In Another Life by Sandro Perri – A Review

October 15, 2018
"In Another Life" by Sanro Perri album cover

Album artwork for "In Another Life" by Sandro PerriI listen to a lot of ambient music. It’s a way I calm down my anxious brain and wind down after a long day. Usually when I’m in those moods I listen to Brian Eno, Moby or Trent Reznor. This month though, I’ve been fascinated by an album outside of my usual circles: In Another Life by Sandro Perri.

Sandro Perri has built an avid following for his blend of folk sounds, acoustic instruments, quiet vocals and experimental synth textures. His latest album seems to be a refinement of his previous works. On In Another Life, Perri lets songs simmer and develop slowly. He also invites collaborators to bring their own vocal flare to his beautiful soundscapes. The album exudes a quite confidence that I’ve found really reassuring and relaxing.

In Another Life is structured as a vinyl record made up of two long tracks. The entire first side is taken up by the title track and the three movement suite “Everybody’s Paris” makes up the b-side. Streaming services break this up into four tracks, but I listen to either the whole thing or one side at a time since each “piece” clocks in right around twenty-three minutes.

In Another Life

Perri’s epic title track is one of the stickiest pieces of music I’ve heard in years. The pensive piano chords that serve as the track’s foundation have carved grooves into my brain like the catchiest of pop songs. The electric guitar slides and bubbling synthesizers add an ever-evolving texture to the piece, but those piano chords make this song work for me.

Sandro Perri croons over top of this repeating cycle of bleeps, bloops and chords with a sincerity that could cut through glass. He laments about the world around him and waxes poetic about ideal states of being. He intermittently repeating the titular phrase “…in another life…” like a mantra. The result is a calming sense of possibility mixed with a haunting sadness. By the end of the song it starts to feel surreal, like the spiraling thoughts of an anxious mind.

As he sings, Perri’s synthesizers ebb and flow between a minimal drone and near cacophony. He uses stereo panning to excellent effect, with patterns entering and receding like passing cars. The changes creep up on you, which helps the time go by as you fall in and out of focus on the music. A piece this long almost begs the mind to recede into its own thoughts. Perri gently pulls the listener back every few minutes with new sounds throughout.

Everybody’s Paris

Separated into three parts, “Everybody’s Paris” feels more like a series of traditional “songs” than “In Another Life.” Each section is lead by a different vocalist, with Perri taking lead on the first section. All three movements are meditations on the city of Paris, built upon a shared chord progression.

“Everybody’s Paris” moves from plinking pianos, childrens’ singing and Perri’s ethereal croon to a swinging lounge jam led by Andre Ethier and ends somberly with a distorted dirge sung by Dan Bejar. It feels like the progression of a day or a life spent in the City of Lights. However you interpret it, the suite is impressive.

As the pieces pushes on the perspective on Paris becomes more and more negative. Perri’s lyrics in part one are mostly hopeful and aspirational: “Everybody’s Paris, everybody’s France, Everybody coming when they get the chance”. Ethier celebrates the everyday parts of everybody’s Paris in a ballad to the mundane beauty of city life. Bejar, though, shares a much darker picture of Paris:

In a city of lights In a city that lights up Everybody wants to fall then get back up But all around you the dead stack up In everybody’s Paris

Despite this darkness, I find a strange kind of joy in “Everybody’s Paris”. It feels like a character study of a city. It provides glimpses into how one place can mean many things to many people.


The plurality of interpretation is, in my opinon, the best part of In Another Life as an album. These songs are organized around central thoughts, but they leave a lot of space for interpretation. They inspire creative thought and encourage imagination. I think that’s why they’ve had such a tight grip on my mind lately.

Starting to Get Things Done

October 1, 2018
I’m excited to be starting in a new professional role next week. I’ll be joining the team at the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies within Georgia State University as their website coordinator.
 
As part of the transition into a new position I wanted to take some time and re-evaluate my productivity systems. I’ve heard podcasters and tech professionals praise David Allen’s Getting Things Done for two or three years now, but I’m finally going to give it a shot.
 
It was Do By Friday’s recent episode on the system that pushed me over the edge. Merlin Mann’s admission that the book is somewhat dated helped me contextualize the method differently. He explains how many of the productivity apps and techniques we use today are based on or inspired by GTD. Once that clicked for me I realized that I’ve been using a watered down version of this system for longer than I thought.
 
