music to which it’s easy to make hand gestures

Jia Tolentino writes in The New Yorker about TikTok, an app/platform on which people record themselves goofing around to music. ‘A twenty-six-year-old Australian producer … told me that he was now concentrating on lyrics that you could act out with your hands. “I write hooks, and I try it in the mirror—how many hand movements can I fit into fifteen seconds?”’ And lo, the craft of songwriting morphs a lot and dies a little.

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Hamilton musical beyond outstanding

Before seeing “Hamilton” I listened to its soundtrack while reading through most of its lyrics and some of the excellent annotations on the Genius site, stopping before I learned too many of the reveals in Act 2. So I knew going in that clever lyrics, great storytelling, and creative rap presentation are a given; but some of the music, particularly for women, is very “Broadway Musical!” (why the high nasal singing?) and nowhere near as inventive as Sondheim. Will it be a Broadway musical with a rap twist, similar to “The Lion King”‘s puppetry+masks innovation?

Well. Add stagecraft, choreography, the headlong pace, and generally outstanding performers and this was the greatest damn musical I’ve seen.

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music: more Bob Dylan Theme Time Radio Hour classics

A friend urged me to listen to this show, preserved on a Web site. Open an episode in Chrome, Play in Popup, send to Chromecast Audio, and enjoy Bob nattering away on interesting collections of songs. I Shazam all the uncredited instrumental fragments (always related to the theme of each show) that play in the background; I used to submit the additions to the extended episode notes at The Bob Dylan Fanclub, then I realized anyone who cares can do the same.

I’m up to episode 72 (of 101). I admire more than love the expected blues, country, and folk originals that Dylan favors, but many of the unfamiliar soul and R&B cuts are good. One early shock was Ry Cooder, I knew his movie scores and love of American music but had no idea he had that craggy nasal singing voice. On the Baseball episode he sings a marvelous sad song “Third Base, Dodgers Stadium” from his album Chávez Ravine.

The Birds episode has a great joke about knowing Roger McGuinn (… of the Byrds) and reminded me of Buffalo Springfield’s fantastic “Bluebird” with its hot-mic’d steel string sound and division into movements (developed by the Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young iteration of the band into explicit “Suite Judy Blue Eyes”). I had access to some compilation with the classic “For What It’s Worth” as a kid but never listened to their second album Buffalo Springfield Again, yet another top album from the incredible 1967-1968 time period in which it seems every band on Earth aimed for greatness and most hit it.

The overflow Birds episode has a weirdly compelling obscure track by Bobby Paunetto, “Why Is Woody Sad?” Latin Jazz with vibes and strange lyrics.

The backstory of the show is interesting. Fans have figured out that a lot of the lore Dylan pours out is merely cribbed from Wikipedia, and the building, the studio, the diner across the street, and much of the production staff are made up. E.g. announcer “Pierre Mancini” is actually TV writer Eddie Gorodetsky who is clearly central to the show. His Christmas compilation album, Christmas Party with Eddie G, sounds like a hoot. Most of the time obscure records are obscure for a reason, but sometimes you strike gold.

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music: Cory Wong, rhythm guitar ace

YouTube recommended Vulfpeck to me, mid-West funky players with a killer bassist Joe Dart, but a bit too whitey-tighty. They occasionally play with rhythm guitarist Cory Wong, who is just great. The love child of Nile Rodgers, Prince, John Mayer, and an unnamed percussionist.

In the opening to “Companion Pass” he unleashes a machine gun triplet chickata-chickita-chickita which had every other guitarist going back to school to learn how he does it[*]. Video below (stick around for his hallway meeting with ZZ Top’s guitarist) or on his new album Motivational Music For The Syncopated Soul.

His home-town return concert Live in Mpls is a lot of fun, stuffed with music in-jokes. In the middle of the middle song in the show (“Frogville // Airplane Mode”), he plays the greatest rhythm guitar solo break I’ve heard this millennium. It actually starts at 50:28 but it’s worth hearing the weak instrumental before it just for “Alright Kev, let’s show them we went to music school.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C5XPSwZefs4#t=49m50s ,

I bought a VIP pass to see him on tour to meet in person before the show, can’t wait!

Vulfpeck’s best song, “It Gets Funkier”, is up to version IV (with Cory Wong), video below or on the album Hillclimber. Someone made a video tracking its evolution and BPM increase.

* Cory Wong slows and steps through “The Wong Triplet Rhythm Porcaro Paul Jackson Jr. Ripoff Lick” in this lesson, how hard can it be 🙂 You know there’s some kid watching who is going to play it twice as fast while solving a Rubik’s cube and playing Rock Band drums on hardest difficulty with his feet.

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music: PBS Soundbreaking embarrassingly wrong

I should like the Soundbreaking documentary series more than I did. A bunch of musicians talking about recorded music, sign me up! But it’s a crazily scattershot as struggles to edit brief comments by musicians and pretentious journalists into a somewhat coherent story about each topic (there’s no omniscient narrator). The enthusiasm comes across, but it doesn’t dig deep.

