April 12, 2010

Life on the moon

I’m not a connoisseur of live albums. I like plenty of musicians who are often better live than recorded (Kathleen Edwards comes to mind) and plenty of songs which are powerful in the studio and don’t really play out on stage.

That said, I think the version of “Life on the Moon” with which Erin McKeown closes the “KCRW Presents” EP (you can stream the whole thing here) may be up there as one of my favorite live recordings.

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December 7, 2009

Josh Ritter at the Troy Music Hall

I’ve been remiss in not mentioning that I was able to see Josh Ritter on Saturday night in a somewhat under-full Troy Music Hall. (Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, actually, which sort of captures Troy in a nutshell: the naming rights to their big venue belong to an institution which no longer exists.) This isn’t quite as close to home as when I could walk to the Somerville Theater, but it’s not bad on a snowy night.

I’m not going to go on at length about the show, given that Doug Rice has already done so in great detail. I was a little underwhelmed by the size of the crowd, and I tend to agree with Doug that Josh is a better show when he’s not in an all-seated venue, but the tradeoff Saturday seemed to be that the Troy Music Hall is an astoundingly ornate and impressive venue in both appearance and sound. Josh and his band were clearly thrilled to be playing there even if most of us did spend the show sitting down passively watching. Also on the plus side was the full-size Steinway which, I think, affected the set list somewhat.

I’ve mentioned before that I always leave Josh’s shows with some new favorite songs, and this time I’m looking forward to a new album, in particular “The Curse” and “Another New World.”

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October 5, 2009

iTunes serendipity

The advantage of pseudo-random ordering a few thousand songs is that occasionally you’ll find a pair, otherwise unrelated, which seem meant to be played next to each other.

Today’s example: the Spin Doctors’ “What Time Is It” (which starts with sampled voices lifted from a newscast, and includes similar voice-overs on occasion through the song) and R.E.M.’s version of The Clique’s “I Am Superman,” which starts with its own indecipherable sampled voices. It’s as though the producers wanted them to flow into each other.

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April 10, 2009

Tweaking the formula

Years ago, I admitted to having the most painfully nerdy playlist ever. This was in the days before Party Shuffle (now mercifully renamed to “iTunes DJ”) and the basic idea was to get all my songs out, but to play the ones I liked more, more often.

I wound up making some tweaks—exceptions, essentially—to account for things like playing and rating new music. (This tweak, for example, called for unrated songs to always be available on the master playlist; I also made an exception to treat songs in the library less than two months like five-star songs, so they wouldn’t get buried.) I suppose ultimately I wanted to be able to weight every song using an equation that takes into account rating, time since last play, time in the library, and maybe a few other things.

Moving in to the office meant I was essentially sharing the library with Noah, and we needed to make some more changes. My trick for music in this situation works like this: my library, your control. Noah has a remote for my computer; I play the tunes, and if he doesn’t like something he clicks to skip it. (The idea is that if it’s in my library, by definition, I like it.)

That led me to adopt a new rule: if a song is skipped, it gets treated like it’s been played but is rated one star lower. (For example, if I’m holding five-star songs out ten days and four-star songs thirty, then if I skip a five-star song it doesn’t come out again until thirty days have passed.) This is as close as I can get to adjusting ratings with the remote.

We also adjusted the office list to exclude all songs rated only one or two stars. This led to such an improvement in the overall quality that I considered how to apply it on the home list. The only point to playing a one- or two-star song, I concluded, is to give it a chance to earn a higher rating from me. If it has played a fair number of times and is still rated low, it’s probably going to stay low.

So I adjusted the one- and two-star lists to exclude any song played more than ten times.

It’s still painfully geeky, but then again, so am I.

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December 7, 2008

Hockey and Russian symphonies

Friday night I watched the UMass men’s hockey team beat UConn, 5-1. Saturday night I went over to the College for the symphony’s “Holiday Pops” concert, which featured the standard Nutcracker selection and one of my Russian professors narrating Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf.”

I wasn’t long into the Nutcracker when I realized there was some similarity between the two activities. In both cases, there was a lot to watch, many pieces around the venue which all fit together to form the whole. You could watch the puck/melody, or try to follow what was going on with the whole ensemble. Players would be fully engaged or sitting back and waiting for their part. And the Russians are big hockey fans, of course.

There’s a bit less contact at the symphony, of course, and the fans are significantly classier. (I’m not impressed by the behavior of the fans at the UMass hockey games.)

(I mentioned this to another symphony attendee, and he pointed out Peter Schickele’s call of Beethoven’s Fifth, which is on his MySpace page under “New Horizons in Music Appreciation.”)

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October 20, 2008

Leader of the Band

My father brings Jim Footer’s obituary to my attention. Footer’s legacy might be better understood in the light of this New York Times article from the summer.

I played a few summers with the Bath Municipal Band, warming a chair in the trombone section for several summer-evening park concerts and a few other events. It was a different kind of performance than the school bands which were most of my other experience; with the Bath band I knew there was a good chance Jimmy would pull out a piece of music during a show which I’d never played before, so I had to get better at sight reading.

I also learned we were all there to have fun. There was at least one show where the first-chair trombone distributed domino masks, and the whole low brass section stood up, masked, for a particularly bombastic section in the middle of one piece. (I can’t remember the song, unfortunately.) There was the week I came to rehearsal, after missing a joint performance with a visiting Canadian band, to hear one of my neighbors announcing, “We had six tubas and fifteen trombones! You should’ve seen the brass!

I took it for granted then, but I haven’t found many bands like the Bath group anywhere else I’ve lived. It takes someone having the idea and then the energy to put it together, and that was Jimmy. The band plays on, too.

Now Playing: Joe And Odell from (Places) by The Shiftless Rounders

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April 15, 2008

The Weakerthans at Pearl Street

Saturday night, I went back over to Pearl Street to see the Weakerthans again, another installment of the Great Canadian Supergroup. Unlike the Kathleen Edwards show, which fit comfortably in the ballroom upstairs, this show was crammed in to the downstairs “club room,” and it made it a much less pleasant experience. Apparently there was some private function upstairs.

Unlike at the Paradise, this crowd was content to sing along with every song, rather than shout along out of key, but by the time the headliners started, it was uncomfortably crowded on the floor, and the lower stage (less than two feet higher than the floor, I think) meant that all of us were jostling around trying to see what was going on. I was occasionally worried that the guy in front of me was going to break my nose with his enthusiastic nodding back and forth—not because he was particularly out of line, but because there really wasn’t enough space.

All this really proves that I’m too old and cranky to be going to shows in the club room, not that it was a bad show. The band did well with the available space, played most of my favorites and a few which should be favorites now, and generally seemed to tolerate things. I have to wonder what it feels like to have fans so enthusiastic that their shouted requests start sounding more like demands, and their own sing-along is as strong as the amplified backing vocals. At some point you start to wonder who’s really driving this bus (and, I suppose, whether it matters.)

Openers were Christine Fellows, a frequent Weakerthans collaborator (she sat in at the keyboards during the main set) who played oddly morbid tunes, less gothic than colonially dour; and AA Bondy, a raspy-voiced Guthrie-type who sounded like M Ward sunk in deep depression. (The tickets promised Liam Finn, so I expect quite a few people in the crowd are confused about just who they saw.)

Now Playing: Rose Parade from Either/Or by Elliott Smith

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April 1, 2008

Why I still buy CDs - and when

Moving last year finally made me think, hey, not only is there a lot of music on all those CDs, but they weigh a lot. And there’s a lot of plastic there. I’ve been buying a lot more of my music online since then, largely through the iTunes music store. But I still buy some CDs, and there’s a good reason for that.

There’s a ton of good music available at no cost online, both legally and illegally. It’s frightfully efficient to distribute digital music that way, and despite the RIAA’s bizarre and backwards policy of suing its own customers, that seems to be where things are headed. It removes the necessity of using a lot of paper, plastic, and gasoline to distribute the music, and in many cases it removes the necessity of dealing with layers of music-business bureaucracy between musicians and their audience.

However, it also removes the flow of compensation returning to the musicians from their audience, and we haven’t really come up with an online model which replaces that flow. ITMS purchases don’t send much cash back to the musicians, unfortunately, less than a CD sale, but even before the internet, the most lucrative sale a musician could make was selling their own CDs at concerts, with a minimum of middlemen.

With that in mind, if I know someone has a new release and they’re coming to town soon, I’ll often wait (as I did last week with Kathleen Edwards’ new disc) and buy the CD at the concert. It costs me a bit more, but I can hope to get more music from them in the long run.

Now Playing: The Cheapest Key from Asking For Flowers by Kathleen Edwards

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March 30, 2008

Kathleen Edwards at Pearl Street

For all the years I’ve lived in the Pioneer Valley, I shouldn’t be able to write this, but last night I went to my first show at the Pearl Street Nightclub.

Kathleen Edwards has outgrown the Iron Horse, so they moved her over to Pearl Street for last night’s show, early in her tour in support of the recently-released “Asking for Flowers.” I haven’t really soaked in the new album yet (I bought the CD at the show, which is worth another post later) so there were a good chunk of the songs I didn’t know well enough to sing along to (not that I do that).

I’d listened to some of the songs from the new album streaming on her website earlier this week, and I’d been a little worried; they didn’t seem to have quite the punch her first two albums had. I like Edwards when her songs are steeped in bitterness and anger, and the occasional slides into despair, while often good songs, aren’t what I’m listening for. I need not have worried; the set showcased on the website, while it does include the caustic “The Cheapest Key” (which could have been addressed to the same leading man as “One More Song The Radio Won’t Like”), it doesn’t have titles like “Oil Man’s War” (one guess what that one’s about) or “Oh Canada” which deliver just the pointed criticism that makes a good Edwards song.

She opened up with solid songs from her earlier discs (“Failer” and “Back to Me”), starting out with “Mercury” from the former, and even though she covered the big titles from those two (“6 O’Clock News” from “Failer” and the title track from “Back To Me”) she seemed to have picked up a set list which had very little overlap with the last time I saw her. For example, “12 Bellevue” came up very early in the show.

The best part of the show, however, was just that Edwards really seemed to be having a good time. She still sings the songs like she’s delivering them for the first time (her voice cracks on “Scared at Night”, a song she wrote for her father,) and she bounces around the stage grinning at her band like she can’t believe she gets to do this for work. Maybe it’s early in the tour yet, but it’s always a great show when you’re watching someone who clearly enjoys what they’re doing.

Yes, this time I brought earplugs. Good decision. Also, yes, Jim Bryson was part of the band. The Weakerthans are coming next month; I wonder who they’ll have in his role?

Justin Rutledge was the opener, not a bad one but not, I think, electrifying enough for me to buy the CDs. I’ll keep an eye on him.

Now Playing: Buffalo from Asking For Flowers by Kathleen Edwards

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March 24, 2008

The thirty-year strings

I tend to have more (and, generally, better) guitars around than would be expected for a musician of my talent level and infrequent practice. That’s another story.

Today I broke a string on an acoustic I don’t play very often. (Bigger, louder, and a wider fret-board than I prefer, none of which make it a bad instrument.) I knew there were quite a few string envelopes in the case, so I pulled out the lot to see if I could find a replacement.

As I went through the stack, I learned a bit about how the guitar’s previous owner had kept it. Aside from two complete, unopened sets of strings, there were three packets with incomplete used sets in the envelopes. (You can tell a used string because the end without the nut is crimped where it was coiled around the tuning peg.) The label on each was turned back-out and marked with a date.


(in red felt-tip, fading to orange, with a zig-zag double-underline between the month and the year)

6 MÄRZ 1974

(in pencil, with the same underline under the whole line and a hurried rock-and-roll dash to the handwriting—the umlaut on the A firmly added)

July 1978

(Royal blue felt-tip, just a step away from calligraphy, with sweeping descenders on the J and 9, a European one-serif 1 and a serif on the lowercase l)

Assuming I haven’t forgotten anything I did with this guitar while it’s been in my care, that July 1978 may indicate the strings I just replaced. (N.B. It’s also possible that some of the strings went with another guitar.) In which case, those strings made it almost thirty years. That’s not half bad.

Rather than just replace the broken string with a single used one, I opened one of the fresh sets and replaced the whole set, putting the old ones (except the broken one) in the empty envelopes as I went. Then I labeled the packet with today’s date and added it back into the stack.

