Friday, April 16, 2010

music: trying to get artists to let me compensate them

We should be in a golden age of abundant music creation. Record a song, upload it to iTunes and Amazon music store, blog/FB/tweet about its release, then sit back and collect most of the revenue from purchases by adoring fans. Use the profits to fund next recording. Friction-free commerce, screw the evil record company suits, master your own destiny, mutual exchange of value with fans.

But it isn't happening! Instead artists are fed up with the music business and frustrated by the declining sales of their label releases. The tired refrain from self-justifying music pirates "Artists should make money from merchandise sales and touring" is garbage; I want excellent recordings more than a T-shirt or a hit-or-miss performance that I may not be able to attend.

Whenever I hear about a recording by my heroes, I look to buy it online, but I only find songs from official album releases that I already own, which is frustrating as hell. I'm able to talk with some artists themselves about this, and the semi-conversations are dispiriting. I wind up feeling like I'm hassling them to accept my money.

From Thomas Dolby's blog post about the great set of performances he organized for the TED2010 conference
I usually put together a house band who play a short piece to open each of the 12 sessions over the 4 days of TED... After the four exhausting days of TED were over, we went to a local studio run by an old friend Chuck Mitchell, and recorded our 10 pieces for posterity. We managed to get them all down despite the onset of the familiar post-TED hangover. Perhaps I’ll include them on a TED house band compilation CD one day; and perhaps ‘Pistol’ will go on my album as-is. ...
# skierpage Says:
I don’t get it. You’re talking about some great performances to your fan base, they were obviously recorded during the TED conference, and you’ve even gone and re-recorded some of them. SO WHERE THE ^%$#@! IS THE [Buy Now!] BUTTON?!

C’mon, make some people happy and make a little money! What’s the problem?

# TMDR Says:
Interesting attitude, Skierpage. Believe it or not, the priority at a non-profit event like TED is *not* to make a ton of money from the music. As for the performances, I plan to make some of them available in due course, but I just got home jet-lagged from California and need a rest! And, as you can imagine, it’s not easy to clear copyrights for people like Sheryl Crow and David Byrne, so there’s a risk those may never get heard. A lot happens at TED that you can only experience by being there, but they’ve done a pretty good job of making a lot of the content available to the world for free, with a lot more to come. And, as I mentioned above, there was talk of a compilation CD featuring TED music.

# skierpage Says:
Dear TMDR,
Thank you so much for responding to my crass whingeing. Your performances have value, I long for a system that encourages and rewards you for making them available without it being a grinding chore. It sounds like musicians need to adopt standardized performance copyright clearance language (something concert bootleggers don’t have to mess with), and perhaps a lawyer-mandated USB pinprick accessory on the concert laptop to sign in blood after the performance?

So you know I’m not one of those “I’m not going to pay for music until it comes with a pink pony” liars on the ‘net, I just bought the SXSW version of “The Key to Her Ferrari” from Amazon MP3 Downloads while waiting. Sweet! (BTW, Amazon says “From the Album Alien’s Ate My Buick” — Apostrophes Ate Our Language.)

# TMDR Says:
Actually the point is, this is really nothing to do with the money. I have an album of my own music to finish, and that’s a higher priority than getting the TED intros–which are all cover versions bar one–out to the general public. But I promise some if not all of them will be available at some point, as audio or video or both.
Ouch, how to irritate the creative type with well-meaning exhortation. By the time “available at some point” rolls around, the excitement and interest will have dissipated. Meanwhile I can get immediate gratification from bootlegs and crummy YouTube videos, but the artist earns nothing.

I had a similar exchange with Max Tundra on Facebook:
Max Tundra: I did a cover version of "Digital Love" by Daft Punk, playing all the parts by hand/mouth. Check it out, on this great podcast full of reinterpretations: http://www.cokemachineglow.com/podcast/5145/fantasycovers2010-parttwo
You and 23 others like this.
S Page: You are a lock for Supertramp's next keyboard player! (5:34 on) How can we buy this performance, it's not on Amazon?

Max Tundra: It's not for sale, just grab it for free from the above link - there's a downloadable mp3 of the entire podcast.

S Page: Call me a crazy anachronism, but I like to compensate artists for their fine efforts ;-) Create new work, sell, profit, repeat until we die.

Max Tundra: Nice idea, but it'll never catch on
Sure I could get an audio editor such as Audacity and slice his song out of the podcast, but again the artist earns nothing. It is about the money, because if it doesn't show up artists will stop making quality (expensive) recordings.

I would love to exchange some money for these recordings and many more. Apparently it's not as simple as I make it out to be in my second sentence above. But it should be!

