Sunday, November 29, 2009

Rebuild the Wall

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the release of Pink Floyd's The Wall. Celebrate with a day of angst and alienation! (And cast suspicious glances at any flowers you may have around.)

The resulting tour (which played only in New York, Los Angeles, and London, due to the mammoth scope of the show) was one of the great Spinal Tap-ian events in rock history. Would that I could have seen one of them.

Some highlights of a rare videotape of one of the London shows are embedded below. The entire show is available on YouTube here.

Rock on.

It bears mentoning that the question posed by the title of the opening song "In the Flesh?" is answered by the fact that the band on stage was actually a "surrogate band" wearing masks of the actual Pink Floyd bandmembers and miming along to the band playing offstage. The actual Floyd don't appear until song two, "The Thin Ice." Waka waka. Over the course of the first half of the show, workmen built a giant white wall in front of the band. The entire second half of the show was played by the band from behind the wall, although singers and players would occasionally appear in trap doors that opened in the wall and atop the wall. Unfortunately, the days of this kind of show are alas gone.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

And, Now, Finally, the Last of the Decade-ence

And here ends my countdown of my favorite 26 albums of the past decade:

21–26 are here.
16–20 are here.
11–15 are here.
6–10 are here.
4 and 5 are here.
3 is here.
2 is here.

And now...

Drumroll please...

1. The Decemberists, Picaresque, Kill Rock Stars, 2005
Another find via Magnet magazine, who back in 2005, had a short interview with Colin Meloy, singer, songwriter, and guitarist for Portland, OR’s The Decemberists. They sounded interesting so I went to their Web site, checked out some song samples, liked what I heard, and picked up their then-latest album Picaresque. It has not left my iPod (or often my proper CD player) since, and I have gone on to amass their not-immensely-sizable discography. (They formed in the early 2000s and their first EP and LP came out in 2002.)

The Decemberists answer the age-old question, What if Herman Melville fronted Fairport Convention? The Decemberists are an eclectic five-piece band that draws from a wide variety of styles—folk of various kinds, traditional rock, punk and alternative, sea chanteys, etc.—to create what I like to call “pirate folk music.” That is, the kind of music 17th-century pirates might sing. Colin Meloy’s songs tell tales—often involving doomed lovers, people drowning, doomed lovers drowning—basically, you would not want to go on a cruise with him.

Picaresque—the band’s third full album—opens with a triumphant whoop and charging drums that lead into “The Infanta,” probably the band’s most raucous song, a good rave-up about “The Infanta,” heiress to the16th-century Spanish throne. Well, why not? “Here she comes in her palanquin/On the back of an elephant/On a bed made of linen and sequins and silk.” The whole royal family is there; “Within sight of the Baroness/Seething spite for this lithe largesse/By her side sits the Baron—her barren-ness barbs her.” It’s an unusual way to open a very unusual album. It’s great!

“We Both Go Down Together” mixes the classes together; “You come from parents wanton/A childhood rough and rotten/I come from wealth and beauty/Untouched by work or duty.” Naturally, the narrator’s parents don’t approve of this match, so, “Meet me on my vast veranda/My sweet untouched Miranda” and, well, down they go together. In “Eli, the Barrow Boy,” the titular character “sells coal and marigolds/And he cries out all down the day/Below the tamarack he is crying...” Guitarist Chris Funk is dressed as said tamarack on the cover and in the CD booklet art, which feature photos from a purported community theater staging of plays based on the songs. Eli wishes he could afford a fine gown for his beloved, but the point is moot, as she is dead. Then Eli himself drowns, “But still when the moon is out/With his pushcart he calls down the day.” People don’t stay dead long in Meloy song. Eli should hook up with Lesley Anne Levine from Castaways and Cutouts.

Things lighten up a bit in “The Sporting Life,” a stream of consciousness musing—set to “Lust for Life”-esque drums—of a teen athlete who is not exactly the star of the team. As the season draws to a close, he “had known no humiliation/In front my friends and close relations,” sings Meloy, although the work of “an errant heel” threatens to undo the victories of the season. Why does he play sports? Well, to fulfill all his father’s athletic aspirations, natch, although, “apparently now there’s some complications.” Still, our stalwart narrator will “prove to the crowd that I come out stronger/Though I think I might lie here a little longer.”

The narrator of “The Bagman’s Gambit” works for the government, but fell for an international woman of mystery. “How we kissed so sweetly!/How could I refuse a favor or two/And for a tryst in the greenery/I gave you documents and microfilm, too.” She disappears and reappears over the years, usually in some sort of custody, but still: “They’ll never catch me now,” even when she was “purloined in Petrograd.”

The title “From My Own True Love (Lost at Sea)” pretty much says it all. The “hit single” (not) was “16 Military Wives,” which, as everyone else does, reduces war to numbers. “16 military wives, 32 softly focused, brightly colored eyes/...17 company men, our of which only 12 will make it back again/Sergeant sends a letter to 5 military wives as tears drip down from 10 little eyes.” Meanwhile, “the anchorperson on TV goes la la la la la.” The video is pretty funny.

“The Engine Driver” presents a cross-section of society the titular engine driver and the county lineman, to the fiction writer to the wealthy moneylender, all of whom have the same basic need to be loved and wanted by someone else. “On the Bus Mall” chronicles the lives of two aging gay hustlers who, “here in our hovel we fused like a family.”

The album’s centerpiece is the epic “The Mariner’s Revenge Song,” which is set largely in the stomach of a whale, where the narrator finally is able to confront the blackguard who ruined his poor mother’s life many years earlier. “And then you disappeared/Your gambling arrears/The only thing you left behind.” All the while, the narrator is haunted by his mother’s dying words, “Find him, bind him, tie him to a pole/And break his fingers to splinters/Drag him to a hole until he wakes up naked/Clawing at the ceiling of his grave!” Well, mother knows best.

