers; sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon. They’ll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they’ll watch the game and it’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces…

People will come Ray…

The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again. Oh, people will come Ray. People will most definitely come.

There’s much more going on at the core of the film, but I won’t spoil it – you should watch the film. What I want to point out is this sentiment expressed so sweetly through James Earl Jones’ transcendent voice. Throughout many wars and economic depressions baseball has remained because it is a special vessel of goodness. I suppose that’s part of why I love the Tigers so much – they represent this beacon of goodness (among many other great beacons of goodness in Detroit) in the midst of a suffering place.

So this is to you, America! And while I’m not too keen on the cult of the American flag, here’s Ol’ Glory, which stands as a mere symbol for the hopes and dreams—noble and ignoble—of millions of people throughout the last 235 years and in the present. May God bless America, but more importantly, may God continue to bless this struggling world.

A review of Josh T. Pearson live in Glasgow

As is obvious from several posts (mainly from Greg), we here at LITC are huge fans of the musical emanation of the trashy Texan Josh T. Pearson.  Only two years ago Greg happened upon Pearson’s 2001 album (as a member of the band Lift to Experience), The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads.  Soon thereafter the Band Evangelist passed the Gospel of JTP to his disciple Elijah and Crossroads became a mainstay for us two Pearson late-bloomers.  But we’ve determined to never fall behind again!

March marked the release of Pearson’s first record since Crossroads, The Last of the Country Gentlemen (which Greg was evangelising leading up to its release).

On 25 March 2011, Pearson’s ‘Last of the Country Gentlemen Tour’ made its way through Glasgow.  Fortunately for us here at LITC, we were in Glasgow at the time.  In fact, we had booked our tickets well in advance and Greg had travelled thousands of miles from America to meet Elijah at his home in Scotland for a week of adventure leading up to the gig.

Stereo, Glasgow, 25 March 2011

Greg got his hands on this advert from Stereo

At the show Pearson was selling an eleven-track live CD (seven of which are actual songs, while the rest are exclusively stage banter, all on a classy Imation-brand CD-R with a carefully photocopied portrait of Pearson, shown below), To Hull and Back.

(This isn’t shoddy cropping on our part – it came at that angle, cut this way.)

The show’s opener, a British solo act whose name will remain unmentioned here, was dreadful:  faux Americana, interminable roots/’blues’ compositions with lyrics that tried to conjure up images of railroad tracks and the devil at crossroads and all manner of rough & tumble, down-on-their-luck outlaw clichés.  Let us just say that it was ultimately a Bizarro World version of Josh T. Pearson…

The sick taste of that experience was immediately washed away when Pearson shambled onto the small stage in Stereo’s basement, looking like a heartbroken Jesus on methadone and whiskey, nodding and uttering a low ‘How y’all doin’?’  When a local yelled out, ‘Welcome back, Josh!’ Pearson replied, ‘I hope your years were better than mine…’  During his sound check, he told the audience that they’d need to ‘be super quiet or they’re going to go upstairs [to the restaurant]’ which he reinforced during the show by stopping a song in the middle when some idiots started to talk and only resuming when there was absolute silence.  Though this may seem like pedantry, Pearson’s songs often fell to a bare whisper and light strum, so an absolutely quiet environment was the only way we would actually be able to hear the songs as they were meant to be experienced.

Pearson began his set with what he said was a cover of a song by Boney M (we’d never heard of them, but apparently they were a reggae/disco group from the late 70s put together by Frank Farian, who would later go on to create Milli Vanilli), but Pearson made the song beautifully his own.  At the last second, Greg took out his iPhone and recorded the song, ‘Rivers of Babylon’ onto the voice memos app—here is a link to the recording, which turned out surprisingly polished:

Rivers of Babylon‘ (Boney M cover) – Josh T. Pearson

In this song, Pearson sang, ‘Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your eyes tonight’ as he gazed up soulfully.  It was as if he was dedicating the set to God, offering the pain and brokenness and loss that his songs contained not ultimately to us, the concertgoers, but to a divine audience.  Many of his songs speak about God or Jesus:  in ‘Country Dumb,’ he says that his kind of people are ‘failures each and every one, we’re the kind who will always need a savior’ and and in ‘Sweetheart, I Ain’t Your Christ,’ he sings to his woman: ‘you don’t need a lover or a friend, you need a God and not a mortal man.  Woman, you need born again, again–you need a savior and I just am not him.’  Yet many of his songs also speak of his own inability to control outbursts of anger or drinking (‘Woman, When I’ve Raised Hell’) or rein in his adulterous desire (‘Honeymoon Is Great, I Wish You Were Her’).  Pearson is the quintessential sinner looking for redemption while laying drunk in the gutter–if only more Christians could see their own moral failure and need for salvation as clearly as he does…

During his performance, despite several awkward false starts in reaction to the audience’s noise level (space which was occupied with Pearson telling some pretty wretched jokes), Pearson proved incredibly moving.  Indeed, his lengthy and intensely personal tunes demanded the full attention of the audience.  We here at LITC have come to the consensus that Pearson’s performance was in fact the best solo performance we had ever seen (at one point, I [Greg] even found myself choking up and with watery eyes in a mixture of joy and sadness at the beauty and despair of his set).  You really ought to pick up his record from your local record store and catch him live if he ever comes your way.

Time Capsule – 2001

Music has been very close to my heart since I took up violin and heard Weezer’s first record both at age 8.  And my listmaking obsession dates back just as far.  In this post (which may become a series if Greg wouldn’t mind sharing his 2001 ‘Time Capsule’), I’d like to reflect upon some of the music I loved according to a list from 2001, embarrassing admissions and all.

The Beta Band’s Hot Shots II, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s Ease Down the Road, Andrew Bird’s The Swimming Hour, Björk’s Vespertine, Bob Dylan’s “Love and Theft”, Fugazi’s The Argument, Lift to Experience’s The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads, Mogwai’s Rock Music, Pinback’s Blue Screen Life, Spiritualized’s Let It Come Down and Spoon’s Girls Can Tell are just some of the many great records released in 2001 that I was completely unaware of at the time.  I will say that I frankly disliked The Strokes, Modest Mouse and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs at the time and I still wouldn’t consider myself a fan.  Sorry.

Alien Ant Farm ANThology — Since I’m listing these in alphabetical order, I suppose it’s good that I can get the most pathetic pick out of the way immediately.  Fourteen was a fortunate age for me: I had outgrown Blink-182’s Enema of the State and Incubus’ Make Yourself, and had not yet given myself entirely over to ‘screamo’ (let alone ‘Christian screamo’).  But I was unable to escape a love for Alien Ant Farm.  This record made sense to me at age fourteen for the following reasons:

  • I loved the album’s packaging – great designs and Photoshopped images of the band members in various historical settings, like a historical ANThology!
  • The single ‘Movies‘ captivated my adolescent mind with its catchy chorus and entertaining music video: so many amazing film references (Ghostbusters, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, The Karate Kid and Edward Scissorhands) and a cameo with Mr Myagi!
  • Singer Dryden Mitchell (whose name I always romantically associated with NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center) had an INVERTED MOHAWK.  HOW COULD I RESIST AN INVERTED MOHAWK???
  • I was in love with guitarist Terry Corso’s custom Schecter 006 guitar.

Despite all of these excellent reasons, I do not listen to them now.

Converge Jane Doe — 2001 had its lows, but it also had its highs!  Converge’s Jane Doe represents one of the highest of the highs.  This record revolutionised music for me and remains one of my absolute favourite albums.

Perhaps I found Jane Doe so palatable as a result of conditioning via hardcore and metal bands I was already listening to such as Black Flag, Minor Threat, Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden and Slayer listener.  Along with being my gateway to Converge (who is among my Top 20 Bands), Jane Doe spurned my interest in many other great metal/metalcore acts such as Botch, Coalesce, Curl Up & Die, Unearth, Cave In and Daughters.  Do I listen to them now?  Yes.

The Hives Veni Vidi Vicious — ‘Hate to Say I Told You So’ was the first Hives song I ever heard.  It’s simplicity and raw energy enlivened my spirit.  Upon further inspection I discovered Veni Vidi Vicious, as well as The Hives’ previous record, Barely Legal.

