52 Week Photography Challenge

I love photography, but I find that in my day-to-day life, I have trouble finding inspiration to shoot. When I'm traveling, it feels like the camera never leaves my hand; back at home, I'll go for weeks at a time without picking it up.

So to motivate myself to pick up the camera more often, I'm embarking on a 52 Week Photography project (thanks to Jon Hathaway for the inspiration). The rules are simple:

  • Every Monday, I'll generate a random art prompt using this website;
  • I have to take a photo that represents that prompt during the following week;
  • And post it the following Monday.

I'm going to try to shoot these with my mirrorless camera rather than my iPhone, but I don't think I'll make that a hard-and-fast rule.

Here's a gallery of my entries so far (click on a photo to see a larger version). And I really hope you'll follow me on Flickr or Instagram for updates throughout the challenge.


Six Great Podcast Episodes

I listen to a lot of podcasts – so many, in fact, that I sometimes run out of new material and have to go back to one of my old standbys. So I keep a certain number of great episodes downloaded to my phone at all times, both for when I’ve run out of new material and for those times (airplanes, power outages, zombocalypse) that I’m left without an internet connection.

These aren’t necessarily indicative of the podcasts I listen to all the time – there are lots of news and technology podcasts that I enjoy, but don’t find re-listenable. But the chances are good that at any given point in time, I’m in the mood to hear one of these six episodes.

43Folders – John Gruber & Merlin Mann’s Blogging Panel at SxSW

Gruber and Mann are technology bloggers, but their talk from the 2009 South by Southwest festival is a fantastic exploration of inspiration, doing what you love, and pushing through even when it feels like nobody’s paying attention. It’s nominally about blogging, but if you make any kind of art, I think there’s valuable wisdom here.

Fresh Air – Terry Gross Interviews Maurice Sendak

This interview is without a doubt one of the most affecting pieces of tape I’ve ever heard. Gross spoke with Sendak very near the end of his life, and his reflections about growing old are somehow sad, beautiful, and inspiring all at once. The interview is well-worth hearing in its entirety, but if you just want to bawl your eyes out, check out this animated excerpt from the New York Times.

This American Life – Retraction

This American Life has produced dozens of fantastic episodes in its twenty-year run, so I’m sure they’d be disappointed to hear that one of my favorites is on the subject of their greatest journalistic failure. A few months before this episode ran, the show featured a monologue about Apple’s production line in China from a speaker named Mike Daisey – much of which turned out to be fabricated.

The first part of this show is a fascinating journalistic detective story as Rob Schmitz, a reporter based in China, hears things in the monologue that don’t add up and starts digging into Daisey’s story. But it’s the second part that I find truly fascinating, as Ira Glass sits down in the studio with Daisey and probes him about why he thought he could get away with such outright fabrication. It’s an intensely awkward experience, a portrait of a man who is used to being able to talk himself out of any situation slowly coming to the realization that he’s gotten himself into real trouble.

Radiolab Shorts – Fu Manchu

Radiolab seems to have lost its way recently, which makes me sad: the show was the first podcast I fell in love with. But it’s been a long time since they’ve made a truly thrilling piece of radio, and it seems like when they’re not mounting ill-advised defenses of plagiarizers, they’re failing to consider their approach when talking to massacre-survivors.

This short, from 2010, showcases in 12 minutes everything that was great about the show: their commitment to story, the way they tied that story together with interesting scientific concepts, and the way that – at their best – the innovative editing and sound design supported, rather than detracted from, their intent. It’s the story of an orangutan escape artist named Fu Manchu, and it’s awesome.

(I also love this 2007 episode about zoos, especially the first segment about the construction of the first interactive enclosure built for gorillas at the Seattle Zoo.)

WTF With Marc Maron – Louis CK Parts 1 and 2

In the early days, there was something lovably ramshackle about WTF with Marc Maron: it really was just a b-list comedian talking to his friends in his garage. The show’s changed in the five years since it launched, and as it approaches its 500th episode, the show no longer feels like Maron’s just rifling through his rolodex to book guests. That’s sometimes good – I’ve really enjoyed his recent interviews of non-comedians. But it also means that the show has lost some of the personal connection Marc used to have to his guests.

These two episodes (drawn from the same interview) are part interview, part therapy session, and it’s fascinating to hear these guys probe at old wounds and try to repair their friendship on-air.

99% Invisible - Wild Ones Live

99% Invisible is one of the best-produced podcasts out there, but this episode is something that host Roman Mars had only minimal involvement in. It’s a taped performance from author Jon Mooallem, who’s reading excerpts from his book, “Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America”. Backing up Mooallem is the folk band Black Prairie, which shares several members with The Decemberists. The stories are funny, sad, and totally fascinating, and the music provides a really great counterpoint that shores up the emotional beats of Mooallem’s work. If you like it, definitely check out Mooallem’s book as well.

Welcome to the Monkey Park

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It’s not easy to get to Jigokudani Monkey Park, which is probably why it still exists in its current form. The nearest town, Yamanouchi, is nestled deep in the Japanese Alps – the mountain range that forms the jagged spine of the island of Honshū. The town is a four hour train ride from Tokyo, and the park a further half-hour hike from the outskirts of town, along a narrow mountain path often covered in snow.

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The distance affords Jigokudani some relief from the throngs of tourists who crowd into the attractions nearer to Tokyo. Nevertheless, the park hosts a steady stream of visitors even in the most inclement of weather, all of whom have come to see the Japanese macaque – the famed ‘snow monkey’, and the only non-human primate to live in cold temperatures – in its natural habitat.

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The macaque is an exceptionally intelligent animal, and researchers have long been intrigued by its facility in both learning new information and in passing those lessons down throughout generations. In 1954, a female macaque named Imo was observed washing sand off of her sweet potatoes by dunking them in the sea; later, she and her troop took to dunking all their food in the ocean, sand or no sand, because they liked the salty taste.

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They’ve also been observed playing with snowballs and sticks, and there have been reports of macaques near Osaka stealing wallets and purses and using the coins inside to buy food from vending machines. Different troops have been proven to have different dialects and to have specific types of calls for different stimuli.

Then again, a macaque named Zoro once ruled his troop for almost twelve years because he stole a banana from the previous alpha male, so perhaps the reports of their intelligence are a trifle overstated.

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Sometime in the 1960s the macaques observed human beings using the onsen, or hot spring baths, near Jigokudani and decided to give it a shot. Eventually people got tired of sharing their baths with a bunch of monkeys and built them their own hot springs, luring them there by tossing sweet potatoes into the water. In the fifty years since the macaques have continued to bathe almost daily in the wintertime, lured by the hot springs (which they genuinely seem to enjoy) and by the regular meals the park staff spread throughout the snow.

Between the two monkey species that visit Jigokudani, the macaques certainly came off better for the comparison. They’re not so much human-friendly as they are human-apathetic; as far as I could tell, they paid their visitors no mind at all. Some of the human beings were not as polite.

