Saturday, October 31, 2009

I Bury the Living

Happy Halloween! This year's Menacing Movie Mis-Treatment is the actually-not-too-bad-(until-the-end) creepfest I Bury the Living.
The movie—whose potential tagline “You’ll never look at push pins the same way again!”—will set your teeth on edge. (I could say that it will keep you on pins and needles, but I don’t think I’ll say that.)

By the way, I do have a bit of career enhancement advice. If you are at a networking function and you are asked, “So, what do you do?” it is perhaps unwise—though fun—to reply, “I bury the living.” This is the sort of business advice that’s hard to get for free, and yet is why I am one of the most successful business consultants around, with a clientele consisting entirely of Fortune 500 companies. (Well, no, not really. Actually, all my clients are Misfortune 500 companies.)
Also, The Skull, my favorite bad Halloween movie, is also similarly Mis-Treated.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Even More Decade-ence

The countdown of my twenty-six favorite albums of the past ten years continues.

21–26 are here.
16–20 are here.

15. Sunny Day Real Estate, The Rising Tide, Time Bomb Recordings, 2000

Sunny Day Real Estate’s 1994 debut album Diary pretty much defined the style of what is called “emo,” and while emo is not my favorite genre in the world (or Emo Phillips my favorite comedian for that matter), I do like SDRE rather a lot. Singer Jeremy Enigk’s high Jon-Anderson-of-Yes-meets-punk voice perfectly suited his often cryptic yet emotionally wrought lyrics. (He had a tendency to make up words, and song titles often seemed to have nothing to do with the rest of the lyrics—and, more often than not, consisted of a random number.) The band quickly became a cult hit, but they had broken up before their second album was released in 1995. Two members joined Foo Fighters, and Enigk decided to become a born-again Christian. There were various solo projects, but three-fourths of the band reunited as a trio in 1998 and released the oddly titled How It Feels to Be Something On, which had a more progressive rock feel to it, a style that came to the fore on their fourth and final album, 2000’s The Rising Tide. The album kicks off with a decided bang with the driving “Killed by an Angel,” featuring some of the bleakest lyrics this side of Joy Division (“Welcome to the lonesome world of Abel/Where everybody’s knife is set to slay you/And paranoia keeps you healthy/Crooked deals can keep you wealthy/Serum vials to help you when you’re sad.” It gets darker from there. “When you see the sores you can’t believe them/Pathogenic lovers in a basement room...” And it’s all set to propulsive power-trio rock; it sounds like if the love child (if that’s the right phrase to use) of Morrissey and Ian Curtis fronted Rush. It’s great! Things cheer up a bit on track two (“One”), which almost does sound like an outtake from a Rush album. Track three, “The Rain Song,” is a tender acoustic ballad replete with washes of strings, and it does feel like a cool rain after being pummeled by the opening two songs. “Snibe,” another made-up word, is another pounding track that can rattle the windows. One adjusts one’s subwoofer with care. They turn to breezy pop (and Enigk’s voice comes down a few octaves...well, for a little bit, anyway) on “Television,” which has some great lines like “She’s cruel and she’s free like television.” Despite the gloomy and doomy opening, the album closes on a high note (and with Enigk’s voice, how could it not?), with the soaring title track: “Morning comes in the dream before we rise/When we linger side by side/It’s my heart that speaks this time:/We will ride the rising tide.”

By the time the album had come out, the record label had gone broke and could no longer afford to support Sunny Day Real Estate. And they broke up again. Enigk, drummer William Goldsmith, and original bass player Nate Mendel (who had left in 1995) reunited in 2003 as The Fire Theft. They reunited as Sunny Day Real Estate for a tour in late 2009, and there are rumors there is new material coming out. Still, even if they never recorded again, The Rising Tide, sweeping, complex and often majestic, remains the band’s high-water mark, so to speak. If I’d had (or there’d been) an iPod in 2000, this album would have remained on it for most of the year

14. The Callen Sisters, The Callen Sisters, Moon Mouth Records, 2007

Okay, I cop to a slight bit of nepotism here (The Callen Sisters are friends of mine, so I am admittedly starting from a biased base), but it’s worth it. Saratoga Springs natives Jessa and Beth Callen play harp and guitar, respectively, and both are singer/songwriters. They have often performed unplugged as a duo (the highlight of their shows—and their sound in general—is the interaction between the harp and guitar, as well as their vocal harmonizing). This, their debut album, was recorded with a full band, the result being, for want of a better term, folk-rock or, perhaps, harp-rock. The album kicks off with “Anomie,” featuring a chiming Byrds-via-R.E.M. guitar jangle that I’ve always been a sucker for. “Irrelevant,” another top track, starts off with solo plucked harp sounding fairly un-harp-like, and builds with squonking electric guitar and keyboard swirls and becomes kind of a “folk noise” epic. Ah, but then there’s “Like You.” This will likely not affect most listeners the way it affected me (or will affect anyone who knows Jessa and Beth), as it is about their mother Kim, a good friend of mine who passed away in 2004. Whenever they perform this song live, there isn’t a dry eye in the house. On the record, though, it’s given a rousing, almost Celtic arrangement, turning a sad song into an Irish wake-like celebration of a person’s life. “Life”—not about ice cream—is perhaps a good signature tune, since it features all the sisters’ strengths in one place. “Nothing lasts forever/We are changed by each endeavor.” “Lullaby” (one of Jessa’s songs; each sister wrote six of the 12 songs) is a standout solo acoustic song live, but on the record it starts off very sparely with vocal and solo harp, and other instruments gradually come in and built until the full band kicks in. It’s very effective. And the vocal is the very definition of beauty. “Tangled Up” is another haunting track that builds from a simple acoustic start.

A lot of talk naturally focuses on the harp—after all, it’s not a typical rock band instrument. (And for good reason; having seen Jessa lug it around I have often asked her if she wouldn’t be better off taking up the harmonica.) It doesn’t have that typical arpeggio-y “harp-y” sound that everyone expects from a harp, but gives the songs a distinctive sound, without being distracting in its novelty. Half the time, you don’t even realize you’re hearing a harp.

Lyrically, the songs focus on love and loss—and, well, given their family history, it would be difficult for them not to—but it’s not all a dirge-a-thon; there is hope and beauty here. I remember having heard some of these songs in various incarnations over the years at various local venues, and on record they still sound fresh. And there are moments when they seem to be having a lot of fun, too. They are wonderful live, it goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway). I know their mum is up there somewhere listening to this record over and over and foisting it on all the other angels.

Yeah, I know I’m biased, but I still maintain that this is an incredibly beautiful, haunting, and amazing record. As I write this, I just got an e-mail pointing out that this week marks Jessa’s 27th birthday. 27?! I could have sworn she just graduated high school...

