Thursday, June 9, 2011

Five Underrated: Music

I'm not on stage singing anymore; my passionate, belted arias are typically reserved for the shower or during marathon laundry sessions when Ross is not home.  Still, I consider music an inescapable part of my life.  I have what seems like a million mixes on iTunes - several for my (infrequent) workouts, some for inspiration as I write, and even a special mix of songs that remind me of the hubby.  Here are a few musicians that I think deserve a little more recognition than they've previously gotten.

1. Kansas

Yup, they're known for classics like "Dust in the Wind" and  "Carry on (Wayward Son)", but these guys have a huge collection of beautiful symphonies that are more intimate than a lot of the bombastic, big-ego bands of the late seventies.  Don't get me wrong, they sound huge...but their lyrics are introspective, spiritual, and thought-provoking.  While The Scorpions wanted to "Rock You Like a Hurricane" and AC/DC was blowing fans up with "T.N.T", Kansas was contemplating the big stuff, like life after death, faith, temptation and regret.

When I was little, my mom had this huge old record player/8-track unit in the living room. If my sister and I were very, very careful, we were allowed to open the dusty cabinet that held what seemed like hundreds of records.  We'd ask her to play our favorites.  Gina and I leaned towards Billy Joel, Michael Jackson and an awesome 80's compilation album.  I also listened to Kansas' Point of Know Return probably three thousand times.  The music made me happy.  It made me think.  It made me want to draw, and write.  It made me want to dance.  It still does.  All of that.  I love knowing that many of the members were using the music to explore and express the Christian faith, and that, even though Kansas can't be termed an "inspirational" band, per se, they were unashamed to both respectfully question and quietly declare what they believed.  Particularly bright gems include "Relentless" and "Paradox".

2. Pat Benatar

This girl was (and is) a hundred kinds of awesome. Gorgeous, tough, honest, sexy, fun, real...and the thing I think I admire most about her is that, unlike virtually every other big-name act in the 80s, Ms. Benatar never gave in to the idea that drugs and promiscuity was the way to go.  She married one guy.  Stayed married.  Is still married.  Has two daughters.  Never got into the drug scene.  Stayed clean - as far as my research shows -  through her whole career.  That alone should put her on this list!  But the thing that is so cool about her is that the titles of her songs are often more suggestive than the actual lyrics.  In "Sex as a Weapon", for example, she sings about the dangers of physical temptations and pleads for a man to stop using his sensuality to manipulate her.  "Hell is for Children" is about the horrors of child abuse.  "One Love (Song of the Lion)" can be seen as a metaphor for Christ.  Maybe that's just the way I am reading into it, but I like it.  Plus, she is like the Energizer Bunny of musicians.  She's still on tour.  Has gone every year since 1996.  And she still looks amazing!

3. The Echoing Green

I've chatted this two-person synth act up for some time now.  Although I do like a lot of Christian music, some of it starts to sound the same after a while.  That isn't a bad thing; the message is always an encouraging one.  Still, sometimes the music itself gets a bit repetitive.  I really like TEG because they're one of the only electro-pop Christian artists out there.  Gorgeous, poetic lyrics like "There's a kind of mystery/When the dark recites its elegy/It's heavenly and I believe it/When the morning comes to be/The sun restores my hope to me/Of eternity and I receive it."  That's really pretty stuff.  Plus, it's got a great beat.  Makes for great workout music, too...pumping beats with a message other than "get on the dance floor and take your clothes off".  Bonus.

4. The Monkees

America's answer to the Beatles, the Monkees were among the first of the "pre-fabricated" bands that continue to be manufactured even today (Pussycat Dolls, anyone?).  There were some questions as to their actual song-writing and performing talent, but you know what?  Davy Jones gave hope to short guys everywhere.  Mickey Dolenz was one of the first musicians out there who was both a drummer and a lead singer.  Personally, I thought that was pretty cool.  Plus, the TV show, however corny, was really cute and definitely family-friendly.  One of my favorite songs, even now, is "Pleasant Valley Sunday", a tune about maintain the status quo, and how it's maybe not the best way to live life.  I still listen to the Monkees today.  They don't have the surf-vibe of the Beach Boys, and they don't have the Brit-groove that made the Beatles famous, but there's something so charmingly, earnestly American about them that I just gotta love them.  Plus, my hair was cut like Peter Tork's when I was little.

