Friday, July 17, 2015

Our All-Time Favorite Albums and Why We Like Them

For this blog, each member of the band was asked to list their top 3 favorite albums and to explain why each is great! In some cases, this is simply a discussion of how a particular album spoke to us in a personal way; in others, we detail what we feel makes the album just generally wonderful! Feel free to tell us about your top 3 favorites by posting a comment! 

Luke Gabordi

Listen Here: Nothing Is Wrong (full) 
Nothing is Wrong, Dawes (2011) - It is my favorite album. This album is far more than a collection of songs. Dawes carefully wrote, selected, and then organized tracks from beginning to end to create a completed work detailing the overdone theme of personal wreckage following a broken heart. But this album is so much more than that! The lyrics, the tones, the themes of each song...this is an intimate look into the depths of a soul during the sad and beautiful, depressing and elating, chaotic yet pacifying journey from who we were to who we have become. As human beings, we may find ourselves creating in our minds our personal identity. When that identity is fractured and we are shaken to our core, we are forced to reckon with our very existence and forced to find our place again in this world. Dawes has captured this journey in a powerful and deadly accurate way. While others may have had different experiences with this journey, I listen to this album and feel that it was written specifically for me. Whether your self discovery followed a breakup, hitting rock bottom, or simply a decision to make a change in life, this album has words that are meaningful and sounds which capture the essence of each emotion.

Listen Here: Abbey Road (full album) 
Abbey Road, The Beatles (1969) - First of all, the Beatles were a favorite of mine from middle school on. How original of me! This is musically my favorite album of theirs, although Rubber Soul is a close second and Sargent Pepper expanded my understanding of what an album could be. "I Want You" and "Because" are two of my favorite songs the Beatles wrote, not only simply for the listening pleasure, but for the appreciation I have as a musician for the writing and recording of each song. The medley is what pushes Abbey Road to the next level for me. John, Paul, George and Ringo took a hodgepodge of incomplete songs and turned them into an iconic "piece" of its own. Adding to my intrigue here is that the Beatles were nearing their end. Paul told Rolling Stone that during it's recording, the elements pulling the band apart were hard at work, yet each Beatle had a strong respect for who and what each other was as a musician and they made it work. Overall, I love the music simply for the music, and I love the album because of what it signified for the Fab Four in some of their final days together.

Listen Here: Morning View (full album)
Morning View, Incubus (2001) - Look, there are lots and lots of songs and albums that I love to listen to. I love music for the sounds, for the creativity, and for the pleasure of simply playing it. But for me, the greatest gift that music has to offer is that it can take a group of people, large or small, and touch every single person in such a way that they are united by it. For me, Morning View offers great sounding music ranging from the nearly the hardest rock they've produced (“Blood on the Ground”) to soft, intimate acoustic (“Mexico”), to grooves that you can listen to while kicking back in a chair by the water in July (“Are you in?”), as well as spiritually provocative music from some mystical voyage real or imagined (“Aqueous Transmission”). But my favorite thing about the album, and what makes me feel such a connection to it, is that Incubus recorded it living near the beach so that they could come and go recording as part of their day, not as something they needed to drive to the studio to do. They wanted it to flow more naturally. The water has such a presence in the album, and evidence can be found in certain lyrics, instrument tones, the album cover itself, and in some non instrument track sounds, such as the "peepers" ending the song "Aqueous Transmission", and thusly, the album itself. I love to be at the beach with Morning View in my ears with the seagulls and surf in the background. It just fits for me!

Other Albums: Port of Morrow, The Shins; Young the Giant, Young the Giant; In a Perfect World, Kodaline; For Emma, Forever Ago, Bon Iver

Jordan Hill

Listen Here: The Bends (full album
The Bends, Radiohead (1995) - When friends ask me, “What is your favorite band?” I typically say “early-Radiohead.” For me, Radiohead’s first three albums are, as a unit, unsurpassed in their depth, emotional resonance, and melodic beauty. The Bends is Radiohead’s second studio album. Boasting such popular hits as “High and Dry” and “Fake Plastic Trees,” the album makes a subtle but noticeable aesthetic and thematic turn away from its angsty, reckless, and politically charged predecessor, Pablo Honey (1993). Instrumentally, the twelve tracks that comprise The Bends are more layered and balanced than those in Pablo Honey, featuring a greater use of keyboards and more aggressive, expressionistic guitar riffs. In songs like “The Bends,” “Just,” and “My Iron Lung,” for example, guitars drive the tracks in a way that is focused, but also messy, splashy, and abrasive, like a Jackson Pollock painting. The result is intense, especially when combined with Yorke’s soaring, operatic vocal melodies. Lyrically, the songs are dramatic and deeply introspective--more cryptic and poetic than Pablo Honey, but also more melancholy and romantic. Though the band’s third album, OK Computer (1997), is one of the more inventive and exhilarating musical statements in modern memory, it has a paranoid political schizophrenia that, while emblematic of the of the late 90’s zeitgeist, ultimately renders the album more reactive and less profound than The Bends. All of Radiohead’s albums are about alienation, desperation, and the vulnerability of love, but The Bends stands out to me for its timeless, existential tenor and its concern with the individual.