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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

music: Michael Jackson RIP

I'm listening to Off the Wall, which David Gates in Newsweek rightly identifies: "it came out the year he turned 21, and it was his greatest purely musical moment". I remember hearing the title track with Michael Jackson's yelp and crazed giggles, now so fun to parody, and being stunned by the vocal chances he was taking. Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough is effervescent, wonderful disco with a killer opening and a fantastic percussion lead-out, then Rock with You has impeccable singing over sensational bass by Louis Johnson (of the Brothers Johnson), and a confident lush groove.

Quincy Jones deserves so much of the credit for this record and Thriller. Jackson's best songs were written by Rod Temperton (formerly of Heatwave), but his own songs are fine: the aforementioned Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough, Beat It, Billie Jean, etc. Two of the biggest and best pop records ever made are from Michael Jackson, and all the weirdness and tawdry sickness of his personal life (read Maureen Orth's features in Vanity Fair, but you'll want to bathe afterwards) can't take that away.


Wednesday, June 10, 2009

music: John Mayer, an appreciation

There are a lot of people out there who know John Mayer only as the Jennifer Aniston-bonking teen heartthrob behind the awful "Your Body is a Wonderland" Let the scales fall from your eyes!
Years ago I caught the video of No Such Thing 1½ times and couldn't get it out of my head. In 20 seconds you can tell he knows how to assemble a quality song. When you hear him sing the fabulously wrong "Uhhhp my sleeve" you hear the musicianship.

So I bought the album "Room for Squares". Massive disappointment. After "No Such Thing", it seems just a generic series of singer-songwriter melancholic songs, with the genuinely bad "Your Body is a Wonderland" as a nadir. A massive let-down, maybe he sold his soul to the devil for that one song.

Then on his next record "Heavier Things" he's thanking Buddy Guy and Elton John, like all the bands on MySpace, and people slam it for its horrible Loudness War sound.

  • The songs on "Room for Squares" all grow on you:
    • Neon has a surprisingly tricky chords
    • 83 is sweet
    • 3x5 is a really strong lyric about living life instead of trying to capture it
    • He tosses in a dead stop acoustic freakout in the midst of Your Body is a Wonderland performances (at 1:20)
  • I caught the TV special of him playing with Buddy Guy, and damn, his blues playing is right there. (I still don't understand the Elton John connection.)
  • "Heavier Things" is an album of expansion and growth in song-writing. Clarity is an outstanding song despite the awful sound.
Then he releases "Try!" by the John Mayer Trio and blows the doors off, from the very first song onwards. He's channeling Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn. Great stuff, though the sound is hurt by drummer Steve Jordan producing it and over-boosting his snare.

"Continuum" is a bit of an anticlimax, just a set of good pop songs.

All links are YouTube videos unless otherwise indicated. Every performance is subtly different and has its merits. I love John Mayer Trio - Chicken Grease / Jam / Cissy Strut for a lonnng jam. You'd never believe this guy is a pop star in People magazine all the time.


Monday, May 4, 2009

music: Max Tundra's wealth of ideas

Nobody will ever again have the microscopes turned up to 100x as Scritti Politti did on "Provision" :-( , but Max Tundra's got his at 10x. I'm a sucker for generosity of ideas, and Max Tundra pours them out.

Also give Number Our Days a few listens. I need better nearfield computer speakers (come back Eminent!).
Ultimately, different coloured fabric sewn together would be
Many times more useful if they taught me to flirt
But instead, inanimate, they hang there, inert
Waiting to encumber me

This jumper was bought for 20p


Monday, March 16, 2009

web, music: Mother of All Funk Chords video

  1. Visit http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tprMEs-zfQA
  2. Click play and cover up the video, just listen to the musicians jamming.
  3. Now play again and watch.
What the ??

In some browsers you can perform these steps here.

An amazing achievement in music and video editing. I'll never get tired of watching the musicians figure it out together.

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Monday, March 9, 2009

CD and digital music reminiscing

Gizmodo remarked on the (sort-of) 30th anniversary of the CD format, prompting the following reverie (and also more begging for a downloadable "golden master tape" format):

a) There were no consumer cd burners available until something like a 15 years later.

You're right. I worked at a PC multimedia chip company in 1994. We had a $3000 2X Yamaha CD burner to make CDs of software releases and developer kits. If you so much as looked at it funny you'd get an under-run and the CD-R was worthless. It could duplicate a music CD, but with the blanks costing $10, why would you? Sony and Philips must have known bootleggers would eventually copy CDs, but as with vinyl and cassettes, you send cops with sledgehammers after that crime.

To show off our chip's audio quality we wanted to get a high-quality audio sample. This was in the day when 8-bit sound cards were the norm, the sample.WAV files in Windows played "boinnggg" noises, and at best CD-ROM drives had an analog audio connection to the sound card. So we rigged up a SCSI CD-ROM drive to an Adaptec controller, used special ASPI commands to read the 1s and 0s off a music CD, and converted them to a .WAV file that was the same song. There was no name for this process, this was seven years before Apple's "Rip. Mix. Burn" ads and 4 years before the first MP3 players. The resulting file was an unimaginable 17MB long.

