Saturday, January 25, 2014

Boomerang

The short version:
Marina and the Diamonds—Electra Heart: 8/10
Lucy Schwartz—Timekeeper: 5/10
Serena Ryder—Harmony: 6/10
Sara Bareilles—The Blessed Unrest: 5/10
Ellie Goulding—Halcyon Days: 8/10
Katy Perry—Prism: 7/10
Lady Gaga—Artpop: 6/10
Mark Ronson—Here Comes the Fuzz: 7/10
Various artists—The Hunger Games: Catching Fire: 6/10
The Weeknd—Kiss Land: 7/10
Sam Sparro—Return to Paradise: 7/10
Vince de Vera and Jason Garner—Shank: 3/10

The second album from Marina and the Diamonds, Electra Heart, is some pretty solid dance-y pop music.  The standout track Primadonna is happy and catchy and fun, and Home-wrecker's odd but well-crafted.  Not all of the songs are as upbeat—Teen Idle is much slower-paced and introspective.  Overall it's definitely worth a listen; nothing on the album is bad, and it's varied and pleasant to listen to.

The song Boomerang from Timekeeper by Lucy Schwartz plays during the end credits for season 4 of Arrested Development, and once I heard it I immediately had to know more.  It's infectiously wonderful, which unfortunately isn't representative of the rest of the album.  The opening track Ghost in My House is also quite good, and Curse is pretty decent too.  Most of the rest is merely okay, and there are a couple tracks that force me to look for the skip track button.  Those first few songs are absolutely worth checking out, but the rest wasn't quite what I was hoping for.

I heard Serena Ryder because she toured with OneRepublic and opened for their fantastic concert last summer at a winery out here.  Her album Harmony has a bunch of good stuff on it, but it's not all great.  For You is sultry and Bond-ish, Stompa has a sort of badass chick vibe, and What I Wouldn't Do is charming.  Worth checking out, but I don't know who in particular I'd recommend it to.

Sara Bareilles also opened for OneRepublic at the same concert, a bit drunk, but none the worse for it.  Her latest album The Blessed Unrest is not my favorite; it's mostly just pretty bland.  The opening track and single Brave is good but not spectacular, and unfortunately it's the best song on there.  1000 Times and Little Black Dress are probably the best after that.  I don't really recommend the album.

Ellie Goulding's Halcyon Days is another one of those obnoxious deals where a one-CD album gets re-released as a two-CD set, but luckily I didn't already have Halcyon.  (See also: Lady Gaga's The Fame and The Fame Monster.)  If both halves are new to you, it's a pretty great deal for 28 songs, almost all of which are good.  The best is Lights, which is an amazing song but a bit odd since it's from multiple albums ago, so it doesn't count.  Don't Say a Word and Only You from the first CD (Halcyon) are quite good, and Hearts Without Chains from the second CD (Halcyon Days) is as well.  Not one out of 28 tracks is bad, and though only a few are better than just "good," it's varied and interesting and a good deal.  Recommended.

Katy Perry's latest album Prism grew on me.  I wasn't too thrilled at first, but I started to like it more, and while the sound is pretty similar to her previous record, this one's solid too.  The best track is near the end, Spiritual, a nice little dark pop track.  This Is How We Do is pretty fun even though the lyrics are pretty annoying, and after that it's hard to pick a third, but probably International Smile.  If you liked Katy Perry's previous CDs you'll like this one too.

Even though I'm not as crazy about Lady Gaga as the other gays seem to be, Artpop is still a letdown.  A lot of the songs seem like they're weird for the sake of being weird, and just about all of them show potential but just don't sound great.  After a weak twelve minutes, the unfortunately-named Sexxx Dreams is definitely good, with an especially awesome refrain.  Then after that the album launches into Jewels n' Drugs which is so embarrassingly horrible that if you'd told me it was intentionally awful and recorded as a joke for her Saturday Night Live appearance, I'd totally have believed you.  Do What U Want featuring R. Kelly tries its best to make up for the agony inflicted, and it's a very solid pop+R&B mashup track.  And Fashion! is just sort of silly fun.  Overall, Jewels n' Drugs is the only bad track, but plenty of the disc is just okay, which makes it the worst of hers so far.

Mark Ronson's Here Comes the Fuzz was a random surprise I stumbled across (after finding his cover of Britney Spears's Toxic, if you must know), and I'm glad I did.  There's a variety of styles (though mostly hip-hop) and it's well-produced though some of the songs are pretty repetitive.  Ooh Wee featuring Ghostface Killah, Nate Dogg, and Trife; and Diduntdidunt featuring Saigon are both excellent rap tracks, and I Suck featuring Rivers Cuomo of Weezer is just a silly dance track.  There are a couple other good ones, and no duds.  Recommended if you're into dance-friendly pop/rap mashups.

I got the Hunger Games: Catching Fire soundtrack for three standout, excellent tracks: Sia, The Weeknd, and Diplo's Elastic Heart, Coldplay's Atlas, and Who We Are by Imagine Dragons.  Beyond those three, there are a lot of tracks that aren't that noteworthy, which seems to be the theme of the past few months.  It's not bad, but I wouldn't recommend the soundtrack; I'd just suggest picking up those three fantastic singles.

