31 July 2008

Plug of the Week: O-Hum (Iran) and Acrassicauda (Iraq)

This starts with a stuffy section. You can skip the part between the lines if you want to cut to the chase scene.

It is traditional for new music to be scandalous. The waltz was shocking, flappers flapping without corsets was disturbing, and hot jazz was so disturbing that the German National Socialists were obliged to ban it. There has probably been no era without the kids thinking of ways to torment adults with their music, but I think that the all-time champion of getting the establishment up in arms has to be rock in its evolving forms.

There are many intertwingled reasons for this. It is supposed to be about sex, rebellion, and dark hidden things (as well as shiny happy people giving the best of their love to the most beautiful girls in the world, of course. Some things really are eternal.) It's not that Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Little Richard invented the idea of mixing music and sex. That goes back through Frank Sinatra into the dim past. Part of rock, though, is to put the sex right on the front of the stage, thrusting itself into your face. In turn, that is part of the larger ethos that says rock is rebellion. Obviously that goes in cycles and not everyone is cut out to be completely Rotten, but a big part of the appeal of rock is the appeal of the bad boy and of the teenager telling the world that he's not going to take it anymore.

So rock is rebellion and sex and music. Rock concerts bring together groups of young people just at the age when their brains are smart enough to think of ways to cause trouble, but not mature enough to give much thought to risk. (Really, it's science—that part of the brain doesn't mature until the early 20s.) Rock recruits, gathers, and indoctrinates rebels, so it's no wonder that establishments set on control of the population would see rock as a very bad thing and try to ban it.

Music is a sneaky thing, though. It's so easy to move around and surprisingly easy to hide considering how loud it is. It turns out that it is nearly impossible to keep the seeds of it out of a culture. The fans and musicians will keep the music alive underground and seize on the tiniest opportunity to burst out. Over the last 50 years, time and again we (in the larger sense, not us in particular of course) have seen that outburst give a shove to the forces that have broken authoritarian regimes.

The best example of this is the Plastic People of the Universe, who managed to bring Velvet-Underground style rock to Czechoslovakia through time that the Russians grabbed control of Czechoslovakia because the government was turning away from Communism. They went to extraordinary lengths to bring the music in to the country and to perform it. It is really worth hitting Wikipedia to get an idea of what they had to go through. It's not an accident that the Velvet Revolution was in Prague: when the Plastic People were arrested in 1977, Vaclav Havel and other activists kicked into high gear.

Governments who realize they can't keep the kids from listening to rock think they can control the problem by controlling the music: censoring lyrics, requiring reviews or permits to perform, record, or sell music, even maintaining government ownership of instruments so that only well-behaved musicians could get them. You can imagine how well this works in practice. Bands always find ways to code messages in ways that kids will understand and their parents won't. You can make gear out of scrounged parts and hold concerts in basements. The thing about rock is that the more you make rock against the rules, the more rebel energy you give it. If listening to Metallica makes you subject to arrest, then you might as well go all the way from youthful rebellion into active resistance or revolt. The power of rock to galvanize a revolution comes from the establishment itself. It's like a law of nature, and yet the Them never quite catch on to that and so we see the pattern repeating again and again.

Which brings us to now and the line I promised the people who wanted to skip the stuffy part.

Now it is the turn of authoritarian Muslim countries to deal with rock rebels.

There is an excellent documentary out on the only Iraqi metal band, Acrassicauda. They struggled with religious establishments's opposition to just about everything associated with metal, including headbanging (which is apparently Jewish) and singing (which is immoral). Then they struggled with the war. Now they are struggling with being refugees and rocking Iraqi expats. I'm not the best one to ask, but I think they are pretty good considering that they have had to go months or years without playing together because of the war separating them. And that lead guitar sounds to me like it has a lot of shreddy goodness. I read that they are now in Turkey and working on a full album and growing their hair. They have three demo tracks on their MySpace page and a link for donations to help them out.

Acrassicauda at their last concert in Iraq
on MySpace
Heavy Metal in Baghdad

The Iranian band O-Hum found a very modern way to subvert their religious authorities. O-Hum's label was denied a permit to produce O-Hum's first album. So O-Hum have released their whole catalog of music as MP3s on the internet, where their fans in Iran and anywhere in the world can get hold of them. This got people to their concerts, caused backlash and commotion, and has wound up with the band being a driving force in Iranian underground rock. They have developed an interesting Persian alt rock that uses elements of traditional Persian music and takes its lyrics from an esteemed early Persian poet. I'm not sure I love it, but I like it a lot. And every time one of those tracks is downloaded, a mullah gets a stomach cramp.

Babak Akhoondi of O-Hum
free downloads

It's hard to say where this will lead. I think that this is a lot harder rebellion than against communism in the Warsaw Pact satellites. A little encourgement could go a long way, though. Plus, you get to listen to the music.

30 July 2008

A night made of win!

My Amber time got eaten up by family stuff this evening, but it was cool music-related family stuff, so I win!

Older son has the MP3 player. As you might recall, he was mindlessly listening to flavor-of-the-month hiphop that he got from his friend until I put my foot down and installed some free tracks from PayPlay.fm as samplers. I told him he had to listen to all of it before I changed his music; then I would buy him two albums.

Tonight, he told me he likes zouk and reggaeton and could I please put more of those on. Goal! At least he thought about it and actually chose instead of just taking in whatever came along. We spent some time working on which two albums to buy and he went off very happy.

Younger son wanted his turn and demanded to dance something "old fashioned" (compared to reggaeton, I suppose). So I played a guitar transcription of Bach's Violin Concerto #2 and we did pavannes and the twist and some Bob Fosse and whatever made us laugh. It's probably a good thing that I am never in situations that call for social dancing, since I would have no idea what would be normal. We all just jump around and have a good time.

All that and popcorn. Like I said, made of win.