13. Spock’s Beard, V, MetalBlade/Radiant, 2000

Like The Flower Kings, Spock’s Beard is a modern progressive rock outfit that draws on the prog of the past and yet makes it sound fresh. Spock’s Beard (you probably knew the name of the band was going to get my attention) appeared in the mid-1990s; piano player Neal Morse was writing songs and doing the Billy Joel/“Piano Man” thing—and going nowhere. In 1994, he decided to form a progressive rock band, enlisting his brother Alan on guitar, Dave Meros on bass, and Nick D’Virgilio on drums. The ease of quality recording technology and the word of mouth of the Internet meant that they could bypass the traditional music industry. And after their debut 1995 record The Light, they started to build a following, Their second album, 1996’s Beware of Darkness (yes, the title track is an over-the-top prog-rock cover of the George Harrison song that works better than you would think) brought on board keyboardist Ryo Okumoto, and further honed their sound. By V (surprisingly, their fifth album; go figure), they had a definitive style—a harder-edged variety of prog rock than their Swedish confreres (Neal Morse was also in the prog-rock supergroup Transatlantic with The Flower Kings’ Roine Stolt, Dream Theater’s Mike Portnoy, and Marillion’s Pete Trewavas) but still with very strong, almost Beatles-esque melodies and harmonies. Spock’s Beard’s 1997 album The Kindness of Strangers would definitely figure on my list of the best albums of the 1990s.

V starts with the short epic (a scant 16:30) “At the End of the Day,” probably one of the best Beard tunes. It runs through a few different movements; a section of beautiful vocal harmonies jumps into some raucous metal-like playing. And it works. At the end of the song, it returns to the main theme—“At the end of the day/It’s what you do not what you say.” Track two, “Revelation,” gets very close to Led Zeppelin territory, and “Thoughts (Part II)” as its name implies, is a follow-up to the song “Thoughts” on Beware of Darkness, but this one riffs on the fear we all have of opening up to others; “I thought I’d come to you and say/All the things I had on my mind/I thought it might be really great/To show you how I feel inside” but of course the fear is that “You wouldn’t speak to me/I would be left behind/We’d be through if you knew/All the things in my mind.” And musically, it’s even more Led Zeppeliny. And a string section sounds like it’s going nuts at one point. “All On a Sunday” is a great prog power pop track.

The centerpiece of the record is the 27:18 final suite, “The Great Nothing.” Yeah, sure, a diatribe against the evils of the music industry isn’t the most unique idea in the annals of music, but it does humanize it in a way you don’t often come across. And, musically, there is a very strong Jethro Tull Thick as a Brick/Passion Play vibe going on. I think that’s a good thing. (“There’s no limelight only lime/And tequila’s made you blind.”)

Alas, this was to be the band’s apotheosis; after a 2002 rock opera/concept album (Snow), which had its moments, Neal Morse—the band’s founder, singer, songwriter, and producer—decided to become a born-again Christian and leave the band. Meanwhile, the Beard have forged on without him (drummer Nick D’Virgilio became the singer; does this sound familiar?), but while they are all amazing musicians, they lack a cohesive vision—or someone who can write really good songs.

12. Rilo Kiley, Take Offs and Landings, Barsuk Records, 2001

I first heard Rilo Kiley in 2003 when they played “Wires and Waves” on Radio Paradise, an Internet radio station I discovered in 2003. and I loved the track immediately, and sought out the album. Take Offs and Landings was the debut album of Rilo Kiley, a Southern California-based quartet, fronted by singer/guitarist Jenny Lewis (who started as a child star in the late 1980s/early 1990s; she was a regular on a TV show I liked a lot—which is why it got canceled, like most shows I like—called Brooklyn Bridge in the early 1990s and would go on to have a somewhat successful alt-country solo career). Their debut is a catchy melding of pop, folk, indie, hard rock, some country (but not enough to be annoying), and even torch song. Lewis and lead guitarist Blake Sennett write extremely catchy melodies, and Lewis’ lyrics are often bittersweet but perceptive, direct, often cynical, and sometimes quite funny, with some great lines. (“I used to think if I could realize I’d die then I would be a lot nicer” in the great “Science vs. Romance,” but then, “Used to believe in a lot more but now I just see straight ahead.” Still, “we’re not robots inside a grid.”) Lewis’ voice veers from innocent and almost girlish (as on the spare, folky “Go Ahead” and “Bulletproof”) to powerful and bitter (she has a tendency to drop f-bombs every once in a while, more on later albums, though, which can be jarring if you’re not expecting it). “Plane Crash in C” gets a bit twangy, but once the mutant horn section kicks in, it veers off into a different direction, and it really becomes a Lewis showcase. (“It’s all the stupid things that are so overwhelming to me/Like paying my bills or showing up for work early/Or laughing at your jokes”) “Don’t Deconstruct” features a plaintive trumpet, strings, and a simple keyboard throb, over which Lewis sings “Something is changing inside of me/Colors seem darker in light/I don’t know what that means but it’s not a good sign,” and, later, “Judging from picture books apparently heaven is a partly cloudy place.” Take Offs and Landings was recorded before Lewis became the band’s focal point, and Sennett sings lead on a few tracks. He is not a great singer, so the most successful of these is “August,” while the least successful are “The Rest of My Life” and “Small Figures in a Vast Expanse.” He wisely let Lewis do more of the singing on future albums. Still, he is an excellent guitar player, and once the guitar solo kicks in in “Small Figures...” the song really takes off. “Shut Up ’n’ Play Yer Guitar,” as Frank Zappa would say. There are also a couple of “Variations on a Theme,” short mutant keyboard- or horn-based instrumental versions of “Science vs. Romance” and “Plane Crash in C.” They do indulge in the dubious idea of putting a secret hidden bonus track after a minute or so of silence at the end of the record (why did anyone ever think this was a good idea?). Unfortunately, it’s the Sennett-sung “Salute your Shorts!” so it’s not entirely worth unearthing.

I don’t know that 2001 was the best year to have released an album called Take Offs and Landings that had a song called “Plane Crash in C” or one (“Wires and Waves”) whose chorus includes the line “Sometimes planes they smash up in the sky.” (It was released in July, so who knew?) Still, it’s a great debut album. Their follow-up, 2002’s The Execution of All Things, was good, but a little too alt-country for my taste. They soon went to a major label and while 2004’s More Adventurous and 2006’s Under the Blacklight were not bad, they tended to veer a little to the slick, commercial side and lacked a lot of the charm of Take Offs and Landings.

11. eels, Blinking Lights and Other Revelations, Vagrant, 2005

Back in the early 1990s, I had picked up (and subsequently got rid of) the album A Man Called (E) by a singer and multi-instrumentalist who simply called himself E, based on hearing the song “Hello Cruel World” on the radio. It was the only thing I liked on the album, hence its ultimate one-way trip to Bleecker Bob’s. I point this out because E, whose real name is Mark Oliver Everett, started the band eels in 1996, and had an alternative hit with “Novocaine for the Soul.” Eels are a mélange of styles—as if the last fifty years of music were put in a blender and mixed with modern flourishes such as samples and beats. Although they started off as a proper band, it became quickly obvious that eels was largely Everett himself. Their/his second album—1998’s Electro-Shock Blues—was written and recorded after Everett’s sister committed suicide, and his mother died from cancer. As a result, it is a dark yet utterly brilliant record that channeled emotional distress into music. It made many best-of lists in 1998, so I picked it up, but never really got into it—until 2004 (see album #14 above) when it became relevant, and I just “got it.” It’s not the record you would put on at a party (well, I would) but like other classic records that channel raw emotion into music (like, say John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band) it can be a harrowing listen, but in the right frame of mind, very cathartic. Eels have released cheerier records since (I recommend 2000’s Daisies of the Galaxy), but 2005’s Blinking Lights and Other Revelations was a sequel of sorts to Electro-Shock Blues. A sprawling, two-CD, 33-song set, disc 1 starts with Everett’s birth (“Ten pounds and a head of hair/Came into without a care/What they thought were cries/Were little laughs”) and disc 2 ends with him leaving a note for his grandchildren summing up his life (“I knew true love and I knew passion/And the difference between the two/And I had some regrets/But if I had to do it all again/Well, it’s something I’d like to do”). In between is literally everything but the kitchen sink. This is one of the most personal, confessional, and emotional albums I think I have ever heard. It’s also a messy album; it careens all over the map conceptually and stylistically, and yet it all works and, against all odds, holds together. Again, it’s not the kind of record you would put on at a party, but is one of those albums you put on when you want to try to understand life. You don’t necessarily come up with any good answers, but you do get some compelling questions. Everett’s world-weary vocal delivery and often deadpan and self-deprecating humor sell the whole thing.

