Monday, September 27, 2010

My first bike race

On the morning of Saturday, May 22, I woke up thinking that on the following morning I would be competing in my first ever cycling race. The event was the first race of the 2010 Colavita Eastern Time Trial Series, a 20 km time trial race. I've been doing running races all my life, and after getting more and more into cycling over the last few years, I wanted to test myself in a different endurance sport. I was really looking forward to seeing how I could do.

As it turned out, on the next morning I awoke after spending my first night in the hospital with a broken hip.

I still have done close to no running since the injury. Racing has always been an important part of my life. I find it tremendously fulfilling to push myself to my physical limits, knowing my achievements are the results of months and years of hard work. In 2009 I competed in 13 running races. This year? Zero. If I end up not doing any running races, it will be the first year since the 1980s in which that is the case.

So, that time trial series? It consisted of five races, one a month from May through September. By September, I had recovered enough that I could ride my bike pretty well again. With one last race in the series, I had an opportunity to get to race, even if not in my most preferred discipline, and I wanted to seize that opportunity.

The race was Sunday, September 19. I watched the forecast all week leading up to it with a sense of anxiety as the percent chance of rain went up and down. After suffering a broken hip caused by a cycling accident on a slippery road, I did not want to ride in the rain, but I really wanted to ride! The morning of the race Cara and I (for she was also doing her first cycling race) awoke at 5:45 with an hour drive ahead of us. The forecast still showed a chance of showers. We set out in the dark and drove through some rain on our way. I felt a certain uneasiness, no doubt. Thankfully, the weather ended up cooperating beautifully. There was not a drop of rain during the race, the roads had dried, the temperature was about 60, and winds were light. Perfect weather for riding fast.

The time trial was a different sort of event from any running race I've participated in. In a time trial, each rider starts at one minute intervals. Drafting is prohibited; it's a test of individual riding ability. Honestly, I would find a normal cycling road race scary, especially after my fall. Some day, perhaps, but for now I was happy to do a time trial.

For the race in May I had been expecting to go over 23 mph average on the rolling, out-and-back 12.68 (to be precise) mile course. Now my expectations were somewhat more modest, of course. I set out hoping to top 22.

Although the course was not extremely hilly, the turnaround point was about 100 feet higher than the start. After the turnaround, my average speed was 21.5, so I was in good shape. I picked up more speed than I expected in the second half, ending up with a 22.74 average for the race. Quite frankly, I was thrilled with this outcome, considering I was less than four months removed from a broken hip!

At the end of the race, my legs were burning. So was my throat - I really needed a drink, in a way I don't recall being the case after running races. I guess the wind from riding fast might have something to do with this. I coasted into the parking lot, stopped at the car to chug some Gatorade, and then headed back to the finish line to see how Cara did.

She came in, clearly giving it her all with a hard surge to the finish, several minutes sooner than I actually expected. She averaged 18.25 mph. When I think back to where she was when she started riding a few years ago, I have to say she really deserves a huge amount of credit for that accomplishment. She said after the race that she had never exerted herself quite like that before, but really wanted to do another. I realized then that she now understood me better than she had before. It was pretty cool!

I'm sure that next year we will both be back out there, and riding even faster. There's just something about racing that nothing else really compares to. I also highly recommend this time trial series to any northeast Ohio cyclists wanting to test their skills. It was a small event, with about 35 entrants, but it was very well organized, with a good course and friendly people.

Monday, August 23, 2010

New music August!

Summer marches on, another year of school starts, and I wonder where all the time has gone. I'm mostly over the broken hip now, which is a relief. I've gotten in some good bike rides lately. More on that, perhaps, in a later entry. For now, some brief thoughts on a couple of exciting new albums that dropped this month.

August, it turns out, contained releases from two of the heavyweights of the indie music scene, and both will undoubtedly be in many conversations for album of the year. Early in the month, Arcade Fire unleashed their third album, The Suburbs, amidst much hype, which it more than lived up to. In contrast, Sufjan Stevens made many people's days (weeks, months, years?) when last week he released a new EP completely out of nowhere. Well, it's called an "EP," but like the new Arcade Fire album, Sufjan's All Delighted People EP clocks in at an hour long - despite containing half as many tracks.

Looking back to five years ago, both of these artists were significant in the evolution of my music tastes. In 2005, my music horizons broadened greatly. It was an exciting time, as I discovered artist after artist putting out great music I had never heard before. I remember looking up numerous albums on Amazon. You know how they have a section for "Customers who bought this album also bought"? I couldn't help but notice that for almost every band I looked up, Arcade Fire's Funeral appeared there. So I bought it, and today it's still one of my favorite albums ever. Although I still consider their debut LP their strongest effort, Neon Bible was an excellent followup, and now I'd say The Suburbs is an even better third release. A couple great things about Arcade Fire - each of their albums is an evolution in their sound, and each of their albums is a real, cohesive album. "Sprawl II" is an amazing song, definitely one of my favorites of the year, but it wouldn't be nearly as powerful if the album hadn't been building perfectly to that point. It's pretty likely that The Suburbs will end up being my top album of the year, and the only band with a string of three albums that I would collectively rate as better than Arcade Fire's first three LPs is Okkervil River (Down the River of Golden Dreams, Black Sheep Boy, and The Stage Names would be my pick there).