I knew at the time it was going to be a huge deal. Not that we had made a copy — you could already do that with cassettes. The original song was divorced from any kind of media, turning it into a computer file that could be duplicated and manipulated at will. Eventually, a computer with a huge hard drive could be a jukebox. Many companies realized this sea change, they predicted and eventually came out with a hard drive music player for the trunk of your car, a hard drive music player for your home, etc. (I don't recall anyone predicting the dominant model of carrying your music collection with you in an iPod.)

This "home copying" to a computer didn't feel like piracy, any more than making cassettes of your albums for your car was piracy. Napster arrived 5 years later in 1999. Massive piracy required the confluence of music CD ripping, the Internet, and faster-than-dialup connectivity plus MP3 compression. The whole must have been completely unimaginable to Sony and Philips engineers in 1979.

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Friday, January 2, 2009

music: CHIC live

Santa gave me Chic - Live at Montreux 2004, an entertaining performance with some sensational rhythm guitar riffing from Nile Rodgers. It's interesting to compare it and Live at the Budokan with the Chic originals.

Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsay Yowsah Yowsah) is better at Montreux, and the sax and trumpet are top-notch; Le Freak, with a burning guitar solo from special guest star Slash, is awesome at the Budokan. It's chilling to hear Bernard Edwards say "I'm a little sick tonight. I've got the Tokyo flu" only a few hours before his death. Even though the Chic studio originals have a similar large group of musicians, they sound sparser — it's a core sound, not the block sound of many musicians playing together. Also the studio sound is darker, so the splashes of piano on Good Times and the bells on I Want Your Love sparkle and scintillate.

Omar Hakim is on both live albums. He's an exciting, propulsive drummer, but somehow lacks the inexorable punch of Tony Thompson.

Good stuff for fans.

As in 2007 Chic are nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And again Yes is ridiculously snubbed.

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Saturday, December 13, 2008

music: early-to-mid Elvis: confidence is all

It's easy to overlook Elvis Costello and the Attractions' Get Happy!, coming between the breakthrough of Oliver's Army and the pop near-perfection of Trust. This twenty-song side venture into R&B, soul, ska and country (and plenty of new wave) is exploratory but so assured. It has a lot of killer couplets, such as this from Secondary Modern:
This must be the place
Second place in the human race
Elvis even gets clever before the song: the title: "5ive Gears in Reverse" has more allusion than most other songwriters can fit in the actual lyrics! In later reviews EC dismissed his wordplay as facile, but he's wrong about himself (as usual): why not be generous and provide another dimension for listeners?

Nick Lowe's production is probably the best Elvis ever got, it's spacious with great bass. Elvis Costello's more recent group records (Brutal Youth, All this Useless Beauty, When I was Cruel, The Delivery Man) suck sound-wise.

With the Imposters in concert and on record EC is trying to get back to the brash intensity of the early Attractions. But what made them so special was not the rock 'n' roll, it was the cocky exploration of new areas.

Listening to Get Happy! made me turn to Imperial Bedroom, the almost masterpiece. What keeps it off "Best 50 albums of all time " lists isn't its ambition but the anxiety (and the average engineering despite Beatle's engineer Geoff_Emerick producing). There's a sense of constriction about the record, so you admire it more than love it. The cathartic release into sweet sadness in the final song Town Cryer is heartfelt but inadequate:
I'm the town crier
And everybody knows
I'm a little down
With a lifetime to go
Maybe you don't believe my heart is in the right place
Why don't you take a good look at my face
Other boys use the splendour of their trembling lip
They're so teddy bear tender and tragically hip

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Thursday, October 9, 2008

music: folk vocalists

I share my iTunes folder with another, which exposes me to unexpected music. I'm not a big fan of English-Celtic folk music, but there are some gifted singers in the niche.

Kate Rusby sails vowels out with a beautifully restrained vibrato. Absolutely amazing. There's something about her direct way with a lyric that makes simplicity ache (as opposed to k.d.lang with whom you feel the entire history of pop vocals led to her delivery of a lyric). Listen to “I Wish” off Ten:
I wish, I wish, I wish in vain
I wish I was a maid again
A maid again I ne'er shall be
For that young farmer lay with me.
She reminds me of Dolly Parton, the way the young voice just walked out of some old hills. This Daily Telegraph reviewer noticed the same.

Niamh Parsons isn't as pure but she has an uncanny ability to break her vibrato like the pipe and whistle she sings with. On a song like “Blackbirds & Thrushes” it's thrilling.

