Making Movies

The third studio album from Dire Straits [1] was called Making Movies.  The album itself was moderately popular, peaking in the top 20 of the US album charts (it did better in the UK as well as Europe) and ending up going platinum, which is a solid enough performance for an album in any era.  The album was certainly not the best-known album by the band, but it was a solid concept album that presented a series of songs that told a story.  Perhaps the best known song from the album is the single “Romeo and Juliet,” about a love-struck Romeo singing to a reluctant Juliet, pouring out his soul and telling her that she can fall for chains of silver and gold and the promises of pretty strangers.  Not only is the original still sharp and on-point after nearly forty years, but the song has been successfully covered, including by Edwin McCain on his Austin Sessions album.  Rolling Stone, not known for having nice things to say about many of the bands I like, had this to say about the album [2]:  “If Making Movies really were a film, it might win a flock of Academy Awards.”

If your life was a movie, what kind of movie would it be [3]?  There is a fundamental difference between the way films are made and the way they are enjoyed.  When people set out to write a book or make a movie or make an album, either they or someone associated with the business side of it will be looking at the matter of genre.  Sometimes this can be a very touchy area, as it is as a reviewer of many books aimed at women that often hit me as a stray and unintended target.  We may enjoy a book because of its storyline, or because of its values, but all the while we are reading stories for what we enjoy we are finding ourselves pigeonholed into readers of contemporary Amish romances.  I didn’t even know that was a thing until I started reading books on a massive scale.  And if this is true for books, it is even more true for movies, which tend to be categorized extremely narrowly, regardless of how broadly diverse may be the reasons why a film is enjoyed by audiences.

It is worthwhile for us to understand what sort of genre our lives fit into, because it makes a big difference in how we see life and how other people see it.  How seriously do we take ourselves, and how seriously do others take us and our story?  If our life some kind of tragicomic farce where we take ourselves seriously but no one else does?  Is it a noble tragedy of trying to do the best and having a tragic flaw that leads to an inevitable and cathartic destruction?  Is it a comedy in which no one is taking very much seriously except perhaps love or a melodrama that is taken seriously but that seems more squalid than noble.  Our lives run the gamut of emotions, but there are patterns, and those patterns there are genres.  Do we live in the country or in the city, what sort of language do we use, what sort of quests do we have in our existence?   All of the answers to these questions push our lives into different directions, so that we and others can put our lives into some sort of a category, hopefully with originality recognized but with a fair amount of justice in the labels placed on the categories chosen.

What is the worth of seeing life as a movie or a play or something else like that?  There are at least a few elements to the answer.  For one, in life we perform.  Whether we perform well or poorly, we have an audience and we have people who are critiquing our performance, and we have fellow actors who have their own roles to play just as we do.  At times there may be a wide gulf between how we see ourselves in reality, how we see the behavior we adopt, and how other people see us, and even how God sees us, the ultimate judge and critic of our existence.  Another element is that movies and plays and other narrative elements strip life to its essential story.  Our lives may be filled with routine and tedium, but envisioning life as a movie allows us to elide the parts that are too repetitive or to indicate them with just enough repetition to allow the viewer to fill in the gaps.  Not all of the time we spend in life is essential to understanding the larger story arc of our lives–but rather a few key and critical moments we prepare for all of our lives and which determine our fate in this life, and even beyond.  And we have little choice but to be the stars of our own lives, whatever our own inclinations may be.  If we must make movies, let us make good ones.

[1] See, for example:

[2] Fricke, David (5 February 1980). “Dire Straits: Making Movies”. Rolling Stone. Retrieved 27 April 2017.

[3] See, for example:

Posted in History, Music History, Musings | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Book Review: Follow Me

Book Review:  Follow Me:  Christ’s Call, Our Response, by John MacArthur

This book was notable to me as a reader for two reasons.  For one, this short book of only about 100 pages appears to owe a lot of its contents to the author’s previous work [1], particularly his work on the twelve apostles and twelve extraordinary women.  There is nothing wrong with an author repackaging his writing and seeking to appeal to a different audience than usual, and I thought his comments on these believers was a nice touch.  More shocking, I found the author had made a mistake which was corrected decades ago by C.S. Lewis in his writings, namely that he considers God and Christianity in the dock based on the behavior of believers (, and does not make plain to his readers that humanity is in the dock when it comes to God.  Did I just out-Calvin a noted Calvinist, along with C.S. Lewis, a fairly notable Arminian?  I’m not sure how I feel about that, but I found it striking that the author in his desire to make readers feel bad about their behavior as Christians made such a basic and fundamental error concerning who was really sitting in judgment of whom.

