Sunday, December 28, 2008

Holiday Trip : North Carolina

Taking the time to recount our trip to North Carolina. Visited my bro Greg and family, between Xmas and New Years Eve, in aRaleigh, North Carolina. First time we'd been there, first time we'd really been in 'The South' (Florida doesn't count, and I'd once taken a rafting trip near Gatlinburg). Interesting mix of Civil War historical sites, southern hospitality, and rampant development. We mainly made it a 'cities' tour, didn't get to the natural wonders of the mountains or the beach, but spent a lot of time visiting. I'll run down the events, and interject and observate along the way :

  • Friday 26th : Got in, in the late afternoon - checked out local faves Sheetz and later Smithfields for BBQ, hush puppies, and sweet tea. And potato salad & cole slaw with heaps of sugar.
  • Saturday 27th- Bonnie arrived in the morning, we went back to the house & opened presents. Then to shopping haven of A Southern Season where we had lunch as well. Our destination for the day was Chapel Hill : Chapel Hill museum (w/ a James Taylor section), downtown area off of UNC campus, UNC science museum. Observation: Greg pointed out Civil War, and even Colonial era historical sites as we drove around - right in the midst of all the development & widening roadways & the like. Later, they made dinner at home, and we got some Dairy Queen before settling into movie night - "Elf".
  • Sunday 28th - made an early start to Charlotte (with Vicki's friend Robert driving). On the way, we stopped at the mall & Outdoor World. Parked in the lot for the Discovery Museum, but we were early so we walked around Charlotte a bit - saw a settler's cemetery just off downtown. Observation: given the area's growth from family-centric properties, there were many leftover family plots everywhere. Even right next to new apartment complexes, in urban nooks, and butted up against parks & schoolyards. We got into the museum when they opened, and made it over first thing to the Pompeii exhibit. Observation: very fantastic, really painted a picture of life & times, then had serious impact with the final room filled with the famous "negative corpse space" plaster castings. There was also a natural history floor, and a great hands-on area for the kids (featuring "Science of the Circus" exhibit, which we had seen a couple years back at the Lawrence Hall of Science, when Greg was visiting then...). While the kids played, Bonnie and I walked around downtown some, including the Bobcats arena, and lunch at BoJangles. Had a sleepy drive home, grabbed dinner at home while my nephew Sterling played video games, then the adults played euker into the nighttime.
  • Monday, 29th - Tour of Durham, courtesy of Vicki's co-worker, Ken. Saw some of NC Central campus; the neighborhoods of downtown, Brightleaf District, the re-imagined Tobacco District, where the Durham Bulls play; and a visit to Duke, included the famous Duke Cathedral and Cameron Indoor Fieldhouse! Observation: the 3 cities with the world-class universities & the 'Research Triangle' gives a rather atraditional view of the South. Heavy arts culture; large and highly-educated immigrant population (there was a Korean Baptist church, and a Hindu temple in Greg's hood); eco-friendly philosophies. Dinner was a to-do, at Angus Steins classic steakhouse, along with Vicki's co-workers.
  • Tuesday, 30th - Our last day, so we hit even more locally - Raleigh. Drove around more with the family to see Elise's charter school on NC State Campus; hit the Natural Sciences museum, with its Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit; then walked by the State Capitol (with its Greek revival statue of Washington); and a bit through Downtown. Then back & packing up, heading to the airport at 5.

Overall, a nice trip & a great visit. Very nice to catch up with them in a more casual setting, and longer timeframe, and to spend time with the kids. Now to block out time for a Michigan trip this year...
Big update on me : started my new job at Image Movers Digital in Marin! It's a feature animation studio (as opposed to VFX, which is what I did before joining PDI in 2005), run by Robert Zemeckis and his producing partners (performance capture, in the style of Polar Express and Beowulf) but is technically owned by Disney. More info soon...

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Best of, 2008, musically

Time once again for the year-end best of list. 2008 was a difficult year (sure I say that often) & my list evolved and shuffled quite a bit. One phenomenon I noticed across many lists from media outlets was that there were no clear-cut winners across the board, only a few albums showed up on multiple lists (TV on the Radio, Vampire Weekend), and in different spots. Not sure what that means - maybe a positive sign of diversity and strength across the musical scene? Or a watering-down and further fracturing of the industry, diminishing our common experiences? This informed my list somewhat, in that I mostly judged on how much I liked the album, and how well it held up after multiple listenings and after a bit of time away, not really considering the albums 'importance' in the 'grand scheme' of things...

