Friday, May 15, 2015

Gut Feeling: Joanna Gruesome - Peanut Butter

Joanna Gruesome - Peanut Butter
Slumberland, 2015
Let’s just get this out of the way right at the top: We all know that Joanna Gruesome is a terrible band name. It’s funny, sure, but it does a disservice to a really terrific young band. Unlike most of the bands on Slumberland’s roster who seem content to dredge up the label’s pop-tinged shoegazey past, Welsh quintet Joanna Gruesome make their own beautiful mess out of punk, indiepop, and a kitchen sink’s worth of nods to the great hooksmiths of the 90s. Now allow me to undercut that statement by saying that Peanut Butter is the spiritual successor to Black Tambourine’s Complete Recordings. That’s about the highest compliment I can pay, because that album is maybe the most perfect indie-pop record ever recorded. The genre is at its best when the albums stick to a ten-songs, all under three minutes formula, and Joanna Gruesome not only follow that line, but keep the tracks around the two-minute mark. As a result, these songs achieve what is basically the equivalent of the Magic Hour in music: They don’t overstay their welcome and you want to immediately listen to them all over again.

Which is why I want these guys to change their name! You deserve better! I mean, it’s certainly a fitting moniker, considering that this band gives about zero fucks about what anyone thinks, but c’mon! Come to think of it, it’s much better than the uninspired band names currently overpopulating the indie rock landscape. At least it’s funny and has some personality! Speaking of personality, Joanna Gruesome has plenty. The opening track, “Last Year,” leads on as the shouty-post-riot-grrrl Sleater Kinney vibe that seems to be so popular at the moment before pulling the rug out and delivering the sweetest, most satisfying hooks I’ve heard all year. It’s a winning formula, and a beautiful juxtaposition that works throughout the record’s brisk 22 minutes. The band’s energy and love for vintage British twee reminds me of my beloved Los Campesinos! but they bring a darker, grungier edge to the table. The result is the most exciting album I’ve heard all year and the CD is going to stay in my car stereo for at least a month and a half.

"Last Year" - The new frontrunner for my favorite song of 2015 by about a mile at this point. If this song doesn't do it for you at least on some tiny level, you have no joy in your heart.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Radioiodine Ablation Blues - Parts 2 & 3

Part 2
There was a point during my post-radioactive iodine follow-up appointment where I held my head back against the wall, closed my eyes, and asked my endocrinologist, "So what does this mean?" I must have asked him five times, because based on the nature of my full body scans, it was hard to say what the radioactive iodine uptake in the upper mediastinal portion of my chest meant. My impression was that this magical iodine went on a search and destroy mission, annihilating everything thyroid-related that was still operating in my body post-thyroidectomy. It's what I imagined happened after Return of the Jedi. You kill Darth Vader and destroy his new Death Star and basically go around the galaxy doing mop-up work on the remnants of the Empire. But as you know, they're making at least three sequels, so sometimes things are more complicated than you imagine.

The understanding I took away from my endocrinologist is that there are probably masses in my chest containing thyroid cancer that will need to be surgically removed. It could be a false positive, but based on the never ending cycle of "And now here's a new fresh hell for you to manage," I've got my money placed on another round of cracking open my body and pulling out the bad stuff. BUT WHO KNOWS! I have to wait three months before they can perform a CT scan with iodine contrast (so as not to interfere with the hardworking radioactive iodine currently going full (or so I hope) Spanish Inquisition on the infidel cancer cells residing in my neck and thyroid bed. I hope they are doing a number on the cancer in my chest as well, but to what extent we just can't know for sure for three months. 

THREE MONTHS. That is a long time for someone who lives on a steady diet of worry. I am very much of the "THERE IS A PROBLEM/FIX THE PROBLEM AS SOON AS HUMANLY POSSIBLE" school. When I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, that fucking bullshit gland was out of my neck a week later. Tom Petty was right: the waiting is the hardest part. Three months is a lot of time to fill my head with worst-case-scenarios. The funny thing is, I don't even know what the worst case scenario is here. It's still thyroid cancer, it's still treatable, but I have the feeling that there's something someone's not telling me. It's just impossible to tell and that doesn't jibe with my general worldview.

After my appointment my endo sent me down to nuclear medicine for a scan of my chest. He kept talking about the false positive having to do with my sweat or other bodily fluids on my skin, and I was confused because I'd had two nuclear medicine scans done the week prior to verify that uptake in my stomach was just remnant radioactive iodine in my gut (it was). "Did you not see the second scan?" I asked. My endo had not. I wasn't surprised. After all, this was the office that made sure my name was misspelled on my goddamn cancer killing pills, so why should I expect anything better from the people in whose hands I chose to place my life. Good grief.

The tech down in radiology puts my mind at ease when he's not overly concerned with the uptake in my chest and thinks the radioactive iodine should do its job. He disclaims his statements with "I'm not an endocrinologist" but it's delivered with a more agreeable bedside manner that puts my mind at ease a little. It takes me out of "THEY'RE GONNA CRACK ME OPEN LIKE A CRAB" mode and puts me in "THEY'RE PROBABLY GONNA CRACK ME OPEN LIKE A CRAB" mode. I trust him because he's been there for 20 years, and because getting a second take on my scans is more valuable to me than having all of my student loans paid off at this point. We'll see in three months and we will go from there.

