Category Archives: Uncategorized

Your Wilco Ranks are Rank

binkleyOkay Pal.  So you made the definitive list of Wilco albums from worst to best.  Fine.  I won’t stand in your way.  I won’t provide the definitely definitive list in opposition to yours.  Fret not dear Pal, your album assessment remains unchanged in the order with which you placed them.  However, as a long-standing member of the League of Canadian Contrarians, I wouldn’t be doing my official league duties if I didn’t explain in detail how every single one of your rankings could be flawed. So that’s what I’ll do.

Let me just warn you.  I’m gonna be mean.  I’ll throw your arguments back in your face. I’ll provide the obligatory comparisons to Radiohead using irrelevant Rock ‘n’ Roll precedence to disprove your arguments. Most importantly, I’ll provide my own personal view on Wilco and what these albums mean to me.

Just like you, I would like to establish a few guiding principles before I start railing on you and unfairly judge a most excellent Rock Band:

  1. There is no bad Wilco album
  2. I am a Dad + I Rock = I am into Dad Rock.
  3. Despite your best intentions, you got everything wrong

Boy-oh-boy did you mess this list up, Pal.  Below are all the reasons why.

In a very particular order……yours

10 – SCMILCO (2016)

I wonder who destroys

schmilco.jpgI understand your instinct to put this album as their worst, but I think you are clouded by all the greatness of other Wilco contributions that your baseline is way off.  The expectation bar was set so high by this point that its greatness left you flat and wanting more. However, if you put any one of these songs on another Wilco album, like Being There, that song would stand out as a highlight for sure.  This album is like if Wilco was playing in your fucking living room. How could you put Wilco playing in your living room as the worst thing Wilco every produced. That experience deserves 7 at the least. The one thing I would say is that those songs do play better live. I was really digging them when we heard them at Massey Hall.  They came across as louder and more aggressive that they do on Scmilco, but it’s still not the worst.

9 – STAR WARS (2015)

I kind of like it when I make you cry

star_wars_wilco1This, my sweet Pal, might be your biggest mistake.  Star Wars is pretty much perfect. It’s a tight set of kick ass gems that work so incredibly well together, it just can’t be second last.  In a strange way Star Wars stands outside of this list holding a special status all to itself.  Perhaps because of its brevity or perhaps because we saw them perform the whole album live.  Either way, this album can not be denied.  It is the high standard of Dad Rock.  It pays homage to the quintessential kid movie from my generation, it has a weird dorky cover, and every track fucking kicks ass.  “Random Name Generator” is an instant classic. You compared Wilco to Radiohead in your post.  I will do the same by drawing similarities to this album and In Rainbows in both its lush driving sound, its brevity, and its Rock prowess. Definitively not second last, man. Get your head out of your ass!

8 – A.M. (1995)

I don’t think you even understand

amI hate to do it.  I really didn’t want to put their first album as the worst, but, I think in this case you have to.  You’re right, though.  I am one of those people who rarely play A.M.  As you state, it has a lot of great stuff on it, but it reflects a band yet to be realized.  With a band progression such as Wilco’s, it is incorrect not to put their first at ‘low bar’ status. I consider it insulting not to. It is like spitting on Jeff Tweedy’s guitar.  Way to go, Pal.  You just spit on Jeff Tweedy’s Gibson SG by not putting this album as the worst one they ever made.  Another flub.

7 – THE WHOLE LOVE (2011)

No standing O O O

whole-loveThis may not be your biggest mistake, but it is probably the biggest beef I have with your list.  You say this album is overrated, eh? ‘Dems fighting words.  The Whole Love is a behemoth. It’s like walking up to Kareem Abdul Jabbar and saying, “you’re not so tall.” This album is gorgeous and expansive.  I would strongly consider it for Number 4. Definitely top 5.  Starting with “Art of Almost” it’s got the best of their out-there Art Rock Intros.  I am talking about songs like “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”, “At Least That’s What’s you Said”, “Misunderstood”, and “Sunken Treasure”.  Like Kareem, “Art of Almost” towers over all others, asserting its dominance at every moment.  And yes, that was the best intro to a live Wilco show we had ever seen. The next track on this glorious album is “I Might”.  It’s hard driving and jaunty, full of dark motifs delivered with that trademark Wilco subdued joy. I contend it is one of the best Wilco songs ever written. An assertion that could be made about many other song on this album like “Standing O”, “Whole Love”, or “One Sunday Morning”. Let’s pop a squat on that last song. “One Sunday Morning” is a song that I could listen to forever and never tire of it.  If that song was on a constant loop in my head, I think I would be smiling all my days.

6 – WILCO (THE ALBUM) (2009)

By the end of the bout, he was punched out

wilco-the-albumYou were right in admitting you are wrong about this album, but I argue that you are more wronger than you think you are.  This album has it all.  Great melodies, fantastic hooks, aggressive guitars and musical restraint.  It all results in some of Wilco’s catchiest song-writing.  I remember reading that Jeff Tweedy thought this was the best album Wilco had made to date.  I suspect it was because of how mature the song writing is.  Songs like “Deeper Down”, “You and I”, “I’ll Fight”, “Sonny Feeling”, and “Everlasting Everything” are all master classes in how to write the best song ever.  I know that you took a 180 degree turn on this album and that is to be admired, but with your ranking, Wilco’s most underrated album remains undervalued.  It deserves at least one notch more up the ladder towards best. Perhaps two.