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It would be hypocritical for me to fault the overly-excited photographers – while I put a long lens on my camera and tried to keep my distance, I drew much closer to the macaques than I normally would to a wild animal. More discouraging were the people who ignored the many signs exhorting visitors to avoid interacting with the macaques – the people who, flashing peace signs, crowded around a sleeping mother and baby for a photo, or who tried to high-five one of the monkeys (!).

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To be fair, it was difficult to avoid interacting with the monkeys. At one point, I was crouched down photographing one macaque when I felt something brush my side; another macaque was using me as a sort of lean-to for protection from the falling snow.

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Jigokudani is a sort of like a cheat code for wildlife photography – not only are the monkeys extremely cute, with their old-man-faces and their wide, expressive eyes, but you can also get as close to them as you like. I kept imagining a National Geographic photographer, fresh from a blind in the Serengeti or something, wandering around the park muttering “bullshit” under his breath.

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I enjoyed the monkey park, but there was also something silly about the whole thing, about all the people wandering among the monkeys furiously snapping photographs. Ron Fricke already filmed the snow monkeys about as well as they could be filmed when he shot them in glorious 70mm film for his 1992 documentary Baraka. What were we really hoping to accomplish by lugging our DSLRs and our tripods up the mountain? What photo could we take that someone else hadn’t already taken? We were taking photographs to preserve the moment, but our very presence, and the lengths we had gone through to be there, was proof that someone else’s photographs weren’t wholly satisfying.

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That being said, to see more of my photos from Jigokudani, click here to check out the whole set on Flickr. 

The Perils of Success

On the face of it, it’s good news that Duncan Jones – the director of Moon and Source Code – has been brought on-board to direct the upcoming Warcraft movie. The Warcraft universe is deep and rich, Jones is a talented director who is obviously on his way up, and Blizzard is controlling enough to ensure that any film made from the franchise is of a reasonably high quality. This isn’t going to be a Resident Evil film, and it would be nice to have a truly respectable video game-to-film adaptation.

But it also continues a disappointing trend I’ve seen over the last few years in which young, talented directors are diverted from their original works to take on “safe”, big-budget franchises. Jones is probably the best example, but here are a few others:

  • Josh Trank makes Chronicle, one of the best superhero films in several years. His next film will be a Fantastic Four reboot.
  • Gavin Hood makes the brilliant, provocative film Tsotsi, which wins the Academy Award for best foreign film. He follows it up with the equally-provocative (if somewhat less successful) Rendition. His next two films are X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Ender’s Game.
  • Marc Webb makes the decent-enough 500 Days of Summer. He’s then tapped to take over the rebooted Spider-Man franchise.
  • After the cult hits Slither and Super, James Gunn will be directing a Guardians of the Galaxy film.
  • Nerd-hero Edgar Wright’s next project is an Ant-Man film slated for release in 2015.

Some of these don’t even make sense. What was it about 500 Days that made Marvel think Marc Webb would be a good fit for The Amazing Spider-Man? Likewise, what’s the rationale behind tapping James Mangold (of Walk the Line and 3:10 to Yuma fame) to direct this summer’s The Wolverine? What about Stranger Than Fiction orThe Kite Runner made studio execs think Marc Forster would be a successful director of action-oriented films like Quantum of Solace or World War Z?

I want to be clear: I’m not accusing these directors of selling out. There’s nothing “wrong” about directing adaptations, sequels, or big-budget films. And the opportunity to bring a huge budget to bear on your artistic vision must be legitimately thrilling.

Rather, I’m sad about the opportunity cost of having these directors at work on these franchises. I’m sad for the films they would otherwise be making, but aren’t. 

Catch-22

At this moment in film history, it has suddenly become fashionable to hire genuinely visionary directors to helm what are essentially genre films. It wasn’t always so: studios used to hire boring-but-competent directors for these sorts of films, and rely on the action and the stars to get audiences to the theater. 

That’s changed, and it’s resulted in some serious talent being brought to bear on major franchises. To pick just one example: Skyfall brought to the table an Academy Award-winning director, several Oscar-winning actors, and the world’s best living cinematographer. And it was awesome!

But this new paradigm comes with costs, and it seems like more and more often, the casualties are the kinds of movies that made those directors famous in the first place. I really loved The Avengers, but there’s something sad about Joss Whedon acknowledging that he won’t be able to get new Dr. Horrible or Firefly projects off the ground because he’s busy with Marvel duties until 2016. (And he’s even a guy who goes to extremes to sneak in passion projects!) 

As someone who believes Hollywood should invest more in original works and less in remakes and sequels, the way these casualties pile up can be depressing. Guillermo del Toro’s adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness collapsed due to his obligations to The Hobbit – a film he didn’t even end up directing! And to return to the example that inspired this post, Duncan Jones has talked publicly about his plans for Mute, a Blade Runner-esque murder mystery set in a future Berlin. He’s also talked about a possible Ian Fleming bio-pic, focusing on Fleming’s experiences in the British Intelligence service during WWII. Is a Warcraft film really worth postponing (or possibly losing) either of these?

An Embarrassment of Riches

There’s something a bit pretentious (or at least a bit greedy) in this line of thinking: aren’t there enough super-talented directors around to satisfy both my love of big-budget blockbusters and original films?

I suppose I’ll just have to hold out hope that the films I care about will someday come to exist, and enjoy the fruits of these directors’ franchise efforts in the meantime. And it makes me really cherish those directors – like Rian Johnson, Jeff Nichols, or Tomas Alfredson – who seem content to make quirky, original films on their own terms. After all, not everybody has to be an auteur – but it would be nice if somebody were. 

Favorite Films of 2012

I went to a lot of movies in 2012, and I seem to have done a better-than-average job of picking which films I saw – a good 2/3 of this list I would label as “good” movies, and I only really hated a few. So, here are the films I saw in the theater in 2012, from worst to best.


30. Prometheus

A total failure from start to finish, and the only film that made me angry I ever believed it could be good.

29. The Woman in Black

28. The Amazing Spider-Man

Worse than the 2002 version in every way.

27. Lawless

I was excited for this film because I loved Nick Cave and John Hillcoat’s last collaboration, The Proposition. Sadly, this is three hours of Shia LaBeouf mugging in a zoot suit. Even Tom Hardy can’t save this movie.

26. The Campaign

25. John Carter

Not as bad as it was made out to be, but not very good, either.

24. Les Miserables

I love the musical and I loved some of the performances here. But the cinematography, art direction, editing, sound mixing – you know, the stuff that makes this a movie – were a disaster.

