Matt-Cox-Record-CoverA structure as consequential as the Gavins Point Dam deserves its own song.
After all, it is the final gatekeeper of the Missouri River. And, as we saw in 2011, it wields a lot of influence over all those who live along the river below it.
Perhaps those powerful images of water raging through the dam during that Missouri River flood of a couple years ago are what inspired Omaha Americana/country artist Matt Cox to write a song called “Gavin’s Point Dam.” (Geek note: I know from many years of writing about it that Gavins Point Dam has no apostrophe in its name. I’m not sure if Cox included one for artistic reasons, but I get an involuntary tic to hit the “delete” button when I attempt to follow suit.)
Instead of sticking to history, Cox seems to imagine a world wherein the dam didn’t hold and unleashed the power of the Missouri River across the heartland.
It’s a thoughtful and well-composed song, and a must-listen for those of us who know and respect the Gavins Point Dam.
HearNebraska debuted the recorded version of the song this week and writer Chance Solem-Pfeifer stated:

“Gavin’s Point Dam” doesn’t start small — a deluge of muddy water wipes out a dam.
But it does grow. After Matt Cox’s song chronicles the soaking of Midwestern flood-planes, it presses beyond just water into various social onslaughts. The song sees social security failing, politicians floundering. The breaking of Gavins Point Dam was, perhaps, the proverbial last straw for humanity.

The song will appear on Cox’s album “Nishnabotna,” which will be released Aug. 8. Curious what Nishnabotna refers to? I was unaware that the Nishnabotna River is a tributary of the Missouri River in southwestern Iowa, northwestern Missouri and southeastern Nebraska. According to Wikipedia, Nishnabotna is an Otoe (Chiwere) word meaning “canoe-making river.”

Here are a couple of Cox’s live performances of “Gavin’s Point Dam”:

I admit it: I often enjoy toilet humor.

However, why a couple people in this area decided to combine the Fourth of July, outhouses and President Barack Obama has me a bit baffled.

When did everyone with an outhouse decide that they need to put the president in it?

The Fourth of July parade float in Norfolk, Neb., has garnered a lot of attention this weekend. It featured an outhouse with “Obama Presidential Library” written on it, along with a creepy-looking, freaked out President Obama dummy.

Here’s the photo many news sites have featured:

norfolk_ne_Obama_Presidential_Library-e1404593891677

As I was traveling home from a family gathering Saturday, I passed through Bridgewater, S.D. Along the highway through the town, there is an outhouse. When I passed it, I looked over and saw President Obama staring back at me. It caught me by surprise, and I wondered if I actually saw it. My parents were coming through Bridgewater today, so I asked my mom to take a picture of the outhouse just to make sure it was real.

Sure enough, it was:

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

This outhouse with a President Barack Obama dummy sits along the north side of SD Highway 262 in Bridgewater, S.D. The photo was taken July 6, 2014.

Even as someone who has political disagreements with the president, I find this “humor” disconcerting. It gives me chills, and that’s probably because I can’t shake the feeling that there is a strain of racism associated with it. I know the people who find it funny will vehemently deny that, but given the larger picture of what this president has had to endure — continuing questions about his birth place or the accusations that he is a Muslim and perhaps even a terrorist, as well as outright racist attacks — I think it is naive to believe racism does not play a role.

Matthew Whitaker addressed a strange phenomenon on CNN while discussing an anti-Obama protest last year in Arizona:

One of the most disturbing aspects of the anti-Obama protest was the inclination of some participants to fault the president for increased racial tensions. “We have gone back so many years,” Judy Burris told the Republic, insisting that Obama’s presence and policies have engendered a racist backlash. “He’s divided all the races. I hate him for that.”

This mind-bending perspective has become one of the leitmotifs of the racialized anti-Obama movement, which laments regressive race relations, but which attributes increased racial tensions in Obama’s “disruptive” and “exotic” presence, rather than their own racial stereotypes, hateful rhetoric and divisive behavior. Despite myriad efforts to foster civil dialogue in Arizona, the state has proven to be fertile ground for the kind of chauvinistic crusading that greeted Obama this week.

This also reminded me of a 2011 study called “Whites See Racism As A Zero-Sum Game They Are Now Losing.” Its findings were rather amazing and demonstrated just how threatening some Americans view the changing demographics of the nation. Political Blind Spot described the results:

Their findings claim that self-described white Americans believe they have “replaced blacks” as the primary victims of racial discrimination in contemporary America.

The authors say that their study highlights how the expectations of a “post-racial” society, predicted or imagined in the wake of Barack Obama’s presidency, has far from been achieved.

