PHOTOS: Conor Oberst at the Metro in Chicago

With LA indie rockers Dawes as his backing band, Conor Oberst performed songs off his new solo album “Upside Down Mountain.” Highlights included “Time Forgot” and “Zigzagging Toward the Light.” There’s was plenty of room for some Bright Eyes songs in the set – including “Old Soul Song For the New World Order,” “Soul Singer in a Session Band,” and “Poison Oak” among others. More photos below. 

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Columbine 15 Years Later

Are High Schools Safe?  


Littleton, Colorado. A bedroom community outside Denver. Population 41,737. April 20, 1999. Sky is blue. Colorado Rockies glistening in the distance. 11:19AM. Two students go on a shooting rampage.

Thirteen kids died that ugly day. Twenty-four were wounded. Two senior students – Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold – opened fire inside Columbine High School. They had also rigged 99 explosive devices around the school, and propane bombs in the cafeteria. Luckily, all of these bombs failed to explode.

Harris and Klebold wore trenchcoats and allegedly called themselves the Trenchcoat Mafia. They felt like outcasts, listening to angry music like Marilyn Manson, Rammstein and KMFDM, and playing violent video games like the first-person shooters “Doom” and “Quake.”

The incident sparked a major dialogue over school safety, gun violence, bullying, violence in movies and video games, and the effect of student cliques.

Since Columbine, Harris and Klebold’s legacy (for lack of a better word) lingers.

“Rather than live as nobodies, they’d rather become dead celebrities,” says Ralph Larkin, author of the book “Comprehending Columbine.” And dead celebrities they became. “Still today, there are Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold worship sites on the Internet. Still today many school shootings refer back to Columbine.”

In the past 15 years, we’ve even seen Columbine used as a verb. A shooter named Andy Williams in Santee, CA said ”I’m gonna do a Columbine on you” before shooting and killing two, and wounding 13 others, according to Larkin. Two kids were killed and one wounded.

And new anecdotes about Columbine High have emerged since then. Harris and Klebold were called fags by the wrestling and football team in the middle of the cafeteria while squirting packets of ketchup at them, according to Larkin.

It’s been 15 years since that dark day. Columbine was a school security wakeup call. And unfortunately, there have been many school shootings since. Notable recent ones include Sandy Hook Elementary, in which shooter Adam Lanza killed 20 children and six adult staff members. And Virginia Tech in 2007, during which shooter Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people and injured 17 others.

But what does this all mean for you? Is your high school safe? Sonic Cereal did some research and talked to some experts to find out. Has security improved?

“I’m not sure that I would use the word ‘improved.’,” says Glenn W. Muschert, who co-edited a 2013 book titled “Responding to School Violence: Confronting the Columbine Effect” He is a professor of sociology at Miami University in Ohio.

“Metal detectors and surveillance cameras don’t do much to increase the peace and harmony among the individuals in the schools,” he says, adding that they are more for a visual security presence and almost cosmetic.

The trifecta of school security has been – surveillance cameras, guards and metal detectors. According to Professor Lynn Addington, Associate Professor, 
Department of Justice, Law & Criminology at American University in Washington, DC, these measures have only seen “limited evaluation” and have an “unknown effectiveness.”

The use of surveillance cameras has spiked 300 percent since Columbine. The employment of security guards has also risen from 31.8 percent to 42.8 percent. All of this according to Addington’s research.

Other methods of security include making it mandatory for students to sign in with student IDs at the front desk. And locking all doors during the school day.

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Did Bipolar Disorder Kill Kurt Cobain?

He Should’ve Taken Lithium, Not Heroin. Kurt Cobain’s Suicide 20 Years Later

What if Kurt Cobain took Lithium instead of heroin? Would he still be alive today? Would it have stifled his creativity? Or maybe enhanced it? Would Nirvana be as great if it continued beyond “In Utero”?

It’s quite possible that one of the reasons Nirvana is so phenomenal is that the band’s lifespan was only long enough to create three albums and a B-sides record. “It’s better to burn out than to fade away,” Kurt infamously wrote in his suicide note, quoting Neil Young.

