music: more Cory Wong live greatness, Mark Lettieri!

The Fearless Flyers Live in Europe joins the triumvirate, the Holy Trinity of low-volume mostly instrumental handheld-camera concert videos: CORY WONG // LIVE IN MPLS // 9 FEB 2019, Vulfpeck Live at Madison Square Garden, and now this. Hmm, what could be the common element? Hardest working man in show business in 4th position, Cory Wong! They’re all so entertaining to watch, I really should hook up a proper stereo or at least active speakers or a soundbar to our TV.

The real find for me is Mark Lettieri‘s solos (on the “Medium Guitar,” no less). On “Bank Account” 15:09 and “Magnetar Jam” 1:11:08 he reminds me of Nile Rodgers’s post-disco soloing on “So Fine“, plus some of Jeff “Skunk” Baxter’s more out-there solos with the Doobie Brothers, e.g. “Livin’ on the Fault Line“. And the end of the former is a total Chic homage, while the dual drummers recall the Doobies’ Keith Knudsen and John Hartman (RIP).

Louis Cole live too!

The second drummer joining the Fearless Flyers’ Nate Smith on “Bank Account” is the excellent Louis Cole, who has also made some great live videos, especially of the song “Thinking” by his group Knower. The “Thinking (live sesh)” home recording (literally, musicians playing in the hall, on the stairs, on the outside deck, on top of an oven in the kitchen) is a lot of fun, then he has great orchestrations of the same song with the Norbotten big band, the WDR Big Band (video of the latter has vanished 😢), and other groups. Anyone who says music today sucks is lazy!

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music: 10cc of near greatness

Someone said something that reminded me of a lyric, turns out it was from a 10cc song. They’re still famous for “I’m Not in Love,” a song so immaculately crafted that I unwillingly succumbed to its overwraught bathos (pathos? mythos?). It was number 1 in listener polls of “Greatest pop song ever” for years in the UK. But it overshadows the fact that they were four excellent songwriters, four talented musicians, and four decent vocalists who recorded some excellent pop-rock songs.

Their back story is interesting. I knew that Kevin Godley and Lol Creme went on to make lots of music videos. I had no idea that before 10cc the group wrote (as Hotlegs) the intentionally inept worldwide hit “I’m a Neanderthal Man” (one line repeated endlessly), or that one of them wrote some great hits for the Yardbirds and Hollies. We’re lucky that four musicians from the minor industrial town of Stockport in the UK found each other.

Many excellent songs

Their eponymous album 10cc had the minor hit “Donna”, and the “Jailhouse Rock meets pub pop-rock” pastiche “Rubber Bullets”. But they really hit their stride with their next album.

cover of the LP "Sheet Music" by 10cc, photograph by Hipgnosis.
great cover, great album

Not only does Sheet Music (1974) have a great Hipgnosis cover, it’s a great pop-rock album! It’s a mix of heavy songs and light songs, ably crafted with lots going on and a cynical outlook. “The Wall Street Shuffle,” “The Worst Band in the World,” and “Silly Love” all have real lyrical and melodic bite, and have stimulating shifts in tone between different sections. The faux “On de’ ub’er side ob’ de’ island” patois in some songs is embarrassing, but the songs reference colonialism, arms sales, exotic tourism, and other topics that were in the zeitgeist 50 years ago and now make less sense. (More on that below.)

“The Sacro-Iliac” has such a sweet refrain, with lovely chord changes as the vocals jump into falsetto territory. Read the lyrics to see how three of the band hand off the vocal duties. There are other treats, like this lyric shift that spans two different sections in “Somewhere in Hollywood”:

He’s armed and he’s dangerous-
-ly Close was the weather when I was a kid

10cc weren’t perfect. They’re “just” really good, but not great songwriters, or singers, or soloists. The keyboard playing isn’t great (but the guitars are solidly inventive; Godley and Creme left to make a triple-LP concept album to promote their Gizmotron mechanical guitar bowing device). The drums and percussion are varied (lots of tuned wooden blocks) but the band doesn’t swing or groove; “The Sacro-iliac” is indirectly about that. The sonics and musical arrangements are nothing special (they chased the pristine perfection of the likewise cynical and highly-crafted pop rock of their contemporaries Steely Dan when they reunited in 1992 to record …Meanwhile with Steely Dan’s legendary producer Gary Katz).

