I won't attempt to explain the financial crisis here, but I will answer a few questions that have frequently been asked of me.
Q: Why haven't you been blogging about the recent events in the financial sector (or anything else, for that matter)?
A: One reason is that I don't have a lot of insight to add over what others are already saying. On top of that, since I work in proprietary trading I'm not at liberty to talk publicly about the aspects that affect me the most. As for blogging on other topics, I'm spending a lot of time at the office, and posting to the blog from firm systems is (I believe) frowned upon in the same way that using personal e-mail accounts is.
Q: Do you still have a job?
Q: What's it like starting out in the finance industry right now?
A: Sort of like you got the last ticket on a luxury cruise, and the cruise ship was the RMS Titanic. Or you moved to Tokyo just in time for a Godzilla attack.
And now, some questions that have not been asked of me but to which I have answers:
Q: What's happened to the Lehman Brothers building since they went bankrupt?
A: Since it's on the edge of Times Square, it has a big TV screen on the front that used to show attractive video of various landscapes. When Barclay's took over the building, it didn't change for a few days, and then turned into a still Barclay's logo on a hideous blue background--BSOD blue. They later figured out how to animate the logo, but it's still that awful blue and the entire block glows with the color at night.
Q: Is there a blog collecting those dumb trading floor pictures you complained about a while back?
A: Yes: Sad Guys on Trading Floors.
Q: Can you give me financial advice?
A: I think my employer would frown upon this.
Q: I work in the financial services industry. What is a good song to play at the office this week?
A: "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life"
Q: Is there a bright side to all this?
A: Barack Obama is now the overwhelming favorite in the presidential election.
Q: So why haven't you been blogging about politics?
A: The political news cycle moves so fast that by the time I get home from work my commentary is redundant.
Q: What about the music blogging?
A: I've just been lame. I did catch a couple shows at Austin City Limits a couple weeks ago (Spiritualized, and Iron & Wine). And I've been listening to the new TV on the Radio album, which is excellent.
Q: Should you put a disclaimer on a post like this?
A: It should go without saying, but the opinions expressed here are my own and do not reflect the views of my employer. I should just put that on the sidebar.
I'd like to introduce a new metric for rating movies in which a comedy film is evaluated based on the number of Belle & Sebastian songs on the soundtrack. As applied to movies I've seen recently:
Anyway, I saw Forgetting Sarah Marshall today, and found that it exceeded expectations in several categories, not just Belle & Sebastian songs but also general hilarity, Jason Bateman cameos, and (regrettably) full frontal male nudity. If you've ever seen a romantic comedy before you know the entire plot, but this isn't what drives the humor so much as the interplay between the four principal characters. I place this one in the second tier of Judd Apatow productions: on par with Superbad, not quite as good as 40 Year Old Virgin or Knocked Up.
Reading the Wikipedia entry for Marshall writer and star Jason Segel, I see that he will be writing and directing the next Muppets movie. I'm looking forward to this as long as it doesn't involve him appearing naked again.
I know lots of people who like them, but I never really got into the Magnetic Fields. However, taking a noise-pop turn is a good way to get my attention. The appropriately-titled Distortion is reportedly inspired by Jesus and Mary Chain, and runs the Fields' pop songs through that sonic filter. I keep wanting to call them a synth-pop band, but the credits on the CD include the stern declaration "No synths", so clearly that's not right (even if it was two albums ago). (No synths?! Denied!)
The canonical length of a pop song is three minutes, and a look at the tracklist reveals that this band is very dedicated to that principle. The mean track length is 2:59, with a standard deviation of 6 seconds. (Steven Merritt has said that he was aiming for three-minute songs on this record.)
As for the actual music, it may be my preference for female vocalists but the songs where Shirley Simms sings (rather than Merritt) are definitely the best: "Drive On, Driver", "The Nun's Litany", and "Till the Bitter End" in that order. The lyrics are clever and often amusing: the "Litany", rather than being a religious song, is an exhibitionist fantasy, and the following track "Zombie Boy" is not speaking metaphorically, nor is the relationship with said zombie simply a platonic one based on brains alone.
There are a few skippable tracks on the CD: notably "Too Drunk to Dream", and "Mr. Mistletoe", which might be suffering from my bias against Christmas music (even if Christmas isn't actually the focus of the song). Mostly, though, the quality of the songs stays pretty high.
They don't seem to have posted any tracks for free download and I don't see a good place to stream them (of course, there's always MySpace), but I recommend sampling 30 seconds of "Drive On, Driver" or "The Nun's Litany" at an online music store. It's a fun album and worth checking out.
It always happens: people post "Best of..." lists at the end of the year, which leads me to great records that I wish I'd known about earlier (so they could contribute to the annual mix CD). I came across this one a few weeks ago: All Hour Cymbals by Yeasayer.
How to describe it? According to Wikipedia their self-description is "Middle Eastern-psych-snap-gospel," which sort of captures it. They sounds a bit like TV on the Radio along certain dimensions. Apart from that, they don't sound like anything else I can think of. Lots of unusual instruments, and a very unique texture—there's definitely an exotic quality to it.
It's one of those albums where the best tracks are stacked in front: "Sunrise", "Wait for the Summer", and "2080" are all terrific, so if you only download a few songs make it those three. (And two of them are freely available at the band's website.) Here's 30 seconds of "2080" (since unfortunately I can't find a good source for embedding the full song):
I'm a little late blogging this, but the Coachella 2008 lineup has been announced. However, is it just me or is the lineup weaker this year? Or maybe I'm just getting old and don't know who the cool bands are anymore. (There are certainly a lot of unknown-to-me names on the list.) I may skip it this year and just catch Stars on whatever tour date is closest to wherever I happen to be in April. (I've been on a major Stars kick lately—partly their new album from last year and partly a new appreciation of Heart, on which several songs are more relevant than they used to be. They put on an amazing show the one time I saw them live, which was two years ago.)
Last year, when all the high-profile Coachella reunions were announced, I declared at the lunch table that My Bloody Valentine should reunite for Coachella 2008. Then they did reunite last year, and they were rumored to be playing Coachella, but they're not on the list so it looks like I don't get my wish.
It's been a while since I've posted a video so here's "Elevator Love Letter" by Stars, from Heart. (Set Yourself on Fire remains their best album, however.)
It's January 1, and time for the traditional consultation with the iPod oracle regarding the new year. Drawing ten songs at random and interpreting them as in a Celtic Cross tarot reading (key here), I get,
Wow. I don't think any commentary is needed here. Sometimes it's just too obvious...
With blogging curtailed in the last few months due to thesis writing, and a general decline in music reviews on this site over the entire year, longtime readers may be wondering if I will put together a compilation CD of the year's music as I did the last two years. Wonder no longer! Those of you watching my Flickr stream already know that the mix CD for 2007 has been assembled. As usual, it's compiled from my favorite songs of the year (defined by U.S. release date, since I don't tend to seek out imports) and limited to one song per album.
However, this year my music collecting did suffer from my time spent on other pursuits: I didn't get a chance to listen to very many new-to-me bands, and as a result the list of artists on this collection will seem very familiar to those of you who've heard the previous mixes. A number of artists are returning from 2005's Year of the Phoenix: The New Pornographers, Iron & Wine, Spoon, Caribou, The Rosebuds, and Stars (the bonus track on the second version of Phoenix). The Arctic Monkeys are the only band to reappear from Year of the Wolf, but few bands release two albums less than a year apart so this is unsurprising. Anyway, this isn't so bad since I obviously like these bands, so why not keep featuring them? But at the same time, I feel like I probably missed out on a lot of good new stuff. (Be sure to recommend some in comments!)
I didn't have a good excuse to stick with the "Year of the..." naming scheme this year, so I went with the title Upward Fall, which is a phrase from one of the songs ("The Night Starts Here"). In the song it pretty clearly refers to death, and several of the songs invoke either death or falling as themes. I don't mean to be morbid—in fact I don't intend for the yearly CD to be thematically coherent at all (as opposed to most other mix CDs I make), but sometimes these things emerge subconsciously, because particular songs appeal to me because of the situation I'm in. Here the death imagery should be interpreted like the Death card in tarot, as representing a transition: in this case the end of my grad student career, and moving on into a new life, a new career, and (probably) a new city. The uncertainty about what exactly this will entail is reflected in the tension of the last few songs. The final song is perhaps a bit too apocalyptic, but this is what happens when I put together the CD in my last two weeks as a grad student.
If you'd like a copy of the CD, either see me in person (I will probably be carrying a few), leave a comment, or e-mail me—I'm happy to send them by mail to people who I won't see in the next couple months.
Click through for the tracklist and comments on individual songs. I had trouble ranking them this year, so the list is in track order rather than rank order.Continue reading "Favorite Songs of 2007: Upward Fall"
I'm supposed to be writing the concluding chapter (!) right now, but I would be remiss if I didn't link to Carrie Brownstein's review of Rock Band (which I haven't played yet) in Slate. She's a little snobbish about it, but when you played guitar for Sleater-Kinney you're allowed.
She's the one on the left:
(And I still have an appendix to write, so I'm not quite there yet... also the whole "revision" thing.)
The excellent Scottish band The Delgados unfortunately broke up two years ago, but now there's the next best thing to a new Delgados record: an Emma Pollock solo album. Delgados fans should check it out, especially if, like me, you preferred her vocals to Alun Woodward's. Here's the video for "Acid Test":
My favorite track, though, is not this one but "If Silence Means That Much To You". She's opening for The New Pornographers on their US tour this month—that's a bill I'd definitely see, if only they were coming to California...
I was listening to one of my two favorite albums of all time—My Bloody Valentine's Loveless—when I read that an instrumental band called Japancakes is covering the entire album on a CD coming out in November. This is a highly ambitious project, both from a technical standpoint (see Wikipedia for what was required to make the original), and from a critical one—in indie rock circles Loveless is a consensus choice for one of the best albums of all time, and a cover will almost certainly fall short.
So I was pleasantly surprised that Japancakes' take on the first song ("Only Shallow") is actually pretty good:
I downloaded the mp3 (in the first link above) and will probably buy the album. It certainly won't supplant the original, but it's an interesting twist.
The original version of "Only Shallow" can be found on YouTube but I won't link it; this really is one of those albums that needs to be heard in CD quality (and preferably on good speakers rather than, say, iPod earbuds). If you're unfamiliar with the album, you might still have heard the song "Sometimes" on the Lost in Translation soundtrack (but if you're looking to try out one or two of the songs, go with "To Here Knows When" or "Soon").
I really like Caribou's latest album, but I'm having trouble articulating what makes it good. Instead I'll just post the video for my favorite track, "Melody Day":
Melody Day, what have I done?
Now our hearts are locked up tight again...
Stuff I've enjoyed recently:
Apart from Coachella I haven't reviewed any music (or anything else) for about six months; I felt a little burnt-out on writing short reviews of every album I heard. So instead I'll try another format, longer reviews of records I'm really into in which I overanalyze them. Here's a pilot installment.
The Long Blondes: Someone To Drive You Home
This band has been all the rage in Britain for like six months now, but their debut album just came out here at the beginning of June. The British music media seems to find a new Savior of Rock every year or so, thus making me skeptical of massively hyped Britrock bands, but I picked up this CD anyway and have practically put it on repeat all week—it's really kind of addictive. I can't figure out how to categorize the musical style: it's loud and fast and danceable, frequently poppy and with a touch of punk. Play the video below and you'll get an idea.
The lyrics are terrific, and one of the rewards of repeated listens. Clever psychological studies and layers of meaning, in the best traditions of fellow Sheffield artists like Pulp and the Arctic Monkeys. (What is it with that town? Def Leppard aside.) Film noir and the femme fatale archetype are clearly influences, and not just because they're explicitly mentioned. In fact the band knows its cinema pretty well, from the shouted chorus of opener "Lust in the Movies"—Edie Sedgwick! Anna Karina! Arlene Dahl!—to the Billy Wilder reference in "You Could Have Both".
If there's an overall theme to the album it's relationships between women; although most of the romance is heterosexual, the male characters are frequently in the background, with the song focused on the (female) singer's rival. In (my personal favorite) "Only Lovers Left Alive", we learn nothing at all about the man she's got her eye on, but plenty about the girlfriend she plans to take him from.
And many of these songs are ultimately more revealing about the character of the singer rather than their nominal subjects. Perhaps the best song on the album is "Once And Never Again"; here's the video:
I noticed the Wikipedia entry has a section on the song's meaning, which reads:
It has been speculated amongst fans about the meaning of this song. Some have thought of it as playing with lesbian undertones ("Oh how I'd love to feel a girl your age..."), whereas others think it is about self-harm.
If you like the song, you'll like the whole album—it's good all the way through. The US release comes with a bonus disc that has some of the B-sides from the UK singles, but they're more optional.
The photos I took at Coachella are now up on Flickr. Here's the set.
I haven't reviewed any of these yet, but for context I want to list my top five albums of 2007 so far:
1. The Arcade Fire, Neon Bible
2. !!!, Myth Takes
3. Of Montreal, Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?
4. Blonde Redhead, 23
5. Ted Leo & the Pharmacists, Living with the Living
Four of these bands played at Coachella this year; three of them were on Saturday. Throw in the New Pornographers and the Decemberists and this was easily my favorite day of the festival, even if I had to skip !!!'s set.
Sets I saw Saturday: Hot Chip, the New Pornographers, the Decemberists, the Arcade Fire, Blonde Redhead
Details below the fold:
Didn't get much sleep Thursday night, partly because I arrived late at the campsite, but mostly because other, very loud people continued to arrive even later at the campsite. This was not a problem the next three nights; as everyone was exhausted from the day's events, the nights were very quiet. By about 9 am it became too hot to sleep, and I felt like I was baking in my tent. I spent the brutally hot morning hiding in the shade reading Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb, and sometime after noon ventured into the festival.
Sets I saw Friday: Noisettes, Tokyo Police Club, Of Montreal, Arctic Monkeys, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Jarvis Cocker, Sonic Youth.
Details below the fold:
(Posted first so it's up while I work on the detailed report.)
(And here's last year's.)
Obviously, this only applies to the artists that I saw; I'm sure I missed a lot of good stuff.
Best vocals: Win Butler (Arcade Fire)
Best guitar (electric division): Mike Stroud (Ratatat)
Best guitar (acoustic division): Rodrigo Sanchez (Rodrigo y Gabriela)
Best bass: This has to be Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers), right?
Best synth: Hot Chip
Best violin section: The Arcade Fire
Best brass section: Lily Allen
Best audience participation: The Decemberists
Best band name: Travis
No, seriously: !!! ("chk chk chk")
Best costumes (general): Of Montreal
Best costumes (cetacean division): The Decemberists
Most endearing display of modesty: Thurston Moore introducing the band and the lead song as if no one had ever heard of Sonic Youth, Daydream Nation, or "Teen Age Riot".
Most endearing display of immodesty: Carl Newman (The New Pornographers): "Bow before our new album cover!"
Best celebrity cameo: Scarlett Johansson with the Jesus and Mary Chain on "Just Like Honey"
Best stage: Outdoor Theater
Best day's lineup: Saturday
Most agonizing schedule conflict: !!! vs. The Decemberists
Best cover: Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" played by Rodrigo y Gabriela
Bands playing songs that appear in Guitar Hero:
Satellite Party covering "Stop"
The Willie Nelson Family Band covering "Texas Flood"
Rage against the Machine playing "Killing in the Name Of"
(Did RHCP play "Higher Ground"?)
Best performance of a single song: The Decemberists, "The Mariner's Revenge Song"
Best band I'd never even heard of: The Feeling
Best band I'd heard of but never really looked into before: Hot Chip
Best band at the festival: Arcade Fire
Best overall performance: Of Montreal
Arcane Gazebo will return to posting shortly. In the meantime, here is Alanis Morissette performing "My Humps". (No, seriously. It's brilliant.)
The rest of you may also be interested:
Ted Leo's new CD will be released March 20. (Via Atrios, who is not normally a source for music news, but Ted Leo is appropriate.) There's also a freely downloadable mp3 at the link.
Iron & Wine are planning a release in the fall (via Pitchfork).
If you don't know these bands, you need to listen to more of my mix CDs. Speaking of which, I should mail out copies of the 2006 CD to those who didn't get one...
Over coffee I and another grad student had a brilliant innovation: an electric guitar with SQUID pickups! Due to the high sensitivity and low noise of the SQUID, we expect the sound quality to be extremely good. Of course, the guitar will have to be filled with liquid nitrogen (we're assuming high-Tc SQUIDs here) or equipped with a cryocooler. The LN2-filled guitar would have the advantage of producing plumes of fog on demand, and would be especially spectacular when smashed against the stage at the end of the show.
If I go for just one day it'll probably be Saturday, which has several of my favorite bands. If two days, Friday and Saturday.
Last year I embarked on a project to fill out my collection of '90s music, with the help of your recommendations. This was quite successful, and I will post my list of favorites eventually. But recently I have posted a lot of top music lists, and am a bit burned out, so I'm going to put it off. Instead, I will move on to this year's project, which is to fill out my collection of '80s music.
So: what are the essential albums of 1980-1989? Essential either as a consensus classic or a personal favorite; all genres are open. Here are a few I hear mentioned a lot, just to get things started (inclusion in this list does not constitute endorsement):
The Arcade Fire have posted the first single from their upcoming album, and I give it a thumbs up. Go here, click on "Win", then click on "Win's Scrapbook", then click the album art to start it playing. (Sadly it's just a stream and not an mp3.)
A new year calls for a new divination from the iPod oracle. Last year's reading predicted the encouraging outcome of The Futureheads' "Decent Days And Nights", which is a reasonably accurate description of 2006 (and the rest of the lyrics arguably apply, but they're pretty vague).
Of course, I meant to do this on New Year's Day as I did last year, but didn't get to it until now. Nevertheless, it's worth doing it three days late to see what's in store for the remaining 362 days. As usual, the key is here.
The Crossing is funny, but makes me wonder if my iPod is not being synced properly. The Outcome, in addition to being the best song on the list, starts out talking about worker exploitation in diamond mines, so I'm going to assume this is a prediction that I will take a postdoc job by the end of the year.
My final year-end list: my favorite five albums of 2006. As with last year, the number 1 choice was easiest and the number 5 choice was hardest. Somewhat unsurprisingly, these albums contributed the top five songs from my previous list (in a slightly different order). The criteria here are a little different though: a good average song quality is necessary, but I also weight coherent themes and the ability to enjoy playing the record all the way through, as opposed to just adding the best few songs to my iTunes playlist. This knocked Pretty Girls Make Graves' Élan Vital out of the top five, since it had a lot of great songs but didn't hang together as well as the others.
5. Asobi Seksu, Citrus
This was the year I fell in love with noise pop and shoegazing music, as I looked at classic albums from the '90s, and I was delighted to find that Asobi Seksu is keeping the genre alive, and putting their own stamp on it. I picked "New Years" for the top songs list as the best example of their fuzzy, dreamlike songs, but all the songs on the album have these textures without sounding alike. The best tracks, "Goodbye" and "Miso Asobi" along with "New Years", bring a warm and happy feeling out of the noise and distortion, but everything in between is interesting in its own way. It's one of the most seamless albums of the year.
4. TV on the Radio, Return to Cookie Mountain
This is a highly acclaimed album among rock critics, but unlike Justin Timberlake's, it's for a good reason: it's original, inventive, and excellent. It's hard to come up with something to compare it to, since the sound is so unique—it doesn't even really sound like TV on the Radio's earlier work and represents a major step forward for the band. Perhaps a good metaphor could be drawn from one of the best songs on the album: this record is a dirty whirlwind of music. The maelstrom approaches ominously with "Hours", reaches peak speed at "Wolf Like Me", slows to a calm center for "Method", and then picks up again. Not all the tracks are as good as "Wolf Like Me", but nothing is filler.
3. The Hold Steady, Boys And Girls In America
The Hold Steady topped last year's list with Separation Sunday, and so it is not a surprise to see them on the list again this year. Their latest album is more song and less story than its predecessor, presenting short vignettes instead of an overall arc and with lead singer Craig Finn taking a more melodic approach. This was initially a little disappointing, but I warmed up to it since the songs are very good indeed. Their Springsteen-esque hard rock rocks harder than just about anything else from this year, and with "Citrus" they showed they could do acoustic ballads too. Even though it's not the equal of Separation Sunday, it's still one of the best albums of the year.
2. Belle & Sebastian, The Life Pursuit
This will also be an unsurprising choice, since regular readers know that I hold Belle & Sebastian in high regard. However, this is a standout album even in their catalog, the best since their 1996 release If You're Feeling Sinister. After several albums that felt like poor copies of Sinister, they've tried some new directions starting with Dear Catastrophe Waitress and now, with great success, in The Life Pursuit. The new songs are bright, polished, and sunny (sometimes literally), as well as catchy and infectious. While the pervasive melancholy of their early albums has been left behind, Belle & Sebastian can still write songs that are heartbreaking ("Dress Up In You") or wistful ("Funny Little Frog"). But the best songs here are simply fun, like "The White Collar Boy" and "The Blues Are Still Blue".