It’s a little known fact that Kurt Cobain was bipolar. Bipolar artistic figures abound in history. From Edgar Allen Poe to Vincent Van Gogh, Jimi Hendrix to Amy Winehouse. All of them self-medicating bipolar addicts, and all of them died 40 or younger.

We will never know the answers to the above questions, but it is credibly and anecdotally documented that Kurt Cobain was bipolar. There was a monster inside his brain. A monster called manic depression.

Cobain experienced the intense highs and extreme lows of bipolar disorder a.k.a. manic depression. His song “Lithium” describes bipolar to a T, down to the titular drug used to treat manic depression. It runs the gamut from happiness to apathy to sadness, sometimes within the same sentence. However, there is no evidence that Kurt actually took Lithium.

Kurt Cobain was diagnosed with ADD at a young age, and with bipolar thereafter, according to an interview with Kurt’s cousin Bev Cobain. Bev Cobain is a registered nurse with a background working in mental health. Her books include “Dying to Be Free: A Healing Guide for Families After a Suicide,” and “When Nothing Matters Anymore: A Survival Guide for Depressed Teens.”

Kurt Cobain’s depression is clear as purified spring water. There are lyrics like “I miss the comfort in being sad,” (“Frances Farmer”) to “I think I’m dumb” (“Dumb”) to the down-in-the-dumps yearning for a better life in “Pennyroyal Tea” (“Distill the life that’s inside of me”).

Then there’s “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” with its chorus: “What is wrong with me?” (x4) and the verse line “bipolar opposites attract.”

Kurt Cobain reportedly would go into maniacal work tears, writing songs with lyrical motifs and song patterns that are decidedly bipolar. There are nonsensical lyrics. When someone is manic, they make strange word associations and many misbehave creatively. Case in point Nirvana’s most popular single “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – “a mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido.”

Even the sound of Nirvana – subdued verses and big, loud choruses drifts between two poles.

Could it be that Kurt didn’t want Lithium to destroy his creativity? And that’s why he turned to heroin? Quite possibly.

About 56 percent of individuals with bipolar had experienced drug or alcohol addiction during their lifetime, according to the American Journal of Managed Care. And one in five bipolar people successfully commit suicide, according to the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance.

Kurt Cobain was a troubled bipolar musical genius who didn’t have to pass. Despite his ubiquitous mantra “I hate myself and I want to die,” he could’ve survived if only he succumbed to good ol’ fashioned psychiatric treatment.

What do you think of this theory? Leave a comment below.

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PHOTOS: Real Estate at the Metro in Chicago


New Jersey indie rockers Real Estate kind of defy category. Some of their songs sound like surf rock while others resemble neo-psychedelia.

Either way, the band put out what will sure to be one of this year’s best records – “Atlas” – earlier this month. The five-piece has a special affinity for Chicago since it recorded “Atlas” at Wilco’s Northwest Side loft.

Thursday at the Metro in Chicago, Real Estate showcased its off-the-charts musicianship. Lead singer Martin Courtney is a near virtuoso on electric guitar, but it didn’t come off as flashy or over-the-top.

Quite the opposite, his playing was humble and unpretentious. Clean guitar lines weaved in and out in an angelic display of chillout precision. It’s mind-boggling how these songs fit together. Elegant, intricate and grandiose. Their calmness is therapeutic. 

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Best Picture Nominees – Ranked and Critiqued

The 86th Annual Academy Awards are this Sunday. From technology to greed to AIDS, there’s a diverse crop of topics and films this year. Which one deserves the Oscar? These are not predictions, they are one critic’s take on which films should win. 

1. Her

Spike Jonze has an amazing track record compared to other directors. From “Being John Malkovich” to “Adaptation” to iconic music videos for the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” and the cleverly choreographed Bjork’s “It’s Oh So Quiet,” he is cut from the same cloth as classic MTV. And it shows through his exceptional work.