The study finds that while both Caucasian and African Americans agree that anti-black racism has decreased over the last 60 years, whites believe that anti-white racism has increased. Moreover, the study finds that the majority of Caucasians believe that anti-white racism is a “bigger problem” than what African Americans face.

For those who argue that these displays are nothing more than political cartoons, perhaps I missed this meme all the years we had white presidents?

I guess Nebraska and South Dakota don’t have the “presidential outhouse” market cornered. Similar displays have been reported on in New Mexico and Montana.

Despite the latest craze, I’m going to stick with toilet humor involving bodily parts and functions. That’s how it was originally conceived, and I believe it is best left that way. Keep politics out of it, please.

We’re at the half-way point of 2014.

It’s as good of an excuse as any for talking about some of my favorite music to come out this year.

I’m going to follow the lead of NPR’s “All Songs Considered” for how I proceed with my list. I love listening to Bob Boilen, Robin Hilton and Stephen Thompson, so I’m going to join their conversation about the year’s highlights.

Favorite New Artist:

Post War Glamour Girls: I came across this band thanks to a shout-out they got from fellow Leeds musicians iLIKETRAINS. Artsy. Political. Aggressive. I’m hooked on their debut album, “Pink Fur.”

Biggest Surprise:

Future Islands: I’ve been listening to some scattered Future Islands songs for a while and really enjoyed them. However, I wasn’t prepared for “Seasons (Waiting On You).” The song is perfect from the opening, awkward electronic sounds to the heartfelt lyrics. The entire album, “Singles,” lives up to the name. Combine the music with their breakout performance on “The Late Show with David Letterman,” and Future Islands are definitely the surprise of the year so far.

Favorite Album:

Nothing – Guilty of Everything: This Philadelphia band combines 90s alternative rock with shoegaze to melt my heart and rattle my soul. I can use it to work out or chill out. I love their sound. This album is perfect.

Best Song:

Lykke Li – Love Me Like I’m Not Made Of Stone: It’s quite possible you’d have to be made of stone not to be crushed by this song.

Other albums I’ve fallen in love with this year:

  • Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire for No Witness
  • The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – Days of Abandon
  • Conor Oberst – Upside Down Mountain
  • Sun Kil Moon – Benji
  • Mogwai – Rave Tapes
  • Mica Levi – Under the Skin Soundtrack
  • Royksopp and Robyn – Do It Again
  • Peter Murphy – Lion
  • The Faint – Doom Abuse
  • Liars – Mess
  • Metronomy – Love Letters

Here is a Spotify playlist of some of my favorite songs of the year so far from the above artists and more:

I’ve gone to the theater to see the last three “Transformers” movies.

As a kid, my brothers and I loved the cartoon series. In the days before VCRs and DVRs, we would use tape recorders to capture the audio of the show. It was the only way we could enjoy the cartoon over and over again as the edicts of juvenile fandom demanded.

I went to the first installment of the current “Transformers” franchise with curiosity and excitement. I didn’t know what to expect. The world of the cartoon wouldn’t necessarily make a smooth transition to live action, so I expected some adjustments.

Well, I definitely did not care for it. As to why, I can’t say with much certainty any more. I watched in in the theater so long ago and never returned to it. It was just kind of big, dumb and messy. Certainly, there was a lot of technical mastery on the screen, but it didn’t grab my heart.

My friends and I went to the following two installments out of a sense of obligation. It was “Transformers.” It was one of the movie events of the year. Maybe they will get it more right …

This time around, we’ve decided to spare ourselves the three hours of bombast and ultimate disappointment.

Instead, we’ve entertained ourselves with the reviews:

Brian Orndorf: “Much like the other installments, if you leave the theater without a headache, you’ve disappointed the producers.”

Kirk Baird: “Even by the low IQ standards of the three previous Transformers films, Transformers: Age of Extinction is grave and exceptionally stupid, with a plot as bewildering and incoherent as a caffeinated 5-year-old’s explanation of the multiverse theory.”

Katherine Monk: “Turns out Transformers: Age of Extinction actually lives up to its title and chronicles not just the death of our bond with the Autobots, but the death of cinema, and that once-fearsome T. rex called American culture.”

Peter Keough: “One thing you have to give Bay credit for: He has a knack for bringing A-list talent down to his level.”

Peter Hartlaub: “Imagine if instead of creating new music, a recording artist kept putting out the exact same album, just playing the songs a little louder each time. That’s what it feels like watching “Transformers: Age of Extinction.”

James Rocchi: “Transformers: Age of Extinction isn’t a bad movie; it’s the worst possible product of a big Hollywood system drunk on a cocktail of fermented nostalgia and rancid profiteering while driving moviegoing into the ground.”