I’m Mandy, fly me

“I’m Mandy, Fly Me” (1976) is probably their masterpiece, with many sections and moods and sound effects. It starts by quoting an earlier song off Sheet Music, “Clockwork Creep” told from the point of view of a bomb on an airplane (!! the 1970s weren’t a happy time in many ways). Again, there are some gorgeous motifs and harmony with the rest of the band; when Eric Stewart sings:

I’ve often heard her jingle
It’s never struck a CHORD

, you know the melody is going to jump up and the others will join to sing a chord in perfect harmony, and they do. It’s trite, but it works so well.

There’s a drifting section that elliptically refers to a plane crash, a shimmering acoustic guitar break reminiscent of “Suite Judy Blue Eyes” and another pop song I can’t remember, it’s interspersed with a couple of strong electric guitar solos; the second guitar solo ends in a wordless vocal harmony straight out of Yes’ “Yours is No Disgrace.” Then it turns even more dreamlike as the narrator is or isn’t rescued by Mandy’s kiss of life “Just like the girl in Doctor No, No No No,” and finally he’s back on the street looking at the airline poster. The journey in the lyrics and the musical journey fit so well; the background of the song (read the Wikipedia article and this one) is fascinating. And it reached #6 in the charts!

Complicated pop songs

Rick Beato and nearly every old person in YouTube comments is frustrated by the machined simplicity of today’s pop songs. It’s boring and lazy to decry “today’s music” when there are more talented musicians making music than ever before (I’m partial to Vulfpeck, Cory Wong, Yvette Young, Polyphia, Matteo Mancuso, …). But when it comes to pop music with vocals, despite half-a-dozen credited songwriters there isn’t much going on musically in most hit pop songs beyond intense sonic production.

In the 1970s all non-classical musical artists worked under the Olympian overhang of the Beatles. Many responded by going beyond the constraints of pop and rock: Yes were making complicated long progressive rock masterpieces starting around 1971, other groups advanced genres less explored by the Beatles including hard funk and jazz fusion. Meanwhile more mainstream pop and rock artists responded by making more elaborate songs while still riffing on rock and roll sounds and influences. An early example is Crosby Stills Nash & Young’s “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” (1969), then in the mid-1970s there were a lot of complex pop songs in the charts. Wings’ “Band on the Run” (1974, recorded 1973) is the one we all remember, but I recall Elton John’s “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” (1973, 11 minutes long!) and of course the sui generis “Bohemian Rhapsody” (1975) from Queen. 10cc were right in the middle of this.

The harmonies are Beatles-esque, the bass is often reminiscent of Paul McCartney… turns out McCartney recorded at 10cc’s studio and one member (Eric Stewart) later composed and produced with him.

Pastiche and Queen

The later 10cc song “`The Things We Do for Love`” (1976) was surely influenced by Queen’s “You’re My Best Friend” (1975). 10cc and Queen were both pastiche acts more committed to “the bit” than a particular approach to songwriting. Somehow I find Queen’s lack of commitment and direction (apart from the sensational “Now I’m Here“) more irritating than some guys trying to make good records without the histrionics. And 10cc even nod to the synthetic nature of making yet more pop-rock songs, decades into the form:

[Verse 3: Kevin Godley & Eric Stewart]
Well he’s been up all night
Breakin’ his head in two to write
A little sonnet for his chickadee
But between you and me
I think it’s

[Refrain: Group]

[Bridge: Eric Stewart]
Ooh, you know the art of conversation must be dying
Ooh, when a romance depends on
Clichés and toupées and threepés

“Silly Love” written by Lol Creme & Eric Stewart

Understanding references in old songs

Genius is my favorite crowd-sourced annotated lyrics site (I contribute, I wrote about scanning lyrics), but it’s hit-or-miss at explaining references in older songs; Genius started with rap and volunteers only fitfully annotate old songs. It’s easy to laugh at leaden explanations of lyrics like “Cristal is an expensive champagne,” but in 50 years they’ll be essential to understanding references in today’s songs. Eventually I hope people will explain references like “a Panzer division to chauffeur you home” in a 10cc song.