29 July 2008

Choice of Weapons

Today, my coworker Mary started ranting about how much she hates musicals. I just started singing Oklahoma! until she stopped.

I told her that if she doesn't behave, I'll do South Pacific.

I suppose that now all the readers who didn't run from Keith Urban are now vanishing into the distance. Tomorrow, it will be Iranian metal, I promise. I'll save the real showtunes post for a day when I have the time to do it right.

28 July 2008

Shoot me, I beg you. Please.

Shoot me, I beg you. Please. The earworm is back and it's eating my brain. Everywhere I go, everything I do, ...

I thought I could ignore it and let it go away. Eventually, all earworms die. Right?

Maybe I could blow it out of my brain with something else!

I tried saturating myself.

Oh, so that's what that guy meant when he said I had "emo hair". I don't anymore, now that I've gone from "I need a haircut" to "I'll tell people I'm going for a ponytail". I wonder what it's like to be in a band and know that your Big Hit was recorded on a day you weren't even invited to the studio.

These earworms can infest anyone. I saw an interview with Adam Levine in which he said that he catches himself humming "This Love", because is has a fucking catchy hook.

NO! NO! Eat hook and die, earworm!

Time for the big guns:

Hah! Take that!


27 July 2008

Rock on, Keith ... Urban

I read a comment from a young music fan on a forum over there somewhere who wondered why rock music just has the same instruments over and over. My brain played that back for me while I was thinking about "What is 'country'?".

I think that in part, "rock" is defined by the standard instruments. Certainly the music we call rock was shaped by the instruments it started with:

Maybe the reason that rock & roll caught on was because of the sound of the instruments. Maybe the reason we like the sound of the instruments so well is that we are used to them because of rock & roll. It doesn't seem like it matters anymore.

It's not a simple equation, that "Rock" = electric guitars, electric bass, & drum kits.

Bob Wills caused a commotion when he added those to his nominally-country Texas Playboys in the 30s and 40s. (When they played at the Opry, the drummer was hidden behind a curtain. Snrk.) (A surprising amount of the music you all listen to today comes out of stuff that Bob Wills did back in the day, by the way. He also introduced the guitar + steel guitar pairing that signals "country" for a lot of people.) Those instruments show up in jazz, blues, soul, gospel, country, all over the place.

Other instruments appear all over rock, too. Keyboard instruments are common. In the last week, I've heard accordion, violin, autoharp (although I confess I did search for "autoharp punk"), ukulele, didgeridoo, and mandolin:

You can all probably spin out your own list.

I think that the differences between the genres we hear so much about is as much social as it is in the music. If you listen to a lot of different music, you realize that those boundaries don't mean much to musicians. Brad Paisley plays on a Snoop Dogg track, Solomon Burke does a country album, Dylan goes electric! It is so common for them to work together in unexpected combinations, take influences from all over the place, and generally do what they think sounds good. That's how we ended up with rock in the first place: rockabilly and blues and all those strands coming together in Sun Studios. That process has never stopped.

This afternoon, I listened to Keith Urban's Love, Pain & the whole crazy thing and something struck me. On most of the songs, you could swap out the instruments (banjo and fiddle out, synth in e.g.) and otherwise leave the songs and arrangements note for note, and it would have been an awesome rock album instead of an awesome country album. The only traces of country left would be Urban's singing style. But were the instruments all that made it "country"?

That makes me think about all the stink about Shania Twain's apostasy. She recorded pop! She was produced by Mutt Lange! She wore the wrong kind of clothes and hair! Instead of being judged as a pop artist, she was judged as a country artist who behaved badly. How did she get stuck with the label "country", then? If nothing about her music and performance was "country", why was she?

These questions are what make me think that a lot of the differences are social. "Country" and "rock" as categories are about marketing. The people who identify themselves as the people who buy country shape what the country labels deliver to them. Artists that get tagged "country" because of the label they came into the system under have pressure to make music that the people who buy country will want to buy. Keith Urban is in the country pipeline, so the people who are likely to hear his music expect steel guitars and all the other standard markers (like topics and standard phrases and all). I believe that Urban probably likes his music the way it sounds and isn't forced to make it that way, but Twain's experiences shows what can happen when the artist's vision strays too much from the genre expectations. Most of the time, an artist has to declare Crossover to try to get away from that, but it's a risky path. You can easily lose your old listeners without attracting new ones. And the music biz establishment only loves you as much as your last album sold, right?

Maybe it all comes down to habit and group identity. We have habits as listeners. Musicians have habits of work. Kane (a group that keeps itself on the edge of country and rock) has a line: "Everybody's got their own definition of 'just their kind'." We all need to have a way to distinguish Them from Us, so those steel guitars end up mattering so darn much. Country is a state of mind. and "country" is the music that marks out that kind of "just my kind".

This brings me around again to the changes in music coming from the changes in distribution. We don't have the big labels exerting as much influence on what is produced. A relatively small and widely-distributed group of listeners who like "surf punk bluegrass"

can form itself into a market through YouTube and social networking services. This is what has always happened along the boundaries, but now the border is bigger and busier. It's making music a lot more fun for me, that's for sure.

Future related rants: How this has brought us uke-mania and so many EPs

25 July 2008

Plug of the Week: Fluid Lines

Fluid Lines could be just another earnest punk-pop band of appealing youths, the next interchangeable unit off the current production line. They have all the standard checkoffs for a local band to make the maidens swoon: four not-bad-looking young guys, lyrics about finding yourself and love and the problems of growing up, just naughty enough to be attractive but safe enough for a beginner's crush, the whole kit. There are a nice basketful of similar bands in their local area that all seem to be percolating a lot of the same ideas (and I should write about that sometimes, because I think some of those ideas are interesting. Anyway...) . In any one attribute, I could name one of those other bands that was a bit better. Looking at their specs on paper, Fluid Lines could be completely generic.