*After OK Computer, the band--believing it must, with every album, become increasingly more abstruse, inaccessible, and avant-garde--spirals downward into a rabbit-hole of pandering pretension from which it never quite emerges.

Listen Here: Yellow House (full album)
Yellow House, Grizzly Bear (2006) -Yellow House is my all-time favorite album. There is something magnificent and almost primitive about the ten songs that make up Yellow House. No single track on the album stands out as being particularly memorable or hit-worthy. Instead, like an experimental concept-album from the late 60’s, the songs string together harmoniously to become one long, beautiful, and multifaceted song. Grizzly Bear’s sound, while nothing if not original, might be best described as an anarchic cross between The Beach Boys and Fleet Foxes--rich vocal harmonies, unpredictable melodies, traditional instruments (utilized in unique ways), and pensive, wandering lyrics. Yellow House embodies the best of these qualities, but has a sound that is singular and unlike any other Grizzly Bear album. The guitar tones range from folksy acoustic to earthy electric; the drums, wild and tom-heavy, give off a woodsy, paganistic feel; while the harmonies are howling and psychedelic, but tightly controlled. The fact that Yellow House conjures a foresty, mythical, fantasia-esque feeling of wonder and awe is no accident. (Close your eyes while listening and you can just picture yourself running through some ancient wilderness, in a drama complete with nymphs, fauns, and satyrs!) The album--which uses xylophones, chirping birds, and other nature sounds throughout--has been described as possessing an “Apollonian ethereality.” Indeed, the combination of orderly harmonies and chaotic, darkly percussive instrumentation feels symbolic of the Apollonian/Dionysian struggle found in Greek mythology and literature. If any part of my description sounds decadent or overwrought, I beg you: listen to the album and see for yourself! Yellow House is an otherworldly masterpiece.

Listen Here: For Emma (full album)
For Emma, Forever Ago, Bon Iver (2008) - It is 2015, and I have been listening to Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago non-stop for close to 6 years. Over time, I have realized that this album---the music, the lyrics, and my emotional interaction with it---cannot be separated from the story of its artistic creation, which has become the stuff of legend. The album was recorded over a three-month period of solitude, in a cabin in rural Wisconsin, with nothing but a laptop, basic recording equipment, and some old instruments. In the popular imagination, Justin Vernon, the man behind Bon Iver, has become something of a veritable modern-day Thoreau. Yet For Emma, Forever Ago is no Walden. It isn’t about self-reliance, vital energy, or sucking the marrow out of life; it is more about loneliness, lost love, and taking stock of life. Vernon’s lyrics are vague, illusive, and self-consciously poetic, using words and word-play to create images and evoke feelings, rather than to establish direct meaning. Take these lyrics from the album’s opening song, “Flume”: “Only love is all maroon/ Gluey feathers on a flume/ Sky is womb and she's the moon.” Or later in the song: “Lapping lakes like leery loons/ Leaving rope burns, reddish ruse.” Here the rhyme scheme and alliteration works to provide a coherent structure for images and ideas that are surreal and barely lucid. The vocals, which Vernon performs in a husky falsetto voice and uses almost instrumentally, are delivered in rich waves and surges of undulating intensity. However, there is also a nostalgic and somehow tragic feeling of hermetic isolation running throughout the album. Despite the abundance of dynamic, echoing harmonies, the nine songs that compose For Emma, Forever Ago are punctuated by deep, meaningful moments of reflective quiet---these moments draw the listener in and bring a real intimacy to the listening experience.