As mentioned in my State of the Apps from early 2018, I’ve been using Asana and Evernote to keep track of projects in my life for a couple of years now. I’ve also experimented with more traditionally GTD-esque tools like Wunderlist and Todoist in the past. Now that I’ve started reading up on the original method, I’m starting to see how many of these apps have spun off from the core concepts. Asana, in particular, leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to contextual organization of tasks.
 
So in starting my new role I’m going to start from scratch. I’m going to try to implement Getting Things Done as close to its original description as possible. I plan to use Evernote as my reference filing system, a physical in-tray as well as a basic desktop-based email client, and either Things 3 or Omnifocus as my task manager. I’ll use the same systems for maintaining this site and producing podcasts, in hopes of simplifying my life a little bit. 
 
One of the first tasks I’ll input into my new system will be writing a recap of the first month for this blog. We’ll see how this goes.

The Beatles Announce 50th Anniversary “White Album” Reissue

September 24, 2018

From Stereogum, The Beatles Announce 50th Anniversary “White Album” Reissue:

The Beatles’ helter-skelter behemoth from 1968, officially a self-titled double-LP, will get the expansive reissue treatment on 11/9, a couple weeks ahead of its original 11/22 release date. As Variety reports, George Martin’s son Giles, who handled last year’s Sgt. Pepper reissue, has remastered the full 30-song tracklist alongside studio engineer Sam Okell. The set will also include 27 early acoustic demos and 50 session takes; most are previously unreleased, though a few appeared on the band’s Anthology collections. The legendary “Esher Demos” are part of the package as well.


I am beyond excited for this. Followers of this blog already know that I love The Beatles, and their 1968 self-titled double album is my favorite of their works. I will absolutely be picking this up.

The so-called White Album is unique in The Beatles discography as their longest and most diverse release. Each member of the band wrote multiple tracks, though the lion’s share were still Lennon-McCartney originals. This album also features a little help from some friends, including: Eric Clapton, Yoko Ono, Jackie Lomax, Maureen Starkey, Patti Harrison and Mal Evans.

After the failed psychedelic film project Magical Mystery Tour this double album was billed as a return to form. It includes some of the most straightforward rock songs of The Beatles middle period. “Back in the USSR,” “Glass Onion,” and “Helter Skelter” still hit hard fifty years after their release. Jams like “Yer Blues” and “Savoy Truffle” could be from any number of Garage and Psychedelic revival groups of the 2010s. There are also some really strange experiments in there too, though. “Wild Honey Pie” and “Revolution 9” are two of the weirdest tracks in The Beatles catalog.

That’s what I love about The White Album, it’s the best of both kinds of Beatles: the art school avant-garde and the working class rockers. It’s also a great glimpse at the individual members of the band. By this time the Fab Four were operating more independently than ever. They were getting married, acting, traveling the world and even making a bit of music on their own. These disparate influences shine through on songs like Lennon’s politically charged “Revolution 1,” McCartney’s music hall inspired “Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da,” Harrison’s world weary ballad “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” and Starr’s country-western flavored “Don’t Pass Me By.”

In my opinion, this is the most wide-ranging and timeless album of the Fab Four’s career. Nowhere else do you hear all four Beatles supporting each other’s unique talents so clearly. The Beatles, as the album is formally known, spawned no hit singles and is often derided for its admittedly weird moments. Still, I hope its 50th anniversary and this reissue bring it to the ears of more fans. I’m certainly going to give it a few more listens this Fall.

Ten Years on Twitter: A Look Back

September 3, 2018
Ten Years on Twitter - A Look Back

This week, my Twitter-less friend Jeff Casavant asked me to write about the ten years I’ve spent on Twitter.

My first reaction was that being a regular user of Twitter for more than ten years has felt sort of like a death by a thousand cuts.

Don’t get me wrong, I still really appreciate and enjoy Twitter. I check my timeline almost hourly and I tweet on average once per day not counting replies.

My general attitude towards Twitter has changed pretty significantly over time though. I think a lot of that has to do with the diverging interests of Twitter the company and Twitter as a community.

The Cocktail Party of the Internet

I joined Twitter in December of 2008, back when most tweets were sent and delivered as text messages. Many of my early tweets read like things that would be sent to a group text thread today.

In those days Twitter was still a pretty small place. It felt like an extension of my real world friend group and a chance to reach out and meet new people.

The tech industry had already hopped on, musicians soon followed and it seemed like everybody  worth following was still going to SXSW every Spring.

Third-party apps and data visualizations started popping up thanks to Twitter’s wide open API. The user community invented conventions like the @reply and the retweet. The whole endeavor felt uniquely collaborative.

Gary Vaynerchuk gained a lot of clout during this period and started calling Twitter “the cocktail party of the internet,” where you could run into just about anybody.