The Hives were able to channel something primal about rock-and-roll while giving us something accessible and new, and they did it with exquisite pomp and style, complete with matching wardrobes and an excellent stage presence.  Their 2004 record Tyrannosaurus Hives demonstrated a great progression, and while 2007’s The Black and While Album proved less strong, it is still a highly enjoyable record.  Do I listen to them now?  Yes.

Jimmy Eat World Bleed American — ‘Bleed American’ was the first track I heard from this record, and after purchasing the record I found every track to be incredibly enjoyable (especially ‘Sweetness’ and it’s quiet/loud alternation).

After this record (and after seeing the band open for Weezer that year) I developed a great appreciation for their previous records: Jimmy Eat World (1994), Static Prevails (1996) and Clarity (1999).  But alas, by the time of their 2004 release, Futures, I had lost interest.  Do I listen to them now?  No.

Ozma Rock and Roll Part Three — On the coattails of Weezer I happened upon Ozma, a band named after L. Frank Baum’s Princess Ozma from his children’s fantasy novels.  Ozma captialised on Weezer’s pioneering geek-rock style and added some Casio, musical complexity and yet-more-wicked guitar licks (compare Rock and Roll with Weezer’s self-titled record from the same year [also known as The Green Album] and you’ll hear a striking difference).

They have since retained a special place in my heart due to their persistence as a pop-rock goldmine with the release of The Double Donkey Disc (2001/2002), Spending Time on the Borderline (2003) and (after a brief hiatus) Pasadena (2007).  Do I listen to them now?  Yes.

Radiohead Kid A/Amnesiac — For everyone who reached adolescence in the late 90s, ‘Karma Police’ from 1997’s OK Computer was the pinnacle of song, yet Kid A somehow managed to blow that all out of the water.  I remember when I first heard ‘Optimistic’ on the radio, which compelled me to buy the record.

I had no idea what I was in store for, considering ‘Optimistic’ would prove to be one of the weaker (though still incredible) tracks on the record.  Radiohead’s production had become more complex and experimental and Kid A would come to completely change the way I appreciate, experience and create music from thereon out.  This record is still a frequent listen and certainly one of my all-time favourites.

Saves the Day Stay What You Are — As with most other albums on this list, my purchase of Stay What You Are was inspired by the single ‘At Your Funeral’.

Saves the Day’s previous record, Through Being Cool, appealed to my emo and pop-punk tendencies, so it seemed like a good idea to investigate their new record.  Upon my first listen I wasn’t very pleased with half of the record, but over time it grew on me and became one of my high school favourites.  Their follow-up to Stay What You Are, In Reverie, proved to be more poppy less ambitious and I began to fall out of love with the band before their return to a more pop-punk sound.  Do I listen to them now?  Occasionally.

Thrice Identity Crisis — Unlike many other albums on this list (the only exceptions being the Converge and Ozma records), I did not learn about Identity Crisis from the radio.  In 2001 Thrice was still very much a local act, and fortunately for me, some of my friends had recently seen Thrice in concert.  I was told that they were ‘melodic hardcore’, and when I purchased this record I fell deeply in love with their music.

My love for Thrice was only intensified with the 2002 release of Illusion of Safety, which I considered a massive step forward for the band.  Unfortunately it was only a matter of time before Thrice would gain radio play, and in 2003 they released The Artist in the Ambulance and my heart was broken upon hearing the single ‘All That’s Left’ on a popular radio station.  Thrice had lost their edge and sounded like a dull rock band (though I want to take care not to lower them to the ranks of acts like Nickelback).  After Illusion of Safety I never bought another Thrice record and have had a difficult time ‘getting into’ their latest records.  While Identity Crisis was groundbreaking to me at the time (and along with Illusion of Safety has a few tracks that I still consider quite good), I no longer consider myself a fan and I do not recall the last time I was hankerin’ for a listen.