And yet they are the ones I listen to most often. They manage to package up all their not-quite-the-best attributes with some extra something that makes their music gel. Other young bands in their area which might look better on paper and which are nice to listen to don't click the same way for me. Fluid Lines have a harder and punkier sound than their peers, I think, and they do interesting things with rhythms that I like a lot. Even though in their Youtube videos they seem like pretty ordinarily goofy boys, they bring more gravitas to their music than a lot of their peers do. They are not just playing to the girls in the front row—they seem to have their eyes on a farther horizon.

Fluid Lines is still a young band and they don't bring all the power and polish of more mature bands, but I think they are in a good position to burst out of the minor league with just a little more experience and a bit of luck. I am looking forward to their next album a lot. I am already enjoying the sample tracks they put on their MySpace.

I would not insist that everyone should like this band, but I do recommend that if you like punk pop at all you give them a chance to win you over.

Fluid Lines on MySpace

23 July 2008

I will be at this show if I have to walk

I never go out to hear live music.

I run into it sometimes around the city, of course. I wish I had walked into the Joshua Bell performance that the Washington (DC) Post set up in a subway station to see how much money he would get in the hat. That would have been sweet.

But I don't go out. When I started writing this blog, I resolved to go to some shows so I could write about them. It seems like every time I see one I want to go to, I can't for all sorts of stupid practical reasons, or because I forget to write it down, or I get sick, or something else annoying. There is also the problem of being a world-class gold medal introvert and geek. It's just so hard to contemplate going out and dealing with people sometimes.

Just recently, I saw an announcement for a local show of a somewhat local band I like. Unfortunately, it was just far enough away from the urb that I could barely get there on a bus and couldn't figure out how to get home without spending 8 hours killing time waiting for first bus of the morning. I threw in the towel.

Now I have just seen an announcement for the same band playing a similar local gig in August. It's within the urban area of the next city over, so I have put my foot down with myself. I will be at that show. I am not allowing myself to hermit up again. This is me giving myself a stern look.

Ordinarily, I would just grab my pack and head out. I am a public transportation Old Hand and I already know roughly how to get to the club. (I used to go to school in that neighborhood.) Boo-yah!

I am getting all twitchy about this show, though. I have already started making notes on bus and train schedules. I have no idea what time a show that is supposed to start at 8 pm is likely to end (or start), but it looks like I will have 4 hours to kill before the morning train. I already know that the bus service at that time is very sparse and that neighborhood between the club and the station is rough (think HBO's The Wire), but I have also just found out that apparently the train station is closed from 1:30 am to 3 am. (WTF's up with that? Why would you close the train station?) I actually started googling to find an all-night diner in walking distance of the club.

This is getting out of hand and I have until 11 August for anxious trip planning. I haven't even gotten to weebling about how ridiculous it is for me to go to a concert full of teenypunkers. (I should like more age-appropriate music, if I could figure what that is supposed to be.)

Gah, I need to book a day off from work, too. There is no way I am taking the train straight to my office after an all-nighter. ::making a note::

This is me giving myself a dope slap.

22 July 2008

Dipping my toe into the shallow end of Country

I have been too busy today to think any deep thoughts about music. I finished off the other program I was developing, just a simple mix. I listened to ACRES, Screaming Trees, The Hint, and Shostakovich's String Quartet #8 again (still brutal).

I did do some shallow thinking about music. Both of the people who commissioned the programs (through the auction I posted about) specified "No metal and no country". What is it about country music that makes people twitch so? I am starting to think it is like eating horse meat—we don't do it because we don't do it. "Country" is so diverse that I can't imagine someone who listens with an open mind not finding anything at all to like. I always struggle with labels, but anyone should be able to tell that Brad Paisley and Keith Urban are doing different kinds of stuff. Now my mind is starting to spin off toward deep stuff about tropes and subculture markers and all, so it's time to set it aside to marinate for a while. First I have to think about what "Country" is.

That does remind me to point you all to something good. A friend of mine suggested I get some Keith Urban albums, so I did and I have been enjoying them a lot. If you like rock and the sound of a steel guitar doesn't give you hives, you should listen to some of his songs with an open mind. There is one song on the most recent album that just tore me up because it hit so many notes from my own life. I mean, gut-ripping fall down shattered me. I hope none of you have cause for that strong a reaction. It's brilliant though:

The songwriter, Sarah Buxton, has a version on her MySpace that is okay, but it seems a little sweetened up. I found a much rawer and better live performance on YouTube.

And in unrelated news: my next-door neighbors have moved out and the apartment is still empty, so I can play my accordion whenever I want to! That crosses one thing off the list of excuses, anyway. Summer is hard, because it's not like you can take an accordion to the beach or pool or skating. Or you could, but it would be hard on the accordion because the wax holding the reeds would soften, plus the reeds don't like moisture. And my cat ate my sheet music. Against all good sense (considering the kinds of music I like best), I love to play my squeezebox, though.

And so, off to play some exercises. Kids, see—adults don't just tell you to practice to make you suffer. We do it, too, so we can play better.

21 July 2008

Superhero Crisis

I have been developing a commissioned playlist that has been giving me fits. It is a writing soundtrack for someone who is working on a story about a superhero struggling with being a superhero.

A writing soundtrack is different from a TV or film soundtrack. It is designed for the writer to listen to in pieces while working on the corresponding parts of a story. That means the pieces don't have to flow together, but it also means that you can't have the pieces commenting on or reinforcing each other much.

I was determined to track the inner life of the protagonist rather than the external action and I was also determined to not just recycle Big Metal Guitars battles. I settled on using acoustic strings to signal when the protag is in a good emotional state and electric when she is very agitated, with lyrics only on pieces that touch her love life. I also wanted the various strands of the story (love life, relationship with the Heroic Superhero Team, battles, etc.) to have connecting threads.

