January 6, 2012

Best Albums of the Year: Triple Album Review

Triple Album Review: 2011’s Three Best Albums

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CakeShowroom of Compassion

(Upbeat Records)

Cake, Indie Rock heroes from the ’90s finally released a new album after seven inactive years.  Showroom of Compassion, as the new material is titled, was met with reasonable skepticism.  After all, how many (almost) two decades-old bands return from hibernation with an album that matches their best work?  Cake, it seems, does; and without compromising their signature sound.  The painful harmonies are still present.  But, they are matched with Mariachi-style trumpet compositions and a buoyant rhythm section.  Still, there is something different about this album.  John McCrea, Cake’s scrupulous and political lead singer, has been long admired for his casual use of cynicism and of satire.  On the new album though, he places these ingredients secondary to, well… compassion.  (Or maybe, it’s just very well disguised satire.)  And ultimately, Cake’s latest effort is so fresh and suitably mature because of that very element.  Showroom of Compassion will be remembered as proof that sometimes, bands do age gracefully.

Best Tracks: “Long Time” “Mustache Man (Wasted)” “Easy To Crash”

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Charles BradleyNo Time for Dreaming

(Daptone Records)

Daptone Records is celebrated for signing present-day artists who embody the sound and spirit of classic soul and funk music.  Charles Bradley is no exception.  His voice is passionate and raw, which is why he’s affectionately nicknamed the “Screaming Eagle of Soul.”  But honestly, any true soul singer is passionate, raw and exposed.  Bradley stands out because he is urgent.  Not urgent in a political, “What’s Going On,” people-are-suffering sort of way.   It’s more, ‘Hear my message— you could really learn a lot from it.’ He speaks compellingly about the importance of here and now; and he makes the listener understand that, in a world that’s “going up in flames” (see opening track), love and genuineness are paramount.

Best Tracks: “The World (Is Going Up In Flames)” “I Believe In Your Love”

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Radiohead- “King of Limbs”

(self-released)

Seeing that every Radiohead album since 1995 has been labeled ‘Album of the Year’ by hoards of critics, it’s no surprise that King of Limbs made this list.  In true Radiohead fashion, this record sounds unlike any of their previous work.  It’s the least guitar driven, relying more heavily on a percussion-based rhythm section (almost resembling the electronic genre glitch-hop).  King of Limbs has less coherent lyrical content than other Radiohead albums, but makes up for this potential drawback with fantastic instrumentals.  The music has many layers, each full of unique and subtle nuances, meriting King of Limbs as one of the best albums of the year.

Best Tracks: “Little By Little” “Lotus Flower” “Codex”

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NOTE: Fans of Radiohead’s King of Limbs should check out the 2-disc remix LP of their Grammy-nominated album.  TKOL RMX 1234567 is a collaboration between Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke and various hip-hop and electronica producers. Every song from the original King of Limbs is reinterpreted in one or more remixes, including “TKOL [Altrice RMX]”, an remix featuring parts from every song on the original album.  While TKOL RMX 1234567 is not as stunning or meaningful as its derivative, it does serve as a more groovy and danceable complement to one of the best albums of the year from one of the best bands of all time.

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August 22, 2011

BTBAM Raises The Metal Status Quo Once Again

Between The Buried And Me- The Parallax: Hypersleep Dialogues (Metal Blade Records, 2011)

I became a lifelong fan of Between The Buried and Me (aka BTBAM) in 2007 when they released their Homer’s-The Odyssey-sized epic, Colors. Every day for two months I listened through the entire album during my 40 minute commute to and from YSU.  What must be understood is that Colors is is much more than a great metal album.  Rather, it’s a brutal, 1 hour and 6 minute, hyperbolic, genre-challenging instant classic.  The follow-up The Great Misdirect was impressive.  However, it wasn’t able to live up to the glory of its predecessor.

So when I heard that BTBAM was releasing a new EP, I certainly felt skepticism.  I didn’t doubt the band’s abilities, but I was concerned that their career may have peaked at Colors.  Alas, I was wrong.