The guitar sounds ghastly now, because I didn’t wind the new strings to full tension yet; I’ll let them relax a bit overnight and tune it next time I have a few minutes.

Now Playing: Secretariat from Miles from the Lightning by Jeffrey Foucault

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February 10, 2008

Surprised there are so few

So this photo is the only one on all of Flickr with the tag “thisonegoesto11”. I only found three more (all much less appropriate to the tag, in my opinion) by changing the digits to a word.

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February 9, 2008

This one goes to 11

For two or three moves, I’ve been toting a small white box labeled “GUITAR JUNK”. Inside is a bunch of music, six or seven 1/4” audio cables, and three effects pedals. Before tonight, none of the three functioned; now two of them do.

All three use 9V batteries, and all three had, at some point, corroded the contacts and ripped one (usually the positive) off the battery connector. I’ve carried them around figuring some day I’d fix them, and today I determined that I would. I stopped at Radio Shack this evening, got a packet of five connectors for $2, and after dinner I clipped off the old connectors, stripped a little wire on the new ones, and twisted them on.

For the chorus pedal (“sound like the ’80s!”) and the delay (“any echo you want!”) that was all that was needed. Unfortunately, new power didn’t revive the Fuzz Face, which stifles all sound when it’s on. I think I need to go at it with the multi-meter later. I’m interested in making this one work again because (a) it’s a great sound, a crunchy distortion effect as you might expect from the name, and (b) the new ones go for $150. If this one hasn’t had it’s 30th birthday, it’s coming soon.

I tested them sitting in the basement with my little 15W Gorilla practice amp. For all the years I’ve had that amp, I’ve never ceased to be amused by the fact that all the dials do in fact go to 11. I can’t tell if this was done unironically or if it is actually dripping with irony.

(I’ll explain what an “effects pedal” is if anyone wants to know, but if I get into that now, this will be twice as long as it is.)

The Fuzz FaceFace's contactFixed!Gorilla

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December 10, 2007

Hey there, steeplechaser

At some point last week I got a little sick of press releases like this one about the USATF Club Nationals making a point of mentioning that steeplechaser and Columbia grad Delilah DiCrescenzo was the “Delilah” of that Plain White Ts song you’ve probably heard a few times if you ever listen to pop radio. For someone trying to be an Olympic Trials contender and a successful athlete, you’d probably prefer that a sappy love song not be the first item on your résumé. For pity’s sake, folks, she’s run a sub-10:00 steeplechase, right?

I think Amby had the same feeling, but the reaction he got from DiCrescenzo after she won Saturday’s race was at right angles to what he was expecting (and what I would’ve expected.) “It was actually awesome to be associated with this song. I just think I was in the right place at the right time. The stars were aligned or something.”

Now, maybe she is getting sick of people greeting her saying “Hey there,” and just doesn’t say so, but I think DiCrescenzo’s positive reaction is actually indicative of a champion’s mind-set. We’ve frequently used a term about Deena Kastor’s attitude, which may even have been hers in the first place: “relentlessly positive.” It’s just not possible to get under Deena’s skin; there’s nothing she can’t turn into a mental advantage, even if it would be an annoyance for someone else. DiCrescenzo’s doing the same thing.

For myself, I don’t really like knowing the real story. Josh Ritter pointed this out in an NPR interview back in October, where he explained that knowing the story behind a song can get in the way of the listener forming their own personal relationship with the song. “They cease to be interesting because they give you everything.”

Now Playing: I Turn My Camera On from Gimme Fiction by Spoon

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December 1, 2007

Erin McKeown goes all-request at Brandeis

I saw notes, when I was ordering tickets for Erin McKeown’s show last night at Brandeis University, that the show would be “all-request”, but I didn’t really know what that meant. (Not quite the same as old days?)

It turned out that it meant a student walking around the lobby before the show with slips of paper and two pitchers marked “Songs” and “Questions”. There were signs on the wall saying, “Deep cuts? Burning questions? Ask!” I wrote down the song that hooked me on McKeown five years ago: “Blackbirds—I saw you play it at the Academy of Music on New Year’s Eve, 2001, and it was great” and put that in the “Songs” pitcher.

The auditorium was surprisingly empty—maybe five rows filled in the front, plus a dozen or so other people scattered through the hall—and eerily quiet if the applause faded. I was surprised the crowd wasn’t bigger; I wonder if Brandeis doesn’t “get the word out” like the venues crawled by Tourfilter do.

McKeown has toured with what she calls a “little big band” recently, but last night it was just her, two guitars, and the recital-hall piano. She favors Gretsch behemoths, making for a “little woman with huge guitar” effect, but it’s less like tool-too-big than that her own skill and talent with the instrument seems to require that much material to play with.

She walked on with the two pitchers and just started pulling slips out, a few from “Songs,” a few from “Questions,” and she’d play them as they came. She opened up with “Cosmopolitans” from “Grand,” and I continued to be impressed through the night at how well she could take a fully-instrumented album piece like “Cosmopolitan” or “Cinematic” (which would work well with Josh Ritter’s horn section) and do it well with just herself and the guitar. She started commenting on how the songs came out: “Normally I would close with this song, it’s interesting that it’s coming up second,” or “It’s cool that these two songs [“Queen of Quiet” and “Cinematic”] came up together, because they’re both opening tracks on their albums.”

The questions were a little more offbeat, particularly coming from a university crowd. “What is your favorite piece of furniture?” “What did you want to be when you were five?” (McKeown used that to segue into the title track from her fourth album, “We Will Become Like Birds.”) “Who is your favorite classical composer?” (That became an introduction to “Vera”, a back-story I hadn’t known.) Eventually there was a litter of paper around her feet, she’d faked her way through “Blue Skies” and the opening verse of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” (among others); I was half expecting either “Purple Haze” or “Tiny Dancer” to come up. She did this without a fake book, entirely from her memory of what the song sounded like.

And yes, she did play “Blackbirds,” and judging by the reaction, I wasn’t the only one who requested it.

It was a really good show, and I’m surprised there weren’t more people there.

Now Playing: Cosmopolitans from Grand by Erin McKeown

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New trend

Apparently, to be a good indie opening act, you must do an unironic re-interpretation of some 80’s-era Bowie track as part of your set list. First I saw The Last Town Chorus playing a slowed-down and elegaic “Modern Love” (a track she’s actually gained some notoriety from) at the Weakerthans show. Tonight, at Erin McKeown, the opener was Ryan Fitzsimmons, who closed with a one-guitar neo-folk rendition of “Let’s Dance.”

More on Erin later, when I’ve had some sleep.

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November 2, 2007

The Canadian music mafia

Let me trace this one back.

I am now convinced there are only two or three bands in Canada, and the same eight or ten session musicians rotate between them all. (Both Bryson and Harmer have toured with Josh Ritter, too. Is Idaho in Canada yet?)

I’ll let you figure out what the Weakerthans are all about; there are some representative songs on their site. They’re earnest and energetic, loud music and soft singing, lots of poignancy and no irony unless they’re being earnest about it. If there’s a good side to living in a major metropolitan area, it’s that I could say which show I was seeing to half a dozen people throughout the day and not one of them had heard of the band before, and yet the show was sold out. A big room full of music geeks like me out to see a bunch of Canadians who look (and sometimes sound) like they woke up about ten minutes before coming on stage play songs with titles like “Psalm for the Elks Lodge Last Call” or “This Is A Fire Door Never Leave Open.”

The stage show is sort of like a cross between They Might Be Giants and the Replacements as played by Aerosmith (and they did play the Mats’ “Swinging Party,” which Bryson has also been known to play in live shows,) and John K. Sampson pretty much smiles through the whole thing, like he’s alternately bemused or overwhelmed by his own good luck.

The drawback to the fanatical crowd was that this kind of band draws just enough of the fans who have memorized every song, and don’t just sing along, but yell along, and apparently are utterly tone-deaf but don’t realize it. That guy was standing right behind me, I think.

Bryson played a short opening set, and I was surprised how many of his songs I recognized—“Feel Much Better” was in the SXSW 2005 Torrent, and Kathleen Edwards recorded his “Somewhere Else”—and then The Last Town Chorus played a set as well. (“The Wire Waltz” was also in that SXSW torrent.) I’ve been reading their travelogue for a little while now, and it’s kind of fun. She snapped a shot of a woman in the back, towards the end of her set, and said, “That will be on the Internet in twenty minutes.”

Now Playing: Our Retired Explorer (Dines With Michel Foucault In Paris, 1961) from Reconstruction Site by The Weakerthans

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October 18, 2007

Josh Ritter: hear for yourself

I’ve been dinning in your collective ear for years now about how great Josh Ritter is. But look, don’t take my word for it; you can hear for yourself. Here’s how I would do it:

  • Go to Josh’s website. In addition to having the entire new album streaming (which does have the inconvenience of requiring you to keep that page open in a browser tab somewhere), you can download—free!—”To the Dogs or Whoever” from the newest album on the news page of the site, plus two each from each of the four previous albums on the music page. I recommend “Girl in the War”, “Kathleen”, “Me & Jiggs”, and “Harrisburg”. Altogether there’s nine free songs on the site, which is a decent greatest-hits disc. There’s more on the fan site, but we’re not digging that deep right now.

  • NPR’s “All Songs Considered” recently broadcast a full concert from the 9:30 Club in DC. You can get it most easily by subscribing to the ASC podcast (Bog, did I just type that ugly neologism?) and listen to the whole show on one drive, as I did on my way back from Amherst last night. It’s pretty cool, very similar to the show I saw here in Somerville down to the Springsteen cover in the encore, and I like the podcast as well; being able to slurp down hour-long showcases of new music and good concerts for nothing sounds like a great deal to me.

Now Playing: To the Dogs or Whoever from The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter by Josh Ritter

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October 5, 2007

Changes in the horn section

The last time I saw Josh Ritter at the Somerville Theatre, the encore involved Josh’s band (a four-piece at the time) hauling out a tuba, among other instruments, for the encore. That was shortly before “The Animal Years” was released, and songs like “Girl in the War” were still just being tried out.

Josh has a new album, a month or two ago, and to go along with the bombastic title (“The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter”) he’d added a guitarist to the band and brought in a four-piece horn section. There was at least one song last night which could’ve been performed by Bill Halley and the Comets without anyone batting an eyelid, but this horn section was bottom-heavy (baritone and tenor sax, trombone, trumpet) and Josh uses them like a growl—the new album is online for the moment, check the second verse of “Rumors” and you get the idea. “My orchestra is gigantic,” (buh bah,) “This thing could sink the Titanic,” (buh bah,) and so on.

So with three solid albums behind this one, it’s getting tough for Josh to play all the good stuff from his back catalog while still showing off the new music. He played a lot of the new album, including all the up-tempo stuff, a pretty deep range of “The Animal Years” (“Wolves” and “Girl in the War,” of course, but also “Here at the Right Time” and “Monster Ballads”). “Hello Starling” got short shrift; he played “Kathleen,” of course, since the half of the audience that wasn’t there for “Girl in the War” was there for “Kathleen.” And then from “Golden Age of Radio,” not the expected ones: “Harrisburg,” yes, but not “Me and Jiggs” or the title track; “Lawrence, KS” instead.

And, as part of the encore, Bruce Springsteen’s “The River,” by himself without the mikes. Part of Ritter’s strength is that, unlike Springsteen, his voice works best when it’s not at full shout; he was at the ragged edge of his range with “The River,” and with the bigger, louder band and the energetic songs on “Historical Conquests,” he’s working hard. Maybe it didn’t help that midway through “Girl in the War,” he sounded like he was breaking down in tears. It’s as though he’s incapable of not feeling the music completely; it makes a great show, but man, it must be tough work.

As usual, whenever I leave one of Josh’s shows, I have a new favorite song; this time, it’s “Here At The Right Time.”

Now Playing: To the Dogs or Whoever from The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter by Josh Ritter

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May 28, 2007


There are many advantages to cities which I haven’t taken advantage of since we moved here. Tonight we finally hit one; we saw a movie which, so far as I know, is in pretty limited release. (Despite being a winner at Sundance, Yahoo! Movies links a 197x movie of the same name when theaters are showing it.)