This became a problem when I realized that had lost access to the ex-partner's classical and jazz collection in the Big Breakup. I listen to classical music online, but I never remember the names of the composers or the pieces. I was searching online, but I wasn't getting anywhere and it was giving me a bit of stress.

But yesterday, Eureka! I ended up working a BBQ grill with a conservatory-trained musician who remembers everything. He pointed me at Shostakovich's String Quartet 8, which is "brutal". Bing! It was a winner and made everything else click right into place.

My last problem was the first piece, to show what the hero was like before she got her powers. What does an ordinary USAn schoolgirl with a happy attitude listen to these days? Beats me. That is way outside my range. I figured it had to be cute guys in their 20s, as is traditional, but other than that ... blank. Then I had another Eureka! That annoying earworm "Hey There Delilah" just fit the spot. Of course, now I have the earworm again, but it's worth it.

I'm going to let it sit a few days to make sure, but I really feel this is it. Of course, the client will probably insist on the Big Metal Guitars battles, but this is the director's cut and you know which one history will get behind.

I so totally rock my awesome super self that my hat hardly fits any more.

20 July 2008

DIY Music

This afternoon, I had an unexpected opportunity to hear a conservatory-trained musician messing around on a piano, playing Bach, Chopin, and his own compositions. It made my day. What touched me the most is that he makes his living doing something else entirely. He plays and composes for himself, because he likes to. What a simple reason.

When I watched the Collective Soul concert with the Altanta Youth Symphony Orchestra, I wondered how many of those kids would keep playing their instruments after they aged out of the orchestra, or after they graduated from college. When was the last time someone pulled out an oboe or violin to mess around with at a cookout? Is the guitar the instrument that has eaten all the others? Has home-made music been replaced by professional musicians and iPods?

Far from it. I've been poking around on YouTube lately and keep running into videos of people playing just about anything you can think of that makes noise, sometimes well and sometimes badly, but just for fun. We live in a world that lets us peer into someone's room and share this moment:

(for better or worse, judge for yourself)

This is nice, and I particularly like the encouraging comments on the site:

And this is what I got for "punk autoharp":

It also appears there is a great upsurge of ukulele:

This all encourages me to keep enjoying my recorders and accordion, just for me, just to enjoy the process. (Do not, however, expect to see or hear me on YouTube anytime soon.)

19 July 2008

The Future of the Musical is Horrible

You know I love musicals. Not so much the ironic ones that turn to the audience and say "we are doing music to lampoon musicals, aren't we clever", but wholehearted ones. Joss Whedon gets this, which is odd because he is all about irony and in-jokes for the audience and all. So you really all simply must click over to watch Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, complete in three episodes. You will recognize some of the performers. 'Scuse me now. I am going to go watch it again.

17 July 2008

Plug of the Week: Free Music

I don't have a lot of money, but I listen to a lot of music. I pull the budget end of the rope toward the music end of the rope, but I can never quite get them to touch. I fill the gap with free music. Free is good. I like free.

Free is not the same as stolen. I believe in paying people for their work, because it is right and because it encourages them to keep doing it. I am not peer-to-peer pure anymore--I finally tried BitTorrent to see how it works and get something that is out of print--but it is just not comfortable for me. There is a lot of music that is offered for free, though.

The first stops are artist sites and their pages on MySpace and Purevolume (and probably others I haven't gotten to yet). Most everyone has a widget that lets you play some of their tracks. If you have the patience and a tether to a web connection, you can play those over and over. I'm not sure whether the artists mostly put these up to bring traffic to the pages or to directly increase sales with free samples; either way, it has become expected. (I think a lot of newer indie bands put them up just so people will hear them.)

You can also listen to music on web radio of various flavors (including Last.fm, Pandora and Batanga), but mostly that is tethered, too.

If you aren't happy being tethered like that, you can get utilities that will let you grab whatever is being sent to Line Out (the speakers) on your computer. I use Audacity (free program!) for that and can recommend it for this. (I don't know how well the more advanced features work.

I have mixed feelings about grabbing these, but I have come down on the side of taking them as free samples. MySpace and Purevolume both let the artists choose to enable direct downloading and mostly they don't, so I am not sure how much they object. I balance that against the way I use them. I do playlists for people and that means I have to listen to a lot of stuff to choose what to program. So far, that is turning into track sales, so I am hoping that my Karma balance comes out right.

PayPlay.fm understands Karma. They have a system of Karma points that you can use to download tracks that the artists have identified as Karma tracks, for free. You get points for signing up. logging in, buying tracks, and writing album reviews. This really is an excellent way to explore indies and to get free stuff. In theory, your downloads are limited by how many Karma tracks you accumulate, but I buy enough there that I have never come close to bottoming out.

Last.fm has a different approach. They also have tracks that artists have made available for free download, but there is no limit to how many of them you can get. They have pages with top downloads listed and also pages with downloads they recommend based on your listening history. You can even subscribe to a feed that will ship you one of your recommended tracks every day. They have more stuff from label-based, big-name type acts, too. It looks like Soundflavor.com has a similar setup, but I haven't had a chance to play around with that yet.

There are other approaches out there. TrueAnthem.com has sponsored tracks. You can download whole albums, but the tracks have the artists speaking little "sponsored by" blurbs at the beginning. This is not a problem for the work part of my listening, but it is a little irksome for pleasure listening. Radiohead released its most recent album as shareware. You could download it and pay whatever seemed right to you. That would have let you get the album for a penny-equivalent. I don't know of any other bands that have done this, but I'd be surprised not to see it again soon.

There is another outlet for free music that I haven't explored yet at all, but which looks like a big playground with cool toys: Creative Commons Audio.

"Creative Commons" defines the spectrum of possibilities between full copyright — all rights reserved — and the public domain — no rights reserved. Our licenses help you keep your copyright while inviting certain uses of your work — a “some rights reserved” copyright.
Their page points out to a variety of CC applications, including artists who make material for remixing available, a service that matches you up with music licensed for P2P distribution, a try-before-you-buy music label, and a service that helps artists take advantage of CC licensing to make money off their music. I think I am going to have some serious fun with Creative Commons.