Other Favorites: Either/Or, Elliott Smith (1997); Armchair Apocrypha, Andrew Bird (2007); Port of Morrow, The Shins; Pet Sounds, The Beach Boys; Undiscovered, James Morrison (2006)

Eric Zaccaro

Listen Here: El Cielo (full album)
El Cielo, Dredg (2002) - Originally from the San Francisco Bay area, and with an eclectic group of influences including jazz, rock, soul and pop, Dredg creates a unique sound with an epic vibe. Inspired by a Salvador Dali work called “Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening,” El Cielo extracts various symbols from the painting and converts them into music throughout the album. Recurring lyrical themes focus on holding on to hope, pushing through tough times, maintaining youth, and embracing life. These are combined with emotional and catchy melodies, which still to this day, get stuck in my head often. The album also features different instruments such as the saxophone, and yangqin to provide different sounds. With its unique sounds, inspirational lyrics, and artistic themes, El Cielo in its entirety is one of my favorite albums of all time.

Listen Here: This Is War (full album)
This Is War, 30 Seconds To Mars (2009) - With Oscar-winning actor Jared Leto as the frontman, 30 Seconds to Mars is known for their popular rock melodies and amazing production value. Their album This Is War includes collaborations with artists such as Kanye West, and uses a children’s choir to add an ironic tone to the theme of the horrors of war. With meaningful lyrics and a passionate atmosphere, just about every song reaches a musical peak that almost always gives me goosebumps. Also, the smooth transitions between songs create a coherent flow throughout the whole album, making it so easy to listen to in one sitting. For all of these reasons, this is one of my favorite albums.

Listen Here: TheWeeknd (full album)
Trilogy, The Weeknd (2012) - Originally from Canada and known as a PBR&B artist, Abel Tesfaye (“The Weeknd”) combines genres of music including jazz, R&B, hip hop, funk, and pop. In Trilogy, smooth melodies and a crisp voice add a unique sense of soul to his music. Catchy beats and interesting lyrics set the tone and should keep any first-time listener intrigued throughout the album. Also, various collaborations with many other artists add different tones and new sounds to every song. When I’m in many different moods, whether I’m looking for sexy music, easy listening, or catchy melodies, this album provides all of those and is therefore one of my favorites.

Other albums: Young Love, Mat Kearney; The Resistance, Muse

Mike Zaccaro

If I was asked to name the best albums of all time, this would be a very different list. But because this is a personal "Top 3" list---a "desert island albums" list, if you will---these selections will likely seem a little random and non-extraordinary to most. In writing this, I realize that I have truly learned something about my own musical taste. Through this exercise, I’ve learned that I like music to be technically interesting, emotional, and to contain wrenching and unforgettable melodies. When looking over most of this list, each album seems to have something I personally strive for and consider to be mostly prominent in our own band’s music. I am learning, however, that I also seem to be drawn to albums that are story/theme driven, and which have variety in style and influence. The purpose of this list is to narrow down my favorite albums to the top three (in no particular order).

Listen Here: Night At The Opera (full)
A Night at The Opera, Queen (1975) - In 1975, Queen released its fourth studio album. While sometimes over the top with its operatic flair and corny ragtime lyrics/piano, this album captures a wide range of variety and technical areas that had not really been explored in mainstream rock and roll to that point. I love that the role of lead vocalist and songwriter is humbly passed around in a democratic manner. From Brian May's folksy "'39," to Roger Taylor's straight hard rock "I'm in Love with My Car," back to Freddie's "Seaside Rendezvous," it's hard to imagine all of these ideas and virtuosity are contained within one group of British rockers. Every song in Night at The Opera is great, and differently interesting from the next. Songs like "Bohemian Rhapsody" and "The Prophet's Song" experiment with some cool production effects and vocal abilities that are still being replicated today. I got goose-bumps when Jordan and Nikki had their wedding first kiss and "You're My Best Friend" started blasting as they made their way back up the aisle.

Listen Here: Metropolis Pt. 2 (full album)
Metropolis, Part 2: Scenes From a Memory, Dream Theater (1999) - I truly love most types of music, and believe there is a style of music for any mood or emotion, including anger. I love when an artist embodies or packages an idea exactly how it should be, to keep the idea true to itself. In other words, don't force a genre or style upon an idea, in order to superficially keep to your 'genre,' if that genre doesn't best serve the idea. There is some metal I love and others I do not. It is unfair to categorize Dream Theater as "Progressive Metal," as their songwriting and performing dabbles with all types of music. My gripe with a lot of metal is the monotony and production choices. I find most metal to be forgettable---much of it sounding the same within itself. I also find it to be overproduced and stripped of a lot of personality in the sound; it's usually scooped out in the mid section and left to be all low-end and tinny-treble. This is kind of ironic when you are talking about complex music and superb musicianship. I was drawn to Dream Theater because they take the best traits and really mix it up without limiting themselves to any sound or style.