In terms of its content, this book is very light and conversational in tone.  The first chapter looks at who can be a disciple, then the author spends a significant portion of time repackaging his earlier writings in looking at types of disciples, where he views the disciples as representing some sort of broader type of person–John is supposedly a sectarian, Philip a materialist, Thomas a pessimist, and so on.  The author then moves, somewhat predictably, to those who failed to follow for one reason or another, before closing the book with three chapters on the cost of following, the promises to followers, and some reflections on following Christ.  Personal stories are mixed with historical ones and overall the book is instructive and fairly enjoyable.  That is not to say, as noted above, that the book is perfect or that the author’s approach is the best possible, but all the same this is a book that can be enjoyed more than some of the author’s more strident works.  Those readers who approach the book with a sense of irony may find insight here that the author himself is unaware of, and that is always pleasing for this reader at least.

Specifically, there is a gap between the author’s statements and the author’s self-awareness. MacArthur seems to be a writer who takes himself particularly seriously, but he would probably be better off if he was able to recognize himself in what he cautioned against a bit more.  For example, the author comments that someone once said of a believer that he saw spiritual growth because he talked about Jesus more and about himself less, and yet MacArthur in this (and other) works tends to talk a lot about himself.  Now, I don’t think that spiritual growth is necessarily related to one’s references to oneself, especially as a writer, but someone who believes such had better make sure they do not use themselves as a model of belief when doing so indicates a self-absorption prejudicial to views of one’s spirituality.  Likewise, throughout this book the author shows himself at least occasionally unable to differentiate between setting a good example and being overly preachy.  Perhaps the author would be better off in a topic like this if he followed the example of Christ rather than considering himself a learned interpreter of scriptures.  An ounce of obedience is often more effective than a pound of preaching.  Even so, this is an enjoyable book, even if a considerable part of its enjoyment consists of criticism of the author himself for not seeing the gap between him and the biblical example.

[1] See, for example:

Posted in Bible, Biblical History, Book Reviews, Christianity, History | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Book Review: Welcome To The Family

Welcome To The Family:  What To Expect Now That You’re A Christian, by John MacArthur

When I read the subtitle to this book, I had a sense of mild and somewhat sardonic amusement, as if the author was choosing to make a sly reference to book titles like “What To Expect When You’re Expecting,” which would show a higher degree of wit and humor than one normally reads from John MacArthur as an author, usually [1].  Reading this book reminds me of two related trains of thought that give me mixed feelings.  On the one hand, the author’s title reminds me of my own thoughts about baptism, where I welcome those who are baptized or looking to get baptized into the family of God as my brothers and sisters [2].  On the other hand, the author’s tone in this book reminds me a lot of my own experience as a Christian from baptism and to the stories I have heard of others being baptized in freezing streams or rivers or cow troughs.  This is a book that is somewhat grim and unpleasant, and certainly not what anyone would consider an uplifting book.  It speaks truths but sometimes goes out of its way in order to be too unpleasant, at least more unpleasant than it needs to be to get the point across.

In terms of its contents this book is immensely brief.  I read the entire book (around 120 pages or so) in the course of one interrupted half-hour lunch break at work.  I did not race through the book because it was dull or uninteresting, and nor did I skip through it, but the book reads extremely quickly, largely because the author is content to remain at the same level.  There are some authors who vary their tone and approach in order to keep their readers off their toes, but this author has the same overly solemn and immensely grumpy tone throughout.  The author has titles to his chapters like “one love,” “actions speak loudest,” “fellowship of the burning heart,” “the daily battle,” “answered prayer,” “the supreme test,” “old friends, new friends,” “a spiritual harvest,” “don’t just sit there,” “fire on the pathway,” and “the joy of a living hope,” and yet he does not seem to be able to capture joy very well in this book.  This book is more an unending slog than it is a celebration of the joy of salvation.  MacArthur is a serious writer, and certainly that is an approach to writing I understand well, but he is at his best when approaching subjects from an unexpected direction, as he does in his fantastic books on Parables and Twelve Extraordinary Women, when he gives a fresh approach to subjects that are often misunderstood.  Here, he has very little new to say and he says it as gloomily as possible, as if it would be a sin to give happy and cheerful advice to a new believer.