16 July 2008

Musicians that other musicians listen to

I have always been interested in musicians who are overlooked by the public at large but who influence other musicians. I always feel richer when I find such a hidden treasure. Today I realized that I had been listening to four of these this week. Since I am too sick to think of anything else, I will share. When you're done, turn out the lights and let yourself out, k'thx.

Robin Sylar

(Interesting side note: the bassist in the band is Mike Judge, as in Beavis & Butthead, King of the Hill, and Office Space. I think that pretty much this whole show is up on YouTube in assorted clips and it is awesome.)

Elliott Smith

Big Star

Townes Van Zandt

Bonus clip: Elliott Smith covers Big Star

15 July 2008

Not acting my age

I was telling someone at work about some of the new British bands I have been listening to lately and he made a comment that got me thinking. "That's kids music, isn't it?"

Is it? If it is, does that mean I'm not supposed to like it? Or admit I like it? Or what? Life is full of memos that I never got, it seems.

The Right Place At the Night Time - Fluid Lines

The Last Dance - Through And Throughout

Where Are Your Friends? (Demo) - Lights and Sounds

I mentioned this to someone else at work and he told me that most people listen to music that was popular when they were seniors in high school (17 or 18 for the non-USAn readers). I dug out the charts for my year and looked it over. I remembered everything on it and most of it is okay, some of it better, some worse.

That got me thinking about what I did listen to in high school besides that stuff in the air. Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw. Peter, Paul, and Mary. Gershwin—the clarinet at the beginning of "Rhapsody In Blue" is sublime. The Beach Boys. Squaredancing and roundancing records produced by my grandfather ("A corner swing in Indiana, circle right and walk the lady home. The moon is shining bright, left allemand tonight, ... "). ELO and George Harrison. The Monkees. I love the Monkees and I am not ashamed to admit it. My father practicing the cornet, banjo, accordion, and whatever else he was teaching himself that month.

As I let my mind wander back through my musical history, I was suddenly transported back to one of the most perfect musical moments in my life. When I was a senior in high school, as it happened.

I can close my eyes and be there again. I was at some party, kids and parents. The father of the house was a good two kilometers past "audiophile"—he had a room in which nothing was to be moved so the acoustics wouldn't change. For some reason he took pity on me, allergic to the sun, being stuck at a pool party. He set me up in his listening chair, with his special headphones and a stack of vinyl. He had good stuff and I occupied myself well. Everyone else was off somewhere doing whatever social people who get all the memos do.

I was sitting in a dim room, headphones on, leaning back in the perfect listening chair. I was relaxed and probably doing some interesting brain wave stuff (from the music, of course. No substances were involved. Of course not. And stay in school, too.) And then I hit the opening of Steve Miller's "Fly Like an Eagle" and could feel my brain being altered. It felt like the music was inside me, making my mind bigger (and buzzed). That song somehow made a chord I was part of.

I had always listened to music, but that changed the way I listened. After that, I understood what music could be and started paying attention to what made it work like that. And that led to paying more attention in general. That moment with that song was a turning point. And still, whenever I hear that song it takes me back to that perfect moment. I've got that album and just listened to it again a couple of days ago and lost myself in it again.

I started this somewhere. Right, "kid's music". Fuck that shit. If you think that, I bite my thumb at you. If I like it, I listen to it—no matter who made it or when. And if there's a memo that says this is not properly acting my age, you can take that memo and file it.

Here is what I listened to. These two are really one piece, so listen to them back to back. I have no idea why it was cut into two tracks.

Space Intro - Steve Miller Band

Fly Like an Eagle - Steve Miller Band

Here is a nice recent version from Seal.

Here is a very interesting early version of the song I found while looking for something to embed. It's a live performance of the song around 3 years before the studio version was released. It is more bluesy, the lyrics are more explicit (in the literal sense, not "dirty"), and he plays the spacy bit at the beginning on his guitar. That may be a ho-hum for guitar experts, but to me that is made of awesome. It is interesting that he had not yet hit on the rhythm that made it really work. (Geek? Me?)

The whole Fly Like an Eagle album is worthing listening to, by the way.

14 July 2008

More ranting about earbuds

Are there any human ears that the iPod earbuds fit into? Mine give me pain in one ear and just shoot out of the other one. Do these fit Steve Jobs and no one else? The ones that came with the little Coby player are better in a way—they are so big that there is no way to find out if they hurt, because I can't get them into my ear at all.

Apparently, thieves in the Washington, DC Metro system are grabbing MP3 players out of people's hands. The police say they are going after iPods by looking for white earbud cords. They advise commuters to get another color of earbud. Have these guys ever been in an ordinary store to shop for earbuds? The catalogs all show many interesting colors of buds, but your cord choices are typically an expensive black set, a cheap nasty-sounding black set, and 43 white sets.

The earbuds I like the best by far are the Skullcandy Ink'd. I think they have great sound and you can get them for $15 a pair. They have good treble and bass, plus excellent passive noise reduction. I am hard on them, so I keep a few extra pairs stuck here and there to avoid downtime when a pair dies. Their catalog shows a very serious black on black option, but the stores around here only carry an assortment of nano-colored buds with white cords. I have read that the sound of their Skullcandy Smokin' Buds isn't as good, but maybe I will give these a try next. This clever camouflage will surely convince the thieves not to steal the iPod classic in my hand while I am dozing on the subway.

The reason that I choose the canal-type earbuds is that I have significant hearing damage and I can't hear the music if there is too much background noise. I tried some expensive active noise reduction headphones, but they didn't work that well and were too bulky for commuting. The Ink'd reduce the noise almost as well and can go in my pocket.