Dream Theater's 1999 concept album is full bodied and "raw" sounding when it comes to production, which compliments the intricate songwriting and musicianship very nicely. This album tells a story of man named Nicholas, who after having crazy dreams, speaks to a hypnotherapist and learns that in a past life he was a woman named Victoria whose murder was framed as a suicide after a love triangle boils over. The story is perpetuated by thoughtful lyrics, driving melodies, and descriptive musical interludes. From the acted introduction, euphoric and tear jerking realization ballad of "Through Her Eyes," climactic gospel choir backed "The Spirit Carries On," and every shred (pun intended) of riff and funky time-signatured metal in between, this album is both jaw dropping and enthralling from beginning to end.

Listen Here: Morning View (full album)
Morning View, Incubus (2001) - In 2001, Incubus released Morning View. There are two main reasons why I love this album so much. This album came out right around the time I was starting to really dig into learning the bass guitar, and also around the time when I was really starting to discover new rock music (for me, this was somewhere between 8th and 9th grade). This album has a vibe that influences the entire sound and writing of the album. One of my musical dreams is to write and record an entire album in a remote, inspiring location. Incubus rented a studio in the Malibu hills with direct beach access to write and record their album and it really shines through. To me, Incubus has not been the same since Dirk Lance left as bass player. His funky navigation through the deep-pocket, which fit so seamlessly into the 90s alternative rock songs, really played a large part in what separated their style and song-writing from other bands coexisting within the genre. This album holds such a specific and special place in my life and musical journey that I had to add it to my list. Given how strongly this album has influenced me, and due to my interest in production, I plan to buy an island in the Maldives or Bahamas and build a solar powered recording studio bungalow. But first we need to get famous and successful selling our garage art!

Honorable Mentions that barely missed the list: Anthology, The Moody Blues; Abbey Road; The Beatles; The Resistance, Muse; Rage Against The Machine, Rage Against The Machine, In a Perfect World; Kodaline

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Buddhism and Modern Rock

Hi again friends! This latest blog entry revolves around my love of music and my ongoing fascination with Buddhist philosophy.* I hope the word philosophy hasn’t scared anyone off! I’ll try to keep it relatively simple. What got me going on this train of thought is the fact that Buddhism, while it receives extensive treatment in Western literature and film, is hardly ever linked to Western music, especially modern rock. But modern rock is overflowing with Buddhist ideas! In what follows, we’ll take a look at FOUR songs that communicate important Buddhist principles. The four tracks, independent of one another, are by no means Buddhist anthems. When considered together, however, these songs can bring us to a deeper appreciation of Buddhism's influence on modern rock. 