Picaresque was produced by Chris Walla of Death Cab for Cutie and benefits from a much fuller (and lavish) production than their previous two albums. The Decemberists’ albums have been getting progressively less picaresque; if their first three records were collections of short stories, then 2006’s The Crane Wife added a couple of novellas, while 2009’s The Hazards of Love was a full-length novel—an album-length concept album. It was hard to pick only one Decemberists album for this best-of countdown; almost all of them (maybe not Her Majesty) would have appeared on here had I not decided to limit this countdown to one album per single band.

Mi hermano and I have seen them a couple of times in concert and they have been two of the best concerts I have ever seen.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Pod People

The staged reading of my play Past and Present Tense last weekend went extremely well, and it was very well-received. I recorded one of the performances on my handy Olympus digital voice recorder and it came out surprisingly well. (I had actually wanted to record both nights and edit together the best bits, but the battery on the recorder died nine minutes in on Friday night. Doh!)

I edited the recording into a six-episode series of weekly podcasts which can be streamed live via the RTG podcast page, or by subscribing via iTunes. A new episode will appear every Saturday, with the final episode being posted on Christmas Eve (a Thursday).

Thursday, November 19, 2009

But And Yet Still Even More Decade-ence

My countdown of my favorite 26 albums of the past decade continues.

21–26 are here.
16–20 are here.
11–15 are here.
6–10 are here.
4 and 5 are here.
3 is here.

2. Andrew Bird, The Mysterious Production of Eggs, Righteous Babe, 2005

Back in 2005, I had read a good review of Andrew Bird’s The Mysterious Production of Eggs in Magnet magazine, back when they used to produce a great bimonthly magazine instead of the utterly useless weekly e-mails they now send out. Anyway, several days afterward, I was in my local Borders, and I noticed they had the album on one of those listening stations (back when they used to have them). I put on the headphones, hit the Play button, and I’m shocked. It’s really lame, boring, 80s-style arena rock. Blecch....Okay, so I had hit the wrong button. Fine. But, as it turns out, the button I wanted to hit was broken and didn’t work. So I went home and went to Bird’s Web site and found samples of all the songs there. (Explain to me again why there is any point in leaving the house?) I liked what I heard so I went to CD Universe and ordered the album. It arrived, I ripped it to MP3, copied it to my iPod, and it became car music for a few short- and long-range errands and while it didn’t immediately grab me, after a few cycles I began to really get into it. Four years later, it has not left my iPod, I listen to it now at least once or twice a month, and I have since acquired the entire Andrew Bird discography and seen him live at least once. I love this record.

Andrew Bird is a multi-instrumentalist known primarily for violin and whistling (he actually won awards for his whistling, which wasn’t something I knew you could win awards for) and was distinguished by being a member of a band called the Squirrel Nut Zippers which flirted with popularity in 1996–1997 with a track called “Hell” during that brief faux-big band revival (I have that album and they had like 500 members, so the chances are pretty good that any given musician was at one time a member of the Squirrel Nut Zippers). Bird’s first three solo albums were done under the rubric of a band called Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire, and were very roots-oriented. They were like an artesian well that delved down through all these historical styles of American music, yet it was all leavened by Bird’s strange lyrical preoccupations, which were often odd interpretations of science, and often involved various types of meats and lines like “it wasn’t long ago just before the reign of Nero/We had no concept of zero.” He’s right, you know. His 2003 album Weather Systems went off in a strange new direction, one which culminated two years later with The Mysterious Production of Eggs.

The Mysterious Production of Eggs is hard to describe musically; take a bunch of styles from country to folk to bluegrass to classical to rock and throw them in a blender and you’ve pretty much got the album. Still, I find most of it to be hauntingly beautiful—and the lyrics tend to be more on the surreal side and also tend to be hauntingly beautiful. And you find yourself singing along to the strangest things. The album opens with a short instrumental that uses a trope from Weather Systems of naming songs using weird squiggles, done to flummox iTunes, methinks (which renders it as “/=/”). For the rest of the record, Bird acts as a sort of tour guide through a bizarre dreamworld, and yet one that seems oddly familiar in a way. Bird likes words, and often works them into songs before looking them up. So the first real song on the album is “Sovay” which, Wikipedia tells us, is “a traditional English folk song about a young woman who dresses and arms herself as a highwayman in order to test her suitor.” (Gee, that could actually be a Decemberists song—oops, what a giveaway...) Instead, Bird goes off about “I was getting ready to consider my next plan of attack/I think I’m gonna sack/The whole board of trustees/all those Don Quixotes in their B-17s.” The keyboards, acoustic guitar, plucked violin, and whistling render it a very beautiful song.

“A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left” begins sensibly enough with a spare acoustic guitar accompaniment: “We had survived to/Turn on the History Channel/And ask our esteemed panel/Why are we alive?/And here’s how they replied/You’re what happens when two substances collide.” Then the whistling, electric guitar, and mutant violin all kick in and Bird sings about being “Stretched out on the tarmac/Six miles South of North Platte/He can’t stand to look back/At sixteen ton of HAZMAT.” It’s a very beautiful song.

Honestly, I have no idea what the title “Fake Palindromes” has to do with the actual song, and yet it’s my favorite on the album. Well, one of them. “My dewy-eyed Disney bride/What has tried/Swapping your blood with formaldehyde?/Monsters?” But then “She says ‘I like long walks and sci-fi movies’/You’re six foot tall and East Coast bred/Some lonely night we can get together/And I’m gonna tie your wrists with leather/And drill a tiny hole into your head.” It’s the loudest most raucous song on the album, featuring wild percussion, mutant violins, and fuzztone guitar.