Everett’s parents loom large in this tableau. His father was Hugh Everett III, a somewhat famous physicist who first proposed the “many-worlds interpretation” of quantum physics. The idea of the “parallel universe,” a staple of science fiction, was based on Everett’s ideas. Everett père was also a drunk; “a most unpleasant man,” as the lyric to “Son of a Bitch” has it, “the wrong look his way/Well, that could really wreck his day/And believe me when I say/It would wreck your day too.” “Trouble with Dreams” is an obvious single, with its mutant keyboards that make the coda sound like a carnival of souls. Gotta love “Railroad Man”—“Feel like an old railroad man...this train is just too slow/And I know I can walk along the tracks/It may take a little longer but I’ll know/How to find my way back.” There is a line in “The Last Time We Spoke” that just nails some failed relationships: “Nothing hurts/Like someone who knows/All about you/Leaving you behind.” This song is immediately followed by the psychotic organ of “Mother Mary,” and then “Going Fetal,” the imagining of a new dance craze (featuring a Tom Waits sample): “You just get down and curl on up/Just like a little helpless pup.” It’s really quite funny. There are a few guests; Peter Buck of R.E.M. co-wrote and plays his trademark chiming guitar on “To Lick Your Boots” (“People spend their days/Trying to find new ways/To put you down all over town/But they’re not fit/To lick your boots”). One song that had me clearing away the cobwebs of my memory was “Whatever Happened To Soy Bomb?” Whilst I never watch the Grammy Awards, I do vaguely recall the incident at the 1998 Grammys during a Bob Dylan performance when a shirtless man with the words “Soy Bomb” painted on his chest appeared on stage and began doing a bizarre, upsetting dance. (Later identified as Michael Portnoy, the guy said he did it as “an act of revolution.” I’m not sure what the heck he was revolting against; perhaps he was just revolting.) As the album draws to a close, E declares that “My losing streak is done,” pointing out that the world can’t be all that bad because “Where else could a creep like me/Meet such a pretty face.” At the end, “Things the Grandchildren Should Know” ends everything on a hopeful note.

The packaging makes you realize what’s lost as we transition to digital music; the extensive CD booklet features old Everett family photos that really help put the music in perspective and visualize some of the characters. It all works as a whole. It’s like reading a discursive biography. (Everett actually did write and publish a memoir last year.)

Blinking Lights and Other Revelations is longer than it probably should be yet seems to fly by, and is by turns sad, funny, exasperating, joyous, irritating, beautiful, clumsy, graceful, depressing, uplifting, and above all messy—just like life. If bits of this record don’t affect you, then you’re just a pink robot. Yoshimi!

To be continued...

Thursday, October 22, 2009

I Was Meant for the Stage Again

On Tuesday night, we had auditions for my play Past and Present Tense, as well as two other plays that are being the staged reading treatment on subsequent weekends after mine and, I don't know how this happened, but I ended up being cast in one of them—as a college student (ha! obviously one who has been in grad school 20 years). So one place you don't want to be on December 4th and 5th is Johnstown, NY!

Creatively Cornered

Over at today's WhatTheyThink Creative Corner, I review a smattering of iPhone apps for graphic designers. But first, a caveat about star ratings:
I confess I have never especially liked star ratings; after all, some pluses of a product may not be pluses for everyone, some minuses may not be relevant to everyone, and so forth. And what is “3 star” vs. “4 star” anyway? Or worse: 3 1/2 star vs. 4 star? (I remember once in a high school English class, I had a teacher who was able to assign precise numerical grades to essays. How, exactly, did a 94% essay differ from a 95%? One wrong verb? An argument that was one percentage point less convincing? How exactly do you measure that?)

All this is to say is that there is the expectation in any product review that there will be a rating somewhere. So for Creative Corner reviews, I shall instead use as my rating icon not a star but the official WhatTheyThink question mark. This means that if a product receives three question marks, that’s ostensibly the equivalent of three stars—but the question marks themselves remind you to regard it with a grain of salt.

With the Beetles

Today was a warm, fall day in Saratoga. I wandered out to the mailbox and as I was coming back, wondering how concerned I should be about receiving an offer for personalized checks that was addressed to someone else, I happened to notice that the front of the house was under siege from hundreds of ladybugs. They were crawling on the siding, the windows, the doors, everywhere. Later in the day, a blue jay started pouncing on the side of the house, presumably to feast on them. I suddenly felt like Tippi Hedren. Now, mind you, I really don’t mind insects, at least in theory, but I’m not wild about huge swarms of them.

I’ve lived in the Northeast for 38 of the past 42 years, and I have never heard of swarms of ladybugs before. I was concerned about being outside; were these everyday, normal, placid ladybugs, or were they some weird, feral, or mutant species? Because I really wouldn’t put it past my luck to end up being skeletonized by a swarm of ladybugs, which is just the sort of Gary Larson-esque demise I’ve always suspected is in the cards. (“Help!”?)

So I did some research, and I discovered that, yes, these are normal, everyday ladybugs which, as is happens, are called in the UK “ladybirds”—although I would be far more terrified to see swarms of Ladybird Johnsons on my house. A ladybug is also apparently called a ladyclock, lady cow, and lady fly. There are— Hang on: “ladyclock”?!

There are about 5,000 species of ladybug worldwide (order Coleoptera), with 450 of them in North America alone. They are a type of beetle; hmm... I knew The Beatles were very popular again this year, but the beetles? Anyway, their common name derives from the Middle Ages, when for some reason they were dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and they were referred to as “beetle of Our Lady.” (I can just imagine her reaction; “Um, gee, thanks, you shouldn’t have.”) Ladybugs are in fact carnivorous; they eat other insects, and any decent gardener (i.e., not me) will tell you that they in fact eat aphids—people will actually buy sacks of ladybugs to get rid of aphids. (Beetles for Sale?) Ladybugs are also fairly voracious; in one bug’s three-to-six-week life span, it can eat up to 5,000 aphids. It’s kind of like me and pistachio nuts.

However, there are some species of ladybugs—specifically the squash beetle (Epilachna borealis) and the Mexican bean beetle (E. varivestis) that eat plants and can be destructive.

This is interesting: there is actually a family of beetles called “pleasing fungus beetles.” (“Please Please Me”?) Oh, I don’t know. (Their family name is Erotylidae—oh, come on, they’re making that up!). Talk about an inordinate fondness for beetles.

Many species of ladybug do overwinter in excessively large numbers, typically on the sides of houses or other large objects (typically the south side, and typically light-colored structures), and often inside houses and other structures (“Here, There, and Everywhere”?), and are getting a reputation as a pest. Still, if they do get into one’s house they are generally harmless and don’t eat or destroy things, or spread disease. Actually, their only downside is that when they sense fear, they excrete their own blood, which is yellow, apparently smells bad, and can stain walls. So going around the house yelling “Boo!” at ladybugs is a bad idea...on so many levels.