It really did feel that way too. Gary used to randomly tweet “What can I do for you?” and then fulfill people’s bizarre requests for favors. Once during college I caught one of these tweets at the right time and he bought me lunch.

The Creation of a Culture

The world of “Weird Twitter” began to emerge in the summer of 2010. Surreal accounts like @Dril had existed since the earliest days, but it was @Horse_ebooks and @ProBirdRights that signaled the popularization of a new kind of content.

These strange comedic snippets added to the growing culture of snark on Twitter. There was a unique brand of witty sarcasm developing among the most engaged users. It matched up with my dry sense of humor and constant media consumption.

In the early 2010s it seemed like the community was growing, but very few “normal” people I knew were joining. Most of my timeline was classmates, media professionals and weird meme accounts. Sports Twitter was becoming a larger demographic, but event here the most sarcastic content was king.

The general public started paying more attention to Twitter in the 2012 presidential election. President Obama’s campaign used Twitter to massive success and had one of the most retweeted posts on the site after their victory.

Then Oreo tweeted a perfectly timed snarky marketing message during a power outage at the Super Bowl. Social media marketers talk about this tweet to this day as the perfect example of capitalizing on a moment in the cultural zeitgeist.

Those two posts, less than six months apart, seem like a tipping point to me. From then on, we all started taking this website more seriously. Social media marketing became an even more massive industry. The jokes and quips during live events like the Super Bowl and The Oscars became a sort of comedy contest. It seemed like this was going to be the sharp, witty, cultured alternative to Facebook.

Everything in Moderation

Then there was Gamergate. It’s hard to express how intense and far reaching this controversy was on Twitter. Everyone I followed was trying to deal with the ramifications. Hugely popular accounts were being doxxed and it seemed like one mistyped message could put you in the harassers’ sights.

There had always been bad actors on Twitter, but this seemed like a new level of terrible. Hate groups and conspiracy theorists started amassing large followings. Twitter (the company) shut down its verification program after “accidentally” verifying a white supremacist.  It started to feel like the company had no system of moderation and was losing control of the community it had spent years building.

Donald Trump has been a notable presence on the platform for about as long as I can remember. He joined three months after me, in March of 2009. By the end of the Republican National Convention in 2016 I think we all knew he wasn’t going anywhere and neither was his rapidly growing follower base.

It suddenly seemed like way more people were on Twitter. Donald Trump quickly became the most notable user of the site and the dominant discussion topic. Everyone was complaining about or cheering for President Trump and no amount of mute filters1 could keep your timeline off the topic.

Now, a lot of people I follow are talking about limiting their time on Twitter or leaving the service altogether. There’s been discussions of “Twitter addiction” and an overall sense of fatigue. Technologists are leaving for alternative services like Mastodon and Micro.blog.

I don’t think I’ll be going anywhere. Most of the friends I joined with are still active on the site. I maintain accounts for work, and I use my personal account to do a good bit of professional networking. Weird Twitter is still alive and funnier than ever.

The last eighteen months or so have definitely made re-think my ten years of tweeting. I imagine I’ll remain a member of the community, but I’m probably going to try to spend less time there.


1It should be noted that “Mute Filters” are a feature of many third-party Twitter clients, which Twitter (the company) has spent the last few years running out of business. This has angered many of the community’s most engaged users, including yours truly.

Potential iPhone Name Leak from Totalee Cases

August 30, 2018

From Inverse: iPhone XS Plus: Case Maker Leak Hints at Apple’s Next Smartphone Names

The cases, spotted by a Reddit user called “Lonz123,” suggest Apple will dub the $699 6.1-inch LCD model the “iPhone 9.” This would place the device, branding-wise, between last year’s iPhone 8 and iPhone X models — the latter of which uses the Roman numeral for 10, according to Apple marketing literature. The $899 5.8-inch OLED model that serves as a successor to last year’s iPhone X will be called “iPhone XS,” echoing the previous naming conventions where a numbered phone release is followed by an “S” year with minimal design changes. In keeping with this, the listings suggest the $999 6.5-inch OLED model will be the “iPhone XS Plus,” also following Apple’s previous naming conventions.

This looks an awful lot like my guess from earlier this week. I just can’t see Apple moving away from numbering this year. It would add too much confusion for the average consumer.

It is a little weird that the “S” would capitalized and come directly after the “X”. I figure there’s going to be at least a space between them to denote a pause.