Another consequence of my hearing damage is that I have to turn it up to 11 to hear at all in my left ear. (I jump in to add that this damage is from a mishap with a locomotive and not from loud music.) I would just like to say, FYI to every busybody out there: YES I KNOW THAT LISTENING TO LOUD MUSIC CAN DAMAGE YOUR HEARING. But I think my hearing is none of your feltercarbing business, thankyouverymuch. At least with the canal buds, I can push the left one in tighter than the right so I can even out the effective volume.

I will save cords that are designed to enhance tangling and knotting and the dorky Zune earbud cords look for a future rant.

13 July 2008

Staley in Chains

Recently, I rented the Alice in Chains episode of Unplugged. This 1996 concert was their first performance as a group in nearly 3 years. It was, in a sense, the end of the third movement of Layne Staley's symphony of self-destruction. (The fourth movement started when his girlfrield died and ended, of course, with his own death.) This is a remarkable performance. The music is good, but it is the other layers of the performance that really gripped me.

Staley himself is obviously in desperately bad shape. He is thin, pale, stoned or just plain out of it, missing teeth. He has trouble sitting upright at times and at times forgets the words to the songs. There are moments, though, when he loses himself inside one of the songs and goes to a place away from his present pains. It's a sad comment on his life that immersing himself in songs about drug abuse, depression, and suicide could make him feel better. It was sad to see, but it also made me think about the effort it had taken him to get onto that stage and how much the music meant to him.

A few feet to Staley's left is Jerry Cantrell, who had been Layne Staley's friend and musical partner for a long time. It is obvious that he is very happy to be on the stage with his friend playing their music together again. He seems to be so proud of Staley. There is clearly a lot of love between them. That makes it heartbreaking to see Cantrell pull out of the music time and again to watch Staley as if he is afraid to see him fall off the stool or as if he thinks it might be the last time they play together.

I have been the person watching a beloved friend destroy himself slowly. I know what it is like to see one of the good days after you have learned that they are only bright interludes in a dark slide. I don't think I have ever seen this complex bundle of feelings captured on film so well.

12 July 2008

School of Punk

Once I get going on something, I will inevitably start making notes and trying to reduce data to patterns and whatnot, because that is the way I think. This means that when I watched School of Rock, my attention homed in on the "History of Rock" blackboard that was only visible for a blink. I grabbed a copy of that later.

I spent a lot of time looking at an enlarged version of this that I made my desktop wallpaper to decipher it. There are plenty of things about this version of rock history that bother me, but the main one is the way punk is plugged in. It just seems wrong to me. I know that (for example), grunge did not evolve parallel to punk. Punk was one of the inputs to grunge. This history cuts off a couple of decades ago, so it doesn't get to the subsequent influences of punk, either. Thinking about this means notes and patterns, of course. Here is a sample page from my pocket notebook:

This is total crap, of course, because I still haven't worked it out, but it gives you an idea of what is happening between Amber's headphones.

11 July 2008

Music that is weird in a traditional way

One of my favorite bands is one that I'd bet none of you have heard of. (I wouldn't bet a lot, mind, but maybe 25 cents.) I love Hedningarna, a Swedish band that plays music based in traditional Scandinavian folk music, played on traditional instruments mostly, with twists and updates from other music traditions including rock. I am also into Wimme, a joiker. (Joiking is hard to explain, but there are samples below.)

I first ran into their music because one of their albums has a picture of a log with big nails sticking out of it and I was buying a gift for a spiky-log kind of guy. This track was the first of theirs I heard. It has a pair of Finnish women singing in a traditional pair-of-women style. I wish I could embed the whole track instead of just a clip, because the way the song builds slowly at the beginning is amazing.

This song has Wimme as a guest artist joiking.

This is more traditional than the other two, based more directly on folk music of Karelia (a region of Finland that ended up in the USSR and had been cut off from contact for a long time)

Wimme joiks very conventionally on this track.

And this one has a modern instrumental setting for the joiking.

If you want more information on these two or on similar artists, check out North Side Records. I like Gjallarhorn and Garmarna, too.

10 July 2008

Plug of the Week: Bid on me! Win music!

I have posted an item in the LiveJournal community livelongnmarry auction to raise money for the fight against the California initiative which will legally destroy existing same-sex marriages and ban any further ones. If the initiative passes, it will write discrimination into the state constitution, annul existing marriages, and make Mr. Sulu cry. You can specify that your bid will go to a group from their list or suggest one of your own. I am offering a custom 1-hour playlist to your spec. This will include tracks purchased for you, a playlist, and complete album artwork. This is a good cause and a good offer. There are many other even better offers posted in the community, so go have a look. (The auction closes at 00:01 Pacific time on 15 July.)

This blog is about me

Just a moment to remind myself and all of you what I think of as the charter of Amber.

I listen to music. I think about music. I think of my life as having a soundtrack and as a journey through a musical landscape. This MySpace and blog is about that journey. It is about my own personal musical experience: what I listen to and why, what I think about while I am listening to music, how I find new music, etc.

If this makes me a critic or a pundit, okay. I decided at the start not to be a reviewer. I don't go after new albums particularly. I don't try to be comprehensive. I don't feel any obligation to be fair or put things in historical context or cover things that are supposed to be important if I don't feel like it. I just write what I think on the day I write it.

I also resolved not to post anything like a negative review. If I am writing about something and I see something as a minus, I'll mention it. I won't write about an album or an artist just to say I think it is bad. I reserve the right to deviate from that if I see a good reason to, but I don't want this to be about funny insults. I think I could describe my approach as developing a playlist: If I like it or think it's interesting, it's in. If I don't, it's not.

And so this is not all just blah-blah, here is a sample of what I'm listening to today:

Rainin in Paradize - Manu Chao

09 July 2008

I don’t like Nirvana

I don't like Nirvana. This is not the same as disliking Nirvana. I just don't like them.

