Brain Pickings

Indie Music Meets Indie Film: First Days of Spring

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What a red Beetle has to do with the future of the music industry.

British pop-folk outfit Noah and the Whale first caught our eye a few months ago when they released a lovely short film serving as the first-ever trailer for the first-ever film/album hybrid, The First Days of Spring, featuring the track Blue Skies — which is a free download on Amazon today.

Today, the album drops as a limited-edition two-disc set, including a bonus DVD of the film. The release was timed to coincide with the London premiere of the film.

The First Days of Spring was recorded in London and New York with producer Emery Dobyns (Patti Smith, Antony & The Johnsons), and the film was shot on location in London and Surrey, with vocalist Charlie Fink in the director’s chair. An ensemble cast, includes model Daisy Lowe, adds a cherry on top of what’s already an all-around piece of creative genius.

And while the band’s sound is undeniably unique, we sense some of those dreamy, drowsy Magnetic Fields vocals and we can’t get away from the thought that this is exactly what Regina Spektor would sound like if she were a man and played the guitar instead of the piano. Our favorite track: Slow Glass.

Noah and the Whale’s unorthodox hybrid format and release model join the ranks of other indie innovators we’ve featured recently — from The Ditty Bops‘ fantastic pop-out album design, to Jill Sobule‘s clever fan-funded record, to the Darwin Song Project, to They Might Be Giantschildren’s album. At a time when the music industry is gasping to stay afloat, such creative innovation with the meta-elements of music — presentation, distribution, funding — may well emerge as the most powerful differentiator and game-changer for artists.

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Return of the Pooh

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An epic comeback, an otter, and what your inner child has to do with philosophy.

In 1926, English author Alan Alexander Milne took a shelf of his son’s stuffed toys and turned them into some of the best-loved books ever published — the Winnie-the-Pooh series was born. Today, 81 years after Christoper Robin and the gang left the Hundred Acre Wood, they are back for a new adventure.

Out today, Return to the Hundred Acre Wood is among the most epic comebacks in English literature. Although Milne himself is long dead, the new book is written by David Benedictus — who also produced the audio adaptations of Winnie-the-Pooh, starring Dame Judi Dench — and meticulously based on Milne’s Pooh stories, with artwork by Mark Burgess in the style of original illustrator E. H. Shepard.

When speaking to The Guardian, Benedictus’ understandable anxiety about being lynched as a mere imitator comes charmingly packaged in his irreverent British humor:

What’s the worst thing that can happen, that I’ll be torn apart by wild journalists? Happened before and I survived. At worst everyone will hate me and I’ll just crawl under a bush and hide – I can live with that.

Burgess isn’t far behind in his nervousness about the drawings.

I approached this project with great trepidation. In my worst moments I wonder if Shepard would absolutely hate what I’m doing. That would be dreadful, I absolutely revere him.

But we have faith in the book — we see it as a brave and ambitious homage to one of humanity’s most iconic children’s classics.

Among other surprises, it introduces a new character — Lottie the Otter. And we’re excited to read about Pooh as he delights and tickles our brains with brand new gems from his brilliantly simple yet philosophical Tao, while remaining the very bear we all know and love.

For a tease of a taste, have an exclusive read [linked PDF] of the first chapter and get lost in Jim Dale’s whimsical grandfatherly voice as he reads the book’s Exposition:

Like the original Winnie-the-Pooh books, Return to the Hundred Acre Wood is as much an instant children’s classic as it is a clever and relevant meditation on our shared adult reality. So grab a copy and immerse yourself in that wondrous world that exists between your inner child and the grown-up philosopher in you.

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Best Albums of August & September 2009

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Lovable monsters, Middle Eastern obsessions, and why good things only get better with time.

August and September have been extraordinarily good months for music, with new releases ranging from remarkable debuts, to much-anticipated new albums by old favorites, to fantastic soundtracks. Here are 8 of our favorites.

VIVIAN GIRLS EVERYTHING GOES WRONG

A 2008 critic darling, Vivian Girls faced great expectations for their sophomore album. And, we have to be honest, the first time around, we really didn’t think the indie duo lived up.

But we’re glad we gave Everything Goes Wrong a second shot. And then a third. And a fourth. And a fifth… Punchy and bold, it’s one of those albums that just keep getting better with every listen.

Favorite track: The End.

THE BIG PINK A BRIEF HISTORY OF LOVE

Trippy and surreal, The Big Pink‘s debut album is difficult to describe — it’s a brilliantly paradoxical mix of fast and slow, sharp and soft, easy and restless. Hear for yourself.

Favorite track: The title one, A Brief History of Love.

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE SOUNDTRACK

We fell in love with the pairing of dicrector Spike Jonze and vocalist Karen O of The Yeah Yeah Yeahs ever since that wonderful “Hello Tomorrow” adidas commercial. Now, the soundtrack to Jonze’s much-anticipated latest piece of magic makes us love the pair even more. It makes the kid in you hold hands with your inner musicologist as the two stroll together through whimsical forest of modern storytelling.

Favorite track: Hideaway.

A FINE FRENZY BOMB IN A BIRDCAGE

At SXSW 2007, we instantly knew Alison Sudol, a.k.a. A Fine Frenzy, was a force of talent to be reckoned with. Her debut album was an indisputable testament to this, and her much-anticipated follow-up, A Bomb In A Birdcage is every bit as brilliant.

Violins, piano, and an undercurrent of meticulously chosen drum beats give the album an incredible range of sound and emotion as you get lost in her perfect, perfect voice.