5 – SKY BLUE SKY (2007)

It definitely starts to spoil my heart

sky-blue-skyOkay, Sky Slue Sky.  This is the album I probably have listened to the most.  This album is right in my Dad Rock wheelhouse.  However, I’m gonna stick my neck out on this one and say that it might be their most overrated album. I say that for two reasons.  The first is that I spent too much of my own personal time on it.  I should have been listening to other Wilco albums, like Being There and Summerteeth.  I have Wilco-gret about that. Second is the listening hump of getting over “Shake it Off”. Let me explain. We often play this album at get-togethers.  it’s always a huge hit, in the beginning.  From “Either Way” to “Side with the Seeds”, you have perfection. Best Wilco Ever!!

…Then, like a bump in the road, along comes “Shake it Off”…

I like “Shake it Off”.  But I am a Dad.  I have to like it.  Inevitably someone (usually my wife) pipes up with something like, “what is this?” or “I am not into this”.  Somewhere between that moment and “Walken” I change it to another album, thereby denying myself and my guests the wonderful pleasures of “What Light” and “On and On and On”.  It hurts me to say that Sky Blue Sky should be closer to worst.

4 – A GHOST IS BORN (2004)

So good, you don’t even know

a-ghost-is-born1THIS SHOULD BE NUMBER ONE!!!! Way off Pal.  You got the apex wrong.  They were still climbing after Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. All you have to do is listen to the opener, “At Least That’s what You Said”, to know that they had more in store for us beyond Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Bigger and Badder than ever before.  This is an extravagant album in all the best kinda ways.  And yes, Pal, we do need 12 minutes of hiss. We so desperately need it and Wilco knew it.  And to follow that up with “Late Greats”. Whoa momma! Perfection.

3 – BEING THERE (1996)

I wanna thank you all, FOR NOTHING!!!!

being-thereOf the so many things wrong with your list, this is the least wrong.  Although I gotta bump it down to four now that I put your four at my one.  Despite its beautiful folk sensibility, it is still very edgy.  It’s the Ghost is Born of early era Wilco.   I completely agree with you on one thing.  Like you, the biggest surprise for me was how much I now like those, as you say, ‘filler songs’.   Why have I not noticed songs like “Lonely 1” before. That song is gorgeous. Songs like “King Pin” are as Rock ‘n’ Roll as anything they have ever wrote. It’s timeless in its sound.  The whole album is sort of like that.  To quote Mr. Tweedy, Being There “sounds like someone else’s song, from a long time ago.”

2- SUMMERTEETH (1999)

Your prayers will never be answered again

summerteethJust like Being There, Summerteeth falls victim to your complete miscalculation of A Ghost is Born. It is my number three. Summerteeth is so wonderfully pretty in the most wonderfully terrible way.  As explained in “How to Fight Loneliness” this album is a fake smile that fools everyone.  This album makes me so happy despite how sad the lyrics are.  The bright upbeat jams serve as the bedrock for all the dark organic soils that make up Tweedy’s words. It is simply breathtaking.

1 – YANKEE HOTEL FOXTROT (2002)

I’m bound by these choices so hard to make

yhfYankee Hotel Foxtrot is the OK Computer of Wilco’s cannon.  It’s adventurous, complex and expertly layered.  Completely singular song writing of the highest caliber. It tugs at every heart string and every emotion.  Joy. Fear. Happiness. Sadness. Excitement. Nostalgia. Insanity. Loneliness. Confusion. Aggression. Love. It’s a gift to the world and has no equal in its completeness. A true treasure to behold. That said, I like Kid A better. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is Wilco’s second best album to date.

So that’s it Pal.  I think I put you in your place and set you straight.  Feel bad about what you did.  It’s not that I hate you.  I love you and I love your passion for Wilco.  But I don’t love the way you ranked Wilco’s albums from worst to best.

Later Pal.

Wilco albums ranked worst to best – the definitive list (for now)

miloHey Pal:

Let’s talk about Wilco. Over their 20+ years, front man Jeff Tweedy and the boys have evolved from boundary-pushing alt country darlings, to purveyors of so-called “dad rock” (is that supposed to be a bad thing?), to elder indie statesmen who still have a few tricks up their plaid and denim sleeves.

You and I have been on hand for much of that evolution and we’ll be on hand when Wilco roll into Toronto next week to blow the roof off Massey Hall yet again; so in honour of the occasion I thought I’d take a crack at ranking all their studios albums from worst to best. There are a few such lists on the internet, with a good deal of disagreement among them, so it’s high time somebody did the definitive list.

This is not that list.

But until the king of “worst to best” lists, Stereogum, gets one done it will have to do.

In preparation I sat down and listened to every one of Wilco’s albums in chronological order, some of which I haven’t heard in years, and then I listened to them all a few more times for good measure. It was a beautiful journey, during which two thoughts dominated:

  • They’ve never really made a bad album (although the chasm between “worst” and best is wide).
  • Certain assumptions and beliefs I’ve held for a long time are wrong.

(Quick note – the Mermaid Avenues are not here because they are not purely Wilco albums.)

All right, let’s assassin down the avenue…

10 – Schmilco (2016)

Painting myself as a normal American kid
I always hated it

schmilcoI really didn’t want to do this. I didn’t want to pick on Wilco’s newer albums by putting them at the bottom of the list. I didn’t want to suggest the quality of their albums is in decline and all their best work is behind them.

I really, really didn’t want to do that.

Alas.

It’s unfortunate too because I was pumped about Schmilco (despite the goofy title), because its sound hearkens back to their days of strange, eerie, psychedelic alt country. The songs are mostly acoustic and some are infused with a hint of sonic weirdness, but this time it feels put upon – like they’re just trying to elevate what they know are dull songs.