What’s in a Number? – Apple’s iPhone Naming Problem

August 27, 2018
The iPhone 8 and X create a serious iPhone naming problem

Apple created this problem for themselves. In September 2017, they upended years of iPhone naming conventions to release the iPhones 8 and X (pronounced ten). This instantly created questions about the names for this year’s phones. Would they release an iPhone 9 a year later?

The iPhone 8 and X create a serious iPhone naming problem

Now that we think we know what the 2018 models will look like, we have to ask even more complicated questions and re-evaluate a lot of outdated assumptions.

The 5.8″ OLED

This phone will be a direct successor to last year’s iPhone X. It has an Organic Light-Emitting-Diode (OLED) display, no home button and two vertically arrayed cameras.

Traditionally, based on the tick-tock cycle of iPhone names this would be called the iPhone Xs. However, the iPhone 8 didn’t get an “s” generation so I wouldn’t be surprised if that tradition went the way of the Newton.

The 6.5″ OLED

This phone has a significantly larger footprint, but is otherwise the same as the 5.8″. In years past this would have been called a “plus,” due to its larger size (i.e. iPhone 8 plus).

The 6.1″ LCD

This is the curveball. Clocking in at a 6.1″ diagonal it is somewhere between the other two phones in physical size. It uses a Liquid-Crystal Display like the ones in all iPhones 8 and earlier. This phone also only has one camera lens, placed in an extruding bump similar to the one on the iPhone 8.

Based on the case specifications and the significantly cheaper display panel, many analysts are expecting this phone to be priced way below the other two.

In the past, there have only been two low-priced ‘new’ iPhones: the SE and the 5c. The SE was thought to be a concession to users who didn’t want the larger sizes of the iPhone 6 generation. The 5c was a commercially unsuccessful budget phone made out of cheaper components.

How could Apple name these iPhones?

There are a few different iPhone naming schemes Apple could introduce this year. Almost all of them will create confusion for the lay-consumer. And whatever they decide will dictate the branding of the world’s best-selling phone for years to come.

I’ve assembled a table of some of the possibilities here:

5.8″ OLED 6.4″ OLED 6.1″ LCD
iPhone 11 iPhone 11 plus iPhone 9
iPhone 11 iPhone Pro iPhone 9
iPhone 11 iPhone 11 plus The New iPhone SE
iPhone Xs iPhone Xs plus iPhone 9
iPhone Xs iPhone Pro iPhone 9
iPhone Xs iPhone Xs plus The new iPhone SE
The New iPhone X iPhone X plus iPhone 9
The New iPhone X iPhone Pro iPhone 9
The New iPhone X iPhone X plus The New iPhone SE  

What’s in a number?

The above are just the first nine sets of options that I heard or thought of. I’m sure the branding team at Apple has gone through at least a half dozen more arrays. All of them end up begging the same question though: “What’s in a number?”

I would argue that the average consumer’s expectations of the device are tied to the number.

In the past Apple has kept older, lower-numbered, phones in the lineup and discounted them as a budget solution. For example, at the time of this writing the iPhone 8 starts at $699 while the iPhone 7 starts at $549.

This has been Apple’s solution to the “low-end” of the market for almost a decade. And while this does saddle budget buyers with outdated tech, it creates a consistent nomenclature.

The average Apple Store visitor can easily tell the price difference between iPhones 6 and 7. They can also see the number of additional bullet points under the “tech specs” and gather that the 7 is faster, newer and better despite looking nearly the same.

I, like many analysts, would appreciate a respite from the numbers. The rest of the market may not be ready though.

The Path of Least Resistance

The new LCD phone will probably cost more than the iPhone 8  currently does on its release day. Naming it the iPhone 9 allows Apple to keep the same name/pricing model on the middle-to-low-end devices.

However, the lack of substantial changes to the 5.8″ OLED would suggest that it isn’t “deserving” of a new number. This phone could become the iPhone Xs (ten-s), much to the chagrin of some commentators.

iPhone naming isn’t about pleasing the pros though. At the end of the day, Apple’s goal should be to use a system of names that anyone can understand. 

With that in mind, I expect to see a lot of numbers next week. Everyone, in every country, can at least understand that 9 is better than 8.

Ten Versions of Money

August 20, 2018

Since the middle of the 1960’s rock and roll has been largely focused on songs written by its performers. This hasn’t been the case for every critically or commercially successful single, but third-party songwriters have certainly been pushed further back behind the curtain than they once were. Covers have similarly fallen out of vogue, mostly relegated to b-sides, YouTube videos and live performances.