Back to 2005. Sufjan Stevens at the Beachland Ballroom was the first big concert I went to after getting into the indie music scene. It was a great show, and I thoroughly enjoyed Illinois, but it's really been in the past year that I've gotten more and more into Sufjan. He's a brilliant artist, but at times it feels like he could use an editor. Illinois is a great album, and its high points are stunning, but it's also a bit longer than it really should be. The (much) less grandiose Seven Swans may actually be his best album. Actually, this probably sounds funny, but my personal favorite Sufjan release is Songs for Christmas Vol. 5. "Sister Winter," "Star of Wonder," and "Holy, Holy, Holy" are three of his greatest and most beautiful songs.

Anyway, I was lucky enough to see Sufjan again last fall, and it was another great show. I admit, though, that I had a mixed reaction to the new material he played then. He's definitely grown much more experimental in his sound. I felt like some of the new stuff was breathtaking, but some of it left me . . . well, somewhat confused. "All Delighted People," the title track from the new EP, was one of the new songs he played, and at 11+ minutes, it had enough in it that I was able to have both reactions within one song. Having listened to it more now, it's definitely grown on me. The last few minutes are especially gorgeous. There are still spots in the song where I feel Sufjan goes a bit over-the-top; at this point I'm pretty sure I prefer the 8-minute "Classic Rock Version," which is probably my favorite track on the EP. The rest of the album contains five shorter, more straightforward (relatively speaking) songs, with "The Owl and the Tanager" being a definite highlight, and closes with the 17-minute "Djohariah." Know what I said earlier about sometimes feeling Sufjan could use an editor? Well, surprisingly, I don't think this is one of those times. The final track really works for me, and the 17 minutes don't drag at all.

So, August has been a good month for music. Arcade Fire and Sufjan Stevens both released albums that will be showing up on lots of end-of-the-year lists. Personally, I rank Arcade Fire's higher, but anyone who is at all into this sort of music would be crazy to miss out on either of these albums. It's a good time to be a music fan!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Roxboro Ravine . . . it rocks!

I thought it might be fun to write some posts about neat places around Cleveland (this isn't entirely a music blog!), so now, while I'm still recovering from a broken hip, some words about one of my favorite places to go when I have my normal mobility.

I suspect that not many people are familiar with the term Roxboro Ravine. A Google search returns very few results. Here's one, though; I think it's where I learned the name:

Path down into the Roxboro Ravine (formerly known as Ambler Park), approximately where Bellfield meets North Park Blvd. (from Cleveland Heights Historical Society)

Quite pretty, isn't it? The spot pictured doesn't look exactly the same today, but anyone who has spent a lot of time in the ravine would have no trouble recognizing the image. I'm sure that a lot more people are familiar with the place known as Roxboro Ravine than with the name Roxboro Ravine, but at the same time I'm sure many people pass by it often while remaining unaware of the wonderful place hiding in plain sight between North Park and Fairhill roads in Shaker Heights.

I was certainly one of those people once. As a cross country runner at CWRU, I often ran along North Park, on the grass right next to the ravine. I undoubtedly glanced down into the ravine from time to time while running by, but (to my memory) did not venture down there at all for my first two years of college. I remember a run my junior year where a couple of my teammates suggested heading down the wooded trails there. I voiced my disagreement, worried that it might be dangerous and not wanting to risk an injury.

I've since been injured twice on those trails, but that hasn't hampered my enthusiasm for running there. The trails aren't inherently dangerous; they just require somewhat more care and surer footing than running on roads. The broken arm in particular was due to completely reckless behavior on my part - I was walking, on a fallen tree, across the brook that flows through the ravine. That was risky enough, but then, as I neared the end of the tree, I began to pick up speed. I guess I just couldn't wait a few more steps until I reached solid ground, and I paid the price for my stupidity when I slipped, fell backwards several feet to the ground, and caught myself with an arm that one glance instantly revealed was broken. I walked out of the ravine up to North Park and was lucky enough to immediately encounter some other people, one of whom was a student at the Case Medical School and drove me to the hospital.

So I've certainly had some adventures in the ravine. (Since learning the proper name, I still usually think of it as just "the ravine." Cara and I have another name for it, as well - "Leslie Anne Ravine," a pun on the Decemberists' song "Leslie Anne Levine." I'm not even sure now which one of us came up with it, I think it was her? We are pretty silly.)

Roxboro Ravine really is a fantastic place for running. In the past few years, I've come to enjoy trail running more and more. It's a great way to commune with nature, and it's much more stimulating to my senses and my mind than running on the streets. The trails in the ravine require more attention than most. There are all sorts of rocks, roots, sharp turns, and quick ups and downs to navigate through. None of it is excessively difficult if proper care is taken, but it's a much more rugged trail than what one might typically find in, say, the Metroparks. I have to say, somewhat egotistically, that running is more fun when you can run fast, and running fast through a rugged, forested trail full of twists and turns is really fun. I've covered the trails through the ravine so many times that my feet practically know each step of the way. I really feel lucky, living in an urban environment, to have such a great place for trail running so close by. (It also seems to be a popular place for mountain biking. I've never tried mountain biking myself, and frankly, the idea of doing it on some of the more treacherous segments of the ravine's trails seems rather scary.)