A track later, “Get out your measuring cups and we’ll play a new game/Come to the front of the class and we’ll measure your brain/We’ll give you a complex and we’ll give it a name.” Oh, like high school. “A tale that’s rather grim and gory/Is it just another children’s story that’s been de-clawed?/When the tales of Brothers Grimm and Gorey/Have been outlawed.” At the end, “That’s all for questioning/the case is closed!” It’s a beautiful song. “Banking on a Myth” gets you to sing along to lines like “From Star Search to the Philharmonic/He’ll get you there with Hooked On Phonics.” The squonking guitar and equally squonking violin make you want to “Join his entourage/He’ll give you a foot massage.” And in a reference to a past album, “There stands a handsome bid on the weather systems of the world.”

In “Masterfade,” the “sky is full of zeroes and ones.” Still, “You took my hand and led me down to watch a kewpie doll parade/We let the kittens lick our hair and drink our chalky lemonade.” But “what does it matter/If we’re all matter?” There then follows a whistling solo that makes you understand why he won awards for it. But then “Zeroes make a smiley face as they come floating down from the heavens.” It’s quite a beautiful song.

Then there’s “Opposite Day.” “I got home this morning,” he begins, “with the sun right in my eyes/And there was no warning as it took me by surprise/Hit me like an act of god/Causing my alarm/That I’d not become a cephalopod.” A logical concern, of course. Do you know how many points he gets in my book for using the term “cephalopod”? I often find myself alarmed that I’m not a cephalopod. “Today was s’posed to be the day/Molecules decide to change their form/The laws of physics lose their sway.” And “Youthful indiscretion is suddenly the norm/With the good kids growing horns.” Sounds worth looking forward to.

“Skin Is, My” puts lyrics to an instrumental on Weather Systems. “Waiting for that macramé bird of prey to come down and sing.” But “Let it be printed on every T-shirt in the land on the finest of cotton.” Oh, what a lovely sound. It’s another raucous song that melds plucked violin, electric guitar, loud percussion, and other sounds that defy ready identification.

“The Naming of Things” starts by quoting Groucho Marx, “You remind me of you.” Then Bird goes on about “Memories like mohair sweaters/Stretched and pilled faux distressed letters/Moose’s horns and figure eights/White plastic bags in search of mates/What suffocates the land/Is memory of garbage can.”

It goes on...”MX Missiles” (“Are you made of calcium or are you carbon-based?”) “Tables and Chairs” (“Just don’t let the human factor fail to be a factor”), and “The Happy Birthday Song” round out this remarkable, stunning record. It’s certainly the oddest album I’ve listened to in a while, and I mean that in the nicest possible way because it’s one of the most satisfying. Oh, and once again, great CD booklet graphics. And, hey, the whistling is award-winning.

His follow up, 2007’s Armchair Apocrypha, is probably better (“Fiery Crash” being my usual pre-flight iPod ritual and “Imitosis” being one of the best songs ever) but it’s all about context. His latest record, 2009’s Noble Beast, is also really really good.

Interesting thing about Bird live...his songs live never sound the same as the studio versions, or indeed the same from gig to gig. I read an interview with him where he finds it a weakness as a musician to play a song the same way twice. He often reinterprets songs and makes up new arrangements on the spot. Pretty cool.

To be continued...

Sunday, November 15, 2009

And Yet Still Even More Decade-ence

The countdown of my twenty-six favorite albums of the past 10 years continues.
21–26 are here.
16–20 are here.
11–15 are here.
6–10 are here.
4 and 5 are here.

3. Robyn Hitchcock & the Venus 3, Olé Tarantula, YepRoc, 2006

After about 30 years (his first recordings with The Soft Boys date from 1977, although he had been performing in various guises since the mid 1970s), Robyn Hitchcock has become something of an elder statesman, and is often name-checked by alternative bands old and new (The Decemberists are fans). The three Soft Boys albums released between 1978 and 1980—especially the classic Underwater Moonlight—were important touchstones for 1980s alternative rock (they influenced the likes of R.E.M. and The Replacements, the latter of whom wanted Hitchcock to produce Tim in 1985). His perhaps most fertile period was 1986–1990, when he had formed The Egyptians from several former Soft Boys, and recorded a string of college album chart toppers—Fegmania! (1986), Element of Light (1987), Globe of Frogs (1988—my favorite album of all time), and Queen Elvis (1989). A switch to a major record label resulted in having a slick commercial producer foisted on him, ensuring that anything that made his records distinctive was removed, resulting in the bland Perspex Island (1991). The Egyptians’ swan song Respect (1993) had some high points, but felt more contractual obligation than artistic statement. Hitchcock went into hiding, much as he had in the early 1980s. Back then, he reappeared in 1984 with the all-acoustic masterpiece I Often Dream of Trains, and this time, he reappeared in 1996 with the mostly acoustic and excellent Moss Elixir. A Jonathan Demme-directed concert film (Storefront Hitchcock) was filmed, but scuttled by Miramax, and languished, although it is an excellent document of a typical Hitchcock concert, with the songs introduced by funny, often very surreal stories and commentary.

Since then, Hitchcock has pretty much followed his muse wherever it may lead. A brace of fin de siècle albums (Jewels for Sophia and A Star for Bram, 1999 and 2000, respectively) had high points (“Mexican God,” “The Cheese Alarm,” “I Saw Nick Drake,” an electric version of “1974”) but suffered from its random writing and recording wherever he happened to be and with whomever he happened to be. The all-acoustic I Often Dream of Trains/Eye-like Luxor was self-released in 2003 as a 50th birthday present to himself. A year later he signed to YepRoc Records and released a roots-like but still excellent collaboration with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings Spooked. During this same period he was constantly touring, doing guest appearances at others’ shows, and generally, it seems, enjoying himself.