5. Local and Independent Music

Yeah, big names have the fancy stage shows and all the fame, but supporting local and independent music is important, too.  So few people who truly care about the music they make ever get the chance to play a sold-out show at the Palladium, you know?  Find a local artist you believe in.  Even if he or she never "makes it big", having a core of support sometimes makes the difference between pressing on and giving up.  Plus, it's cool to be able to say "I knew them when" if they do get famous.  ;-)

Next up, the series takes a break!

Friday, June 3, 2011

Cornfields and Steel Mills

I just returned from my first-ever trip to the great and glorious state of Iowa.  It would not have been my first choice for a vacation, but that is where Ross's family lives, and so that is where we went.

We set out in the minivan with Ross's parents (no mother-in-law jokes here; I get along great with his family!) and drove a vast stretch of Interstate 80 (almost 800 miles' worth of it) to meet up with family in and around Riverside, Iowa.  There are a lot of differences between Iowa and Pennsylvania - far more than the landscapes and exports.  I did a little research of my own to determine how Riverside's local favorites compare to Pittburgh's.  Here we go...


Well, to be honest, there's nothing particularly dreamy or fashionable about either place.  They're full of gardening equipment, discount snacks, and local sports collectibles.  Which, actually, is why this is the only reason that Paul's wins out over Trader Horn:

Okay.  Next up we have a gourmand's dilemma.  Two strong, sodium-laden traditions, hundreds of miles apart...


All right.  This one was a genuine toughie.  The Maid-Rite sandwich (which is like a Sloppy Joe minus the tomato sauce) was pretty tasty, but really salty.  But then, the Primanti sandwich is pretty greasy.  And, frankly, I'd rather have a burger at Red Robin than anything else.  So this one is a draw.  If a really tasty salad can be a tie-breaker, though...this round goes to Maid-Rite.

Now, we can move on to the seriously important stuff: pop culture.  Let's see what these two iconic places offer for, say, the science-fiction fan...


Okay, is there even a question here?  A fantasy sci-fi series that takes place in Pittsburgh is, indeed, wicked cool...but you can't get more classic than the ultimate space-faring Casanova.  Iowa wins, hands down.  Note: the awesome action figure featured below is, sadly, not available at Riverside's "The Voyage Home Star Trek Museum".  I totally woulda bought it if it was.

And last, but not least, we have two beautiful, brilliant splashes of black 'n' gold: The Iowa Hawkeyes fan base and Pittsburgh's Steeler Nation...


Now, I may catch hell for saying this, but this is, without a doubt in my mind, a draw.  Let me explain: for being "only" a college team in the middle of absolutely nowhere, the Hawkeyes have an enthusiastic support base that is on par with the six-time Superbowl champs of the Steel City.  I mean...the Wal-Mart out there had a huge section devoted to nothing but really nice Hawkeye gear.  That's more than we can say for the two racks of discounted jerseys and ball caps in our stores.  So, even though it's a college team pitted against a professional one, I gotta say it's an even match, as far as the fans are concerned.  The nice thing is, I can say I bleed black and gold...and mean it for both teams!

So.  What have we learned here today?  It would appear that Iowa has an advantage over Pennsylvania, if we're talking about science fiction and salad.  But I was born and raised in the City of Bridges; I fell asleep to the sounds of the Parkway, I woke up to the scent of Cellone's Bakery, I learned, little by little, to navigate the impossible streets of the Steel City without a GPS, I've seen the Pirates actually win a few games.  I am still made breathless by the view coming out of the Fort Pitt tunnels, even on a cloudy day.  I still get excited when the fountain at The Point turns pink in October.  I wear my Yinzer badge with pride.  I am a product of this environment, and I wouldn't have it any other way.  Iowa may be nice for a vacation, but I sure wouldn't want to live there.

God bless you, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.