I picked Once out of the lineup because the leading actor, Glen Hansard, is also the frontman for The Frames, who opened for Josh Ritter when we saw him at the Somerville Theater. That’s a reach, but it sounded like a good enough reason to pick the movie. (Hansard’s previous movie work is long ago: he was the guitarist in The Commitments.) The short synopsis is that Hansard plays a busker and sometime vacuum-cleaner repairman approached on the street by a Czech immigrant cleaning lady (Hansard’s sometime collaborator Marketa Iglova); she plays piano. As they tentatively get to know each other, it is mostly through music; their conversations cautious and guarded, the songs much less so.

The marketing for the movie is clearly pitching it as a parallel to Before Sunrise (which I admit I haven’t seen) but it’s really a musical in the way of a lot of old-time movies—with the characters breaking into song about every five minutes. That makes it sound incongruous, but the music fits the movie as though it was written for it. (I think some of the songs are longtime Frames songs, some are from Hansard and Iglova’s collaboration, “The Swell Season,” and some may have been written for the movie—but it’s not clear which are which.)

There are dozens of silly little moments which make it endearing—Iglova towing her Hoover around Dublin behind her, or the band which eventually backs their demo tape (They’re playing by Phil Lynott’s statue, and say cautiously, “We really only do Lizzy.”) Hansard’s Takamine (a very nice guitar for a busker) has clearly been played long and hard: he’s worn right through the deck below the sound hole, and the ribs show through.

I’ve never seen a musical movie work this well, particularly given the contrasting film of the year (Music & Lyrics.) It’s understated and underacted, with wobbly cameras and dark nighttime shots (hooray for daylight) but if it shows up near you it’s worth making time for.

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May 24, 2007

Code Monkey

I think have a new favorite song.

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May 15, 2007

Stop me before this continues

The source is the source, of course, of course
and no one can code without source…

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October 25, 2006

Intersection of interests

I got an invitation today to a private function before the New York City Marathon, the weekend after next. I won’t be in town that early, unfortunately. Unfortunately because it includes a “special performance” by Josh Ritter. I did a little snooping, and it looks like he will indeed be in town to run the marathon. According to his blog on MySpace, he’s had to do most of his training on treadmills due to his touring schedule.

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October 22, 2006

Halloween Parade

I had forgotten, until I got there, that Emmaus has a Halloween Parade.

I have not heard of such things (Halloween Parades, that is,) outside of eastern Pennsylvania, though they must exist elsewhere. Emmaus (apparently) has the biggest one in the Lehigh Valley, and I almost always missed it, either because I didn’t know there was such a thing, or because I was in Chicago for the marathon. For the later three years I was there, I shared a house less than a block from the route; we walked down to the end of our alley and watched it cross Ninth Street on its way to the “return leg” of the trip on Chestnut Street. It was a bit odd, if only several factors (two left turns in quick succession, a downhill, and a relatively sparse spectator density) meant that most of the bands were just counting time and floats were hanging on rather than showing off.

This year, my second time at the parade, I walked a few blocks with one of my old roommates, his wife, and their two-month-old daughter, to our (former) coach’s house, where we watched with co-workers and training partners. (Ex on my part, not on his, obviously.) We were maybe four or five blocks from the start of the parade route, so everyone was still pumped up and excited to be out marching after an hour plus milling around in the staging area. The street was lined, shoulder to shoulder, chair to chair, both sides. (When we took the dog for a morning walk around 11, people already had chairs and blankets out to stake out prime spots, eight hours pre-parade.)

The distinctive part of the Emmaus parade is timing. Most parades are daytime affairs; Emmaus’s parade is at night, lining up at seven and moving at 7:30. It might have taken them fifteen minutes to get to our spot; it easily took a full hour for the entire parade to pass. I lost count of the marching bands at five, including at least three high schools and two junior highs, plus two or more “hobo bands” and the Kutztown University band. I suppose it’s easier to get a band when school is in session (particularly during football season) than it is in early July. KU got my votes for “Most Fun” and “Most Likely to Sustain Instrument Damage,” since they weren’t marching—they were weaving, milling around and circling in an apparently-but-maybe-not-really-random manner, like an ambulatory party providing its own music.

Halloween Parade

Brandywine Valley HS, as far as I could tell, was a good way from home, but obviously a regional-class band (if not better.) They take their marching bands more seriously in Pennsylvania than we ever did in Maine.

Now Playing: Wake Up from by Follow The Train

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September 11, 2006

The Shiftless Rounders at Club Passim

I saw the Shiftless Rounders last winter when they opened for Sarah Harmer at the Paradise. I was only lukewarm on them then, but I bought their CD and pulled a few more songs off the web and they grew on me. When I saw they were coming back to the area—to Club Passim down in Harvard Square—I figured I’d swing by.

It’s not easy to pin down what’s so enjoyable about their shows. The lyrics have all the tragedy and bitterness old-time folk music was known for (“Memphis has the worst drunk tank, and the meanest fuzz,”) but they also have the tight, careful poetry you don’t often see. Phil and Ben also harmonize perfectly, both vocally and instrumentally, so much so that despite Phil’s relatively distinctive voice it’s not always easy to tell who’s singing which part, or whether the melody is being carried by Ben’s self-made dobro or Phil’s banjo (or guitar.)

This was a much smaller show than the Paradise. When the opener, Paul’s Big Radio, was playing, I counted twelve people there; in the break between the two acts, it developed that slightly more than half of them were personal friends of one of the various musicians. More people filtered in during the break, so there were probably more than twenty of us, but not many more. Two dozen at most.

The Rounders don’t get fazed by this; they have a song about the show they played in Colorado (Phil doesn’t think much of Colorado) where nobody came, but they played anyway. They have a fair mix of traditional songs and Phil’s compositions, and they flow together easily that without introduction, I might still be wondering why that Paul Simon song sounded so familiar. I think “House Carpenter” is an American Folk echo of the European-traditional “Raggle Taggle Gypsy,” for example, but with less rebellion and more remorse.

They play with a degree of enthusiasm and passion that’s hard to get outside of, say, punk rock; I didn’t really expect Phil to light his guitar on fire, but if he had, it wouldn’t have been too shocking. (Their MySpace site bills their sound as “Imagine if Kurt Cobain had been from West Virginia…”) I was grinning halfway through their first song.

Passim’s “green room,” at least during this warmer season, is a little porch outside the stage door, about five feet below Palmer Street; I’d spotted them having dinner out there when I came in. They went back out there when they were done, but we clapped them back out; then they weren’t sure which song to play. “Anybody have anything they want to hear?” I always scoff at the fans who holler out song titles midway through a set, as though the musicians don’t know what they want to play, but the audience was quiet, so I called out, “Places!”

“All the Places I Go,” a short inventory of travels (“Iowa showed me more roads than I could drive / One Minnesota summer I just barely survived”) was one of the songs I wanted to hear again. (The other one I missed was their “Denver Jane”: “There was a woman I did wrong / she turned into a song / that always breaks my strings / or is a little out of tune.”) Ben said, “That beats trying to decide on one,” so they played it, and I was happy.

Now Playing: Over The Water from (Places) by The Shiftless Rounders

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August 3, 2006

Josh Ritter in Copley Square

“Look,” he said, “I know we’re in the epicenter of Puritanism, here between the library and the church, but can we get a big redneck yell?”

That was Josh Ritter playing a free outdoor concert at Copley Square this afternoon. A and I went in two weeks ago for one of the earlier shows in the series, but we left late and spent so long on the T that we only saw Edie Brickell (and a band that must be, I joked, the New New Bohemians,) play three or four songs before the show was over. I wanted to see all of Josh’s set, so we left earlier this time, and got there just as they were breaking down the opening act and setting up Josh’s band. It was ten or fifteen minutes between when we got there and when the show really started, and meanwhile WBOS, playing over the speaker stack, played “Wolves” on the radio.

I only had two problems with the concert, which I’ll get out of the way early: first, where I was sitting, the bass overpowered the rest of the band. This doesn’t help a lot of Josh’s songs, even though his bassist is quite good. I had trouble hearing Josh sometimes because of his habit of mumbling into the mike between songs; that pitch of voice would carry to the worst seat in the Horse, but it didn’t really make it past the first ten rows in Copley Square. Second, this was an outdoor concert, which meant quite a few of the people around me weren’t really paying attention to the show; they were sitting around yakking. Which is to be expected, I suppose, and if it really bothered me I could’ve stood up and gone closer to the stage.

Josh spent a few years in Cambridge, so he was pretty excited about being back and playing right in the center of things in Copley Square. He said that a few times in between a few songs. He opened with several songs off “The Animal Years,” which I’ve heard often enough now even though I haven’t gotten around to buying the disc yet: “Monster Ballads,” “Wolves,” and another which I hadn’t heard (maybe it was “Another Mouth”?) He wasn’t afraid to go into his back catalog, though, hitting the high notes from “Golden Age of Radio” (“Harrisburg,” “Me & Jiggs,” and the title track, among others,) and “Hello, Starling” (“Kathleen,” “The Bad Actress.”) He even dipped back to his first CD for “Hotel Song.” (“You checked in, I checked you out…”) Of course, he did have trouble remembering how to start the verses.

The crowd knew what they were there for, with quite a few of them streaming to the front when the music started, and cheering loudly for “Kathleen” and “Me & Jiggs.” Josh isn’t used to big outdoor venues; he takes a long time to set up his jokes, so you really have to be paying attention, as when he took the bridge of “You Don’t Make It Easy, Babe,” to dedicate the song to Dick Cheney, “who couldn’t be here with us tonight; his cat is sick.” (And then the last verse includes the line, “I hope you find someone just as hard as you come / but in this hard world sadly that’s so easily done.”) I didn’t catch the intro to “Girl in the War,” but the crowd up front did, and cheered; they were waiting for that song.

He closed with “Snow is Gone,” which is a pretty good finale, but the crowd managed to scream up an encore; back out, the band played “Song for the Fireflies,” which was a good summer-evening wrap-up and put us in the right mood to go home.

It was a great evening out, actually; after the roasting heat earlier in the week, it was genuinely cool downtown, just right for sitting out on the grass and watching a show. Next week the opener is Sonya Kitchell, who has drawn me some search engine traffic in the last few months as she gets radio airplay; I don’t know if we’ll make it in or not, but we might try.

Now Playing: Me & Jiggs from Golden Age of Radio by Josh Ritter

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May 23, 2006

Backup technology

Car audio has done some evolving in my lifetime.

For the longest time, I simply counted on having a tape player in the car, and I littered the car with cassettes. When I shifted my music purchasing to CDs, I taped the CDs for the car. In my first car, the cassette deck was bolted below the dashboard, and though it supposedly managed auto-reverse, in one direction it would only play the left-side stereo channel, so I turned the tapes over anyway. I cultivated the ability to pop out the tape, flip it one-handed (I think I slapped it against my knee to change my grip,) and re-insert it.

At some point after college, I obtained a portable CD player and a cassette adapter, which finally rendered cassettes obsolete. Still later came the iPod, of course, which conveniently plugs into the same cassette adapters. The cassette player is now simply a plug for input from whatever portable audio I bring along, and a while ago I finally purged the car of all but eight or ten holdout cassettes.

The problem with this arrangement is if my trip isn’t enough to justify hauling out a player, plugging it in, and listening. When I commuted to work, I listened to NPR, but I’m not on such a schedule nowadays, and radio around here, while sometimes interesting, is often not.

So sometimes I dig into the armrest where the fossilized cassettes live, mostly mix tapes from the previous decade. This weekend I found that one of them was a motley collection of Steely Dan tracks taped from my mother’s collection. (Oh, definitely cool.)

And, midway through one side, I heard the unmistakable sound of a needle being placed on vinyl. (Aja, I believe.) Now that’s something I hadn’t heard in a long time. Particularly not in the car. A cassette tape recording of a vinyl LP.

Now Playing: Clean Up Kid from Songs From The Other Side by The Charlatans

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April 18, 2006

Dar at Wellesley

Post-marathon, last night, A and I went out to see Dar Williams at the Wellesley College campus center, partly in acknowledgment of the fact that I am no longer a teenager, even in hex.