23. The Hunger Games (see episode 21 of Pop Cultural Osmosis)

22. The Bourne Legacy

21. The Dark Knight Rises (see episode 26 of Pop Cultural Osmosis)

20. Haywire

19. The Intouchables

18. The Secret World of Arietty (see episode 21 of Pop Cultural Osmosis)

17. Beasts of the Southern Wild

16. Brave (see episode 25 of Pop Cultural Osmosis)

15. Robot & Frank

14. The Hobbit

13. Seven Psychopaths

12. Chronicle

A great superhero movie that’s marred by its silly found-footage conceit.

11. Cabin in the Woods

The moment that the elevator doors all open at once was the most exuberant filmmaking moment of the year.

10. 21 Jump Street

The funniest movie of the year from the unlikeliest source. Maybe the best TV-to-film adaptation in movie history.

9. Argo

Affleck continues to mature as a director, if perhaps not as an actor. This movie could easily have been reductive or pedantic; instead, it was smart and thrilling.

8. Skyfall

The best Bond film since – I’m not even sure. Goldfinger, maybe? Skyfall is somehow able to perfectly balance the inherent ridiculousness of the character with genuine stakes and drama. Plus, Mendes and Deakins are the best craftsmen ever to work on the series.

7. Django Unchained

The film’s first half is much better than its second – the action flags a bit once they arrive at Candeyland. But this is still Tarantino’s best film since Pulp Fiction, a perfectly-crafted, always-entertaining film that also makes – in its own manic way – a number of nuanced points about American slavery.

6. Cloud Atlas

I can understand why people hate this movie, but I loved it anyway. Crazily ambitious, heavy-handed, and seemingly destined for failure, Cloud Atlas is also a film devoid of cynicism and blessed with enormous emotional generosity. What can I say? It worked for me.

5. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

A beautiful, beguiling film. Gary Oldman’s performance is masterfully restrained. I’ve watched this movie over and over and I find something new to appreciate every time.

4. Looper

One of the best sci-fi films in years. (For more, see episode 28 of PCO.)

3. Moonrise Kingdom

Wes Anderson’s best live-action film, and perhaps the best live-action film Wes Anderson is capable of making. Moonrise is such the perfect distillation of his style that I have trouble seeing how he’ll ever top it.

1. TIE: The Avengers / Lincoln

A cheat! One is the best superhero film of all time, written and directed by a geeky cult-hero made good. The other is America’s best director teaming with America’s best playwright to make a film about America’s best President. They both play so directly to different passions of mine; I don’t think I could possibly choose.

Movies I wanted to see but didn’t have the chance: The Master, Zero Dark Thirty, Amour, Silver Linings Playbook, Safety Not Guaranteed, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Searching for Sugarman.


I was a little bummed about how few indie or limited distribution films I saw in theaters this year, but on the other hand, the studio offerings were uncommonly great. Right now it seems like arty little films are what I’m really excited about going forward (Upstream Color, Mud, Inside Llewyn Davis, Escape from Tomorrow) but that’s probably just because Sundance is going on so that’s what people are talking about.

A Meditation on Movie Trailers.

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Battle: Los Angeles is a prodigiously stupid film. The plot is stupid. The characters are stupid – both in their conception and in their actions. The aliens are stupid. The film is almost proud of how stupid the whole thing is.

That being said, Battle: Los Angeles also manages to be fucking awesome no less than 65% of the time. The twelve-year-old sitting behind me in the theater loved it, and so did I; I left the theater wishing that I, too, could shove my submachine-gun underneath the metal-plated ribcage of a robotic alien and empty a clip into its slimy thorax. The alien-invasion subgenre has become fashionable recently for reasons I’m not entirely clear on, though I mostly blame District 9. And while B:LA is nowhere near as smart as that film, it’s also no stupider than Signs, which I also loved.

However: I don’t really want to talk about B:LA. What I really want to talk about are movie trailers – because they’re one of my favorite art forms, and because most people think about them in the wrong way.

Most people think of movie trailers as being a reasonably good representation of what’s in the film. They watch the trailer, take in the stars, plot overview, and general tone, and decide to whether to see the film based on that.

But this is a recipe for disappointment, because the point of trailers is not to accurately represent what’s in the film. The point of movie trailers is to cram as much enticing footage into two or three minutes as humanly possible, in the hopes that it’ll convince you to buy a ticket. This is why it’s so common to hear people walk out of a theater and say, in disgust, “Well, that was nothing like the trailer”. Of course it wasn’t: if trailers accurately depicted what movies were actually like, many fewer people would be tricked into seeing bad movies.

Trailers are representative of movies in the same way that yogurt commercials are representative of what it’s like to eat yogurt. That doesn’t mean that people don’t decide to see films based on the trailer, in the same way that yogurt commercials do actually sell yogurt. But it’s obviously not an accurate depiction.

In the olden days, even the movie studios who made the trailers hadn’t figured out how this marketing distinction was going to work, which is why old movie trailers seem so unsubtle and weird. The studios in those days figured that the best way to sell tickets was to give you as much information as possible about the plot and characters of the film, which turns out to be emphatically what people do not want from movie trailers. Check out this trailer for the original True Grit, which was released in 1978.

Now, check out the trailer from the 2010 True Grit.

Which of these trailers most accurately represents the film its promoting? The first one does. In fact, watching that trailer almost negates the need for you to watch the film at all. Whereas the second trailer doesn’t represent the tone of the Coen Brothers’s True Grit at all; it has none of the sweetness and whimsy that underlies most of the film. But it’s undeniably a better trailer.

The more interesting way to think about movie trailers is to decouple them from their associated films and instead consider them as their own art form, with their own conventions and artistic vision – as two-to-three minute experimental short films, designed to play upon your imagination and your visceral reactions. This fundamentally changes what it means to have a ‘successful’ trailer: instead of one that accurately depicts the film, a successful trailer is one that is the most effective at thrilling, saddening, intriguing, or otherwise moving the viewer.

Which brings me back to Battle: Los Angeles, whose moody, eerie trailer was the only reason anybody even knew about the film in the first place.

No plot. No characters. Not even any information about the film, really. Just a single effective song, random images from the film, and a creeping sense of dread. It’s beautiful. This is what music videos have the capacity to be but usually aren’t, because few artists seem to care much about the visual component of their music videos.

And I love it even more now that I’ve seen the film, because I can understand why the trailer was made as it was. I can almost see the editor in charge of the trailer slumped at a desk, his head in his hands. On the screen in front of him are hours of footage full of ham-fisted dialogue, over-earnest acting, and mediocre special effects. He doesn’t even know what the film is called yet – during production, the film was variously known as Battle: Los Angeles, Battle: LA, World Invasion: Battle Los Angeles, and Battle for Los Angeles. His superiors have told him that people are really into gritty, indie sci-fi films now, like District 9 or Sunshine. How am I supposed to make this crap look like that? he thinks. And then: fuck it. I’ll just make it look crazy instead.