1. Islands, Return to the Sea
I'm not seeing this album on very many other year-end lists, but it was definitely my favorite of the year. Maybe their quirky blend of indie-rock and tropical music has limited appeal (ok, probably), but I love it. The first couple of songs are epic: "Swans (Life After Death)" is a metaphorical account of how the band was formed after the dissolution of the Unicorns, something I only discovered after I bought the Unicorns' last album and could decode the references. "Humans" is more straightforward, telling the story of refugees fleeing an (alien?) invasion. After this they move to shorter songs, but no less variety in topics: anorexia, the diamond trade, environmental disaster, and with "Jogging Gorgeous Summer", a simple and beautiful love song. All these disparate themes are tied together with island and ocean metaphors, which tie in perfectly with the musical style. I never got tired of listening to this album and felt like I noticed something new and interesting in the music every time.
Actually, I do have one more music list to post: at the beginning of the year I made a resolution to fill out my collection of '90s albums, and promised to post my favorites a year later. So that list will appear next week.
If you'd like some other indie-rockish lists of top songs of the year, there's Stylus's top 50 singles and Pitchfork's top 100 tracks. There's some overlap between their lists and mine; "Wolf Like Me" and "Lloyd, I'm Ready To Be Heartbroken" appear on all three. Also some respectable alternate choices from some of the same albums I drew from. However, both publications appear to have a case of the crazies: Stylus puts Justin Timberlake's "My Love" at #6, and Pitchfork names it the #1 song of the year. So approach these lists with some skepticism.
They also have top albums lists up; I'll do one myself closer to the new year.
Today is mix CD release day, so here's my ranking of my favorite 20 songs of 2006 (which, in a different order, comprise the tracklist of the CD). The CD is entitled Year of the Wolf, copies of which are available upon request. (If I see you during the holidays I'm going to hand you a copy even if you don't request one.) This naming scheme (following last year's Year of the Phoenix) may or may not continue in the future, but since it worked again this year I went with it.
The rules: Only music released in 2006 (or December 2005) qualifies, and no more than one track is selected from a single album. Generally records which were released earlier in other countries (typically the UK) before a 2006 US release are disqualified, but I have been inconsistent in applying this rule.
Special congratulations to the Decemberists and The Hold Steady, who are returning from last year's favorite songs list.
20. "Help Us Out" by the Futureheads (from News and Tributes [US release])
Tired of the same old Christmas music? Weird and haunting electronica band The Knife has released a new song online, "Christmas Reindeer". (Actually, it's a reworking of a song from their self-titled debut album.) Via Pitchfork.
The 2006 CD is ready! Distribution will begin this week in the Bay Area and continue through my holiday travels. I'll post the list of songs sometime this week. Meanwhile, we continue with our regularly scheduled reviews:
Deja Vu: This is a thriller with a touch of sci-fi, as Denzel Washington plays a detective investigating a terrorist attack with the help of a secret government time machine. It's not terribly profound, and one should not think too hard about the consistency of the time-travel logic, but it's a reasonably fun ride with plenty of explosions and shootouts and car chases. Rating: 3/5
Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan: Ballad of the Broken Seas: Isobel Campbell, formerly of Belle & Sebastian, is not the person I'd look to for a great Americana record, seeing as she's Scottish. Nevertheless, that is what she's produced here in collaboration with grunge veteran Mark Lanegan. Campbell provides a soft and ghostly voice which is nicely complemented by Lanegan's deep growl. But both are nearly upstaged by the acoustic instrumentation, which is beautiful. Most of the tracks were written by Campbell; highlights are "Black Mountain", "Deus Ibi Est" (despite the bad pronunciation of the Latin lyrics), and "Honey Child What Can I Do?" which was my runner-up for the Best Romantic Song of 2006. My favorite song, however, is the dark "Revolver" which was written by Lanegan. There's also a cover of "Ramblin' Man" which is a bit cheesy, and is only saved by Campbell's whispered vocals. Several of these tracks are available on MySpace, and two of them are downloadable. (The version of "Revolver" here is different from the one on the album, however.) Rating: 4/5
It's December and therefore time for lots of meaningless best-of-year lists. I've started putting together the CD with my favorite songs of the year, and will probably post that list at the end of next week. (Really great songs that are released this month will be included in next year's list.) Meanwhile, I want to acknowledge some songs that may not make it onto the CD, but deserve special recognition in a particular category. Some of these categories will likely return next year, but some will be one-shots. I've added links to songs that the artists have made available online.
Pirate Song of the Year, awarded back in September to the best song about pirates:
"Selling the Wind" by Pretty Girls Make Graves
Best Romantic Song, for the song that turns me into a hopeless romantic for three minutes:
"Jogging Gorgeous Summer" by Islands
Best Breakup Song, to balance out the Best Romantic Song:
"Tears for Affairs" by Camera Obscura
Best Bilingual Song, for the ultimate in impenetrable lyrics:
"New Years" by Asobi Seksu (English and Japanese) [mp3 download]
[Dishonorable mention to Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan for "Deus Ibi Est", in which they employ Latin but pronounce it like French.]
Best Protest Song, in a year with plenty to protest:
"Parade" by Pretty Girls Make Graves [MySpace stream]
Best Religious Song, because religion sometimes does inspire greatness:
"Act of the Apostle Part I" by Belle & Sebastian
Best Irreligious Song, because blasphemy is usually more fun:
"Here's Your Future" by the Thermals [mp3 download]
Best Apocalyptic Song, for when it feels like the end of the world:
"Volcanoes" by Islands [MySpace stream]
Best Bonus Track, where too many are just lame filler:
"Really Bad Weekend" by Art Brut
Arrested Development Memorial Award for Multilayered and Allusive Lyrics, for when I need to listen to your previous band's catalog to understand the song:
"Swans (Life After Death)" by Islands
Tune in next week for the best songs of the year! In the meantime, dispute my choices above or create your own categories in the comments.
I meant to post this, like, a week ago. This may be the first December where my posting frequency goes up when I go on vacation. Anyway, I'm going to overuse the 4 rating again in this set of reviews.
Happy Feet: There is no truth whatsoever to the vicious rumor that I saw Happy Feet.
Casino Royale: By now, unless you've been living under a rock, you will have heard reports that this new start for the Bond franchise is really good. And I agree—not just a great Bond movie, but a great spy movie in general. It's gritty and a big step away from the excesses of the Pierce Brosnan films. Casino Royale is a sort of Bond origin-story, which begins with his earning the 007 rank, and shows how he developed into the character we're familiar with. Daniel Craig does a great job playing this unpolished Bond—later we were debating in lab the merits of the various Bond actors, and were only arguing over the #3 slot after an easy consensus on Connery and Craig as the two best. (The sentence "I like Timothy Dalton" was uttered without being intended as a Buffy reference.) Anyway, this is the best Bond film in years. My only complaint is that it is a bit too long, at nearly two and a half hours, but for most of this time it's pretty gripping. Rating: 4/5
Arrested Development - Season Three: On the other hand, my only complaint about this is that it's too short, because Fox canceled the show halfway through the season. This prompts the writers to step up the self-referential humor another notch, with embedded pleas to viewers and other networks to save the series, as well as digs at their competition (Desperate Housewives). Once again there are a few revelations that are foreshadowed in ways that make a second viewing rewarding. Although the second season is the show's peak, it ends on a very strong note. Rating: 4/5
The Decemberists: The Crane Wife: This could be the Decemberists' best album, at least the equal of Picaresque and maybe a little better. Although it doesn't have standout tracks on the level of "The Mariner's Revenge Song", it's much more coherent and has a more professional sound (maybe the result of their move to a major label). There are a couple of epic tracks: "The Island", which has some really excellent sections during its 12 minute extent, and "The Crane Wife 1 & 2", which is fairly good all the way through. I find that I prefer some of the shorter tracks, though: "O Valencia!" is especially good, as well as the final track "Sons and Daughters" which is a little brighter than the others. A stream of the former track, along with "Summersong", is available on their website. Rating: 4/5
My brain seems to have gone on vacation already, but I want to move the purity balls down the page. So here's another open thread. Tomorrow I'll be flying to Dallas for the holiday weekend, although historically that's an inauspicious day for visiting that particular city.
Borat: I went into this movie having read various reviews that all called it a brilliant satire on the dark side of American culture. Funny, yes; brilliant satire: not so much. He managed to get some frat boys to say some obnoxious things, and some Deep South types to make some homophobic remarks, but this does not seem like a difficult task. Even his interviews with political figures weren't really that political, just Borat acting bizarre. The movie consists of some disposable plot-related scenes interspersed with footage of Borat walking up to unsuspecting bystanders and generally being a jackass until he wears out their tolerance. Often this is pretty funny, but sometimes he's just being an asshole and you feel bad for his victims. Rating: 3/5
Yo La Tengo: I Am Not Afraid Of You, And I Will Beat Your Ass: Despite the belligerent title, this is a pretty calm and peaceful album. I've been catching up on Yo La Tengo's earlier work through my '90s music project this year—they're now my fifth most-played band, partly because I really like them and partly because there's so much to listen to. This one is a good addition to the catalog, a long, meandering record with a variety of styles and a warm and comfortable feel. It opens with "Pass The Hatchet, I Think I'm Goodkind" which runs for about ten minutes with few lyrics and mostly variations on a single theme, but is still interesting all the way through. This is followed by the upbeat, sunny, three-minute pop song "Beanbag Chair", which is one of my favorite tracks. (Both of those can be freely downloaded at the band's website.) My favorite song here is the beautifully assembled "Black Flowers". Rating: 3.5/5
...and if you're new to Yo La Tengo, the compilation Prisoners of Love is a good place to start. I picked it up for some tracks that were previously only on singles, and found the selection to be very good.
An increasing fraction of t-shirts in my wardrobe were acquired at rock concerts, and I often get asked about them since the bands aren't typically household names. This is good, but I feel lame just saying "It's a band" or even something more specific like "It's a British synth-rock band". What I'd really like to do is somehow convey knowledge of what the band in question really sounds like, and why I like them.
I am tempted to burn a "Guide To Travis's T-shirts" mix CD with all the relevant bands represented, which I can offer to people if they're interested. In practice I won't have a copy of the CD at hand in many instances, but it would work at least some of the time. Counterargument: many people don't care that much, they just want to know what the damn shirt means.
Here's an attempt to take a chunk out of my review backlog, and post an open thread for the first time in a while. I've been seriously neglecting the blog lately, as part of a larger pattern of neglecting most of my personal projects in favor of general indolence. I have ambitions of getting back to posting regularly, but it will depend somewhat on inspiration, and the holidays usually disrupt posting anyway.
Lots of high ratings here, partly because I'm prioritizing items I've really liked recently.
The Prestige: A movie notable for casting David Bowie as Nikola Tesla, and for including the back of Josh's head in the trailer (reports that he appears in the film itself are unconfirmed). The plot itself is centered around two feuding stage magicians in Victorian England who make escalating attacks on each other both within and outside their respective shows. The film opens with Borden (Christian Bale) awaiting a death sentence for the murder of Angier (Hugh Jackman), and the bulk of the story is told in (sometimes nested) flashback. The movie is intricate and clever, but it also telegraphs its secrets so that the alert viewer will figure them out before the final reveal. Still, the ending was well-done even if it wasn't a surprise, and the film as a whole is nicely coherent and thematically dense. Rating: 4/5
Arrested Development - Season Two: Everything I said about the first season applies, only more so: it's even funnier and more cleverly written this time around. The show takes its mastery of the running joke to a new level, and its self-referential humor gets even denser. This show builds up jokes the way a dramatic series builds up the plot, so that it just gets funnier as the season progresses. Rating: 4.5/5
Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria: I don't know how Tri-Ace does it but I find every one of their games extremely addictive. (Except for the original Star Ocean, and Radiata Stories, neither of which I've played.) This game is no exception and devoured approximately 100 hours of my free time over a relatively short span of weeks. It's a worthy successor to the brilliant Valkyrie Profile, maintaining the unique feel of the original while adding its own twists on the gameplay. The combat system in particular is much more sophisticated, and makes for very engaging battles. The side-scrolling dungeon exploration mode remains, but with a teleportation mechanic that allows for more complex (and sometimes maddening) puzzles. What it lacks compared to the original is mostly aesthetic: I found the music and art to be mostly inferior (although there are some expections); the beautiful 2D backdrops of Valkyrie Profile have been replaced by more realistic 3D settings (although, true to the profile concept, movement is still restricted to 2D). In certain locations, however, the graphics are truly spectacular and surpass any setting of the original. Overall, my aesthetic complaints are minor, and this is one of the best games I've played in a while. Rating: 4.5/5
Tad Williams: War of the Flowers: A rare standalone novel from Tad Williams, this one starts in familiar territory—present-day San Francisco—and then transports its slacker protagonist into the world of Faerie. Williams has imagined Faerie as having experienced societal and technological changes parallel to those in the human world; consequently his fairyland is an urbanized, deforested place in the midst of environmental and political crisis. An allegorical reading of the setting is straightforward; more interesting is the personal progress of the hero as learns how he fits in to this world. I found the prose a bit cumbersome, and the pace lags at times, but when it picks up it's quite good, and the plot takes some nice unexpected twists. Rating: 3.5/5
The Hold Steady: Boys and Girls in America: Although it's no secret that I like this album, my review of it is overdue. It's excellent, just a notch below last year's Separation Sunday (which was my pick for album of the year). This album is less like a story than its predecessor, with Craig Finn actually singing instead of just talking most of the time, and the songs relating individual vignettes rather than a single overarching narrative. The album starts out very strong with "Stuck Between Stations"; this and the next two songs are among the best on the record, along with "You Can Make Him Like You" and a surprise acoustic turn on "Citrus". ("Chips Ahoy!", which follows the first track, can be downloaded here.) The slower ballad "First Night" fell a bit flat, however, and I'm not wild about "Chillout Tent". Even with these weak moments, though, the Hold Steady have once again recorded one of the best albums of the year. Rating: 4.5/5
Live: The Hold Steady with Sean Na Na and Black Fur at the Great American Music Hall: I arrived about ten minutes before the nominal start time of 8 pm and found about ten other people there. This did not give me confidence in the opening band; I was unaware that Black Fur were even on the bill and was expecting Sean Na Na to be the first act. In any case, the lack of people on the floor when I arrived allowed me to get very close to the stage. Black Fur did come across as unprofessional, with problems such as forgetting to plug in the guitarist's pedals and some indeterminate flakiness in the bassist's amp, and their drummer was a jackass who at one point spat beer into the audience. But despite this I actually enjoyed their set (once they got their equipment working). Certainly they sucked far less than the opening act at last year's Hold Steady show. They were followed by Sean Na Na, who didn't make much of an impression on me and I can't really even remember what they sounded like.
The Hold Steady then came on and proceeded to play an outstanding set. Maybe it's just that I was closer to the stage this time, but it felt like they had a stronger stage presence than last year and there was more interplay with the audience. All the songs sounded terrific, although during the first few Craig Finn was almost inaudible until they turned up his mike. Highlights: Of the new songs, I probably enjoyed "Massive Nights" the most—it was in the middle of the set when they were well warmed up and they gave it a great treatment. At the beginning of "Don't Let Me Explode", Finn told the story of the martyrdom of Saint Barbara, who is apparently the patron saint of Not Letting Things Explode (really), hence the line in the song: Saint Barbara I'm calling your name. As the second to last song they played a blistering rendition of "Your Little Hoodrat Friend", during which a string broke on the bass, and the rest of the band improvised while the bassist replaced it, after which they picked up where they had left off.
This was all eclipsed by the encore, where "Hornets! Hornets!" was followed by "Most People Are DJs" during which the crowd was whipped into a frenzy. The song then transitioned smoothly into "Killer Parties", the lead guitarist pulled someone out of the front row and put him on guitar, and then the band members started pulling people on stage as fast as they could. And did I mention I was up in front? As the show ended I was up on the stage with the Hold Steady and a crowd of other audience members, all dancing and singing along to the last lines of the song: I remember we departed from our bodies. We woke up in Ybor City...
It seems to me that any concert that ends this way should get a perfect score. Rating: 5/5
Hold Steady setlist below the fold (I was close enough that I could read it off Craig Finn's copy):
Hmm, maybe I should have bought tickets to see one of Yo La Tengo's shows this week as well, they've got three consecutive nights at the Fillmore. But that would give me no time to devote to Valkyrie Profile. Tonight I'll see the Hold Steady, almost exactly a year after the last time I saw them.
TV on the Radio: Return to Cookie Mountain: This album has been widely hailed as a breakthrough record for TV on the Radio, a substantial leap over their previous work. Basically, I agree with all of that, so I can outsource my review to the various glowing pieces that have appeared in music publications. The opening track, "I Was A Lover" is a bit weak, but is followed by "Hours" which is the first of a number of awesome songs. My other favorites are "A Method", "Dirtywhirl", and especially "Wolf Like Me" on which David Bowie makes an appearance (listen here). One of the best CDs of the year. Their live show is also spectacular; they were my favorite act from Coachella this year. Rating: 4.5/5
Live: Ladytron with CSS at the Fillmore: CSS is a band I'd heard of but not actually heard before last night. They are from Brazil and are nearly an all-girl group, with a 1:5 male/female ratio. The music was competent dance rock with a synth and usually three guitars (sometimes two guitars and two basses). Their singer was very bouncy and jumped into the crowd several times, quite the opposite of Ladytron's reserved demeanor. What I could make out of the lyrics sounded pretty amusing, as if Art Brut songs were rendered in broken English.
Ladytron started out with "High Rise", a perfect opening song but performed somewhat anemically. They didn't sound warmed up until they played "Evil" a couple songs later, but from there they were able to keep the energy level pretty high. When I saw them at Coachella the band members maintained an air of aloofness, but here they were a bit more relaxed and interactive, Helen Marnie even dancing around the stage during her singing parts. The bands I've seen at the Fillmore are always overwhelmed by the history and prestige of the venue, and Ladytron were clearly not immune to this.
The setlist was fairly straightforward, most of Witching Hour plus older singles. The only thing really out of left field was a cover of "Send Me A Postcard" by Shocking Blue, a perky song that one wouldn't ordinarily associate with Ladytron, but they did include the original on their compilation CD Softcore Jukebox. "Soft Power" was a highlight: the band had a collection of lights on stage which might have been primarily intended for this song, red arc lights and warm yellow bulbs suggestive of candlelight. The combination of the eerie lighting and the strength of the musical performance really brought out the witching hour aspect of the song, making it feel like an incantation drawing out magical energies. "Beauty*2" came close to this effect as well. They saved "Destroy Everything You Touch" for the very end and pulled out all the stops for a spectacular ending to a strong show. Rating: 4/5
Ladytron setlist below the fold:
I just noticed that I've only posted four times in the month of October. Um... here's a Friday Random 10! (If only I had some cat pictures...)
This is from the four-and-five-star playlist, which accounts for the very high quality of the selection.
Purify the colors, purify my mind.
Purify the colors, purify my mind,
and spread the ashes of the colors
in this heart of mine.
Remember when I used to update my blog? You may be wondering if I have been detained by the Bush administration, but in fact I have been distracted by things like science and Valkyrie Profile 2. However, I have once again been getting calls for an open thread, and I'd better start reviewing CDs if I'm going to get through my backlog before the end of the year. Also, I've been playing some video games lately:
Xenosaga Episode III: Also Sprach Zarathustra: The Xenosaga series was originally meant to run six episodes, but this was overambitious and the sequence was truncated here. This meant that some threads had to be wrapped up hurriedly, and the plot picks up after skipping an entire episode's worth of developments. Fortunately the database from Episode I has reappeared and so the player can at least read about what happened; likewise, one character's backstory is presented mostly in database text where it might previously had been slated to occupy most of an episode. The main storyline is left to play out at double speed (by the standards of this saga, but perhaps normal speed for another console RPG).
As the spiritual successor to Xenogears, Xenosaga labors under certain expectations, especially in its last chapter. Both draw heavily from Gnosticism in their themes, and lay out the plot in a style appropriate to a mystery cult, where the player is in the dark about the true nature of the universe until it is made plain in a series of final revelations. Part of the genius of Xenogears was the way it drew together the threads of Christianity, Gnosticism, and Nietzsche—it was one of the most literate console RPGs ever—into a coherent plotline. (Especially appealing to my philosophical sensibilities was the way it ultimately deferred to a kind of scientific materialism.) Unfortunately, Xenosaga doesn't reach these heights, and in making the competing philosophies more explicit, it loses the coherence in the story. The major revelations near the end thus fall into two categories: the kind that the observant player figured out two episodes ago, and the kind that don't actually help the story make any more sense.
This is probably a consequence of the shortened scope of the project and the departure from Monolith Soft of major contributors to the narrative aspects of the game. It's a disappointment for those of us who came to the series in part because of the strength of it's predecessor's storyline. At a smaller scale things generally work better&dmash;several of the set pieces are very well executed, in particular the chilling weapons test scene that occurs early in the game.
But in some sense all these things are secondary considerations: this isn't a movie, it's a video game, and the actual gameplay is a lot of fun. The battle mechanics depart from the previous episodes somewhat (moving in the direction of Final Fantasy X) but maintain the same crystalline turn-based feel, with good strategic depth but less frustration. Meanwhile the mech battles now resemble a streamlined version of the Xenogears system, as big an improvement over the second episode's approach as that episode was over the first in this department. The dungeons are visually spectacular, satisfyingly intricate, and generally a joy to explore. The biggest disappointment was the lack of any bonus dungeons like the ones in the previous episode. On the strength of the gameplay I'm giving this a high rating even if the conclusion to the story wasn't to my satisfaction (and even if it's not the best dungeon crawler to come out in the last two months—it's hard to compete with tri-Ace in that department). Rating: 4/5
Sonic Youth: Rather Ripped: I assume the venerable noise-rock band needs no introduction. One doesn't generally have high expectations for 25-year-old bands, but they've put out a decent album here that's more accessible than much of their catalog. Their trademark fuzz, distortion, and atonal singing is certainly present but it's put into the service of some catchy tunes, especially "Incinerate" and "Rats". They might be well past their peak but they can still write some good songs. A stream of "Incinerate" seems to be available at Geffen Records. Rating: 3.5/5
The Hold Steady have made their new album Boys and Girls in America available as streaming audio here. It's good. The CD comes out on Tuesday.