This is the sort of book that, if I am in a particular sardonic or witty mood, would blame on a general cheerless tendency among Calvinists.  Yet I don’t think this book itself is problematic on those grounds.  Certainly, there is little that the author says to new Christians in terms of content that I would not similarly tell.  There is a general expectation among people that life is supposed to become easier when one becomes converted, and the author correctly notes that this is not always the case because our conversion means we are implacably opposed to the fallen ruler of this corrupt world.  Yet one cannot help but take issue with the author’s tone.  This book is not a welcoming message but rather laying out the unwelcome mat to new believers who cannot distinguish from the author’s tone and from the truth that is covered in fog and gloom here.  Not only that, but when the author does choose to talk about happier subjects he merely ends up humblebragging about NFL-worthy football skills, which is no less off-putting than anything else he has to say.  In the end, this is a book that has a lot to offer, but is not a welcoming read.  At least it’s short, though.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

Posted in Book Reviews, Christianity, Church of God | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Be Thou My Vision

Yesterday, somehow I managed to have two documents sent or given to me that asked for comments and that related to the theme of prophetic vision.  When that sort of confluence happens I feel somewhat obligated to discuss the matter, as I do not tend to be a believer in coincidence, no matter how random and odd my life may be.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, there were a great deal of differences between the two documents, and different approaches based on different perspectives, but the shared similarity of larger theme was all the more striking, especially given that prophetic vision is not the sort of subject I deal with often among my friends [1].  I wish to compare and contrast the approaches of these documents and give a picture that captures at least some of the facets of what makes this subject of interest to so many for so many different reasons.

But first, a digression.  Yesterday in my reading of a long book as part of my Theonomy reading, I was ploughing my way through a 100-page chapter on the seventh commandment only to read a comment by the postmillennialist author that those who happen to be premillennialist lack any sort of belief in the applicability of laws concerning the Kingdom of God.  Being a premillennialist myself, I wondered what planet this person came from and what sort of a clue he thought had, because he was entirely mistaken.  To believe that it will require the return of Jesus Christ and the active destruction of the present-day fallen regimes of this world is merely to take Daniel 2, Matthew 24, and other scriptures seriously.  It struck me as a particularly dim view of prophetic vision to believe that prophecy could only be fulfilled according to a misguided view of prophecy that would require the world to have a massive change of heart and a repentant attitude and a longing to serve and obey God, something that has never once occurred through the entire melancholy course of human history.

The essay by my coworker that I was given somewhat suddenly after lunch had as its main point the semantic domain of dream and vision in both the Bible and contemporary discourse.  The relationship is a complicated.  Our contemporary culture has turned both dream and vision into concerns of our physical life.  Our corporations have vision statements, we have dreams of success and love and happiness in our lives that we long to fulfill, and so on.  Yet when the Bible says:  “Without vision the people perish,” or alternatively “cast of restraint,” depending on one’s Bible version, it is talking about prophetic vision.  Solomon is not showing hostility to those of us whose eyes aren’t very good, but rather those who have no vision or understanding as to what God is doing.  Given the way that biblical prophets were concerned with the moral well-being of Israel and how divine discontent was connected to human disobedience, this connection (not explored in the paper) is one we would do well to better understand ourselves.

The other document I received looking for comments was from an acquaintance of mine who has written quite thoughtfully about the origin of nations from their biblical forebears.  This particular document was not a study paper–he has written them before, even at least one book that I have read before my book reviewing days–but he says it could easily be worked up into something of the like.  The graphic dealt with the prophecies of Genesis 49, which are a pretty familiar one.  I am surprised that given the widespread interest in that chapter that there is considerably less interest in the corresponding passage at the end of Deuteronomy where Moses pronounces a similar blessing on the tribes before they cross over the Jordan River into the promised land.  Perhaps that lack of knowledge or interest in Deuteronomy springs from the fact that so few people read Deuteronomy in depth, except for a few useful proof texts.  When I was something approaching a seminary student, for example, our class on the Law did not even cover the book.

It is one thing to know that we need vision, but what sort of vision do we need?  We can know, in general terms, that national righteousness leads to blessing and national unrighteousness leads to eventual judgment.  We can know what plans on the large scale that God is working to build a family.  We can know the general tone and tenor of our own times, and recognize that fresh starts and prophetic vision are useful and vital.  We are personal beings, concerned with small patches of land and the people nearest and dearest to our hearts.  Even with all the prophetic knowledge we could possibly want and more, such vision does not always answer the questions most on our mind.  Will everything go alright for us?  Will we find what we are looking for in this imperfect world filled with imperfect people like ourselves?  Or is life merely a joyless chore to be done as bravely as possible until it is our time to bid adieu?  Where is the vision to see the happiness we will enjoy for ourselves?