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Sunday, June 15, 2008

music: No Doubt and TAFKAP (Prince)

No Doubt's Rock Steady is just an average set of electro-jams and beats with various producers. Until track 12, "Waiting Room", sneaks in. Hard, nervous, desperate, edgy, erotic, then it rolls into a gorgeous descending melodic chorus “All I can do is wait for you” that perfectly contrasts everything else in the song. Way better than anything else on the album.

Love Symbol #2 of The Artist Formerly Known As PrinceCheck the credits: Written by {symbol} and No Doubt; produced by {symbol}; keyboards, background vocal: {symbol}. No more explanation needed!

Another hidden gem for my list of killer B-sides (does anyone know what “B-side” means any more?). I should track down everything the purple one has ever done, he's an inspired collaborator.

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Thursday, March 6, 2008

superbad Tiuke Tuipulotu to the fro

When and if Seth, Evan, and Fogell grow up, this guy is the one they want to be.
Tiuke Tuipulotu, photo Andy Kuno/Special to The Chronicle
He has to make it big at football so we get more photos.

I love Lyle Workman's soundtrack. Time for a 70s revival!

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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

music: pirating early Joanna Newsom albums

Joanna Newsom's bio on Drag City lists "Walnut Whales" (2002) and "Yarn and Glue" (2003) both self-released CDs. These home-made albums are no longer sold.

Bizarrely, stupidly, and short-sightedly, these songs aren't purchaseable as MP3 downloads from Amazon, even though this is exactly the sort of long-tail, low cost, make-fans-happy monetary transaction that the Internet should enable. I'll gladly pay for these songs, but can't. Probably her record company contract forbids her to release her own records.

Anyway, where legit business fails to meet a demand, the pirates step in.
  • Google for "Joanna Newsom" "Walnut City"
  • One of the results hits is for Mininova's tracker of a BitTorrent file. BitTorrent is a protocol for sharing files piece by piece among computers. A fan has digitized the tracks from both early CDs, and taken pictures of the covers, and included an excellent early interview.
  • What should happen next:
    • Click to download the .torrent file, it opens in the BitTorrent client which downloads the file from peers, and a few minutes later I play the songs in my music player
What actually happened:
  • click to download the .torrent file, BitTorrent client starts, nothing happens. After contacting the tracker, zero download activity, 0.0 kilobits per second.
  • kill all the other inactive BitTorrent downloads, quit BitTorrent and restart, still nothing.
  • download and install latest BitTorrent client. It reopens the torrent, shows its contents, finds 5 other members of "the swarm" but no download, no activity
  • suddenly I can't access the internet at all (a coincidence?), so power off cable modem and router.
  • tinker with the Firewall settings for BitTorrent in my P.O.S. Norton 360. It has a rule to allow some incoming and all outgoing. Just replace that with Allow all.
  • new BitTorrent client displays a neat warning icon in its status line: "No incoming connections... could be your network". Double-clicking that leads to a dialog with a neat [Test if port is forwarded properly] button, which takes me to a neat web page that tests and says "Error! Port 6881 does not appear to be open" with a link that takes me to a neat port configuration guide.
  • Indeed, my port forwarding settings are out-of-date since my Vista laptop slog, so I update my router to forward to new IP addresses
  • the web page test now works, the warning icon goes away, but still no download activity
  • disable Norton 360 Firewall altogether
  • then a computer in Sweden starts handing me pieces of the file. Estimated time to download: 31 hours.
  • the warning icon comes back, the web page test fails, yet the little-computer-that-could in Sweden is still slowly passing me pieces of the file
  • 20 minutes into this two other computers join in, one handing me pieces at a rapid clip.
  • After another 24 minutes I have the entire download on my computer
  • The anonymous uploader had converted the CD tracks to Free Lossless Audio Codec format. The key is "lossless", these are shrunken files to save disk space and time but they don't use audio compression like MP3 or AAC files.
    FLAC stands out as the fastest and most widely supported lossless audio codec, and the only one that at once is non-proprietary, is unencumbered by patents, has an open-source reference implementation, has a well documented format and API, and has several other independent implementations.
  • But Apple with their monopolistic bullshit not-invented-here "We'll only work with open source when there's a business case to do so" attitude doesn't support .flac files, so I can't play them in iTunes.
  • bitch yet again about this on Apple's feedback form
  • try to find the obscure music player I used last time to play flac files. Nope, not Media Player Classic, it's VideoLAN VLC music player with some Xiph codec bundle.
  • play Joanna Newsom's tracks.
I feel I deserve a merit badge for getting it to work, but it is wrong. It's definitely not stealing, but it is piracy as in "copyright infringer." Alas, the Fairtunes site built by two Canadians in a dorm room that let you voluntarily donate money to artists when you rip them off went defunct years ago. Even during the Napster boom when millions of people were downloading billions of songs, they only received a few tens of thousands of dollars.