The earliest example that I know of this sort of plot-less trailer is for 1979’s Alien, a two-minute nightmare that’s infinitely more upsetting than the entirety of most horror films. Imagine watching this in the same session as the older True Grit trailer – I’m surprised people didn’t flee the theater. (Here’s a higher quality version that is not embeddable.)

More recently, the trailer for The Social Network opened with a sort of strange multimedia poem set to a cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” by a Hungarian children’s choir; it’s the sort of thing that almost anyone could have made but somehow no one else did. The remainder of the trailer is mostly random lines and shots from the film, and I honestly think that you could substitute almost any line or shot from the film and it would be equally effective.

There are a number of films for which I prefer the trailer to the film itself, and would rather rewatch the former than the latter. These include The Watchmen…

… and Where The Wild Things Are.

I even like trailers for films I never bothered to see, like the 2006 Dwayne Johnson vehicle Walking Tall.

Such economy of storytelling! How could another ninety minutes possibly improve on that?

Possibly my favorite trailer of all time is for a documentary about Jerry Seinfeld called Comedian. Not only does it not include any footage from the film, or tell you what the film is about, it is actually a meta-parody of trailers themselves.

It’s possible that the trailer for Comedian wasn’t particularly effective, though, because no one I know has ever seen the film.

Lastly, my favorite trailer of the moment is for the third Transformers film, Dark Side of the Moon (wow, that is a horrible title).

I don’t know how big of a plot point this is in the film, but the conceit here is absolutely brilliant. It’s doubling down on the traditional conspiracy theories about the moon landing – not only did we actually visit the moon, we found GIANT SPACE ROBOTS while we were there! I love it. And while I’ll probably see Dark Side of the Moon when it comes out, I honestly wouldn’t care if no further scrap of footage from the film were ever released. The trailer is enough.

And that’s really what the point of all this is: sometimes, two minutes is more effective than ninety-two. And I think that once you stop thinking about trailers as being abbreviated versions of the films themselves, that time before the feature presentation will become a lot more interesting.

A New Theory For Travel.

When people come back from a vacation, what do they always say?

If they went to Hawaii, then sure, they talk about the beaches. If they went to Switzerland, they talk about the skiing. If they went to Italy, they talk about the food.

But by far the most common refrain I hear from the recently-abroad, regardless of their destination, is: oh, the people were just fantastic. So nice and welcoming. Totally open to talk, and very curious about what life is like here.

Germans say it about Americans. Americans say it about the Japanese. I myself have said it about Cubans, Mexicans, Spaniards, and probably more. People even say it about places inside their own country. I just love the people out there in the Midwest.

My theory, then, is this: most people in most places are friendly to travelers most of the time.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that it’s wise to wander aimlessly around whatever foreign country you please without regard for the possible consequences. But I do think that it means that if you’re somewhere you’ve never been before, you have a reasonably good chance of striking up an edifying and interesting conversation with someone around you. This is doubly true if you vacation in a place that normal people actually live. It’s possible to have edifying conversations at a resort in Cancún, but they’re probably just going to be with other Americans.

I don’t know what says more about humanity: that the above theory is true, or that people inevitably seem so surprised to have good interactions with the locals while traveling. It’s as if our default reaction is to assume the people at our destination are complete assholes, and we’re floored when they turn out not to be. Which doesn’t really make much sense, because who would want to travel anywhere that the people are accepted to be actively hostile?

Once you start assuming that the people around you could be as interested in you as you are in them, traveling becomes a lot less scary and a lot more interesting.

The Problem With Free.

As a rule I avoid Gawker and its associated blogs, but I do have a soft spot for Lifehacker. The blog recently published a list of its favorite iPhone apps, and there was a theme running through the article that disturbed me a little. Here, let me pull out some representative quotes.

Looking to power up your iPhone with the best free and cheap apps out there?

With a couple of $10 multi-service IM clients available, Meebo stands out especially because it’s free.

Although not free (weighing in on the more expensive side at $2.99)

The catch: It’s $2. 

The biggest difference is price: PasteFire is free and MyPhoneDesktop costs a whopping $5.

Pano’s one of the more expensive apps in the list, at $3

Now, I know that one of Lifehacker’s aims is to help people find cheaper ways of living. And I also know that this ‘race to the bottom’, in terms of app pricing, is nothing new for iOS. The lower pricing has actually helped a lot of iOS developers: it’s better to sell a half-million apps at 99¢ than it is to sell 25,000 at $4.99.

But I do think that articles like this one reflect a widespread shift in the way people perceive software1 and its monetary value. And I don’t like it. In fact, I would say that a world in which $3 - roughly the cost of a Big Mac - is a totally unacceptable price for a useful application is a world that has gone batshit insane.

The price trend for software over the last decade has been steadily downward. Apple’s App Stores, for the Mac and for iOS, have allowed developers to sell to users without worrying about distribution channels or payment processing. The internet, and the ad-supported model, has allowed online services to provide powerful, programming-intensive services at little or no cost.

But the rise of low-cost software seems to have given rise to the idea that this stuff is easy - that anyone with a few extra months and half an ounce of programming knowledge can bring an app to market or create the next delicious. And people don’t put a high value on things that are easy to produce.

The reality, of course, is that programming is hard, designing is hard, marketing is hard, and managing the people who do all these jobs is hard. On a superficial level, a programmer’s job is to write code and a designer’s job is to create user interfaces. But on a deeper level their job is to make decisions, and each one of those decisions is an opportunity for something to go wrong. For a tiny bit of interface lag to be introduced. For a common task to be made unintuitive. Good software is composed of countless such decisions, and each one is a place where something can break.

It’s incredibly difficult to bring a high-quality piece of software to market, and each one of the good, usable, useful apps in the App Store - and certainly every one of those on Lifehacker’s list - is a minor miracle, the culmination of a process that could have collapsed at almost any point along the way.

People deserve to be paid fairly for the work that they do. That’s especially true when that work results in an ongoing, appreciable improvement in your life. And the best pieces of software really do change people’s lives. Think about the applications or services that you use on a regular basis. What value would you attach to, say, Tumblr? Or Reddit? How about Angry Birds? Gmail? Instapaper? Evernote? 

I would hope, if you’re really honest about it, that the answer would be more than a Big Mac.


  1. In this article, by 'software’ I mean anything that requires developers to maintain, including mobile apps, desktop applications, and web applications and services.

On Attention, and Great Films.

Last night I decided to watch a movie. I made myself a cup of tea, browsed Netflix for a few minutes, and eventually settled on the 1973 classic The Sting, with Robert Redford and Paul Newman.1

About twelve minutes into the film I was startled by a gunshot onscreen. I was startled because I hadn’t actually been watching the film. Instead, I had been: having a text message conversation; sending a few quick emails; checking my RSS reader (twice); keeping up to date with the latest tweets; and trying, without much success, to pass a particularly vexing level in an iPad game called World of Goo.