Jeff Tweedy is a marvelous songwriter with a gift for musical left turns and provocative lyrics that are more for feeling than understanding. There’s some of that on Schmilco but not enough to resonate.I will say I love the bitter nostalgia of “Normal American Kids”.

They’ve never made a bad album, but this one’s just OK. Perhaps the live versions of these tunes we hear next week will inspire me to change my mind.

(Bonus points for the cover, though, which takes the idea of “dad rock” to a whole new level.)

 9 – Star Wars (2015)

I change my name every once in a while
A miracle every once in a while

star_wars_wilco1

I should mention that Wilco are absolutely epic in concert. Six masterful musicians who have been playing together long enough they can read each other’s minds.

Because of that, they were able to make this album sound more interesting than it is when they played it in its entirety at the Toronto Urban Roots Festival last summer. I respect the choice of playing the whole thing. Many other artists of their vintage devolve into greatest hits nostalgia acts. Not Wilco. They stand by what they’re recording now.

Star Wars is pretty cool, but doesn’t quite knock my socks off. The chugging “King of You” is awesome, though, as is “Random Name Generator”, which is destined to become a perennial concert favourite. Also, gotta dig closer “Magnetized”, with its weird pauses, organ sounds and a classic WTF Tweedy line: “Orchestrate the shallow pink refrigerator drone.”

Points for brevity – at 33 minutes it doesn’t last long enough to overstay its welcome.

wilco-live

Did I mention Wilco are epic in concert?

 8 – A.M. (1995)

You’re gonna make me spill my beer,
If you don’t learn how to steer

amConventional wisdom has it that the band got off to a shaky start with this debut. Conventional wisdom declared this a paint-by-numbers set of country rock tracks that in no way hinted at the experimental genius that was to come.

Conventional wisdom needs to give its head a shake because I’ll bet it hasn’t actually listened to A.M. since it came out.

If conventional wisdom would do what I did – crack a beer on a Friday night, crank A.M. to top volume and air guitar the shit out of “Casino Queen” and “Box Full of Letters”, then bliss out to “It’s Just that Simple” and the Tonight’s the Night tribute “Passenger Side” – then it would understand the truth. A.M. is terrific. It’s heartfelt and infectious. It’s tight and it’s a blast.

I’m pretty sure the problem is that Tweedy and two bandmates were fresh out of the wildly revered alt-country legends Uncle Tupelo and this debut from a “spin-off” band suffered by comparison. If a completely different band had made A.M., alt country fans would have been bouncing off the walls and exclaiming that they’d just found the new Uncle Tupelo.

7– The Whole Love (2011)

This is how I tell it
Oh, but it’s long
One Sunday morning
Oh, one son is gone

whole-love

I’m going to venture onto a long, treacherous limb and declare this Wilco’s most overrated album. Not bad. Just overrated. Many people, myself included, saw it as a return to form after the so-called “dad rock” albums (more on those soon enough), and we all got very excited because the boys were getting back to being a little loud and experimental.

Also, the thing starts and ends magnificently, opening with the righteous blast of techno rock that is “Art of Almost” (a song that we learned, Pal, also makes for a jaw-dropping opener in concert), and closing with the folky, 12-minute Dylanesque “One Sunday Morning”, a heartbreaking study of a troubled father/son relationship. Two awesome tunes.

Unfortunately, I find now that too many of the songs in between are kinda forgettable. I enjoy them while they’re happening but they don’t stick. Exception – “Born Alone”. That song rocks.

Also, the band sounds amazing, especially guitar god Nels Cline, who can do absolutely anything with six strings (and occasionally 12), whether it’s building swirling atmosphere for the rest of the band to play in, or taking centre stage with a mind-bending solo.

nels-cline

Don’t hurt yourself, Nels

6 –  Wilco (The Album) (2009)

One wing will never fly
Neither yours nor mine
I fear we can only wave goodbye

220px-wilco_the_album_cover1 Boy was I wrong about this one. At the time of its release I wrote it off as bland and forgettable, and going into this ranking exercise I was fully expecting to plunk the “camel” album – the second dad rock album, incidentally – in the basement.

Then I listened to it.

And I listened to it again.

And I fell in love with the camel.

“Bull Black Nova” is the cool kid brother of “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”, and that is a fine thing to be. The second half of “One Wing” is transcendent. “I’ll Fight” is a contender for top 10 Wilco tune. And “You and I” is a deceptively sweet little duet with Canadian singer Feist that boldly questions the merits of honesty and transparency in a relationship.

I do wonder if the band carries Tweedy a bit on this one. This is the second album with the perfect ensemble line-up that still exists to this day, and by this point they were magically in sync. That’s why this album sounds so good even though Tweedy’s songwriting and weary but expressive voice are not at their best. Consider “Country Disappeared”. It seems like a pretty flaccid tune to me, but by the end I’m transfixed. Just listen to that interplay of guitar and keyboard.

I could be wrong, but I think it’s the playing, not the writing, that elevates the camel to greatness. 

5 – Sky Blue Sky (2007)

But I’ve turned to rust as we’ve discussed
Though I must have let you down
too many times
In the dirt and the dust

sky-blue-sky

This is the precise moment that Wilco were branded “dad rock” and it’s all thanks to the wise-ass kids down at Pitchfork, who called Sky Blue Sky “an album that exposes the dad-rock gene the band has always carried but attempted to disguise– the stylistic equivalent of a wardrobe change into sweatpants and a tank top.”

Someone needs to knock some sense into those punks and make them listen to it again.