Of course the ^&%$#@! web search result spammers are on the case screwing up the web for everyone, creating web sites full of pages that claim they explain songs but are completely devoid of content beyond an invitation to “contribute” or “discuss with the community.” Like this one (I won’t deign to promote it with a link), that at first seems it will be great:

Discover the poetic beauty in ‘I’m Mandy, Fly Me’ by 10cc. This lyric breakdown takes you on a journey through the artist’s thoughts, emotions, and the story they aim to tell. From clever metaphors to evocative imagery, we delve into the nuances that make this song a lyrical masterpiece…
<lyrics follow>

F*** you, “sound recording-history” web site!

Music newspapers and magazines used to have long interviews with musicians discussing their latest records; it would be great to link these with songs and lyrics. Rock’s Backpages is a site that has many of these interviews and articles; I should pay for a subscription. What I really hope is some rock star or rock-loving tech millionaire will buy it out and make all that information freely available to the world. Music matters!

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web: how to read blocked web articles

It’s an arms race to read articles that fade out under a “Please subscribe” overlay. In Firefox, try:

  • Click the “Toggle reader view” icon between the location field and star.
  • Press F12 for the browser’s Developer Tools, use the “Pick element” cursor to click on the overlay, and delete it in the Inspector.
  • Press F12 for Developer Tools and in the console type document.body.innerText and press Ctrl+Enter.
  • Read the article at the Internet Archive’s Wayback machine.
  • There was a Firefox add-on that told web sites “I’m Google’s web crawler” so you’d see what they want Google to index. Now I can’t find it amongst dozens of add-ons in search results for “bypass” and “paywall.”
  • Give up and run lynx in a terminal.

I feel bad doing this, and a little less bad for running uBlock Origin to disable ads. I subscribe to the Guardian, Washington Post, New Yorker, probably others I’ve forgotten about, donate to PBS, contributed to LWN and Phoronix years ago, … but it’s not enough. I wish the 1990s idea (by David Chaum?) of the cursor changing to a ¢ when you hover over a link, then you pay $.15¢ or so to read the article had taken off. Imagine getting hacked though!

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Nuala, 2007-2023

Nuala as a puppy
Nuala as a puppy
Two-year-old Nuala on pillow
Nuala at 2 years (already going gray)

The original title…

For years in my mind this obituary was titled “Angry lesbian bitch.” Shortly after we adopted Nuala, a group of teenage boys stayed with us and learned that if you lightly poked her, she would make a cute ‘Rrrr’ noise. This was great, but it taught her to loudly growl when objecting to any circumstance not going her way, and that to actually warn anyone to back off, she had to bark as if she was about to maul someone.

Nuala bites her dog bed and humps it
Dog-bed humper!

People always identified Nuala as a male dog (and Timmy as the girl), since she lacked all conventional feminine qualities. She was very vocal about what she wanted and didn’t want, and she was tough as nails. Sometimes when she got excited she would bite her pillow and hump it just like a male dog. And she loved, loved several women. When one of them departed, for days she would sniff every SUV parked on the street in case it was her car. Another female couple would send us presents and Nuala would be giddily excited, sniffing the box, scratching it open, then weeks later still sniffing the empty box for that reverie of her paramour. I asked these beloved to rub napkins on their armpits or other naughty bits and send them to us; is this ridiculously creepy or an easy way with no downside to make an animal blissfully happy?

Proust’s madeleine has nothing on smelling a package from a beloved woman

A dog with 5? 6? 7? lives

Twelve or thirteen is “a good age” for a dog. As she soldiered on past 15 and 16, Nuala declined both steadily and in jolts. She developed pancreatitis and was very sick, but rallied. Then several times over three months she woke up screaming in pain, and could not be comforted for minutes that seemed like hours: whether it was from muscle cramps, a pinched nerve, a waking nightmare, … we never knew. Then over a harrowing 7-day period she threw up all night, threw up anti-nausea medication, and finally settled down after an anti-nausea injection at the emergency vet; then she refused to eat for days. We thought for sure this was it, but vitamin B injections administered by nurse Mom and cortisone pills brought her back. Every time she was diminished: less vision, worse hearing, stiffer; she would fall going downstairs and fall going upstairs, then would fall if you accidentally tugged on her leash (and she never complained). Increasingly I had to carry her on walks, but then she’d trot back home knowing treats were waiting, and show off:

Fetch ball/rope/leash!