I looked the film and realized I had no earthly idea what was happening in it. I didn’t recognize any of the characters. I hadn’t consciously processed a single line of dialog. I had actively looked at the screen for perhaps a minute, cumulatively, during the whole quarter-hour that it had been playing.

I like the internet, but sometimes I worry about what it’s doing to me. It’s not like I wanted to be this guy. The guy who responds to a text message while he’s driving, even though he knows it’s incredibly dangerous. The asshole who pulls out his iPhone at the party when everyone else is playing Scattergories. The guy who can’t make it through five minutes of a film without having something, anything, else to do with his brain. A guy who, in short, spends his time hopelessly trying to multitask, flitting, hummingbird-like, from empty task to empty task.

So I took my iPad and my phone and my laptop and I stashed them in another room. I moved the stack of half-read New Yorker and Wired magazines in there too, just for good measure. Then, I restarted the film and tried, for the first time in who knows how long, to really watch a film from start to finish.

And you know what? The Sting is a great fucking film. The Joplin soundtrack fits the mood perfectly. Redford and Neuman are cool, as always. It’s funny and compelling and exciting. And the details are well-done too, the little things, the costumes2 and the set design. I enjoyed it more than I’ve enjoyed any movie in recent memory.

But I was still a little uncomfortable through the whole thing. Still a little itchy. Still felt like there were things I was missing.

I’m not usually much for New Years Resolutions, but I made just one this year. And it was this: be mindful. I want to really think about the things I’m doing, and cut out the things I do carelessly or out of habit alone. I want to stop shoving food into my face just because I’m bored, stop checking my RSS reader or my email just because a little red badge tells me I’ve got unread items out in the ether, weighing down my soul. I’ve only recently begun to realize that my time and attention are only worth as much as I’m willing to invest in them, and that recently I’ve been treating them as though they weren’t were much. Because seriously: is there anything less worthy of your obsession and your constant focus than Twitter?3

But being mindful is hard, and you have to start in little doses. That’s why I’m breaking it down to pieces of media. Every day, I’m going to try to focus for a few minutes on a work of art, whether it’s a song, a film, a novel, a photograph, or even a compelling blog post. Try to give the artist my undivided attention. Try to cut out all the bullshit.4

Try to be mindful.

And if the behavior I’ve described here sounds like you - if you can’t remember the last time you really focused on a piece of art, just because it was beautiful - then I recommend you try it, too.

Because life’s too short for multitasking.


  1. The Sting, incidentally, was directed by the criminally under-appreciated George Roy Hill, who was also responsible for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Slaughterhouse-5, and The World According to Garp. The fourteen films he directed garnered 37 Oscar Nominations and 2 Best Picture wins, yet today I’d be surprised if one person in a thousand knew who he was.

  2. Seriously: the costumes. This film is like an ode to the well-fitted suit, in every color, cut, and style imaginable.

  3. Or World of Goo, for that matter.

  4. Maybe this is why people still enjoy movie theaters so much – it’s the last place it’s not socially acceptable to have your face stuck in a screen. Though even those walls are breaking down.

The A-Team.

image

One of the valuable things about the Academy Awards is that they force moviegoers to consider the more subtle efforts that go into making a successful movie.  It’s rare that people leave a film and say, “well, the story and the directing were mediocre, but the sound-editing was fantastic and well-worth the price of admission”.  But when things work well, they’re almost always attributed to the director, even though it’s unlikely that David Fincher applied even a single daub of makeup during the filming of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (which won Best Makeup in 2008). 

I like that before you get to disagree with what the Academy thinks is the best film of the year, you have to sit and acknowledge the hard work and dedication of the countless Foley artists, special-effects artists, and costume designers who generally get no credit whatsoever.

So while you’re watching True Grit this holiday season, you should revel in the Coen brothers prodigious talent and Jeff Bridges’s phlegmy rasp.  But you should also consider that the film is most accurately understood as the product of a razor-sharp team of adept craftsmen that the Coen brothers have gathered around them over the last thirty years, and that without their contributions the film would almost certainly be a lesser thing than it is.

These people can be buried far in the background - like Peter Kurland, who was a boom operator on the brothers’s first film, 1984’s Blood Simple and has worked on their production sound in some capacity on every of their efforts since.

But they can also be people key to the success of the film, like Carter Burwell.  Burwell has composed the score to every one of the Coen brothers films and found the time to work on films like Where the Wild Things Are and Being John Malkovich

Burwell’s work on True Grit rivals any other score he has produced, though I think it falls short of his efforts for 1991’s Miller’s Crossing.  I am biased, though, for Miller’s Crossing is one of my favorite films, and it shares with True Grit a love of genre and of its gentle tweaking.

Miller’s Crossing also marked the end of the brothers’s long collaboration with then-cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld, who would thereafter satisfy himself directing middling comedy films.  But into the void left by Sonnenfeld stepped Roger Deakins, and through his work since – both with the Coen brothers and not – Deakins has cemented himself as the greatest cinematographer of our time. 

He has worked on every Coen brothers film in the last twenty years save one: 2008’s Burn After Reading, during which he was otherwise engaged.  That’s a run that includes Fargo, No Country for Old Men, and The Man Who Wasn’t There.  He has also found the time to shoot The Shawshank Redemption, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and Jarhead, among others.  For this he has been studiously overlooked by the Academy, and if that streak continues with True Grit, it will be a tremendous shame.  If the film contains a shot anything less than spectacular, I did not see it.

My point with all this is: film is a collaborative medium.  And like Commander Shepard or Hannibal Smith, the Coen brothers have spent the last thirty years building themselves the best damn team they could find.  The result is a film that finds not only the director but every crew member, from the top on down, working at the very height of their ability.  And that’s a rare thing.

Flood Lite: Apple's Attention to Detail

In July 2002, Appled filed a patent for a “Breathing Status LED Indicator” (No. US 6,658,577 B2). They described it as a “blinking effect of the sleep-mode indicator in accordance with the present invention mimics the rhythm of breathing which is psychologically appealing.”

The average respiratory rate for adults is 12-20 breaths per minute, which is the rate that the sleep-indicator light fades in and out on most Apple laptops. Older models such as the Macintosh PowerBook, however, use a blinking LED indicator, with discrete pulses in one-second intervals.

This creeps me out.  I already have an unhealthy way of projecting human-like qualities onto inanimate objects: for example, I feel guilty when I leave the DVD player running with a disc inside, because it has to sit there and replay the same thirty second clips over and over and over again.  And I apologize to my car when I bump a curb or close the door on the seatbelt.  So for Apple to subliminally suggest that my computer breathes when it sleeps takes the metaphor a little too far for comfort.