Considering the mobs who turned up when Dar played nearly anywhere in Northampton, largely coming down in packs from Smith, I was a bit surprised at how sparse the audience was, but maybe it was because the opening acts drove them away. They weren’t bad, they were just very unlike I would have expected; when we’ve seen Dar before, the openers were a bit more… laid back. And quiet. Kris Delmhorst, say, or Ben Taylor. The first band, with a name I never figured out, looked like college students themselves, and didn’t really have their stage manner down, though their music was OK. The second band was much more “professional” in appearance and musicianship… but they were playing seriously heavy metal. (The lead guitarist looked like Axl Rose with a goatee.) We were old fuddy-duddies and went upstairs to wait them out in the more relaxed section of the campus center.

There was a long wait for Dar, which was a bit funny considering that there was no stage to set up: it was just her and her guitar, so two mics and an amp. I think four different stools came out, were placed on the stage in varying configurations, then shuffled to something else. Of course, when Dar finally came out, she rearranged them. Most of the audience sat on the floor, the exceptions being those who stood by the walls. The room itself is apparently a model of modern architecture, but it reflected noise in very odd ways; we had good sound from the stage, but our occasional whispers earned us at least one very dirty look from a woman who should’ve been out of earshot.

Dar’s talent is really her skill at telling stories, both in introducing her songs and in their lyrics. She’s so open and disarming when she starts out that the listener gets completely drawn in to the stories, and then she’s ready with the knockout punch line, flipping the mask around to show the other side. A wondered if she gets tired of telling the stories, but I haven’t heard the same one twice yet.

She didn’t play much from her newest album last night, but she did play “Teen for God,” which starts out sounding like sarcasm and satire of self-righteously-religious teenagers a la Saved until it skips forward four years to the agnostic and depressed college student—there’s the punch line. Then she toured all the old favorites (“I thought you’d say, ‘No, no, not Iowa again!’”) I still think the guitar part she plays with “As Cool As I Am” sounds weird by itself, but maybe I haven’t listened to the recording closely enough. That was enough to get everyone up and dancing for a few minutes, anyway; it was interesting how the sound in the room changed immediately.

She also told a story about “Are You Out There” which was interesting; I’d always assumed the song was about Northampton (given the name-checks of two WRSI personalities, Johnny Memphis and Jim Olsen,) but she described a weak signal from a New York station (sounds more like the Velvet Underground’s “Rock and Roll”,) and imagining the city fathers in her town standing at the town borders with sheets of tinfoil trying to block it. Hence the “walls of static.” Huh.

It was definitely the unwinding I needed at the end of that day.

Now Playing: Horrible Qualities from Josh Ritter by Josh Ritter

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March 14, 2006

Common wealth

I know I expected to be doing a little reading about the Commonwealth Games.

I can’t say I expected to be reading the blog of an opening ceremonies headliner. I wonder what they’re playing.

Now Playing: Myrrh from Heyday by The Church

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February 26, 2006

Sarah Harmer at the Paradise

Friday night, I headed over to the Paradise for the first time to see Sarah Harmer. I first saw Harmer at the Iron Horse two years ago, and it was a great show; since then, she hasn’t really come nearby, so I was excited for a new CD and another U.S. tour. A was at a track meet all day—not even home when I left for the show—so I went by myself. (Probably should’ve asked here if anyone wanted to come.)

The Paradise isn’t at all like the Horse: a basketball-court sized floor with folding chairs for the “early arrivers” (and, at five minutes to nine, I turned out to be “early,”) and two ranks of risers (with counters) around the outside which, I think, constituted some kind of standing room. I thought I had grabbed one of the last chairs, but as it happened nearly as many (or more) people came in after me and stood, either behind us or around the risers.

The Shiftless Rounders were the openers, two guys playing very rootsy bluegrass tunes: dobro and guitar or banjo, and two-part harmony about drinkin’, gettin’ out of jail in Memphis, fishin’ with homeless men, and the show in Colorado where nobody showed up, “but we played our hearts out anyway.” Unfortunately, much of the crowd at the bar continued to talk through their songs; it wasn’t until Harmer came on stage that there was a lot of attention paid to the music.

Harmer has also taken a turn towards bluegrass with “I’m a Mountain,” which she played almost all of. Her band has changed a bit, with upright bass, mandolin/guitar, fiddle, clarinet, and piano; there was a drum kit which saw (almost) no use until the “last” song. In addition to practically everything from “I’m a Mountain,” they dipped into Harmer’s back catalog for some good stuff, which (of course) all sounded a bit different with this band. Harmer played a few by herself, including “Basement Apartment,” which dates back to her Weeping Tile days, and which she introduced by saying, “You know how you over-dramatize everything that happens to you in your twenties?” They also played The Shins’ “Young Pilgrims” (I think,) and a few other covers; Dolly Parton’s “Will He Be Waiting For Me,” of all songs, is on “I’m a Mountain.”

The crowd, which Harmer called the biggest she’d seen in Boston, was in to this show, cheering enthusiastically and recognizing a lot of the older songs (“Almost” and “Greeting Card Aisle” from “All of Our Names” in particular.) I got the idea that most of them knew her already; she did have a brief exchange with one man, asking how he’d come to be there, then saying, “Your wife brought you? I’m beginning to see the uses of wives.” Finally, on “Lodestar,” Harmer put down her guitar towards the end and ran back to sit at the drums for the outro, which also drew screams.

They came back for a planned encore (“I’m a Mountain” and “How Deep in the Valley,” I think,) but then enough enthusiastic fans kept hollering to drag Harmer back out one more time. She played “Dogs and Thunder,” also an old Weeping Tile track but an interesting connection between Tile and her current sound.

On my way out, I picked up my copy of “I’m a Mountain,” a Shiftless Rounders disk (see below,) and a few Weeping Tile discs which are pretty near impossible to find in the U.S. otherwise. I prefer buying my music at shows when I can, because more of the price is likely to go right to the musicians than if (for example) I buy online. There’s a lot to be said for supporting local music shops, of course, but I haven’t really found one nearby here yet.

Now Playing: Fists In My Pockets from (Places) by The Shiftless Rounders

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January 12, 2006

We have it all

Another good reason to come to Boston for the USATF Indoor Track championships: Sarah Harmer is playing at the Paradise on Friday night.

Now Playing: I Know What I’m Here For from Millionaires by James

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January 1, 2006

Duncan Sheik at the Orpheum

I think our best New Year’s Eves have been spent at concerts in Northampton. (I first saw Erin McKeown playing “Blackbirds” at a First Night Northampton show in the Academy of Music, with Dave Hower and Dave Chalfant for the backing band.) So when we took our First Night Boston pins on the Red Line, I figured our best bet was to get off at Park Street and walk over to the Orpheum, where The River (which appears to be different from “The River” in Northampton) was sponsoring local heroes The Gentlemen and Duncan Sheik.

I’d never been to the Orpheum before. It has the same old seats as the Academy and the Somerville Theatre, but quite close together; we saw The Gentlemen’s set from the first row behind the orchestra section so we wouldn’t have our knees jammed into the back of someone else’s seat. The Gentlemen play tight, loud, straight-ahead rock, about what I’d expect of Boston now that I think of it. The FN site compared them to Elvis Costello, but I’d say only on Elvis’s loudest, most raucous moments. With their guitars nearly to their knees, it was more like Elvis channeling the Clash. I was glad that this time I’d remembered to bring earplugs.

Each act was to take turns for two sets each, four total, with each running about 45 minutes plus a 15 minute intermission. During the first intermission, we took the opportunity to hop up to the balcony, where there were opera boxes with empty seats. The view was nice; I took a few cell-phone-camera shots, but the quality is so low they’re not worth posting.

Duncan Sheik is perhaps best known for his 1996 hit “Barely Breathing,” which was so overplayed in the years right after I graduated from college that I gained a strong aversion to it. It seems like Sheik did too; in the last year or so he visited Northampton, opening for someone at the Calvin perhaps, and the review in the Gazette noted that most of the crowd didn’t know who he was, and he did nothing to enlighten them—that is to say, he pretty much pretends that “Barely Breathing” doesn’t exist. Well, not really: on his website, he says,

…the “upbeat” music [a critic] seems to want to hear generally fails to move me in any way. In fact, the further I move away from “likable” pop music, the happier I am with what I’m doing. … I really don’t feel like I’m ever going to be that kind of artist. And if I ever was, it was an accident of bad marketing and my own lack of good judgement.

That made me a bit more open-minded about this set, and it turned out to be pretty good. He has a good band and they work the dynamics pretty well, playing up and down the emotions of the songs.

Sheik has a new CD due in a few weeks, and he played a few songs from it and a few from his last disc. Then he introduced one as, “This is a Radiohead song.” I thought he’d said “radio hit song” and that he was uncharacteristically going to play “Barely Breathing,” but instead it was “Fake Plastic Trees,” which the band did quite well with. Sheik isn’t quite Thom Yorke, though. I was actually thinking that the voice he most reminded me of was Glen Phillips (ex of Toad the Wet Sprocket,) and in fact they could’ve dropped in “Stories I Tell” without jarring the tone at all.

We considered staying for the second round, but in the end we decided that another set of Sheik probably wasn’t worth sitting through another round of The Gentlemen, so we headed home by a roundabout route.

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November 20, 2005

Luke's music

There’s a pretty decent wireless network in this hotel. Sometimes it can be a bit slow, and oddly enough the signal is better in our room than it is in the lobby, but in general it’s pretty good; we haven’t needed to break out any of the guerilla network tools (a network hub, the Airport Express, whatever,) that I sometimes bring along to make sure we can both get online.

The hotel is also loaded with college cross-country runners, and as a result I’m trying something new: listening to someone’s shared iTunes playlist. I’ve never been on a network with other people sharing music; my co-workers have never been that savvy, and I tend not to be looking at iTunes when I’m online at school.

But now we’re playing our music off “LUKE’S LimeWire Tunes.” I have no idea who Luke is—just that he’s somewhere in this hotel, and he downloads music using LimeWire. And I know a bit about his music, which I suppose might tell me even more about him.

Now Playing: Portions of Foxes from More Adventurous by Rilo Kiley

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October 18, 2005

A tuba in the Somerville Theatre

  • I wouldn’t have expected the Frames as a double bill with Josh Ritter. For one thing, I wished I’d remembered to bring earplugs during their set, which was quite loud, but I seldom missed them during Josh’s. On the other hand, Josh’s duet with Glen on “Come and Find Me” during the encore was quite good.

  • The Somerville Theatre also has movies (generally second-run,) as Josh noted: “It’s so nice to come back and see the marquee reading, ‘Josh Ritter, 40 Year Old Virgin.’ I’m not even 40.”

  • Yes, they brought out a tuba for the encore. I just about fell out of my seat.

  • The new album should be up to standard. I can’t say I’m in love with “Thin Blue Flame,” the track available for download on his site, but “Idaho” is beautiful and “Wolves” fits in nicely with other uptempo songs like “Harrisburg” and “Me and Jiggs.”

  • “Playing new songs live is like taking someone home to your parents. Someone with a record. From Philadelphia.” No kidding, the crowd clearly knew the songs well; I think nearly everyone sang along with “Kathleen.” I told A. on the way home that one of the things I liked about Josh’s concerts is that, in general, the ones he likes and plays often are also the ones I like, so the set list is almost certain to hit everything I want to hear. (The one that didn’t get played was “Wings.”)

  • I have chronic obstructed-view issues with Josh’s shows.

Now Playing: Wings from Hello Starling by Josh Ritter

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October 16, 2005

Corporate weasels

Friday, I bought tickets to see Josh Ritter (again!) at the Somerville Theater tomorrow night. For several reasons having to do with my not having bought the tickets sooner (I’ve known he was coming for a month—what was I waiting for?) I bought them through Ticketmaster instead of paying cash at the box office down in Davis Square. (I simply had no remaining time to get to Davis.)

I’m not the first person to complain about Ticketmaster; it should come as no surprise to anyone that I’ve decided they’re weasels. Here’s why:

  1. The tickets were listed at price $x at the beginning of the process. Pricey for a night’s entertainment, but I knew it would be worth it and was willing to pay.
  2. Then, upon clicking through, there was a small “facilities fee” and a whopping “handling fee” added, both per-ticket. The handling fee, despite the fact that I selected “Will-Call” and Ticketmaster will never touch the ticket.
  3. With the fees, the price of the tickets went up nearly 50%.
  4. I wouldn’t have been mad if the fees had been included in the price of the tickets; in fact, I might have considered the tickets expensive but worth it, and bought them without feeling cheated. Instead, they were tacked on above what I had been told was “the price.” It wasn’t the total that angered me, but the way it was presented, something which should be easy to fix.
  5. The fees can’t be included in “the price” because then the fee revenue would be included in the concert revenue shared with the artist.