Is it less experimental and more “comfortable” than its predecessors? Definitely. But that doesn’t make it lazy or dull. It’s a beauty. Tweedy finds poetry in everyday life in these “sweatpant” tunes, whether it be gentle pleadings (“Please be Patient With Me”), or puttering about a house that no longer feels like a home (“Hate It Here”), or the glorious jam that is “Impossible Germany”. The playing is perfect and the songs, while mellow, still go in unexpected directions.

Also, the album closes with the thrilling one-two punch of the sage and inspiring “What Light” followed by the haunting and unsettling “On And On And On”.

4 – A Ghost is Born (2004)

Saxophones started blowin’ me down
I was buried in sound
The taxicabs were driving me around

a-ghost-is-born1

It might not be the obvious choice, but I nominate A Ghost is Born for the award of Weirdest Wilco Album because, seriously, where did this come from? The previous four albums were an amazing but logical evolution down the band’s uniquely carved road of atmospheric alt country, and then along came this abrupt left turn into pop rock city.

Explosive guitar jams and sweet pretty ballads (sometimes in the same song); bobbity piano pop, groovy jams, and even 12 minutes of electronic hiss – this album has it all and it’s a ton of fun. You never know what’s coming next.

My personal favourite is the smooth and seductive “Hell is Chrome”…or maybe “The Late Greats”…no wait, “Handshake Drugs”…or “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”…or….never mind, just go listen to the whole thing (except the 12 minutes of hiss – we didn’t really need that).

tweedy-singing

“I never hear it on the radio,             Can’t hear it on the radio”

3 – Being There (1996)

When you’re back in your old neighborhood
The cigarettes taste so good
But you’re so misunderstood
You’re so misunderstood

being-there

What a surprise this turned out to be – another album that landed higher on this list than I thought it was going to. I used to think Being There was half brilliant and half filler but I’ll be damned if I can find the filler now. As much as I think A.M. is underrated, there is no question this follow-up sophomore album, with its experimentation and expanded range of sound, is a huge leap forward.

It’s a double album and each “disc” is a lean and perfect set of gems worthy of standing on its own. And the openers! Oh the openers! Disc one kicks off with the epic six and a half minute mind-bender “Misunderstood”, which aggressively declares in its rattling thumping intro that Wilco had no intention of settling into any kind of formula. The song is a beautiful noisy unleashing of emotions from nostalgia to rage. Disc two opens with the comparatively spare but almost as stunning “Sunken Treasure”, which might have been my favourite Wilco song if I hadn’t heard “Misunderstood” first.

 2 – Summerteeth (1999)

She’s a jar
With a heavy lid
My pop quiz kid
A sleepy kisser

summerteeth

How can misery and madness sound so sweet?

The band took the trippy sound they found on Being There and added sunny pop flourishes so that when they didn’t sound like the grooviest alt country band on the planet they sounded like the Beach Boys, but cooler.

And Tweedy’s lyrics went extra dark. Whether he’s dreaming about killing you again last night, or being begged not to hit her, or reading messages in an ashtray, he captivates with his weird, morbid thoughts and sounding like the weight of the whole world is upon him. Even the sweet lovely lullaby to his kid, “Oh Darling”, sounds haunted.

Every song is a beauty, with “Via Chicago”, “She’s a Jar” and concert favourite “Shot in the Arm” the obvious stand-outs.

For most other bands, this would be the pinnacle of achievement but for Wilco this was just another warm-up leading to their grandest statement…

 1 – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002)

Tall buildings shake
Voices escape singing sad sad songs
tuned to chords
Strung down your cheeks
Bitter melodies turning your orbit around

yhf

Was there ever any doubt? All hail Wilco’s masterpiece. It doesn’t contain the band’s greatest songs (see #2 and #3). It doesn’t even feature their finest musicianship (see the “dad rock” of #5 and #6). But Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is studio alchemy; the most cohesive and immersive journey in Wilco’s catalogue – their most album-y of albums – and the perfect evolution of the moody experimentation they started on Being There and Summerteeth. If Radiohead made a country album this is what it would sound like, but now they can’t do it because Wilco beat them to it.

I don’t know what was in Jeff Tweedy’s enigmatic mind when he made Yankee Hotel Foxtrot but here’s what it’s about as far as I’m concerned: It’s about memories that make you smile and cry at the same time. It’s about alienation and communication breakdown. It’s about being in a crowd but feeling alone, about staring into a loved one’s eyes and wondering if you really truly know them. It’s about struggling for understanding.

It pulls you into a world entirely its own and doesn’t let go until its final notes – a world that is both comforting and unsettling, familiar yet foreign. There’s nothing else like it.

I could go on and on but I already have, not just here but elsewhere in this blog, so I’ll shush up now.

One last point – it needs to be noted that the top three albums just happened to be the only three Wilco albums made with multi-instrumentalist and wannabe co-leader Jay Bennett on the roster. The story – as shown in the excellent documentary “I am Trying to Break Your Heart” – is that Bennett was canned during the making of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot for being a dick, and he may very well have been one – but the music suggests he was a terribly gifted dick. They were never as good as they were with him.

jaybennett1-300x2681

RIP Jay

So there you go, Pal – my ranking of Wilco’s albums. How’d I do? Bang on, way off, or somewhere in between? Don’t let this post go unanswered. I expect a merciless analysis of my mistakes. Take off the band aid cuz I don’t believe in touchdowns.

Later, Pal.