There was a recent report on NPR among other places that a town in Colorado was completely overrun with ladybugs, and many trees and leaves were a big pulsing mass of red. (“Strawberry Fields Forever”?) Just today, I came across a story on the Newark Star-Ledger’s site about how New Jersey is being overrun by swarms of ladybugs (there are just so many New Jersey jokes to insert here, I don’t even know where to start). In fact, the site has a video of a school in Maplewood that had to be closed because of them.

Again, ladybugs are generally harmless, but there’s something creepy about being in the midst of a swarm of them.
Officials recommend using a vacuum without a propeller if the beetles swarm in a home. Scientists said ladybugs eat pests to flowers and plants and can give off a foul odor if crushed.
Interestingly, many cultures and countries have nursery rhymes or other songs directed at ladybugs. In the UK there is “Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home/Your house is on fire and your children are gone.” (If Morrissey were an entomologist....) In Russia, a popular children’s rhyme exhorts the insect to “fly to the sky and bring back bread.” And a quart of milk, if you think of it. In Malta, the insect is called a nannakola, and children sing: “Nannakola, mur l-iskola/Aqbad siġġu u ibda ogħla” or “Ladybird go to school, get a chair and start jumping.” A spirited bunch, the Maltese.

Still, the ladybug is one of the only insects that doesn’t get a bad rap, and it is the state insect of Delaware, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee. (Other states have some sort of butterfly as the state insect; the honeybee is well represented; and get this: New Mexico’s state insect is the tarantula hawk wasp. Why doesn’t that surprise me?) Curiously, Tennessee has four different state insects, including an official butterfly and an official agricultural insect. I guess their state legislature has a lot of free time on their hands.

The Ladybug Lady answers questions about ladybug infestations.
Q. Why do the ladybugs come into my house and die?

A. They require a little humidity. But our homes are usually not very humid during the winter. In fact, they are rather dry causing most of your ladybug guests to die from dehydration. Occasionally, you might witness a ladybug getting a drink of water or even drinking some other liquid.
That’s fine, just stay away from the beer. And bring back some bread.

Na Nook of the North

Barnes & Noble has officially unveiled its e-book reader, the Nook, which will be on sale in Barnes & Noble stores this holiday season. The Wall Street Journal has a video of the event (h/t Dr. Joe).

Gotta love it: the Kindle is only referred to as "that other reader."

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


I've heard of actual news sources inadvertently printing Onion stories as if they were real; this time, the reverse happened. The Onion seems to have accidentally reprinted a story from a recent New York Times or, more likely, any cable news broadcast:
Nation's Morons March On Washington State

OLYMPIA, WA—With random cries of "Enough is enough," "Do something now," and "Huh?" thousands of the nation's biggest morons descended on Washington State this week, some 3,000 miles from their intended destination of the nation's capital.


While authorities maintained that the gathering was largely peaceful and most of the fires were set purely by accident, demonstrators appeared visibly angry about a range of topics, including war, peace, food, music, money, baseball, cars, the people following them around as if this were some kind of rally, siblings, animals, plants, colors, and movies.

"Come on out of that precious little palace of yours, Mr. President. We're right here waiting," Pennsylvania resident Kip Callahan yelled toward the marble-columned State Insurance Building. "I didn't come all this way to be ignored. I got kids!"

"No Social Security for Medicare!" Michigan idiot Kevin Liston added. "Not in my backyard!"

Throughout the day, the number of protesters grew to include not just morons, but more than 6,000 nimrods, 3,500 dunderheads, and approximately 12,000 of the biggest fucking dipshits known to man.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

They've Done It to Me Again

Yesterday, I received a letter in the mail from Americal Express' fraud department, saying they have been trying to call me and that I should call them ASAP. It seemed to be a legitimate letter; one good thing about phishing scams is that they tend not to use print. So I called them back and the phone system was labyrinthine and irritating, so I knew right away that it was really AmEx's. Anyway, it turns out that they had detected suspicious activity on my account--and, indeed, I had not bought a $1,000 sewing machine from, nor had I bought $1,600 worth of leather handbags from some place called that I have never heard of. These guys (or girls, judging from what they bought, but maybe not) were apparently pros; they somehow changed the mailing address and phone number on the account (the AmEx rep asked me, "Have you recently moved to Tennessee?"). I also noticed online that they had made up a phony e-mail, too.

I haven't been using that card much, but the suspicious transactions are dated shortly after I had used it to get gas at a Citgo off I-90 somewhere near Rensselaer (I was coming back from a meeting in Holyoke and was on fumes)--the card reader on the pump was out of order and there were some suspicious people inside behind the counter...but then most people who work in gas stations look suspicious. Curious...

Anyway, say what you will about credit card companies--and they can certainly be evil--but when it comes to catching and helping with identity theft, I really am quite impressed with American Express. I usually check my credit card account activity online once a week for this very reason (this is the third time I have had a number nicked) but I hadn't had a chance to do so recently. So, word to the wise: always read your statements carefully. And perhaps use cash as much as possible.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

More Decade-ence

The countdown of my twenty-six favorite albums of the past ten years continues.

21–26 are here.

20. Barenaked Ladies, Maroon, 2000, Reprise

Sometimes, it’s all a question of context. I was a fan of Barenaked Ladies first album back in 1992—I liked their wit, humor, and somewhat unconventional instrumentation. I lost track of them after that, but was happy to hear that in 1998 they finally had a hit with the song “One Week” and the album Stunt, although I never heard Stunt until 2002, when Ken A. played in his car on one of our road trips somewhere. I liked it a lot, and a couple months later happened to be in a used record store on a visit to Torrance, California, and came across the follow-up, 2000’s Maroon. I picked it up, ripped it to my iPod, and it was one of two albums (see later this countdown) that I played in the car over and over again during my two-week trek around the American Southwest. As an album, I think it’s every bit as good as Stunt. All the wit and silliness and self-deprecating humor BNL have always had are there, and it’s become more mature and sophisticated since their debut. There is a great moment in “Conventioneers,” a tale of two coworkers who accidentally come together while at an out-of-town conference: “And we laugh...and we laugh...and we laugh/And we have to or we’ll end up in the bath/Now we’re in the bath.” It’s delivered perfectly. And only this band can makes lines like “If you think of her as Catherine the Great/Then you should be the horse to help her meet her fate” funny and yet oddly romantic at the same time. It’s really quite remarkable. “A world that loves its irony must hate the protest singer.” The two or three records they’ve released since have never quite seemed to me as strong, although they’re not bad. The song on Barenaked Ladies Are Me (2007) about the would-be bank robbers who get cold feet when they find the bank filled with nuns is very funny.