Thursday Full Collapse — Ah Full Collapse…thus began my high school interest in ‘screamo’.  What could be better than combining the genres of hardcore and emo?  Well, many things, and while I was an avid listener to ‘cultured’ bands like Radiohead, screamo occupied another place in my heart and mind.  Thursday was at the top of the screamo food chain, and there was certainly something special to me about hearing the screams from ‘Cross Out the Eyes’ playing on MTV in the morning before school.

My fascination with Thursday and screamo didn’t end at Full Collapse.  It wasn’t until some point between 2003’s War All the Time (which I loved) and 2006’s A City by the Light Divided (which I had no interest in) that the genre had totally dropped out of my listening queue.  Do I listen to them now?  No.

The White Stripes White Blood Cells — I recall hearing the track ‘Hello Operator’ from the White Stripes album De Stijl at some point in 2000, but it wasn’t until I heard ‘Fell in Love with a Girl’ that I felt this great compulsion to buy a White Stripes record.

White Blood Cells proved to be an excellent investment, with all of its garage-rock-revival sloppiness (and what Meg White lacked in percussive skill she made up for in keeping time).  Every record they produced (as they have officially announced their breakup this year) contained a bit of this genius, the sort of quality that can give us hope in the future of popular music.  Do I listen to them now?  Yes.

+++++

I stand by 60% of these albums now – I wonder whether that is a good or bad sign.

What were your favourite bands/albums in 2001?  How have they fared a decade later?

Has Arcade Fire taken over the world? No, but that was never the plan.

By now this is old news, but we’ll just say I was very busy on St Valentine’s Day (I had a date with Karl Barth).  Arcade Fire’s album The Suburbs, which Greg and I placed at numbers three and six in our respective Best Albums of 2010 lists, won Album of the Year at the 53rd Grammy Awards, one of the record industry’s highest honours.  Arcade Fire beat out industrial giants Eminem, Lady Antebellum, Lady Gaga and Katy Perry (I’m so tempted to just write ‘Lady Eminem, Lady Antebellum, Lady Gaga and Lady Perry’…) to take their seven little gramophone trophies home.

The indie blogosphere (as well as some very interesting backlash from those who had never heard of Arcade Fire before the 53rd Grammy Awards) has been set ablaze by the news, with the A.V. Club’s Steven Hyden writing,

Who cares about the Grammys?  It’s probably the least respected of all the major entertainment awards—which means it’s in the running for least respected institution anywhere—and yet a lot of people are going to be attaching a lot of significance to Arcade Fire winning album of the year honors for The Suburbs Sunday night. […] Does this signify the full-scale “arrival” of indie rock at the center of mainstream music?  Has Arcade Fire officially taken over the mantle as this generation’s defining rock band?  Does this mean that “we” won?  Be prepared to read all kinds of ruminations on these questions and many more in the days ahead.

It’s not my goal to have any groundbreaking things to say about this award, but I do think it’s interesting to point out that The Suburb‘s record sales were not what we may consider modest.  They reached number 1 on several international charts, including album charts in Belgium (Vlaanderen), their ‘native’ Canada, Ireland, Norway, Portugal, the UK and America (Billboard 200).  In recent history, several independent records have been performing well on the charts (namely Radiohead’s In Rainbows, Vampire Weekend’s Contra and The Decemberists The King is Dead), which gives some hope to those wishing to provide an affirmative answer to the question, ‘Does this mean that [the independent music scene] won?’

But the reality is that at the end of the day Arcade Fire and these other independent bands are selling a lot less music than the other nominees for Album of the Year (Lady Gaga’s The Fame Monster went platinum in 11 countries, eight of which were multi-platinum, and diamond in Poland), which does seem to indicate that the ‘war’ between independent and the mainstream is far from over.  But record sales are not the driving force behind independent music, which exists largely in reaction against the massive record industry.  There is no war, and as Arcade Fire bandleader and singer Win Butler said in his acceptance speech before the band performed ‘Ready to Start’, ‘We’re going to play another song because we like music.’  Arcade Fire won Album of the Year at the Grammys – that’s wonderful!  I’m sure that this will inspire more people to invest in their music, which is a great thing.  But in the end, music is about what we like and dare I say, what we love, which has absolutely nothing to do with Grammy Awards.