Pirates demanded a new open thread, so I will comply to avoid walking the plank. I have a bunch of CDs to review, but haven't figured out what to say about them. Here's the first one in the queue:
Ratatat: Classics: Ratatat is a band based on the notion that it would be awesome to make songs blending hip-hop beats, techno synth, and arena-rock guitar. Classics is a broader and more layered take on this concept than their self-titled debut album, and finds mixed success. Some of the more intricate songs, like "Lex", hold together well, but others seem to meander while passing by potentially great moments. One of the great things about their previous record was the way songs would focus on a single brilliant riff and spend three minutes examining it, turning it upside down and inside out. There's less of that here as they reach for a more complex sound. "Wildcat" and "Tropicana" can both be played at MySpace; both are decent with the latter being slightly better. The best song title on the CD is "Tacobel Canon", and the track itself is appropriately Baroque-sounding. Rating: 3/5
Arrr, mateys! It be Talk Like A Pirate Day once again! Of the holidays celebrated here at Arrrcane Gazebo, few be more highly anticipated.
Though my lists of the year's best music won't appear until December, it is now time to announce the winner of the coveted Arrrcane Gazebo Pirate Song of the Year. And the winner is...
Pretty Girls Make Graves, "Selling the Wind"
I buy these winds
to venge my children and their ghosts
I stole their ships
and every castle from their coasts
Need no advice
nor approval from the queen
I live my life
forever hellcat of the seas
Last year's (unannounced) winner was, of course, The Decemberists' "The Mariner's Revenge Song".
Here be a comment thread fer ye scurvy dogs t' parley with each other.
Miraculously, none of those Justin Timberlake songs got stuck in my head.
Instead, because I mentioned it once in the review, fucking "My Humps" got stuck in my head. If ever there was a song that could make "SexyBack" sound like an intricate and nuanced work of musical genius...
Return to Cookie Mountain is an effective cure for this malady.
It's the album the indie kids are raving about! Pitchfork rated it 8.1/10, and Stylus, well, Stylus gave it a B+, but keep in mind that this is the guy so bland that he wrote the theme song for McDonalds, so that's pretty good. Did they send a wad of hundred-dollar bills with the review copies? Or is the album really that good? The only way to know for sure is to actually listen to it.
So I've started a long automated measurement, and I've got a stream of the album ready to go. (I'm going to assume that I'm not missing any subtle sonic nuances by listening to an internet stream over earbuds, rather than a CD on a proper set of speakers.) But first, let's take a look at the album cover.
The Title: On either side of the slash, you have a decent title for an album. Really, FutureSex would be fitting for, say, an Ellen Allien record. And LoveSounds, while somewhat generic, signals a certain mood for the album (and maybe alludes to the Beach Boys). But to use both titles suggests indecision. One imagines a marketing team sitting around a room, brainstorming names for the record, and being unable to choose between these two. "Let's just use both!" It's an indicator that this CD is targeted to the broadest possible audience. But wait, this is also indicated by the fact that the album cover says Justin Timberlake.
The Album Art: Courtesy Amazon, this is the front cover:
Here we see the artist gleefully stomping on a disco ball. Is this because the record is a stunning artistic breakthrough that will destroy the world of soulless, manufactured dance music? I find this unlikely. Turning to the back cover, we find a pair of mirrored images of the disco ball, with the tracklist extending phallicly above it. Perhaps stomping the disco ball is meant to be an emasculating image—a strange choice given the subject matter of the album, unless Timberlake is actually parodying the notion of the horndog pop star. Or maybe he just felt that it was a beautiful day to be stomping on things.
Taking a look at the background, I find that there's no better way to signal "bland and generic" than to use a completely blank, white room.
Well, I can't put this off forever. Let's get started.
The title of the album is also the title of the first song and the first lyrics, along with some assorted moaning (ew). Were they short on ideas? It goes on like this for about a minute and a half and--wait, that thing with the synth was actually pretty cool. But then it goes away, and we're back to the title of the song.
Hey, that cool bit came back with the chorus a couple more times. Otherwise, I am unimpressed. Rating: 2/5
In future, computers will not have space bars to increase sexy efficiency. This is the big single? It's a chaotic mess. I'm sure it's ubiquitous on the radio, which is why I lined my apartment with tinfoil in order to avoid it. (This is the first time I've heard it.) Indeed, the sexy went somewhere, but I don't think he's brought it back.
Is it still going? This song is about a minute and half too long. Rating: 1/5
3. Sexy Ladies
Justin finds the space bar, and also (apparently) sexy ladies. He's gone to a rapid-fire falsetto, possibly a result of stomping on his disco balls. At first this is a welcome change from the previous track, but it gets old at about 1:27 and now I'm grinding my teeth as the backup singers repeat the word "sexy". I'm going to send Justin a thesaurus. Rating: 0.5/5
4. Let Me Talk To You Prelude / My Love
"Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!" Ok, you've got my attention now. "My love! My love! My love! My love!" This is going to go on for six minutes? What is this, the "My Humps" school of songwriting?
Is that still Timberlake singing? It must take a lot of stomping to reach that octave. But thankfully the lyrics have diversified and there is something that sounds like an actual verse. Following that some digital effect is going "eee! eee! eee!" in the background which is truly obnoxious.
A minute of so of somebody (presumably Timbaland) rapping. It's tolerable, and when verses emerge from this song it's not half bad. However, that eeping thing has got to go. Rating: 1.5/5
5. Lovestoned/I Think She Knows Interlude
Ah! An interlude, excellent. Wait, this track is seven minutes long, I guess there's a song first.
Ok, I'm a sucker for violins. Get rid of Timberlake and this would be a pretty good song. Once again he's only written about four lines of lyrics which get repeated. Then about a minute of beatboxing (but that violin's still around, happily). The vocals return, with the same lyrics of course, but the instrumentation's gone to "cheesy piano". Damn!
This song is so long it needs an intermission, not an interlude. Rating: 2/5
6. What Goes Around.../...Comes Around Interlude
What is that, a shamisen? I was in a Chinese restaurant yesterday where they were playing the Best of Andrew Lloyd Webber on an erhu. Anyway, we're in for another seven-minute marathon here.
"What goes around goes around goes around..." Timberlake is the master of the two word chorus. This song is reminiscent of his N'Sync origins. Because we didn't get enough of that the first time.
There is no excuse for this song being as long as it is. It's like one 30-second clip copied and pasted 15 times. Wasn't I promised an interlude? Oh, there it is. Finally.
In fact, this album is seventy minutes long, with only one song clocking in at under four minutes (and it's 3:58). I'm happy to get long albums from Yo La Tengo or Spiritualized, but does the world really need seventy minutes of Justin Timberlake songs? Rating: 0.5/5
7. Chop Me Up
Timbaland's back. The really good rapper names evoke yuppie clothing retailers. In fact, he's most of this track, with Justin jumping in for the chorus, but it still manages to be one of the blandest tracks yet. Incredibly boring. Rating: 0.5/5
8. Damn Girl
Actually not "Damn girl!" but "Damn, girl!". Hoping for punctuation in this album is somewhat futile, however. Hey, guess what the lyrics are! "Damn, girl! Damn, girl! Damn, girl!" These songs have very low entropy.
There's an electric organ here, which almost sounded cool except that it played a progression suitable for a baseball stadium. Charge! Rating: 0.5/5
9. Summer Love
Mercifully, a four-minute song. Isn't three minutes the canonical length for a pop song? Someone should tell him that.
I think he's under the impression that the word "girl" is punctuation, like an exclamation point or something.
"I can't wait to fall in love/ with you/ You can't wait to fall in love/ with me" I realize not every song can have Belle & Sebastian-quality lyrics, but damn, this is insipid. Rating: 0.5/5
10. Set The Mood Prelude/ Until The End Of Time
"Until The End Of Time" describes how long this song lasts--at 7:33 this is the longest track on the album. The prelude here is two minutes of "ooo ooo ooo", followed by a torturously slow transition into the main song.
Here the lyrics talk about "all the darkness in the world", but exhibit the level of insight into geopolitics displayed by my typical comment spammer. Lots of wailing here. "Everybody sing-- aaaah oooh woooaaaooo yeah!" Did he run out of words?
One minute left and it feels like a year. So slow... this song would be much better if it were sped up by a factor of four. But then JT's falsetto would be pitched outside the range of human hearing... like I said, much better. Rating: 0.5/5
11. Losing My Way
"Can anybody out there hear me, 'cause I can't seem to hear myself?" Yeah, obviously. Here's the sad tale about a guy trapped in a Justin Timberlake song. No, wait, he's a crack addict. Bonus points for having several verses with distinct lyrics, but they are canceled out by repeating the chorus approximately two hundred times. Rating: 1/5
12. (Another Song) All Over Again
Another slow ballad with lots of "woooo yeah". This would normally signal the end of the album except he's already done this two or three times. At least the title is accurate! One of these "I'm asking forgiveness, please give me another chance" songs. In fact, those are the exact lyrics. Naturally there's a sappy piano. An excruciating end to an overly long album, as if he's trying to squeeze every last minute out of the CD format. "Let me start over again," he pleads. Hell, no. Rating: 0.5/5
It's over! At last, blessed silence! Or, blessed hum of mechanical pumps anyway. The first half wasn't as bad as I expected, but the second half was agonizing. And it was so, so long. I think I hit the wall somewhere in track 10. Overall Rating: 1/5
Time to cleanse my brain with My Bloody Valentine.
By popular demand, I will liveblog my review of Justin Timberlake's FutureSex/LoveSounds tomorrow (Friday), starting around 2 pm Pacific, so be sure to tune in. The truly masochistic can even find a copy of the album and listen along with me...
As I struggle with a particularly severe case of writer's block, I am starting to wonder whether, like many writers, I should look for inspiration in personal suffering. And it has been noted that my reviews of CDs and other media tend to be almost uniformly positive, and maybe some negative reviews would be more interesting. So, I am going to consider the interesting and exciting new CDs released yesterday—TV on the Radio's Return to Cookie Mountain, Yo La Tengo's I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass, the Junior Boys' So This Is Goodbye—and then I am going to ignore them, and instead write a detailed review of Justin Timberlake's new album FutureSex/LoveSounds. I'm hoping that the experience of listening to it will provide enough pain, rage, and existential angst to fill a blog post.
Due to time constraints, it probably won't appear until tomorrow, but you may consider yourselves warned. Maybe I should liveblog it?
Stylus presents a compilation of music videos re-enacted in Lego.
Two of my favorite bands are requesting videos from fans: Yo La Tengo simply want a reading of their upcoming album's title, I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass. The Hold Steady have more open-ended instructions: "We want to you know about what you think about the opposite sex, relationships, love, the whole shebang." They're both posting submitted videos on their respective sites.
Video's not really my preferred medium, so I won't contribute to either unless I get really inspired, but I like the concept. The YLT album comes out on September 12, and Hold Steady's on October 3.
In which I review something from almost every media category (but I should read more books) and give them all the same rating. Maybe I should go to increments of 0.1 instead of 0.5, so I can make finer distinctions: I would rate Asobi Seksu's Citrus (reviewed last week) slightly higher than The Knife's Silent Shout (in this post) for example.
The Descent: A heartwarming British film in which six women forge strong bonds of friendship during a spelunking expedition. At least, that's what it looks like until monsters show up and start eating them. Hell yes. I mean, we've all been stuck in boring dramas where we wish it would turn into a monster movie and kill off the most annoying characters, and this movie actually does it. Except that it's not boring at all; one thing this film excels at is ratcheting up the tension well before the monsters show up, with a series of plausible but legitimately scary or shocking events leading up to the gory climax. The cave where most of the movie takes place is itself a source of much of this tension, filmed in a way that conveys the claustrophobia and disorientation of the spelunkers. The descent referred to in the title isn't just the literal descent into the cave but also the descent into madness of one of the characters, and this is paralleled in the increasing chaos and confusion as the caving party disintegrates. Overall, a very well-done horror movie. Rating: 4/5
Arrested Development - Season One: I kept hearing that this show was excellent, but didn't really know much about it. Josh was happy to educate me, and we fairly rapidly went through the first season's worth of episodes. The show is best watched in bursts of several 22-minute episodes at a time; it is very self-referential and excels at recurring jokes. Arrested Development centers around the Bluth family, most of whom have freeloaded off the wealthy patriarch George Sr., until (in the first episode) he is arrested for massive fraud. Most of the episodes have Michael Bluth, as the voice of responsibility and moderation, trying to rein in his flakier relatives. It's the quality of the writing that makes the show stand out; the dialogue is very funny on several levels, and a narrative voiceover (by Ron Howard) is used to create an ironic interplay between an omniscient observer and the very self-unaware characters. Rating: 4/5
Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow: The portable Castlevania games have been improving incrementally since Circle of the Moon on the GBA, and Dawn of Sorrow is the latest iteration, a refinement of (and direct sequel to) Aria of Sorrow. As with its predecessors it is a side-scrolling dungeon crawl, and preserves Aria's mechanic of earning new abilities from defeated monsters. There are a few token uses of the DS's touch screen (admittedly, finishing off boss monsters by drawing a magic seal is especially satisfying) but otherwise the gameplay will be familiar to veterans of the series. This installment does an especially good job with an interesting dungeon layout, smooth control, and challenging but not frustrating difficulty. The free-fall boss battle is particularly inspired. Rating: 4/5
The Knife: Silent Shout: The Knife, mentioned in yesterday's post, has a new album out this year. Different in mood from "Heartbeats", it's a dark and ghostly record, perhaps another candidate for a Call of Cthulhu game soundtrack. Indeed, Josh and I listened to this in the car before and after seeing The Descent, and it was creepily appropriate to a claustrophobic horror movie. This one strikes a stronger emotional resonance than the similar atmosphere of Liars' Drum's Not Dead, and is also more danceable. Listen to "Like A Pen" and "Silent Shout" at their MySpace page; in further recent-post-synergy, the latter track appears to be a free download for Facebook members this week. Rating: 4/5
Live: Zero 7 with Jose Gonzalez at the Fillmore: Sure, I panned their latest album, but their earlier work is really good and I love going to the Fillmore. (I am ignoring Jessica's suggestion that I post an entry titled "I Went to Zero 7 with Three Hot Girls", but this might also have had something to do with it.) Jose Gonzalez's opening set was a mellow and competent performance on acoustic guitar; afterwards he did vocals for Zero 7 along with Sia Furler. (The band proper is just two British guys on synths, but here they had a backing band and the two vocalists. The lack of their other singers meant certain songs couldn't be played; "In the Waiting Line", which appeared on the Garden State soundtrack, was particularly missed.) Naturally much of the set was devoted to songs from The Garden, but there was a good fraction of older stuff as well so I can't complain too much. Sia seemed pretty drunk (or otherwise chemically enhanced) and her vocals were much more slurred than in the recordings, which detracted a bit. Fortunately they played a number of instrumental pieces, which tend to be my favorites out of Zero 7's catalog. It would have been nice to hear "Speed Dial No. 2", though. Rating: 3.5/5
At the Zero 7 concert, opening act Jose Gonzalez is covering The Knife's "Heartbeats" on an acoustic guitar.
Guy: Does the original version sound like this?
Me: No, The Knife is an electronica band—it's very different.
Guy: When were they big?
Me: Well, currently.
Guy: That's weird, I've never heard of them.
Me: [realizing] Well, "big" in the sense—
Guy: Oh, in that particular scene.
Girl: Travis, are you a scenester?
Me: No! I just... listen to scenester music... by coincidence.
I don't think she believed me. Will "Travis, are you a scenester?" replace "Travis, are you a math major?" I don't get the latter question much anymore.
(The Knife's version can be heard here [except it may not be working, so also try here] and Jose Gonzalez's version here and also in that cool Sony commercial with the bouncing balls in San Francisco.)
It has come to my attention that Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Ladytron, and the Hold Steady are all playing San Francisco within days of each other in October. I will go to at least two of the three shows, and maybe all of them... (Architecture in Helsinki, opening for CYHSY, is actually the main draw for that show as far as I'm concerned.)
Snakes on a Plane: This movie delivers everything it promises: the reptiles, the aircraft, Samuel L. Jackson in glorious campy form. I saw it in Berkeley on opening night (not at midnight, however) with a pretty enthusiastic audience. As has been pointed out in comments, this is the proper way to see the movie. The film is well aware of its own ridiculousness and delights in providing implausible but gruesome snake attacks, overblown dialogue, and nods to the standard cliches of horror movies. All good for an evening of fun, but with little lasting value. As Samuel L. Jackson famously said, "It's not Gone with the Wind. It's not On the Waterfront. It's Snakes on a Plane!" Rating: 3.5/5
Asobi Seksu: Citrus: As I indicated last week, I've been enjoying this album of sweet-sounding noise pop. It's a bit of My Bloody Valentine, a bit of Yo La Tengo, and a bit of J-pop (the lead singer is a Japanese woman and the lyrics shift between Japanese and English). The whole album is solid and pleasant to listen to, but three tracks in particular stand out: "New Years" [download here], "Goodbye", and "Mizu Asobi". That last one is very catchy and always gets stuck in my head when I'm done listening to the CD. Now I just need to send the lyrics to Josh so he can tell me what she's saying. In addition to the link above they are on MySpace here. Rating: 4/5
Pitchfork has it as a free mp3 download, along with high praise for their upcoming album. Verdict: thumbs up.
Ah, finally some good new music. Let me recommend Asobi Seksu's album Citrus in advance of my full review, which will probably appear next week along with Snakes on a Plane. In other media news, I need to clear my schedule for the imminent release of Xenosaga Episode III.
Sunset Rubdown: Shut Up I Am Dreaming: Sunset Rubdown is the side project of Wolf Parade's frontman, and the voice is instantly recognizable, as well as some other instrumental similarities. The sound is more varied: a few tracks could pass as Wolf Parade songs, but most are a bit quirkier and less dense. True to its title, the record as a whole feels like a dreamscape, making slow and smooth transitions between different moods. There's an overall thread of sadness running through the songs but each one has a slightly different take on it. It's not really a CD you'll rock out to, but it's interesting enough that I keep coming back to it. The opening song, "Stadiums and Shrines II", is especially good and is conveniently available as a free download at the band's website. Wolf Parade fans especially should check this out. Rating: 3.5/5
I meant to post some filler-type stuff before I left, but lab priorities took over that time. Anyway, my flight to New York was uneventful and I can post the filler now that I'm here. A Friday Random 10, and below the fold, the key to that post from last week with the first lines of favorite books.
This one might have made for an interesting divination. Anyway, the books from last week:Continue reading "Friday Random 10, plus book answers"
I'm going back through the archives and fixing internal links and images, as well as tagging old posts. This is proving to be a time-consuming process, but the category pages will gradually fill up. I also need to fix the archive templates so that they display the tags on each post, and set up the list of tags on the sidebar. Meanwhile, Google Reader continues to ignore me.
Zero 7: The Garden: I'm willing to defend Zero 7 against charges that they play glorified elevator music. Their previous album, When It Falls, may have been mellow and calming but was filled with interesting emotional undertones. Unfortunately, their new release doesn't measure up: while I'm not ready to consign them to the elevator yet, these songs really are fairly boring. Generally I warm up to new music over time, but this is one of those CDs that I find myself liking less every time I listen to it. The tracks that aren't merely forgettable are actually annoying. You can listen to samples at their website or a few full tracks at their MySpace page; "Seeing Things" is better than most, but skip "Pageant of the Bizarre". Or, just listen to the older tracks: "Somersault" from When It Falls is recommended. Rating: 2/5
Stylus offers a list of songs overlooked for inclusion in Guitar Hero. Despite one selection that is clearly crazy and a fixation on hair, it's a respectable list. But the real reason to post this is to start a thread on the subject. What else should have been on the Guitar Hero setlist? I'd like to see some of the dueling guitars of Pretty Girls Make Graves ("Something Bigger, Something Brighter" would be good) or Sleater-Kinney ("I'm the Drama You've Been Craving"?) for the two-player game. Or anything by Built To Spill.
In another instance of iPod/real world synchronicity, I was listening to the end of Sleater-Kinney's song "Jumpers", where they repeat the line Four seconds is the longest wait, when I arrived at an intersection and looked over to see the crossing signal count down: 4, 3, 2, 1...
I take this as a clear sign I need to do a Friday Random 10 today.
Say what you want and leave your shyness home
Do what you want and write a little poem
Leave it for her and live another day
Leave it for her the girl around the way
I saw the last two minutes of the Italy-Germany game, which turned out to be a very efficient use of my time.
In other news, the network outages plaguing this site may be easily fixable, but the database crashes are probably due to hardware limitations, and so I'm finally preparing to move the site to an external host. I'm aiming to have the new site up by Saturday, but these things always take longer than one expects. In the meantime, I'll still be posting at the usual address (assuming the server stays up).