[1] But see, for example:

Posted in Bible, Christianity, Musings | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Movie Review: The Way, The Truth, & The Life

On the Last Day of Unleavened Bread I heard about this movie from one of my friends at church, and ended up being able to borrow the movie from the family who had it.  In watching the movie, I was struck by the way that although the movie did not deal particularly with the denominational history of Christianity that I am involved in [1], it demonstrates the wider concerns which are a part of our church.  Why doesn’t Christianity follow the example of Christ with regards to the Sabbath?  Why do people claim to be Christian while following pagan traditions?  In addition to that, this video references the concern with sacred names–specifically Yeshua for Jesus Christ and Yahweh (or at least the tetragrammaton) for the name of the Eternal.  Over and over again the video, through interviews, the concern about truth, history, and worshiping God as He commands shows itself to be an issue, and the video shows people wrestling honestly or dishonestly with these concerns.

In watching this movie I was reminded of different contrary tendencies, including the flirtation of many people in the Church of God with various flavors of Messianic Judaism, some of which are hostile to the Renewed Covenant scriptures (or New Testament), as well as the way that people who take the Bible seriously tend to end up with a strikingly similar set of beliefs.  This is what I found out in my travels in Africa, for example, dealing with indigenous Sabbath-keepers there.  This film put me in a context where I was clearly on the side of many of the people being interviewed who sought to take God at His word, even if I found some of them a bit on the strident side.  I suppose the same would be true of me, in that I could very easily be found strident by others.  Since this film focuses on the big issue items–the Sabbath, Passover, clean and unclean meats, and so on, it paints a big tent view of fellow believers that I would consider brethren.  Whether they would consider me as brethren, I would consider them to be brethren.

The film itself is designed with a two-act structure.  The first act of the film presents the questions as to why people who claim to follow Christ don’t follow His example.  The second act then looks at the new identity people find, and the struggles with livelihood and getting along with their unconverted family that they face, upon committing to obeying and following God.  Overall, the film blends a mostly sound discussion of the Bible along with a confusing set of interviews that include some antinomian ministers, scattered groups of Messianic believers, and even a heathen shaman who shows herself very knowledgeable about pagan borrowing in mainstream Christianity.  If you know the truth, this documentary is a good one to demonstrate the presence of other believers not so unlike ourselves, but if you do not know God’s ways, this may be a confusing film because of the various perspectives and the fact that so much of the interview focuses on people’s opinions rather than the Word of God.  All in all, though, this is a worthwhile film and deserving of praise, and one that ought to motivate believers to pray for God to gather all of His believers together in worship.

[1] See, for example:

Posted in Bible, Biblical History, Christianity, Church of God, History | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Book Review: Pathfinder Roleplaying Game: Advanced Player’s Guide

Pathfinder Roleplaying Game:  Advanced Player’s Guide, by Jason Bulmahn

As a friend of mine [1] recently informed us that he wanted us to start a Pathfinder roleplaying campaign fairly soon and run it fairly often, I figured I needed to brush up on my understanding of Pathfinder.  This book is a bit longer than the other one, over 300 pages, and while I did not find anything as useful to me as the character options I found in the book I read with it, the book is a useful reference book for those who are looking to play the game.  If you are a part of the target audience of this book, you likely know who you are, and if you have ideas for various characters beyond the initial/basic rules of the game.  It serves as a useful reference material, and if you play Pathfinder or want to, this book will likely serve as a useful book to flip through.  I know that is likely to be the case for my fellow players and I, at least.

In terms of the book’s material, this book has 8 chapters.  After a short introduction the book looks at racial customization for dwarves, elves, gnomes, half-elves, half-orcs, halflings, and humans.  Then the book contains discussions about special options for alchemists, cavaliers, inquisitors, oracle, summoners, witch, as well as some discussion of the core classes of barbarian, bard, cleric, druid, fighter, monk, paladin, antipaladin, ranger, rogue, sorcerer, and wizard.  The next three chapters look at feats, equipment, and spells, all of which are given a great deal of detail.  The last three chapters look at prestige classes, magic items, and some new rules.  Some of this material is useful.  The prestige classes are pretty interesting as someone who likes odd and unusual materials.  Likewise, the new rules including hero points for those players who do particularly remarkable role playing in a scenario is something that definitely makes sense to me.  Whenever I have done GM duties I have always enjoyed watching how players solve problems with a fair amount of creativity.  It is nice to see that part of the general framework of the game here.