19. The Flower Kings, Space Revolver, Foxtrot Records/InsideOut, 2000

This is how I like my progressive rock—sweeping, symphonic, and Swedish. Roine Stolt is a brilliant guitarist who cut his seventeen-year-old teeth in the early 1970s with the Swedish prog rock band Kaipa. He left toward the end of the 1970s and kind of vanished, since after 1977 anyone who played—or even liked—progressive rock became pretty much a pariah. By the early 1990s, fans were rediscovering (or starting to admit that they liked) the music of Yes, Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, Van Der Graaf Generator, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, and all that lot, and new progressive bands were starting to form which took the music of their forebears and expanded upon it—often exceeding it. Stolt released an album in 1994 called The Flower King, which was his return to symphonic progressive rock, and was the pilot project for the band The Flower Kings, which released its first album a year later. Stolt is a great guitar player, with sort of a Zappa-meets-Jeff Beck style with a little David Gilmour thrown in. He’s also the band’s chief singer (sounding like an amalgam of Roger Waters, John Wetton, and the Swedish Chef) and primary songwriter. Sweeping epics are grounded by a very strong melodic base, but they are not loath to go off on sprawling instrumental flights of fancy. And majestic guitar solos. Lyrics tend to be very positive and life-affirming, and vaguely spiritual, but not oppressively so. I think the band is utterly brilliant. If they have a flaw, it’s that some of their albums tend to be a bit much—that is, they are not shy about releasing double-CD sets, and each disc is stuffed to the limit with music. It can be rather a lot to absorb. 2000’s Space Revolver was the first single-disc set after two back-to-back double albums, and it benefits from its focus and editing. The album is bookended by “I Am the Sun” parts one and two, which is the sort of sweeping epic that is the Flower Kings’ stock in trade. Jazz elements occasionally enter the mix, courtesy of Ulf Wallander’s saxophone. Tomas Bodin’s keyboards complement Stolt’s guitar and the interplay between the two is one of the highlights of any Flower Kings record. Second singer Hans Fröberg (he has the technically better voice but it’s less distinctive) gets a song credit with the lovely acoustic “You Don’t Know What You’ve Got.” “Rumble Fish Twist” is a wild instrumental with some exceptional bass work from Jonas Reingold. Stolt also loves big power riffs, and this album has them in “I Am the Sun” and “Monster Within.” The strangely-chorused “Chicken Farmer Song” (“I’d rather be where the chicken farmers run”) is a breezy pop song with a great guitar solo from Stolt. The five-minute instrumental climax to “I Am the Sun part two” is a thing of beauty, and ends the record on a perfect note. Their music started to get a lot more diverse as the decade wore on, but Space Revolver stands as the perfect essence of this extraordinary band.

18. Rush, Vapor Trails, Anthem Atlantic, 2002

Like most people my age (i.e., horribly old), I came of age with the two quintessential Rush albums—Permanent Waves and Moving Pictures. I lost track of them in the mid-80s when the synthesizers became a bit too much (come on, “Big Money” just screams “1985!” and I don’t mean the Bowling for Soup song). Rediscovering them in the late 1990s and their latter-day discography, it was actually a joy to hear them get their mojo back, so to speak, and return to a more guitar-oriented sound. At the same time, they kept developing as musicians and going into different directions that were at least better than the highly dated synthorock of the 80s. Indeed, 1996’s Test for Echo was probably their strongest record since 1981’s Moving Pictures. It’s a shame then (on so many levels) that drummer/lyricist Neal Peart’s family tragedies (he lost first his daughter in a car accident and his wife to cancer, all in the space of a year) curtailed whatever momentum they were building, and the band effectively went on indefinite hiatus. Peart took off on a motorcycle trip around North America on what he later called “the healing road,” and attempted to pick up the pieces of his life, a struggle later recounted in his touching Blue Highways-like book Ghost Rider (it’s no surprise to any Rush fan that Peart is a very good writer). They tentatively reunited in 2001 with no real expectation that anything would emerge, but it turned out that Peart was ready to continue. And the result was 2002’s Vapor Trails. The opening drum pyrotechnics of “One Little Victory” make no bones about it: Rush are back. There is nary a synthesizer to be heard, the songs are direct and loud, and rock harder than almost anything they have ever done. it sounds like they’ve been listening to all the bands that were inspired by them. And, happily, Lee’s voice has lowered with age, sounding less like a smoke alarm than on some of their mid-70s records, which has tended to turn off some people who probably might have liked the band otherwise. Lyrically, the songs—as one would expect—deal with loss, some personal (“Ghost Rider”—“Pack up all those phantoms/Shoulder that invisible load/Keep on riding north and went/Haunting that wilderness road/Like a ghost rider”) some national (“Peaceable Kingdom,” written in the aftermath of 9/11). I saw them on this tour—and two out of three subsequent ones (they usually play the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, only a mile walk from my house)—and they were phenomenal. The follow-up album, 2007’s Snakes and Arrows, is also just as good. It’s good to have them back.

17. The Shins, Oh, Inverted World, Sub Pop, 2001

I came to Oh, Inverted World a couple years after the fact, after having heard “Know Your Onion!” and “Caring is Creepy” on Radio Paradise in 2003. I liked both those songs almost immediately, but it was only a year later, when Zach Braff used a couple Shins songs in what is probably my favorite movie of the past ten years—Garden State—that I had to pick up the album. And it stayed on the iPod for a while. In fact, there is a scene in the movie, when Braff’s character Andrew meets Natalie Portman’s character Queen Amidala—I mean Sam—and she is wearing headphones. She tells him to listen to a song, saying, “It will change your life.” That song is The Shins’ “New Slang (When You Notice the Stripes),” which is perhaps a bit overstated, but I do like the song a lot. The album is rather hard to describe, as it is a strange amalgam of all sorts of parts and pieces cobbled together from all over the history of rock and pop, which is probably why I like it. It’s somewhat reminiscent of 60s pop via Syd Barrett or Brian Wilson, but with a more modern indie vibe to it. The lyrics alternate between sweet and charming and strange and surreal, sometimes within the same song (as in the aforesaid “New Slang”—“And if you’d ’a took to me like/A gull takes to the wind/Well, I’d ’a jumped from my tree/And I’d ’a danced like the king of the eyesores/And the rest of our lives would ’a fared well”... and later, “God speed all the bakers at dawn may they all cut their thumbs/And bleed into their buns till they melt away.”) It’s one of those albums where you find yourself singing along to the strangest things. The Shins’ follow-up, 2003’s Chutes Too Narrow, was in some ways better, but as I have said before, context is often what matters. As they have added layers of complexity to their music (and I still can’t make it through their third album, Wincing the Night Away, which kind of lives up to its name) one doesn’t want to disparage their continued development, but one misses the simplicity of Oh, Inverted World.