At any rate, here are my are my rankings. :

1) "Viva la Vida" - Coldplay ::: Yes, this is perhaps the biggest pop band in the world. But, really, this album stood out clearly as the best. Coldplay always deliver superbly-honed, catchy songs but Viva rises above, in its ambition and sonic scope (releasing a hit single with no drums? unheard of). So rare and exciting in this day & age that it works as a true album, almost start-to-finish, complete with a sorta overture, instrumental interludes, and segues. The production genius of Brian Eno is in full effect - the album is sonically delicious, and, again, it's refreshing to see a band pay meticulous attention to their palette. Most of all, it's an album I returned to again and again and was rewarded each time.
2) "Consolers of the Lonely" - The Raconteurs ::: Another group of master songwriters. Also keep things very interesting. A close second, it was only knocked down by the fact that there were a few songs I often skipped over after the first minute, and it could've done by cutting a few tracks.
3) "Traced in Air" - Cynic ::: Long long awaited release by the great prog-death metal band. Keeps with the style of their incredible debut ('Focus', one of my top 5 all-time death metal albums) : complex arrangements; on-a-dime switches from brutal to luscious; growls & soto voce. Yet it's new. Very ear-bending, but very solid and palatable songs.
4) "Everything That Happens" - David Byrne & Brian Eno ::: More Eno! Pairing once again, after last year's re-release of 1983's "Bush of Ghosts", the duo create a set of mega prog-pop tunes, that brings the best of their production, hooks, and grooves.
5) "Fleet Foxes" ::: The year's best discovery. Riding the wave of 70's soft-folk-prog retro, this one stood out as a solid album, catchy tunes with a degree of diversity and a strong voice of its own.
6) "Chinese Democracy" - Guns'N'Roses ::: Here it is, the release of arguably the most-awaited album ever. The Judgement : while it was very spotty and mostly overproduced, some very solid rock songs. Hard to evaluate it in the pantheon of Guns'N'Roses, or even rock in general, and it could never fulfill its promise, but as an album on its own, I enjoyed listening to it & revisiting the handful of best songs.
7) "J2" - Jarboe & Justin Broadrick ::: The meeting of 2 giants of the industrial scene - JK of Godflesh fame, and the Living Jarboe of even further-reaching Swans fame. Difficult to delve into, but intensely rewarding when you get in-depth.
8) "Odd Couple" - Gnarls Barkley A toss-up, between the production efforts of Danger Mouse. This, or Beck's "Modern Guilt"? Gnarls won out, because it had more diversity, and was more 'fun'.
9) "Borrowed Arms" - 2 Foot Yard ::: The much-anticipated (see a trend here?) sophomore from eclectic indie darlings (& pals of mine). The scope and talent of Carla, Marika, and Shahzad is unbelievable, and this album keeps with what I think is a stellar balance of strangeness and songness. I was, admittedly, familiar with a lot of these songs from their live shows, and some of the production decisions seemed a bit at odds with what I knew these songs to be.
10) "Death Magnetic" - Metallica ::: Bouncing back from recent foibles to make their first actual metal album in over a decade. The first time I heard it, I was rather impressed by the fact that it really didn't suck. That initial impression never really progressed further, the songs drag on too long, and the ridiculous trend of 'over-amped dynamics' is annoying, but it makes me smile, ironically. Worthy of inclusion on this list above the runners-up, simply because it sparked so much discussion during the year.

Honorable mention ::: "Accelerate" - R.E.M. (one of their best in a while); "Do It!" - Clinic (technically, a 2007 release); "Modern Guilt" - Beck; "Supreme Balloon" - Matmos; "Electric Arguments" - The Fireman (Paul McCartney & Youth). And a shoutout to the metal veterans still going : AC/DC, Alice Cooper, Testament, Whitesnake, Extreme, Cavalera brothers.
Thoughts? Disagreements? Opinions? Influence? Please share!