[1] See, for example:

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Book Review: Pathfinder Roleplaying Game: Advanced Class Guide

Pathfinder Roleplaying Game:  Advanced Class Guide, by Jason Bulmahn

One of my friends at church [1] commented recently that he wanted to start a Pathfinder for our RPG group and so, being the sort of person who likes to be prepared, I took it upon myself to do some reading on the scenarios to see what would likely be expected and what kind of character I wanted to make.  Since I wanted to start the campaign with a character not terribly unlike my previous one, since I enjoy the thrill of playing half-orcs who are more than meets the eye, I had in mind seeing what kind of unusual half-orc classes I could find in this particular game in order to help with my own creation of the character’s backstory, and this book was useful in that goal.  Specifically, I managed to find a Holy Guide archetype for a half-orc paladin that gained knowledge (geography) and survival as class skills and replaced the level 3 and level 6 mercies of the paladin with Favored Terrain and a bonus Teamwork Feat.  That sounds like a winner to me.  Since I found the book to be of use in my goal, I consider it to be a modest success on that front.

In terms of its contents, this book is very straightforward.  If you have read books of this kind, their organization and material is not particularly different from one volume to another.  This particular book has six chapters of wildly unequal size that total to 250 pages.  The book begins with a short introduction and then has as its first chapter a book with various special classes–including arcanist, bloodrager, brawler, hunter, investigator, shaman, skald, slayer, washbuckler, warpriest, and some racial favored class options.  After that the book contains some useful customized archetypes (like the aforementioned divine guide paladin) for the following classes:  alchemist, arcanist, barbarian, bard, bloodrager, brawler, cavalier, cleric, druid, fighter, gunslinger, hunter, inquisitor, magus, monk, oracle, paladin, ranger, rogue, shaman, skald, slayer, sorcerer, summoner, swashbuckler, warpriest, wtich, and wizard.  Chapter three contains feats, the fourth chapter spells, and the book closes with chapters on gear and magic items and some principles for class design.  This last chapter may be of particular value for those who find themselves somewhat hemmed in by the many class options and specializations and want to create their own way in the imaginary world of Pathfinder.  It is thoughtful of the game designers to include this option for at least a portion of its intended reading audience.

Is this a book that you will enjoy?  If you are reading this kind of book, you will likely find it a useful reference for your gaming purposes.  This book is aimed at a particular type of gamer to provide some useful bits of reference information.  As a fond reader of reference material of a wide variety of types, this book met my purposes.  It has no literary ambitions, has some wonderful if often dark artwork, and is very matter of fact, and it comes from a company (Paizo) that has some creative flair in their own campaign designs.  If I were not such a compulsive reviewer of everything I read, this book would likely not meet the threshold for reviewing from the point of view of critique, but for those who are interested in this sort of thing, this is the kind of book they would be interested in.

[1] See, for example:

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

The Gathering Of The Chickens: Part Two

About a decade ago or so, I read a fantastic book about the cycles of history called War And Peace And War.  The book was so good I have pondered reading it again simply so I could give it my contemporary review treatment.  To Mr. Turchin I owe the idea behind the title of my blog, Edge Induced Cohesion [1], and a great deal of insight concerning the issue at hand.  After all, the problem of imperiogenesis and the concerns how one achieves social cohesion relate to precisely the problem of gathering chickens together.  It is easy in this world to divide others, as there are many grounds on which even reasonable people, to say nothing of unreasonable people, may disagree.  It is a much more difficult problem to foster and encourage unity, even when we sincerely want it.  Yet it can be done.  The problem may be difficult, but it is not an impossible one.

There are basically two ways to create unity from disunity.  We may summarize them by calling them the upper and the lower path, similar to the high and low road to Scotland in that famous drinking song.  Scotland, not coincidentally, is an area that has long suffered from poor social cohesion.  Let us begin with the lower path, as it is more common.  In order to create social cohesion, it is often useful and beneficial to have worldview enemies.  People can often unite in the face of a common foe–that is what edge induced cohesion is.  In the face of a common enemy whose differences are so stark and whose hostility is so plain, even people who may not be deeply inclined to unify will find common cause under certain circumstances, which include a high degree of egalitarianism and a just social order that is based upon consensus and provides for a great deal of mutual respect.