16. The Hold Steady, Boys and Girls in America, Vagrant, 2006

Finally! You know, ever since the late 1970s, it seems like every band has had to bow down and worship at the altar of punk. What I adore about The Hold Steady (based in Brooklyn now, but from Minneapolis) is that they realize that there was actually good rock music being made before 1977. And their chief influence is classic guitar rock of the mid 1970s. Big riffs, guitar solos that would make Angus Young envious, piano bits that could have come straight off Born to Run. As if that weren’t enough, singer/lyricist Craig Finn is one of the great rock’n’roll storytellers, his songs populated by a cast of vividly drawn characters either on the fringes of society or headed there—suburban mall rats, compulsive drinkers, stoners—all told with a sense that this isn’t entirely fiction. It’s the sense of authenticity that gives Finn’s stories their added dimension. The sense of been-there-done-that is what makes these characters somewhat sympathetic, even if they’re not people you would really want to hang around with. Or at least I wouldn’t. Well, most of them. The album’s opening song “Stuck Between Stations” has grown on me over the past three years to become probably one of my favorite songs ever, opening with a Jack Kerouac On the Road reference (always a plus in my book): “There are nights when I think that Sal Paradise was right/Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together.” (Sal Paradise was, of course, the narrator of On the Road. The full quote is “Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together; sophistication demands that they submit to sex immediately without proper preliminary talk. Not courting talk—real straight talk about souls, for life is holy and every moment is precious.”) To wit: the protagonist has met a girl who “was a damn good dancer but she wasn’t all that great of a girlfriend.” In the next verse, Finn imagines the Minneapolis poet John Berryman walking with the Devil along the Washington Street Bridge—where Berryman actually did leap to his death into the Mississippi River in 1972. “He said, ‘I surrounded myself with doctors and deep thinkers/But big heads and soft bodies make for lousy lovers.’” Oh, I don’t know. Though I don’t know that Berryman “loved the Golden Gophers but he hated all the drawn-out winters.” Still, the Golden Gophers did beat Syracuse last month. “She said, ‘You’re pretty good with words but words won’t save your life.’” Tell me about it. The album culminates with the almost theatrical “Chillout Tent,” where guest singers (including Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum) sort of play the parts of two young people who go to a music festival, take too much of various substances, and end up meeting each other in the titular tent. “They started kissing when the nurses took off their IVs/It was kind of sexy but it was kind of creepy.” But, alas, “She was pretty cool/They kind of kicked it in the chillout tent/He never saw that girl again.” Another great line from “Citrus”: “I’ve had kisses that made Judas seem sincere.” Anyway, it’s a great record. Alas, their follow-up Stay Positive just didn’t quite capture that certain je ne sais quoi that Boys and Girls in America has. And if I am ever at Saratoga Race Track and there is a horse called “Chips Ahoy,” I will bet on it. Probably not $900, though. Yeah, this one stayed on the iPod throughout the summer of 2006, in the car with the windows down. Just the way nature intended. The Boss would approve.

To be continued...

Friday, October 16, 2009

I Was Meant for the Stage

On November 13–14, the Colonial Little Theater in beautiful, downtown Johnstown, NY, will be presenting a staged reading of a three-act play I wrote called Past and Present Tense. What's it about? Well...
It is Christmas Eve, and thirtysomething Daniel Harper is about to become a father for the first time. He hopes the birth of his child will help reunite him and his estranged brother Kevin, their parents’ “golden child,” who abruptly and mysteriously stormed out of their life one Christmas morning 20 years earlier. As both brothers plan to meet again, they each reminisce about the events of the past—and wonder what they mean for the future.

Creatively Cornered

Yesterday, my new weekly column/feature/thing--called the "Creative Corner"--debuted at WhatTheyThink. What is it?
WhatTheyThink’s “Creative Corner” is a weekly feature/column targeted toward graphic designers (print, Web, and beyond) and other creative professionals. In this space each week, I’ll be presenting business tips, hardware and software reviews, sales and marketing strategies, emerging technologies, and graphic communications and media trends.
In the debut installment, I discuss the process of sales and how it applies to graphic designers. Next week: a review of iPhone apps for designers.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Good News for Newspapers

This just in:
Report: Majority Of Newspapers Now Purchased By Kidnappers To Prove Date

According to a report published this week in American Journalism Review, 93 percent of all newspaper sales can now be attributed to kidnappers seeking to prove the day's date in filmed ransom demands.

"Although the vast majority of Americans now get their news from the Internet or television, a small but loyal criminal element still purchases newspapers at a steady rate," study author and Columbia journalism professor Linus Ridell said. "The sober authority of the printed word continues to hold value for those attempting to extort large sums of money from wealthy people who wish to see their loved ones alive again, and not chopped into pieces and left in steamer trunks on their doorsteps."

"These are sick, sick individuals," Ridell added. "God bless them for saving our industry."
From The Onion, of course. (h/t Gail at PrintCEO Blog)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


Gizmodo has an exclusive first look at the impending new Barnes & Noble e-book reader, which is said to "feature a black and white e-ink screen like the Kindle has—and a multitouch display like an iPhone underneath other."
If only I knew someone who worked for Barnes & Noble...

Monday, October 12, 2009

Next Stop, Willoughby

This was one of the oddest encounters I've had in a while...

Last Saturday afternoon, after the abysmal SU-West Virginia game, I was walking in downtown Syracuse near Armory Square looking for a place to eat (via the Yelp iPhone app). A trio of youngish guys came up to me and one of them asked me, "Where is the balloon festival?"

The what? Before I could say "Um, I don't know; in the sky?" he added, "Is this Utica or Syracuse?"

It should be pointed out that at that exact moment, I was wearing a bright orange T-shirt with "Syracuse" emblazoned across it, and a cursory glance around the street would have identified at the very least a half dozen signs for businesses with the word "Syracuse" in them--including, I took especial note, the Syracuse Suds Factory half a block away.

"This is Syracuse," I replied, for some reason sounding like Bob Newhart.

They were in disbelief. "Are you sure? We took a cab from Rochester and told the cabbie to drop us off in downtown Utica." I hope they didn't tip the guy.

Wait: they were taking a cab from Rochester to Utica? That's a good 120 miles. Wouldn't it have been cheaper to rent a car? Or charter a hot-air balloon?

"I'm absolutely positive this is Syracuse," I said. Now I was starting to question where I was, like those Twilight Zone episodes where middle-aged men wake up in strange towns and have to relive their childhoods.

Anyway, they still refused to believe me. "You're putting us on," he said to me.

Yes, because nothing fills me with puckish delight more than to don a Syracuse shirt and wander around downtown Utica confusing people. Curses, they've called me out!

They were taking a cab from Rochester to Utica and I'm the jerk? I guess it was appropriate that they were looking for a balloon festival since they seemed to be as high as one.

Wasn't anyone in their party paying the slightest attention to where they were going? I have driven to and from Syracuse (from east and west) many many many times, and I know for a fact that there is ample highway signage; "Syracuse Next 6 Exits," "Entering Syracuse," "81 South Syracuse," all those "Carrier Dome Parking" signs, the big "Hey, Dipshits, You're In Syracuse!!!"'s really not Brigadoon.

Anyway, they remained convinced that I was putting them on. A car pulled up and a couple of women got out, and the lads walked up to them and asked, "What city is this?"

One of the women gave him a look that suggested she thought it an odd pick-up line. And she would have been right. "Syracuse," she said.

"Told you!" I shouted back to them.

I wandered off; I don't know if they were yet convinced, or were going to try for best of three. Perhaps if they ask enough people, Syracuse will magically transform into Utica. Which is a pretty terrifying thought.

Sunday, October 11, 2009


The end of the decade—improbable as it may seem—is drawing nigh. And everyone is starting to compile their “Best of the 2000s” lists. I came across Pitchfork’s top 20 and thought, heck, I’m pretty much a Nick Hornby character (if I were to make a list of my favorite movies of the past decade, High Fidelity—based on a Hornby novel—would definitely be on it), I can do that. (Actually, Pitchfork does the 200 best albums; I’m not that ambitious.)

So I am starting my own countdown of my twenty-six favorite albums of the past ten years. Twenty-six? Yes; round numbers are boring. If I were more ambitious, I would add fractions of albums and come up with my favorite 26.54 albums. I’m not that ambitious.

I’ll start at number 26 and over the next few weeks continue the countdown to number 1, my favorite album of the 2000s. Some of you may already be able to figure it out, or can at least narrow it down.

I should point out that this is not meant to be a definitive “Best of the Decade list.” It’s just my own personal favorites.

