Monthly Archives: January 2013

Tegan and Sara: HEARTTHROB


Before HEARTTHROB, Tegan and Sara’s 2009 album marked the biggest change in the band’s sound.  The band’s sound was much more streamlined than it had ever been before, and HEARTTHROB continues this trend.  This record is, for better or worse, more produced, more streamlined, and more electronic than anything Tegan and Sara have ever done before.  For those keeping track of these kinds of things, SAINTHOOD was a very split album: the songs penned by Sara were much more electronic and melodic (“Alligator”, “Night Watch,” “Red Belt”) and Tegan’s output was more in the vein of power-pop and alternative rock (“Hell,” “Northshore,” “The Ocean”).  This time around, the distance between these songwriters has closed, and now, it’s difficult to tell who has written what.  Even though this makes for a more cohesive record in the end, it comes at the cost of the variety and surprise that many of the past records had.

The album opens with its lead single, “Closer.”  “Closer” is a good, solid, catchy tune, and it’s filled with many of the twin-on-twin harmonies that has become a hallmark for the band.  The song lays the harmonies, electronic percussion, and synthesizers on nice and thick.  Chris Walla (who produced the previous two albums and guitar player for Death Cab for Cutie) has been replaced with a small handful of other producers.  Greg Kurstin picks up the bulk of the production work here – known for his work with Sia, Kylie Minogue, Pink, and Kelly Clarkson – and he definitely leaves his mark on the duo’s sound.  “Closer” sets the tone for the rest of the album: it’s heavily melodic, but underneath all of the shiny production, there’s a well of heartache that Tegan and Sara have used for inspiration.  “Love They Say” is one of the album’s songs tracks — it begins with just vocals and an acoustic guitar.  The song works so well because it feels like one of the more organic tracks here, and the vocal interplay because Tegan and Sara makes it feel quite comfortable.  The closing track, “Shock to Your System” is a heavily percussive way to end the record, but it refrain “what you are is lonely” stands out like an anthem.

For me, this album doesn’t completely work.  Before this album, I’ve enjoyed each new album more than the previous one.  HEARTTHROB isn’t bad – it’s surely better than most electronic-pop music out there – but it doesn’t come close to the heights of SAINTHOOD or THE CON.  Listening to this album, there’s a small part of me that mourns one of the more interesting power-pop duos working today.  Tegan and Sara have made music that was heartfelt, earnest, and interesting — there was something new and exciting about it.  Halfway into HEARTTHROB, I could have sworn I had heard this album before already.  The best predictor of whether or not you’ll like this album lies in your reaction to the lead single “Closer.”  If you loved any of the band’s previous albums, you might hate this one, but you might also go crazy for it – it all depends on what you enjoyed most about the band. Either way, listen to this album a few times before making up your mind on it.

Recommend tracks to sample/download: “Closer,” “How Come You Don’t Want Me,” and “Love They Say”

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Oddfellows, Tomahawk

Hearing the first track of Tomahawk’s ODDFELLOWS feels comfortable; it’s been a long time. The last Tomahawk album, ANONYMOUS, was a cover album of native American songs – it’s a fantastic album, but it never felt like a Tomahawk record. In fact, it’s been nearly a decade since the last proper Tomahawk album (MIT GAS). ODDFELLOWS is devoid of any of the music that was left on the previous album, so it feels like a genuine return to form: the music is just a creepy, paranoid, and dark as ever.

Tomahawk is regarded as a supergroup, but it’s hard to remember that while you’re listening: Tomahawk feels very much like its own entity. The chief songwriter here is Duane Denison from The Jesus Lizard, and Mike Patton (from Faith No More, Mr. Bungle, etc…) delivers the vocals. Rounding out the rhythm section is John Stanier (from Helmet and Battles) and Trevor Dunn (of Mr. Bungle and Fantomas). It’s worth noting that Dunn is a new member here – Kevin Rutmanis left the band in 2007, but Dunn easily fills his absence. Importantly, despite the time gone and line-up change, this still feels like the same band that recorded MIT GAS.

At this point, I’m not sure that I love any of Tomahawk’s past three albums. They’re definitely good, but I feel like they all have their own bits of fluff and filler. ODDFELLOWS is the most satisfying of Tomahawk records to date. This album has the perfect blend of creepy atmosphere, strong choruses, and jarring transitions. “Stone Letter,” the album’s lead single, is a perfect example of this combination. There are moments that are beautifully dark (“I.O.U”) and others that are as hard-hitting as anything they’ve done so far (“South Paw”).  The album’s opening track, “Oddfellows” feels like a perfect way to begin the album and sum up the band as a whole; Mike Patton croons in one of the choruses “we are oddfellows / we only know the odd way.”  The sentiment is on-the-spot — I don’t think Tomahawk could write straight-forward music if they wanted to.

In a recent interview, Duane Denison said “I’m more of a minimalist and he [Patton]’s more of a maximalist so we butt heads, but somehow it works.” The band remains a traditional guitar/bass/drums band, but this record gives the feeling that its bursting at the seams with ideas. ODDFELLOWS is cerebral enough to appeal to fans of Mike Patton’s recent output but hard hitting and melodic enough to appeal to fans of his older (Faith No More / Mr. Bungle) work. The best predictor of whether or not you’ll like this album depends on your opinion of the band’s past output – if you enjoyed the previous albums (ANONYMOUS notwithstanding), you’ll love ODDFELLOWS. If the previous albums didn’t do it for you, I’m not sure there’s enough here changed that would sway you otherwise. For what the band has been aiming for, this album feels like they have honed in on their intentions and perfected their sound.