With the release of their newest EP came evidence that BTBAM are indeed on the path to becoming metal legends.  The Parallax: Hypersleep Dialogues contains only three songs, but that isn’t saying much given the average length of each is about ten minutes. Aside from lengthy compositions, however, BTBAM keeps it pretty traditional (in a death metal sense).  There is only one gypsy-style breakdown (see last two albums) and there are no acoustic passages.  Clean vocals are kept at bay.  Instead, The Parallax relies on intensity and brutality.  It’s still progressive, but in a different way.  Before, BTBAM was progressive because they tackled many styles, often in a single song, and often without any foreshadowing.  On the new EP, they embody progressive by creating complex rhythmic patterns (even more so than before) and approaching simple concepts from various angles.

Most of the time, the simple concepts are in the form of incredible guitar riffs.  A good example would be at one minute and nineteen seconds into the song “Augment Of Rebirth.”  Drummer Blake Richardson is critical here.  He plays both with and against the riff; and in both the foreground and the background of it.  The result is metal ecstasy.

In another notable part of the album, near the end of the opening track, guitarists (Paul Waggoner and Dusty Waring) recreate the orchestral introduction as a dissonant, electric guitar arrangement.  The entire EP is like that, filled with clever interpretations of brutal and adrenaline-pumping ideas.

But at the end of the day, The Parallax is awesome because it’s the perfect combination of Between The Buried And Me’s brutal roots and their progressive originality.  Many fans (myself included) have been impressed with, but also irritated by, the band’s wacky stylistic evolution.  If you are like us, this EP is what you’re looking for.  It offers only the best of BTBAM- old and new.

Best Tracks: All

For Fans Of: Protest The Hero, Rush, Dream Theater, Meshuggah

Rating: 4.5/5

August 19, 2011

Pretty Lights (sounds better than his stage name does)

Pretty Lights- Filling Up The City Skies (Pretty Lights Music Records)

Derek Vincent Smith (better known as Pretty Lights) is probably the most badass Producer/DJ/EDM artist (on his twitter he describes himself as “electrohiphopsoul”) to hit the scene since he adopted the stage name in 2007.   His music is as distinct as Justice, as intoxicating as Girl Talk, and has quickly become internationally celebrated (Pretty Lights opened up for DJ Shadow in the UK in June).

While he is a machine when it comes to pumping out new music (three EPs just in 2010), I’ve decided to examine his older work.  Filling Up The City Skies is his second album and a two-disc opus.  Wisely, he separated the more relaxed and groovy songs from the harder hitting, danceable songs.

It seems he titles his songs based on the most prevalent samples in each one.  The first track, “Change Is Gonna Come” starts with an awesome sample of the Otis Redding version of… well, “Change Is Gonna Come.” The rest of the track, (and first disc, actually) is filled with chill, semi-downtempo, soul-inspired hip hop beats.  Perfect music for any relaxed intoxicated setting.

Disc two is a different story.  It’s also perfect for an intoxicated setting, but a much rowdier one.  Psychedelic from beginning to end, the second disc is the kind of music you hear at a club or hippie music festival filled with “alcohol”-fueled audiences engaging in group gyration.  If that’s not your type of thing, it’s understandable.  But don’t judge the music by its audience.  This party music is awesome. Each track has countless layers full of retro soul samples, warped-sounding synth parts, clever bass lines, et cetera.

And what’s great about Pretty Lights is, as I said, he is always putting out new music.  Each album is a fresh step from the previous, meaning that fans should always be on the lookout for new material.

Best Tracks:

Disc 1- “The Time Has Come” “Solamente”

Disc 2- “How We Do” “Who Loves Me” “More Important Than Michael Jordan” “Aimin At Your Head”

For Fans Of: DJ Shadow, Justice, The Glitch Mob, Girl Talk

Rating: 4/5

August 17, 2011

Radiohead Playlist

I just finished writing my article for the Fall Edition of Cigars In Review Magazine and it includes a review of Radiohead’s 2011 album King of Limbs.  When I began writing the review I entered a Radiohead “kick” that spanned their entire discography.  Listed below are the contents of a playlist I created highlighting my favorite Radiohead songs.