In other words, Ticketmaster squeezes, beyond what the market wishes to bear, both parties which contribute to concerts being something worth attending, while adding nothing commensurate to their revenue themselves. They anger their customers and screw the performer. See? Weasels. I don’t understand how that kind of business model is allowed to stand without being undercut by competition.

Now Playing: Thin Blue Flame from The Animal Years by Josh Ritter

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October 11, 2005

The power of live music

Ever since the concert in May I still need Edwards’ warning when this song (below) comes up.

‘cause I don’t know who to call,
and I don’t know who to write,
and I think I forgot
what your face looks like
I’ve been away

Now Playing: Away from Back to Me by Kathleen Edwards

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September 18, 2005

Driving music

My top 10 list of songs to play with the windows open while driving a large van down New Hampshire back roads very, very early in the morning:

  • “Everyday Should Be A Holiday” by The Dandy Warhols
  • “Back to Me” by Kathleen Edwards
  • “10 A.M. Automatic” by The Black Keys
  • “The Dawn Patrol” by Ride
  • “Living Like a King” by Patiokings
  • “Good Times” by INXS (with Jimmy Barnes)
  • “Secret Handshake” by Too Much Joy
  • “Monday” by Wilco
  • “Dan Takes Five” by The Georgia Satellites
  • “Shooting Dirty Pool” by The Replacements

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July 31, 2005

Oversized iPod

There’s a lot to post about this weekend, but I’m swamped here, so I’ll just go with the first one.

I managed to leave my iPod at work. Not uncommon, but frustrating when there’s a lot of driving ahead.

Then I remembered that I had my laptop with me, and since I rip music for the iPod there, it has all the same music.

So I drove up 91 in Vermont with my Powerbook next to me, wireless off and screen dimmed down to nearly nothing, and the headphone jack hooked up to the cassette adapter.

Big, expensive iPod

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June 30, 2005

Revisiting old dreams

Back when my brother came to visit, he brought a CD with him. It was, oddly enough, mine. When my band from high school did our album, between graduation and dissolution, we ended up deciding on cassettes, for some reason; the only quasi-official digital version was a DAT the singer kept from the studio.

My mother has set up her Mac to take audio input from a turntable or cassette deck and record MP3s, so she could rip all her old LPs, and my brother ripped one of our cassettes and burned a CD for me. I finally got around to playing it last night; I was initially reluctant, but curiosity got the best of me. The quality isn’t the best, but that’s hardly the point.

The album as a whole is pretty uneven. The parts that are good give me chills: hey, we were on to something there. The parts that aren’t so good, and there are many of them, are more common. Listening to it made me think of a programmer’s second program, the one that comes after “Hello, world” and before they figure out how to write tighter, more efficient and elegant programs.

There’s some plain poor musicianship, a great deal of nervous rushing and over-playing. There’s some bad mixing of what might otherwise have been decent songs. In nearly all cases, the songs or lyrics just aren’t ready for prime time. No surprise, then, that our singer does a little revisionist history, calling the band by a different name in newspaper stories; I guess he’d rather not have this stuff dug up, and I don’t blame him. (I don’t even think there was a band by that name.)

I’m not disappointed or surprised, in hindsight, that what we created was really a bad album. We did the best we could with what we had and what we knew. I think I don’t like listening to it because I remember the dreams we were dreaming when we recorded it, and there’s discord between the dreams and the sounds.

Now Playing: The Ballad Of Peter Pumpkinhead from Nonsuch by XTC

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June 10, 2005

Weighted shuffle playlist in iTunes

I’ve hinted at this before, but it’s painfully geeky and I figured nobody else would want to know. But Joe asked.

The central idea is this: I don’t want to hear any song so often I get sick of it. But I do want to hear songs I like more often.

The problem with creating a complicated playlist criteria in iTunes (and hence on the iPod) is that “smart” playlists must be either made entirely of AND rules (“Match all of these criteria”) or entirely of OR rules (“Match any of these criteria”.) You can’t combine ANDs and ORs in one list. So what I do is create a series of playlists made of AND rules, then a master playlist which is, essentially, an OR of all those AND playlists. Like so:

First, I created five “smart” playlists with two rules each, one for the rating of the song and one for how long since it was last played. For example, if the rating is five stars and the last-played date is more than ten days ago, it makes that list. Songs need to match both rules to be on these lists.

As the ratings get lower, the “how long” is longer; one star, for me, is currently 70 days. This is barely relevant, because one-star songs are usually the first to go when I’m deleting music, but it gives an idea of the range. The larger the collection, the longer these times go; when I had half as many songs on an iPod, one star was only forty days and five stars was only five.

The next step is the master playlist. This list includes songs which are on any of the five rated playlists; there’s just a rule each of those playlists, where “playlist is X.” So that bundles up the whole library, generally showing a bit more than a third of the total. I also check the box which says only to play “checked” songs, so I can un-check the checkbox next to the song and it won’t play no matter what its rating. Needless to say, I “shuffle” the master playlist (play it in random order.)

The weakness here is that all my music needs a rating. The simple way of dealing with this is to create a sixth sub-playlist, “Unrated,” which includes all unrated songs, no matter how long it’s been since they were played. This means if I want a song to go away, I need to rate it! It’s an ongoing process; I have songs still in the library which haven’t been rated because they haven’t played in three months. I also continually change ratings; any time a song catches my ear, I’ll bring up the iTunes menu and check the rating, bumping it up if I like it or down if it bugs me. (Sometimes if it bugs me, I’ll just delete it. Why should I keep something I don’t like?)

This can, of course, be The Death of the Album. I do still play CDs from start to finish now and then. I also make occasional mix playlists because songs just work well together. (Kelsey played a set on Saturday which could’ve been a good playlist from my library; in fact, I’m making a playlist with the ones I’ve got.) And sometimes, particularly when I’m at the gym or in the car, I will just play the five-star playlist.

So, yeah, I’m kinda geeky about my music. And all in all, it works surprisingly well.

Now Playing: Roses Grow from Free by Concrete Blonde

Posted by pjm at 9:25 AM | Comments (4)

June 9, 2005

5 music questions

Remember the saying, “be careful what you wish for, you just might get it?”

I used to see various “pass it on” questions going around blogs I read, and wonder if anyone would think to pass them on to me. Then came the stick. Now it’s music, and Ralph has tapped me. And, as he noted, it would be rude…

Total volume of music on my computer:
Depends on the computer. There’s 23+ GB of music on my laptop; I suspect there’s some significant duplication in there, though. I carry an iPod back and forth between work and home to keep the bulk of my library available in both places; there’s 1.3 GB in the “music” folder here at work, but it’s not all actually music. (Long story; it’s work.)

Last CD I bought:
Ooh. The last CD I actually paid money for was probably part of a batch of used CDs I bought back in February, trying to replace all the cassettes I might otherwise be keeping from junior high years. (Most of my high school music I’ve long since bought on CD.) I got R.E.M.’s “Green,” INXS’s “Kick” and “The Swing,” and The Waterboys’ “Room to Roam.”

But the last CDs added to the collection were Kathleen Edwards’ “Back to Me” and Erin McKeown’s “Grand,” which were gifts from A.

And all of it has been swamped by the SXSW Showcase, which amounts to more than 10% of the songs on the iPod even though I’ve deleted over a hundred songs from it. I’m still trying to absorb it all and weed out the stuff I don’t like, and that’s kept me from feeling the itch to buy more.

Favorite song from that album:
Green: Orange Crush, of course.
Kick: Mystify.
The Swing: Dancing on the Jetty. (It’s really worth looking up some of the stuff INXS did before they got huge in the USA. The combination of Michael Farriss’ songs and Michael Hutchence’s voice is really, really impressive even now.)
Room to Roam: Worst. Waterboys. Album. Ever. I can’t believe they followed up Fisherman’s Blues with this stinker. I can get along with A Life of Sundays, though.
Back to Me: Oh, I like too much of it. I’ve got five favorites.
Grand: Probably Cosmopolitans.

Song playing now:
Look down. But a few others, while I write this, as well.

Songs I listen to a lot or that mean a lot:
Oh, no, I can’t do this. I just looked in to the first page of the current playlist, and I could find vivid associations with nearly all of them. And I’ve given over my life to the iTunes “shuffle” feature (though I use an insanely complicated weighting system to ensure that the more I like a song, the more often it is played.)

Now, I’m supposed to pass this on to five people, but let’s face it, nobody I pick is going to be thrilled about it. So I’ll ask for volunteers. The first five people who track back to this post (or just tell me you’re doing it,) I’ll link here and pretend I invited you. Deal?

(Later, takers: Zee (so that’s where you are now!), Joe B… and I’ll cheat even more than Sherry by retroactively handing it on to her.)

Now Playing: Be My Enemy from This Is the Sea by The Waterboys

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May 10, 2005

Kathleen Edwards at the Iron Horse

This was the second part of A.’s birthday present to me, the first part being Ryan Adams at the Calvin the other week. I think tickets to live music make a great present for me, because it’s usually a good time, and I don’t have to worry about finding a place to put them. Plus, one can give the same present year after year without giving me anything I already have.

Kathleen Edwards was one of the most buzzed-about artists of 2003, at least in the circles I hear, and I thought Failer lived up to expectations. Back to Me hasn’t, so far, had all the same magic, but I think it’s because the songs haven’t grown on me enough; maybe last night, when I heard them and recognized them, they reached that point.

Edwards brought a full four-piece supporting band, which made for a loud show in the Horse. They skipped the bulk of her quieter songs (no “National Steel” or “Hockey Skates”) in favor of all the driving rock. She opened with “Pink Emerson Radio,” which was a quiet start (the folks next to us were fans of the opener, about whom more later, and didn’t stop talking until a few measures after Edwards started singing.) But after that… “Copied Keys,” “Independent Thief,” “Westby,” “In State,” “Six O’Clock News,” and “One More Song the Radio Won’t Like,” (not in that order: I don’t remember set lists) and a few others.

They always started out mildly enough, but by midway through Edwards would be wailing at the mike, her husband playing lead guitar would be melting down on his side of the stage, and the bass player was trying to stay off the resonant frequency of the hall, because when he hit it, everything vibrated down to the filaments in the light bulbs. Even “The Lone Wolf,” which is somewhat plaintive in the recording, became anguished and despairing in the fire last night. I think some of the songs are more effective on the CD where there’s more subtlety to them, and certainly Edwards’ own singing suffered in the loud mix, but “Back to Me” for one wound up even more powerful with the force of the band behind it.

James Brown was playing the Calvin just two block away, and I think they were determined to convince us we’d made the right show. As near as I can tell, the only rockers they missed were “Maria” and “12 Bellevue” from Failer; I think if they’d played the latter, they might have blown the circuitry.

We got, as breaks, Edwards with only keyboard/guitar/vibe player Jim Bryson playing “Mercury” (If you downloaded the SXSW torrent you’ve got one of his songs,) and as part of the encore, Edwards alone playing “Away” (“Try not to cry,” she said as she started, but it seemed like she was having trouble with that herself.)

Unlike Ryan Adams, I think I’d see her again; I think each show would be different enough to make it worth it. I might bring earplugs next time, though. (Yeah, I’m old.)

The opening act was Mary Gautier, whose name will be suffixed with “pronounced go-SHAY” for several years. I’d never heard of her when the show was scheduled, but she turned up on NPR recently. She got an enthusiastic response (the fans next to us left before Edwards’ set was done) though I think calling her music and presentation “gritty” might be an understatement.

More: Doubleperf was at the Tuesday night show in Cambridge.

Now Playing: Fortunate Son from Chronicle, Vol. 1 by Creedence Clearwater Revival

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April 28, 2005

Rescue Blues

I suppose I could write a lengthy review of last night’s Ryan Adams show at the Calvin, but since I realized about halfway through that I was far from the biggest fan in the room, I’ll just run through the high level.