Running in the ravine is great, but sometimes it can be nice to take in the joys of nature at a more leisurely pace. Cara and I often like to go on walks or hikes together (again, I'm looking forward to getting back to doing this after my injury is all better!), and Roxboro Ravine is one of our favorite places for such excursions. We've traversed the trails there in all seasons. Our most recent hike there was on a beautiful spring day, and contained a cool surprise. As we walked, we noticed there was music coming from somewhere nearby. And not someone's stereo system - this was live music, played by a couple of brass instruments. After we walked farther down the trail, an upward look revealed the musicians' location. They were sitting on the back patio of one of the houses on Fairhill that overlooks the ravine (I'm really jealous of the people who live there). It was like having a concert performed just for us while we enjoyed a great stroll through nature.

That was a memorable hike, but definitely not as memorable as the one that took place on March 7 of this year. That was when Cara and I got engaged. Here's a picture of the spot where it happened, which I took just before the big moment (the ring, at the time, was hidden in my camera bag).

Earlier in the walk, Cara had mentioned that the ravine was "special" to her. This secretly thrilled me, knowing what I was planning to ask her before we left the ravine that day. So I definitely agree, Roxboro Ravine is a special place, for many reasons.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Dreamend - A trip down memory lane

This show was almost two months ago now, but I still wanted to post something about it.

I suppose it would also be worth mentioning that I currently have a broken hip. Three weeks ago I had a cycling accident. As I was attempting to make a turn my wheels came out from under me (apparently this was due to the road both being wet and also having an oil slick on it) and I went straight down on my left hip. It was a painful experience. I'm on crutches and will be for at least a few more weeks. It's certainly frustrating, especially with the nice weather we've been having, but hey, sometimes these things happen, and I am getting better.

Now for the main part of this post. In April the Chicago-based experimental/shoegaze/post-rock band Dreamend played at the Grog Shop, opening for The Appleseed Cast. Both members of the lineup attracted me to the show, but I was definitely more drawn by Dreamend.

I like Dreamend; they've released several good albums . . . but I would hardly call them one of my favorite bands. Yet this was a show that I did not want to miss. Why? Well, I'd seen Dreamend once before, in the fall of 2005, at The Spot. It was actually one of the first concerts that I ever went to. A quick Google search informs me that the date of this show was October 12, 2005. In the summer of 2005 I, for the first time, started exploring music outside of the mainstream, and in September of 2005 I started going to concerts on a regular basis for the first time in my life. It turns out that that Dreamend show was one day before the first time I saw Nada Surf, and three days before the first time I saw the Decemberists, so it was a very memorable week for concerts.

That Dreamend concert was certainly not on the same level to me as the two other show that week, but I still quite enjoyed it, and as I think back, Dreamend may very well have been my introduction to the genre of post-rock. So my reasons for wanting to see Dreamend in 2010 were largely nostalgia-driven.

Dreamend played a solid set at the Grog Shop. I actually didn't recognize at least half of the songs. Early in the set, though, when they played "Can't Take You," I felt some nostalgia stirring. You see, back in 2005, my music collection was rather lacking. I eschewed illegal music downloads (and still do); instead, I obtained a large number of songs by going to bands' websites and downloading the free tracks they had available. I placed all these songs in an iTunes playlist called "cool DLed tunes," and would often listen to it on shuffle. "Can't Take You" was one of the songs I got from Dreamend's website.

So it was nice to hear this song, but there was another song I wanted to hear far, far more. "Passing," the last track on their 2004 album As If By Ghosts, was another of those songs I downloaded from Dreamend's website way back when. It's also, in my opinion, easily the best thing they've ever done. But I didn't have high hopes to hear it; the set seemed to be focused more on newer songs, and the time Dreamend had left was running low . . .

When the opening notes of their last song sounded, I recognized them immediately, and was thrilled. I'll be honest. Up to that point, I had enjoyed Dreamend's set, but I could have missed it and it wouldn't really have bothered me. When they played "Passing," though, I could only stand there enthralled for seven minutes. I guess Dreamend agree with me that "Passing" is a career highlight. It's an epic post-rock piece that would not feel out of place on an Explosions in the Sky album. I got video (missing the very start of the song, and unfortunately when it gets loud the sound quality is kind of poor); here it is:

Fortunately, the great music that night was just beginning. The Appleseed Cast performed their emo-tinged post-rock albums Low Level Owl Vol. 1 & 2 in their entirety, back-to-back with a brief intermission in which Saved by the Bell clips were amusingly projected on the wall. It was an outstanding performance, with great musicianship all around and impeccable sound quality. I probably had a somewhat unusual perspective, having heard just the first of the two albums previously. Despite this, I felt The Appleseed Cast easily kept the momentum up throughout their show. Overall, they were definitely the stronger of the two bands that night.