Superman Returns: Bryan Singer continues his streak of solid superhero movies; while this one was not as good as Singer's excellent X-men installments, it's nevertheless a worthy successor to the Richard Donner Superman (which is heavily referenced). The film wisely ignores the third and fourth Superman movies (even if Superman III was underrated), and picks up after Superman II. Kal-El returns to Earth after a five-year interstellar hiatus, and tries to get back into the superhero business, while Lex Luthor pursues another large-scale real estate scheme. Kevin Spacey has fun as Luthor, who seems to be a bit of a crackpot. The movie does run a bit long at the end, spending too much time on the denouement, but until then the pacing is pretty good. I recommend watching the Donner version first and then trying to catch all the references. Also, look for product placement by Virgin Galactic. Rating: 3.5/5
The Futureheads: News and Tributes: I was a little disappointed by the new Futureheads record. While it's not a bad album, I didn't feel that there were any standout tracks like "Decent Days and Nights" or their cover of Kate Bush's "Hounds of Love" on the debut. The band also seems to have slowed down a bit, and (except for the aptly titled "Return of the Berserker") the record doesn't have the manic energy of its predecessor. It's not all bad News, though: I liked the tension underlying "Burnt"; "Back to the Sea" has an appealing chorus; and "Favours for Favours" is especially well-done. Rating: 3/5
Or rather, go on "indefinite hiatus". As I've mentioned before, this was the band that got me into indie rock, so it's especially sad news.
I'm now really glad I decided to see them instead of Bloc Party at Coachella. (I also saw them play last year at the Warfield.)
This completes my backlog of books to review, so now I need to read some more. Fortunately, there are a number of intriguing suggestions left from the summer reading thread...
Cory Doctorow: Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town: I read Cory Doctorow pretty regularly on Boing Boing, but I hadn't tried his fiction before. This one looked appealingly surreal, with a protagonist whose parents are a mountain and a washing machine, so I picked it up. The plot is straightforward: Alan is trying to fit into society despite his bizarre origins, but is being stalked by his murderous, undead brother. This provides the motivation for a study of weirdness and dealing with outsider status that forms the larger theme of the book. (I have much more to say on this topic but I intend to put it in a separate post.) There are also a couple of subplots, one of them being a charming love story, and the other being an unnecessary geek-out involving free wi-fi in Toronto, during which the characters frequently seem to be talking in Cory Doctorow's Boing Boing voice. The main story was very entertaining, however, and led to some further thoughts which I'll hopefully get around to posting. I'll also mention that the book is available for free download in a variety of formats at Cory Doctorow's website. (I bought a physical copy, because like Alan I enjoy having actual books on my shelf.) Rating: 3.5/5
Camera Obscura: Let's Get Out Of This Country: This CD makes me want to dance. It's not remotely dance rock in the sense of, say, Ladytron—in fact it's indie pop from Glasgow, and that other Glasgow band Belle & Sebastian is a much more apt comparison—but I could definitely practice some of my recently-learned ballroom steps to a few of these songs. The cleverly-named "Tears for Affairs" is suitable for cha-cha, and "The False Contender" is a waltz. The album as a whole has a fun, light feel; although there are no truly spectacular tracks that beg to be put on repeat, it's a nice CD to play all the way through, and you'll be left with a calm feeling afterwards. Rating: 3.5/5
I was already kicking myself for missing Built To Spill's three San Francisco shows last weekend, only remembering to check for tickets once they had all sold out. Then Saturday night I stopped by the lab to change some batteries, and I heard the sounds of a concert at UC Berkeley's Greek Theater. I didn't know there was a show tonight, I wonder who's playing?. By the time I got to Birge Hall I was close enough to hear the music, and when the singer came on I thought he sounded familiar...
...a half second later I recognized the voice as Thom Yorke.
I managed to miss not only Built To Spill, but also Radiohead playing at my place of employment last weekend. I really need to watch the concert listings more closely...
This one is obviously meant to be a divination, given the explicit appearance of two of the major arcana.
The best song in the set is "Fountain and Fairfax", although its relevance is less clear than some of the others.
Don't you promise me what you cannot deliver
I'll be waiting for you on Fountain and Fairfax
That intersection exists in Los Angeles, but I don't know whether that's the city the Afghan Whigs had in mind...
Pitchfork hits YouTube and comes back with 100 Awesome Music Videos. Well, some of them are awesome and some are "awesome" (David Hasselhoff covering "Hooked on a Feeling", for example). I watched "To Here Knows When" (My Bloody Valentine) and "Sugarcube" (Yo La Tengo) immediately, those being two of my favorite songs—the former looks like the song for a nice synaesthetic effect, and the latter is just hilarious. Also, the Decemberists' "16 Military Wives" video is worthwhile (I saw it a while ago). Later on I'm going to go through and watch a bunch more of these.
I spent the weekend with a mild cold, which still persists. The worst part isn't the physical symptoms, but the sense that my brain is fogged up, which led to an interesting series of careless mistakes in the lab yesterday. (Fortunately I didn't break anything.) On the other hand, my illness gave me a good excuse to spend the weekend with my new video game purchase.
New Super Mario Bros.: It's really good to have a new side-scrolling Super Mario Bros. game. Of course, the 3D installments Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine are both outstanding games, but the 2D platformers have their own character that is revived in this DS edition. This was the game that sold me on the DS and so far it has not been a disappointment; it's a worthy addition to the series. Previous games managed either solid level design with some attendant repetitiveness (Super Mario World), or quirkiness but with an uneven feel (Super Mario Bros. 3). This game manages to find a happy medium in which the levels are distinctive but well-balanced. One aspect imported from the Super Mario 64-style is an appeal to my obsessive completist instinct: I haven't been able to leave a world without collecting all the star coins and opening secret exits. Fortunately these tasks are challenging enough to be interesting but not so much as to be frustrating. I'm now halfway through World 7 and some of the star coins are pretty deviously placed; it remains to be seen how much longer I make it before I give up on completeness and make a run for the end of the game. Rating: 4.5/5
Haruki Murakami: Norwegian Wood: I mentioned this book in an earlier entry, but I want to give it a proper review. One of the things I like about Murakami is his extensive use of surrealism, but this book was different in that there was no surrealism at all; in fact it is the most straightforward and accessible of all of his writings. Despite the lack of this distinctive element I enjoyed it as a beautifully written and resonant love story. Murakami's protagonists are typically introverts, but Toru Watanabe particularly so, and much of the book concerns his sense of isolation and his search for connection to others. So it's not hard to see why I identified with this character, although to a lesser extent I saw parts of myself in each of the characters. (In fact, it's tempting to say "If you want to understand me, read this book," but Toru and the others are also different from me in various respects, so it might just confuse the issue.) This book also made me realize how unfamiliar I am with The Beatles: the song that's referenced in the title was central (so naturally I went and listened to it) and many of their other songs are mentioned as well. It'll be a few years before I get to '60s music in my ongoing survey, but maybe I should remedy my ignorance sooner than that. Rating: 4/5
Islands: Return to the Sea: I was skeptical of this band with their insular-themed name and lyrics and calypso-tinged music, but this turns out to be one of the best albums so far this year. In fact the calypso elements combine with guitars (and strings and horns) to create terrific pop songs that are sometimes light-hearted and sometimes epic. The best songs come at the beginning: "Swans (Life after Death)", "Humans", and "Don't Call Me Whitney, Bobby" are all top-notch. and "Rough Gem" comes in just behind the first three in quality. After an instrumental track there's a slight departure in style with "Where There's A Will There's A Whalebone", which adds a dash of hip-hop with mixed results. "Jogging Gorgeous Summer" is beautiful, and "Volcanoes" is fun; the last couple of tracks after this aren't as exciting, but only because what came before was so good. This is a great album for these warm summer days; buy it and take it to the beach. Rating: 4.5/5
First: Today's Dinosaur Comics strip is excellent.
I have several books to review but I'll do one per week to spread them out a bit.
John Burdett: Bangkok 8: I don't read a lot of mystery novels, so I'm trying to remember what led me to pick this one up. I think it was an Amazon recommendation. The novel is set in Bangkok's 8th precinct and revolves around a U.S. Marine who is killed by snakes that were planted in his car. (Snakes In A Car!) Ultimately I found the mystery aspect less compelling than the novel as a cultural study; the city of Bangkok is a rich and interesting setting, and the protagonist, a devout Buddhist working in a thoroughly corrupt police force, was a nice twist on the usual detective hero. This was a detective who saw everything in terms of Buddhist mysticism, detecting the past incarnations of the souls he encountered, and for much of the novel it's an open question whether he really has some supernatural insight or if this is just the way he sees the world. In the end this question is settled somewhat more definitively than some of the central plot points. Rating: 3.5/5
Ellen Allien & Apparat: Orchestra of Bubbles: This is some very good German techno, taut and ominous, evocative of alien landscapes or city lights viewed from far off. It's a fairly coherent album, good for playing all the way through late at night. "Metric" is one of the standout tracks. Rating: 4/5
I'm off to Cabo San Lucas today, so here's an open thread. I'll be back Friday, but I expect to have some form of internet access at the hotel so I may check in here. My poolside reading list: Sheri S. Tepper, Grass (80% complete); Jon Burdett, Bangkok 8 (50% complete); Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood; Cory Doctorow, Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town. (I will also note that the bookstore I went to yesterday was very good at not having specific titles recommended in the summer reading thread, despite having other books by the same authors.) Double music review this week due to the absence of one last week.
Snow Patrol: Eyes Open: I was disappointed in this album on first listen—it's not as good as their previous full-length Final Straw, and doesn't have any track as good as "Run" or "Chocolate". But after hearing it a few more times I realized that it's still pretty good. Most of the songs are clean-sounding, heartfelt anthems, more in the style of "Run" than "Tiny Little Fractures". Occasionally this gets boring ("You Could Be Happy") but most of the time it works. "Set The Fire To The Third Bar" is one that worked better than most. Rating: 3.5/5
Art Brut: Bang Bang Rock & Roll: As I noted when I saw them at Coachella, this is a very funny band. Somewhere between the Hold Steady and Monty Python, the band features excellent rock instrumentation beneath lyrics half-sung and half-spoken with goofy sincerity by Eddie Argos. The opening track, "Formed a Band", declares, "Look at us! We formed a band!" and announces their intention to appear on Top of the Pops; this latter becomes something of a recurring theme. I can identify with the character in "My Little Brother" who has "just discovered rock and roll", and in "Good Weekend" the singer's glee at having a new girlfriend is infectious. ("I've seen her naked—twice!") It's tough to pick a favorite track here, but I might go with "18,000 Lira" which describes a group of inept bank robbers preparing for a heist. I'd heard the album was good when it was only available as an import, but I held off for the U.S. version which included three new tracks: among them, "Really Bad Weekend" is one of the best songs on the record. Rating: 4/5
I keep forgetting to link this: The Onion A.V. Club list of Worst Band Names, and an accompanying list of band names that are so-bad-they're-awesome. These are actual bands and not an Onion parody. I recognize at least one local band (The Fucking Ocean), but my favorite name on the second list is "Mariospeedwagon" (who also appear to be a Bay Area band).
I have always thought that El Diablo Robotico (a phrase that appeared in an episode of Angel) would be a great name for a band.
I'd like to make a real post today but given the number of things I need to do (getting ready for a trip to Mexico on Sunday) I may not get around to it. In the meantime, here are the next ten songs to play on my iPod:
Try to be more assured, try to be more right there
Try to be less uptight, try to be more aware
Whatever you want from me, is what I want to do for you
Sweeter than a drop of blood from a sugarcube
Spotted no fewer than six U-Haul trucks on a half-mile stretch of Oxford St. Must be moving day.
I was having problems with my iPod for a while but got it working again. It was eerie to walk into a Jamba Juice, take off my headphones, and discover that the song I was just listening to was also playing on the store's speakers. (It was Mylo's "Drop The Pressure".)
I skipped the open thread this week, but you can consider this a general media thread. Some links, none of which are complimentary of the subject material:
Longtime readers of Lemming's blog may recall his track-by-track review of a mix CD I gave him last year called Some Disassembly Required. I've now received a CD from him in return, Front & Back. He did not provide a tracklist with the CD, which seemed like a strange choice, but upon hearing it I realized that the element of surprise was part of the fun of the first listen for this particular disc. However: in order to maintain the obsessively-detailed organization of my iTunes library, I needed the title, artist, and year of each track before I imported the disc, so I hit the internet and filled in all the gaps in my knowledge. I'm providing my track-by-track review of Front & Back in the form of an annotated tracklist, below the fold.Continue reading "Front & Back, track by track"
I'm back from Pasadena, and will be in Berkeley for three whole days before making a quick trip to North Carolina (for a wedding). In the midst of trying to take useful data during this period I'll see about ensuring that this page does not completely empty out, starting with this standard open thread.
The Duke Spirit: Cuts Across The Land: The first of two Coachella-motivated CD purchases. (The second, Art Brut's Bang Bang Rock & Roll, will be reviewed here in a couple weeks.) The title track of this album, a terrific garage rock song with powerful vocals, is what got me interested in this band originally and I was hoping to find more like it on the album. The good news is that there are several: "Love Is An Unfamiliar Name", "Fades The Sun", and "Lion Rip" are highlights. This band is very good at strong, driving rock songs, but when they try to slow things down it doesn't work as well and yields the weaker tracks on the album. During the peak songs, though, this album comes close to what I was hoping for (but didn't find) with the latest Yeah Yeah Yeahs release. Rating: 3.5/5
As it did last year, my summer travel begins with a drive to L.A. I remember selecting CDs for the drive last year and kicking off the trip with the Bright Eyes album I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning. The thing about Bright Eyes is, one has to be in an appropriate mood to enjoy it, otherwise he just sounds whiny and self-absorbed. And indeed, my mood underwent a major shift during my travels last year, and my traveling music correspondingly shifted to Mercury Rev's The Secret Migration, especially the revelatory "Secret for a Song".
For this year's travels I've again turned to Mercury Rev. They are at their best when singing about travel and movement, and their 1998 album Deserter's Songs is full of these themes. The best track on the album is "Goddess on a Hiway", and it is terrific driving music—the first time I heard it I was driving over the Bay Bridge watching the setting sun light up the East Bay, and it was perfect. The lyrics are a bit opaque, but I suspect they are about peak oil.
Instead of a Friday random ten, here are ten CDs I am bringing with me for the drive:
Keep the book recommendations coming! I'm tempted to follow Kevin Drum (and several other bloggers) and read all the Hugo nominees. (I've already got two down.) Even better would be to get ahead of the curve and read one of next year's Hugo nominees, but that's a little harder to figure out. Meanwhile, all of the noir recommendations are especially timely given the movie I ended up seeing Friday night:
Brick: A detective noir film, complete with complicated plots, beautiful and mysterious women, and an investigator with a troubled past who gets beaten up a lot. The characters all talk and act like they're in a 1950's noir flick. There's a gimmick here, however, which is that the film is set at a high school with students as the principal characters. This could have come off as ridiculous, but the film does an excellent job with this juxtaposition, sometimes making it completely believable and seamless, and other times playing the contrast for laughs. Much like the best episodes of Buffy, the high school is used as a rich source of archetypes, and the noir setting works as a metaphor for the usual struggles of adolescence. All that aside, I love a good detective story, and the movie delivers in that department as well. Rating: 4/5
Calexico: Garden Ruin: I first encountered Calexico through their collaboration with Iron & Wine last year. In fact, their sound is something like Iron & Wine transplanted to the southwestern states. (I'm guessing the name of the band is a blend of "California" and "Mexico".) Calexico's latest album is a solid addition to their catalog, moving between a variety of styles—some songs sound more country, some have a more Mexican sound, and the last track "All Systems Red" has more of a straight rock sound. The album doesn't quite reach the heights of In the Reins, but it's a good listen. "Roka" wouldn't be out of place on a Robert Rodriguez soundtrack. Rating: 3.5/5
Via Matt Yglesias, Blender magazine has a list of "The 500 Greatest Songs Since You Were Born", for those of us who were born around 1980. You may recall that this publication previously did a list of the worst songs ever, correctly selecting "We Built This City" for the top slot. (I was pretty sure I blogged that list, but can't find any evidence of it.)
A list this long will inevitably contain some really good and some really bad choices, but should at least name one song by My Bloody Valentine. I had to scroll down to #290 before I discovered that they couldn't decide between "Only Shallow" (Loveless) and "Swallow" (Tremolo), and so named the nonexistent song "Only Swallow". However, the correct answer is "Soon" (and "To Here Knows When" should also have been on the list).
The second thing I did (after looking for the MBV song) was look for the most inexcusable song on the list, which I found more quickly: Nelly, "Hot in Herre" at #80. Another contender appears twice: "Where's Your Head At" by Basement Jaxx. There's also a strong preference for cheesy 80's ballads, but I will chalk this up to nostalgia.
It's harder to argue for the biggest omission: I can always find some obscure song that I really like but wouldn't appear on such a list. However, several of my favorite songs by the better-known indie bands are in fact present (usually around the 400s). Given what does appear, it's a little surprising they didn't include a song by the New Pornographers, either "Letter from an Occupant" or "The Laws Have Changed". In another type of omission, they included three New Order songs but none of them are "Bizarre Love Triangle" or "Blue Monday".
I'll have to wait until after next year's survey of '80s music to compile my own version of this list, but in the meantime the rest of you can point out other omissions.
I wasn't going to buy a Nintendo DS, but the New Super Mario Bros. is making me seriously rethink that. Meanwhile, in music:
The Boy Least Likely To: The Best Party Ever: This is twee pop in a highly purified form, so sugary I suspect I'm getting cavities just by listening to it. There's a song called "Sleeping With A Gun Under My Pillow" and yet it sounds like something that could appear on Sesame Street. I do enjoy a certain amount of tweeness (see: Architecture in Helsinki) but this record is pushing the limits. On the other hand, the aforementioned "Sleeping With A Gun" is the only song that's actively annoying, and there are several really good tracks: "I See Spiders When I Close My Eyes" and "Hugging My Grudge" are both extremely likeable, and "I'm Glad I Hitched My Apple Wagon To Your Star" is fantastic. This latter song wins philosophical points for including the line, "I never would've got here if I'd followed my heart." Usually one is encouraged to follow one's heart, but for some of us these intuitions are really bad (especially when coupled with shyness) and can lead to a pretty dull existence. A much better strategy, as per the song, is to find some more adventurous and dynamic person to use as a guide until better intuitions develop. So let me thank those people to whose stars I've hitched my apple wagon over the years. As for the CD, it's very cutesy but generally enjoyable. Rating: 3.5/5
Built To Spill: You In Reverse: Built To Spill are pretty big in indie-rock, but I mostly know them through their (excellent) 1997 album Perfect From Now On. Their newest effort sounds somewhat different, sped-up and less epic. The propensity for long guitar solos remains, however. There's nothing wrong with this new style, and it works spectacularly well on the album's best track, "Conventional Wisdom". However, while the rest of the CD is a good listen it doesn't quite reach the heights of their earlier work. Rating: 3.5/5
I meant to post these earlier but I had to give a talk yesterday, after which I finally collapsed from exhaustion. However, they are now up on my Flickr page.
The Coachella photoset is here.
Best vocals: Tunde Adebimpe (TV on the Radio)
Best guitar: Ted Leo
Best drums: Janet Weiss (Sleater-Kinney)
Best synth: Ladytron
Most engaging: The Go! Team
Best audience: Depeche Mode
Most t-shirts worn by attendees: Tool
Most crush-worthy female musician: Mira Aroyo (Ladytron)
Most crush-worthy male musician: Ted Leo
Best use of a windchime: TV on the Radio
Most cowbell: Sleater-Kinney
Most innocuous object confiscated by a security guard: My Pilot rollerball pen
Best stage (acoustics and layout): Outdoor Theater
Best stage (schedule): Mojave
Most random cover: Ted Leo playing Daft Punk's "One More Time"
Favorite band: Ladytron
Bands I wish I'd had time to see: Sigur Rós, Cat Power, Bloc Party, Wolf Parade
Best new find: Art Brut
Best overall performance: TV on the Radio
Songs on my High Noon Sun mix CD that I heard live:
The Go! Team, "Junior Kickstart"
Yeah Yeah Yeahs, "Cheated Hearts"
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, "In This Home On Ice"
Cat Power, "Love & Communication"
Mogwai, "Glasgow Mega-Snake"
Ted Leo & The Pharmacists, "Me And Mia"
TV On The Radio, "Ambulance"
Would I do it again? Hell yes. Here are some lessons I should keep in mind for next time.
Arrive early. The traffic becomes pretty hideous when the bulk of the crowd arrives, so it can easily add an hour to the travel time. Plus, undoubtedly some of the really obscure bands that play early in the afternoon are really good. (The trick is to find them.)
Spend the night camping on-site. Shuttling back to Pasadena on Saturday night was brutal. I was envying the people who could walk a few yards to their tents and go to sleep.
Get your ID checked right away. The lines at the ID check booths become long by midafternoon and remain that way all day. If you do it right away, you can walk right into the beer gardens anytime you want later. This is important even if you don't plan to pay $7 for a Heineken, because:
The shortest lines for food and water are in the beer gardens. People are going into the beer garden for beer but mostly not for food, but they do sell it there. Generally you can just walk right up and get something rather than waiting in line at the main food court. Water is available where they sell beer and there's hardly any line there either.