Joanna Newsom, I owe you $7.80 (13 songs at .60 cents). What's your PayPal account?

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Saturday, January 12, 2008

music: finally buying unprotected songs

I wrote about our multimedia phone:
The big downside so far is there's no way to play protected music files ... This is why DRM (Digital Restrictions Management) is evil!
I've been jotting down a list of songs I like but not enough to buy the artist's "Greatest Hits" CD. iTunes announced iTunes Plus where you pay $0.30 more to get an unprotected track that plays anywhere; I've been meaning to put my money where my mouth is but the iTunes Store doesn't make it easy to search only for unprotected music.

But Amazon now sells MP3 downloads! Since that's all they sell, there's no will-it, won't-it work uncertainty. They're often cheaper ($0.89) than protected iTunes, let alone iTunes Plus. The quality may not be as good, but these are just pop songs. I'm going through my list:
  • Search Amazon's MP3 Downloads category for artist name
  • buy (Amazon Downloader puts it in iTunes library)
  • search google for lyrics artist name fragment of lyrics, select and copy the lyrics
    Tip: To avoid the ads all over lyric sites, Get Firefox (try FF 3 beta, it's even better!) and install Adblock Plus
  • while the MP3 downloads, search YouTube for the artist and title and watch the music video
  • in iTunes' "Recently Added" playlist, right-click on song, Get Info > Lyrics, paste in lyrics
  • back up your "My Music" folder (c'mon, you know you should)
I don't like having all my music ratings and lyrics tied up in Apple's proprietary iTunes software, so some day I'll switch to a different player than iTunes, maybe Amarok when KDE4 works on Windows.

Folks, your phone plays music files! (A friend got a Sanyo M-1 phone; she was stunned when I dragged a few songs onto it.) As I predicted, everything is a music player now. Digital photo frames, cars, phones, toys... if it's got speakers it'll probably play unprotected MP3 and AAC files.

Electronic downloads are instant gratification candy , but it doesn't feel right. I still have an archaic connection with the physical object of music—I was playing 12-inch 45RPM disco singles from my true library before transferring these 1s and 0s.

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Saturday, November 10, 2007

music: no Yes in Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

CHIC were nominated, but didn't get in this year.

You can't speak of killer musicians and the so-called Rock and Roll Hall of Fame without noticing that Yes aren't in it. That hostility towards progressive rock is inexcusable for something that pretends to reward excellence and achievement. For years in the 70s the members of classic Yes (Jon Anderson, Chris Squire, Steve Howe, Rick Wakeman, Bill Bruford/Alan White) would appear in readers' polls for best vocals-bass-guitar-keyboards-drums. Even forgettable pop groups like the Bay City Rollers would name-drop Yes when asked for their favorite musicians. The conventional history is that the punk revolution showed how pointless talent was if it didn't have authentic street credentials. But I was there when "Anarchy in the UK" and "God Save the Queen" came out. People liked both kinds. The punks were hostile and dismissive towards “muso”s and musical talent, but they were hostile towards everything. If you're going to limit rock to certain attitudes, why nominate CHIC?

I played through Tales from Topographic Oceans recently. A double-album single piece of music
based on the Shastric scriptures, as found in a footnote within Paramahansa Yogananda's book Autobiography of a Yogi
is so pretentious that it satirizes itself. But there are so many themes and moods and musical figures over the 80 minutes, it's a steady delight if you ignore the over-ambitious framing. Throughout Steve Howe is a guitar god and Chris Squire unleashes the expected titanic bass solo; but Alan White's drumming is excellent, and even Rick Wakeman (who wasn't happy with the album and left the group) lends wonderful keyboards on side 2 and great shading throughout.

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Tuesday, November 6, 2007

music: CHIC nominated for Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

I belatedly heard that CHIC were 2007 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Nominees. Wow, nice to see them getting respect. I loved "Everybody Dance" the moment I heard it with that killer fast bass line, and when "I Want Your Love" came out with the unique tubular bell melody and those nervous, desperate lyrics
I think of you
and I dream of you
All of the time
What am I gonna do?
I want your love, I want. Your love
I was hooked. They're the tightest group ever, yet they have a large sound from lots of musicians. It's like concentric circles: guitar and bass (Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards), then drums (Tony Thompson), then two girl singers and a guy, then two or three keyboard players, then the CHIC strings and brass.

I was shocked by the repetition of CHIC, especially after a diet of Yes records where after a phrase is repeated twice the melody or chords change. CHIC just gets into a groove and stays there, forcing you into submission. When I taped Risqué I got fed up with "My Feet Keep Dancing" so I switched the turntable to 45RPM. But compared to modern looped samples, CHIC's grooves are alive.