But for me, "Passing" was the highlight of the evening.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Pearl Jam Wash away Indifference in Cleveland

I very rarely attend concerts in venues that hold more than a few hundred people. For me to go to an arena show is almost unheard of. But when Pearl Jam hit the Q on Sunday, I was there. They're the only band I would not hesitate to shell out the money for to see at an arena show. (They're not quite my favorite band, not anymore, but none of the handful of bands I like better would have any business playing an arena.) Pearl Jam are actually the only band to be counted among my favorites in middle school, in high school, in college, and still today, as my tastes in music have changed quite a bit over those years. This was my third time seeing them live, and they can always be counted on for a great show.

Opener Band of Horses played a good set. I hadn't really listened to them before. They reminded me somewhat of My Morning Jacket, who opened for Pearl Jam the last time I saw them, although I'd say I prefer MMJ. The highlight of BoH's set was "The Funeral" (I had not heard the song before, but recognized the title).

When Pearl Jam took the stage, the excitement in the arena was palpable. To my surprise, I didn't immediately recognize the first song they played. Once it clicked, though, a wide, somewhat shocked, grin appeared on my face. They opened with "Wash," an old B-side and not a song I would have expected to hear at all. And it was a stunning opener.

A cool thing about Pearl Jam's website is that you can view setlists for every show they've played (here is the Cleveland setlist), and you can also view a list of every time that any given song has been played. So I can see that before Sunday, "Wash" had only been played once live since 2006. Talk about good luck! And that was just the beginning.

Pearl Jam always mix up their sets a lot, with a good mix of their big radio hits, tracks from their recent album, and older fan favorites. At any show, there's a good chance you'll hear a song or two that rarely comes up in their live rotation. Of course, some of those songs are better than others. If I had been tasked before the concert with making a list of songs I most wanted to hear Pearl Jam play live, "Sleight of Hand," a track from the under-rated album Binaural, would have been near the top. It had been played just twice since 2006, barely more than "Wash." Partway through the concert, Eddie went into a description of the next song, saying something about people going to work and living their lives while putting on false exteriors... I don't really remember exactly what he said, but the description sounded familiar. Sleight of Hand, Sleight of Hand... I silently pleaded... and then they played "Sleight of Hand," and I was floored. It's one of Pearl Jam's more experimental tracks, incredibly atmospheric in sound, and fantastic live. After that, and "Wash," and lots of other great songs like "Corduroy," "In Hiding," and "Immortality" (which would have thrilled me even more than "Sleight of Hand" did, except they also played it last time in Cleveland), this was already my favorite Pearl Jam concert yet.

They ended up playing for almost two and a half hours. Pearl Jam have a reputation for being a great live band, and it's well earned. They've been around for twenty years, and they're still capable of rocking out with high energy for two-plus hours a night, while putting together truly unique sets for every show. Eddie Vedder and company truly deserve to be thought of as rock legends.

In the second encore, I was delighted to hear "Black" and "Alive" - yeah, they're the big radio hits, but that's due largely to them being genuinely great songs. It was also great to hear "Smile," another of those tracks that doesn't come up so often live, although it had been played the last time in Cleveland. "Smile" was a fan request, and Eddie had the woman who was holding a sign for it come up to the front of the crowd when they played it. He then gave her his harmonica after he was done with it for the song. Lucky girl!

So it was a night packed with fantastic performances, but there was one more surprise in store for me, and it was the best of all. That list I might have made, on which "Sleight of Hand" would have appeared? "Indifference" would have been at the top. And the last song they played? After "Alive," I was expecting "Yellow Ledbetter" to close the show. When I realized they were in fact closing with "Indifference," I got giddy. The last track on Pearl Jam's second album, Vs., it's my favorite Pearl Jam song ever, and one of my favorite songs period. The mood the song creates, and Eddie's vocals ("I'll swallow poison until I grow immune/I will scream my lungs out 'til it fills this room")... wow. It was the perfect way to end an amazing evening.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Kaki King concert (or: Mind Status: Blown)

I have decided that this blog, despite all appearances to the contrary, is not dead.

Among other things, I'd like to get some concert reviews written. Here is one of them!

After seeing Kaki King at the Beachland Ballroom on May 4th, I commented, "That show pretty much blew my mind."

I've seen a lot of good concerts recently, but it's especially cool when a show is not only amazingly good, but also far exceeds any expectations I had going in. That was the case here. I only very recently started listening to Kaki King. What got me into her was hearing her new single "Falling Day" in the car on WRUW. I was instantly enthralled by the song, and although I did not catch the name at the time, I decided I would have to go check out the show playlist when I got home and see who it was. After seeing the name Kaki King, I remembered a friend had told me about her a couple months before, and that she would be playing the Beachland. I decided to get Kaki's new album Junior before deciding whether I would go to the show. I liked it - a lot - and also checked out ...Until We Felt Red for good measure. Having thus familiarized myself with a decent portion of Kaki's catalog, I was very much looking forward to seeing her live, but I had no idea what was in store.