Adams looked nothing like any of the photos on any of his CDs. More like Johnny Depp in his “Secret Window” phase, complete with a clip to keep his hair out of his eyes. He was pretty obviously smashed, which didn’t affect the music in the least, but led to lengthy, confused pauses between songs, as he tried to figure out if he was switching guitars, (I ended the night feeling sorry for his guitar tech,) or if he needed to tune the (presumably freshly tuned) guitar he’d just been handed.

During these pauses, sections of the audience indulged the annoying habit of hollering requests, none of which I recognized (and, so far as I know, none of which were eventually played.) After a few songs, when Adams figured out that he couldn’t just spit out a sheepish, “Thank you” and fiddle with his guitar, he started opening up and halfway filling the spaces with mumbled banter, most of which I couldn’t understand, either because I’m slightly deaf and wearing earplugs, or (more often) because he wasn’t speaking into the mike. The audience up front would ripple with laughter and I’d wonder what the joke was.

I’m making it sound like I didn’t enjoy the show, which isn’t the case. I think the intervals were actually more irritating because the punctuating songs were so good. It was almost as though Adams had something to prove. “Look,” he seemed to be saying, “I am so good that I can even do this wasted!” And he was really, really good, playing with some ease and intensity. It’s as though this stuff just flows out of him like water from a tap, once he turns the knob, and this is backed up by his allusions to three different albums he’s involved with which will be released by the end of the year.

The “new stuff” they started off with had a comfortable feel, even though I didn’t know the tunes. Hearing how he and the band filled out the songs gave me a nice extra dimension to add to the recordings, another layer of feeling on top of the bare sound, which I liked; now I can imagine them being played on stage.

One scene in particular, fairly early in the show. There is something up with Adams’ guitar, or at least he thinks so. “Hey,” he proposes to the band as he walks over to the piano, “Want to try that Rescue Blues?” They look a bit apprehensive, but the audience cheers enthusiastically. “Oh, no, no,” he cautions the audience. “We’ve only played it together once. We might get it wrong. But it’s better than just standing here, waiting for the guitar to be ready.”

They play it, with occasional conducting from Adams at the piano. It has some rough spots, but for the most part, it’s very good. We cheer.

Not long before midnight, it’s raining, and I get in my car. As I pull out of my parking spot and coast through downtown Northampton on my way home, WRSI finishes the song they’re playing, and puts on “The Rescue Blues.” I grin, and wonder if someone there was at the show.

Posted by pjm at 11:03 AM | Comments (1)

April 22, 2005

Familiarity and live performance

This is an insignificant puzzle, but an interesting one to me.

For my birthday, A. got us tickets to two upcoming shows at the Iron Horse and the Calvin. They’re artists I’ve come to know fairly well over the last year or so (though Kathleen Edwards’ output is so limited, so far, that it’s not hard to know pretty much everything.) I’ve found that I enjoy concerts better when I know at least a few of the performer’s songs. I can turn off some of the “what’s going on in this song” thinking, and just be aware of the bits that come with a live performance. I can tune in to the performer’s personality a bit more. I knew nearly every song Josh Ritter played, and for me it was what he added to them that really made it a great show. Once or twice, when we’ve gone to shows at the Horse, I’ve borrowed CDs from A. or gone on the ‘net looking for samples so I know what I’m getting in to.

But even though I’m more excited about going to see performers I already know, sometimes I’ve gone in cold. I didn’t know anything about either Rich Price or Sarah Harmer going in to that show, and it was spectacular; I went looking for the CDs afterwards. I didn’t know much about Mark Erelli when he opened for Nanci Griffith, and that was cool but not enough to make me buy his CDs.

Is it just me? Do you prefer to see shows by people whose music you know, or do you like to discover them on stage?

Now Playing: Dead Man from Tarantula by Ride

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April 4, 2005

California, just one more thing

I noted yesterday that we saw Catie Curtis (again) at the Iron Horse on Friday night. I don’t have much to add from the description of last time, other than that we got a downstairs seat this time. That had advantages and disadvantages.

The opener was Jennifer Kimball, also (once) known as half of The Story (with Jonatha Brooke, who has made more of a name for herself since that duo split up.) Kimball has been nearly eight years without releasing an album and quite some time since performing, and she looked a little rusty, but she sounded fine and sang backup for a good chunk of Catie’s set. She’s added her voice to a lot of other CDs; I found several names I knew on her site. Also there, playing bits of both sets, was Mark Erelli, and yes, we’ve heard from him before, too. Seems like every musician in Massachusetts plays with every other one at some point. Mark added a lot to things; he gave Catie some instrumental depth she doesn’t have on her own.

Even though Catie has a fairly recent disk out, she didn’t play a lot from it, or at least it didn’t seem that way; we heard more from it at the last show. She did bring out two or three new tunes, including one called “California” which was very new and weather related; the lyrics included things like, “Every December, we look at real estate online.” She got a big cheer for lines like these (which I’m probably misremembering):

Whenever I go to California
My friends ask why I still live “back East”
They say the weather is cold,
and the people are cold,
I say the people are why I stay.


California, just one more thing:
I’m about to get my mind blown by spring.

“Yeah, you like it now,” she said, “but if I do it in September, you’ll be saying, ‘Huh?’”

Also of note was her riff on the unfortunate Buster Bunny, under fire for “exposing children to lesbian lifestyles.” “Well,” she said, “Just so you know, you’ve been exposed.” Then she changed one of the lines in “What’s the Matter” to What if I like Buster Bunny/and give PBS all my money.

Now Playing: Favorite Thing from Let It Be by The Replacements

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March 21, 2005

Music beyond saturation

I alluded to this in my last post, but since there may be one or two people who read here but don’t read No Fancy Name and need a bit more explanation.

The South by Southwest music festival (which the hip people always type as “SXSW”) made available, this year, a massive collection of MP3s from artists playing at the festival. And when I say “massive,” I mean about 750-plus songs, which was a 20% increase in my library. It could take me a month or two just to absorb the collection, playing it in the background, rating and culling when something catches my notice (positively or negatively.)

It really brings home the scale of the festival. There are very few duplicate artists in the list, and though there are several I’ve heard of (maybe they played at the Horse, or in some cases, maybe they’re local around here) I only found one duplicate between the showcase and my own collection. Then I got to thinking about 750 bands… where do they put them all? How do they schedule them? Is there anyplace within ten miles of downtown Austin where you can’t hear live music?

The other fun thing about the showcase is the distribution method. The collection (a pair of zip archives, plus another folder of late additions) is being distributed via BitTorrent, which is the latest trendy way to share files. The festival “seeded” the torrent by providing the original files, but by now most people “downloading” the showcase aren’t actually getting it from the festival; they’re copying bits from all the other people who are downloading it, and they’re sharing the parts they’ve already downloaded with everyone else in this massive multi-directional file share. The festival just pushed a snowball down the hill; it’s rolling on its own now.

BitTorrent has been in wide use by early-adopters for a while now, because it’s a stellar way to distribute large files like Linux disk images. Lately, I’ve heard it’s being used to share digital recordings of TV shows with those who missed them, and there’s a booming market for concert bootlegs. Supposedly, BitTorrent traffic is now nearly a third of all internet traffic. So in addition to all the new music, this gave me an excuse to dust off my client. BitTorrent is still at that phase (which RSS/Atom/etc. are beginning to leave) where most sites offering a torrent feels like they need a little thumbnail explanation of what this is, and how you need to pick it up.

It took me about a day and a half to get the whole thing downloaded, mostly time I was away from the computer so BitTorrent could use the whole DSL line.

Now Playing: Waiting Under the Waves from SXSW 2005 Showcasing Artist by Kris Delmhorst

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January 13, 2005


I’ve been weeding on two different levels for the last few days. Weeding: v., to remove that considered to have little or no value for the benefit of that with greater value.

For one thing, having managed the exchange of iPods, I’ve had to re-populate a song list. I wish I had discovered PodWorks sooner, because then I might have retained some valuable metadata from “10”, specifically ratings, before I wiped it. Instead, I’m now playing through my library again, re-rating as I go. This is fun on one level, because I am hearing some stuff I haven’t heard much of, and some things I hadn’t given a proper chance before. On the other hand, in order to fit as much on “10” as I had, I had deleted a lot of things I had given low ratings to. I have a bigger catalog available, but the average quality (as perceived by me) has actually gone down.

I’m not too worried about that, in the long run, because the flexibility afforded by more space is worth it. I have some elaborate playlists set up to favor songs I rate highly, so as rating approaches completion the quality should go up.

At the same time, like several other folks, I’ve been making another push to trim spammed referrers out of my server logs. They’ve been a real nuisance lately, and instead of the one-or-two here-or-there approach they used to take, we’re getting hit with fifteen or twenty (or fifty) per day in an effort to be “Biggest referrer” instead of just a “recent referrer.”

So, I’m taking more drastic measures. Mostly, that has taken the shape of Dorothea’s massive Referer regexp, to which I have added and removed a few things. (For instance, I think a simple match on “teen” is too broad a brush.) I also attempted the recommended mod_rewrite hack for bogus requests, but that doesn’t work on my site, I think due to some sort of server issue; it rejects everyone, not just the bogus requests, which is frustrating.

As a result of this, and to follow Dorothea’s lead in sharing information, I’m going to keep a cleaned-up copy of the .htaccess file for this site available for the morbidly curious. You can see who I’m blocking referrals from by visiting htaccess.txt on this server.

Now Playing: My Dark Side from Still Burning by Mike Scott

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December 30, 2004

Sonya Kitchell at the Iron Horse

I accepted a last-minute invitation to see Sonya Kitchell at the Iron Horse last night. (I wouldn’t mind going back to see Erin McKeown tonight, but I’ve got deadlines.) Kitchell is a local who has had a lot of buzz in the area newspapers lately. She’s been singing around the area for two or three years now, starting out singing with jazz bands and eventually headlining her own band (last night’s performance was, officially, “The Sonya Kitchell Band.”) I was curious after the big writeup in last week’s paper.

The band is largely a jazz band (just a four-piece, last night: piano, guitar, bass, drums) and they showed that, particularly when they let the pianist, Miro Sprague, improvise for a bit on his own. They were really tight, and having a good time; it would have been a worthwhile show just to watch them play. They started out sounding like a Steely Dan session crew, but progressed back to something more like a small jazz ensemble with a heavy blues preference.

Kitchell’s website quotes comparisons to Norah Jones and Natalie Merchant. I can see the Merchant comparison, except that Kitchell doesn’t seem as brittle as Merchant does. She’s still more comfortable singing than talking to the crowd, but she’s aware of that and working on it.

The thing that she would rather not talk about is her age. Kitchell isn’t old enough to drive, and Sprague (I think the only member of her original band who played last night) isn’t much older. A few years ago I remember seeing signs around Northampton for “The Sonya Kitchell Band Goes to College” (Footnote: “Except Sonya.”) I can’t say I blame her; it’s hard to get a fair review when the theme is, “Pretty good for a fifteen-year-old.”

There are two songs playing on her website; you tell me if they sound like a fifteen-year-old. Seems more like we need to wonder if we really know what we’re supposed to sound like at that age.

Now Playing: The Million You Never Made from Not A Pretty Girl by Ani DiFranco

Posted by pjm at 2:37 PM | Comments (4)

December 28, 2004

Homer presents

I used to work with a guy whose annual Christmas tradition was exchanging “Homer gifts” with his wife. The name comes from a Simpsons episode where Homer buys Marge a bowling ball (with “Homer” engraved in it) for her birthday. In this case, he and his wife each went out, bought something for themselves, then wrapped it and gave it to the other.

Honestly, I didn’t have that in mind.

I ordered a “normal” iPod for A. before she mentioned that she was thinking of getting a Mini. It happens that she probably won’t even fill the 4 GB the Mini has, but the smallest regular iPod is 20 GB. Meanwhile, I use a “3G” model (actually 10 GB) which I have packed to the gills. The battery is toast, but since the two contexts where I use it the most (hooked to a machine running iTunes, or in the car) provide direct power, that hasn’t bothered me too much.

Anyway, for some reason a trade was negotiated whereby I get the new 20 GB unit (which has already been named “Twenty”) in exchange for my 10 GB unit (retroactively named “Ten,”) but only after I perform another round of iPod surgery to install a newer, longer-lived battery in “Ten,” making it better-suited to use on a treadmill. That process will probably also hard-reset the unit to factory settings, so aside from the scuffs of time, it will be “like new” but with a better battery than the ones Apple uses.

