Art

This week I’ve been listening to two of my favorite female debut artists from 2013: Haim and Lorde. I felt like both sophomore efforts this year, unfortunately, were a letdown, but have their moments.

Haim’s Something to Tell You, I feared, could have gone in the direction of Taylor Swift, but instead is a surprisingly fresh road trip through the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Quite literally, there are songs in the album that sound like the love child of Celine Dion and George Michael, or Hanson and Fleetwood Mac, or ABBA and Michael Jackson. For that alone it’s a wonderful listen and a testament to the creative sensibilities of the Valley sisters. Anthem “Want You Back”, which is on my shortlist for best music video of the year, and “You Never Knew”, which Bleeds Orange all over in the best possible way, are the standouts so far. For the rest of the album I’m constantly being thrown back to memories of some random radio ad background song I can’t remember from the early oughts, or a specific guitar song from a long lost oldies playlist. Now all that being said, I still think Days Are Gone was the better album. There’s somehow still more diversity, more kick-ass rhythm, and more cinematic beauty throughout that album from “Falling” to “The Wire” to “Running If You Call My Name”. But Haim is definitely still in the game. My rating: 3.5/5

Lorde’s Melodrama I’m having a harder time getting into. The magic of Pure Heroine was its minimalist nonchalance, the feeling that you were discovering a superstar in the making in the bedroom studio of an unnamed suburb halfway around the world. The maturations and production upgrades of her second album all make sense, but one of the effects is that these songs feel sound a bit less distinguishable from each other. Nothing transports me quite to the extent that “Ribs” or “400 Lux” did; the closest trips are “Supercut” and the Loveless half of “Hard Feelings/Loveless”. But I do have to admit that the unfettered, anthemic arrivals in “Green Light” and “Perfect Places” are a great new territory for Lorde which I’m perfectly happy to have. My rating: 3.5/5

I’ll quickly add that the second single “Guilty Party” by The National is an absolute gem and was on repeat for much of my Tokyo trip. Can’t wait to see them perform this in October.

Movies: There have been some great ones in the last couple of weeks. Baby Driver was so much better than the trailer made it out to be, with a surprisingly confident lead by Ansel Elgort and entertaining support from Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, and Lily James. But the standout is director Edgar Wright with some absolutely delightful direction and vision, from the irreverent screenplay to the danceable soundtrack. I can’t say there’s a lot of depth here, but there sure is a joy ride.

I also watched Okja on Netflix which I’ve been anxiously awaiting, and it did not disappoint with its narrative acrobatics and surprisingly believable-looking, Totoro-like muse. As a new vegetarian, I really appreciated how serious of a thematic ground an otherwise unserious film gets to, with grace and confidence. Bong Joon-ho has struck gold twice with back-to-back ecological fantasties Snowpiercer and Okja, and I’m already impatiently awaiting the third, and what crazy role Tilda Swinton will play.

The Big Sick was also a solid Apatow production that tactfully commented on the perils of religious culture, delighted with surprisingly messy and moving performances from the parents Ray Romano and Holly Hunter, and knocked it out of the ballpark with the funniest in-movie joke I can recall this year. But the biggest surprise I’ve recently seen was Cars 3. It was honestly a throwaway entertainment one night, but I forgot that Pixar should, under no circumstances, be underestimated. I’m pretty sure I did not watch Cars 2 and barely remember anything about Cars, but if you give the third one a shot, you’ll see that it firmly stands on its own four wheels with a narrative idea that beats Moana, Finding Dory, Kubo and the Two Strings — every animated film since Zootopia. I don’t want to spoil it, except to say that it’s about as prescient as Pixar could get to our current political conscience without making a movie about politics, and to implore you to give it the chance it deserves.

In terms of books, I’ve mainly just enjoyed Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape, which, like his other books I’ve read, aren’t quite excellent as literature but are stock full of intellectual clarity and honesty on the most vital ideas in my mind this year. It’s actually probably the best place to start with Harris, so I encourage those who are willing to resist whatever stigma may be attached to his name from whatever dogmatic source to give it a try. More on the ideas themselves in an upcoming post.