Kaki is an amazing guitarist, and also employs an amazing variety of musical styles, all of which she pulls off very well. She opened the set with the previously mentioned "Falling Day," to my delight. Admittedly, I didn't find the live version quite as good as the album version on this particular song; I didn't think her vocals sounded as confident live. She may be getting used to singing rock vocals; her previous albums have had less singing and not really in this style. Still, it was a good opener, and things really picked up from there.

The most impressive part of the set was when Kaki's two bandmates left the stage and she played a few solo acoustic songs. This was a part of the show that I did not know to expect, and her complex finger(nail)picked and fingerslapped instrumentals were simply jawdropping.

Although her technical skills on these songs were absolutely stunning, several other songs left me even more in awe. The first of these was when she created a mini-suite by placing the fantastic new song "My Nerves That Committed Suicide" in the middle of an older song which I unfortunately do not recall the name of. This was a more epic post-rock performance than anything I saw at the Caspian and Red Sparowes concert last month. Almost as good was main set closer "You Don't Have To Be Afraid," the ending of which rocked way harder than the also fantastic album version.

Kaki did not make us wait long before coming out for a several song encore. The final song, "Gay Sons Of Lesbian Mothers," was another definite highlight. She started it off solo with a lap steel, on which she built up the various parts of the song with looping. After she played for a few minutes, her bandmates joined in, and she set her guitar down while the looping continued. She had said before the song that we were going to dance. True to her word, she came down off of the stage and danced with the delighted crowd. It culminated with Kaki dancing on a table.

Kaki played for almost two hours, and the whole show was pretty much brilliant. And as if her singing and guitar wizardry weren't enough, she also had plenty of genuinely interesting and amusing stage banter, including a story of her crazy German friend telling Kaki about a song the friend had written called "Skypefuck," which Kaki hilariously imitated with a couple seconds of exaggerated metal vocals.

So to sum up, if you get the chance to see Kaki King live, do it. And check out her albums, too.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Music roundup

It's been too long since I wrote anything here, but I've been quite busy recently.

Yesterday Woodpigeon's new album Die Stadt Muzikanten was officially released in the United States some two months after the Canadian release. It's an amazing album that anyone who likes artists like Sufjan Stevens or Belle and Sebastian should definitely check out. I wrote a review a while back. I hope this album does well, because I really really really want Woodpigeon to do a U.S. tour and come to Cleveland!

Also yesterday, Family of the Year put out a new five-song EP. I first became aware of this young band when they opened for Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros in Kent last fall. I was impressed with their performance and thoroughly enjoyed their album Songbook. The new EP Through the Trees is a solid followup. I especially enjoy "Princess and the Pea," which is highlighted by some sexy horns, and the catchy "Chugjug."

Family of the Year will be playing at the Beachland Tavern tomorrow night, opening for Ben Sollee and Daniel Martin Moore, who are touring in support of their new album Dear Companion. I saw Ben Sollee in a stripped-down performance (just him and a female vocalist) at the Spot last fall and was impressed by his soulful voice and cello playing. This should be a good show. Conveniently, a Daytrotter session with four songs from Dear Companion was recently posted.

And here's a new Daytrotter session that shouldn't be missed: Megafaun. These guys put on one of the best live shows I saw last year. They'll be playing at the Beachland Tavern again on April 7, just four days after Shearwater. There are a lot of good concerts coming to Cleveland in the next few months!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Sledding is awesome

It's been another snowy winter here on the North Coast. When I was a kid growing up in Columbus, I absolutely loved to go sledding, but was frequently disappointed at the amount of snow we got in the winter. Here in Cleveland we tend not to have that problem (although they've been getting hammered in Columbus too!) and I'm not at all ashamed to say that, at 26 years old, I'm still very into sledding.

Cara and I have gone out sledding several times over the past few years, and had a few adventures along the way. We'll never forget how ridiculously cold it was the first time we went at Forest Hill (which also happens to feature a half mile trek from the parking lot to the sledding hill). And then there was the time that we wanted to go sledding after a big March snowstorm, but had no sleds here, and were unable to find any in the stores. We ended up buying some foam insulation at Home Depot and cutting off pieces on which we slid down the hill. This proved only moderately effective, and we were lucky when someone took pity and let us use their sled for a few runs.

This year we've had our best sledding yet. We seem to have mutually decided that we prefer sledding at night, mainly because of the lack of crowds. While it's fun to observe kids enjoying themselves on the sledding hills, it's less fun to have to constantly look out/wait for people sitting at the bottom or walking up the middle of the hill. It's also not fun to cringe at kids nearly smashing into each other, or parents sending their three-year-old down the massive and steep slope at Forest Hill. Plus, sledding at night has a really cool atmosphere to it.

A few weeks ago we hit up the Cain Park hill, and it was the best sledding I've experienced in maybe a decade or even more. It reminded me of some of the great times I used to have at Wyman Woods in Grandview. The sledding surface was nicely packed down, a bit icy, and very fast, and if you were so inclined you could hit some bumps and receive moderate to huge air. Speaking of Cain Park sledding, I found this picture from 1970. I see a lot of Flexible Flyers - that was my favorite sled as a kid.