That was not, honestly, what I had in mind when I bought the gift… actually, I had mentioned just buying myself one and handing down “Ten,” but I didn’t think it would work with Windows. Now, having seen how “Twenty” works, I think it probably will.

Now Playing: Sweet Adeline from XO by Elliott Smith

Posted by pjm at 11:37 AM | Comments (0)

December 10, 2004

Radio Free Panic

Thanks to a post on Sea Fever, I can finally explain what I’m doing here. It’s a radio show that runs really, really slowly. And in text.

Seriously, it’s a really good metaphor. I click on the mike and broadcast short segments of what I’m thinking about, interspersed with music. (Not actual music, but I mention more music here than many DJs I’ve heard on today’s radio—have I mentioned the time I did an entire half-hour workout in the pool without the idiotic morning show on the radio station they had on playing more than one song?)

Meeting Seth last night and seeing his site really underlined the metaphor; he’s much closer to the radio show format than I am. Ms. Feverish also mentioned All Request, which I find fascinating but haven’t tried here for a variety of reasons. (For the most part, I don’t write the sort of entries that inspire a lot of comments, and anyway, I tend to answer posted questions at any time.)

So, thanks for tuning in. Listen for us again, same time, same channel.

Now Playing: Over Your Shoulder from Concrete Blonde by Concrete Blonde

Posted by pjm at 9:55 AM | Comments (0)

December 9, 2004

Josh Ritter at the Iron Horse

Oh, I don’t even know where to start… I got home an hour ago, still flying on this show. With email and the cat both crying for attention, I’m coming down now, it’s all wearing off. But I remember how it felt, and if he was on again tomorrow night I’d be right over there. Wow.

I tried to get to the Horse fairly early, because I wanted to stake out seats for the Illustrator and his girlfriend as well; they were going to be late. I didn’t quite pull it off; I wound up right at the top of the balcony stairs, if you know the Horse. Not the best view, but I was happy there were still three seats together. The hostess warned me that the show was full, and she might have to seat a single with us; I was fine with that, I’ve been there. Not much later, she seated Seth with me. He was up from Connecticut—clearly more excited for this show than I was, since all I’d done was sit in traffic in Hadley for half an hour.

The opener, Willy Mason, was pretty good, but I wasn’t really focused on him; I was watching for the rest of my party and wondering if I’d be able to see Josh through the little girl (three?) in the booth at the rail, who was standing on her seat rather than looking through the rail. The Illustrator turned up without his girlfriend, who couldn’t get away from her office holiday party, and before the main set started the hostess seated two more people at our table. What a crew we were.

The crowd was clearly in to Josh Ritter, and I came away a convert. In concert, Ritter has so much more depth of sound than his recordings do, and he is obviously having a lot of fun. He had a small band—bass, drums, and keys—and they just tore into the songs like it was dinnertime and they’d missed lunch. They played songs I didn’t think very much of and made them great. They also hit all my favorites, most of Hello Starling (no “Bone of Song,” which disappointed the Illustrator,) five of the best from Golden Age of Radio including an uptempo “Harrisburg,” and a few I didn’t know—new, I guess. He introduced Wings as a song about the Shaolin Puritans from Massachusetts who migrated west to star in the early kung-fu movies in the 1850s, but wound up in Northern Idaho. (“This is an alternate history. A folk history.”) By the time he played “Snow is Gone,” he had most of the room on their feet (which is pretty rare for the Horse) and it’s been a while since I’ve heard it as loud in there as it was when he finished. There’s no snow right now (it’s raining, actually) but I felt like I’d hear birds chirping if I went outside during the song. It’s dark now, and for four minutes or so, we all wanted spring so much we could taste it. What a performer.

Two encores, the first, “California” (I think) by himself and away from the mike. Even the loud folks in the corner hushed. The Horse seems to be good for that; it’s not the first time I’ve seen it done there. Then he brought the band out for “Other Side.”

I left feeling wound up and excited. It was a really good show from a really good performer; I’d gone in thinking, ah, I like some of his stuff, and I left with a new set of favorite songs.

Now Playing: Snow Is Gone from Hello Starling by Josh Ritter

Posted by pjm at 11:19 PM | Comments (1)

December 3, 2004

Like busses in London

…none come for a long time, and then two arrive at once.

Jesse Malin is at the Horse next Tuesday. And Josh Ritter on Thursday. Do I have time to go to both? If not, which would I pick?

Now Playing: Burning Photographs from Rock N Roll by Ryan Adams

Posted by pjm at 11:21 AM | Comments (1)

November 29, 2004

The disc is in the mail

Apache 2.0.52 is compiling in the background, so I have time to run through this.

I put in to make a CD for the Mix CD Extravaganza (for lack of a better title) at Taunting Happy Fun Ball. I actually just did some editing to a playlist I had already put together (but never burned) for another occasion. It turned out to be significant editing (depending on what you call “significant” in this context) but it’s done and went in the mail this morning, so the track list is in the “extended entry,” with comments.

What’s nice about this project, I think, is that I was making a disc with no agenda and no message, because the nature of the project was that I was sending it to someone I didn’t (don’t) know—nothing more than a postal address. Since you can’t worry about whether someone will like the music if you don’t know what they like… you just put in what you like. Anyway, on to the playlist…

Now Playing: Yesterday’s Girl from Love and China by Nerissa & Katryna Nields

Continue reading "The disc is in the mail"

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October 22, 2004

I know just enough to be dangerous

When my 5 GB iPod (a first-generation, I think?) would no longer mount on any of my Macs (though it would charge,) I stowed it in a drawer and got a 10 GB model (third-generation) with my Powerbook. I promptly crammed that one full. (My next iPod will be a 20 GB model. I had no idea I had that much music.)

Now I read that the iPod’s real dirty little secret isn’t the battery, it’s the flakey Firewire ports in the early models. Like my “retired” one.

I now have all the excuses I’ll ever need to crack open my old iPod. Where’s the soldering iron?

Now Playing: A New Season from Starfish by The Church

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October 1, 2004


Well, I’m not doing too well on my Become a Nag campaign. I’m up to three LORs and one appointment, which is progress, but I need more appointments and I need to at least ask about more LORs so nobody has to print a copy for every application. And I need to get cracking on self-documentation: résumé and “personal statement,” the distillation of my history and motivation on this track to two or three sheets of paper.

The interviews are a ton of work, because even once it’s set up, I have research to do. What are the questions I need to ask? What does this person do? What’s their interest? I have to show up with my homework done; I need to be looking for information I couldn’t get on the web.

So, with this work in front of me, I’m working with a carrot. Four new CDs sit on the desk: the newest (I think) from Ryan Adams and Josh Ritter, the other Sarah Harmer, and Coldplay’s Rush of Blood to the Head. I can listen while I’m working. I hope they get me somewhere.

Now playing: Weakened State from You Were Here by Sarah Harmer

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September 25, 2004

A few notes after a show

Once we worked out that we would be here this weekend (that happened on Thursday night) I scanned the IHEG schedule, and there was Catie Curtis at the Iron Horse tonight. So off we went.

This is the fourth time we’ve seen Catie, and the third time at the Horse; I think the first time might have been the first or second time I’d been to there. There’s been, I think, two albums and a daughter since then, and it feels like she’s shifted away from some of the songs about the world doin’ somebody wrong, and more towards some really soul-baring love songs. (The critics have been lagging a bit behind; at one of the other shows she introduced a song by explaining that she’d read a review describing one of her albums as “lesbian anthems,” so she decided she’d better write one.)

  • Catie grew up in Maine, though there’s a bit of lingering resentment there; one of her songs is called, “What’s The Matter,” and the line is, “This town was my biggest fan, until I was who I am.” Am I disappointed, yes; surprised, no.
  • There’s no doubt about your baseball allegiances when you grow up in Maine. We were getting updates on the Sox game throughout the show.
  • One of the best things about watching her shows is that she clearly enjoys performing. The songs are well-done, but there’s something about the way she performs them, and that irrepressible grin she just can’t shut off, that makes it worth going to the shows.
  • She joked (she jokes a lot) about an internet discussion of the “secret lesbian subtext” to her songs. I thought the obvious joke was that it wasn’t much of a secret, but that wasn’t mentioned. Then she mentioned the rumor that she’d been kidnapped and replaced by aliens, adding, “It may be true.”
  • She played a song by Mark Erelli—“If you like it, you’ll appreciate my taste in borrowing it from Mark; if you don’t like it, it’s his song, not mine,”—which was better than I’d expected of Mark (having seen him back in February) but not quite up to par for Catie.

That’s all I have now… and the Sox have shut down the Yankees, 12-5. MLB Gameday is pretty cool when you don’t like TV.

Now playing: What’s The Matter from A Crash Course in Roses by Catie Curtis

Posted by pjm at 10:42 PM | Comments (0)

July 12, 2004

Why I can't watch television anymore

When you haven’t been exposed to television advertising for a while, it’s astoundingly ridiculous. I don’t know how I don’t shout at the TV, watching the Olympic Trials. Start with the kitchen cleaner ad… the one talking about all the “germs” dancing across your floor. Sorry, what’s a germ? Is it related to a cootie? OK, let’s call it a microbe… what kind of microbe? One that might actually do damage, or (more likely) one that my immune system can beat up for practice, thanks very much? Not scaremongering, are we?

And then there was the car company ad… the one with the Dandy Warhol’s “Bohemian Like You” playing. Artfully cut, of course, since they just use the opening line of the first verse. A few more lines would be…

You’ve got a great car,
Yeah, what’s wrong with it today?
I used to have one too,
Maybe I’ll come and have a look.

Actually, the more I think about how gleefully fake that song is, the more it makes sense that it would go in an ad… I bet the band was laughing themselves hoarse when they sold it.

Or maybe the car company was laughing, saying, “Nobody knows these guys! Nobody will notice!”

Posted by pjm at 11:28 PM | Comments (1)

May 29, 2004

When I'm Here

Last night when I was ripping my new CDs, I went by the Nields site and found a very interesting link: Nerissa on All Things Considered, talking about “When I’m Here” with the song in the background. (I don’t expect anyone’s surprised that I’m favorably impressed with this disc.) She calls it “Zen Buddhist blues.” It’s curiously powerful, highlighting among other things something we’ve known since the Everly Brothers (or before): siblings harmonize better than anyone else.

I keep my lamp burning steady when I’m here
I keep my lamp burning steady when I’m here
I keep my lamp burning steady, when it’s time I will be ready
I keep my lamp burning steady when I’m here.

Putting that text down has barely an echo of the power of the words with the music. I sometimes think it’s an odd thing for as bloody-minded computer person as I am to be as into my music as I am, but I’m beginning to see a link here; it’s the magic. It’s putting things together and seeing them work together, whether that’s a few hundred (thousand?) lines of code to make a system, all the ingredients to make cookies (or not,) the words, the notes, the voices to make the music. When it all curls together to make something bigger than it started. It’s a temporary reversal of entropy. (The mnemonic I learned for Newton’s Laws: you can’t win, you can’t break even, and you can’t get out of the game.)

After today’s ration of track meets we’re headed for the Bear’s Den for the remainder of the weekend. I haven’t been there in nearly two years, but my cousin has hinted this will be the last summer of the cottage; it will ultimately disappear in favor of a more solid year-round retirement site for his parents. I’m not too disappointed; it stopped being a summer Eden for me years ago, anyway, perhaps when I grew big enough to wade to the “diving rock” without needing to swim. Still, the lake is there, albeit with more powerboats, and the mountains are as close to the ocean’s—is the word “numinousness?”—as I can easily reach from out here. Anyway… I’ll be here, or try to.

Now playing: When I’m Here from This Town Is Wrong by Nerissa & Katryna Nields

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May 28, 2004

Local record stores rule

On the way home from dinner, I stopped in to one of our excellent local record stores. It’s been a while since I bought new music (mid-April, when I bought Sarah Harmer’s disc at that show,) so I was looking to spend a little on new stuff.

I wound up with five discs for the price of three—Josh Ritter’s Golden Age of Radio included an unexpected bonus disc, and sitting by the register was a small stack of promo discs labeled “Free” and including Rich Price’s EP I’m On My Way. (Price opened for Harmer; this store sells Iron Horse tickets, and the gentleman behind the counter allowed as how that might be why they had the EP.) Two of those songs were also on his first disc, Night Opens, but for free I’m willing to take a few duplicates. (There’s a big grin there.)