Here’s a brief Q & A time with the band after the show (via Tom Breihan at Pitchfork):

Lost in the Sewer: Steve Duncan, Urban Explorer

Steve Duncan in NYC's Croton Aqueduct, 2006 (photo by Duncan, from NPR)

Despite a popular modern attitude of disparagement regarding cities, placing the urban at odds with that which is natural, the promotion of the urban is one of my greatest interests.  A while back on my and Greg’s former blog, Criticism As Inspiration, I decided to write a short series of posts concerning some of my favourite [non-trespassing] adventures from Los Angeles (beginning with parts of Griffith Park  with the intention of becoming more unconventional/climactic as the series progressed).  I ultimately aborted the series  after the initial post because I realised it wasn’t exactly suitable content for the CAI blog.  Even so, one of my most favourite pastimes is ‘urban exploration’ – exploring that which is typically overlooked, ignored and shunned for being banal, strictly functional and ugly.

The popularity of urban exploration is on the rise and I suspect that many incredibly curious city-dwellers have been doing this sort of thing for a long time (I’m pretty certain Fagin knew all the good underground routes in London).  Among contemporary urban explorers, 32-year-old Steve Duncan is one of the most notable.  Duncan is not merely a thrill-seeker, but is deeply concerned with urban history  and development (he’s currently working on his PhD in urban history at the University of California, Riverside) and preserving these urban sites he so cherishes.

This past weekend I caught All Things Considered on NPR and was pleasantly surprised by a story about this hero of mine: ‘Into the Tunnels: Exploring the Underside of NYC‘.  For this story, NPR’s Jacki Lyden  and producer Brent Baughman join Duncan for [most of] a 25-mile excursion beneath New York City, wading through raw sewage, crawling among rats and cockroaches, jumping over third rails and evading police.  Duncan, Lyden and Baughman are joined by world-famous Norwegian adventurer, explorer and author Erling Kagge (he’s climbed Everest, hiked to the South Pole, and became the first person to walk alone to the North Pole, just to name a few of his accomplishments).

I strongly urge you to read the article and listen to the 20-minute broadcast if you have not already!

Duncan was also recently joined for an adventure under NYC by HDSLR director/cinematographer Andrew Wonder, which is documented in this 30-minute video entitled ‘UNDERCITY’, which is definitely worth a view.

Welcome to November

Every once in a while it is suitable to give a brief update on the inner-workings of the blog and its contributors.  November is upon us and autumn is in full swing.  While I failed to publish a single post in the month of October, Greg more than made up for it with several excellent posts (including an amazing playlist of music from 2010 thus far and a very interesting and insightful look at Sufjan Stevens’ excellent new record, Age of Adz – thank you Greg for picking up my slack!).  But if you’re really thirsty for more discussion on the ‘Hipster Christianity’ theme that Greg has featured in two posts in September (‘“Hipster” “Christianity”: a “review”‘ and ‘Mocking Hipster Faith‘), I have done a book review of Brett McCracken’s book Hipster Christianity for the blog Transpostions which can be viewed here.

Some exciting news from the blog can be found in the address bar of your internet browser: ‘lostinthecloudblog.com‘!  Because we so love this conversation with our readers on LITC, we’ve decided to take this up a notch and acquire an official domain name.  So update your bookmark menu and the links to our blog that you constantly pass around to your friends (who are we kidding – we know none of you do this…).

As Greg has hinted, we are rapidly approaching the end of 2010, which means one thing here on LITC: MORE LISTS.  Concerning music specifically, this has been an excellent year to be an active collector and listener.  I can promise that at the end of this year I will be making several significant modifications to my Top 20 Bands and Top 50 Albums lists.  As we share our favourites with you, we’d love to hear your favourites (please enlighten us).

Thank you to all who regularly visit and contribute to our blog.  It is likely that in our lameness Greg and I would keep doing this blog even if he and I were the only two people who ever looked at it, but all of you really help us to bring these issues—however serious or silly—into a broader conversation, giving us insights and perspectives that we might not have otherwise encountered.  And we love it.