And age and infirmity sanded away most of her angry lesbian personality, leaving a smooth worn nub; a soft feeble creature experiencing mere existence but without language to rue her diminishment. (As ever, Henry Beston’s insanely great words on “lesser” animals apply: “They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”) With every setback we wondered “Is this the end? Is it fair to keep her around?” But then Nuala would briefly play with Timmy, or bark and wag her tail trying to find a treat on the floor, and the questions would recede. Finally, after two sleepless nights of intestinal trouble in one week we decided to end her life.

Nuala in arms
Peace at last

Goodbye Nuala, former angry lesbian bitch.

The awe-full responsibility over another’s life

Some of you reading this will be dismayed: “For months you kept alive a dog that couldn’t see, hear, or walk well, fell over, was repeatedly sick past her stomach, and was barely conscious of what’s going on.” Others will be equally dismayed: “You killed a dog who clearly enjoyed treats and seemed content despite her increasing woes.” That’s fine; I have no problem with people imagining what they would do in our hard situation. Try not to judge our decision. You weren’t living with her, you have no idea what it was like. But I won’t sugarcoat it, it was hard to make that irrevocable decision. The video above of Nuala merrily bouncing around performing tricks to get treats was taken hours after we’d scheduled the final appointment with our vet. Jameson’s law, the insight of the great sage, was unyielding:

If you want to be sure you’re doing the right thing,
just keep on doing what you’re doing
until you can’t stand it any longer.

Jameson, Esq., circa 1982

We could withstand Nuala’s decline, therefore we couldn’t be sure we were making the right decision; we made it anyway.

As I remarked when we killed the uber-cute Fergus:

It’s an awesome terrible power to wield over another, but I fervently hope someone does it to me when I’m near my end. It is utterly inhumane that we don’t extend the same dignity in death to ourselves that we do to our companion animals.

When I don’t know who I am, and I don’t know who you are, I want you to pull the plug!

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YouTube jokes

Concrete science

A science YouTuber made an entertaining informative video “Explaining concrete while getting buried in it,” and found that he would rise out of the concrete slurry. Which prompted this carefully-researched anecdote:

9:39 “I did not expect to be able to, like, float in concrete.”
I remember an early whack job I did for the DeCavalcante family. Big Nose Tony was so afraid of drowning as we filled the half barrel with concrete that we poured it up to his waist just to mess with him. But the extra concrete stayed liquid and increased the buoyancy forces on him, so he was able to wriggle out of it after two goons tossed him off the Carteret fishing pier. Fortunately Tony didn’t take it out on me, he knew it was just business, but legend has it he personally fed the goons into a garbage truck. That’s why we call them concrete overshoes, not concrete waders – a little goes a long way.

I used different concrete mixes for burying people on remote park service lands vs. a dockside nap with the fishes. Clinker is overrated, quick setting is the key. I’m writing this from prison.

Theory of everything

Egotistical near-genius Stephen Wolfram (who went to my college and I ran into a few times thereafter!) endlessly pushes his Wolfram Alpha knowledge engine and his increasingly esoteric grand unified theories that the universe is a cellular automaton and/or a computational exploration of group theory (huh??). He has been plugging his Wolfram language plug-in for ChatGPT, and someone commented and I responded:

Szabolcs Szekacs
I love how Stephen went exponential from explaining how ChatGPT develops a model to the computational structure of the universe behind what we can perceive in our physical world.

“What will you be wanting for dinner, Dr. Wolfram?”
“From my principle of computational irreducibility, it necessarily follows that our brains are structures that can only perceive a subset of the ruliad graph theory underlying all computable realities, which would make predicting my future dietary wants impossible with the computational resources available in this universe; however my Wolfram language is close to generating a proof that neural firing is congruent with a cellular automata of sufficient complexity as explained in my book A New Kind of Science. So… fish and chips please.”

33 40 upvotes, maybe one of my highest ever. (I turn off notifications for likes and upvotes, life is too short.)