Hey Oscars – This is no time for La La

Hey Pal:

I know my last post was a rant and I know I sometimes get too soap-boxy in this space, so I apologize in advance for this post, but it has to happen. I’m getting back on my soap box and I’m now going to stop talking to you, Pal, and address some important folks in the entertainment business.

Dear Members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences:

Congratulations! The nominations for the upcoming Academy Awards are out and by most accounts you got it right this year. Critics seem to agree the nominated films and performances recognize the best in movies rather than the best in “for your consideration” campaigns, and there’s plenty of diversity in the mix to help you begin to shake that whole #OscarsSoWhite thing.

Well done.

Now, can we talk about next steps? The real decision-making starts now and I’d like to get radical and strongly suggest that you surprise everyone with your Best Picture choice and not give it to La La Land. Nothing against La La Land, I’ve seen it twice, and it’s a tasty morsel of cinematic confection; beautiful to behold and impeccably made. But this is not the time for La La Land, as great as it may be, because we are living in dangerous times. On November 8, the American electorate made a wildly bizarre choice and the doomsday clock was moved the closest it’s been to midnight since 1953, and now the whole world sits on the edge of our collective seats, watching a freak show unfold while chewing our nails and clenching our sphincters.

This is no time for singing and dancing.

This is time for a statement.

There is a certain film up for Best Picture that can be that statement. I’m not going to say it’s better than La La Land, but it is bigger, bolder and brainier. It’s more important and more profound. That film is…Arrival, the cerebral and thrilling  science fiction film starring Amy Adams as a linguistic professor tasked with finding a way to communicate with a newly-arrived alien species.

arrival-banner-1-final

I know it’s a longshot but hear me out. I’m asking that Hollywood Meryl Streep the shit out of this situation and give Washington a smack upside the head. I’m asking that you stare down a bully with his fake news and “alternative facts” and make a statement of truth and purpose. I’m asking that you award a film that is a perfect counterpoint to so much that’s going on right now, a film that is everything the new president isn’t.

Consider:

As the president drags political discourse into the gutter and shits in its mouth, Arrival eloquently explores the connection between the complexity of language and sophistication of thought.

As the president validates evidence-hating climate change deniers and anti-vaxxers, Arrival knows that truth is found through scientific inquiry and the collection of facts.

As the president builds walls out of hatred and discrimination, Arrival shows that a truly evolved species does not waste time and resources bickering over political borders, skin colour and religion.

As the president feeds off the worst human instincts, Arrival is a tribute to the potential of humankind.

As the thin-skinned president thinks small and petty thoughts, Arrival thinks big.

Very big.

Plus – it also happens to be a really exciting movie with plenty of intrigue and surprise, great acting, a perfect score and a killer ending. It’s exciting and emotional, and it would be a great choice for Best Picture no matter who’s in the White House.

There is a particularly potent and stressful moment in Arrival when 12 computer screens one by one blink to black and I fear the world is moving toward that moment for real.

So what do you say, Academy? Do you want to do the obvious thing and go all La La on us, or do you want to make a statement that may, in some small way, help turn those screens back on?

Later, Palsoap-box

Be afraid – truth isn’t what it used to be

miloHey Pal:

On Sunday December 4, 2016 Edgar Maddison Welch entered the Comet Ping Pong pizza restaurant in Washington D.C. armed with a Colt AR-15 assault rifle, a .38-calibre Colt revolver and a folding knife, and spent 45 minutes searching for underground vaults and hidden rooms. Fortunately, no one was hurt although he did fire a couple of shots during his investigation.

Why did he do this?

Because he had fallen for a completely bogus “news” story that had proliferated on social media in recent weeks – a conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton and her former campaign chair had been running a child sex ring in the basement of Comet (the place doesn’t even have a basement). He was not the only person who had targeted the poor restaurant over this nonsense (far from it), just the most extreme.

For some truly chilling reading, check out the hashtag #Pizzagate on Twitter, where you will see reams and reams of comments from an astonishing number of people who believe this lunacy, or felt it warranted consideration, and who said things like – I’m waiting for proof that Clinton did NOT commit these acts. That sentiment is horrifying; in a civilized society the onus of proof is on the accuser, not the accused.

I bring this up, Pal as just one example of why I am scared right now, and why we should all be scared. We are living in a time when facts, rational thinking and objective truth are less important than they used to be. There have always been people who are largely oblivious to reality, of course – and Pizzagate is an extreme example – but on Nov. 8 we all received a shocking bit of news that suggests these people have far more influence than we might have thought.

Yes, I am referring to the election of Donald Trump, who officially takes over the White House in just under a month. This phenomenon is not strictly about him, but his triumph in the 2016 U.S. election certainly brought the scope of the problem to the fore.

Trump lied constantly during the campaign and, in the end, was rewarded for it. His disregard for the truth was so striking that newspapers made games out of counting his lies. According the Toronto Star, who fact-checked his every statement from mid-September to early November 2016, he spewed 560 things that weren’t true (about 20 per day). A sampling:

  • Canadian health care is a disaster in terms of cost
  • The U.S. is the highest taxed nation in the world
  • Clinton hired thugs to go to Trump rallies and beat people up
  • There is no economic growth in the U.S.

Yes, Clinton lied too but Trump took it to a whole new level (104 to 13 during presidential debates). As quoted in the Star: “He lies strategically. He lies pointlessly. He lies about important things and meaningless things. Above all, he lies frequently.”

And, to repeat, he was rewarded for it.

The President-Elect also doesn’t hold much stock in science. He has said that climate change is a hoax invented by the Chinese to hurt U.S. business. And he’s an anti-vaxxer, as this tweet shows:

When the President of the United States thinks like this, it will empower and embolden anyone and everyone who is inclined to ignore mountains of scientific evidence in favour of what feels right to them. Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” to describe the phenomenon: people who disregard facts in favour of what their gut tells them is true.