We must note that even the low road of genuine social cohesion is more than a mere alliance of convenience, like the alliance of the Nazis and Soviets, or the Soviets and the Western democracies during World War II, or that of the contemporary alliance against Christendom by secularists and Islamists.  In the case of an alliance of convenience, the presence of a common enemy does not include with it any sort of common cause.  As soon as the common enemies are vanquished, if they are, one can expect the victors to fall out immediately.  In stark contrast to that, in the case of even the low road of social cohesion, the unity built is a genuine one.  Think of the diverse elements that were formed in the cauldron of hostility to the Gauls–Romans, other Latin tribes, Etruscans, and Greeks.  These nations formed a cohesive whole that overcame a great deal of conflict that had existed between these groups previously.  Think also of the unity of the American colonists against first French and Indian attacks and then against a resurgent British imperialism.  The unity formed did not, of course, remove every cause of conflict, but it was (and is) a genuine unity of diverse elements.  E Pluribus Unum:  from many, one.

We might also note that along with the low road of having a common enemy against whom one makes common cause, there is a high road of common ideals.  The United States, in addition to its common enemies, appealed to higher principals of God-given unalienable rights.  Even if this discourse has proven awkward and embarrassing to contemporary secularists who deny God and the implications of creation, this discourse still serves to unify those who are genuine citizens of the American Republic.  If one’s eyes are turned towards heaven, one can catch the vision that preserves a nation from perishing.  Even less elevated institutions often seek to unify people through vision statements that provide a common purpose that gives meaning to everything that is done by those within the company or organization.  Those who share a commitment to that vision unify together for the common benefit, and may have in addition to this common vision common enemies or rivals or competitors that must be vanquished for that vision to prevail.  Often in seeking unity one travels the high road and the low road together.

We may also note, though, that there are clear barriers to working together and developing social cohesion.  The social cohesion of the United States was long hindered by the presence of states where some of the people were viewed as property as others, and where the commitment of local elites to their own supposed property rights outweighed their commitment to the common ideals including a belief in the equality of man before God as man.  Throughout history, slavery and related forms of exploitation have been consistent dead weights on the social cohesion of areas.  Even centuries of millennia after slavery has taken root in an area, that area remains deeply divided to the point where maintaining a just social order is immensely difficult–Haiti, Somalia (whose ports Zeila and Berbera were major slave ports from ancient times), and Sicily are but some of the famously divided areas where plantation slavery and the infrastructure of slave trading wrecked the possibility of legitimate social orders.

How can we learn from this?  Few of us are responsible for building social orders, but most of us have at least some choice in the social orders we support and endorse.  Do we support orders that pit some people against others and seek to expropriate or exploit others for our own selfish benefit?  If so, we cannot expect any sort of lasting unity to develop.  Even if we are successful in ruling by dividing others, the fights for the spoils of what we have expropriated will serve to divide us from our erstwhile allies of convenience.  Eventually the aliens and predators fight over disagreements on how to divide their prey.  If our concern is genuinely for the well-being of others, this concern will be exhibited through our actions, and it will be possible to build trust and work in concert over time.  Gathering the chickens is sometimes a bit like cat-herding, but nothing worth doing and left undone in this world is easy to do.

[1] See, for example:

Posted in American History, History, Musings | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Album Review: Icon: The Best Of Vanessa Carlton

Icon:  The Best Of Vanessa Carlton, by Vanessa Carlton

There are a lot of people who have read what I have said about the career of Vanessa Carlton [1] and thought that I was not fond of her music.  This is not quite true. This album represents probably the best possible sort of place to find Vanessa Carlton’s work, which has been nothing if not uneven.  Vanessa Carlton has made some fantastic music–some of it, like her singles from Rabbits On The Run, are not even included here–but she has never made an album that can be enjoyed thoroughly all the way through.  So, since she has made some great singles, it would make sense that her major label would release this best of collection for those who are fans of her more familiar work and not necessarily fans of her deeper album tracks.  In short, this album was made with people like me in mind, for whom most of the songs are familiar and remembered fondly.  A track-by-track review follows:

A Thousand Miles:  This beautiful track will likely remind people of Vanessa Carlton’s career long after it is over.  It is still beautiful even years after its debut with its girlish singing, its impassioned piano playing, and its earnestness.  It is entirely fitting, therefore, that this lovely song should open this collection.

Ordinary Day:  The second single off of Carlton’s debut album, this lovely song is one that I have always greatly enjoyed, and it was a successful hit as well, and likely a song that will be remembered in the future as well.

White Houses:  The first single and by far the best song off of Carlton’s second album, this song was my favorite single of the year it came out.  Too bad it barely hit the Hot 100, prompting Carlton’s rapid fall from commercial radio.  This song is autobiographical in the best way, talking about Carlton’s time as a dance student struggling with the loss of innocence and the social world of the dancing community.