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software: fixing scanned photos in GIMP

I received boxes full of old family pictures that were cropped with the old selection tool of “Physical scissors”. Here are my notes on how I scanned them and neatened them up.


Arrange multiple pictures on all-in-one printer’s scanner bed and scan them.
Clean the scanner glass each time due to sticky stuff
Copy each page of scans to Pictures/date folder/boxNN_photo_scans_XX.jpg
Do a quick crop in the KDE image tool Gwenview if it’s got lots of white space.


Open the image in the fun free powerful open-source GIMP image editor. I use the GIMP 3.0 beta pre-release, download it here. The downside is many tutorials and guidelines on the web are for previous versions of GIMP, but that’s true even if you use the stable version 2.10.

Crop and straighten

Press R for rectangle select, roughly select a picture.
Image > Crop to Selection
Press Ctrl+Shift+J so the picture fills GIMP’s window.

You can drag out some guidelines from the ruler to help get right rotation
Straighten out the picture with Image > Transform > Arbitrary Rotation…
Roughly drag with the mouse, then use arrow keys for slight adjustments.
Click Rotate

Press R for rectangle select, make tighter selection
TODO: For a recent square picture, why don’t tools like Image > Crop to Content and Image > Zealous Crop cut out the white around the image for me?
Instead, can use fuzzy select tool; since Image > Crop to Selection will crop to its rectangle, you don’t have to be accurate unless an entire edge of the picture is white enough to look like the white background of the scanner.
In Fuzzy Select Tool’s Tool Options, set a fairly high threshold (15?) Not sure about feather edges and Antialiasing
Click in the white border. This should mostly select the white border.
Select > Invert
Image > Crop to Selection

Spot repair

If the picture’s messed up, repaint it. I mostly used the healing brush, press H.
Press + to zoom in on the dust spot
I don’t understand brushes well, I mostly used the pixel brush
I mostly used high opacity to paint out the spot instead of having to click multiple times..
Adjust the brush size to match the size of the glitch.
Now Ctrl+Click somewhere near the spot that’s about the same color to set a heal source. If you have a big brush, choose something that has the right flow.
Click to repair the spot.
Click more to repair nearby stuff.. If you start repairing with wrong pixels, Ctrl+Click somewhere else to set a new heal source

Unfading colors

Strategy: Try various things in GIMP’s Colors menu. Undo-Redo are your friend – Ctrl-Z, Ctrl+Y.
Try the Colors > Auto fixups. When in doubt Undo. I found only “White Balance” was useful.
The main tool I used is Colors > Levels, it is gold.
For 1950s B&W image, stick to the Values channel. If color histogram is zero at the ends, then drag the pointers and move them inward. This will fix the colors.

For 1960s color images that have a reddish cast, they tend to have oversaturated reds, greens that turned brown, and blues that turned gray; do the level adjustment for each color. Red hit the max in the histogram some way in from the left end before 0 then dropped off, so similar Levels adjust as with B&W drag the left pointer to the start of the Red values.
Then do the other colors. I found these tended to have a better spread of colors, so drag the middle slider slightly to beef up the blues and greens.

For 1980s color images, the whites are often overwhite and the blacks are all black. I didn’t have much luck with Colors > Instead use Colors > Curves… (you can get there from Colors > Levels by clicking [Edit these Settings as Curves]. In Curves, drag the bottom of the diagonal line up (to spread out the blacks more, and drag the top of the line down (to reduce the overwhite).

Export the individual JPEG picture, and repeat

File > Export As… come up with a good name for the file ending in .jpg, uncheck Save Exif Data and Save XMP data. Scans don’t have a lot of useful info about the lens used or anything like that.
I left Save thumbnail and Save color profile checked, and blanked out any comment inserted by my scanner.

Click the Export button in the dialog’s title bar (not [Save Settings], that just remembers the options you chose for JPEG export.)

Then Ctrl+Z or use the Edit history women to undo all the way back to the page of scanned photos, and repeat for the other photos on the same scan.

Should I still be saving JPEG images?