And in many parts it gets the details wrong. It shows clips from the wrong time period or ones that don’t feature what the talking heads are saying. For example, in episode 4 “Going Electric” the interviewees talk about the breakthrough of the synthesizer. It shows Pete Townshend with his massive Arp synthesizer and an EMS synthesizer, but then it features two The Who songs with an analog organ part. “Baba O’Riley” uses the “Marimba Repeat” feature of a Lowrey organ and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” is an organ through a filter. Pete Townshend is a certified genius for coaxing those complex sound patterns from a home organ, but they aren’t synthesizer parts. (I don’t understand how The Who producer Glyn Johns doesn’t know this, maybe he just accepted Pete’s demo tapes of his organ and mixed them into the studio recordings.) Watch someone reproduce the Baba O’Riley sound at 3:56, no synthesizer, sequencer, or sampler required:

The same episode talks about Stevie Wonder’s incredible five-year run after he he hears the album Zero Time and invites synth wizards Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff and their multi-timbral behemoth synthesizer TONTO to work with him. Great point, great work. But in the background plays “Superstition” (not a synthesizer but a Hohner clavinet going through analog effects, though it does have a Moog bassline and supposedly other sounds from TONTO) and “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” (a Fender Rhodes, no synthesizers at all). The episode could have used Stevie Wonder’s “Creepin’ for actual incredible lead synthesizer sounds.

No one is credited as the writer of the series, so I have to blame producers and directors Jeff Dupre and Maro Chermayeff.

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music/web: need a precise neutral way to refer to songs

Introducing NPR Music Playlists:

From the songs played between news stories on-air to the most essential releases out every Friday, we’re committing a series of playlists on Spotify and Apple Music, updated every weekday.”

This is no use if you use a music service other than Spotify or Apple Music! There should be a gatekeeper-independent way to link to a song that my digital device figures out how to play, similar to ISBNs for books. Bonus points if you can link to e.g. the 1992 Japanese remaster of the a capella remix and if it’s not available on my music service(s) then my device approximates with the a capella radio edit from the Greatest Hits release.

Wikipedia does something close to what I want, for coordinates and ISBNs. Click one in an article and the site asks what service you want to use to view the map or show the book information. Good, but these data items should be standardized in all web pages. And there’s nothing close for sound recordings.

There was a startup trying to solve this, Tomahawk… not sure what happened. There are other companies that will host your playlist and then reformat it for each music streaming service, but why involve a middleman? You know the song to which you want to refer, I have a smart device that can access that song in various ways; we just need to communicate intent.

Instead people (including me!) link to random YouTube videos of the song as the lowest common denominator, hoping they won’t get taken down. Even though my preferred music player usually does have access to the song, it doesn’t start and the musicians get even less money. <sigh>

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eco: Congressman Mo Brooks can’t do math

This morning Google Now featured excitable stories “Bipartisan Panel of Scientists Confirms Humans are NOT Responsible for Past 20,000 Years of Global Warming.”

Indeed the brave iconoclast Mo Brooks (Alabama 5th District) on July 11th got Dr. Twila A. Moon to say “So, I would agree that when it began 20,000 years ago when we were coming out of the last glacial that was not caused by humans. The warming of the last 100 years, most certainly was.” Still, the latest denialist tack has a certain nihilistic appeal: if warming happens whether we’re around or not, what’s the big deal? Earth is just warming up out of an ice age, nothing to see here.

But what nobody seems to have noticed is the howler is in Mo Brooks’ framing remarks. Quoting from his own press release:

By way of background, during the last glacial maximum of roughly 20,000 years ago:

  • Average global temperatures were roughly 11 degrees Fahrenheit COLDER than they are today (per Zurich University of Applied Science). Stated differently, global temperatures have risen, on average, roughly 0.5 degrees Fahrenheit per century over the past 20,000 years.

See the problem? 10°F ÷ 20,000 = 0.0005°F per year = 0.05°F per century. He’s wrong by a factor of 10 about the warming per century! Stated another way, if temperatures had risen 0.5°F per century for 20,000 years as he claims, it would be roughly 100°F warmer now.

Please, if you know a journalist, help me expose this math-illiterate idiocy. This garbage is being promoted by Rush Limbaugh and a bunch of right-wing sites, it needs the same ridicule that Mo Brooks got last year for suggesting rocks falling into the sea are causing sea levels to rise.

Yes it’s warmed since the ice age. But the recent warming is of a different magnitude. NASA’s Earth Observatory summarizes it (emphasis mine)

As the Earth moved out of ice ages over the past million years, the global temperature rose a total of 4 to 7 degrees Celsius over about 5,000 years. In the past century alone, the temperature has climbed 0.7 degrees Celsius, roughly ten times faster than the average rate of ice-age-recovery warming.