I don't mind listening to them. I can appreciate their significance in the history of rock. I like their songs fine, performed by them or by others. Everything positive that anyone has said about them, I have no argument with at all.

But I don't like them. Listening to their music doesn't do anything for me. If one of their songs is playing and gets interrupted--doesn't bother me at all. I bought a chunk of grunge and yet never even lingered over a Nirvana album deciding. Intellectually, I get them, but emotionally just crickets.

Add them to the list of my musical heresies next to Led Zeppelin. The more I explore, the longer that list grows, too. Don't hate them, can't be bothered.

I have been looking at the local-network iTunes libraries and I am the only one who doesn't have Alanis Morissette. There is one person who is hiphop, hiphop, trance, hiphop, classical--and Alanis. Eh. If I had money for albums burning holes in my pockets, I'd buy Enemymine or Trevor Lissauer & the Glass Plastiks or Driving East years before I ever got down the list to Morissette. Or Madonna. Or Morrissey. Or Metallica.

I do like Backstreet Boys, though.

08 July 2008

Genre-bending only goes so far

Yesterday, I read this in the Washington Post:

Madonna is one of the most successful rock stars of all time, with global album sales estimated at more than 200 million copies. A multi-Grammy award winner, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in March.

The Hall has no argument from me about including Madonna. She has earned the recognition and I think it is great that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has taken a big-tent charter. There is so much back and forth and blending that there would be practically impossible to draw lines between pop and rock or between blues and rock, it would be a giant politcal bloodbath, and there would be no benefit to it anyway. You go, RnR HoF!

This does mean, though, that induction into the Hall doesn't certify someone as "rock". Are there any criteria by which you could call Madonna a "rock star"? Has Madonna ever recorded a single track that could be called "rock"? Has she ever recorded anything anywhere near the border of what she does and "rock"?

I found an article online (CLICK HERE.) that points out that she drummed and sang in rock bands for three years before she went over to dance music and that she uses some vocal inflection techniques from rock. I'm not convinced. That argument would not get any of the many classical and jazz performers who dabbled in rock as kids called "rock stars". Lots of rock singers started out singing in church, but that doesn't get them called "gospel stars" in the Post.

I am not going to write a letter to the editor or anything. The Post can call her anything they want. That doesn't mean it makes any sense, though. Can anyone think of anything she did that is anything at all like rock?

07 July 2008

I am going to kill this computer

Because the hard drive on my new work computer is bigger (although still smaller than Ratatask's), I decide I would install iTunes (or rather not uninstall it when it came in with Quicktime) and maybe look into podcasts. And then I discovered the delights of shared iTunes libraries in a big Intranet. This is very cool and a way to sample free.

Or it would be if I could stand to listen to music on this thing.

The sound on the new PC is two floors below "Suck". I have the most current driver for the sound card (SoundMax integrated HD Audio). I have it set for "headphones". I have tweaked the equalizer every possible way. It still sounds nasty and tinny, even with the bass cranked up and the treble down. How hard does it have to work to make Enemymine (punk power trio with two basses and drums) sound tinny? This is with the same excellent Skullcandy Ink'd earbuds I was using very happily the in the morning on the old system before I plugged them into the new system in the afternoon.

Help? Please? Any ideas?

(And you have no idea how hard I had to work to do this without a single F-bomb.)

06 July 2008

Maroon 5, hiding in plain sight

I got sucked into the "if everyone is talking about them, they must suck" trap again. I kept hearing "Maroon 5" and "Adam Levine" all over the place. They are the current Big Thing, he is hot and cool dating some starlet or other, blah blah blah.

Then I was watching Saturday Night Live digital clips on Hulu and the supporting singer in one of them sounded familiar. "He's the guy in that song I liked." So I looked up his name: Adam Levine of Maroon 5. That led me to their web site, which led me to a online tracks. It turns out I have been liking a lot of their stuff without the penny dropping that it was them.

It's not poppy flavor-of-the-month drivel at all. It's razor sharp, funky rock with very very dark story lines. I love that kind of stuff! Why didn't someone tell me? Why why why don't they say the names of the bands and songs on the radio anymore?

Of course, then I had to put more albums on the list. At least I only have two to catch up on.

And I suppose this means I need to check out Coldplay and Radiohead and all. I wonder if I have been hearing and liking their stuff all along?

05 July 2008

Plug of the Week: Yacht Rock

In reality, songwriting is mostly pretty dull to watch. But what if every song had a dramatic story behind it?

The creators of Yacht Rock noticed that there was a lot of similar music in the 70s/80s: smooth sound, tended to have pictures of boats on the cover, made by various collaborations of the same artists. They named this movement "Yacht Rock" and decided to show us the stories behind these oh-so-smooth songs in a short series of online programs.


Through these programs, we learn that Michael McDonald was the leader of a close-knit group of smooth-music devotees that included Steely Dan, Toto, and the rebellious Kenny Loggins. They loved, they fought, they drank, they grew beards, they wrote songs.

Here is a sample, Episode 3, in which Steve Perry seduces Kenny Loggins to the hard-rockin' dark side:

Other episodes show the gang-bangers Hall and Oates, the womanizing Michael Jackson, and the violent feud between the Eagles and Steely Dan at the center of the oh-so-smooth theme to FM.

FM - Steely Dan

Please, do yourself a favor. Just set an hour aside and watch this stuff.

Yacht Rock
on Channel 101

04 July 2008

My Exciting Geek Holiday

I am not much for wild celebrations. Today, I celebrated Independence Day by sleeping late, going to see Wanted (a big disappointment for me), streaming Eden's Curve, and fiddling with my iTunes library.

I guess I have to admit that I spent three hours cleaning up MP3 tags and finding missing album artwork. Normal people do that, right? I also spent a good chunk of time making my own thumbnails for the ones I couldn't track down. I rather like the generic one I made for assorted Nine Inch Nails tracks.