If you're going to buy a shirt, do it early on the first day. The better shirt designs sell out quickly.
It's worth arriving early for shows to get close to the stage. Especially in the tents the acoustics aren't so good, and it's hard even to hear the bands. On the main stage the crowd can get so big that you can't see anything if you don't arrive early enough (although hearing the music is less of a problem on the outdoor stages).
See one of the headline shows. The sheer hugeness of the show and the crowd makes it a powerful experience.
Be too cool for one of the headline shows. When everyone's off at the main stage the crowds at the other stages are small enough that the experience is much more intimate, and the bands really appreciate your presence there. Plus you can make snide remarks about fans of the main act.
Stay hydrated. Obvious but true. I had a brush with dehydration on the first day and it really sapped my energy, even after I got some water and started feeling better.
We arrived a bit earlier on Sunday, and traffic wasn't as bad, so I was able to make it to an earlier show and then get a terrific spot for Ted Leo.
Mates of State: This is a husband-and-wife synth pop duo that I went to on Julianne's recommendation. It was a good one to start with, not too intense and fairly upbeat. It's impressive what they can do with just a keyboard and a drum kit.
Ted Leo and the Pharmacists: I've been wanting to hear Ted Leo since I bought Shake the Sheets last year, and have managed to miss them the last three times they visited San Francisco. I didn't intend to miss them this time, and staked out a spot pretty close to the stage. In fact, I was close enough that I could watch his hands while he played the guitar, which was very interesting in itself (damn he's fast). He seemed annoyed by the heat but played like a demon anyway, at one point taking "Counting Down The Hours" into an extended rendition of "Little Dawn" without a break. Definitely as fun and energetic as I'd heard.
Wolf Parade: Well, actually I didn't see Wolf Parade. I waited for about twenty minutes after their scheduled start time, but due to technical problems they didn't get going until after I had already left to get in position for Sleater-Kinney. Everything in the Mojave tent was delayed about half an hour after this.
Sleater-Kinney: This is actually the only band here that I'd seen live before, so I knew what to expect: it would be loud and awesome. Many of the musicians here seem amazed by the experience, but Sleater-Kinney were completely unperturbed. (Of course, they've been around a while and have probably done it before.) Mostly they played selections from The Woods, spending about twenty percent of their set on "Let's Call It Love", along with a few songs from One Beat and "Get Up" from The Hot Rock. At one point there was an exchange something like this:
Carrie Brownstein: We're more like Tool than Madonna.
Corin Tucker: [alarmed] I don't think so.
I also overheard a related dialogue among some people near me in the audience:
Girl: Are you going to see Madonna later?
Guy: I don't know. She is the Queen of Pop. Someday my kids are going to ask me if I ever saw Madonna. "No, I went to Massive Attack instead." "I don't know who the fuck that is!"
Anyway, Sleater-Kinney were awesome as usual, and as a bonus I was close to the stage for
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs: Despite being a bit disappointed with their latest album, I was quite impressed by this show. Karen O has a ton of energy and really lived up to my pre-Show Your Bones expectations. It also helped that they played some of my favorite tracks from Fever To Tell, namely "Black Tongue", "Pin", "Maps", and "Y Control". Even coming right after Sleater-Kinney, the music was expecially raw and intense, and being near the front of a huge crowd, the effect was pretty powerful.
Mogwai: Watching the sound check I thought it seemed like they had an unusually large number of amps on stage, and indeed this band has a ridiculous number of guitars. At one point they had four people playing guitar simultaneously, and they seemed to switch guitars between every track. They didn't interact with the audience much, and the effect wasn't too different than it would be to play their CDs at incredibly loud volume. However, it does sound good that way.
The Go! Team: This band was on the other end of the spectrum in terms of audience interaction. Although the music didn't sound as good as it does in recording—they make heavy use of recorded samples and it doesn't translate very well into a stage show—they more than made up for it by getting the crowd involved. Their frontwoman, a British rapper who goes by the name Ninja, was expert at getting the crowd moving and singing along, and I found myself dancing more energetically than at any other performance, despite the fact that by that point in the day I could barely stand. As a result it was a terrifically fun show and brought my energy back up for the last hour of the festival.
Dungen: We decided we were too cool for Tool (also, school) and went to the now-sparsely-populated Mojave tent to catch Art Brut, only to find that (due to the aforementioned delays) Dungen were still playing. We only caught the tail end of the last song, though, so I can't say much about it.
Art Brut: I'd heard this band was good but knew nothing about them, so I didn't know what to expect. It turns out that they are total goof-offs. It's not that they play joke songs, although "Rusted Gun of Milan", a song about impotence with sixties-pop style backing vocals, is indeed pretty funny. It's more that they have a kind of playful approach to rock, especially frontman Eddie Argos who carried on a running (but somewhat one-sided) conversation with the audience, sometimes in the middle of songs; played jump-rope with the microphone cable (and seemed surprised when he tried to use it afterwards and it had popped out of its socket), and delighted in running overtime (he claimed it cost the festival $2000 a minute to go over curfew, and then announced he would use the extra time to play b-sides). This was one of the most entertaining performances I saw, and I definitely plan to buy their album when the U.S. release comes up (next week, I think). Between the Go! Team and Art Brut the end of the festival was immensely fun, and I left with a smile on my face.
Now that I'm back in Berkeley I can finally do all the Coachella-related blogging I've been itching to do. Here's what I saw on Saturday:
The Duke Spirit: The first act I saw was this British rock band, which I knew of only through one track on that Snow Patrol mix CD (which has been a fruitful source of interesting music). That song, "Cuts Across The Land", was also the first one they played at Coachella, and I was pleased to find that the rest of the set was of similar quality. They have a female lead singer with a powerful voice, and some catchy songs. Until recently their CD was only available as an import, but it's now been released in the U.S. and I'll be looking for it. . The performance was a bit sparsely attended, as it was on the main stage in the midafternoon—around this time of day the shows in the tents were attracting a much larger audience.
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah: This show, on the other hand, had an audience nearly spilling out of the Mojave tent which was slowly being exposed to the setting sun. (It's not clear why they chose an east-west orientation for the tents, unless they were trying to sell more $2 water bottles.) I didn't arrive early enough to get a good spot, and couldn't hear much from the back of the tent. Fortunately I was able to work my way forward gradually; a lot of people mysteriously left after "The Skin Of My Yellow Country Teeth". (Maybe they were going to Kanye West?) So I was able to hear about two songs really well, but didn't get a good sense of the performance as a whole.
TV on the Radio: This is a band that I am mostly indifferent to except for a couple of songs that I really like. I probably would have seen My Morning Jacket instead, except that we wanted to get up in front for Ladytron (who followed TV on the Radio). This was extremely fortunate, because this show was amazing, and a totally different experience from listening to the CD. The band was passionate, dynamic, and relentlessly inventive. Tunde Adebimpe sang with an emotional force that was unmatched by anyone else I saw at the festival (except maybe Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs), and when their guitarist wasn't playing with windchimes hanging from the headstock he was beatboxing on a rendition of "Ambulance" that was far removed, and yet just as amazing, as the a capella track on the album. I'll definitely be watching for the next time this band visits San Francisco.
Ladytron: This was probably the act I was most looking forward to, and the only disappointment was that it was too short. In contrast to the emotional intensity of the preceding band, Ladytron were cool and detached, coming out onstage dressed like Star Trek villains and looking entirely bored with the whole proceeding, except when they would command the audience to dance with a single imperious finger. "High Rise" was a great choice to open the set, with the sun setting behind us. After this they played songs from all three of their LPs; I was mostly hoping to hear Witching Hour material but it was nice to hear "Playgirl", and "Seventeen" was inevitable (being the major single from Light and Magic).
Franz Ferdinand: I missed the beginning of their performance since I was at Ladytron; does anyone know if they played "L. Wells"? I was hoping to hear that. I did manage to hear "The Fallen" which is probably my favorite Franz Ferdinand song. They put in a strong performance but I wasn't as close to the stage as I would have liked to be, as a result of arriving late.
Cat Power: I only caught a few of her songs, since she also overlapped with the previous act. Moreover, I was in the back of the Mojave tent and couldn't hear anything. I suspected she was playing a cover of "House of the Rising Sun" but couldn't confirm it until I came in much closer. I did get to hear "Love & Communication", with which she closed her set, and I was a bit sorry I didn't see the whole thing.
Depeche Mode: This being the headline show, the audience was huge, and even though I'm not terribly familiar with Depeche Mode it was fun just to be part of such an enormous undertaking. Hearing a hundred thousand people sing along to "Enjoy the Silence" was especially impressive. I was way the hell back and couldn't see much, except for what was on the video monitors, but on the plus side I had enough room to dance. I need to take another look at Violator for my 90's music collection.
Daft Punk: I was really tired by this point and didn't have the energy to make my way into the Sahara tent, so I watched a bit on the screen outside and then left a bit early. I have a feeling this was a little better inside the tent.
We then shuttled back to Pasadena and promptly lost consciousness, catching some six hours of sleep before getting up to make the drive back for the second half of the festival.
Got up close for an excellent show by Ted Leo and the Pharmacists. Now I'm going to find some shade.
Coachella: awesome. Today we are starting with Mates of State, then Ted Leo, at the Outdoor Theater. Hopefully I can post this before the network gets flaky--the cell phone infrastructure here isn't quite equipped for this many people.
Greetings from Coachella, currently the ironic t-shirt capital of the world. After spending two hours between the freeway and the gates, I have arrived in time to catch The Duke Spirit on the main stage.
In conjunction with my weekend plans, and the long drive required to get there, I have made a mix CD using bands that will be appearing at Coachella. I prioritized recent music since this is most likely to be played; as a result none of the songs here are older than 2004. I also tried to avoid songs that have appeared on some previous mix CDs. A couple tracks are unrepresentative: Devendra Banhart sings in English most of the time, and TV on the Radio normally use instruments. A few of these have been posted here with recent music reviews. Here's the tracklist:
High Noon Sun (Coachella 2006)
As Lemming has already noticed, Sleater-Kinney and Bloc Party are playing at the same time. Originally I was simply planning to decide between them, but then I realized that I have a quantum mechanical solution available to me. I just have to stop by the lab before I leave...
And while I'm thinking about timescales, yesterday iTunes reminded me of the relevant Built To Spill song, "Randy Described Eternity". The song starts out like this:
Every thousand years
this metal sphere
ten times the size of Jupiter
floats just a few yards past the earth
You climb on your roof
and take a swipe at it
with a single feather
Hit it once every thousand years
`til you've worn it down
to the size of a pea
Yeah I'd say that's a long time
but it's only half a blink
in the place you're gonna be
I'll be going to Coachella this weekend, and I will definitely be blogging about it afterwards. I may try to do some liveblogging by phone barring technical problems.
Robert Charles Wilson: Spin: Next time Zifnab recommends a book I'm just going to clear my weekend schedule. This novel was nearly impossible to put down and I devoured it in two sittings over the last two days, mainly at the cost of sleep. The central premise is very compelling: an unknown entity enshrouds the Earth in a bubble that alters the flow of time inside, so that for every year that passes on Earth a hundred million years elapse outside. The efforts of human scientists to understand and work around this, and the reaction of society to the event and the threat of the expanding sun, were what kept me turning the pages. Unlike the last sci-fi novel I read, this one had thought through the science a little more carefully, and most of the issues that came to mind related to slowing down time on the Earth were addressed in the book. (I suspect there are some problems related to general relativity with the way the Spin worked, but I've not studied GR.) I also felt that the author had an astute political eye; depictions of societal development under the Spin were entirely plausible.
On the other hand, I didn't like the characters very much. I'm not sure they were meant to be likable—one of the recurring themes is the psychological stress imposed on the generation growing up under the Spin, and the Spin itself makes a good metaphor for the emotional difficulties of the protagonist. But the fact that I found him annoying meant that I didn't care very much about the more personal storylines, and preferred to read about the large-scale effects of the Spin and the central mysteries of the book. Fortunately, there was plenty of interest to be found there.
The book has some comments to make on sustainability, and even though the ending seems optimistic, it was only optimistic in the context of the fictional universe, whereas back in the real world we're still pretty much fucked when the planet runs out of resources. It's sobering to come away from the novel and realize that we may really be facing the end of the world in a few decades, albeit via resource exhaustion or global warming rather than an expanding sun. Rating: 4/5
Pretty Girls Make Graves: Élan Vital: Like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, PGMG have calmed down a bit, but in this case it has led to their best album yet. Their tone has moved from angry to confident, while mostly preserving the dark elements of the music. I was unimpressed by "The Nocturnal House", which was released early and appears as the opening track, but it is followed by four excellent songs. "Pyrite Pedestal" is my favorite of this set and of the album, but labor anthem "Parade" is nearly as good. The second half of the disc (after an interlude) is not quite as strong as the first, but is notable for "Pictures of a Night Scene" and "Selling the Wind", the latter featuring an accordion and sufficiently piratey lyrics to be added to my Sept. 19 playlist. I feel like there's a bit of a fall-off in quality for the final two songs, but the initial quality level is very high indeed. Rating: 4.5/5
I felt like posting some filler, so here is a Friday Random Ten.
I've added the movies I've seen since January 1 to my Listal page. This didn't take long, since there are only four. (They've all been reviewed here, the latest one in this post.) I've also been keeping the music list updated. I'll fill in the other three categories at some point, but it's not a high priority item. I see that the ratings are now visible, but inexplicably scaled by a factor of two. I'm reserving the five-star rating for items that are extremely close to perfect; a few items in a given year should attain a 4.5 rating. 2.5 indicates neutrality. Hmm, maybe I should post these with the reviews on the blog. I'll try that this week.
Thank You For Smoking: An amusing movie that looks into the mind of a lobbyist for the tobacco industry. Aaron Eckhart plays Nick Naylor, who seems to undertake the defense of cigarette manufacturers as much for the challenge as for the paycheck. As the movie progresses he puts his talents for debate and persuasion to myriad uses, and trains his son in the arts of oratory. Meanwhile, William H. Macy does a terrific job (as usual) playing a Vermont senator pushing anti-tobacco legislation. Sam Elliott has a small role as the original Marlboro Man. Also, Katie Holmes is hot. The movie is pretty funny throughout and, refreshingly, doesn't moralize. There are a couple strikes against it: the use of voice-over was excessive, and the eloquence of the younger Naylor was extremely hard to believe. But overall it was a fun movie. Rating: 3.5/5
Yeah Yeah Yeahs: Show Your Bones: Karen O, the lead singer of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, seems a lot calmer on this record. That's unfortunate, because the best part of Fever To Tell was the intensity and versatility of her vocals, and that's not nearly as prevalent on the latest release. As consolation, Nick Zinner's guitar takes a larger role, and it's pretty good. However, the album doesn't have nearly the punch that Fever To Tell did. I like "Gold Lion" and "Cheated Hearts", but "Dudley" is sort of annoying. It's my opinion that the band should wait until Karen O has more angst in her life before recording the next album. Rating: 3/5.
In order to clear out my music backlog, here are three CD reviews. The Ladytron CD actually doesn't come out until tomorrow. (In the age of the internets it is trivial to find leaked tracks pre-release, but I have this one legitimately, having picked it up at Popscene's release party on Thursday.)
Ladytron: Extended Play: This disc collects five remixes of tracks from Witching Hour, along with three new songs that appeared as b-sides on the U.K. singles. The remixed tracks are "High Rise", "Weekend", "Sugar", "Destroy Everything You Touch", and "Last One Standing". Most of these are interesting takes on the source material but lack the punch of the versions on Witching Hour. I could definitely dance to these mixes of "High Rise" and "Sugar", though. On the other hand, "Destroy Everyhing You Touch (Catholic Version)" is a minimalist approach with the melody being provided by an organ(!). Of the new tracks, "Tender Talons" is a quite good instrumental piece, "Nothing To Hide" isn't bad, but "Citadel" sounds like a filler track. Overall this will mostly be of interest to the dedicated Ladytron fan, but I definitely recommend "Tender Talons" if you're shopping for single tracks.
(There's also a DVD in this package, with videos for "Sugar" and "Destroy Everything You Touch", and a concert video. But I haven't watched it.)
Liars: Drum's Not Dead: I have found the soundtrack for my next Call of Cthulhu game. There's a kind of primitive and occult feel to this music, with its booming drums and haunting chants. One definitely feels an ambience that's appropriate for dark rituals under a full moon. On the other hand, while it really does a good job of constructing this atmosphere, it's a bit inaccessible and I don't really feel connected to it. Maybe I should try playing it louder, and at midnight.
Lilys: Everything Wrong Is Imaginary: This album gets bonus points right away for the title and for using Maoist propaganda as the cover art. The actual music is also very good, with a noise-pop sound that reminds me a bit of Yo La Tengo mood-wise. I've actually been really into noise pop lately so this album is well-timed. The first few songs are fairly easygoing, but it turns sinister on "Where The Night Goes" with terrific results. The following track, "The Night Sun Over San Juan", is vaguely annoying to me for some reason I can't pin down, but it's the only point where the album stumbles. The title track on the CD is probably my favorite, an instrumental piece that winds up the tension and then lets it spring out in an upbeat melody. The album then finishes up on a slightly melancholy note, with the final track "Scott Free" being another highlight. Overall, one of the strongest albums I've heard so far this year.
I'm starting to develop a backlog of new music to review... maybe I'll do a double-feature next week.
Mogwai: Mr Beast: A decent Mogwai album that is overshadowed by one awesome track: "Glasgow Mega-Snake". If you like that track, you will also like... well, Pelican's album from last year (The Fire in Our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw). But the rest of Mr Beast doesn't quite measure up to this standard of huge crushing post-rock. There are a few other above-average songs: notably "Folk Death 95", and the last track, "We're No Here". The rest of the record is standard Mogwai fare, but nothing spectacular. I'll still try to see them at Coachella, though.
And on a related note, I will be making a lightning trip to L.A. this weekend. I'm hoping to get there late tonight; I'll try not to stop at the Wrong Gas Station. (There are a few of those near I-5; I had to stop at one once with a nearly empty tank.) While on the road I will be unable to delete the comment spam that has been annoying me the last few days, so try to ignore it. (It's mostly on posts from a week ago anyway.)
Instead of a Friday Random Ten, here's my playlist for the road:
These are CDs that are actually in the car; I'll also have my iPod so I really have more options than just this list.
It's spring break, but I don't have any vacation plans. I do have some travel lined up later on this spring: I bought my tickets for Coachella so I'll be seeing some of you there next month.
The Hills Have Eyes: This movie was so bad I'm just going to leave V for Vendetta on the sidebar. Normally I like horror flicks, but this one seemed unclear on the concept. Specifically, the film confuses "scary" with "gross", and so we get a lot of gore and ugly mutants but not a lot of suspense. Instead of being frightening the experience was merely unpleasant, and it wasn't even the most disgusting thing I'd seen all week (David Bowie's eyeball hanging out of its socket being the clear winner there). The protagonists are dumb even by horror movie standards—Roger Ebert writes pretty much his entire review on how dumb they are—and some of them are sufficiently annoying that I was rooting for the mutants within ten minutes or so. Some critics have suggested that the movie is an allegory for the Iraq war. Such a film would have been much more interesting; in reality the movie drags out a few political stereotypes but doesn't sign on to an agenda or pursue anything as sophisticated as an allegory.
Charles Stross:Iron Sunrise: Here's the problem with "hard sci-fi": sometimes the author knows just enough physics to get it wrong. For example: this novel's faster-than-light communication scheme involving EPR-style entangled qubits. Now, I'm one of the few readers of this book who actually has a pair of entangled1 qubits in his2 basement. But any competent physicist should know that information can't be transferred this way—you just get correlated random numbers. (You can make a one-time pad this way for quantum cryptography, and indeed this has been done.)
All this shows is that I'm a big nerd. Once I stopping thinking very hard about the physics in the book, it turned into a fun pulp novel, with spies, assassins, conspiracies, and Nazi villains (or near enough). Once the plot really got going I was hooked, and it was an excellent way to pass the time while I was stuck in the airport last weekend. One non-science complaint I had was that the plot twists were all telegraphed in advance, so there weren't any big surprises. However, the characters were well-written and just reading about their interactions was fun.
1It's actually debatable whether they are entangled (I suspect they are) but they are definitely coupled. More on this in an upcoming post.
2Actually, UC Berkeley's basement.
Arab Strap: The Last Romance: I felt like I am not nearly bitter enough to appreciate this album properly. And this is supposed to be one of Arab Strap's more uplifting records! Well, the tone does get happier as the CD plays, culminating in the nearly-triumphant "There Is No Ending". (The US version of the album has two bonus tracks, but that one is clearly the end of the album.) Overall this is a decent album with a few excellent tracks: the first song and the aforementioned last song; another one I like is "Don't Ask Me To Dance". For the most part I like the darker music, which probably means I should check out their other records which are supposed to be along the same lines. (This purchase finally prompted me to find out that the Belle & Sebastian album The Boy With The Arab Strap was named after this band, and not the other way around.)