26. Interpol, Turn on the Bright Lights, Matador Records, 2002

Mi hermano introduced me to Interpol (the New York City-based band, not the international police organization) a couple years ago, and while I like all three of their albums (to date), their debut is the one that stands out. All the reviews I have read about it liken the album to Joy Division, but I really don’t entirely support the comparison. Joy Division (one of my favorite bands ever) songs sound like transmissions from a dark and terrifying alternate universe. Sure, Turn on the Bright Lights is dark and atmospheric, but doesn’t quite bring the Joy (if you know what I mean). Still, I’m not a big fan of identifying all of a band’s influences; the album is perfectly exciting to listen to all on its own. The snaky guitars, the moody if often cryptic lyrics (in “NYC,” for example, “The subway she is a porno/The pavements they are a mess/I know you’ve supported me for a long time/Somehow I’m not impressed”; well, they have a point), the often tremulous vocals—sure, they may wear their influences on their sleeve, but it all adds up to a dish that rises above its ingredients.

25. Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Nonesuch, 2002

I had been aware of Wilco for a few years (especially their Mermaid Avenue collaborations with Billy Bragg), but not being a big fan of alt-country, I never really went out of my way to listen to them. But their fourth album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, effectively transcends all genres—it’s all over the map, which is what I find to be much of its appeal. And part of its problem. The story behind the album is probably more famous than anything on it: the band recorded it for Reprise Records (a Time Warner label), the label felt it was not commercial enough and refused to release it. The band bought the album back from them and left the label, streamed it in its entirety on its Web site, site traffic went through the roof, the subsequent tour was a hit, and other record labels began a bidding war for the right to release it as a proper album. Ultimately, Nonesuch (ironically, another Time Warner subsidiary) won and it was released in 2002. Some could argue that the record fails to live up to its hype, but I’m not one of them. How can you not like an album whose first song (“I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”) opens with the line “I am an American aquarium drinker,” or gets you to earnestly sing along with silly lines like “Take off your Band-Aid because I don’t believe in touchdowns”? (Hmm...that could be the Syracuse University football team’s motto.) Elsewhere, sonic experimentation and musical complexity sit side by side with simple melodies and bright choruses. The lyrics also get a bit more coherent and often wistful; “I still miss those heavy metal bands/She used to go see on the landing in the summer/She fell in love with a drummer/She fell in love with the drummer...I miss the innocence I’ve known/Playing Kiss covers/Beautiful and stoned” (“Heavy Metal Drummer”). What may have turned off Reprise is that many of the songs fail to end properly; even the simplest most straightforward tracks are likely to devolve into weird bits of noise or, as at the end of “Poor Places,” a woman repeating the words “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” over and over (letters of the phonetic alphabet, lifted from a box set called The Conet Project: Recordings of Shortwave Numbers Stations—boy, that sounds like a compelling listen!). This one stayed in the iPod for a while in 2002.

Morrissey, Years of Refusal, Attack Records, 2009

I know what you’re thinking: Morrissey? Really? In this decade? Are you time-tripping back to the 80s again? Well, um, er, yes. I mean no. I mean... Sure, after about 1993 or so, I sort of lost track of Morrissey—and he actually went into hiding from about 1997 to 2004. Curiously, rather than emerging as the sort of old, past-it dinosaur he lampooned in the 1990 song “Get Off the Stage,” he seems to have taken on almost elder-statesman status, and has even been embraced by all the emo fans—a genre, it bears mentioning, that largely owes its existence to Morrissey. And to his credit, he’s not always still whining about the same old things; he’s settling into a graceful middle-age (he turns 50 this year), with a whole new set of things to be miserable about. (And, heck, if Mick Jagger still can’t get no satisfaction at age 60+, what makes anyone think Morrissey ever will?) His three records this decade (2004’s You Are the Quarry, 2006’s Ringleader of the Tormenters, and 2009’s Years of Refusal) haven’t changed his basic formula, but have expanded it a bit, and even added a few new wrinkles (literally, as well as figuratively). By post-comeback album number three, most of the rough edges have been sanded away, and it’s probably the most focused album—and best set of songs—he’s come up with in a while. In fact, when we last left Morrissey in 2006, he had apparently found love and was living in Rome. That, unsurprisingly, didn’t quite work out, and, after all, Moz happy is not what the punters pay for, so now in 2009 he’s throwing his arms around Paris “because only stone and steel accept my love.” We’ll see about that; the next album he’ll be writing nasty songs about the Eiffel Tower. Anyway, the opening song on Years, the raucous “Something is Squeezing My Skull,” pretty much addresses the likely criticism: “I know by now you think I should have straightened myself out/Thank you, drop dead.” That’s telling ’em. One of the singles was “That’s How People Grow Up,” which is fairly typical Morrissey: “I was driving my car/I crashed and broke my spine/So, yes, there are things worse in life than never being someone sweetie.” I guess “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” didn’t quite work out. Anyway, Years of Refusal is not likely to turn around anyone who never liked the guy to begin with. But for those of us who have grown up with him (The Smiths were required listening in college in the 1980s), it’s nice to still have him around.

[Video embedding disabled. Bastard.]

23. The Flaming Lips, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Warner Bros., 2002

For my money, and it is my money, actually, the one perfect Flaming Lips album is 1995’s Clouds Taste Metallic, but most people tend to agree that 1999’s The Soft Bulletin is their high-water mark, eschewing much of the psychedelic trappings for a new emotional directness. Yeah, I suppose, but I think the follow-up, 2002’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots perfectly captures the twin essences of the Lips (the two lips?), the out-there wackiness and the down-to-Earth humanity. That this is all dressed up in a concept album about a Japanese girl who has to defeat evil robots—and works far better than you would think—is quite remarkable. Technically, the concept ends about halfway though the record, or at the end of side one in the old days of vinyl. The problem, as laid out in track two, “One More Robot/Sympathy 3000-21,” is that the robots are developing human emotions—which can never be real emotions. (It sounds kind of like the premise of the new Battlestar Galactica.) Anyway, a big part of what makes the record work are the beautiful melodies and near sonic perfection of the production. Like Pink Floyd, whose influence is all over this album’s follow-up, 2006’s At War With the Mystics, the Lips may not be virtuoso musicians, but they know how to use a recording studio to their best advantage. Another big part of this album’s success is Wayne Coyne’s fragile voice, which can even make you weep as you sing along with lines like “Oh, Yoshimi, they won’t believe me, but you won’t let those robots eat me.” Still, what puts this album on the best-of list is the stand-out track “Do You Realize??” which is quite possibly the most beautiful song ever recorded, and if it doesn’t make you weep, then you are a pink robot.

XTC, Wasp Star, TVT Records, 2000

I put this on this list simply because XTC is one of my favorite bands of all time, and this album, as it happened, ended up being their swan song. Steven H. got me into XTC back circa 1986 via the Waxworks collection of singles—and it was just about this time that Skylarking and “Dear God” had come out. Most cool people have one or all of the “holy trinity” of essential XTC records—Drums and Wires (1979), Black Sea (1980), and English Settlement (1982)—but some of us have it all. Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding were (are?) two of the best songwriters around and that XTC were never a household name is one of history’s great injustices. Another was their record company-induced “lost decade”; after 1993’s not very good Nonsuch, they got stuck in record contract hell and were prohibited from either recording anything or getting released from their contract. They were simply ignored and it took six years and a phalanx of lawyers to extricate them. So by the time they finally reappeared in 1999 with Apple Venus—a lush, acoustic-orchestral album—they had lost guitarist Dave Gregory and were down to a duo. Recorded at the same time, but the other side of the stytlistic coin, was Wasp Star, released in 2000, which was what the punters wanted: a straight ahead album of pop-rock gems. And it delivers. “Playground” is a great set opener, and if there are any weak moments, it’s “Wounded Horse” (which should be shot). “I’m the Man Who Murdered Love” got some radio play, at least in L.A., at the time. Alas, after Wasp Star, Colin Moulding retired from music, but Andy Partridge has been releasing some rare recordings and demos, and working on new material. (He apparently has been collaborating with Robyn Hitchcock.)