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Art, Ideas, Life

It’s been about a month since I last wrote. Once again I am in purgatory, also known as the airport, where I arrived at 5am only to find that my United flight to Monterrey was rescheduled to 2:30pm. No serious harm done, as this has afforded me some quality time to work, but it does mean that my SUS team will have a harder time preparing for our meetings tomorrow, in which we’ll present the outcomes of the project course this Spring. Monterrey will be at 100 degrees F this week. Last time I was there, spring break, I was noncommittal vegetarian; this time around, I’m a struggling vegan. We’ll see if I succumb to the temptations of arrachera.

I get back Friday night, and then the next day, I’m off to Tokyo for a week for the Asia Leadership Conference on Sustainable Development and Climate Change. I believe I was invited pretty much because the organizers read this blog post; don’t underestimate the value of maintaining your professional online presence. The organizers were really generous to agree to book my trip with one extra day at the beginning and end, which means I’ll get to pull a couple of all-nighters in Tokyo like a Murakami character and take in a city I went to as a little kid, but haven’t yet truly experienced as a “woke” urbanist, foodie, techie, artist, etc. etc. Any recommendations for places I should visit are greatly appreciated.

Since I’m stuck in SFO for the next 6 hours, I figured I’d do some catch up on life, arts, and culture this past month.

First the Stanford Architectural Design Program hosted two lectures as part of AIA continuing education and for the Senior Show, which are always a great opportunity to listen to some architects speak about their work. Thomas Woltz from Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects gave a breathtaking lecture, perhaps the best I’ve ever seen in the series, and in particular, helped me understand the unique artistry and power that landscape architects can wield at the top of their craft. I was especially struck by their Memorial Park project in Houston in which trees are not just architectural form but dynamic program, in that they represent a specific number of fallen soldiers and are planned to be felled, in unison, 25 years after planting, to commemorate the equivalent human loss at that average age, and planted and felled again in the same pattern for perpetuity. What a staggering design decision, well above what most buildings can ever claim. On the other hand, Greg Pasquarelli from SHoP Architects perfectly represented, in my view, the worst trends of contemporary architecture in his firm’s body of work. I won’t get into the details (unless I am asked to), but the Barclay’s Center is the kind of architecture that looks great in a napkin sketch, on Rhino, and from about 1,000 feet away, but it hideous up-close because of the fundamental inability of planar metal construction components to represent curved, parametric forms. It’s as fundamental (and comical) of an attempt as Lego architecture, and perhaps should be reserved for the Toys”R”Us aisle, because these parametric prefabrication-and-assembly techniques fundamentally add little performative value to complex buildings besides aesthetics and mild shading. They contribute almost nothing to the most important functions of the architectural envelope: structure, weather protection, and thermal insulation. In other words, the most exciting thing about contemporary architecture is basically fancy skins. And Pasquarelli drove this point fully home when he ended with the most egregious project of all, 111 West 57th Street, which will be the most slender building in the world at 1,438ft, 82 stories, and 316,000 sqft, but will only have 60 tenants. Oh yeah, and a beautiful neo-Gothic gladding on the outsides of two massive concrete shear walls, because the tenants can afford to be a spectacle on the skyline. If this is the direction of the architectural profession, then I’m honestly glad to be transitioning to urban design and planning. The more I understand cities, the more I understand that the most important decisions made about a building are its urban constraints and urban interactions. Maybe, then, architecture really is just the leftover cosmetics.

The first weekend of June, my family came up to SF and I took them to enjoy Squaw Valley at Lake Tahoe. But first, I went to a great Lambchop concert at the Great American Music Hall in SF, which is a quaint little venue with little roundtables instead of standing area. At Squaw, I rocked my Boboskis wearing just a t-shirt and shorts and spent most of two days on Granite Chief pushing my speed on moguls. There was also a fun luge-like section on Shirley Lake Express. We also checked out Sand Harbor and part of the Shirley Creek Trail, which is a truly magical hike.