The Weeknd has a new album out, Kiss Land, and just to be weird the best tracks are at the end and the one with the guest artist (Drake) is the worst track on the disc.  This is another CD that grew on me; I didn't really like it to start other than my favorite track Adaptation, but I came to really appreciate the title track and Tears in the Rain as well.  It's not strikingly different from his previous three-CD debut, but it's solid electronic R&B.

I just knew Sam Sparro from a Basement Jaxx song I really like, Feelings Gone, but I decided to check out his solo music and was pleasantly surprised.  His album Return to Paradise has two great songs, I Wish I Never Met You (featuring one of the most revolting rhymes I've ever heard: crackhead/blackhead) and Hearts Like UsShades of Grey is also strong song, a little calmer.  Recommended if you're interested in the disco feel of most of the CD.

Finally, another soundtrack to a game I haven't played, Shank.  It sounds a lot like the modern-western-ish Terran music from Starcraft, except not as good.  Most of it isn't noteworthy at all, and while it's probably fitting for the game, there's no particular reason to seek it out if you haven't played the game.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Illness

Over the past year or so it's become more and more apparent to me that I don't really have much of a way to tell when I'm sick.  Almost all of the standard cold symptoms are things that I have frequently or every day.
  • Headache—I have headaches all day every day, so this is not a useful indicator at all.
  • Body ache—I work out four or five times a week, so my body pretty much always hurts all over.
  • Tiredness—I am bad at sleeping and I work out, so I'm tired all over most of the time.
  • Fever—My head (especially around the eyes) usually feels like it's burning, and that feeling frequently extends to the rest of my body.
  • Stuffy nose—Allergies.
Generally the only way that I can tell if I'm actually sick is if I start feeling like I'm cold for no discernible reason, which is probably already a couple days after the point at which I should have been staying home and drinking plenty of fluids.  On the upside, since I never know if I'm sick or not, I never really have to use my sick days!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Christmas in Japan

Over Christmas 2013 and New Year's 2014 I went to Japan!  I was there for two weeks, with a platonic friend.  I took 2,500 photos.  (Although, in fairness, tons of those are different angles and exposures of the same thing.)  It was insanely expensive, even keeping costs as low as possible... probably as much as my previous two priciest vacations put together.  Maybe more.

You may be realizing that it's already three weeks into January, and you'd be correct, even factoring in wackiness with the international date line.  The reason is that I just haven't come up with much that was interesting to say about the trip.  I went into it sort of cautiously, not sure exactly what to expect, and I still found myself pretty disappointed overall.

The general areas we went to were Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, and Okinawa.  Tokyo is basically New York City except I can't read any of the signs and nobody is attractive.  Osaka is just a crappier version of Tokyo.  Neither one of them had much of particular interest to me.  I expected them to be... I dunno, more different than New York.  Certainly there were interesting experiences, including just the strange challenge of getting around in a city using only public transportation and little to no English.  And the half dozen vending machines on every corner.  But all it really did is reinforce in my mind just how little my desire is to live in a big city.  I just felt... uncomfortable... the whole time.  (For those of you who don't know me very well, I live in the suburbs of Seattle.  I can be in Seattle in 15 minutes when I feel like it, but my house has trees and deer and raccoons and it's sublimely quiet and I don't have to be around people.)  And it also reinforced in my mind that Japanese guys are not The Kind of Asians I Like, for what that's worth.

So yeah, Tokyo and Osaka suck, and if for some reason I were ever back in the country, I'd definitely skip Osaka entirely, and maybe spend a day in Tokyo.  Kyoto, on the other hand, was pretty cool.  It's pretty touristy, but in a good way: ancient things like shrines and temples.  Unfortunately there are a few thousand people at each of the attractions along with you, and the shrines and temples all charge admission and are trying to sell as many things to you as possible, but there are some undeniably cool things to see there.  And Okinawa is warmer and prettier, and there are islands nearby that are relatively unpopulated that are interesting to explore—I'd definitely do more of that on a theoretical second trip.  (And the Okinawans were way hotter.)

I think that some areas would have been a lot more interesting with a car, Okinawa especially, as there isn't a comprehensive train system there like there was elsewhere in Japan.  Not having a car restricts you to the most touristy (or commuter-friendly) areas in cities, and really limits your options for getting out and exploring.  Kyoto was easy to walk around in, but our inn that was half an hour outside the city was in a really beautiful and interesting area, and as I walked around there, I wondered if that's what I was missing out on by sticking to public transportation.  Nearly all of the most interesting things I saw in Japan were when I was far away from the nearest train station.

The other possibility is that I'm just not used to not being in total control of the vacation, and I couldn't enjoy myself giving up that control.  All of the best trips I've been on have been my agenda and my plans, either by myself or with someone who wasn't terribly picky about what we did.  But this trip gave me a distinct feeling of lack of control—I was an equal partner in the planning (already notably less than 100%), and being without personal transportation strongly contributed to that sensation as well.

So if there are lessons to be learned here, they're:
  1. I am not good at enjoying vacations where I feel like I'm not in control
  2. This is probably something I will need to work on
  3. Two weeks is too long to go on a vacation
  4. Mainland Japanese guys aren't really that attractive

What's that, you just wanted pictures? Well fine then, just look at the pictures, jerk.