This is not OK.

What happens when a presidential candidate is a pathological liar who ignores science, and his followers don’t care and are numerous enough to give him the reins of power?

I don’t know, but it definitely concerns me. They’re not all going to barge into pizza restaurants waving assault rifles, but they are going to influence really important decisions: decisions about the economy, human rights, the environment, social services and international relations. And these decisions will be made based on feelings, hunches, gut reactions, rumours and mob mentality – not on a rational view of facts and evidence.

A scary thought.

So what can we do about it?

Can I suggest that all fact-loving people do what I did and make a donation to the Skeptics Society, a non-profit educational organization dedicated to promoting critical, rational, scientific thinking. Let’s help make their voice as loud as it can possibly be. Are there other organizations dedicated to the same purpose? Then let’s support them too.

Another thing we can all do is make it a point to read, watch and listen to reputable news outlets, ones that hire trained journalists who get every side to a story and use fact-checkers. And teach your kids to do the same. The driving force behind the Pizzagate nonsense was fake news sites and, sadly, people are becoming less and less capable of differentiating between real and fake news because it all looks the same in tweets and Facebook posts. By the way, kudos to Facebook for deciding to do something about it – in December it announced it would begin flagging fake news stories with the help of users and fact-checkers. Thank you, Mr. Zuckerberg.

I know these little actions may not be enough to hold back the tidal wave of kooky “thinking” that appears to be washing over the most powerful country on the planet, but it’s better than nothing. Whether these people want to believe it or not, there is such a thing as objective truth, and we all have an obligation to rationally explore the facts until we find it.

Hopefully, this wave of irrationality will be a temporary blip and not a new reality.

Later, Pal

Tribute to a Boy and to Boyhood

“You don’t want the bumpers. Life doesn’t give you bumpers.” Ethan Hawke, in Boyhood
“It’s like it’s always right now.” Hawke’s son, in Boyhood

miloHey Pal:

This summer, on the third day of overnight camp, my 8-year-old son broke his arm. It was a supracondylar fracture, which means that his upper arm bone, right above the elbow, was in two pieces. If you’re going to break a bone you can’t break it much better than that.

It happened while he was running to breakfast. He tripped over a rock, put out his arms to cushion the fall, and boom…next thing he knows he’s on a 15-hour saga involving two hospitals, four hours in the car, endless waiting, and surgery during which he was put under and woke up with a hefty plaster cast from shoulder to wrist and two pins in his elbow holding him together.

All this happened because that’s just the kind of kid he is. If there’s a rock to trip over, he will find it. If there is an OK way to fall and a not-OK way to fall, he will fall the not-Ok way. I don’t know this for sure, and I won’t ask him, but I suspect he was running, struggling, to keep up with his cabin-mates. He isn’t the fastest kid in the woods.

That’s just the kind of kid he is. He’s not very coordinated – I think he has spilled as many glasses of milk as he has finished. And he’s not much of an athlete – he is far more at home on YouTube than on the soccer field.

He is also the kind of kid who, while waiting for surgery in the hospital, charmed the socks off of every doctor and nurse he met; who sat in Emergency for eight hours waiting to see an orthopedic surgeon without ever complaining because he didn’t want to be annoying to the people around him.

He can sit in front of a room full of strangers and play the guitar or tell a story without a hint of shyness or self-consciousness. He knows how you’re feeling before you do, and when he snuggles into you it feels like he’s a part of you – he’s a perfect fit every time.

That’s just the kind of kid he is.

So why then do I spend so much time trying to “fix” him? Why do I focus on the poor performance on the soccer field? The clumsiness? The lowest marks on the report card? Why do I want to make him smarter, faster, stronger? I have sometimes said, and others have too, that my son is too sweet and gentle for this world. That he’s going to get his heart broken. That we need to toughen him up.

Or maybe we should just back off and leave him be.

The night before my son broke his arm at camp, my wife and I had a date night – because that’s what mommies and daddies do when the kids are away – and we saw Richard Linklater’s new film Boyhood.

Boyhood-movie-poster-MAIN1

Boyhood tells the story of a boy as he grows from age 6 to 18. The lad is played by Ellar Coltrane. His parents are played by Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette. His sister, who forever outshines him, is played by the director’s daughter Lorelei Linklater.

???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????

Ethan, Ellar, Lorelei, Richard and Patricia

It was filmed over 12 years. Every year, the cast and crew would come together for a week and film the latest chapter of the story.

The effect is mesmerizing. You watch the characters age before your eyes, you watch the kids grow up. It’s so raw and real it feels like a documentary. It’s deceptively simple. It’s first and foremost the story of a boy growing up but it’s also a story about parenthood, America and what it means to be alive at this time in history. Like many other Linklater films, Boyhood makes ordinary life seem epic.

And for me, it was like watching the past, present and future unfold before my eyes. The boy in the film, whom we first see lying in the grass watching the clouds, is not unlike my son. He is sweet and gentle, an observer who tends to be on the receiving end of things. Life is something that happens to him. And he goes with the flow, to the increasing agitation of most of the grown-ups in his life who want to see him achieve his potential.

He also has a unique view of things and some amazing talents. In high school, when his photography teacher orders him to shoot the football game, he takes pictures of the stands and the sidelines because, for him, that’s where the real action is. And he’s right.