I exported the cleaned up scans as JPEG. The problem with JPEG is it doesn’t support alpha (transparency). So when you delete the white background “behind” a scan, it can’t be represented as transparent, the blank pixels have to have a color. That’s a hassle if you’re eventually going to put the picture on a colored background, you’ll have slivers of white where you want to see the background. I probably should have exported to the WebP format, which most browsers support, which does support transparent pixels.

There is endless campaigning for browsers to support other image formats; I remember the .mng wars of the 1980s. People want browsers to show HDR images, more detailed images with 10-bit RGB pixels instead of 8, and images with even greater compression; the problem is there are multiple new image formats offering these features, including multiple newer versions of JPEG such as Jpeg2000 and now JPEG XL.

Presenting a slide show… in PowerPoint!

I wanted to put some of these photos on tablets for a family get-together. There is or was a way to set the Windows screen saver to be a slideshow of pictures in a particular directory, but I couldn’t figure out how to do the same on an Android tablet. It turns out PowerPoint has an automatic slideshow mode with auto-advance. I don’t have PowerPoint or pay for any part of Microsoft Office, but I was able to put all the pictures into the presentation program Impress of the free and open source LibreOffice office productivity suite. I fiddled around with the slide master, added a caption to many slides, and in the Slide Transition for every slide I set Advance slide to “After 6 seconds”. I saved this as a .pps (PowerPoint Show) file that starts in autoplaying mode. Then I loaded the slideshow onto tablets on which I had installed Microsoft’s free mobile version of PowerPoint for Android, put a link to the slideshow titled “CLICK ME” on the Android home screen, and if people did so the tablet would sit there running the slide show.

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music: more “Slave to the Rhythm” with Stephen Lipson

Continuing on from Trevor Horn gigantism… I watched “Songs That Changed Music: Grace Jones – Slave To The Rhythm – with Stephen Lipson” from the article by Produce Like a Pro. He’s credited as co-writer and performer on lead guitar, bass, keyboards, but his production and engineering contribution is even bigger.

Through a routing glitch on a Chinese server I somehow accessed “Slave to the Rhythm” on YouTubifyy Music from far in the future, and the top-rated comment was “Who’s still digging this and neuro-remixing it in 2073?” As @Jacco Talman wrote in a YouTube comment “it has it all: a thundering drumtrack, a funky bass-line, a haunting guitar [multiple guitars!], a complete classic orchestra and of course the unforgettable voice of Grace Jones.” I’d add all the “little bits of jewelry” like the 23:50 Dinngg! sound (from Luis Jardim), the 12:28 thrUMMM upward keyboard whoosh (from Bruce and Andy Richards), the 3:59 “not Pan pipes” flute, a dozen more motifs and riffs, the glockenspiel, the portentous Ian Shane narration… In 1985 I thought making an album out of one song was lazy pretention, but listening to remixes like Drupus’ Rough Slave Mix and Bruce Forest and DJ Friction’s Rmx, you realize “Slave to the Rhythm” is a never-ending 30-course gourmet buffet. Every meal is different and special.

The work it took to assemble a 24-track digital master of this 🤯: record new sound effect to half-inch tape, play it in sync with the original, punch it in to record onto a spare track on a second 24-track digital recorder, later program the playback offset to record tracks on the second recorder back to the first one… If that’s 21:28 “one day of recording”, it was a long day! Nowadays a musician opens a simple “breathy singer recorded in the bedroom with guitar” file in a DAW, and the screen fills with 70 tracks, so many the artist can’t remember what they all are. Mr. Lipson is being ridiculously modest at 4:20 “that’s kind of all there is… it is really a pretty bare track” and 26:17 “It’s pretty simple, isn’t it?”😂

I’ve got no beef with people saying “Poison Arrow” (ABC, 1982), “Buffalo Gals” (Malcolm McLaren, 1982), “Owner of a Lonely Heart” (Yes, 1983), or “Welcome to the Pleasuredome” (Frankie Goes to Hollywood, 1984), or even later Seal pop is Trevor Horn’s greatest achievement, but “Slave to the Rhythm” is at least their equal. And it’s great to see Stephen Lipson getting more credit for this masterpiece and giving it back to the musicians and writers.