Friday, December 26, 2008

Thanksgiving O.C. 08

So, I realized I hadn't followed up w/ a post about our SoCal Thanksgiving trip. It's been quite a tradition, visiting w/ Bonnie's family, but a bit different each time. This year we left OAK on Thanksgiving morning, and caught dinner with her Aunt Sheila & Uncle Ray's family in San Clemente. Along with their daughter's family (Jeff and Carrie & 3 kids - 17, 11, and 8), and Bonnie's dad & stepmom. My sister Rebecca & her beau Rob were able to join us, from Vista in northern San Diego County (about 50 minute drive). All told, I think 15 people came thru that day - great food and great company all around! We stayed Thursday night with Bonnie's dad Jack, & Mercy. Then breakfast Friday morning, then daring to visit the mall! OK - part of the story was that I lost my iPod at the Oakland Airport... left it where I was sitting at at the gate before boarding. Bummer, yes, but not tragic - at least it had no personal or irreplaceable info on it. And it was fun to get a new iPod ( though I didn't get a new one til a few weeks later. I just pretended my old one had died a mechanical death...). Anyway, continuing with the trip. We picked up Nicole from the airport in the afternoon, then made our way to Bonnie's mom's place. Hanging out, then taking a stroll down along Corona del Mar's main strip. Afterwards, enjoying dinner, and watching the Tim Robbins movie "Noise" in the evening. Which I had never heard of - very interesting premise.
Saturday I headed over to a gym to work off some turkey & honeybaked ham. Afternoon was a trip to the O.C. museums - mainly to the Bowers Art Museum to see their Africa photos exhibit, very excellent in its presentation and content, and context. But also checking out the Discovery Cube, which had a 'Bats' exhibit, and "The Science of Gingerbread", plus a lot of fun hands-on exhibits. Saturday night more dinner and visiting, then we wanted to check out some O.C. nightlife. We were thinking of checking out some Latin Jazz, but were unsure of the time frame of the show. So we ended up hitting downtown Newport Beach scene, to a bar to see a Pearl Jam tribute band, then part of a Stone Temple Pilots cover band. Had fun (as much as you can have at a tribute show... the people watching was the most interesting), then made a walk around the downtown strip.
Sunday we tried to meet up with Jack & Mercy again, so they could visit Nicole, but the timing just didn't work out. That concluded our family portion of the weekend (as always, wonderful spending time with all Bonnie's family!) We made a drive up to L.A. to visit Bonnie's friend Susan Isaacs, who's got a book being published & released in a couple months! Very fantastic comedienne and writer (a onetime member of the Groundlings), with a unique take on a religious viewpoint. But also a very lovely person, and wonderful friend (she worked her tail off helping with our big event this summer!). Her husband Larry is a great guy, and accomplished writer himself. We sat on their amazing deck & munched cheese and cakes, and green tea, then went for a proper Thai dinner. Great being able to spend some time with them! Concluded with a thankfully uneventful car return at LAX & flight home to OAK.
As I write this belated post, the day after Xmas, I am staying with my brother Greg & family in Raleigh, North Carolina! Only been here a few hours, but got some local flavor (lots of highly sweet BBQ at Smithfield's), and I spent the evening catching up and playing with Sterling and Elise's and their new Xmas toys. Full report later, as well as the Best of.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Year's "best of..."

Another quick yabber : NPR's "All Songs Considered" is having their "Best Albums of 2008" poll right now. Results to be announced on the show on Monday, Dec 15. Certainly, a lot of safe and crappy choices on there, but always interesting to get the pulse of the zeitgeist and hear what people are talking about. My 2008 rankings out soon...

Friday, December 05, 2008

Alice's Restaurant

We went down to Orange County to visit Bonnie's family over thanksgiving holiday. Nicole went as well, my sister came up from northern San Diego area, for thxgiving Day dinner. I'll post a more thorough journal of our journey, but I wanted to throw in a quick interjection. We caught Arlo Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant" song on LA radio station The Sound. (It fit well into the trip from the airport to Bonnie's mom's.) Anyway, I was delighted to catch it on the radio once again, and realized it's a Thanksgiving Day staple experience (like "War of the Worlds" on Halloween, or "A Christmas Story" on Xmas Day, or the NYE Ball countdown). And I was delighted to share the experience with Bonnie - she had never heard it, or heard of it (or knew that Arlo was Woody's son)!! Anyway, I was wondering if anyone else out there has holiday staple music/movie/media traditions they live by... And will 'Shrek the Halls' become one of them ;P ??
PS - I really enjoyed The Sound, we had it on most of the time we were there - nice diversity of mellow; some lesser-heard songs; and it didn't make me violently lunge for the radio dial. One of the best commercial stations I've listened to since 'The River' in Detroit (years ago - not so much now. I once heard - David Sylvian! if you can believe it)