The Beatles meditating with the Maharishi in 1968

In the online community, there seems to be very little buzz concerning Buddhism’s connection to Western music. For example, if you do a Google search for “Buddhism in rock music” you’ll find the results are curiously meager. What a shame! Starting with The Beatles, who famously dabbled in transcendental meditation and incorporated Buddhist ideas in their music, along with other influential artists of the 60’s—such as Leonard Cohen, Donovan, and The Grateful Dead—the historical influence of Eastern spirituality on rock n’ roll has been undeniable and significant. Later bands, like Oasis and The Verve, have even carried this tradition to the present day. But it wasn’t long before popular culture picked up on this trend as well... and promptly began ridiculing it.
In This is Spinal Tap, an 80’s mockumentary which pokes fun at the banal excesses and naïve pretensions of rock bands, David St. Hubbins, the lead singer of Spinal Tap, says, “Before I met Jeanine my life was cosmically a shambles. I was using bits and pieces of whatever Eastern philosophy would drift through my transom.”** In the more recent film Forgetting Sarah Marshall, the rock star Aldous Snow, who steals the protagonist’s girlfriend, is portrayed as an eccentric mystical-moron: “Let me tell you something about these tattoos…” Sarah Marshall says, pointing at the symbols on Aldous’s arms, “That is Buddhist, that is Nordic, that is Hindu, that’s just gibberish! These are completely conflicting ideologies… that does not make you a citizen of the world; it makes you full of shit!” As we can see, this notion of the self-righteous, yet absurdly comical guru/artist is by now a commonly abused cinematic cliché. And rightly so! We cannot help but laugh when the lead singer of a hair metal band—complete with teased hair, running mascara, and a cucumber stuffed in his pants—tries to play the part of the meditative philosopher. Oh well! We have to work with what we’ve got! Thankfully, the four songs I’ve chosen are no laughing matter; rather, they are each profound philosophical statements that illuminate humanity’s struggle to find peace and enlightenment in a world filled with suffering.
Before I get to the songs, it will be helpful for those new to Buddhism to read some sort of introductory summary. It’s important to remember that Buddhism is by no means a fixed or static tradition. In Buddhism, there are a few different branches (Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana) and many different schools (too many to list). With each school there are subtle variations in practice, metaphysical outlook, and ethical obligation. This is partly why Western interpretations of Buddhism have proven so troublesome and incomplete; they tend to amalgamate the tradition into a painfully inaccurate whole that suits the Western understanding, but does little to represent the essence of Buddhism. Like any religion, however, there are some incontrovertible principles and philosophical elements that run throughout the entire tradition: To better understand these basic principles, visit (an introduction I highly endorse), or get your hands on a copy of Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction, by Damien Keown (it’s cheap, the guy’s an expert, and the subject is treated broadly).
Take It Easy – The Eagles
While this song isn’t necessarily modern, it’s one of those rare gems that deliver a kind of deep, blue-collar wisdom. The Eagles aren’t known as advocates of Buddhism, nor has the band ever been particularly profound in my eyes. Yet in the face of all of life’s chaos, this song reminds us over and over again to simply, “take it easy.” Though seemingly unsophisticated, this advice isn’t just some cheap hippie slogan; there’s actually much more going on here. In my eyes, the song is really about suffering—a particular type of suffering—and, in turn, letting go.
In Buddhism, the first of The Four Noble Truths states that, “Life is suffering.” But “suffering” (dukkha) can be a confusing concept. When we typically think of suffering we imagine poverty, starvation, illness and death. However, Buddhists have a much broader and more thoughtful understanding of what suffering truly is. Suffering doesn’t just happen when we experience physical pain or when we are lacking basic necessities; it occurs every day to all of us, even the affluent. In American culture, it is often assumed that the more material wealth one has, the less one suffers. But this is not the case in Buddhism. Thus the second of The Four Noble Truths is that suffering arises from craving, desire and attachment. Hopefully most of us are familiar with the concept of the hedonic treadmill or hedonic adaptation. Psychologists and philosophers use this concept in “happiness studies” to explain that as a person begins to make more money or experiences an increase in external pleasures, expectations and desires tend to rise in tandem with those external changes, in turn leading to no permanent gain in happiness. This doesn’t mean that experiencing pleasure or making money is intrinsically bad, but rather that once our basic needs and wants are met, having more will not necessarily lead to happiness. In Buddhism, the hedonic treadmill—which symbolizes the fool who keeps running only to stay in the same place—is a process that invariably leads to more suffering.
In this way, “Take It Easy” is really a didactic story: We meet a man with “seven women on his mind”—four of them want to “own” him and two want to “stone” him. Of course, we see where this is going. Here is a man who is not satisfied with only one woman; he must have seven. Our protagonist’s mind is filled with desire and angst; he cannot balance his earthly pleasures and he has created chaos. If this isn’t enough, the man further laments:
I'm running down the road
Tryin' to loosen my load
Got a world of trouble on my mind
Lookin' for a lover
Who won't blow my cover
She's so hard to find
These lyrics bring us back to the hedonic treadmill, as we realize the man is caught up in a futile search. He longs to ease his troubled mind through pleasure and satisfaction, but cannot seem to find it in the places he is looking. Given the difficulty of reading too closely into a breezy song like “Take It Easy,” there are sure to be alternate interpretations. Yet even my interpretation can admit that the beauty of this song lies in the choruses, as the narrator reminds himself to let go of his futile concerns, de-clutter his mind, and simply “take it easy.” 
Take it easy
Take it easy
Don’t let the sound of your own wheels
Drive you crazy
The anxiety the man has manifested through his search for sensual pleasure is indeed a form of suffering, and one that the man warns himself (or us) against: “Don’t let the sound of your own wheels drive you crazy,” he advises. This line is one of the best in all of rock n’ roll and it clearly echoes, albeit indirectly, the normative stance presented in the first two of the Four Noble Truths—that 1) life is suffering, and 2) suffering is caused by craving (taṇhā) and attachment (upādāna). The metaphorical significance of the vehicle is clear: We are like ego-vehicles moving through the world—craving, acting, and reacting. The word “wheels” conjures the image of mental gears driving and striving for pleasure, acceptance, and understanding. And the word “sound” represents the reverberation of this behavior and the suffering produced as a result.
The third noble truth, however—that suffering will only cease through extinguishing all craving and desire—is where the Eagles depart from the Buddhist tradition. In the end, the song is not actually telling us to do away with all passion and desire, but instead to realize how short life is and to place less emphasis on our attachment to fleeting trivialities. This is almost directly stated in the first chorus, with the line, “Lighten up while you still can. Don’t even try to understand. Just find a place to make your stand. And take it easy!” 
Waiting – Cake