Favorite track: Blow Away.

PRINCETON COCOON OF LOVE

We first heard (of) Princeton at this year’s SXSW, where they made waves with The Waves, and we were instantly captured by their Beatlesque vibe bent through a prism of Scandinavian harmonies and instrumentals. Their new album, out last week, lived up to our expectations, and then some.

Cocoon of Love is an eclectic yet consistently excellent anthology of stylistic allusions to indie icons — think Fleet Foxes meet Belle & Sebastian — wrapped in a sound completely their own and dipped in a rich sea of cinematic orchestra instrumentation.

Favorite track: Calypso Gold.

ZERO 7 YEAH GHOST

We’ve loved Zero 7 for years and years and years, ever since the Imogen Heap days.

This year, Yeah Ghost comes as a curious mix of meh and wow. But with the help of Sia, one of our all-time favorite vocalists, they manage to deliver a fw crownjewels on their existing crown of excellence. We even toy with considering Swign the best track they’ve ever recorded.

Favorite track: Swing.

VANDAVEER DIVIDE & CONQUER

There aren’t many 5-star tracks in our iTunes library, especially ones coming from the same album. But Vandaveer’s sophomore album, Divide & Conquer, is a string of 4-stars-and-up excellence.

This isn’t “light” music — it’s drunken with a powerful heaviness that puts the weight of the world on your head as you bob it. From the haunted acoustic guitar, to the profound piano, to the intense lyrical sensibility, you just can’t stop listening in a hurts-so-good kind of way.

Part Citizen Cope, part Paolo Nutini, part something else entirely, Vandaveer — spearheaded by Mark Charles Heidinger, with vocalist Rose Guerin — bring a brilliant balance of male and female vocals, reminiscent of that Damien Rice / Lisa Hannigan dynamic that we miss so much.

Favorite track: Turpentine.

TAKEN BY TREES EAST OF EDEN

We love everything Victoria Bergsman is involved in. You may know her as the female vocal on Peter Bjorn & John’s now-iconic Young Folks, or know her band, The Concretes. But her solo project, Taken By Trees, has been making us smile since 2006.

Taken By Trees’ latest album takes those same haunting-sweet vocals, and layers them on top of a Middle Eastern acoustic sensibility. East Of Eden was inspired by Victoria’s travels to Pakistan — and you can hear it every perfect drum beat, in the superb flutes and enchanted backvocals that adorn her typically rich lyrics.

Favorite track: Day By Day, a beautiful anthem to a bittersweet obsession.

For more curated music, check out tune of the moment, our Tumblr spin-off, where each day, you can listen to a full track that’s making us smile.

We’re launching a newsletter, published on Sundays and featuring the week’s articles, plus an exclusive curation of 5 more Brain-Pickings-worthy things from across the web. To sign up, simply send us a blank email from the address at which you’d like to receive it. Although optional, we’d really appreciate including your occupation and where you live.

30 Years of Innovation: Happy Birthday, ITP

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Mud, paparazzi, and what rodents have to do with the bleeding edge of interactive technology.

A self-decapitating squirrel-as-clock, voice-activated tug-of-war games, and anti-paparazzi fashion aren’t typical student thesis projects, but then the program for which they were created is no typical program. NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) celebrates its 30th anniversary from October 1st through 3rd this year, and belying its ’70s-era name, the ITP is the go-to place for the newest in new media.

A cross between experimental arts studio and R&D technolab, the ITP is a two-year degree program and self-described “center for the recently possible.” The current course catalog reads like some kind of avant-hacker’s dream: Cabinets of Wonder, Design for UNICEF (taught by faculty member Clay Shirky), and Sousveillance Culture are among the many electives available.

ITP’s bi-annual thesis shows have become must-see events for talent recruitment and pure geekdom alike. The artists, designers, engineers, theorists, and technologists that make up the program’s community of alumni/ae, faculty, and students include a current MacArthur Fellow, numerous TED presenters, and Ze Frank — in short, a who’s who of high-minded cool.

With equal emphasis on hardware and software, student projects push the boundaries of new technology but with a distinctly user-centered focus. Some, like Plott by Thomas Chan, have immediate real-world application—as applications (of the iPhone variety). Others, like Tom Gerhard’s Mud Tub, take a more theoretical bent. All draw on life as their laboratory, and we love how they augment our experience of interacting with the world.

As it turns 30, the ITP’s mission—to explore creative applications of communications technologies—is more relevant now than ever. The program’s immersive approach to learning excites us not only because it approaches the classroom as playground, but also because it’s a great example of design within social contexts. (And consistent with this collaborative ethos, ITP has set up a wiki so that its current and past students and faculty can assemble a timeline of the program’s history.)

With concentrations in design areas such as assistive technology, mobile computing, and sustainability, the program has not only kept pace with the times but seems poised to lead the way into the brave, new, mediated landscape we live in. To see what makes ITP such a cool place, check out a project portfolio and a few additional videos.

Kirstin Butler holds a Bachelor’s in art & architectural history and a Master’s in public policy from Harvard University. She currently lives and works in Brooklyn as a freelance editor and researcher, where she also spends way too much time on Twitter.

We’re launching a newsletter, published on Sundays and featuring the week’s articles, plus an exclusive curation of 5 more Brain-Pickings-worthy things from across the web. To sign up, simply send us a blank email from the address at which you’d like to receive it. Although optional, we’d really appreciate including your occupation and where you live.