Original 45 single label for “Money (That’s What I Want)” by Barrett Strong on Tamla RecordsHowever, certain “standards” continue to receive attention and updated iterations over the decades. My favorite example is “Money (That’s What I Want).” Originally written by Motown founder Berry Gordy and his frequent collaborator Janie Bradford, the song is a simple call and response style rocker about wanting some cash.

“Money” became the first hit record for Gordy and Motown when it was performed by Barrett Strong on a single in 1959. Since then it has become something of a rite of passage. It has been covered by dozens of musicians and reimagined in some truly fascinating ways.

After talking about variations in classical music performance on a recent episode of Dudes Brunch, I wanted to take some time here to explore ten varied versions of “Money.” If you want to play along at home, I have my Apple Music playlist saved for your listening pleasure.

Barrett Strong (Original Studio Recording, 1959)

Bradford and Gordy originally wrote “Money (That’s What I Want)” for soul singer Barrett Strong. A slightly swinging piano leads the instrumentation during the opening along with some pretty aggressive tambourine. Strong’s baritone voice echoes slightly as he wails out the opening lines over a simple drum pattern. A classic rock and roll guitar takes over the melodic line while a small group of back-up singers handle the call and response duties. There’s a lot more swing in this iteration than many of the covers, which is characteristic of the time. Strong does some interesting ad-libs in the fade out that aren’t picked up on other versions either. Overall though, the sloppiness of early rock’n’roll is what is most apparent in this 1959 track.

The Beatles (Studio Recording, 1962)

The Beatles version was, of course, my first exposure to this classic. Like the original, the fab four’s cover relies heavily on a piano for melody. Almost all of the swing is lost, in favor of a more aggressive stomping rhythm. John Lennon screeches the lead while Paul and George provide extremely tight harmonized back-up vocals and little “woo’s” on key beats. The sustain on the guitars feels unique, but their tone is pretty similar to the original Motown recording. The Beatles really shine towards the end of the track when they let loose and just jam with it, like they probably did during live performances in Hamburg.

Jerry Lee Lewis (Live Recording, 1964)

Speaking of, Jerry Lee Lewis’ famous cover of “Money” recorded at the Star-Club* is as piano heavy as you’d expect. Jerry Lee really pounds away in instrumental breaks after each chorus. His vocal delivery is a little wobbly at times and lacks the aggression of Strong and Lennon. He more than makes up for it in the improvised bridge added around the 3:00 mark. It’s a unique feature that relies on Jerry Lee’s keyboard work and a rock solid backing band. The mix buries his guitar player, which is unfortunate since it seems like he’s doing a great job with the song.

The Supremes (Studio Recording, 1966)

Out with the funk and in with the Motown sound, Gordy revived his 1959 composition for The Supremes. A funky rhythm guitar and a horn section give this cover that Supremes style. Diana Ross’ lead vocal feels prissy yet effortless and the backing vocals are kind of buried as a result. Buried as a cover on the second side of an album with a half dozen hits this version doesn’t get considered as often as The Beatles’, but I’d consider it just as important to the song’s evolution for the change in instrumentation.

John Lennon & The Plastic Ono Band (Live Recording, 1969)

Towards the end of The Beatles, Lennon brought “Money” back as a cover in his solo set with the Plastic Ono Band. His vicious vocal delivery remains, but the harmonized back-up vocals from his band mates are obviously missing. For whatever reason he and the band also slow the song down as well. The result is a somewhat lethargic performance too reliant on the middle eight guitar solo and John’s screaming in the closing chorus. Years in the studio with no touring are definitely showing themselves here.

Iggy & The Stooges (Live/Demo Recordings, circa 1979)

A few recordings of Iggy Pop singing “Money” exist and are notable if only because The Stooges seem to have never formally released a cover of the song. Scott Asheton’s drumming is the highlight of The Stooges rendition. He plays frantically, with proto-punk volume and rapid-fire fills. His brother Ron doesn’t seem to get a handle on the guitar part until one minute in when he suddenly starts wailing all over it. Iggy’s vocal is whiny and almost off-key in places, which betrays that these are demo recordings. Overall, a solid attempt, but they were outshined by another cover in the same year.

The Flying Lizards (Studio Recording, 1979)

Immortalized (for me at least) in Empire Records, The Flying Lizards’ cover of “Money” is perhaps the weirdest. Clanging metal takes the place of the traditional snare drum. A dulcimer-like electric piano plays the lead as straight as an arrow. The female lead vocal is nearly spoken word, the backing vocals are in a bizarre harmony and the only guitar on the track is a blur of feedback after each chorus. This cover sounds like it could have been released in the mid-80s. It’s way ahead of its time in employing synthesizers and a new wave aloofness. There’s an almost ambient bridge with some pretty trippy phasing and artificial echo. One of the vocalists is even shouting through a megaphone on this thing. If a cover is supposed to be a reinterpretation, the Flying Lizards go far above and beyond everyone else so far.