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Saturday, July 7, 2007

music: big men sing of heartbreak

I'm a sucker for big man laid low by the power of love. You expect women to write of such things, but when a rocker does it, he's compelled to craft a solid, ultimately uplifting song so as not to come across as a tearful whiner. To me the original is Led Zeppelin's Going to California from 1971, where Robert Plant torturously emotes
Standing on a hill in my mountain of dreams,
Telling myself it's not as hard, hard, hard as it seems. ...
Going to California with an aching in my heart
(supposedly written about Joni Mitchell).

Steve Perry's Street Talk (another gem from 1984!) has some lovely aching ballads despite overly glossy production, including "Foolish Heart":
Foolish heart, heed my warning
You've been wrong before
Don't be wrong anymore

I'm feeling that feeling again
I'm playing a game I can't win
And this of course is reminiscent of "What a Fool Believes" by a master of the genre, Michael McDonald. From inside the underrated Doobie Brothers, he wrote a string of heartsick songs, climaxing in the desperate, great "Real Love":
Darlin, I know
I'm just another head on your pillow
If only just tonight, girl
Let me hear you lie just a little
Tell me I'm the only man
That you ever really loved
Well we've both lived long enough to know
We'd trade it all right now
For just one minute of real love
I have his first two solo albums, and he pens even deeper depths of misery, such as "That's Why":
Look back loneliness, you won't see me behind you
Hey now emptiness, no more leading the way
Go on desperateness, I don't need you beside me no more...
That's why, I won't be down very long
That's why, I'll be all right from now on
But he needs at least the memory of a hard-rocking band to make this bearable. It's easy for it to descend into "in the cabin of my BMW, I laid down and wept" sentimentality (that's my line, I'm saving it for my group). Or as Elvis Costello put it in a 1986 interview:
Two types of rock 'n' roll had become bankrupt to me. One was 'Look at me, I've got a big hairy chest and a big willy!' [obvious reference to Robert Plant] and the other was the 'Fuck me, I'm so sensitive' Jackson Browne school of seduction. They're both offensive and mawkish and neither has any real pride or confidence.
True, Elvis, true, but put them together and a hairy-chested big-willy man sings of love, and it can be magic.

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

music: Joanna Newsom wish partly granted

Wasn't too proud to beg:
Joanna, please please please please please please release a concert DVD!
So along comes Joanna Newsom and the Ys Street Band EP. "Cosmia" performed by the same band, a reworking of "Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie" and a fine new song "Colleen."

I'd still love to have a video of her amazing performance. Twinned with the UK appearances with orchestra. I wonder how long before you can assemble a concert video from phone cam captures off YouTube. So long as the artist can get appropriate compensation, why not?

   "In the trough of the waves,
which are pawing like dogs,
pitch we, pale-faced and grave,
as I write in my log."
(Sawdust and Diamonds)

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

music: why so much sounds so bad

This short video tells you all you need to know.

More on the loudness wars here and here

I want the numbers from the last link on every CD review. Average sound level as percentage of loudest, and instances of clipping.

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Friday, May 4, 2007

music: Elvis has pummeled the building

Driving up for the last skiing of a crummy season, we saw a billboard for Elvis Costello and the Imposters in Reno. I knew it would be strange to see him in a conference room/ballroom and that his recent Imposters work is channeling his rock impulses, not his wide musical horizons.

Well, it was a pounding, loud, nearly unrelenting set from the Man in black. They played a lot of Attractions' greatest hits, a great "Alibi" off When I was Cruel, an acoustic "Alison", and ended with "Pump it Up". All very predictable. It was nice to hear several songs off Get Happy!, but lacking the loose R'n'B shuffle on the album. Likewise a raucous "Shabby Doll" from Imperial Bedroom but none of the more varied tracks off that ambitious album. And nothing from the poppy albums that followed.

I'd have to lay the blame at Pete Thomas' feet. EC hailed him as a great rock drummer in his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction speech, but without a producer to dial him back, he's just hitting hard with the knobs stuck at 7 to 10, and the rest of the band follows.

Elvis' guitar work ever since playing with Marc Ribot has tended towards noise chords accompanied by belting vocals. It's clearly an intentional musical decision, but I don't get it.

Steve Nieve gave a scintillating solo on "Clubland", but for much of the set he played that weird funhouse organ style from early Attractions.

Worthy, but one-dimensional.

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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

music: pick jaw off floor at Joanna Newsom concert

So after listening to Ys all day we went to the concert. She was jaw-droppingly good, concert of the decade for me (not that we see many concerts). I've never ever seen an artist throw herself into a performance so completely. Just like the New Yorker review said, "Without seeing Newsom’s hands and feet, it is difficult to understand how hard she must work to pluck the strings and press the pedals while reciting by heart a small book’s worth of verse. I haven’t seen a performance of such sustained intensity all year."