1.  “Lotus Flower” –King of Limbs (2011)

2.  “Knives Out” –Amnesiac (2001)

3.  “15 Steps” –In Rainbows (2007)

4.  “Electioneering” –OK Computer (1997)

5.  “Nude” –In Rainbows (2007)

6.  “There There (The Boney King of Nowhere.)” –Hail To The Thief (2003)

7.  “Reckoner” –In Rainbows (2007)

8.  “I Might Be Wrong” –Amnesiac (2001)

9.  “The National Anthem” –Kid A (2000)

10.  “The Bends” –The Bends (1995)

11.  “Airbag” –OK Computer (1997)

12.  “Morning Mr Magpie” –The King Of Limbs (2011)

13.  “Myxomatosis (Judge, Jury & Executioner.)” –Hail To The Thief (2003)

14.  “Karma Police” –OK Computer (1997)

15.  “Idioteque” –Kid A (2000)

16.  “Jigsaw Falling Into Place” –In Rainbows (2007)

17.  “You And Whose Army?” –Amnesiac (2001)

18.  “Litte By Little” –The King Of Limbs (2011)

19.  “A Wolf At The Door (It Girl. Rag Doll.) -Hail To The Thief (2003)

Enjoy!

July 26, 2011

Related News

Well guys, you can probably see that my blog has remained dormant since my June 2011 post on Education Reform.   Dormancy will end soon enough though.  Until then, here is some news:

  • Cigars In Review Magazine released its 2011 Summer Edition which is available at a participating distributors.  Havana House (located in Niles and Boardman, Ohio), my part-time employers and affiliates of CIR Magazine, are the best places to find hard copies in Northeastern Ohio.  To view the FREE digital copy of the magazine, go HERE.
  • In the upcoming Autumn Edition (due out in September) I’ve reviewed three of the best albums of 2011 thus far.  Recording artists making the cut are RadioheadCake, and Charles Bradley.  
  • News for readers who enjoyed my Education Reform post- Pennsylvania legislatures are trying to pass Senate Bill 1, which, if enacted would implement many of the proposals suggested in my article.  Also, readers who are from Ohio, like me, should know that proposals for Education Reform in this state are not like Pennsylvania’s.  Ohio’s elected officials are sadly using the same ineffective, decades-old tactics that their predecessors have used.  I.e. revising standardized tests and putting additional restrictions on curriculums.  So, even if you aren’t a resident of PA, you should read this enlightening article-  “Ten Essential Questions On School Vouchers by Sandy Sheaand learn how the Keystone State is approaching its education reform, then compare to your state’s education legislation.
  • Lastly, my first blog-exclusive articles will be posted very soon.  I’m currently reviewing: 1) “The Parallax: Hypersleep Dialogues EP” by Between the Buried and Me, an American progressive metal band 2) “Tirtha,” an ironic collaboration between Indian-born jazz pianist Vijay Iyer (who sternly claims not to be an Indian musician), Indian guitarist Prasanna, and Indian tabla player Nitin Mitta 3) two-disc album “Filling Up The City Skies” by EDM artist Pretty Lights.
-Bryan Infante, CIR Magazine

P.S. Check out the blogs of my fellow CIR columnists, Joe Lordi and Tony Bellatto.

June 29, 2011

Education Reform

Can Educational Vouchers Foster Competition and Repair the United States Education System?

ABSTRACT: School Vouchers have been used on a small-scale as an attempt to offer students the choice of deciding where they receive their education.  The effects of a large-scale Voucher system have yet to be seen but economic theory says they could be beneficial.  Vouchers would be used in exchange for public education or to lower the out-of –pocket expenses of private schools.  Offering students the choice to attend private schools at a lower cost, public schools would feel pressure to increase the quality of their education services.  The end result would be a net improvement in the quality of the United States Education System.