Two and a half hours of Trevor

I’m also digesting Trevor Horn’s mammoth interview with Red Bull Academy, which ended up a 2 1/2-hour video after trimming out all the songs. I want to turn it into an entire multimedia presentation hyperlinking all the names, with music/YouTube clips of every musical influence and recording that Trevor and the interviewer mention. Where are today’s multimedia authoring tools?! I can’t even figure out how to make the timestamps in the above paragraph jump to a particular point in the Lipson interview.

Also, Bruce Woolley pops up again as original writer. He also worked with Thomas Dolby at the time but I know nothing about him. Amateur musicology is never-ending.

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music: female backup singer makes the song

Musicians bring in the backup singer who’s often technically more gifted than the lead singer in the band, and she never gets enough credit.

The canonical example is “The Great Gig in the Sky” on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. The song wouldn’t exist without Clare Torry’s wordless vocals, and “The members of the band were deeply impressed by Torry’s performance but did not tell her this, and she left the studio, with a standard £30 flat fee, under the impression that her vocals would not make the final cut.” She finally got co-writing credit 32 years later.

Another killer example is the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter”, where Merry Clayton sings/screams “Rape, murder! It’s just a shot away! It’s just a shot away!” The decent documentary 20 Feet from Stardom covers her and some other “backup” singers; here are some other songs that wouldn’t be so memorable without the female singer.

Boz Scaggs “Miss Sun”: 2:30 into the song Lisa Dalbello delivers a thrilling “Ooooh, Oh-oh yeah yeah!”, then they hand the song over to her for the last two minutes. So damn good. It turns out Toto recorded the song years earlier as a demo, and Lisa Dalbello sang a similar great part then as well.

ABC “Poison Arrow”. Martin Fry: “I thought you loved me, but it seems you don’t care.” Karen Clayton: “I care enough to know I can never love you.” Then the drum kit gets kicked down the stairs along with Fry’s shattered ego. One of the peaks of Trevor Horn’s gigantic productions.

Detroit spinners games people play, in addition to the famous “Mr. 12:45” bass part by Pervis Jackson, has the smooth handoff from lead singer’s “I don’t –” to Evette Benton sultrily singing the surprisingly negative:

– know where to go
It’s hopeless so
I guess I’ll leave it alone

Heaven 17 “Temptation” Glenn Gregory lets Carol Kenyan take the lead on the choruses, and it builds and builds. When she unleashes “But it’s a million to one shot!” it’s electrifying. Heaven 17 also had Josie James sing great vocals on “Penthouse and Pavement”: “Here comes the daylight, here comes my job / Uptown in the penthouse or downtown with the mob”.

O.C. Smith “Together”: After some lovely unison singing, O.C. Smith asks: “Together we make it go, don’t we baby?” Carol Carmichael answers: “Yes we do”. I thought this was the sexiest Q&A ever on a song until…

The System “Don’t Disturb this Groove”. Mic Murphy: “Ooh, baby just lock the door and turn the phone off / It’s time, it’s time for me and you / Are you ready?” The music drops away for her: “Yeahsss”, then there’s a pause where he can’t believe his luck – THIS IS HAPPENING!. Simply orgasmic. Her line might be spoken by the great B.J. Nelson, who sang incomparable vocals on Scritti Politti tracks like “A Little Knowledge”.

Related: Tears for Fears handing over “Badman’s Song” and “Woman in Chains” to Oleta Adams on The Seeds of Love, although she was never a backup singer.

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audio: casually serious KEF speakers

I’ve been looking for something better than my little Jambox desktop speaker for years (here and here). After reading a glowing review of the KEF LS60 floor-standing active wireless speakers, I realized its baby siblings have the same do-everything connectivity in their Mark II guise (Bluetooth, USB, Google Chromecast, Roon, 3.5 mm aux in, optical in, even HDMI from a TV). The mighty LS50 bookshelf speakers seems amazing (I considered it back in 2017) but weigh 20 kg (44 lbs) a set, a bit much for my desk and $2,800 is a lot for casual listening. The LSX II is lighter (only 7.2 kg/16 lbs a set) and a friend likes them; when I found KEF USA offering a special deal of the LSX II with the Kube8b subwoofer for only $1,750 I pulled the trigger on a snazzy blue pair. The speakers were the same price at Amazon, Crutchfield had the same combo offer, so I ordered direct.