He finally returned to a full-piece rock band in 2006 by forming the Venus 3, an alternative “supergroup” comprising old friends Peter Buck (R.E.M.), Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows, The Minus 5), and Bill Rieflin (Ministry). Their first album was Olé Tarantula, probably the most satisfying Hitchcock album since Moss Elixir, and his best rock record since Queen Elvis. It has all the trademarks: chiming rent-a-Byrds guitars, Beatles-esque melodies, and his lyrics that mix the surreal with the poignant and affecting. (All reviews tend to label Hitchcock as “eccentric” but I disagree; I think he’s remarkably grounded and sane, and just has a very vivid imagination and expresses himself using creative and unusual imagery, usually involving insects, fish, marine invertebrates, vegetables, etc. If, for example, his wife’s heart is sweet as sugar, why shouldn’t he avoid the usual cliché and instead sing about an “ant corridor to your heart”?)

Olé Tarantula kicks off with what could very well be The Soft Boys covering “If You Were a Priest”: “Adventure Rocketship,” where he explains, “I’m coming for you someday/As faithful as a mummy/Discovered in a crater.” “Underground Sun” is a eulogy of sorts for a friend of Hitchcock’s who passed away. “You lie so lonely/Listening to the silence of the graves/You don’t belong there/You belong down south among the waves/Underground sun/I miss you.” Celebratory in style, it features beautiful harmonies from Chris Ballew (Presidents of the United States of America), Sean Nelson (Harvey Danger), and Morris Windsor (Soft Boys, Egyptians). Soft Boys guitarist Kimberley Rew also makes a cameo (here, and on “Museum of Sex” and “The Authority Box”). Speaking of “Museum of Sex,” don’t expect it to be too literal: “On this roof I play this riff/Play it till my hands are hollow/You can play to the tomatoes/You can play to the Apollo.” But then: “In the end I’ll be a skull/Through my eyes the eels will wallow/In the end I’ll be a warning/Time is not for us to follow.” Still: “Music is the antidote/To the world of pain and sorrow.” He’s got a point. It is a good riff, with some appropriately grunting saxophones.

“Belltown Ramble” is a bit of a lengthy, well, ramble. “And you wanna know what is/And also what is not/Don’t you, girl?/It’s an independent life/And you want to see your eyes/Reflected in the world.” Well, don’t we all? Shortly, though, “Then you find the Uzbek warlord/You collide with Tamerlane/His teeth are brown.” Then things get faintly apocalyptic:
Seven men are on their way
Seven sets of appetites
have got to be appeased today

Ignorance comes first
then comes Opportunism
Greed is third

Fundamental Faith
Rides in backwards with his eyes shut
listening for the Word

In bowls number five
He needs a bit of elbow room
His name is Haste

He fires off a slew of e-mails
And says, Put your hands together, boys
for six aka Waste

The boys all look around
They looked at number seven
Reclining in his chair

He’s got his headphones on
His head is full of paradise
He isn’t there
The title track is an ode to reproduction told, not surprisingly, in the context of spiders. As Hitchcock explained, “It’s all to do with how people feel about what brings them into
existence—how some people kind of recoil from it and some people are delighted by it, and some people are just shocked that they exist at all.” “Out in the trees/Old tarantula has got me humming/Out in the desert the cacti are home/Tarantulas cluster in their underground dome/Olé tarantula.” It sounds like everyone had a bit of a good time in studio while recording that one. And how can one resist singing along with “I feel like a three-legged chinchilla/Standing on a table so wide/I can’t see over the side.”

“(A Man’s Gotta Know His Limitations) Briggs” is a long-time live favorite that finally turns up here. “A man’s gotta know his limitations, Briggs/Or he will just explode.”
It kinds of makes you want to watch the Dirty Harry movie Magnum Force. The chiming guitars are probably the most evocative of The Egyptians era. The tender love song on Olé Tarantula is of course titled “Red Locust Frenzy,” and, well, why not? “’Cause It’s Love (Saint Parallelogram)” was written in collaboration with XTC’s Andy Partridge, of which more is supposedly to be coming out.

The album closes with another eulogy of sorts, “N.Y. Doll,” about Arthur Kane, member of the seminal punk band The New York Dolls, and inspired by the movie New York Doll about “Killer” Kane, who after the demise of the band had a religious epiphany, gave up the archetypal rock’n’roll lifestyle, and became a Mormon librarian. He died shortly after the movie came out.

Olé Tarantula is a wonderful record. Like an actual tarantula, it’s frightening and startling at first glance but is actually quite harmless and even quite charming in its own surreal way. I saw The Venus 3 in NYC on this tour and it was a great show. This year, the second Venus 3 album, Goodnight Oslo, came out and it’s not as good but is still worth a listen.

To be continued...

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Eye Phone

Anyone who has read Vernor Vinge's Rainbows End will not be surprised that science fiction is on the verge of becoming science fact. Says New Scientist:
A contact lens that harvests radio waves to power an LED is paving the way for a new kind of display. The lens is a prototype of a device that could display information beamed from a mobile device.

Realising that display size is increasingly a constraint in mobile devices, Babak Parviz at the University of Washington, in Seattle, hit on the idea of projecting images into the eye from a contact lens.
His research involves embedding nanoscale and microscale electronic devices in substrates like paper or plastic. He also wears contact lenses. "It was a matter of putting the two together," he says.
Great. Wait till people start driving with these things. And I'm sure I don't want to have all those horrible flashing animated banner ads flashing right in my eyes. (Retina-based advertising?) I like the idea in theory, but personally I think I'll take a pass.

QR No Longer on the QT?