This next song, by Cake, is also about suffering. But again the suffering I’m talking about here is probably not immediately obvious to the Western mind. “Waiting” is about the tendency of human beings to live their lives in anticipation of events to come, rather than living in the now. “You’ll always be waiting,” John McCrea sings, “for someone else to call.” This message is particularly relevant to our present condition, as we grapple with the constant pull and distraction of various social media outlets. This sense of “waiting” is satirized to perfection in the South Park episode, “You Have 0 Friends”. Check it out!

But Cake’s message is not a surface critique on our obsession with technology and social media. No, the song, I think, is getting at something deeper; it is attempting to describe a form of suffering that we experience in our everyday lives, a kind of chronic dissatisfaction which stems from a mindset of craving, grasping, and expectation. But what does this have to do with waiting for someone to call? Well, anytime we are waiting in expectation for something, we are necessarily not living in the present. Just as anytime we are caught in an act of nostalgia, longing for the past, we too are not paying adequate attention to the here and now. But the song is also attacking our material desires, and the thin ideological convictions we use to convey to others who we are.
So we think that we’re important
And we think that we make sense
And we think there’s something better
On the other side of this fence. 
We’d do well to remember this warning against ‘coveting thy neighbor’s goods’ is not unique to Buddhism (the Bible actually goes as far as to say that one should not covet thy neighbor’s “man-slave”… Apparently jealousy, in Christian scripture, is a far worse offense than enslaving human beings). As if we hadn’t learned enough, McCrea now turns his gaze to our flawed belief that material possessions will lead to lasting happiness and satisfaction. He exclaims:
You can soak your bread in gravy
You can soak your bread in soup
But the car that you are driving
Doesn’t really belong to you!
In other words—to translate from Cake-speak to English—no matter what material pursuits we choose to distract ourselves with, our fundamental condition as human beings will not change. We are delicate, fleeting, momentarily existing organisms, connected to the earth in ways we are only beginning to understand. The Muse song “Time is Running Out” plays with a similar notion, critiquing our tendency to “bury” and “smother” the fact of our own mortality. “Our time is running out/ Our time is running out,” sings Matt Bellamy with ample vibrato, “You can’t push it underground/ You can’t stop it screaming out”—(this song, I should note, isn’t entirely morbid; it’s as much about life and love as it is about angst and death.) Yet returning to McCrea’s point: Try as we might to sculpt our identities through the things we collect, in the end we find these things don’t even really belong to us in the first place; they are but small components of a vast, unconcerned, rapidly expanding universe (not to drift  into Carl Sagan land***). Or, if this notion is too vague or sentimental, we can actually take McCrea quite literally. For the most part, we do not own our cars or our houses; the bank owns them.
“Waiting” is truly an anthem of the anxiety and unsettledness of the post-modern/post-industrial condition. And, no, neither our staunch ideological convictions, nor our vain material strivings, will save us from this sense of waiting and waiting and waiting… “for someone else to call.” 
Zen Brain – Nada Surf