21. The New Pornographers, Twin Cinema, Matador Records, 2005

The New Pornographers are a Vancouver-based collective (or “supergroup,” if you prefer) spearheaded by AC Newman and comprising alt-country diva Neko Case, John Collins (The Evaporators), Dan Bejar (Destroyer), and Kurt Dahle, among others. (I know, household names, all.) Every two years, they come together, record an immaculate collection of po-rock gems, and then return to their proper projects. 2003’s Electric Version was great, but 2005’s Twin Cinema is even better, with just about every track a gem. This one stayed in the iPod throughout most of the latter half of 2005. AC Newman writes most of the stuff (Dan Bejar usually gets a surreal song or two per album, in this case “Jackie, Dressed in Cobras,” whose title and refrain “On a train devouring the land/A girl’s going insane over her man” wouldn’t make this out of place on a Robyn Hitchcock record. Neko Case’s solo showcases, “The Bones of an Idol” and “These Are the Fables” make me want to explore her solo records. Twin Cinema has more hooks than a coatrack factory, smart writing, great harmonies, and loose yet flawless performances. I confess, the much mellower follow-up, 2007’s Challengers, was more that a bit of a disappointment. But it’s 2009, and there’s still time for a new New Pornographers record to come out. Hope springs eternal...

To be continued...

Thursday, October 08, 2009

App Happy

Over at PrintCEO Blog, I tell the sordid tale of my growing obsession with iPhone applications.

Building a Bridge to the 20th Century

So I am at this moment on eternal hold with Verizon, as I am trying to get rid of my landline phone service. The process had been going well; it was all being done by an automated system, and it seemed like it would be fairly simple, and I could avoid the awkwardness and guilt I always feel when having to cancel via a human. Then, after I chose the option not to transfer my account to another residence, the system decided it needed to transfer me to a human, which then put me on eternal hold (8:54 and counting).

The awkwardness and guilt will not be there this time.

So while listening to the cheesy hold music, I thought I would try to accomplish the same thing online and see which was faster. I naturally assumed that I would have to set up an online user ID and password, which seemed silly since I was only trying to cancel my account, but whatever.

So I get to this sign-up screen, and had to run upstairs to get a glass of water so I could come back down and do a spit-take (emphasis added):
PIN Delivery

Full Access My Verizon Registration (Temporary PIN required)
View and pay your bill, add or change services, plus cool stuff like listen to your home voice mail over the Web and more!

Please choose the delivery method for your temporary PIN:
  • Phone call/message to XXX-XXX-5280
  • U.S. mail
For immediate access while waiting on your PIN, continue with Limited Access Registration.

Limited Access My Verizon Registration (Temporary PIN will be sent via U.S. mail)
Pay your bill and set up automatic payments. No other features available.
  • Limited access
Please complete full registration when your PIN arrives.
So let me get this straight. If I want "immediate access" while waiting for my PIN, I need to get a temporary PIN--but the temporary PIN is sent by U.S. mail?! That's an interesting definition of "immediate." And how long does the proper PIN-getting process take if the "immediate" option involves U.S. mail?

Haven't they ever heard of a little thing called e-mail--you know, that crazy thing all the kids are using? What century are we in? Wait--I'll send my liveried footman round in my horse-drawn brougham to pick it up and bring it round to my Victorian drawing room where I can read it by gaslight.

You know, I can set up user accounts online just about anywhere else and get e-mailed PINs in literally seconds. So now I have either sit on hold forever, or wait for someone to call me back, or wait for a PIN to arrive in the mail? Just to cancel my phone service? Even if I were setting this up as a new account to pay bills online, it would still be pretty ridiculous. I think I shall avoid doing business with Verizon in the future. Or the past, as the case may be.

Finally got a human after 13:51. Total length of call: 16:24. She was very nice, I will say that.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Apres Moi, Le Deluge...Or, I Am a Klutz

Coffee is a remarkable substance.

It has self-replication and multiplication abilities that seemingly defy the basic law of conservation of matter. Some time ago, I was in a diner that advertised a "bottomless cup of coffee," so I asked the waitress, if one overturned such a cup, would it flood the planet? (We didn't see her near our table much after that.)

Even more curiously, I have found the the consumption of a single cup of coffee triggers an improbable series of biochemical processes that makes it necessary to stop at every travel plaza on the New York State Thruway and/or Mass Pike. Again, there is a very basic violation of the law of conservation of matter going on here.

I bring up the subject of coffee because I happened to spill a full cup of it this morning, and the sheer volume of liquid coursing over the desk and--more to the point--into my MacBook Pro was far greater than the initial quantity in the cup. I could literally watch it increasing before my eyes. If I hadn't been in such a panic to unplug things and rescue various electronic devices from the deluge I probably would have wrung out the entire spent roll of paper towels and attempted to develop a series of formulas that can calculate the extent to which coffee replicates itself in a given unit of time.

However, my rescue attempts were futile; the MacBook made a "pfffff" noise, there was the smell of burning plastic, and the screen went dark. That's never good. I took it down to the Apple Store in Crossgates Mall and as soon as they tried to boot it up, pink smoke billowed out from under the keyboard. Leave it to Apple to even design stylish billows of smoke. Either that or Jeannie had been trapped in my computer. Still, it rather stunned the Genius Bar folks. Needless to say, there was a mass shaking of heads that was reminiscent of a particularly tragic episode of ER. I am a Toastmaster; that now means that I am the master of a computer that is toast. So I guess it's time to get a new computer... They are, at the moment, seeing if they can rescue my hard drive or at the very least the files on it. Happily, most important stuff is backed up.

I will say thanks and kudos to the staff of the Crossgates Apple Store; every time I have ever had some sort of problem (and happily there have never been too many) they have always been exceedingly helpful and pleasant. I guess my only complaint is that I have been using Apple computers literally longer than most of them have been alive...

P.S. Robert/Kristin: do Lucy or Trixie have an extra sippy cup I can have?

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Off Keynote

I just subscribed to the McSweeney's iPhone app, which beams over its daily "Internet Tendency" stories. A recent one that should be required reading is the very Robert Benchley-esque "A Literal-Minded Corporate Executive Gives the Opening Address at His Company's Sales Conference." An excerpt:
The past year has been a challenging one. Many of our clients went out of business. Many of our friends lost their jobs. Many of you who hate working here had to continue working here because no one else was hiring and you couldn't move back home because your parents rented out your room to avoid foreclosure.

However, the year ahead looks brighter, or at least not nearly as apocalyptic. The economy seems to have turned a corner, and we have emerged from the worst recession in a generation stronger than before, thanks in large part to nothing in particular that we did so much as crippling failures on the part of our competitors. While your hard work during this difficult time has been commendable, now is the time to return to doing what we do best: disinterestedly selling software that will eventually render us professionally irrelevant.