Well, quick response (QR) codes are now apparently ready for prime-time: they were apparently featured in an episode of CSI. (h/t Tim McKinnon/2D Codes for Global Media):

For those not in the know, QR codes are a kind of bar code that is readable by a Webcam or mobile phone camera. If you aim your, say, iPhone camera at one and launch the Quickmark iPhone app (to name but one app for that), the smartphone's Web browser will be automatically directed to a Web site. It's a quickie way of sending people to a site without having them laboriously type it in. So, if you're QR-enabled, try this:

Tense and Tenser

Tomorrow and Saturday at 8:00 pm at the Colonial Little Theater in Johnstown—a staged reading of my play Past and Present Tense. Rehearsals this week and last have been going fairly well. Scary/depressing fact: the two high school students who appear in it have never heard John Lennon's "Imagine" (one of them is supposed to sing a pun based on a line from it). I have to copy it to my iPod and play it for him!

Speaking of Networking

Over at this week's WhatTheyThink Creative Corner, I recover from last weekend's Toastmasters Fall Conference...

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Yet Still Even More Decade-ence

The countdown of my twenty-six favorite albums of the past 10 years continues.

21–26 are here.
16–20 are here.
11–15 are here.
6–10 are here.

Here’s an interesting juxtaposition.

5. IQ, Dark Matter, InsideOut, 2004

IQ is a British progressive rock band that formed in the early 1980s and were, with Marillion, one of the first generation of so-called “neo-progressive” bands. IQ’s second album The Wake (1985) is considered a classic of the genre, even if they never achieved the albeit transient popularity of Marillion (Misplaced Childhood—and the single “Kayleigh”—also came out in 1985.) Not the most prolific of bands, they’ve only recorded less than 10 albums in more than 25 years. Singer/lyricist Peter Nicholls left the band briefly in the late 1980s and the two albums they did without him were, um, wretched, finding the band sounding more like Journey than early Genesis. Fortunately, Nicholls returned in 1992 and the five albums they have recorded since are all excellent, including the band’s magnum opus, the two-disc concept album Subterranea (1997).

I first heard “Sacred Sound” from 2004’s Dark Matter on Aural Moon, a progressive Internet radio station and on first listening I thought it was a great song. I knew I had to get the album. (Yeah, Internet radio is killing music sales. Uh huh.) And the record is a classic from the opening keyboard swell of “Sacred Sound” to the lovely fading out guitar solo at the end of the 24:30 epic “Harvest of Souls,” which is IQ’s “Supper’s Ready.” The whole of the album has no weak moments; great melodies, interesting arrangements, strong musicianship and solos, it all hangs together brilliantly. Sure, as per its title the lyrics—typically elliptical—are a bit dark (let’s face it, a song with the title “Harvest of Souls” is probably not going to be a good-time party anthem)—“Can’t deny the evidence/Not now not even once/The future lies erased/These are the last remaining days” goes the refrain to “Sacred Sound.” Track two, “Red Dust Shadow” starts as a lovely acoustic ballad before kicking into an almost Pink Floydian high gear about mid-way through. “You Never Will” is another standout in an album full of standouts, with a, well, standout drum performance from Paul Cook and bass work by John Jowitt. “Born Brilliant” gets all “Welcome to the Machine”-y with a great wailing guitar line. “I’m selfish and insensitive/I’m rotten to the core/Pretentious and derivative/You’ve see it all before/My good contributions/Are counted on the fingers of one hand.” Kind of like “Bridge Over Roger Waters.” And the song’s punchline: “You, like me, were raised to be/A million times admired/Unlike mine, your family line/Were all born brilliant liars.” Then Mike Holmes’ guitar solo kicks in and takes the song into the stratosphere.

Then there’s “Harvest of Souls,” with its six parts, and which doesn’t have a slack moment in all its 24-1/2 minutes. “Long before the living past had ripped it all apart/Something still remained,” Nicholls softly sings over a 12-string acoustic guitar. (Yep, we’re in “Supper’s Ready” territory here.) Modern culture and post-9/11 politics conspire to steal away our souls—“Best you prepare for the harvest ahead/All you lose is yourself.” Section V, “Mortal Procession,” references “Supper’s Ready”’s “Apocalypse in 9/8” section without sounding derivative. And at the end, “Slowly the fires are burning/Bearing their silent witness/And the living past returns/To reap the harvest of souls.” It’s a glorious song. And a glorious album.

The follow-up album Frequency came out this year and if it isn’t as good as Dark Matter it’s still pretty close.

4. Arctic Monkeys, Whatever People Say I Am That’s What I’m Not, Domino, 2006

And now for something completely different.

In 2006, I was wondering around the music department of my local Borders—back in the days when they actually used to have products for sale—and was investigating the albums they had on those listening stations (which no longer exist). One of them was the debut album from England’s Arctic Monkeys, which I put on pretty much at random. I liked what I heard, even if it wasn’t the most staggeringly original music in the world. So I picked it up, as I was in the mood for something I had not heard before (and I had a coupon), and the album stayed in heavy iPod rotation for, well, three years and counting. It was only much later that I discovered that they were one of those overhyped “next great thing” bands of the sort I usually quite detest (The Strokes come to mind). But I had been blissfully unaware of the hype and came to them of my own accord, and pretty much at random.

The Arctic Monkeys are an interesting case study in how the music industry could actually function successfully if someone in it had a clue. The band generated a tremendous amount of early buzz in the UK by circulating demos of their songs via MP3s before they ever even had a record out. They caught on and by the time Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not was released in January 2006—by indie label Domino, and not any of the major labels they could have gone with—pent-up demand led the album to sell more than 225,000 copies in the first week alone, becoming the fastest-selling album in the UK ever.