Hanson (Live Recording, 1998)

I initially included Hanson’s cover on my playlist as a joke, but the vocal harmonies ended up making it work for me. The ad libs are abysmal and the piano lead is pretty lifeless. However, the brothers Hanson have also had great harmonies and this cover is no exception. They lean on group vocals throughout the chorus, playing to their strengths, but the solo verses are a little cringe-y. If nothing else, this is a worth a listen just to remind you that this band is more than “Mmm’bop.”

Secret Machines (Studio Recording, 2015)

The neo-psychedelia outfit Secret Machines have re-interpreted a number of classic songs over the years. Their work on the Across the Universe soundtrack was truly impressive. On this surprisingly mellow cover, the band draws out the melodic progression of “Money” to turn it into a dark and mournful ballad. Front-man Brandon Curtis’ whiny indie-rock crooning is a far cry from the barbaric yawp of John Lennon. With a sort of Lou Reed inspired snark he makes lines like “They say the best things in life are free” feel as though they were always satire. Atmospheric synths and a plucky keyboard give way to distorted guitar in a bridge that feels almost cinematic. Clocking in at 7:07, this is the longest version of “Money” I could find. It drags on a little too long, in my opinion, but I love the unique approach.

CID & Bahary (Remix of The Flying Lizards Recording, 2018)

This remix became the catalyst for this post, when it came up on an Apple Music workout playlist last month. CID and Bahary’s re-work borrows that iconic female vocal from The Flying Lizards to great effect here. The Lizards’ chorus is heard briefly, but this remix focuses mostly on the pre-chorus. The line “I want money” is sampled repeatedly over a crescendoing synth pattern. Additional backing vocal samples are used as a supplement to the snare drum. Verses are used as builds to bass drops. A cha-cha slide esque drum break in the center of the song is its only dull moment. Gordy and Bradford could never have seen this coming.


Listening to ten covers of “Money (That’s What I Want)” for the last month has shown me how the essential elements of a song can be adapted to any number of genres and styles. A song written for a soul singer can become a club banger, but only by incorporating the vocal delivery of an art-rock cover from thirty years earlier.

As we approach the 60th anniversary of the original recording in 2019 I’m glad to see this song survive. It’s one of the catchiest in the modern pop canon and is obviously adaptable to many styles. Who knows, maybe we’ll see an indie folk iteration or a retro-rock banger rendition. I just hope people don’t stop playing this one for a while.


* The Star-Club is a venue in Hamburg where The Beatles also held a residency and almost certainly played their raucous covers of “Money.” I’m not sure if Jerry Lee was directly alluding to them by including this cover on his album, but he was known to be aware of The Fab Four in this period.

First Time Through Phase Two of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

August 13, 2018
Marvel Cinematic Universe Phase Two

Continuing my chronological voyage through the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I finally finished phase two.

This is where I gave up on seeing the movies as they were released in theaters. Of the six movies in this set I had only seen one before.

Marvel Cinematic Universe Phase Two

Overall, I enjoyed Phase Two, but it does feel a lot like a twelve hour sequel to its predecessor. Many of the films in this phase are following up origin stories, but they don’t quite recapture the magic.

These films, released between 2013 and 2015, are also considerably darker. There’s a grittiness and a grayer color palette here. It seems like executive producer Kevin Feige felt like he needed to prove his films had weight.Themes of surveillance, corruptible power and the civilian toll of superheroes are preached from on high here.

The notable exception, Guardians of the Galaxy, was rightfully praised for breaking the mold. It was the only Marvel movie I saw over these three years, and it is still my favorite of the bunch.

Iron Man 3 (2013)

I must have fallen asleep during this movie on a plane or something, because I remembered the beginning and the end on this viewing. Tony Stark has PTSD and some other unchecked mental illnesses that nearly cost him his life, his partner and a lot of civilians. Downey portrays the trauma well, but the script holds him back in a few key moments. The Mandarin is almost unbelievable as a villain, and then it turns out he’s supposed to be. Extremis isn’t explained very well and the final confrontation, while interesting is also kind of insane. I really wish they would have let Jon Favreau go three for three on directing these films.

Thor: The Dark World (2013)

For as much as I wanted to dislike the first Thor film, I really enjoyed it. For as much as I wanted to like this one, I did not.