What, then, is the individual to do? And isn’t Buddhism itself an ideological conviction? A religion, in fact? How can Buddhism claim to be above rigid ideologies when it itself is a fixed mode of understanding the world and deriving meaning from experience? Here we turn to Zen.
Zen effectively means “enlightenment” or “meditation,” depending on whom you ask. The Random House Dictionary states that Zen is “a Mahayana movement, introduced to China in the 6th century and into Japan in the 12th century, that emphasizes enlightenment for the student by the most direct possible means.” To put it plainly, Zen Buddhism de-emphasizes knowledge of scripture and facts, instead placing its emphasis on experience and meditation. The goal of Zen, if we can call it a goal, is to help practitioners to become fully aware, to let go of all clinging to past and present, and to live in the now. In this way, Zen is about coming to one’s senses. When we are truly living in the present moment—that is, focusing on the task at hand—we are able to, in a sense, become whatever activity we are pursuing. This is what athletes typically call being in “the zone.” In music, it is called being in “the pocket” (the term is most widely used with bass players, since bass, everyone knows, is the Zen-est of all musical instruments!). Interestingly enough, the influential Nike slogan—“Just Do It!”—was originally a saying used by the Korean Zen Master, Seung Sahn. In fact, “Just Do It” pretty much sums up what Zen is all about. In the Zen tradition, facts, concepts, and words can be valuable and even potentially meaningful, but mistaking them for reality is a grave error. This is because facts, concepts, and words about reality are not reality. As one Buddhist monk famously points out, “The menu is not the food.”
Nada Surf’s song “Zen Brain harnesses the spirit of this tradition, asking that we cultivate Zen Brain (the safest equivalent to “Zen Brain” in the actual tradition is probably what the Japanese call mushin no shin or “mind without mind”). “Zen Brain,” then, tells us to clear the mind of any and all emotional or intellectual obstacles, so we may focus on the task at hand, on the present moment. Zen master Takuan Soho writes, “The mind must always be in the state of flowing, for when it stops anywhere that means the flow is interrupted and it is this interruption that is injurious to the well-being of the mind.” This is ultimately the conclusion that lead singer Mathew Caws (whose father is actually the notable philosopher Peter Caws) reaches in “Zen Brain”.
Caws tells us the story of his angsty youth and concludes “I need a new heart/ This one’s hollow, always scheming.” In this song, again the root cause of suffering turns out to be craving and expectation, or in Caws’ words, “scheming.” He goes on in the prechorus, as the band begins to rise in crescendo, “You wait for summer/ And then you wait for winter/ But there’s a total lack of splendor”—again we get a sense of the futility of a life spent “waiting”—and then the chorus explodes:
            Zen Brain!
            Throw away your crushes,
            All your childhood crutches away.
            Never scared of nothing
Violence or loving my way!
Here Caws, perhaps intentionally, employs a kind of mock adolescent language: To throw away one’s “crushes” essentially means to free oneself from craving and attachment. And to remove one’s “childhood crutches” is to rid oneself of the obstacles of expectation and fear, which stem from clinging desperately to the future. For Caws, and many Buddhists, spending all of one’s time preparing for how one will react to future events is simply a crutch. Surely one who cultivates “Zen Brain,” as Nada Surf recommends, would hardly need a crutch to lean on, but would be supremely engaged in and focused on the task at hand.  
Tougher Than It Is – Cake