Not to mention the fact that the rhythm is psychologically comforting because we like things that breathe because they are alive.  The feeling that we derive from the Macbook’s indicator light originates in some reptilian part of our brain that sees the pattern and says, take comfort, for you are not alone.  But the problem is that when we are with our laptops and no one else we are, of course, alone.  And to suggest otherwise is creepy.

This is getting ridiculous.

“Here,” the receptionist said. She handed me two pieces of paper, stapled and folded into fourths. “If you ever get cataract surgery in your life, you will need to show these to your surgeon.”

We need electronic fucking medical records.

How To Think About Apple and Google.

In Chuck Klosterman’s IV he reprints an essay from 2004 about how to tell the difference between your nemesis and your archenemy:

You kind of like your nemesis, despite the fact that you despise him. If your nemesis invited you out for cocktails, you would accept the offer. If he died, you would attend his funeral and—privately—you might shed a tear over his passing.  But you would never have drinks with your archenemy, unless you were attempting to spike his gin with hemlock. If you were to perish, your archenemy would dance on your grave, and then he’d burn down your house and molest your children.

We measure ourselves against our nemeses, and we long to destroy our archenemies. Nemeses and archenemies are the catalysts for everything.

I actually think this is the most useful way to think about the Apple - Google rivalry that’s sprung up in the last few years.

Apple and Google are typical nemeses.  Sure, they’re competitors, and they’ve been taking a lot of little jabs at one another recently - Apple made Bing a search-engine option on the iPhone, Google devoted most of their recent I/O Conference to unveiling products that directly compete with Apple.

But deep down they maintain an affection for one another, and after every product launch, every escalation, every new gauntlet thrown down, their respective leaders shake their heads, smile, and mutter “clever bastards - I’ll show them”.  They’re like the Beatles and the Beach Boys circa 1967 - Android being the Pet Sounds to the iPhone's Rubber Soul, if you will.

Apple’s archenemy has and always will be Microsoft, which is why their passing of Microsoft in market-share was such sweet revenge.1 Steve Jobs may sit down to sip coffee and talk smack with Google CEO Eric Schmidt, but whenever Jobs sees Steve Ballmer he just wants to punch Ballmer in the throat.2

As for Adobe - well, they’re not really important enough to be Apple’s nemesis or archenemy.  Adobe is that guy that you were friends with in high school but who grew up to sell car insurance, and now he’s always calling you up and guilt-tripping you by playing on your former friendship, except his policies suck and his deductible is too high and also he has a crappy custom UI and crashes all the time.


  1. Google’s archenemy is the People’s Republic of China.

  2. To be fair, this is most people’s reaction to Steve Ballmer.

"Recent Grad Shocked To Learn That Being In Debt Sucks."

Photo Credit: dhairyamistry, flickr

A couple of years ago I was sitting on a bench in Mendocino, California, a little town about an hour up the coast that I sometimes visit when I need to think things over.  Mendocino is perched above the Pacific, and at the edge of town - which is, truth be told, only about two blocks from the center of town - the streets give way to a series of paths that meander around windy bluffs and tide pools and skirt the rocky places where the water meets the land.

I was sitting on a bench overlooking the sea, eating a chicken sandwich.  I was also wearing a Harvard t-shirt.  I didn’t go to Harvard, but my cousin did and she had recently given me the shirt for Christmas.

A man, walking leisurely by, glanced at me as he passed and inclined his head.  He walked a few more steps, but then wheeled completely around and headed toward me.  I was surprised: I had driven to the coast alone, and I didn’t know anyone in Mendocino.  But the man approached nevertheless, and when he was close he stuck his hand out.  He was indeterminately elderly but spry and his grip, when I took his hand, was strong.

“You know, it’s like I always say,” he said, pumping my hand with uncommon vigor.  “You can always tell a Harvard man.”  He looked at me, eyebrows raised, waiting for a response.  But I had been mid-bite when he approached, and in all the commotion I had not yet been able to swallow the assorted bread and chicken matter, so he had to settle for being nodded and chewed at.

He fidgeted, antsy for the punchline, and after a moment his resolve failed and he leaned toward  me.  “Yep, you can always tell a Harvard man - but you can’t tell him very much,” he said, beaming.  And with that he (finally) released my hand, gave me what he obviously felt to be an insouciant wink, and wandered off cackling to himself.

This sounds like a weird story, but this sort of thing actually happens all the time in Mendocino; it’s just that kind of place.  The larger reason why the story has stuck with me was because of the man’s obvious and inescapable pride in his school: in the fifty years since he attended Yale (or wherever), he had enough school spirit left over that it still compelled him to approach total strangers and ridicule their intelligence.  This struck me as deeply weird - in large part because even then, in my sophomore year at New York University, I was already starting to suspect that my relationship with my alma mater would not be so harmonious.


 

Cortney Munna also recently attended NYU.  Like most NYU students, she was forced to take out increasingly-absurd loans to pay for her education; unlike most students, she is the focus of a recent New York Times profile.  Cortney has nearly a hundred-thousand dollars in student loans and currently works as a photographer’s assistant, making about twenty bucks an hour.  Although she seems to be in somewhat more difficult financial straits than I, the story of how Cortney acquired her debt is familiar:

She started college at age 17 and borrowed as much money as she could under the federal loan program. To make up the difference between her grants and work study money and the total cost of attending, her mother co-signed two private loans with Sallie Mae totaling about $20,000.

When they applied for a third loan, however, Sallie Mae rejected the application, citing Cathryn’s credit history. She had returned to college herself to finish her bachelor’s degree and was also borrowing money. N.Y.U. suggested a federal Plus loan for parents, but that would have required immediate payments, something the mother couldn’t afford. So before Cortney’s junior year, N.Y.U. recommended that she apply for a private student loan on her own with Citibank.

Over the course of the next two years, starting when she was still a teenager, she borrowed about $40,000 from Citibank without thinking much about how she would pay it back.

This is not a new story for the Times; in fact, they run these sorts of profiles reasonably often, especially around graduation.  But given the current recession there does seem to be more discussion now about whether or not private schools - and the loans that almost inevitably come with them - are worth it.

Of these the most emotionally cathartic is almost certainly Meaghan O’Connell’s post “fuck you, pay me.  or something”, with its wonderfully concise thesis: “NO ONE GIVES A SHIT ABOUT WHERE I WENT TO SCHOOL.”1 More damning, though, is Zac Bissonnette’s article from the Huffington Post called “Why College Is A Terrible Investment to Finance With Loans”.  To wit:

There’s no collateral to sell off if you realize you over-borrowed. Students loans are just like a mortgage or car loan except that there is no asset to sell if you realize you can’t afford them.

Student loans cannot be discharged in bankruptcy. If you default on a student loan, penalties and collection fees will stack up – and debt collectors can garnish your wages, Social Security, and tax refunds, and there is no statute of limitations on student loan collections.2

An unreliable income stream. 17- and 18-year olds are signing up for debt based on their ability to make payments from an income stream that’s at least four years away – in a career that they haven’t even decided on yet.