The Dark World follows the same story beats as its predecessor, but spends way more time on Asgard. This makes it somehow feel both repetitive and uniquely boring. The sci-fantasy element of parallel planes of existence could have been interesting, if the movie hadn’t literally made a joke out of how dumb it was. Stellan Skarsgard and Chris Hemsworth both put in admirable performances. Natalie Portman is turned into a hot potato for the characters to pass around as if she has no agency. And former Doctor Who star Christopher Eccleston is wasted on a boring big bad.

I’m glad Ragnarok is apparently much better.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

This could have been two good movies. Instead the Russo brothers were asked to combine a great spy thriller about the fall of an international defense agency and a character study of a brainwashed assassin. 

The first half of the Captain America sequel is a fast-paced espionage film full of deception. Nick Fury gets to be a badass, Natasha Romanoff actually has chemistry with another character and Steve Rogers learns about the modern world. There’s a lot to love about this movie before you even hear the name “Bucky Barnes.”

The pursuit of the titular Winter Soldier throughout the second half of this movie feels shoehorned in. It was obvious that they needed to re-introduce Barnes for Civil War to work later. However, he’s unnecessary in Hydra’s plot to overthrow SHIELD. Most of the time spent on him is a distraction for the audience and for Rogers. I think there could be a good movie made about the hunt for Bucky, but that potential was wasted in this rushed adaptation.

Anthony Mackie is awesome as The Falcon, and I’m so glad to see him throughout the next few films.

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

After the whole of western civilization turns on one another in the last film, Guardians makes for a perfect palate cleanser.

Chris Pratt and company are magnetic throughout this fun romp of a movie. The screenwriting here is some of the best in the MCU. This film has quotable quips for days.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

Take a deep breath, because you won’t have much time for it in this film. I checked the time at what I thought was thirty minutes into the film and it was halfway over. Even at that fast pace though, this plot line feels rushed.

Its like Marvel told Joss Whedon to take what he did in Avengers and double it. There are more characters, more locations, bigger set pieces and a villain who is literally every and nowhere at once. The result is a dizzying and disorienting film that feels more frantic than fun.

The choreography, cinematography and poor character development leave the fight scenes feeling somewhat meaningless. There are new powers and abilities, but otherwise it feels like a lot of the same.

Characters love each other and turn on one another so quickly I lost track a couple of times. I had no idea that Wanda was supposed to be The Scarlet Witch and I only started liking Quicksilver right before he died. The strain of condensing a years-long comic book series into a single film shows.

Ant-Man (2015)

God bless Edgar Wright. His stop-and-go pacing and smart dialogue make Ant-Man an absolute delight. Paul Rudd is another example of an actor falling into the perfect role within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. His sardonic smirk fits the Scott Lang well.

After the furious and disorienting carnage of Ultron, this movie feels like a fun diversion. The shrinking mechanics are a little dizzying, but that seems to be intentional. The plot has huge stakes, but it resolves in a (fittingly) small and simple way.


For the most part, Phase Two exists to set the stage for the current incarnation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There was no doubt that these movies would succeed commercially, so they bankrolled the expansion of the empire.

There aren’t many surprises here. Many of the themes of these films were already alluded to in the first phase. Most of these faces are familiar, and the handful of new ones who are phenomenal.

We start to see new character here that will become more significant. It was around this time that the franchise was getting heavily criticized for its homogenous lead roles. Phase Three is where the diversity begins and the color palette brightens a bit. And I’m very ready for it after watching these films.

Halfway to Half Marathon

August 6, 2018

This is my second time training for a half marathon. The first year that I lived in Atlanta I fell and sprained my ankle five weeks into a twelve week training plan.

After a brief recovery period and a year of casual running I decided to give it another shot. I didn’t want to jinx it by blogging about it until I was at least half way in.Today is the first day of week eight and training has been going much better than I expected.

I’m working from a really solid training plan that my Dudes Brunch co-host Shaun Evans wrote for me. I’ve been slacking on the meditation sessions he recommended, but the runs have ramped up nicely.

I did make the mistake of training for a race in the heat of the summer in the south. I’ve survived by doing most of my weekday runs at dusk and getting up early on Saturday mornings for the longer distances.

I invested in a set of Apple’s AirPods for this training season and it is one of the best decisions I made. I love not having to worry about wires and cords while running. And on short runs they allow me to leave my phone at home and just take my Apple Watch.1

Longer runs necessitate the iPhone both for safety and podcast playback. My half marathon is a week or so before watchOS 5 will be released and bring podcasts to Apple Watch. That’s fine though. I’m making it work in the meantime.