She performed some solo songs off "Milk-Eyed Mender", and all of "Ys" but with a weird band (accordion, tambura, saw, glockenspiel, banjo, ...) rather than orchestra. The shrieks and cracks in her recorded vocals are obviously intentional because they were largely absent live. Watching her pour everything into her singing and playing was transporting. The reorchestrations for her band were great, the harp and strings sound from the record spread around the musicians like quadrophonics.

Joanna, please please please please please please release a concert DVD!
"And I miss your precious heart" (Cosmia)

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music: Joanna Newsom Ys good

As I wrote in my Amazon review of "The Milk-Eyed Mender", it's pretty straightforward: Play the Sprout and the Bean video four times in two days, and you'll know if you can get past the vocals. She does sound like Bjork's niece going nuts in detention.

I've been listening to her ambitious follow-up "Ys" all day prior to the concert. The lyrics are fantastic. The music varies, tracks 1/3/5 are standouts; it does meander over the course of the long songs. If anything the orchestrations by Van Dyke Parks (who most recently worked on Brian Wilson's "Smile") are more of an acquired taste than her voice, but they highlight the lyrics and music. She's got a strong command of her instrument in service of her songs, but she's not a harp virtuoso (I saw classical harpist Dan Yu perform, and she's about three times faster than Joanna Newsom).

It's not as balanced as "Milk-Eyed Mender" because the lyrics overpower the rest, but what lyrics. They move from precise natural descriptions (of skipping stones, puppets, meteors, ...) to talismanic phrases of birds and water, to epic adventures.
And, Emily - I saw you last night by the river
I dreamed you were skipping little stones across the surface of the water
Frowning at the angle where they were lost, and slipped under forever,
In a mud-cloud, mica-spangled, like the sky'd been breathing on a mirror

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Wednesday, February 8, 2006

music: of course Cocteau Twins B-sides

While we were tossing lots o' songs onto the Sanyo MM-9000 phone/music player, "Watchlar" showed up. How could I have overlooked the Cocteau Twins' CD Single Box Set when discussing B-sides and hidden gems? Or their lovely Twinlights EP?

In an interview The Artist Who Was Then Known As Prince said he was listening to Cocteau Twins. I went out the next day and bought "Blue Bell Knoll", and soon most everything else they've recorded. Amazon's "Recommended for you" is pretty useless, I just want to know the music to which my heroes are listening.

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Friday, January 20, 2006

electronics: Sanyo MM-9000 do-nearly-all music cellphone

My significant domestic other partner's cheap portable cassette player finally broke and SDOP still wanted to listen to music on the go. The default answer is of course an iPod, but remember SPage's law:
any small piece of electronics needs to have a phone in it so you can ring it when (not if!) you lose it
(our digital camera is still lost). So we go to the Sprint store, looking for a top-of-the-line phone. The Sanyo MM-9000 has a miniSD memory card slot, media player, QVGA screen, 1.3 Megapixel camera, and most other reasonable features. SDOP was using the previous top-of-the-line Sanyo SCP-5500 (aka Sprint VM-4500) so the USB cable, and so-so FutureDial Snap software I bought for it might work. The only missing checklist features are Bluetooth, and a 2 Mp camera with optical zoom. SprintUsers reviews say the camera quality is good. The Samsung A940 is a 2 Mp phone with Bluetooth but the screen is lower res and the camera has to twist around awkwardly.

Sprint was sold out of the phone, so we bought it at Radio Shack. The phone cost $380 plus tax but as the old phone was 22 months old we got a $75 rebate after committing to two more years of Sprint. Then off to Best Buy to buy a SanDisk 1GB miniSD card, SanDisk USB SD card reader, Monster iPod cassette adapter (it actually works with any audio device's 3.5mm stereo headphone jack, which shows you iPod's dominant mindshare), and a 2.5 phone -> 3.5mm headphone adapter cable. We can reuse the old Sanyo's car lighter charger; we still need to get a second battery and a cover. As usual the accessories cost nearly as much as the phone!

To put music on the phone:
  1. insert music CD into PC
  2. in iTunes, right-click on desired tracks and choose "Convert Selection to AAC"
  3. Remove miniSD card from phone, insert in SD adapter in SanDisk media reader
    just plug in the phone's USB cable and choose "Mass Storage" for the USB Connection
  4. in Windows Explorer, navigate to My Documents\iTunes\iTunes Music, find the track files named .m4a
    from iTunes Library view, just drag the tracks you want to the mini SD card's MEDIA folder in Windows Explorer.
Now your phone plays music almost as well as a dedicated 1GB digital audio player. The sound quality is reasonable even through the car adapter (I haven't played around with the audio settings in Edit > Preferences... Advanced > Importing). Every track has a different volume level.