Like I'm going to see two of my favorite bands in one night and not say it was awesome. First, the New Pornographers, who are without Neko Case on this tour. There's definitely something missing without her formidable voice; I think they had their (excellent) keyboardist doing the female vocals although I couldn't see the stage very well during their set, so I'm not sure. I also may have missed a song or two, since I was late looking for parking. I didn't keep track of their setlist, but they played several of my favorites: "The Laws Have Changed", "From Blown Speakers", "The Bleeding Heart Show", and "Stacked Crooked". Carl Newman forgot the opening to "It's Only Divine Right" and started in the middle of the song; after that no one else could remember how it started either and there was some confusion onstage. (Eventually it came back to him.) Despite the absence of Neko Case it was still a pretty good performance.
Then, Belle & Sebastian. After the March Meeting is when I often take up new projects, and one I was thinking about was learning all the songs from If You're Feeling Sinister on the guitar. I've started with the first track, "The Stars of Track and Field", and have given it a few attempts since I got back from Baltimore. So it seemed like an omen when Stuart Murdoch came out on stage, picked up his acoustic guitar, and led off with "Make a new cult every day to suit your affairs..." They played several other songs from that album, many from their latest (The Life Pursuit) and a couple from each of the others, excluding (conveniently) the two I don't own (which are Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant and Storytelling). Also a few from their EP releases, including—to my delight—"Your Cover's Blown". That was probably the one track I was really hoping they'd play.
I could have stood there forever listening to them, and it seemed too soon when they stopped. Somehow they got away without playing "The Blues Are Still Blue", even though the single just came out. (As I've mentioned, that's my favorite song on the latest LP.) It was a great show, and I plan to see them again the next time they tour the U.S.
Belle & Sebastian's setlist is below the fold; I was writing them down on an index card, which led at least one person to start asking me for the names of the songs he didn't recognize.Continue reading "Belle & Sebastian blow their cover"
On Friday there was a Lifehacker post recommending Brian Eno's Music for Airports album as background music for doing work, the idea being that ambient music allows one to concentrate in a pleasant atmosphere. Indeed, I've found that downtempo electronica is good for this: I've used Air and Zero 7 to good effect. Shoegazer rock can also do the job, since it's richly textured and can fade into the background—this accounts for some of My Bloody Valentine's meteoric rise up my Last.fm charts.
If a deadline's not looming this sort of music can be a little too calming and actually make me less productive, so if I really need motivation I will sometimes turn to power pop: The New Pornographers, and lately, Weezer. (Thanks to Lemming for recommending the Blue Album—it's become one of my favorite '90s CDs.) Less easily classified, The Go! Team also serve this purpose.
Right now I'm listening to a playlist of my 5-star-rated songs by Belle & Sebastian and The New Pornographers, since I'm seeing them both live tonight.
Any other recommendations for music to listen to while working?
My trip back from Baltimore took about 12 hours longer than it should have, but I eventually made it back. Despite attempts to catch up on sleep I still feel like I'm recovering—it was a busy week.
V for Vendetta: This is a powerful movie that mostly does a good job blending action/suspense with a political message. The setting is a near-future Britain which has slid into fascism after the deterioration of Iraq and some high-casualty terrorist attacks. (Meanwhile the United States has fallen into anarchy and civil war.) The plot centers around the masked-and-caped V, who pursues a personal vendetta against certain government officials, while working on a larger plot to overthrow the entire government in the spirit of Guy Fawkes. It wouldn't be correct to say that V is the hero of the movie—he's morally ambiguous at best and commits at least one act I found horrifying. However, the government he's fighting against is so much worse that he sometimes seems good by comparison.
The movie can be didactic at times, and the message is delivered in a heavy-handed way. However, I think the time for subtlety is past: the government we have right now is detaining citizens without trial, torturing innocent people, and asserting unlimited executive power. It's refreshing to see a movie that stands up and says straight out that we, as a citizenry, should not tolerate these things. I certainly don't think we need to blow up any buildings, and Guy Fawkes is the wrong model for this sort of thing, but the basic notion that the people have a right to replace an unacceptable government translates well to the ballot box.
As for the film qua action movie, it's generally well done. There is a thread of paranoid tension running throughout that works well to keep up the suspense—this is one of the ways that the politics reinforce the action. A sequence early-on in which V takes over the state-run television studio is especially good, and the climactic fight scene at the end is the sort of thing the Wachowskis excel at. There are a couple of points where the exposition/recapping becomes excessive and the suspense wanes, but it picks up again afterwards.
Anyway, I liked it. (Remember when I wrote short capsule reviews in the open threads?)
David Goodstein: Out of Gas: This book is Goodstein's effort to explain the interrelated problems of peak oil and climate change to a non-technical audience, and in doing so he explains the physics of energy and the historical development thereof. He sets forth a mostly pessimistic picture, anticipating oil supply problems in the very near future and associated social turmoil. Unfortunately I think he too quickly brushes off the economic arguments about alternative energies becoming more cost-effective as the costs of fossil fuels increase. I don't think this solves the problem but it should make the situation better than he expects. (One of the frustrating things about reading peak oil commentary is that physicists are frequently naive about economics, and economists naive about physics.) His treatment of the basic physics issues surrounding energy production is very good, however, and I would recommend it to a non-technical audience for that reason.
In the end, I am still not sure just how worried I should be about peak oil, but the answer is clearly non-zero.
Arctic Monkeys: Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not: This is the hot band over in Britain right now, and musical Anglophiles will find their sound pleasing. Imagine the drunken swagger of the Libertines with the guitar sound of Franz Ferdinand, and you have a good approximation. This CD hasn't quite achieved the heavy rotation of certain other recent British additions to my collection, but it's still pretty good. The major single seems to be "I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor" but several others are equally good, like "Fake Tales of San Francisco".
No tarot reading this time, although I'm tempted to divine the outcome of my March Meeting talk.
I just realized this and had to share it.
The reason that Ladytron's Witching Hour has an unlisted 14th track consisting of nine minutes and three seconds of silence is so that the CD would be exactly 60:00 long. Because it's Witching Hour.
Seems like cheating... they should have recorded more music!
The March Meeting is next week, so I'm currently getting my talk ready. I'll be in Baltimore all week, with at least one day in DC. If I have time I'll put together a post to go up concurrently with my talk explaining some of the results therein; otherwise I'll do it after I get back. The next open thread will be posted either very early or very late.
Mylo: Destroy Rock & Roll: This is fun electronic/dance music, reminiscent of Daft Punk. It's been out in Europe for quite a while now and I first heard "Drop The Pressure" (one of the better tracks) on that Snow Patrol mix CD that came out last year. (That CD actually yielded four or five new finds that I really liked.) There's a kind of iconoclastic glee in the title track, whose lyrics consist of commands to destroy various classic rock artists. But at the same time it's all in good fun. Another one I like is "Zenophile", which pulls in an acoustic guitar for a nice effect.
If you've ever wanted to look through my CD collection, now you can without even coming to Berkeley. They're sorted by rating, but for some reason the page doesn't display what the rating is. Look at only the unrated albums (via the drop menu) to see what I've picked up recently. I may fill in the other sections of this site later, but music was the easiest to do. (I also don't have my classical music CDs on there.)
Via Lifehacker, who really shouldn't be finding more ways for me to waste time.
Anyway, it's now time to review the album I've been playing incessantly the last three weeks. No, not Loveless, the other one.
Belle & Sebastian: The Life Pursuit: I am hardly an unbiased source on this band, so when I say that the album is awesome you will probably not be surprised. At least I can say how it stands in relation to the other B&S records, which is what I spent the first ten or so plays trying to figure out. In general it has a somewhat different sound from their previous work. There's still the sunny mood that ran through most of Dear Catastrophe Waitress (in fact the word "sun" appears in two of the song titles), but without the orchestral feel that characterized the earlier LP's production. From a production perspective, it sounds fairly novel for this band. I'm not sure how I would descibe this new sound, but it's quite appealing and a good match for the themes of the album.
It feels very cohesive compared to Waitress (in which they seemed to be experimenting with various styles on the different tracks)—these songs flow into each other very smoothly, and when "Act of the Apostle II" picks up the theme from its predecessor halfway through, it feels completely natural despite the fact that the first "Act of the Apostle" played ten tracks earlier. This is not to say that there's no variety; "Dress Up In You", which sounds like an old-school B&S song, is sandwiched between "The Blues Are Still Blue" and "Sukie In The Graveyard", both of which are far peppier than is typical for this band.
On just about every Belle & Sebastian CD I've bought, there's been one song that I've fallen in love with and played to excess. Joining "Your Cover's Blown", "If She Wants Me", "String Bean Jean", and "Like Dylan in the Movies" is "The Blues Are Still Blue" from this record. I'm not sure what it is about this particular song (maybe the cowbell) but I can't get enough of it. Other highlights are "Funny Little Frog", "Another Sunny Day", and "Sukie in the Graveyard".
The iTunes version of this album offers two bonus tracks, neither of which is particularly essential. "Meat and Potatoes" sounds as if it was written for the Dr. Demento show, and "I Took A Long Hard Look" is forgettable. (Apparently these are also on the "Funny Little Frog" single.) Anyway, this only applies if you bought the CD but were considering getting the extra tracks; spend your $0.99 on "Your Cover's Blown" (from the Books EP) instead.
I've now gotten around to burning new copies of Year of the Phoenix, the mix CD I made with my favorite songs of 2005. I'm sending them to some friends I meant to see around New Year's but didn't manage to, and in the process I'm correcting the problems that plagued track 12 in every previous copy, and other tracks in certain batches. So if you got one of the old copies but want a fresh one that plays properly all the way through, let me know. Or if you didn't get a copy but would like one. The "2006 Rebirth Edition" of Year of the Phoenix is not only remastered but includes a bonus track, "Calendar Girl" by Stars.
Seems I'm taking on several overdue projects this weekend...
When I got home Friday evening, I reflected on the fact that my weekend would be, apart from going running and a few stops in lab, completely empty of any scheduled activities. In the past seven days I had gone to three concerts, a D&D game, a ballroom dance class, and had had several late nights, in lab and otherwise, so naturally I was pretty exhausted. I felt like spending the weekend being introverted and geeky, and I realized this was a perfect opportunity to do something that's been on my to-do list for a long time:
Half-Life 2: Yes, I finally sat down and fired up this game that's been on my hard drive for over a year. A review is sort of superfluous at this point, as anyone who's interested has already played it. Nevertheless, I can say that so far the game has definitely been worth my while. It starts off with a chase scene, running from the agents of an Orwellian police state first on foot and then over water on a kind of personal hovercraft. This is executed very well; in many FPS games one just plods through the early levels carefully clearing every room, but here the player is forced to choose his battles. The sense of being chased is very immersive—I had dreams last night about being chased, although the context was somewhat different—and the moments of running for cover under a hail of gunfire feel very cinematic. It's also quite satisfying when weaponry is added to your vehicle and you can finally duel with the attack helicopter that's been hunting you.
Following the initial chase scenes, the game switches gears into a zombie horror scenario that feels like an homage to Resident Evil. (Although Resident Evil lacked the joy of throwing around buzzsaw blades with a gravity gun.) By the end of this level I was swinging my shotgun around in paranoid twitches like Dick Cheney at a quail hunt. That's about where I am at the moment, but I'll post a follow-up review once I've completed the rest of the game.
The Plastic Constellations: Crusades: This is a bit heavier than what I normally listen to, but that's not a bad thing. Apparently this band is currently touring with The Hold Steady, which is an appropriate match—the Constellations have more of a post-punk sound than The Hold Steady, but the intensity level is similar. While I liked their sound, I found the quality of the CD a bit uneven; some tracks are really good but others didn't do much for me. "Ghost In The House" is one of the better ones.
Last month I asked for recommendations of essential 90's albums, and received an enthusiastic and comprehensive response. I've collected the results of that comment thread into a wonderfully eclectic list of 115 albums, which I've posted below the fold.
Some commenters went beyond the scope of the original question, either more broadly (by recommending artists without a specific album) or more narrowly (by citing individual songs). I've put these in their own lists. Finally, there were a few albums mentioned outside of the 1990-1999 range, which are also listed separately.
And of course, late additions to these lists are also welcomed!Continue reading "Results of the 90's music survey"
As announced here earlier, Pretty Girls Make Graves played at UC Berkeley tonight. This was extremely convenient, since I could leave the lab at 8:50 and be early for the 9:00 show. I expected it to be out on Lower Sproul Plaza, but in fact it was inside: good insofar as I didn't freeze to death, bad since the acoustics are terrible in the Bear's Lair food court. A punk band called the Sweet Nothings opened; I was not impressed, especially not by their closer, which was a reprehensible punk cover of "Eye of the Tiger".
Fortunately, PGMG made up for it. They played five songs from their upcoming album Elan Vital, which I am now very eagerly anticipating— all the new stuff is very good. The rest of the set was drawn from The New Romance except for their final song, "Speakers Push The Air" from Good Health. Unfortunately one of their guitarists has left the band, so we were deprived of what one critic aptly called "knife-fight guitar solos", but new keyboardist Leona Marrs was very good, and also played the accordion on one of the new songs. Lead singer Andrea Zollo is just as awesome as she sounds on the recordings.
The first song they played was "The Nocturnal House" from Elan Vital, which can be downloaded for free at their label's website. The other four new songs were even better than this. Intruigingly, on the last new song the bassist switched to vocals, the drummer switched to bass, and the guitarist switched to saxophone. However, their best song in the live show is also their best recording: "Something Bigger, Something Brighter" from The New Romance.
Since the Stars show last Friday, this has been quite a good week musically speaking. The setlist for tonight's show is below the fold (to the best of my recollection, I may have the order slightly wrong).
UPDATE: Filled in the missing song titles in the setlist now that I have Élan Vital.Continue reading "Pretty Girls Make Graves, on my doorstep"
In music news, I woke up in the middle of today's 290K seminar to see what appeared to be guitar tab notation on the blackboard under the heading "Stripes White". But it turned out the speaker was talking about stripes in the 2D Hubbard model, rather than discussing the guitar part of a White Stripes song. Anyway, I have an album to review:
Cat Power: The Greatest: The title of this album must have annoyed Matador's marketing department, who have gone to some lengths in the packaging to assure the prospective buyer that this is indeed a new LP rather than a greatest hits collection. I liked her previous record, You Are Free, but it was fairly minimalist, so the richer and brighter textures of this one are a nice change. There's nothing quite as entrancing as "Werewolf" (which has become one of my mix CD standbys) but overall I like it better than her earlier works. Apparently she enlisted the help of some legendary soul musicians for this one, but since I'm not terribly knowledgable about soul the significance of this was lost on me. The song "Hate" sounds like her style from You Are Free, while referencing a Nirvana song and classic Engrish specimen; "Could We" is more representative of this album.
Last night I went to The Fillmore to see Canadian band Stars, whose most recent album I reviewed here. If you get a chance to see this band live, definitely take it—this show was amazing. I spent most of the performance completely enraptured by the music, and towards the end even found myself compelled to dance, despite the fact that this is not usually done at indie rock shows. I wasn't sure beforehand if a violinist would be present, since the violin on their album wasn't played by one of the band regulars, but indeed they had one who put in a stellar performance. I'd like to say something about the setlist, but I didn't recognize a lot of the songs since I'm only familiar with the ones on Set Yourself On Fire. They played most of that album, but about half the songs were unfamiliar to me. (And somehow they skipped two of my favorites: "Sleep Tonight" and "Celebration Guns". But the rest of the show was good enough that I'm willing to forgive that.) Today I went out and bought another one of their albums so I will be more knowledgable the next time they come to SF.
The opening band was Rilo Kiley spinoff The Elected, playing country-tinged indie rock. They were decent but not terribly exciting.
I have a couple more posts in the queue but I probably won't get to them tonight. In the meantime, a music review:
The Raveonettes: Pretty in Black: The Raveonettes really want to be a '50s band. They're named after a Buddy Holly song, and when modern covers of '50s classics were needed for the Stubbs the Zombie soundtrack, the Raveonettes already had "My Boyfriend's Back" on this album. (That's what inspired me to check it out in the first place.) The album is quite pleasant, although nowhere spectacular, and tends towards doo-wop or country-tinged songs, albeit with somewhat less wholesome lyrics than would be found in authentic oldies. "Somewhere in Texas" is better than it should be, and "Sleepwalking" is also very good once you get past the intro.
The Rolling Stones are really old.
This is a public service announcement for the Berkeley-area readers: the excellent band Pretty Girls Make Graves will be playing a free show on Lower Sproul Plaza at UC Berkeley, on February 16. They would be a great band to see two days earlier if you are single and bitter, but they're playing Moscow, Idaho on that day so that's not so helpful.
I almost wish I didn't know about this, so I could have the experience of walking through Sproul on the 16th and thinking, "Hey, that sounds like PGMG... holy shit!" But more likely I'd just miss it entirely if I didn't know about it, so it's probably better this way.
This was quite a relaxing weekend, but as a consequence nothing got accomplished. At least I will post the open thread on time!
Stars: Set Yourself On Fire: Back in the middle of last year I heard one of these songs on internet radio, and made a note to check out the whole album. However, I didn't actually get around to this until a couple of weeks ago, which means I now have an update to make to one of my previous posts:
Favorite Albums of 2005 (Revised)
5. Architecture in Helsinki, In Case We Die
4. Stars, Set Yourself On Fire
3. The New Pornographers, Twin Cinema
2. Ladytron, Witching Hour
1. The Hold Steady, Separation Sunday
Stars are a Canadian band, with substantial overlap with Broken Social Scene, doing a boy/girl vocal thing reminiscent of the Delgados, only with more synth and violins. The result is spectacularly good. Beginning with the excellent opener "Your Ex-Lover Is Dead", the first nine songs tell spare but evocative stories of relationships beginning and ending. "One More Night" and "Sleep Tonight" are especially good, and "The First Five Times" has been in my head all day. And if the album ended here it would already be a great record, but instead they follow up with three protest songs: the angry "He Lied About Death", the mournful "Celebration Guns" (which is my new favorite anti-war song) and the optimistic "Soft Revolution". And finally they cap it off with "Calendar Girl", a song about mortality and loneliness that manages to be hopeful and, like all the previous songs, beautiful. Definitely recommended.
Fortuitously, Stars are playing the Fillmore in about two weeks (on the 10th), so I will be reporting on their live show shortly after that.
With my first weekend at home since mid-December (I was otherwise in lab or out of town), I was faced with a monumental cleanup task. I'm pleased to say that I got ten, maybe fifteen percent of it done. Sure would be nice if I had floor tiles. But at least I got my rug back (it needed to be cleaned after the flood). That rug really tied the room together.
Belle & Sebastian: If You're Feeling Sinister: Live At The Barbican: I mentioned in the Essential 90's Albums post that the studio version of this is my current favorite album from that decade. It was only after I posted that that I went on iTunes and picked up this live version. (I don't normally buy from iTunes but that's the only place to get this particular recording.) This show was a charity concert (I think as part of the All Tomorrow's Parties festival?) in which Belle & Sebastian played through every track on their second album, in order. Supposedly this was meant to supplant the original studio album, which was not a high-quality recording. It's hard to imagine how a live performance could be suitable for this, but now that I've heard it I can understand. Most of the songs come through with more power and more polish, and it's nice to hear them in the hands of a more matured band. (Also, the sounds of children in the background of the title track on the studio version always annoyed me.) Some of the tracks I was less fond of in the original receive a serious boost: "Stars of Track and Field" and "Me and the Major" in particular; meanwhile most of my favorites sound awesome. "Like Dylan in the Movies" comes out the best here, followed closely by "Judy and the Dream of Horses". On the other hand, "The Fox in the Snow" really should sound thin and forlorn the way it does in the studio version, and doesn't quite have the same effect here. But apart from that it's a terrific take on this material, and I'd recommend it regardless of whether you've heard the studio version.
On a related note, Belle & Sebastian will be touring in the U.S. starting in February, and the New Pornographers will be opening for them. If you've ever clicked on my Last.fm profile you may have noticed that these are my two most-played bands, so needless to say I already have my ticket. Tickets went on sale for west coast venues this weekend; here's the tour information.
My first week back in lab convinced me that I needed more vacation, so I took off to Los Angeles for the long weekend. (Hence the lack of blogging.) I'll be back in Berkeley tomorrow.
Stubbs the Zombie OST: I still haven't played the game Stubbs the Zombie, but I bought the soundtrack after hearing that they had commissioned a bunch of indie and alt-rock bands to cover 50's pop songs—the ones you might find on the soundtracks to Stand By Me or Back to the Future. Some of these stay pretty close to the original: Ben Kweller's "Lollipop" that opens the album, or Death Cab for Cutie's take on "Earth Angel". Cake presents "Strangers in the Night" with just a hint of uncertainty, as if the singer doesn't quite believe what he's saying, and the Raveonettes attach sinister overtones to one of the singers in "My Boyfriend's Back", while maintaining total sincerity in the other voice, for an interesting effect. (That track is from their album Pretty in Black, which is now on my list to investigate.) A few of the tracks stray a little further: "Shakin' All Over" in the hands of Rose Hill Drive becomes a hard rock song, but unfortunately not in an interesting way. The Flaming Lips' "If I Only Had a Brain" is amusing but hard to describe here. My favorite, though, is what Rogue Wave has done with "Everyday", modernizing the song without losing its style. The album as a whole is sort of a novelty—I don't see myself putting more than a couple tracks in regular rotation—but it's pretty interesting all the same.