On those shorter runs I’ve been listening to a lot of new music. Apple Music’s curated workout playlists have been a great way to power through high intensity runs.

I’m slowly building up a playlist of new songs for race day, but in the meantime I’ve used the longer runs to keep up with The Talk Show, Pop Rocket and Accidental Tech Podcast.

Music and podcasts have been crucial in keeping my mind occupied throughout this process. As much as I’d like to be one of those zen-like runners that can focus intently on their breath, I’m not that guy. I need the distraction.

Now that the distances are getting longer than my typical 5k, I’ve had to start getting more inventive with routes. This weekend I spent a sunny Saturday morning zig-zagging through side streets in Atlanta’s artsy Cabbagetown neighborhood. It was the perfect street run.

I’m not sure where I’ll go when I start getting closer to ten miles, but I like the idea of just making it up as I go. It adds a sort of creativity to what might otherwise be a chore.

That’s actually what’s been the most interesting to me about all of this running. I expected to feel like more work than it has.

Yeah, it kinda sucks to come straight home from work and head out again. It is inconvenient to plan my weekends around workouts. The runs themselves, though, have been fun. More fun than I expected.

We’ll see if I feel that way come September.


A lot has already been written about how great Apple Watch is for running. I don’t have a lot of new insight to add here, except to say that things are only getting better this fall with watchOS 5.

Bo Burnham’s Emotionally Affecting “Eighth Grade”

July 30, 2018
Poster art for Bo Burnham's "Eighth Grade"

Poster art for Bo Burnham's "Eighth Grade"

This weekend I saw Eighth Grade, the first film written and directed by stand-up comedian and former teen YouTube sensation Bo Burnham. I knew it would be funny, but I didn’t expect it to be as emotionally affecting as it turned out to be.

In an excellent profile for the New Yorker, Burnham described the main character, Kayla:

“I did not set out to write a movie about eighth grade,” Burnham told me one afternoon in May. “I wanted to talk about anxiety—my own anxiety—and I was coming to grips with that….Anxiety makes me feel like a terrified thirteen-year-old,” Burnham explained. Because his own anxiety set in later, he didn’t use himself as a model. He watched hundreds of teen vlogs; the girls tended to talk about their souls, and the boys about Minecraft, so he made his protagonist a girl.

 

Burnham excels at portraying the hormonal anxiety of middle school through eighth-grader Kayla Day. From her opening vlog on “being yourself” to encounters with her crush and her first pool party. The film drags the audience through the most socially terrifying moments of adolescence.

It reminded me of a recent essay I read on McSweeny’s, “Welcome to Anxiety Dream High School”:

 

Congratulations on your arrival at Anxiety Dream High School, home of the Crippling Self-Doubts! As it turns out, you never actually graduated high school, went to college, or had any success at all. So on behalf of the faculty, staff, and everyone you’ve ever disappointed, I’d like to welcome you back, once again. Though certain locations will be familiar, our shadowy and ever-shifting campus can be a real challenge to navigate.

 

Eighth Grade transported me, and the friends I saw it with, just like a nightmare. I laughed, I cringed and at one point the whole audience called out “No! Don’t do that!”

Part of our visceral response could be attributed to the visual language Burnham borrows from horror films. Long tracking shots follow Kayla in her most embarrassed moments. Extreme close-ups on her face and eyes during panic attacks make Instagram DMs seem like murder threats.

Anna Meredith’s synth-driven score underscores the traumatic moments in sharp bursts. While soft pads and arpeggios lift up the tender scenes where Kayla progresses. And the bass drop whenever her crush walks by gets a solid laugh every single time.

Burnham plays into the universal social suffering of middle school. However, he also places the film in the present day to take a stance on social media. He’s not trying to take us back in time, but he does voice some concern about the power we give to our technology.

 

“I don’t know. I think there are probably certain elements about social media that we’ll look back on in the way we look back on smoking, where we’ll be, like, ‘Maybe we shouldn’t all have been doing that.’ The equivalent of ‘My doctor smoked’ will be, like, ‘My shrink had a Twitter.’ ”

 

Kayla’s “advice videos” serve as a sort of social crutch, keeping her from reaching out to the world around her. She slowly realizes over the course of the film that advice is only  good if its acted upon and technology is at its best when it facilitates real interaction.

For a debut film, Eight Grade is ambitious and extremely affecting. I think it will easily go down as one of the best teen movies of the decade. And I can’t wait to see what Burnham does next.