Boyhood’s boy and my boy are not carbon copies by any means, and I have no idea what my son will do with his future, but I couldn’t help but watch that evolving lad on screen and think that a similar story arc is, at the very least, a possibility for my son.

Which is perhaps why I couldn’t take my eyes off the father, played to perfection by Ethan Hawke. He’s a flawed father, barely around and often fumbling when he is, but I think he may be the wisest character in the film. The most potent lessons the kids get are from him.

He teaches them to be stubborn and loud about your beliefs, even if that means posting Obama election signs in a Texas neighbourhood where gun-toting neighbours wave the confederate flag. He teaches them that the only conversations worth having start with a willingness to pour your heart and guts onto the table and see what happens. And he teaches them that rules should be regarded as guidelines, to be broken when they serve no positive purpose. Hell, he even teaches them how to listen to Beatles solo records in a way that won’t lead to disappointment.

He’s also the grown-up in the film who makes the least effort to steer the boy’s course. This may be because he can barely steer his own course, or it may be because he trusts that the boy will work it out in his own time. Either way, the dynamic results in some of the most compelling and revealing interactions in the film.

boy and dad  dad and boy

The day after my son broke his arm and we were all back home from the hospital, a sad, unspoken truth hung heavy in the air: that he would not be returning to camp this year, that the session was over for him. He didn’t say a word about it, probably because he didn’t want to burden us with his sadness, but you could sense what he was feeling.

What he did say to me, out of the blue, was this: “You know what should be on the news? Our camp singing Oh Canada. It’s really beautiful.”

He’d given it some thought, and that’s how he chose to tell me he missed camp.

Because that’s just the kind of kid he is.

I wrapped my arms around him and hugged him as hard as I could, which wasn’t nearly as hard as I wanted to. I had to watch out for that broken arm.

A Skeptic Fail: The Sad Story of My Poorly Informed Shoe Selection

binkley

As you know Pal, in the past five years I have become a recreationally semi-avid runner. I love it.  Physically, running has been great for my overall health. At least I think it has. Moreover, running has also definitely been beneficial to my mental health. If I am stressed or need to work something out in my head, I will just strap on my running shoes, slip in my ear buds, put on some electronic music (Daft Punk’s Alive album is phenomenal for running) or a podcast (Doug Loves Movies is my go to) and off I go. Answers to issues or questions or problems I couldn’t figure out begin to fall in to place with every step I take. Tack on a runner’s high to that and you have the makings of a running addict.

I actually started to get pretty fast. I made it my mission to break a 40minute 10k which, for an amateur with no training, was proving to be difficult. My best run was the Toronto Sporting Life 10k a few years back where I finished in 40min13sec. So close. It was becoming frustrating to not be able to do it. It was also becoming a bit painful. I became very nervous about injury. Not that I was doing much about prevention. My knees were starting to hurt just a little bit and I was becoming fretful of my running longevity.

It was around this time when I read the book “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall.
born to run

It’s a great read. I highly recommend it, however, in this story I am about to tell, it was also the beginning of my downfall. The book is non-fiction, about a journalist that loves to run but was always plagued with injury. He knew of a tribe in South America who run religiously as part of their culture and never suffer from the same frail ailments as he and many other American runners did. These guys would run 100 miles at a time! The book is about him going south with some other well known runners to discover their secret.

The secret was barefoot or practically barefoot running. These tribespeople would run up rocky terrain for great distances every day practically with nothing but thin sandals strapped to their feet.

Huarache%20Sandal_53

Imagine running 100 miles in a pair of these.  Jeepers.  The book also went into the physiological reason that running this way might be better. It requires running on the your fore feet (instead of the traditional heal strike) which is like running with a spring hinge. It absorbs impact way better than heal strike running which shoots the force straight up your leg leaving your joints to brace the full impact.

imagesKVHIRDCP

The book also went in depth about the running shoe industry and claimed that these well fitted thick souled shoes were locking our feet in place and not allowing for enough mobility which is why North American runners were way more prone to injury. A lot of blame was put on shoe corporations for creating a product that wasn’t really needed, which was weakening our bodies, increasing our risk of injury and thereby making us dependant on them to provide proper support.

Well, like a hipster and his longboard, I hopped on.  It all seemed to make sense to me.  The minimal shoe craze had started and new minimal, or “barefoot”, shoes were becoming a new marketing tool for shoe companies. I bought a pair and immediately started running in them. The next day I was limping from calf pain due to over work. I persisted (and it persisted). I thought it was something neat and cool that I was trying and I was convinced it was the right thing to do. Despite the pain I kept running.

The advice from experts is to slowly transition into minimal shoes. Bit by bit run in minimal shoes for longer distances until your body adjusts. I am like a Gorilla when I exercise. I just put my head down and try to sweat as much as I possibly can until I can’t take it anymore. Not the greatest way to avoid injury.

PRM 01 MC0026 01

My knees were great, but I was now starting to get a sharp pain in my achilles. Every morning I would walk down the stairs like Scatman Crothers looking for his tractor in The Shining. The pain was pretty severe, but would go away during the day. I looked it up on-line (one site) and it was clearly stated that achilles injuries were unlikely using minimal shoes. So I pressed on.

Then one day….

…….I went for a run.

Bom Bom …….Bummmmm!

running-man-from-backsm

Twenty minutes into the run, I felt great pain. Problem was that I was twenty minutes out and had to get back. Stupidly, I decided to run back in pain. With every step I was ripping and tearing at my already inflamed achilles. When I got back the damage was done.

I did see a physiotherapist and the ultimate diagnosis was that I had over worked and over stretched my achilles to the point of tendonosis. Hooray!!! This was going to take a long time to heal.