Coming back from Tahoe, I then spent the week with a visiting group from Sichuan University (which I had visited earlier in May). I invite all readers to take a look at some documentation of the SUS Symposium I organized on June 8. On Friday I took the group on a curated tour of San Francisco, which included the Ferry Building, Powell-Hyde Cable Car, Lombard Street, Pier 39, ferry to Sausalito, the Bay Model Visitor Center, floating homes, a walk across the Golden Gate Bridge, Palace of Fine Arts, and PPQ Dungeness Crab Restaurant.

This past week I started transitioning to the summer quarter, when I’ll be working with some students on special projects and preparing curriculum for next year. I went with Abi to see Rostam at the Independent, which was awesome because he played songs from Discovery and Vampire Weekend in addition to some upcoming music that almost sounds like it could be in a Kanye album. In terms of albums I’ve been listening to, it’s been early releases from The War on Drugs’ A Deeper Understanding, Sufjan and friends’ Planetarium, Big Thief’s Capacity, and Fleet Foxes’ Crack-Up. TWOD is really promising so far; “Thinking of a Place” has totally grown on me to match some of the best of Lost in a Dream over its 11 minutes, and “Holding On” is a full-on Bruce Springsteen joyride.

Planetarium turned out to be much more like “Saturn” than “Mercury”, in terms of styles the two initial singles teased. There are some really ambient orchestral sections that, while beautifully produced, aren’t quite interesting enough for me to listen to regularly, and there are some more jagged and space-rock moments in “Jupiter” and “Mars” that wade a bit too far into Age of Adz waters for me. “Neptune” and “Venus” are lush and engrossing tracks, in addition to the beautiful “Mercury”, and “Earth” is a whopping 15 minutes which almost feels like the entire album captured in one track, going from ambient to electronic and back and packing some quintessentially Sufjan-emo contemplations. Overall this is an interesting musical experience, but I preferred Sufjan’s last side project, Sisyphus. My rating: 3/5

Capacity has been an absolute stunner for me, proving that I really need to start trusting NPR Music just as much as a trust Pitchfork (which also rated it highly). The best thing I can say about Big Thief, besides Adrianne Lenker’s deeply personal songwriting, is that at their best, they evoke the sound of The Weepies. The best examples of this in the album are “Haley” and “Black Diamonds”. “Haley” in particular is going to be on my top 10 songs of the year list. It has a simple but extended climbing melody that is imbued with a lush string orchestration, spot-on drum fills, and perfectly moving time signature and key changes. Other good songs include “Mythological Beauty”, “Objects”, and “Mary”. My rating: 4.5/5

Finally, Crack-Up finally came out and on the whole is an engrossing listen and, as usual, doesn’t quite reward a playlist with easy singles, but there are some gems which make this comparable to, if not quite at the level of, Helplessness Blues. The earlier singles, “Third of May / Odaigahara”, “Fool’s Errand”, and “If You Need To, Keep Time on Me” turn out to be the main ones. But I also really enjoy the pair “Cassius, -” and “- Naiads, Cassadies”. Take a listen, and in the latter song, reflect on the beautiful lyrics below. My rating: 4/5

Who stole the life from you?
Who turned you so against you?
Who was the thief who shaved your teeth
Accepting just virtue

And did he act alone?
Were any more complicit?
When he would sing and offer the ring
What older voice said, “kiss it”?

Fire can’t doubt its heat
Water can’t doubt its power
You’re not adrift, you’re not a gift
You know you’re not a flower

Movies: This month I watched Their Finest, The Lovers, Wonder Woman, Beatriz at Dinner, and It Comes at Night. I’d recommend all of them, especially Their Finest which is a nice preparation for the upcoming Dunkirk and Beatriz which is as literal of an illustration of our sociopolitical divide as can be found on screen this year.