I had to do that because, having noticed that I was just 48 tracks or so short of 17.0 days of music, I downloaded a bunch of free tracks from Last.fm to make that up. So far, it's sounding like an interesting grab bag. I now have 6385 tracks, 17 days, 34 gB of music. I suppose that's a lot, but I keep thinking about what I don't have that I used to or that I want to.

I had a nice bit of serendipity. IMO, the best part of Eden's Curve was the soundtrack, so I spent some time looking for that. No joy, but searching on the names of the credited composers brought me to Trevor Lissauer and The Glass Plastiks. Their new album goes on the list of albums I will buy as budget allows. I observe that the list is growing faster than the money, though.

I wasted some time cleaning earbud cords. Why do they all have to make the cords white? Isn't there a market for ones that don't show grime? I also gave some thought to shockproofing Ratatask, the iPod. I have to leave it home when I'm skating, because my stomach twists when I think of falling on it. It's hard-drive based, so even protecting and cushioning the case might not be enough to keep it from shock damage inside the case. Until I solve these, I will have to keep cleaning cords and humming, I guess.

Tomorrow will be even more exciting: watching grass grow and a vigorous nap!

03 July 2008

Clean kids and dirty music

I got my oldest son a little MP3 player. I've been loading it up with stuff from my library. Once a week or so, we talk over what he likes and doesn't like, and then I adjust what's on there.

This has been working pretty well. He is a big big big fan of Five Star Iris and Queen, which I can supply in volume. He is a big fan of hiphop, though, which I don't have much of. I have been thinking about how to address that. I didn't think fast enough. Last week, his player had some tracks a friend of his had put on for him that I spotted when I plugged it in for updating.

I have some serious issues with the malware-loaded booby traps she copied over that I sprang when I tried to listen to them on my computer. But that is a concern for a different forum.

What worries me is that he has been listening to some pretty raunchy and sexist stuff without any adult being aware of it. He has fallen in love with "Smack That" by Akon, for example. The chorus of that includes

... bend you over. Look back and watch me Smack that, all on the floor, Smack that, give me some more, Smack that, 'till you get sore Smack that, oooh. ... Up front style. Ready to attack now.
Oh, dear. He is 10. He says he knows the words are bad and just likes the way the music sounds, but the other day he was walking around singing it.

So what am I supposed to do about this? I can talk to him about it, even make rules, but I can't even tell him what in particular I think is repulsive about this without going into more anatomical detail than he is ready for. His friends are all going to be listening to it and are being shaped by it. I can't think of any magic wand at all.

He knows I am going to be keeping my eye on his library now, which doesn't mean much because he could buy a cheap one for contraband tracks out of his lunch money. I talked to him about it. I bought him the TLC greatest hits album and downloaded a mass of clean(er) hip hop and urban Karma tracks from PayPlay.fm. Mostly, I suppose I have to keep on top of it and trust that I am rearing a good kid.

This parenting gig is hard.

02 July 2008

Late to the Party, again

As none of you will recall, what got me started on MySpace was replacing my faithful old CD player with an iPod. That let me get out the door without my 48-disk carrier, encouraged me to replace many fine albums lost in bad breakups (bastards, spit), and got me immersed in new music. I am now catching up on the punk and heavier stuff that I missed during my country and western period. (Not Country-and-Western.) Expensive, but all good.

I am not supposed to install music on my system at work, and I have been a good little bee about that. A bit of stuff accumulates here anyway. When I download music I buy at Amazon during the day (at lunch time, of course. Why are you looking at me that way?), that ends up on the hard drive and I don't delete it right away. I also had somehow gotten the Windows Media Player ripping whatever CDs I played here and didn't realize that until I ran out of space on the hard drive. When you don't have a page file, that gets your attention pronto. And not in a good way.

With no music on the hard drive to play (once I got all those WMAs cleared out), I have never wasted space on iTunes. The routine was update Quicktime, curse because of the time wasted installing iTunes with it, uninstall iTunes. This week, they dropped a new PC on my desk and so I had to go through that drill again. This system has a bigger hard drive, so I decided to let iTunes ride. I thought it might be an opportunity to subscribe to some podcasts.

Well, damn, I have been missing a very cool thing. This is the first time I have run iTunes on a network that wasn't just my home system. Why didn't someone tell me about the whole shared library thing? This is so squealworthily cool. I can listen to music in other people's iTunes libraries! Free! Wheeeee! And what a great way to check out some different stuff I wouldn't find on my own! This! deserves! many! exclamation! points!

I just listened to Curtis's copy of a Godsmack album I have somehow missed and I predict many fine hours enjoying Curtis's musical choices. Tony and K are living in the 70s, but that is not all bad. You can do worse than Aerosmith and Beethoven. Chicken Billy has a lot of prog rock and the complete Cypress Hill. Jen is slave to iTunes and doesn't have anything that isn't wearing a DRM chastity belt, but Brian is completely unlocked and has the Franz Ferdinand I have been meaning to check out. And am I the only person in the world who doesn't have Alanis Morisette? Or who does have hot jazz?

I feel bound to reciprocate, of course. I am going to have to install TouchCopy here and copy some interesting non-DRM stuff over from Ratatask so that Curtis, Tony, K, Jen, Chicken Billy, Brian, and all the others can check out my stuff. That is going to be fun, too.

And free! I pay for my music (with a couple of exceptions I think I will write about soon), so this is a $expletively expensive hobby. Free music is my friend.

Off to explore Nick and Jim.

01 July 2008

EARGH! I have an earworm!

I have a song stuck in my head, playing over and over and over and over ... . I have caught myself humming it several times and I want ... it ... to ... stop.

Hey There Delilah - Plain White Ts

I don't have anything against "Hey There Delilah". It's a nice little song. But I would never voluntarily listen to it a hundred times in a day.

Hey There Delilah - Plain White Ts

Please, make it stop.

Hey There Delilah - Plain White Ts