I must have been on vacation, because I have a bunch of media to review:
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: Despite my initial skepticism, my curiosity got the better of me and I went to see this. Outcome: the Christian allegory stuff is pretty mild and not nearly as off-putting as, say, talking animals. The movie is a pretty good adaptation of the source material, but it's no Lord of the Rings. Most of the characters were lacking in depth and the plot felt barely-connected at times. (I think these were also features of the book? But it's been a while.) Also, the pacing was a bit off—the movie takes too much time to get the characters into Narnia and then has to make up a lot of ground. Finally, it was appropriate that Peter obviously had no idea how to use his sword (and did anyone else hear the Zelda "you got the item" music in their heads when Peter gets his sword and shield, or was that just me?), but it made the climactic duel between him and the White Witch reminiscent of nothing so much as Xander vs. Harmony in The Initiative.
Guitar Hero: I'm sure I look ridiculous wailing away on that guitar controller, but the game is fun. It didn't really feel much like playing an actual guitar until I tried it on Hard difficulty, but at that point it was quite enjoyable (but, indeed difficult). The game wins bonus points for having volume settings that default to the maximum value of 11.
George R. R. Martin: A Feast for Crows: If you've started the series, you've no doubt read this latest installment already. If you haven't started it, then, DON'T. At least, not yet—wait until the final book comes out. A Feast for Crows is very good, but it seems to have been written on the principle that A Storm of Swords contained too few cliffhangers. If you do read it, remember that there's an appendix in the back with all the family trees, followed by a preview chapter of the next volume, so the book will actually end when it looks like there are still seventy pages left. This is maddening, because at that point you will be very eager to know what happens next.
And that's when you find the author's note explaining that the next book will be about the characters that didn't appear in this volume, which means... the cliffhangers in A Feast for Crows won't be resolved until two books later.
So spare yourself the pain and don't read this until you can pick up (at least) the next two volumes immediately afterward.
(Also: this put the child monarchs of Narnia in a whole different context...)
The Constantines: Tournament of Hearts: These guys did a decent job opening for the Hold Steady, so I went looking for their latest album. It proved difficult to find, but I happened upon a advance review copy in the used CD section of a Berkeley record store that will remain unnamed, since I probably shouldn't be announcing that they are selling CDs marked "not for resale". So, the album: it's a good listen, solid distortion-y indie rock (as was the live performance) but there are no real standout tracks. "Lizaveta" is a good example.
Also, don't miss the ongoing "Essential 90's Albums" thread below, which has broken the comment record. (I feel like there should be bells ringing and a shower of confetti when this happens.)
I'm sure we're all suffering from best-of fatigue by now, and there was certainly no shortage of end-of-year music threads on this blog. Nevertheless, here's a start-of-year music thread related to a New Year's resolution of mine. I recently sorted my iTunes library by year and discovered that there's a serious shortage of music before about 2000. This is unsurprising, since outside of a few specialized genres I only very recently started seriously collecting music. So, I'd like to fill in some of the earlier eras. Rather than taking on all of the music written in the twentieth century (I'm in pretty good shape for music from before 1900) I decided to go by decades, starting with the most recent. Hence, a New Year's resolution: Collect more music that was originally released in 1990-1999. You know, the stuff I would have been listening to in high school, had I been paying attention. The trouble is, I wasn't, so I'll need some recommendations.
So what were the essential albums of the 90's? By "essential" I don't just mean classic or influential, but also personal favorites and obscure gems. To get things started, here are some of the albums I still hear people talking about:
If this effort is successful, (a) I'll do a post on my favorites at the end of the year—yes! Another best-of list!—and (b) I'll do the 80's next year. (Sorry to make you wait, Mason.)
I wonder if my apartment flooded again. I'll find out tomorrow when I return to Berkeley.
I'm going to take inspiration from Mason and do an iPod reading to divine my future for the next year. The key is here (fortunately Dynamics of Cats keeps linking to it so I always know where to find it).
I'd better finish up my end-of-year lists before the year actually ends. I decided arbitrarily on a top 5 list of albums; this probably captures about 10% of full-length records I listened to this year. The top two are not going to be surprising to the regular readers; however, the fifth one was a tough decision.
5. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
When I first heard this I couldn't figure out what all the buzz was about. The first song was bizarre and annoying, and I couldn't decide whether the singing was weird, or just bad. But once I got used to the singer and started skipping Track 1, I realized I really liked this record.
4. Architecture in Helsinki, In Case We Die
Brilliant, frenetic indie pop, with a childlike sense of fun.
3. The New Pornographers, Twin Cinema
This band quickly became one of my favorites when I started listening to them late last year. This release didn't surpass their previous album, but was still one of the best of the year. A couple of the songs are simply amazing, and the rest are just plain excellent.
2. Ladytron, Witching Hour
Previous Ladytron albums appropriated mundane objects of modern society as metaphors: hence songs about credit card numbers, digital watches, black plastic, alarm clocks. Witching Hour focuses on the people in this technological landscape, and brings an immediacy and energy to the experience. This record does surpass Ladytron's previous work: rather than a handful of great songs surrounded by filler, this one is awesome from beginning to end.
1. The Hold Steady, Separation Sunday
Here we have an album in which the lead singer rants arrhythmically while the band plays power chords in the background. And yet... they do it so well. Part of the fun is following the twists and turns of the storyline across the different songs; part is listening to Craig Finn's snarling monologue, and the rest is the way the band just rocks. I can't quite recommend them for everyone—some fraction of the population just finds them weird—but this was far and away my favorite and most-played CD of the year.
I'm also going to steal one of Lemming's categories from the comments to my favorite songs post and list the:
Best Albums I Should Have Bought in 2004:
3. Snow Patrol, Final Straw
2. The Delgados, Universal Audio
1. The Arcade Fire, Funeral
Everyone's posting their end-of-year lists, and while I was planning to hold off until next week, I figured I'd start with one that I had ready: my favorite 18 songs of 2005. Why 18? Because these 18 songs will fill up a CD-R. (Normally my mix CDs run to 20 songs, but this list contains one 11-minute track.)
I limited myself to one song per album since otherwise a couple of albums would have walked away with half the list between them. (And naturally there'll be a favorite albums post forthcoming.)
18. Get Him Eat Him, "Mumble Mumble" (Geography Cones)
A song about shyness, the frustrating way it shuts down your verbal abilities when you most need them (especially if there's a lady involved). So you can see the appeal.
17. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, "The Skin of My Yellow Country Teeth" (Clap Your Hands Say Yeah)
Once I got over how weird the singing was, I started to really like this song.
16. The Decemberists, "We Both Go Down Together" (Picaresque)
The heartwarming tale of a spoiled aristocrat committing suicide with his underclass lover. One gets the sense of an unreliable narrator, and hopes for Miranda to push the dude off the cliff and walk away.
15. Sleater-Kinney, "Let's Call It Love" (The Woods)
Sexy lyrics and a sexy 6-minute guitar solo. There are people who claim that women have less aptitude than men for rock music; these people are crazy.
14. Bloc Party, "Helicopter" (Silent Alarm)
I can never understand what these guys are saying through their British accents, so it was a while before I realized this was an anti-Bush song. Fortunately, the song is awesome with or without the political context.
13. Caribou, "Hello Hammerheads" (The Milk of Human Kindness)
It was a bit tough to pick a favorite song from this album, which is consistently good all the way through. "Hello Hammerheads" has the most appealing atmosphere, I think.
12. New Order, "Dracula's Castle" (Waiting for the Sirens' Call)
The actual relevance to Dracula's castle is questionable, but the song is in the grand tradition of excellent New Order songs.
11. The Rosebuds, "Leaves Do Fall" (Birds Make Good Neighbors)
A song that perfectly captures the urgent longing of a long-distance relationship. I love the lyric, "I'm a desperate man/and that terrifies me".
10. Franz Ferdinand, "The Fallen" (You Could Have It So Much Better)
I'm a sucker for songs about the devil, and this is an especially good one.
9. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, "Ain't No Easy Way" (Howl)
BRMC have been accused of opportunism for their sudden genre-switch to Americana, but if it leads to songs like this I'm all in favor.
8. Spoon, "The Two Sides of Monsieur Valentine" (Gimme Fiction)
This song is just under three minutes long and I am always sort of outraged when it ends. I want to hear more about Monsieur Valentine, dammit!
7. Iron & Wine/Calexico, "He Lays In The Reins" (In The Reins)
I have no idea why there is a dude singing opera in the middle of this song, but the song has one of the best intros I've ever heard and the rest doesn't disappoint either.
6. Architecture in Helsinki, "Wishbone" (In Case We Die)
A love song in a rapid-fire style reminiscent of REM's "It's the End of the World as We Know It". It's like candy.
5. Iron & Wine, "Evening On The Ground (Lilith's Song)" (Woman King)
A bit darker and angrier than a typical Iron & Wine song. They should do more like this.
4. Ladytron, "Destroy Everything You Touch" (Witching Hour)
This is the song that's convincing all the hipsters that Ladytron is actually a good band. Of course, I knew this already, which means... Yes. I liked Ladytron before they were cool.
3. Mercury Rev, "Secret For A Song" (The Secret Migration)
I feel like I should be embarrassed of this pick, with its overly grand musical gestures and slightly fantasy-geekish lyrics. (Two suns?) But I can't get enough of it. Somehow, "I'll sell you my secret for a song" really resonates with me.
2. The New Pornographers, "Stacked Crooked" (Twin Cinema)
I have no idea what this song is about, but the way it builds to its anthemic climax is spectacular. The lyrics just sound good, even if they don't make any sense.
1. The Hold Steady, "How A Resurrection Really Feels" (Separation Sunday)
The title is a line spoken by a character in the song, and also the subject of the song, and finally a description of the song itself. It helps to have listened to the previous ten tracks on the album, to get the full emotional weight of Holly's spiritual resurrection, but it's not necessary. The triumphant guitars in the intro, the joy in the lyrics at an old friend coming back from the darkness, the angelic backing vocals in the fade-out... who needs religion when you've got The Hold Steady?
I really should start packing for my trip tomorrow, so I don't have time to track down links to all these songs, but they can probably all be found on iTunes. And, as I alluded earlier, I'm planning to make a mix CD of these 18 tracks, and will be handing out copies during my upcoming travels. So if you'd like a copy, it can probably be arranged.
And it goes without saying that I want to hear about your own favorites in the comment thread.
There's been heated debate in the blogosphere recently over whether the hit Black Eyed Peas single "My Humps" is, in fact, the Worst Song Ever Recorded. Near-consensus exists that at least (a) the song really, really sucks, and (b) it is mentally infectious at a level comparable to the Rawling virus from Altered Carbon. I'd been spared hearing this song so far, since I rarely listen to the radio, but against my better judgement I decided to follow my curiosity and find out if it's really that bad.
While listening to it, my impression was that while bad, it wasn't as godawful as I had been led to believe. Sure, the lyrics are egregiously stupid, and the music is shoddy. But one can hear far worse songs getting 70 rotations a week on any given radio station. But then, after listening to the song, I went off to a meeting, and it was already stuck in my head. I sat there for two hours trying to think about physics while my mind was looping "My humps! My humps! My humps!" Then I went home, and listened to better music, and it was still stuck in my head. "My humps! My humps! My humps!" I'm ready to reformat my brain and restore from backup.
Eventually one has to ask the question: what do you get if you combine this song with one of the best songs ever recorded? Hopefully, you get a trial at the Hague for crimes against humanity. Someone has created a mashup of "My Humps" with the Arcade Fire song "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)", entitled (needless to say) "Hump My Tunnel". To paraphrase Warren Ellis, don't listen.
Finally got a full night's sleep last night. First I couldn't sleep because of the fever, then the cough kept me awake, and after those cleared up I passed a critical point in Woken Furies and stayed awake reading for several nights (since the only time I have to read is when I'd otherwise be sleeping).
Richard K. Morgan: Woken Furies: Morgan redeems himself for Market Forces with this worthy entry into the Takeshi Kovacs canon. I would rate this as better than Broken Angels and not quite as good as Altered Carbon, but still very, very good. It's set on Kovacs' home planet of Harlan's World, thereby explaining a lot of cryptic references in earlier books, and is structured as a suspense novel rather than Altered Carbon's detective story or Broken Angels' treasure hunt; most of the plot revolves around Kovacs mounting a rescue mission for a comrade imprisoned by the government, while avoiding various factions that are trying to hunt him down. Meanwhile a number of characters show up that have been alluded to in previous novels, including some significant figures from Kovacs' past. (Can I spoil something if it's in the prologue? I'll restrain myself.)
One of my (few) complaints about Broken Angels is that it didn't do much with the series' central digitized-consciousness premise, in comparison to Altered Carbon. Fortunately Furies comes back to this and derives some entertaining new conflicts from it. I was especially impressed by the cliche-breaking, Whedonesque way one of these conflicts was resolved; the ending on a whole was excellent, and one of the nice elements of this series is that the books always end in a way that suggests that exciting developments are ahead for the next one.
Gogol Bordello: Gypsy Punks: Ukrainian gypsy punk music sounds like a great idea, but is better in concept than in execution. The gypsy instruments were interesting to listen to at first, but once the novelty wears off I found there wasn't much substance underneath. Plus the singer got irritating after a while. A couple tracks are above average, "60 Revolutions" being one of them.
This is brilliant: Now That's What I Call Blogging! Some of these have been heard on occasion around here...
My body may be rebelling against my intent to make it run 26 miles this weekend. I can only assume this is why I seem to be contracting a cold at this precise moment. Anyway, I'll be traveling this weekend since the race is in Dallas. Then I go back to Berkeley for about ten days and then back to Dallas again, followed by Connecticut. Maybe I should throw in a visit to Pasadena?
Spoon: Gimme Fiction: I kept hearing "The Two Sides of Monsieur Valentine" on internet radio, and liked it better each time, so I finally bought the album. Pretty straightforward and well-executed indie rock; "They Never Got You" is another excellent track. I hear their older stuff is good too, so I should look into that. (The clerk at Amoeba recommended Kill the Moonlight.)
As many other bloggers have noted, certain conservative blowhards are once again pushing the "War on Christmas" meme this year, the idea being that us secular liberals are somehow forcing businesses to say "Happy holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas", and that this is an issue of apocalyptic significance. Bill O'Reilly in particular seems to have been driven completely insane through his obsession with this fictional issue. Needless to say, there is no sinister conspiracy to cancel Christmas, and even I, as secular and atheistic as they come, am not bothered by "Merry Christmas"—in fact, I'm likely to respond in kind.
The fact is that a large component of Christmas is already secular, and even if I don't go to church on Christmas Eve I can participate in much of the celebration. I have, in the past, been accused of being a massive hypocrite for doing so, but I enjoy seeing my close relatives and giving them gifts, so why shouldn't I take part? Exchanging gifts isn't exactly a sacred rite on the order of taking communion—it's a fun tradition with little if any spiritual aspect. (I guess the religious connection is supposed to be through the gifts of the Magi? But this always struck me as more of a rationalization than some deep scriptural mandate.) Besides, I think the trees and lights are kind of fun, most of the traditions have their roots in pagan solstice holidays anyway, and I'm happy to celebrate the birthday of a great man who made immeasurable contributions to civilization. (I'm referring, of course, to Sir Isaac Newton.)
However, there is one unavoidable element of the season that makes me want to enlist in the nonexistent War on Christmas, and that is the saturation of Christmas music in stores, restaurants, movie theaters, and other places of business (presumably the same ones that are being forced to say "Happy Holidays" by Grinch-like liberals). It used to be that I'd only start getting sick of the music around Dec. 20th, but these days I cringe when I first hear some lame rendition of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" come over a retailer's loudspeaker (usually around Oct. 3rd). Now maybe I'm overly sensitive to this sort of thing—I like a certain amount of variety in the music I listen to, and I have an elaborate set of iTunes smart playlists to prevent any given song from playing too often (and that's for music that I like to begin with)—but I know I'm not alone, since I hear more and more complaints about this every year. Fred Clark at Slacktivist, perhaps out of the same masochistic impulse that has led him to produce elaborate page-by-page analyses of the horrific writing in the Left Behind series, has been listening to one of the all-Christmas, all-the-time stations, and produced a couple of interesting posts on the subject. And via his comments I found this series of short reviews of Christmas music by a witty and theologically-knowledgable atheist. None of this really soothes the pain of having to listen to "Jingle Bell Rock" for the millionth time, but at least I know I'm not alone in this.
Meanwhile, the qubits are keeping me busy and I got my March Meeting abstract in. The submitted abstract implies a substantial to-do list between now and March. Funny, that wasn't in the original draft...
I should review a CD or something, but there are circuits demanding to be fixed at them moment and it's been a bit of a dry spell in terms of music releases lately anyway. Anyone else find any good music lately? Books, movies? When I next carve out some free time I should look into some of these things. (I did start the Kovacs novel!)
The open thread can be delayed no longer! Also, if you work in Birge Hall and were running electronic equipment yesterday evening that you turned off at 1 am, please leave a comment. Thanks.
Franz Ferdinand: You Could Have It So Much Better: This is a great album that happened to come out the same day as Ladytron's Witching Hour, so I didn't listen to it as much as I otherwise would have. It's very much along the lines of Franz Ferdinand's debut album, although there's a subtle difference in the sound that I can't quite put my finger on, but makes me like the new one even more. There are a couple of motifs that keep appearing in the songs: a bunch of them are about breaking up, and a bunch of others are about, well, being evil. Not that this is a depressing CD, it's more of a revelling-in-darkness CD. This is exemplified by the first track, "The Fallen", which has a "Sympathy for the Devil" thing going in the lyrics. Later on you've got "I'm Evil and a Heathen" and "I'm Your Villain" so they clearly had the dark side on their minds. Of course, villainy has always made for good rock and this album is no exception.
I've had like three posts I've wanted to put up today (including the open thread), and have been prevented from doing so by severe computer problems. Posting from the lab computer is somewhat more annoying (lacking my usual software and bookmarks) so I'll write up the post with the fewest number of links.
So I'd decided to acquire the new album by My Morning Jacket, which ordinarily would have been a straightforward matter, but this time I ran into an ethical dilemma. The problem, of course, is that My Morning Jacket is on a Sony label. Hence:
Reaction of the poll worker when I turned in my card: "That was fast!" I didn't really know how to respond to that. I did at least take time to read the names of the propositions to make sure I wasn't accidentally voting against some previously-unknown initiative that was slipped in between 74 and 75 and guaranteed love and puppies for all, or something.
Ask Darth how I voted!
And now, a music review:
The Rosebuds: Birds Make Good Neighbors: Here's another album I've really enjoyed lately; I'm always up for some good indie-pop. These songs manage to be fun while covering some dark and angsty topics. The first track is called "Hold Hands & Fight" which is a pretty good hint of the themes of the album. My favorite song here is "Leaves Do Fall": the lyrics are very evocative and the music is perfectly matched to the mood of the song. They have some more tracks for download at their website, apparently full songs and not just samples.
I held off posting the open thread because the Halloween thread seemed to be filling that role. (Not because I was distracted playing Katamari Damacy. No.) My media selections this week are strongly correlated with Mason's.
Mirrormask: This movie has already generated some contentious discussion in comments, so I feel like I'm a bit late to the party. I basically agree with Mason's take, that Gaiman is aiming for a fantasy in the vein of Alice in Wonderland, in which plot is secondary to exploring a different world that follows its own logic. The visual execution of this was quite good, but I felt that Gaiman wasn't really at the top of his game in terms of finding clever twists on one's usual assumptions. Nevertheless it was mostly successful, and there are some great moments (like the encounter with the Sphinx).
We Love Katamari: After hearing about Katamari Damacy and its successor for months, I finally got a chance to play. Now I'm hooked. The game mechanics are pretty simple: the player rolls around a small ball (the katamari) that's sticky so everything smaller than the ball gets picked up. You start out picking up small items like thumbtacks and pencils, and as these things get stuck to the ball it gets larger and you can graduate to books and fruit and small animals, until the ball gets a little bigger, and so on until you're rolling around an enormous wad of stuff picking up houses and trees and giant squid. There's a real turning point once the ball gets big enough to pick up people, and the citizens who were previously walking around obliviously suddenly start running away when the ball approaches. At that point there's a feeling of rampaging through the city like a proper Japanese monster.
Vitalic: OK Cowboy: Wow, this is some brilliant and strange electronica. The album opens with some sort of electro-polka and closes with two and a half minutes of fanfares played only on drums; the tracks in between are slightly more conventional but definitely awesome. Recently I bought new speakers and a substantial subwoofer; this was one of the first albums I played on the new system and it was as if I was hearing it for the first time: the bass is really supposed to be penetrating, so adjust your set appropriately. It's a bit tough to choose a representative track from this disc, but try "Repair Machines".
Wow, apparently Bach didn't write the Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor:
Scholars now think the Toccata was originally a violin piece Bach transcribed.
"If you know the piece you can just see it was written for the violin," says Don Franklin, a Pitt musicologist specializing in the composer. "It has idiomatic figuration for the violin [and] the initial statement of the fugue subject can easily be played on the D string, crossing over to touch the G string."
The opening of the Toccata, too, is violin-like, offering "the solo violin an opportunity to drop down through its four strings," writes Williams. And there are other nuances that add up to an organ piece covering up its origins.
This hypothesis fits. "Bach did a lot of transcription," says Franklin, also past president of the American Bach Society. Perhaps this Toccata simply lends itself to transcription. After all, Leopold Stokowski's orchestral version worked out pretty well in "Fantasia" and in concerts.