I think you get the picture. Ha.

But there is an aspect of a movie like “Transformers: Age of Extinction” that does intrigue me. How is an approximately $200 million film made and marketed around the world? This film was produced specifically with a Chinese audience in mind, for example.

This is where the “desktop documentary” “Transformers: The Premake” comes in to collate a lot of that information. It’s a fascinating 25-minute documentary. I’ll let filmmaker Kevin B. Lee describe his intentions:

Transformers: Age of Extinction, the fourth installment of the Transformers movie franchise directed by Michael Bay, will be released June 27 2014. But on YouTube one can already access an immense trove of production footage recorded by amateurs in locations where the film was shot, such as Utah, Texas, Detroit, Chicago, Hong Kong and mainland China. Transformers: the Premake turns 355 YouTube videos into a critical investigation of the global big budget film industry, amateur video making, and the political economy of images.

The Premake utilizes a “desktop documentary” technique that acknowledges the internet’s role not only as a boundless repository of information but as a primary experience of reality. It creatively depicts the process in which we explore a deep web of images and data to reach moments of discovery and decisive action. In a blockbuster cinema culture rife with insipid remakes of franchise properties, The Premake presents a critical counter-image in which personalized digital media asks what Hollywood is really doing in the world.

Do yourself a favor and check out this short film. I highly recommend it.

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/94101046″>TRANSFORMERS: THE PREMAKE (complete version)</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/kevinblee”>Kevin B. Lee</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

Has a bicycle ever been music to your ears?

If it’s never occurred to you before, Johnnyrandom  (aka Flip Baber) could change your world.

The composer and musician released a single earlier this year that had music made entirely from the sounds of a bicycle. The song has really taken off, getting Baber all kinds of media attention. When I interviewed him this week, he had just visited with “CBS Sunday Morning.”

Baber will be in Vermillion at the National Music Museum today and tomorrow (May 9 and 10) doing some free presentations. I have a feeling they will be quite interesting.

Here is the story I wrote about Baber in advance of his visit:

When Johnnyrandom (musician Flip Baber) released a single composed entirely with sounds made from bicycles earlier this year, he knew it had potential to find an audience.
However, the Emeryville, Calif., composer and sound designer has been pleasantly surprised at just how large the audience for “Bespoken” has become.
“You never know what will resonate with a global audience, especially when you’re not on a record label and releasing a single digitally, etc.,” Baber told the Press & Dakotan during an interview this week. “It was nice to see it take off online. The metrics show it was received well internationally, as well. I think the only thing I didn’t expect for a debut single release was being interviewed by ‘CBS Sunday Morning’ this past week. That was a lot of fun.”
Baber will appear at the National Music Museum on the campus of the University of South Dakota today (Friday) and Saturday.
Today, he will do two free presentations at the museum — one at 12:05 p.m. and the other at 7 p.m.
“I’m really looking forward to speaking at the National Music Museum,” Baber said. “It will be a TED-style presentation with lots of audio, video and insight into the creative process behind ‘Musique Concrète’ or ‘Found Sound’ music. I’m hoping to have audience members come up onstage to coax sounds from bicycles, as well.”
From 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Baber will be featured in free demos throughout the second day of the museum’s open house, which is taking place during USD’s commencement weekend.
Most people are familiar with Baber’s work, even if they don’t realize it.
He created of the “Doritos® crunch” sound effect and has also done commercial work for companies like Adidas and Google. Additionally, he has composed sounds for museum installations.
“It does seem odd to have my foot in both worlds, if that makes sense,” Baber stated. “I sort of view my past commercial work as my ‘day job.’ I am currently transitioning away from commercial work into long-format film scoring, specifically using the combination of orchestral instrumentation with found objects as my medium.”
The idea for “Bespoken” stemmed from a childhood fascination with the sounds that could be made by a bicycle, according to Baber. He describes his younger self as a bit of a recluse who liked to learn through his years.
“There was a fair amount of isolationism involved in the germination of these ideas — although, I wouldn’t want to equate that with being lonely,” Baber said. “I was a very happy kid, experimenting, composing, exploring. I felt a tremendous amount of creative freedom without the burden of expectations. Presently, I do require intense focus to record found objects, but none of that interferes with a healthy social life!”
In order to make “Bespoken,” Baber recorded various sounds, such as spinning pedals, changing gears and clicking brake levers. He also employed things like a violin bow or a guitar pick to use on a spoke or a rotating tire. The intense process took seven months.
Baber said he developed approximately five ideas for a possible song while recording material for “Bespoken.” In the end, he came up with what sounds like an electronic pop song.
“If there was a source of inspiration, it was probably Radiohead’s ‘Kid A,’ he stated, referring to the popular British rock/electronic band. “Even though my composition may have sounded electronic, it was 100 percent acoustic.”
It’s likely that bicycle sounds will be used in future compositions.
“Out of thousands of sounds, only 50 ended up in ‘Bespoken,’ so there is enough material to create several albums of music,” Baber said. “I’d be surprised if I didn’t come back to it at some point.”
He is currently recording the sounds of kitchen objects for a new composition.
“The kitchen-based project is called ‘Clarify’ and should be released towards the end of the summer with a short film,” Baber said.
“Bespoken” and future releases follow a theme of awareness of one’s surroundings, he added.
“It promotes tuning in rather than tuning out,” Baber said.
People hoping to see and hear a live performance of “Bespoken” at the National Music Museum this weekend will have to curb their expectations.
“I did get a call from ‘America’s Got Talent’ a few weeks ago, inquiring if I could do a live performance,” Baber said. “It is possible, but you’d need 50-plus bicycles, advanced robotics and some software development.
“I’d estimate it would cost $1.5 million to develop. Maybe it’ll happen if there are some applied technology and bicycle music grants out there …”
Baber does hope people leave his presentations and/or demos with a creative spark.
“I hope people expect the unexpected,” he said. “My ultimate goal is to inspire.”
To see a video about how “Bespoken” was made, visit http://vimeo.com/jrandom.

