Posts Tagged ‘Reviews’

Slab City
Photo of Slab City, outside Niland, CA, taken by Alex.

After a recent camping trip in Death Valley (more on that to come!), and being in my early adult years, I’ve been reflecting lately about where exactly I want to live, and how people choose their homes. Death Valley is one of the more remote and inhospitable places in the U.S. People have lived, or worked, or mined, or otherwise subsisted in Death Valley, and continue to. However, it seems as if the natural state of that stretch of land is uninhabited. It is marked by the occasional ruined mining operation, or ghost town, or abandoned buildings. It is over 200 feet below sea level, one of the hottest places on earth, and the track record of humans in Death Valley is spotty.

Of course, as a society, we no longer depend on the land we live on for subsistence – look at desert cities Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Palm Springs somehow made the desert into a resort location. However, there’s always the possibility that your chosen community, businesses, or homes will one day fail, like the attempts to populate death valley.

The Salton Sea is on the ropes. It’s in the middle of the California desert, somewhere between Palm Springs and Mexico. And it’s huge. And no one knows about it. I lived much of my life in Los Angeles, and I never knew it existed until I drove past it on my way to Salvation Mountain. I was struck by how empty it was – no boats, no jet skis, no open restaurants. Plenty of buildings, but everything was run down, and not much was open. A documentary, Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea, came out last year, and traced the rise and fall of the Salton Sea as a tourist destination. The sea was an engineering mistake – water was diverted there accidentally, flooding land. And still, the water intake of the sea is not regulated in any way, meaning that it has risen to envelop what used to be property. It’s difficult to watch the nearby residents try and fail to raise money to build a wall to stop the water.

The residents of Niland and other towns around the sea dream of the sea becoming vacation destination, like Palm Springs to the north. It was once, before thousands of dead fish started washing up on the shore and avian botulism spread through the birds of the area. The cause of the decline into poverty of the area can’t be pinned solely on the sea, though. Various plans have been floated to lower the salinity to a normal level, which would prevent the fish die-offs. They’ve all seem to fallen through. The problems of Niland and nearby towns are the same problems facing cities across America, at a greater magnitude. Watching these people try to put a working society together, and seeing the lack of support they get, it’s hard not to think of the aftermath of Katrina. It’s nice to see something grapple with these problems – what exactly do we need for a successful community? How much support do we owe to people who’ve fallen on hard times? How much protection do we need to offer, and what kind of protection? Protection from financial hardships? Or at least protection from rising water levels?

The movie doesn’t have many answers, of course. Still, worth watching. It looks at one of the stranger places around, but identifies familiar problems. It does play up the strangeness of the area, though. John Waters narrates the doc, for some reason. Although, I have to say, living in a remote desert does seem like a strange choice to me personally. As I try to figure out exactly what type of place I should be living in, it’s clear to me that I’m a city person. Rural life isn’t for me, but I can understand it. Desert dwelling, on the other hand, seems almost unfathomable. And while the movie shows that the desert has the same planning and community-wide problems cities have, it doesn’t exactly answer the question of why – what is that continually leads people to try to live in the most remote place they can?

Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea: ★★★★☆

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Making Money

Snazzy, no?
Check out the stylin’ new coins of the British Empire (via Ezra Klein’s blog). They can be put together like a puzzle to make the royal coat of arms, and look good on their own. Plus, the British have long gotten bonus points on their coinage for including non-circular shapes and varying widths to make them easily identifiable without looking.

I read once that the U.S. can’t use similar designs on their coins, because Big Vending Machine doesn’t want to have to redo all the machines. I probably should get a reference or double check that or something, but I’m not gonna. It’s the internet.

British Currency: ★★★★☆

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It’s hard to find a more serious, self-important genre than contemporary folk music. Folkies tend to split into two groups: those who perform somber reflections on relationships, unhappiness, and other feelings-intensive topics, and those who carefully recreate older forms of music. At least the Ditty Bops seem to be having fun. They draw their inspiration from jazz and folk standards, and sound more like Dan Hicks than Leonard Cohen. I don’t know why there aren’t more bands like this – I’d certainly be happy if there were.

Their latest album continues in the vein of their previous releases, playing ragtime and western-swing inspired music, with catchy and surprisingly complex melodies. However, the music is a little less frantic, and the lyrics a little less confrontational. It’s a (relatively) subdued album, built on guitar, mandolin, and lap steel, and it sounds a little more relaxed. Their newfound restraint results in fewer of the ear-twisters and hooks which made their previous albums so memorable. However, the new approach pays off on the quietly swinging “When She’s Coming Home”, a highlight of the album. Some of the slower songs drag, particularly the lethargic “I Feel From the Outside In”, but as a whole, the album is both fun and rewarding – a good combination.

Summer Rains is probably best summed up by its title song and opener. The lyrics are about global warming, the arrangement is drenched in lap steel, and it doesn’t have the melodic hooks their previous albums provided. So why does it work so well?

Summer Rains manages to include references and nods to all kinds of interesting music from the first half of the 20th century, ensuring that old music geeks such as myself are happy, without skimping on the energy and fun that makes people want to, you know, listen to music in the first place. Good job, Ditty Bops.

Summer Rains:

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