It was last September that this happened and I was not able to run for another 6 months. It is now July (10 months) and I am only now able to run the way I used to, albeit at a slower pace.

So where is the “Skeptic Fail” in my sad running story?

running-sucks

Well, I think there were a few places that I could have been more critical of myself and maybe could have avoided severe injury.

(1) When I was researching minimal versus traditional running shoes, the expert opinions were not unanimous. In reading the discussions on the matter, I tended to only consider the pro side as correct even when the article presented balanced viewpoints. Hey, I had read this cool book and I thought I was on the cutting edge of shoe technology. I had biased blinders on. Essentially the science is still out on whether this solved some fundamental issue with traditional running or whether it is just transferring risk of injury from one body part to another.

(2) I ignored the glaring fact that most things are always more complicated than the easy answer I was looking for. People’s physiologies are different and some can handle switching to minimal shoes better than others.

(3) I was ignoring what my body was telling me. I was in pain but was living in denial. Even when the truth was right in front of my face, I pushed it aside and kept on running. I wasn’t being very critical of my actions.

Well, that’s it Pal.  Hopefully now I will be more cautious. I will treat this as a lesson learned. The ultimate truth is that running is just tough on the body and the damage I caused may never be fully reversed. I have to remind myself not to push so hard and just have fun out there.

imagesQQWZUIID

I am happier now that I am running again.  Here’s hoping I can keep it up, eh?

Later Pal.

Review of a Perfect Album – Vol. 1: In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

And one day we will die and our ashes will fly
From the aeroplane over the sea
But for now we are young let us lay in the sun
And count every beautiful thing we can see

Boy is born

Magic with no explanation

Of course everything is possible.  Emerging out of his mother’s belly for no apparent reason at all.  Like all children, it was never explained to him why or how.  So, of course Santa Clause is real.  Of course the Tooth Fairy comes at night to give him money for his lost tooth. Everything is amazing and everything is a miracle.

Unquestioned wonder.

But to the side of this, in his periphery, are the parents. Living an adult life full of joy at times, but also full of struggles, and adult concerns, and getting older, and feeling mortal, and coming to terms with past trauma.

And your mom would drink until’ she was no longer speaking
And dad would dream of all the different ways to die
Each one a little more than he could dare to try

As the boy gets older, the wonders of childhood can’t restrain the realities of pending adulthood.  The horrors that life can bring start to emerge. He can see his world view changing.

The boy fights against this. Knowing of course that life is beautiful.  Despite the ugliness. It has to be. He’s seen it.

And it’s so sad to see the world agree
That they’d rather see their faces fill with flies
All when I’d want to keep white roses in their eyes

He posits resistance.

A great battle against the ugly bits of life that he sees adults are forced to face.  The battle to protect the wonder and the beauty.  In a world where you sometimes can’t run, he faces it head on.

The result is a beautifully twisted and gnarled mess of flesh and bone.  Blood and guts.  Everything is expended.  Nothing is left behind.

Two headed boy
There’s no reason to grieve
The world that you need is wrapped in gold silver sleeves
Left beneath Christmas trees in the snow
And I will take you and leave you alone
Watching spirals of white softly flow
Over your eyelids and all you did
Will wait until the point when you let go

The boy wins.

binkleyPal, maybe at this point you are wondering, “what the hell is he talking about?  Get to the flippin’ point already.”  Well, here it is. I am trying to present my take on Neutral Milk Hotel’s perfect masterpiece….

In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

in_the_aeroplane-turns_ten

A folk album for the nineties, this album is perfectly wonderful, perfectly ugly and perfectly weird.  It is as much of an open wound as it is a sunset over a rolling meadow. It is as tortured as it is enlightened.  It is as confused as it is full of clarity.  The album hovers between a dream-like and awakened state, full of child-like surrealism and brutal truths. Like this lyric from the its darkest track Oh Comely

Your father made fetuses with flesh licking ladies
While you and your mother were asleep in the trailer park
Thunderous sparks from the dark of the stadiums
The music and medicine you needed for comforting

Devastating.

neutral-milk-hotel

I came to this album later in life.  As an adult.  It is one of those albums that I think may have changed my life if I heard it as a teenager.

At first glance the album may seem musically simple, but like most folk music giants, the skill and complexity comes with perfectly timed expressions of feel and emotion that few can match.  However, unlike most folk albums that dabble in the nuanced back and forth of soft and even softer, this album flutters from loud to even louder.  Like a slightly too hot shower washing over you.

At times Jeff Mangum is singing so intensely he overstrains his voice and at times the guitars seem to be to overloading the soundboard.  The result is jarring, intensely compelling, and extremely effective.  Not a note or word is wasted.  Rich and poetic. The lyrics are complex, expressive and innocent. All of these elements combine to give this Pal full body chills (every time mind you) for the entire duration of my experience with the album (It is the only album to do that to me).

Within all the horrors that are described in graphic detail throughout the album, the protagonist remains optimistic.  When making In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, Jeff Mangum has stated that he was inspired by The Diary of Anne Frank. Nowhere is it more clear with the on-the-nose track Holland 1945. A hard driving love letter to the girl that touched him deeply.  I think all the rest of the tracks are Mangum attempting, in some small way, to relate to this amazing teenager who was able to still see the good in people despite all the atrocities around her.

The only girl I’ve ever loved
Was born with roses in her eyes
But then they buried her alive
One evening 1945
With just her sister at her side

anne frank

 

 

 

 

 

 

A perfect album in every way.

Later Pal.