That’s all well and good, but is it any good? Obviously I think so, since it comes in at number 4 on my little favorite-albums-of-the-decade countdown. Like a number of albums I like, there is nothing startlingly original, just an effective synthesis of everything that has come before. They are a garage-y post-punk outfit, riffs galore played at almost breakneck pace. What distinguishes them, though, is singer Alex Turner’s first-person narrative-based songs that typically document Jack-the-lad British nightlife—carousing, drinking, pulling the birds (or trying to, usually unsuccessfully), which is not surprising given that the bandmembers were all of about 18 years old when the album came out.

The album kicks off on a raucous note, as Turner declares in the opening lines of “The View from the Afternoon,” “Anticipation has a habit to set you up/For disappointment in evening entertainment but/Tonight there'll be some love.” Or maybe not: “And she won't be surprised, no she won't be shocked/When she’s pressed the star after she’s pressed unlock/And there’s verse and chapter sat in her inbox/And all that it says is that you’ve drank a lot.” And then, “And you can pour your heart out around three o’clock/When the 2-for-1’s undone the writers block.” That’ll happen. One of the hits from album was “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” (“Your name isn’t Rio, but I don’t care for sand”—too bad these guys weren’t even alive when Duran Duran released “Rio”), where they “dance to electropop like a robot from 1984.” Is that what we all did in 1984? I must have missed that.

They are not averse to British colloquialisms that make one glad for Google; “And I’m so tense, never tenser/Could all go a bit Frank Spencer?” (in “You Probably Couldn’t See for the Lights but You Were Staring Straight at Me”), “Frank Spencer” referring to a particularly inept male. (There is also the famous Northern English slang term “Mardy Bum,” which apparently means “Someone who complains a lot, moans about their life, and so on.”) I also never really got the song title “Red Light Indicates Doors Are Secured” until a year later when I was in the back of a London cab. Indeed, the narrator is talking to his mate in the back of a cab while he occasionally interrupts to talk to the driver: “See her in the green dress? She talked to me at the bar/How come it’s already two pound fifty? We’ve only gone about a yard/Dint ya see she were gorgeous, she was beyond belief/But this lad at the side drinking a Smirnoff Ice came and paid for her tropical reef/And I’m sitting going backwards, and I didn’t want to leave/It’s High Green, mate, via Hillsborough, please.” As for the titular red light, the guy really didn’t want to leave the party: “Drunken plots hatched to jump it, ask around are you sure?/Went for it but the red light was showing/And the red light indicates doors are secured.”

The band slows down for “Riot Van,” a tale of underage drinkers and their run-in with the cops; “‘Have you been drinking son, you don’t look old enough to me’/‘I’m sorry, officer, is there a certain age you’re supposed to be?..nobody told me’/Up rolled the riot van/And these lads just wind the coppers up/Ask why they don’t catch proper crooks.” It’s a fair question. Still, for all the carousing, he draws the line at ladies of the evening: “And I’ve seen him with girls of the night/And he told Roxanne to put on her red light/They’re all infected but he’ll be alright/Cause he’s a scumbag, don’t you know.”

Lines like “And just cause he’s had a couple of cans/He thinks it’s alright to act like a dickhead” don’t exactly display a Noel Coward-esque wit, but still... Turner directly addresses the music industry in the song “Perhaps Vampires is a Bit Strong But...” (“All you people are vampires!” and “Though you pretend to stand by us/I know you’re certain we’ll fail”).

The Arctic Monkeys quickly released their follow-up Favourite Worst Nightmare in 2007, which didn’t alter the basic formula so much as solidify it. They took their time for their third album Humbug, which came out this year, and was a more (to use a dreaded word) mature album, with slower tempos, more diverse instrumentation, and a mellowing of Alex Turner’s voice (he’s starting to sound like a more butch Morrissey)—and that he’s finally of legal drinking age. It’s good to see that they are serious about their craft, but the first album had that certain je ne sais quoi.

To be continued...

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Copy Edit *This*

Funny, from what I have seen, I didn't think copy editors still existed. Anyway, also via Boing Boing, a Toronto Star copy editor heavily edits a company memo announcing the elimination of copy editors. And any memo that uses the phrase "core competency" should be burned, never mind copy edited.


Via Boing Boing, a Russian actor's group imagines what The Matrix would have been like if it had been made as a silent-era Charlie Chaplin-esque short. Actually, I like this a lot more than I liked The Matrix.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Still 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.
11–15 are here.

10. Mark Knopfler, Sailing to Philadelphia, Mercury, 2000

One of my favorite bands since I had their debut 45 “Sultans of Swing” back in 1978, is Dire Straits. The reason, of course, was singer/guitarist Mark Knopfler’s guitar playing. He is probably my favorite guitarist, and his playing is the purest of ear candy. I have the first five Dire Straits’ albums on vinyl—and 1985’s Brothers in Arms has the distinction of being the very first compact disc I ever bought. After Brothers in Arms was a massive hit, Knopfler wasn’t all that fond of being a rock god, so he retreated into movie soundtracks and didn’t reconvene any type of Dire Straits incarnation to do a follow-up until 1991. That was pretty much it for Straits, and Knopfler officially launched his solo career in 1996 with Golden Heart. Sailing to Philadelphia followed in 2000. I confess I was unaware of his solo stuff until 2002, when I was visiting California and I was in friend and former editor David G.’s car and he had Sailing to Philadelphia on. I thought “What It Is” sounded like a good early Dire Straits track (upon further listening, I really doesn’t, but it’s really good anyway) and I liked on first listening the rest of what I heard. Afterward, I went back to a used record store in Torrance I used to haunt (shortly after I moved away they went out of business) and found Sailing... I ripped it to my iPod and it was the second album—with Barenaked Ladies’ Maroon (see number 20 in this countdown) that I played endlessly while driving around the American Southwest.