Heroes & Thieves:  The title track of Vanessa Carlton’s commercially unsuccessful third album, this song has a story song feel to it.  It has a somewhat uneven rhythm, but it’s a charming number with some lovely string flourishes, and deserves to be remembered.  This is one of the treasures of Carlton’s back catalog.

Nolita Fairytale:  The first single off of Vanessa Carlton’s third album, this song is one of my favorites of hers.  The song combines Carlton’s familiar piano playing with a great beat and some thoughtful lyrics about troubles dealing with the record industry and learning to love a more downscale life.

Who’s To Say:  One of the more obscure songs here, this song was taken from Vanessa Carlton’s second album.  Listening to the song here, I like the song a lot better than I did when it was first released and I was disappointed with its spare instrumentation.  This song seemed to prefigure the singer’s defiance of the opinions and judgments and standards of others that would mark her later career.

Home:  A song taken from Vanessa Carlton’s third album, this song is a spare piano ballad about the singer’s desire for home.  The song has a somewhat wistful tone, and makes for a sweet and lovely song reflecting the author’s desire for safety and security and love.

San Francisco:  Probably the second best song off of Vanessa Carlton’s second album, this song was the only song other than “White Houses” I liked on initially listening to that album.  Filled with lovely piano arpeggios, this is a love song for both co-writer Stephen Jenkins (of Third Eye Blind fame) and the city of San Francisco he comes from, another song that references Carlton’s desire for home and her finding it in transgressive places.

Pretty Baby:  The third single of Vanessa Carlton’s first album, this song is a bit cloying and immature, about a cheating lover, sung a bit too melodramatically.  There is a lot to enjoy in this song, but it definitely hasn’t worn as well as most of her other singles.  It almost has to be included among her best of because of the fact that it was a hit, but all the same, she has done a lot better than this.

Hands On Me:  The second single from Carlton’s third album, this song is a driving song about finding love in somewhat downscale circumstances, matching the general tone of that album’s first single.  The song views romantic love in a context that is both somewhat threadbare–in the relationship making temp work worthwhile–and cosmic in nature, a fitting description of a common tension in her work.  It’s a lovely song, though, and one of her best.

Twilight:  This song from Carlton’s first album is pleasant enough album filler with a somewhat odd rhythm and spare piano instrumentation.  The song, perhaps unkindly, plays like a track from the soundtrack to the eponymous movie, which is perhaps not the strongest point in its favor.

Private Radio:  This song, from Carlton’s second album, is rather inoffensive album filler that uses its odd beat and quirky piano playing to make it sound more interesting.  The song is unintentionally prophetic, though, in that Carlton rapidly tired of making beautiful pop songs and soon stopped being played on anything other than private radios.  Good thing she prepared herself for that ahead of time.

This album gives a striking solution to the unevenness of Vanessa Carlton’s back catalog in that it provides the four best songs of each of her three major studio releases.  Of course, the four best songs of her first and third albums are stronger than the best four songs of her second.  Going forward, this album is likely to be the essential early Vanessa Carlton album.  Why buy any of her three albums when this album has basically all of her good songs from those albums?  The only way this album could be better given the constraints of its contents is if it added the four best songs of Rabbits On The Run, so that we could listen to “Carousel” or “I Don’t Want To Be A Bride” or “Hear The Bells” in addition to these ones.

[1] See, for example:

Posted in History, Music History | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Album Review: Hopeless Romantic

Hopeless Romantic, by Michelle Branch

I’m a big fan of Michelle Branch [1], and have followed her since she broke into the pop world as a young woman with her major label debut The Spirit Room, which exploded into the pop world going multi-platinum and spawning three top 40 singles.  After a long hiatus–her last full-length solo album came out when I was an undergraduate in college–recently she released an indy album called Hopeless Romantic.  I didn’t go into this listening experience blind, as I had heard the promo singles for three of the album’s songs, the title track, “Best You Ever,” and “Fault Line,” all of which are wonderful songs that are well worthy of radio play–they could possibly find a home on Adult Rock or AAA or even Adult contemporary.  I came into this album with high expectations, and those expectations were definitely met–this is a solid album that ought to please those fans who have stuck with her, and even win a few ones who might have forgotten about her over the past few years.  A track-by-track review follows:

Best You Ever:  A gloomy and moody track with haunting vocals, this song is a powerful beginning to the album and worthy hit on adult radio.  A kiss-off of sorts, this song shows Branch wishing to be remembered by a former lover, and also for his own future happiness.