The evidence all points to the fact that Toccata does not match organ music of the time, especially Bach's. It does fit the period's string music, however.
Should I just move the open threads to Wednesday officially? Or would that cause me to start posting them on Friday?
I failed to post a report on the Iron & Wine/Calexico show, but it was excellent. I do still intend to post a bunch of music reviews, but I continue to be surprisingly busy and/or distracted. Meanwhile, here's one I've been eager to review, and since Halloween is upon us the title is especially appropriate.
Ladytron: Witching Hour: It might seem strange for a dance rock/electronica band like Ladytron to use the folk-magicy title Witching Hour, but then you hear the music and it becomes clear: you can really feel in these songs a sense of mystery and otherworldliness, the sort that arises from the energy of a nighttime urban landscape. (I'm convinced that Ladytron is the perfect soundtrack to Takeshi Kovacs novels.) This album takes everything I loved about Light & Magic and makes it darker and more intense, resulting in an amazing record that I've been playing over and over again, at the expense of many other good CDs that have come out recently. The first three tracks—"High Rise", "Destroy Everything You Touch", and "International Dateline"—are all especially good, and set up an immersive atmosphere for the subsequent songs. In fact these three are so good that it's tempting just to start the CD over when "International Dateline" ends, except then I'd never get to "The Last One Standing", which is not only an awesome song but a shot of determination when I'm ready to give up on some difficult task. If I have one complaint about this album, it's that the lyrics can be a bit dumb. ("Weekend" is pretty much inexcusable in this regard.) But in this sort of music, the lyrics don't really matter—it's all about the sound.
I saw The Hold Steady last night! It was a great show, although somehow they got away without playing "How a Resurrection Really Feels". The actual Craig Finn took some getting used to, as he looked like some nerdy accountant who stumbled up on stage after a few drinks too many, but he ended up being pretty entertaining. Due to his arrhythmic singing style he was able to change up and improvise the lyrics in interesting ways, and he had elaborate hand gestures to go along with all the songs. At one point during "Charlemagne in Sweatpants" he delivered a long monologue on baseball while the band looped in the background. The Constantines also played at this show, decent indie-rock, and the opening band was Tim Fite, who was a musical personification of WTF.
And tonight I am seeing Iron & Wine and Calexico. Speaking of which,
Iron & Wine/Calexico: In the Reins:I don't know what Calexico sounds like by itself, but when combined with Iron & Wine's Americana/folk sound the result is a really excellent EP. The sound here is more varied than on Iron & Wine's previous releases: the opening track has a southwestern feel, and then there's a country-ish prison ballad, and then "History of Lovers" which is more like a pop song. The only downside is that there are only seven tracks. More, please!
Over at /dev/shm Lemming has begun his track-by-track exegesis of the mix CD I made for him a few weeks ago. The origins of this CD may be found in the comments to this post, and the tracklist may be found in this thread. Lemming plans to address one song per day, and I'm providing my own take in the comments. Clearly I should release a "special edition" of Some Disassembly Required with all of this reproduced in the liner notes. (And it should be on vinyl.)
I've joined a team for a relay race this coming weekend. This would not be especially noteworthy except that the race is 199 miles long, starting in Calistoga and finishing in Santa Cruz. So this will doubtless be quite the adventure and I'll probably do some liveblogging from my phone.
Meanwhile, did I mention that I have a backlog of music to review? I went to the record store on Friday and came out with five albums, bringing the total to 13 I need to review. Here's one of them, and maybe I'll do the rest in batches of four or five.
Clor: Clor: This band has kind of a synth-heavy Brit rock sound. It's another one of those albums that sounds good at the time but later I can't remember what it sounded like. For a while every time one of the tracks came up on my iPod I'd be like, "What is this? Oh yeah, Clor." Or maybe I've just picked up so much new music lately that I'm unable to keep track of it all. Anyway, "Love + Pain" is a nice track.
Apparently the new Richard K. Morgan novel came out when I wasn't looking, and Franz Ferdinand's new album comes out tomorrow. So I've got some shopping to do. Maybe I'll be able to find that Wolf Parade album this time.
Serenity: The blogosphere is swamped with commentary on this movie, so I'll just say that it's really good. My brother came up to Berkeley to see it with me (I introduced him to the works of Joss Whedon, so it seemed appropriate), and we spent the rest of the weekend quoting it to each other. I think Jayne may now be my favorite character.
While on the subject of film: anyone seen Mirrormask yet?
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah: Not an instruction but the name of the band, and of their debut album. There's been a ridiculous amount of buzz about this band from indie rock critics, even when this album was only available from shady internet filesharing services. I always worry that my computer will contract some awful spyware infection from such services, so I waited until the CD was released. On first listen my reaction was a resounding "Huh?" It's not bad, but I haven't yet figured out what all the hype was about. (My first reactions don't correlate well with my eventual opinion of a given band—I had a similar reaction to the Arcade Fire, but after a few more listens Funeral became one of my favorite albums.) Anyway, there are some songs I really like on here, like "Details of the War", but I feel a bit like I'm missing something.
I still have a long backlog of music to review, so there's probably a big music post in the future. I considered doing this as an audio post where I could play songs interspersed with my commentary, or as a series of podcasts, but I'm not sure I have the time to do that properly.
The show last night was terrific, of course. However, the fact that indie-rock audiences don't dance is sort of lame. When I have an oscillation amplitude that's above the median, and I'm not moving my feet, something's wrong. (I was really just sort of nodding my head rhythmically.)
The New Pornographers played a pretty long set and managed to hit all the songs I wanted to hear. There was also an unusual level of onstage banter (mainly between Carl Newman and Neko Case) that was pretty entertaining. At the beginning of the first encore they spent about ten minutes just joking around and playing the opening riffs to various highly recognizable songs. (Back in Black and Smells Like Teen Spirit were a couple that I remember.)
The opening bands were Immaculate Machine and Destroyer, the former of which was quite good primarily due to Kathryn Calder on keyboards and vocals. She plays in the New Pornographers as well, apparently since Twin Cinema. Destroyer was less interesting (and didn't destroy anything).
Oh yeah: Nobody cheered at "Going to 16th and Valencia" in Twin Cinema. Possibly because it's a bit difficult to tell that those are the lyrics.
In preparation for tonight's show, I'm currently listening to the entire catalog of The New Pornographers, except for the iTMS bonus track to Twin Cinema since I bought the album on CD. Grr. Anyway, if you're familiar with the band you know that the lyrics, while intelligible, are pretty opaque and it's never clear exactly what the songs are about. This isn't really a problem, but it was nice to discover that the official Matador site actually explains the songs. Sort of.
“Sing Me Spanish Techno”: In which Newman tries to write a song with a ton of parts and an asymmetrical structure but still a pop song through and through. And succeeds. Title inspired by his girlfriend Amy, and, as he was reading Joseph Campbell's "Hero With A Thousand Faces" while writing it, "there are some veiled references about the hero's journey and different myths, bullshit like that."Ok, it isn't exactly a scholarly exegesis. But I do have a couple of new to-do items: play "Star Bodies" backwards, and watch for this tonight:
"Twin Cinema": Newman updated this Electric Version-era tune with new lyrics referencing his part-time home San Francisco, hoping that "San Franciscans will hoot and holler at the '16th and Valencia' line when we play it live."
Looks like another busy week for me; I may not get the chance to post roadtrip pictures until the weekend (or later). ("Busy" in this instance entails things like seeing The New Pornographers in concert and going to the opening of Serenity.)
Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law, Vol. 1: My brother got me watching these while on the road. This is of course Cartoon Network's show detailing the exploits of former superhero Birdman, who has become a lawyer representing various other Hanna-Barbera characters. One episode has the Scooby-Doo gang fighting marijuana charges, while another has Fred Flintstone as a Mafia don, complete with a Bedrock-style parody of the Sopranos opening. The episodes are consistently hilarious, not just from the parodic aspects but from absurdist twists and lightning-fast sight gags. As an added bonus, The Daily Show's Stephen Colbert does some of the voices.
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club: Howl: I had a number of reasons to be skeptical of this album: I thought their previous effort, Take Them On, On Their Own, was mediocre; I kept seeing mixed reviews of Howl; and of course for them to call the album Howl is a bit pretentious. But, it's actually really good! It's a total departure from their previous sound (which was rock in the manner of Jesus and Mary Chain) to an acoustic blend of folk, blues, and gospel styles. Yes, the lyrics are mostly (in the words of one reviewer) "prison and Jesus", and yes, one song features a harmonica solo. But it's all really well-done, and the new sound suits the band much better than their old one. "Ain't No Easy Way" alone is probably worth the price of the album.
Howl's album cover is designed to look like an old LP cover (complete with a meaningless "Side 1/Side 2" division). Unfortunately, this artwork is marred by a big ugly copyright notice informing the buyer that, when inserted into a Windows machine, the CD would only be playable by the accursed Windows Media Player. I discovered this only after I had paid for the CD and was quite annoyed until I put it in my computer and learned that I had inadvertently defeated the copy-protection by having CD Autoplay turned off. Then it was just kind of funny.
I have a backlog of music to review so maybe I'll do another music post later in the week.
Somebody made a reference to a "bananaphone" song the other day, and I was sufficiently intrigued to Google it. Helpfully, Wikipedia has an article on this topic. Unhelpfully, now that I've heard the song it's proving incredibly difficult to dislodge from infinite loop in my head.
On the other hand, I now understand this Nothing Nice strip.
A few from my playlist:
I'm not one of those people who prefers to listen to vinyl records. But after learning that the vinyl edition of the Decemberists' Picaresque will have five bonus songs, I kind of wish I were.
There is actually a record player in the lab, possibly even operational (its radio tuner still works at least). So I could start buying vinyl music to listen to while doing experiments. My advisor's always worried about noise generated by digital electronics, so presumably he'd approve of the analog approach, and there's an abundance of ADCs if I want to get those bonus songs into iTunes. Or I could go with my original plan of just plugging my iPod into the record player's auxiliary port.
Open thread on Monday? Madness!
Next week my brother and I are driving from Dallas to Los Angeles, where he will be taking up residence. (The westward migration of my social network continues!) We leave on Talk Like A Pirate Day, no doubt with many an "Arr!" and "Avast!" to confuse the gas station attendants in roadside Texas towns. I intend to photoblog the interesting sun belt attractions (if any).
Hopefully the power will be back on by the time we get to L.A.
Get Him Eat Him: Geography Cones: Somehow I feel guilty about listening to music by an indie band whose frontman is a writer for Pitchfork, as if this is a fatal indulgence in hipsterism that will condemn me to a special level of hell reserved for pretentious music geeks. On the other hand, Get Him Eat Him is a great name for a rock band, bringing to my mind an image of some ravenous, ferocious animal being sicced on someone. Which is more or less what this band sounds like at its best, when the frantic guitars sound like they're racing each other to some meaty prize. The lyrics occasionally veer into the kind of showy obscurity that make a fraction of Pitchfork's reviews unreadable, but also have moments of brilliance. ("You're so pretty you could destroy the city" somehow seems right even though, thinking about it, it doesn't really make any sense. I guess Helen of Troy was so pretty that she did indeed destroy the city, maybe there's a Homeric interpretation to that song.) My favorite track is probably "Not Not Nervous" unless it's "Mumble Mumble", there's lots of good stuff here.
My severe tardiness with this week's open thread has already led to one threadjacking. In the spare minutes I've had available for blogging this week there's always been a higher-priority post on my mind. Anyway, here it is, almost in time for next week's open thread.
Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner: Freakonomics: My main complaint about this was: too short. Levitt takes the reader through several very interesting economic studies, with a focus on incentives and correlation vs. causation. There wasn't an overall theme, but a nice variety of topics ranging from detection of cheating among schoolteachers administering standardized tests, to the economics of crack dealing, to Levitt's controversial finding that the Roe v. Wade verdict led to a drop in crime 20 years later, to the influence of one's given name on future prosperity. The book was a quick and easy read, written at a very non-technical level (it was amusing at times when they try to explain something like regression analysis).
I'm now reading Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner, at Phi's recommendation.
The New Pornographers: Twin Cinema: It's hard to listen to this without comparing it to their previous LP Electric Version, which is one of my all-time favorite albums. I discovered The New Pornographers and Electric Version while suffering from a series of foul and dark moods, and the music was a pure shot of happiness that immediately lifted my spirits. With that kind of personal significance it's hard to imagine that Twin Cinema can compete, and instead it takes a different direction and stakes out its own territory.
Cinema has a sound like a more refined version of the band's debut album Mass Romantic, and trades the constant exuberance of Electric Version for a wider and more contemplative emotional range. The better tracks on this one are longer and almost anthemic rather than three-minute triumphant bursts: "The Bleeding Heart Show" was the first track on the album that really made me sit up and listen, and the amazing closer "Stacked Crooked" completely erases any doubts I might have had about this record. The only downside is that this band always manages somehow to write one song that annoys the hell out of me for reasons unknown and mysterious, and in this case it's "These Are The Fables". But aside from that, this is a really great CD.
I'm seeing them live later this month, so you'll undoubtedly be hearing about that as well.
Via a comment on the Scary Go Round blog I learn that Hummer is using a Ratatat song in their commercials. I frantically google to find out which song, because I have two mix CDs in the queue, both of which contain a Ratatat song, and I don't really want people thinking about SUVs while they're listening.
The song turns out to be "Seventeen Years", which does not appear on either mix but is an excellent song nonetheless. It's nice to see the music I like getting exposure, but in a Hummer commercial? Ew. Seems to me that Ratatat parodies the Hummer aesthetic more than it complements it, to the extent that music without lyrics can parody anything.
Another late open thread, it seems I've been spending my blogging energy on other topics. Generally I was pretty wiped out on Monday and early Tuesday following a busy weekend, but I seem to have recovered. It looks like I'm about to have another busy weekend, but at least this one will be spread out over three days.
The 40-Year-Old Virgin: Surprisingly, this movie was really very funny. It initially sounded like this would be another formula comedy in which the characters find themselves in increasingly wacky situations, and hilarity is supposed to ensue. This is indeed the structure of the movie, but most of the humor actually derives from the interactions between the characters, who are very well written and acted. The movie is surprisingly sympathetic and realistic in its depictions of shyness, which is only one of several factors contributing to the main character's romantic difficulties. One of the central jokes is that the male supporting characters are just as dysfunctional in their relationships, even if they have more sexual success, and the mockery is hence pretty egalitarian. The major flaw in this movie comes from the sappier elements, which become more and more prominent towards the end, leading to a finale that played according to genre conventions—but the genre was romantic comedy, when I thought I was watching a sex farce. Maybe that was to attract a broader audience, I don't know.
The Life and Times: Suburban Hymns: I get kind of a late 90's alt-rock feel from this album. Lots of distortion and incomprehensible vocals. This is the kind of album that works well in the background, the tracks blend together and individual songs don't call much attention to themselves. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but makes it a bit frustrating to review when I've owned the CD for two weeks and still can't tell the songs apart. Selecting somewhat randomly, I'm uploading "Coat of Arms".
I need to get my hands on this track-by-track remix of Bloc Party's debut album Silent Alarm. Check out that list of contributors...
There's this meme going around where you go here, type the year of your high school graduation into the search box, and get the list of top 100 songs that year. Then you indicate the ones you liked and hated. Given music tastes of the other bloggers I read, this meme tends to devolve into a claim that the list in question is a milestone in unbelievably crappy music. My only participation here is to note that 1997 distinguishes itself with an especially bad top ten, and when #11 and #12 are included you pretty much have songs that are on heavy rotation in hell itself. After that the list is mostly just mediocre with some actual good songs mixed in.
Anyway, it seems like the three categories (liked/hated/don't care) in most implementations of this meme are insufficient. Were I to mark up the entire list (which I'm not, because I'm
lazy busy! At work!), I would use the following four classifications:
I can't argue that 1997 was the worst year, as Scott Lemieux's list from 1990 clearly trumps mine in awfulness. I did start to wonder if every year would, taken on its own, look especially bad, since we forget about all these mass-produced songs that are ubiquitous for a few months and then (thankfully) vanish forever. To prove this theory, I decided to look at a year from an era that supposedly produced a lot of great music: The Top 100 Songs of 1968.
Wow. Those... those are actually pretty good. Damn.
I remember being shocked back in May when Amanda at Pandagon said, "A mix CD takes like half an hour, tops, which means that you can pretty much arrange it, drop the disc in and by the time you've finished making your sandwich, it's done." My procedure for mix CDs takes about a week and goes like this:
In fact, it just occurred to me that parts of this process are strikingly analogous to the process of editing a paper for submission to a peer-reviewed journal. Just substitute figures and equations for songs, and a limit of four pages instead of 80 minutes. Somehow the mix CD version is a lot more fun, though.
Man, actual science blogging is fun but difficult. There may be more of it in the future, since people seem to like it. If I'm lucky, I'll get some crackpots to populate the comment threads for extra entertainment!
Meanwhile, I have no intention of neglecting the cultural aspect of this blog. Although the open threads seem to be migrating to Tuesdays...
J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: This is Rowling's most anti-statist book yet. The wizard arm of the government continues its slide into fascism, as it covers up intelligence failures, suppresses dissent, employs the press as a propaganda arm, scapegoats minorities and political opponents, dismisses expert teachers at Hogwarts and replaces them with ideology-based curricula of no practical value, ignores real threats while pursuing a completely imaginary terrorist plot, and tortures suspects for information. Wait a minute, this sounds familiar.
Harry continued to be a dick throughout the book, but it turned out Voldemort has good reason just to try to kill him off rather than turn him to the dark side. He still might turn evil without Voldemort's help, but I'm not holding out much hope for this. At least we'll be spared the passage in which Harry gets up off the operating table in his new magical suit of armor and shouts, "NOOOOOOO!"
I'm going to import the sixth book from Britain, as I've read the British editions of the previous five, but while I wait for it to show up I am reading Freakonomics, which is terrific so far. It's a much easier read than I expected and the findings described are tremendously interesting. I'll post a full review once I finish.
Four Tet: Everything Ecstatic: I first encountered Four Tet on that Snow Patrol mix CD that came out earlier this year. I'd heard them classified as "folktronica" but this (their latest album) doesn't sound very folky. (Pretty much my only point of comparison on this is the Caribou album I reviewed recently, which does sound like what I would expect folktronica to sound like.) Regardless of the proper classification, it's a fun CD with an experimental feel. I like "And Then Patterns".
Some of you may be interested to know that Bruce Springsteen is using a Four Tet song as his walk-out music on his Devils & Dust tour.
In other music news, The New Pornographers' new album (Twin Cinema) is out today. I went to lunch near the record store so I could pick it up right away. I'm still getting used to the fact that it sounds different from Electric Version, but it's good nonetheless. I'll review this in a week or two after I've had a chance to meditate on it.
I have a lot of energy lately! Fortunately I've been able to keep myself busy.
The Aristocrats: This is a very funny and relentlessly obscene documentary on the infamous dirty joke. I laughed until it hurt. It's not for the squeamish, as the various comedians will violate (and I do mean violate) every taboo subject they can think of. If you can stand it, though it's well worth it. Highlights: George Carlin, Gilbert Gottfried, Eric Cartman.
Pelican: The Fire in Our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw: Long crashing epic songs that sound like they should be the soundtrack for an army of orcs on the march, driven by hard-rock electric guitar riffs (but acoustic guitar is used as well to great effect). Well, there aren't actually vocals (despite the album's title!), so I guess "songs" isn't the right term. Terrific instrumental rock, though. I'm uploading one of the shorter tracks to save bandwidth: "Sirius"
Is the university bell tower seriously playing Green Day's "Basket Case" right now?
Yes, it is. At least it's not "Good Riddance".
Imagine if he got royalties each time it played... at least the famed instability of Windows would be good for someone.
Insomnia is striking this week, inexplicably, but at least it's giving me a chance to catch up on my reading.
Richard K. Morgan: Market Forces: [Follow-up] Basically I remained unimpressed by this book. The plot did pick up near the end, but the writing was very plain throughout compared to Morgan's other works. The characters continued to baffle me, and entire thematic elements disappeared unexpectedly. Throughout the book I kept thinking of Chekhov's dictum, which Morgan follows very well when it comes to physical objects (e.g. the baseball bat) but fails to apply to more abstract elements. Anyway, I think a talented director could make a spectacular anime series out of this, but the novel was a bit disappointing.
Now I have finally started the fifth Harry Potter (Order of the Phoenix) and it seems that Harry has become a nasty, moody adolescent with a case of PTSD and some serious self-absorption. Which makes perfect sense given his past experiences. Now if Voldemort doesn't at least make an attempt to turn this guy to the dark side, he should just turn in his supervillain badge. (I confess that my dream is a seventh book in which Harry turns evil and is the primary villain. But this seems unlikely.)
The Lucksmiths: Warmer Corners: This is a pretty solid indie-pop album that reminds me of Belle & Sebastian and (especially with the jangly guitars) Teenage Fanclub. The standout track is "Sunlight in a Jar".
The poll is still garnering votes (I think it stays open for a week) so I won't change the picture in the sidebar just yet. In the meantime, here's a music review and an open thread.
The Go! Team: Thunder Lightning Strike: I have no idea what this is, but it's great. Like someone made a kickass rock band based around the soundtracks to cheesy 70's action movies. This is good music for getting psyched up for some difficult task. Try "Bottle Rocket"; it's all like that.