Podcasts: I highly recommend “The Gondolier” on Radiolab, the new season of Invisibilia, and the entire third season of 2 Dope Queens.

Books: Against Empathy by Paul Bloom was not a particularly impactful read, but mostly because I’ve already mulled over its ideas for a long time. If we ever talk about the difference between empathy and compassion, I’ll be referencing this book. Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance certainly met my expectations as an honest portrait of Appalachian and Rust Belt America with this damning conclusion:

I believe we hillbillies are the toughest goddamned people on this earth. We take an electric saw to the hide of those who insult our mother. We make young men consume cotton undergarments to protect a sister’s honor. But are we tough enough to do what needs to be done to help a kid like Brian? Are we tough enough to build a church that forces kids like me to engage with the world rather than withdraw from it? Are we tough enough to look ourselves in the mirror and admit that our conduct harms our children?

Public policy can help, but there is no government that can fix these problems for us.

But Hillbilly paled in comparison to Matthew Desmond’s Evicted, which absolutely exceeded my expectations and definitely deserves the Pulitzer. All I can say is that for an author to pull off telling a harrowing and tragic documentation of families suffering through eviction in Milwaukee that reads like fiction, and to have done it accurately and honestly and ethically, is the kind of feat that, if I had experienced it earlier in my life, might have pushed me towards sociological research. Go read it as soon as you can.

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Art

One last post for the weekend on some books, music, and movies I’ve enjoyed this month.

I really haven’t had much time to read in all my travels, but on the plane to Beijing I got through a few of the poetry books that Sam had had me receive on Amazon to bring to her in China. They were all collections of poems by Philip Levine, originally from Detroit and up until recently residing in Fresno, CA. One of his earlier works, What Work Is, was the most moving to me, a depiction of working-class life in beautiful prose verse. Here’s “What Work Is”:

We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
You know what work is—if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it’s someone else’s brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, ‘No,
we’re not hiring today,’ for any
reason he wants. You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother,
who’s not beside you or behind or
ahead because he’s home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.
Works eight hours a night so he can sing
Wagner, the opera you hate most,
the worst music ever invented.
How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you’re too young or too dumb,
not because you’re jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,
just because you don’t know what work is.

Just back from travels this week, I final got through Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, which I wrote about two posts earlier. I’ve got a stack of new books on my desk which are all non-fiction, so it’ll be some time before I get back into literature, but I’ve got a great list from Sam I’m excited to explore.

My May playlist consists of Sylvan Esso, Slowdive, Perfume Genius, Mac DeMarco, two singles released from Planetarium, and now one single from The National’s upcoming album.

Sylvan Esso’s What Now has really grown on me and is an excellent sequel to their debut a few years ago. I think the most toxic thing about the music is Amelia Meath’s voice, which has a strangely Southern, strangely street twang that works so well in an aggressively punk sort of way. It activates when she goes into a higher register of her voice; take the intro of “The Glow” where she’s reminiscing about sweet details from childhood, including “Deanna’s so beautiful / Pretending not to care” — right there she gives the end of that verse the perfect amount of kick to swing into a high-energy chorus. Looking up the lyrics just now on Genius, I just discovered that she’s referring to The Microphones’ The Glow Pt. 2 which is just awesome. Other songs I really like: “Song”, “Just Dancing”, “Signal”, and “Rewind”. I guess I would place them in a similar space in my musical landscape as CHVRCHES and Flock of Dimes (who is opening for them in August at the Fox Theater), but they are the most down-to-earth and free-styling of the three. My rating: 4/5

Slowdive was a new find for me (especially given that they’ve been on hiatus for almost as long as I’ve been alive), but the music sounds strangely familiar to me. There is a general similarity to a band I can’t for the life of me think of, but otherwise I hear connections to The Police, The War on Drugs, Pink Floyd, Broken Social Scene, and most of all, The Antlers. It’s the melodious moments when the lead singer’s voice reminds me of Peter Silberman (eg. the slower sections of “Don’t Know Why”) that this music really resonates the most with me. Other songs I like: “Slomo”, “Sugar for the Pill”, and “No Longer Making Time”. 4/5