Tonight we went to Flavor Tripping at the B-Side Liquor Lounge, which was also a lot of fun (and I think Cara may write about it). Yet another snowstorm was picking up in intensity as we headed out. After the party (the highlights for me were lemons and goat cheese), we walked over to Coventry Peace Park with our sleds. This is a relatively small hill, but it's still quite fun. At least an inch or two of fresh powder covered the previously packed down snow. As we rode, our sleds carved smooth paths into the glistening hillside. It was really rather beautiful to look at.

Does anyone have any other suggestions for the best places to sled in Cleveland? I've read that some of the Metroparks have good hills.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Trying out some new toys and nearly freezing to death

For Christmas my parents got me some new accessories for the road bike that I had gotten from them three years previously (and which is probably the best Christmas present I've ever gotten, come to think of it). I finally have clipless pedals and a pair of cycling shoes. For anyone who is uninitiated in the world of cycling and may be reading this post, this means that the shoes lock in to the pedals while riding, enabling a somewhat greater transfer of power with each pedal stroke. I got the pedals installed on my bike last weekend, then promptly got sick, and then went through a few days of weather that was snowy and/or bitterly cold. I had been itching to give my new toys a try, so today, with the temperature a balmy 26, clear streets, and very little wind, I thought conditions were good enough and went out for a ride.

In previous cold weather rides, I have experienced some extremely cold hands and feet (even with two pairs of socks). I recently picked up some toe covers for my cycling shoes, so I put those on. To protect my hands, I equipped myself with two pairs of gloves.

My ride started well. I haven't done much outdoor riding recently, but I'm pretty sure that, thanks to the new pedals, I was riding in higher gears than I typically would with the same effort. Unfortunately, my bike computer doesn't like cold temperatures, so I could not actually see how fast I was going. Hopefully I'll get a chance for that in the not too distant future.

I ended up going about 23 miles. About halfway in, I realized that my fingers were getting very cold. Unfortunately, I was over ten miles from home; I had no choice but to suffer through the return leg of my route. My fingers grew increasingly numb. Two pairs of gloves were obviously not enough - I definitely plan to pick up some hand warmers before going on any more lengthy rides in this sort of weather. (The toe covers, on the other hand, proved effective.) I surged through the mostly downhill last few miles and was greatly relieved to reach home. The worst part, though, was yet to come.

My fingers were extremely cold and numb. I needed to warm them up, and I ran some warm water over them. I knew this would be painful, but the pain was far more excruciating than I can ever remember feeling in similar situations in the past. But it went away in a few minutes.

Hot chocolate has never tasted better.

Monday, January 25, 2010

My top five albums of 2009

It's a little late to put together a tops of 2009 list, but since I just started this blog, I felt like making one. Also, I'm home sick today. My criteria for this list are simply which albums I considered my most favorite. It couldn't truthfully be called a "best of" list, because I did not make an effort to listen to every critically acclaimed album of the year. That's not to say that I don't seek out new music, but I would rather give extra attention to the albums that I do really enjoy than try to listen to as many different albums as I possibly can. (Looking at my Rate Your Music account it appears I have about 30 2009 albums in my collection.) First, a few honorable mentions: Songbook by Family of the Year, Backspacer by Pearl Jam, The Hazards of Love by The Decemberists, and Sainthood by Tegan and Sara. Now, without further ado:

5. Afternoon Naps - Parade
Afternoon Naps - Parade
This album is twee pop at its finest, and we are lucky to have such a delightful band here in Cleveland. With ten songs and 31 minutes of music, Parade barely qualifies to be Afternoon Naps' first LP. It's also their most accomplished work. They expand their sound in several ways, even adding some disco influences on a couple tracks. It's still full of the great hooks and boy-girl vocals that made their previous EPs hard to resist. Key tracks: "Mitten Fingers," "Beach Bums," "Catholic School"

4. Mono - Hymn to the Immortal Wind
Mono - Hymn to the Immortal Wind
It's a Mono album. If you've listened to the band before, you have an idea of what you're getting. Some might see that as a bad thing, but on this album, they take their style of post-rock and execute it really, really well. Music doesn't get a whole lot more epic than these seven tracks. Key tracks: "Ashes in the Snow," "The Battle to Heaven"

3. Andrew Bird - Noble Beast
Andrew Bird - Noble Beast
Andrew Bird is an incredibly talented man. If you haven't seen one of his live shows, you should do so at the first opportunity. He has really created his own unique sound, notable for his superb vocals, his fantastic violin playing, and his amazing ability at whistling. The Mysterious Production of Eggs and Armchair Apocrypha are very good albums, but Noble Beast tops them, and is the first one that I feel really does justice to his immense talents. Key tracks: "Anonanimal," "Oh No," "Not a Robot, but a Ghost"

2. Megafaun - Gather, Form and Fly
Megafaun - Gather, Form and Fly
I saw this band live over the summer, and I was mainly there to see Bowerbirds, but Megafaun blew me away. Their sound is a mix of experimental folk and more conventional folk rock with some country and bluegrass elements. They do it all very well, and their vocal harmonies are something to marvel at. Key tracks: "The Longest Day," "The Fade," "Kaufman's Ballad," "Guns"

1. Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros - Up From Below
Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros - Up From Below
I must say that the people who book the bands to play at The Spot at Case Western Reserve University have done a very good job. This merry folk rock troupe rolled into town for a show just as they were beginning to blow up in popularity. I personally had no familiarity with them before going, and it turned out to be possibly the best show I saw all year. With nine or ten musicians on stage, it's quite an impressive spectacle as they fill your ears with joyous music that would have been right at home in the late '60s. The live show sets a very high benchmark, which the album very nearly lives up to. If you haven't heard "Home," a duet that is surely one of the happiest love songs ever, go listen to it now. Key tracks: "Home," "Desert Song," "40 Day Dream," "Janglin"

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Woodpigeon: Die Stadt Muzikanten and Balladeer

It's unfortunate that Balladeer / To All the Guys I've Loved Before, the new album just released by Calgary band Woodpigeon, is likely to be largely overlooked. It's another collection of indie folk gems by Mark Hamilton, Woodpigeon's amazingly prolific and talented leader. This is a quieter album than Treasury Library Canada or Songbook, Woodpigeon's previous full-lengths. It's more reminiscent of the Houndstooth EP, with songs primarily driven by acoustic guitar and vocals, although additional flourishes from instruments like violin or clarinet are employed masterfully.

Hamilton has a knack for great melodies, and great lyrics to match. He conjures up some nice imagery in "So Hold": In a flat tin box/Your first letter to me, five years on/Didn't read what you wrote/Cuz I'm sure by now, it's not what I'd want. Album closer "Beth Jeans Sleepover" is just a really gorgeous song, while the haunting "An Entanglement of Weeds" deserves special mention. It clocks in at nearly seven minutes long and tells the tale of a twelve year old boy drowning after falling into a river while attempting to rescue his friend, recounting his thoughts as he realizes that he is going to die.

Why is this fantastic album almost undoubtedly going to receive little attention? Well, despite containing 12 songs and 44 minutes of all new material, Balladeer is merely a bonus disc attached to Woodpigeon's other new album, Die Stadt Muzikanten (did I mention that Mark Hamilton is very prolific??).

And while Balladeer is an excellent piece of work, Die Stadt Muzikanten does deserve top billing. It's a masterpiece, Woodpigeon's best album yet. I've previously written that the main elements that make Woodpigeon's music so appealing are the catchy melodies, lush instrumentation, and boy-girl harmonies that I can only describe as delicious. All of that is still present in spades. Die Stadt Muzikanten, though, just sounds bigger than any previous Woodpigeon release. While comparisons to artists like Belle and Sebastian or Sufjan Stevens may still be appropriate, Woodpigeon have really found their own sound here. They're equally adept at infectious chamber pop ("Empty-Hall Sing-Along," "Enchantee Janvier") and heart-achingly beautiful balladry ("Spirehouse," "Our Love is as Tall as the Calgary Tower"). They rock harder than they have in the past on "The Street Noise Gives You Away" and "My Denial in Argyle" (the most danceable Woodpigeon track yet). And I would be remiss to leave out a pair of nautically themed numbers. "Redbeard" is a clever song in which the protagonist hunts down a pirate who "stole and burned most everything, the life that I once knew," for the purpose of revenge, only to fall in love. "...And as the Ship Went Down, You'd Never Looked Finer" is a tour de force. It contains the most interesting arrangements and instrumentation on the album, building from a simple, repetitive percussion and piano intro to a rousing climax with violin, banjo, accordion, and stirring vocals playing key roles along the way. It's interesting that on both Balladeer and Die Stadt Muzikanten, a strong contender for the title of best track is about drowning - Colin Meloy would be proud.

Die Stadt Muzikanten can be streamed in full on Woodpigeon's website. The album won't be officially released in the U.S. until March, but is available to purchase from digital retailers, and the CD version can be ordered from Boompa. I would highly recommend the latter; the bonus disc alone is worth the price of admission, and Balladeer is only available with physical copies of the album.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A Northern Chorus's final show and the power of music

Note: this was a journal entry I wrote on on June 30, 2008, about what may have been the very best concert I've ever attended. I'm reposting it here because (a) I think it was a pretty good journal (b) it will make my blog less empty and (c) damn, that was an amazing show.

A Northern Chorus have been one of my favorite bands for about two years. Over the course of four albums, the Hamilton, Ontario-based dream pop outfit excelled at creating lush soundscapes of rare beauty. No other band I know is quite like them. Low are a definite influence, although a better description of some of ANC's more epic tracks might be to take Explosions in the Sky and add some deeply stirring vocal and string parts. The bottom line is that, to my ears, A Northern Chorus had an unparalleled ability to create aural beauty. I first saw them in concert for free at my school in the spring of 2006. I had never heard of them before, and had only listened to a few songs prior to going to the show, but the experience was one of sheer bliss. Ever since, I hoped that they would play another show in Ohio, but it did not happen. When I found out via a MySpace blog post that they were calling it quits, I was saddened. The same post announced that they were playing two farewell shows, in Toronto on June 27 and Hamilton June 28. I immediately decided that, despite Hamilton being four hours away, I had to go to the final concert.