“Her” stars Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore, a lonely man who falls in love with a computer operating system (played by the voice of Scarlett Johansson).

The film is effortlessly futuristic. Its sets and costumes look fashionable and modern. And the technology featured in the script just may not be that far away.

“Her” captures the zeitgeist of these technological times. And that’s why it deserves Best Picture.

2. Dallas Buyers Club

“Dallas Buyers Club,” is a magnificent film starring Matthew McConaughey as Ron, a tough-guy homophobic rodeo star who is given a diagnosis of full-blown AIDS and 30 days to live. In an effort to hang on to his life, Ron goes into business with Rayon, a transgendered person played in a knockout performance by Jared Leto. Leto is hands-down sure to win Best Supporting Actor for this role. He doesn’t even look or sound like himself.

Ron and Rayon buck the FDA by smuggling unapproved AIDS drugs from foreign countries and setting up a “Buyers Club” in which AIDS patients pay a monthly fee to get their illegal medication.

While decidedly dreary, this bona fide slam-dunk of a film is a triumph because it artfully highlights the AIDS crisis of the ‘80s, which many have forgotten about.

3. 12 Years a Slave

“12 Years a Slave” won the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture Drama and is a sure bet to win at the Oscars. It goes without saying, the movie is extremely difficult to watch. The torture. The beatings. The rapes. The splitting up of families. The verbal abuse. The film is the true story of Solomon Northup, a free man from the North who is captured and sold into slavery in Louisiana.

You almost have to be a masochist to enjoy this slavery drama. However, it is a supreme work of art, with a big payoff in the end.

4. American Hustle

A little film with a superstar cast – Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence – is my other pick for one that might actually win. This tale of conspiring con-artists is jam-packed with stellar acting, which is why it will most likely win Best Picture above all.

5. Nebraska

“Nebraska” is funny in an art-film kind of way. The black-and-white movie follows Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an old man who receives a Publisher’s-Clearing-House-style letter saying he has won a million dollars. Woody is determined to go to Nebraska from Montana to collect his prize and will go to any length to get it.

The film is intimate and engaging. You really get to know the father (Dern), son (Will Forte), and mother (June Squibb) quite well. The acting is superb, and breakout star June Squibb (at age 84!) provides much of the sharp-tongued comic relief. This is comedy, done right.

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In Defense of Philip Seymour Hoffman

Addiction Is A Disease

The brain of the addict is different than the “normal” human brain. It craves escape. Numbness. A reprieve from reality.

Ask any recovering addict and he or she will tell you – once they take that first sip of alcohol or first line of coke or first snort of Oxycontin or first shot of heroin – they can’t stop. It is no fault of their own – it is frequently genetic. They were just born that way.

The definition of addiction holds true for those who habitually gamble, smoke, over-or-under eat, act out sexually or are work-addicted …all to mood alter or medicate. These addictions are infrequently defined as such but just as lethal.

The majority of people can drink a second or third pint of beer or leave it. They might, they might not, continue drinking, but they stop if they want to. The addict must have any of it and all of it until supplies are out or the bar closes. Many addicts use at home by themselves. In that case, they may drink or use until they pass out.

By now we know, the Oscar-winning “Capote” actor Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead on the bathroom floor of his New York apartment with a syringe in his arm.

Hoffman had acted in more than 50 movies, most notably such films as “Doubt,” “Boogie Nights” and “Moneyball.” And for me, a memorable cameo as the late-great rock journalist Lester Bangs in “Almost Famous.”

Fatal heroin overdoses have doubled in some states over the past decade, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration says that in 2011, at least 178,000 Americans used heroin for the first time. This is the latest available statistic and it doubles the number from five years earlier. It’s an epidemic.

As the New York Daily News reports screamingly on its front page, there were 70 bags of heroin, 20 syringes and 5 different prescription meds in Hoffman’s apartment. Who cares?

As usual, the New York tabloids sensationalize the story and ignore the real issues. 

We should be talking about access to mental health care and addiction treatment and how to prevent these tragedies from happening in the future – not the trashy details of a great actor who overdosed.