Models predict that Earth will warm between 2 and 6 degrees Celsius in the next century. When global warming has happened at various times in the past two million years, it has taken the planet about 5,000 years to warm 5 degrees. The predicted rate of warming for the next century is at least 20 times faster. This rate of change is extremely unusual.

Finding a good graph

Alas that web site doesn’t have a graph of temperature over the last 20,000 years. If you zoom out too much the recent warming doesn’t show up: if you zoom in you can’t see the slow warming over millennia then a century of rapid warming on the same graph. The best medium-term graph I’ve seen is from the XKCD online comic #1732 (as the meme goes “Obligatory XCD: https://xkcd.com/1732/.” I’ll end this by including it in full (I’m allowed to, it’s under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 License).

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audio: pavement back to the penthouse

Audiophile confession time: for months I’ve been listening to music on a $200 Jambox the size of a wine bottle, because one of my 40 kg VTL Signature 450 tube power amps blew up all my spare fuses for reasons as yet unknown.

Bryston and VTL power amplifiers

Friends loaned me a Bryston 3B amp (the smaller box in the pic) and… wow, baby’s back!! Bass is leaner, “polite,” but it’s part of the music extending octaves downward instead of a tubby sound effect. Stereo isn’t a left-right direction but life-size musicians spread out over 3 or more meters and sometimes front to back. And the Magnepan ribbon tweeters (from beautiful downtown White Bear Lake, MN) are lightning. Even at low volumes Joni Mitchell’s dulcimer is cold blue steel.

I enjoyed music fine without it, the change isn’t black & white to color, but the opening up in sound and space of a good hi-fi is a wonderful intensifier. Hear some before you die.

As to whether the solid state sounds better than 8 finicky Russian tubes… who knows? I am more and more distrustful of my ability to tell the difference between electronics. The Bryston amp in bridged mono mode is about 2.5 dB louder than the VTL so I turn the balance control towards the tube amp to roughly equalize their output levels, but even with a mono source switching between equally loud identical music, maybe the left speaker has better reverberation in my room, or my right ear is misshapen, or …

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music: Lil Nas X and pop today

Meaghan Garvey wrote an insightful funny review of Lil Nas X for NPR that’s also about the state of pop music, and funny to boot!

“the exquisite schadenfreude of the biggest pop stars on the planet, including Drake and Taylor Swift, being denied the Hot 100’s No. 1 spot for three months and counting thanks to a cowboy novelty song from a former Nicki Minaj stan account operator. …
maybe for his next act he’d be a fishing boat captain, sending sea shanties with trap drums up the SoundCloud charts.”

(A “stan” is an overzealous or obsessive fan of a particular celebrity.)

Older folks, watch the video (Chris Rock!) to avoid being hopelessly out of touch 🤠🐎 The Genius lyrics site can explain some of the references such as “Lean all in my bladder.”

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music/audio: great recording of great playing

I listen to the NPR news summary on the main NPR page and the web page often features Tiny Desk concerts recorded at a not-so-tiny desk at some NPR office (and promoted by cute hedgehogs). Many are excellent. I grooved on Thundercat playing with Mac Miller, a guy I barely knew about, only to find he’d died.

What’s impressive about these live videos is the sound. Watch this thrilling performance by Tedeschi-Trucks band:

That’s 11 people including two drummers recorded in the middle of an office. It’s crazy how good it sounds! Listen to the turn starting around 9:20 from the sax solo that ends “Don’t Know What It Is” (by Kofi Burbridge who passed away in 2019), to Trucks’ sparse transition, to Tedeschi’s spine-tingling “Aooohuoooh” opening “Anyhow” (watch how she looks at him at 10:20 💕🎶), and into that building horn chart. You can hear everything by everyone as it crests.

Well, here’s why: two really good audio engineers, Josh Rogosin and Kevin Wait, a lot of high-quality sometimes expensive microphones, and a lot of experience putting them together. These live performances often sound better than the bands on the late night talk shows; performances on Jimmy Kimmel Live in particular often have thin hard-to-hear vocals.

Troll time

Someone commented on how great the sound is, and I made up this explanation, and someone else thought I was serious.

Watch the Tiny Desk videos where audio engineer Josh Rogosin talks about the care he takes selecting from a multitude of quality, some very expensive, microphones, then positioning them to get great sound from the middle of a ^%$#@! open-plan office. But… it’s all a lie! The beer bottles on the shelf behind Derek Trucks are disguised Helmholtz resonators. The shelves of vinyl LPs and books are actually CNC-milled diffusers, you never see an album out of place because they’re solid Sitka spruce. The desk divider in front of Susan Tedeschi is a $4,000 anechoic panel. The 3-D “Bob Boilen” and “AllSongs Considered” cut-outs are actually bass traps stuffed with shaved yak fur to tune ceiling reflections. Etc.

That is the only explanation why Tiny Desk Concerts consistently sound better than artists on Saturday Night Live, Jimmy Kimmel Live, and the other late-night talk shows. That “office” is a $2,000,000 recording studio. The truth is out there.

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