KEF LSX II compact wireless powered speakers in Cobalt Blue with Kube8b subwoofer

Shipping was free but KEF are too cheap to pay for “signature required” and UPS just left them on my doorstep; I was lucky I was home otherwise someone would have stolen two clearly labeled boxes of valuable electronics! I plugged them and the subwoofer in to power outlets (it would be cool to have a single custom power cord with a tail for each unit), linked the left and right speakers with the supplied and optional Ethernet cable, and found an RCA cable to plug in the subwoofer. The KEF app told me to set up in Google Home, and bam I can Chromecast YouTube music to the KEF system (and Roon recognized it as a endpoint).

It wasn’t quite that simple. When I set up an account at KEF, the confirmation e-mail provided a link to a broken page with nothing but a red ‘X’ and various errors in Firefox, even after I turned off ad blocking; after a few goes in chromium it worked. And neither the LSX II instructions on paper nor the KEF app told me how to connect KEF’s own subwoofer. And I was unable to get Bluetooth in a couple of tries (just as a test, because normally I’ll use my phone to tell Chromecast or Roon to play through the speakers).

Not used to subwoofing

screenshot of the audio adjustment in basic mode of the KEF Android app

The KEF app in basic mode lets you specify the speakers’ setup: desk mode, distance from the front edge, distance from the walls, how lively and large the room is. The sliders are weird, they don’t show many gradations. You can tell it you have the Kube8b subwoofer, it tells you how to set the subwoofer’s physical knobs, and then there are confusing sliders in the app for speaker-subwoofer balance and subwoofer output.

Apart from various 2.1 computer speaker systems, I’ve never had a subwoofer. I know my door-sized Magneplanar 3.6Rs are light on bass, but how much bass am I supposed to be hearing? Without a separate subwoofer to adjust you don’t worry and the mark of a quality stereo is the absence of tone controls, which I miss about 0.1% of the time; I just enjoy the startling clarity of the Magneplanar sound. But with a system including a subwoofer I now have to guess how prominent the bass should be: how much bass the musicians were assaulted by in the recording studio, adjusted by how much bass I want to hear. To start I dragged the app’s balance towards the subwoofer and set its subwoofer output on maximum. A whole lot of muffled bass sounds going into the floor! It’s OK when I’m in front of the speakers enjoying the treble, but at a distance the treble doesn’t carry and the low bass is too much, so I backed the knobs off. The Kube8b is OK for my desk area, but is probably woefully inadequate for our entire office/kitchen/dining space with Markoff-Fullerton’s beautiful high ceiling.

So the sound…

I need desk stands (KEF charges a high $200 for aluminum stands but there are cheaper ones on Etsy) and more tweaking, but damn right away the mids and midbass are 😘. 30 seconds into his version of “Tuesday Heartbreak” and I need to make love with Michael McDonald.

Where to point them

The problem is I have four places I could set them up: on my desk as extreme computer speakers, facing my office area, flipped to put sound into the kitchen and dining area, and as TV speakers (since I never did set up a TV multimedia system). For three of those the subwoofer doesn’t have to move, but it’s fiddly to move the speakers around. I knew I would have this problem which is why I spent years hoping to find a single-box solution. One answer would be to buy three more systems…

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art: love and ancient mastery at the Legion of Honour

John Singer Sargent in Spain is pretty good. Paintings of fishermen and male artists looking at the viewer with smouldering eyes… it’s puzzling that a San Francisco museum didn’t mention the “lifelong bachelor”‘s likely love affair with Albert de Belleroche, even on the latter’s portrait! For that matter, Sargent’s paintings of donkeys have more feeling than his chilly society portraits of women…??

portrait of Albert de Belleroche by John Singer Sargent, 1882
love is in the air

As always at the Legion of Honor, the mysterious Cycladic sculptures with their curved Brancusi faces and rigidly incised folded arms KO everything else in the building, including Rodin. The artist known as the Goulandris Master was teaching Picasso and Henry Moore everything about human sculptures, FOUR THOUSAND, FIVE HUNDRED YEARS AGO 🤯!

three Cycladic sculptures by the artist known as the Goulandris Master, 2500 BCE
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