It was a very good decision. This concert was one of the most emotionally intense musical experiences of my life. The performance, lasting a good two hours when all was said and done, had all the grandeur of my previous ANC concert experience, along with a passion that could only come with a special occasion like this one. I was in the very front row, and could clearly see in the faces and body language of each member of the six-piece that they were deeply affected by the fact that they were playing their final show after all those years. They put their all into their instruments and voices, and the audience responded with enormous enthusiasm. The setlist was stunning, containing all of the songs that I most wanted to hear. It was dominated by tracks from their last album, The Millions Too Many, and 2005's Bitter Hands Resign. The latter is the most gorgeous album I have ever had the pleasure of hearing, and certainly in the running for my top five albums of all time. The former is not that far behind in my rankings. Thus, this setlist was quite pleasing to me. Several older standouts from 2003's Spirit Flags rounded out one of the greatest collections of songs I've ever heard at one show. They did not play anything from their debut, Before We All Go To Pieces. This did not actually bother me, because, while I like the album a lot, it does not quite compare to their other works. It doesn't have the same majestic quality that makes so many of A Northern Chorus's songs so breathtaking live.

The full setlist went as follows:

The Millions Too Many
Remembrance Day
Costa del Sol
Victory Parade
Red Carpet Blues
Let The Parrots Speak for Themselves
Ethic of the Pioneer
The Shepherd & the Chauffeur
Skeleton Keys
Candle Song 3 (Mojave 3 cover)
Fragile Day
Subjects & Matter
No Stations

*first encore*
Prisoners of Circumstance
The Canadian Shield

*second encore*
Louder Than Love

There were some great moments beyond the music itself, too, such as when guitarist/vocalist Stu Livingstone announced that his parents were there celebrating their 37th wedding anniversary. This got a nice round of applause from the audience. Another fun moment was the whole band, in between encores, taking a round of shots on the house.

(Cara, who went to the show with me, took these pictures.)

Things got really, really emotional during the encores. Tears were visible on the faces of the majority of band members. Cellist/vocalist Alex McMaster in particular was really breaking down.

A very surreal moment came after the first encore, when the band appeared ready to call the show over, but relented to audience demand for one last song, the last one that the band still had available to play of those they had rehearsed. Then it was discovered that the sound for the cello had just stopped working. After an incredible emotional display with what was supposed to be the last song, they were left to stand around on stage bantering for several minutes while fixes were attempted. Nothing worked, and finally Alex, visibly holding back her emotions, said something like "fuck the cello, I'll just sing" and they launched into one last epic performance.

It's hard to really put into words just how amazing an experience this concert was. In a way, it was profoundly sad. The reason for A Northern Chorus's breakup was not that they no longer liked each other, nor that they had no more desire to make music. It was that, financially, the band just wasn't working out, and after all those years this had taken too much of a toll. I'll certainly always consider them one of the most underappreciated bands I know. But while they never reached a particularly wide audience, the crowd at this show made it clear that their music was beloved.

And while this experience was at times a sad one, it was also profoundly exhilarating, life-affirming, even. Truly great live music has an effect on me that few other things do. For example, I saw WALL-E, the new Pixar movie, the previous night. It was stunning, gorgeous, unbelievably imaginative, and one of the best movies I've seen in my life. But its effect on me did not come close to this concert's. I will continue to wish that A Northern Chorus could go on making more of their wonderful music, but I'll also be eternally grateful that I got to be there for this, their unforgettable swan song.

Welcome to my humble blog

SO... I decided to start a blog.

Why, after having spent copious amounts of time on the Internet for the last, oh, half of my life, did I finally decide to take this momentous step?

I like writing. I don't spend as much time doing it as I used to. It probably wouldn't be a bad thing to write more. It's definitely true that I enjoy looking back on things I wrote in the past (like that prize-winning book from first grade, "The Fight for the Forestmen's Treasure," based on the adventures of my Lego people!), and I'm sure that, say, ten years from now, I'll like having a written record of some of my thoughts at this point in my life. And I might as well share them with the rest of the world, because hey, if no one reads the blog, no big loss, and if people do read it - well, most people like attention in one form or another, and I'm not unusual in that regard.

So, a little about me. I'm a graduate student who lives in Cleveland with my wonderful girlfriend Cara. (I am not very good at coming up with clever titles for things, so I shamelessly imitated hers for my blog.) Things I like include music, running, cycling, the outdoors in general, food, Cleveland... yes, I like Cleveland. A lot of people would probably find that a strange declaration, but there's a lot to like about the city I call home. To start, how about the great music scene, lots of amazing restaurants, and the fact that we have both a great metro parks system and a national park a 30-45 minute drive away?

What will I be writing about here? Probably a lot about music, along with whatever else I feel like. I've written some journals on my page, but I find the way their journal system is currently set up somewhat unsatisfactory. I will probably crosspost music-related entries here and there. Maybe I should have one catch-all blog and another music-specific blog? I'm not sure if there's really a reason to do that or not.

I guess that's all for my intro post. So welcome, and please enjoy your stay!