KEYWORDS: Education Reform, Competition, School Choice

Essay:

Education Reform is a topic many people agree is important, though few take the time to make a difference.  Maybe, if there is a time without newsworthy disasters and sensational ideology bouts, happening not during an election season, larger numbers of people will begin to inform themselves and become involved.  Thankfully, a small,  wise fraction of Americans realize and are ominous about our students being well out-performed by students from less developed nations.  Even worse, we are losing in engineering, mathematics and technology, all of which are essential to our economic advancement.  Education costs us billions of dollars each year and uses thirty percent of state and local government budgets (Gruber).  Spending per pupil is at an all-time high, yet our academic performance is only “average” internationally (PISA).

Now, there is one centuries old idea with the potential to change our education system for the better.  Adam Smith introduced the idea of “school choice” in his 1776 masterwork, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.  He argued that by empowering students with the ability to decide where they want to be taught, competition will be  introduced to the education markets and academic institutions will be faced with increased incentive to provide the best education services.  School choice is now an umbrella term for a number of initiatives that loosely promote the idea.  Nevertheless, a practical, modern-day application of school choice can be found in Educational Vouchers (also called School Vouchers). A School Voucher is a credit issued by the government that equals the value of the per student cost of public education (Gruber).  In essence, it is a coupon that offers a choice between free public education and discounted private education.  Like any policy proposal, there are many arguments for and against it; and because of that, we must decide the strengths of the arguments.  Once that is accomplished, we can decide: keep the policy and fix its flaws or abandon it altogether.

Learn From The Past

In order to determine if the Educational Voucher method is better than the current system, we must establish the benefits and drawbacks of the current system.  Americans have become increasingly dissatisfied with Public Education over the past forty years, but it has aided the growth and maturity of our society.  Public education also offers everyone the opportunity to go to school.  Even children living in severe poverty are provided education services.  Society gains from this because educated people are usually more productive, notably in the workplace.  When workers are productive, they are paid more.  Higher wages are taxed, increasing government revenue.  Other benefits to society include: lower crime rates, informed voters, increased income mobility (which is a person’s ability to move to higher income levels), among others (Gruber).

As previously stated though, public education is riddled with problems. One likely explanation is that teachers and other faculty earn the same wages whether their students far exceed performance standards or fail to reach them.  Without being compensated for improving classroom performance, teachers and administrators face a disincentive to put forth the effort required to make improvements.  Also, studies reveal bureaucracy size in public schools to be inversely correlated with increasing student performance (Meier).  Bureaucracy size in public schools has been increasing too, which means higher costs.

Budgeting problems in the United States are no secret, and education takes up a large share of our troubled budgets.  While a decrease in spending is probably not a solution, a system so expensive should certainly be more effective.  This is the dilemma that economists and policy makers are trying solve.

Vouchers Can Improve Quality…

There are many arguments for the use of School Choice facilitated by Educational Vouchers. Vouchers would make private schools much more affordable.  If students choose schools based on quality as opposed to affordability, public schools would be forced to improve the quality of their services if they want to remain competitive.  Right now, public school funding is fixed, so public schools do not risk losing out if their performance is poor.  Actually, in some cases, like in Minnesota this past year, schools received more money for bad performance.  Consider the alternative.  With School Choice in effect, students will be able to attend private schools if they (or their parents) are dissatisfied with public schools.  In this case, every student lost to a private school would be a decrease in public school funding.  They would be forced to improve.  The constant threat of funding would put strong pressure on the public sector to eliminate wasteful spending and provide the highest quality education possible.

In the economics textbook Public Finance and Public Policy, the author Jonathon Gruber explores how public policy affects the quality of education.  He presents a hypothetical situation where the education market starts off with only private institutions.  Imagine three different families (named “X,” “Y,” and “Z”); all have the same spending capacity.  Each family is willing to pay a different price for their children’s education with the cost of the education reflecting its quality. What the families do not spend on education, they spend on other goods.  Family X has a low demand for quality education, so they choose low cost tuition for their children.  Family Y has higher demand than Family X and decides to pay more for better quality.  Family Z has the highest demand for quality education, so they spend the most of the three families.