R.I.P. Philip Seymour Hoffman – talented actor, victim of addiction

Did Daft Punk Deserve Album of the Year?

Where’s the Party?


I get the idea. Take a band known for robotic vocals and acid-soaked synths and make an album with live drums, guitars and bass with would-be awesome collaborators Nile Rodgers and Pharrell. Genius. Problem is, it didn’t work. Daft Punk won the Grammy for the wrong album.

“Random Access Memories” is overrated. It’s downtrodden. It’s un-danceable. In all its extravagance, the album loses its way. They over-thinked it. Daft Punk is supposed to be all about partying and having a good time – think “One More Time” from 2001’s “Discovery.”

“R.A.M.” doesn’t accomplish that at all. Unlike their earlier work, it wasn’t locked and loaded for the discotheque. It was perfectly suited for insular listening via headphones or computer speakers. Fun, right?

When “Get Lucky” dropped, I was excited. What a brilliant and captivating song. It’s a megahit. However, it’s the only song on the album with the same joie de vivre of past material.

The Grammys have a rich history of getting it wrong.

Notoriously, in 1989, the Academy awarded the Best Rock/Metal Performance trophy to Jethro Tull, a prog-rock band from England that sounds nothing like metal.

Three years ago, they gave Album of the Year kudos to Arcade Fire for their third album “The Suburbs.” It was a shocker – beating out Eminem, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Lady Antebellum. This is a band that deserves to win a Grammy, but they should’ve gotten one for their instant-classic 2004 debut “Funeral.” To use a cliché – hindsight is 20/20.

Similarly, Daft Punk should’ve won the award for their EDM masterpiece “Discovery” in 2001. Instead, it took the Academy 13 years to take notice of the group’s vast history of electro dance party music.

A message to the Academy: stop this business of retroactively handing out Grammys. Or you will lose all credibility. If you haven’t already.

The Top 10 Albums of 2013

Arcade Fire Innovates, Others Do Well With More of the Same

1. Arcade Fire – “Reflektor”

“Reflektor” is weird. In the greatest sense of the word. Arcade Fire’s follow-up to their Album of the Year Grammy-winning album “The Suburbs” is a symphony of electronics and indie rock. It just doesn’t sound like anything else out there. Which is admirable.

This collaboration with producer James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem yields an intense record that leans avant-garde.

The booming wall of sound on the title track is spine-tingling. As is the “Billie Jean”-like bass line on “We Exist.” In fact, goosebumps abound when listening to this album, a sign of excellence rarely seen in this year’s crop of new music.

There are puzzle pieces here that make for a complex yet listenable album. A baritone saxophone here, bongo drums there. Or a string section soaring high in the background.

This music is surreal. Plain and simple.

2. Disclosure – “Settle”

My Album of the Summer almost became Album of the Year. British electro duo Disclosure put out an instant-classic debut with beats, bleeps and vocal tracks that stunned the EDM community. I challenge you to come up with a better record from this year to move your feet to.

3. Frightened Rabbit – “Pedestrian Verse”

Scottish indie rock virtuosos Frightened Rabbit are quickly becoming one of the most prolific bands in music today. With two EPs and a great album out this year, the band is consistently cranking out material that is above par. Scott Hutchison’s endearing Scottish accent is the signature of the band, which also delivered some of the best live performances of the year both on their own tour and at Lollapalooza.

4. The Head And The Heart – “Let’s Be Still”

The Head And The Heart’s “Let’s Be Still” is best heard – headphones on – in the back seat of a car on a scenic drive, on a hike through the natural landscape or while sitting by the fire on a cold winter night. That’s how sublime it is. It’s celestial. Blissful. Warm and cozy.

The band’s second album is packed with violins and pianos in addition to acoustic guitar. The timbre of the record is intimate. And it sounds like the band is playing right in your living room. The title track is a gorgeous duet about the getting “lost in the music.”