“What It Is” is followed by the title track, which is about Charlie Mason, Jeremiah Dixon, and the founding of the Mason-Dixon Line. (Supposedly it is something of an adaptation of the Thomas Pynchon novel Mason & Dixon which had come out a few years earlier and I couldn’t get very far into it). It takes the form of a duet between Knopfler (Mason) and James Taylor (Dixon). Knopfler has always written character-based songs, and “Baloney Again” tells the story of a couple of black gospel singers trying to spread the Good Word in the South in the 1950s (“We don’t eat in no white restaurant/We’re eatin’ in the car/Baloney again...”) and yet despite the peril that lurks they still can’t be swayed from their duty (“Well I’ll never get tired of Jesus/But it’s been a heavy load/Carryin’ his precious love/Down a long dirt road/We’re a long way from home/Let’s just pay the man and go/Baloney again.”) The song ends with an extended slow beautiful guitar solo from Knopfler. “The Last Laugh” features another duet, this time with Van Morrison. “Do America” pokes fun at the rock touring machine (“Take a 777 over to LA/Gonna party all night and sleep all day/Wake up and drive around/Get the coolest girl in town.” It’s a sequel of sorts to “Heavy Fuel” on the last Dire Straits album. Any chance he gets to put down the trappings of the rich and famous, he’ll take it. And if anyone thought that the most intense Knopfler guitar solo was the five-minute climax of “Telegraph Road” on 1982’s Love Over Gold, well, they’d be right. But the end of “Speedway to Nazareth” is a close second. It starts at 3:07 and builds in intensity, intertwining with the violin of guest player Aubrey Haynie. (This is also true of album opener “What it Is,” a classic track from the first note.) When it finally ends around the six-minute mark, you’re completely spent. It’s one of the most musically spine-chilling moments on a record that I can recall in a long time. Vocal guests return toward the end of the record; Chris Difford and Glen Tilbrook (Squeeze) lend their harmonies to “Silvertown Blues.”

Later Knopfler records were more quiet and almost country-esque, and were good, of course, but Sailing to Philadelphia was the last time he really rocked out. It’s almost a Dire Straits record. And that ain’t bad.

9. Ray Davies, Other People’s Lives, V2 Records, 2006

Ray Davies was one of the most influential songwriters in the history of rock music, and has been voted one of the best English songwriters ever. He was of course the singer/guitarist/songwriter for The Kinks, whose first dozen or so singles (including “You Really Got Me” and “All Day and All Night”) influenced almost as many bands as The Beatles. (Funny; in 1977’s “1977” when the Clash sang “No Elvis Beatles or the Rolling Stones” it’s uncanny how much the riff they used sounded like The Kinks.) Davies’ songwriting became more nuanced and character-driven, and he became noted for his deft characterizations of the “little people.” (He would parody himself on 1975’s A Soap Opera’s “Starmaker” (“I can turn the most ordinary man in the world into a star”)—a song using a riff ripped off from The Who’s “I Can’t Explain,” which was, in turn, ripped off from “You Really Got Me.” It seems odd, then, that such a great songwriter should take until 2006—and more than a decade after The Kinks disbanded—to release his first real solo album. But as he explains in his extensive liner notes to Other People’s Lives, he was daunted by his own back catalog. Of all the British Invasion bands of the 60s, The Kinks are probably my favorite, and so I went into Other People’s Lives with almost as much trepidation as Davies.

Neither he nor I should have worried. Other People’s Lives can stand up against just about any Kinks record (not just, say, Preservation Act 2)—including some of the best. The opening song, “Things Are Gonna Change (The Morning After)” is a classic, while track two, “After the Fall,” is also a classic, with some great lines—“I shouted to the heavens and the vision appeared/I cried ‘Can you help?’ it replied ‘Not at all’”; “Even at the gates of Heaven I’ll be waiting in a queue.” Ultimately, though, “When the mist clears the sun will shine again.” “Next Door Neighbors” hearkens back to old Kinks portraits like “A Well, Respected Man” or “Dedicated Follower of Fashion,” but treats his subjects with more respect and less satire. Maybe he’s mellowing with age. Then again, in “All She Wrote,” he was blown off by his ex with the line “‘I’ve met this person in a disco he’s really special reminds me of you.’” Zing. In the liner notes, Davies says that “Is There Life After Breakfast?” was dedicated to founding Kinks drummer Mick Avory, an old mate, especially the line, “Just because the plumbing isn’t all it used to be.” Uh, Ray? Too much information.

If there’s no standout player on the album, like, say, brother Dave Davies, guitarist for The Kinks, it’s still a tight band that brings the songs to life. Mi hermano and I saw Ray live in Boston in 2006 and it was a great show. The new songs really did fit seamlessly with old Kinks classics. This one never left the iPod for most of 2006.

8. Guided By Voices, Universal Truths and Cycles, Matador, 2002

The one truism about Guided By Voices is that if you don’t like one of their songs, just wait a minute. In the 1990s, GbV were low-fi heroes. For many fans, the fact that their albums were chock full of tape hiss and other audio blemishes was a large part of their charm. The other part was that leader Robert Pollard is a genius at writing the world’s greatest rock riffs. If there is one frustrating thing about GbV, it’s that those riffs don’t often amount to much in the way of fully developed songs. Still, they’re often the greatest 1:30 you’ll hear. Seminal albums like 1994’s Bee Thousand or 1995’s Alien Lanes are classic GbV touchpoints, and it was after these lo-fi classics that the band became to be more “produced.” 1999’s Do the Collapse was the pinnacle (or nadir, depending whom you ask) of their career, produced by Ric Ocasek and boasting a very slick sound that was a million miles away from the charm of their el cheapo records. They retreated from this approach afterward, but in the 2000s, even the cheapest digital recording was still often a lot better than what was possible in earlier days.