Next, public schools are introduced to the market. Under these circumstances, Family X chooses to educate their children for free at a public school because it happens to have better quality than their private school of choice.  Their children’s education is improved by public schools.  Family Y also decides to send their kids to a public school because they want to have more money to spend on other goods.  They justify this action because the private school was only slightly better anyway.  Still, their children end up receiving lower quality education.  Family Z decides that they are still willing to pay for the high quality private school.  Their children’s education remains the same.

Lastly, the government issues school vouchers that are spendable at private or public schools.  The vouchers replace a certain amount of spending that would have normally been used for education, so everyone’s disposable income is increased by the value of the vouchers.  For all families, quality of education is better and potential spending on other goods is higher now than when they did not have vouchers.

…But Vouchers May Create New Problems…

            While vouchers could help families reach the optimal amount of spending on education, opponents argue there could be negative externalities (i.e. unintended negative effects).  The concern expressed most frequently is that private schools lack the regulation and oversight found in the public sector.  People fear that private schools will place the students’ interests aside if profit levels are jeopardized.  The reason is because corruption is very common (or at least viewed to be highly common) in the business world.

Other concerns with the School Voucher system deal with the diversity of the educational experience.  An example: competition could cause schools to specialize too much.  Competition in business often results in firms finding a niche.  For example, a clothing company may be able to produce denim jeans of exceptional quality, but only because its other clothing products are poorly crafted (i.e. lucky brand, diesel, etc).  In the education market, an example of bad specialization would be a school producing a highly advanced mathematics program, but only at the expense of its other programs.  Mainstream educators think students should be taught a basic skill set to meet the demands of today’s ever-changing world.  Students who attend highly specialized schools are likely to develop inferior abilities in any of the subjects compromised by specialization.

Low-income areas could also become a problem.  If School Vouchers are brought to an area where the income is low and economic growth is unlikely, public schools may not be able to endure the loss of students and funds.  If funds become too scarce, even for a short period of time, the public school may become degenerate in quality.  Or worse, it could shut down completely, leaving students helpless if they can’t afford the extra costs of private schools.

Vouchers Can Work

There are many legitimate arguments against School Vouchers.  However, with the enough effort and proper use of economic tools, they definitely have the possibility of improving the quality of education in this country.  Unfortunately, limited empirical research has been conducted so the potential real-world results of a large-scale voucher system is not known.  This makes my opinion on the matter mostly subject to speculation by advocates and opponents.

I do consider School Vouchers to be the best available solution to many of the problems in our education system.  Classical Liberal (and legendary economist) Milton Friedman was an avid supporter of School Vouchers: “[Vouchers] would bring a healthy increase in the variety of educational institutions available and in competition among them. Private initiative and enterprise would quicken the pace of progress in this area as it has in so many others. Government would serve its proper function of improving the operation of the invisible hand without substituting the dead hand of bureaucracy” (Reason).

As mentioned earlier, School Vouchers are not a perfect solution.  Current problems could be fixed, but in the process, new ones may be born.  So, I have carefully thought of some solutions to these problems.

Most potential problems with School Vouchers could be resolved by imposing adjusted regulations on the Education system (and remember, we already have regulations on our current system).  To thwart improper business practices, determine what practices are unwanted and establish necessary sanctions.  To avoid excess specialization, continue to enforce curriculum requirements.  As similar problems arise, deal with them similarly.  Schools already have teacher and faculty codes of conduct and they also already have to meet curriculum requirements, so it does not seem unreasonable to expect schools to adhere to new codes and new curriculums.

When pondering how to enforce regulations in a School Voucher era, I have a comparable answer.  Use the practices that have worked in the past.  Establish school boards and councils that represent institutions from the public and private sectors.  Perhaps, to prevent authorities from acting in self-interest, establish requirements for the positions-to-be-held.  For example, enforce term limits and salary caps.  Also, to ensure that decisions maximize the benefits of both students and taxpayers, assure that both groups are represented.  Some board/council members must have a child in the level of education they represent (i.e. primary or secondary), while other members will have no children in the school system (instead, they represent taxpayers who help fund, but do not have children in, the school district). All discussion and decisions in meetings must be available to the public.  In short: put into action the necessary regulations so school boards can work just as well as other successful, transparent governing bodies.