Lovers take note: this record is as romantic as it gets. It will make you yearn for your sweetheart. And if you are single, it’s mix tape fodder for potential suitors. “Let’s Be Still” will magnetize and enchant your soul. 

5. Kanye West – “Yeezus”

He’s a d-bag. A hypocrite. An egomaniac. But… he makes great music. Chicago rapper Kanye West wowed us this year with a trio of tracks at the top of “Yeezus” that was the strongest opening salvo of the year.

“On Sight,” “Black Skinhead” and “New Slaves” kick off “Yeezus” with a sonic boom of hip-hop genius. This is a rapper with something to say and he uses his bully pulpit wisely. “What you want a Bentley, fur coat, a diamond chain?,” he says in “New Slaves.” “All you blacks want all the same things.”

To say that rappers worship at the altar of luxurious excess is an understatement. Someone had to say it. Even if it was the man who flaunted the $1.25 million 15-carat diamond engagement ring he gave to fiancee and reality TV star Kim Kardashian. If you find it hard to support a rapper as hypocritical as Kanye, think of it this way: “Love the sinner, hate the sin.”

6. Foxygen – “We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic”

California rockers Foxygen were one of the breakout stars at this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival. With their pseudo-psychedelic indie pop, the band ripped the competition. Their clean guitar rock sounds at times like influential ‘60s icons the Velvet Underground. And with Lou Reed’s passing this year, it’s nice to see another band step up with a similar sound.

7. Vampire Weekend “Modern Vampires of the City”

Vampire Weekend can never top their eponymous self-titled debut. But “Modern Vampires of the City” comes close. It’s this year’s go-to album when you don’t know what to listen to. The harpsichord used on songs like “Step” gives the album a regal feel.

The most underrated band in indie rock returns with “Desperate Ground” – a record that harkens back to their coarse 2003 debut “More Parts Per Million.” The Portland rockers could’ve easily rested on their laurels and released a carbon copy of 2010’s squeaky-clean “Personal Life.” But they chose the punk rock route, putting out a record of gritty three-minute ditties perfect for the friendly mosh pits that encapsulate the band’s live shows.

9. Washed Out – “Paracosm”

When the city kicks your ass, listen to this record. “Paracosm” possesses a distinct calming effect not produced as brilliantly by any other album this year. Washed out is a one-man band that features Ernest Greene tinkering with sound. With its quiet synths, chimes and bleeps “All I Know” is a meditative anthem with speckles of “Kid A”-era Radiohead. So put on your headphones, close your eyes and drift off into space.

10. Bleeding Rainbow – “Yeah Right”

For a straight-up indie rock record, Bleeding Rainbow’s “Yeah Right” is solidly good. The Philadelphia trio is definitely an underdog on the scene, but they are worth your while. Lead singer Sara Everton refreshingly doesn’t scream. She’s more Belinda Carlilse of The Go-Gos than Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Her vocals come out smoothly and with ease. As for the instruments, they sound like Sonic Youth without the dissonance. The band weaves its guitar lines into a patchwork quilt of indie rock goodness. Awesome. 

What was your favorite album of the year? Leave a comment below.

Blurred Lines: My Bloody Valentine in Chicago

It was the NOISIEST show I have ever been to in my life. And no – this was no metal or hardcore punk show. This was shoegaze – the ‘90s genre known for its musicians so focused on their instruments, it looks like they are staring at their shoes. You know it’s gonna be loud when there’s a sign at the door that says “Use the provided earplugs.”

But ‘90s shoegazers My Bloody Valentine conquered the crowd with their onslaught of fuzzy, feedback-flooded guitars, bone-smashing bass and brain-clobbering drums. It was beautiful. It was loud. It was the last time I will ever see My Bloody Valentine. Once was enough, thanks. But it was worth it.

In homage to the album cover of their 1991 masterpiece – “Loveless” – I present 3 time-lapsed photos of the band at last night’s show at the Aragon Ballroom. 




My Bloody Valentine – “Loveless”

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PHOTOS: Conor Oberst & Desaparecidos

 At the Metro in Chicago



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