I’m now very much in favor of a new way of checking out music. See, I get curious about an artist/band somehow. Maybe a friend mentions it. Maybe I see them at the Horse, or maybe they play with someone I like somewhere else. The curious bit doesn’t matter. Then I start exploring online. Lately, nearly everyone on the scale I seem to like has one or two songs for free download on their website. Or, just as good, Amazon has one of their songs for free download. I pull that down and put it in the rotation. (I got nearly an entire album’s worth of Kris Delmhorst that way.)

Ritter has been getting raves in a lot of places. I looked at his site and was able to download “Kathleen” from Hello Starling and “Harrisburg” from Golden Age of Radio from Amazon. Then I found chord changes for “Harrisburg” online, and couldn’t get it out of my head—It’s a long way to heaven/it’s closer to Harrisburg—faintly amusing given how close I used to live to Harrisburg, but anyway.

And guess what: they let me download music online for free, and I bought the CD! Imagine! I will refrain from making helpful suggestions on RIAA policy, for fear of getting obnoxiously strident…

Also on the list: The StrokesIs This It (recommended by Nicole, but also an Amazon download) and Nerissa and Katryna NieldsThis Town Is Wrong. They played “The Night I Let Glory Steer” at a New Year’s Eve concert at the Calvin at the beginning of 2003, but otherwise I’ve heard nothing from this disc…

Now playing: Harrisburg from Golden Age of Radio by Josh Ritter

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May 6, 2004

Rock City

Great article about the Northampton music scene in the Glob today. Makes me want to live around here. (I’m grinning, but you can’t see me.) I think for years the “Paradise City” label was used ironically by Northampton residents, but in the last few years enough people have been believing in it that it’s actually happening.

I didn’t know that Kris Delmhorst was local now. Though I’m not too surprised, since we first saw her opening for Dar, who used to live here. I notice they didn’t mention the Nields sisters, though.

Now playing: Welcome from Magician Among The Spirits by The Church

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May 5, 2004

Writing deliberately

Sherry has thought about “now playing” more than I have.

I’d better catch up. (Trust me, in my mind this is a relevant link.)

Sherry’s thinking (as I understand it) boils down to this: “What does it have to do with what you’re writing about? If there’s no clear connection, it can only detract from the point you’re making.” (When/if I make significant structural changes to these pages, I am going to use Sherry as my guinea pig, if I can figure out how to make it worth her time.)

Of course, one could employ the “it’s my weblog and I’ll do what I want to” argument, but that’s just a way of evading the fact that you haven’t, actually, thought something through. Sherry’s right: despite my formatting tweaks, the way Ecto inserts the “now playing,” it’s a weird little postscript that doesn’t match the entry it goes with. It’s a U-Haul trailer on a sports car. Since iTunes is usually pulling random stuff out of the library (I have a complicated system to weight that randomness, but I won’t go into it here) the odds of a song and a post being related are, well, pretty small. For that reason, I’ve stopped tagging them on while I figure out a better way.

I have had people tell me they like it (OK, “person,”) and Tom pulls it off fairly well, even though his songs seldom relate to his posts either. Of course, Tom is (among other things) a professional musician. It’s fun to see what pops up there, and follow the links.

There is the question of, “Why do you think anyone would be interested in what you’re listening to?” I don’t think I can answer that satisfactorily, any more than I can answer the question, “Why do you think anyone would be interested in what you’re thinking about?” I can try, though.

One part: it’s there. Ecto has one button, and there it is. Of course, this puts “now playing” on a par with ugly tiled backgrounds on personal home pages (“…because I can!”) and I think I’m hoping to do better than that here.

More parts: I don’t understand the urge to share music, but it’s there. Why else mix tapes (mix CDs, now, I guess.) I made a few, but the best ones were the ones I got from Shawn in high school. I think there’s a bit of the mix tape in “now playing.” The problem with it, though, is that the urge falls apart when you think about it. Why should anyone else like what I like? I promise, your neurons aren’t hooked together exactly the same way mine are, and the electric charge I get from certain music probably won’t look quite the same on your MRI. I don’t think I’ve ever made a tape for anyone that they liked as much as I did. It must be hooked in to the weblog idea, though, and the misconception that what you listen to says something about who you are.

Maybe the solution is to tuck something over in the sidebar, the way Rachelle does with her links. Or Sam’s “Temple of Boom,” though in both cases I’d have to figure out how it’s done (and, in Sam’s case, how to have it not break on archive pages.) And I’d have to come up with a less smart-ass title.

Obligatory Good Will Hunting quote (not really obligatory, but it applies):

Will: Great, or maybe we could go somewhere and just eat a bunch of caramels.

Skylar: What?

Will: When you think about it, it’s just as arbitrary as drinking coffee.

(Now, I can get back to thinking about fink and creating a pseudo-LAMP development environment on my Mac, which is what I do think about, when I think. Some of the time. Some of the time I think about fink, that is, not some of the time I think. I’m going to cite the First Law of Holes and stop now.)

Posted by pjm at 5:16 PM | Comments (1)

April 27, 2004

Capo up

I have rediscovered that I can get more mileage from my raw fingers if I select exclusively music which asks the player to “capo up” (that is, put a sort of clamp on the neck of the guitar which holds down all the strings behind a particular fret. This comes in handy for changing key quickly; it also reduces how much force is needed to fret the strings, since the capoed strings are closer to the neck than they would be if they were just held up at the nut. I think they do this often for young kids learning guitar, but since I never took lessons, I’m not sure.)

Fortunately for me, I also discovered, which showed me that Jesse Malin’s “Riding on the Subway” can be played with a capo. I expect to make myself thoroughly sick of that song by the end of the week.

Side note: I’m playing around with a desktop weblog interface called Ecto.

Posted by pjm at 3:16 PM | Comments (0)

April 26, 2004

More about bad music

So, I sounded off last week about Blender’s 50 Worst list, to the point that I actually got less articulate than usual. A bit of a scrambled opinion, that. I’ve been thinking about it since then, but I can’t promise that I’ve got clearer opinions to offer.

The thing that really got my goat was not so much that they listed things as “bad” that I thought were “good.” Taste differs. I know that and they know that. What bothers me is that they presented it as some sort of absolute—implying, “This stuff is bad, purge it from your record collection.”

For some reason, music is more prone to this sort of taste absolutism than other things I could name (food, for example,) though fortunately less so than clothing. It hooks in to the seductive oversimplification that what you listen to says something significant about who you are. Swallow that postulate (and I have) and you’re vulnerable to all kinds of people telling you what to buy if you want to be cool; you’re also vulnerable to a wounded feeling when people tell you that stuff you may genuinely like is crap. (This figures prominently in High Fidelity, of course:

…It’s no good pretending that any relationship has a future if your record collections disagree violently or if your favorite films wouldn’t even speak to each other if they met at a party.

…but then, one could argue that the central theme of High Fidelity is overcoming the fallacy in question.)

Anyway, on, on. Another point. The night after writing the previous post, A. and I, with her sister, went to see the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players at the Horse. If you’re not familiar with the Trachtenburg Family, it’s a husband and wife, plus their ten-year-old daughter, who buy slides at estate sales (my favorite part: they even have a TLA. “ADSes,” for Anonymous Deceased Strangers) and write songs to go with the slides. The father is actually a pretty decent musician, and the daughter is a very good drummer for a ten-year-old, but drums and piano or drums and guitar is not the best two-piece I can imagine, and their dynamic range is pretty narrow. It was the first time I’ve ever wondered about having earplugs at the Horse.

The slide part is a large part of the appeal (the other part is a cute ten-year-old kid playing drums.) It’s the performance-art aspect which makes them a draw, but eventually it feels a little like a gimmick—like you’re watching strangers play charades, or something like that. I couldn’t help but wonder how it would work with someone whose music I liked.

See where I’m going here? I don’t think the Trachtenburgs were bad—they’re just not my cup of tea. They’re a deliriously funny idea, but now I’ve seen them and I don’t feel any need to see them again.

Another point, recognizing that I have nothing with which to tie these points together other than the title: I did get a guitar out again last night, for the first time in months. My fingers still (mostly) remember where to go; I never practiced much to begin with, so lack of practice doesn’t hurt me much. Of course, my fingertips were stinging too much to continue for more than five or six songs. When I cut down my guitar “collection” (it peaked at five, three electrics and two accoustics,) the accoustic I kept was a big old Martin with a relatively wide neck, which forces me to work harder than I would with the smaller Gibson I returned to my mother. I think this was blind self-sacrifice on my part, since long-term improvement of my guitar playing isn’t really in the cards, and the Gibson was more fun to play.

Anyway, the point isn’t to prove how well or poorly I play; it’s fun for me, and that’s what matters. The point is that sometimes I sing along to myself. (Let’s face it, sitting and strumming isn’t much fun unless you’re playing with someone else, or someone is singing.) I make even less claim for my singing voice; even I can tell that I’m usually off the note. Again, it’s fun. But for some reason I can only do it with the door closed, or nobody in the house, or something. If someone’s in the room, I clam up, massively self-conscious.

Instead, I go watch other people play. And there’s nothing I like more than watching someone who really enjoys what they’re doing on stage, and who believes in their music enough that they don’t give a damn about whether they’re good or not, whether or not, someday, Blender will announce that everything they ever did was just awful. They just play.

Maybe I did have a point after all.

Posted by pjm at 2:50 PM | Comments (0)

April 21, 2004

Listing the worst

Someone on a discussion list posted links to Blender’s 50 Worst Artists in Music History and an excerpt of their 50 Worst Songs Ever (incomplete because it’s in the current issue, unlike the Worst Artists.)

I read it with a sort of sick fascination, because although I agree with them on many counts (I can do without Celine Dion, for example,) like probably nearly anyone else who reads it, I actually like a few of the songs/bands mentioned.

I’m not personally disturbed by this, of course. I know the kind of person who works for a Felix Dennis publication like Blender, and I know that they derive a lot of personal pleasure and self-validation from trashing the pleasures of others. (The level of self-loathing in, say, Stuff can be downright alarming if you read it the right way.) They also sell a lot of magazines this way, flip-flopping month by month between “Radiohead: Greatest Innovative Geniuses in Rock History” and “Radiohead: Pretentious Art-Rock Wankers.” (I notice what they’re playing, of course, is oh so cool.)

It’s certainly fair to say that pop music has produced more than its fair share of trash. It’s probably also fair to say that I own copies of some of that trash, or once did. It’s also fair to say that otherwise good artists can produce some lousy stuff (Concrete Blonde just wasn’t the same after “Bloodletting”) and that some awful bands can produce something that resonates in your soul. (No examples here.) People can even be derivative, but sheesh, does everyone with a recording contract have to have the sort of groundbreaking impact of Nirvana?

Now let’s also add in the idea (raised on the same discussion list) that in the last century, recorded music has decimated the old model of music, which was personal performance. People compared themselves to the near-perfection of execution they were hearing in recorded music (“I’m taking checks and facing facts/that some producer with computers/fixes all my shitty tracks,” sings Ben Folds in “Rocking the Suburbs”) and they quit trying. You don’t often see a bunch of folks get together with instruments and just have a good old time pickin’ and singin’ anymore, do you? We hear the perfect music on the radio, and we pick out the ones that speak to our hearts on iTunes, and the guitars (mine, at least) gather some dust.

Well, even if I’m losing the live-vs.-recorded battle, I’m damn well not going to give up my Toad the Wet Sprocket CDs to some black-clad magazine editor in midtown Manhattan because he’s decided all they ever produced were “R.E.M. readymades.” Probably he listened to “All I Want” (their radio hit) and missed “Stories I Tell” or “Jam” or the ones that never made it to singles. Or maybe I should just stick to below-the-radar bands like The Church which get ignored, great or awful, by the Blenders of the world.

Maybe what I need is to make my own list: “1,000 Worst Magazines.” (Having worked in the magazine industry, the list of those I consider worthwhile is significantly shorter. Probably I could number them without taking my socks off.) Somewhere on there will be an entry for Blender: “Conceived on a night of drunken mistakes between Maxim and Spin, and got the worst of both parents.”

Posted by pjm at 5:08 PM | Comments (0)