Now, Perfume Genius has been the most exhilarating release of May and has really elevated their status in my mind since I saw Mike Hadreas as an opener for Belle & Sebastien at the Greek a few years ago. I highly recommend you listen to his interview on Song Exploder to hear directly from Mike how this album was a departure from past sounds. I would describe songs like “Slip Away” and “Wreath” as achieving something of a Yeasayer “I Remember” kind of epic cinematic scope, and it sure has been a long time since I’ve experienced music like this. There are also really elegant tunes like “Valley” and “Every Night”, sprawling gothic landscapes like “Sides” featuring a haunting Weyes Blood, and beautiful ballads like “Alan”. This album is really a cut above the rest in its ambition and intensity, and I suspect you will see this on a bunch of top-10 charts at the end of the year. My rating: 4.5/5

Mac DeMarco, meanwhile, has made the chillest album of the month that is also a complete joy to listen to. Where Real Estate feels like driving fast on a highway, Mac DeMarco’s This Old Dog feels like skating slow through a suburban neighborhood (likely with a pitbull following you). I enjoyed listening him talk about his life on WTF, but really it’s not essential knowledge to appreciate the attention to rich layering and sonic harmony throughout this album. I particularly like the use of synths in songs like “For the First Time”, “Dreams for Yesterday”, and “Watching Him Fade Away” to evoke disco and soul vibes alongside folksy guitar songs like “Baby You’re Out”, “One Another”, and “Still Beating”. The standout song is “A Wolf Who Wears Sheep’s Clothes” which features a really fresh slide effect on the lead guitar, accompanied by harmonica and claves in the background. Overall he’s like a modern stoner reincarnation of the old Cat Stevens. My rating: 4/5

Coming up is a collaboration between Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly & James McAlister called Planetarium. I’ve been quite fascinated by the promise of Sufjan Stevens side projects since loving Sisyphus, and the two songs that have been released so far, “Saturn” and “Mercury”, paint two very different portraits of what this project could overall sound like. The former is heavy Auto-Tune and almost becomes danceable, while the latter almost fits into Carrie & Lowell with a beautiful melody and a sprawling outro. Whichever direction the overall album heads, I am very much optimistic. Meanwhile, The National has unveiled some really sweet modernist graphic design and an intriguing song, “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness.” Overall the track is much more rocky than anything on Trouble Will Find You, which is not necessarily a direction I’m excited about, but nonetheless it sure is nice to hear Matt Berninger’s voice again.

Finally, films. I’ve only watched two films so far in May and they were both this weekend. If you liked Prometheus, which I totally did, then you’ll certainly like Alien: Covenant, which is a satisfying extension of the same scope and rich dynamism of characters/species. I’ve always loved the ambition of a story that introduces three very different forms of life: human, alien, and machine, and crafts a mythology that inexplicably ties the fate of all three. Humans, as before, are simultaneously cursed and blessed with the flaws of faith and love. In this sequel, the arguably best character of Prometheus, Michael Fassbender’s android David, gets a foil in the doppelganger American-accent version, Walter, and Ridley Scott employs some really delightful film magic in a long shot panning back and forth between the two Fassbenders as David teachers Walter how to play a musical instrument. Compared to a crappy film like Passengers which I was forced to watch on the plane back from China, this film seems to pack about tenfold more plot and character into the same space (pun intended). One thing that certainly helps is a cast of characters whose fate actually really matter to the audience. The final plot twist was fairly predictable, but that didn’t stop it from being a guilty pleasure to watch unfold. Turns out the other movie I watched this weekend was also a space film, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2. As much as I enjoyed the irreverent humor of the first one, and noted successful things happening in this sequel, I sort of lost interest halfway through and began to wonder whether the magic of Marvel is starting to wear off. I hope that Thor: Ragnarok pulls off a really different type of comedy that has a longer half life for me.

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