Add to this the fact that college tuitions have risen faster than income levels and without regard to the economic climate, and the fact that anyone thinks private school is a justifiable investment seems insane.


 

This is a weird thing for me to say.

The reason why it’s a weird thing for me to say is that I loved going to NYU.  I met, worked with, was taught by, and befriended innumerable smart and creative people during my time there.  I was seventeen when I went to the school, and if they threw me into a safe, controlled dorm environment, then they at least threw me into a safe, controlled dorm environment that felt like a genuine New York City apartment.  Attending the school had a transformative effect on my personality and my way of thinking.

So I’m not saying that I regret going to NYU; I absolutely don’t.  And when I start thinking about the hypotheticals - what would it have been like to go somewhere else? What would it be like to be debt-free? What kind of person would I be if I hadn’t lived like/where I did? - I just end up driving myself crazy.  Those are unanswerables; they’re not even worth thinking about.

What I do wish is that someone had put things in perspective for me, back when I was sixteen or seventeen.  I wish someone had said: Think about five hundred dollars.  Think about what you can buy with five hundred dollars.  Now imagine paying that much money, every single month, to a loan company with a silly name.  Six thousand dollars a year, just gone - money that you can’t spend on food, travel, or lodging.

You will be unemployed.  Your friends will be unemployed.  You will not be able to afford a bed.  Your grocery shopping will consist of cereal and pasta.  And, yes, there will be things you want to do - opportunities you want to take - places you want to go - that you will have to give up.  Getting a job that pays enough will be harder.  Finding a place to live that’s affordable will be harder.  Graduate school will be harder to pay for.  Your debt will affect every decision you make from graduation day on, it will absolutely limit your opportunities, and there will be things you will have to sacrifice.

That’s what I wish someone had said.

It’s time to stop acting like a degree from a private university is its own reward.  Because except for the Man from Mendocino, nobody gives a shit where you went school.


  1. To quote everything that I agree with in Meaghan’s post would be to reprint the entire thing, so you should really just go read it at her place.

  2. I have already graduated and have tens of thousands of dollars in student loans, yet I had absolutely no idea that this was true.

If You Didn't Laugh, You'd Cry.

1. An Auspicious Beginning.

Sometime in late 1993 two brothers, Serge and Dave Bielanko, got together with a couple of other guys from Philadelphia and formed a rock band. It was the grunge era, and they had the look nailed - thin faces, long, stringy hair, wardrobes that included a lot of denim. They looked more like people you’d find under a bridge than in a recording studio, but from their sound it was clear they listened to more Springsteen than Cobain. They started playing shows shows in the Philly area, and called themselves Marah - presumably on the grounds that no one else already had. In 1998, they finally got around to cutting a record.

That record was Let’s Cut The Crap and Hook Up Tonight, and it proved not only that Marah had serious rock and roll chops but also that they worked with a wide variety of styles: the album bounced from banjo-tinged rockabilly to Wilsonesque harmonies and back again, with a dash of stomping gospel and steel-guitar country thrown in for good measure. What the album was not was a hit. It was released on a small local label (Black Dog Records, now defunct) and raised Marah from obscure to slightly-less-obscure. (Reviews of the album were few and far between, but it did receive a rare 9/10 from Pitchfork, who said the album was “…at once intelligent, thoughtful, raucous and fun. It can only be classified as great rock n’ roll.” Sadly, the website had not yet become the cultural force it would be in later years, and never again would they speak so favorably of the band.)

After a bit of touring Marah decided that maybe the country thing wasn’t for them, after all, and they’d rather just make really loud music. Eventually they went back into the studio and came out a few months later, in the early months of 2000, with their sophomore record Kids In Philly.

Kids In Philly was a very different album than the band’s first. In some ways, it was a much more focused rock and roll album; gone, for the most part, were the banjos and the steel guitar. Stripped of their country tinge, Marah’s Springsteen influences were even more apparent - both musically and lyrically. The album included songs titled ‘My Heart is the Bums on the Street’ and 'From the Skyline of a Great Big Town’; the boys knew how to wear their blue-collars on their sleeves, so to speak.

Most importantly, though, Kids raised Marah’s profile in a way that Let’s Cut the Crap hadn’t. It was released on a label that, while not huge, was at least respectable (the New York-based Artemis Records). And it had the unique distinction of being very loved by a certain famous people. They had fans in the music world (Steve Earle and the Boss himself) and, strangely, in the literary one (Nick Hornby, the British author of About A Boy and High Fidelity, joined Stephen King in hyping the band in a variety of public outlets).

What Kids In Philly had in common with Let’s Cut The Crap and Hook Up Tonight was that it didn’t sell. But Marah wasn’t too worried; why would they be? Earle wanted all of their future records to be for his E-Squared label. One of the most respected novelists in England wrote that “I can hear everything I ever loved about rock music in their recordings and in their live shows.” And when Springsteen played at Giants Stadium it was Marah he wanted onstage with him. After the release of Kids in Philly there was a sense, both in the band and in their high-profile fans, that Marah was one record away from rock and roll stardom.

But then, you know what they say about pride.

2. The Thorny Question of Authenticity.

The funny thing about 'authenticity’ is that some bands don’t have to worry about it all. No one ever accused Daft Punk or The Flaming Lips of being inauthentic; for whatever reason, it was simply not as important for these types of bands to have the same sort of 'real’ air about them.

There is, to be sure, an almost absurd amount of subjectivity at play here. The author Damon Knight once said that 'science fiction is what we point to when we say it’, and we might as well say the same thing about music that is 'authentic’. We simply recognize in certain artists and desire it in others. But there are a few things we can safely say on the subject.

It is much more important to be authentic when you are mining a rich musical vein. That is, it isn’t as important for Daft Punk to be seen as being authentic as it is for The Black Keys. The former is working in a genre that is relatively new and has no clear masters to pay homage to; the latter is inextricably linked to blues legends - McDowell, Kimbrough, Hurt - to whom The Black Keys must pay a certain due. There is a certain trade-off here: it’s okay to be unoriginal if you can be extremely authentic, and it’s okay to forget about being authentic if you can be incredibly original.

But the single defining characteristic of authentic music is that the performers have to be (or at least have to seem) completely genuine. There can be no sly winks here, no ironic glances or sarcastic smiles; we demand nothing less than absolute sincerity. The music-going public is, I think, always wary of being scammed; we’re terrified that one day some blues-rock outfit we’ve been collectively fawning over is going to give an interview in Spin where they say something like, “Why do I take so many cues from Sticky Fingers? Because it sold a lot of fucking records, and Jagger has a house with six hot-tubs in it.” If you look at artists who have always been seen as indubitably authentic - from Springsteen to Johnny Cash to The Band to The Clash - there is always a sense, earned or not, that they are making exactly the music they want to make, the public and the labels be damned.