Universal Truths and Cycles, I think, perfectly balances for perhaps the only time the low-fi aesthetic of the 1990s with the pseudo-hi-fi technology of the 2000s. With GbV, you don’t pay much attention to lyrics; what does one make of the opening song “Wire Greyhounds”: “My tongue that moves slow/A minute before the evil street/Breath woman captures a ghost/Blurring sweatheads eat noodlestuff.” Like any good GbV album, it alternates between more fleshed out songs and <1 style="font-style: italic;">Tommy.

Of course, the real reason for including this album is that “Everywhere with Helicopter” is, to use a dubious orthography, The. Best. Hard. Rock. Song. Ever.

Pollard recorded two more Guided By Voices albums—which veered quite some distance from their lo-fi aesthetic, to the point of near-blandness—before breaking them up.

7. Fountains of Wayne, Welcome Interstate Managers, S-Curve Records, 2003

Sometimes, a band doesn’t have to be revolutionary in the slightest. Sometimes, all they need to do is be able to synthesize everything that has come before, and be able to refine songs and hone them into what seems like perfect gems. Such is New York City-based Fountains of Wayne, a power pop quartet led by songwriters Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood. Fountains of Wayne endeared themselves to me in 2007 on Traffic and Weather with the opening couplet of “New Routine”: “Two men sit in the corner of a diner/Both of them look quite a bit like Carl Reiner.” These guys are masters of great couplets. Fountains of Wayne have never been the most prolific band in the world (since 1996, they have only released four albums) but they make up for it in quality.

The “hit single” from this record was “Stacey’s Mom,” a somewhat mocking song of teen lust boasting a rent-a-Cars opening riff. Schlesinger and Collingwood specialize in songs about hapless characters, and Welcome Interstate Managers has ’em. “Bright Future in Sales” tells the story of a would-be salesman whom you get the sense has tried everything else after first having “Seven Scotch and sodas at the office party/If there’s time I might have just one more” but ultimately, “I gotta get my shit together/Cause I can’t live like this forever/You know I’ve come too far/And I don’t wanna fail/I got a new computer and a bright future in sales.” Sometimes it’s easy to see where they get their inspiration. Such as, say, “Halley’s Waitress”: “Halley’s waitress/Never comes around/She’s hiding in the kitchen/She’s nowhere to be found.” When they finally get to the chorus—“It’s been so long/So long/Darling don’t you know/We miss you when you’re gone”—the music is so lush and mock-symphonic that it sounds like they’re singing to a long lost love or deity. It’s really quite funny. And FoW are probably the only band that has ever written a song about a football quarterback who has the benefit of a good offensive line and thus has time to throw the play he wants (“All Kinds of Time”; obviously not about SU)) and at the same time have his mind wander over the events of his life. It’s as if “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” were about a football quarterback rather than a Confederate soldier being hanged.

There is the requisite mock-country song (à la Squeeze’s “Labeled with Love) based around the pun “Ever since you hung up on me/I’ve been hung up on you.”

Welcome Interstate Managers may not be as strong as 1999’s Utopia Parkway, but it is still a great record that still finds itself in regular rotation on the iPod.

6. Belle & Sebastian, Dear Catastrophe Waitress, Rough Trade, 2003

Steven H. first recommended this to me back in 2003, so I picked it up and loved it, never having heard Belle & Sebastian before. Named for a French cartoon about a dog (Belle) and a boy (Sebastian), the band started as a project for Glaswegian Stuart Murdoch’s music business class at university—his thesis was actually the band’s first album, Tigermilk. Although only 500 copies were pressed, it became a highly sought-after cult hit, and the band quickly recorded a proper album, If You’re Feeling Sinister, easily one of the best albums of the 1990s. By the start of the 2000s, they had started to lose their way a bit and, despite a series of terrific non-album singles and EPs (finally collected on the superb two-disc collection Push Barman to Open Old Wounds), albums like Fold Your Arms Child, You Walk Like a Peasant had more than a few dry patches. So the band regrouped and with the unlikely assistance of producer Trevor Horn (Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Yes’ 90125, ABC), came up with an album that didn’t necessarily change their basic sound, but expanded upon it. Horn did what a good producer does: he found the essence of the band and made it come to the fore. The songs are more lush than had been the case in the past; Murdoch has been overdosing on 1970s AM radio hits. It’s a much fuller sound, but at the end of the day, the songs are there, and they’re some of the strongest he’s penned.

The opener, the funny “Step Into My Office, Baby,” is probably a sexual harassment suit waiting to happen, but the hapless protagonist doesn’t seem to mind (“Step into my office, baby/I want to give you the job/A chance of better pay/Say my place at nine.”)

Some songs hearken back to the “old” more “twee” Belle & Sebastian (“Piazza, New York Catcher,” which is a bit of an anachronism; I barely even remember the brouhaha that led to the line “Piazza, New York catcher, are you straight or are you gay?” and “Lord Anthony” with its return to schooldays). But it’s songs like “I’m a Cuckoo” and “Wrapped Up in Books” that really make the album, and are probably two of my favorite B&S songs.

The follow-up album, 2006’s The Life Pursuit, is just as good, as Murdock seems to have rediscovered 1970s glam rock.

To be continued...

Monday, November 02, 2009

Scratch That

I subscribe to a neat little daily e-mail service called A.Word.A.Day, and today's word caught my attention, falling into that category of words, "I didn't know there was a word for that":
acnestis--The part of the body where one cannot reach to scratch.
What I really like is the etymology:
From Greek aknestis (spine), from Ancient Greek knestis (spine, cheese-grater).
"Cheese-grater"? The Ancient Greeks used the same word for "spine" and "cheese-grater"? That conjures up an odd mental image...