For areas of low income and economic growth, spend government money.  Employ School Vouchers first in areas of wealth and strong economic growth until competition is abundant.  (Please note that I do realize the challenges our political system faces when trying to pass legislation that benefits to the well-off before benefiting the poor.  I’m still seeking solutions to this dilemma.)  Once the systems are working well, decide if they can continue with reduced funding- if so, allocate the difference in funds to low-income areas to keep them afloat.

The last unresolved issue involves the amount and effectiveness of government spending.  I excluded this from the “…But Vouchers May Create New Problems…” section of the essay because the costs of a Voucher-based system are still very unclear.  However, I do have a thought: be responsible with the money.  To achieve this (in Education) is to measure the cost-effectiveness of Education spending.  Economist Sandra Black, for example, has developed advanced models to achieve this by measuring the quality of schooling in comparison to lifetime student achievement, and also by measuring the parental valuation of better schools (Black).  Using hers, along with other sophisticated models, the government can try to maximize its returns on Education investment.

References

Black, Sandra. “Measuring The Value of Better Schools.” Economic Policy Review 4.1 (1998): 87-94. Print.

“The Father of Modern School Reform.” Reason Magazine. Web. 18 Apr. 2011. <http://reason.com/archives/2005/12/01/the-father-of-modern-school-re&gt;.

Gruber, Jonathan. Public Finance and Public Policy. New York, NY: Worth, 2007. Print.

Meier, Kenneth. “Bureaucracy and Organizational Performance: Causality Arguments About Public Schools.” American Journal of Political Science (2000). Web.

“PISA.” Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Web. 18 Apr. 2011. <http://www.pisa.oecd.org/pages/0,2987,en_32252351_32235731_1_1_1_1_1,00.html&gt;.

“School Vouchers Undermine Public Schools.” ADL: Fighting Anti-Semitism, Bigotry and Extremism. Web. 18 Apr. 2011. <http://www.adl.org/vouchers/vouchers_public_schools.asp&gt;.

June 21, 2011

First Post!

My first post happens to be (since I haven’t actually blogged about anything yet) a copy of my first published article with Cigars In Review Magazine.  Take note that the albums I review in my published work are more mainstream than the albums I plan to discuss in my blog.  Either way, enjoy:

The Black Keys- Brothers [Nonesuch Records]

By Bryan Infante

“Brothers,” the LP that has grabbed the Black Keys four Grammy Nominations, is certainly one of the buzzworthy albums of the year. While it is trendy among twentysomething indie circles, it is certain to grab the attention of blues and classic rock enthusiasts in general.  The album, though typical in structure, finds itself truly captivating because of mood and style.  Written by only two individuals, Dan Auerbach (Vocals, Guitar) and Patrick Carney (Drums, Production), “Brothers” sounds like a Pink Floyd-inspired blues rock album that was produced in the vein of the Beatles’ “Abbey Road.”

The 6th studio album by these garage rockers is barely flashy and mostly raw.  Tracks such as “Black Mud,” “Sinister Kid” and “I’m Not The One” are the most blues-oriented, each possessing the harmonic sensibility of a pop song while being inundated with hard grooves from Carney and inspired vocals from Auerbach.  Moreover, even the more commercial tracks on Brothers’ succeed due to the fact that the lyrics convey a sense of modern and authentic hardship has yet to be captured by other blues bands of the same variety.

The best song on the album, “Unknown Brother,” which was written about Auerbach’s late brother-in-law who he never met, draws from 50s-era love ballads to perfectly capture the agony felt by the clearly afflicted vocalist.  “We’ll smile like pictures of you as a boy before you retire to heavenly joy,” Auerbach sings, creating a perfect vision of his hollow sentiment.

“Brothers” is recommended for any individual who is interested in modern rock or simply wants to hear some authentic blues tales.  Two different bonus tracks are available for the album, one (called “Ohio”) through theblackkeys.com and one  (called “Howlin’ For You” [feat. Prins Thomas Diskomik]) via iTunes.

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