Marah’s first two records only really worked because they were seen as being very authentic. They seemed to genuinely love the music they were appropriating. They had elements of originality, but certainly not so many that it wasn’t easy to name their influences. They came from one of the most economically disadvantaged cities in America, and they sang songs about back alleys and subways, about fishing off of bridges and drive-by shootings.

And in 2003, they forgot about all of that and released an album called Float Away With the Friday Night Gods that was, simply put, a terrible record.

3. The Dangers of Leaving Your Comfort Zone.

It’s a given in rock music that some artists can experiment and others can’t. For whatever reason, we don’t blink when Nick Cave goes from gritty post-punk to bluesy rock in the space of two records, or when Tom Waits puts out an album that sounds like nothing he’s ever done before. But there’s a reason that every R.E.M. record of the past twenty years sounds basically the same - because they know that if they ever tried something radical everyone would laugh at them. We like R.E.M. because they’re dependable, and Cave because he isn’t.

Float Away With The Friday Night Gods was an American roots-rock band’s attempt to do Oasis-style Britpop, and it was, by any measure, a failure. Exactly why it was a failure, though, is a bit more complicated.

On the face of it, the record had fine credentials. It was recorded in Britain, where Marah had toured so often that they might as well have bought houses. The producer was Owen Morris, who was responsible for albums like Oasis’s What’s the Story, Morning Glory? and The Verve’s A Northern Soul. And the songs were, at their core, not bad songs. (I know this because the band would later release Float Away - Deconstructed, and the demo tapes were better than the finished product.)

People hated it. Float Away earned Marah no new fans and drove away a good number of the ones who already existed. But what was so frustrating for the band was that the complaints people had about the album were the exact same things that had made other bands - like Oasis, and Blur, and Pulp - so successful.

The album was overproduced, people said. Well, of course; that’s one of the defining characteristics of Britpop. Morris was, after all, the man who had invented the 'brick wall’ theory of sound mixing, whereby every instrument and microphone in the studio was simply turned up as loud as it could go, and as many tracks as possible were laid over each other at full volume. Why did it work for Blur and not for Marah?

The lyrics were bad, they went on. That one must have stung. Marah’s lyrics had, after all, always been one of their strengths, and they weren’t doing anything different here than they had before. But what gives lyrics their impact is as much the delivery as the content. On their previous albums - especially Kids In Philly - lines that, on paper, could seem silly (“Seen two lovers in a park/felt the blood rush to my fists/they were sittin’ on a bench/entangled in a kiss”) were given a gritty, urgent flavor by the fact that they were delivered in a strangled howl, over a driving drumbeat and a fuzzy electric guitar. But similar lines delivered over syrupy-sweet pop hooks just made people giggle.

But in the end what killed Float Away With The Friday Night Gods was that it wasn’t authentic. The fans, hearing Marah playing music so obviously not in their style, didn’t buy that they were making something they truly cared about. First-time listeners, even without having heard Let’s Cut the Crap or Kids In Philly, could tell somehow that the band were working outside their comfort zone. The critics tore the record to shreds. And for a couple of years, Marah retreated to lick their wounds.

What was needed was a kick-to-the-head record, something that reminded the band’s original fans why they loved them in the first place, and got the critical world back on their side. Unfortunately, the band’s next record, 20,000 Streets Under the Sky, wasn’t quite it, either. They didn’t repeat the mistakes of their third record - this was a return to doo-wop and soul influenced rock and roll, no doubt about it - but the record was a little too produced, a little too quiet, a little too careful.

It was the sound of a band thinking hard about something that used to come easy.

4. Comeback.

In 2005, Marah went back into the studio. The band was twelve years old, with three lineups and four albums under their belt. They hadn’t put out a critically acclaimed record in five years. So when they went back into the studio, they decided to shake things up a bit. They started recording tracks live, with minimal dubbing, and fast - a rehearsal or two, and then a take. It was fun. They felt loose. After nine days in the studio the record was done.

The record that emerged from those sessions was called If You Didn’t Laugh, You’d Cry, and it was an unabashed return to form. Musically, it was similar to Kids In Philly, so much so that if you were to mix the two together most people would have a tough time determining which tracks came from which album. This was a very good thing.

“The band is full of confidence and swagger,” wrote PopMatters. “This is the sound of a band captured before they, or anyone else, could knob twiddle the exuberance out of their songs.” And that was just one of the accolades that came rolling in: the album was well-reviewed in almost every publication that heard it. (The exception there was, ironically, Pitchfork.)

And the band finally turned their momentum around. They went on a multi-country tour and played to sold-out crowds at venues like New York’s Irving Plaza. People actually bought the record. Later that year, Marah put out (weirdly) a Christmas album. They recorded a song with the writer Sarah Vowell that was featured on This American Life. Suddenly, people cared about Marah. Not as many people as they would have liked, probably, but at this point they pretty much had to take what they could get.

But what was it about If You Didn’t Laugh, You’d Cry that everyone liked? Not that it was new or innovative. Not that it was a step forward for the band. Not even that it was original. What they liked about it was its authenticity, that it sounded like five guys in a room making music they liked to make. It was genuine. For some bands, this isn’t important. For Marah, it’s everything.

5. Redemption?

In late 2008, Marah put out Angels of Destruction, their sixth proper album. It was - okay. A good song here and a mediocre one there. And it was - like Let’s Cut the Crap, like Kids in Philly, like If You Didn’t Laugh - critically lauded but little-bought. Shortly after AoD’s release, the band imploded - the rhythm section, unable to understand how new keyboardist Christine Smith fit into the band’s scheme, quit as one. The band canceled their North American tour. Some people were disappointed - but not all that many.

Did Marah miss their window? By releasing two critical and financial duds, by letting years go by between their best records, they may indeed have lost the chance at rock and roll stardom that they dreamed for when they joined The Boss onstage at Giants Stadium. And the things that define their sound - exuberance, enthusiasm, energy - get harder to summon up as you get older, and the band members are pushing forty.

I only bring any of this up because Marah’s seventh album - called Life Is A Problem - is slated for release on June 1st. And off and on over the last few years, as I’ve checked in with the band, downloaded their EPs and browsed the message boards, I’ve wondered about what this album will be like. The rational part of me believes that it will disappoint: two great albums of seven is not the greatest track record. But there’s another part of me - the part that thrilled when I listened to Kids in Philly - that’s hoping for something more. For a true Springstonian comeback, full of sweat and harmonicas and pumping fists. For a record that’s redemptive, that’s triumphant, like the best American rock and roll always was.

Maybe it’s unfair to saddle a single record with all those expectations.

I guess we’ll find out in a few weeks.

“Waiting for the Devil”, an outtake from Life Is A Problem, released through Marah’s website last month.

(Photo credit: Piggbox, Flickr.)