One of my top 10 films of 2013 is now streaming on Netflix:

Here is what I wrote about “The Selfish Giant” in my year-end list:

In recent years, British directors such as Shane Meadows, Lynne Ramsay, Andrea Arnold and Ken Loach have given audiences some brilliant, heart-wrenching films about characters who live in poverty. Now we can add Clio Barnard to that list. “The Selfish Giant” was inspired by Oscar Wilde’s short story of the same name, but in this case the film is definitely better than the source material. It follows two boys who collect scrap around the city in order to make money. However, greed soon leads to tragedy.

If you take the opportunity to watch this film, let me know what you think. :)

Growing up, a part of me wanted to be British.

England had an early influence in my life through my love of “Doctor Who.”

By the time I discovered things like “Monty Python,” “Are You Being Served?,” “Fawlty Towers,” “The Young Ones,” “Waiting for God” and “Red Dwarf,” I could hardly stomach American “comedy” any more, such was my belief in the eliteness of English humor.

My musical tastes took a similar skip across the pond.

While I certainly was into grunge and many American bands during the 1990s, my life was probably more shaped by what was going on in English music.

I did my best to get my hands on British magazines, or American magazines that kept a tab on England. Additionally, some music video shows I watched devoted some time to the British music scene.

By the time I was in junior high, Depeche Mode and The Cure had become my favorite bands.

Blur, Suede, Oasis, Pulp, Radiohead, Placebo and the Boo Radleys were among the many acts that followed and found a way into my heart. This last batch of bands was associated with what became known as Britpop, which was essentially an explosion of melodic guitar pop in the mid-1990s. Often, these songs had lyrics that spoke to the lives of young Britons, and thus made it sometimes difficult to export them to other markets such as the United States.

This past week marked the 20th anniversary of one of the seminal Britpop albums, Blur’s “Parklife.” It’s an album that had a big impact on me, and I’ve enjoyed the contextualizing of it in recent days.

Stereogum has had a great series of articles on Britpop during the last week.

In his look at “Parklife,” Ryan Leas wrote:

That’s part of the fun of this whole Britpop Week and of looking back at a record like Parklife — there’s an evangelism streak to it, an urge to geek out about artists that are only, still, tangentially known Stateside. That makes the process of revisiting this stuff invigorating, and Parklife still stands as one of a handful of pinnacles in the whole narrative. It’s a rare thing to come around to a landmark album’s twentieth birthday and still feel the need to climb onto something, demand people’s attention, and let them know there is a brilliant song called “This Is A Low” on a brilliant album called Parklife, and that they are missing out. Intellectually, you know it’s not true, but it doesn’t matter: two decades on, Parklife still has the sound of something that’s just starting.

It’s a feeling with which I can certainly empathize. Twenty years on, many people in the United States are still only vaguely familiar with the Britpop phenomenon and many of the great songs it produced.

Due to my own rekindled interest in revisiting this time period, I’ve created a Spotify playlist of some of my favorite Britpop songs. It’s definitely dominated by several bands and is not meant to be representative of the entire loosely-defined genre. This playlist is personal. Take a listen if you like.