I found out that with FutureDial's USB drivers the miniSD card appears as a drive letter in Windows, so I don't have to remove the miniSD card from the phone, so the SanDisk USB SD card reader was a waste of money. Just like the SanDisk USB Compact Flash card reader I bought for the digital camera I lost.

The big downside so far is there's no way to play protected music files that we legally own. I've refused to buy songs from the iTunes Music Store on principle, but even their free downloads are .m4p encrypted files that only work on iPods. jHymn and QTFairUse don't work with latest iTunes (donate $50 to DVD Jon to update his fine work!). This is why DRM (Digital Restrictions Management) is evil!

So far, it seems like $500 well spent. Then I scanned some more SprintUser forum posts and found out the Sanyo MM-9000 phone is already obsolete and is going to be discontinued by Sprint!

For my own use I'm still holding out for a flip smartphone with PalmOS PDA functionality + 2Mp camera with optical zoom + MP3 + 4GB expansion card + Infrared + GPS + Bluetooth + WiFi. I held the Samsung sph-i550 in my hand at the Samsung store in NYC, but it's cancelled. "The best is the enemy of the good" (Voltaire :-)

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Thursday, April 28, 2005

music: Scritti Politti, B-sides and other hidden gems

I post a lot about overlooked music from the 70's, but everybody knows music peaked in the 80's.

I found and joined the Scritti Politti group on Yahoo to try to track down a quote about Green and David Gamson having the microscopes turned to 100x for "Cupid & Psyche 85" and "Provision", but only to 10x for "Anomie and Bonhomie". Unfortunately no one came through, but it's interesting to follow the upswing in interest on the 20th (gulp!) anniversary of "Cupid & Psyche 85".

Another topic that came up was "World Come Back to Life", my favorite B side of all time. There's no experience finer than discovering a hidden gem. I always wonder what other songs got away, transcendant songs I'll never hear because I didn't buy the 12-inch import single or the rarities compilation or whatever. It's easy to get obsessive and track down obscure tracks just in case one turns out to be the one; in the case of Scritti Politti I bought Al Jarreau's distinctly average "L is for Lover" album just for the Green/Gamson track, and it's not that good despite Nile Rodgers production.

In no particular order, here's a list of killer B sides and rarities. These are why God and Roy Gandy created the Rega Planar 3 turntable, so you can flip the vinyl over and unearth buried treasure.
World Come Back to Life, Scritti Politti
B side of "Boom! There She Was". The nastiest kiss-off lyrics Green ever wrote, probably why it wasn't on "Provision".

(Don't) Turn Me Away, Rexy
I heard it twice on Radio One, I had to special order it. The saddest strangest song, ending with the chant "It's a fact. that I live. with" Their album has another great song, "So you wanna be alien too".

Love's Taboo, Cube
An Italian 12-inch. Amazingly atmospheric

The Yearning Loins, Prefab Sprout
I got this as an extra track on the USA CD of Two Wheels Good (aka Steve McQueen). Buy that record! for Paddy McAloon's songs and the masterful Thomas Dolby production, then keep listening for this insanely syncopated and energetic track. And it's from 1984, the high point of Western civilization.

Don't Throw My Love Around, Cooly's Hot Box
This is on a fine compilation of acid jazz tracks, "Giant Steps, Vol. 1". The funkiest percussion (timbales?) I've ever heard. I've bought several really average acid jazz compilations since, hoping for the same magic.

Radio Arabesque, Arabesque
Goofy, vaguely atmospheric song, I heard it once on the radio and it stuck in my mind. I think it's by Arabesque, but there's no clip available.

The sad thing is that no extant rating system can find these songs. By definition they're unpopular because of their rarity, meanwhile Amazon has degenerated into 90% 5-star ratings from rabid fans, 5% 4-star ratings from honest fans, and 5% 1-star ratings from people who never liked the artist or have a grudge.

The sweetest sounds you've never heard... sounds like a Green lyric.

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Tuesday, April 19, 2005

music: Hejira, Joni Mitchell, Jaco Pastorius

I used to listen to my cassettes in alphabetical order, out of a nearly perverse loyalty to the artists. I would get anxious when the 'M's came up, because that meant Joni Mitchell and I knew I'd be an emotional wreck, climaxing with "Hejira", her moody masterpiece of isolation and travelling.

On re-listening, it's not quite as great as the musical Kryptonite of my memory, though the iconic pain of "Amelia" had me sobbing gently. But Jaco Pastorius' fretless bass playing is fabulous. On songs like "Hejira" itself, the acoustic guitar just builds and builds, but there's never a trite release into a "rock-y" guitar solo, instead he plays such liquid, musical lines. It's like a submarine or a whale making its presence felt and briefly seen.

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