No doubt about it! The song “Tougher Than It Is”—despite what I said earlier—is a Buddhist anthem! In fact, the whole album Pressure Chief is overflowing with Buddhist and Taoist ideas. It’s as if John McCrea wrote these songs with a copy of the Tao te Ching or the Dhammapada in his lap. “Tougher Than It Is” is informed by Taoist and Zen principles, but it is also driven by more classical Buddhist arguments.
The song starts out by exclaiming boldly, “There is no such thing as you! It doesn’t matter what you do! The more you try to qualify, the more that life will pass you by.” This notion, that there is no-self (anātman), is a central aspect of Buddhist metaphysics and can be found in nearly all of the major schools. There are really two different ways to look at this claim: The first, and most thoroughly Western, is to treat anātman the same way that Christians treat selflessness—as an ethical virtue. Buddhism, like most major world religions, preaches selflessness and selfless love as its utmost virtue. Just as Christ is said to have sacrificed himself for humanity, it is the job of the lay practitioner and the Bodhisattva—a being who has reached enlightenment—to help others reach spiritual enlightenment and become free of samsara. But an even more important ethical factor is that focus on the self invariably leads to suffering. As the link I provided notes, “We suffer because we are constantly struggling to survive. We are constantly trying to prove our existence… The harder we struggle to establish ourselves and our relationships, the more painful our experience becomes.”
The second way to look at anātman or no-self is ontologically (ontological arguments are claims about existence or reality). Each school has a different interpretation of anātman, but for our sake I’ll put it simply: Anātman, if we are taking the view quite seriously, is the position that YOU yourself literally don't exist, not ultimately at least. In the terminology of Buddhist metaphysics the “self” only exists, as they say, conventionally. According to Buddhists, in order for something to be ultimately real it must be able to retain its full identityall of its properties and components (down to the smallest elementary constituents of matter)over time (i.e. from t1 to t2), yet nothing ultimately does. Everything in the world arises, exists, changes, decays, and ceases at each and every moment. As the famous Buddhist philosopher Jay Garfield points out, “the observable phenomena we take to be enduring, including ourselves, are causal continua of momentary phenomena to which we conventionally ascribe an identity” (Buddhist Philosophy, 2009, p. 4). In other words, all things are momentary and impermanent, yet we make the mistake of ascribing identities to things because of our innate ability to observe cause and effect and make stable arrangements of phenomena. But many people raise an important question: “When a Buddhist says YOU do not exist, who exactly is this you they are talking about?” To answer this, Buddhists explain that the concept of “self” is simply an illusion, a mistake, which occurs early on as we learn to use language, and as we first look in the mirror and realize that there is a place or border where our physical body begins and ends. In reality, what I call my existence is really just a collection of momentary experiences or mental states that I naively lump together to form a conception of “self.”
While this view surely sounds eccentric, impractical and wildly unintuitive to the average Joe, it is indeed one of the oldest and longest standing philosophical positions known to man. For a more thorough articulation of this dizzying subject, see Garfield and Edelglass’s Buddhist Philosophy (a text I was assigned as an undergrad), or, for a more approachable explanation, the magazine New Scientist has recently published several articles on this problem: My former advisor at SUNY Binghamton, Charles Goodman, gives a great  verbal explanation of why he believes you do not exist, here: Charles-Goodman-No-Self. That being said, try not to worry too much! Retaining a healthy self-identity is normal human behavior, and Buddhism respects this fact. Because it is in our nature to go on living life as a “self”—and not as some unemployable, amorphous, identity-less creature—Buddhism merely seeks to help people place less emphasis on the self, and to reduce the suffering that overemphasis on this self creates.  All metaphysical speculation aside, this track is really about the ways in which we bring suffering upon ourselves, causing life to seem much “tougher than it is.” McCrea expresses the song’s central message in a somehow familiar, yet highly original way:
Well the more you try to shave the cat
The more the thing will bite and scratch.
It’s best I think to leave its fur
And to listen to it’s silky purr.
Some people try to make life a little tougher than it is.
In essence, McCrea’s advice is similar to the famous analogy given by writer and Zen enthusiast Alan Watts, who writes, “[Y]ou cannot understand life and its mysteries as long as you try to grasp it. Indeed, you cannot grasp it, just as you cannot walk off with a river in a bucket. If you try to capture running water in a bucket, it is clear that you do not understand it and that you will always be disappointed, for in the bucket the water does not run. To ‘have’ running water you must let go of it and let it run” (The Wisdom of Insecurity, 1951, p. 24). Cake, similarly, tells us that constantly trying to grasp and control the external sanctions of life will invariably lead to suffering. We can only experience the cat’s silky purr—or the sublimity of life and nature, as the allegory suggests—if we “let it be” and do not seek to oppose and control it, but rather live harmoniously with it. This includes not only the objective external world, but the subjective internal. McCrea sings, “Well there is no such thing as you/ It doesn’t matter what you do./ The more you try to qualify,/ The more it all will pass you by.” In other words, as we desperately try to prove to others that we are unique, attractive, smart, worthy, charming, and righteous, there is a world out there waiting for us—one that is filled with beauty, love, and most appropriately, music.

  --Jordan Hill

Note: Since this is an informal blog, not an academic paper, I have decided not to include formal citation. My main references were the sites and books mentioned, and my undergraduate education!
* I am not a Buddhist. However, as an undergraduate, I majored in philosophy and minored in South Asian Studies. I’m continually impressed and inspired by the level of sophistication and rationality that ancient Buddhist arguments and later commentaries possess. Aside from doctrines like Karma and reincarnation, which modern Buddhists admit are, at best, speculative and inexact, Buddhism is surprisingly naturalistic and even quite in-line with modern science. Buddhism has no creation story and no creator God. The scholar who has probably done the most work in de-mystifying Buddhism is Owen Flanagan, who recently wrote a book called The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized. Or, for a shorter exposition, check out his blog:
** Please note: The word “transom” is utterly meaningless in this context, and has no connection or affiliation whatsoever to Eastern philosophy. 
*** Carl Sagan is one of my heroes! Carl Sagan’s famous series The Cosmos may be somewhat outdated, but it has aged surprisingly well, which is a testament to the man’s brilliance. If anything, Sagan found it his mission—somewhat like H.P. Lovecraft—to contextualize and illuminate our smallness, as human beings, relative to the vast cosmos. For Sagan, however, we are undoubtedly important. “We are a way,” writes Sagan, “for the cosmos to know itself.”