Recommended tracks to sample/download: “Stone Letter” “I.O.U.” and “Southpaw.”

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Review of Nate Silver’s THE SIGNAL AND THE NOISE

The Signal and the Noise

I came into Nate Silver’s debut book The Signal and the Noise expecting the world.  Those paying attention to the news (particularly election coverage) will probably find his name familiar: he is the man who, in 2008, was able to successfully predict the electoral college results for 49 out of 50 states.  More recently, in 2012, he was able to predict every state’s electoral college results.  Silver was able to see the future, able to predict what so many people on TV said was unclear.  Was he a witch?  A magician of some sort?  A time traveler reporting back to us from years in the future?  The fact that this book has been listed as one of 2012’s best raised my expectations even further.  The Signal and the Noise is less concerned with explaining Silver’s methods for forecasting political results than it is providing a primer to basic prediction and modeling.

The Signal and the Noise is broken into four mostly distinct sections:
The first quarter of the book discusses how prediction is used (for better or worse) in a variety of fields, such as politics, baseball, and finance.
The second quarter focuses on chaotic and complex systems where prediction is considerably more difficult (weather, diseases, earthquakes).
The third quarter begins to explain a few solutions to the problems introduced in the first half of the book.  Silver introduces Bayes theorem*, which he frames all subsequent content through.
The final chapters of the book aims to tackle “big issue” topics through Bayes’ theorem: can we predict the stock market?  Climate change?  Terrorism?

Silver’s book aims to cover a significant amount of ground here, and unfortunately, that’s its biggest problem.  Because the book covers material from baseball, terrorism, and weather, a nontrivial amount of the book is spent explaining background information for these areas.  Before being able to properly discuss how statistics can be used in poker, Silver has to explain the fundamentals and particulars of the game.  Because every chapter handles a different domain, there’s a lot of explanation, caveats, and preparation before actually delving into what this book was intended for: focusing in on how we can use statistics to predict outcomes.  The Signal and the Noise is Silver’s first book, and it has a hefty goal — even some of the world’s best nonfiction writers would have a hard time encapsulating this information in an easy, concise way, so the writing is somewhat excusable here.  Silver’s writing isn’t bad per se, it’s just a bit dry and monotonous.  Writing about science doesn’t have to be dry: Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking, and Malcolm Gladwell all write (or wrote) about science in a way that can be dramatic and gripping.  Silver might get there one day — he’s good at boiling down complex information into more digestible ways, but he’s not quite there yet.

One significant problem (for me at least) is the endnotes — The Signal and the Noise  contains enough endnotes to rival David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.  Unfortunately, there are also footnotes, so when an endnote is listed in the text, it’s difficult to know if it is referring to a brief aside (similar to what footnotes are usually used for) or just a reference.  Because the book is so well researched, there are a ton of these endnotes to cite the original source material, but it also quickly becomes a chore flipping to the back of the book.  Most chapters have over 50 endnotes, with some chapters going well over 100.  I wish that Silver moved the non-reference notes to the footnotes (at the bottom of the page) so that they did not get lost in the endless references.  The book is long — over 450 pages — and constantly flipping to the back of the book to find out if the endnote indicates a reference or an informative aside can be quite exhausting.

So who is this book for?  It seems to be aimed at the average person, and most of the writing and tone is appropriate for such.  However, because most of the material focuses on background for other sciences’ areas, I would probably only recommend this book to people really interested in prediction.  Readers that are unfamiliar with statistics will probably find quite a bit of material here worth learning about.  The Signal and the Noise was more theoretical than applicable — I would recommend it to the intellectually curious, and those looking for some ideas to mull over in their head.  Readers should come away from this book hungry for more information on prediction.  My background is in experimental (laboratory based) research, so many of the themes that come up in The Signal and the Noise were completely new.  What was new though, was the way that Silver thought about conditional probabilities in “real-world” setting.

This book doesn’t even try to make its readers professionals (or even good) at statistics, but it aims to instill a since of appreciation for uncertainty in the world.  Early on, Silver explains a predictability paradox — we can make our best predictions if we acknowledge and embrace the most uncertainty.  Everything in the book is put through this light, and it makes for a good (and helpful) theme.  After reading this book, will you be able to predict and model election results to the same accuracy of Nate Silver?  Probably not.  Can you use some of these principles towards your own life?  Absolutely.

I couldn’t help but be let down a little by this book overall.  It tries to be all things at once, but in the end, it never quite coheres into a whole.  There are plenty of ideas, but only a few themes are able to bind them all together.  The book also contains a short diatribe of frequentist statistics that will likely anger traditional statisticians — while Silver’s objections on the subject are not new (as he admits), he does seem to throw the baby out with the bath water.  There are plenty of graphs and figures in the book, but they rarely hold any caption; most are easy enough to understand, but a few figures left me scratching my head as to what I was looking at.  Additionally, readers looking for specifics on how Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog forecasts election results will be disappointed.  I’m happy that so many readers seemed to have loved this book, but it just doesn’t work completely for me.

Early on, Silver talks about two different types of thinkers: foxes and hedgehogs.  Hedgehogs are people who filter the world through one giant idea (or theory), and foxes are people who use multiple ideas to conceive the world.  Silver returns to this motif a few times, pointing how nice it is to be a fox and the disadvantages of being a hedgehog.  By the end of the book though, I can’t help but feel as it Silver is actually one of the “hedgehogs” that he disdains, filtering the world through one key theory, that everything can be, and should be, seen through Bayesian inference.

*Bayesian inference is a branch of statistics that uses probabilities and conditional probabilities to ascertain how certain, or probable, any given event is.

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