You’re Good:  This is a song that could have been written by a lovesick teenager, but given the fact that Michelle Branch is a single mother in her 30’s, it comes off as being written by a passionate and hopeless romantic of an awkward age.  The good spoken of here is not a moral good, but that should be fairly obvious.  This song has the goods to be a mid-tempo single if the album goes that deep in hits.

Fault Line:  Another fairly obvious choice of a potential single, this song features sweet and breathy vocals in the verses along with a catchy and hooky chorus.  A thoughtful take on a dysfunctional relationship, this song has the weight of someone who has lived the sort of material she sings about, with enough subtle production details to fit right on a Lorde album.

Heartbreak Now:  A sad and reflective song, this song sounds like the lovechild between the singer-songwriter tradition of 1970’s and contemporary production values, and it’s a good match, the sort of song that could have ruled the radio during the earlier part of Michelle Branch’s career.  It shows her in fine form, writing about the wreckage of relationships as she finds herself yearning for love.

Hopeless Romantic:  This song has the same sort of feel of Taylor Swift’s “Wildest Dreams,” only with a bit more melancholy, mining the territory of someone who is involved in a relationship that they know will end badly, that will cost sleep and peace of mind, for temporary pleasure.  The narrator–and presumably singer–are self-aware but tragically unable to resist temptation.

Living A Lie:  With odd and quirky instrumentation, this song is surprisingly upbeat, which is a welcome change of pace given the general melancholy tone of most of the album so far.  If it doesn’t sound like an obvious single, it is a pleasing album track that would likely inspire plenty of singing along during concerts.

Knock Yourself Out:  This song has a certain world-weariness, and looks towards the open road and the new beginnings after failure and unhappiness.  This plaintive song could have fit well on either The Spirit Room or Hotel Paper, showing the author’s sense of sadness and longing remain powerful even after so many years out of the limelight, and the chorus towards at the end adds a sense of inspiration to what could easily have been an extremely gloomy tune.

Temporary Feeling:  A fairly sparse song, this album track shows another recognition of the temporary nature of the feelings that the narrator/singer experiences with someone she has to let go.  It shows a reckless pursuit of physical attraction despite the knowledge that nothing lasting will result from it–consider a prequel to “Tuesday Morning.”

Carry Me Home:  A somewhat nostalgic look, this song has a soft verse and a somewhat loud pre-chorus and chorus, and builds up to the narrator wanting her partner to carry her home, expressing that she thinks she loves him but admits that she is pretty ignorant about such matters.  It’s a pleasant song that goes easy on the ears.

Not A Love Song:  A hooky song, this looks at two people self-medicating with alcohol over the wreckage of a relationship.  Given that the singer complains that she wasted her youth on this guy, it is likely she is singing a non-love song for her ex-husband, upset that so much time was wasted on something that wasn’t going to work.  This is catchy enough it could be a single as an anti-love song.

Last Night:  This song is probably as gloomy and desperate as it was meant to sound, as the narrator/singer wants to make love like it’s the last time, as the end of the relationship is near, and she wants to make it last before it burns out.  This is yet another song on this album that shows the desolation of feeling longing in a world without lasting love and intimacy.

Bad Side:  A somewhat grooving song with quirky instrumentation, this song has some complicated lyrics and vocalizing.  An upbeat song, this shows the singer/narrator wrestling with wrong and right and the lure of seeing how two damaged people connect together because of their shared longings for love and intimacy despite their guilt.

Shadow:  This lovely mid-tempo song is an encouragement to not be afraid of the night.  The sentiment is a good one, where the narrator/singer is trying to encourage someone to understand that sometimes one can’t find all the answers, but one can find love with a worthy woman.  It’s a sentiment I can appreciate.

City:  A song about flight and the desire to escape wreckage and start over, this song ends the album on a notable thematic point, where the author has some understanding of her own tendency to flee from unpleasant reality.  Rather than an ending, this song is more like a new beginning that seems to point towards future happiness, and there are some beautiful harmonies in this song between the singer and her partner that give the song a more optimistic feeling than the lyrics would give it alone.

With about half of the songs, if not more, worthy of being hit singles and the album as a whole being long and lacking any weak tracks at all, this is the sort of album that seems destined to be obscure for now but also the kind of album that a lot of people are going to like someday.  This is the sort of album that, looking back on Michelle Branch’s career, will be hip to cheer on and support.  Hopefully its present obscurity does not discourage Michelle Branch from making beautiful music and sharing it with the world.  At least some people will appreciate it.

[1] See, for example:

Posted in History, Love & Marriage, Music History | Tagged , , | Leave a comment