Helicopter Megaphone

The new Deerhunter album, Halcyon Digest, was released this week and I seized the opportunity to purchase it at Avalanche during a quick trip to Edinburgh on Monday.  The album as a whole is excellent and it will surely find a place near the top of my favourite records released this year.  The artwork is intriguing, with the fold-out insert designed in the fashion of an underground newspaper or zine.  All of the lyrics to the individual tracks are written on this insert with an additional bit before the eighth track, ‘Helicopter’.  Before the lyrics this short article appears, reprinted in the album artwork with permission from Dennis Cooper:

Dima (real name Dimitry Marakov) was born in 1986 in the town of Nalchik, Russia.  From a young age, he dreamed of working in the fashion industry as a designer.  Lacking the moral or financial support of his parents, he actively sought out contacts within the industry through the internet.   At the age of 14, he became acquainted with a successful fashion photographer in St. Petersburg who invited the boy to come live with him and work as his assistant.  Dima accepted the offer and moved in with the photographer.  According to friends of Dima, he became the older man’s lover for approximately the next year.  He eventually grew dissatisfied with the lack of benefits he had been promised would result from the arrangement.  He left the photographer to become live-in lovers with a wealthy man who provided the financial backing for a conglomerate of pornographic gay websites.  It was at this point that Dimitry adopted the stage name Dima and, with the help of false documents that corrected his age to the legal 18, began a successful career modeling naked and starring in hardcore sex videos on the gay websites financed by his lover.

Between the age of 15 and 18, Dima was a highly sought after pornographic model and performer.  He saved the money he made from modeling to pay for the tuition at a leading college of fashion that he hoped to attend when he reached 18.  At a certain point, Dima began supplementing his income by renting himself out as an escort within his lover’s circle of associates and acquaintances.  According to friends of Dima, they included several leading figures in the entertainment industry as well as one of the most powerful men in Russia’s world of organized crime.  Dima began to express concern to his friends that the organized crime figure had become obsessed with him, but he refused to accept their advice to stop seeing the man because of the large amount of money these dates were earning him.  Sometime in 2005, Dima abruptly left his lover, gave up his modeling career, cut off all communication with his friends, and moved in with the organized crime figure.  The last public Dima sighting was late that year when his friend Ignat Lebedev, who was also working as a male escort at the time, accompanied a client to a private sex club where he claims to have witnessed a very thin and confused looking Dima being forcibly sodomized by a group of perhaps ten to fifteen men.  Lebedev claims his client identified one of the men as the organized crime figure and dissuaded him from speaking to Dima for his own protection.

Lebedev claims he described what he’d seen to Dima’s former lover and was told Dima had been killed the previous week and that he shouldn’t speak of this again.  Lebedev reported both incidents to the police, but after interviewing the lover and being told Lebedev had made the story up, they declined to investigate the matter.  In 2006, Lebedev persuaded a prominent Russian gay journalist to write an article on Dima’s disappearance, but during the course of investigating the story, the writer was abducted by unknown assailants, beaten, and told he would be murdered if he wrote the story.  Dima has not been seen or reliably heard from in three years, although in early 2007 another organized crime figure, Evgeny Ershova, who was awaiting trial on an unrelated murder charge, claimed that in late 2005 he witnessed a young male prostitute matching Dima’s description be pushed out of a helicopter over a remote forest in the north of Russia.  Before Dima’s ex-lover died of lung cancer in late 2007, he reportedly confessed to friends that Dima was sold as a sex slave to a man in the Ukraine in late 2005 and had lived until late 2006 when he’d committed suicide.

The actual song—shared in the video below, which was released earlier this month—contains heartbreaking lyrics from the perspective of Dima.  Principle songwriter Bradford Cox beautifully delivers these sorrowful words of exploitation, abuse, helplessness, isolation and loneliness, which prove to be all the more sobering when heard in light of the article above.

Dima’s story is incredibly heartbreaking, and while he lost his life at the hands of those who would oppress, Deerhunter reminds us of the unfathomable struggle faced by those around the world that presently experience the horror of human trafficking.

Thank you Deerhunter for speaking for those who have no voice and for doing so in such a creative and effective manner. May we all be challenged to do the same and to seek to protect all people.