Part 3

Readjusting to society after a week in isolation was glorious. Years in customer service have led to a hardening of my spirit, but just going to the new Whole Foods in Olathe with Jenny and Rosie was absolutely joyful. This was before the aforementioned reading of my whole body scan so I was able to enjoy myself. It's incredibly weird spending a week monitoring everything you touch and making sure it doesn't have a chance to touch anything else someone else might handle. Isolation is also incredibly boring. You think you're gonna get down on some solid "me" time but mostly you just end up missing everybody, Holden Caulfield style. 

I emerged from my isolation chamber and my daughter was a week older and that was unbearably sad. I've since adjusted to this new baby, but at her age, there's something new every day and after a week there was a lot of catching up to do. I was finally able to return to the family bed, which means a return to waking up three times a night screaming to make sure A.) Rosie is still there B.) I didn't roll on top of her (as the child refuses to sleep in her crib past 2 am and this quasi "family bed" is the only thing that preserves Jenny's sanity). Despite the now constant sense of dread hanging over me like a black raincloud, it is so, so nice returning to the normal stuff. 

I thought a lot about professional wrestling when I was in isolation. The new Mountain Goats record Beat the Champ was fresh in my mind, and I spent a lot of time revisiting some of my favorite matches from my adolescence. One I greatly enjoyed rewatching was the empty arena match between the Rock and Mankind for the WWF title. The match was broadcast during halftime of the Super Bowl in 1999, and it's one of the greatest matches you'll ever see. I always loved that outside-of-the-box stuff. Boiler Room Brawls, Hell in a Cell, Tables, Ladders, and Chairs matches, ladder matches, I Quit matches, Iron Man matches, hair matches, you name it. This one is just pure insane joy. The Rock is at his most charismatic, and Mick Foley is as always totally game for letting shit get WEIRD. I mean, there's a whole sequence where they fight down a catered buffet getting food EVERYWHERE! The Rock splashes Mankind with a bowl of picante sauce and then TAKES A CHIP AND SCOOPS SOME OF THE SAUCE FROM FOLEY'S HEAD! Mankind pins the Rock with a forklift to win the title! Even if you're not into wrestling it's a treat. Just plain old fun.

So I went down the rabbit hole and discovered that the empty arena match was sort of championed by Mick Foley associate Terry Funk. I'd known Terry Funk from my WWF watching days. He was an old man, a hardcore legend. In one match I watched he fought some dude named Bruce Walkup in a cage and, upon defeating Walkup, delivered an insane, apocalyptic challenge to Dusty Rhodes that resonated throughout my irradiated body.

Cue at 4:30 for pure insanity.

"I am going to beat him and I am prepared to take care of him. Beat him like a dog. And I promise you that I can take more punishment than any man in the world. And I'm going to take care of Dusty Rhodes if its the last thing I do," he says, smashing his face into the cage halfway through. It's totally unhinged and pure magnificent theater, and it's what I feel like every single day. In this case, cancer is my Dusty Rhodes, but you get the picture. And as much support as I have, fighting cancer is a lot like fighting an empty arena match. Outside I have my family and doctors watching on TV and doing what they can to eliminate the menace, but inside it's just me and the malignancy. 

I can see why people go to support groups. It's a brutal and lonely battle, and while I'm well aware that I have a "good cancer," it's still cancer, and it's still bullshit, and it's still a big interruption that has to be dealt with (and paid for, naturally) before my family and I can move on with our lives. I want to do unspeakable things to this cancer. I want to fuck it up with great fury. I want to burn it at the stake. I want to throw it through a field of empty folding chairs and pour hot salsa in its face.

And that's about as depressive as I get. Just kidding, the other day I was feeling so hopeless about everything I laid down in a dark room and listened to The National Sad Mix I keep on my iPhone. Honestly, if they were cutting out whatever is inside of me tomorrow this wouldn't be an issue. It's the not knowing that is brutal for a consummate worry wort like me. My moods are increasingly unhinged, fluctuating between depression and wanting to punch the shit out of something. I'm quicker to anger than I've ever been, but also somehow capable of taking care of my child without breaking kayfabe. It's a WEIRD PLACE TO BE. 

Friday, May 8, 2015

Gut Feeling: Mikal Cronin - MCIII

Mikal Cronin – MCIII
Merge, 2015

Mikal Cronin is writing the best Carl Newman songs since 2004. That isn’t a slight to either artist. Newman and the New Pornographers have matured since their power-pop heyday, and Cronin is there to carry the torch and deliver the hookiest, most satisfying alt-pop since “Sing Me Spanish Techno.” I was late to Cronin’s coming out party with his brainmeltingly blissful 2013 sophomore effort MCII, and mostly I’m just glad I caught the boat at all. I just read an article that says you stop discovering new music at 33! And that it is accelerated for parents! And I TOTALLY AGREE WITH THAT ARTICLE. I lack the drive to comprehend the new and the interesting.

Fortunately, Cronin’s tunes are so within my wheelhouse it’s no effort at all to enjoy his music. His third album (and second on Merge, which is the best home these songs could have) incorporates big, orchestral flourishes and you can practically feel the ambition radiating off this thing. The whole back-half is a five-song suite that breaks from the good-time pop mold and features Cronin laying it all on the line. It’s a huge, diversely arranged song cycle that has the feel and flow (and occasionally orchestrated) of a Neutral Milk Hotel record. It’s beautiful and heartfelt departure that has my pop-loser soul yearning for more Mikal Cronin.

"Turn Around"